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IS PERU SAFE FOR A SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER?

Peru Map

SAFETY & SOLO FEMALE TRAVEL

JANUARY

The discovery of the body of Sarai Sierra, an American woman traveling solo to Istanbul, is reported. She was murdered.

I’m not going anywhere near Istanbul this spring (that’s my July trip) —  I’m heading for Peru in two months — and although I’ve traveled by myself all around the world and know that random murders happen everywhere (My hometown of Chicago being no exception), the news reminds me of the vulnerability of being a woman traveling solo in a foreign country.

IS PERU SAFE?

FEBRUARY

I receive an email from a friend containing a link to a post about Peru on the United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security site, which reads:

The U.S. Embassy warns U.S. citizens of a potential kidnapping threat in the Cusco area.  The Embassy has received information that members of a criminal organization may be planning to kidnap U.S. citizen tourists in the Cusco and Machu Picchu area.  Possible targets and methods are not known and the threat is credible at least through the end of February 2013. For the moment, personal travel by U.S. Embassy personnel to the Cusco region, including Machu Picchu, has been prohibited and official travel is severely restricted as a result of this threat.

Well, that’s just great. I’m traveling to Peru — including the “Cusco and Machu Picchu area” — in six weeks. The criminal organization in question is The Shining Path, which (according to Wikipedia) is a Maoist guerilla insurgency. Really? There are Maoist guerillas in our midst? I haven’t heard of The Shining Path since, like, fifth grade and now the bastards are threatening my vacation.

Is Peru safe? Should I reschedule my trip? I don’t know.

FEBRUARY

This just in: an America couple bicycling through Peru have gone missing. The common, obvious speculation is that they were kidnapped or killed.

MARCH

I need to decide if I should take this trip to Peru at the end of the month or if the risk of danger is great enough that I should cancel it. I turn to the U.S. Department of State website to determine if Peru is safe:

The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) terrorist group remains active in Peru and has previously expressed an intention to target U.S. interests.

Violent crime, including carjacking, assault, sexual assault, and armed robbery is common in Lima and other large cities.

In the recent past, there have been a number of cases of armed robbery, rape, other sexual assault, and attempted rape of  U.S. citizens and other foreign tourists in Arequipa and in Cusco city, as well as in the outlying areas in the vicinity of various Incan ruins. These assaults have occurred both during daylight hours and at night.

Thieves often smash car windows at traffic lights to grab jewelry, purses, backpacks, or other visible items from a car.

Is Peru safe for travel? Is Peru safe for a solo, female traveler? Clearly not. Crap.  I should cancel my trip.

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HOW TO TRAVEL SAFELY THROUGH PERU

I‘m not canceling my trip to Peru.

I can’t. Going solo to foreign countries is what I do. It’s what defines me. It’s how other people know me and it — “it” being not only international travel but accumulating life experiences — is the barometer by which I determine the success of my life (a jetlag and red wine-fueled epiphany  that struck me at around 3:00 a.m. on a candelabra-lit balcony of  a Loire Valley chateau).

You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut. – Dr. Seuss

However, I will adjust my trip to ensure that I travel safely (as safely as possible, anyway) through Peru.

HOW TO TRAVEL SAFELY

My strategy to travel safely consists of three components: prevention, emergency planning and proper mindset.

I purchase emergency evacuation assistance from FrontierMEDEX for only $7 a day. If I experience a medical emegency when I’m in Peru I AM NOT messing around with local healthcare: I’m taking a private helicopter the hell out of there.

I register my trip in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) even if completing the online form is tedious, counter-intuitive and time-consuming. Registering for the program ensures I’ll receive travel alerts and warnings about Peru, and assists the government in reaching me if an emergency occurs.

I cancel the Paracas portion of my itinerary (which would have required me to drive a rental car from Lima) and replace it with a stay in the Amazon (which does not require that I rent a car). Of course there’s no assurance that I’ll travel safely through the jungle, but from what I’ve read, driving in Peru practically GUARANTEES disaster.

To be on the safe side I pack:

  • Luggage locks
  • My SABRE RED Compact Pepper Spray with Pink Key Case (that pink key case will surely strike fear into any would-be attacker)
  • My Belle Hop Travel Door Alarm, a lightweight device with two metal prongs that I stick into the crack of the door. If the door opens — thereby breaking the connection between the prongs — it activates a loud, high-pitched alarm

How to travel safely

  • Extra color copies of my passport page (and email it, with a copy of my itinerary, to my family and myself)
  • My Pacsafe CitySafe 200 Anti-Theft handbag. It’s not going to win me any fashion awards, but between the concealed pouch, the tamperproof zippers and the snatchproof strap, I won’t be an easy target

PacSafe Purse

  • A small dummy wallet containing a canceled credit card which I’ll supplement with a couple Nuevo Soles (the Peruvian currency). If forced to part with my billfold, I’ll offer this one
  • Malarone (an antimalarial) and Diamox plus ibuprofen (for altitude sickness)

Going from Point A to Point B is when I’m most susceptible to danger, so I book a taxi from the Cusco airport to the J.W. Marriott in advance (frontdesk.cusco@marriott.com).

And of course I always consult the Ultimate Travel Checklist: What To Do Before You Go before I go!

ONE LAST THING

That just leaves one last important thing, and it can’t be packed, prescribed or purchased: proper mindset. To travel safely I believe a traveler (especially a solo, female traveler) must have confidence — people who pray on others can detect fear and hesitancy — while maintaining a healthy dose of caution. SO… I aim to project self-assurance without letting down my guard.

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WHAT TO DO IN CUSCO (IN A DAY)

You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go… – Dr. Seuss

My time here is Cusco was short. It’s a charming town, and I wouldn’t mind staying longer, but I have too much to see in Peru and only a week.

I did my homework, and spent a wonderful day here in Cusco. If you have only limited time, my suggestions for what to do in Cusco follow.

WHAT TO DO IN CUSCO

ARRIVAL

Book a CMV Remisse Taxi through your hotel. It costs a little more than simply winging it at the airport, but a few bucks is not a lot to pay for a decent vehicle and the assurance of safety. Don’t be fooled by your first impression of Cusco driving through the less-than-scenic main city: it improves dramatically as you approach the historical center.

If you collect Marriott Rewards points, staying at the JW Marriott is a no-brainer. The hotel is new, stylish and ideally located in the San Blas neighborhood, close to nice shops, galleries, restaurants and the city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas.

JW Marriott Cusco Peru

Alternatively, if money is no object, you could stay just a few blocks away at the very swanky Hotel Monasterio. A former monastery surrounding a grand courtyard, the vibe here is dark, sexy and mysterious (just like I like my men). The occasional piped-in Gregorian chants echoing through the halls and eery paintings of devils and demon creates a sort of Poesque atmosphere. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a rival skeleton or two slumping deep within these old, concrete walls, observing us with envy and cursing Montresor.

Fallen Angel Cusco Peru

THE PLAZA AREA

Walk a few blocks downhill to the Plaza de Armas and scope-out the churches and Cathedral of Santo Domingo.

Cusco Cathedral Peru

The tourism office iPeru is located in the BCP bank building on the plaza, should you have any questions about navigating and exploring the country.

If you’re a foodie, curious about other cultures or just harbor a healthy morbid fascination (yes, yes and yes in my case), continue in the same direction, walking an additional 10 minutes to the San Pedro Market for all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

San Pedro Market Cusco Peru

SAN BLAS

Now reverse your steps. If you’re looking for decent, more traditional food with a view of the plaza, eat lunch at Inka Grill. For a good, dependable meal head back uphill to Jack’s Cafe (it’s on the way to your next stop), a local favorite judging by the line outside the door. Breakfast is served here all day.

Now walk through San Blas, stopping here and there to do a little shopping (or, if you’re like me, to ostensibly do a little shopping but actually pausing to catch your damn breath.) Unlike most touristy towns, the majority of stores here don’t sell touristy crap: the alpaca clothing and jewelry are something a semi-fashion-minded person would actually wear upon returning home after the vacation high recedes.

And, of course, don’t forget to stop into one of the many shaman shops for all your shaman needs.

SACSAYHUAMAN ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK

I despise steps as much as you (if not more), and they’re especially no picnic at 11,000 feet, but reaching the Sacsayhuaman is worth the pain. If you opt instead for a taxi, iPeru recommends Llama Taxi (222000) and Alo Cusco (222222). And they say coming here alone is safe as long as you avoid early morning or night. There’s an admission fee, and if you’re continuing on to the ruins of the Sacred Valley later, buy the pricier Boleto Turistico ($55) now.

I don’t feel as though I’m suffering from altitude sickness 95% of the time. Between the diamox and ibuprofen I took prophylactically, I feel completely normal and healthy going about my daily activities despite the elevation. Only when I attempt to climb stairs do I suffer the effects of the altitude: I am winded and feel as though I’m pushing through water.

Sacsayhuaman in Cusco Peru

Sacsayhuaman offers a spectacular view of Cusco.

View of Cusco from Sacsayhuaman

PLAZA DE ARMAS

Time to reward yourself for climing all those damn steps! Back at the Plaza de Armas, head to Norton Rat’s Tavern on the corner (sorry, you’re in for a few more stairs to get to the second floor), grab a cold Cusqueña beer (it’s not bad stuff) and plop yourself down on the balcony for some people-watching, which is pretty interesting as some Peruvians still wear traditional dress.

Traditional Peruvian Dress

That 4:30 connection this morning! All those effing steps! The high altitude! That second Cusqueña beer! It’s time for a nap.

SAN BLAS

When you awake from your mini-coma and feel like yourself again, walk a few blocks to Cicciolina  (on the second floor of an old colonial house located midway between the JW Marriott and the Hotel Monasterio) because it is The. Place. to go for either a enjoying a formal dinner or just noshing on tapas and sipping Chilean sauvignon blanc at the bar.

Cicciolina Restaurant Cusco Peru

And my final recommendation for what to do in Cusco… Top off your evening at Fallen Angel, just across the street from the Hotel Monastero, for a pisco sour (why stop at just beer and wine?) and some trippy decor.

Fallen Angel Cusco Peru

So that’s that: my recommendations for what to do in Cusco if you have only one day. What’d I miss?

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