A lot of people dream of traveling to Peru, so I summarized the main lessons I learned from going there so that other people can enjoy this experience to the full.
If you are planning your first backpacking trip, in particular a woman alone, you will probably identify with the main concerns that I had when starting the trip, for example
- Do I need to book everything in advance?
- Can I trust a closed travel agency package?
- Is it safe to go alone?
Well, let's get to the tips 😉
Peru is much more than Machu Picchu
Yes, Machu Picchu is everything they say and more. It is impressive to see how engineering, architecture, astronomy, agriculture and civilization in general were extremely advanced for the time, considering that there was no electronics / computing. It is time travel and having contact with this civilization as if they had just left the place. After all, Machu Picchu is in a region of breathtaking natural beauty and extremely energetic (for those who care about these things).
It turns out that Machu Picchu is just one of the hundreds of archaeological sites in Peru. Dozens of them are very close and are usually visited by backpackers on the same trip, such as the Sacred Valley or the sites accessible via the Inca trail. However, other equally rich and interesting places are spread across the country, such as the Nazca lines, close to the coast, Puno, in the south of the country, or Chavin de Huantar, in the north.
In addition to the historical sites, Peru is also home to beautiful trekkings, such as Canyon del Colca, Santa Cruz and Huayhuash. So get to know Machu Picchu, but add a few days (or weeks, if possible) to your trip to visit other cities.
Enjoy regional food
It is not new that Peruvian cuisine is one of the most extraordinary in the world. At the time of writing this post (October / 2018), three of the 50 best restaurants were in Peru, in particular in Lima (see the full list) on here). However, if you leave to enjoy the food only when you arrive in Lima, you will be missing the typical cuisine of the places you visit. Each region has its own distinctive dishes, and they will have the best taste (and the best price) if they are consumed there, and not in more cosmopolitan versions in Lima.
It has more touristy restaurants, beautiful and well located, usually in lookouts or facing the Plaza de Armas, which will serve the typical dishes of the region or the Peruvian classics at a higher price. On the other hand, not far from the main square, it is possible to find restaurants serving the same dishes with a very considerable price difference. Of course, it may be part of the tour to go to some more “fancy” restaurant, but in general enjoy eating well without spending so much.
I have seen people avoiding the most expensive restaurants by eating fast food or poor quality food, and I want to make it clear that this is not necessary. You don't even have to look far to find good value restaurants. There is no need to "appeal" to fast food if you want to save money, besides you will be more at risk of feeling sick with food and jeopardizing your trip.
Virtually everything can be booked on time
Perhaps because it was my first backpacking, or because I was too concerned with personal safety as a woman and traveling alone, I ended up booking bus tickets and a package to Machu Picchu in advance. I regretted it. As for tickets, I felt that they threatened the flexibility of my trip. I ended up missing a ticket because I decided at the last minute to stay another night in a city I liked, and rescheduled others. To make matters worse, the bus that I bought the tickets from was the most expensive of all (Cruz del Sur). It was certainly the highest quality, but it has other options with better cost benefit. The agency that closed the package for Sacred Valley + Short Inca Trail was very expensive, and very bad - I went through some restaurants, all resolved in the end, but for the price the minimum that was expected was good service.
The truth is excluding round-trip airline tickets and ticket to Machu Picchu (including the options of the Inca trail or the Huyanna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountains), which need to be booked months in advance in case of high season because the number of visitors is controlled, practically everything else can be decided on the spot. Make your script and planning, but arrive in the city, take a walk around the Plaza de Armas (the main square in the center of every city in Peru is called Plaza de Armas), and choose the agency that offers you the best cost benefit. Hotels and hostels also do not need to be booked far in advance.
For tours with a historical / cultural bias, hire guides
Some people try to save on travel by visiting the main historical sites without a guide. It is possible to google a little about each archaeological site before or after visiting it, but I guarantee that the experience with a local professional guide will be different. There are local guides who speak English, Portuguese and other languages. You will know relevant details and get closer to the culture if you have access to the information they bring, and you will stop enjoying it if you give it up. After all, it is another way to contribute to the tourism industry.
Whenever possible, avoid collective tours with agencies
Without wanting to contradict what I said in the previous topic, that it is nice to contribute to local tourism, I strongly advise to avoid collective tours with agencies whenever possible. First, because it is nothing personalized - it does not separate groups of more adventurous people from those more interested in taking a photo and getting back on the bus. They do not organize tours so that tourists can enjoy the main site they are visiting - for example, a particular lagoon or archaeological site. They will reduce the time in these places and push you to the restaurants, markets and fairs that earn commission. This is very frustrating, so I ended up separating myself from my group and continuing the tour on my own in more than one situation.
If I were accompanied, I would make a point of hiring only round-trip transportation, or private tours. As I was not, I managed to manage quite well between closed tours, or using public transport and splitting taxi with other backpackers I met along the way, or even with a private guide. But as practical as day-trip tours are, every time I got the feeling that I would like to spend more time in some places.
Portunhol is enough, but English helps
In most establishments in the center of the most touristic cities, people speak English or “portunhol” - yes, there they also use that term haha. You can travel through Peru with only Portuguese, but remember that the further away from the city center, local people will have more difficulty - or less interest - in trying to understand what you say. A little bit of Spanish helps a lot. You will meet a lot of Brazilians in Cusco, Puno and Arequipa, but the number is decreasing in other cities. It is at these times that English opens doors - if you want to make friends from other countries, it will be much easier if you know how to manage with English. I met Americans, Koreans, Spaniards, Australians, Italians, Poles, and a lot of other people who depended more on English than Portuguese. Anyway, know that the language is not an impediment, but here is the incentive to study a little Spanish and English to better enjoy the trip!
Tourist cities are reasonably safe for travelers
One of the main concerns of us, women who travel alone, is whether we will be safe when walking. The answer is - yes, Peru's tourist cities are super safe for tourists, including women. I walked peacefully in the center of Cusco, Puno, Arequipa and Lima. In the Ica region I had some discomfort - the three guides I hired - one for Nazca, one for Ica and one for Paracas - hit on me. I didn't feel insecure, but it was very unpleasant. In Huaraz it was the only time on the trip that I felt a little insecure. I went for a walk alone at night, and I received some malicious "hola", very uncomfortable when you are a woman in a dark street with unknown men nearby. Nothing that I'm not (unfortunately) used to in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, but equally uncomfortable. Obviously there is a higher charge for tourist security in the most famous cities. Huaraz is also very touristy, but it doesn't compare to Cusco for example.
On the other hand, compared to other destinations, I felt safer in Huaraz than in Los Angeles. For the time I was in Peru (21 days), and the number of uncomfortable situations I spent, I can say that with due care it is a reasonably safe destination to travel.
Be efficient with suitcases and backpacks
I bought a nice backpack from Quechua, 50l. I managed to adjust it very well on the back, even with my incredible 1.52m in height (hahaha). It turns out that even with a good backpack, if you put a lot more weight than recommended (10% of your weight), you will suffer.
Fortunately, Peru's hostels and hotels, for the most part, sympathize with backpackers, and offer two very important resources - luggage storage and laundry service. In other words, you can go with a fuller suitcase, leave part of your content stored at the hostel, and leave with less weight to do a trek of a few days in length, often without additional cost. The laundry service is usually cheap, so if you prepare a backpack with clothes for a week, you can travel for weeks in a good way, washing once a week in the hostel you are staying. I confess that I took more clothes than necessary - more than enough for a week, and I wanted to sell or donate things along the way: P.
Towards the end of the trip I decided to buy a wheeled suitcase to keep the heavier things and to be able to buy the souvenirs (pisco, wine, chocolates and souvenirs). It was great to arrive with a backpack and leave with a wheeled bag in addition to the backpack, I was already exhausted on the way back, it was great to carry less weight on my back.
In the same way that I realized that I took more clothes than necessary, I realized that there are items that are indispensable: your cosmetic kit (shampoo, conditioner, body moisturizer, deodorant, sunscreen, repellent, lip balm). If you are staying in a hostel, there is hardly any free shampoo or conditioner. Body moisturizer and lip balm look superfluous, but your skin is extremely dry during these trekkings. Sunscreen and repellent are your best friends depending on where you are.
Another important thing is the drug. Take the basics of medicines you already know and trust. I took it for headaches, gastritis, bandaids. I regretted not taking antiseptic (like metiolate or something). I went to travel with a sore throat, so I was already taking the cytoprofen and I took another pack. As I didn't know how my food was going to be, I preferred to make sure to take polyvitamin tablets, enough for the whole trip. Beware of exaggeration - there are people who bring a lot of medicine that they never took in their life because their friend's aunt recommended it, for fear of heights or some unknown disease. Better to prevent malaise than to clog up over-the-counter medications. I will explain further in the next topic.
Respect your limits
Right at the beginning of the trip, I met at the hostel some people who had canceled the tours the next day because they were feeling unwell. This helped me to pay even more attention to how I took the trip, because I didn't want to have to soak it because I abused it.
It was not difficult to avoid fatty food, because there is a lot of choice of typical dishes without excess fat. Yes, I ate a pizza one day, a burger the other week, anyway. I just didn't overdo it, I tried to eat light, drink plenty of water, I took my vitamin capsules religiously rs, and I respected my limits a lot during the trekkings.
Of course, it makes you want to beat all records when climbing a mountain or doing a difficult trek. It is very nice to be able to say that we were able to cover a certain stretch in less time than the average person, but it is even better to be able to enjoy the ride and enjoy the whole way feeling good. Every time I felt my heart race, I stopped for a few seconds, breathed well, and went on. At Lagoon 69, which is a 7km trail to reach a lagoon 4,600m high, I had to stop many times. But I did the trail with good humor, enjoying the incredible scenery with each step. I didn't feel sick at any time, but I saw a lot of people suffering on the way. If the body is asking for rest, stop and rest. It is not a competition.
During the trip, there were children, the elderly and people with reduced mobility taking the same tours as me. These tours are not for a specific physical type. It is for persevering people, who know and respect their body. The same trail can take 1, 2, 3 or 4 hours depending on the person. There are people who will need to get on the horse, there are people who go with the backpack on their backs. But getting to the top is just as rewarding. The only thing you need to pay attention to is visiting hours.
Machu Picchu mountain, for example, closes shortly after 12pm. So if you have reduced mobility, or if you have a heart problem (and your doctor's approval for that, Christ sake), schedule yourself to do the trail early and be able to take it easy.
About location, communication and transportation
Accommodation: Always look for places close to the Plaza de Armas. Hence take your style into consideration - do you want to meet new people? Hostel. Do you want to meet new people but also want to sleep? Hostel with private room. Want a little more comfort? Hence, look for hotels, but I guarantee that there are hostels with private rooms with hotel quality, and a much lower price.
Communication: Lodging and most restaurants offer Wifi. Honestly, I ended up abusing my operator's roaming a little bit, especially on days that I was moving from one city to another, for security reasons. Having internet is not just a matter of comfort, it gives you peace of mind and helps you solve any problems that may happen, so if you don't want to depend on roaming, buy a chip with a local data plan, such as that of Movistar or Claro. Save the whatsapp from the hostel reception and each guide or service you hire.
Transport: In Peru, the price of taxis is not absurdly expensive as in Brazil. It's practically the same price as Uber, so I don't think Uber is worth it. Preferably, ask the reception desk to request the taxis for you. If you need to order a taxi on the street, exchange a few sentences with the driver before entering to see if he is not rude (some are, like everywhere else in the world). Talk to the destination and ask for the price, compare with the average and negotiate if possible. A good part of the drivers are also guides, get in touch with the ones you like the most because it can be useful.
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Peru is truly a sensational destination, and it is possible to have a rich experience in many ways when traveling there! I hope these tips help you to have a good trip. If you have something to complement, any other important tip, share in the comments.