Drinking Water in Peru: Safe or Unsound?

Having received a handful of conflicting opinions on a previous post about tap water in Peru, it seemed that a follow-up article was in order. So, I decided to throw the question out to some of the top English-language bloggers in Peru, long-term residents who are perfectly placed to give their opinions. Their answers make for interesting reading, and cover the tap water issue in Lima as well as some more far-flung destinations. So, in no particular order, here are some Peru tap water opinions from around the country…

Do You Drink Tap Water in Peru?

Barbara Drake (Lima) – An American in Lima

rio-rimac-lima-peru-water

Rio Rimac, Lima, Peru (photo by Sakura1994, Wikimedia Commons)

“Water quality in Lima and Peru is a huge issue, not just for tourists and backpackers, but for the health of the country in general. Peruvians, as a whole, don’t care much that their potable water fails to meet WHO standards for drinking. They are accustomed to buying well water for drinking or to boiling water — there is no national movement to improve potable water standards nationwide. Rather, the country is on a “water for everyone” kick — which I might translate as, “A little dirty water for everyone.”

I have lived in Peru for three years and have been visiting since ’95. I never drink the tap water. The source for Lima’s water is the Rio Rimac, one of the world’s most polluted rivers. The tributaries that feed the Rimac are full of runoff from mining operations, so the water that comes out of the tap in Lima is very high in heavy metals, and you can’t remove those with filters or with the treatment methods that SEDAPAL uses in its plant in Lima. Those heavy metals are a huge hazard for anyone who drinks the water.

The treated water that comes out of the tap is very, very high in chlorine. This is the main way that SEDAPAL tries to kills bacteria and other impurities in the water. There is a lot of e-coli in Rio Rimac as well, and filters do an iffy job of removing that. You will hear conflicting accounts of what filters can do. Some claim that filters remove e-coli. Other people (including my Peruvian cousin, who designs water filtration systems for use in Asia) are adamant that the filters allow e-coli — he refuses the drink the tap water when he is here.

Another troubling aspect of the Rimac water is that prior to reaching the SEDAPAL plant, the water carries the cholera virus. I met a researcher for the CDC last year who was spending three months in Lima examining cholera in the Rimac. He told me that the levels were high — he was pretty disturbed. However, I have not seen the results of his study published anywhere that the public can find it. But when you consider that Peru was the site of a huge cholera outbreak in ’96 (I believe), you can see that the river itself is a potential source of another future outbreak.

It’s very hard to get real statistics on the tap water in Lima. Good luck trying to hunt this down. I find this lack of transparency very troubling, and equally as troubling is that Limenos as a whole aren’t concerned.”

Kelly Cannon (Lima) – My Life in Peru

is-peru-tap-water-safe“Yes, I drink the tap water here. I don’t boil it or do anything with it first, I drink it and use it for everything right out of the tap. I live in Miraflores in Lima; if I lived somewhere in the provinces, I’d probably be less likely to do so.

When my family visits from the US, they drink the water, too. The first few times, we tried to be more careful, but after a few times with no one getting sick, we quit worrying about it. I’m more concerned about unwashed fruits/veggies in restaurants than I am about the water.

However – if I were only coming down for a vacation, especially if I were going to be doing backpacking, hiking or anything else adventure related, I’d definitely avoid the water. For one thing, I have less faith in the quality outside of Lima, as mentioned above. Also, no point in losing days of your vacation to stomach bugs, or missing out on a planned activity.”

Tom Filipowicz (Chiclayo) – My Slice of Peru

“I don’t know of anyone in Chiclayo who drinks water straight from the tap. Every house I’ve been in has a pitcher of boiled water standing somewhere, including our house. My wife’s friends and family don’t recall anyone drinking from the faucet as far back as they can remember. I brush my teeth with tap water but my wife and her son won’t. I don’t know if that means that the water actually is bad or if tradition says it is. For me it’s not a problem because I never drank water even in the States, preferring to get my H2O from a favorite beverage.”

Stuart Starrs (Lima) – En Perú

drinking-water-peru-safe“I did the same as everyone else when I first came to Peru… avoided tap water, salad washed in tap water, and ice probably made from tap water (little did I know even low budget places buy it in bags from supermarkets). I didn’t take this to extremes like brushing my teeth with bottle water – if you’re so weak that that worries you, you’d probably die if you went swimming in a river or lake.

They say that water from even developed countries can make you sick until you’re accustomed to the different organisms, so unless you are of the opinion that tap water in Peru is so badly controlled that they might pump sewage into your home, you’re going to get used to it after a long stay. Besides, the water is the least of your worries – yesterday’s mayonnaise, a knife being used to cut chicken then your salad etc etc are bigger concerns.

If I choose to drink tap water in Lima where I live, it will no longer make me sick. If I were to drink a lot, I might get a rumble in my stomach and have to visit a bathroom a little earlier than I expected, but I wouldn’t be bed-ridden. In the mountains, the tap water is heavier and thicker and tastes like mineral water. I don’t drink it, but I assume it’s very briefly filtered river water. Most Peruvians boil their water as a precaution; it’s cheaper than buying bottled water.

So do I regularly drink tap water? I did when I had a filter connected to a oxygeniser – it filtered out foreign material then killed off any bacteria. Now that I don’t have the filter I drink bottled water. I’m not so much worried about getting sick (if I was I’d simply drink a little each day to get used to it) but I’m paranoid about the amount of lead and other heavy metals it might contain. Most water on the coast comes from the rivers; along those rivers are dozens of mining operations. Do I trust big foreign mining companies to not pollute the rivers and the Peruvian government to adequately enforce laws? Not one bit. You only have to read the news to find out why.”

Ward Welvaert (Cusco) – Life in Peru

“Not no, but hell no. I boil the water and drink it, or buy bottled water if I’m away from home. Why? Because the locals don’t drink the water either. One time in Lima I think I was served a glass of tap water by an unhappy waiter and I was sick as the proverbial dog for a day.

The water system in Cusco is terrible. Probably 2-3 times per month, Sedacusco (the water people) shut off the water in our neighborhood for an hour or half a day. The water appears to have a lot of calcium in it (visible white stuff collects at the bottom of my water cooker).”

Julio Cesar Tello (Lima) – Karikuy Blog

“Normally in Peru I personally stick to bottled water, my favorite brand is San Mateo, I don’t like the taste of the others, sometimes they feel flat. For brushing my teeth I use tap water. In emergencies where there is no bottled water available I will drink tap but not in great quantities. I don’t believe I have ever gotten sick by the tap water but I was also born in Lima so I may have some defenses against it. I encourage my volunteers to buy bottled water and they almost always do, some of them even use it to brush their teeth.

In the countryside I will drink spring water and have not had any problems with that as well, I have even drank water from the glaciers and it was delicious, I would have no problem drinking that in large quantities. However if it is coming out of a metal pipe then you know you have to be careful.”

Scott Wagner (Pucallpa) – Sabor a Selva

“Is the tap water in Pucallpa safe to drink?  Short answer, no. We are connected to the ‘safe’ treated water system. Even if you boil it, it is still awful. The sediment at the bottom of your container should be your first indicator. Why is this? The city water system in Pucallpa is only functional from 5:30am-12:00pm and again from 6pm-11:30pm. They have no meters here, so this is their way of controlling consumption. My wife and I always use bottled water (we recycle), even for preparing refrescos. The only exception, brushing our teeth.”

pucallpa-tap-water-peru-travel

Drinking Water in Peru: A Risky Business

Well, there you have it. The results of this little survey certainly don’t shower much praise on Peruvian tap water. We have only one person drinking water straight from the tap on a regular basis, while everyone else prefers to go with boiled, filtered or bottled water.

My thanks to all of the above Peru bloggers for taking the time to give your opinions on this tap water issue, each response is greatly appreciated. Of course, the debate doesn’t need to end here. Feel free to add your opinion in the comments box below, whether you are a born-and-bred Peruvian, an expat or a backpacker in Peru.

  7 comments for “Drinking Water in Peru: Safe or Unsound?

  1. November 26, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Tony,
    Thanks for posting on this topic & for collecting opinions from us Peru-based bloggers. LOL re Ward’s “hell no” for drinking the water in Cusco. I had friends from Florida visit in 2009, and they spent 6 days in Cusco/the Sacred Valley where they stuck to bottled water and were fine. Then, on the way back from Machu Picchu, my friend Dave had to take a pill on the train & he thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just use the tap water.’ He started barfing after 15 minutes and spent the next 4 days sick as a dog, in our house, recuperating. So much for his fun time in Lima.

    • Dave who lives in Cusco
      September 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Well, then your friend needs to have his immune system evaluated by a professional because Cusco’s water doesn’t make you throw up 15 minutes after consumption. It’s not well treated, as previously mentioned, but isn’t dangerous to the extent that consuming a little bit is going to make your stomach and corn hole explode.

  2. KRV
    February 10, 2011 at 12:55 am

    how do people bathe in Lima then? with bottled water or filtered systems?
    I feel if it was as horrific as it sounds the alternatives to the tap route must
    be booming in profits and inventions?! Or at least I would hope, I’m flying out
    in March and have beeb drinking U.S. bottled water forever. U.S. tap water tastes funny to me,
    I can only imagine what I am to experience trying it in Lima. Or perhaps I wont……..

  3. February 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Most people in Peru use tap water for bathing and showering – that poses no great risk (unless you start swallowing loads of bath water!). Some people choose not to shave using tap water, using bottled or boiled water instead. I use tap water for shaving, personally. I also wash my dishes etc with tap water. The only thing I consciously avoid is drinking tap water – I buy bottled.

    Cheers.

  4. Lyle
    February 14, 2012 at 8:53 am

    I have made several trips to Peru with mu wife who is Peruvian, I have been to Lima, Huancayo, San Ramon, La Merced, Cusco and all over the Sacred Valley. While not overly paranoid about drinking the water, I will not drink tap water with out treating or boiling it first. On my first trip to Peru I ended up with diarrhea that lasted for two weeks and considering my precautions it was probably bad food handling that caused it and not the water. Mu suggestion to anyone traveling to Peru would be get Iodine tablets for treating water when bottled is not available, buy bottled water when you can and enjoy your trip. Peru is a wonderful country full of good people and lots to see and do.

    • February 15, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Thanks Lyle, good advice. I’ve never carried iodine tablets, but it’s a good backup option, especially for trekkers. Cheers.

  5. Kat
    January 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    I have lived in Puerto Maldonado, Peru for a year, and I drink about a liter of tap water EVERY day (not including brushing my teeth) and I have never been sick – I don’t boil it either, just straight from the tap. I started doing this as soon as I got here too. All the Peruvians I know also drink the tap water.

    This is NOT something that I recommend, especially to tourists. Do as I say, not as I do ;) Is Peru´s water the cleanest? No, but I have an iron stomach and I know my body pretty well, so I feel safe drinking it. When people ask me if I think its safe to drink, i usually say, that depends, how strong of a system do you have? Everybody is different. I don’t know how I am able to drink 1-2 liters of tap water a day and feel great, whereas some tourists who come through puerto maldonado get VERY sick. Luck of the draw? Maybe, but like I said, Ive been here for a year.

    I have drank tap water in Cusco as well, but I can’t speak to the quality of the tap in Lima, Ive only washed my teeth with it.

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