The third largest country in South America, Peru is a vast and varied destination with something for everyone, even those with the most diverse requirements. You know who you are.
Known throughout the world as the capital of the Inca empire, Peru has actually been inhabited since as far back as 20000BC as evidence at the Pikimachay cave has proven. As a result the number of ethnic groups in the country and the cultural diversity which exists is phenomenal.
While almost half of the twenty three million who currently populate the country are of Indian origins there are also significant percentages of European, African and Asian descendants living in Peru today. The customs, traditions and ways of every day life vary dramatically from region to region making it a fascinating destination. Ethnic art and crafts, architecture, music and dance, food and drink and anything else you can think off ensure that Peru remains one of the most colourful and interesting countries on the continent. Add to this the geographical diversity which include the snow capped Andes and the steamy Amazon rainforests and you know you’ve chosen a pretty special destination.
Geographically, Peru is divided into three main regions, each of which has its own collection of natural and man made attractions. The first is la Costa or the coastal region which is home to the largest portion of the country’s population and consists mainly of desert. The Andes or Sierra is the highest region in Peru and is full of mountains, valleys, glaciers, canyons and rivers so if you’re looking for an adventure holiday then this is the place. Finally the Amazon Basin or Selva is a tropical rainforest region which is home to a mere five per cent of the Peruvian population and offers visitors the ultimate jungle experience.
And if all of the above is not enough to entice you, consider the archaeological value of the country. The richest in South America with regard to the number of historical sites which it has to offer, these remainders of past centuries can be found throughout the country.
The variety which constitutes traditional Peruvian food is what makes it particularly special and has placed it second only to Mexico when it comes to South American cuisine – no mean feat. Thanks to influxes of various ethnic groups throughout the centuries, those of which include African, Asian, Indian and Spanish, food in Peru has played on important role in the country’s culture. As well as this, the country’s range of climates have also made their mark on the diversity of the cuisine. As a result the quality and variety is constantly improving and is also getting it recognised on a global scale.
Broadly speaking, the main focus is on fresh fish, meat and vegetables as well as spices and chillies and some or all of these ingredients can be found in every dish. The most popular fish dishes are ceviche which is a dish made from white fish which has been marinated in a mix of lemon juice, onions and peppers and is served with corn on the cob and sweet potatoes and escabeche which is also made using white fish and served with onions, a variety of peppers, eggs, olives and cheese. For the meat eaters among you try tamales, boiled dumplings which are filled with meat and wrapped in a banana leaf, lomo saltado made using stir fried beef, onions, vinegar, tomatoes, potatoes, chilli and served with rice, and causa which is a casserole served cold and made from yellow potato, peppers, onions, avocados and chicken or meat.
And to complete your meal in true Peruvian style, one of the native deserts is an absolute must. Choose between arroz con leche (rice pudding), alfajores (shortbread biscuit with pineapple and peanuts), zango de pasas (maize with syrup, raisins and sugar), manjar blanco (a caramel dish made from milk and sugar), picarones (donut batter covered in honey sauce) turron (shortbread which has been covered in treacle or honey) or chirimoya (apple with custard). For the more health conscious among you, however, you always have the option of one of the array of wonderful tropical fruits on offer. Among the local favourites are lucuma or eggfruit which grows in the highlands and is used in drinks and deserts but is equally delicious eaten straight up, maracuya or passionfruit, tuna or prickly pear which grows on cactus and is a little like watermelon as well as papaya, guava and mango.
Peru is served by three international airports. Jorge Chavez International in Lima is about ten miles northwest of the city and it will take you about thirty-five minutes to reach the city centre by public transport. Iquitos International is located in the Amazon region in the northeast of the country and Cusco Airport is located about three miles southeast of the city. There are also a number of domestic terminals including Arequipa which is about an hour from Lima and half an hour from Cusco. Peurto Maldonado is about thirty minutes from Cusco and Juliacia about twenty-five minutes.
A number of international and domestic airlines fly directly to Peru including Aces, Aero Boliviano, Aero Continent, Aeroflot, AeroMexico, Aeropostal, Alitalia, American Airlines, Avianca, Continental Airlines, Copa, Cubana, Delta, Iberia, KLM, Lacsa, Lan Chile, Lan Peru, Lloyd, Lufthansa, Saeta, Servivensa, United Airlines and Varig.
As well as arrivals by air, however, there are numerous land crossings between Peru and its South American neighbours. To get to and from Bolivia you will cross the border around Lake Titicaca, for Chile the main crossing is between Arica in northern Chile and Tacna and for Ecuador the crossing is between Tumbes and Huaquillas.
Finally, you may also enter the country by river travelling from Brazil and Colombia. This journey can take up to three days, however, and sails from Tabatinga in Brazil and Leticia in Colombia to Iquitos in Peru.
Due to the vast expanse of the country, many people opt for internal flights if they have a lengthy journey to make. Aerocondor, Aero Continente, Lan Peru and Taca Peru handle the majority of all domestic flights and link Lima to all the major cities including Arequipa, Ayacucho, Cajamarca, Chiclayo, Chimbote, Cusco, Huanuco, Iquitos, Piura, Pucallpa, Puerto Maldonado, Tacna, Tarapoto, Trujillo, Tumbes.
You should note, however, the punctuality is not a predominant feature of domestic travel, particularly in the afternoon. Nevertheless, you should arrive at least an hour before all flights and book all seats well in advance. Tax on domestic fares is 18% and a further US$3.50 departure tax is charged on flights from the majority of Peruvian airports.
The most popular alternative for budget travel in Peru, however, is the country’s cheap and extensive bus service. They travel to everywhere in the country with the exception of the deep jungle and Machu Picchu. Several companies operate the Peruvian bus service including Cruz del Sur, Enlaces, Ittsa, Oltursa, Ormeno and Peru Bus and while most towns don’t have a main terminal, each has a branch office where you can get your ticket in advance – and this is highly advisable, particularly around the time of major festivals or holidays. In general, the price is a good indication of the quality of the service.
A final alternative is the country’s rail service which is operated on two major but unconnected networks. The Southern Railroad makes an overnight journey between Arequipa Juliaca and Puno three times per week and a day time journey between Puno, Juliaca and Cusco, also three times weekly. There is also a daily connection between Cusco and Machu Picchu.
The other rail service is the Ferrocarril Central Railroad which travels from Lima to Huancayo. This only travels once a month, however, and the service ceases completely during the summer months. If you do want to make this unique journey, it departs Lima on the last Saturday of every month and returns on Monday ant it really is worth doing if you can fit it into your itinerary.
Of course no visit to Peru would be complete without a visit to the capital, and as far as sightseeing goes Lima will not disappoint. Founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro it is widely regarded as a city of vast contrast. This is largely due to the fact that the vast and varied history that Peru has had manifests itself in so many places throughout the city. Countless museums and galleries as well as century old plazas and buildings can be found all over and despite the fact that it is not regarded as one of the prettier cities in Peru, the city centre is certainly worth visiting. Superb architecture combined with a warm, friendly atmosphere will make you glad you did.
And now on to another capital. Cuzco served as the capital of the Inca empire but as well as this it is regarded as the archaeological capital of the Americas, due largely to the fact that it is the city which has been continuously inhabited for the longest time. Huge stone walls which were built by the Incas line most of the city’s streets as well as forming the foundation of many of the modern buildings. Too solid to destroy, the Spanish had to build on top of the original structures. As well as this there are numerous museums, churches and ruins scattered throughout the city. Located south of the Valle Sagrado, the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s, Cuzco is also just a short distance away from the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, one of the most impressive sites in the area and also one of the biggest. Although only a fifth of the original structure remains, it is quite easy to envisage just how big it was before its destruction. Finally, the city also serves as the starting point for the world famous Inca Trail which includes the best known and most impressive archaeological site on the continent – Macchu Picchu, an entire city which lay buried for centuries.
In 1987 this city located in Northern Peru was the site of a major archaeological discovery. Just thirty kilometres southeast of the city centre the find, the most important in Peru for over half a century, unveiled the Huaca Rajada or Tomb of the Lord of Sipan. Home to hundreds of objects which were buried with the noble including those made of gold, silver and semi-precious stones as well as ceramic and metal, the tomb is still being excavated. Many of these spectacular artefacts can be seen at the Bruning Museum in Lambayeque just outside Chiclayo . As well as this site, however, the city is also just thirty five kilometres south of Tucume another archaeological treasure where you will see two hundred hectares of Inca ruins including twenty six pyramids and a host of plazas and other buildings.
Another city founded by the legend Pizzaro, Trujillo is a pleasant city to visit with its predominant shades of blue, white and yellow lending a relaxed and fresh appearnance. Many of the colonial buildings are still fully intact but among the main attractions are the ancient Inca ruins in the surrounding area. Dating from over 1500 years ago, the most impressive and most popular are Las Huacas del Soy y de la Luna or the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon and Chan Chan. The former are a series of temples which are the oldest pre-Columbian sculpture in Peru and originally consisted of some one hundred and forty million bricks while the latter is an entire city containing workshops, houses, temples and burial grounds all of which were decorated with mud moulding which has survived to the present day.
Known as the Switzerland of Peru, Huaraz is the mountaineering and hiking capital of the country. Lying over three thousand metres above sea level and with numerous glacial lakes and peaks which remain snow capped all year round, the scenery in the region is breathtaking. Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru is only fourteen kilometers from the main road in Huaraz and while you might not manage all 6768 metres of the climb, any effort you do make will reveal views unlike those you have ever seen before. For the less energetic of you, however, you will be happy to learn that the area is also home to numerous archaeological sites. Among the most popular is Chavin, a pre-Inca stone temple which is almost three thousand years old, and lies about seventy miles from Huaraz but is well served by public transport.
Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun), Cuzco
With origins dating back to Inca times, this festival celebrates the winter solstice and takes place on June 24th each year. It is currently the second biggest event in South America attracting hundreds of thousands of revellers from all over the world. Traditional entertainment takes place from morning until night ensuring that wherever you are in Cuzco you are sure to stumble across some form of merriment. As well as this there are numerous age-old traditions such as the procession to the ancient fortress of Sacsayhuaman which have been preserved since the beginning of Inti Raymi. A unique festival which will give you a deep insight into the Peruvian culture, this one shouldn’t be missed. You should note, however, that if you do intend to stay in Cuzco for the celebrations, you will need to book your accommodation well in advance.
Independence Day, Nationwide
Independence Day was declared by the Liberator Jose de San Martin on July 26th, 1824 but it’s actually celebrated on July 28th when everything in the country comes to a standstill for two days – with the exception of the parties that is. Celebrations take place all over the country Lima really is the place to be for the 28th and 29th. Even the native Peruvians vacate their hometowns and head for the capital to take part in the biggest event of the year. Beginning with the more formal traditions including a speech by the national president and a parade by civil and military groups, this is soon replaced with the mayhem that usually accompanies Independence Day celebrations in South America so be prepared to party long and hard for two full days.
Feria Taurina del Senor de los Milagros
Taking place since 1946, this bullfighting fair is currently one of the biggest and most important of its kind in Latin America. Running for the entire month of November, the Feria Taurina del Senor de los Milagros or ‘Festival of the Gentleman of Miracles’ attracts both participants and spectators from all over the world. And, while it may not appeal to a great many of you, the fact is that the pomp and hype surrounding this, like so many other bull fighting festivals world wide, is pretty hard to avoid if you’re in the area. Vying for two main prizes, one for the most skilled matador and one for the most impressive bull, this is another century old tradition which bears strong links with both the history and the cultural identity of the country so if you think it’s for you be sure to stop by.
Semana Santa, Nationwide
As with a lot of the festivals in Peru, Semana Santa revolves around religious traditions and takes place during Holy Week every year. The biggest celebrations take place in the villages of the Andean Highlands including Ayacucho, Cuzco, Huaraz and Tarma and the best of these are the festivities at Ayacucho. A visit to any of the four during this week, however, is well worthwhile and will give you the opportunity to see century old customs first hand. Street processions where the streets are completely covered in flowers, open air markets, fireworks, music and dance combined with ample servings of local food and drink ensure that these celebrations are going to remain in your memory for quite some time.
While every town and village in the country, regardless of size, celebrates carnival, Cajamarca is undoubtedly the Peruvian capital of this worldwide phenomenon. Preparations begin months in advance. In fact, participants have no sooner finished with one year’s celebrations until they have to start thinking about those of the following year. Nine full days (and nights) of madness and mayhem mean that you certainly shouldn’t go into this with your eyes closed. You will need all your wits about you to fully appreciate the craziness that carnival in Cajamarca has become since the celebrations first began over seventy years ago, and to enjoy the traditional food and drink which is synonymous with the festival. Go easy on the chica, however, it’s a lot stronger than people originally think and it’s certainly an acquired taste.
The currency used in Peru is the Nuevo sol which is divided into 100 céntimos. The notes in use are S/10, 20, 50 and 100 and coins come in denominations S/0.05, 0.10, 0.20, 0.50, 1, 2 and 5.
Peru has two official languages, Spanish and Quechua. As well as this, however, there are a vast number of indigenous languages and as many as two million of the country’s inhabitants don’t actually speak Spanish. English is becoming more widely spoken but is still very much confined to the larger cities and tourist areas.
Although the entire country is situated in the tropics, Peru has a number of different climatic zones. In general, however, the wet season everywhere tends to last from January to March but heavy rains in the mountains and jungle usually last from December until April. The coastal and western Andean region are very dry areas with a moderate climate and average temperatures of about 20 degrees Celsius all year round. Further inland it is hot and sunny for most of the year. In the Andes themselves, the dry season takes place between May and September when average temperatures are 25 degrees Celsius and it’s sunny most of the time. From October until April, however, it’s wet season. Finally, the eastern Andean region the dry season is from May to December where conditions are similar to the highlands and where the wet season is much more defined.
Peru lies five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time and does not observe daylight saving time.
Most shops are open between 9.00am or 10.00am and 8.00pm but in smaller towns and more remote areas most close for up to three hours in the middle of the day. This is not the case in the larger cities however but in both areas very few shops open on Sundays.
Electricity in Peru operates on 220V, 60Hz with the exception of Arequipa which operates on 220V, 50Hz.
Most visitors to Peru will not require a visa but you will need to ensure that your passport is valid for at least six months after your arrival in the country. Furthermore, you will need to obtain a tourist card which is free on your arrival. This card is usually valid for thirty days but if you ask for a ninety-day card there should not be any problems receiving such a card. Otherwise you can extend your thirty-day card at the immigration office in any of the major cities at a cost of US$20. You should note that you should keep your passport and tourist card on your person at all times but if walking around the city you are staying in a photocopy is sufficient.
If you intend working or studying during your stay or if are in doubt that you may be a national of one of the countries which do require visas, you need to contact the consulate in your home country before travelling to Peru.
You are recommended to carry both US bills and traveller’s cheques while you are in Peru. Any other currencies are virtually impossible to exchange once you leave the major cities and the commission is extremely high. In fact, there are only a few exchange bureaus even in these locations which will exchange other currencies.
You can change cash either in any of the banks or in the host of exchange houses or ‘casos de cambio’ which you will find in all the major towns and cities as well as the main tourist locations. Most choose the latter as the commission rate is usually better and the opening hours more extensive. For example, even in the capital banking hours are erratic with all banks opening only between 8.30am and 11.30am from January until March while casas de cambio open from 9.00am until 6.00pm.
Another alternative is the use of moneychangers which you will find in the street and while their rates are similar to those in banks you should exercise caution when availing of their services. Many exchange damaged notes at very poor rates while many more are notorious for short changing and fraud.
All major credit cards are also widely accepted and if you have the PIN you can use these to receive cash in compatible bank machines. The same applies to bankcards which are members of any of the international banking networks.
The country code for Peru is 51 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 51, the city code and the local six-digit number (seven for the capital). The main city codes are 1 for Lima, 54 for Arequipa, 74 for Chiclayo, 84 for Cusco, 94 for Iquitos and 94 for Puno. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local code where applicable.
The Peruvian public telephone service is an extremely modern one which has been upgraded in recent years with state of the art technology. Both national and international calls can be made from public phones which saves the hassle of looking for specific offices or phones. You will find street phones located throughout all major towns and cities. While some coin phones still exist, the majority are now card phones and you can purchase cards from kiosks or stores.
The more upmarket restaurants and hotels will include a 10% service charge as well as 10% tax in the bill but smaller establishments don’t do this. The staff in the latter, however, are not paid very well and really appreciate a tip of any size. Nevertheless tipping is entirely at your discretion. If you wish to do so 10% is considered sufficient and you should tip the waiter directly as opposed to leaving it on the table. Taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped but if you want to give them any small change from your fare this is perfectly acceptable.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Peru they take place on January 1st, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, May 1st, June 24 and 29th, July 28th and 29th, August 30th, October 8th, November 1st and December 8th and 25th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.