Our first day in Lima may have been off-putting; we got out on the wrong side of the plane that morning. Peru may be the cultural and culinary gem of South America, but that’s hard to tell when you’re standing between a Chili’s and a TGI Friday’s in Miraflores. Perú’s second largest industry is tourism, and they plan hardball, united, as a nation.
At the airport, the information stand pushes naïve foreigners into the hands of the voracious taxi drivers, who know the best hostels, conveniently surrounded by pizza parlors whose menu’s feature prices in dollars – for your benefit! Right… The cabbies quote anything from $50 US to 50 soles ($16 US) depending on which country you admit to being from, and the info desk swears it’s the only way to get into town. But walk just out of the airport and lo and behold – here are the 80 cent buses and the sane taxi drivers. We caught a ride into town for 20 soles ($6.40 US), which took almost an hour. During our stay in Perú, we came through the airport in Lima more than once, and the satisfaction of a hearty laugh at the outrageous cabbies at the airport was sweet, almost as sweet as the Peruvian desserts.
Lima itself is a wonderful city, but it’s shell is very hard to crack. We learned almost instantly that the place all the tourists are being herded: (and to be fair, the place with the most hostels) Miraflores is an effort of Perú to rake in those tourist bucks. It’s not all bad – lots of hostels surround the social Park Kennedy and plenty of activities like tours and day trips are arranged right here. We took one bus tour of the colonial center (buy this down in Lima proper, it’s only 8 soles, vs. the 50 soles trip they’ll try to sell you in Miraflores). Shopping and eating is in the western, mega-consumption flavors: a bit bland and sloppy, but easy to find and digest. We were turned on to the Flying Dog Hostel by our friend Elena. The organization runs 3 hostels around the park, in addition to a standalone bar called Tasca. The B&B location is the nicest, with prices around $12 US per person, and a great bar which looks over the street.
Unlike Mexico, Perú isn’t the best place to rent a car. Most destinations on the beaten tourist path are hundreds of kilometers apart. Hundreds of barren, uninhabited kilometers. Expanding on our bus experience from Mexico, we decided to bus it through to Cusco from Lima. But before Lima can let you out of it’s tourist assisting clutches, it makes sure to point you to Cruz del Sur, “the cheapest and only bus option!” It’s actually the most expensive option, and one of many. After experiencing some of the other options, we may still suggest you go the Cruz del Sur route. Our trip to Arequipa, overnight and covering over 400km, cost us about $20 US, which is cheaper than anything in Mexico. We went with a standard bus service, while the luxury end tacks on some bucks and throws in fully reclining chairs and wifi (seriously). Our class wasn’t shabby either. They surprised us by serving meals, showing plenty of movies, and even playing a thrilling game of bingo (good numbers practice for us Spanish-noobs).
It’s hard to describe how clean, bright and genial Arequipa is. We had no idea yet what to expect of Perú outside the capitol, and the beautiful architecture and simple charm of Arequipa made up our minds to flex our schedule for a few extra days there almost instantly. Many hostels and hotels are peppered along the streets of the oldest, central district. In Perú, the terms “hostel” and “hotel” are used somewhat differently: a hostel is an establishment renting 50 rooms or less, and a hotel signifies 50 rooms or more. Hostel Casablanca was easy to find, just a few steps off the Plaza de Armas. We ended up with an enormous room meant for 3, with a large balcony looking over the street and beautiful rough stone walls inside for about $22 US. We found that if we planned to stay more than two days at a specific hotel, it was easy to bargain down to a lower rate.
In Arequipa, the Monastery of Santa Catalina (pricey at about $10 per person) is very worthwhile, and will easily take your afternoon away.
WiFi is surprisingly easy to find in Perú, and most, if not all, of our nightly stops had a robust service available free of charge. Many establishments, especially those catering to backpackers, offer laundry services at about $1.20 US per kilo, and book exchanges. In certain cities hostels also offered luggage storage for several hours or days free of charge (very useful when taking off on a trek in the Andes, or a few days at one of the northern beaches).
Getting out of the city really opened up our food options, especially in the budget range. Peruvians eat out plenty during the week, though not as much as Mexicans. The street-food stalls are almost non-existent, but more simple and communal sit-down places take up the slack. Arequipa’s restaurants are priced at about half to a third of what we saw in Lima, and we quickly found the ultimate in cheap local eats: the Menu of the Day. Almost every neighborhood restaurant offers one.
The Menu of the Day consists of 3 courses, plus a dessert and beverage. The menu is customizable with choices to suit. The first course might be a small salad with some fish, or a potato salad-like Causa. The second course gives a choice of soup; typically cream of onion, asparagus, tomato, or a quick, brothy beef stew. The main course often shows a larger range of choices; these can be any of traditional Peruvian favorites like Saltado, Aji de Gallina, Estofado, or Rocoto Relleno. Dessert is a fruit cup or custard, and a pitcher of Chicha Morada is the typical beverage. Full of choices and options, filling, and shockingly priced between $1.50 – $3.50 US per person. In Perú a menu as Americans know it is called a Carta and the Menu is the daily three course super-saver.
We took a chance on a cheaper bus company called Julsa between Arequipa and Puno, a five hour haul which ended up being comfortable and scenic (vista view from the top level front row) for only $6.40 US per person.
Because we used some of our time in Arequipa, we didn’t have much time for Puno, but really wanted to get out onto Lake Titicaca. With little effort we found a 3 hour morning tour to the Uros of the lake at the train terminal, before we even found a place to stay. For $20 per person, the agency picked us up at our hostel, drove us to the wharf, set us up with a guide and a boat, and took us the short distance out onto the lake.
The Uros stand all together in a small community, and the tour allowed us to visit 3 different floating reed islands, with a reed boat ride in between. Longer all-day tours visit the Uros and Taquilla, a bigger non-reed island.
The most rewarding way to travel between Puno and Cusco is undoubtedly the < a href="http://www.perurail.com/web/tper/journeys/4_53405.jsp">>PeruRail. If spending $200 per person to travel is in your budget. PeruRail isn’t owned by Peruvian investors and is often at the center of strikes and public outcry. Prices like the one above define the small rail system and prevent locals from using it’s services (and perhaps prevent it from growing bigger to service more of the country. A truly sad lack because Peru has no public transportation systems). We decided to roll the dice again on another $6.40 US (20 soles) bus ride. This time we weren’t so lucky. One really can’t be sure what will happen on these long bus trips — it could be locked bathrooms, drunken drivers and an aislefull of hitchhikers. Or all three.
Before we came to Perú our biggest goal for the visit was our trek to Machu Picchu. The site can be accessed with just a short combo train/bus ride, or via several walking trips which range from 2-8 days. The most famous of these routes is the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail itself sees about 500 people (trekkers, porters and guides) everyday, and came under scrutiny during the last 10 years in regards to preservation efforts. The Trail is now accessible only by permit, which must be arranged months in advance. By the time we got our act together at home to try to secure a permit, they were all gone through the month of June. Instead we chose a slightly longer 4 night/5 day tour via a pass below Mount Salkantay. Read more about our trek experience here
Easily the biggest strain on our budget, the trek, was organized through Llama Path. Online there are tens of companies organizing tours, and many places to read reviews. We were choosing between Llama Path and Apus tours, since we liked both programs. It is possible to combine the treks with bicycling or rafting through some companies. With Llama Path we paid $475 per person for the trek, and were required to put down a $155 deposit while booking. Once in Cusco we saw just how many companies there really are who do the tours. Hundreds of offices are crammed within the tiny streets of Gringo Alley and it’s tributaries. Prices range from $100-$600 per person, with variances in trek length, supposed treatment of porters and animals, accommodations, inclusives, etc. While we easily could have done the trip for less, we were both deeply impressed with Llama Path’s program, food, and staffing. The only minor turn-off was the office staff. They really nickel and dimed us once we paid our remaining balance, by using an inflated exchange rate and charging for sleeping bags and mattresses. Later surprise costs included a “missing” return ticket from Machu Picchu by bus to Aguas Calientes ($14 US) and a 4th dinner which they indicated would be provided but wasn’t. Llama Path also provided it’s “suggestions” on what we were supposed to tip each porter and chef, a bit awkward. But, again, we were satisfied with their program, so we managed to get over these costs.
While we have a lot of specialized gear for our year abroad (check out our packing list here, we have few cold-weather clothes. We were warned by Llama Path that one or two nights and mornings would be particularly cold along the trek, around the time we would be crossing below Salkantay’s glacial peak. Lots of shops in town rent equipment and we rented two feather-filled -20 sleeping bags (overkill, but damn cozy) and a down jacket. Bargaining is absolutely mandatory for these items, and we rented the bags for about $10 US and the jacket for about $8, for the duration of the trek. Llama Path and other trek organizers rent sleeping bags as well, but they were offered to us at twice the cost, and were synthetic. A down filling will keep you a lot warmer than a synthetic, and with some searching we found nice Marmot bags at a decent price. The one thing we did pay for from Llama Path were air mattress pads, a luxury, but well worth it for our tired limbs after a long day of hiking. We were able to negotiate free walking sticks (usually 2 for $15) with Llama Path in trade for the bad exchange rate they were giving us (hard to bargain that one, but we were relentless – lesson: know your math and exchange rates before taking anyone’s word for it, and AVOID paying for anything in dollars).
Seeing Machu Picchu on your own budget, even for just the day, strikes us as costly. While we don’t know the exact numbers, the park entrance is 160 soles ($51 US), and the bus from Aguas Calientes is $7 each way. The train to Agua Calientes can run another $50. The prices for the site are far far out of line with any other cost structures for the country of Perú. It’s a bit sad, since locals are clearly priced out. The site has been turned into a massive for-profit enterprise, controlled by the single bus and train companies and their outrageous costs. Of course it’s worth it, but it’s a dark shadow over the country’s biggest treasure.
Cusco is really a treasure in the Andes, despite the fact that tourists come down on it like the plague, starting in early April. Hostels and hotels are abundant, and prices run a wide gamut. Our first night wasn’t easy. We arrived after midnight and had no reservations. We stopped by the Loki Hostel, only to find a gigantic party base for backpackers where we would be paying 45 soles per person to stay in a 12 bed dorm (about $26 US for us together).
We chose The Point Hostel instead, a slight improvement giving us the same price for a private room, in a tiny converted chapel. While the room was nice, the hostel was quite shabby. The shared bathroom was a horror, and breakfast was pretty pitiful. Lots of young backpackers hung around, but the atmosphere was more redbull & danceclub than we needed.
The next morning we were lucky to find Hostel Frankenstein run by the meticulous Ludwig, a German ex-pat. We were able to negotiate a great rate for a 4 day stay, and we had a huge room with a private bath. Ludwig kept the hostel very clean and everything worked as it was supposed to, a rare treat in Perú. He provided us with a fantastic homemade dining guide for the city, and stored our bags for a week for free while we trekked. We can’t recommend him warmly enough!
Food in town is more expensive than other southern cities, understandably. Many restaurants appealing to foreigners feature “authentic” but unexciting cuisine, but just outside the main street it’s quite easy to find meals for well under $10 US. The San Pedro market has a large area upstairs devoted to quick eats, all around $1-3 US. Menu of the Day signs are everywhere, and small restaurants with plates at about $5-$7. We splurged a few times at Los Perros on burgers ($7 US) and other savory treats, and at the famous Jack’s for juices ($2.50 US).
Following Cusco, our final destination in Perú was Iquitos, far north in the Jungle. Iquitos is the largest city in South America which is not accessible by car. The distance to the city from the Andes is massive, and our best choice was the fly. Flights from Cusco directly were not possible, so we had to return to Lima and fly from there. We’re typically quite suspicious of tiny offices offering help with airfare and travel arrangements, especially overseas. Often we are able to sniff out much better deals by ourselves. In Perú, it’s not always the case. Not wanting another horrid (and this time 21 hour!) bus trip to return from Cusco to Lima. We asked around at one or two offices in Cusco before we found an agent who got us an $80 ticket to Lima from Cusco. She had access to special round trip promotions (we just let the return fare go) that we couldn’t find, a savings of about $40. From Lima we arranged a $100 round trip ourselves, directly through the Star Peru Airlines site.
On our return to Lima we decided we needn’t bother with Miraflores again, we were bound straight for Barranco. Not many hostels have built their business here, but the few choices rate highly with beach cliff locations and large, breezy buildings. We made a stab at the Barranco Backpacker Inn (privates about $25 US), but this is one which benefits from prior reservations — no rooms for us to be together. Down the street we found another Point Hostel. After the very shabby experience of the Cusco branch we were apprehensive, but worthlessly… The Point in Barranco was stellar: laid-back, small, and never over-full. Our private room which opened onto the backyard patio put us back $21.50 a night.
The Barranco district sees few tourists. It’s popularity is fed instead by Limeños looking for nightlife and bohemian shops. It’s a small area, just big enough to spend a day exploring, but small enough so everything is located close to the hostel and easy to get to even at night. The Point makes sure it’s guests were never bored, organizing nightly outings to area bars and venues with discounted prices. It’s own “Pointless Bar” was even fun on a lazy night.
Eating in Lima runs high, but so does quality. Many beautiful restaurants and bars are scattered throughout the Barranco area, near the Bridge of Sighs, as well as around the square. We tried to stay on the cheaper side, and managed to find some favorites at Canta Rana (large seafood plate piled high for 2 with Chicha Morada about $10 US). Higher-end places were worthwhile for drinks, just to enjoy their locations and style. We thought Santos was quite unique, and took a ride out to San Isidro to enjoy Huaca Pucllana Restaurant, located right among the Huaca Pucllana ruins. The star of Barranco is Juanito in our book, the city’s oldest bodega, which serves beer and ham sandwiches to a loud local crowd. Sandwiches are a buck or two, as is the pitcher of beer. A true do-not-miss place.
The Jungle is cheap — shockingly so after Lima. It seems like few tourists visit the Amazon from the Perú side, and we reaped the rewards. Our hotel was about $12 US, and moto-taxi transport ran us about a $1 a ride. From the airport, a moto-taxi into town (12km) is less than $3 US (8 soles). Our major expense in Iquitos was our Jungle tour package ($40 a day, per person). The rate could have, and should have been cheaper… We learned an important lesson while bargaining for that tour: never, ever answer questions about where you are from during price negotiations, or if you must, pick something other than the United States. Once someone hears those words, the register rings an extra 25%. We compared with many other foreign travelers who were getting deeper discounts on costs, who happened to be from other countries. Lesson learned, and now we are Canadian, or Polish, or anything other than American when it comes to sales.
The Jungle Tour was not what we expected. It wasn’t big, or official, or meticulously geared. It was just us, and our young guide Luis. We brought along one bag with a change of clothes and toiletries and rubber boots contributed by the office. In Iquitos, like Cusco, there are many tour companies. We decided on our because the do-it-yourself schedule-less structure appealed to us. Our 24 year old guide loved talking about the Jungle, and he was easy to connect with. We were able to decide what we wanted to do each day, rather than take a vote among many other travelers.
Over 3 days Luis took us walking through the Jungle twice, once to show us all the unique flora and fauna which is abundant even minutes from the lodge, and again in the evening to search for tarantulas, snakes and other beasties, also, shockingly adundant only 50 meters from our bed. We fished for piranha – twice! and searched for pink dolphins. We woke up early to spot birds on a quiet part of the amazon, and visited the flooded Monkey Rescue. The cost of the trip ($120 per person) included two nights lodging (once in an actual lodge, and once in a Jungle family’s home) all meals and activities.
Overall, we crossed our budget of $50 per person, per day in Perú. By 3 dollars on average. It probably could have been cheaper, Perú isn’t very pricey — as best evidenced by the $2 Menus of the Day and $6 bus rides. What did us in were our extra treks and flights. The treks were worth every buck over the budget, and often ended up being essentially all-inclusive. The flights made cake of the otherwise very long distances which are only served by busses, which we learned can be very hit or miss. The amazing food is likely a little drop in the over-budget bucket too, since we rarely chose the cheapest food option in lieu of the tastiest looking one. If we had been trying to keep the costs down harder I wouldn’t have chosen cheaper treks, but I would have been more careful about the incidentals during the day. We had to buy and rent some warm weather gear which dipped into our daily spending, and which we would have come prepared with had we not been traveling on a yearlong route.
God we love Perú. Where has this county been all our lives? Hiding quietly below the equator, freshening up all the flower boxes and elaborating on regional cuisine? Apparently, yes. A jewel in South America, Perú is the first of our destinations to earn our consideration of returning for a longer sample, maybe even a short stab at what life might be like in the land of the ancient Incas.
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