While there have been high-profile murders in Peru in recent years, it’s important to note that these murders are largely the result of in-fighting within criminal groups. Peru has a much lower murder rate than many of its neighbors in South America, with 10 homicides annually per 100,000 people. Many of the countries surrounding Peru have murder rates of about twice that. Compared to other Andean countries, Peru’s crime rate is the lowest in the region, making it safer than Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Colombia.
Like many countries in Central and South America, Peru endured a fair share of civil unrest during the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout the 21st century, Peru’s economy enjoyed steady growth, which helped facilitate a decrease in overall violence. But the problems that created the turmoil in the ‘80s and ‘90s still exist. Terrorist groups have increased Peru’s involvement in the cocaine trade and many Peruvians live below the poverty line. As a result, incidents of robbery and kidnapping have gone up. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Americans safely visit Peru each year. Peru is simply too important of a destination to pass up, especially since travellers who take simple precautions will greatly reduce their chance of becoming a victim.
Terrorism in Peru: The History of Shining Path
Much of the violence in Peru can be traced to a single terrorist organization, Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso). This group started in the late 1950s in the Ayacucho region of Peru. It sprang from the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) and was led by a professor of philosophy named Abimael Guzmán Reynoso. Eventually Guzmán formed a Maoist faction and split from the PCP. Unfortunately, radical groups found a welcome home in Ayacucho, a region where cuts to the educational system produced a deep resentment of the federal government.
In the 1990s, the Peruvian military managed to arrest key figures in Shining Path. Nowadays, Shining Path’s influence is limited to rural areas, and as a result Peru experiences a much lower level of violent crime. But Shining Path still has a wide recruitment base. Younger Peruvians in rural areas may not want to become subsistence farmers, but lack the education necessary to find higher-paying employment in a city. For these underserved youth, Shining Path represents a way out of poverty.
Shining Path is still a problem in the provinces of Ayacucho, Cusco, Hancavelica, Huánuco, Ucayali, and Junín. Tourists should avoid traveling at night through these regions, even on buses. Travel may not be permitted through these provinces after nightfall. Aside from Cusco, these regions do not have many tourist attractions and are easy to avoid with some planning. The Cusco region’s main attractions, including Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and the city of Cusco, are safe destinations.
Throughout the more dangerous provinces in Peru, local self-defense groups called rondas campesinas work to keep Shining Path’s presence at a minimum. These groups will often stop travelers and demand a toll before allowing them to pass through the area. This is one of the reasons that traveling at night on highways in Peru is discouraged.
Cocaine in Peru
Peru’s most profitable crop is also the most dangerous to produce. Peru has become the top exporter of cocaine in the world, having recently eclipsed Colombia in transnational exports. For many years, Colombia produced the most cocaine of any country in South America. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, Colombia began cooperating with U.S. anti-drug efforts, forcing the production to shift elsewhere. Peru has perfect climatic conditions for growing the coca leaf, the principle ingredient used in cocaine. Until recently, Peru simply exported the raw material to other countries to refine. Now that Colombia is no longer manufacturing cocaine at a high volume, production has shifted to regions where coca is easily grown, like Peru.
Shining Path has taken advantage of this shift. Although greatly reduced in size and scope, Shining Path has managed to stay afloat through active involvement in the drug trade. Drug trafficking and territorial disputes among gangs are the underlying cause of much of the violent crime in Peru.
Peru has a long history with the coca leaf. Indigenous people use coca as a pain-numbing agent, a ritualistic sacrifice to the gods, and as a way to lessen the effects of altitude sickness. Peruvians have a cultural attachment to the plant, partly because so many Peruvians use it in its unprocessed, harmless form. Many struggling farmers leap at the chance to make more money than they would growing other native crops. Coffee and bananas take a long time to bear fruit, unlike coca, which can be harvested within six months. There are government incentives to farmers who are willing to destroy their coca crops and grow coffee and fruit instead. Yet these efforts do not change the fact that coca is still immensely more profitable than bananas, cacao, and coffee.
Government Reaction to Crime
President Ollanta Humala won the 2011 election based on promises to reduce crime. He established a national anti-drug committee soon after his election. President Humala was, however, elected with the help of votes from farmers in traditional coca-growing regions, so it’s not surprising that his anti-drug committee has been a low priority since his election. In recent years he has lost popularity, due in part to high-profile shootings that occurred as a result of organized crime.
After the 2013 assassination of a prominent journalist, Humala ordered 1,000 more police officers to join the force in Lima. It remains to be seen if an increased police force will result in a decrease in crime. Unfortunately, Peruvian police officers have a reputation for corruption and accepting bribes.
Theft and Tourism
Most crimes against tourists have nothing to do with cocaine or terrorism. They are instead motivated by poverty. Lima’s large underserved population has created an environment of persistent petty theft. Tourists must be wary of situations that put them at risk of robbery. Thefts usually occur in areas with large numbers of tourists. High levels of petty theft have been reported in areas like Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martín in Lima, as well as the Sacsayhuamán site in Cusco.
Visitors should be wary of purse-snatchers and pickpockets. Use common-sense measures to keep your belongings safe. If you carry a handbag or purse, make sure it closes securely. Keep your valuables where you can see them, and make sure to leave your most valuable possessions locked in a safety deposit box at your hotel. Electronics like iPods and smartphones are some of the items most commonly stolen from tourists.
Earthquakes and Floods
Peru’s coast sits on top of the Nazca tectonic plate. In the past century, this shifting plate has resulted in 1 to 5 earthquakes per decade, which have registered between 6 and 9 on the richter scale. Peru has also had to deal with serious flooding, some of which is the result of El Niño. In the event of a natural disaster, discuss with your traveling companions where you will meet. Take note of the closest exit at your hotel.
Safe Travel Tips
Now that you know some of the risks that visitors face, here’s a list of steps that you can take to avoid crime and stay safe while traveling in Peru.
• Exercise caution when visiting an ATM. Try to use the ATM inside your hotel if possible. If you do need to withdraw cash, do so during the day, accompanied by fellow travelers. Thieves will sometimes stakeout visitors withdrawing money.
• If you plan to hike the Inca Trail, make sure to go with a tour vetted by Anywhere. Do not attempt to hike the Inca Trail or other hiking trails to Machu Picchu without signing up for a guided tour with a reputable company.
• Thieves will sometimes pretend to work as tour guides. If a stranger approaches you offering a tour, do not accept.
• Women should take extra precautions, as women walking alone tend to draw attention. It’s a good idea to travel in groups, especially at night.
• Don’t leave valuables in your back pocket or in your coat pocket. When you sit down in a restaurant, don’t hang your purse on the back of the chair. If at all possible, find a more secure alternative to a purse or a handbag.
• Avoid wearing jewelry, especially to destinations with large amounts of tourists.
• You will need to keep identification with you, but you should not carry your passport. Instead, keep a photocopy of your passport with you and leave your real passport in a safety deposit box at your hotel.
• Only exchange money at banks or your hotel. Avoid exchanging your money anywhere that seems unofficial. Counterfeit money is common in Peru.
• You should not drive alone on highways after dark, especially outside of Lima. Thieves will sometimes create roadblocks to stop cars and rob the passengers before letting them continue.
• Unregistered taxis are a problem, especially in Arequipa and Cusco. Travelers are advised not to hail taxis in these areas. Make sure your taxi has a blue, government-issued decal. Fake taxis have been used for kidnappings.
• During a taxi ride, you should place your valuables in the trunk, as thieves sometimes try to break into cars at stoplights.
• If you would like to take an extra safety precaution while traveling, consider registering your itinerary with the U.S. Embassy’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This free program will make sure you’re updated with travel warnings. Enrolling in STEP also makes it easier for the US Embassy to contact you and communicate with your family in the event of an emergency.
It’s worth visiting a travel clinic to figure out what vaccinations you’ll need before traveling to Peru. Oftentimes you won’t need much, but it’s still a good idea to double-check with your doctor. Most travelers will enjoy a healthy trip to Peru — the worst that might happen is a case of traveler’s diarrhea.
You can find the most recent vaccination suggestions on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website. Travelers should also check the regulations that their home country requires. The vaccinations that you get will depend on your vaccination history and where you plan to travel in Peru. Most shots take a few weeks to be effective, so plan ahead and get your shots in advance.
You should be up-to-date on routine vaccinations, including a measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, polio vaccine, and an annual flu shot. Hepatitis A and typhoid are also recommended for all travelers to Peru.
If you’ll be traveling in the jungle below 7,550 feet (2,300 m) then you’ll want to get a yellow fever vaccine and take malaria medicine. While you’re in the jungle you’ll also want to take precautions against getting bit by mosquitoes.
Hepatitis B is recommended for people who may be exposed to blood, for example, health care workers or travelers planning on getting a tattoo. Get a rabies vaccine if you’ll be doing lots of outdoor exploration, since bats, dogs, and other animals can spread the virus.
Unless you’re coming from a country where yellow fever is endemic, you aren’t required to have the yellow fever vaccine. You can learn more about this by visiting the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) website.
The Bottom Line
Many poorer Peruvians have found it extremely difficult to break out of the poverty that they were born into. For this reason, petty theft has become a way of life in certain parts of Peru. Even so, most of the locals you encounter will be warm, friendly, and happy to meet you.