What to bring: 7 essentials for my trip to Peru

Lila's Packing ListEditor’s Note: Lila was scheduled to leave early on the morning of Wednesday, January 18th – just as a huge snowstorm struck Seattle. Hyper-prepared traveler that she is, she headed to SeaTac ten hours ahead and got on to an earlier flight – slipping out of the city before the storm.

As you read this, I’m officially on my way to Peru for a month.  I can’t wait: my travel buddy Betsey and I have dreamt about visiting Machu Picchu for years.

As I write this, the day before we leave, I’ve been packing for a month.  Betsey probably hasn’t even started.  On our most recent trip to Nicaragua, we spent the first few days searching through local marketplaces because she forgot her pocketknife.

Over the years I’ve written and re-written packing lists, getting closer to the ultimate guide to packing for a long trip abroad.

Sure, most forgotten items could be easily picked up along the way. They do have toothpaste in South America. Yet there is something so satisfying about being prepared: carrying everything I’ll need for weeks or months on end on my back.

Today everything that will soon be stuffed into my backpack is laid out on my living room table. Here are a few choice items that will climb the heights of the great Incan ruins with me: 

Gorillapod1. Gorillapod

I’m a filmmaker, so people always ask me what I’ll be shooting with while abroad. The truth is this will be my first time traveling with a camera since I had one stolen out of my backpack in an Accra, Ghana hotel lobby in 1999. Of course that camera used film, so there was a lot more to haul around. This time I’ll be taking my 6-month old Canon G12 (a point-and-shoot, but one that offers a lot of manual controls) with a spare battery and two SD cards, and I’ll still have room for this little tripod. The legs are strong and bendable, so I can balance it pretty much anywhere or wrap it around things. Perfect for getting that money shot in a deserted corner of Machu Picchu.


Pepper grinder2. Travel pepper grinder

I am a black pepper fiend, and for years I searched for the perfect travel grinder: sturdy, small enough to fit in my purse, and with a cover on the bottom so it won’t get pepper everywhere. Although food in a new country is one of life’s greatest pleasures, every now and then I’ll end up in a hostel with a kitchen and will be just dying for something I’ve cooked myself. That’s where this will come in handy.


Lila and Bets playing cards
Lila (left) and Betsey playing cards at a border crossing.

3. Cribbage Board

There is no greater way to pass that inevitable and inexplicable hours-long delay at the bus station than playing cards. Betsey and I have had a fierce cribbage rivalry since we were roommates in college. I believe cribbage to be the finest two-person card game ever invented, and for some reason it’s just not the same without the board. It’s also a great way to meet people; I can’t count the number of times we’ve been playing in a park or restaurant, and struck up friendships with curious passersby.

Carry on bag
Lila's Carry-On Bag

4. Homemade first aid kit

I always put together my own bag of medicine and first aid supplies, because the prepackaged ones often include some useless stuff (I have never used rubber gloves or eye coverlets), while not having enough of what you actually need (like band-aids and moleskin). To prepare for this trip I visited a travel clinic and four different pharmacies in my quest to fill my homemade kit. In addition to the basic first aid items, it includes a 10-day supply of Malaron – and anti-malaria medication (10 days is my best guess as to how long we’ll spend on the Northern coast of the country, where the disease is prevalent), and altitude pills. I also reserved some space in the bag for three small bottles of natural meds prescribed to me by my father, a naturopath and acupuncturist: Oregano oil, Probiotics, and Tri-Guard plus, which I’ll take preventatively in an effort to avoid the ever-looming “Montezuma’s revenge.” And of course I never travel without a copy of my immunization record. At least, not since the 2005 Laos- to- Cambodia border crossing in which I almost had to turn back and retrace a 5-hour ride on bumpy dirt roads when I couldn’t show proof that I had the proper shots.

5. Duct Tape – “Travel Size”

Duct tape is easily the most useful substance in the world, but space is at a premium in my backpack so there’s no way I’m carrying a whole roll of the stuff. I make my own travel size rolls by cutting a small square of cardboard and wrapping tape around it a few dozen times (I think they might actually sell mini rolls like this now, but I still prefer to make my own). It’s a pretty sure bet that duct tape will save my butt more than a few times on any international trip: I’ve used it to patch my shoes, my bag, my wallet and even my bathing suit. This time I found a roll of the magical stuff in turquoise. Score.

bags are packed
It all fits in here!

6. iPod + accessories

I spent all of 2003 traveling around Mexico and Central America. I had a Walkman and 5 120-minute long mix tapes on cassette. I spent weeks agonizing over what songs to put on them. Now of course I can bring hundreds of albums, along with audiobooks, podcasts, TV shows and movies, in less than the space that the Walkman took up in my bag. I’m particularly excited to enjoy the hours of Radiolab podcasts, audiobook of Lonesome Dove, the newest X-Men movie, and dozens of digitized funk 45s on my ipod. In addition to the wall charger, power and headphones, I’ve got a small pair of speakers, a headphone “Y” (so two people can listen at once), and an RCA connector cable to hook the iPod up to a TV. I know that last item might seem kind of silly (and kind of geeky)…and I also realize that half the fun of staying in some random hotel room in another country is seeing what weird shows are on TV. But sometimes there are those travel days when I end up in some seedy little place, exhausted and in a terrible mood, when watching an episode of Golden Girls is the only way to make everything seem right with the world again.

Colored pencils and cribbage7. Notebook and colored pencils

I like to bring a medium-sized notebook that has rip-out pages and I use it for all kinds of things: journaling, writing, taking notes, making lists, writing letters home, and keeping track of expenses (mostly my cribbage gambling debts). I don’t do a lot of drawing, but I still like to bring a small box of colored pencils in case inspiration grabs me. And coloring is a great way to interact with local kids. I still have a piece of art that I made with a group of children in Petra, Jordan in 2007. We didn’t speak the same language but we had no trouble communicating by drawing a picture together.


  1. I thought I had a good sense of the importance of lifestyle but you blew me out of the water with your travel fresh pepper grinder. It doesn’t even make sense to wish you a good trip after reading this!

  2. I thought I had a good sense of the importance of lifestyle but you blew me out of the water with your travel fresh pepper grinder. It doesn’t even make sense to wish you a good trip after reading this!

  3. Wow Leila! Did you even pack any clothes? And it all fit in your bag? Amazing! Enjoy and say hi to Betsey for us. Aloha and safe travels.

  4. Wow Leila! Did you even pack any clothes? And it all fit in your bag? Amazing! Enjoy and say hi to Betsey for us. Aloha and safe travels.

  5. Dear Lila

    Thanks for sharing your expertise as a traveler! Very useful advise for visiting Peru, especially for those travelers staying for several weeks.

    Best wishes!

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