If you’re going backpacking in Peru, chances are you’ll hear a lot about Machu Picchu, something like “don’t spend any time in Lima” (we disagree), and some generic advice about acclimating in Cusco for a few days before doing anything athletic, like getting out of bed or walking up a flight of stairs (we agree). And that’s about it. We arrived in Peru with very little idea of what to expect: we knew a whole lot about the history of the Incas and very little about the Peru of today. After a month of backpacking in Peru and figuring it out as we went, we’ve cobbled together some observations from our very gringo perspective, with varying levels of usefulness and in no particular order. Here are 40 things nobody tells you about backpacking in Peru!
- If you order a coffee at a restaurant, you are likely to receive a cup of hot water and a small pitcher of cold dark liquid. Surprise! That’s your coffee. It’s highly concentrated and often sweetened. You’re supposed to pour the concentrated coffee into the hot water until it stops tasting like watery coffee, which is usually about a 50:50 ratio, in my experience. I will say that it’s way better than instant, but it’s not quite the cold brew of my snobby coffee fantasies, either (although there is incredible coffee in Lima).
- There’s more American music here than anywhere else we’ve been. But it’s all like, a few years behind. There’s a lot of classic rock, a weird amount of Jason Mraz, and more than anything else, Coldplay. This entire country is freaking obsessed with Coldplay. We hear it at hostels, restaurants, coffee shops. Acoustic Coldplay. Live recorded Coldplay. Acapella Coldplay. It’s very relaxing, but we’re very confused.
- When they’re not chillaxing to Coldplay, every coffee shop in Peru has the same acoustic cover album playing. Just hours of acoustic covers of American Top 40’s hits. Miley Cirus, Taylor Swift, Adele, and – above all else – James Blunt and that song “Let Her Go” from whoeverthehell. Seriously, we’ve heard it more here than we ever did in the states. It’s so odd.
- Lúcuma is the Pumpkin Spice of Peru. It might just be our favorite Peruvian fruit, and we’ve never actually tried the fruit itself! Lúcuma is a flavor used all over Peru in sweets, ice creams, and desserts. It tastes like caramel and maple syrup mixed with brown sugar and heaven. We hear the actual fruit has the texture of a hard boiled egg yolk, which is why people use it for cooking instead of eating raw. We’re really curious to try it. If you see something flavored with lúcuma, get it!
- Sometimes when something in a restaurant includes ham, it’s literally pieces of lunch meat ham. This is maybe excusable – if a little weird – on pizza, but it makes absolutely no sense on pasta. And yet….
- Don’t forget to look up the altitude of your destination ahead of time! Altitude is no joke in Peru, where you can travel a few hours away from the coast and suddenly find yourself gasping and sick. I got altitude sickness after taking a bus from Huancacho, at sea level, to Huaraz, at 10,000 feet. Try to plan your trip so that you climb gradually and have a few days to acclimate. Don’t go from coast to mountains and back to the coast and then back into the mountains, which is what we did – wtf were we thinking?? And bring altitude sickness pills!
- Coca Tea is your best friend. Don’t let its plant origins fool you: it’s nothing like cocaine! It tastes like bitter dried leaves and smells a bit like weed, but it’s fantastic for soothing an upset stomach and easing the effects of altitude sickness.
- There are a lot of very strong, unpleasant smells here. Inside, there is floor wax, gas, and strong chemical cleaners. Outside, it constantly smells like exhaust and gasoline. And anywhere that would otherwise be pretty, like the beach, a lake, or a small alley, smells like pee. We don’t know if it’s due to people or the many stray dogs, but the pee smell is even worse then in San Francisco, and that is really saying something. If you’re sensitive to strong smells, like Lia, it makes for a lot of headaches and nausea.
- Peruvian history is everywhere in Peru. From casually passing by thousand year old ruins while walking through a town, to shelves full of ancient pottery in random shops or hostels, you can’t help but feel the ancientness of the Peruvian people (did I just make up a word? Whatever, it works.) The heritage of Peru is still proudly on display in their traditional brightly colored woven textiles and garments. From alpaca wool ponchos to tall hats and brightly skirts, Peruvian traditional dress is still alive and well!
- Inca Kola is a national obsession. Like … people LOVE this shit. We counted about 20 ads for Inca Kola just while sitting on the bus pulling into the station in Lima. It is a source of national identity and pride. And while some people rave about it, it’s … well, it’s kinda gross. It tastes like neon yellow bubblegum. But as much as we don’t love it, we still find ourselves ordering it and craving it. I think maybe they put something addictive in there….
- Northern Peru is not on the typical “Gringo Trail.” We think we know why. Although we enjoyed the scenery crossing the border through Ecuador into Peru, we weren’t terribly into Cajamarca or Chachapoyas, the two most frequently backpacked cities in far northern Peru. We absolutely LOVED Huanchacho, a surfing town, and Huaraz, an adventure/trekking town, though – and they’re much closer to Lima. Don’t feel like you missed out if you don’t venture all the way north.
- While some countries tend to specialize in producing just one product, Peru is an overachiever. Ecuador does chocolate. Colombia does coffee. Peru, the Hermione Granger of South America, specializes in coffee, chocolate, wines, Pisco, rice, olives, cheese, and a huge variety of fruits and vegetables! This makes visiting local Peruvian markets exciting and also super affordable.
- Supermarkets are a rare luxury. We’ve only encountered them in big cities, like Lima and Arequipa. Instead, everyone shops at the huge local mercado for fresh fruit, veggies, fish and meats, locally made cheese, and more.
- Mercados are awesome. In Northern Peru, you can buy discs of dark, farm fresh chocolate for under $1 at the local mercado. In Arequipa, they sell caviar alongside fresh fish and crab – for cheap! Supermarkets are typically more expensive, but they’re also our only chance to find sugary breakfast cereal, so we still seek them out every chance we can.
- There is still no Cinnamon Toast Crunch here. That’s 3 countries and counting. We got SO close – they even had Captain Crunch! AND Crunch Berries!! – but not our fave. Also, American cereals are insanely expensive here. Like $7 a box! But after 3 months without cinnamony heaven, we’d pay anything. Seriously. (Side note: apparently there is no Cinnamon Toast Crunch in Europe either, and nobody there eats breakfast cereal. This breaks our hearts a little bit.)
- Everywhere in Peru you’ll see menus with “criollo” food: Comida Criolla. The word translates as we expected, to creole, but with a totally different meaning. We’re used to thinking of creole food as what you might get in Louisiana. Here, it actually means food that originated with European descendants, like the Spanish, that has been mixed with traditional Peruvian food to create a whole new type of food. Criollo food is sort of like a Peruvian history lesson: each of the ingredients used in the dishes has a different history that evolved since the Spanish conquistadors invaded. It’s now considered the typical and traditional food of Peru.
- Don’t order Cau Cau. It is basically just tripe and some other stuff that isn’t as gross as tripe but also isn’t enough to hide the tripe-ness of the tripe. It’s disgusting and tastes disgusting and looks like it has veins and it smells bad and I ate it once not knowing what it was and I had a really awful time so just don’t do it. (Note: obviously if you’re the sort of person who is able to eat tripe in other dishes, like Mexican Menudo, such as my husband who also happens to be Mexican, you’ll probably be able to enjoy cau cau. For the rest of us gringos, it’s an acquired taste that I did not acquire.)
- Chinese food is incredibly common here. It’s called “Chifa” and isn’t exactly what we’re used to as Americans: it’s a blend of Peruvian and Chinese food, and unique to Peru. If you’re craving some fried rice and stir-fry, it hits the spot.
- One of the most famous Peruvian dishes is called Lomo Saltado. It’s like a beef stir fry, deeply inspired by Asian ingredients, with a rich flavorful sauce that we’ve found perfect for dipping bread into like a French dip sandwich. It’s super good. Peruvians eat it for all 3 meals! We even tried it once made with alpaca (we were not a fan. Alpacas are for petting, not eating).
- Dairy is a big industry here. While nobody drinks fresh milk (it comes in a box and is shelf stable and sort of just tastes like creamer), they do eat all manner of fresh Peruvian cheeses. As a huge bonus, ice cream here is the best we’ve had in all of South America! And not even just the fresh stuff in heladerias in the dairy region near Cajamarca. Even the little coolers you see in bodegas and on the street sell delicious packaged Peruvian ice cream!
- Chicharones are everywhere on every menu, and they’re so good. They’re sort of like deep fried nuggets of meaty deliciousness. We’ve tried chicken, fish, and pork chicharones, and they were all absolutely delicious! We highly recommend them, because what’s the point of travelling if not to eat unhealthy delicious food?!
- Chicha is a fermented corn drink that sounds gross but is actually pretty good! It’s sweet, a little corny, and delicious both hot or cold. It comes in purple and yellow varieties (from purple and yellow corn) and is included with almuerzo at loads of typical Peruvian restaurants.
- Chocotejas, or Tejas, are delicious chocolate treats, a bit like Peruvian turtles. They are made only near Ica (and Huacachina) and you will see them sold everywhere in that region. They consist of delicious manjar blanco – a version of dulche de leche, similar to caramel – pecans, and chocolate. We’ve also seen versions with raisins, Pisco soaked raisins, fig, lime, and more. They’re so incredibly good. Do not miss out if you travel near Ica!
- Very few hostels offer amenities such as towels (even rental towels!) or included breakfasts. It’s a bummer, because those were basically standard throughout Colombia and Ecuador, and we got spoiled. When they do offer a breakfast, it consists of bread, butter and jam, and coffee or tea. It’s not at all filling. They sell the same shitty “American Breakfast,” which is the same but with an egg, at restaurants for like 12 soles/$4.
- You must eat Ceviche. MUST. It’s so incredibly delicious here. It’s fresh and tangy (thanks to the Tiger’s Milk juice that it’s marinated in) and comes topped with crunchy salted corn on a bed of sweet potato. In the north, it was most frequently mixed with a variety of seafood: octopus, conche negra (shells, we think?), fish. On the coast, it was all fish. But it’s so crazy good.
- You can buy bus tickets online here! This is so exciting to us. It eliminates the very real possibility of showing up only to find that there are no tickets available, you missed the only bus of the day, or the next bus isn’t leaving for 7 hours. It also allows you to comparison shop for your bus company, meaning that instead of making a panicked decision while various people behind counters scream at you in a crowded bus station about a bus that is already late to leave, you can leisurely shop online in your PJ’s and plan things out well in advance. It’s so incredibly nice.
- Movies on long buses follow weird themes. Like one day it was the oddly specific “Men that don’t want babies that hilariously end up with babies:” (Instructions Not Included, The Pacifier, Robin-B-Hood). Another day the theme was “Dog movies.” It started with a sweet, emotional tearjerker (Hachi: A Dog’s Tale) and then, once we were all softly weeping, moved on to a creepy horror movie that involved angry fighting killer dogs and a lot of blood (White God). What?! Don’t play with our emotions like that! Traumatizing.
- We’ve seen “Bus 657” 3 times now. Apparently movies about buses being hijacked are seen as thematically appropriate to watch on a bus. In related news, there’s nothing as exciting/terrifying as watching “Fast the Furious 16: A Fast Series of Furious Events” while careening at 90MPH along the edge of a cliff.
- The buses here are a LOT nicer than in other countries. There’s plenty of room, lots of amenities, and full-recline luxury seats complete with pillows and blankets for overnights. A lot of the buses are 2-story – and if you can sit in the very front of the 2nd story, it makes for a fantastic view of the scenery while you travel!
- Don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, the way gringos are in Colombia or Ecuador. We got stared at a lot, and not in a friendly way. We’ve had several people try to trick us or take advantage of us – on a bus, a passenger tried to get us to pay him our fare instead of the bus attendant; and twice, taxi driver drivers have argued us into paying a higher fare than we had agreed upon – and we even had our bag stolen right from under noses in a bus station once! Luckily Jeremy chased the guy down, didn’t fall for his diversion tactics, and safely recovered the bag. But be doubly on guard in Peru, where backpackers and tourists are sometimes seen as targets. Always, always follow these travel safety precautions .
- There is always a stray dog or two in every restaurant. Nobody seems bothered by this. They just wander in and out as they please, stopping to beg at the occasional table. I like dogs and all, but I’d prefer to not be worried about fleas around my food!
- The stray dogs here aren’t always cute and friendly, like they usually were in Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile. We’ve had a few aggressive dogs chase us down the street, and we’ve seen some truly horrific hairless dogs that look like diseased nightmares (read more about the hairless dogs of Peru at Probe Around the Globe). Most of them are mutts with underbites and a chip on their shoulder. It’s a downer for a dog lover like Jeremy, who had never been forced to admit before that not all dogs are adorable loving puppies. (On the flip side, EVERY Peruvian cat we’ve met is both cute and sweet, ESPECIALLY the stray ones. You can find plenty of friendly kitties at Kennedy Park in Lima!)
- Mototaxis here are very unique. They’re sort of 3-wheeled rickshaw taxis. It’s like a motorcycle in the front, and a covered 2-seater in the back. There is only enough space for humans, so good luck with your baggage. We’ve also had them break down on us mid-trip. But they’re a quick and cheap way to get around, and just as common as regular taxis throughout Peru!
- In Soles, the Peruvian “sun” money, coins are more popular than paper change. One day we counted up all of our change and realized we had $60 worth of coins! It’s because of the 2 and 5 soles coins. We once got change for a 50-sol bill with all coins. This also means that everyone wants you to give exact change, and get pissy when they have to break anything bigger than a 20.
- Do not take a ripped bill from anyone, because nobody will take it from you. Ripped or too-crinkled bills are totally not-ok with vendors – everywhere from hostels to taxi drivers refuse to take them. Oddly, we’ve been told by some of those same vendors that banks will take them, so we aren’t really sure why they’re so taboo.
- Counterfeit money is REALLY common in Peru. Don’t accept any US $100 bills while you’re in Peru, just in case – or be extremely careful to confirm that they’re real. While most businesses accept US dollars, they’re also on the lookout for counterfeit bills, and will destroy them on sight at your loss. I honestly have no idea how to identify Peruvian counterfeit soles, but those are common too.
- Crossing the street here is like playing Frogger. Stop signs don’t exist, and when they do, they’re completely ignored. You have to look death in the face and just run across and hope people will stop before they hit you (they usually do).
- Walking down the street as a gringo means being honked at constantly. Every other car is a taxi, and all of them assume that being a gringo equals needing a taxi. Even if they watch you get out of a taxi, they will honk. Even if you tell all 5 cars in front of them that no, you don’t need a taxi, they will still honk at you. It’s especially stressful when you’re trying to get up the will-power to run across the street, Frogger style.
- Pisco is THE Peruvian liquor, and it’s so good. You absolutely have to order a Pisco sour in Peru! Even better is visiting a Pisco winery near Ica, where it’s possible to taste both delicious strong Pisco made from various types of grapes, AND the sweet wine that is actually created as the first step of the Pisco distilling process! We bought a bottle of sweet Amor wine that is nicknamed “The Babymaker.” Ooh la la! For more information about Pisco and visiting Pisco Wineries check this post on Pisco in Peru by Salt & Sandals.
- Yes, they eat guinea pig in Peru. “Cuy” is a national delicacy. And yes, it just looks like someone fried up your childhood pet hamster. You’ll see them all over Peru, strung up in mercados and on the menu at fancy restaurants We couldn’t bring ourselves to try it: Jeremy kept having flashbacks to Sir Sassafrass, his childhood hamster, plus his little sister informed us that she’d never speak to us again if we tried it. So we didn’t. We hear it’s a bit like eating a very small fried chicken. Let us know if you’ve tried it!
And there you have it: 40 weird and random things that nobody told us before backpacking in Peru! Did any of the things nobody tells you about backpacking in Peru surprise you? Leave us a comment below!
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