From time to time I see this topic come up on Trip Advisor, and occasionally our clients ask the same question – Is it safe to drive in Peru? So I thought it was about time that I addressed the question, openly and honestly so foreign visitors to Peru can make their own judgement about whether it is safe to drive in Peru. If you haven’t got much time to read this article, then the short answer is NO – it’s just not worth it! If you have a bit more time, then here is my light-hearted (but honest) opinion on driving in Peru.
Peru is the worst place I have ever driven
In my short life time, I have driven in quite a lot of places all over the world. I was once a sales rep, so was behind the wheel for 4-6 hours most days. The toughest place for driving I remember being Manhattan, Paris, Rome and Guadalajara (Mexico), but these places are a doddle compared to Peru, not even anywhere close. To put it into perspective, a few months back I bought a new car, and within 1 month I had had 3 near-misses and 2 minor accidents. Perhaps you think I am a bad driver eh? Well, before you make that judgement read on.
Quality of other drivers on the road
Most drivers in Peru are male, and most male drivers are very macho and aggressive behind the wheel (not all, but most). This means that they will drive extremely close to you, whether it is behind you or on either side of the car (or both), they will race with you if they think that you are more macho than them and they won’t think twice about cutting you up or being particularly obnoxious on the road. For once in my life, I wish there were more female drivers on the road in Peru (I hear the women out there calling me names now).
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Expect the unexpected; anything can happen on the roads
It’s not just the drivers that are bonkers; the pedestrians are pretty troublesome too. They will happy cross a busy 4 lane highway with their head down and often meandering slowly, like they are taking a walk in the park in a Sunday afternoon. Women, with children in hand will literally jump off the pavement at the last moment and make a mad dash to cross the road, leaving inches between you and their lives. Watch out for local council workers fitting new traffic lights, hanging from tall sketchy scaffolding in the middle of a busy and fast highway (often at night), or those happily trimming the grass on the bank of the busy highway whilst stood in the road. It gets worse! All of a sudden you may find that the onward traffic is now on your side of the road heading directly at you, this is quite common when there is a parade or strike on one side of the road. Also, keep a lookout for the morning drunk, who didn’t make it all the way across the road, and has now decided to sleep on the dusty and uncomfortable curb (sad, but very true).
Buses & taxis
The kings of the road in Peru are the busses and taxis. As with busses all over the world, buses in Peru operate to a time table, but in Peru there is a twist. If the bus doesn’t make it to certain check points along the route within a set time limit, the bus driver and the ticket vendor don’t get their bonus for that day. So seeing buses driving aggressively and erratically through the streets is expected and sadly not un-common. Taxis and their drivers are another source of annoyance for road decent road users like you and me. Often the worst looking and maintained cars on the road, taxis are notorious for speeding, poor driving and generally acting like idiots.
The only legal insurance requirement in Peru is a mandatory government issued policy called SOAT. It costs S/. 90 – 150 (USD 33 – 55) for the year, and covers drivers and passengers of vehicles for medical costs should they get injured or even killed on the roads. Insurance for the vehicle itself is very un-common, so should you find yourself in an accident, the ramifications are a little worrying if not rather subjective to witness statements. If you (the Gringo) are involved in an accident, then have no doubt that you will instantly be in the wrong, and the local Peruvian (who most likely caused the accident) will come out shining. Minor scrapes are often sorted out on the road side with an exchange of cash, but more extreme accidents may involve the police and can take hours to get sorted.
Leaving your car overnight & parking
Last week I was looking for a new lens cover for a rear light on my car (an old lady smashed it with her cart selling fruit). There is a place in Cusco where you can get everything you could ever need for a car, including (clearly and famously) stolen car parts. It is probably not even something that you have considered, but your car has all sorts of components that can easily be prised off and sold for a small gain. Wing mirrors (or the mirror itself), rubber seals, reflectors, aerials, license plates, wheel caps, wheels etc. are all on the list of highly prized items worth taking. Leaving your car out during the day time and overnight can be a disaster waiting to happen, so always make sure that you park the car somewhere decent, and during the night in a closed garage or secure area.
The chance of getting stopped by the police in Peru is very high. If you are travelling between cities or driving medium to long distances, you will always encounter standard police check points. The police in Peru are famous for being corrupt (not me saying this, but the rest of Peru and a national TV report that went out a few weeks back with video evidence), and you my fellow Gringo are a prime source of additional income for these lovely enforcers of the law. The police will find something wrong, whether it is your licence, something not right with your vehicle, an infraction of the law, the colour of your shoes or your hairstyle. Standard fines in Peru are harsh, with many exceeding half of the national monthly minimum wage. Simply the fine doesn’t fit the crime, and locals who can’t afford to pay S/. 400 (US$ 150) for a minor infringement will offer money to the police to have the problem go away. This is known locally as “La Coima” (the bribe), and some officials of the law will wait for you to suggest it, whilst others will ask you out right. Having a good command of Spanish will help you in these situations; it might even help you to barter the bribe down a little (seriously). In some extreme incidents, I have heard of foreign drivers paying out hundreds of dollars after being threatened with having their vehicles impounded or worse imprisonment.
In the last few years as foreign travel to Peru has increased (especially for business travel in Lima), the car rental market has also grown significantly too. International companies like Hertz, Europacar & Enterprise plus a handful of local companies will rent you a car at fairly reasonable rates. Cars can be rented from most major cities including: Lima, Cusco, Arequipa and Trujillo. Make sure that you have all the legal paperwork that you need to drive the car on Peruvian roads, including valid “SOAT” (mandatory insurance), a valid tarjeta de propiedad (ownership document), your passport and an international driver’s licence.
If after reading this article, you are still prepared to drive in Peru, good luck, and don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. Enjoy your time in Peru, and don’t complicate it by renting a car. If you are insistent on driving in Peru, why not rent a car in the USA, where the roads are big and open, and drivers are less likely to want to ruin your vacation. Canyon land in Southern-Utah is quite nice!