People routinely ask me, “What’s your favorite place you’ve travelled to?” After I mentally wince at ending a sentence with a preposition, I usually answer, “Peru.”
Peru surprised me, and that’s not something I say lightly. Travel fatigue is real, and if you’re not careful, you can miss out on some of the world’s most beautiful and unique places. Peru reminded me why I’ve been packing my little backpack and flinging myself into the unknown for most of my adult life.
Peru is a lot more than just some hike to an Instagram worthy photo-op. Peru is a nation full of warm people, delicious food, raucous dance halls, colorful clothing, pristine beaches, sleepy surf towns, incomprehensible waves (yes, those three things are different), and stunning countryside everywhere you look. If you go to Peru just for Machu Picchu, you’re doing it wrong. However, the best part of Peru is that it’s still affordable, accessible, and impactful. Despite the influx of bucket list travelers racing to Cusco to tick an “experience” off their list, Peru still has the capacity to surprise you.
So let’s prepare you for your incredible trip to Peru.
Machu Picchu Packing List: The Inca Trail
I’m not an idiot. I know that 99% of travelers visit Peru to hike or at least visit the ruins at Machu Picchu. Not only is it an historically significant archeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an impressive cultural touchstone of a once thriving New World empire, it’s just dang beautiful. I get it. However, if you plan to travel in Peru outside of the Inca Trail, you’re going to want to bring something besides zippered shorts and wicking hiking shirts.
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, a hike on the Inca Trail is not just something you can just slap together at the last minute—even if you’re an experienced hiker. In 2002, the Peruvian government imposed daily visitor limits due to overwhelming popularity (and the havoc that comes with unchecked tourists). According to reports, hikers were “using the ruins as latrines and disposing rubbish along the trail. The Inca Trail was starting to get a lot of negative press and UNESCO threatened to remove its status as a World Heritage Site.” In other words, you’re why we can’t have nice things.
Today, restrictions limit the number of daily visitors to 2,500 people at the summit, and only 500 hikers on the trail at any given time. That means you have to plan ahead, free spirit. And I feel this should go without saying but… don’t poop in the ruins.
When to Visit Machu Picchu
In addition to the cap on daily visitors, the Inca Trail isn’t open all year round. To be clear, Machu Picchu is open year round, but the Inca Trail closes every February for trail maintenance and to just give the fragile area a breather.
January – March: The Rainy Season (February CLOSED)
Peru’s diverse topography means that the climate will vary significantly across the country, but again, odds are you’re headed for the hills above Cusco, so know that the rainy season starts in late January and ends in March/April. The trail is closed in February, and while there aren’t a ton of people around this time, the weather can, potentially, ruin your hike.
April & May: Ideal Machu Picchu Time
While you can still expect rain showers in April, May is relatively dry making it the perfect time to hike in Peru. The spring has milder temperatures and fewer tourists (particularly college kids), so you’re more likely to find a little peace and quiet on the trail. Sort of.
June, July, & August: Peak Machu
Summer (technically winter in South America) is the busy season. The weather is clear, but the trails are not. If you don’t mind elbowing some people out of your photo, summer is for you.
September, October & November: Shoulder Season
The kids have gone back to school and the hordes of tourists ease. The rainy season starts again in October and the daylight hours start to dwindle. A lot like Spring.
Reserve a hiking permit with any number of approved guide companies months ahead of time. Here’s a list of a few good Inca Trail guide companies. And just to give you a sense of how popular the Inca Trail is, as of August 15th, 2017, hiking permits are booked solid for three months. The first available permits are in mid November (and going fast).
What to Pack for Peru
Peru can be wet from September to April and it’s chilly at high elevations year-round (which is practically half the country). This makes it important to pack layers and dress for warmth no matter where you’re going or what you’re doing.
- 1 light waterproof jacket
- 1 pair of flip flops — Buy these in Peru
- 1 lightweight fleece
- 1 pair of silk sock liners — Prevents blisters
- 2 pairs of hiking socks
- 2 pairs of Ex Officio travel underwear
- 1 pair of Bluffworks travel pants
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 pair of hybrid shorts
- 1 short sleeve henley shirt
- 2 t-shirts
- 1 thermal layer
- 2 tank tops
- Buff headband/scarf
- 1 wool cap (you can easily buy one there)
- Outbreaker Carry On Backpack
- Packing Cubes (to stay organized when you’re on the go)
- Bike light (it’s a great, light, no-charge headlamp)
Outdoor Gear: Inca Trail Packing List
Obviously hiking the Inca Trail necessitates some special gear, but it’s a lot less than you think. Don’t pack those “just in case” items to keep your bag as light as possible. Remember, you’re hiking at elevations that your body just isn’t used to. Keep it light and you’ll make better memories.
In addition to the clothing and gear up top, pack:
- Scarpa Approach shoes — Ditch the hiking boots
- Toms shoes — Something to change into at the end of a long day. Bonus: you can wear socks if you’re cold (you can’t wear socks easily with flip flops)
- Prana hiking pants — These perform on the trail and look great at happy hour
- 10L dry bag — Keep your phone and camera dry
- Silk sock liners — I swear by these things. Seriously worth it
- Sunscreen stick — TSA friendly and great for keeping your face from burning
- SPF chapstick — It gets windy and dry up there
- 3L Camelbak water reservoir — Obviously
- Mountainsmith Monopod Trekking pole — This lightweight trekking pole gives you the stability you need on difficult sections of the trail, and it features a threaded mount for your camera or GoPro to take the perfect shake-free photos and videos.
- Campland Ultralight Sleeping Bag — Don’t trust the reviews. This thing is the real deal.
Setout Travel Backpack ($199)
You need a carry on backpack in Peru. I’m serious. Yes, we sell the Setout travel backpack. We’re biased. It doesn’t mean we’re wrong. The last thing you want to lug around at 11,152 feet (Cusco is actually significantly higher than Machu Picchu) is a heavy backpack. Don’t even get me started with an actual freakin’ suitcase.
Altitude sickness is real, and you’ll want to stay as nimble as you can on all of Peru’s local flights and long haul busses.
Scarpa Crux Approach Shoes ($118)
I hate hiking boots. A lot. However, Peru is a hiking mecca, so a lot of people feel like they have to bring these heavy, useless, stupid expensive things with them. You don’t. If you pack hiking boots for your trip to Peru you will always be wearing hiking boots. They’re just too heavy and big to
stuff in your backpack. I honestly can’t think of a worse way to travel than wearing hiking boots every day. Ugh.
Pack something that protects your feet without ruining your trip. Approach shoes are shoes designed for rock climbers hiking through rugged areas to get to their chosen routes and boulders. These shoes are built with a vibram sole to take the impact of a vigorous day hikes while also providing incredible grip for scrambling over rocks and rough trails. I wore mine out of the box—without breaking them in—on a 15 mile hike to the highest point in NY state a few weeks ago, through mud, rocky trails, and steep terrain and I loved them. I didn’t even get a blister thanks to the good fit and my silk sock liners.
Seriously, if you’re an avid hiker, ditch the hiking boots and get a pair of approach shoes. They perform wonderfully, and they don’t look ridiculous. Women can wear them too.
The search for a comfy, lightweight, warm, properly sized sleeping bag is super real. I looked at dozens of reviews and buying guides before I decided, “screw it,” and bought the Campland sleeping bag on sale. This thing is legit. I have no idea how it has a two-star rating on Amazon, but I’m glad it does. It knocked the price down to $60, which is a steal for a bag this good.
This sleeping bag is warm, comfy, and actually fits me with room to spare (I’m 6’1”). I couldn’t believe it, but it’s true.
And bonus: this bag only weighs 0.7 pounds. That’s NOTHING. It stuffs into the stuff sack easily, and packs in a cinch. Love this thing.
Columbia Klamath Half-zip Lightweight Fleece ($46)
A good reliable fleece is crucial in Peru, where the temperature can plummet at night. Columbia’s Klamath half-zip fleece is super lightweight, comfy, and great for chilly weather. You can store it in your bag when you don’t need it without it weighing you down. Big fan.
Double it up with an ultra lightweight rain shell and you’re prepared for practically any weather. I got mine at an outlet store
for $20. It’s so light I forget I have it on, and it packs down into it’s own pocket for easy travel when the weather is fine.
Mick Fanning Rip Curl Ultralight Board Shorts ($50)
Always pack a bathing suit. For men, they’re great for rainy hikes, surfing, swimming, or just lazing around in while you do your laundry. The Mick Fanning “Mirage” boardies from Rip Curl are insanely light, very stretchy, and feature a seam-sealed zipper pocket to keep your cash and keys safe and on hand when you’re in the waves. Your money will get wet, but it’ll never get stolen.
Coastal Peru Packing List (Surfing)
A few years ago, I spent a wonderful week lazing around the surf beach and breaks of Port Huanchaco. My bed at the hostel was comfy, the wi-fi was fast, and the price was right—$6/night. I ate delicious food every night and surfed epic waves all day. And I’m not the only one.
The fisherman at Huanchaco paddle through the waves on tightly bound reed boats that double as some of the sweetest surfboards I’ve ever seen. Seriously, there’s a really good argument that surfing was invented here in Peru, centuries before the Hawaiians ever hung ten. If you want to experience the “real Peru” you have to visit the coast.
Huanchaco is one of my favorite places on earth, but you can also get great waves at Mancora (more of a party town these days) and Chicama—home to (arguably) the longest wave in the world. Download Magic Seaweed for the best surf forecast (and weather) updates on the road.
Surfers can ride this mesmerizing left for up to an entire minute. That might not sound like all that long, but a full minute on a single wave is an eternity to a surfer. Seriously, this wave is so long that surfers often only catch a handful of waves before calling it a day—their legs are too tired.
Other Amazing Places in Peru (Besides Machu Picchu)
When you hike Machu Picchu, “why not” check out Huayna Picchu too. (It’s pronounced “Why-na pee-chew”. Get it.) Huayna Picchu is that thing that overlooks Machu Picchu. It’s got spectacular views at the Temple of the Moon and Gran Caverna, and it’s just a unique way to experience an otherwise overcrowded destination. Do yourself a favor, apply for the even stricter Huayna Picchu permit (only 400 hikers a day), hike it at daybreak, and get above the madding crowd. Literally.
The striped Rainbow Mountains used to be a grueling 6-day trek away, but now there’s a road which means—day hike! The glaciers en route and once in a lifetime views are a great substitute for the cattle feel at the top of Machu Picchu, not to mention those colorful striped lines. It’s crazy out there.
The Nazca Lines
The Nazca Lines. Inexplicable. Massive. Fantastic. These gargantuan… drawings in the deserts and hillsides of Peru have baffled archaeologists and anthropologists for centuries. Let them baffle you for a while. Snag a bus from Lima (7 hours) or Arequipa (8 hours) and form your own theories.
For a truly unique view, visit the Pyramids at Cahuachi. You can see some of the Nazca Lines from the top.
The Oasis at Huacachina
The only true “oasis” in all of the Americas, this picturesque… oasis is tucked beneath the rolling sand dunes. It’s beautiful, it’s severe, and it’s in trouble. Water levels have dropped significantly in recent years, so if you want to see this one of a kind destination before climate change takes it out, better hurry. Located 5 hours south of Lima.
The Salt Pans of Maras
Before refrigeration, salt used to be one of the most valuable substances on the planet. Seriously. The word “salary” comes from the Latin “salarium.” For a glimpse of that ancient world, look no further than the 3,000 salt pools of Maras. Local families have mined these pools for valuable salt for 1,000 years, and despite tourism in the Peru, this area remains relatively untouched.
Ever feel like there’s nothing new out there? Well, there are still places where “discoveries” still happen. Known to the local communities, Gocta Falls was “rediscovered” in 2006 by a German researcher. That’s pretty recent for what is thought to be the third tallest waterfall in the world (there’s some debate).
These hypnotic circular stone depressions are thought to have served as sophisticated Incan “greenhouses” by creating tiny microclimates for growing specialized crops. Seriously. The temperature at the bottom of some of these carefully constructed pits varies by as much as 15°C. That’s incredible.
Go to a cocoa museum. Book a chocolate making class and make something tasty you can “bring back” for your friends and family. I made chocolate. Spoiler alert: I ate it all.
I could go on and on and on about how wonderful Peru is. I didn’t even cover Lake Titicaca, the Amazon Rainforest, the monasteries, national parks, preserves, or any of the beautiful islands off shore. Peru can be crowded and touristy, but only if you don’t explore the actual country. Get off the rails that lead you straight to Machu Picchu. Explore everything that Peru has to offer.
- Pack for the cold, and wear layers
- Approach shoes are all you need, even for the Inca Trail
- Spring and Fall are great times to visit Peru (and avoid the crowds)
- Remember that surfing in Peru is centuries older than Machu Picchu
- Get out of Cusco — there’s so much more to Peru!