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.
The main things you need while traveling throughout Peru? Patience and time.
An estimated 98 percent of all international visitors to Peru arrive and depart from Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport, according to government statistics. Given such volume, the airport is crowded and frenetic; you could spend two hours or more standing in line merely to check in for your flight.
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.
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 LAN Airlines, Avianca and Star Peru. Peruvian Airlines and LC Peru are lesser-known and more recently launched; some of their flights are 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 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.
When purchasing airline tickets, be certain to compare prices on the major airlines. 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.
When you fly in Peru, you'll notice that the majority of the faces around you are foreigners. Peruvians tend to use buses, which are plentiful and inexpensive.
Buses runs 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.
Grupo-Ormeno.com.pe/ormeno.php (Spanish only)
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, Dollar 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, or rent a GPS unit from your car agency (they're priced very reasonably -- some as low as $3 a day). 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 or on rural routes at nighttime.
TouringPeru.com.pe (Spanish only)
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 Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu. Inca Rail runs from Ollantaytambo, which is halfway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. PeruRail also runs a train between Cuzco and Puno.
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 once a month from July to November, so it takes careful planning if you're counting on the journey.
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.
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 or International Expeditions. (See Cruising the Amazon River: Hits and Misses 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).
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--written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma