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Getting Around Peru: Transportation Tips

Peru's topography makes this western South American nation picture-perfect -- but the terrain is also to blame for some serious challenges getting around. Mountains soar as high as 22,000 feet. Rain forests are so thick that parts have never been explored. Coastal land is rocky in some parts, desert-like in others, and split by rivers spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

amazon river boat peru

The main things you need for getting around Peru? Patience and time. Read on for our complete guide to Peru transportation.

Flying to and Around Peru

Most international visitors to Peru arrive and depart from Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport. The airport is crowded and frenetic, so you'll want to arrive early and allow plenty of time for connections.

Anyone traveling from the United States or Europe will connect through Lima, even if the final destination is another city. The Lima airport is at least a 45-minute taxi ride from the city center. Airlines that fly nonstop from the U.S. to Lima include LATAM, American, United and Avianca, among others.

Peru has four other international airports (in Arequipa, Cuzco, Iquitos and Piura), with flights arriving from other South American countries. There are 18 additional airports with regularly scheduled domestic service.

The three most established and reputable domestic airlines in Peru are LATAM, Avianca and Star Peru. Others include Peruvian Airlines and LC Peru, which operate some of their flights on small passenger planes (18-seaters, for example). Other domestic airlines pop up from time to time in Peru, but they're often short-lived operations.

Flying between destinations in Peru isn't the cheapest transportation option -- buses are -- but airplane travel certainly will save you heaps of time. The flight from Lima to Cuzco, for instance, takes a little over an hour, whereas a bus will take more than 20 hours. All of Peru's major cities are within a two-hour flight of Lima.

Photos: 10 Best Peru Experiences

When purchasing airline tickets, be certain to compare prices on the major airlines. Note that airlines offer discounted tickets to Peruvian nationals and upcharge non-residents; during the busy summer season, you could see a $400 difference in fares. It's essential you don't accidentally purchase a ticket earmarked for Peruvian nationals, or else you'll need to pay the difference at the airport.

Book well in advance if you're traveling during the high season (June through early October), as flights to the most popular cities can sell out months ahead of time. And show up to the airport several hours before your flight; it's not uncommon for an airline to give your seat away if you're not there an hour or more before departure.

If you arrange for a charter flight -- which generally serve the rain forested regions and the coast -- there are 48 additional airports at your disposal. Note, however, that these unscheduled flights can be unreliable, and some companies have sketchy safety records that are difficult to research in advance. We don't recommend charters for this reason.

Peru Air Travel Resources:
Avianca.com
LATAM.com
LCPeru.pe
Peruvian.pe/pe/en
StarPeru.com/en

Peru by Bus

Many Peruvians rely on the local buses, which are plentiful and inexpensive. Buses run the gamut from rickety older-model vehicles to sleek long-distance runners offering reclining seats, food for purchase and entertainment. Two of the more luxurious lines are Ormeno and Cruz del Sur.

Unfortunately, most cities in Peru don't have consolidated bus terminals; the private companies operating buses have different embarkation points. Make sure to check the address for your pick-up spot (and be aware that it might be different from the bus company's office).

You can save considerable money if you buy tickets in advance. Some companies are known to jack fares up -- sometimes doubling them -- closer to departure.

If you travel through the mountains, plan on a slow-going ride. Roads aren't necessarily paved (sometimes leading to flat tires), and there's risk of landslides and other geological hiccups during the rainy season. Also, theft occurs frequently on buses in Peru, so keep an eye on your possessions.

Peru Bus Travel Resources:
CruzdelSur.com.pe
Grupo-Ormeno.com.pe/destinos.html (Spanish only)

9 Ways to Keep Your Car Safe on the Road

Renting a Car in Peru

Based on the omnipresent traffic snarls in Lima, it's hard to imagine wanting to drive in Peru. While the rest of the country may be less crammed, road conditions aren't ideal, routes are poorly marked and drivers are known for being aggressive.

That being said, some of the popular tourist routes are manageable for the independent traveler. The road between Lima and Cuzco is well maintained. If you drive between Lima and Nazca, you'll be able to stop and peer at some of the famous Nazca Lines from the side of the road. Elsewhere, you could see mountain vistas, Incan ruins and herds of vicunas on grassy hills.

The usual international car rental agencies -- including Avis, Budget and Hertz -- have desks at the Lima airport. Rates are higher than in the United States and Europe, especially if you rent a four-wheel drive vehicle, which is suggested. Smaller discount agencies abound too, but it's hard to guarantee the reliability of their vehicles and billing processes.

Some tips if you plan to drive in Peru:

- Arm yourself with the best map you can purchase, get an international plan so you can use your cell phone to navigate or rent a GPS unit from your car agency. Road signage tends to be lacking.

- Expect to be stopped by the police. Ensure that your documents are up to date, your vehicle rental agreement is on hand and you have some cash in case the authorities request a "gratuity" (a common occurrence in South America).

- Avoid mountain driving during the rainy season (December through February), when flooding, falling rocks and mudslides are common.

- Be hyper-aware of other vehicles and people. Pedestrians don't always stop for cars, and other vehicles don't always use their signals when changing lanes or turning.

- The U.S. State Department cautions against driving alone on rural routes, even during daytime, and against any driving at night.

Peru Car Travel Resources:
TouringPeru.com.pe (Spanish only)
Travel.State.gov

machu picchu train peru

Peru by Train

Peru would be an incredible place to take a long, scenic train ride. Too bad there are so few routes.

Two companies, PeruRail and Inca Rail, run tourist-oriented trains to Machu Picchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes), the gateway to Machu Picchu, from Ollantaytambo, which is halfway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. PeruRail also runs a train between Cuzco and Puno, and in 2017 introduced a luxurious sleeper train called the Andean Explorer, which runs between Cuzco and Arequipa.

From Lima, there's just one train you can take -- the Ferrocaril Central Andino. The world's highest passenger train, the line heads north across the Andes to the cities of Cerro de Pasco and Huancayo. Weather permitting, the train operates just few times a month, so it takes careful planning if you're counting on the journey.

Peru Train Travel Resources:
www.Ferrocarrilcentral.com.pe
IncaRail.com
PeruRail.com

Peru by Taxi

Any car in Peru can become a taxi merely by affixing a sign in the window. As a result, many Peruvians run taxi services to supplement their incomes, and taxis are plentiful in all cities. In some places, such as Iquitos, taxis take the form of motorcycles with rickshaw-like carts (called motocarro). Official taxi companies exist too, as do special airport-only cabs and risky shared taxis (called colectivos).

Short trips are $5 or less -- settle on the fare with the driver in advance. Tips aren't expected.

9 Places You Haven't Visited -- But Should

Peru by Boat

Cruise along the Amazon River and its tributaries and you'll see every type of boat imaginable, from massive cargo barges to hand-paddled dugout canoes. In many places in the jungle, a boat is the only viable transport option.

Travelers to the rain forest tend to voyage on official boat cruises (from half-day trips to multiple-day, guide-led journeys) organized by such tour operators as Dawn on the Amazon, International Expeditions or Aqua Expeditions. (See What It's Like to Take an Amazon Cruise in Peru for one traveler's account.) If traveling independently, your best option is to venture to a port city such as Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado and hire a driver with a motorized canoe (known locally as a peque-peque).

Peru Boat Resources:
AquaExpeditions.com
DawnontheAmazon.com
IETravel.com

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--written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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