Peru: If you go…

I wanted to share a few thoughts for others who might be tackling this trip soon. Things I wish I had known, or things we figured out that I thought might be good to pass on. I’ll probably add to this post as other things occur to me, so I apologize in advance for the haphazard order of this.

First of all, bring sunscreen. The highest SPF you can find. And reapply it constantly. Don’t neglect your neck and shoulders, your ears, and the edges of your sleeves. You should do this every day you’re out in the sun no matter where you are, of course, but in Peru it’s particularly important. That sun is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. And buy yourself a hat as soon as you arrive. Do as I did and make it one of your souvenirs.

Stay hydrated the entire time. You can’t drink the water, so you’ll be buying a lot. We asked for con gas most of the time – partly because we prefer sparkling water, but also because no one can refill it from the tap and pass it off as bottled water. Paranoid? Maybe. But I’d rather be paranoid than in the bathroom all night. Make sure you recycle the bottle! You may have to hunt for a bin, but they are there.

And if you can’t drink the water, you also can’t eat salads or fruits that aren’t peeled. I saw a lot of idiot tourists carefully drinking bottled water and then ordering a salad. They deserve what they’re about to get.

You’re going to be offered a lot of coca leaf tea. It’s good stuff! I am very sensitive to caffeine, and this stuff doesn’t feel anything like it. I have no idea whether it truly helped with the altitude adjustment. All I know is I started out in Cusco with two cups of it, and had no problems. Specious reasoning, yes. But there it is.

Buy tickets for things like Machu Picchu beforehand (and if you want to hike Huayna Picchu, you have no choice but to book before you leave!), but plan on negotiating taxis and going where your whims take you once you arrive. The people in Peru are so kind and good-humored, and they will help you figure it out. Just do your best to speak a little Spanish with them and show them – through body language and smiling and so forth – that you’re grateful and having a wonderful time.

If your itinerary has no room for Lima, don’t worry about it. I don’t think we’ll bother to go there again unless flights just happen to work out that way.

Pack a bottle of hand sanitizer. We’re starting to make this a habit everywhere we travel, but you’ll find it particularly helpful here. As I said, you can’t drink the water, so you certainly don’t want to wash with it and then eat with your fingers. But more important, really, is that you won’t always find good conditions for washing your hands. I was surprised by all of the toilet facilities we encountered (except at the airport in Cusco, which wasn’t terrific), particularly after reading some bad stories that suggested otherwise. But I didn’t always find soap, water, or even a sink.

It’s possible – and not unusual – to hire a taxi for an entire day. You’ll get where you want to go, and you may get some good conversation. You can have the driver wait, or s/he may be able to go home while you do your tourist thing. Then you’ll have the same ride home. We hired one from 7am to 3pm (and he got to go home in the middle for three hours), and it was S/.150 (about $50). You can’t beat that deal.

Tipping is 10%, but sometimes it’s already included on the bill. Just take a look. We gave taxi drivers about the same, which may have been excessive. But most of them turned into ad hoc tour guides, so it was deserved. You should also expect to hand over a few coins to women and children whose photos you take. I’ve read that some people think this is taking advantage of tourists, and perhaps it is. But a few coins to them amounts to about a dollar to us. And I don’t know about you, but I am happy to hand that to someone who needs it.

Buy your tickets to Machu Picchu before you leave home. Don’t underestimate how long you’ll want to stay. Assuming you take the same trip that we do, you’ll arrive at 9am one morning and leave at 3pm the next day. Plan to spend all of your waking hours on top of the mountain. And you will need your passport to get in. Not sure why, but make sure you have it. After you pass through the gate and they stamp your ticket, you can come and go all day just by showing it. Which is important, because food and bathrooms are outside. Oh, and one more thing: right after the gate, go a few more steps and turn left to a little table. This is where you can put a Machu Picchu stamp on your passport. I think that’s kind of cool, even though I did permanently mess up Yen’s passport by doing a blurry stamp. I hope they don’t haul him away because of it.

Stay at Machu Picchu after the crowds leave. The last bus is at 5:30, and there won’t be many people on it. And the next morning, getting up to see the sunrise is completely worth it. It will feel difficult, but it’s really going to be one of the best days of your life.

If you want to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu, you’ll need to get in line for the bus at 5am. Make sure you’ve already got your ticket, or you’ll end up trapped in that line instead of actually getting on the bus. We arrived at 5:10 and had to wait for the third bus (luckily they run them back-to-back at that time instead of every 10 minutes as they do the rest of the day). When you get to the top, you’ll get in another queue because the whole place doesn’t open until 6am. Then make a beeline for the Sun Gate. Don’t hang around thinking that the caretaker’s hut will be just as nice. We talked to a woman who settled for that, and she said she really missed the view because when the sun first hits the Sun Temple, it’s almost blinding.

You’re going to spend your entire trip being offered dolls, carved owls, hats, sunglasses, etc. Don’t get upset with them. If you don’t want it, just, “No, gracias.” They almost always thanked me back when I said that.

If you elect to walk down from Machu Picchu instead of taking the bus, give your return ticket to one of the guys who’s up there selling postcards. He can use it to get home at night, and that’s a little more money in his pocket.

We stayed at the following hotels:

Ferre Miraflores (Lima). Clean and quiet. It’s in the upscale neighborhood, and we definitely safe walking around the area, even late at night. A very quick walk to the ocean from here. But we weren’t aware of much to do in the area, so I think staying here simply means taking taxis everywhere – which is fine, because it’s so easy. Rooms were small but clean. Great view of the Pacific while you eat your breakfast in the morning.

Del Prado Inn (Cusco). You can’t beat the location of this one. It’s just steps off the main plaza. Very, very nice staff. The rooms were clean and charming. Breakfast was delicious. They were extremely accommodating about our weird schedule (arriving one morning at 11am, leaving another morning at 4am). The only problem is the club next door. We found sleep next to impossible in the second-floor room. Up on the fourth floor, though, we had no problem. So if you’re able to book a specific floor here, by all means do choose this inn.

El Mapi Hotel (Aguas Calientes). This was my favorite of all our hotels. It’s back from the craziness of the main street in Aguas Calientes, so it’s not quite so crazy in the area. Spacious, modern, comfortable. It seems to be making a genuine effort to be “green.” It’s very humid in this town, so the rooms have dehumidifiers, which have the added benefit of producing lovely white noise for sleeping. Breakfast and dinner were both included in the price of the room, and we enjoyed both meals very much. Breakfast starts at 4am, which is perfect because you’ll need to get in line for the first bus up to Machu Picchu at 5am, otherwise you won’t catch the sunrise (it’s a long line and the trip takes a bit). It’s a much nicer experience with a full belly.

What else? Yen? Anything? I’ll add more as it comes to me.

But go! You should go. You will love it.