Peru is a travel bargain. Or Peru is very expensive. It all depends on how you travel.
I inhabit the strange world of travel writing where for my job I go back and forth from cheap hotels to plush palaces, from crowded buses to executive taxis depending on whether I’m on a writing assignment or just bopping around on my own. This practice shows me over and over again that how cheap a destination is perceived to be depends greatly on who you ask.
Which brings us to Peru. Exhibit A on the left is a photo from Lima. If you eat where locals of average means eat and drink then Peru is a travel bargain, even in the capital city. The exchange rate right now is around 3.3 soles to the dollar, but when I snapped that photo is was under 3. So a soup and main dish came in under $2. In Lima, you can get almost anywhere in a taxi for a few bucks, the buses are almost free if you can figure them out, and I paid less than a buck per kilo to get laundry washed, dried, and folded.
You can go on HostelBookers.com and find a hostel bed for $7 to $13 in Lima or Cusco. You can get a private room for under $30. Last time I was there I got a nice hotel room in a good neighborhood of Miraflores for $29 a night through Booking.com. That included a room with sitting area, steaming hot shower with towels, satellite TV, breakfast, and fast internet.
You Can Spend $1,000 a Day in Peru if you Want
If you’re staying at one of the top hotels in town, however, your experience will be quite different. Exhibit B is a photo taken at a place I once stayed at while on assignment reviewing hotels. Funny enough, that collection of a half bottle of Argentine wine, Ritz crackers, processed cheese, and fancy Slim Jims at the swanky hotel is more than my previous hotel room was! At a JW Marriott I was in, a bottle of Evian water was $9 for a liter, more than a good meal at dozens of restaurants in central Miraflores, or a “meal of the day” for you and a few friends at a basic place. Or three liters of “box wine” from Argentina to share, for that matter.
Here’s a shot that’ll really show you what you can spend in Peru if you want. It’s the rate for one night at the Belmond Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge right by the ruins. Granted this includes meals since you can’t go anywhere once you’re there, but still, the $1,600 (lowest available rate) it costs for one night there will last many backpackers for weeks. The funny part? It’s usually sold out. I couldn’t find availability for any weekend in May and have to try July. You have to book months in advance.
So if you tell your aunt Ester that Peru is really cheap after she just got back from a luxury tour of Peru that cost her and your uncle almost 10 grand, she’s liable to disagree. For what she spent, she could have been in Europe.
The same can be true for a lot of the cheapest places to travel in the world. If you ask someone who has stayed in a plush palace hotel resort in Rajasthan or went on a luxury train journey, then India is not really much of a bargain. A backpacker staying in guesthouses for $4 a night? A very different story. The same is true in Thailand, Mexico, Hungary, or pretty much anywhere with a good upscale tourism infrastructure, but low costs for locals.
There are restaurants in Cusco that will cost you more than $50 a person and the diners will pay it without flinching. But there are also plenty of places like this two blocks away and they’re pretty nice. (Remember, it’s 3.3 to the dollar).
Where are You Traveling in Peru?
Keep in mind also that there is a very well-defined tourist route in Peru between Cusco and Machu Picchu via the Sacred Valley. This area is Peru’s big cash cow and they’re milking it for all they’ve got. You could easily burn through $200 or $300 for one person just taking the train to Machu Picchu, visiting for one day, hiking up Huaynu Picchu, and spending the night in the town at the base. (In comparison to some bucket list attraction costs though, Machu Picchu isn’t all that bad.) You’ll spend another $100 just to see the main sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley because you have to buy a multi-site ticket that’s nearly $50…for each area.
This area is an outlier, however, not the norm. You can’t really blame the government or the locals for charging so much there because so many tourists hurry through Peru and this is where they’re going to spend all their limited time. If you’re not in a rush though, you can take cheap local buses, eat in inexpensive restaurants or the market, and even spend the night in Pisac or Chinchero instead of doing a quick photo opp outside the tour bus and moving on again. It’s a reliable tenet of budget travel worldwide: slow travel is much less costly than check-the-box travel.
Things get much cheaper in a hurry though if you go beyond this main corridor. Even in Arequipa and the Colca Canyon there are far fewer tourists on high-dollar tours. If you head up north, which I’m going to do this spring, you might only run into a few stray backpackers and no other foreigners. You’ll pay prices meant for locals because locals are about the only people there.
For us independent travelers, Peru can be a very inexpensive destination, even though you will have to blow your budget to hike the Inca Trail or get out to Machu Picchu on the train and back. For tourists in a hurry, it depends…