Standing at the sun gate as you watch dawn break over Machu Picchu, bathing the monument in a cloud of light. Tracking for caiman in a small motorboat along an Amazon tributary. Catching early morning waves from the sandy beaches of hip surfing capital, Mancora. Welcome to Peru, where an epic, adventurous experience awaits you around every turn.
The Peruvian travel bug first hit me back in 2015 when I arrived in Peru from Bolivia, passing along the shores of Lago Titicaca in Puno to the high-altitude, historic city of Cusco. I’ve since explored the country on multiple occasions -- learning, on each visit, more about the fine culture and history of one of South America’s most geographically varied and biodiverse countries.
If you’re a budding Indiana Jones dreaming of an expedition in this far-flung corner of South America, finding adventure tours in Peru is a breeze.
Choosing between them is where the problems start -- which is why we’ve put together these eight tips to take you from the comfort of your home to trekking through the Andes Mountains or chowing down on ceviche before you can even utter “¡Hola Peru!”
Peru is Huge -- There's a Lot to Do!
It can be difficult to get a real sense of the size of a new country just from the map, so let me put Peru into perspective for you. At 496,224 square miles, Peru is the 20th largest country in the world. It’s also just a little bit smaller than Alaska, or twice the size of Texas. Yup -- that’s huge.
Before you go anywhere near actually choosing your tour, it’s wise to get a map out and work out exactly which region(s) most appeals and what type of adventure tour will suit you best.
Many tours focus on one specific geographical area; others may cover a lot more of Peru but will see you spending a good proportion of your trip in a plane or long-distance bus. The latter is certainly not the most comfortable means of traveling (although it’s an authentic -- and slow -- means of seeing Peru’s landscapes) so bear this in mind before opting for a tour that covers lots of ground.
As a rough guide, adventure tours in the south of Peru are generally centered in or pass through:
- Lima, the buzzing Peruvian capital city
- Cusco, the city closest to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
- Manú National Park, part of the Amazon Jungle and one of the most biodiverse protected areas on the planet
- Arequipa, a colonial city near the hiking mecca of Colca Canyon
- Puno, a city on the shores of Lake Titicaca
- The desert route from Nazca (of Nazca Lines fame) to Huacachina (an oasis town surrounded by dunes) and Paracas (known for the animal-filled Islas Ballestas)
The north of Peru is less popular with tourists but offers some fascinating historical and seaside destinations, including:
- Chachapoyas, a small city tucked into the cloud forest and surrounded by archaeological sites such as Kuélap and Karajía and the impressive Gocta Waterfall
- Archeological sites such as Caral near Lima, and Huacas del Sol and de la Luna and Chan Chan near Trujillo
- Surfing destinations along the northern coast
- Iquitos, a town only accessible by plane or boat that’s located deep in the Amazon Jungle
Peru is a Physically Demanding Destination
Part of the appeal of Peru is the country’s wild scenery, characterized by the jagged peaks of the Andes Mountains that mark her eastern edge. Most visitors to Peru make the pilgrimage to the Inca site of Machu Picchu, tucked up between the mountains and the clouds. You can get here either on foot or in a plush train that connects Cusco with Aguas Calientes at the base of the site.
If you opt to hike along the preserved section of Inca road known as the Inca Trail or via one of the alternative paths through the mountains, it’s worth being prepared for the physical shock of the experience. The highest point along the Inca Trail is at the alarmingly named Dead Woman’s Pass, 4,215 meters above sea level. On the increasingly popular alternative route to Machu Picchu, the Salkantay, the loftiest point is at a lung-busting 4,600 meters.
The oxygen-depleted air at this altitude can leave you facing shortness of breath or a mild headache -- unpleasant symptoms of altitude sickness. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict if you’ll experience this, as fitness levels have no bearing on your proclivity towards the affliction. However, getting your legs going with some day hikes before you leave home can do wonders for your fitness levels and help make the on the ground experience even more enjoyable.
Expect to feel like a superhuman when you drop back to sea level in Lima!
Not All Peruvian Tour Companies are Created Equally
As with any country on earth, the quality of the tour operators that you come across in Peru varies. Unlike in most parts of Western Europe and the U.S., there aren’t a whole lot of laws governing exactly who can and can’t run tours.
On one hand, this mean you find some wonderfully cheap deals for your trip; on the other, it means there’s no guarantee about the quality or even safety of tour operators. I’ve taken truly awful tours before, finding myself staying in dirty accommodation and eating at even dirtier restaurants and trust me -- it’s not an experience I’d like to repeat.
What’s more, as tourists, we have significant power when it comes to deciding how to spend our money. Peru is officially a mega-diverse country and globally ranks only behind Colombia when it comes to the number of birds that call it home. Its landscapes need help to be protected, but many unscrupulous tour companies do nothing to safeguard the environment or the communities of the places that they visit.
Those that put their money where their mouth is and lead environmentally sustainable tours tend to cost a little bit more, but their impact is literally helping to protect the earth.
To ensure the quality of the company before I book, I now make sure to vet them, checking out online reviews from previous travelers.
I also conduct a quick sweep of the company’s website to check what they have to say on the subject of environmental sustainability and if there are any incriminating photos proving that all may not be as it seems. Photos of guides handling animals should set alarm bells ringing, for example.
I’ve found this to be an excellent way of weeding out the goodies from the baddies of the tour operating world and ensuring that my trip is both enjoyable and safe.
For more tips and tricks, read our guide to finding a sustainable and ethical tour company.
Spanish isn't Necessary, but it will Help!
The most spoken language in Peru is Spanish, the language left by the conquistadores when they came and conquered the New World back in the 16th century. While important global cities such as Lima and Cusco are home to an increasing number of locals fluent in English, head outside of these places and it's unlikely you’ll hear more than a couple of choice words of this tongue.
If you’re on a guided tour, chances are there won’t be too many opportunities where you’re high and dry without someone who can help you navigate the muddy waters of this new language, but picking up some Spanish can make a huge difference when it comes to the experience you have.
I can’t tell you how differently people respond to you when they find out that you can speak even the tiniest bit of Spanish. Not only are people friendlier in their interactions, but you find that they try to rip you off significantly less!
Fluency isn’t necessary, but studying at night school prior to your trip or factoring in a few weeks of Spanish language tuition at a language school in Cusco, Arequipa, or Lima (or one of these top places to study Spanish) before you start your tour is guaranteed to do wonders for your linguistic capabilities and your general experience in Peru.
Get Your Vaccinations Before Departure
Peru has more than its fair share of nasty diseases floating around and various vaccinations are essential before you arrive. The U.S. is an excellent resource for this, with guidance for the types of jabs you need depending on exactly where you plan to go, plus information about anti-malarial tablets that you may need if heading into the Amazon. You might wind up feeling like a human pin cushion by the end of it but it’s an awful lot better than the consequences of not having them done.
Note that vaccinations against rabies must be spread out over a one-month period, while the yellow fever vaccination is currently experiencing a worldwide shortage. Both must be planned well in advance if they are required for the destinations you are visiting.
Pack for Multiple Climates -- Peru has them All!
Because of Peru’s huge variety of eco-regions, the climate of this country varies immensely and can pose quite a packing challenge. In the high-altitude city of Cusco, daytime is generally hot and sunny (with torrential rain during the rainy season), while the nights can get quite chilly because of the altitude.
In Lima and further north up the Pacific Coast, high humidity levels and an almost complete absence of rainfall mean sunscreen and a good hat are essentials. Deep in the jungle in Iquitos or near Manú, humidity is the name of the game and a good lightweight raincoat for rainy season vital.
Most tour operators should provide you with an overview of the recommended gear to pack for your trip so be sure to give it a good once-over before leaving. You can pick up plenty of items that you may have forgotten in the bigger cities in Peru, although prices for hiking equipment can be high and rip-offs of official brands common.
Be Adventurous about Peruvian Food
Anticuchos (cooked beef heart skewers), ceviche (raw fish “cooked” in lime juice), and cuy (roasted guinea pig) are some of the more typical -- and unusual -- Peruvian dishes that you may well encounter on your trip to the country.
Although the latter certainly brought back uncomfortable memories for me of my old guinea pig pals Bubble and Squeak (long may they rest in peace in guinea pig heaven), it was a dish I just had to say I’d tried -- and wasn’t actually that bad in the end.
Peru is known as one of the fine-dining hubs of the world and has an impressive range of dishes grown across its territory. From the humble potato (there are around 4,000 varieties that grow here) to squid and mackerel fished from the long Pacific Coast, the ingredients are as fresh as can be and just waiting to be sampled.
Plenty of tours around the Peruvian capital Lima focus on exploring the city’s iconic markets or dining in some swanky restaurants -- so leave your fear of new food at the airport and get ready to tuck right in.
Understand Peruvian Tipping & Haggling
You’ve booked your tour, polished your Spanish, packed your bags and opened your mind to the gastronomic possibilities for your adventure of a lifetime in Peru. There’s one final consideration before you depart: tipping etiquette and haggling.
There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to gratuities and it varies according to where you are. You may be asked if you want to leave a 10% tip in high-end restaurants in Lima and nothing more than a couple of soles is expected in small, family-run restaurants in the rest of the country. Note that service can be dreadful in this country and you shouldn’t feel obliged to tip if you feel the service doesn’t merit it.
That said, wages in Peru are low, with the monthly minimum wage around US$ 250. Adding a tip for your server at a restaurant or for your tour guide after your tour is a very welcome gesture.
Those traveling on a budget might also be keen to get their money’s worth when it comes to visiting the country’s numerous craft market and buying souvenirs here is a great way of investing in the local economy and bagging yourself a unique memento. However, before haggling the seller into the ground, consider the gap between prices you’d pay for artisanal items in your home country and what you’re paying here -- and don’t take it all the way down to the bone. The value of knocking an extra US$ 1 off a llama-wool jumper for you and the store owner is likely entirely different.
Peru is huge, diverse and astonishingly beautiful and home to incredible people ready to show you about their millennia-old culture. Even if you're a first-timer traveler, Peru is an excellent destination for your trip and an adventure tour is one of the best means of exploring the country comfortably, as you find yourself in the hands of expert tour guides who can help reveal the magic of this country right before your eyes. Are you ready for an unforgettable adventure in Peru?