Peru has beaches, mountains, rainforest, ancient sites and modern cities. But if you want to brag about seeing all its places, you have to get there first. And therein lies the fun!
Story by Colin Quinn
Peru has everything an adventurer could want: beaches, mountains, rainforest, ancient sites, colonial history and modern cities. But if you want to brag about visiting all these epic places, you have to get there first. And therein lies the fun. The “how you get there” is rarely as photogenic as the “once you’re there.” Long bus rides. Unscheduled stops. Confusing stations. Tiny towns. No ATMs. Are moto-taxis safe? What is a collectivo anyway? And so on.
But don’t worry, I got you. Here are a few road-tested tips to keep your journey on or off-the-beaten path from beating you down. Trust me. I’ve made all the mistakes so that you don’t have to.
Setting Yourself Up For Success
- Learn some Spanish. Hellos, thank yous, numbers, etc. Not only is it polite, but you may find yourself in places where no one speaks English. If you need help, a little Spanish goes a long way.
- Consider going where others don’t. The farther you get off-the-beaten path, the less touristy your experience. Look beyond the guide book’s top hits—it’s well worth the effort. Truly epic stories rarely start with, “I was watching football at my hostel when….”
- Punctuality, ha! People ignore departure times. Things get delayed. A lot. It’s just how Peru works, and you won’t get anywhere any faster by fighting it. A deck of cards or a good book can make a big difference during unexpected waits.
- Keep cash on hand. If you’re travelling outside larger urban areas (Lima, Arequipa, Trujillo, etc.), don’t always count on your card. You didn’t expect the chicken bus to take Apple Pay, did you? Don’t travel with all your funds in hard currency either; just keep small bills on hand. They’re easier to break.
- Know when to hold ‘em. There are times you can bargain and times you can’t. You can usually bargain at markets and souvenir stands, places where prices aren’t written down. But it’s bad form to haggle over prices at restaurants, bus stations, high-end stores and hotels.
- Watch your stuff, especially on the move. Traveling can be disorienting, but keep your eyes on your bags and never, ever let your passport or wallet out of sight.
Once on the Road
- Enjoy the chicken bus! It’s an experience like no other, so soak it up. Not only is it a great story, but you’ll meet some nice people. These buses may lack certain comforts, but remember: you’re a guest in the country, and this is how Peruvians get around. Complaining is a bad look.
- Buy official tickets. At bus and train stations, only trust people in uniforms or at ticket windows. There are people who’ll be happy to sell you “unofficial” tickets in touristy places. But remember, you get what you pay for.
- Mountain travel can be terrifying. Travelling through the Andes requires precision driving on one-lane roads (that function as two-lane), in all kinds of weather, day and night. It’s cause for anxiety and accidents do happen. This isn’t to scare you, it’s just something to consider. Some of these journeys have aged me considerably. If you think this isn’t for you, consider a flight instead.
- Bathroom improv. Sometimes buses stop for bathroom breaks with no bathroom in sight. That’s OK. If others are using the side of the road, you can too. Conversely, if people are NOT using the side of the road, don’t. It’s one of those “pee as the Romans do” situations.
- Think before you eat or drink. If you’ll be on a bus (or train) for a while, think about what you eat and drink beforehand. Long journeys with tummy issues are a unique circle of hell. Believe me, I’ve done the research for you.
- Google Maps, FTW. I scope out destinations on Google Maps ahead of time. I like to know what’s around and spot potential landmarks—sometimes I’ll print out a map. This has saved me a few headaches.
- Collectivos are great for short distances. Collectivos are vans that function like a cross between a bus and a taxi. They’re faster than local buses, but still have predetermined stops. So don’t ask them to make a stop just for you. It’s perfectly fine, however, to flag one down like a taxi.
- Moto-taxis for short rides. In many towns, you’ll see lots of motorbikes with little carts attached. Moto-taxis are legitimate, inexpensive ways to get around town, and they can’t go very fast. Slower is usually safer. Don’t be shy—they’re fun.
- Older can be better. When considering any form of wheeled transportation, I look for older drivers. In my experience, younger drivers take more risks, and older drivers are still alive.
- Bonus fun! Many long-haul buses have communal TVs, which always seem to play ‘80s and ‘90s action movies. Jean-Claude Van Damme has kept me company on more lonely nights than I care to admit.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Feral dogs are not pets. Strays dogs are ubiquitous throughout Peru (and many countries worldwide). They’re usually harmless, but remember they’re not tame. No petting, people.
Shop for cheaper tours. Any kind of tour or travel package you book on the ground will be more expensive in the main “touristy” areas. Before you book anything pricey, scout the landscape. Better deals await.
Two-factor email authentication can be trouble. Some places don’t have WiFi and you’ll have to rely on old-fashioned computer terminals. So, if you have important stuff in an email that’s protected by two-factor authentication, you may never be able to access it. It’s just one of those small things that occasionally makes life very difficult.
Most importantly, enjoy the ride! Wherever it takes you. Peru is one of the greatest places you’ll ever visit, guaranteed. So none of these tips are meant to dissuade you – I’m just trying to make your travels a little smoother. I’m not good at many things, but I do make a great cautionary tale.