15 things I wish I had known before visiting Peru

If ever the term “kaleidoscope” could be applied to a nation, it is Peru. From the mustard desert in the north and the lush, humid Amazon rainforest in the east to the dazzling white of the snow-capped peaks of the Andes and the blue-green rolls of the Pacific where surfers land in Lima, Peru is truly a rainbow nation. -sky.

Ancient cultures amaze us with the remnants of their settlements – a long-standing testimony to their skill and effort. Ancient blocks of granite, quarried and cut centuries ago with as much precision as by any of today’s laser-guided machines, loom silently, often a stone’s throw from intricate Baroque architecture man’s latest that is dripping ostensibly in gold.

Families occupying the land of their ancestors, raising alpacas and llamas, and living on a staple diet of potatoes, rice, and vegetables carry on the traditions of their ancestors. Today, however, a cellphone connects them to the bright, bustling lights of Lima and a growing international culinary reputation.

With so much to see and experience in Peru and when there isn’t enough time to do it all, it pays to be well prepared. Here are some things I was lucky enough to know before I went and some things I wish I had known.

Plan the trip

1. Don’t try to do everything

Unless you plan to spend about a month in Peru, trying to experience all that this fabulous country has to offer will be next to impossible, very tiring, and you will only scratch the surface. It’s just as important to decide what you’re not going to see as the “must see” places.

The must-see site for most visitors is Machu Picchu. The starting point for this iconic lost Inca city is Cusco, which, as the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and full of colonial history, deserves a few days in itself. For centuries, different civilizations have lived in the Sacred Valley, and there are many villages where ancient traditions continue today. As we were already going to be in the area, it made sense to take time out and explore the Sacred Valley as well.

Since you’re likely to be flying into Lima, seeing nothing more than the airport would be a complete fail. We chose to spend 3 days there to discover this former colonial capital.

Our big decision was whether we headed north into the desert, south to visit the floating islands of Lake Titikaka, or east into the Amazon jungle. How about the “white city” of Arequipa, flying over the fascinating Nazca Lines or discovering Rainbow Mountain? It was a challenge to decide what we shouldn’t do on this trip and we settled on a 12 day trip that included stops in Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and the Amazon Rainforest.

The coastline of Lima, Peru

Photo credit: Chris Moore

Arrival in Peru

2. Don’t ignore uniformed taxi staff

Leaving Lima airport, you will encounter many uniformed staff touting business at the taxi counters. Don’t ignore them if you need a taxi. Use them rather than going out where many are waiting to take you for a ride. Stop at the taxi counter before leaving the airport – fares are set and you can use a credit card to pay.

3. Be careful at night around the airport

We had an early morning flight so we spent our last night in 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 walk around after dark.

4. Make Miraflores your base in Lima

The Miraflores neighborhood is a favorite spot for tourists when visiting Lima. Located south of the old town and facing the Pacific, Miraflores is a safe and vibrant area to explore. With plenty of hotels, restaurants, and easy access to clifftop parks and the bike path, it’s a convenient place to call home.

5. Accept the fare before taking a taxi

Taxi from the airport takes 25 minutes at peak times and costs 60 soles ($20). The Plaza Mayor in the old town is just 30 minutes away by taxi. Taxis usually don’t have meters, so agree on the fare before you go.

The Archbishop's Palace of Lima (left) and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Lima (right) in the Plaza Mayor.

The Archbishop’s Palace of Lima (left) and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Lima (right) in the Plaza Mayor

Photo credit: Chris Moore

6. Historic buildings are marked

There are nearly 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 from the Plaza Mayor with spectacular churches and fascinating storytelling. Small black and white diamonds on the buildings indicate a building of historical significance and probably worth a moment of your time.

7. Get to know Barranco: arts, crafts and shaded streets

The Barranco neighborhood, home to many expensive condos overlooking the ocean, has retained its bohemian vibe. As tourists flock to Peru’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’ (Puente de los Suspiros), take a moment to discover La Ermita (Hermitage Church) and its legendary history. The colorful murals in this neighborhood add to the overall artistic environment. There are many cafes, museums, galleries and craft shops to spend your time here.

Perched atop 500-foot-tall cliffs overlooking the Pacific, the pedestrian and bike path winds its way from Barranco to Miraflores along the coastline past many attractions on every tourist’s must-see list and boasting magnificent views of the ocean. ‘Pacific Ocean.

8. Make sure you have an internet connection before renting a bike

You must have an internet connection to rent a bike from one of the many self-service bike stations because everything is done online. I didn’t set up roaming on my cell phone and ended up walking this pleasant 2.5 mile road to our hotel in Miraflores.

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 place to participate in local activities (we saw people doing yoga, playing football, learning to rollerblade, practicing taekwondo, boxing, holding group prayers, a read-a-thon for children and dancers practice their movements). At the end of the day, people gather to watch the best free show in town as the sun sets below the vast Pacific horizon.

9. Be prepared for changing weather conditions

Watching the sun set over the Pacific from the top of the cliffs is a favorite pastime here. However, the weather cannot be guaranteed, so don’t be disappointed if a spectacular sunset image is 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 for 2019. Book well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Cuzco, Peru.

Cuzco, Peru

Photo credit: Chris Moore

Cusco: more than a starting point

Cusco sits in the middle of the Andes and at 7,500 feet literally takes your breath away.

11. Get ready to fight altitude sickness naturally

We found that our prescribed altitude sickness medications had a pronounced diuretic side effect, so instead we tried “natural” remedies which worked well with no side effects. We tried the Ooala Altitude Sickness patches, drank coca tea at every opportunity, and chewed coca leaves. We found this combination to work well for us.

12. Be prepared for microclimates

There are many microclimates in the valley and the weather can change very quickly. Dress in layers and include a lightweight, breathable rain jacket.

A taxi in a narrow street in Cusco, Peru.

A taxi in one of the narrow streets of Cusco

Photo credit: Chris Moore

13. Bring sturdy walking boots even when exploring Cusco

The streets of Cusco are narrow, many are cobbled and often steep. You may only be exploring the center of Cusco, but you’ll soon find yourself on less flat streets.

14. Agree on a price before taking 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 who will offer to have their picture taken with you. Those who hold a baby alpaca will win every time, and street vendors will sell their wares – from jewelry to artwork to cheap massages. It really isn’t as sticky as it sounds and the sales people weren’t pushy. However, agree on a price before you have your photos taken with the ladies and alpacas – it saves a lot of angst afterwards.

Passports are currently not stamped upon arrival in Peru, which is a shame for those who collect passport stamps. However, you can have your passport stamped at the entrance to Machu Picchu with a “Machu Picchu” stamp. (However, be aware that the U.S. Department of State recommends that citizens avoid the use of novelty stamps in their U.S. passport.)

The trail through the Tambopata Nature Reserve in Puerto Maldonado, Peru

The trail through the Tambopata Nature Reserve in Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Photo credit: Chris Moore

Relax in the jungle

A 90-minute flight from Lima brings you to Puerto Maldonado. It’s at the southeastern tip of Peru and on the doorstep of the Amazon rainforest, where the temperature and humidity soar.

15. Dress appropriately to make your time bearable

It may seem obvious, but don’t forget to bring the essentials: a wide-brimmed bucket hat, breathable (not cotton) shirts, and lightweight long pants. Pants that can be unzipped to become shorts are particularly useful.

We stayed at the Hacienda Conception lodge in Inkaterra accessible by boat on the Madre De Dios river. The staff takes care of all your luggage, allowing you to focus on wildlife viewing. Our private log cabin was rustic but beautifully laid out, very airy, clean, and incredibly comfortable.

We took part in easy day and night hikes in small groups with experienced guides, on foot and by boat, to discover (and for the more curious, taste) local plants with medicinal properties. We explored the tree canopy from 90 foot rope bridges and fished for piranha.

Whichever route you choose for your Peruvian adventure, you’ll be rewarded with rich, lifelong memories and a desire to return for more.

To learn more about Peru, check out these articles:

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