An introduction to travel in wild Perú

An introduction to travel in wild Perú

This section draws together threads which are explored more fully in other sections, not least the extensive chapter on how to avoid difficulties. It considers how you might go about traveling in wild Perú. You have a vast range of choices, and it is up to you (and perhaps your Peruvian travel agent) to refine these to something practical. If you try to do everything - or just drift - you will be unlikely to have as good an experience as if you put some initial planning to work on your time in this vast country.

This section should be read in conjunction with, for example, the "facts" mobility section if you intend to travel extensively by car, and the "walking" section if you intend to travel on foot. This second section consists of a set of practical modules, some of which are relevant to your choices and others of which are not. You should trim the list to meet your needs: for example, if you are taking a boat trip down the Amazon, then high altitude clothing is superfluous; but what we have to say about health, photograph, hygiene and so forth are likely still to stand.

On deciding what you want to do

Perú is a large, relatively complex country, and there are many ways to enjoy its wilds. Demanding environments or simple economies - such as Nepal, Papua New Guinea or most of Africa - greatly restrict your options. This is not the case in Perú.

In addition to this, Perú offers stark desert and rich ocean, jungle and mountains, volcanoes and flamingos, snow peaks and the flat high plains and lakes of the puna. It has major archeological centres, and many smaller sites which have never been fully explored. You can set yourself all manner of missions, from parrot-spotting to orchid discovery, from examining geological curiosities to amateur ethnography. Or you can paint, photograph, record - or just set out to have fun. All of this is up to you. Here are some of the possibilities which Perú offers, beyond simple travel or trekking.

  Butterflies and other insects
  Field sports and fishing
  Orchids and other plants
  Birds and other animals
  Archeology and historical investigations
  Religious and spiritual interests

There is, however, one thing that you cannot do, and that is all of the above. Neither can you go everywhere, all at once. A good trip is one where you know broadly what you want and, in the case of demanding trips, exactly what you want. Hoping that something will work out when you get there is a recipe for a lowest common denominator package holiday, or for chaos. And Perú is not a good country in which to get into personal chaos. This may sound cold-blooded, but last minute flurries of disorganised enthusiasm are not good idea when there turns out to be no toothpaste (or far more crucial items, such as boots that fit Western feet) on sale at 4000 metres!

We have provided four crucial background sections in this guide: on how to stay out of trouble and what to do if you get into it; on the people of Perú, on their history and on the geography of the country. We really do recommend that you read these, and particularly the first of them. It will help you to decide which options you want to follow, and how much exposure you want to take on when you do this.

Traveling styles in Perú

We assume that you want to get to wild places. There are, broadly, three ways to do this. Perú is covered in a latticework of small roads and, in the jungle, waterways. Do not forget that the ocean also offers a path to moving about. You can, therefore, use mechanised transport to get to obscure places. You can operate from a fixed base, such as a village. Finally, of course, you can get away from habitation and roads and walk.

What you do with this bag-full of options is, of course, up to you. You cannot, however, expect to arrange complex and demanding ventures on the spur of the moment, or on a shoe-string. One has to be realistic.

This may be your "gap year" experience and it is the first time you have gone to a developing country. You are on a budget. Your Spanish is a bit rough. Ask yourself, after you have played with this guide, what is it that you really would like to do? What can you afford to do? What, realistically, best combines your aspirations with your pocket and time table? If you can be certain of this, then you will probably get what you want. If you go to wild places all of a muddle, then you could get into serious trouble. Clarity and not spontaneity is the key when you are dealing with innately dangerous things.

Making arrangements

There are essentially three levels at which you can operate if you want to "go wild". The entry level relies on standard routes and existing organisations. You turn up in Cuzco, and a myriad of people clamour to take you on the Inca trail. The next layer up consists of a customised itinerary, in which you nonetheless do relatively established things. You fly to Iquitos, you get on a pre-hired boat, you travel to Pucallpa along the river and you motor back to Lima. The third layer is entirely customised: you want to seek out lost Inca trails. You want to go llama trekking to see the humming birds at dawn, in the eyebrow of the jungle. You want to travel for a month with a Peruvian archaeologist. You want to parasail down the Amazon, or look for minute rare orchids in the Northern mountain cloud forests.

Naturally, the really exciting stuff happens with Level Three, and this takes a clear mind, pre-organisation and a fairly open pocket.

Most people would benefit from dropping the Level One approach and moving to the second level. Travel companies are readily available on the Internet, and most are extremely willing to help in this way. They can tell you what you need, so that you do not have to carry unnecessary equipment, or get caught without key items when you are in the field. Thy will save you time and almost certainly save you money, as they can bargain better than you, and you will need to spend less time in the expensive capital. Our web site has some appropriate links.

Let us suppose that you see all of this as cold-hearted and lacking in spontaneity. You want to do it yourself. Well, once again, there are levels on which you can operate. At the "budget" level, you must recall that South America is not Asia, and neither is it like the Northern Latin countries, such as Mexico. It bites; and it is not kind to seemingly penniless wanderers. You are, in practice, constrained to Level One activities unless you can find an affiliation, such as teaching at a village school.

Let us suppose that you are doing it for yourself, traveling alone, and you want to go trekking. You will find either many companies, or absolutely none, depending on where you are. Where there are many - in Cuzco, for example, - you will be mobbed if you show interest. Talk to someone in the know - perhaps someone who works in the hotel, for example - and get them to pick you out a few reputable companies. Naturally, these will be friends and cousins, so pick and advisor likely to have sensible ones!

Now you can meet the companies without being harried. Inspect their equipment well before you commit to any of them. Meet the guide and make sure that you can understand him (for it is always a man. Women travellers may prefer female guides, and whilst these do exist, they are still rare.) Ensure that they understand your wants and any special needs that you may have before you set off. If you are going anywhere extreme, make absolutely sure that either you or they have the items that you need. It is not wise only to find that you have no sleeping bag as the temperature crashes past -20C on a mountain slope.

It is, of course, individually cheaper to travel as a group than it is to go on trek on your own. Group travel is reassuring if things are new, or if you are uncomfortable on your own. However, a grab bag of traveling companions can be unhappy if interests, abilities or languages diverge too far. You travel at the pace of the slowest, and endure the laugh of the loudest.

A middle-ground possibility is to find a guide, rather than a company, and let him (again) fix matters for you. Guides can be graduates, and often have good English. A few speak German or French in the popular areas. Essentially, you are acquiring a traveling companion in place of a motley group, and you have the reassurance of a native Spanish speaker with you, who may also be able to talk Quechua or Aymara.

The top-draw but individualist approach involves vehicle hire, with or without a driver. A driver costs money but allows you to focus on the scenery, offers a translation service and insulation between you and events, such a police checks. There are various loops which you can drive in Perú, stopping here to walk and there to spend a couple of days exploring. Virtually all car hire is done from Lima, so visits to the remote Southern regions is extremely tiring. The jungle, of course, has only fringe roads.

Internal air travel is well-developed, with scheduled and private flights easily available. Schedules may be erratic. Bear in mind that trans-Andean flights in unpressurised light aircraft must take you to over 5000m, which can be a shock to weak hearts. Major destinations - Cuzco, Arequipa, Cajamarca, Iquitos - are all served by pressurised aircraft. The Juliaca flight from Lake Titicaca is subject to weight restrictions which vary with the air temperature. That means that the number of passengers that a craft will take varies in this way. I am not aware of large people being evicted because the air is to warm, but it is worth bearing in mind.


Perú is surprisingly liberal in its attitudes to internal travel documents, and you do not, on the whole, need permits to visit most areas or to trek. Entry into the national parks does require permits, some of which must be acquired in Lima before you set out. Others, including the most commonly-visited parks, can be bought at the entrance. Access is sometimes time-limited, in the sense that people traveling by car can get in only after a certain hour, and have to leave before dark, and you have to pay to enter. Do, however, remember to take a photocopy of your passport with you, together with the details of credit cards, travellers cheques and so forth. The passport copy serves as an internal travel document, whilst the rest are backup in case of loss.


How much will it cost? Naturally, it depends what you want to do. As a rough guide, subsistence and travel in wild Perú probably starts at US$10-15 a day, and achieves modest comfort at around US$25-30. Plainly, if you hire a car or go everywhere in a helicopter, this sum will rise. You could live in an Andean village on less than the minimum if you did not move anywhere, or give the presents that are essential to acceptance. Singleton treks will cost not less than $50 a day, and more in areas popular with less adventurous tourists. You can easily spend large sums if you want to climb mountains, or do very unusual things. Expert guides will cost much more than peasants with five words of English. If you want to roam the forested highlands of the North with a column of porters and llamas, looking for archeological sites, and to do so with an expert guide who speaks a foreign language and also has a PhD in the topic, then you will pay a great deal more for the privilege. And so you should.

How much you should pay a guide depends on their quality, and on the place where you hire them. Incomes in Perú vary wildly, so that a graduate in Lima would expect to earn US$800 per month or more, whilst a family in the Southern Andes would be lucky to see that in a year. Most rural mestizo guides who speak basic English will be more than happy with $15-25 per day, although they will ask for more and, in the tourist-frequented areas, much more. Long hires cost less, as do full-board deals where they essentially live as you do.

South America regards bargaining as the normal way of establishing a price for anything remotely unusual. Major stores and utilities have fixed prices (precios fijos) and you do not bargain. Equally, it is pointless to bargain over a sack of potatoes in a country market, because the price is fixed by the market dynamics all around you. However, anything non-standard (like a second hand item of clothing) is always subject to bargaining, as are unusual or one off events, from buying a car to hiring a guide. There is no daily going rate, so you have to fix one.

How is this done? You need to start with an idea of what is reasonable. Ask the price from a series of suppliers, and take the average. Then knock off 30%, or 50% in a tourist area. That is your starting price. Let them take the initiative, however, and just look dubious when they start high. Walk away of they do not come a fair way to meet you, and re-calibrate your idea of what the price should be. This is actually very hard for all parties in some instances - I used to collect mineral specimens during a time of high inflation, when a starting price of "ten" could mean ten thousand or ten million soles. Confronted by a large and beautiful lump of rock, I would have absolutely no idea what the seller thought he was asking. Questions like "how much for the smaller one?" may give some guidance.