Posts tagged “Peru

A beginner’s guide to Peru

Lots of people ask me what my favourite country is out of all those I’ve travelled to.  It isn’t really a hard question to answer as over four visits to this South American nation, it’s really got under my skin.  Peru’s landscapes, fascinating culture and rich history make it a shoe in for the top spot, its crazy and very likeable people the icing on the cake.  If you’ve never been to South America, Peru’s a great country to start with.  Its tourist infrastructure is well developed, particularly around Cusco, and although it has sometimes had a reputation for petty crime, with a bit of care you can easily avoid becoming the next statistic.


Bottle feeding a baby alpaca

Getting there

Getting to Lima, the Peruvian capital from the UK has just got a whole lot easier with the introduction of thrice-weekly direct flights from London Gatwick with British Airways.  However, these are hard to come by for a reasonable price and you’re still likely to have to consider an indirect routing.

Typically, the best European options are via Madrid with Iberia, through Amsterdam with KLM and Paris with Air France.  I’ve used all these routes and the advantage outbound is that you’re on the second leg towards Peru pretty quickly which makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere.  Be wary of using CityJet connections from Paris back to London in case you have the poor experience I suffered:


It’s also possible to hub through the USA which gives you two more evenly balanced flights.  However, if you do choose this option you’ll need to clear immigration in the USA even though you’re only in transit, meaning you’ll need to apply for an ESTA at a cost of $14 just to sit in the airport.  Queues can be long; it’s best to allow at least a three hour layover if you plan to do this to avoid missing the second leg of your flight.  I’ve seen people beg and plead to queue jump to no avail.

Getting to Lima from the airport

With most flights from the UK arriving in the evening Peru time, you’re going to need to spend at least one night in the capital before connecting to your domestic flight or bus the following day.  Lima’s Jorge Chavez airport is located in the port district of Callao, the opposite side of the city to the upscale neighbourhoods of San Isidro, Miraflores and Barranco which are the most pleasant to stay in.  You can find accommodation in Callao but it’s not a very nice area and not especially safe.  Buses pass the airport and head into the city but you’re better off organising a taxi.  Don’t go out onto the street to hail one; instead, before you leave the arrivals hall, look for the Taxi Green company and use them.  Their rates are fixed so you can be sure you won’t be ripped off.  Lock your door though; I’ve had an opportunist thief attempt to steal my phone by opening the back door of the taxi while we waited at a red light.

Getting around

Peru size

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Peru is large.  Getting around is a trade off between cost and time.  If you are only in the country for a couple of weeks then flying between cities is really your best bet.  Internal flights are relatively competitive if you book reasonably early, especially to Cusco.  I’ve recently flown with LC Peru and Star Peru which were both good; TACA also operate internal flights.  LAN (now LATAM), the national carrier, is very reliable but tends to be more expensive.

You can also take overnight buses.  It’s advisable to travel with a reputable company such as Cruz del Sur or Ormeño as they are supposed to drug-test their drivers more often and travel with a pair.  Buses have regular seats but often semi-cama or cama also; these are much larger, reclining seats (cama means bed) and are much better over longer distances.  I suffer from back problems but found I could get comfortable enough to sleep.

Train services are limited in Peru but there are a couple of routes which are of interest to tourists.  Lima to Huancayo is the second highest rail line in the world (after Tibet) but the Tren de Sierra only rarely makes the journey.  Services from Cusco are more frequent and thus of greater importance here.  Trains run to Machu Picchu beginning from Poroy just outside Cusco (and also from Ollantaytambo further along in the Sacred Valley) as well as to Puno over the altiplano.  Find out more at http://www.perurail.com.

In town, it’s cheap to take a taxi, though make sure you agree a price in advance and if there’s more than one of you, make sure that price is per car and not per person. Colectivos, minibuses that run on fixed routes, are easy to hail and cheap to ride. Alternatively, little three wheelers (Peruvian tuk tuks) are the way to go in places like Cajamarca.


Chinchero market

Where to go


The nation’s capital had something of a reputation with many visitors spending as little time there as possible.  These days, however, it’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity as the Peruvian foodie scene has kicked up a gear.  I did an excellent food tour with the Lima Gourmet Company which made me re-evaluate my feelings about the city.  For more on Peruvian cuisine read my blog for Wanderlust here: http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/planatrip/inspire-me/lists/top-10-peru-food-experiences?page=all


The best desserts in the whole country

Nazca, Ica and Pisco

A few hours’ drive south of Lima are the Nazca Lines, those lines in the desert which defy explanation.  It’s possible to take a flight in a light aircraft but try to time your visit for early in the day as it gets bumpy later on – and take it from me, drinking a bottle of Inca Kola beforehand doesn’t help.  I saw the monkey and the inside of a sick bag.  Nearby, head for Ica to visit the pretty oasis of Huacachina and to Pisco, the jumping off point for a boat trip to the Ballestas Islands.

Peru Nasca cemetery in the desert

Mummies in the desert


The undisputed jewel in Peru’s tourist crown, if you only have time for one place in Peru then make it the Incan capital.  There’s plenty to see in the city itself, including the incredible Qoricancha, temple of the Sun God, as well as the Spanish cathedral built on Inca foundations.  San Blas neighbourhood is a good place to browse the craft shops and relax in its pavement cafes, but for the wow factor, continue up the hill to the incredible fortress of Sacsayhuaman.


Inti Raymi celebrations take place in Cusco each June

Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel high in the hills, is Peru’s number one tourist destination.  Walking the Inca Trail is the ultimate bucket list activity. If that’s too much like hard work, take the train and overnight in Aguas Calientes. These days you’re unlikely to get the place to yourself but to have a chance of seeing this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site before the crowds peak with day-trippers from Cusco is worth a try.


Machu Picchu

The Sacred Valley is packed full of amazing places to visit, among them Ollantaytambo with its imposing ruins, the amphitheatre at Moray, salt pans near Maras, and two great markets at Chinchero and Pisac.  For a suggested itinerary, try my Unanchor Kindle guide: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cusco-Unanchor-Travel-Guide-first-time-ebook/dp/B00RKE5E96.


Salt production near Maras


The White City, built in colonial times from sillar, the local volcanic stone, is the most elegant of Peru’s many wonderful cities.  Its Plaza de Armas is dominated by a beautiful cathedral and wandering the old town is a delight.  It’s worth heading slightly out of the centre to the mirador at Yanahuara; this lookout offers a good vantage point from which to see Misti.  Arequipa’s also the jumping off point for visiting the impressive Colca canyon.  Download my Unanchor guide from Amazon to find out more: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Arequipa-Unanchor-Travel-Guide-First-Time-ebook/dp/B00Q2C02NU


The mirador at Yanahuara


The high altitude at which Puno sits makes walking up its hills hard work, but if you make the effort, the views of Lake Titicaca are worth the lack of breath.  One of the most interesting day trips is out to the chullpas at Sillustani, ancient Aymara funerary towers.  Another is to the islands on the lake: Taquile and Amantani give visitors an interesting insight into what life is like on the lake while the more touristy Islas Flotantes (the Uros floating islands) are well worth a bounce.


Visiting the Uros Islands


Chachapoyas is well off the beaten track, but that doesn’t mean you should give it a miss. Nearby, the ruins of Kuelap are touted as the “new” Machu Picchu, even though they’re considerably older.  Also in the area are the peculiar sarcophagi at Karajia, where mummies were placed high in the cliffs, and the lofty Gocta Falls, hidden from the outside world until 2005. Find out more in my earlier post: https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/northern-peru-the-chacha-circuit/




Another northern gem, this is the place where Atahualpa was tricked into paying a huge ransom in gold by the invading Spanish.  He was captured and murdered, but you can pay a visit to the  Baños del Inca for a soak near his tub.  A short ride from the city centre are the Ventanillas de Otuzco, a pre-Inca necropolis.  Don’t leave without sampling the region’s yummy cheese.


Cajamarca is worth visiting for the hats alone


Hammocks and palm trees dripping with coconuts – are you sure this is Peru?  Mancora is a surfer’s resort up near the Ecuadorian border.  If you’ve timed your visit to catch the dry season in the south, those cold nights may well have you dreaming of lazing around on a sunny beach as the Pacific waves lap the shore.


Looking out over the Pacific from a Mancora hammock

And even that’s not all.  Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and capital of the Chimu kingdom, is another of Peru’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the biggest adobe city in the world. One day I’ll fly up to Trujillo and pay a visit.  I’ve also not been to Iquitos, the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, but if rainforest’s your thing, then you should plan to go.  As for me, I’m not a fan of the humidity or the midges, so I’ll be making a beeline for Huaraz, the base for some of Peru’s best mountain peaks and glacial lakes.  But even as I daydream about going back, I’m guessing that even a fifth trip won’t be enough for me to have had my fill of this wonderful country.

How to save money on your South American trip

Many people might rule out a holiday in South America on the grounds that it is too expensive, but there are ways to save money and make that dream trip an affordable reality. Here’s what you need to know:

Book independently

Tour operator prices to Latin America are often prohibitively expensive. Although some operators offer good value, such as Llama Travel and Journey Latin America’s value range, typical tour prices are high. Unpackage your trip and book it yourself. Get decent insurance and make sure that your Transatlantic flights aren’t going to be affected by a cancelled or delayed short haul connection by purchasing all legs as a through ticket. Don’t be tempted to book airport transfers or tours in advance for the popular destinations as you’ll pay a premium and it’s simple to arrange these on arrival.

Llama feeding in the village of Toconao

Llama feeding in the village of Toconao

Book your trip for shoulder season

Peak period flights to South America are expensive, there’s no getting round it. But if you can be flexible with your dates, then it is possible to slash the cost of your Transatlantic fare. For example, travelling in the shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) can reduce prices significantly. Don’t rule out the southern hemisphere winter. Air France flights from London to Lima last June were on sale for a little over £500 (compared to over £1000 in August) and if your planned destination is up in the Andes such as Cusco in Peru or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile then it will be dry and sunny during the daytime – just pack a thick fleece and jacket for the evenings.

Don’t assume the European route will be the cheapest

There are few direct flights to Latin America, meaning demand often outstrips supply which pushes the prices up. Use a flight comparison website to see which routes are cheapest for the dates you wish to travel; many people consider the US and European hubs such as Amsterdam, Paris and Madrid, but there are often deals to be had to west coast destinations via Brazil or Argentina with LATAM. At the time of writing, LAN were offering return fares to Rio for £419. If you’re on a really tight budget but have bags of time, you could consider reaching your final destination overland from Rio or Buenos Aires.

Hubbing through Buenos Aires could save you a packet

Hubbing through Buenos Aires could save you a packet

Do your homework on internal flights

Sometimes, overnight buses provide a cheap and surprisingly comfortable alternative to flying. Many large bus companies in Latin America offer cama or semi-cama seating – large spacious seats which recline far enough for you to have a good night’s sleep. Stick to a reputable operator which will use two drivers and ensure they are drug-tested and safe to go behind the wheel. Try Cruz del Sur, for example, between Arequipa and Cusco. If you do need to fly, check the terms and conditions before purchasing. LAN offers sizeable discounts on its internal flights in Chile if you book from a Chilean website (use free software such as Tor) or via a Chilean travel agent – and you don’t have to be Chilean national to take advantage of them. This isn’t the case for all countries; in Argentina, discounted prices are for nationals only.

Valle de la Luna, Chile

Valle de la Luna, Chile

Don’t rule out hostels and guest houses

Private rooms in hostels increasingly come with private bathrooms and can be a fraction of the cost of a similar quality hotel room. They’re also a good way to meet other like-minded travellers who might be willing to split the cost of tours with you. Use a reliable website such as Booking.com or Hostelbookers.com to fix up your accommodation in advance – use the free cancellation option, monitoring prices so you can cancel and rebook if prices fall before you leave. Check locations carefully so that you are within walking distance of transport operators or the attractions you want to visit.

Package up tours

If you do decide to book tours, some operators will bundle up different day and half-day excursions offering a discount for cash. If you’re booking for the next few days ahead, they’ll be keen to fill their minibus and will want to make sure you don’t take your business elsewhere. This works well where it’s normal to take tours rather than use public transport to visit sites of interest, such as the Sacred Valley near Cusco and Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Chilean Atacama.

Inti Raymi celebrations take place in Cusco each June

Inti Raymi celebrations take place in Cusco each June

Consider self-drive

In Chilean Patagonia, accommodation providers in the Torres del Paine National Park offered expensive all-inclusive packages. Self-drive from Punta Arenas (four hours) or Puerto Natales (one hour) and drive yourself round the park. Stock up at the supermarket in Puerto Natales for provisions to save buying expensive box lunches from the hotel (and make sure you have a full tank of petrol). The maps and information provided by the visitor centre are excellent and you won’t have wasted money on a guide.

The Torres del Paine National Park

The Torres del Paine National Park

Kindle guide to Cusco now available to download at Unanchor.com & on Amazon

I’m pleased to announce that my latest Kindle guide is now available to download. It’s a five day itinerary covering the best of Cusco and the Sacred Valley and you can purchase it now on Unanchor’s website here:


It is also available on Amazon here:


There’s a free sample on Amazon, so why not download it and perhaps write a review?

Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, is Peru’s top visitor destination. Around two million foreign visitors travel to this part of South America annually, with numbers steadily growing year on year. Aside from nearby Machu Picchu, the jewel in Peru’s tourist crown by some considerable margin, there are enough historic and cultural attractions in the Cusco area to keep visitors occupied for weeks.

Alpacas are a common sight in the countryside around Cusco

Alpacas are a common sight in the countryside around Cusco

Cusco, with its colonial architecture set around characterful squares, warrants a whole trip in itself. The historic city is centred on the bustling Plaza de Armas. The imposing cathedral and its tiny neighbour, the Iglesia del Triunfo, face off against the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, built by the Jesuits to rival their Catholic counterpart. The most important temple of the Inca Empire, Koricancha, occupies a prime location on Avenida El Sol, just a short walk from the plaza. Neighbourhoods such as San Blas, with steep cobbled streets packed with cafes, bars and galleries, have much to delight tourists. Higher still, exploring the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman, with its enormous blocks of stone and impressive Inca engineering, is a must on every visitor’s itinerary.

Inti Raymi celebrations take place each June

Inti Raymi celebrations take place each June

But that’s not all. Cusco is a short drive away from the Sacred Valley, crammed full of Inca archaeological sites amidst stunning highland scenery. The agricultural terraces and storehouses of Ollantaytambo offer a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of the Incas. The valley is settled and farmed to this day and the bustling markets at Pisac and Chinchero draw thousands seeking the perfect souvenir to take home.

Chinchero market

Chinchero market

Therein lies the problem: there’s so much to see that careful planning is essential. Knowing what to leave out and what not to miss is crucial to making the best of your time here. Lesser known attractions such as the circular terraces of the Inca’s agricultural laboratory at Moray or the incredible salt pans, the Salineras de Maras, are often overlooked as the tour buses hurtle past on their way to the big attractions.

Salt production near Maras

Salt production near Maras

That’s where this guide comes in. I’ve visited Cusco and the Sacred Valley on numerous occasions spanning a period of twenty years, most recently in 2014. This tailor-made itinerary explains how to dodge the crowds and see the best of the area without relying on expensive tours. It offers recommendations for accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets as well as detailing the best places to eat. Day by day plans with clear maps and photographs make navigating on foot and by public transport simple, giving you the confidence to step out on your own.