Why Go to Peru – Peru Travel Planning
Peru travel planning can be tricky because there’s tremendous variety for the first time visitor. Options include the vast, arid Pacific Ocean beaches, the steamy, and exotic Amazonia, Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable Lake in the world, the high Andes with ancient Inca secrets like Machu Picchu, and the beautiful 16th century Spanish Colonial cities of Cusco and Arequipa. Peru could easily be a traveler’s first country to visit in South America.
I had nine nights to work with for this particular itinerary, my first time to Peru. I needed to choose from all that Peru has to offer with the intent of having an immersive travel experience there. Too many destinations with insufficient time spent feels rushed, rarely leading to a memorable experience. And rushing it in Peru may have other consequences as well. Many destinations around my points of interest in Peru are at high elevations, between 7,000 to 11,000 feet. A steady pace would benefit the immersive travel experience, as well as help to avoid altitude sickness.
Where to go in Peru – Peru Travel Planning
The selection of itinerary is as much about where not to go, as it is about where to go. For example, I avoided spending time in Lima on this trip. And I also discounted visits to Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca. It simply comes down to choice, and personal preferences. I elected to go with the major themes of the great outdoors, discovering Incan heritage, and exploring 16th century Colonial Spanish cities and architecture.
With 9 nights of calendar budget over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I chose to spend 3 nights in Ollantaytambo to focus on Incan heritage sites, like the massive site in Ollantaytambo itself, and Machu Picchu, of course.
I wanted to spend 3 nights in Cusco because it was a great combination of Incan heritage, and Spanish Colonial history. Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, situated right at its center when the empire spanned from present day Colombia to Chilean Patagonia. It was also the capital of Spanish Colonial Peru until they moved the capital to Lima, so the city is steeped in 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture.
And finally, 3 nights in Arequipa – The White City, so named because of its white volcanic rock buildings – surrounded by 80 volcanoes in the region. Still touched by Incan heritage, but to a lesser extent than Cusco and its surrounding cities, including Ollantaytambo. This destination is more about Spanish Colonial history and architecture, but also about the great outdoors with a side trip to the Colca Canyon. I expected to have an immersive New Year’s Eve celebration in Arequipa with the locals.
Ollantaytambo – 3 Nights
Machu Picchu – Day Trip
Cusco – 3 nights
Arequipa – 3 nights
Logistics – Peru Travel Planning
Airfare to Lima from my home base in Atlanta was very straight forward, with non-stop flights available. Connecting flights to both Cusco and Arequipa from Lima were not scarce. The only real decision was whether to start in Cusco, and work my way to Arequipa, or vice versa. I would have much preferred to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then work my way to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, and end the trip in Cusco at 11,000. This would have been the ideal itinerary to gradually acclimate to ultimate altitude of 11,000 in Cusco. Alas, I could not make the airline schedules accommodate my personal timetable around the holidays and had to opt for a Cusco/Ollantaytambo/Arequipa circuit.
While I tried to find apartments for each of the three destinations, there simply wasn’t any quality inventory in either Ollantaytambo or Arequipa. So I settled for hotel rooms accommodating my requirements.
Hotels and Apartments
I booked the Ollantaytambo hotel room through Booking.com. The interestingly named hotel, Sauce, was as boutique as could be, with only 7 rooms under management. It was very centrally located, just steps away from Plaza de Armas. They had a complimentary breakfast buffet included in the price of the room. And it was actually worth getting up a little earlier to hit the breakfast buffet.
I booked the Cusco apartment through Booking.com about 7 months in advance of arrival. The photos speak volumes regarding the apartment. It’s all about the views. Stunning views both day and night, which include the old part of town, and the Plaza de Armas. The apartment’s location had a minor drawback being several hundred steps above Cusco street level, enabling the spectacular views. Several hundred steps is trivial downhill, but not so much going back up at over 11,000 feet of elevation. I am glad to share that I never did take the stairs up, as Uber was so incredibly inexpensive (less than $USD 1.50) to get from the center of town back to the apartment.
I also booked the Arequipa hotel on Booking.com, making it a trifecta for this particular itinerary. The boutique hotel was centrally located right on the Plaza de Armas. It had a high quality restaurant attached, which served a fabulous New Year’s Eve menu to its guests. This was the best place to stay in Arequipa given my Immersive Travel principles.
Driving in Peru
I did not rent a car in Peru. And I am so glad I didn’t. They drive maniacally as if immortal in Peru. I personally love to drive, and have driven on travels in some places known for aggressive, if not chaotic driving – but nothing like this. I saw people passing uphill, around a hairpin turn, on a narrow mountain road, for example. No thanks. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, unless you’re a daredevil with a death wish.
How get Local Currency in Peru
My approach when traveling is to use local currency for cafes, restaurants, and incidental spending. I use credit cards for major spend, for example, hotels, car rentals, and other transportation, like rail. I’ve adopted this approach over the years of traveling because it’s the most convenient, both for myself, and the various little restaurants and cafes I like to patronize.
The best way to get local currency, everywhere I’ve traveled, has been to use ATM machines associated with major local banks. They provide a very good exchange rate, and with a little planning, a minimal transaction fee. By planning, I mean that the traveler must select a financial institution in their home country that provides an international travel-friendly debit card, charging no transactions fees – and even reimbursing transaction fees other institutions would charge. I personally have two for this purpose: Fidelity Investment Services Visa debit card, and Capital One 360 Mastercard debit card. I use the Fidelity card exclusively because they reimburse other bank ATM fees, and keep the Capital One card as a backup.
Based on my previous travels, I’ve found the effective ATM currency exchange fee to be 1% or less. I withdrew Soles from all four of the Banks represented near the food court on the second floor of the Lima airport. Three out of the four had effective exchange rates below 1%, and were competitive. The fourth was a bank called BCP. It was interesting that they allowed for a larger withdrawal of 700 soles versus the 400 soles the other 3 banks allowed. And moreover, they charged less for the transaction fee. But, they rob the consumer with an effective 4.5% exchange rate fee. I will never use a BCP bank ATM again, and neither should anyone with a choice.
How to Avoid Food Sickness in Peru
I have never commented on traveler’s food survival strategies previously because I had never written about any place where such a thing would be a worry, until now.
Do not drink the water. It has both bacteria and parasites that will ultimately make the unaccustomed very ill. Do not drink anything that comes with ice, either cubed or crushed. You can take the risk and ask if the ice is made from purified water, or you can be sure and simply avoid iced drinks. Do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re washed with the local water. Avoid anything that has not been cooked, and preferably eat cooked food served hot.
Do not buy food from street vendors, including ice cream.
And here’s the toughest advice: do not eat the ceviche. Are you kidding, Peru is famous for its ceviche? Fresh fish bear a variety of parasites that are only killed by proper cooking, and ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices. Uncooked fish need to be frozen for a week or more to an internal temperature of -4°F to be considered safe. I wouldn’t trust a nation that cannot deliver drinkable water to have that level of responsibility in preparing raw fish for ceviche. Furthermore, I personally know someone that came down with a parasitic infestation after a trip to Lima – the cosmopolitan city of Peru, where you’re more likely to have better hygiene, and adherence to best practices for food preparation.
And last but not least, do not brush your teeth with tap water. No I am not paranoid, I just want to improve my odds for having a healthy, if not immersive travel experience.
How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru
The altitude at the Cusco airport is 11,000 feet at landing, and the taxi ride to Ollantaytambo takes you to over 12,000 before a descent down to 9,000. People not acclimated to this type of altitude may pay a price. Altitude sickness has a variety of symptoms ranging from headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and a variety of others.
It’s best to acclimate to high altitude by starting at the lowest altitude planned for the trip and work up to the highest. For this trip it would have been best to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, then to Cusco at 11,000 feet. I simply could not make the airline flights available work for my schedule, but would highly recommend this itinerary because it is altitude acclimatization friendly.
How to Acclimate to High Altitude
Even with the altitude acclimatization friendly itinerary, I would highly recommend staying well hydrated. The high altitudes make for drier air, which is dehydrating and makes worse any altitude related symptoms. I would recommend a slow, acclimating pace upon arrival at the first destination, even taking a nap first thing. I would recommend taking it easy with alcohol as high altitude heightens the effects.
My full altitude sickness symptoms for 3 days in Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet were a low grade headache, a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, and a feeling like I was hungover – a little fuzzy around the edges. All wore off in due time, and by the way ibuprofen did not help with the headache. The local remedy for altitude sickness, among other things, was Coca tea. And I tried it, but alas it had no effect on any of my symptoms. And moreover, I found it to taste like like tea brewed from barnyard straw, so I didn’t try this remedy a second time.
It is possible to get preventative medication from your local doctor before departure. My own research showed that the medication may have more harmful side effects than the altitude sickness itself, so I didn’t go this route. But it may be worth considering for those prone to severe altitude sickness.
How to Stay Healthy in Peru
Vaccines and mosquito preparation are necessary for a trip to Peru. The short list of vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control for a visit to Peru include Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A & B, and Rabies. Vaccination should be an integral part of travel planning for Peru. There are no mosquitoes at higher elevations, like Cusco, for example. But elevations of 8,000 feet – Like Machu Picchu – and below can be mosquito breeding grounds. Long sleeves, long pants, and mosquito repellent with Deet are strongly recommended. The Deet should be applied to clothing to deter the aggressive mosquitos.
Resources – Peru Travel Planning
Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers. I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport.
I rely on several sites for apartment rentals. In the order of preference: HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb. Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. All hotels and apartments for this trip were booked through Booking.com.
Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs. On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.
TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.
With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy. It’s also very necessary for non-Spanish speakers because the locals speak little English.
Epilogue – Peru Travel Planning
Reflections on Peru. Peru is definitely a highlight of South America, and bucket-list worthy. The premier reason for going, and my personal highlight, was the great outdoors. From the Andes cradling Machu Picchu near Ollantaytambo, to the beautiful ruggedness of the Cola Canyon, the great outdoors were both breathtaking and memorable. The next most compelling reason to go, for me personally, was the 16th century Spanish Colonial history and architecture in the cities of Cusco, and especially Arequipa. And the last, but certainly not the least, reason is the Incan history and heritage peppered throughout the country. I should note that Peru would require a much longer visit to see the attractions I bypassed, like Lima, the coastal beaches, Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca.