First of all, Peru is one of the most diverse countries in the world! I’m not just saying that, according to United Nations, it is one of the 17 countries classified as “megadiverse”. There’s so many amazing things to do in this country, you could never be bored and you could never stay long enough. There’s a rich sea life in Paracas, deserts in Ica, and huge ancient Incan glyphs in Nazca. There’s the Andes, Colca Canyon, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca, and that’s just in the South! If you go north you’ll find both the snow covered Cordillera mountain range and the warm, sunny beaches of Mancora. Then of course, there’s the Amazon, dominating the entire eastern coast of Peru; like I said, you couldn’t be bored if you tried.
Peru was my first trip to South America and I visited for almost 4 weeks. We started off in Lima and bused our way down the coast before travelling inland through the Andes. We passed through the Islas Ballestas bird sanctuary in Paracas, through breathtaking Colca Canyon and Arequipa, and on to the beautiful Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia. After that, we headed back up along the eastern side of Peru to Cusco, the former capital and tourist hub of Peru. We spent two weeks based in Cusco, spending a week hiking to Machu Picchu and a week exploring the Amazon before flying back to Lima to catch our flight home. Flying is definitely the easiest way to get around Peru, although it’s not the cheapest.
Most people that visit Peru take flights to every city. You can take buses all around the country; however, it’s very mountainous and the roads are very winding, so it takes a long time to go from city to city. We didn’t mind taking the bus on the way from Lima to Cusco because we stopped in a half dozen places along the way, but even then, we still spent around 40 hours on buses. We also spent another 20 hours to get in and out of the Amazon by bus as well. On average, the bus costs between $10 and $40, depending on how far you’re going, whereas each individual flight costs around $100-$200, depending again on which cities you’re flying from. After having taken a bus to the Amazon, I would probably recommend flying instead, it’s frustratingly far and time consuming to go by bus. Otherwise, take the bus if you’ve got the time and want to save some money.
The airline most people use (myself included) is LAN, which flies all over Peru. The only annoying thing about this airline is that, while they fly from a lot of locations, most of the flights connect through Cusco or Lima in central Peru. For these flights, they basically treat each segment as a separate flight, so it ends up costing you double. This makes flights from one small city to another small city very expensive because they have to connect through another central location.
The bus company we used for all our travels was Cruz del Sur. It’s more expensive then some of the other bus companies, but it’s definitely the safest and most reputable. They check all your luggage to ensure no one steals it at another stop and they make very few stops between cities. Other companies are always stopping to pick people up, which makes the trip a lot longer and not as safe. Cruz del Sur serves meals on pretty much all their routes and they have a full time attendant. They also make a point about having multiple bus drivers on long journeys to ensure the driver doesn’t get tired on the dangerous mountain roads.
The best thing about Peru is that it is ridiculously cheap. Comparing my four-week trip to Peru to my two-week trip to Ireland, they both cost approximately the same, except of course that my trip to Peru was twice as long. Airfare is still expensive, but once you get there, everything is a lot cheaper! We stayed in hostels every night, all of which included breakfast, and it only cost us about $11 a night. That was for private rooms as well, if you want to stay in dorms, you can easily find all your hostels for about $8 a night.
Food is also really cheap, we usually spent about $25 each a day on food, which included all our bottled water because it is not safe to drink the tap water in Peru. However, food was also included on many of our excursions, so for about half of the trip it ended up not costing us anything at all! Food can be expensive if you only stay in the major tourist centres (particularly in Lima), but it gets cheap fast when you leave the main squares.
The most challenging thing about Peru is the altitude. Once you leave the coast, you ascend very quickly into the Andes. Cusco is located at an altitude of 3400 meteres above sea level (m.a.s.l.) and Puno, the city located on Lake Titicaca, is at an altitude of 3800 m.a.s.l. The highest point we passed through on the trip was 4910 m.a.s.l and the highest point we hiked at was 4600 m.a.s.l. You definitely need to give yourself at least 5 days to adjust to the altitude, or in my case, 2 weeks. Seth adjusted to the altitude after about 4 days, which is pretty average, but when we started hiking after 7 days at a high altitude, I still hadn’t adjusted. It’s very common to suffer mild altitude sickness, which can give you a headache, make you dizzy, or cause you to have trouble breathing. I didn’t experience headaches or dizziness, but I found it challenging to breathe on even the slightest incline. It made hiking very challenging and frustrating. Don’t underestimate altitude sickness and definitely give yourself time to adjust before doing anything strenuous. Machu Picchu is actually only located at 2400 m.a.s.l, so it’s usually no problem there.
Anyways, don’t be dissuaded. Peru is an incredible country that really has so much to offer. There’s lots of amazing places to see and lots of fun things to do! It’s definitely helpful to know some spanish (or to have someone you’re travelling with know some Spanish), but it’s not absolutely essential. The bottom line is that Peru is definitely a place you have to visit at least once in your life and Machu Picchu really is one of the 7 new wonders of the world!