PERU SERIES PART 5: General tips for traveling to Peru

Now that we have discussed everything about Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lima, I thought it would be helpful to share some general information about traveling to Peru. This is advice based on personal experiences that Alex and I had during our trip to Peru.

Altitude Sickness: During the planning stages of our trip, I repeatedly read warnings about altitude sickness. Both my and Alex’s general responses were , “What are people getting so worked up about?” “We won’t have a problem. We are young and fit.” “We never have a problem with altitude on ski trips.” Well I am here to tell you that altitude sickness is a real thing. And there is quite a difference between skiing for a few hours on a 10,000 foot mountain but sleeping at 7,000 or 8,000 and spending several days and nights at over 11,000 feet. Symptoms of altitude sickness include: headache, lack of appetite, nausea or vomiting, weakness, fatigue, disruption of sleep, shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, and dizziness. Many people describe altitude sickness as feeling like a hangover.

While I am not 100% sure that I had altitude sickness (I didn’t experience the headaches, shortness of breath, or dizziness), I was pretty ill most of the time we were in Cusco. I had various digestive issues the whole time and spent the entire night before our trip to Machu Picchu vomiting. I want to point out that I’m not sure it was altitude sickness because my symptoms were mainly digestive so it’s possible that it was due to food that I ate. However, since it lasted several days, I think it was more likely altitude sickness.

How to avoid altitude sickness: The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to ascend slowly and acclimate yourself. Many guides to traveling in Peru suggest spending a night or two in Ollantaytambo or Pisac before going to Cusco or avoiding a stay in Cusco at all. We thoroughly enjoyed Cusco so I personally would not recommend not staying there, but if you are susceptible to altitude sickness, consider staying in a city at a lower elevation first.

Eating: Most importantly, no tap water or ice. Stick to bottled water or treat it by boiling or purifying it if you are so inclined. Do not eat any salads or fruit that may have been washed with tap water. Fruit that has a peel that you don’t eat or fruit that is grown above ground should be safer, but if you want to be sure, sanitize the fruit first. It is also recommended to avoid heavy dishes and anything with a lot of cream, cheese, milk, eggs, or anything harder to digest because of altitude. When in doubt, stick to hot food. WikiTravel has a comprehensive list of the general tips you will find about eating in Peru.

As for what TO eat and drink, coca tea is highly recommended as a natural remedy to altitude sickness. While the effectiveness is debatable, it can’t hurt and is readily available, especially all over Cusco. Also, make sure you try ceviche and sushi in Lima, lomo saltado, aji de gallina, alpaca, and cuy in Cusco, and the specialty drink in Peru, a pisco sour.

Money: Money is an interesting situation in Peru. First and foremost, bring cash. Or at least have access to getting cash at ATMs. We found that more often than not, credit cards were not accepted. The only places we could expect to use credit cards were our hotels and high-end restaurants.

Even then, it wasn’t always a completely cash-based operation. At a few restaurants, we were asked to give the tip in cash to the server rather than adding it to the credit card statement. Generally, tipping is not expected unless you are in a high-end restaurant, where 10% for good service is standard. At small restaurants, a few soles are appreciated but not required.

If you get cash from an ATM, it is likely that it will come in large bills (50 or 100 sole bills). We found it to be shockingly difficult to break bills in Peru. Apparently, Peru has a major problem with counterfeit bills so many vendors are reluctant to take anything over 20 soles. Further, they are also reluctant to break your change. Getting change at our hotel seemed to be our best tactic, until our hotel ran out of small bills. After that, we had to strategically use big bills at places like restaurants and for tours.

Taxis: Driving in Peru is crazy. Road conditions are poor and drivers are careless. We initially considered renting a car, but decided it was not worth it. It ended up being a great idea to skip the car rental because not only would I not want to drive in those conditions, there was very limited parking to be found anywhere.

There are plenty of horror stories of tourists being robbed after getting in a taxi. When you are looking for a taxi in Peru, an easy way to stay safe is to pick a cab that looks modern, is in good condition, and has obvious taxi signage. Make sure that the locks and windows work. Unmarked “taxis” and old vehicles (or those in poor condition) are best avoided.

Also, make sure you agree upon a fare beforehand. Fares aren’t a problem with reputed companies as they have standard fares to frequent destinations, but if you get in a private car, just make sure you agree on a fair fare! There was a great company in Lima called Satelito 3555555 that had new and clean cars, courteous drivers, and reasonable fares. You can also rest assured that you will be safe because all drivers are vetted for security. If you have a smart phone, you can download the app to order a cab. I’m not sure if there is anything comparable in Cusco, but I would definitely recommend using the company in Lima.

Buses: There are also many horror stories about traveling by bus in Peru. Your best bet for a tour is to go with a well-reputed company. It is probably worth the extra money to have a bus in good condition with a safe driver. As for local bus travel, Alex and I could hardly make heads or tails of some of the local buses, so we stuck to walking or taking a taxi. The system seemed to involve a passenger yelling out destinations to passersby and packing passengers in like sardines. Very confusing and seemed sketchy, especially because most of the buses were very run down.

Passport: Passport required, but no visa necessary unless you are a student or there for business. You will be issued a tourist card upon arrival (DO NOT LOSE THIS) which is valid for 90 days. After 90 days, you will owe a $1 fine.

Coca products: Since this seemed to cause a lot of confusion, the answer to which coca products can be brought back to the US is that you may bring back packaged coca tea (in tea bags), but you may not bring raw coca leaves back into the U.S. (Link is to US Customs website.)

I think that about covers it for general tips about Peru. Alex and I had an incredible time in Peru and I would absolutely return. We loved the history, culture, and cuisine. I generally felt safe, other than in the barrio chino in Lima, and we enjoyed our trip immensely. Please let me know if you have anything else to add or other tips for travel to Peru! Do you have questions? Please contact me!

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