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Peru is a vast, mountainous country steeped in the mystery of the Incas and other even more ancient races. Much of the once great Incan civilisation still lives on in the customs of bustling market towns nestled between the Andes. With its breathtaking vistas and strange mountain ways, Peru continues to capture the imagination of travellers far and wide. The Selva, a lush area of subtropical uplands, lies between the rocky mountainous peaks of the Andes and the jungles of eastern Peru, and there are even stranger mysteries to behold in the arid lowland deserts.
In addition to its array of stunning Incan architecture Peru offers more traditional tourist activities such as surfing, kayaking, horse-riding and deep sea fishing. There are plenty of bars, clubs and casinos in the more touristy areas as well as the chance to experience the traditional Peruvian lifestyle in out of the way areas.
- Currency: Nuevo Sol = 100 centimos, exchanging currency other than US $ locally can be difficult.
- Time Zone: GMT -5
- Language: Spanish and Quechua (an indigenous language).
- Telephone Services: Country code + 51, Internatinoal access code 00
- Emergency Numbers: 011 or 5114 for all services
As can be expected from a South American country, the weather is generally hot. Climate can range from sub tropical in the jungle areas to the east to temperate in the Andes. Night time in the mountains is very chilly however so you may want to save some money to buy a Llama wool jacket and hat. The coastal region experiences its summer between October and April which is the rainy season in the mountainous areas. May to September is regarded widely as the best time to visit mountainous areas such as the Andes.
Things to see and do
Hidden high on mountain top between two jagged peaks, the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham who had heard rumours of a lost city in the jungle near Cuzco. Today it features as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and attracted more than 400,000 visitors in 2003 alone. Sunrise at Machu Picchu is the culmination of an ancient pilgrimage through several sacred Incan sites that takes place as a spectacular 3-5 day trek called the ‘Inca trail’. The city itself is formed of two large Incan areas incredibly well conserved in the middle of a stunning cloud-forest. Visitors are able to see a range of Incan buildings from royal mausoleums to farmers’ lodgings. This expedition is well worth the investment and is a truly once in a lifetime experience. Hardy local porters carry camping equipment and food by mule and move ahead of the main party to set up camp prior to your arrival at any one of the many refreshment stops – where they will generally be waiting with a cup of hot coffee ready!
The Andean town of Cuzco is where you access the trail. If you don’t fancy hiking you can travel to Machu Picchu aboard the Hiram Bingham Train for a one day excursion in English Colonial style replete with champagne breakfast and all the trimmings.
Cuzco itself is worth spending a few days or even weeks in, so you can explore the nearby Sacred Valley and the various Incan wonders, market days and Andean customs thereabouts. You can stay in converted monasteries, farmhouses or colonial houses at very reasonable rates. On arrival at Cuzco you must take at least (the very least!) two full days of gentle (or no) activity to acclimatise to the altitude.
From Cuzco you can take a plane or bus to the Amazon port town of Puerto Maldonado to then transfer by river to a range of Amazon Lodges.
A spectacular train ride (or bus for those who prefer) descends through the Andes to bring you to the shores of Lake Titicaca and the town of Puno. You can stay for a few days exploring the unique lifestyle of the Indians who live aboard floating islands made of reeds or cross the lake to neighbouring Bolivia and visit the world’s highest capital city – La Paz.
The Colca Canyon
Peru offers some spectacular scenery; many would be surprised to learn that the Arequipa-Colca Canyon is nearly twice the depth of the USA’s famed Grand Canyon and also features enormous volcanoes rising in the background to boot! The valley towns Yanque and Chivay maintain a way of life which they have followed for over 400 years, undisturbed by the rise of the western world. Furthermore this region boasts many pre-Incan tombs and is also the home of the fabulous Andean Condor. You can start a 5 day overland trip through the Colca Canyon in Lima.
International flights arrive in Lima and this capital city has lots to offer backpackers. Visit the range of specialist museums or dine out in one of the many fantastic restaurants serving roasted guinea-pig (coi) and the famous raw fish ceviche in the city’s Miraflores district.
The Nasca Lines
Nearby to Lima, in a vast and arid desert, stands a series of man-made markings so gigantic that they are only decipherable from the air. Seeing as these geoglyphs, depicting hundreds of stylized animals were created between 700BC and 200 AD, there is much speculation as to their meaning and function. It was not until the age of air travel that modern man even knew of their existence. A bus ride to the town of Nasca and a short flight above the lines will reveal their mystery to you but their meaning remains lost in time.
Point-to-point buses in Peru are run by a variety of private companies, all of them offering very low fairs making coach a good way to get around. Peru operates several train services and the Cuzco to Puno journey high in the Andes offers the ride of a lifetime. Be sure to spend the extra on first class as this offers a level of comfort that is merely standard to Europeans, whereas third is extremelyuncomfortable. Several airlines offer inter-connecting flights between the major cities with international connections through Lima. When ordering a taxi get your hostel or hotel to help.
The Southern Railway runs from the coast inland to Lake Titicaca and onwards to Urubamba Valley, past Machu Picchu and its Incan ruins, and right up the fringes of the Amazon forest. These trains are slow and bumpy but are quite a good way to take in a lot of sites fairly cheaply. Several classes are available from Ecomonico where petty thefts and crowded carriages are the norm, up to Turismo class which includes waitress service, a bar and significantly more comfortable seats.
Cheap accommodation is generally plentiful. Within Lima, the capital, the Barranco suburb has a plethora of cheap hostels, restaurants and live music venues. This makes this quarter of the city incredibly popular with backpackers.
Throughout the rest of Peru accommodation is plentiful and cheap, particularly in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca where hotels are often situated in spectacular locations.
Polio and typhoid are known to be present in Peru, so it is worth getting a vaccination for each of these diseases from your local GP before you leave. Prices can vary but are not generally more than �50. Malaria is present in rural areas, so cover up to avoid mosquito bites especially at altitudes of less than 1500m.
Healthcare is expensive and often not present in some areas, so it is essential that you hold a policy which is fully comprehensive and especially one that covers repatriation and loss of travel documents.
Be aware of altitude sickness and always take a few days to acclimatise before attempting anything even slightly strenuous. Your level of physical fitness prior to arriving at altitude makes little difference and if you don’t take the required provisions, your holiday will be ruined. If you have a heart condition or a family history of heart conditions seek advice from your GP before travelling.
Street crime and petty theft are common in major cities so be vigilant at all times and avoid unsafe or dimly lit areas. Ask your hotel to order a taxi for you from a reputable company when travelling around at night. If you do opt for third class or find yourself on a busy bus or train service, be careful with your personal belongings as theft from sleeping travellers is common.
Kasbah allows you to book a range of hotels and hostels in Peru, online.
The Peruvian Embassy contains visa information along with information on how to apply for extended visas and who is eligible.
Wikipedia offers a wealth of information on Machu Picchu, plus other Peruvian ruins, culture and history.
The Peruvian tourist information office includes and English site.
GreenTracks offers tours of South American Rainforest and Archaeology including eco travel to the Amazon and Latin America, Amazon wildlife expeditions by river and land, Amazon jungle lodges, Cuzco and Machu Picchu tours, and Chachapoyas archaeological sites.