Originally I wanted to name this post Things I Wish Had Been On The 'What You Need to Know Before Going to Peru' Lists. Accurate but convoluted.
1/ MUST hang on to your immigration card
Sounds like a no brainer, right? But when flight attendants hand you this bit of paper, no one explains what it is or how essential it is. At least not in English. You need your immigration card to book accommodations, tours and to eventually leave Peru. Your troubleshooting options are to either pay 18% more for those things or pay for a new document that you need to get either at the airport or an immigration office. my advice? Keep all papers that could potentially be an official document that you’ll need later. If you know which document is your immigration card, staple it to your passport.
2/ MUST accommodate for Peruvian time
Peruvian time is 2 hours behind regular time. For example, this Peruvian man told me that to get his mother to show up to his wedding on time, he told her it started 2 hours earlier than it actually did. So if you’re catching domestic flights, trains, buses, llamas, etc…expect long delay times. Don’t book connecting flights without at least a 2 hour buffer.
3/ MUST not skip Lima
Most people will fly into Lima and leave to other locations immediately which is a huge mistake, especially if you’re a curious foodie. There is so much to explore and eat! Wander the historical district and visit cathedrals and Franciscan monasteries then take a quick break for traditional pisco sours and jamón y queso (ham and cheese sandwiches). Check out Mario Testino’s gallery, filled with iconic photos of Princess Diana, Madonna, Kate Moss and more then try Peruvian specialities like grilled alpaca or roasted guinea pig (tastes like both chicken and pork). Get lost in China town or drink the night away at Ayahuasca, a bar that had beautifully decorated themed rooms in a converted mansion (nothing to do with the hallucinogen, I swear!).
^First meal in Lima at Embarcadero 41 Fusion
4/ MUST expect to encounter extremely kind locals
Something that makes Peru magical, is the deep-seated beliefs held by Peruvians that dates back to ancient Incan times. There were 2 concepts that particularly struck a chord with me:
i) “Ayni” is the trust in a universe that is governed by sacred reciprocity. As the earth provides for them, they will do so for one another. Pretty much Karma.
ii) The importance of finding one’s gift. When Machu Picchu was active, children were encouraged to spend a lot of time alone to meditate. It was more important to discover what the greatest gift you, specifically, had to offer to the rest of the world as opposed to our culture that focuses on what is practical or more monetarily lucrative.
5/ MUST be prepared for altitude sickness
Imagine the worst hangover of your life, whimpering in your bed, praying that you’ll pass out so you don’t have to be in pain anymore. Altitude sickness is worse than that. You’re dizzy, disoriented, nauseous, your head is splitting open and you have a complete lack of appetite. Even walking at a slight incline makes you swear in words in that don’t exist, as if you’re climbing the steepest mountain in flip flops. There are studies that suggest whether you will suffer from altitude sickness is genetic which is probably why I was still affected despite taking medication. Minimize the effects by eating tons of carbs (guilt-free pasta for all!), chew on cocoa leaves and drink the tea, stay hydrated, don’t drink alcohol, and definitely get to Cusco at least 2 days before you do any activity to acclimatize. If you’re going to be affected, it’ll probably be in the first 48 hrs.
6/ MUST visit Machu Picchu
I should think this goes without saying since Machu Picchu is the first thing people think of when it comes to Peru. In efforts to preserve one of the 7 wonders of the world, there are talks of creating a platform to view the ruins (instead of being able to walk throughout) and there is already a restriction of how many people can trek the magical site a day. If you want to do the hike to Machu Picchu, you need a pass months in advance (4 days to hike plus 2 days prior to acclimitize to the altitude). No pass? You can still take a bus to Machu Picchu and wander to your heart’s content. Don’t forget sunscreen! It may feel balmy but the sun is strong because of how close it is to the equator.
7/ MUST buy at least one item made from alpaca
Peru’s economy is supported by agriculture and sweaters made from alpaca wool. Or at least that is what it seems like since every traveller in Peru had a llama patterned item. It was like being part of a secret society! You could immediately tell if another traveller had been to Cusco already if they were wearing a sweater. Biggest regret was only buying one.
8/ MUST climb sand dunes surrounding the oasis in Huacachina
Huacachina is unreal. Sand as far as the eye with a little oasis in the middle, peppered with palm trees. The sand dunes are so steep that if you’re climbing, you have to claw your way up on your hands and feet. If you’re endurance is not what it should be (like me) you’ll probably have to rest every 5 minutes but the view is well worth the effort. Sand, sand everywhere also means you don’t have much depth perception; you can’t tell how steep a sand dune is until you’re hurtling down it at teeth-rattling, adrenaline-racing speed, face first on a board. Try going later in the afternoon when the sun isn’t as brutal, plus you’ll get to experience the desert in both the day and night time.
9/ MUST sample the local Pisco
Pisco is a brandy that is produced in winemaking parts of Peru and Chile. We went to a Pisco winery in Ica, that is the city nearest to Huacachina, and we got to sample vintages of pisco that started ranged in strength and taste from aperitif to 40% alcohol. Some vintages were called things like “Baby maker” or literally “Remover of Panties” or “Panty Dropper” so clearly Peruvians have a sense of humour or they wanted to be really literal. You can NOT leave Peru without trying a pisco sour in the country that invented it!
10/ MUST experience Peru for yourself
As amazing as Peru looks in photos, it’s even more unbelievable in person, in 360 degrees. It’s also a HUGE country. We saw 4 diverse lanscapes in an intense 12 days schedule of 5am wake-ups starting times, several domestic flights, buses and trains. Went from city (Lima) to rainforest (Puerto Maldonado) to mountain (Cusco) to desert (Huacachina). It was exhausting but you’ll be left with moments that will stay with you forever. Go! Book a flight! The sooner, the better. Pictures or it didn’t happen ;)
Stay tuned for more Peru-centric posts where I'll go more into detail about the places I visited. I'll include useful information like where I stayed, ate, how to get around, etc...