My Dad, Meg, and I ventured to Peru for our first international family vacation. It had been almost a full year since we had gifted him the trip for Christmas but we finally made it happen. I was nervous but extremely excited to share my love of exploring with my Dad. We have a shared passion for basketball, Middleswarth chips, quality pizza and being on time but the travel bug – that’s all me. The focus of this trip was on creating new memories together. As well as sharing with him, like I do with all of you, some of the travel tips I’ve learned along the way.
Nope, No Visa for Peru
If you’re visiting from the US, Canada or Western Europe you do not need a visa to enter Peru. You can stay for a maximum of 183 days and must have proof of onward travel. None of the three of us were asked to provide proof:: knocks on all the wood:: but we know of people who have been asked. You can use Nomad Proof to get free proof of onward travel. One thing to note is that once you’re in Peru you cannot extend that visa.
Packing for Peru must include layers
During our trip in November, we saw temperatures as high as 78F and as low as 43F. Being able to layer a couple shirts to fight the morning or evening chill was critical to our overall comfort. We also spent most of our time walking outside. When you mix together a variety of temperatures, altitudes and activities having a flexible wardrobe helps. Our Peru Packing List will show you exactly what I took along. We each took a 44L (max carry on size) backpacks. If you’re going to check a bag your options open up quite a bit. We decided to just take backpacks because we would be changing hotels six times during our two-week stay. I’ve never been more grateful to not have a checked bag when we realized to get to one hotel we had to walk up a cobblestone street steeper than the Olympic ski jumping slope.
Transportation to Lima Airport
Stop and hire a driver before you leave the airport. It is much easier than attempting to negotiate curbside amongst a group of drivers. We went to Barranco for about $20 USD.
On the ride from the airport to our Airbnb, a bus passed by so close to the passenger side door we could have given it a kiss, a speeding car missing half a door backfired in front of us, finally, a man crossed three lanes of 60 MPH traffic selling toothbrushes and gum. While Meg and I chatted and went about business as usual, my newbie traveler Dad’s eyes bugged out of his head. He was seated in the front passenger seat, I reached up and patted his shoulder hoping to provide some sort of comfort. Welcome to Lima, Dad!
Traffic is to be expected. Not only is Lima a large city with tons of people coming and going the vehicles also operate on a very loose set of guidelines. Plan accordingly with your accommodations, especially in relation to distance from the airport. Pro Tip: only some cabs can take you to the airport, I’m assuming it’s a permit issue. However, it can get super frustrating when you wave down 3-4 cars only to have them drive off when you ask to go to the airport so build in a bit of extra time.
Peruvian food to try
Trying new food is one of the top 5 for reasons I travel. We didn’t come away disappointed, not even a little bit! Lomo Saltado was far and above my favorite thing I tried. It is marinated strips of sirloin, onions, tomatoes and fresh fries over rice. I kept ordering it every place we went, pinned the recipe at least 6 times on Pinterest (shameless plug, follow us for all our travel tips) and even convinced my sister to try it at a Peruvian spot in Ft. Lauderdale, once I got back.
My Dad’s favorite was the Picorones. Similar to a sweet potato donut covered in a molasses sauce. Absolutely best fresh out of the fryer! We snagged some at the weekend food market in the plaza. Luckily for his waistline, we only found them once. Meg’s favorite thing hands down was the coffee. Every place we went seemed to serve incredible cups. There is no denying that some of the best beans in the world are produced here. Lima especially is a coffee drinkers city and we took full advantage of it. Last but certainly not least, the Pisco Sour. The official drink of Peru and the official drink of our trip. I enjoyed the fact that at the Pisco Museum in Lima you can order them in all sorts of wonderful flavors. To be fair I hate the taste of all alcohol so the drink is either amazingly delicious even I liked it or I just know nothing at all about a quality cocktail. You’ll have to try one and let us know.
Yes, Uber is available in Peru
We used Uber to get around most of the time in Lima. Our Airbnb was a bit outside the tourist area of Barranco so hailing a cab would have been tricky. We did also find Uber to just be cheaper in general. The only exception to that is going to the airport because Uber charges an additional fee for trips to and from the airport.
Most international travelers will start and end their trip to Peru at the Lima Airport. Lima is the 3rd largest city in the Americas, with a population of 10 million people. Far too often I’ve read that it’s just a stopover city a place not worth exploring. I could not disagree more. We spent a few days in Lima at both ends of our trip and were excited to find so much to do.
You’ll find many historical sites you expect such as Plaza de Armas, Basilica San Francisco and the Bridge of Sighs. All of which are incredibly beautiful. We even took the catacombs tour at the Church of San Francisco. The tour was about an hour and included an English guide.
What I didn’t expect was the blossoming food scene. Multiple people we met wanted to tell us about how Lima is becoming the food capital of South America. If you are a foodie traveler, Lima should be on your radar.
We’re a little obsessed with street art, we’ve completely fallen in love with the way murals can change a space. Lima and more specifically the Barranco neighborhood is exploding with art. We were fortunate to link up with Brenda from Tailored Tours Peru. What’s so cool about Tailored Tours is that you can create a tour specific to what you want to see. We opted for a half day street art tour. Brenda is the manager for many of Lima’s most notable artists so walking with her felt like a real behind the scenes experience. She not only took us to some of the most beautiful pieces but also was able to provide the backstory for us. It was an incredible day, to top it off she took us to visit the studio of Entes a world famous artist she manages. He talked to us about the why behind his art in a one-on-one setting! It was so cool to even hear my Dad identifying his work the rest of our stay. We’ll forever be on the lookout for is work in cities we visit, like this one in Miami.
Pretty plain and simple, having cash on you at all times will make your life so much easier. While you’re in Lima, like most other large cities you’ll be able to swipe your card. The further you venture away from there the less likely it will get. You will be able to do big ticket things like hotel rooms and train tickets on your card but cash will be the go-to for almost everything else. Also, be aware of how much your bank allows you to withdraw per 24hr period. We’re guilty of using cards most of the time so this was something we hadn’t thought of. Lucky for us we were traveling with my Dad, if not it would have been a major issue. The other thing to be aware of is you international withdraw fee. Typically its a few bucks but if you’re taking small amounts out at a time it can really add up.
What to expect from altitude in Cusco
This was something I was concerned about, initially, the fear almost derailed this trip before it ever began. My Dad is a lifelong asthma sufferer, I couldn’t imagine asking him to fly all the way from Pennsylvania to be uncomfortable. I did my homework to find that most people are minimally affected and he busted his butt to get in shape.
We had some dull headaches at times but were mostly bothered by the restless nights. That is the one symptom all three of us were hit by. One particular night Meg was webMD’ing “what does a heart attack feel like” because her heart was racing, my Dad was snoring so loud they could hear him back in Lima and I was flopping all over the bed. Luckily, that was the worst of it for us.
The one tip we got was actually from an almost curious hotel owner. He said to us “I’ll never understand why people don’t do this whole thing in reverse. If you land in Cusco and immediately head to Machu Picchu then work your way back you gain altitude gradually.” I haven’t found many itineraries built that way but it’s something I’d consider if going back.
The Cusco Flag is not what you think
The rainbow flags aren’t for you. Upon arrival in Cusco, it might feel like you’ve ended up in the capital of the LGBTQ world, rainbow flags on buildings, in store windows and used as bumper stickers. The flag you see is actually Flag of Tahuantinsuyo, a modern representation of the Inca Empire. Unlike the Pride Flag five stripes, the official flag of Cusco is made up of seven colors.
Machu Picchu Train
Buy your Inca Rail tickets in advance. Like most things, a little planning here goes a long way. Buying your tickets online or in Cusco a couple of days before youre planning to ride will help you secure the time slot you want.
Inca Rail departs from the Ollantaytambo Station and arrives at the Machu Picchu (Aguas Caliente) station approximately 2hrs later. For the ride, Inca Rail provides four travel class options. The top being the Presidential being a private train for you and your 7 closes friends with an in-car bar. We opted for the entry-level, Executive Class train. The seats were comfortable and the windows were gigantic, providing the views we’d been dreaming of. You also get your choice of beverage and a little snack. One thing we wish we would have done differently is the time of our ride back to Ollantaytambo. We ended up heading out late in the evening so it was dark the whole time. Those big picture windows are much more enjoyable when you can see out them.
Machu Picchu Hotels
Many of the people we talked to opted to skip the hotel in Aguas Calientes altogether. Opting to take the train from Ollantaytambo, visiting Machu Picchu, and then hopping on the train again. While that option certainly works for some, I’m making the case for staying a night. With tons of people catching the train in you can get the jump on the crowds by staying the night. We spent the night at Gringo Bills which is right off the main square. The next morning we were able to get up at 5:30, eat a great breakfast and meet with our tour guide by 6:30. The bus from town to the entrance gates run constantly but getting on one of the first few of the day guarantees there will be less of a crowd on the mountain with you.
Spend time in Sacred Valley
Seeing Machu Picchu for myself was every bit as impressive as I had hoped. It’s one of those places that still manages to amaze you even after you’ve looked at pictures hundreds of times. What I didn’t expect was how much I loved our day trip through the Sacred Valley.
We hired a private van to take us to Moray and the Maras Salt Flats. The van ride was half the fun, climbing steep mountain dirt roads that felt only slightly wider than the van itself. Our driver also added a few extra stops for us. Once stopping to take pictures, again at a stunning old church in what felt like the middle of nowhere and last at a marketplace to see the wool being dyed and woven.
Spend your last full day in Lima
Pamper yourself with your last day of vacation! You’ve probably walked a lot, collected bug bites and taken at least one cold shower by now so treat yourself. We spent our last night in the ultra-modern Dazzler Lima perfectly located in the Miraflores neighborhood. The hotel is within walking distance to all kinds of bars and restaurants. They also offered rooms with 3 single beds which was perfect for us. We took hot showers and sipped drinks at the outdoor bar before heading out for our last Peruvian meal. It was a great way to unwind and reflect on the trip together before taking on a full travel day back to the US and Mexico.