Peru is a hot spot with adventurous travellers. Tom Shearman, from tour operator Andean Trails, answers first-time travellers' most frequently asked questions
When is the best time to travel to Peru?
Most people, if given the choice, will prefer to go in the dry season: May to October. The best months for hiking are April, May, September and October (when the rainy season is not delayed or early!), and a good time for the Amazon too, especially earlier in the dry season.
If you choose the rainy season (Nov-March), you may find cheaper flights and fewer visitors (Christmas notwithstanding). In general, the mornings are clear and warm, but the cloud gather during the day and rain can come in the afternoons.
Are there any tips you can give me on staying healthy while on my trip?
Drink plenty of water (2-3 litres/day). Low air pressure at altitude has diuretic effects, as does the heat and humidity of the Amazon. Also, drink bottled, treated or previously boiled water as public water, although chlorinated and relatively safe, may cause mild stomach upset (NB Treated or boiled water is better as less waste is produced).
Don’t underestimate the strength of the sun’s UV rays at altitude. Over-exposure, especially in the early stages, can contribute to altitude sickness. Wear a broad-brimmed sunhat.
Avoid eating from street vendors unless you can see that food is freshly cooked, untouched and served on clean dishes.
How may the altitude affect me? How can I avoid altitude sickness?
Being at altitude, especially in the tropics, is usually a pleasure as it isn’t so hot, there are few insects and the air is clear. Rest for a few hours on arrival at altitude and take it easy for the first couple of days. Note: you may feel fine on arrival and tempted to exert yourself as normal. Don’t be fooled: you might be benefiting from oxygen brought in your blood from sea level.
Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration (altitude is a diuretic). Coca tea (mate de coca) helps alleviate symptoms. Eat light meals, with high carbohydrate and low fat and protein content. Dine early, allowing digestion time pre-sleep.
Avoid or minimise consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. Avoid sleeping pills.
What types of food will I find in Peru?
The country enjoys an incredible variety of fruit and vegetables, including 2,000 varieties of potato and pretty well any tropical fruit or vegetable you could mention. Peruvians particularly love their aji (chili pepper) and ajo (garlic). There are a wide range of specialities, with each region boasting its own distinct cuisine.
Lima and the coast is well known for its excellent ‘creole cuisine’, which features many excellent, sophisticated (and often shellfish marinated in lemon juice with onions and red peppers – but there are numerous other delicious seafood specialities.
Andean cuisine, although less varied and sophisticated, can be delicious. Typical Andean dishes include: cuy (guinea pig) and chicharron de chancho (deep fried pork). Note: nowadays, vegetarians are well catered for in Peru.
How can I stay safe in Peru?
The Lima suburb of Miraflores is a good base for easing yourself into Peruvian culture. Although a fairly safe district, we strongly recommend taking these precautions:
More care is needed in downtown Lima. Only take a daypack if you’re in a group. We suggest you carry this on your chest.
Carry your camera in a bag, replacing after use. If alone, you’re advised to avoid downtown Lima at night.
Care is needed in the markets and bus offices of central Lima, the San Camilo market in Arequipa and Cusco’s San Pedro market. Never carry a bag or valuables in these areas, as bag-slashers, watch snatchers and pickpockets operate. Beware of distraction techniques.
At night, avoid quiet streets or streets with poor lighting, especially if alone; it’s best to use taxis at night, wherever you are.
NEVER leave your bags unattended, especially in airports, bus terminals and hotel lobbies.
What type of currency should I take to Peru?
Peru’s monetary unit is the "Nuevo Sol". Travellers are advised to carry some funds in US dollars as a back up, bringing mostly cash, in medium to high denomination bank notes. Note that dollar bills must be unmarked and undamaged, otherwise they might not be accepted.
We also recommend you carry an ATM cash card, as ATM (‘hole-in-the-wall’) machines are available in most large towns in Peru, and are widely available in Lima, Lima airport, Cusco, Puno, Huaraz and Arequipa.
US dollar travellers’ cheques can be changed in most large towns, though they sometimes incur a commission.
Many shops and restaurants also accept the major international credit cards, though their use may incur a fee.
Don’t change with street changers (cambistas). Use bank or casa de cambio (bureau de change). Ask for billetes chicos (small notes, ie 10 or 20 sol notes) as obtaining change outside Lima can be difficult. Count your soles carefully before handing over your US dollars, and look out for forged notes.
What kind of attitude to tipping is there?
Tipping is a normal part of life in Latin America. The norm in restaurants is approx 10%. Local staff, eg on trekking, biking, jungle and rafting expeditions, often look to group members for recognition of their services.
The tip will depend on satisfaction with service provided and length of time spent with staff. It should be remembered, however, that over-generosity is counterproductive.
A range of US$5-10 per day for the guide is usual plus further tipping for drivers, assistants cooks etc. Tips are best paid in small denominations of Peruvian Nuevo Sol.
Could I be affected by Yellow Fever or malaria in Peru?
A Yellow Fever vaccination is required if you travel to the Amazon basin – inoculations take 10-14 days to be effective, so plan in advance. The same advice applies for malaria.
Do I need a visa, if I'm travelling from the UK?
UK nationals do not need a visa for Peru, other than the one completed on entry and which is valid for 183 days (six months).
What's the best piece of advice you can give me before my trip?
Take twice as much money and half the amount of clothes you think you need. There are an abundance of markets to buy clothing should you need, as well as launderettes. You only need one upmarket change of clothes if you plan a blowout at a top restaurant. You’ll feel the benefit of a lighter backpack, and also have plenty of free space for souvenirs.
Tom Shearman is from Andean Trails – a specialist UK based tour operator offering a range of small-group tours and tailor made holidays in South America and beyond. He always travels with his secret man purse – find out more about him here.