Packing the right clothing for a cross-continental jaunt through South America is arguably one of the most daunting tasks you’ll face. That’s why we’ve compiled this handy Seasonal Dressing Guide for South America. Because figuring out what you should pack, what you should ditch, and what you should definitely not leave home without, can be mighty confusing to the uninitiated. Whether you’re planning to tour South America for a month or a whole year, the challenges will be somewhat similar. Unless, of course, you plan to travel to just one destination and stay there for the duration of your visit. But then again, not much fun in that when you’re in one of the most diverse and mesmerizing continents on earth!
From the frozen polar reaches of Antarctica to the sweltering heart of the Amazon jungle, the arid high-altitude plains of Bolivia and the cruising islands of the Galapagos: South America can certainly seem like a packing nightmare to the first time traveller.
But don’t worry….we’ll be your personal packing gurus!
Here is our tip-top Dressing Guide for South America to help you dress like a pro.
Understand the climate of South America
Topography, more than season, is what dictates temperatures and – by consequence – dress requirements. The mind-boggling variety is what makes travel immensely easy (any time of year is always the best time of year to travel somewhere in Latin America) but dressing and packing a little tricky. Even countries that lie within the tropics entirely (like Venezuela) do not experience year-round and all-over tropical heat as one would expect. Head up in the highlands and you could certainly experience chilly temps in the single digits. Or take Brazil, as another example: one country, 5 climates! Your seasonal dress requirements, therefore, will be greatly determined not by when you choose to go, but rather by where you choose to go. Add to the mix the unique phenomenon of La Niña, which can cause crazy downpours even in the driest parts of the continent, and you have one of the most varied and unpredictable climatic destination in the world.
Here’s a great overview map that’ll bring home just how many different climates you can expect to experience, even within the one South American country.
In South America, layers are your best friend
On an extended South America tour, the best way to tackle all the variations in climate is to dress in layers. A bulky parka jacket may be heaven on a crossing of the Altiplano but it will be hell to pack and far too warm for cool nights when a cardigan or sweater will do. To battle bitter cold temps, a thin thermal underlayer (merino wool is a fab choice) is a fantastic must-have, as it packs small but keeps you nice and toasty when temps drop. Thermals will be as indispensable when hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, as when trekking through Patagonia and enjoying a cruise to Antarctica.
Short sleeve cotton tees are staples for very good reasons, as even at high altitude it can get very hot on a sunny day. Top that with a long-sleeve cotton top and a merino wool cardigan/fleece – as well as a wind-proof outer layer – and you’ll handle everything the Andes throw at you like a native. In countries like Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador (anywhere above the Amazon Basin) you’ll be peeling layers on and off from early morning until evening, and this is by far the easiest and fastest way to be prepared for all eventualities
Be mindful of conservative cultures
Unlike what many believe, most of South America is inhabited by inherently conservative people. Skimpy attire may be just fine when soaking up the rays on Copacabana Beach, but generally speaking, South Americans dress conservatively, most especially outside of the major capital cities. Be mindful of this and pack tops and dresses that are sensitive to the local culture.
Include one elegant going out outfit…
South America is home to some exceptional world-class restaurants, some of which you’ll no doubt want to indulge in when you visit. Having an outfit to match the culinary experience is a brilliant way to go and even just a fancy top with plain black trousers, or a cute little black dress (collared shirt for men) will help you not feel like a tourist in some of the continent’s fancier joints. Aside gourmet restaurants, you’ll also have quite a few incredible theatres to visit and trendy bars for unforgettable sundowner. Considering South Americans tend to overdress (when compared with Australians) packing a lovely and elegant going out outfit (or two) – and nice shoes to match – is always a great idea, as is bringing one small going out handbag or purse.
…but leave your most valuable garments at home
Lavanderias abound in South America. Just about every hotel will offer laundry service and you’ll find a family-run laundromat on every second side street. Although service is fast, competent, and incredibly inexpensive, do bear in mind mini-disasters have been known to happen on occasion. So although you’ll want to pack a gorgeous ‘special dinner outfit’ when visiting one of the abovementioned 5* restaurants, it probably shouldn’t be your most adored Chanel silk top. Elegant but expendable ought to do the trick.
Buy the small stuff when you arrive
Let’s face it: no matter what you pack in your bag, you ought to leave enough space for all the amazing souvenirs you’re bound to bring home. And what better way to combine functionality and retail-therapy than by buying items which come in handy during your trip to as well? All along the high Andes regions, you’ll find local markets brimming with hand-woven, colourful and warm beanies, gloves and scarves. Perfect for those frosty nights AND to have as a memento of your South American adventure. Aside local garb, which includes jumpers, alpaca woollen ponchos and endless ‘I am not a Gringo’ T-shirts, you’ll also find many imported clothing brands in most major cities. Locally made and stunning sarongs can be purchased at all prominent seaside regions, yet we find Australia still has the best-quality swimwear of all, so bring your fave bikini from home if planning to head to the beach. A quick wash in the hotel sink will avoid any lavanderia mishaps.
Consider bringing one or two items simply for comfort
Yoga pants or a pair of leggings for women, tracksuit pants for men and a pair of comfortable sneakers: these are probably some of the most revered packing items for travellers in South America who head to colder climates. Whether on an evening in or taking a half-day sightseeing hiatus, it just feels so good to get out of the jeans, cargo pants, and hiking boots. Leggings are particularly comfortable if tackling multi-day hikes in colder areas, as they’re infinitely more comfortable to sleep in than cargo pants. In warmer climates, a pair of shorts and a singlet are just fine within the privacy of your hotel and will no doubt be valuable on those once-a-week laundry days.
Here are some handy resource links to help you on your merry packing way:
Top packing Tips for an Antarctica Adventure: our specialized guide to help you pack for the mother of all South America expeditions.
Wheatherbase country by country weather guide: check out the average temperature, rainfall, daylight hours, humidity and even wind speed, in this incredibly thorough guide, which covers every major province of every country in South America.
And don’t forget to call us, of course! Chimu Adventures are your Latin American specialist, so if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at the mere thought of packing for your upcoming tour of South America, just give us a shout and we’ll be more than happy to point you in the right packing direction.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”