Peru – The second I crossed the boarder into this country, I knew that I would like it there.
Very similar to Bolivia in regards to culture and food yet a little more ‘modern’ and easier to get around as a backpacker. Cusco &the Sacred Valley made it to my top destinations of the year. Destination wise Peru has lots to offer, despite being pretty touristy, I found my way to experience the country without tourist overwhelm.
It wasn’t all about the sights anyway. I just loved hanging out in the villages and cities. The markets, buying fruit, veg and cheese and snacks from the street, chatting to people. The Spanish here was very easy to understand (especially after Argentina and Chile, though I have to admit I caught myself using the ‘sh’ sound for the ‘ll’ at times – I met/talked to too many Argentinians/Uruguyans apparently :P).
Fun fact: females here are often addressed as ‘mami’, which was hilarious to me, as that’s what I used to call my mum (in German) when I was a child. When people called me that I suddenly felt very old. But it created a little connection with the market ladies we’d always shop from when we addressed them that way
I loved getting my breakfast drink from a small street stall. Lunches for 1.5$ in the market hall or at small restaurants. And then spend 5-10x the amount when in need for some ‘fancy’ western food, which was widely available and came in any varieties, from an American breakfast place, to a vegan cafe, to a Poke bowl restaurant, to an Indian restaurant. Cusco and Lima are excellent places for any sort of food.
It was also nice being able to ‘splurge’ on a private room and ditching the constant hostel life for a bit as prices are rather affordable and you can find a private room under 10$ a night).
One thing I didn’t expect to enjoy that much was traveling by bus. Peru put this backpacker necessity at a whole other level.
It starts with the fact that many bus companies have their own terminal. It feels like taking a plane actually. You have to drop off your luggage at a certain counter, then head to a check-in desk, go through security and then hop onto the bus. There you get a safety video instruction (i.e. drivers in Peru are only allowed to drive 90km/h and many busses have alarms that beep when they drive over that speed limit). And you get the same ‘quality’ food as on an airplane as well 😂
Some buses have blankets and pillows for you. And you’re always being ‘entertained’ by movies, so you can practice some Spanish 😛 (funny seeing American movies dubbed)
Overall I can say that buses in Peru for me were the nicest. It pays off to take the bigger companies, such as Oltursa, ITTSA, …
Note that there are two companies that promise ‘safe trips’ and advertise that other companies shouldn’t be trusted. I’m referring to ‘Peru Hop’ and ‘Bolivia Hop’. I haven’t taken those busses but I don’t think you have to pay more for such a service as at least in Peru, the major bus companies left nothing to complain about. If you do prefer to have a more ‘tour-guided’ way of transportation, meaning that you travel with other travelers and have a guide who gives you some information on the bus, then it definitely is an option!
Ok, so transportation… that should be a topic on its own in South-America in general as it’s so different to what I’m used to in the Western World.
Let’s take the small vans that take you around, like mini-buses, ‘collectivos’/van/combi or whatever else they call the. Those are always good for an adventure. I’ve seen roosters on the bus, bags full of crops that are seemingly bigger than their owners and I was stunned by the number of people one can squeeze in such a tiny vehicle. It’s kinda awesome though, that compared to the west, where you have to walk to a designated bus stop and might wait up to half an hour for a bus to arrive, here you simply wave down the van when you see it approaching (which is all the time) and yell ‘baja/me quedo etc.’ when you want to get off.
Another interesting mode of transportation is the so-called ‘moto-taxis’ or simply ‘motos’. If you’ve ever been to Thailand then you know what I’m talking about – Tuk Tuks. I’ll never forget how at my last workaway we’d squeeze in 2 people with two baskets of kale and two big backpacks. It always seemed impossible but we always managed (not saying it was comfortable).
Fun fact number two regarding transportation: In the Cusco area, pretty much every car is either a taxi, a can or a car that will offer to take you to your destination. Hitchhiking here means you still got to pay for the ride though. (always negotiate beforehand! ;))
With transportation not being the main selling point, let’s hop onto something else. No, not Machu Picchu that I didn’t visit but another important reason people travel: FOOD!!
Peru is actually South-America’s food paradise to most backpackers. I would say that is due to the influence of Asian cuisine as well as ‘ceviche’ the raw seafood dish that’s very popular (and yummy).
I found the Peruvian cuisine to be pretty diverse in its ingredients and flavors.
Also, you’ll probably never see a bigger variety of kinds of potatoes. Even if you’re not a potato lover, please give Peruvian potatoes a chance. I had some incredibly interesting ones that did not fall into what I usually consider a slightly ‘bland-flavoured food on its own’. You’ll for example find ‘chuno’ – a freeze-dried potato from the Andean region, purple and black potatoes. Sometimes people sell some sweet-potatoes and others ready to eat – give them a try, they are delicious!
From potatoes to grains. I was super happy to find some nice healthy ‘Andean grains’ in the country. Quinoa is the one that most of you would know but there are many more and their usage is much more varied than we know it. Quinoa is sold as a drink (in the morning by street vendors), puffed on cereal bars and as flakes in your oatmeal. The same thing for the other grains. All of them are tremendously rich in protein and I really wished they were easy to come by outside of the country.
Fruit in Peru is amazing as well. The variety is huge and the prices pretty affordable. I ate so many new fruits and some that I mainly knew from Asia. Also, there are always fresh fruit juices that are sold at the markets. You sit on a small stool in front of the ‘juice ladies’ who are usually up for a little chat. They fill up your glass and then wait until you’re finished to refill it again and again until their blender is empty.
Also, this is the time I would recommend going on a tour that goes on a market and explains all the different types of fruit to you. You can also just buy and try them all as I did! Grenadilla was one of my favorites, it’s a sort of passion fruit and supposedly good for your stomach. Beware that there is always a lot of fruit that you’d only use for making juice, so I’d always ask the market mami’s whether it’s just for making ‘jugo’ or whether you can eat it as it is. – As a rule of thumb, any small ‘apricot’-sized fruit, that seems rather hard will probably be for making juice. Make sure to order a juice of a fruit you’ve never heard of before – you’ll be in for a treat for sure!
Last but not least, I loved the fact that culture was celebrated every place I went to. Compared to other countries in South-America I found that culture was demonstrated a little more. Now, you might argue that it’s all for the tourists (and I can’t totally disagree) but I found it made the country very colorful and interesting to see. I loved hearing about the different groups of people and the different languages that are still spoken to this day.
There were also always parades in traditional costumes, dances, and stories that were told in the cities. Cusco in the month of June is insane when it comes to parades!
Just be aware of the ladies and the kids wearing traditional costumes dragging a llama or alpaca around with them in the cities (or even in the countryside). They’ll most likely ask you for some money if you want to take a picture with them.
I know this is not the time when people are making travel plans but I hope you were able to travel a little bit vicariously and this post has sparked some interest, especially as Peru is so much more than Machu-Picchu!!
I did not touch on even half of what the country has to offer, however I decied not to write about travel hotspots, because those you can easily figure out for yourself 😉
Instead I wanted to give you a little insights from what I experienced and saw.
I also wrote an extensive post on the hikes that I did in the Sacred Valley close to Cusco. That area was what made me fall in love with the country! I really recommend not only visiting Machu Pichu but some of the hundreds of smaller ruins that are scattered in the area and throughout the country.