Before we left for 5 months of South America backpacking, we spent months researching what to pack for South America (or rather, I did – Jeremy’s less persnickety about these things). Well, after 5 months of backpacking through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, we can safely say that we’ve fully field tested everything that we packed for backpacking in South America!
While we made a few mistakes on that trip – there are quite a few things that we wish we did or didn’t pack – we also packed a lot of travel gear that was perfect for backpacking South America!
Since that first trip a few years ago during our year-long honeymoon, we’ve been back to South America many times – and on one occasion, we even took a group of Jeremy’s high school students with us. We’ve now perfected our packing for South America!
In this packing guide, we’ll share our favorite travel gear for South America with you. This isn’t meant to be a complete list of what to pack for South America (you know, like, “bring a t-shirt” and so on – you can find plenty of those elsewhere), but rather a specific compilation of our favorite, field-tested gear recommendations.
Whether we use them daily or they’re just incredibly handy in a pinch, this list has all of our favorites: the best things that we always pack for backpacking in South America! I hope you find our packing tips handy when creating your packing list for South America.
Psst: Looking for more tips for backpacking in South America? Check out some of our other posts!
- Packing Guides for Colombia and The Galapagos Islands
- One-Month Itineraries for Colombia and Ecuador
- Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in … South America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru
Let us make your trip a little bit less terrifying! We’ll send you a handy printable checklist with our recommendations for what to pack for South America (and a few important things to do before you leave). We’ll also send you some of our favorite tips for traveling in South America! Sign up below.
Please note: this is NOT a sponsored post! All opinions are my own and I paid my own money for ALL of our gear. Well OK, some of them were wedding gifts, but I picked them out and listed them on our registry! The point is, these aren’t paid or promoted recommendations and I have no incentive to talk them up except that I really like them.
However, this post DOES include Amazon affiliate links. Using these links costs you no extra but we will receive a small commission if you decide to make a purchase.
Packing Tips for Backpacking South America
South America is huge. Like, literally an entire continent. With many countries. And within those countries are many different ecosystems. Wow, I’m not making this sound any easier, am I? To make a vast generalization, South America mainly consists of coast, mountain, and the Amazon rainforest – all of which are incredibly different in terms of climate and gear needs!
We’ve done our best to summarize a few packing tips from our South America backpacking trip, focusing mostly on Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
- South America isn’t terribly hot.
It’s hot at the very northern tip, on the Caribbean coast. It’s hot in the Amazon rainforest. And it’s hot during the summer seasons in Chile and Argentina (November-March)… in certain spots.
Otherwise? South American weather is actually usually around a cool to comfortable temperature. The western coast that we traveled is generally kept cool with sea breezes trapped by the mountain ranges to the east. The mountains and higher altitude towns range from cool to cold.
We were perfectly prepared for the weather with a few warm layers, a packable down jacket, and a single pair of shorts each. Basically, think of what to pack for South America the same way you’d think of what you need to spend a day San Francisco: lots of layering pieces, a couple things for warm weather, a few things for cold weather. So just everything, ok?
Oh, and if you get cold, just pop into a mercado and pick up something made of fluffy, soft Alpaca! That’s how we wended up with roughly half of our warm clothing.
- Don’t bother trying to dress like a local.
You’re going to stand out no matter what, whether you’re visibly Gringo or just wearing a backpack and a camera. If you like to pack to blend in, try to look like you aren’t wealthy. Looking wealthy will get you nothing but trouble and overcharged taxis.
- Bring your own hair and beauty supplies.
Hair and beauty supplies are expensive and very poor quality in South America (I think it’s because everyone has naturally perfect hair and skin, so jel). Bring what you’ll need or your hair will hate you (mine’s still recovering)!
For more detailed recommendations about makeup and beauty tips for travel, check out my ultimate beauty guide for backpacking.
- It’s easy to find whatever you need to buy when backpacking in South America.
Other than high-quality hair products, we never found ourselves desperately needing anything (OK, other than Cinnamon Toast Crunch, which we had a weirdly specific craving for).
So don’t feel like you need to pack for a thousand what-if scenarios. There’s always a market/mercado, corner store, or supermarket selling a random assortment of anything you might want.
And if you can’t find something in a small town, just stop in the next city. (That said, if you need something very specific, bring it.)
- Most countries have American outlets; some have European/Australian outlets.
To make things exciting, some have a mix of both! Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru all had US outlets. Chile had European outlets, mostly. And Argentina had a mix of everything.
Honestly, we didn’t even really use the travel adapters we brought with us. We just bought whatever travel adapter was being sold in the town we were in. It was cheap and easy to find a little adapter the minute we realized we didn’t have the right one. Don’t stress about packing the right adapter.
- There is Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere.
Hostels, coffee shops, restaurants … Wi-Fi is very common and easy to find everywhere in South America.
Mind, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to stream Netflix whenever you want (we tried. There were a few heartbreaking nights of Netflix-free chill).
But if you’re on the fence about bringing something that needs Wi-Fi (like my travel Chromebook), you’ll be fine!
- You can buy a SIM card absolutely anywhere.
We brought unlocked phones with us and picked up cheap SIM cards with data plans in each country, so that even when we were out of a Wi-Fi zone, we had a backup plan. It could not possibly be easier to find a SIM card: every corner shop and roadside stand sells them.
The hardest part is just choosing which company to go with (we mostly used Tigo and Claro). To this day I could not tell you which one is better, or what the difference is, really.
However, if you’re not fluent in Spanish, you’ll want to go to an actual store that can help you set up and activate your card rather than a roadside stand. I recommend an electronics or phone store. And then once you have the SIM card installed and activated, you can top-up anywhere.
The Best Clothing for South America Backpacking
If you’ve ever spent a long day exploring while wearing uncomfortable clothing, you know how miserable packing the wrong travel clothing can be! From the weather to your activity level, it can be hard to predict what you’ll need. And if you’re trying to pack light, quantity matters: go for quality, multi-functional clothes instead of trying to bring something for every scenario.
We’ve found a few technical travel clothing items that were fantastic from the tropics of northern Colombia to the chilly Andean plateaus in Peru and Ecuador.
Um… you might notice that an embarrassing amount of these have his & hers versions that we owned both of. And yes, we bought 1 of each. We matched for basically the entire 5 months we were backpacking in South America. What’s the opposite of #CoupleGoals…?
- Wool Clothing
Merino wool is a miracle fabric. It’s cool when it’s hot out. It’s warm when it’s cold out. When it gets wet, it keeps you warm while it dries. It naturally resists the growth of fungus and bacteria, so it never stinks – key for re-wearing clothes every day! It’s even flame retardant. What more could you ask for?
Performance wool isn’t like the itchy blanket wool of the past – it’s thin and brushed, and super soft to the touch like cotton. Honestly, most of what we brought was wool, and we found that wool clothing was perfect for backpacking in South America.
Here’s what we brought:
- Wool Travel Clothing for Her: T-Shirt| Sports Bra | Travel Bra | Cami | Half Zip | Baselayer Leggings | Underwear | Socks
- Wool Travel Clothing for Him: Crew-neck shirt | V-neck Shirt | Long Sleeve Henley | Baselayer Leggings | Underwear | Socks
Jeremy picked up a pair of these shorts to double as both his warm weather daily clothing item, and his swimsuit. They’re a 2-for-1, which is super convenient for travel, and they work great!
They dry quickly, making them perfect for hopping in and out of waterfalls, rivers, and the ocean and then resuming your normal travel activities. They never got dirty or wrinkly and always look fashionable, whether Jeremy wore them canyoning or waterfall rappelling.
There’s also the women’s version, made out of the same stretchy quick-drying material as my hiking pants.
We didn’t want big bulky jackets for backpacking in South America. So we picked up super lightweight packable down jackets that are insanely warm and insulating and pack into teeny tiny little balls to stuff into our backpacks when they aren’t needed!
In the coldest of the cold places in South America (like chilly Cusco, Peru) we added a sweater (made out of alpaca, of course, because when in Peru ...), a hat, and some cheap gloves and felt perfectly warm.
It rained quite a bit while we were in South America. We didn’t bring an umbrella, but we did bring these fantastic rain jackets (and their corresponding his & hers rain pants, which we didn’t wear as often).
They’re ultralight and pack down into nothing, just like our down jackets, so when we put them together they’re the perfect layerable & warm waterproof outfit.
These specific rain jackets are super waterproof whether we’re in a downpour or snowboarding, and they’ve become a must-bring on every hike (especially in rainy, wet cloud forests like the Valle de Cocora)!
Hiking in South America is not like hiking in the United States, as we found out several times (in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru … twice.)
We needed hiking pants that were up to the task of handling mud, rain, gravel, sand, and jungle, with a lot of butt-sliding and knee-hitting – AND that were comfortable enough to actually hike in.
Normally I can wear leggings to hike, but you can’t butt-slide and knee-hit properly in them. Luckily, our hiking pants were designed with technical hiking in mind and were perfectly suitable for our needs!
Psst: Trying to figure out which pants to pack for South America? Check out our posts on our favorite travel pants for women and travel pants for men.
One important thing to pack for South America is jeans. 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.
I wore my jeans in South America pretty much every day I wasn’t wearing hiking clothes.
Unlike regular jeans, these travel jeans are designed specifically to solve travel-related woes. One of my personal woes is the lack of pockets on women’s jeans. Well, these have 6 POCKETS. 6!! And 2 of them are zipped and hidden inside other pockets, for extra pickpocket protection – crucial in any South American country.
Jeremy and I each have a couple of pairs of Aviator USA jeans. They’re super stretchy and buttery soft, dry quickly in the rain or when wet, and keep our legs warm when it’s cold out (such as in chilly Bogota, Quito, Cusco, or anywhere in the Andes). They’re cozy enough to wear on a plane, stretchy enough to accommodate that 5 extra pounds of holiday weight I always seem to bring back home with me, and they’re super cute! We’re both obsessed.
You can get a pair of men’s or women’s black jeans (my personal favorites) or a pair of indigo jeans (which are slightly less buttery & stretchy, in my experience – size up) on the Aviator USA website.
Whether you’re hiking in the mud or exploring, rain doesn’t have to ruin your day! We just threw our packable raincoats and these super handy waterproof socks in our hiking day bag and didn’t have to worry about wet feet all day long.
We don’t carry bulky hiking boots with us, so these are a great addition to our lightweight trail runners.
These cute lightweight travel flats roll up small and are perfect for spending long hours exploring. They’re super-thing soled but built to withstand puncturing. And they’re super cute, take up no space in your suitcase, and come in a bunch of fun colors! They’re one of my favorite shoes for travel.
Personally I’m a huge fan of barefoot shoes – and these flats meet my needs. They’re wide enough to give your toes plenty of room to move and flexible enough to allow your foot a full range of motion, meaning that even a long day of walking on pavement won’t cause next-day foot pain!
I pair my flats with little wool liner socks for added moisture absorption.
I’m completely in love with my leather Teva sandals. These things are amazing. Not only are they actually cute, but they’re incredibly comfortable. I wear them on my cute “dressed up” city days with a dress or cuffed jeans, on long hikes, to the beach, white water rafting, anything.
They’re comfy enough to stand and walk in for 12+ hours, versatile enough to hike in, and perfect water shoes. They’re lightweight and well made.
After near-daily use in sand, dirt, and rocks, my Tevas are barely showing any wear at all. I’ll never buy another brand of sandals again. They’re the perfect pair of sandals for backpacking in South America!
Also, I once ran into someone wearing the exact same pair at a nail salon and we spent like 20 minutes mutually freaking out over how great these shoes are. So.
When we weren’t wearing sandals, we were usually wearing these lightweight, zero-drop, wide toebox trail runners. Yes, I said we – we have the exact same pair in the same color. Yep. We match. A lot. Don’t judge, these shoes are fantastic.
These were our primary hiking shoes before we left on our trip, and they have stayed our favorite hiking shoes. Honestly, we’ll never go back to clunky hiking boots!
Our feet can move and breathe in the flexible mesh, and when they get wet – with our waterproof socks on underneath, of course – they dry quickly as you walk. Plus, they’re lightweight, so when you’re not wearing them they fit easily into your backpack!
- Psst: Looking for more of the best shoes for traveling? We review our tried-and-tested favorites in our guides to travel shoes for women and travel shoes for men.
What to Pack for South America to Stay Healthy
South America has a reputation for being less than safe in regards to health. From Zika to undrinkable tap water, these concerns aren’t totally unfounded.
However, we really didn’t experience any issues. Sure, sometimes our stomachs were a little wobbly. But by always drinking purified water, avoiding raw fruits and vegetables, and getting all of the recommended shots before our trip, we stayed perfectly healthy!
Read on for our recommendations on the most important health-related items to pack for South America.
This handy little water purifier saved us a LOT of money (not to mention illness!) in all of the places in South America without safe drinking water (which, frankly, was most of the places we went). It purifies water in 90 seconds, using an UV light to kill living bacteria and viruses in even the most untrustworthy tap water.
Rather than have to buy multiple bottles of purified water per day – which is both expensive and environmentally unfriendly – we were able to purify our own and save money every single day.
We calculated that the Steri-Pen earned back its cost after a month of daily use – a must for traveling to any country without potable tap water! We use ours with our foldable Sawyer water bottle or our hydration pack and it works like a charm. (Note: you can also use a Sawyer mini filter 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.)
Update: Since this was first posted, we’ve started bringing along a Lifestraw Water Bottle on all of our trips to South America. It’s the easiest way to purify water that we’ve found – you literally just fill your bottle up at any tap and you’re good to go! It doesn’t replace the Steri-Pein since you can’t pour the water out, but it’s perfect for daily drinking water.
When we found out that there was a bug repellent that adheres only to fabrics, leaves no smell or residue on clothes, and doesn’t harm human skin, we bought a few bottles and sprayed all of our clothing, paying special attention to hems, cuffs, and socks.
As a result, we barely got bitten by any bugs during our entire 5 months of backpacking in South America!
Permethrin spray lasts for up to 6 machine washes, but since we weren’t washing our clothes very often (ssh, don’t judge) and rarely using washing machines, it seems to have lasted longer for us. It worked like a charm: even in mosquito ridden areas we had way fewer bites than our fellow travelers.
Important Note: this is something to buy and use BEFORE you leave for your trip! Set a day or 2 aside for spraying all of your clothes, PLUS your backpacks and anything else made of fabric, like a sleeping bag or liner.
Permethrin will protect your skin so long as it’s covered with clothing, but for the rest of you, you’ll want a strong, DEET-based bug spray.
Jeremy likes this travel-friendly one from Sawyer, but if you’re sensitive to DEET like I am, this lightweight bug repellant lotion won’t irritate your skin and is incredibly effective.
My trusty hiking hydration pack came with us on the trip and I’m so glad. It’s a comfortable daypack with room for snacks and the necessities, plus 100oz of water: enough for an 8-hour hike or a day of exploring a new city!
We purify water using the Steri-Pen and fill up the 100oz bladder with safe drinking water. One of us is wearing the hydration pack nearly every day. It may not be the cutest day bag, but it’s lightweight, comfortable, and incredibly useful!
I have an easily upset stomach. My body doesn’t like dairy …or gluten …or corn… or anything processed … or anything delicious…. FML. But it’s really difficult to control what’s in your food while traveling, and sometimes the only thing that’s available is something that my stomach won’t like.
So I brought my trusty stomach enzymes. They contain the things my stomach seems to lack to help it break down the elements in various foods and digest them. Since taking stomach enzymes I’ve greatly reduced instances of heartburn or indigestion, and seen a huge increase in my health from the more readily available nutrients that my stomach is now able to unpack and utilize! These are a lifesaver for me while traveling.
Note: South America also has fantastic stomach-soothing local remedies, like Coca Tea and muña, which I also relied on during our 5 months of backpacking in South America to help ease my poor stomach.
I know what you’re thinking: how is this related to health? Hear me out. 5 months of rice, fries, and bread does not equal a healthy, high-functioning human. So, we cook our own meals whenever we can, using fresh, locally purchased fruits and veggies from the mercado (washed with purified, Steri-Penned water, of course)!
Hostel kitchens and AirBnBs usually have a few things for cooking like salt, oil and a spatula or two, but one thing they never seem to have is a variety of spices. And making a good home-cooked meal requires spices.
So, we brought our favorites from home in little zip-loc baggies: dill, rosemary, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, curry powder, etc.
When we need to cook a meal, we’ve got a variety of flavors to choose from, which makes building a healthy meal from available ingredients a lot easier and saves us money on eating out.
Yes, vag things. Skip this paragraph if the natural processes of women’s bodies make you uncomfortable.
Pads and tampons down here are hard to come by and expensive. Plus, trying to stuff a huge package of them into my backpack to use only once per month would be irritating… not to mention they’re wasteful and not terribly vag-friendly.
So I’ve given up entirely on pads and tampons and fully embraced cup life. And it’s fantastic! No leakage whatsoever – which is a revelation for me. I can leave it in for a full day or more without having to worry about toxic shock syndrome or whatever. And there is no smell at all – it turns out its the pads and tampons themselves that smell, not the life-giving nutrient-rich tissue that your body is discarding.
Cleaning and maintenance is easy: just wash the cup with gentle soap and water to clean it. I spritz it with a little vinegar as well, some ladies boil theirs. I keep it in a little drawstring bag – no fuss, no mess, no environmentally harmful waste!
Oh, and don’t worry, they’re super easy and intuitive to put in. If you’re considering making the switch, do it!
Random, right? But I LOVE ACV. It’s so useful! We bought a bottle down here and have gotten so much out of it. I first discovered ACV’s uses for beauty purposes: it’s a fantastic facial toner as it kills acne-causing bacteria on contact. It’s also a gentle clarifying wash for hair, great for stripping away salt or hard water buildup (which is super common in South America).
Turns out it’s also amazing for sunburns! Our first bad sunburn in Cartagena was so painful that we turned in desperation to apple cider vinegar, soaking washcloths and laying them on our skin. Sure enough, not only did it ease the pain, but the spots we applied the vinegar to healed WAY faster!
Apple cider vinegar is also great for heartburn and the healing and prevention of itchy topical yeast rash (say, from a long sweaty day of hiking, or a long boat ride in a wet bikini bottom.) And yes, you can put it up in there too, if you have a different kind of yeast rash.
We keep ours in a little travel-sized spray bottle and use it regularly.
Dramamine was our lifeline on the many, many long bus rides (always windy, always through mountains, always speeding) that we took throughout our time backpacking in South America.
Oh, and it came in handy on ferry boat rides to day trips in the Galapagos, too! Even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, it’s best to bring a few along just in case. You’ll thank me when you’re stuck for 18 hours on a bus through Peru with windows that have been blacked out (WHY!?!).
- Altitude Sickness Pills, Malaria Pills, Anti-Diarrhea Pills, & Vaccines
Before I jump in here, go ahead and make an appointment with your doctor – or the closest travel clinic – before your trip, because that’s where you’ll get all of your prescription medications and travel vaccines.
Altitude sickness medication is absolutely necessary because chances are you’ll be heading into, through, or up to mountains with regularity, which can absolutely lay you out (I only got altitude sickness once, in Huaraz, Peru – but it was miserable).
Malaria Pills aren’t actually as necessary if you’re staying away from the Amazon Jungle – malaria isn’t common in most of the well-populated towns and cities we went to., But if you’re hopping into the jungle at any point, you’ll need them. Check the CDC Website for the countries you’ll be visiting to see a malaria map.
You’ll also need some vaccinations before you leave, like Yellow Fever, Tetanus, and a few more. Consult with your doctor for a full list of recommended medications from the CDC!
And finally, although they aren’t prescription, Anti-Diarrhea pills are just something you’ll need to pack for South America, trust me. I don’t want to go into details. Just trust me.
If you prefer a more natural solution, these drinkable powder packets are surprisingly effective!
What to Pack for South America to Stay Safe
Before you start stocking up on locks and money belts, here’s a guide to all of the basic travel safety precautions we always take during our travels.
Safety while traveling abroad is a huge concern, and for good reason: tourists are like a walking bulls-eye. And while backpacking in South America, just being a Gringo wearing a backpack can make you a target.
Luckily, aside from 1 incident (in Peru), we felt safe the vast majority of the time during our 5 months of South America backpacking.
However, we were EXTREMELY grateful for our Travel Insurance, which we did end up using – twice – during our year-long honeymoon. Our travel insurance ended up paying for itself and then some. It is a VERY smart investment and we HIGHLY recommend it – we no longer travel internationally without it.
- Not sure whether travel insurance is worth it? We created a travel insurance guide that breaks it all down.
We highly recommend World Nomads for short-term travel insurance. We’ve had 2 unfortunate incidents that required us to file claims, and both times we were really happy with their services.
If you’ll be taking a longer trip, like we did, we recommend SafetyWing Travel Insurance. The program is designed for long-term travelers and digital nomads. We wish they existed back when we took our honeymoon!
Here, we’ll make it even easier for you to be responsible about this. Go ahead and get a quote from World Nomads right now:
OK – now that you’re covered, here’s what to pack for South America to stay safe!
As any hostel-hopper knows, you always need to have a lock! But in addition to locking up your valuables in the hostel locker, you also want to have locks on your day-packs and on your bag when you’re in transit.
These little locks are more of a deterrent than anything: obviously any dedicated thief can just cut open our canvas backpacks if they really want to.
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 bag once (don’t worry! We got it back!) we never had anything stolen.
Important: TSA-friendly locks are OK for checked baggage, but for our day bags and non-checked luggage we actually prefer locks that AREN’T TSA friendly, like these, because it’s apparently super easy to manufacture keys that can open all TSA locks, which means your luggage won’t be protected at all. Scary.
We brought 2 lightweight bags which fold down into nothing: a small backpack, and a duffel bag. We’ve been using them every single day.
The backpack is our day pack, 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.
AKA “brocket” for short. What a missed opportunity! So, confession: I can’t stand purses. It’s not just because they’re easily snatched and stolen. They’re also just a giant hassle. From leaving them behind to aching shoulders to getting tangled up in coat sleeves, purses and I just do not get along.
The obvious travel alternative is a money belt (until someone, somewhere, realizes that girls just want to have pockets in their clothing.) Except that a money belt is totally useless for a huge amount of women’s clothing … like, uhhh, dresses? Who the hell designed these things?! Probably the same assholes who refuse to put pockets in women’s clothing!!!
My travel solution is the Bra Pocket. It snaps onto my bra and hangs out inconspicuously between the girls, ready the moment I need to take out a card. Nothing got lost or stolen. I often sleep in it, that’s how comfortable and innocuous this thing is! I highly recommend one. I’ll never go back to purses & wallets!
The Best Travel Gear for South America Backpacking
Sometimes random travel items end up being indispensable for travel. In this post, I’m skipping the basic stuff you’ll find on every “what to pack for South America” post out there (everyone knows about packing cubes by now, right?? If not, here’s an amazing packing cube guide). Instead, here are the surprise favorite travel items that we ended up being really glad we packed for backpacking in South America!
Our beloved little Chromebook is our primary travel laptop. It’s capable of anything you need while on the road – yes, even managing your blog (so long as you don’t need complex stuff like Photoshop)! I actually started and ran the blog on this thing for a full year and a half.
It’s super lightweight and incredibly fast. Sure, you need Wi-Fi for most of its capability, but we never had any issues finding Wi-Fi in South America (GOOD Wi-Fi was more of a challenge).
Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive, so you don’t have to be as afraid of it getting broken or stolen – and if it does, all of your stuff is already safely backed up on the Cloud.
I once had my Chromebook stolen (in the USA). The thief was so disappointed with it (like … the minute they realized there is no black market for $150 Chromebooks), they actually brought it back to where they’d taken it!
- Travel-Friendly Cameras
We didn’t bring a DSLR on our first trip to South America – it’s bulky and we didn’t want to look like targets. Instead, we had a super portable GoPro which was perfect for sweeping views of mountains and hiking.
For all of our other photos, we used the travel-friendly pocket-sized Canon Powershot, which appears deceptively cheap and old-fashioned to potential thieves but actually takes AMAZING photos.
We leveled up our camera game when we got serious about the blog, but if you can’t tell which camera took which of the photos in this post, well … that’s great for you, I guess, but it actually makes me feel like I wasted a lot of money on nice cameras. So scratch that. If you’re not profesh, though, the Powershot is excellent.
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!
These little portable libraries are so handy for travel! Not only do they save you the effort of lugging around books – much as the charm of the hotel book exchange appeals to me – but they’re also great travel tools. You can load them up like a tablet to use with wi-fi, with apps, downloaded movies, audiobooks, and music.
We put our travel PDF on ours: as part of our travel planning process, we create a PDF loaded with information pulled from all over the web about the places we’re going, our flight and hostel information, itineraries, emergency numbers and embassy locations, maps, our insurance information. That PDF is our travel bible, and it’s easy to use on either of our Kindles!
This flashlight is awesome, and super handy for finding the bathroom or packing in a dark hostel. We haven’t had to think about batteries once, but we always have a little light when we need it.
We keep ours clipped onto the outside of our backpacks so it’s charging whenever we’re outside. Environmentally friendly AND convenient!
These super lightweight cozy silk sheets sound luxurious … and they kinda are, but they’re also super practical. We used our silk liners whenever a hostel bed looked less than entirely clean; on cold nights at high altitudes in Peru; and even sleeping in a hammock in Minca, Colombia.
Bonus: we Permethrin sprayed them, so that they act as bug-repellent sheets too!
Along with using cheap lightweight foldable bags comes the regular rips and tears, not to mention holes in our clothes and popped buttons. I brought a small lightweight sewing kit and make regular repairs on everything to keep us from having to buy new stuff! The travel sewing kit saved us many times.
How could we have a post about backpacking in South America and not talk about our actual backpacks? Yes, we packed everything we needed in our handy backpacks (using those handy packing cubes!)
We chose to bring our backpacks instead of a suitcase because of the amount of walking we did while backpacking South America: in addition to multi-day treks like the Quilotoa Loop that we brought our backpacks on, we just had to walk around carrying our stuff pretty frequently.
Whether it’s walking from your hostel to the bus station, crossing a border in a chicken truck, or a taxi dropping you off wherever they feel like it, you’ll be schlepping your bag all the time, and it’s so much easier to schlep when it’s attached to your back.
These are the same backpacks we use for hiking and camping, and they’re super comfortable (although each backpack fits everyone differently, so make sure to try your pack on with at least 25lbs in it before you commit)!
Still shopping? Here’s a handy guide comparing several different women’s travel backpacks. If you’ll be doing some flying too (and in a huge continent such as South America, that’s very likely) take a look at these carry-on size backpacks.
Shop This Post
Want an easy way to shop for all the items we included in this post? We’ve gotcha covered! We created a shopping list on Amazon that includes just about everything we mentioned above. Check it out here:
Phew, I think that’s everything! Like I mentioned above, I skipped the basics entirely, because there are so many helpful resources already out there with great advice on what to pack for South America and I don’t feel like I should tell you exactly how many pairs of underwear or t-shirts to pack anyway – everyone’s different!
If you have a question like but seriously how many t-shirts do I REALLY need then please leave a comment below. Or, just download our printable South America packing checklist, where I actually DID list out the specifics. Oh, and we’ll also send you some of our favorite tips for traveling in South America! Sign up below.
Psst: Looking for more tips for backpacking in South America? Check out some of our other posts, or click here to see ALL of our South America posts.
- Packing Guides for Colombia and The Galapagos Islands
- One-Month Itineraries for Colombia and Ecuador
- Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in … South America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru
We also have guides to some of our favorite destinations in South America:
- Colombia: Minca and Parque Tayrona
- Ecuador: The Galapagos Islands, Banos, and The Quilotoa Loop
- Peru: Ollantaytambo (Near Machu Picchu)
- Self-Guided Walking Tours: Lima, Peru and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Do you have any questions about traveling in South America? Drop us a comment below!
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Our Top Travel Tips & Resources
- Booking Flights: To score flight deals, search on Google Flights or Kayak. Money-saving tips: fly mid-week or on the weekend; fly carry-on only on a budget airline; and take red-eyes or early morning flights.
- Accommodations: We usually stay in budget-friendly vacation rentals, boutique hotels or private rooms in hostels. We use Booking.com to book hotels (we love their flexible cancellation policy) and Hostelworld to book hostels (low deposit, easy change/cancellation, and excellent reviews). For vacation rentals, we prefer to book using VRBO because they've got lower fees and better support than Airbnb, and we're not fans of Airbnb's unethical track record. You can also book vacation rentals on Expedia and Hotels.com. We also use TrustedHousesitters as both hosts (for our home and our fur-child) and travelers!
- Travel Insurance: We always, always, ALWAYS buy travel insurance for international trips, and we STRONGLY suggest it - visit our Travel Insurance Guide to find out why. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing for international travel insurance. SafetyWing is one of the few policies that covers Covid-19, and they have excellent monthly policies that are perfect for Digital Nomads and long term travelers!
- Travel Credit Card: We book all of our trips on our favorite travel credit card. Not only do we earn cash back that we can spend on more travel, but the card offers fantastic travel perks like travel insurance, trip delay and cancellation coverage, lost baggage reimbursement, and rental car coverage, which helps protect us on our travels. Learn more here.
- Vaccines & Meds: We use the travel guides on the CDC website to research recommended medications and vaccines for international trips. We always recommend getting every vaccine recommended by the CDC! You can get them at your primary care doctor's office or a walk-in pharmacy.
- Tours: We love booking guided tours, especially food tours and walking tours, to get a local's perspective and a history lesson while sight-seeing! We book our tours using Viator and GetYourGuide.
- Transportation: We use Rome2Rio to figure out how to get from place to place, and book local transportation online using Bookaway wherever we can. When we book a rental car, we use DiscoverCars to compare rental companies and find the best deal.
- Luggage Storage: Whenever we're checking out early or taking advantage of a long layover, we use LuggageHero to safely store our luggage while we're running around. Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.
- VPN Service: A VPN keeps your digital information (like website login details, bank info, etc) safe, even when you're connected to an unsecured network while traveling. Plus, it lets you use Netflix & other streaming sites abroad! We use NordVPN. Use the code WANDERLUSTPROMO when you sign up!
- What to Pack: Here are the travel essentials that we bring on every trip. We also have packing lists for hot weather, cold weather, and many more. Take a look at all of our packing guides!
Hi there we are going to travel to Ecuador soon, and staying in Quito is the down jacket needed or the base layer of merino will be enough?
Lia Garcia says
Hi! Quito is quite high altitude (almost 10k feet!) and it can get pretty cold, especially at night (like the 40’s) or up on Pichincha. If you don’t bring a down jacket I would just make sure you have a warm fleece layer or something that can go over your merino if you’ll be out at night or heading up any mountains or volcanoes. Otherwise merino should be enough!
Hey Guys, Love the post and humorous honesty, comes across quieter authentically which is good for us the readers so well done. I just downloaded the printable PDF, super handy so thank you so much!!
Just looking for some feedback on what brand you would recommend when it comes to clothing and hiking gear such as boots and outfit. I do a lot of hiking here in Ireland and i find North gears clothing really comfortable. When it comes to the boots, my ankles can be prone to injury so I really want something that supports my ankles and are comfortable? Any suggestions?
Also, you mentioned that you have a credit card that you can use anywhere without any charge? Any feedback on that would be great also. 🙂 Thank you in advance and keep up the great work 🙂
Peace and love,
Traveling to South America in a month ♀️ and this post reminded me what to take and how. Loved it so much !!!! Thanks a lot
Melanie L Pacetti says
Love getting your emails!! What have you found is the best way to exchange money? In the states, or wait until we arrive in Colombia (at the airport)? Thanks again!
Lia Garcia says
Our debit card lets us use ATM’s anywhere in the world without any fees, so we always find it easiest to just use ATM’s wherever we go. Other than that, it’s certainly easy to exchange your money once you arrive at the airport.
I love these blogs. Very informative and fun to read. Thank you!
I thought I’d share my pack strategy. I have a husband and two kids. Travel is expensive because everything is X4. So cheap flights and no checked bags or overhead bin bags. All your stuff must fit under the seat in front of you! We have very lightweight and totally squishable duffel backpacks. Instead of packing cubes, (which are expensive, require zipping/unzipping ad nauseum, and not sufficiently structured) I use Ikea SKUBB boxes. Cheap, hold their shape but squish or collapse flat when necessary, and no zipping. While waiting for a flight I may rearrange items a bit so the contents form a shape and size for under the seat. Then I put it back later to wear more comfortably and distribute more weight to adults. Everyone’s bag is light enough for them to carry for a couple miles and parents don’t become pack mules. I will note that this strategy works best if you fold clothes Marie Kondo style. At home, I dislike folding laundry. But somehow, while traveling, the order and sense of control I feel from tidy packs, (plus the very small volume of stuff) make me feel confident and ready for anything.
Lia Garcia says
Thanks so much for your tips!
This has been SO SO helpful. Thank you so much!
Ian McAllister says
This is an amazingly practical website. I’ve just one question for now.
I obviously can’t pack a printer in my carry-on backpack. How do you get printouts of your computer stuff and print copies of passports etc?
I’ll be traveling to Colombia in January for about a month and I’m planning on visiting Bogota, San Gil, Salient, Minca, Parque Nacional Tayrona, and The Lost City Trek. Yellow Fever and Malaria vaccinations are >$200 to get beforehand and I was just wondering if it is necessary to get beforehand in your opinion. The only part I feel like I may be at risk of it is during the Lost City Trek towards the end of my trip. Let me know what your thoughts are, and if you think enough mosquito repellent clothing and spray will do the trick.
Lia Garcia says
I really wouldn’t risk it, tbh. Malaria isn’t necessary in most parts of the country – just the deep forest and jungle, which yes, you’ll be going through on the Lost city Trek – so you could get away with just a few pills. But I wouldn’t skip Yellow Fever. Hospital bills would be a lot more expensive than $200 😉 I will say that even though we were diligent about Permethrin and bug repellant lotion, we still got a few bug bites – less than literally everyone else we met, but still a few!
Pashmina @TheGoneGoat says
What a useful list, Lia! Thanks for sharing! I second having Travel Jeans, the last thing you want is getting bitten. I even think having a camping hammock is super useful when you’re on the road for days… With a hammock you’ll never again care what the ground looks like underneath you, plus the view is better when you’re perched up higher on a mountain, afloat and looking up to the stars. Haha
Lia Garcia says
We literally almost brought out camping hammocks with us on the trip but didn’t end up camping at all so they would’ve been a waste of space in our packs! But we are 100% hammock campers and completely agree with you 🙂
Pippa John says
Really interested to see what you found essential. I am just about to set off on a 7 month trip round much of a South America. I wondered whether waterproof over trousers were useful or useless in your opinion. Advice would be much appreciated!
Lia Garcia says
Kinda depends if you’ll be traveling during the rainy season, tbh. We weren’t, so we really didn’t end up needing them. But if we’d attempted to hike Machu Picchu a week later, we would’ve been REALLY glad we had them! So look into the rainy season wherever you’ll be going. Ours are so lightweight we just sort of tucked them somewhere out of the way and figured we’d be glad we had them if we needed them and if we didn’t, it wasn’t much extra to carry!
This post was super helpful! I’m traveling to Ecuador and Peru in a few weeks. Do you recommend more cold weather clothes or warm weather ones? Also what did you take for altitude sickness and stomach problems? I have a very sensitive stomach with gluten and dairy intolerance as well and am nervous about stomach problems.
Lia Garcia says
I’d bring a mixture of both depending on the altitude you’ll be at and the cities you’re in. Cusco, Quito and other high-altitude cities are colder in general. I was glad to have my down jacket and windbreaker! I took Diamox for altitude sickness (prescribed by my doctor) and brought stomach enzymes for my stomach issues.
Excellent guide!!! So helpful 🙂 I will be in Chile for 6 weeks beginning November 2018. Recently prescribed meds that have caused me to be incontenient – I am still determined to go. Do you know if I will I be able to buy incontinence products in Chile. Thanks for any help you can offer
Lia Garcia says
I’m really not sure, but just to be safe, I’d bring some extras with you!
Kimmie Conner says
I’m not kidding you when I say this packing list SAVED me when I was packing for this trip!! When i got over my excitement at seeing your post at NUMBER ONE on Google, I used so much of this info. THANK YOU for being awesome and always PRACTICAL! 😀
Lia Garcia says
You’re so sweet! So glad it was helpful and so glad it’s still at #1 😉
This is a super helpful, comprehensive list. Thanks for sharing.
Going to SA in a few months and was just wondering if you two checked your bags when flying or just carried on. Our plan is to carry on but I’m at a loss for what to do with the 3oz liquid limit. I’d like to bring plenty of sunscreen, bug spray, etc. because I hear it’s expensive there, but I just can’t figure out how to get it over there without checking a bag or putting it all into individual 4oz bottles. Let me know your thoughts!! Thank you!
Lia Garcia says
We checked. Our backpacks were way too big for the budget airlines we were flying!
Hey, I have been looking for a good pair of hiking/walking sandals for quite some time now. I want them to have a great fit but also be quick drying. What would you recommend?
Ritika Singh says
hey thanks for detail packing list..what was the total weight u were carrying?
Lia Garcia says
I think my pack was about 25 lbs and Jeremy’s was around 30lbs, but that’s minus food and water.
Ritika Singh says
wow..good job in packing so light..did u carry the same backpack stuff to Europe too..or u had a stopover and change clothes etc? on other note..m so addicted to ur site..i keep on coming back..and ur sense of humor is killer…ur hubby is very lucky to have u <3 and wish u millions of readers
Lia Garcia says
You’re so sweet, aww! Keep coming back! 😀 We did have a stopover between South America and Europe where we ditched all of our warm weather clothes and loaded up with sweaters and coats. Our backpacks were quite a bit heavier in Europe. Although at one point when we were flying home from Argentina for the holidays we were carrying 5 bottles of wine in our packs between us 😛 They were so freakin’ heavy! So even though our clothes/gear were pretty light, we weren’t always carrying lightweight packs 😛
Dipti P says
Thank you for the blog – its so useful!
Im planning on travelling around Peru (Cusco, Sacred Valley, MP, Amazon) and then go to Iguazu Falls and Rio.
The list of things you need to take is so long due to the different climates. I’m not sure what to take, I don’t think I can take a backpack, but wanted to ask if people take suitcases? stupid question I know. Just thought I’d ask.
Lia Garcia says
That’s not a stupid question at all! I did see a few folks in the hostels where we stayed with suitcases. But most people take backpacks. It’s easier to carry them around from place to place on dusty and unpaved roads and up stairs. It’s also easier to fit backpacks under beds and in lockers. But if you have a rugged suitcase that can handle being dragged down a questionable road and you pack everything in packing cubes so they can be easily packed & unpacked and locked away in a hostel locker, you’ll be fine!
I definitely intend to do a packing list for Peru & for Ecuador specifically – I’ve made one for Colombia but I’ve been slacking on the rest of them. So thank you for the reminder!
Indu Sudhakar says
I have read through so many blogs and you are literally the only travel blogger I have come across who packs their own spices!
My husband and I will be spending 2 months in Guatemala and are starting to plan our packing list. Have you ever been? We’d love to cook in to save money / eat healthy but don’t want to pack unnecessary goods. If you’ve gone, I’d be curious to see what spices were common vs. harder to find (so we can figure out what we should be packing).
Such a specific question, but I’ve been curiously scouring the web to get some insight. If you haven’t gone to Guatemala, I’d be curious to see what you found easily in South America (though I know it’s different than Central America and varies region to region)
Great write up! Your blogs are super informative. Colombia sounds like a dream from what I’ve read on your page.
Lia Garcia says
Thank you Indu! I’m actually so surprised to hear that. I found the suggestion to bring spices online somewhere too before our trip and I’m so glad that we heeded the advice! There were many spices we simply couldn’t find, and it was super helpful to have a little pouch to carry them all in so they didn’t just spill all over our food bag.
We haven’t been to Guatemala but we did scour mercado spice stalls and supermarket aisles in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, so I’ll give you my best advice from there.
Salt, pepper, cumin, curry powder (in supermarkets), chili powder, dill, rosemary, cayenne, cinnamon, and nutmeg were pretty widely available. Most hostel kitchens will have a least salt, pepper, and some random oregano or cumin. There are also a variety of premade spice blends and even sauces. No broth, but there’s lots of bouillon. Don’t plan on cooking anything with Asian flavors (including peanut butter, which is super expensive).
We bought spices in both supermarkets and mercados in bulk. Sometimes we were totally stumped on brand new spices that we’d never seen before, couldn’t pronounce or inquire about by name, or were just confused by in their “original” form. Think like, trying to buy peppercorns still in plant form, or bay leaves on tree branches. Except for local herbs like muna (which we DID eventually figure out and fall in love with, in the form of tea). Many of the green herbs just won’t be recognizable in mercados and you’ll just be like um what is this yummy smelling bunch of leaves? But you can always go to the supermarkets to get some helpfully pre-labelled spices!
Alexandra Bellink says
Also, what vaccines do you think you REALLY need? I’ve gotten tetnus in the past ten years, but no yellow fever or malaria pills.
Lia Garcia says
I recommend visiting the CDC website to find the official recommendations for each of the countries you’ll be visiting. Or if you visit a travel clinic, they should able to help, too. Yellow fever is a big one, and we were told to bring proof of vaccination with us during our travels because certain places require it for entry (but nobody ever actually asked us for it). Also you’ll definitely need Hepatitis, which isn’t one most people typically get. Malaria pills are something you’ll want to bring with you to take whenever you’re in areas with malaria-carrying mosquitoes, like the Amazon. And you absolutely, DEFINITELY need to pick up some altitude sickness prevention pills! That’s really important. We also carried some antibiotics to help with stomach bugs that we picked up along the way – that’s just one of those inevitable things that you’ll be very glad to have if your supply of over the counter Immodium isn’t doing the job.
Alexandra Bellink says
Even though this list is way too long for me personally (I carry a 40 liter bag), I feel like it’s extremely practical! Good to know about some of this stuff. Also I think I heard tampons are hard to find down there… but exactly how hard? And I’d say 5 or 6 shirts is a good amount 😉
Lia Garcia says
I carry a 40 liter bag too! But my husband carried a lot of our gear, and his is 55 liters 😛
Tampons and pads are very difficult to find, and quite expensive (plus they take up a lot of real estate in your bag). You can probably locate them in major grocery stores in large cities like Bogota and Lima, but I was much happier just using my cup! Way easier.
Nope, sure don’t need them to stay pristine. Just ordered a pair. 🙂 Thanks, Lia!
This is so engaging and funny and most of all, will be indispensable to me! Thank you! Quick question: do you really use your leather Teva sandals in the water?
Yep, we sure do! And they do just fine in the water – Tevas are made to be water shoes, after all!
And the cork does ok? I’m so excited!
Yep! I just place them outside to dry overnight or so after a day in the water.
I just went and checked the website and the official word is that they aren’t meant to be water shoes, buttttttt I’ve been doing it for a year and a half and my shoes are still in awesome condition (and I’m still wearing them constantly). I mean, sure, they look a bit beat up – as does everything else I brought with me on our trip – so if you’re hoping to keep these as your “cute” sandal, maybe don’t wear them in the water, or go hiking in them, or wear them on rainy days in dirty cities, all of which I’ve done in the past year 😛 (Meanwhile my husband’s Tevas, which have foam soles, look brand new). But yes, they are my go-to sandal for everything and I love them <3
Such a good guide! I will be checking back in regularly – you have been ‘bookmarked!’ 🙂
You’re so sweet! Thanks, Leanne!
It’s not that there are bad quality hair products in South America- it’s that they are all in the salons! We don’t really DIY, it’s pretty cheap to go and get a hair treatment/ blowout etc.
Ohhh that explains so much!
Wow, this will help me so much! Do you mind if I “steal” some of your ideas for a future blog post? Will off course credit you!!
I’m so pleased to be helpful! I’d rather not have anything stolen 😛 but please feel free to link back to our post!
This is the most detailed and exceptional post I have read in a while regarding packing! I find all the tips very important and helpful!
Wow, thanks Agness! I really appreciate it! I’m so happy our post is helpful 🙂
Megan Carberry says
Thank you so much for this post, it’s been incredibly helpful! One question- I love those Capri Teva sandals in the picture you posted and I want to buy them in that color but none of the three color options look like the color you have. Could you tell me what color you got?
Thanks Megan! Teva tends to switch up the design/colors of the sandals each year, and that’s one of the earlier pairs I bought (yes, I buy them regularly. I’m hooked.) but here are some similiar styles in that color that might work:
http://amzn.to/2qfjJNy << this is probably the closest match. And here are some other options - the wedge on these looks a LOT higher than it actually is - it's like an inch or 2 of soft cork, and still totally walkable, although these days I prefer the flat ones above just because I'm hella clumsy. http://amzn.to/2q6Jn83
Hope that helps!
“Probably the same assholes who refuse to put pockets in women’s clothing!!!”
Fantastic. LMAO! So true.
Great blog, thanks for the good tips!
You’re so welcome, Cara!
Probe around the Globe says
The continent is so vast, this was the hardest nut to crack for me for sure! I was very happy with all the warm gear I took with me.
That was definitely surprising! We loaded up on warm alpaca goods in Peru and I wore my packable down jacket frequently.
Super helpful post – great packing ideas! I’ll be sure too bookmark and whip this out when I’m ready to visit!
Thanks! So glad you found it helpful!