By Kyli Torkelson, Cusco, Peru
I spent a summer term studying abroad in Cusco, Peru and loved every second of it. However, there are a few things I wish I would have known before I left. Here’s a list of my top 8 things I think students should know before studying abroad in Peru.
1. The Climate
Peru, like many South American countries, has a dry and wet season. The dry season typically lasts from May to October. This climate is usually much more predictable to make travel plans. However, during the rainy season there are typically less visitors so travel prices may be cheaper. It is also important to remember that Peru is on the south side of the equator so the seasons are not the same as they are here in the United States. I traveled to Peru in May through June, and while the days usually reached up to high 60’s and 70’s, the nights dropped down to low 30’s. This made for some real chilly morning walks to class. Be sure to be proactive and check the temperatures before you leave to ensure you have the right clothing.
2. Altitude sickness is real
One thing I didn’t take into account before leaving is just how different the altitude of the country is. I lived in Cusco, which is also a popular tourist destination. Cusco itself is over 11,000 ft above sea level. Keep in mind many people experience altitude sickness just going to Denver, Colorado, and that is half the altitude of Cusco. Signs of altitude sickness can include shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, or nausea. While it may be tempting to spend the first day or two exploring this exciting, new place, it is extremely important to rest and take it easy. Eat plain and light foods and drink some Coca tea. It is also very important to keep altitude change in mind when doing any physical activity, such as hiking, running, and even walking. I learned this real quick on my first excursion there. When doing strenuous activity, be sure to drink lots of water and take breaks as needed.
3. The History
Peru is a country full of rich history. Even though during the few weeks before departure to another country there are many other things on your mind, one of my biggest regrets is not taking more time to research about the history of this country prior to arriving there. I was fortunate to be taking a history class while I was there, which helped me learn more about this country than I would have on my own. One of my favorites parts about Peru is how attached the people are to their historical heritage. People still celebrate traditional Incan holidays, like Inti Raymi, and still fluently speak the indigenous language of Quechua. I recommend to study the history of where you’re staying and the places you’ll take excursions to before you go.
4. Take preventative measures to stay healthy
Be sure to follow recommended health guidelines before and during your trip. Check online with your study abroad provider about recommended vaccines, especially if you’re planning trips to rainforest areas. Also be aware some of these vaccines need to be given a certain amount of time before departure. While there, be cautious with water (including ice) and non-cooked vegetables. The water quality in water systems in foreign countries are different then they are here. Water and non-cooked vegetables washed in that water are two common sources of food that can make international students ill. Be sure to always drink bottled water when you can! Lastly, remember to pack sun screen!! Peru is much closer to the equator than the U.S. so the sun is much stronger. Being at higher elevations makes for stronger sun exposure as well.
5. Know some of the “signature” Peru foods to try
Peru is home to many unique foods that you should to try while spending time there.
- Inca Kola – This is a soda that can be found anywhere within the country, and I mean anywhere. It is in every small bodega, grocery store, restaurant, and locals even sell it on the sides of the roads to many popular tourist places in case you need to quench your thirst during your hike. While it may look like regular soda, the taste is surprisingly sweet and similar to bubble gum.
- Picarones – This is a dessert dish, often called Peruvian doughnuts. While they look and taste like a doughnut or funnel cake, they are actually made from ingredients made from just two vegetables, sweet potatoes and squash. This was hands down my favorite Peruvian specialty. Be careful not to eat too many!
- Lucuma Ice Cream – Lucuma is a fruit grown in the Andes. It has a taste crossed between a sweet potato and caramel. On its own it’s not commonly eaten, but it is very popular as an ice cream flavor. This was always my go-to flavor while living there.
- Coca tea – Coca is a plant grown throughout Peru. It is a popular herb to put in tea. This tea is good for altitude sickness and many other health issues so it is widely drank all over the country. While the tea itself is safe to drink, coca leaves are not allowed within the United States, so your time in Peru may be your only time to try it!
- Chifa – This is the fusion between Chinese and Peruvian food. It consists of typical Chinese dishes you would find in a restaurant, such as stir fry, but uses more common Peruvian ingredients.
- Cuy – This is more commonly known as guinea pig in English. This is seen as a very important dish by Peruvians because it was mostly be eaten by nobility. Today, it is a cooked Andean traditional dish. This dish is especially popular during the holiday Corpus Christi where it is combined with many important food products found from all areas of Peru. I would definitely encourage everyone to try it, however, one time was enough for me…
6. Take advantage of your tourist ticket and ISIC card
In Peru, you must buy a tourist ticket to get into many of the top tourist locations such as Macchu Picchu or Ollantaytambo. Some places you can pay entrance separately, but it is much more expensive than paying for the ticket that will get you into numerous places. These tickets only last for 10 days though so be sure to get the full use out of it before the expiration date! Also, it is recommended to look into buying a student ISIC card before leaving. My program had this included in the fees so make sure to check. This card is great for receiving travel discounts.
7. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the locals
Overall, the people of Peru are happy to have you there! So don’t be afraid to use your Spanish and ask them for advice on places to eat, what to eat, or where to travel. My host mom and my professors loved to give us suggestions to help us enhance our Peruvian experience.
The time you spend abroad in any country goes by quick! You can only experience your first time seeing a country once, so live it to the fullest! Try new things, make new friends, and take lots of pictures. Along the way, you’ll make new memories to last a lifetime.