Relative to a lot of other destinations, Peru is an affordable spot to travel to. But even so, you can expect to spend at least a grand or two on a two-week trip — the minimum time recommended to fully soak in such a diverse country.
If you're not flush with cash, this is a lot of money. So what's the budget-minded traveler to do?
Easy: get travel hacking.
When I ventured to the country with a friend, I centered on finding cheaper options for the big three expenses: transportation (both to Peru and within Peru), lodging and food. This saved me the most money. After that, I focused on the little things, like souvenirs and tours.
The final tally? I spent just over $650 for the entire two-week trip. Here’s exactly how I did it— and tips on how you can do the same.
Save Up Ahead of Time
My friend messaged me on Facebook about six months before we left. This was crucial; if it had been a last-minute thing, I would have had about $4.92 in my travel budget. Obviously that much money wouldn’t have lasted me very long, even by Peruvian standards.
Instead, I took that long runway as an opportunity to save up more money for my trip, simply by cutting back in a few key areas: I stopped going out to eat as much and buying unnecessary clutter like books (the library has them for free anyways). This allowed me to save an extra $150 per month towards my trip.
I also did some research on various travel blogs and websites to see how much I could expect to pay on a bare-bones budget. That’s how I knew saving $150 per month for the next six months would more than cover my expenses while in Peru.
By the time I was on my way to the airport, I already had enough money in the bank for the whole trip, so I didn’t need to worry about going into debt.
Find Free Airline Tickets
Free airline tickets? Yep, believe it or not, these exist. Luckily I’m friends with several people in the professional travel hacking community, and their number one strategy for making travel affordable is to get free flights with points earned from travel rewards credit cards.
It’s not a strategy for the faint-of-heart, since it involves a lot of organization and fine-print-reading. But if you can swing it, and if you already have a good credit score, it’s totally possible to get your flights for free.
I’d opened up a travel rewards credit card the year before and already had a bank of points sitting in my account. This was thanks to a combination of factors: I had stayed on the card long enough to earn a sign-up bonus, I’d put my everyday spending on the card and paid it off immediately, and I’d used the card for other trips.
Booking my free flight was as simple as logging into their rewards portal, selecting the flight me and my friend chose, and hitting Book Flight. The ticket was sent right to my email inbox as if I had booked it on a travel website, except that I didn’t pay a thing.
Book a Ticket on the Peru Hop Bus
The next thing we had to figure out was how to get around the country. Since my friend had almost been abducted by a cabbie in Vienna once, she was a little leery of cabs. So we decided to opt for public transit (bonus: This is cheaper anyway).
There are a few bus services that run throughout the country, such as Cruz del Sur. We opted for a newer bus company, Peru Hop. It was started by a couple of Irish friends catering to more adventurous (and budget-minded) tourists to the country. And it boasted several money-saving features, including exclusive discounts at local hotels and hostels in each stop, and exclusive free tours (including of the Chincha slave tunnels). Plus the tour guides were excellent at pointing out local budget-friendly restaurants.
The Peru Hop bus ticket made up the single biggest expense of the trip ($199, for travel at our own pace between Lima and Cuzco), but it was well worth it, and it did save us money in the long run.
Ride in a Colectivo
We mostly stayed away from taxis while in Peru, with one minor exception: colectivos. These shared taxi vans could usually be found in public squares with harried drivers shouting the names of their van’s destination. Ollantaytambo! Cusco! Hidroelectrica!
Once the driver collected enough people to fill the van, he would leave. This was a great way to travel like the locals. We sat next to several Peruvian women in colorful traditional dress on their way to the market, and children heading off to school for the day.
Even better was the price. For just a few soles (one sol is equal to about 30 U.S. cents), we could catch a ride wherever we needed. The only downside was that you had to wait until the van was filled before you left. It never seemed to take very long, and since we weren’t bound to a rigid travel schedule, it worked out just fine for us.
Stay in Budget Hotels and Hostels
We didn’t go to Peru to relax and sleep. We went to Peru to go on adventures and see things! Where we laid our heads at night didn’t matter much, as long as it was safe. That’s why we decided to stay in hostels and budget hotels, costing about just $10-15 per night, USD.
This was actually my first time staying in a hostel. I thought they were just for spring-break partiers (and some were), but we were happy to find plenty of hostels that catered to a more laid-back crowd like us. Even better was that many provided a free breakfast. It was spartan fare, usually with just some bread and butter, but satisfying nonetheless. A few places we stayed at fried up a fresh egg for each of us, which was unexpected and very welcome.
Staying in a hostel also allowed for a more authentic experience. We stayed in a lovely family-run hostel in Arequipa where a friendly, motherly woman named Silvia made sure we had everything we needed to be comfortable — even though we arrived from our Peru Hop bus at 4:30 am, when she had been sleeping.
Skip the Pricey Meals
Luckily, neither me nor my friend are huge eaters. I like good food, but I don’t always need a lot of it.
Instead, we relied on the free breakfasts that the hostels provided, supplemented with cheap fare from local grocery stores — which as a bonus also provided a glimpse into everyday Peruvian life and the opportunity to decode common food items in Spanish. We saw entire aisles filled with neon-yellow Inka Kola (a local favorite), and stocked up on fresh passion fruit, custard apples and avocados.
We saved our few splurge meals for local restaurants recommended to us by our tour guides. We had a fantastic dinner of fresh local ceviche while in Lima, alpaca steaks in Ollantaytambo and Peruvian craft beers in Aguas Calientes. We may not have had fancy meals every night, but the ones we did spend money on were extra special because of it.
Book Your Own Machu Picchu Tickets
You can’t just waltz up to Machu Picchu and walk in. Instead, you need to purchase a ticket in advance — sometimes months in advance, since the daily visitor numbers are capped. And because the Peruvian government website to buy tickets is notoriously difficult to navigate, lots of online websites have sprung up that’ll reserve your tickets for you — for a hefty fee, of course.
Instead, we found an online tutorial on how to book your Machu Picchu tickets yourself. In the process, we saved $23 over our next-best online option, which is a lot of money by Peruvian standards.
If you’re planning on taking one of the popular Inca Trail treks to Machu Picchu, your final cost will be higher. However, we opted out of this, and found a cheaper, more adventurous way instead…
Trek Machu Picchu DIY-Style
The Inca Trail treks to Machu Picchu are extremely popular and book out months in advance. Furthermore, they carry a hefty price tag: several hundred (if not thousands of) dollars, which was more than we were willing to pay.
Nonetheless, we didn’t want to miss out on the trekking experience. So, with the power of our internet sleuthing skills combined, we found an alternative option.
We booked a colectivo from Ollantaytambo all the way to Hidroelectrica, a small hydroelectric plant, for $30 USD. From there, it was only a two-hour hike along a set of train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
It may not have been a fancy multi-day trek, but we still got the trekking experience, since the entire hike followed a beautiful, meandering river through the jungle. Small jungle plantations dotted the way, and for the first time in my life, I was able to taste a truly fresh banana right from the tree after purchasing it from a farm stand (it was divine).
Walk Up (or Down) From Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu itself sits at...well...the top of a mountain. You have two options to get there and back: You can buy a bus ticket for $12 each way, or you can hoof it on a well-marked trail from Aguas Calientes.
Obviously most people buy the bus ticket. But if you’re feeling spritely, you can hike up and down for free. My friend and I decided to spring for a bus ticket to save our quads for a secondary hike up neighboring Huayna Picchu (and we’re glad we sprung for the ticket; Huayna Picchu was a nearly vertical hike).
On our way back down, however, we decided not to buy a return ticket and to just walk. The trail was equally gorgeous and offered occasional glimpses through the trees of the cloud forest and the valley floor below, with its dark wandering river.
Heading back down (rather than up) is definitely the easier way to do it if you still want to experience the trail and save a few bucks.
Keep Snacks on Hand
Since we weren’t eating out in restaurants all the time, we did occasionally get hungry. So, when we went to the grocery stores, we made sure to stock up on plenty of snacks to tide us over between meals, including lots of fresh fruits and veggies.
Many grocery stores also had these handy little octagonal-shaped bread loaves, about the size of a small paperback book. They were packaged in packs of half a dozen, which was a perfect size to stash in our bag for munching on later when we got hungry.
These small bread loaves turned out to be handy in another way too. I’d stocked up on them for our hike to Aguas Calientes, but along the way we met a fellow traveler — a Scottish man who’d had his passport and wallet stolen, and was trying to make his way to a Western Union in far-off Cusco where a friend had wired him some money. He was hungry too, so I gave him my stash of bread loaves. I hope he made it out okay!
Keep a Spanish-Language App Downloaded on Your Phone
My friend and I stayed pretty well within the main touristy areas of the country. Here, it’s pretty easy to find people who speak English if you absolutely need it, and most of the staff at hostels and hotels also spoke good English.
But there were two problems: Our venture out to Ollantaytambo and Hidroelectrica took us slightly off the beaten path (thankfully), but this also made it harder to find English speakers at times. And because neither of us spoke a lick of Spanish aside from what we had frantically tried to learn in the months before the trip on Duolingo, we were a bit limited in how we could communicate with locals.
This would have made it easy for people to take advantage of us, especially since much of the marketplaces run on a haggling system (something that has always terrified me for some unknown reason). In addition, we had to ask locals for directions around town, and how to find places.
Having an app on our phone where we could find out the correct sentences beforehand was invaluable. Pro tip: Make sure whichever app you choose (I used SpanishDict Translator) has everything downloaded to your phone, so it doesn’t rely on spotty wi-fi signals.
Visit the Marketplaces
There are two kinds of marketplaces in Peru: the kind that locals visit, and the kind full of souvenirs and knick-knacks for tourists. Both are equally fun to visit.
In Arequipa, a picturesque city in the shadow of the nearby volcano El Misti, we visited a local’s market. It was housed in a gigantic building and even had subterranean floors, just like a shopping mall. It was amazing to see the huge variety of produce, fish and meat available for sale (although heads-up: The meat market is a little...odorous).
The tourist markets were equally eye-popping, with plenty of colorful alpaca blankets, pullovers, gloves, hats and socks. Many of the tourist marketplaces we visited around the country had the same set of items, but we never got tired of wandering through the markets to see what new color patterns were available.
Importantly, now matter where we went, we mostly just perused — an entirely free activity.
Limit Your Souvenir Purchases
It’s tempting to buy everything you see in Peru, especially since the prices for souvenirs are so affordable. But you must resist! Each little purchase adds up.
This was relatively easy for us, since we were traveling with backpacks and had limited space for souvenirs anyways. We were forced to carefully consider each purchase, assessing whether we had space in our backpacks to bring it back, and whether our friends and family would truly appreciate what we bought or toss it as soon as we were gone.
I ended up leaving with just a few souvenirs of my trip: some local craft beers (carefully wrapped in plastic) and chocolate bars to enjoy with my friends, an alpaca scarf for my mom, and an alpaca blanket, sweater and pajama bottoms for myself.
It wasn’t a lot of purchases, I admit. Instead, I stocked up on plenty of things that were free: beautiful, amazing photos. It’s these photos that I still cherish more, now that I’m back. And they cost me nothing.