A lot of readers have been asking me specific questions about how to travel about from city to city, what to budget, what to bring, what to expect, etc. I’ll attempt to use my limited traveling experience to give my opinion on some of those questions. But don’t just take my word for it – ask around! And as always, check out the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum for all your questions!
Check the exchange rates, but when I was traveling, $1US = $2.5 soles (Peru) and $1US = $7 bolivianos (Bolivia)
If you’re really on a budget (I mean, REAL broke-style), here’s an estimate of what to expect to pay (without tours, which range from $15 a day to $100 a day, depending on how hardcore they are)…IMHO:
PERU: $25-$40US a day (without tours)
- Lodging: as low as $35 soles a night (for hostels)
- Food: As low as $20 soles a day)
- 1L bottle of Water: $2-3 soles / A soda = $2.5 soles
- Taxi around town: $3 soles to $12 soles
- Bus: $1 sol to $2.5 soles
- Public bathrooms: $1-3 soles (sometimes offer you toilet paper when you pay)
BOLIVIA: $15-$25US (without tours)
- Lodging: as low as $20 bolivianos a night (for hostels)
- Food: As low as $30 bolivianos a day (usually more)
- 2L bottle of water: $6-10 bolivianos / A soda = $4 bolivianos
- Taxi around town: $3 bolivianos to $12 bolivianos
- Bus: $1.5 bolivianos or more
- Mini-van taxi: $2-4 bolivianos
- Public bathrooms: $1-3 bolivianos (sometimes offer you toilet paper when you pay)
Always have change!!! Small bills and coins.
Planes are the most “secure” option, as well as by far the most expensive. Plane tickets between countries in South America are EXTREMELY expensive. If it’s the rainy season, you might want to take a small plane trip instead of a bus, depending on where you need to go (like from La Paz to Rurrenabaque in Bolivia. 24 hours by bus, 45 minutes by plane).
If you’re just trying to get around a city, it will cost you less than a buck more or less to get around in a taxi. You can usually bargain the price down slightly, drivers often expect it (check Lonely Planet or ask your hostel owner for how much it should cost to get from A to B). You should always tip them if you feel like it. Some taxis are more expensive than others, but the more official ones (the ones with phone numbers on them) are safer albeit more expensive. It’s just a gamble.
It always costs a lot to go from the airport to your hostel. Ask your hostel owner if they can arrange a ride for you from the airport to their hostel, because sometimes they can get a cheaper taxi for you – or pick you up themselves! It’s also safer that way.
For long distance commutes between cities, it’s definitely worth it to pay for the nicer buses! Unfortunately, due to low wages and long hours/horrible working conditions for many bus drivers, those buses aren’t guaranteed to be safe (I’ve heard many a story of buses rolling off the roads or down a mountain – even the best companies aren’t exempt from accidents!). Cruz del Sur is the best in Peru. In Bolivia it’s a toss up – check the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum for the most up-to-date advice, including who had recent accidents.
Buses will cost anywhere from a few bucks (especially in Bolivia) to $40 (like Cruz del Sur), depending on the company and the distance, what kind of seat you get (full sleeper or “semi-cama”, or just upright chairs).
Safety Issues: Try to take day buses as much as possible (safer, in all senses of the word). If you have to take a night bus, they say it’s better to get a seat in the back of the bus and/or on the BOTTOM deck (if the bus rolls off the side of the road, you’re less likely to be as hurt – unless it’s a cliff). You might not get windows on the bottom (depends on the bus), but safety is a big problem out there. Again, it’s just a gamble…
Some roads are paved, others are dirt. Both have their different safety issues. Traffic and car accidents are also a concern for some areas more than others.
Many train systems don’t work out in Peru and Bolivia. Weather and environmental conditions washed out most of the train lines in Bolivia; however I heard that the train ride from Oruro to Uyuni is gorgeous during the day (that’s the only area where the train still works out there). I tried to take a train from Cusco to Puno in Peru, but it was CRAAZY expensive! I’m talking about $100-$200 US dollars expensive! I’ve heard that the ride is also very pretty, however.
In Bolivia: Take mini-van/shared car taxis (unless you’re a big person – they’re a tight squeeze). They usually cost a little more than a bus, but are fast and efficient. They follow a route like a bus.
If you want to get somewhere faster, you can take a long-distance shared taxi (from like Potosi to Sucre) for about 100 bolivianos per car.
Motorbike taxis in the jungle areas are lots of fun. Nice guys.
While the food tends to be fairly mild in seasoning, the hot sauces are awesome. Use them!
To keep it cheap, you can get almuerzos (a soup and a second course) for about $1.50US to $2.50US. You can also buy food from the markets, eat street food, and cook your own food (some hostels have kitchens).
Avoid bad and expensive tourist food like the plague. Ask your waiter for recommendations on dishes.
Some people get used to the water over time. Just take it in little by little; however each person is different.
You can always check out the rooms in advance before reserving them. Things to think about:
- Do you want a single room or a dorm room (dorm rooms help you be more social when you want to be)?
- How social is it (beware of going to a party hostel when you’re stuck with altitude sickness, it’s the worst!)? Does it have open meeting areas where folks can hang out and meet each other?
- How “safe” is the hostel? Safety around the neighborhood? Have there been incidences of robberies or stolen property?
- Is the hostel close or accessible (by transit) to the things that you want to do in town?
- Is the building noisy or quiet? Is it next to loud clubs?
- Does the hostel have wifi or computers with internet (and are they free)?
- Does it have outdoor (open air) or indoor bathrooms (makes a difference when the weather is cold) – or do you have to walk outside to go to the restroom?
- Do the rooms have heaters, or are the rooms pretty warm? (All beds offer wool blankets, but some are better than others).
- Does the hostel offer free towels (if you care)? Does it do laundry service?
- Does it have hot showers!! This is very important.
Check out Hostelworld.com for reviews and comments on some of the hostels in each area, and check for Lonely Planet recommendations!
You don’t have to book in advance to get a hostel, but it helps (especially if you arrive late at night, or are traveling during the high season or during local holidays/festivals). I pretty much crashed every hostel at every city I visited and was fine, but I just lucked out.
TOURS, TRIPS, AND TREKS
Tours are one main option for making your trip to Peru and Bolivia amazingly fun. Many times you can’t visit, say a National Park, unless you go with a local guide and a tour company. Make sure your tour company is certified and good to go (check online).
- LP has many recommendations on tour companies to use, but talking to other travelers (who have done the tour) is one of the best ways to learn more about whether or not a tour is good.
- Rule of thumb: Pay more for better quality tours, guides, and safer services. However, you can try to shop around to see if one travel company has a lower price than another company for THE SAME tour company. For example, when I went on a tour to Puno’s Islands (Amantani, Islas Flotantes, etc.), I bought my ticket for $90 soles, whereas another guy who was on the same tour as me bought his for $80 soles from a different travel company.
- Be prepared for ANYTHING. Some times they don’t tell you what to bring, especially day tours. Bring enough water, good shoes, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, different types of clothing options, etc.
- They also let people of pretty much any skill or fitness level on any trek (from white water rafting to ice hiking up snow covered mountains 18,000 ft. high), so think about that before booking your tour/trek.
- And I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the rainy season (Dec-March) makes tours more difficult, more dangerous, or just more unpleasant. Factor that in too!
- Instead of doing a home stay trip through a travel agency, you can arrange a visit or home stay through personal connections. Those visits may be more “authentic” and can ensure that the proceeds go completely to the family you’re visiting. Check out my post on Puno, Peru!
- Ask the locals. They know a ton of things to do that aren’t listed in tour guide books, that have few to no tourists around! Just be careful and don’t go alone – robberies do happen sometimes…
- Keep your receipts at ALL times. If you lose them, you may have to pay again when they check for it (at entrances/exits).
- In South America, some tour guides speak another language, but many don’t. Check for or request a bilingual guide beforehand if you need one.
Think of it like camping: Remember to take your trash out with you if there’s no trash receptacle (keep spare plastic bags with you at all times). Just because it’s organic material doesn’t mean that it is easily biodegradable – some things last for a long time even after being thrown in the bushes!
Water and water scarcity issues are often a problem for most countries around the globe. If you can, bring a water filter (a light and portable one) and a reusable watet bottle that you can use instead of buying bottled water everywhere you go. For many economic reasons, some cities, towns and villages don’t have trash service, which means that trash may be thrown in the river or somewhere around town.
Be aware of the tour companies that tend to be more on the exploitative-side, in terms of: 1) how they interact with the environment (both natural and built), 2) how they treat the animals, and 3) how they interact and work with local people. Some companies have completely affected the local economy and environment in very negative ways.
- Book your flight in advance to get a better deal (and get travelers insurance. Also, beware of the seasons/weather out there and know what you’re getting into)
- Talk to people (friends or friends of friends) who have traveled to the countries that you’re going to visit for travel advice (just remember that everyone has a different opinion and way of traveling).
- Google is your best friend. So is Lonely Planet (no, I am not at all in any way endorsed or supported by them!).
- Read up on the countries’ histories and current political issues
- Take a language course, or at least learn the basics of the main local language(s). The top 3 words to know: Hello, Thank You, and Bathroom (you’ll see why when you need to find that last one fast).
- Talk to your health insurance provider about coverage and services overseas. If you really want to, locate local hospitals in each city you’ll visit.
- Check the weather forecasts for what gear and clothes to bring
- If you want to – gain some personal contacts in each country. That way you’ll potentially have some slightly familiar people to kick it with, and/or help you out in you’re in trouble.
- Ask your networks about local folks living out there that are doing good work (such as working in a good community-based organization).
- Figure out what type of power outlets they have out there – so you know what adaptors to bring.
- Get some solid backpack gear that won’t fall apart on you when you’re out there (my daypack from TravelSafe fell apart after a week in Peru!)
- Share your travel itinerary with friends/family and update it online as much as possible so that people can know where to find you if they need to.
- Make a list of things to do in each city or area that you want to visit in each country, so you know what to look for when you get there.
- Be flexible and open-minded – your travel itinerary is constantly changing (mine did every day out there!).
- Hide photocopies of your passport/credit cards/etc. (in sealed envelopes) in specific areas of your bags/shoes so you can access them if you get jacked for your *ish.
- Think about whether or not you want to bring a netbook laptop or a tablet. Very useful when wifi is everywhere…
- Think about whether or not you want secure travel bags for higher security (I use a TravelSafe bag with wire mesh and a wire cord that allows me to secure my expensive items within my backpack and chain them both to poles, bed posts, etc.)
- Get your travel shots done 2 to 1.5 months in advance
- Read up on Travel Alerts (health, safety, diseases, political issues, etc.) for each country. Write down the phone numbers for your country’s embassies in each country.
- As I always say, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”! (But don’t bring too much stuff! You can buy some of your gear out there)
For a list of things to pack, feel free to message me.
AT THE AIRPORT/AT THE BORDER
- Make sure your passport is up-to-date and has more than 6 months until it expires.
- Check to see which countries require you to have a visa to enter. You may need to get them a few weeks to a few days in advance before you cross the border (some visas can be done “on arrival”, some can also be bought online like MyVietnamVisa.com). You can get visas at the nearby embassy for the country you plan to visit (they might require cash, passport photos, photocopies of your documents, and proof of a hotel reservation. Ask ahead) – if there is one.
- If already abroad, ask your hostel owners/receptionists for travel advice, including good companies you can go with to cross the border.
- Take copies of your plane ticket with you to the airport, as well as the names and phone numbers of the lodging you will be staying at (hostels, etc.)
- Keep valuables in your carry-on luggage or on your body, or put it in your bag where it’s hard to find (they stole my cell phone from an external pocket!)
- Bring snacks for the plane!
- Don’t do nighttime border crossings.
- Don’t lose any of your paperwork!
- In South America: if you don’t speak Spanish, befriend someone who does because they often don’t translate directions at the border.
- Be careful about your money and belongings at the border, robberies are very common there. And don’t give money to any uniformed personnel either (they’re not supposed to do that!)
* BUEN VIAJE *