I recently returned from a trip to Peru with my brother to trek the Inca Trail and search for wildlife in the Amazon region of Tambopata. Our trip was in early March, just a few days after the Inca Trail opened for the 2014 season and right in the middle of Peru’s ‘rainy season.’ Traditionally, this is not thought of as an ideal time to go trekking since most people prefer not to hike in the rain. (Unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, then you are just used to it.) Our timing wasn’t the best in that sense but we were just stoked to go so we packed the gortex, rain pants and ponchos and hoped for the best.
It only rained on us twice in 16 days. There were occasional wimpy sprinklings in the mornings but those didn’t even merit breaking out the rain jacket. Mostly we had a sunny and dry hike through the Andes and are still sporting the nice tan hue that the fair-skinned can achieve only after a severe sunburn has fully peeled. Machu Picchu was relatively un-crowded, we saw very few other travelers on the Inca Trail itself and fewer guests at the Tambopata Research Center meant small groups and quiet trails that resulted in fantastic wildlife encounters. Farming fields and terraces in the Andes were lush and green from the rains and the cloud forests were erupting with orchid species not on display during the drier months.
When planning your next trip to South America, consider going in the ‘shoulder’ season, a travel industry term used to describe off-peak months. This varies by destination but generally speaking this refers to November through March/early April for Peru and for Patagonia either the spring months of September-early November or the short but vibrant autumn season (March/April.) Now, most families are limited by school breaks and holidays but if you have some flexibility in your schedule, consider the following.
Let’s Talk About the Weather
Climate change is affecting our world’s weather big time, so traditional periods of rain, drought, heat and cold are experiencing significant variation in terms of intensity, timing and duration. And try as we might, we can't guarantee that it won't pour on your perfectly planned Peru trip in July or that January will give you clear, sunny days and exceptional views of Los Torres. In Southern Patagonia, you are likely to encounter loco weather regardless of when you travel so planning your trip around hopeful sunshine is a doomed endeavor from the get-go. (I like to think that the weather is part of the Patagonia experience anyhow. Photos demonstrating your ability to be supported by the wind as you lean into it make great souvenirs.) And fall in Patagonia is a beautiful time to travel when the vivid red and orange foliage contrasts nicely with the blue hued mountains. My point is, focus your energies on the things you can control (having a good time come what may), prepare for the things you can't and make the most of whatever happens. Your trip will include some sort of weather and we've invented enough gear and gadgets to adequately cope with it so don't let it be a major factor in deciding when to travel to Peru and Patagonia.
Shoulder Season = Savings
This applies mostly to places like Patagonia and Antarctica where the season during which travel is even possible is set and relatively short. If you peruse the Patagonia trips on our website, you’ll see discounts offered on select departures for nearly every itinerary. In some cases this is pretty significant, like $1000 per person in the case of In the Wake of Magellan, an exploration of Patagonia by land and sea. For me, saving $1000 is worth the risk of potentially getting snowed on or seeing a few less penguins; weather and wildlife are always unpredictable factors. Use the money you saved on your shoulder season trip to upgrade your long haul flights to first class so you can recline with ease and toast your intelligence with a glass of bubbly. This will be a doubly satisfying experience if you snagged an incredible deal on your flights due to low season promotional rates or were able to easily redeem miles. (Our friends at Exito Travel can help you with airfare deals.)
Most people don’t travel to another country because they want to be surrounded by hundreds of fellow countrymen. While making new friends from back home and abroad is a great part of travel, it’s also nice to have quiet moments to commune with nature on an empty mountain trail or be able to get that perfect shot of Machu Picchu without yet another tour group passing directly in front of your frame. Peak travel months are more crowded with tourists, it’s just a fact. So if your vacation is an escape to get away from it all, consider going during a month when the ‘all’ is less likely to follow you. Fewer tourists also translate into better availability for permits (like on the Inca Trail which is still wide open for September-December travel this year) and space at premium lodges.
In short, the merits of traveling outside of peak times are multiple. I can't promise that you'll see jaguars and have 70 degrees and sunshine in March like by brother and I did in Peru (that sort of luck is reserved for professionals) but if you have the flexibility to travel outside of peak season, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the experience.
Keeping it wild,
Got questions about traveling in the shoulder season? Ask me