Warrick Howards’s Guide to Peru
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Deep, dark jungles. Vast deserts. Ancient civilizations; Peru really does have something to satisfy even the most discerning of backpacker palettes.
Often overshadowed by its more westernised neighbours, Peru manages to offer a travelling experience which is seen as something a little ‘different’, whilst still distancing itself from the ‘dangerous’ reputation of neighbouring countries such as Columbia.
You could quite easily spend six months here and still find yourself only halfway across the country; such is its diversity.
So, let’s start at the beginning: visas.
It’s probably best to keep your trip length down to 90 days as this is the time given on a standard entry visa. Whilst you can get extensions to stay for longer, 90 days gives you plenty of time to get a good feel for the place.
If you’re arriving into Peru with a UK passport then you don’t need to arrange a visa in advance, you’ll be given a 90 day visa on arrival. Take care not to overstay this time, as officials at the border have been known to issue fairly large “fines” for even a single day overstay.
Once you’re into Peru, however, things change for the better. Tumbes has some glorious beaches, and you’d be forgiven for just forgetting the rest of your itinerary and making a home for yourself on a secluded beach. If you do decide to stay here for a couple of days, then make sure you try the local seafood, particularly the local dish of ‘ceviche de conchas negras’ which is made with local black scallops. In fact, all the seafood here is amazing, I once sat in a random beach-side restaurant and told the manager to just bring me a selection of dishes. He then proceeded to bring out plate after plate of amazing seafood, until I had to beg him to stop as I was becoming fuller than an overstuffed sausage. The whole bill, including beer, was about $5.
Well, most people will travel in Peru as part of a trip around South America, and therefore you can look at any of the major South American airports to find the cheapest fare into the continent. Don’t forget that you’ll probably want to leave from a different airport to the one you’re flying into, as once you’ve travelled all the way to Rio (in Brazil) from Bogota (in Colombia), it’s a long bus ride back to get a flight home.
Bogota in Colombia is usually the cheapest airport to fly into, but if you’re worried about your mother suffering some kind of nervous meltdown about you heading to Colombia, then Quito in Ecuador usually offers competitive flight prices. I should clarify that I’m not advocating not travelling to Colombia, I’m just saying that parents may feel better about your trip if your plane ticket says ‘Ecuador’. That way, you can just sneak off over the border once you’ve arrived, and see Colombia on the quiet. And hey, if you do get kidnapped by friendly bandits, at least your mother will be able to use her favourite “told you so” voice when you talk to her on the phone. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the international airport then the cheaper the flight.
Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking about Peru, so let’s rein in this digression and continue on our merry path.
If you’re crossing into Peru from Ecuador, then you have two choices. Firstly, you can take a nice tourist bus from Loja through to Piura. This option involves stepping off a bus at Piura, speaking to the friendly, official border guards, getting a stamp in your passport (your 90 day Peruvian visa) and then getting back on your bus. Simple.
The alternative option is to try and cross from Huaquillas to Tumbes. This option involves getting off your bus, navigating a minefield of con artists, fake exchange currency vendors, robbers, corrupt officials and a general assortment of pond-dwelling bottom-feeders concerned with nothing else but parting you from your cash and belongings, until you find yourself - hot and sweaty - either safely in Peru or in a random field in no-man’s land.
Don’t get me wrong, if you find yourself getting on the wrong bus and ending up at the Huaquillas border crossing, it’s not the end of the world, but you need to have your wits about you. You’ll need to take a taxi to the border crossing, then walk across the bridge and grab a moto taxi to the Peruvian immigration office. From there, you’re on your own getting to Tumbes – take a taxi or jump in the back of a pick-up. It’s not easy, and if you’re not careful you can end up in the middle of nowhere with a fierce looking taxi driver demanding $$$ to take you back to where you need to be.
That said, this border crossing will probably be the most challenging experience you’ll have in Peru. It’s unfortunate that the border has developed this lawless reputation, but when there’s so much money to be made from fleecing tourists, it becomes very difficult to get the authorities to do anything about it. So, if you’re a female travelling alone, a traveller not particularly confident in pressure situations, or you don’t speak Spanish, do yourself a favour and cross from Loja to Piura. Unless, of course, you have a particular fondness for having your wallet fingered.
If you’ve crossed from Loja to Piura, then you’ll find yourself in a stunning little colonial style town, which although isn’t directly on the beach, you’re only a short walk away. Mancora is considered to have the best of all the Piura beaches.
Mancora is rumoured to be where Spanish Conquerors landed, and they declared that they had found paradise. If you head down to Las Pocitas beach at sunset you’ll no doubt agree they may have had a point. This area is simply stunning, and the levels of marine biodiversity means that diving is becoming more and more popular here.
At low tide you can walk from Mancora to Las Pocitas beach (about 3km), past the fishing harbour (make sure you keep an eye out for pelicans skimming the surf) and down past the natural rock pools which form. If you’ve managed to bag a potential fumble whilst at one of the bars in Mancora, then this walk is the place to seal the deal.
Alas, we all have to leave paradise eventually, and so now you’ll have to make a decision about where you want to head next. Plenty of travellers head from here straight out to Iquitos, in the Amazon basin. Now, if you’re planning on heading to Bolivia on your South America tour, then you can consider not visiting Iquitos in Peru, as Rurrenabaque in Bolivia offers very similar jungle tours at a lower cost, but the choice is very much yours.
If you do decide to head to Iquitos, then you have a few choices. The city itself is not accessible by road, so you’ll either need to fly, or get in by boat. If you choose the latter, and are feeling adventurous, then you can get a boat from Coca in Ecuador all the way to Iquitos in Peru. Now, this isn’t for the faint hearted, but an arduous boat trip down the Amazon appeals to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. So, if you want to do it, you’ll need to catch a 12 hour boat from Coca to Nuevo Rocaforte, stay overnight, get your Ecuadorian exit stamp from the police station, then get a boat down to Pantoja where you’ll have to wait for a cargo ship to Iquitos. When it arrives, you’ll throw up your hammock, and spend five days with the pigs, monkeys, chickens, fruit, vegetables and whatever other cargo the ship decides to pick up on the way. It’s a fantastic experience, but be prepared for a total “back to basics”
If that seems like a little too much, then you can head down to Lima to get a flight direct to Iquitos, which is the most comfortable option. Or, if you want something in between, you can get a bus to Tarapoto, and then take a two day boat trip to Iquitos. 95% of backpackers who go to Iquitos will travel there by plane, but there’s something to be said for cutting yourself off from civilization, sharing your bed with a pig, and drifting along by boat.
Iquitos itself is seen as the gateway to the jungle. There are numerous “jungle tours” that you can participate in where you’ll head off into the Amazon and spend a few nights in the wilderness, surrounded by the snakes, spiders, caymen, piranhas, and a whole host of other fearsome creatures. Be aware that your hotel will try and offer to get you a ‘jungle guide’ but this is usually a sure fire way to get an expensive and substandard service. It’s an unfortunate truth that in Iquitos it's tough to find an honest tour guide. The best option is to go and speak to some of the proper tour operators in their offices in town, and compare their prices and services.
If you’re looking for a day out from Iquitos while you’re waiting for a jungle tour to start, then there’s the Manatee orphanage or Monkey Island, both of which are worth a visit, but most people prefer to just sit and chill with the locals, having a beer and watching the world go by…
Be aware in Iquitos that as there is no access by road, motorbikes rule supreme. Any taxi rides you need to take will be on the back of a motorbike. If you’re of a particularly nervous disposition then think carefully before jumping onboard, but generally the drivers are as safe as can be expected and do their best to get you to your destination in one piece; their chances of getting a tip are greatly reduced if they maim you.
So, you’ve seen the beach, you’ve seen the jungle, where next? Well, most travellers will make their way to Lima from Iquitos, as the majority of the attractions in Peru (Inca Trail, Nazca Lines, etc.) are all easily accessible from Lima. To get there, you can fly (this cost about $200 when I was there, but prices fluctuate massively depending on the time of year, and how big a ‘booking fee’ the guy in the office is trying to charge you), or you can go by bus. Buses in Peru are a great way to get about, are comfortable and cheap, but be prepared to spend a LOT of time on them. The journey from Iquitos to Lima will take two days. That’s right, TWO days sat on a bus. Take a book, an iPod, and learn the Spanish for “please move your chicken out of my seat”; you’ll need it more often than you’d think.
Once you arrive in the capital, you’ll notice a distinct change of pace from the tranquillity and rural seclusion of Iquitos. Lima positively buzzes with activity, from local markets, to business districts, colonial downtown and bull fighting arenas. Whilst Lima isn’t everyone’s idea of the “real Peru” it offers a glance into how Peru is moving forward in the modern world, whilst the colonial downtown area remains as a monument to the past.
Most backpackers will choose to stay in Miraflores, which is the tourist district of Lima. This is where you’ll find the majority of the hotels and hostels, as well as the backpacker bars and cafes. Situated right on the Pacific Ocean, Miraflores is a nice, safe environment to launch your exploration of Lima. Grab a ‘turrones’ from a street vendor and wander the beach front, or sit with a coffee or – more likely- a Pisco Sour and chillax.
Whilst many backpackers use Lima as a stepping stone to other destinations in Peru, there is still plenty to see here. The museums are well worth a visit, particularly the library at the Museo de San Francisco, which contains antique documents dating back to the conquista. The Catedral de Lima, dating back to 1555 is also something worth seeing. If you’re after something a little more ‘active’, then the beaches around Lima are renowned for their surf, or if that’s not your thing, the Parque de las Leyendas is a zoo where you can see native Peruvian animals, including condors and llamas.
South of Lima, we start to encounter attractions and towns that are familiar to people the world over. Names like ‘Cusco’, ‘Inca Trail’, ‘Nazca’, etc. and whilst no visit to Peru would be complete without seeing these places for yourself, it’s also worth considering making a few trips north of the city, to see some of the less travelled destinations.
Cerre De Pasco is worth a visit if you want to see a real working town. As one of the key silver mining towns in the 1800s, the town played a key role in the exports of Peru. The silver is pretty much gone today, but the town is still a mining town, taking lead and copper from the mines in vast quantities. Now, I realise that most backpackers will have little interest in an old mining town, but you should consider that at 14,000ft above sea level, it’s one of the highest towns in the world. So sipping a beer on top of the Andes (or on top of the world, if you prefer) suddenly takes on a whole new feel. Well worth a couple of hours out of your day if you’re passing that way.
Once you’ve exhausted the sights that Lima offers make your way south to Nazca to see the famous Nazca lines. You can get a bus directly from Lima to Nazca, but it’s well worth getting a ticket which allows you to stop in Pisco for a day or so.
Most people who visit Pisco do so to see the Paracas National Reservation, which are also known as the “Peruvian Galapagos” People aren’t allowed on the islands, but you can get a boat to take you close enough to get photos of the pelicans, penguins, sea lions, turtles, and even whales (if you’re there at the right time). Unfortunately Pisco was practically destroyed a few years ago by a massive earthquake in which hundreds of people died. As such, it has become even more important to stop off here on your way further south, to help regenerate the town.
Buses arrive and depart from Pisco fairly frequently, and getting a bus to Nazca from here is simple. Once you arrive in Nazca you’ll be met by swarms of hotel owners, tour guides, bag porters, and every other conceivable occupation you might require whilst in the area.
Whilst I don’t usually speak to touts at bus stations, in Nazca it seems to be the way everything gets done. We managed to get ourselves a decent hotel for a very good price, and whilst the owner was keen on pushing a Nazca Lines tour organised by his hotel, he wasn’t so in-your-face that he became a pest.
The fact of the matter is this; a ‘guided tour’ of the Nazca lines isn't much good. The Nazca Lines, despite what various tour guides will tell you, are best viewed from the air.
Whilst this sounds like something reserved for travellers with double-barrelled surnames, the huge footfall through Nazca makes flights relatively affordable. You should be able to get a flight in a plane with five or six other people for around $50 per person. Considering that from the ground the best you can hope for is to get a glimpse of the lines from one of the crowded observation towers, paying $50 for a bird’s eye view strikes me as decent value. Especially when you see people stood on the ground next to lines, looking hot and dusty, wondering what all the fuss is about.
Other than the lines, Nazca has little to offer backpackers, and therefore a day here is all you should need. After that, it’s onwards to Cusco, the entry point to the attraction which is the majority of backpackers’ main reason for visiting Peru; the Inca Trail.
Whilst the Inca Trail is undoubtedly high up on many people's "to do" lists, ranking among one of the best things to experience before you die, it’s difficult to know how to go about booking yourself onto the trek without getting caught up in one of the various scams or massively overpaying. The main thing to remember is that you cannot just turn up in Cusco and book yourself onto a trek leaving in the next few days. Places for the trail book up months in advance, so chances are you’ll need to have you place booked well before you arrive in Peru. Obviously this can hamper your itinerary somewhat, but in my opinion the sunrise over the ruins of Machu Picchu on the final day of the trek makes everything worthwhile.
When it comes to booking your tour, the first thing to point out is that things have changed massively over the past eight years or so; what your friend paid four years ago has absolutely no bearing on cost today. The entry prices alone illustrate a drastic change. In 2000 you could expect to pay a mere $15, compared to at least $100 today. A limit of around 200 passes per day for trekkers, combined with group size regulations (a maximum of 16 people per group) means you don't have much chance of finding a last minute place on the trek during peak season.
Increases in the number of staff required per group, from guides to cooks and porters (sometimes up to three porters per two trekkers), the imposition of a minimum wage for porters (about $14 per day), combined with tents, cooking equipment, first aid kits and oxygen all raise the cost to you, the trekker, even further.
Whilst this sounds like a bad thing, it’s actually not. Personally, I don’t mind paying a small amount extra for a fairer deal for locals, a guide who actually knows what they are talking about and equipment that doesn’t try to remove your extremities when you try and use it. Often in the past your guide would have been an untrained local, cooking on a 20 year old gas cooker, and sleeping in a ditch; hardly conducive to your memorable Inca experience!
The sad part about this is that these price increases apply to locals as well as tourists, and it has now reached the point where the Inca Trail has become a distinctly Western activity.
Indeed, with all this complexity, it’s easy to see why some will opt to pay for the Inca Trail through UK companies for peace of mind. At least this way you have someone to shout at if anything goes wrong. The general rule I work by is that if the Peruvian company offers credit card booking, you've got some protection from your card company if things do turn sour. If they are just asking for a WU money transfer, that's not a sure sign that it's dodgy, but it would put me off.
Regardless of this, it does perhaps make more sense to book through a Peruvian company. While they have to pay an environmental tax of around $40 on every booking they take (a tax from which foreign companies are exempt), local companies will always be cheaper, if for no other reason than they’re not paying their office staff UK wages. If this wasn’t reason enough, it means that if you book with a Peruvian company, some of your money is going straight back into the local economy and back into the upkeep of the trail, rather than into UK executive’s pockets... <insert anti corporate statement from a dreadlocked hippy here>
Whether or not you book in the UK or with a Peruvian company, what is clear is that you should never book through airport tour operators, taxis, or (generally) hotels and hostels. These people take a cut, and promote the tour which pays the best commission, not the one which has the best standards.
When booking a trek, be careful not to book anything without being certain that you can make it. Peruvian authorities, in order to stop rich companies buying up all the passes using false names and passport numbers, and then just changing them as they find real clients, have outlawed cancellations. This means that even if you find another backpacker who can't make their trip, you won't be able to take their space. Good for the communities, bad for the backpacker.
Despite all these hoops you have to jump through to get a place, it’s totally worth it. Walking through the ruins and seeing the various ancient offerings to the Gods was an amazing thing to see. The experience of walking in the footsteps of an ancient civilization made me feel strangely humble.
Still, there’s always the chance that you won’t be able to get a place, for whatever reason, so what happens then? Well, you can still visit Machu Picchu. There is a train which runs from Cusco and drops you directly at the ruins; brilliant if you’re packing a bit of extra timber and don’t fancy waddling your chunky rump over the 30 miles of hills to see it.
There are also other treks, such as Salkantay Trek, which is a longer and more arduous experience, but you’ll encounter a lot less people, see some ‘genuine’ Peruvian mountain villages, not just the ‘tourist villages’ on the Inca Trail. You can also book onto a trek like this with just a few days notice, so it’s worth considering if you find yourself deciding not to do the Inca Trail, but then changing your mind when you arrive in Cusco.
As for Cusco itself, it has become a kind of Mecca for backpackers. The problem with travelling in South America is that you don’t encounter other travellers with anywhere near the degree of regularity you’ll have become used to in places like Thailand and Australia. As such, when backpackers do come together in large numbers in South America, they really come together, if you catch my drift.
There is no shortage of bars, restaurants and clubs in Cusco, all aimed solely at giving backpackers a chance to catch up and share their experiences and stories, all whilst clutching a cold bottle of Cusquena, the local beer. If you needed any further proof of Cusco’s party potential, then you’ll find not one, but two Irish bars in the centre of town. Case closed.
There are plenty of sacred sites, churches and various other museums and monuments in Cusco, but I’m afraid I’d feel like a hypocrite talking to you about them, as most of my time in Cusco was spent drinking Cusquena and throwing some shapes on various dance floors. If you’re keen on doing something a bit different, however, then have a word with a couple of locals about ‘spiritual healing’. Hopefully you’ll get taken out to see a shaman (bone necklace, the works) and given some kind of cactus drink. Honestly, this stuff makes taking mushrooms in Amsterdam feel like having tea in Bognor Regis. Seek it out if you fancy it because the pageantry and spirituality of it all was one of my best experiences in Peru; and the dancing 6ft piranha only heightened that experience.
So, you’ve done the Inca Trail, you’ve seen beaches, jungles, huge rivers and bustling cities. You’ve flown in planes, travelled by raft, canoe, motor boat and motor bike. You’ve been covered in dirt, dust, and mud. What could possibly be left to do?
Well, you’d be forgiven for jumping on a bus and calling it a day. Making your way over to Bolivia to start all over again and having a whole new experience. Still, if you’ve got a few days spare, then you can head over to Arequipa on the Southern tip of Peru, and have a mooch around the stunning churches and architecture of the city. You can also head down to Tacna, which is the southern-most city in Peru, right on the Chilean border, and in the middle of the desert. Whilst these cities have some touristic appeal, my reason for visiting was slightly different. These places aren’t as well visited as Lima or Cusco, and as such, they retain a much more authentic Peruvian atmosphere. This means that you can order llama, guinea pig, and all other kind of weird and wonderful dishes in the restaurants, and not feel bad about it.
It’s a bit of a strange feeling, having a fried guinea pig presented on your plate, but I can honestly understand why people eat them in Peru; they’re far better as a meal than they are sitting in your girlfriend’s bedroom pretending to be something other than a glorified rat.
And so to Puno. The final stop on my guide to Peru. This place is simply awesome, if for no other reason than they have pedalos.
Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, is a perfect place to spend your last few nights in Peru. It has enough nightlife to keep boozy backpackers entertained, but there is also enough culture to satisfy any French girls you’re trying to impress. The lake itself is incredibly clean, probably due to the fact that it’s one of the highest lakes in the world. Take a pedalo out onto the lake and see for yourself. A word of warning though, the lake is very, very cold. You have been warned.
About the Author: Warrick Howard
Warrick Howard joined the site in 2005. Since then he's visited every continent with the exception of Antartica, and is planning on ticking that box very soon. His main area of expertise is South America, but can offer advice on travel pretty much anywhere; particularly making the most of short trips.
He's also your go-to-guy if you're in the market for a sarcastic comment or thinly veiled innuendo. Off-site Warrick works for an oil company.