Peru inspires wonder, from the majestic ruins of Machu Picchu and the mysterious Nazca Lines to the Cordillera Blanca’s soaring peaks and Lake Titicaca’s floating islands. Stroll Cusco’s cobblestone streets and take in stunning Inca and colonial architecture, or visit an Andean community where daily life remains rooted in tradition. Savor intriguing flavors: the country of pisco sours and cebiche is now a hotbed for fusion food. Surfing, trekking, and bird-watching satisfy a thirst for outdoor adventure, and world-class hotels offer creature comforts.
Almost all international flights into Peru touch down at Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez, on the northwestern fringe of Lima. Nonstop flying times to Lima are 5 hours, 45 minutes from Miami; 6 hours, 45 minutes from Houston; 7 hours from New York; and 8 hours, 35 minutes from Los Angeles.
Airlines now include departure taxes on international and domestic flights in the cost of tickets.
The least expensive airfares to Peru are priced for round-trip travel. Airlines generally allow you to change your return date for a fee; most low-fare tickets, however, are nonrefundable.
Peru’s main international point of entry is Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez (LIM), 11 kilometers (7 miles) from Lima’s historic center and 17 km (10 miles) from Miraflores. It’s a completely modern facility with plenty of shops, eateries, and flights that arrive and depart 24 hours a day. ATMs and currency exchange offices are in the arrivals area. These are nowhere to be found in the departures area, so do your banking before heading through security.
If your hotel doesn’t offer to pick you up at the airport, you’ll have to take a taxi. Arrange a ride with one of the official airport taxis whose companies have counters inside the arrivals area of the terminal. A taxi to most places in the city should cost no more than $20–$25 USD. It’s a 30-minute drive to El Centro, and a 45-minute drive to Miraflores and San Isidro. During rush hour (8–10 am and 5–9 pm), driving times in Lima can double, so plan accordingly.
Dozens of international flights land daily at Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez; although most are from other Latin American cities, there are many from the United States as well. Delta flies from Atlanta, American flies from Miami, United flies from Houston and Newark, and Spirit and JetBlue both fly from Fort Lauderdale. South American–based LAN flies from Los Angeles, Miami, and New York’s JFK, and Air Canada flies from Toronto.
If you’re arriving from other Latin American cities, you have a wide range of regional carriers at your disposal. LAN has flights from most major airports in the region. Brazil’s TAM flies from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Copa (affiliated with United) flies from its hub in Panama City, Aeroméxico flies from Mexico City, Aerolineas Argentinas flies from Buenos Aires, and Avianca flies from Bogota and San José (the capitals of Colombia and Costa Rica, respectively).
With four mountain ranges and a large swath of the Amazon jungle running through Peru, flying is the best way to travel from Lima to most cities and towns. LAN, the carrier that operates the majority of flights within the country, departs several times each day for Arequipa, Cajamarca, Chiclayo, Cusco, Iquitos, Piura, Puerto Maldonado, Tacna, Tarapoto, and Trujillo. LC Perú flies to Andahuaylas, Ayacucho, Cajamarca, Huancayo, Huánuco, Huaraz, and Tingo Maria. Peruvian Airlines flies to Arequipa, Cusco, Iquitos, Piura, Pucallpa, Tarapoto, and Tacna. Star Perú flies to Ayacucho, Cusco, Huánuco, Iquitos, Pucallpa, Puerto Maldonado, and Tarapoto. Avianca flies to Arequipa, Chiclayo, Cusco, Iquitos, and Juliaca.
The intercity bus system in Peru is extensive, and fares are quite reasonable. Remember, however, that mountain ranges often sit between cities, and trips can be daunting. It’s best to use buses for shorter trips, such as between Lima and Ica or between Cusco and Puno. That way you can begin and end your trip during daylight hours. If you stick with one of the recommended companies—like Cruz del Sur, Ormeño, Inka Express, or CIVA—you can usually expect a comfortable journey.
Second-class buses (servicio normal) tend to be cramped and overcrowded, whereas the pricier first-class service (primera clase) is more relaxing and much more likely to arrive on schedule.
Bus fares are substantially cheaper in Peru than they are in North America or Europe. Competing companies serve all major and many minor routes, so it can pay to shop around if you’re on an extremely tight budget. Always speak to the counter clerk, as competition may mean fares are cheaper than the official price posted on the fare board.
For the 15-hour journey between Lima and Arequipa, Cruz del Sur’s fares for its top service, called Cruzero, are $56 USD. Its less expensive service, called Imperial, is $25–$40 USD. Inka Express, which promotes itself to tourists rather than the local market, uses large, comfortable coaches for the popular eight-hour journey between Cusco and Puno. Tickets are $65 USD, and the trip includes snacks and brief rest stops at points of interest along the way.
Tickets are sold at bus-company offices and at travel agencies. Be prepared to pay with cash, as credit cards aren’t always accepted. Reservations aren’t necessary except for trips to top destinations during high season. Summer weekends and major holidays are the busiest times. You should arrive at bus stations early for travel during peak seasons.
In general, it’s not a great idea to rent a car in Peru. Driving is a heart-stopping experience, as most Peruvians see traffic laws as suggestions rather than rules. That said, there are a few places in Peru where having a car is a benefit, such as between Lima and points south on the Pan-American Highway. The highway follows the Pacific Ocean coastline before it cuts in through the desert, and stops can be made along the way for a picnic and a swim at the popular beaches around Asia at Kilometer 100. The highway is good, and although there isn’t too much to see along the way, it’s nice to have the freedom a car affords once you get to your destination.
If you do rent one, keep these tips in mind: outside cities, drive only during daylight hours, fill your gas tank whenever possible, make sure your spare tire is in good repair, and pay extra attention on mountain roads. In some areas, drivers caught using a cell phone receive a hefty fine.
Massive road-building programs have improved highways. Nevertheless, even in some parts of Lima, roads are littered with potholes. Beyond the urban centers, street signs are rare, lighting is nonexistent, and lanes are unmarked. Roads are straight along the coast, but in the mountains, they snake around enough to make even the steadiest driver a little queasy. Fuel is pricey in Peru, with a gallon costing upward of $6 USD.
Then there are the drivers: when they get behind the wheel, Peruvians are very assertive. Expect lots of honking and last-minute lane switching when you’re in a city. On highways you’ll encounter constant tailgating and passing on blind curves. And remember the ancient car you sold five years ago? Chances are it is now plying Peru’s roads. All things considered, it’s best to leave the driving to someone else if you can. One option is to hire a car and driver through your hotel; making a deal with a taxi driver for some extended sightseeing is another. Drivers often charge an hourly rate regardless of the distance traveled. You’ll have to pay cash, but you’ll likely spend less than you would for a rental car.
The major highways in Peru are the Pan-American Highway, which runs down the entire coast, the Carretera Central, which runs from Lima to Huancayo, and the Interoceánica, which runs from Lima to Cerro de Pasco and on to Pucallpa before crossing through Brazil to the Atlantic Ocean. Most highways have no names or numbers; they’re referred to by destination.
If you plan to rent a car, it’s best to shop around online for a good deal and make your booking before you leave home. If you plan to rent during a holiday period, reserve early.
The minimum age for renting a car in Peru is 25, although some agencies offer rentals to younger drivers for an additional fee. All major car-rental agencies have branches in downtown Lima as well as at Jorge Chávez International Airport that are open 24 hours. You can also rent vehicles in Arequipa, Chiclayo, Cusco, Tacna, and Trujillo.
The cost of rental cars varies widely but is generally between $40 and $60 USD for a compact, $80 to $100 USD for a full-size car or small SUV. A daily $10–$20 USD collision damage waiver is usually added to your bill. Always make sure to check the fine print, as some companies give you unlimited mileage, whereas others give you between 200 and 240 km (124 and 150 miles) free, then charge you a hefty 25 to 60 cents for every kilometer you drive above that. Many rental firms include in your contract a statement saying you may not take the vehicle on unpaved roads, of which there are many in Peru. Many also forbid mountain driving for certain types of vehicles in their fleets.
Always give the rental car a once-over to make sure that the headlights, jack, and tires (including the spare) are in working condition. Note any existing damage to the car and get a signature acknowledging the damage, no matter how slight.
Gas stations are less plentiful in Peru than in the United States or Europe. In Lima, gas stations should be easy to locate, but in Cusco, Arequipa, or smaller cities they may be on the outskirts and are often difficult to find. Make sure to ask your rental company where they’re located. Stations along the highways are rare, so don’t pass up on the chance to gas up. Many are now open 24 hours.
If you have a rental car, make sure your hotel has its own parking lot. If it doesn’t, ask about nearby lots. In the cities guarded parking lots that charge about $1 USD an hour are common. Don’t park cars on the street, as theft is common.
The Touring y Automóvil Club del Perú will provide 24-hour emergency road service for members of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and affiliates upon presentation of their membership cards. (Towing is free within 30 km [18 miles] of several urban areas.) Members of AAA can purchase good maps there at low prices.
Rules of the Road
In Peru, your own driver’s license is acceptable identification, but an international driving permit is good to have. They’re available from the American and Canadian automobile associations and, in the United Kingdom, from the Automobile Association and Royal Automobile Club. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver’s license, are universally recognized; having one may save you headaches with local authorities.
Speed limits are 25 kph–35 kph (15 mph–20 mph) in residential areas, 85 kph–100 kph (50 mph–60 mph) on highways. Traffic tickets range from a minimum of $4 USD to a maximum of $100 USD. The police and military routinely check drivers at roadblocks, so make sure your papers are easily accessible. Peruvian law makes it a crime to drive while intoxicated, although many Peruvians ignore that prohibition.
Trains run along four different routes: between Cusco and Machu Picchu, between Cusco and Lake Titicaca, and, more sporadically, between Huancayo and Lima, and between Huancayo and Huancavelica. Tickets can be purchased at train stations, through travel agencies, or online. During holidays or high season it’s best to get your tickets in advance.
Two companies offer train service to Machu Picchu. PeruRail, which has served the route since 1999, is operated by Orient-Express—the same company that runs one of the most luxurious and famous trains in the world, the Venice Simplon Orient Express between London and Venice. It travels to Machu Picchu from Cusco (technically from the nearby town of Poroy, about 20 minutes outside the city) and the Sacred Valley towns of Ollantaytambo and Urubamba. Inca Rail, which began service in 2010 and merged with Andean Railways in 2012, travels between Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. Foreigners are prohibited from riding the very inexpensive local trains that cover the route. The Machu Picchu station is not at the ruins themselves, but in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes.
Three or four PeruRail trains a week, depending on season, take passengers on the 10-hour trip between Cusco and Lake Titicaca. The plush Andean Explorer is $268 USD one-way. Note that there are two different train stations in Cusco. Estación Poroy serves the Machu Picchu route, and Estación Wanchaq serves the Lake Titicaca route. Reserve and purchase your ticket as far ahead as possible, especially during holidays or high season. Reservations can be made directly with PeruRail through its website, or through a travel agency or tour operator.
Email has become a favorite way to communicate in Peru. Most large cities have dozens of Internet cafés, and you should be able to find at least one in almost every small town. (Look for a sign with an @ symbol out front.) Even on the shores of Lake Titicaca you can stop in a small shop and get computer access for about $1 USD an hour. If you’re traveling with your own laptop or wireless device, many of the country’s airports, including Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport and Cusco’s Teniente Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, offer wireless connections. Hotels increasingly have Wi-Fi as well, if not in their guest rooms then at least in the public areas.
Computer keyboards in South America are not quite the same as those in English-speaking countries. Your biggest frustration will probably be finding the @ symbol to type an email address. On a PC you have to type “Alt+164” with the “Numbers Lock” on or some other combination. If you need to ask, it’s called arroba in Spanish.
If you’re traveling with a laptop that isn’t dual voltage (most are these days), bring a converter—otherwise, your existing power cord will work just fine. Carrying a laptop could make you a target for thieves. Conceal it in a generic bag, and keep it close to you at all times.
The good news is that you can now make a direct-dial telephone call from virtually any point on earth. The bad news? You can’t always do so cheaply. Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive option; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. In some countries, you can phone from call centers or even the post office. Calling cards usually keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase them locally. And, as expensive as international mobile phone calls can be, they are still usually a much cheaper option than calling from your hotel. Web-based systems, such as Skype, are the most inexpensive way to call internationally.
To call Peru direct, dial 011 followed by the country code of 51, then the city code, then the number of the party you’re calling. (When dialing a number from abroad, drop the initial 0 from the local area code.)
Calling Within Peru
To get phone numbers for anywhere in Peru, dial 103. For an operator, dial 100, and for an international operator, dial 108. To place a direct call, dial 00 followed by the country and city codes. To call another region within the country, first dial 0 and then the area code.
To reach an AT&T operator, dial 0–800–50288. For Sprint, dial 0–800–50020.
Calling Outside Peru
For international calls, you should dial 00, then the country code. (For example, the country code for the United States and Canada is 1.) To make an operator-assisted international call, dial 108.
Public phones use phone cards that can be purchased at newsstands, pharmacies, and other shops. These come in denominations ranging from S/5 to S/50. Your charges will appear on a small monitor on the phone, so you always know how much time you have left. Instructions are usually in Spanish and English.
If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies than what’s used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile and AT&T), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to text message than to make a call, since text messages have a very low set fee.
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card for a few soles (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy a new cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one online; ask your cell-phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
You’re always allowed to bring goods of a certain value back home without having to pay any duty or import tax. But there’s a limit on the amount of tobacco and liquor you can return with duty-free, and some countries have separate limits for perfumes; for exact figures, check with your customs department. The values of so-called “duty-free” goods are included in these amounts. When you shop abroad, save all your receipts, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased. If the total value of your goods is more than the duty-free limit, you’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit.
When you check through immigration in Peru, put the white International Embarkation/Disembarkation form you filled out in a safe place when it’s returned to you. You will need it when you leave the country. If you lose it, in addition to being delayed, you may have to pay a small fine. You may bring personal and work items; a total of 3 liters of liquor; jewelry or perfume worth less than $300 USD; and 400 cigarettes or 50 cigars into Peru without paying import taxes. Likewise, travelers can bring one of each type of electronic device (for example, one laptop or one tablet). After that, goods and gifts will be taxed at 20% their value up to $1,000 USD; everything thereafter is taxed at a flat rate of 25%.
Most smaller restaurants offer a lunchtime menú, a prix-fixe meal ($3–$6 USD) that consists of an appetizer, a main dish, dessert, and a beverage. Peru is also full of cafés, many with a selection of delicious pastries. Food at bars is usually limited to snacks and sandwiches.
Meals and Mealtimes
Food in Peru is hearty and wholesome. Thick soups are excellent, particularly chupes made of shrimp or fish with potatoes, corn, peas, onions, garlic, tomato sauce, eggs, cream cheese, milk, and whatever else happens to be in the kitchen. Corvina (a Pacific sea bass) is superb, as is paiche (a fish with a very large mouth that’s found in jungle lakes and now being farmed sustainably). Adventurous eaters can try piranha—it’s delicious, but full of bones; cebiche, raw fish marinated in lime juice then mixed with onions and aji (chili peppers), is another option. Anticuchos (marinated beef hearts grilled over charcoal) are a favorite street snack, and pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken) is so popular that the government includes it in its inflation figures. Peru’s choclo (large-kernel corn) is very good, and it’s claimed there are thousands of varieties of potatoes and other tubers, prepared in about as many ways.
Top-notch restaurants serve lunch and dinner, but most Peruvians think of lunch as the main meal, and many restaurants open only at midday. Served between 1 and 4 pm, lunch was once followed by a siesta, though the custom has largely died out. Dinner can be anything from a light snack to another full meal; Peruvians tend to eat it late, between 8 and 11 pm.
Reservations and Dress
Peruvians dress informally when they dine out. At the most expensive restaurants, a jacket without a tie is sufficient for men. Shorts are frowned upon everywhere except at the beach, and T-shirts are appropriate only in very modest restaurants.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Peru’s national drink is the pisco sour, made with a type of pale grape brandy called pisco—close to 90 proof—derived from grapes grown in vineyards around Ica, south of Lima. Added to the pisco are lime juice, sugar, bitters, and egg white. It’s a refreshing drink and one that nearly every bar in Peru claims to make best. Wines from Ica vineyards such as Santiago Queirolo, Tacama, and Ocucaje are considered the country’s finest. Ica’s National Vintage Festival is in March.
Peruvian beer (cerveza) is also very good. In Lima try Pilsen Callao or sample the products from craft breweries like Nuevo Mundo, Cumbres, and Barbarian. In the south it’s Arequipeña from Arequipa, Cusqueña from Cusco, and big bottles of San Juan from Iquitos, where the warm climate makes it taste twice as good. In Iquitos, locals make Chuchuhuasi from the reddish-brown bark of the canopy tree that grows to 100 feet high in the Amazon rain forest. The bark is soaked for days in aguardiente (a very strong homemade liquor) and is claimed to be a cure-all. However, in Iquitos, it has been bottled and turned into a tasty drink for tourists. Chicha, a low-alcohol corn beer, is still made by hand throughout the highlands. An acquired taste, chicha can be found by walking through any doorway where a red flag is flying.
The electrical current in Peru is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC). A converter is needed for appliances requiring 110 voltage. U.S.-style flat prongs fit most outlets.
Consider buying a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so they require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
The fastest way to connect with the police is to dial 105. For fire, dial 116. The Tourism Police, part of the National Police of Perú, exists for the security and protection of travelers. Officers are usually found around hotels, archaeological centers, museums, and any place that is frequently visited by tourists. They almost always speak English.
The most common illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. In Lima, water supplies are chlorinated and should be safe to use for washing fruits and vegetables. Although many Limeños drink the tap water, travelers should drink bottled, boiled, or purified water and drinks to avoid any issues. Many higher-quality hotels do purify their water, so inquire with the concierge. In the provinces, water may not be treated. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating, and avoid ice unless it is made with purified water. If you have problems, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. Drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help immediately. Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. If you are traveling in an area where malaria is prevalent, use a repellent containing DEET and take malaria-prevention medication before, during, and after your trip as directed by your physician. Speak with your physician and/or check the Centers for Disease Control or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
Shots and Medications
No vaccinations are required to enter Peru, although yellow fever vaccinations are recommended if you’re visiting the jungle areas in the east. It’s a good idea to have up-to-date boosters for tetanus, diphtheria, and measles. A hepatitis A inoculation can prevent one of the most common intestinal infections. Those who might be around animals should consider a rabies vaccine. As rabies is a concern, most hospitals have anti-rabies injections. Children traveling to Peru should have their vaccinations for childhood diseases up-to-date.
According to the CDC, there’s a limited risk of cholera, typhoid, malaria, hepatitis B, dengue, and Chagas’ disease. Although a few of these you could catch anywhere, most are restricted to jungle areas. If you plan to visit remote regions or stay for more than six weeks, check with the CDC’s International Travelers Hot Line.
Specific Issues in Peru
The major health risk in Peru is traveler’s diarrhea, caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites in contaminated food or water. So watch what you consume. If you buy food from a street vendor, make sure it’s cooked in front of you. Avoid uncooked items, ones that have been sitting around at room temperature, and unpasteurized milk or milk products. Fresh fruit juices are generally fine, though it’s wise to only purchase them from the cleaner stalls. Drink only bottled water or water that has been boiled for several minutes, even when brushing your teeth. Order drinks sin hielo, or “without ice.” Note that water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes and may not be hot enough to rid it of the bacteria, so consider using purification tablets. Local brands include Micropur.
Mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium, Pepto-Bismol, or Lomotil, all of which can be purchased in Peru without a prescription. Drink plenty of purified water or tea—manzanilla (chamomile) is a popular folk remedy.
The number of cases of cholera, an intestinal infection caused by ingestion of contaminated water or food, has dropped dramatically in recent years, but you should still take care. Anything raw should be eaten only in the better restaurants.
Altitude sickness, known locally as soroche, affects the majority of visitors to Cusco, Puno, and other high-altitude locales in the Andes. Headache, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath are common. When you visit areas over 10,000 feet above sea level, take it easy for the first few days. Avoiding alcohol will keep you from getting even more dehydrated. To fight soroche, Peruvians swear by mate de coca, a tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. (If you are subject to any type of random drug testing through your workplace, know that coca tea can result in a positive test for cocaine afterward.) Some travelers swear by the prescription drug acetazolamide (brand name, Diamox), which should be taken 48 hours before arriving at altitude. Whether that’s an appropriate course is for you and your health-care professional to decide.
Spend a few nights at lower elevations before you head higher, especially if you are hiking or climbing in the mountains. If you must fly directly to higher altitudes, plan on doing next to nothing for the first day or two. Drinking plenty of water or coca tea or taking frequent naps may also help. If symptoms persist, return to lower elevations. If you have high blood pressure or a history of heart trouble or are pregnant, check with your doctor before traveling to high elevations.
Mosquitoes and sand flies are a problem in tropical areas, especially at dusk. Take along plenty of repellent containing DEET. You may not get through airport screening with an aerosol can, so opt for a spritz bottle or cream. Local brands of repellent are readily available in pharmacies. If you plan to spend time in the jungle, be sure to wear clothing that covers your arms and legs, sleep under a mosquito net, and spray bug repellent in living and sleeping areas. You should also ask your doctor about antimalarial medications. Do so early, as some medications must be started weeks before heading into a malaria zone.
Chiggers are sometimes a problem in the jungle or where there are animals. Red, itchy spots suddenly appear, most often under your clothes. The best advice when venturing out into chigger country is to use insect repellent and wear loose-fitting garments. A hot, soapy bath after being outdoors also prevents them from attaching to your skin.
Over-the-counter analgesics—available at the airports in Lima and Cusco, as well as most pharmacies in those cities—may curtail soroche symptoms, but consult your doctor before you take these. Always carry your own medications with you, including those you would ordinarily take for a simple headache, as you will usually not find the same brands in the local farmacia (pharmacy). However, if you forgot, ask for aspirina (aspirin). Try writing down the name of your local medication, because in many cases the pharmacist will have it or something similar.
New Year’s Day (January 1); Easter holiday, which begins midday on Holy Thursday and continues through Easter Monday (March or April); Labor Day (May 1); St. Peter and St. Paul Day (June 29); Independence Day (July 28); St. Rosa of Lima Day (August 30); Battle of Angamos Day, which commemorates a battle with Chile in the War of the Pacific, 1879–81 (October 8); All Saints’ Day (November 1); Immaculate Conception (December 8); Christmas (December 25).
Peru’s national currency is the nuevo sol (S/). Bills are issued in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 soles. Coins are 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 céntimos, and 1, 2, and 5 soles. (The 1- and 5-céntimo coins are rarely seen.) Peru is not one of those “everybody takes dollars” places—many businesses and most individuals are not equipped to handle U.S. currency—so you should try to deal in soles.
You’ll want to break larger bills as soon as possible. Souvenir stands, crafts markets, taxi drivers, and other businesses often do not have change. Be aware that U.S. dollars must be in pristine condition, as moneychangers and banks will not accept a bill with even the slightest tear. Likewise, counterfeiting is a big problem in Peru, and you should check all bills (both dollars and soles) immediately to confirm that they are real. The easiest method is to ensure that the color-changing ink does indeed change colors, from purple to black. Do not feel uncomfortable scrutinizing bills; you can be sure that any cashier will scrutinize your bills twice as hard.
If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute. Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. For the best exchange rates, you’re better off to wait until you get to Peru to change dollars into local currency.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PIN numbers with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
ATMs (cajeros automáticos) are widely available, especially in Lima and most other medium to large cities; you can withdraw cash using a Cirrus- or Plus-linked debit card or a major credit card. Most ATMs accept both Cirrus and Plus cards, but bring at least one of each to be on the safe side.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card goes missing, but you’re better off phoning your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa typically just transfer you to the bank anyway.
Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
For costly items, try to use your credit card whenever possible—you’ll come out ahead, whether the exchange rate at which your purchase is calculated is the one in effect the day the vendor’s bank abroad processes the charge or the one prevailing on the day the charge company’s service center processes it at home.
Major credit cards, especially MasterCard and Visa, are accepted in most hotels, restaurants, and shops in tourist areas. If you’re traveling outside major cities, always check to see whether your hotel accepts credit cards. You may have to bring enough cash to pay the bill.
Before leaving home, make copies of the back and front of your credit cards; keep one set of copies with your luggage, the other at home.
For sightseeing, casual clothing and good walking shoes are desirable and appropriate; most cities don’t require formal clothes, even for evenings. If you’re doing business in Peru, you’ll need the same attire you would wear in U.S. and European cities: for men, suits and ties; for women, suits for day wear, and for evening, depending on the occasion—ask your host or hostess—a cocktail dress or just a nice suit with a dressy blouse.
Travel in rain-forest areas will require long-sleeve shirts, long pants, socks, sneakers, a hat, a light waterproof jacket, a bathing suit (if you want to swim), sunscreen, and insect repellent. You can never have too many large resealable plastic bags, which are ideal for protecting official documents from rain and damp and quarantining stinky socks.
If you’re visiting the Andes, bring a jacket and sweater, or acquire one of the hand-knit sweaters or ponchos crowding the marketplaces. Evening temperatures in Cusco are rarely above 40°F. For beach vacations, you’ll need lightweight sportswear, a bathing suit, a sun hat, and lots of sunscreen. Peruvians are fairly conservative, so don’t wear bathing suits or other revealing clothing away from the beach.
Other useful items include a travel flashlight and extra batteries, a pocketknife with a bottle opener (put it in your checked luggage), a medical kit, binoculars, and a calculator to help with currency conversions. A sarong or light cotton blanket can have many uses: beach towel, picnic blanket, and cushion for hard seats. Most important, always travel with tissues, baby wipes, or a roll of toilet paper, as restrooms are not always stocked with these necessities.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
Visitors from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand require only a valid passport and return ticket to be issued a 90-day visa at their point of entry into Peru.
Make two photocopies of the data page of your passport, one for someone at home and another for you, carried separately from your passport. While sightseeing in Peru, it’s best to carry the copy of your passport and leave the original hidden in your hotel room or in your hotel’s safe. If you lose your passport, call the nearest embassy or consulate and the local police. Also, never, ever, leave one city in Peru to go to another city (even for just an overnight or two) without carrying your passport with you.
In Lima and other cities, your best bet for finding a restroom while on the go is to walk into a large hotel as if you’re a guest and use the facilities there. The next best thing is talking your way into a restaurant bathroom; buying a drink is a nice gesture if you do. Unless you’re in a large chain hotel, don’t throw toilet paper into the toilet—use the basket provided, as unsanitary as this may seem. Flushing paper can clog the antiquated plumbing. Always carry your own supply of tissues, baby wipes, or toilet paper, just in case.
Public restrooms are usually designated as servicios higiénicos, with signs depicting the abbreviation “SS.HH.”
Be street-smart in Peru and trouble generally won’t find you. Money belts peg you as a tourist, so if you must wear one, hide it under your clothing. If you carry a purse, choose one with a zipper and a thick strap that you can drape across your body; adjust the length so that the purse sits in front of you. Carry only enough money to cover casual spending. Keep camera bags close to your body. Note that backpacks and laptop cases are especially easy to grab or open secretly. Finally, avoid wearing flashy jewelry and watches.
Many streets throughout Peru are not well lighted, so avoid walking at night, and certainly avoid deserted streets, day or night. Always walk as if you know where you’re going, even if you don’t.
Use only “official” taxis with the company’s name emblazoned on the side. Don’t get into a car just because there’s a taxi sign in the window, as it’s probably an unlicensed driver. At night you should call a taxi from your hotel or restaurant.
Do not let anyone distract you. Beware of someone “accidentally” spilling food or liquid on you and then offering to help clean it up; the spiller might have an accomplice who will walk off with your purse or your suitcase while you are distracted.
Women, especially blondes, can expect some admiring glances and perhaps a comment or two, but outright come-ons or grabbing are rare. Usually all that is needed is to ignore the perpetrator and keep walking down the street.
Distribute your cash, credit cards, IDs, and other valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Don’t reach for the money pouch once you’re in public.
A 19% impuesto general a las ventas (general sales tax) is levied on everything except goods bought from open-air markets and street vendors. It’s usually included in the advertised price and should be included with food and drink. If a business offers you a discount for paying in cash, it probably means they aren’t charging sales tax (and not reporting the transaction to the government).
By law restaurants must publish their prices—including taxes and sometimes a 10% service charge—but they do not always do so. They’re also prone to levy a cover charge for anything from live entertainment to serving you a roll with your meal. Hotel bills may also add taxes and a 10% service charge.
Departure taxes at Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez are $31 USD for international flights and $6.82 USD for domestic flights—all airlines now include the tax in their ticket prices.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.