Having travelled to South America twice in the last 6 months, and another time well before that, I found it to be a tricky place to pack only a carry-on for. From the dry frigid conditions of the Andes to the steamy jungles of the Amazon, from bustling Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires to the laid-back beach towns of Cartagena and Mancora, you truly need to be ready for everything.
Ya, of course we’re going to recommend our Kosan Travel Pack System. You can get around Buenos Aires just fine with a roller but what happens when you want to explore the rural mountain towns, beach communities, dense jungles and expansive highlands? You need a bag that’s easy to handle and will withstand all situations.
- Bring a dry bag of some kind for your electronics. You never know what conditions you’ll find yourself in. A durable AF dry bag will give you peace of mind.
- Bring an extra foldable duffle. There are so many cool artifacts, alpaca clothes and artisan goods to buy in South America that I pack an extra foldable duffle bag to carry home my purchases. Some, like the Matador, fold into a pouch smaller than your hand and can be a lifesaver.
Countries near the equator may have little variance in weather, but Brazil, a huge country, has 5 distinct climates. Parts of South America, specifically Chile and Argentina, are way down there by the South Pole and can have all kinds of weather in the same day. This past year, I was in Argentina during late spring and needed a sweater in the evenings. If you plan to hike in Patagonia or visit El Fin del Mundo, you will likely need winter gear even in the middle of summer.\
Similarly, a few years ago I was taking a 4 x 4 tour from Bolivia to Chile. Part of the tour took us above 3000 meters elevation. Although the daytime temperature hovered around 22 degrees Celsius, the nights dipped below zero. I had not been prepared…and it sucked!
Ultimately, latitude and topography, more so than seasons, determine the temperature.
- Layers, layers, and more layers. From long johns and long sleeves to sweaters and light-weight down vest or coat—bring the works to S.A. But, unless you’re trekking high up into The Andes, you won’t need a serious winter coat.
Wet Season and Dry Season
Since the majority of South America is south of the equator, the seasons are reversed.
- With temperatures ranging from the low 20s to the high 30s, the Amazon jungle is always humid and warm. Avoid the wet season from January to May when the area floods and you’ll be travelling by canoe through places you normally wouldn’t during other times of the year. It rains mainly in the afternoon, every afternoon.
- In the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, September and October can sometimes bring spring rains that spark stunning floral blooms in the south.
- Ecuador, which straddles the equator, doesn’t have winter and summer but, instead, wet and dry seasons. Mid-June to early September are the busiest months, along with late December to early January.
- For the dramatic and beautiful Patagonia, temperatures peak in December and January. So do the infamous crowds and prices during this time. October and November are generally good for clear skies, spring blooms, and fewer crowds. September is notoriously windy, while the winter is cold but often dry and calm; it’s an ideal time to kayak amid icebergs! During winter months, much of the south is snowbound and inaccessible.
This list and more information on weather in South America can be found here.
The Urban Jungle
Major cities in South America are sophisticated. That means your discovery channel zip-away pants and ventilated synthetic UV-protecting khaki shirt is NO BUENO! Clothing is casual to stylish whether you’re in Buenos Aires, Bogota or La Paz. From my experience, the locals wear yoga clothing to the gym, ONLY, and so should you. Look for as much intrinsic performance in your clothes as possible, be it moisture wicking, or anti-stink; but, dressing like a tourist will make you a target…and you don’t want to be a target.
- No Dar Papaya. If you boil down this Colombian phrase, it simply means don’t give people a reason to take something from you. Leave your rings at home, don’t wear fancy jewelry or walk around on your iPhone. Blend in and you will be fine.
- Some cities in South America are sleepy and everyone is in bed by 10:00 PM. Others are just getting started at that hour and party all night. There are many great restaurants and dance clubs. Guys, bring a lightweight blazer and collared shirt; ladies, bring your version of that versatile little black dress—you’re certain to find many occasions to wear it.
Dressing at Night
The general rule of thumb in South America is that daytime is safe and nighttime … not so much. Your safety risks go up, mainly for robbery, when it’s dark. Many, many locals warned me about safety, but in the 5 or so months I spent in South America, I was never robbed (short of a taxi driver charging me too much). That said, I take the advice seriously.
- Never take any electronics with you at night (or just take 1 phone per group so you can call a taxi).
- Dress Conservatively.
- Uber to and from your destination if you can (somewhat contradicts the phone rule, I know).
- Avoid ATMs at night if you can.
- Don’t engage with strangers. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, just keep moving. Most of the time they move on.
The Great Outdoors
There may be no better place in the world to enjoy the huge variety offered by the great outdoors than South America. Jungle, desert, great plains, mountains so high they touch the sky. You may not even be planning a trip to the mountains when, all of a sudden, a tour catches your eye and—BAM—you’re somewhere freaking awe-inspiringly majestic! But…did you pack for it?
Here’s where I grant you permission to pack 1-set of technical performance clothing just in case. 1 pant / 1 t-shirt / 1 long sleeve button down / 1 pair of hiking socks / stretchy pants + those layers I’d mentioned.
I find it easiest to bring my ATM card to Latin America. US currency is accepted, and highly valued in many places (in fact, it’s the official currency of Ecuador), but I found using local currency meant better rates.
Using a credit card was much more challenging outside of the major cities. Cash is king!
ATMs are everywhere but I personally found only international banks’ ATMs, like Bank of Argentina or Santander, worked. Furthermore, in places like Argentina, there were strict limits on what I could take out each day and machines frequently ran out of cash. So plan ahead.
- When researching for the blog post, I learned that if you open a free chequing account, the Charles Schwab debit card debits back the monthly fees.
- Unless you have to, carrying your debit and credit cards together is a no-no. Leave one safely behind at the hotel. That way, if you get robbed, at least you have something to fall back on. Also, while we’re at it, carry a copy of your passport, never your actual passport unless you ’re going to a bank, an embassy or across a border.
Beach Attire & Etiquette
You can rock a laid-back look in many parts of South America. But the real question is whether you can wear skimpy bikinis or go topless. Most South Americans are Catholic, and the older crowd is still pretty traditional, but, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the beaches. Just be aware of when it’s okay to take your clothes off and when it’s not.
This may come as a shock to you, but, in Brazil, locals don’t bring towels to the beach. If you bring a towel, you’re a gringo…not that it was secret!
So what now? Just sit there with sand in your ass? No. Rent chairs from the barracas located along the beach.
Women, do bring a sarong, kanga, or large scarf; unwrap it from your waist and lay it out.
You’ll probably find bathing suits a teensy weensy bit smaller than our American style, but whatever you feel most comfortable in is probably acceptable…assuming you’re wearing something. I personally haven’t come across a topless beach and, given how conservative most of South America is, I wouldn’t aim to be the first to start the trend.
- Other Crazy Brazilian Beach Rules. No shoes, pants or hats. No coolers or backpacks. Only eat from the local vendors. Don’t worry. With beer, acai and fried cheese, you ain’t going hungry! Also, between 10:00 and 17:00 (like, the full day—when most people want to enjoy the surf, sand, and sun) on many beaches, you’re not allowed to play with your balls. That is to say: soccer, frescoball, frisbee, badminton, etc. The area near the water is for chillin’.
- South America is a funny place when it comes to budget travel. Some things are incredibly expensive and other things are super cheap. The general rule of thumb is: if it’s made there, it’s affordable. Sunscreen does not appear to be on that list. I recommend bringing sunscreen and bug spray and other essential toiletries and cosmetics from home.
Day to Day & other tips
I’ve experienced the rural areas of Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. They’re all pretty laid back. They seem frozen in a simpler time. In fact, many still have gauchos and some locals still siesta between 1:00 and 5:30. Shops might be closed during that time. Internet can be spotty, buses can run late, people just generally aren’t too concerned about a fast-paced lifestyle like the western world. Prepare yourself; bring your patience and enjoy a trip back in time!
Do I need to remind you? South America is HUGE so flights can be expensive. Buses, which have Coach, Business, and First Class can be AMAZINGLY comfortable and an affordable way to travel vast distances. I’ve taken trips as long as 24 hours on a bus and it honestly wasn’t so bad! This means you need to bring books, journals and other forms of entertainment. A sleeping mask, ear plugs, and motion sickness pills might be a good idea. But don’t bring all your electronics if you don’t have to. Robbery is always a real concern in many parts of South America; remember, most crimes are crimes of opportunity and No Dar Papaya!
- My wife travels with a menstrual cup. She thinks it’s just way easier.
- Compactable lightweight down jacket (rolled up into the size of a fist)
- Compactable lightweight down vest (rolled up into the size of a fist)
- Blazer x1
- Rain Jacket x 1
- Thermal long johns (recommend Merino wool) x 1
- Long-sleeved t-shirt x 1
- Sweater or lightweight fleece x 1
- Toque x 1
- Lightweight gloves x 1
- Scarf x 1
- Ensure all these layers fit into 1 small Packing Cube
- Underwear x 5
- Socks x 4 (one should be for hiking)
- Beach Dress / Cover-up x 1
- Basic Dress that can be dressed up or down with accessories x 1
- Evening Dress x 1
- Skirt that goes with many different tops.
Pants & Shorts
- Active or Adventure Pant x 1
- Casual Pant x 1
- Option Workout/Yoga Pant x 1
- Hybrid Workout / Swim Short x 1
- Swimsuit (for women) x 1
- Casual Short x 1
- T-Shirt x 2-3
- Tank Top x 1
- Button-Down Shirt x 2 (non-wrinkle)
- Short-Sleeved Button-Down Shirt x 1-2 (non-wrinkle)
- Nice Top (Women) x 1
- Flip Flops or Sandals x 1
- Multi-Purpose Active / Casual Shoe x 1
- Nice Shoes with heels for Tango if you’re in Argentina.
Accessories (As you need)
- Bug Spray
- Natural Sleep Aid (for buses and noisy hostels)
- Motion Sickness Pills (for buses)
- Sleep Mask
For all else, use the BIT, “Buy it there,” strategy. Take only a carry-on (unless you have a specific trek or excursion that requires serious gear) and enjoy feeling like a true explorer while you wander through one of most amazing places I’ve ever been.
If you ever have any specific questions don’t be afraid to reach out to us and ask.