Good destination in Peru for non-Spanish speaker
October 28, 2008 9:24 AM   Subscribe

PERU: Puno vs. Cuzco: Which is a safer destination for a 27 year-old SWF (American)with very limited Spanish ability and very little money? Or somewhere else in Peru, maybe?

A friend of mine is considering going to Cuzco or Puno, but she has no money and hardly speaks Spanish. If she has to choose between one of the two places, which is best? Or maybe somewhere else... Suggesions appreciated!
posted by mateuslee to Travel & Transportation around Peru (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What does she want to do that's unique to Peru?

Ecuador, over all, is safer and nicer than Peru. It has everything Peru does, except for Machu Picchu, and she could go to Inga Pirca instead. If she wants to practice Spanish, the people are a little nicer to strangers in Ecuador. The danger is orders of magnitude less in Ecuador than in Peru. Both countries are dirt cheap, but I liked the shopping better in Ecuador. Getting around Ecuador is incredibly easy and cheap, even with limited Spanish, so it's not even like you have to pick "a place" to go.

I'd go back to Ecuador before I went back to Peru.
posted by arabelladragon at 9:46 AM on October 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

To live? For vacation? For how long? Cusco is one of the most expensive towns in Peru, but there's a reason why everyone goes there. I stopped in Puno to take a tour of Lake Titicaca but I don't know why you would go there otherwise. I traveled as an American female alone when I was around 23 but I had basic high school Spanish. I think you'll be fine without Spanish skills, there's tons of tourists. Equador is cheaper, but Machu Picchui s pretty awesome.

On the safety side, my bus did get held up by banditos because it was running during a bus strike of some sort (between Puno and Arequipa) but this was a number of years ago and it was no big deal. We gave than $1 each and continued on.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:04 AM on October 28, 2008

I was in Peru recently, and if I had to choose between visiting one or the other, I'd definitely do Cuzco. Puno was... depressing. It's a sprawling city where most of the buildings are unfinished, with lots and lots of neon lights on the tourist strip. (Once you get away from Puno itself, and take a boat to the islands, it's much better, but looking back--I definitely could have skipped Puno. If you're set on seeing the lake, do the Bolivian side and stay in Copacabana instead.) Cuzco was gorgeous--even the touristy areas looked amazing and historical--lots of stuff to walk around and see, and while more expensive than the other places in terms of a hotel, you could definitely entertain yourself during the day by walking to nearby ruins and not need to spend a lot of cash. Plus, you can take relatively cheap buses from Cuzco to some of the surrounding towns in the Sacred Valley and see amazing Incan ruins without paying the crazy-high entrance fee required by Machu Picchu. I could have stayed in Cuzco for a week or two without getting bored, whereas I was ready to leave Puno within 24 hours of getting there.

If money is the big issue, though, I'd recommend Arequipa. It's gorgeous, much cheaper than either Lima or Cuzco (the hotels and food were roughly half as much, as I recall), and very relaxed. I liked Cuzco a little better--as Bunglegirl said above, there's a reason everyone goes there--but Arequipa would be a close, close second. Flights between Lima and Arequipa weren't too bad (under $100) if you bought them once you were in Peru, rather than over the internet from the United States.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:21 AM on October 28, 2008

Best answer: I haven't been to Puno, but I was in Cuzco about a month ago and your friend would be fine there with very little to no Spanish. It's a very, very touristy town, and you'll see almost as many non-locals as locals. We were assured by more than one person that it was safe to walk around Cuzco at night (even), and we found that to be true and never felt unsafe. Most of the menus are in Spanish, English, and French, and most waiters speak at least some English. Tour guides almost always speak English, and the awesome audio tour for the Cathedral comes in English as well as Spanish.

As far as safety goes, this was my first time leaving the US, and I felt safe there. I had two people with me, though. If I was going alone, here's what I'd want to know:

1) Stay in a hostel within easy walking distance (10 minutes or less) to the Plaza de Armas. This is largely because I'd want to avoid having to catch a cab on my own--alone in a random cab is the only place I'd fear for my safety. We took a cab back to our hostel every night and it was always great except for one time--and that time, it wasn't so much that we feared for our safety as that the guy was a big jerk. If I'd been alone, I would've been freaked out.

2) Related to that, I'd have my hostel help me arrange any local travel I did. I'd get them to help me get a train ticket (assuming she'd go to Machu Picchu), arrange a cab to the train station or the local ruins, and so forth. That's about not getting ripped off as much as it is safety. Oh, and buy the train ticket well ahead of time.

3) You will spend your first day in Cuzco recovering from altitude sickness, and you may need more than that first day. If your friend is short on time, this is probably a consideration.

4) Depending on how broke she is, she can save tons of money by buying her food from the local tiny supermarkets. Most of them have bread and cheese and tomatoes and chips and that sort of thing. The restaurants are cheap, but not dirt cheap.

5) You can take a cab up to Tambomachay and then walk back down to Cusco along the road, visiting ruins all along the way. It's an easy hike, and I highly recommend it.

I also liked Lima, for what it's worth, and wish I could've spent more time there than we did. If she has time at all in Lima, it's more than worth it to go see the Monasterio San Francisco. There are catacombs, and there's an ancient library, and it was one of the coolest things we saw in Peru.

Overall, Peru was completely fantastic and the people were super friendly and helpful. I hope your friend gets to go!
posted by hought20 at 10:24 AM on October 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have been to both in 2003 when I was 27 (I'm a guy) and Cuzco is definitely the nicer place. Puno (as the previous poster mentioned) is a bit of a sprawl city and we were there overnight only to travel the next morning to an island in Lake Titikaka. Staying in the island was awesome as we got to stay with a local family.
While in Cuzco someone in our group got pick pocketed after we left an "Irish" bar but then again they were drunk and a bit careless.
However the day that we returned from Machu Picchu, at night we went to a "club" close to the Plaza de Armas and danced and drank and partied all night. Made for a sore next morning but had a blast. Highly recommended!! Go to Cuzco, and check out the open air market too.
posted by boomcha76 at 12:28 PM on October 28, 2008


Can't stress this enough.
It's very unsafe. I've had bags stolen from a hotel entrance and been screwed over for bus tickets there. The bag snatching incident was with a group of 10 other tourists, including some big gringo football players, so imagine how safe a single female would feel.

Plus, it's a shithole.

If she wants to see Titicaca, definitely go from Copacabana in Bolivia. Tell her not to go to the floating islands, they're a rip off, not worth seeing.

The lake itself is amazing, and well worth the trip. She can sleep on Isla del Sol, amazing sunrise from the top.
posted by signal at 12:51 PM on October 28, 2008

Seconding Arequipa. It was very nice, and the Colca canyon was absolutely stunning - completely terraced, condors swooping a few meters overhead, fun tours.
posted by Lemurrhea at 12:55 PM on October 28, 2008

My dad and I almost got robbed on the train to Puno and between us we are 13 feet tall and weigh 500 pounds. Cuzco in comparison is quite nice. Also, the architectural sites along the Urubamba between Cuzco and Machu Picchu are more fun than Lake Titicaca.
posted by nicwolff at 1:00 PM on October 28, 2008

Cuzco is kind of like the Disneyland of Peru, and I say that with complete love. It's very nice, very touristy, and does requires far less in the way of Spanish fluency.

Puno, on the other hand, has a reputation for being dangerous, even for Peruvians. Banditry is common, and the "Missing/Murdered" page of the local news paper is ... well, existent.
posted by aint broke at 1:27 PM on October 28, 2008

although i would say the floating islands are one of the prettiest things i've see... i would probably agree with everyone that the city is only worth a day or so and cuzco is much more friendly. there is a LOT more to do there and opportunities to meet up with other travelers and do a ton of traveling using that as a basepoint. doing a lake titicaca trip alone without spanish might feel a little lonely, too

from cuzco there are backpackers trips that can be set up to see machu picchu and surroundings for cheaper than normal

i found lonely planet to be a decent guide to start from although sometimes numbers outdated. if she's working from nowhere i'd put in a plug for a simple backpackers hostal that was super nice to us, does free pickups from bus/airport, and was a huge help in planning activities.
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:26 PM on October 28, 2008

Cuzco was my base camp for two weeks before and two weeks after a 4-day trek on the Inca Trail. A little research will yield a good number of budget-friendly inns/hostels, and locals can point you to very good, inexpensive restaurants and cost-saving tips. The extended stay offered endless opportunities to explore Andean and Incan cultures. One of my favorite experiences: horeseback riding to a number of Incan ruins: Rumiwasi, Ccallachaca, Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay with a stop at a family's mud-bricked home for Cuy (guinea pig) soup...yummers. When I needed a break from touring the area, I hung out at one of several cafes, reading, writing, chatting with locals. Fantastic experience, overall.

When my now-three year old daughter turns 10, we'll return to Cuzco for a multi-week stay. Can't wait. Your friend will enjoy her adventure, too, no doubt.
posted by prinado at 12:42 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

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