With distances in Peru being so vast, many Peruvians and other travellers are increasingly flying to their destinations, as all Peruvian cities are within a two-hour flight of Lima. Most Peruvians, however, still get around the country by bus, a cheap way to travel with routes to almost everywhere. In a few cases, it’s possible to arrive by train – an interesting and sought-after experience itself – though these trips are considerably slower than the equivalent bus journeys.
There’s a good domestic air service in Peru these days. Some places in the jungle can only sensibly be reached by plane and Peru is so vast that the odd flight can save a lot of time. There are three main established airline companies: LAN, a Chilean-owned company, who fly to all of the main cities and many smaller destinations; StarPerú, a Peruvian airline that began operating in 2005; and TACA, which initially grew out of a military-operated internal domestic service. More recently, Peruvian Airlines has set up to compete with these three.
Most tickets for all these domestic airlines can be booked and bought online as well as from travel agents or airline offices in all major towns. The jungle towns, such as Pucallpa, Tarapoto, Puerto Maldonado and Iquitos, also tend to have small air colectivo companies operating scheduled services carrying missionaries and hospital patients between larger settlements in the region, at quite reasonable rates. If there’s space you pay your share; for example a place on a 30min four-seater flight would cost S/200 to S/400 ($75 to $150) per person.
The most popular domestic routes cost upwards of S/215 ($80) and are generally cheaper if booked well in advance. In high season some Lima–Cusco flights are fully booked months in advance. Less busy routes tend to be less expensive per air mile and can be booked the day before. On all flights it’s important to confirm your booking two days before departure.
Flights are often cancelled or delayed, and sometimes they even leave earlier than scheduled – especially in the jungle where the weather can be a problem. If a passenger hasn’t shown up an hour before the flight, the company may give the seat to someone on the waiting list, so it’s best to be on time whether you’re booked or are merely hopeful. The luggage allowance on internal flights is generally 16kg, not including hand luggage.
There are also small planes (four- and ten-seaters) serving the jungle and certain parts of the coast. A number of small companies fly out of Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima most days (their counters are between the international check-in counters and the domestic departure area), but these have few fixed schedules as well as a reputation for being dangerous and poorly maintained.
For an expreso air taxi, which will take you to any landing strip in the country whenever you want, you’ll pay $600 per hour (which can be shared between up to four passengers); this price is based on a half-hour flight and is calculated to include the return journey with the pilot in an empty plane.
Peru’s buses are run by a variety of private companies, all of which offer remarkably low fares, making it possible to travel from one end of the country to the other (over 2000km) for under $35. Long-distance bus journeys cost from around $1.75 per hour on the fast coastal highway, and are even cheaper on the slower mountain and jungle routes. The condition of the buses ranges from the efficient and relatively luxurious Cruz del Sur fleet that runs along the coast, to the older, more battered buses used on local runs throughout the country. Some of the better bus companies, including Cruz del Sur (cruzdelsur.com.pe) and Ormeño (grupo-ormeno.com.pe), offer excellent onboard facilities including sandwich bars and video entertainment. The major companies generally offer two or three levels of service, and many companies run the longer journeys by night with a bus-cama (comfortable deeply reclining seat) option. Cruz del Sur now operates an excellent website with timetables and ticket purchase option (credit cards accepted).
As the only means of transport available to most of the population, buses run with surprising regularity, and the coastal Panamerican Highway and many of the main routes into the mountains have now been paved (one of ex-President Fujimori’s better legacies), so on such routes services are generally punctual. On some of the rougher mountainous routes, punctures, arguments over rights of way and, during the rainy season, landslides may delay the arrival time by several hours.
At least one bus depot, or stopping area, can be found in the centre of any town. Peru is investing in a series of terminal terrestres, or terrapuertos, centralizing the departure and arrival of the manifold operators. Lima does not have this facility and, in any case, it’s always a good idea to double-check where the bus is leaving from, since in some cities, notably Arequipa, bus offices are in different locations to the bus terminal. If you can’t get to a bus depot or terminal terrestre, you can try to catch a bus from the exit roads or police checkpoints on the outskirts of most Peruvian cities, though there’s no guarantee of getting a ride or a seat.
For intercity rides, it’s best to buy tickets in advance direct from the bus company offices; for local trips, you can buy tickets on the bus itself. On long-distance journeys, try to avoid getting seats right over the jarring wheels, especially if the bus is tackling mountain or jungle roads.
Taxis can be found anywhere at any time in almost every town. Any car can become a taxi simply by sticking a taxi sign up in the front window; a lot of people, especially in Lima, take advantage of this to supplement their income. Whenever you get into a taxi, always fix the price in advance (in nuevo soles rather than in US dollars) since few of them have meters. Taxi drivers in Peru do not expect tips.
Relatively short journeys in Lima generally cost around S/5–10 (US$2–4), but it’s cheaper elsewhere in the country. Radio taxis, minicabs and airport taxis tend to cost more. Even relatively long taxi rides in Lima are likely to cost less than S/15 (US$6), except to and from the airport, which ranges from S/30–60 (US$11–22); prices depend on how far across the city you’re going, how bad the traffic is and how much you’re prepared to pay for a more official or stylish vehicle.
In many rural towns, you’ll find small cars – mainly Korean Ticos and motorcycle rickshaws, known variously as mototaxis, or motokars, all competing for customers. The latter are always cheaper (starting at S/1 for short rides), if slightly more dangerous and not that comfortable, especially if there’s more than two of you or if you’ve got a lot of luggage. In a rural town, you might find normal car taxis (eg Toyotas), Tico taxis and mototaxis competing for business; a ride across town might cost S/5–8 in a normal taxi, S/3–5 in a Tico or S/2–3 in a mototaxi.
Colectivos (shared taxis) are a very useful way of getting around that’s peculiar to Peru. They connect all the coastal towns, and many of the larger centres in the mountains. Like the buses, many are ageing imports from the US – huge old Dodge Coronets – though, increasingly, fast new Japanese and Korean minibuses run between the cities.
Colectivos tend to be faster than the bus, though they are often as much as twice the price. Most colectivo cars manage to squeeze in about seven people including the driver (three in the front and four in the back), and can be found in the centre of a town or at major stopping places along the main roads. If more than one is ready to leave it’s worth bargaining a little, as the price is often negotiable. Colectivo minibuses, also known as combis, can squeeze in twice as many people, or often more.
In the cities, colectivos have an appalling reputation for safety. There are crashes reported in the Lima press every week, mostly caused by the highly competitive nature of the business. There are so many combis covering the same major arterial routes in Lima that they literally race each other to be the first to the next street corner. They frequently crash, turn over and knock down pedestrians. Equally dangerous is the fact that the driver is in such a hurry that he does not always wait for you to get in. If you’re not careful he’ll pull away while you’ve still got a foot on the pavement, putting you in serious danger of breaking a leg.
Peru’s spectacular train journeys are in themselves a major attraction, and you should aim to take at least one long-distance train ride during your trip, especially as the trains connect some of Peru’s major tourist sights. At the time of writing, the Central Railway, which climbs and switchbacks its way up from Lima into the Andes as far as Huancayo on the world’s highest standard-gauge tracks, only runs about once a month for passengers (see By train).
There are three rail companies operating out of Cusco. PeruRail (perurail.com) offers passenger services inland from Puno on Lake Titicaca north to Cusco, from where another line heads out down the magnificent Urubamba Valley as far as Machu Picchu. On the Cusco-to-Machu Picchu line there are two new competitor companies – Inca Rail (incarail.com) and Machu Picchu Train (incarail.com).
The trains move slowly, allowing ample time to observe what’s going on outside. For all train journeys, it’s advisable to buy tickets a week or two before travelling and even further in advance during high season.
Driving around Peru is generally not a problem outside of Lima, and allows you to see some out-of-the-way places that you may otherwise miss. However, road traffic in Lima is abominable, both in terms of its recklessness and the sheer volume. Traffic jams are ubiquitous between 8 and 10am and again between 4 and 7pm every weekday, while air pollution from old and poorly maintained vehicles is a real health risk, particularly in Lima and Arequipa.
If you bring a car into Peru that is not registered there, you will need to show (and keep with you at all times) a libreta de pago por la aduana (proof of customs payment) normally provided by the relevant automobile association of the country you are coming from. Spare parts, particularly tyres, should be carried along with a tent, emergency water and food. The chance of theft is quite high – the vehicle, your baggage and accessories are all vulnerable when parked.
International driving licences are technically only valid for thirty days in Peru, after which a permit is required from the Touring y Automóvil Club del Perú, Av Trinidad Moran 698, Lince, Lima (Mon–Fri 9am–4.45pm; 01 614 9999, touringperu.com.pe); in practice, however, a US or European photo licence is generally accepted without question.
Renting a car costs much the same as in Europe and North America. The major rental firms all have offices in Lima, but outside the capital you’ll generally find only local companies are represented. You may find it more convenient to rent a car in advance online – expect to pay from around $40 a day, or $200 a week for the smallest car. In jungle cities it’s usually possible to rent motorbikes or mopeds by the hour or by the day: this is a good way of getting to know a town or to be able to shoot off into the jungle for a day.
There are no coastal boat services in Peru, but in many areas – on Lake Titicaca and especially in the jungle regions – water is the obvious means of getting around. From Puno, on Lake Titicaca, there are currently no regular services to Bolivia by ship or hydrofoil – though check with the tour agencies in Puno – but there are plenty of smaller boats that will take visitors out to the various islands in the lake. These aren’t expensive and a price can usually be negotiated down at the port.
In the jungle areas motorized canoes come in two basic forms: those with a large outboard motor and those with a Briggs and Stratton peque-peque engine; the outboard is faster and more manoeuvrable, but they cost a lot more to run. Your best option is to hire a canoe along with its guide/driver for a few days. This means searching around in the port and negotiating, but you can often get a peque-peque canoe from around S/135–216 ($50–80) per day, which will invariably work out cheaper than taking an organized tour, as well as giving you a choice of guide and companions. Obviously, the more people you can get together, the cheaper it will be per person.
Even if you’ve no intention of doing any serious hiking, there’s a good deal of walking involved in checking out many of the most enjoyable Peruvian attractions. Climbing from Cusco up to the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, for example, or wandering around at Machu Picchu, involves more than an average Sunday afternoon stroll. Bearing in mind the rugged terrain throughout Peru, the absolute minimum footwear is a strong pair of running shoes. Much better is a pair of hiking boots with good ankle support.
Hiking – whether in the desert, mountains or jungle – can be an enormously rewarding experience, but you should go properly equipped and bear in mind a few of the potential hazards. Never stray too far without food and water, something warm and something waterproof to wear. The weather is renowned for its dramatic changeability, especially in the mountains, where there is always the additional danger of altitude sickness. In the jungle the biggest danger is getting lost (see Getting around the jungle).
In the mountains it’s often a good idea to hire a pack animal to carry your gear. Llamas can only carry about 25–30kg and move slowly; a burro (donkey) carries around 80kg and a mule – the most common and the best pack animal – will shift 150kg with relative ease. Mules can be hired from upwards of $5 a day, and they normally come with an arriero, a muleteer who’ll double as a guide. It is also possible to hire mules or horses for riding but this costs a little more. With a guide and beast of burden it’s quite simple to reach even the most remote valleys, ruins and mountain passes, travelling in much the same way as Pizarro and his men did over four hundred years ago.
Hitching in Peru usually means catching a ride with a truck driver, who will almost always expect payment. Always agree on a price before getting in as there are stories of drivers stopping in the middle of nowhere and demanding unreasonably high amounts (from foreigners and Peruvians alike) before going any further. Hitching isn’t considered dangerous in Peru, but having said that, few people, even Peruvians, actually hitch. Trucks can be flagged down anywhere but there is greater choice around markets, and at police controls or petrol stations on the outskirts of towns. Trucks tend to be the only form of public transport in some less accessible regions, travelling the roads that buses won’t touch and serving remote communities, so you may end up having to sit on top of a pile of potatoes or bananas.
Hitchhiking in private cars is not recommended, and, in any case, it’s very rare that one will stop to pick you up.
There are hundreds of travel agents and tour operators in Peru, and reps hunt out customers at bus terminals, train stations and in city centres. While they can be expensive, organized excursions can be a quick and relatively effortless way to see some of the popular attractions and the more remote sites, while a prearranged trek of something like the Inca Trail can take much of the worry out of camping preparations and ensure that you get decent campsites, a sound meal and help with carrying your equipment in what can be difficult walking conditions.
Many adventure tour companies offer excellent and increasingly exciting packages and itineraries – ranging from mountain biking, whitewater rafting, jungle photo-safaris, mountain trekking and climbing, to more comfortable and gentler city and countryside tours. Tours cost $45–300 a day and, in Cusco and Huaraz in particular, there’s an enormous selection of operators to choose from. Cusco is a pretty good base for hiking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, horseback riding or going on an expedition into the Amazonian jungle with an adventure tour company; Arequipa and the Colca Canyon offer superb hiking; Huaraz is also a good base for trekking and mountaineering; Iquitos, on the Amazon River, is one of the best places for adventure trips into the jungle and has a reasonable range of tour operators. Several of these companies have branches in Lima, if you want to book a tour in advance. Reliable tour operators are listed in the relevant sections throughout the Guide.