PERU TIPS & TRICKS
WHEN TO GO: Remember, Peru is in the Southern Hemisphere. Winter is hot and rainy, summer is cool and dry. I went in mid-late April, and the weather seemed just about perfect. Pool-sitting weather along the coast, coat weather in the higher elevations. Rainy season is January through March, and some roads can get washed out. The Inca Trail is usually closed in February for that reason. Plan accordingly.
ELEVATION: For reference, Denver's elevation is 5,280 feet (The Mile High City, get it?) Arequipa is at 7,661. Machu Picchu is at 7,972. Cuzco is at 11,152. Puno is at 12,556, and if you get to the top of Taquile Island, you'll be at 13,287. It gives a whole new definition to 'getting high', and your body will feel the effects. For many, it will be simply a matter of running out of breath easier than usual, but for others there can be severe headaches and nausea associated with altitude sickness, and for an unlucky few, there can be serious complications. The locals use coca leaves (yes, that's what cocaine comes from, but it's not like that) to chew or to put in tea to help, or your doctor can prescribe medication. But the best advice is to take it easy for a day or two at altitude, hydrate frequently and avoid alcohol. Your body will acclimate eventually.
SUNSCREEN: Two words: Bring it. The sun is particularly strong in Peru, and I saw more than my share of The Walking Red during my trip. If you're going outside for any length of time during the day, apply sunscreen or bring a sun umbrella. Trust me.
SAFETY: Some travel sites are full of scary, scary, stories about some of Peru's cities... but honestly, the basic rules of international safety (stay in well-lit areas, don't get drunk/high away from your accommodations, don't use an ATM at night, don't flash your wealth around, take taxis if you're unsure) are most likely enough to get you through. In two weeks in Peru, I never really felt unsafe or particularly threatened.
ESPAÑOL, POR FAVOR: You don't need to be fluent, but it will help (especially in the smaller towns) to at least know some Spanish. Most businesses that cater to tourists will have some English speakers on the staff, but communicating with a waiter in that hole-in-the-wall bistro in Ollantaytambo might become difficult without at least a passing knowledge of some Spanish.
HOARD THE CHANGE: At the time of this writing, a Peruvian Nueva Sol was about three to one US dollar. Smaller denominations (1, 2, and 5 soles) come in coins, and they will come in handy for tipping, making small purchases, and sometimes, going to the restroom. Hang on to them during your trip. If need be, you can spend the leftovers at the airport on the way out. Speaking of which...
TIPPING: Peruvians aren't lavish tippers. At upscale restaurants, a 10% tip is customary (and sometimes automatically added to the bill), but in smaller family-run joints, a few soles for good service is sufficient and appreciated. However, if you can afford it, a bigger tip will not be resented. Peru is still a relatively poor country, so restaurant staff will be happy to get anything you want to give them.
VISITING MACHU PICCHU: You'll need three things:
1) Transportation to Aguas Calientes. Unless you're hiking the Inca Trail, you will have to go through Aguas Calientes to get to Machu Picchu. You can get there by bus or taxi, but I recommend taking Peru Rail from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo. It's a beautiful excursion along rivers and through mountain passes.
2) Entry ticket to Machu Picchu: In order to make things a little less crowded, entry tickets (buy them on the official government website) start on the hour at 6 a.m. through 2 p.m. Technically, your ticket allows you on the site for four hours, but I didn't see them checking anyone's tickets to see if they overstayed. Sunrise is a popular time, but I took a 1 p.m. entry time and was happy with the experience. Some travel websites say you have to hire a guide, but if that was the case, I saw no enforcement of it. However, the guides will offer better historical and cultural perspective than you can get on your own. Also, don't spend too much time trying to outguess the weather. It's always a crapshoot at Machu Picchu, so even in dry season, you have equal chances of rain/fog/sunshine/cold/heat. Just go for it.
3) Bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu: This you can buy on arrival in Aguas Calientes (You'll need your Machu Picchu entry ticket to buy one). The lines can look extremely long, but the buses run constantly and the lines move fast. Some people hiked it to save a few bucks, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Should you stay the night in Aguas Calientes? Meh. I nicknamed Aguas the 'Peruvian Gatlinburg' because of all the super-touristy shops and restaurants (with super touristy prices). However, if you're planning to hit Machu Pucchu at sunrise, it would make sense to stay here to get one of the first buses up. Otherwise, stay in Cuzco or Ollantaytambo.
ABOUT THOSE RESTROOMS: Peru is still a developing country, and as such, its plumbing systems are not able to handle anything other than your bodily 'stuff'. That means the used TP goes in a wastebasket and not the toilet itself. It's a little gross, I know... but it's something you'll run into in many less-developed regions of South America, so get used to it.