Ahhh, Peru. That unfortunate yet necessary stopping point on your trip to Machu Picchu.
Just kidding. The country is a phenomenal mix of landscapes, culture and food with a reliable tourist infrastructure to satisfy just about any taste. There truly are only a handful of places on the planet where one can go from beach to desert to mountain glaciers to clandestine jungle cocaine lab within a few hundred kilometers; so much more than just that famous Incan city on the post card. Really.
But while places like Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Huaraz, or Arequipa will likely be some the absolute highlights, the country can be a bit more expensive than anticipated. Especially for travelers coming from Bolivia or Ecuador. And while it’s certainly not on the level of Europe, or even Argentina and Chile expensive, it’s still a place where any budget backpacker will need to be a little budgeto consciouso.
If you want to go deep with the raw numbers, check out the report of how much I spent in Peru here.
Daddy Warbucks can hit the back button. For everyone else, here are some easy ways to save that dinero in Peru.
Shop around for tours. Regardless of the price, they’re all (almost always) the same.
So you’re a tourist. Which means you’re inevitably going to take a tour. Up a mountain, down a valley, in a river, through a jungle, around some ruins, over a desert, on a boat, something something I’m tired of prepositions. The point is that at some point you’re going to book a tour. And you want to be sure you get a good price, because if you reserve through the first agency you see, there’s a really good chance the guy or girl next to you got the same thing for a lot cheaper. It’s a bit like a poker game. If its been an hour and you still can’t figure out who the sucker is, it’s probably you.
For example, I wanted to do river rafting in Arequipa. I asked half a dozen tour agencies who all quoted me the exact same package. Round trip transportation to/from my hostel, two meals, and a two hour rafting trip. Prices between the agencies ranged from 40 – 90 Soles. A difference of more than 100% for the exact same thing!
Tour operators are only middlemen; subcontractors for the actual tour providers themselves. The larger the selling price the larger the piece of the action for themselves. Shop around for multiple quotes. If you want to be a little cheeky, point to the guy across the street and ask “yesterday they offered me ______ (quoted price – 10%), can you do that? You’re negotiating, not shopping for friends.
The same rule applies the transportation, although it’s usually cheaper to do that yourself. Which brings us to numero dos.
Bus tickets will always be cheaper if you buy them yourself.
Transportation in South America is a glorious example of “you get what you pay for” so deciding which bus company to take without turning your journey into a reenactment of Speed meets Taken can be a bit tricky. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shop around.
First, for short journeys less than a few hours, go directly to the bus terminal and get a price from all the companies with service to your destination. I can stomach an afternoon on a quasi chicken bus entertained by Chulitas selling baggies of home made fried goods and questionable bottles of Andean homeopathic medicine. With short journeys, at least for me, savings trumps comfort. Keep your valuables squarely in front of you (not under your seat!) and you should be fine.
Overnight buses or anything longer than a few hours are where you don’t want to skimp on the price. Nobody wants to spend a sleepless night pinned between Farmer Juan and his flock of feral chickens only to arrive at your destination and find that someone has helped themselves to search and seize your bag. No bueno amigo. Cruz del Sur has always been the expensive and safe gold standard of Peru bus travel. Oltursa is the same, if not better and usually a bit cheaper. Sites like busportal.pe can point you in the direction of reputable companies, but unless you need the peace of mind of reserving online or booking through a travel agent, its almost always cheaper to book at the bus offices themselves.
As a final cost saving step, go to each companies website and search for online promotions. Promotions are not always available but the potential savings are well worth the few minutes of your time. This is especially true for the expensive services like Cruz del Sur and Oltursa between popular cities, ie: Cusco to Arequipa or Lima to Huaraz. Free meals and clean bathrooms? hello! One minor caveat is that in order to view any promotions, you normally must view the page, and subsequently book, in Spanish. But the process is an exact reflection of it’s English counterpart and well worth the effort. For example, I bought a ticket through Cruz del Sur from Arequipa to Puno, a 6 hour ride, for 29 Soles (about $9.) The cheapest crappy service was 30 soles. The traditional Cruz del Sur price was 70 Soles. A meal, wi-fi, movies and a comfortable ride for less than half the going price. Promociones for the win!
Don’t book your hostels/hotels online. Unless your traveling during peak times or you definitely need a reservation, it’s cheaper to just show up.
Sometimes knowing your accommodation is take care of ahead of time provides a lot of comfort. I get that. But unless you’re traveling over a holiday or peak period and you’re slightly flexible with where you need to sleep, just showing up and asking around will be cheaper than reserving online. The hotel/hostel/hospedaje infrastructure is almost over developed throughout Peru so there is always a strong chance of finding adequate accommodation.
There always seems to be a pesky tax, generally around 10%, added to online prices. Prices quoted at the hotel are also a few dollars cheaper than prices advertised online. This was especially true in the tourist hot-spot Cusco, although the same rule applies to just about everywhere. A week or more in one location is common for most travelers. 10% plus an extra dollar or two every night quickly adds up.
A useful tip for worry prone travelers like myself; book the first night online and once you arrive ask to extend your stay. (In over a month I only had problems with this method once.) A great method to save a few dollars per night. Even asking for rooms at the expensive hotels they always had availability.
Take advantage of Él Menu
South American is the continent of lunch specials. In Colombia it’s platos del dia. In Peru, it’s él menu that reigns supreme. Essentially this is a three course meal that all the locals know and so should you. Be sure to ask around for the best restaurant in the neighborhood.
Typically your start of with an hearty soup of meat, vegetables, pasta noodles and potatoes – a semi meal in and of itself. Then onto segundos, or the main dish. Almost always your choice of beef, chicken or fish, served with rice and potatoes, you know, just in case you wanted to carbo load. A fresh mix of local salsa really class the dish up. And finally a small dessert and a glass if chicha wash it all down. The typical cost – 9 soles or about $3 US dollars. Definitely filling and generally better than all the upscale restaurants that cater to tourists at three times the price. In Cusco for example, walk a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas and they will quickly become your preferred lunch spot.
Use Banco Nacion – they have no ATM fees
If like me you live in the banking stone age and still work with a bank that charges hefty ATM and exchange fees, well, Banco Nacion is your friend. Not only does my bank charge me foreign bank fees, they also don’t refund any costs incurred by using the local bank’s ATM. Consequently, it costs me at least $7 ($3 my bank charges plus about $4 the Peruvian Bank charges) to withdrawal my own money. Subprime borrows facing foreclosure during the height of the 2008 global financial crisis got better deals.
The typical ATM in Peru charges anywhere from 12-15 Soles, or about $4-5 US dollars to use their ATM (in addition to your own banks’ fees of course.) Ouch. Thankfully there’s Banco Nacion which doesn’t charge any local fees. Their branches aren’t as prevalent as some of the other banks but they’re definitely worth looking up if you’re in a major city.
After five weeks in Peru, I was honestly quite impressed by how cheaply I travelled the country. I did all the popular trips, Machu Picchu, nights out in Arequipa, home stays on Lake Titicaca and sand buggy tours in Huachacina. All for less than an average of $35 US dollars per day. Enjoy!