Peru is an incredible country with culture and wildlife as varied as the landscape. A mountainous spine teeming with archaeological sites and home to many proud indigenous communities divides the land between the desert like coast line and the Amazon.
With the fastest growing level of tourism in South America, increasing a whopping 25% annually* and now taking its place as Peru's third largest industry, you could be forgiven for thinking there is safety in numbers. Maccu Pichu is top of many backpackers “bucket-lists” and the country as a whole has been a firm favourite on the trail for several decades. With all this in mind, I was surprised to hear of more traveller disasters in Peru than I did in either Colombia or the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.
Why was that and how can you avoid the potential problems?
To my mind there are a couple of contributing factors. Firstly, Peru is one of the poorest countries in South America and the steady influx of rich foreign tourists has given desperate
individuals plenty of time to conjure-up scams and other ways to take advantage. The second problem seems to be the attitudes of some tourists themselves- assuming they are
invincible (as is often the way of backpackers) there is a tendency to ignore warnings and assume you are safe with the herd. I found this complacency in Thailand (an even more popular
destination) too and a similarly high proportion of incidents.
The easiest way to avoid trouble when travelling is to blend in. Unfortunately, for two tall, blonde people like us, it wasn't often possible in Peru. Instead we wore very old clothes (often covered in paint from our volunteering work, with holes or some accidental mud) and I made a particular effort to ensure I was only ever showing a very conservative amount of skin or shape. Our shoes were well worn, I rarely brushed my hair and in England I'm pretty sure we would have been mistaken for tramps. Although this isn't a glamorous way to travel, I honestly believe it was a huge part of the reason we avoided any trouble.
Pickpockets and scam artists
The main brunt of my safety fears in Peru came after our friends' express kidnapping and robbery from a dodgy taxi near Huanchaco. Huanchaco is a tourist beach town situated next to the third largest city in Peru and this I feel is the problem. Be much more careful in popular tourist destinations and big cities as the high influx of foreigners can create a profitable business for taxi drivers working with organised criminal gangs. I avoid taxis if at all possible (a bus is cheaper and safer in my opinion), but if you need to take one be sure that it's legitimate.
Highway robberies- bus travel.
It's uncommon, but on certain routes in Peru there is a potential risk of road blockades and highway robberies. Check your route online before you travel and if there have been incidents, see how common it the problem is. If possible avoid travelling at night on potentially risky routes and if you must try and choose a direct, reputable bus company. Certain roads, such as those around Tingo Maria and some places near the borders, are notoriously dangerous and should only be travelled by people aware of the risks. Personally I would probably avoid them unless I had a real reason to go.
On any bus keep your valuables on your person, avoid using overhead racks and consider hiding your documentation and money under your clothes. If you are a girl travelling alone, it might be better to select a woman already on the bus to sit next to rather than risk a pervy companion.
For women- annoying men through to sexual assault.
Luckily I didn't hear of any sexual assaults in Peru, but the advice is mostly the same as anywhere.
Driving and road standards are notoriously low in much of South America. This is one danger that it is difficult to avoid altogether, but you can reduce it by travelling in the daytime and trying to avoid mountain roads when the weather is bad. If you are hitchhiking do so in pairs and use your instincts. We hitchhiked for a few days through the desert in the North, but found it very slow.
For some reason we found the dogs in Peru to be particularly aggressive, especially in rural areas where they probably interpreted our foreignness as some kind of threat. Ignore barking, but if they are getting close and you are worried about being bitten it's usually possible to keep them away by shouting in a low pitched commanding voice, threatening them with a stick or throwing stones. I've never had to hurt a dog to make it go away, so try not to actually hit them. It's more about trying to scare them while you have time to back away. Don't ever run!
If you are lucky enough to find a warm shower in cheap accommodation it's likely to be electric. Be careful as the wiring is often faulty and avoid touching the shower head or anything that might give you a shock with a wet hand.
Food and drink
Through doing a little research and being aware of our surroundings, we didn't have any problems in Peru. Maybe it was luck, but if you follow this advice I think you will stay safe and have
an amazing experience.
*Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, is known to have had exceptionally high murder rates.
For inspiration and information about my favourite places in Peru try...