Peru is on many visitors’ bucket lists and rightly so. It is a beautiful country with awe-dropping scenery and much to offer for any type of traveler. However, there are some things to know about Peru before visiting for the first time.
Peru is the most popular destination in South America and so very different than other countries on the continent. In this post, I’ve compiled a list of things to know about Peru before traveling there, especially for first time visitors.
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Things to Know About PEru
1. Currency, ATMs, and Peruvian Cash
Peru’s official currency is Sol (PEN) and currently, $1USD is 3.83 PEN. Even though credit cards are widely accepted it is good to carry some cash with you, as everyone expects tips for their services. You can exchange your money before traveling or use local ATMs to withdraw cash.
ATMs are usually limited to dispensing 400 PEN or 700 PEN, depending on the bank. When withdrawing money using your international debit card, there will be a charge at the ATM (15-25 PEN) plus the fees that your bank charges. Even with all the ATM charges, it seems to be a better exchange rate for withdrawing money from the ATM than exchanging it before the travel.
Having a pocket full of Peruvian change goes a long way when it comes to tipping cabs, buying a snack on the side of the road, or paying to use toilets.
Peru uses 220 volts electricity, and most outlets are designed to handle two-prong flat, or two-three prong round devices. However, you have to make sure that your device can handle 220 V power. If not, you can purchase an adapter that will convert the power for your device.
3. The Language of PEru
Peru’s official language is Spanish. However, Quechua and Aymara are spoken among some locals. Sometimes words from Quechua and Aymara are integrated in the Spanish language as well and may be hard to understand if you know some Spanish and are trying to communicate. But Peruvians, are very welcoming people and will try their best to communicate with you.
Surprisingly, English is widely spoken throughout the country.
Most places in Peru do not have sewage treatment facilities and the toilets are flushed directly into the local rivers. Careful where you decide to swim!
The toilet paper is not supposed to be flushed and most toilets have a trash bin next to them to dispose of the used toilet paper. On top of that, toilet paper is not available at most public toilets, you either need to bring your own or pay for the toilet paper. Even if you do have toilet paper with you, public toilets usually cost 1 – 2 PEN.
Walking into the bathroom in Peru and noticing that there is no toilet seat, no toilet paper, no paper towels, or soap is a quite common sighting. With that in mind always carry toilet paper with you as well as hand sanitizer.
Altitude is a real deal in Peru and should be taken seriously. Cusco is at over 11,000 ft and you quickly feel it upon your arrival. Give yourself enough time to acclimate, drink plenty of fluids and eat light meals (soups).
Locals will offer you coca tea and you can buy over-the-counter Sorojchi Pills (altitude medicine). Different people take differently to altitude, and you may experience any of the following symptoms:
Loss of appetite
Usually, it takes 2-3 days to acclimate to the altitude but some people take longer. Another option is to start taking altitude sickness medicine a couple of days before going to high-altitude locations.
Half of Peru’s population is illiterate and when you hike through some remote villages you quickly realize why. Some of the villages are completely remote and have a very small general population and an even smaller population of kids.
We walked through one village with a population of 45 people. Only primary school is offered in this village and to get to the secondary school kids must walk a minimum of 1-hour one way to get to class. There is no infrastructure for cars or buses. As you can imagine, some of them give up on further schooling after primary school.
It is mandatory to vote in Peru, and in these remote villages, where a lot of people can’t read, you will see white-painted walls with political signs on them during an election year letting the locals know that elections are coming up and they need to vote.
Stray dogs are everywhere in Peru, as in most other South American countries. Generally, they do not bother people and seem to be well fed. You may get some of them to follow you while you are walking around town, but we’ve never had any bad experiences with them.
8. Driving in Peru
Driving in Peru seems like a daunting task unless you are a local. It doesn’t seem like there are any rules, no one ever stops at STOP signs. As a pedestrian, if you are trying to cross the street you literally have to step in front of the cars in hopes that they will stop.
Horns are used for everything from TAXI cabs letting you know that they are open and available to drivers being upset at you for crossing the street.
Driving on the roads to some of the remote areas such as The Rainbow Mountain can be nerve-wracking. A lot of times you can look at the road and think it is a hiking trail until you actually see a car driving on it. Some bridges do not seem sound enough to walk across and then you see a van full of people driving on it and next thing you know, your van is doing the same. It can be stressful, to say the least.
9. Tap Water…No-No
Drinking tap water in Peru is not safe. It is full of heavy metals that your body is not used to, even the locals boil and cool the water for drinking. Most hotels will have a bottle of water in the bathroom for brushing your teeth.
However, while we were hiking through the countryside of Peru, we didn’t have bottled or purified water available in all areas, and brushing our teeth with tap water didn’t give us any issues.
10. Taking a Swim in the Rivers?
If you are hiking in Peru, it can be tempting to take a dip in one of the many rivers you may come across. Before you do, you should know that all the toilets flush directly into the rivers without any treatment.
When we did Salkantay Trek our guides were very diligent about letting us know where it was ok to soak our feet and where it was not.
Do not even think about drinking that water! Your Amazon purchase water filter will not help.
11. Guinea Pig and Alpaca are on the Menu in Peru
Guinea Pig (Cuy) and Alpaca are often seen on the menu, especially in and around Cusco. It is part of the normal diet for the locals, but if it is not something you prefer there are plenty of other options on the menu.
We did try Alpaca Saltado and it was delicious. Cuy didn’t make our menu this time.
12. Laundry Services
In hiking cities, like Cusco and Arequipa but even in Lima, you will see laundry services everywhere. It is a great way to get your clothes washed without a hassle. You drop it off, pay by the kilogram and come pick it up when they tell you it will be done, usually the same day. We washed 18 kgs (~ 40 lbs.) of clothes for 132 PEN ($36).
Some of the places offer 2 or 4-hour turnaround service, and that costs a little more, but comes in handy when needed.
13. Unfinished Buildings
It is hard to walk around Peru, especially in remote areas, and not notice that most buildings are not finished. Even though people may be living in them for years. Apparently, if your home is unfinished, you do not have to pay property taxes. So you will find, homes that look completely finished up front but in the back or the top floor still have rebar hanging out to avoid paying taxes.
14. Getting Around Peru
Peru is a big country, and it has never been easier to get around. Two main ways people get around are either flying or buses.
Your choice will depend on the time and budget. Taking buses is definitely more budget-friendly and some bus lines travel overnight which doesn’t eat up as much exploring time. Flying is still fairly affordable and much quicker to get around.
15. Machu Picchu
Visiting Machu Picchu may seem like a cliché. One of these places that everyone goes to, like Disney World, but it is stunning to see in person. Pictures do not do it justice. The engineering behind it and the sheer magnitude of it are just impressive. Yes, there will be a lot of crowds there, but it is still worth a visit.
Getting to Machu Picchu, may not be as straightforward as expected. Aquas Calientes is a town at the foothills of Machu Picchu and the only way to get to Aquas Calientes is either by walking or taking a train.
Once in Aquas Calientes, you can either take a bus or walk up to Machu Picchu, but to get inside Machu Picchu you must be escorted by a licensed tour guide. There will be plenty of them at the bus stop offering their services or you can book ahead
Do keep in mind that the number of people allowed to visit Machu Picchu each day is limited, and you need to book the tickets well in advance. Also, you will need your passport to get into Machu Picchu.
16. Uber is An Option in PEru
Taking Uber in Peru is easy and safe. App works great and drivers are professional and courteous. There also didn’t seem to be any tension between taxi drivers and Uber drivers. When we were in Chile, that was a different story – Uber drivers used to get attacked and customers had to sit up front with the driver to cover up that they are Uber drivers. None of this was an issue in Peru.
Understanding these things about Peru before visiting will make your time a lot more enjoyable and less stressful. You will be able to relax and enjoy Peru’s beauty instead of worrying about little things.