Country Facts – Peru
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Peru Country Guide
Peru is a destination which promises experiences unrivalled anywhere else in the world. Consider, for example, that within this one country you can experience the world’s highest-altitude train journey, the world’s largest city inaccessible by road and the world’s only guinea pig festival.
Add to that the world-famous UNESCO-listed sites like Machu Picchu and Cuzco, or the ease with which one can explore the Amazon jungle, and it’s no wonder that Peru tops so many people’s travel wish list.
Peru is neatly divided – roughly north to south – into three distinct zones. Closest to the Pacific Ocean lies the “coastal” zone, characterised by its aridity and moderate temperatures. Further inland the country is bisected by the second zone – namely the Andes. This area is known as the Sierra and represents an area of increased altitude, where temperatures can plummet at night.
Still further away from the ocean one reaches the third and final climatic zone, the Amazon jungle. Known locally as the “selva” this is the largest of the three regions, dominating roughly 60% of the land mass. Here both temperatures and precipitation are much higher, and wildlife exists in profusion.
These three zones, combined with variances in altitude, mean that Peru offers a broad range of climatic conditions, which is reflected in the wide diversity of plant and animal life to be found here.
Like so many equatorial countries, Peru experiences two primary seasons; a rainy season which runs from November to May and a dry season between June and September. For tourists, the warm, dry season is considered the best time to visit.
Peru’s original Amerindian population has been added to over the generations by settlers from around the world. Of these, it is the Spanish conquistadors who have left the greatest mark.
While Peru may have gained independence from the Spaniards in 1821, their influence may be felt even today in the language, architecture and religion of the country. As an example, 75% of the population still classify themselves as Roman Catholic, while Spanish is spoken by the vast majority of the population.
While most Peruvians these days are classed as mestizo (shared Amerindian and European heritage), many aspects of the old cultures still remain. The historical diversity of these ethnic groups – often divided by difficult geography – has led to an explosion of culture in Peru. Today almost 3000 different annual festivals are recognized, mixing folklore, religion and cultural history in equal measures.
The primary official language in Peru, spoken by 80% of the population, is Spanish.
However this is far from the end of the story. Keen to retain their cultural identity, many ethnic groups retain their traditional languages, with both Quechua and Aymara being considered second languages. Still others may be experienced in more remote areas of the country.
English may be spoken around more tourist-centric areas like Machu Picchu, but in reality a basis of Spanish will likely make your trip here easier and more enjoyable.
Travel in Peru can be at times challenging, at others exhilarating.
Visitors may drive in Peru for up to six months with the possession of a UK driving license. Individuals that have exchanged their local version for an International Driving License are given a year.
Thereafter it will be necessary to obtain a Peruvian driving license which will involve passing a written test about rules and regulations of the road and, for drivers with less than three years of experience, even a practical test will be required.
One might imagine, based on these careful stipulations, that drivers in Peru would be polite and safe motorists. Sadly, travellers reveal quite the opposite, and stories abound of aggressive driving, lack of signalling and a complete disregard for traffic lights (and pedestrians). Add to that the lack of directional road signs and it soon becomes clear that driving in Peru is only for the most confident (or suicidal) of visitors.
Fortunately, there are a range of alternatives. Buses are possibly the most popular form of transportation around Peru and come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and ages. At their most basic are the local buses which are cheap and plentiful. That said, bus travel in Peru requires a few handy pointers.
Firstly, as in so many other countries, thefts are rife on public buses, so you are advised to keep a close eye on your luggage and to keep valuables well hidden from view. Secondly, the bus system in Peru can be tremendously difficult to decipher for foreign visitors. The reality is that there are few general bus stations to act as “hubs”; instead each different bus company picks up and drops off at unique points. In many cases it is therefore necessary to seek advice from locals or your hotel in order to ensure you’re waiting at the right place at the right time.
An upgrade from these local buses are the premium tourist buses. While a seat may cost you several times that of a local bus, you will generally benefit from the very latest in coach-related technology. Generally on par with high quality coaches in the developed world, you can anticipate reclining seats, plenty of space and more reliable transit to your chosen destination.
Taxis are commonplace in Peru, and for good reason. There is little or no regulation of taxis in Peru, meaning that almost anyone can place a sticker in their car window and supplement their income by chauffeuring around tourists. While this means that taxis are ubiquitous in Peru, it also brings with it associated passenger risk. For obvious reasons very few taxis in Peru have a meter so discuss prices before embarkation, and don’t be afraid to haggle; tourists are often charged far more than locals.
There are a small number of railways in Peru, many of them leading to Machu Picchu. The Ferrocaril Central Andino is considered the world’s highest train and provides spectacular views of the countryside.
Healthcare in Peru operates under a decentralized system with five different sectors controlling a variety of medical establishments. The capital city of Peru, Lima, offers the highest levels of medical care, where 24 hour clinics and surgeries can be relied upon.
Outside of this urbanization, however, medical care is patchy at best. In rural areas you may struggle to receive even basic care.
Publicly-accessible medical facilities are often crowded and under-funded meaning that waiting times can be considerable. For this reason many travellers and expats rely on private healthcare facilities (which make up roughly 10% of the healthcare industry in Peru).
It is advisable to invest in health insurance before visiting Peru, in order to control healthcare costs. In extreme circumstances repatriation may be required, and this is not a cheap exercise without suitable insurance.
The official currency of Peru is the “Neuvo Sol” (plural Nuevos Soles). The name means “new sun” and is a “hat tip” to the original Peruvian “sol” currency which was faded out in 1985.
Alternatively US dollars are widely accepted, especially in the areas more popular with tourists.
Accessing your money in Peru is relatively simple, thanks to the large number of ATMs. For non-Spanish speakers many ATMs provide the opportunity to conclude your transaction in English. Note that muggings have occurred at ATMs in the past, so for safety it is recommended you use ATMs located within banks or other secure facilities.
Note that traveller’s cheques can be difficult to cash here (many banks will refuse them). In addition the fees charged on cashing traveller’s cheques can be exorbitant. Generally speaking, therefore, ATMs represent a better option.
When exchanging currency there are a number of important points that should be borne in mind. Firstly, fake notes are rife, so it is advisable to use a reputable bank or currency exchange office rather than street-side vendors. Doing so will minimize any risk.
In addition many travellers have found it difficult to break large notes, especially in rural areas. To avoid having to overpay and leave your money behind, it is consequently advisable to request small notes when exchanging currency. The phrase “billetes pequenos” can be helpful.
Peru has worked hard on its education system, and schooling is now both free and compulsory up to the age of 16. That said, a recent assessment by the Programme for International Students gave Peruvian schools the lowest possible ranking in terms of pupil achievement. When combined with the Spanish language barrier, many expat parents instead opt for one of the many international schools.
It is important to note that inclusion of some parts of the Peruvian curriculum may be required by law to be taught. While this arguably adds extra interest to schooling in Peru, it does mean that even many international schools are unable to mirror the US or UK curriculum exactly.
Food & Drink
The food in Peru has been termed “fusion cuisine” as successive immigrants have added their own unique twist to the typical ingredients on offer in Peru. This makes for a broad and varied range of foods, and can make Peru an enticing destination for food lovers.
Staples found in Peruvian cooking mirror those of many other Central and South American countries; including rice, plantains, potatoes, maize and tomatoes. However there are more than a few surprises for the more adventurous visitor.
Thinly-sliced raw fish marinated in citrus juice (known as “ceviche”) is considered a national institution, particularly in more coastal regions.
Tacu-tacu is a popular dish, consisting of freshly cooked steak with onion salsa served on a bed of rice and beans while chupe de camarones is a wholesome shrimp soup.
Meat is always a popular ingredient in Peruvian cooking, where llama and suckling pig (lechon) are frequently on the menu. Less squeamish readers may want to sample picante de cuy; best described as a guinea pig casserole.
The tap water in Peru is not considered safe to drink by health authorities, so efforts should be taken to sterilize it by boiling. Travellers are reminded that water takes longer to boil at higher altitudes, making sterilization somewhat problematic. In such circumstances iodine tablets can be beneficial.
Peru welcomes over three million tourists a year and most visits are without incident. That said, in order to make the most of your time here there are a number of precautions that should be taken.
Firstly, as in so many other countries, street crime is a perpetual problem in major cities like Lima and Cusco. Visitors are advised to keep valuables hidden, especially in busy public areas. There have also been numerous reports of luggage being stolen from buses or from “pickup truck” taxis, so always aim to keep your baggage visible and near at hand to prevent such incidents.
Another concern in Peru is drug trafficking. Always pack your own bags and do what you can to minimize access when leaving the country. A number of foreigners currently reside in Peruvian jails after (knowingly or unknowingly) transporting narcotics out of the country.
For the uninitiated altitude sickness can cause problems. For travellers visiting sites like Machu Picchu it is worth spending a few days acclimatizing before considering any strenuous Andean hiking. Aim to stay well hydrated throughout your visit to help ward off the symptoms of sickness.
Lastly be aware when selecting souvenirs. It is illegal to attempt to remove any artefact of historical value or any animal parts from the country without the right approval and paperwork. Many souvenirs include bird’s feathers and similar objects – all of which could land you in hot water at Customs.
Places to Visit
Peru is so awash with world-class destinations that narrowing down the “must see” destinations can be more than a little challenging. That said, there are a number of sites that no visit to Peru could be complete without.
Machu Picchu is possibly one of the most iconic and well-known historical sites in the whole world. A cliché, maybe, but not one that you’ll want to miss. As both one of the New Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site the experience of visiting Machu Picchu is incomparable anywhere else in the world and helps to give a real appreciation for just how developed the Incan world really was.
The second most well-known site in Peru, the Nazca Lines are a series of over a hundred images created in the earth (so-called “geoglyphs”). Named after the tribe that is believed to have constructed them, come here to experience first-hand the scale and detail that has gone into their creation, and to wonder at the culture that made them.
Chan Chan represents one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in all of South America. Generally agreed to be the largest pre-Columbian city in South America come here to learn, explore and wonder at the intricately detailed walls covered in images of animals, people and geometric patterns.
Generally believed to be the highest navigable lake in the world, Titicaca divides Peru from Bolivia. As if the picturesque beauty of the lake weren’t enough, the area is rich in wildlife, there are islands begging to be explored and the local restaurants are bulging with delicious, freshly-caught fish.
Iquitos takes the unusual title of the largest city not reachable by road. In order to visit you’ll need to take a boat or hop on a plane, but the effort is well worthwhile. Enjoy the well-preserved colonial buildings and the Allpahuayo-Mishana wildlife reserve.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Peru please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.