Leave the kitchen sink home
Travel Light; everything that you take must be lugged around on trains, buses, and foot trails. You will be much happier carrying less than dragging more.
My short list
Here is some stuff that I find useful when I travel to Peru.
- Hand sanitizer
- Roll of toilet paper
- Extra batteries for headlamp
- Small unbreakable drinking glass
- First aid kit
- Minimal toiletries
- Minimal clothing
- Empty, small-medium sized compactable bag
- Empty compactable day pack
Why do I bring these particular items? Because they keep me pretty healthy and/or comfortable.
First up is hand sanitizer. As touted by public health notices posted in rest rooms everywhere, hand washing prevents the spread of disease. Except now we are in a place where the water is not potable, and a ratty hand towel hanging from a rusty nail sticking out from a muddy wall will perhaps give you pause. A small bottle of hand sanitizer will save you from infecting yourself with some dreaded gastric affliction.
Second, T.P. You should go into your trip knowing that in South America toilet paper is generally not provided. Be aware that there is a Murphy's Law of TP: If you desperately need it, and are not carrying any, then none will be offered. This law will manifest itself at a much more inconvenient time and place than you can possibly dream up on your own.
Moving on to the rest of the list, starting with a headlamp. Once a fellow traveler told me that they always carry a 60 watt light bulb with them because bedside lamps are often either dim or burned out. Hmmm, that sounds sort of...fragile. Take a headlamp—they are small, tough to break and hugely useful. You don't need a fancy one, in fact some headlamps made for kids cost only $10.00. However, if you are going trekking, you need one meant for that purpose, and some extra batteries.
A small, sturdy lightweight drinking glass is a nicety. Because I usually stay in *No frills* accommodations, drinking glasses, shower soap, and shampoo do not come with the room. I really, really like to rinse my toothbrush in a a bit of water when I brush my teeth, and the tap cannot (repeat, cannot) be used for this.
A basic first aid kit containing at least a few bandages and a spot of anti-biotic cream can save you the pain (and trouble) of an infected cut. Blister bandages can literally save a trek. These items are compact, light, and absolutely worth carrying. If you don't get injured, you will likely need to treat someone else who is. On remote trails, the blister bandages are a big hit. I've gotten many smiles by offering these sticky little patches of healing goodness to folks with blistered pods.
I include packets of oral rehydration powder in my first aid kit. Before leaving home, visit a travel clinic and learn about staying healthy abroad. They will likely give you some anti-biotics to treat gastric illnesses that don't subside quickly. Here's a link to a recipe for fluid rehydration to mix up if you don't have a packet of the powder.
Once you arrive you can buy any toiletries you didn't pack. However, having a few with you when you land in Lima at midnight (it doesn't seem possible to land in Lima from the U.S. at any other time of day) is comforting. You will be very happy to take a quick shower, brush your teeth and apply fresh deodorant before climbing into bed after the long, hard work of getting there.
Take minimal clothing because in Peru, laundry services are readily available and fairly inexpensive. Laundry services are magic; they allow you have clean clothes nearly every day in spite of having minimal items with you. Well, ok, laundries are not available everywhere, but they are available often enough to keep you looking pretty tidy and prevent a minimalistic wardrobe from becoming smelly. Laundries return your clothing both clean and dry, neither of which are guaranteed when you merely give stuff a quick scrub in your room's sink. Also, you won't have to utilize your on-board drying system (i.e., hang clothes off your pack) if the clothes aren't dry by check-out time.
You'll eventually be glad to have a spare empty bag. Like laundry services, baggage storage services are beautiful things. They can prevent extra stuff from become huge ball and chains. They are particularly useful when you are returning to a place after a jaunt away. For example, if you are taking a trek, ask the hotel/hostel where you will be staying afterward if you can store a subset of your stuff there until you arrive/return. Generally the answer is yes, and often there is no charge. You probably don't want to leave anything that you care much about because there is always the possibility you won't get it back. That said, I have always gotten all of my stuff back. But then, I've left only stuff that I (nor anyone else, it seems) care about.
Super compact day packs, of the type that stuff into their own tiny sack, are handy little things. Mostly used to carry a map, some water and stuff you need but don't want to carry in your hands, there is another reason to stash one in your pack. There is something about travel that causes the stuff you take along to expand after about the 3rd time you move to new a location. Stuff Expansion is both puzzling and inconvenient. Stuff Expansion usually hits at an inconvenient time, when you are heading off to catch an event, bus, plane or something else that isn't going to wait for you. You think your pack is re-packed, and you are proud of yourself for once again fitting all your stuff in, and still knowing where it all is within the pockets. You turn around and give your room one last glance, and there it is; a small pile of stuff that you forgot. Carrying the little pile loose will surely result in a lost sock, important document, or electrical converter plug. The extra bit of pack space you can instantly produce with one of these things is awesome, and can alleviate the pain of overflow until you get time to reorganize. Here's a link to the one sold at REI.
I live near Seattle, Washington, where there is a fantastic store called Metzger Maps. They can obtain a map to anywhere. Having a detailed map of huge cities like Lima, or more recently for us, Bangkok, is worth it's weight in gold. It saves time(hours searching for stuff), money(taxi rides in the wrong direction), and frustration (places never found, or incomprehensible/conflicting directions from locals). To help us find hostels or tourist sites easier, I often print out maps from Google maps, and toss them as we go. Good maps simplify travel.
And last but not least, remember your camera! Forgetting my camera would qualify as a desperate crisis, and is not a pretty picture (sorry, couldn't resist).
What not to wear
Once you're there, it will be pretty evident that on most occasions, bling doesn't belong. Leave anything that you care very much about at home. I wear my gold wedding band, but not the diamond band, and I take my most beat up wrist watch. I often pack my oldest shoes, often with the intent of leaving them there. The exception to this is hiking boots, which should, of course, be in good shape if you are planning on trekking. I usually take some clothing that I intend to give away in order to create space in my backpack for purchases. You can offer clothes to a guide or a church. I have always found it very easy to give away clothes.
Take a couple of good maps, pack light, buy what you need, ditch what you don't, take photos, and have fun!