Dan and I just returned from a 5-week road trip in Peru. We hope to share some valuable tips with those who are interested in seeing more of what the country has to offer, outside of iconic places like Machu Pichu and the floating islands. Of course driving in Peru means added risks, but it’s well worth the freedom of exploring with no guides, no tour buses and virtually no restrictions. For photographers it’s a dream.
Here are a few things we learned along the way.
Before our trip, we did the usual due diligence and researched how safe it is to drive in Peru. To our surprise there wasn’t a lot of readily available information out there about driving in Peru beyond the road from Lima to Cusco or Arequipa. Most people who visit choose to fly between cities thanks to cheap airfare and travel advice warning against bus hijackings. Digging a little deeper, we found mentions of cocaine drug trafficking, corrupt police and dangerous mining towns void of law enforcement. Yikes!
But the information was too scarce and unspecific to make any assumptions that driving in Peru was necessarily that dangerous. So we decided to give it a go. After the first week of traveling we found it to feel really really safe.
DISCLAIMER: It’s always tough when it comes to giving safety advice. It is South America and there is certainty a chance something will happen and risk involved. Based on our experiences, talking to other travelers and asking locals, our feelings were that driving in Peru was safe — as long you are smart and cautious.
Load Up On Supplies – Especially GAS!
If the car is filled with plenty of water and snacks, you’ll pass hundreds of fruit stands and convenience stores. It’s the moment you are getting low that the road is inevitably desolate of any signs of civilization. We found ourselves on remote roads that took 7 hours when Google said it would take 3. Having the extra food and water made all the difference.
Getting gas wasn’t always easy either. In a small town a few hours south of Huaraz, we had to ask around to find someone would sell us fuel — no signs or stations available. A local shopkeeper brought out a big tank and we used a hand held funnel to fill up. In another town they had a sign (if you could call it that), but it still required the owner to bring it to us in small jugs. I imagine that some towns may not have this option at all. Truthfully, there were a few moments we got nervous that we may not find any gas, so be sure to fill-up when you can (best to keep above half a tank). Next time we will definitely bring fuel containers as back-ups.
4WD is a MUST
When you’re driving in a country where the highway can turn into a rocky dirt road with zero notice, it’s absolutely necessary to be driving a vehicle that can handle the terrain. This is especially important for photographers who want to get off-the-beaten path to find unique images. Some of our scouting including driving through a river, deep mud and spending hours on a rocky dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Nothing too extreme, but enough to make us enormously thankful for the little Suzuki 4WD we had.
Still thinking of getting a 2WD? Even the speedbumps will have any low-clearance vehicle bottoming out on the middle of the highway (beware, they come out of nowhere). If you’re concerned about budget, we booked the economy option then negotiated a rate at the counter to upgrade to the 4WD. With insurance, airport fees, tax, etc. it came out to $38 per day, not too bad for the cost of freedom!
Driving at Night
This is where it becomes more challenging being a photographer while traveling in South America. Shooting at sunrise and sunset means driving during the hours deemed most dangerous for tourists. This was definitely a concern of ours at the beginning of the trip. Armed with our pepper spray, fake wallets, hidden cash and back-up memory cards — we hit the road in the wee hours of 3AM for a shot located an hour drive and hour hike from our hotel. With no trouble at all, it proved to be perfectly fine, and we continued to do this through-out the trip (while always remaining extra-cautious.)
It is important to note that we did not drive at night in any major cities, as we were only shooting in remote areas. It’s hard to say if this is something we would have done. Definitely not in cities such as Juliaca, Puno or the outskirts of Lima that appeared to be a little rough during the day. Huaraz was fine and although we didn’t drive at night in Cusco, I think it would be okay too. Always ask the locals if they think it is safe to drive at night first. Their reaction will give you a good idea.
Just How Corrupt Are the Police?
Short answer – corrupt. But not terribly. We encountered the police at least 5 or 6 times along the way and found that most were friendly and helpful. However, I am almost certain we got conned by police outside of Lima, twice! It’s illegal in Peru to drive without headlights on, even during the day, something that cost us either a whopping $300 “at the station” or $50 USD if we pay right then and there. (AKA straight into their pockets!) The first time we were pulled over we probably did not have the lights on, but the second time, I am 99% sure the same exact officer distracted us then reached in the car and turned off the lights himself. This was of course followed by a fine for not having the lights on. Sheesh.
Also we got extensively yelled at for not having our passports in the vehicle one evening as we were coming back from shooting. It’s a good idea to keep them on you at all times (we normally did).
Getting Off the Tourist Route
Again, online travel info gave warning on areas that were still a part of the drug trade… but we could never figure out exactly where or what to avoid. So we remained just a little weary about stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time. But we never came across any towns that seemed dangerous at all and we went through a ton of little towns. It was fairly easy to find hotels in route and we were able to make plans as we went, depending on if/where we found great scenes for shooting.
Rules of the Road
You may have heard that drivers in Peru are crazy. It’s the truth. Be prepared for intersections with no stop signs, drivers on the wrong side of the road and illegal passing. There’s only one rule everyone plays by and it’s try not to get hit or hit anyone else. In the countryside, it’s recommended that you honk on sharp turns with low visibility, as there is frequently only one lane for traffic on steep mountain passes. Car crashes happen often here, which is reminded by the hundreds and hundreds of crosses you will see on the side of the road. (We drove past a truck that had driven off a cliff, only to see aftermath at the bottom of the valley). Just always be alert and prepared for anything and you’ll get by just fine.
Precautions - Just in Case
While we never came across a situation where we needed pepper spray or fake wallets, this are a couple precautions we took just in case something did happen.
Talk to the locals to gage the area
Have fake wallets in the obvious places
Have money hidden around the car
Keep pepper spray at hand
Always have your images backed up
Don’t trust Google maps – download offline maps
We hope this article can help with the lack of information out there on driving in Peru or inspire you to head down there yourself to do some exploring! After discovering how safe and easy it felt to get around, there’s no doubt we will be back to finish what we started (5 weeks is never enough).