Packing for a trip to Colombia can be really challenging. After all, Colombia is home to about every diverse landscape you can think of: the tropical Caribbean northern coast; the hot, humid Amazon; Medellin’s “eternal spring;” the cool, mountainous region around Minca and Santa Marta, and the cold, high-altitude city of Bogota. Yup, packing for Colombia is not easy! But after spending a month in Colombia, we’ve got all the tips you need to pack your bags and go. Our Colombia backpacking essentials are especially useful for hostel-hopping backpackers who travel on a budget. You can get most of what you need in Colombia, but frankly, there are a few things that you should definitely bring with you rather than trying to find in a supermercado! Here’s everything you need to know about what to pack for Colombia!
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By the way, we’ve also made a super handy printable checklist to help you pack for your trip to Colombia! Just enter your email below and we’ll send it straight to your mailbox, along with some tips to help you plan your trip.
Please note: this is NOT a sponsored post. All opinions are my own and I paid my own money for everything that we brought to Colombia. However, this post does include Amazon affiliate links. We greatly appreciate you using our links, which will give us a small commission at no extra cost to you and help pay for the costs of running the site.
Essential Backpacking Must-Haves for Colombia
If you’re going backpacking in Colombia, here are are absolute, most important, top 3 must-have essentials. If you don’t bring anything else on this list, bring these!
- Permethrin Spray: Permethrin is a bug repellent which adheres only to fabrics, leaves no smell or residue on clothes, and doesn’t harm human skin. I can’t emphasize enough about how crucial Permethrin spraying your clothing, backpacks, and other fabric-based gear is before you go backpacking in Colombia. We bought a few bottles before our trip and sprayed all of our clothing, our backpacks, and even our sleeping bag liners. We also used a lightweight bug repellent lotion on all of our exposed skin (I like lotion better than spray – no oily residue and much easier to apply. Also, I prefer Picaridin to Deet, as Deet irritates my skin). As a result, we barely got bitten in Colombia while everyone else was slapping at their itchy, bumpy legs. Going to the Amazon? Bug bite prevention is CRITICAL. Before you leave, set a day or 2 aside for spraying all of your clothes, backpacks, and other fabric items with Permethrin. You’ll need do it out in the open and leave your belongings out to dry for several hours.
- Steri-Pen Water Purifier: OMG, I can’t recommend the Steri-Pen enough. This handy little water purifier saved us a LOT of money (not to mention waterborne illness!) in Colombia, where there is almost no drinkable tap water (Bogota is the only place we went with potable water). The Steri-Pen purifies water in 90 seconds, using an UV light to kill whatever is lurking in untrustworthy tap water. Rather than have to buy multiple bottles of purified water per day – wasting money and damaging the environment – we were able to easily purify our own water for cooking or drinking in a re-usable bottle every single day. (Note: you can also use a Lifestraw water bottle or water purification tablets to purify undrinkable tap water, both of which we brought just in case, but we found that we preferred the Steri-Pen for ease of use and taste.)
- Anti-Diarrhea Pill & Vaccinations: Here’s the good news: unlike the rest of South America, you’re unlikely to need anti-Malaria pills or altitude pills in Colombia – Bogota is the highest city in Colombia at 8,600 feet, which isn’t terribly extreme, but do give yourself some time to acclimate. Here’s the less-good news: even if you’re super careful about sterilizing your water, traveler’s diarrhea is still very common. Imodium is fantastic to have on hand, but if you can, get a prescription antibiotic from your doctor to take with you just in case. You’ll also need some vaccinations before you leave, like Yellow Fever and Tetanus. Here’s the full list of recommended vaccinations for Colombia from the CDC. We got all of them and stayed in good health – other than wobbly stomachs – during our entire month-long trip.
- Travel Friendly Cameras: Colombia is freaking gorgeous, so don’t forget a camera. We didn’t want to bring our DSLR to Colombia – it’s big and expensive, and we didn’t want to look like targets. Instead, we used a travel friendly pocket-sized Canon Powershot, which appears deceptively cheap and old-fashioned to potential thieves but actually takes AMAZING photos. We also had a super portable GoPro which was perfect for sweeping views of the sunset over the mountains in Minca or the giant palm trees in the Valle de Cocora!
- Smartphones: Yes, you can bring your smartphone to Colombia! We were nervous about bringing ours so we brought old clunky phones. Big mistake -that was one of our major packing regrets. Turns out everyone in Colombia also has nice, fancy Smartphones, so you’re about as much of a target for theft as you would be in any major city anywhere. Also, it’s really easy to find a SIM card to install in your phone for use abroad, so you don’t have to worry about using an expensive data plan! You can get plenty of data plus unlimited talk and text for a whole month for like $30. We used CLARO and TIGO for our entire month in Colombia. Just find a phone store when you arrive, and they’ll walk you through the whole installation process. It takes an hour or so to activate your SIM card, but it’s worth it for those times when you’re like “if I only had service right now, I could look this super important thing up and save myself a whole lot of stress.” Plus a lot of plans include freebies like WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter so you can stay connected without worrying about your data cap!
What to Pack Your Stuff in for Colombia
You can get away with a suitcase full of bunched-up clothes, but you’ll be much happier with a well-organized backpack – especially if you’re travelling for a longer period of time or visiting multiple destinations! Unpacking and re-packing every few days is such a chore, and staying organized will make it a LOT less miserable, so you can spend more time actually exploring Colombia!
- Travel Backpacks (His & Hers): You’re going backpacking in Colombia, and you need a good backpack. You don’t want to be lugging your suitcase down a dirt road from the bus station and up 3 flights of stairs to get to your hostel. It’s SO much easier to have a backpack! We were able to fit everything we needed in our backpacks. These are the same backpacks we use for hiking and camping, and they’re super comfortable. It took us months of buying, testing, and returning backpacks before we found The Ones, and we love ours. That said, be aware that each backpack fits everyone differently, so make sure to try your pack on with at least 25lbs in it before you commit.
- Ultralight Packing Cubes: I LOVE packing cubes. Nothing makes unpacking your stuff and putting it into a hostel locker easier than packing cubes. Not to mention it keeps you organized and sane. We pack ours by rolling our clothing rather than folding it, which saves us space and also helps prevent wrinkles. Win-win!
- Laundry Bag, Toiletry Bag, & Shoe Bag: When you’re backpacking, anything inside your backpack is gonna get all over everything else. So we keep them separate using different bags (and those awesome packing cubes for our clothing). Our laundry goes in a laundry bag so it doesn’t get moldy or smell up our clean clothes. The shoes we aren’t wearing fit into a little shoe bag so we don’t get whatever we’re walking through all over our stuff (gross). And the toiletry bag keeps our belongings protected from leaks, spills, or moisture. Honestly, this set of nylon drawstring bags would work for all of the above except a dry bag (we actually used a dry bag as our toiletry bag.) And yes, if you’re wondering, we did try using plastic bags – they tore really easily and were a lot harder to replace than you’d think! Re-usable bags are also more earth friendly in general.
- Lightweight Packable Day Bag: We each carry a day bag. This lightweight, pack-able backpack is perfect for some snacks, a couple of jackets, cameras, phones, and whatever we need for the day. It also doubles as our lockable carry-on valuables bag while on transit, which is key for safety – never let your passport, camera, or laptop out of your sight! We also carry around various groceries from city to city, and it’s nice to not have to stuff food into the top of our giant backpacks. We used this bag daily! Our other day bag is a Camelbak Hydration Pack that fits 100oz of water, snacks, AND has some room for gear, too – perfect for hikes or exploring in hot areas like Cartagena or Parque Tayrona where you’ll need to stay extra hydrated.
Laundry, Toilet Stuff, etc
Just because you’re backpacking doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be clean and presentable! Here are our tips for doing your laundry on the go, staying fresh down there, and everything else you’ll need to not look like a hot mess.
- Travel Clothesline: This is a super handy tiny little clothesline that is easy to hang up almost anywhere. We bought it initially for laundry purposes, but it’s also really handy whenever we have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be dried. It weighs nearly nothing but is strong enough to hold a ton of wet clothing!
- Laundry Soap: Honestly, most hostels in Colombia offer laundry service. But we still liked having the option to do our own laundry when we needed to, like after our incredibly muddy Valle de Cocora hike in Salento, or whenever we ran out of underwear (ahem). You don’t really need special soap; regular strong castile soap works great. We like scented Dr. Bronner’s (bonus: Tea Tree is bug-repellent) or biodegradable Sea to Summit laundry wash. In a pinch (or maybe on a multi-day trek like La Cuidad Perdida) you can also use those soaps on dishes or even yourself!
- Travel Sewing Kit: Depending on the length of your trip, rips and tears are inevitable. I brought a small lightweight sewing kit and made regular repairs on everything from seams to buttons.
- Travel Toilet Paper Roll & Hand Sanitizer: Don’t freak out – yes, they use toilet paper and soap in Colombia! But it’s not always free. Or available. Also: never put it in the toilet! So I always had an emergency roll on me. You can bring a regular roll and stuff it into your bag, or you can just get a little travel sized dispenser that’s much smaller and easier to use on the go! Also, always bring some hand sanitizer with you, because bathrooms do not always have soap available for use. (Sure, you can bring soap too, but hand sanitizer is much easier to carry around than a wet bar of soap).
- Shampoo, Conditioner, Etc: I know this seems obvious, but it’s not. Lots of people expect there to be shampoo and conditioner provided by their hostel (it won’t be). Maybe they expect to be able to find good shampoo & conditioner in the grocery store – sorry, but Colombia does not have a good selection of hair-care products! Plus, they’re all imported so they’re INSANELY expensive. Definitely bring your own to save money and protect your hair. We love Lush shampoo bars in scents like Honey and Rose – they’re super travel friendly and won’t ever spill all over your stuff. Psst, check out my other haircare tips for long term travel!
- Menstrual Cup: Yup, vag things. Skip this paragraph if natural processes of women’s bodies make you uncomfortable. Pads and tampons in Colombia are hard to come by, and expensive. Plus they take up a bunch of space… not to mention they’re not environmentally friendly! So I’ve given up entirely on pads and tampons and fully embraced cup life. And it’s fantastic! No more leakage, which means less laundry in the hostel sink. I can leave the cup in for a full day or more without having to worry about toxic shock syndrome or whatever. And keeping your cup clean is easy: just wash the cup with gentle soap (like your laundry soap) and water. I spritz it with a little vinegar as well, some ladies boil theirs. I keep mine in a little drawstring bag – no fuss, no mess, no environmentally harmful waste! Oh, and don’t worry, they’re actually really easy to put in. If you’re considering making the switch, do it!
Colombia Hostel Necessities
Whether you’re staying at one of the best hostels in Colombia or just an average run-of-the-mill budget hostel, you’ll definitely want to bring these hostel necessities with you.
- Full-Sized Travel Towel: A full sized, lightweight, quick-drying towel is well worth the splurge. This awesome travel towel rolls up small enough to fit almost anywhere. Throw it in a dry reusable water bottle if you need to! The fact is, most hostels in Colombia don’t offer towels for free, and some didn’t offer towels at all. We tried to make due with a tiny travel towel and it was one of our greatest packing regrets.
- Solar Powered Flashlight: Any experienced backpacker knows that you’ll need a flashlight if you’re staying in a hostel. For everything from finding the bathroom late at night to quietly packing up to leave early in the morning, they’re super handy. We love our solar powered flashlights because they don’t need batteries!
- Silk Liner Travel Sheet: These super lightweight cozy silk sheets are both luxurious and practical. We used our silk liners whenever a hostel bed looked less than entirely clean; on cold nights in Bogota; and even sleeping in a hammock in Minca, Colombia. Because we sprayed them with Permethrin, they act as an overnight bug repellent, too (you won’t find many mosquito nets outside of the Amazon in Colombia, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find bugs flying through open windows and biting you in the middle of the night!)
- Travel-Friendly Chromebook Laptop: This was our only laptop the entire time we were in Colombia. It’s super lightweight and incredibly fast. You’ll need Wi-Fi, but honestly we never had any trouble finding Wi-Fi in Colombia (GOOD Wi-Fi was more of a challenge. Cities typically had it, everywhere else didn’t). Our favorite thing about this laptop is that it’s super inexpensive, so you won’t be terrified of having it broken or stolen. We were able to watch Netflix in our hostel every night, which is all that matters to us (but seriously, there’s something amazing about watching Narcos while literally being in Medellin).
What to Wear in Colombia
Clothing is one of the hardest things to pack for travel. On the one hand, you don’t want to look like a hot mess (or an obvious tourist). On the other hand, you don’t want to be totally unprepared and end up hiking in jeans, freezing in chilly Bogota, or sweating in tropical Cartagena. Here’s the best clothing to pack for Colombia (for men and women, and everyone in between)!
Note: we didn’t list out everything here (though it is on our downloadable checklist) so make sure you have plenty of underwear, tops,+ pants, and a bathing suit.
- Wool Clothing: Yes, seriously. Merino wool is a miracle fabric. It keeps you cool when it’s hot out, like on the tropical northern coastline of Colombia. It keeps you warm when it’s cold out, like in chilly Minca or Bogota. When it gets wet, you’ll stay warm while your clothing dries. It naturally resists the growth of fungus and bacteria, so it never stinks – a must-have for backpacking! It’s even flame retardant. What more could you ask for? Performance wool isn’t like the itchy wool of the past – it’s thin, stretchy, and and super soft to the touch, like cotton. Honestly, most of the clothing we brought to Colombia was wool, and we highly recommend wool clothing for backpacking. Here’s what we brought:
- Packable Down Jackets (His & Hers): We didn’t want big bulky jackets in Colombia, especially since you really only need them in a couple of places, like Bogota. So we brought these super lightweight packable down jackets that are insanely warm and insulating but also pack into teeny tiny little balls of nothing to stuff into our backpacks when they aren’t needed!
- Ultra-Light Rain Jackets (His & Hers): It rains quite a bit in Colombia. We didn’t bring an umbrella, but we did bring these fantastic rain jackets, which are some of the best jackets for travel. They’re ultralight and pack down into nothing, just like our down jackets. When we needed extra warmth, we wore these insulating jackest over our down jacket . The Marmot Precip jackets are super waterproof. They’re also the perfect just-in-case item to bring on every hike (especially in rainy, wet cloud forests like the Valle de Cocora)!
- Travel Pants (His & Hers): You’re going to need a pair of pants that serve multiple purposes, since you’ll be going to the beach, jungle, river, mountains, and city. Luckily, these awesome prAna hiking pants were designed with travel and hiking in mind and were up to every challenge we threw at them. They’re also quick-dry, so I even wore them while white-water rafting and waterfall rappelling in San Gil!
- Travel Jeans (Hers): Don’t forget to pack a pair of jeans for Colombia! Why? Because you don’t want to look like a backpacking gringo every single day, and for those days when you just want to go out to a bar or maybe check out a salsa club, jeans are perfect. Jeremy was able to just wear regular jeans, but I bought jeans specifically made for travelling from prAna, one of my favorite travel clothing companies. They’re stretchier and comfier than regular jeans, quick drying (which is crucial, as regular jeans take ages to dry) and frankly, they look exactly like jeans. I wore these pretty much every day I wasn’t wearing hiking clothes.
- Travel Shoes: We have strong opinions on travel shoes. We each wore three pairs of shoes during our trip to Colombia, and they stood the test for everything from hiking to long city days to salsa dancing!
- We each had a pair of lightweight trail runners, the Lone Peak 2.5 from Altra. They’re lightweight, breathe nicely, and have insane grip. They were made for running on mud, dirt, and gravel, so their quality is incredible. Also because of that, they’re perfect hiking shoes. No, you don’t need to lug around your heavy boots!
- We both brought leather Teva Sandals (his & hers). They’re super durable, lightweight, cute, and double as water shoes. In addition to wearing them everywhere that it was warm, we also wore them for adventure sports like canyoning and whitewater rafting.
- We each brought a pair of “cute” travel shoes that were both totally comfortable and fashion-friendly. Jeremy brought Gobi Boots and Lia brought these adorable flats, both made by Vivobarefoot. If you haven’t gotten into the barefoot shoe movement, now is the time. Your feet will thank you! You can read about the science of why here, but it comes down to this: your feet have more muscle than any other part of the body AND an arch is the strongest shape, so all this arch support BS is just that…BS. When it comes to choosing shoes for a long trip, remember the rule of thumb that you want to splurge on anything you buy that puts you between the ground.
What to Pack to Stay Safe in Colombia
A lot of people get really worried about travelling Colombia because of its unsafe history. One of the most common questions that we’re asked is “Is Colombia safe?” Y’all, yes. Colombia is safe! The Medellin Cartel was shut down like 20 years ago and all of the guerrilla groups are now political parties working together to achieve their goals the legal way. Obviously, if you go looking for trouble – like wandering through the jungle or asking strangers if you can buy drugs from them – you’re going to enter some unsafe territory. But if you follow basic travel safety guidelines, you’ll be as safe in Colombia as you will anywhere else in the world (particularly the USA).
- Lightweight Combination Locks: As any backpacker who’s ever stayed in a hostel already knows, you always need to bring a lock! But in addition to locking up your valuables in the hostel, you also want to have locks on your day-packs and on your backpack when you’re in transit. These little locks are more of a deterrent than anything heavy-duty. But most casual thieves are looking for an easy mark: a pocket to slip their hands into quickly, a bag left unlocked on a bus, etc. We lock every zipper on all of our bags with these little locks and aside from someone running off with our entire day bag once (don’t worry! We got it back!) we never had anything stolen. Important side note: TSA-friendly travel locks are great for checked baggage, but for our day bags and non-checked luggage we actually prefer locks that AREN’T TSA friendly, because it’s super easy to manufacture the key that opens EVERY TSA lock. Ahhh!
- Travel Safe Wallet: It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if you’re a traveler, there’s a bit of a target on your back. We came close to being robbed only once in Colombia, but we saw it coming and took defensive measures (aka we put as much distance between us and the thief as possible). One of the biggest mistakes you can make while traveling in Colombia (or anywhere, really) is carrying a wallet, especially in your back pocket. For any pickpocket, that’s the place they’re heading. Some people say put your wallet in your front pocket, but why risk it? Plus, how many women here can fit a wallet in their pockets? Ugh. Patriarchy. So we opted to wear two different kinds of travel safe wallets: a money belt for me and a bra pocket (AKA Brocket) for Lia. We also have a zippered passport pocket that can hold a phone too, which we only really needed on travel days. And we’ve each got an emergency stash of cash and cards that stays buried in our backpacks.
Printable Colombia Packing Checklist
Don’t risk forgetting something! Use this handy dandy checklist to help you pack. We’ve included everything we wrote about here on our packing checklist, plus the basics so you definitely won’t leave anything behind. Sign up below and we’ll send the printable checklist straight to your inbox!
More Colombia Resources
We’ve got a BUNCH of posts about Colombia! Here are some of our most useful resources for Colombia travel.
- Colombia Itinerary: Ultimate Guide to 1 Month of Backpacking Colombia
- A Complete Guide to Transportation in Colombia
- The Best Hostels in Colombia
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Colombia
- The Best Colombian Food: What to Eat in Colombia
Planning a trip to Colombia? Where are you headed? Drop us a comment below!
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