Basic facts on Perú

Basic facts on Perú

This section is concerned with mobility, driving and roving about. The Big Sights are discussed here. More individual routes are covered in two dozen separate descriptions, accessible here. How to think about planning a route is discussed here.

Getting around

The coast of Perú is serviced by well-maintained roads. Many lesser tributaries of these lead into the Andes, where they become a web of unsurfaced tracks. (This offers a fascinating way to explore much of Perú.) A little over 10% of the 73,000 km of road are paved. Some of the roads are exceptionally demanding - loose rocks the size of footballs, serious drops to one side and cliffs to the other, sand and occasional landslips.

The jungle has a very limited fringe of tracks, and - with the exception of a road to the port of Pucallpa and another to the Camisea gas fields around Atalaya, no roads penetrate its interior. Travel is limited to the waterways (of which at least 8000 km are navigable to large boats, and very much more to smaller craft) and by air. Light aircraft stitch together a scattering of otherwise isolated land-bound settlements.

Air transport is well developed, with scheduled flights to the major cities, usually radiating from Lima. There are also semi-scheduled flights which use light aircraft as "hoppers" between these points, and to lesser airfields. You can also hire your own light aircraft to fly you to your destination for relatively modest sums. Crossing the Andes in a single engine aircraft is an interesting experience, and it is as well to check that the pilot has GPS or RDF before making a flight in over the largely featureless and anyway confusing jungle. The author has twice been pursued to a landing strip by light aircraft which had got themselves lost. (From one of which emerged a major pop star, slightly battered by the experience.)

It is easy to hire a car in Perú. The section on driving gives a view on what is entailed in using it. Roving the minor roads offers fascinating possibilities: there are archeological sites seldom visited - indeed, seldom documents in an accessible manner - fiestas in the country towns, trout to be fished for and orchids discovered. However, the lesser roads absolutely demand 4x4 (cuatro por cuatro) vehicles, easily rented in Lima. Major vehicles such as Nissan Terranos and Landcruisers cost around $2500 per month to hire, whilst tough vehicles such as the commonly used open trucks (caminonetas) cost much less and are easier to repair. It is important to hire a vehicle for which spares (repuestos) are widely available. The major Japanese marques have a near-monopoly in this and you can be certain that, for example, a Mitsubishi truck will be supported a web of small businesses whose task is keeping these vehicles moving. Bear in mind that these are highly specialised activities. Fuels come from grifos, but these do not service vehicles or offer spares. To repair a tyre, find a llantero. To fix brakes, a frenero. And so forth. When in doubt, ask local people who can fix whatever it is that is wrong with your vehicle. Often the local maestro can subcontract the task for you.

If you are going well off the beaten track, always have two spare tyres, and make sure that you have all the tools that you need to change them. Note that to avoid theft, most vehicles have one wheel nut that is non-standard and which requires a special key. A five gallon plastic can (galonera) will help you avoid the embarassment of running out, and a funnel (embudo) is useful for getting the fuel where you want it. Also note that most hired vehicles automatically lock themselves after 30 seconds with the doors shut. This is not the monent to dicover that you have left the keys inside. Some firms use alarms which emit radio signals when they are tripped, so check before driving whether this is the case. You will be detained by the police if you are driving a vehicle which has been reported missing in this way. You should also make sure that you have (and know how to locate) the relevant documents pertaining to the car ownership, insurance and hire as the police will want to see these if you are for any reason stopped.

Allow yourself many days of slack in your schedule, insofar as there may be repairs, deviations, exciting local opportunities and roads which suddenly cease to function. This is particularly true of the wet season, when the lesser roads are often closed for weeks.

Coastal bus services between cities cater to all levels of expenditure, and the most costly are at least up to international standards. Local and rural transport by bus or truck is regular, predictable, slow and always crowded. Rural services often depart very early - at between 3 and 4 am - in order to be able to make a one-day loop. You will breath a lot of diesel smoke and dust, and may be in intimate contact with incontinent livestock for hours at a time. Passengers who are not experienced travellers may vomit, and will not have provided themselves with sick bags. Nevertheless, you will be close to the country.

Taxis in towns come in three flavours: there are dedicated vehicles which cater to the wealthy, there are collectivos, which do not, and there are three-wheeled modifications of 50cc motorcycles, locally called motocars or motos, which one finds all over the developing world. Collectivos ply regular routes, stopping to pick people up and drop them off on demand. They are usually white Japanese 4x4 station waggons. Micros ("mee-crows") are Volkswagen Combis and other vehicles of the same type, which behave just as do collectivos except that their stops are fixed. They are often unbelievably crowded and the favoured habitat of pickpockets and bottom-fondlers. Taxis and motos can be hailed anywhere, and will take you where you want to go, although they may not know the way in larger towns. Check before setting out, or the blind may spend a fair amount of time leading the blind.

Motos - the tropical version of which is illustrated below, but which come in all shaes and sizes - are very cheap to use, but can be hair-raising in heavy traffic. They are banned from large ciies. If you are driving yourself - or if you are a pedestrian - beware of the insect swarm of erratically-driven motos which emerges when the traffic lights change. The young men who drive them are certificated, but in reality have little or no training. As a result, they tend to take the shortest path open to them and weave all over the road. Darwinian selection means that the most agile eventually become taxi drivers.

There are 2000 km of rail installed in Perú, consisting of lines largely designed to service the mines of the midlands and the network of towns in the South. It is not, however, possible to travel extensively by rail, although some individual journeys are lengthy and sometimes interesting. For example, you can travel from the coast near Arequipa as far as Cuzco, and - after a change - go on to Machu Picchu. This is a good way to get an overview of the (very) extensive puna plains of the South. The former trip from Lima to Huancayo sed to take you over the highest rail pass in the world, but the priviledge is now restricted to minerals and occasional freight.

The coastline has a large number of fishing boats and pleasure craft, as well as freighters and service boats. It is possible to go up and down the coastline using these, and to visit the offshore islands, once of precious value as the source of guano fertiliser. Marine bird life is spectacular. Deep sea marine fishing can be combined with a trip between two major ports, and there is nothing to prevent you asking your driver to collect you at your destination: labour is cheap. Inland waterways are also plied by a huge range of boats, from fast launches to slow multi-deck freighters. Once again, multi-mode travel is easy to arrange, perhaps by flying to a start point, and being collected by road at the point of arrival. The best use for fresh water boats is, however, perhaps that of doing nothing very much with them by way of covering distance, but rather exploring the myriad of lagoons and fishing.

Image the following: you fly to Arequipa, hire a car and visit the sights. You drive or are driven to Lake Titicaca and drop the car off and, after spending a few days on the lake, take the train on to Cusco. After some days, you are driven over the high pass from Cusco to Quillabamba, where you take a boat to Atalaya in the deep jungle and, eventually, get to Satipo in the alta selva. Here, a driver is waiting for you. Two fascinating routes back to Lima beckon, both passing through high jungle and the socially-distinct central highlands.


Latin driving can be alarming, but although many who drive in Perú are new to the task, it is not as aggressive as - say - Mexico or as homicidal as Colombia. Hoever, many drivers are self-taught and have no clear understanding of the rules of the road. Some - particularly at night and in the country - are drunk. Some cars and many motorcycles drive at night without lights. Tricycles - large, unlit metal objects that are used by fruit sellers - cattle and other almost invisible obstacles find their way onto night-time road verges.

This said, defensive driving and a clear idea of what you want to do allows you to operate with limited risk. Make sure that your car is well-maintained and solid, not least as repair facilities are sparse away for the coast. The quality of the roads declines sharply away for the city and you need a solid truck (camioneta) or heavy 4x4 if you want to see the wilder areas. Please see the section on transport, above, for more details on this.

Major roads have toll booths (piaje) which require a payment of (usually) between S/-5 and S/-15. They can make change, but large bills will leave you clutching a heap of coins. If the display a sign saying via libre, you can pass without paying.

You will need to be sure that you have a valid license (Perú accepts the licenses of most of the industrialised countries, but if you are domiciled in a country which is not widely known, it is as well to ask the local embassy or consulate whether you need and international driving license before beginning your trip.) You must also be sure that you have the documents which reflect the ownership of the vehicle. If you do not, then it is possible that the police may suspect that it is stolen, or anyway make difficulties which you will have to resolve, repeatedly.

One problem which catches people with weak Spanish is the fuel which you must use. Diesel is usually called petroleo - stress on the middle syllable, not on the first or last - and petrol (gasoline) gasolina. Diesel is also called D2. Gasoline comes in several grades, but diesel only in D2. When driving in the deep country, please note the remarks made earlier about repairs and spare parts.

Vehicle security is easily managed, but important. If you leave a car, do so either in a secure place ("playa de estacionamiento" or just plain "playa", which also means "beach".) You can also leave it under the eye of a guardian. These are young men who offer to "guardar su carro" and who may molest it if you do not engage their services. They are very cheap. Areas in which parking requires a ticket are managed by people who buy a franchise. They can become indignant if you miss them, and translate this into mischief. These issues are much less pronounced away from Lima, and virtually all rural hotels of any quality offer a playa as a matter of course. If you are using a camioneta - open backed truck - do consider the security of your spare wheel and anything else that you have exposed in its open back.

The major routes are conspicuously policed, and largely safe. In a very few remote areas, however, there are still problems of banditry. Try not to use unpoliced or very isolated roads - notably in San Martin, in the jungle - after dark; and consider attaching yourself to another vehicle in convoy. It is as well to ask local people about the state of the road, both in regard to its surface (carretera) and the prevalence of robbery (assaltos). If you are dubious, you can usually pay a policeman to travel with you for $15-20 plus his return fare. Army barracks may offer the same facility, but is can be difficult to get the idea across if your Spanish is poor and you are addressing a sentry. In general, do not give lifts to unknown men, and least of all to groups of them. If you break down, be careful of passers-by who may dip into an open and untended car, or steal tools. However, do not become paranoid about this as most people are both sympathetic and very willing to help. Show your gratitude in your attitude and also in more practical ways if this occurs. People will solicit lifts in rural areas by waving at you. It is almost always safe to oblige them if they do this in a public place, and a camioneta offers an open back from which aggression is extremely difficult to deliver, whould the matter be in their minds. Women with children are almost certainly safe people to give a lift.

It is unwise to drive into the poorer areas of the cities, as the lanes may have no exit and reversing may be problematic. Car-jacking is not common, but if it is going to happen it is this sort of situation that will precipitate it.

Roving about

Perú is a vast and sparsely-populated country. It offers three completely dissimilar climatic and ecological systems, some of the highest mountains in the Americas, a wide social fabric and an extraordinary archeological depth. How you should think about accessing this remarkable potential the like is the main purpose of this guide and we discuss it elsewhere.

It is as well to recall that Perú is a very large place, and that travel in it is innately tiring. Tourism on the standard track is a well-oiled system, but travel beyond "the standard sights" is very little exploited or managed. It can take - does take - a week to cover a few hundred kilometres on the back roads.

The classical country for trekking is, of course, Nepal. Perú is not a bit like Nepal. There, you can largely follow your whim, so that if you turn up in the country with a vague idea about a destination, an hour's discussion will find you the people to get you there and the expertise to plan a route. Perú much more like Russia, where not knowing what you want will either see you whisked off on a standard trip with other bewildered newbies, or set doing arduous things which are neither rewarding nor much fun.

Cajamarca, Bishop's palace

The backpacker ideal is to drift spontaneously from place to place, perhaps following a whim, perhaps other peoples' guidance. To do this in a country like Perú is to miss the place altogether. Clarifying your intentions is not the death of spontaneity, but its birth. If you start with something as huge and diverse as Perú, then it is clear that you will fail to connect with it in any meaningful way if you have no focus. If, by contrast, you know that you want to look for butterflies, or check out the marine life, or fish in the Amazon, or search for wild tomatoes, or visit the source of the Amazon, or pan for gold in Madre de Dios, or seek mystic insights, or learn to drum in a highland village, or help with an archaeological investigation, or ... then you have a good chance of actually doing this. Not only that, but you will connect with the country and its people. All sorts of options will emerge - a newly-made friend's wedding, a link to someone who is a world expert on the issue ... who knows what? A chance trip to an archaeological site on the advice of barman gave the author a contact with someone setting out for fifteen days to seek ruins in the jungle; and who welcomed both company and some financial help. Fortune favours the prepared mind, and chance smiles on those who know their minds.

A repeated theme of this guide is the importance of knowing what it is that you want - of knowing what sorts of things excite you and which do not, of what you can expect to achieve given your physical and economic resources and what is beyond you; and, above all, given these thoughts and your experience, linguistic ability and the like, what is it that actually stirs you? What do you actually want to achieve? If what you want is to chill out in mildly exotic circumstances, then of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but there are places which are better for this than Perú. Try the Caribbean, or Belize. If you want to go wild and wide on the party circuit, go to Brazil, or try Trinidad in Carnival time.

In addition to getting your focus, it is as well to give yourself time. If you have only 14 days, do not try to cram a months' experience into it, or you will end up stranded at some hot little airport in the jungle. Do make sure that you have medical cover, in the sense of valid inoculations, malaria prophylaxis and a small medical kit against the most common problems. It is helpful to make contacts before you go. It is now quite easy to make such connections through the Internet before you set out. Our web site offers links that will also help you plan ahead.

The Big Sights: tourist centres in Perú

Almost all of the people who come to Perú as tourists go to Lima; about half get to Cuzco and about 5% go on to either Arequipa or Lake Titicaca. Less than 1% go anywhere else. So can 99% of your fellow travellers be wrong?

The answer is that most certainly, they can. There is, of course, nothing wrong with The Big Sites if you do not mind an insulating layer between you and the country you are visiting. These sites are, of course, described well in conventional guidebooks, and we are for the most part not going to cover them in much detail. There are, however, detailed guides to the sights of Lima, Arequipa and Cusco, and all other major cities are explored in similar detail in the relevant circuit discription. We do not go into guide-book detail on restaurants or hotels, air communications and the like as our affiliate organisation and web site is designed to do this in an up-to-date manner.

Even its friends admit that contemporary Lima is not particularly attractive, although it has improved itself very greatly in the last ten years. The shopping is excellent. It has interesting museums, good food and the best handicrafts in the country. The life of its sophisticates is extremely comfortable and their homes are often beautifully furnished. It is, however, the place from which one jumps off to do almost everything else. It is where you hire cars, manage other forms of transport, recharge your batteries and otherwise sort things out. There is a large foreign population, including a set of distinct budget traveler communities, ranging from British graduate on a gap year trip to dedicated drug users, from religious and missionary groups to mystics and would-be shamans.

Most jump from Lima to Cuzco. However, consider Cajamarca, Iquitos, Pucallpa - or drive down to Piura and Nazca, or the Paracas wildlife reserve in the coastal desert. Tarma, "jewel of the Andes" is only a day's drive away. You go over the highest vehicle pass in the world to get there. A day later, you can be in humid rainforest. Huaraz is a long morning's drive, and offers the largest peak in Perú, up close and personal. Our 25 routes go to far more exotic places, only days away.

Cuzco is, without doubt, a jewel. It has one of the most prolific fireworks maestros in Latin America, and to catch him in a crowd of native Americans, their eyes gleaming like Christmas tree ornaments as he sits inside his fireworks, manipulating life sized fairground roundabouts (with each horse made of fire, and going up and down as it rotates) is a spectacle that few can forget. Attend dawn mass in the Cathedral, when the local women bring in flowers and candles. All around Cuzco is fabulous countryside, which you can trek using the local companies. The Urubamba river does not stop at Machu Picchu, fine a site though that is, but continues through striking country before widening and letting you go down it by boat. Cuzco has fine music, including local-European fusion, which is well worth searching out.

The altiplano - the high, flat plain South and West of Cuzco - contains some of the most isolated and, to the visitor, strange communities in the Andes. Whilst towns like Arequipa and entities like Lake Titicaca are interesting, it is the human angle that makes these regions so striking. You will see very little of this in the tourist centres, but a day of two with alpaca herders, or (carefully gained) permission to interact with a village over some time will get you much more than any amount of uncomprehending flittings between monuments.

Please excuse the following blunt words. If you bought this guide, then you are almost certainly someone who is dissatisfied with conventional package tourism. There is nothing wrong with seeing monuments which you have chosen to see because they interest you; but a succession of them chosen by someone else, presented to you because you cannot think of anything better to do with yourself is almost always tedious. Isn't it?