Studying in Peru? Helpful Tips for Newbies

by Annie Bierbower

Peru has everything! It is known as the land of contrasts and it doesn’t take long to realize why. The capital city of Lima is full of stately buildings, elegant restaurants, bubbling fountains, and fashionable shops — while in the countryside, many rural locations go without indoor plumbing and use donkeys daily.

Machu Picchu in Peru
Seeing Machu Picchu is one great reason to study abroad in Peru. Photo by Troy Peden

There are deserts filled with brilliant sand dunes, picture-perfect beaches, exotic boat rides through the dark twists of the Amazon jungle, towering mountaintops, and of course, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu — an archaeological wonder that offers a glimpse into the Inca Empire. Outdoor enthusiasts consider this country to be an embarrassment of riches. Clearly, Peru is a killer place to study abroad.

After studying in Lima for a semester, I spent five weeks backpacking all over the country. Based on my experiences, here’s a bit of friendly advice for anyone gearing up to study abroad in Peru, the Land of Contrasts. 

Try To Learn Spanish. Peruvians speak smoothly and have an easily understood accent, but they speak incredibly fast in the city! My host mother, who was originally from the mountains, spoke only Spanish — and even she sometimes had a hard time understanding people from Lima. Peruvians in general are super willing to help and teach you, though. They tend to have patience with visitors who are trying to learn.

Peru is brimming with language schools. Attending a language school in Cusco gave me a great opportunity to spend quality time in another Peruvian city, have tutoring time with a native Spanish speaker, and meet a ton of people from all over the world. My school, Amauta Spanish School, was affordable, I learned a lot, and it provided a good place to stay with homemade meals.

Huandoy Mountain in the Ancash Region of Peru.

Huandoy Mountain in the Ancash Region of Peru. Photo by Annie Bierbower

Be Prepared To Haggle And Be Bombarded. Haggling and bartering are commonplace throughout Peru. Everything from taxi rides to clothes is negotiated. If possible, try and get an estimate from a local on reasonable prices for items before purchasing them. Overall, Peruvians are friendly and helpful, but many of them do make a living from foreigners’ lack of knowledge about costs. 

It is also important to be ready for some more aggressive behavior. Vendors in markets or along the street will likely get a little pushy, wanting you to purchase items — but nothing is like tourism companies in smaller locations. Representatives will climb on buses the second they pull into the station, surrounding anyone who looks foreign. 

It can be a little overwhelming, and you have to stay calm, and be prepared to assert yourself so as to not get railroaded by an aggressive tour guide. Do not get into any tour company’s taxi without clearly negotiating a price beforehand. The small tour companies can be very helpful and provide good local guidance, though. I actually found some great trips this way.

Ride By Your Rules. Don’t be sucked in by a cheap taxi ride — anyone can start a “taxi service” in Peru. There is no one to answer to, and no safety regulations. During my trip, I can’t even count how many times a car that looked like it had been in about five accidents rattled up and offered a “great deal.” Look for official cabs with printed names and information on the outside of the vehicles. Again, always negotiate the price of the trip before stepping into the taxi cab. 

Buses are great and affordable way to travel around the country. The rides can be long since it’s such a large country — but it saves a ton of money, and the nicer lines offer comfortable reclining bed/seats and movies. The three bus lines in best known for safety and comfort are Cruz del Sur, Ormeño, and Oltursa. I had good experiences with all of these. 

The site Busportal is pretty new and useful site for comparing bus prices. It is recommended that if you are going to travel by night, keep on major routes, travel with a buddy, and choose one of the larger bus companies. The basic safety rules apply, but passengers should be extra cautious of personal belongings. Keep your valuables close to you at all times.

Transportation within towns consists of vans that act as buses, or moto-taxi — motorcycle rickshaws that carry passengers in side cars. Their schedules are pretty loose, but they are extremely accessible and common. Miss one? Don’t worry; another will pull up almost instantly. 

Ruins in Machu Picchu, Peru

Sunlight shining over the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru

Getting To Machu Picchu. No trip to Peru is complete without a visit to Machu Picchu and there are many different ways to get there. The best-known trip consists of a five-day, four-night hike along an Inca Trail. The key word here is “an” Inca Trail. The most expensive hikes lead people to believe they will take you along “the” one and only Inca Trail — when in fact there are dozens. The main difference is that one leads to the top of the Sun Gate (the original entrance to Machu Picchu) at sunrise, while others lead to the new admissions entrance. The former can cost more than $500 and require registration several months in advance. We went with a smaller company based in Cusco, with not much prior notice, for about half that price. 

There are bus and train services that bring you right to Machu Picchu in comfort without any trekking or camping required. Decide what kind of experience you want — it can range from rugged and outdoorsy with strenuous hikes, and basic camping-style amenities, to high luxury with zero trekking. Ask around for trip details and prices before choosing a tour company — don’t just go with the first one you see. Sometimes, the same group tour with the same guide, transportation, and accommodations is offered by different companies for wildly different costs. 

A Taste of The Land. Peruvians are laid-back about many things, but food is not one of them. Many conversations will start with the standard three questions: Where are you from? Why are you here? and What do you think of the food? Don’t leave without trying these iconic tastes of Peru: 

  • Ceviche. A marinated fish dish: it’s served in a tangy, spicy broth known as leche de tigre (tiger’s milk).
  • Pisco Sour. Peru’s national cocktail is a frothy sweet-and-sour beverage made with Pisco, a grape brandy. 
  • Salchipapas. Peruvian fried comfort food: a combination of hot dogs and French fries.
  • Inka Cola. This neon-yellow Peruvian soft drink tastes like bubble gum.
  • Cuy. Guinea pig. This is a Peruvian delicacy; it looks like a roasted rat and the meat is tender and reminiscent of rabbit.