If ever the term “kaleidoscope” could be applied to a nation, Peru is it. From the mustard desert north and the lush and humid Amazon rainforest in the east to the dazzling white of snow-capped peaks of the Andes and the aquamarine Pacific rollers where surfers ride ashore in Lima, Peru truly is a rainbow nation.
Ancient cultures awe us with the remains of their settlements — a longstanding testimony to their craftsmanship and endeavor. Ancient blocks of granite, quarried and cut centuries ago as precisely as by any of today’s laser-guided machines, stand silently, often just a stone’s throw from man’s more recent intricate baroque architecture ostentatiously dripping in gold.
Families occupying the land of their ancestors, raising alpacas and llamas, and living on a staple diet of potatoes, rice, and vegetables continue the traditions of their forefathers. Today though, a cell phone connects them with the bustling, bright lights of Lima and a growing international culinary reputation.
With so much to see and experience in Peru and when there is not enough time to do it all, it helps to be well prepared. Here are some things I was lucky enough to know before setting out and some I wish I had known.
Planning The Trip
1. Don’t Try To Do It All
Unless you are planning to spend a month or so in Peru, trying to experience all that this fabulous country has to offer will be almost impossible, very tiring, and you would still only be scratching the surface. It’s just as important to decide what you’re not going to see as much as the “must-do” places.
Most visitors’ number one “must-see” location is Machu Picchu. The starting point for this iconic lost Inca city is Cusco, which, as the former capital of the Inca empire and full of colonial history, merits a couple of days in itself. For centuries, different civilizations have lived in the Sacred Valley, and there are numerous villages where ancient traditions continue to this day. As we were already going to be in the area, it made sense to take time and explore the Sacred Valley too.
Since you’re likely to be flying into Lima, seeing nothing more than the airport would be a real miss. We chose to spend 3 days here to get a feel for this former colonial capital.
Our big decision was whether to head north to the desert, south to visit the floating islands on Lake Titikaka, or east to the Amazon jungle. What about the “white city” of Arequipa, flying over the fascinating Nazca Lines, or checking out Rainbow Mountain? It was a challenge to decide what we should not do on this trip and settled on a 12-day trip that included stops in Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and the Amazon Rainforest.
Arriving In Peru
2. Don’t Ignore The Uniformed Taxi Personnel
On leaving Lima airport, you will encounter many uniformed personnel touting for business at taxi counters. Don’t ignore them if you need a taxi. Use them rather than going outside where many are waiting to take you for a ride. Stop at the taxi counter before leaving the airport — fares are established and you can use a credit card to pay.
3. Take Care At Night Around The Airport
We had an early morning flight so we spent our final night at an airport hotel. While the hotel was fine, the Airport Area (Callao) is one of the most dangerous parts of Lima and not a place to wander around after dark.
4. Make Miraflores Your Base In Lima
The Miraflores district is a favorite locale for tourists to base themselves during a visit to Lima. Located south of the old town and fronting the Pacific, Miraflores is a safe and vibrant area from which to explore. With plentiful hotels, many eateries, and easy access to the clifftop parks and cycle path, this is a convenient place to call home.
5. Agree To The Fare Before Taking A Cab
The taxi from the airport takes 25 minutes in rush hour traffic and cost 60 soles ($20). Plaza Mayor in the Old Town is only a 30-minute cab ride away. Taxis usually do not have meters so agree on the fare before you leave.
6. Historic Buildings Are Marked
There is almost 500 years of history in Lima, the capital of the Spanish empire in South America. Although many of the original buildings were destroyed by an earthquake in 1746, what remains is a very fine collection of colonial architecture radiating out from Plaza Mayor with spectacular churches and fascinating tales. Small black and white diamonds on the buildings indicate a building with historic significance and which likely merits a moment of your time.
7. Get To Know Barranco: Arts, Crafts, And Shady Streets
The Barranco district, home to many expensive condos overlooking the ocean, has retained its Bohemian vibe. While tourists flock to Peru’s own “Bridge of Sighs” (Puente de los Suspiros), take a moment to check out La Ermita (the Church of the Hermitage) and its fabled history. Colorful murals in this neighborhood add to the overall artsy environment. There are many cafes, museums, galleries, and craft shops to eat up your time here.
Perched on top of 500-foot-tall cliffs overlooking the Pacific, the cycle and pedestrian path winds its way from Barranco to Miraflores hugging the coastline passing many of the attractions on every tourist’s “must-see” list and affording beautiful Pacific Ocean vistas.
8. Make Sure You Have Internet Connectivity Before Renting A Bike
You need to have an internet connection to rent a bike from one of the many bike-sharing stations as everything is done online. I didn’t set up roaming on my cell phone and instead ended up walking this pleasant 2.5-mile route back to our Miraflores hotel.
Look out for the Union Jack-draped Paddington Bear, The Kiss (a rather large sculpture of a middle-aged couple in a passionate embrace), and the iconic black and white lighthouse. The path is a great location to take in the locals’ activities (we saw people doing yoga, playing soccer, learning to rollerblade, practicing Taekwondo, boxing, holding group prayers, a children’s read-a-thon, and dancers practicing their moves). At day’s end, people gather to watch the best free show in town as the sun sinks below the vast Pacific horizon.
9. Be Prepared For Changeable Weather
Watching the sun set over the Pacific from the cliff tops is a favorite pastime here. However, the weather cannot be guaranteed, so don’t be disappointed if a spectacular sunset picture gets lost in thick sea mist.
10. Book Early To Eat At The Best Restaurants
A taste of Peru’s growing culinary stature can be found at Mayta in Miraflores owned by Peruvian chef Jaime Pesaque. Offering contemporary Peruvian cuisine, Mayta was voted one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019. Book well in advance not be disappointed.
Cusco: More Than A Stepping Off Point
Cusco sits in the middle of the Andes, and at 7,500 feet, literally takes your breath away.
11. Prepare To Tackle Altitude Sickness Naturally
We found our prescribed altitude sickness medication had a pronounced diuretic side effect so instead tried “natural” remedies which worked well with no side effects. We tried Ooala Altitude Sickness patches, drank coca tea at every opportunity, and chewed coca leaves. We found this combination worked well for us.
12. Be Prepared For Microclimates
There are many micro-climates in the Valley, and weather can change very quickly. Dress in layers and include a light, breathable rain jacket.
13. Bring Sturdy Walking Boots Even When Exploring Cusco
Cusco’s streets are narrow, many are cobbled and are often steep. You may only be exploring the center of Cusco but you will quickly find yourself on less-than-level streets.
14. Agree On A Price Before Snapping A Picture Of An Alpaca
As the gateway to the Sacred Valley, Cusco is a magnet for tourists, and you will be approached by ladies in national dress offering to have their picture taken with you. The ones holding a baby alpaca will win every time, and street vendors will hawk their wares – from jewelry to artwork to cheap massages. It really isn’t as tacky as it sounds and the vendors were not pushy. However, agree on a price before having your photos taken with the ladies and alpacas — it saves a lot of angst afterward.
Passports are not currently being stamped on arrival in Peru, which is a shame for those who collect passport stamps. However, you can get your passport stamped at the entrance to Machu Picchu with a “Machu Picchu” stamp. (Though be advised that the U.S. Department of State recommends citizens avoid the use of novelty stamps in their U.S. passport.)
Unwinding In The Jungle
A 90-minute flight from Lima brings you to Puerto Maldonado. It’s on Peru’s southeastern tip and at the gateway to the Amazon rainforest, where both the temperature and humidity soar.
15. Dress Appropriately To Make Your Time Bearable
It may sound obvious, but don’t forget to bring the essentials: a wide-brimmed bucket hat, breathable shirts (not cotton), and lightweight long pants. Pants that can be unzipped to become shorts are particularly useful.
We stayed at Inkaterra’s Hacienda Conception lodge accessed by boat down the Madre De Dios River. Staff take care of all your luggage allowing you to concentrate on spotting wildlife. Our private, wooden cabana was rustic yet beautifully apportioned, very airy, clean, and unbelievably comfortable.
We participated in easy, small group day and night treks with experienced guides, on foot and by boat, learning about (and for the really curious, tasting) local plants with medicinal properties. We explored the tree canopy from 90-foot rope bridges and fished for piranha.
No matter the itinerary you choose for your Peruvian adventure, you will be rewarded with rich lifetime memories and a desire to come back for more.