Getting Around Peru: Public Transport & Travel Tips

Getting around Peru is fairly safe and easy. From boats to buses and trains, here are the best ways to travel around Peru.

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Photo © iStock/Donyanedomam

Rugged terrain, unpredictable weather, dodgy operators and criminals can throw a spanner in the works when traveling. Here are some tips to make sure your journey is enjoyable, not painful.

Note: the Inca Trail closes every year in February for one week of maintenance.

Peru Bus Services

Two tragic bus crashes in early 2018 have affected safety and confidence in Peru's bus network. However, there are a number of reliable bus services to choose from, including luxury buses, bus-camas, and económico options. Some reliable companies to check out include Peru Hop and Cruz del Sur (for those of you looking for freedom and comfort).

On Jan 2, a bus collided with a tractor on the notorious Devil's Curve, 43 miles (70kms) north of Lima, and plunged off a cliff, killing 48 people. On February 21, in the south of Peru, near Arequipa, a driver fell asleep at the wheel of a bus, sending it plunging of a cliff, and 44 people were killed. While the narrow coastal highways the buses ply carry risks, these accidents rate as the worst in four decades. 

Generally though, reliable service, low fares and a comprehensive network of routes mean traveling by bus is the preferred way to get around Peru for locals and travelers. 

The quality of the vehicles generally corresponds to the popularity of the destination; luxury coaches take passengers on longer trips, often offering onboard entertainment and meals, while worn out ex-US school buses and hair-raisingly reckless s, ply the local and rural routes.

Chanatrek is a white-knuckle ride. Photo credit: iStock

Buses are relatively punctual, although those running on mountainous and rural roads can experience delays due to punctures, breakdowns and landslides.

Because the bus is the standard transport for Peruvians, depots can be found in most town centres, offering impressively regular services. However, a bus company's ticket office and its departure point aren't always the same place. Arequipa is one notable example.

Lima has an overload of bus companies, some of which have their own private terminals away from the congestion of the city centre. Make sure you check where your bus leaves from - it should be on the ticket but ask the vendor just in case.

Like most things in Peru, bus fares are negotiable and you can assume the ticket prices have been hiked for travelers, especially if you're buying through an agent.

It's worth shopping around for a deal, although if you're on a tight deadline choose one of the major companies which tend to stick a little closer to schedules. Cruz del Sur, Ormeño and Flores are good if you're heading south of Lima or hugging the coast. La Linea and Movil are reliable choices for the north of the country.

Sometimes, smaller bus companies sell their tickets through bigger companies offices, which won't be made apparent when you make your purchase. Again, it should be printed on the ticket but make a point of asking the vendor about the quality of vehicle you are traveling on, otherwise you could end up paying for a luxury ticket only to find yourself on a crusty old coach.

With the number of buses zooming in and out of most terminals, it's also important to know what company name and markings to look out for, otherwise your bus is likely to come and go without you.

At most intercity terminals you'll have to pay a small departure tax before you can board your bus. Follow the tarifa signs to find the booth where your ticket will be stamped.

Bus terminals are notorious hangouts for thieves. Never leave your baggage unattended, even for a second, and keep your valuables close to you. Once you place your suitcase or rucksack in the baggage compartment, it's beyond your control so make sure your valuables come onto the bus with you. Carry your passport in case you're passing through any security checkpoints or borders. Anything you'd like to keep should be stashed on your lap or under your feet, not in the unsecure overhead locker.

A collectivo in Arequipa, Peru. Photo credit: iStock

In the past, buses have been targeted by roaming bandits and rebels. Although these attacks are now very rare, the pattern of attacks shows the risk is highest when travelling in the isolated north of the country, where the remaining rebels are concentrated. Drug traffic along the Colombian border also makes this a high risk area.

In general, overnight bus journeys are perfectly safe but should be avoided in the north. Some of the smaller bus companies will stop to pick up passengers outside of the terminals along the route, which also increases the risk of robbery, so don't forget your travel insurance!

Avoid sitting over the wheels on long trips if you don't want your teeth to be rattled out of your head. Young livestock is sometimes transported on rural buses. Don't sit by the baby llamas. No matter how cute they are, your affection is sure to wear thin after 16 smelly hours of bleating.

Train Travel in Peru

Given Peru's largely mountainous terrain, traveling by train might not be practical, but it is spectacular.

There are two main lines, the Central Railway (Tren de la Sierra) and the Southern Railway (Ferrocarriles del Sur del Peru). Both are engineering marvels, achieving the impressive technical feat of crossing the Andes. The Central Railway peaks at a whopping 15,800 ft (4,835m) above sea level.

The railways offer an enticing experience, steaming through the Peruvian peaks, but the reality doesn't always measure up to the romance. They will offer grand, sweeping vistas but unless you splash out on exclusive first class tickets you'll have to keep one eye on the inside of the carriage.

There are generally three classes of tickets available, although some trains are reserved for locals and others only for travelers. The basic "Economico" trains are almost always crowded and notoriously thick with thieves so make sure to keep a close eye on your things. The more expensive services offer waiters, restaurant carriages and increased security.

No matter which train you choose, don't expect a smooth ride. Rigid carriages and rugged terrain mean a train trip is often much slower and bumpier than it's bus equivalent. Poorly maintained rails in some sections lead to quite severe rocking from side to side. Soothing for some, nauseating for others and terrifying on the steep switchbacks traversing the mountains.

Train travel in Peru is a bit of a novelty, sold as an experience rather than a practicality (excluding passage in and out of Aguas Calientes on the way to machu Picchu). It's worth trying out but don't rely on rail as a big part of your travel plans. 

Peru Discount Airlines

If you get sick of schlepping overland you can always take to the sky. Domestic flights are growing in popularity with Peruvians, which has resulted in more competition and better prices for you. International flights within South America remain prohibitively pricey for most locals.

Flying domestically is still significantly more expensive than land travel but also more convenient. Sailing over the imposing Andes and the thick jungle puts Lima within two hours of all of Peru's major cities.

Airlines seem to pop up and disappear in the blink of an eye in Peru but there are a few stalwarts. In most cases, it's best to stick to these reliable carriers: LAN Peru, Taca, Star Peru and Peruvian Airlines.

The Peruvian government increased controls on the aviation industry with a few highly publicised crackdowns. However, oversight is inconsistent and many of the planes belonging to small airlines and charter companies may be poorly maintained, where pilots are overworked and under pressure to cut costs.

Companies are known to simply change their name and continue about their business after incidents or crashes, so do a little research before traveling with smaller airlines.

Weather conditions are a factor, especially on smaller planes and flights to the jungle. As well as cancellations or delays, flights are sometimes brought forward in an attempt to outrun Mother Nature. Make sure you confirm your booking a couple of days before your flight, and keep checking for updates.

Most airports will impose a tax on both domestic and international departures. As of October 2010, these are increasingly included in the ticket price but check your price breakdown. If it's not included not it has to be paid in cash (USD or Soles) so make sure you don't ditch all your dosh before checking in.

Peru by Water

Boat is often the easiest way to negotiate Peru's overgrown north. The popular jungle city of Iquitos is only accessible by boat or plane and offers plenty of river faring options.

If you're travelling the main routes along the Amazon, you'll find both fast and slow boats leaving regularly.

If you plan to continue on to Colombia or Brazil, the more powerful, more expensive ferries will get you to the three-way border at Leticia in around eight hours. If you have a little time up your sleeve, you can jump on board a banana boat and meander down the river for a few days. Don't forget to bring your own hammock.

If you want to explore some of the smaller tributaries and side streams, there are plenty of organised jungle tours available. If you'd prefer something a little less rigid, you can quite easily and cheaply hire a motorised canoe and driver. Setting off by yourself is a bad idea. Travelling by boat is dangerous for anyone who doesn't know the river.

The heat and mosquitos can be oppressive in the jungle so make sure to drink lots of water (boiled or treated) and apply plenty of strong insect repellent.

Lake Titicaca is the other centre of aquatic travel in Peru. There are many boats to take you out to the lake's islands, and you can shop around for the best price. Try and have a look at the boat before you buy your tickets, though. Some of the boats barely manage to limp out to the islands and back. You don't want to have to crowd into the back, enveloped in choking fumes in order to lift the prow and make any sort of progress. It's worth shelling out a few extra dollars to drastically cut your travel time.

Traveling by boat between the Peruvian and Bolivian sides of the lake isn't recommended. The customs offices are based around the bridge at the border town of Desaguadero and bypassing the bridge muddies the process a little.

There is one expensive catamaran cruise that has an arrangement with the customs officials and lets you fill out your papers on board. If you manage to convince one of the smaller tour companies to attempt the crossing, don't be surprised if you're swamped by border patrol boats.

On the other hand, the border at Desaguadero is busy at the best of times and you can often get caught in long lines of tour buses. Inexplicable closures and protests also plague the border.

In May 2011, anti-mining demonstrations blocked the highway to the border, forcing travelers to walk the remaining sevem miles (12km) to Bolivia, which often included a shakedown by the protesters. Boat was the only other option, until protests also forced the closure of Puno's port.

Driving in Peru

A car can make it a lot easier to reach some of Peru's remote destinations, and cruising the Panamerican Highway is a pleasure. However, bad roads, bad drivers and bandits can outweigh the benefits.

If you plan on driving long stretches in Peru you should have a decent grasp of Spanish. There are intermittent security and anti-narcotic checkpoints which can be difficult to negotiate in English. Carloads of foreigners sometimes arouse suspicions, especially near the Colombian border, and can be subjected to very thorough searches. This can be intimidating if you don't understand what's going on, but as long as you're polite, cooperative and not carrying any contraband, you will be sent on your way.

Fuel is cheap here but it's best to go for the more expensive high octane pumps. They are cleaner and kinder to your engine. You should carry plenty of food and water as well as spare parts, tyres and perhaps even a tent. A breakdown in the wrong part of Peru could see you stranded for days.

Traffic in Lima, Peru. Photo credit: iStock

Highway bandits are known to target hire cars, and traveling after dark is discouraged.

Thieves may try and trick you into pulling over before robbing you. Don't stop on isolated stretches of road if it can be avoided. Don't leave anything of value in the car when you park and lock as much as you can fit in the boot.

If you feel threatened at an intersection or traffic light, don't wait for something to happen. You'll actually fit in with Peru's drivers if you zoom off unexpectedly. What few traffic signals there are in Peru are vaguely respected at best.

Steer well clear of the traffic nightmare that is Lima. It takes the Lima locals years to master the bumping, jostling madness, and with all your preconceived notions about lanes, road signs and braking for pedestrians, you won't stand a chance.

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