First-Time Lessons Learned by an American in Peru

After I visit a new country, I always like to reflect on what I learned during that visit. Inevitably there are things I should have done differently, things that surprised me about the people or places, and things that I can say I would never do again but I learned something from the experience. Peru is no different and here I would like to share some of the things I learned while I was there.

During the two weeks I recently spent in Peru, I found myself surprised on many occasions. This wasn’t my first time to South America, but it was my first time in Peru. I’ll share some of the things I learned in this beautiful country so that you can learn from some of my mistakes or just be wiser than I was and be better prepared. Peru was undoubtedly the hardest vacation to plan for of all the places my family and I have been, although we have never been to Asia or Africa and I imagine those places would also take a lot of planning by an American. I wrote up a post while I was in the midst of planning, which you can read here Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu in Peru.

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We saw so many llamas and alpacas in Peru- I loved it!

Here are just some of the things I learned while in Peru:

Peru is an extremely poor country so don’t expect your accommodations to be like what you typically find in the United States. That being said, there is a range of accommodations from hostels for just a few dollars per night to hotels that cost a few hundred dollars per night. The accommodations also vary widely based on what city you’re in.

Machu Picchu is every bit as stunning and special of a place as you have in your head from all of the photos we all see online. However, it does get crowded, especially as the day goes on, even with the recent restrictions on daily admissions. Get there as early as you possibly can, which you’ll likely do anyway if you’re traveling with a tour group. Pay the extra admission to climb Huayna Picchu. It’s worth every penny and every second of the elevated heartbeat that you will have climbing it. My post on Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu is here.

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At the top of Huayna Picchu overlooking Machu Picchu

Take a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu. My family and I took the 4 Day Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions, which I highly recommend but there are other treks of varying degrees of difficulty and length. Meeting and interacting with the Peruvian school children and families is something so priceless it’s difficult to convey to others. The views along the trek are like scenes from some of the most epic movies you’ve ever seen, and completely incomprehensible until you’ve experienced them. Just go. Don’t worry if you’re not a “camper” or you don’t think you can do it (unless you have valid health reasons. Talk to your doctor first). You can find my posts on the Lares Trek here: Day OneDay TwoDay Three.

Areas in the Highlands region including Cusco, Aguas Calientes, and Ollantaytambo (all of which many people pass through one or more nights on their way to Machu Picchu) are cold at night and in the mornings. Depending on the time of year, they are also often rainy. There is usually no central heat in the hotels and hostels in this region either (despite what they might tell you at the front desk), so bring warm sleeping attire. I wore long-sleeve wool thermal underwear and wool socks to sleep in every night while I was in the Highlands (yes, even in my hotel room).

Temperatures and climate in Peru can vary widely depending on what part(s) you’re in so wearing layers is always advisable. Arequipa is a much warmer city than Cusco and much drier so (at least where we stayed) it was noticeably warmer than where stayed in Cusco. More information about Cusco plus climbing the famous Rainbow Mountain is here. Arequipa has a European feel to it and is a beautiful city with white stone buildings.  There is a huge range of accommodations in Arequipa just like any other city. My post on Arequipa is here.

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One of the plazas in Arequipa

Traffic in Peru is more chaotic than any other city I’ve ever been to, which includes Greece, Italy, Chile, and other areas known to have aggressive drivers. Drivers are so aggressive especially in Lima and Arequipa they make New York City drivers look laid-back. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, pretty much anywhere at all. From all of the research I conducted, I read over and over that cars are sometimes stopped by robbers especially at night and even buses can get robbed like this. I’m sure plenty of people take buses all over Peru and are fine but we chose to fly over large distances between cities. We did take some buses with the tours we took, but the longest bus ride was 3 hours and most were during the day. Flights within Peru are very affordable and efficient (although some airlines more so than others).

Peruvians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, especially in the Highlands areas like Cusco and the surrounding rural areas. One evening in Cusco, we went into a small store to buy bottled water and the man working there ended up asking us where we were from, showed us his drawings, and told us he was glad we stopped by as he shook our hands in a friendly way. This was all in our broken Spanish since he spoke no English. Another woman that owned a small restaurant chatted with us while we waited for our take-away food and gave me 2 bags of tea for free to help with my stuffy sinuses, a bag full of extra bread, and an extra container of soup (she also spoke no English). There were many other warm and kind people we met along the way as well.

Unless you travel to Peru with a travel group, you really should have at least a decent grasp of Spanish. We found very few people who spoke English fluently even in hospitality sectors like hotels and restaurants and even on tours where the guide supposedly spoke English. It was far more common for the people we met to speak no English at all, regardless of their age or city. There is always Google translate when you’re really stuck but I wouldn’t rely solely on that.

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Rainbow Mountain

The toilets in the rural areas are usually a hole in the ground that you have to squat over but in bigger cities you can find actual toilet seats. However, bring a roll of toilet paper and a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you at all times because there often isn’t toilet paper or soap. When there is a sink, it’s almost always just cold water (no hot water). However, we always had hot water in our showers at hotels everywhere we stayed, which was a welcome relief.

I would stay away from venturing out in Lima. We had a couple of bad experiences the second time we were there and we were told by someone who used to live in Lima and moved to Arequipa that it’s extremely unsafe and to stay away from the city. If you have to fly through Lima to get somewhere else, just spend that time at the airport. There are plenty of shops and restaurants at the airport where you can easily spend hours. Although you may have a perfectly good experience, you just never know and it’s not worth risking it in the city. My post on Lima is here.

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Machu Picchu

Finally, the food all over Peru exceeded my expectations as far as taste and presentation. Who knew Peru was such a foodie country? Everywhere we went, the food was exceptional and beautifully presented. Try a Maracuyá Sour, which is made with passion fruit and is a delicious variation on the pisco sour. Other Peruvian foods I really enjoyed are ceviche, Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef), Aji de Gallina (creamy chicken), Causa Limeña (potato casserole), and Pollo a la Brasa (roasted chicken).

Have you been to Peru? If so, where did you go and what was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Things to Do in Arequipa, Peru Other Than Hike Colca Canyon

Do you know the feeling you get when you first go to a new city and you are immediately drawn to it? That’s how I felt when our plane landed in Arequipa from Cusco in Peru. I usually don’t fall in love with a city so quickly but right away I liked Arequipa. There are white stone buildings everywhere and the historical section is especially beautiful. Our hotel in Arequipa was in the historical section and when we entered our hotel room, I could feel right away that it was much warmer than our room in Cusco. Yes! This was a much nicer hotel overall than that in Cusco, too although the price difference was only about $25/night. (If you’re wondering about my reference to Cusco, you can read my post here.)

Originally the rough plan was to spend two days and one night in Colca Canyon, the most popular attraction in Arequipa. I didn’t make reservations in advance because honestly I wasn’t sure how we would feel after our adventures in Cusco. We did a 4 day/3 night trek to Machu Picchu, camping in tents for the first 2 nights and staying in a hotel on the third night before going to Machu Picchu on the fourth day (you can read the posts about the trek here, here, and here). We also had tickets to hike up Huayna Picchu, a notoriously difficult climb to the top of the huge mountain overlooking Machu Picchu (you can read the post about that here).

I also wasn’t sure about the weather in Arequipa and didn’t want to camp out again if it was going to rain. Finally, I read that it would be considerably cheaper to make reservations in person in Arequipa rather than online in the US. It turns out that decision to wait until we reached Arequipa to make reservations wasn’t necessarily the best one because it meant we couldn’t go.

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Plaza de Armas near the historical center in Arequipa

I wasn’t thinking that it would be so late on a Saturday evening and none of the tour agencies would be open by the time we finished checking into our hotel and eating dinner, nor were many of them open when we tried Sunday morning (since the tours all leave very early in the morning, it was too late to make same-day plans anyway but we wanted to see what was available for the next day). Long story short, a visit to Colca Canyon was not to be this time around, so we figured out our best options for the next couple of days in Arequipa.

What did we end up doing? Well, we went on a free walking tour and ended up hitting most of the hot spots and learned some things about Arequipa along the way. For starters, Arequipa lies on a fault line and has had multiple earthquakes over the years. The city was completely destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the 1600’s. There are three major volcanoes (El Misti, Mount Chachani and Pichu Pichu Peak), but Arequipa and the surrounding area has more than 80 volcanoes, most of which are in the Valley of the Volcanoes. The historic center was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in December 2000 due to its architecture and historical integrity.

On the walking tour, we walked by several churches (there are so many churches in Arequipa), the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Plaza de Armas, Mundo Alpaca, and a street the equivalent of “lover’s lane.” The tour was a little over 2 hours and our guide was funny and informative. I highly recommend doing this if you’re in Arequipa and want to learn about the city.

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That’s a snake skin over the tops of the display cases in the Monasterio de la Recoleta!

On our own, we visited two former monasteries, Monasterio de Santa Catalina (the more popular of the two) and Monasterio de la Recoleta (which I liked even better than the first one). Both places charge a small admission fee and both are filled with historical information, but Monasterio de la Recoleta has a few unique things going for it that I feel put it a bit over the top than Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Monasterio de la Recoleta has  rooms with artifacts from the Amazon, textiles, stamps, money, pre-Columbian artifacts, animals, religious, artwork, an amazing library, the church that’s still being used for services, and stairs to the bell tower with great views. Monasterio de Santa Catalina has former rooms of nuns and monks and artwork but not nearly as many artifacts as Monasterio de la Recoleta.

We took a taxi and visited the Molino de Sabandía (Sabandía Mill), a water mill set in the old Arequipa countryside about 20 minutes from downtown Arequipa, built in 1621. In addition to the mill and various artifacts, the landscape is lovely and there is an  extensive collection of cacti and succulents, as well as a variety of local plants and flowers. You can see vicuñas, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, roosters, local birds and an enormous Arequipa fighting bull. There was a family having a photo shoot at the mill when we were there, and I can see why since it’s such a photogenic place. There isn’t much else in the area but we did find a resort within walking distance and had lunch there before having the front desk call us a taxi back to town.

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Sabandía Mill in the countryside of Arequipa

Casa del Moral is an 18th century mansion that we visited that’s filled with period furniture, paintings and sculptures. Its name is derived from the moral (mulberry in English) trees that grow in its courtyard. Although I read reviews that said the house is small and not worth visiting, we really enjoyed our visit. The mansion has such ornate woodwork and details that it’s not really a place to just quickly whiz by in 10 minutes. Now owned by the bank, there’s also a section in the house with very old coins and bills, which was interesting to see.

Finally, we visited the Mercado Central and found it to be utterly intriguing. We went for the queso helado (“cheese ice cream” but really the name is misleading since it’s actually just ice cream) and stayed for the sites. Queso helado looks like sliced cheese but tastes like vanilla ice cream with cinnamon sprinkled on top. This market is so colorful and so vibrant we loved walking around and taking it all in. There are huge sections for everything from cheeses, fruits and vegetables, clothing, meats, juice bars, flowers, and more. This is where local people shop but we did see the occasional tourist there as well, walking around in awe like we were.

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Mercado Central in Arequipa

There were so many restaurants in Arequipa that we really enjoyed but some of our favorites are Mixtos, Crepisimo, Inkari Pub Pizzeria, Manolo’s, and Chaqchao Chocolate Factory. We stayed at SureStay Plus Hotel by Best Western Tierrasur Colonial, which we loved, and it’s a short walk to Plaza de Armas and many other shops and restaurants in the historical district.

When we left Arequipa we were already talking about the next time we come back. We will of course go to Colca Canyon for a two-day tour and we’d like to climb the volcano El Misti as well. I’m already looking forward to going back!

Have you been to Arequipa and if so what did you like best when you were there? Would you like to go? Have you been to other parts of Peru?

Happy Travels!

Donna