Whether you’re planning a wildlife-watching trip to the Pantanal, a rumble in the jungle of the Amazon, an expedition to the frigid ends of Antarctica, multi-day hike to Machu Picchu or, perhaps, a luxury cruise to the Galapagos, chances are one of the first things you’ll be researching is a comprehensive packing list. Now, before we even know where in South America you’re planning to go, we guarantee that you’ll pack too much. Way too much. It’s a totally natural thing to do, mind you, most especially when visiting a region of the world we deem to be ‘remote’. No one wants to end up in the back of beyond and suddenly realize they’ve forgotten something rather essential. Even if the chances of that, in reality, are literally zilch. No matter how large of a backpack you buy, and we’ve looked at several review guides to find some giant backpacks*** – we’ve no doubt you won’t forget to pack your medication or your most comfortable walking shoes.
For the sake of relieving your initial anxiety and helping you on your merry packing way, we’ve compiled some useful packing lists to get you started, pertaining to the most popular destinations in the continent:
- Packing Guide for Patagonia
- Choosing the Best Travel Backpacks: A Step by Step guide
- Packing Guide for the Inca Trail
- Top Packing Tips for an Antarctica Adventure
Before we move on to list all the things you really should NOT pack when travelling to South America, we’d like to stress that your eventual packing list will be determined by where in the continent you’re headed, what kind of activities you’re planning to do there, what time of year you visit and, last but not least, your personal preferences. Far be it for us to tell you that you should not pack something you just can’t live without. To this end, this guide is meant to be a general guideline that *should* fit the bill no matter the trip.
What no tot pack when travelling to South America?
Too much stuff
If there’s one mistake that 99% of travellers make, no matter where they go, it’s to pack far too much, especially when planning a long journey. Considering the fact that you will have laundry and shopping facilities at least once or twice a week, it really shouldn’t matter if you’re travelling for one week, or one month: time spent travelling is not what determines your packing items. Destinations and climatic variations will. Don’t pack too much and don’t overload your bags; you’ll want some extra room to fit in souvenirs anyway so pack as light as you can. You will undoubtedly hone in on your two/three most comfortable outfits and will want to only wear those, interchanging them in-between laundry days. On all our packing lists, we recommend fast-drying, lightweight and comfortable fabrics, with the addition of thermals for cold destinations. If travelling to extreme places, like Antarctica, note that you can actually rent great expedition gear in Ushuaia before leaving on your cruise (including Wellington boots!) so no need to haul all that extra gear from home. Same can be said for hikes on the Inca Trail, as you can also rent all the camping gear you’ll need in Cusco before setting off for Machu Picchu.
Put it this way: if you need someone else’s help to close your bag….you’ve packed too much.
A rigid suitcase
Your backpacking days may be well and truly over yet it doesn’t mean that you should automatically convert to using rigid suitcases. At least, not in South America. Soft bags are easier for porters to carry and take up much less room in ship cabins and canoes (for Amazon tours), something you’re particularly asked to consider when joining one of the must-do cruises in South America. Moreover, you can find sturdy soft bags with wheels which are just as convenient as standard suitcases to wheel along at airports but have the added bonus of being much easier to carry for hotel staff. This actually also applies if you’re just planning on a city-scape to any of the major capital cities. So do yourself and everyone else a favour and choose soft over rigid.
Expensive designer clothing
When travelling to South America, it’s certainly a great idea to pack a lovely going out outfit or two (collared shirts for men) considering the sheer concentration of South America’s Best Restaurants in every major city. Having said that, however, it’s worth keeping in mind that despite the level of comfort and luxury you can enjoy in this incredible continent, laundry mishaps have been known to happen. Don’t they, anywhere? Keep your expensive designer gear at home and, instead, pack a nice evening outfit that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to replace. Besides, with all the packing and unpacking which is usually part and parcel of multicounty travelling through the continent, losing items happens more often than you can imagine! Fine if it’s a nice black top you can replace in the next city you’re in, but not so nice if it’s that expensive Dolce & Gabbana shirt you bought in Milan last year.
On that note, there are two reasons why your most precious jewels should also not come with you to South America. Firstly, you can far-too easily forget them in a hotel safe (yes, this happens too) secondly, South America is not the kind of place you’d want to be flashing pricey diamonds (which is why they’d spend 99% of their time in a hotel safe). Travel with peace of mind and leave the family heirlooms where they should be: at home, with the family.
High heel shoes
We have one word for you: cobblestone. South America’s most stunning historical cities have them and, when they don’t, they have huge potholes instead. Neither option particularly suited to high-heel shoes! Make sure your shoes are comfortable, first and foremost, and remember that you will likely walk infinitely more than you do at home. Even if headed out for a tango show in Buenos Aires of an evening, you will undoubtedly have spent the whole day on your feet and swanky high heel shoes may well be the last thing you’ll want on your feet. Plan ahead and bring a pair of elegant yet comfortable flat (or moderately-flat) heeled shoes instead.
Surely you love your ankles enough to keep them safe?
Brand new shoes – of any kind
Those fancy shoes you bring? Yes, make sure they are well worn in. Your first day of sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro should definitely not be the time to discover if your new shoes give you blisters!
Heavy-duty rain gear
Good quality waterproof gear is absolutely essential when travelling to Antarctica and Patagonia on an active vacation but if your journey entails more city-hopping and sightseeing then multi-day hiking, then heavy-duty raingear will simply take up a lot of valuable space. Trust us, the moment the first raindrops fall, local vendors will set up stalls selling umbrellas, so don’t fear being caught up by an impromptu shower or two. Many of our guests also love buying rain ponchos locally if it rains because they are lightweight and inexpensive. Why not do the same?
Too much expedition gear
From zip-off pants with 101 pockets to safari vests, Keens canyoning shoes and Swiss army knives: many first-time visitors tend to pack a lot of jungle expedition gear when visiting South America…even if they haven’t even planned a side trip to the Amazon! But in truth, you’ll probably be spending most of your days sightseeing around some gorgeous historical town, trying to not stand out like the newbie tourist you are. So leave the daypack and activewear for real expeditions and pack the kind of comfortable clothes you normally wear on a day out back home. A comfortable pair of pants, a T-shirt, shirt or a loose dress and a pair of great walking shoes is a fantastic combination for a comfortable day out and about in South America.
Any item that’s too bulky and heavy
The key to dealing with consistent climate change when travelling through South America is to dress in layers, which totally negates the need for exceptionally heavy or bulky jackets and pants. As stated above, in the special occasions when you will need a very warm jacket you will have the chance to rent one locally, so unless you’re solely coming here to join an expedition cruise to Antarctica, best leave heavy clothing items off your list. Besides, even Antarctica won’t be nearly as cold as you might expect it to be.
An enormous first-aid kit
Unless you’re travelling to South America as a member of Medecines Sans Frontiers, there’s really no need to pack a mini-emergency room in your bag. Why? Because aside from whatever daily prescriptions which you absolutely should pack, the only other essentials you should always have on you are paracetamol, ibuprofen, insect repellent, small bottle of disinfectant and band-aids. Should you need anything else on your travels, you’ll be able to purchase it locally. Unless, of course, you are partial to a particular brand of medication from home, in which case bring it along by all means.
Every toiletry under the sun
Aside from the fact that you can pick up a super convenient travel toiletry kit at the airport on your way out of your country, do note that unless you are absolutely addicted to a particular brand of anything (shampoo, soap, deodorant, body cream) you can find everything you need in South America, absolutely everywhere. The beauty of buying toiletries on your first day in one of South America’s vibrant cities is that it gives you an excuse to check out the local supermarket (an underrated cultural experience in its own right) and it also keeps your packing in check, because you will likely just buy smaller quantities which you won’t mind leaving behind when you leave.
Without a doubt, jeans are the most hotly contested item on all packing lists to South America. Some travellers swear by them whilst others couldn’t think of anything worse. I belong to the latter camp. That’s because I find jeans to be incredibly mono-functional: they are perfect for only a very small temperature window, are uncomfortable for long days of walking or driving and are terrible should the temperature suddenly rise or drop too much. Comfortable pants that fit like a glove and have a bit of stretch are infinitely more ideal, in my humble opinion. They’re equally ideal if hiking for a whole day or on a fancy night out when teamed up with a nice top, can be spot-cleaned easily (should you drop some of South America’s best wine on them) and are perfect when you’re in a place, like the Amazon, where the temperatures are high but you still need to wear long pants due to pesky insects.
And last, but not least…
Don’t forget to pack your sense of adventure
Step outside any of the major cities in South America and you’ll encounter a totally different world, one that doesn’t always run on time, or to schedule. Sometimes, a snap strike can threaten your entire trip, as happened here. Yet even though there’s a lot you can do to mitigate risks, the unpredictability of travelling through a continent that isn’t quite so orderly or organized as, perhaps, it could be, actually adds to the excitement. So whatever you pack or don’t, the most essential things you should bring are loads of patience and an avid sense of adventure. Understand that last-minute changes can occur, that transfers sometimes run late, that mix-ups happen and that, sometimes, the laundry lady shrinks your favourite top.
Ready to discover what this incredible continent has to offer? Then check out the very Best Things to Do in South America, go easy on the luggage and start planning the trip of a lifetime. For more info on all things South America related, visit our Archives page and, when you’re ready to plan your once-in-a-lifetime journey, contact us right here.
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.”