LAY OF THE LAND
Peru is roughly divided into three geographic regions: La costa, the narrow and mostly arid western plain (home to Lima, the Islas Ballestas, and Nazca); la sierra, the country's Andean spine (home to Lake Titicaca, Huascaran, and Salcantay); and la selva, the Amazonian swath to the east (home to Tambopata, Manu, and Iquitos). While the best-known river is the Amazon, you're likely to meet the Urubamba River first, as almost any Peruvian sojourn involves a spin through the Inca heartland and consequently the Urubamba Valley (just below Machu Picchu). Also part of the greater Machu Picchu neighborhood is Cuzco, where you'll inevitably spend a few nights, as will large numbers of your fellow Americans. Consider escaping to the north of Peru, with its formidable pre-Incan ruins and beautiful mountains, valleys, and lakes.
WHEN TO GO
The coast and the Andean highlands have two distinct weather zones. On the coast, the climate is hottest between December and March. The rest of the year is cooler and frequently misty. In the highlands, December to March is the rainy season, while April to December is mostly dry and sunny. In summary, there is no ideal month to see the whole country, but to reduce the risk of seeing Machu Picchu in the rain, go between May and September.
HOW TO GET THERE
Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima is about six miles from downtown (www.lap.com.pe/ingles). The best way to travel between the two is by cab or shuttle. Cab fare to downtown should cost about $15 (arrange the price when you get in the car). Urbanito Shuttle Bus Transfer charges $6 to $10 (www.urbanito.com.pe).
Because of its size and challenging terrain, Peru is a difficult country to get around. The quickest way to do so is by plane, and flying between major towns is simple and reasonably inexpensive. Buses are cheaper and may be the only option for some destinations. Peru has a confusing network of competing bus companies. To find out which one to take, your best option is to approach the local tourist office and ask them to direct you. Renting a car is expensive and involves driving long distances over sometimes problematic roads.
No immunizations are officially required, but the farther off the beaten track you travel, the more precautions you should take. For example, if you are planning a trip to the Amazon, you will need a vaccination against yellow fever, even though this is not necessary for visitors to the coast or highlands. Jungle travelers should also take antimalarial drugs for at least a week before arrival in the jungle, during the stay there, and for at least four weeks afterward. The cautious traveler will also update vaccines for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria, and measles.
Main tourist office
610 Jorge Basadre, San Isidro
Tel: 51 1 421 1627
Jorge Chávez International Airport
Tel: 51 1 574 8000
103 Avenue Sol
Tel: 51 84 25 2974
Edificio del Instituto Nacional de Cultura
Avenue Pachacútec, cuadra 1 s/n, oficina
Tel: 51 84 211 104
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Lima
Population: 27.9 million
Area: 496,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 51
Electricity: 220V, 60 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Peru Nuevos Soles = $0.37 US Calculate Other Amounts
Peru does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a three-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
Inca Kola: A Traveller's Tale of Peru by Matthew Parris is an odd and very funny travelogue about the author's fourth visit to Peru with a group of friends. Also try to find—it's currently out of print—Exploring Cusco by Peter Frost, an engrossing book about the city and its history.
One of the best—and most upsetting—movies about the sad history of the Spanish in Peru is Werner Herzog's masterpiece, Aguirre, Wrath of God. Klaus Kinski plays a conquistador who goes completely mad looking for El Dorado in the Amazon of Peru.
Spicy eats created by a potent mixture known as ají and ajo (hot pepper and garlic) work well in the harsh Andean climate of Peru. While the Peruvians still grow 2000 varieties of potato—the potato is actually from Peru, not Ireland—much of the native diet reflects modern tastes. Seafood and tropical fruit are prepared simply, while hearty chili-laden stews are also popular. The national drink is a potent—some say paint-stripping—local brandy called pisco. By far the most popular use is in a pisco sour, but intrepid bartenders keep inventing new potions from the venerable liquor. For a real Incan adventure, try their ancient fermented corn juice called chichi de jora, if you can find it.
The Incan rulers enjoyed extravagant gold jewelry, fine alpaca wool, and imposing architecture. You may not find the same opulence as Pizarro did when he arrived in 1531, but Peru continues to offer the globetrotter many shopping delights. Look for handmade alpaca sweaters, llama rugs, intricately designed gold jewelry, local weavings, and pottery. The Andes' shrouded peaks and hidden valleys continue to inspire local and international artists, so be sure to check out the many oil paintings or large-scale photographs for sale.
Although a service charge of ten percent is added to most bills, an extra five percent is expected, especially from tourists.
Petty street crime is a particular problem in Peru's urban centers, so visitors should safeguard their wallets. Of greater concern to life and limb are the sometimes violent protests and demonstrations that occasionally clog city streets.
January: 1, New Year's Day
May: 1, Labor Day
June: 29, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Day
July: 2829, Independence Day
August: 30, Saint Rose of Lima Day
October: 8, Battle of Angamos; 20, Lord of Miracles
November: 1, All Saints' Day
December: 8, Immaculate Conception; 25, Christmas Day
Spring: Thursday before Easter, Holy Thursday; Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter (note that this relates to spring in the northern hemisphere, in the southern hemisphere spring is in the fall/autumn season.)