Machu Picchu is on a lot of travelers' bucket lists, but you don't have to wait until retirement to be enchanted by Peru. Peru's natural beauty and countless historical sites attract a lot of visitors, but it's far from a pricey tourist trap. Traveling Peru on a budget is easy if you skip the expensive tour packages, hotels and many fine restaurants that beckon well-heeled tourists. The exchange rate between the dollar and the sol, Peru's national currency, is very favorable, with $1 getting you about 3 soles, which buys 1 liter of Coca-Cola.
From the natural hot springs at Aguas Calientes to welcoming and affordable homestays and epic mountain treks in handmade alpaca clothing, Peru has lots to offer visitors, even those traveling on a shoestring. Here are 6 ways we at GET.com want to share with you to help you stretch your soles while marveling at Peru's awe-inspiring landscape and rich cultural history.
1. Flying Is (Sometimes) Cheaper Than Driving
Getting around Peru by bus can be a daunting experience, and sometimes, it's cheaper and easier to fly. A bus ride from Cusco to Lima can take anywhere from 16 to 20 hours, while a flight takes just over an hour and costs less. You can grab a flight from Lima to Cusco for under $100 on Avianca, which lets you earn points with the United MileagePlus frequent flyer program, or LAN/LATAM, which lets you earn points with the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flyer program.
In Peru, taking a bus isn't always the cheapest option. I met plenty of seasoned budget travelers in Peru who automatically chose to travel by bus rather than fly because they assumed that flying would be more expensive, without considering the country's mountainous terrain.
So before you jump on a bus to visit Puno on the coast of Lake Titicaca or Arequipa to spot Andean condors in Colca Canyon, compare the cost of flights. You'll often save time and money by flying, although you'll miss out on a first-class view of Peru's awesome scenery.
2. Don't Always Pick The "Tourist" Bus
For short trips, flying isn't practical, and there are plenty of tour bus operators with regular trips to nearly every popular destination.
For example, a tour bus package from Inka Express from Cusco to Puno through the Ruta del Sol costs $65 per person, including lunch and free entrance to all historical sites on the way. There's a catch, though: the trip takes 10 hours. A regular bus from Cruz del Sur takes just 6 hours and costs about half the price of a tourist bus.
Regular buses are faster because tourist buses make a lot of stops at local markets where you can buy handmade alpaca clothing and other locally-produced souvenirs.
Although they are not the most economical option, I would highly recommend taking a tourist bus through the Sacred Valley. There's some amazing scenery, plenty of local markets, lunch is included and there's a bilingual tour guide to explain the history of the many sites you'll visit. But if you're just trying to get from one place to another, save money and grab a regular bus.
3. Avoid Historical Sites On Sundays
By law, Peruvians get to visit all historical sites and publicly-run attractions for free on Sundays, and because of that, they're usually packed to the brim at the end of the week. You'll see lots of locals lined up outside government ticket offices on Fridays to get free passes for the weekend. If you're planning to go to Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman, Chan Chan, Sillustani, or Ollantaytambo, pick any day but Sunday unless you enjoy a big crowd.
4. Where To Stay?
Peru attracts a lot of travelers from all over the world, so the couchsurfing scene is pretty developed, although most hosts are in big cities like Lima and Arequipa. Popular tourist spots like Cusco are packed with 4- and 5-star hotels that cost hundreds of dollars a night, but there are also a lot of affordable Airbnbs and decently-priced hostels.
I stayed less than a block away from the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco, in a family-run Airbnb and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In popular but out-of-the-way spots like Puno, you can find decent hotels and hostels for less than $20 a night. In Lima, Airbnbs and hotels are a little pricier, but there are hundreds of couchsurfing hosts and plenty of affordable hostels.
5. Load Up On Lunch
Peruvian food is some of the best I've ever had. The tourist industry demands a very high culinary standard, and you'll often see students lined up in aprons and chef hats waiting for buses to take them to cooking school.
You can definitely splurge on fine dining experiences in Peru, but you don't have to spend a fortune to get a delicious lunch that can keep you stuffed for the better part of the day. Seek out restaurants frequented by locals and always ask about the plato del dia, or plate of the day.
It's a lot of food at a lower price than the menu options, but it's only available during the lunch hours, usually from 10am to 2pm. TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet are a great way to find fancy places to eat, but you should try to lunch where the locals do: The food is delicious and the price is unbeatable.
6. Use Colectivos
There are plenty of tour operators that will charge you hundreds of dollars to visit sites like the Colca Canyon north of Arequipa where you can spot Andean condors and Aguas Calientes, a natural hot springs just a few hours north of Cusco.
But there's almost always a cheaper option: Colectivos. These small vans are Peruvians' preferred mode of public transport, and it's not hard to see why since they're incredibly affordable. Colectivos can be a little cramped and hard to get used to at first, but there's no cheaper option for short day trips to visit nearby attractions.