Peru: the survival kit
From ancient history to the High Andes – a complicated country simplified
Saturday 09 February 2008
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
Thanks to the extreme diversity of Peru, somewhere in the country is always at its best, whatever the time of year. In the capital, Lima, the ideal time is during the southern-hemisphere summer from November to April. You can expect bright, warm days. For the rest of the year, a mist tends to cling to the capital, diminishing its appeal: this is a climatic phenomenon known as the garua. The coastal strip south of here is largely desert, and dry year-round.
In the High Andes, the ideal hiking months are from May to September: the weather is usually dry and not too hot, though the nights can be very cold at altitude. May is a particularly good month to tackle the Inca Trail; the weather is favourable; the scenery is particularly lush and green; and the crowds who converge between June and September have yet to arrive. The wettest months in this region are November to April. During the wet season landslides can occur, making terrestrial transportation difficult in some areas.
The jungle is hot and humid all year; the dry season, such as it is, lasts from April to October.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
One of the hot topics in aviation is: when will someone bring back flights between London and Lima? At present, despite the rising visitors numbers to Peru, there are no direct links from the UK.
The main approaches are currently via one of three cities. Amsterdam is the one with the most links from UK airports, with a daily non-stop connection to Lima on KLM. This is a long flight, and to shave an hour or two from the haul it can be worth flying from Heathrow, Gatwick or London City via Madrid on Iberia or LAN Peru (which is set to double its services from three to six a week). The third option is to travel via Miami; American Airlines offers regular links, often in conjunction with BA or Virgin transatlantic flights. Note that this routing requires you to clear US Immigration on both the outward and inbound journeys.
Good deals are available through online agents, but specialist agencies such as South American Experience (SAX; 020-7976 5511, www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) or Journey Latin America (JLA; 020-8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) can add plenty of value. They may suggest, for example, alternatives to Lima as a South American gateway. The Lake Titicaca area is just a few hours by bus – and a straightforward border crossing – from La Paz in Bolivia. At the other end of the country, the Amazon can be accessed via Bogotá; there are regular flights from the Colombian capital to Leticia, from which the Peruvian settlement of Santa Rosa is an eight-minute, S/5 (£0.90) ride away.
HOW DO I GET AROUND?
Peru is a large country and, if you're tight for time, internal flights provide an excellent option. Naturally, Lima is the hub for flights to cities such as Arequipa, Cusco and Iquitos, but some direct hops are available – including Arequipa to Cusco, a flight of less than one hour which saves many hours on the bus ride. The main is LAN (www.lan.com), though fares on Star Peru ( www.starperu.com) and AeroCondor (www.aerocondor.com) are likely to be lower. Fares are usually priced in US dollars. For example, the one-hour flight from Lima to Cusco costs around US$95 (£50) if you book in advance. Fares between the capital and Arequipa are slightly less, those to the jungle city of Iquitos rather more.
The next layer of travel is the first-class bus, which offers reliable, speedy service on long-distance routes. The Cruz del Sur bus company actually has a premium class on flagship services: on its double-deck coaches, an exclusive cabin on the lower level has just nine seats, with deep recline and plenty of legroom. The Lima-Cusco journey costs S/170 (£30)and takes close to 24 hours.
On shorter trips, such as the Nazca-Pisco-Lima run along the Pan-American Highway, services are very frequent (every eight minutes from Pisco to the capital). Comfort levels are lower, as are fares; the six-hour ride from Nazca costs around S/30 (£5.50).
One of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century was the Lima-to-Huancayo railway line; the track's highest point is Ticlio at 4,829 metres above sea level and the world's third highest passenger railway stations sits at 4,781 metres. At present, though, trains depart from Desamparados station in Lima only monthly. Trains are far more frequent on the line between Cusco and the Sacred Valley, which provides the only way to Machu Picchu short of walking in. PeruRail (00 51 84 238722; www.perurail.com) has the monopoly, and runs a range of services from (relatively) low-cost backpackers' specials to the indulgent Hiram Bingham luxury train.
Booking in advance is essential, especially for trains from Machu Picchu back to Cusco – all the trekkers who take the Inca Trail to the sacred site come back by train, increasing demand on the eastbound leg.
The other regular service connects Cusco with Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, on three days a week. This 10-hour train ride stops en route at its high point, 4,321m; for the rest of the journey the passengers are indulged with food, drink and luxury (see opposite page).
CAN SOMEONE ORGANISE A TOUR FOR ME?
Yes, plenty of operators. JLA and SAX, mentioned above, can organise ground arrangements as well as international flights. For overland trips and group adventures you could consider Dragoman (01728 861133, www.dragoman.com), Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) or Explore (0844 499 0901; www.explore.co.uk).
"The longest-established travel company in the world", as Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) bills itself, offers a wide range of more upmarket Peruvian adventures. So too do other operators such as Bales Worldwide (0870 241 3208; www.balesworldwide.com), Sunvil Latin America (020-8758 4774; www.sunvil.co.uk) and Kuoni (01306 740 888; www.kuoni.co.uk). The Latin American Travel Association (LATA; 020-8715 2913; www.lata.org) can provide details of many more tour operators.
WILL I BE SAFE?
Almost certainly. The vast majority of Peruvians are extremely hospitable, trustworthy and concerned for your welfare. A tiny minority may try to take financial advantage of tourists, either by cheating them or robbing them. But incidents are now very rare, partly because of the extremely visible police presence in the big cities.
A long-standing traveller in South America says: "People who get into trouble are usually doing something wrong – not being aware of their surroundings, showing prospective thieves where their valuables are, or simply getting drunk and getting lost on the way to the hotel."
The South American Explorers' Club ( www.saexplorers.org) is a valuable contact for anyone travelling in Peru and beyond. This non-profit organisation celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It has offices in Lima and Cusco and provides an information exchange – including trip notes that sometimes go into staggering detail – plus help with everything from luggage storage to volsunteer opportunities.
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