If you’re planning a grand tour through Latin America, but don’t want to look like a backpacker, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve got you covered on what to wear in Central and South America, especially if you’re into sustainable and ethical style! Last year my husband and I visited five cities in Mexico, Nicaragua, (and we’ve been to Costa Rica before), Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina. And we did it all stylishly –– if I do say so myself –– with carry-on suitcases and backpacks.
OK, well, the expander zipper on my suitcase was deployed. But still, South America has a variety of climates and a variety of social situations, from laid-back beach vibes to cold mountain hiking, upscale mixologist bars to yoga retreats. And you’ll want to bring some mix-and-match clothing and gear so that you’ll feel comfortable in every situation. I’m pretty proud that we pulled this off!
(If you want packing lists tailored specifically for the countries listed above, find them here.)
Some general guidelines:
1. Just because your going south, doesn’t mean it’s always warm. At high altitudes, Mexico City and Medellin get cool in the winter. Cusco in Peru gets very cold.
2. South Americans are stylish. It’s the backpackers who aren’t. When you land in Medellin, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or any other big city, you’ll find that the locals are on point in their style. (They have Instagram too, ya know.) So make sure you have something besides cut-off shorts and hiking boots. Likewise, you won’t wear resort wear as much as you think. Pack things that can go from the city to the beach.
3. Consider the pros and cons of synthetic and natural fibers. Synthetic and semi-synthetic fibers are lighter weight and don’t wrinkle as easily as cotton or linen. They’re also necessary for some performance gear, such as raincoats. However, if you do your whole wardrobe in synthetic fibers, you risk looking cheap, and feeling uncomfortable and itchy during long bus rides. I packed as much natural-fiber fashion as possible, and reserved synthetics for a few hiking things.
4. Choose a simple color palette. As with any Capsule Wardrobe, you want to make sure you can mix and match. I went with white, black, navy blue, and red. My accessories match too: They’re either camel-brown leather, grey, or or gold.
5. Flat pack and stuff sack. Everything should either lay flat in your suitcase or come with a stuff sack. That includes your purse, your clothing, your hat, your puffy coat, your jewelry, your underwear collection, etc. I even stuffed my shower cap into a little cotton pouch. Everyone’s so about packing cubes – I bought a few and actually don’t find mine that handy, because then I have to pack around these two big rectangular things in my suitcase, and I don’t like how they require excessive squishing of my cotton things
6. Washable and dryable. You’re going to find yourself handing your laundry over at some point to someone who does not understand the concept of “lay flat to dry,” I guarantee it. So pack items that will survive a trip through the dryer. And no “dry clean only,” for obvious reasons.
6. Leave room for one new fashion item per country. Or try, anyway. You might have to get rid of some things to make room. But it will be worth it!
Your Traveling Outfit
This supposes you’re leaving from a cold country. If not, put the Uniqlo jacket in your suitcase.
- Soft cotton yoga leggings – I recommend these. They’re so versatile and comfy!
- Ably white t-shirt – Again, has stain-resistant technology, which is crucial if you’re traveling!
- Merino wool hoodie – I used this constantly. A dark grey color ensures if you layer it under a scarf or poncho, no one will know it’s for hiking.
- Uniqlo ultra light down jacket – This comes with a stuff sack, so I could actually fit it inside my mid-sized purse if the temperature fluctuates a lot. When it’s on, however, it’s pretty warm. If you don’t want to buy Uniqlo, Ecoalf makes an alternative, but I can’t vouch for how small it gets for packing purposes.
- Sports bra
- Comfortable undies in natural fabric
- Wool socks – I love merino wool because it wicks away moisture and odor.
- Trail running shoes – I would pack these if you think you’ll be doing any hikes that are longer than two hours, or any muddy hikes. We did several and I was grateful for these. In black, these aren’t super dorky looking, and are smaller and lighter than hiking boots. Just add wool socks to make them warm in cold weather and dry quickly if you have to tramp through a stream, like we did in Hawaii. But if intense hiking is really not your style, then I would suggest black sneakers, that you can wear in the city with jeans or even a skirt, for exercising, or a light, non-muddy hike.
- Mini crossbody purse or bumbag – I got into the habit of carrying a mini crossbody purse when I travel, because it gives me quick and secure access to my passport, wallet, and tickets, without me having to take off my backpack. O My Bag has a ton to choose from. You could also do a hip pack, though that is more of a European thing.
- Passport and Passport case – Pockets are super handy. I stuck my Mexican visa in mine, and still had it when I found out that you need to present your copy to leave Mexico, or else pay for a new one at the airport. I also had my yellow fever vaccination card (which we needed to get into Nicaragua), extra visa photos, and my international driver’s license in there.
- Charging cord
- Mini wallet – There’s lots to choose from at O My Bag.
- Sunglasses – here’s my shopping guide to the best eco sunglasses.
I started with a Fjallraven, but I didn’t like how anyone could reach right into the back pocket, and it also wasn’t waterproof. I eventually switched to an eco-friendly, waterproof, pickpocket-proof backpack that I helped design. It’s called the Alden!
- Portable phone charging battery – These by Nimble are ethical and eco-friendly
- Earbuds – traditional jack for laptop/airplane console, and a dongle if you have the newest iPhone
- Camera and lenses, extra battery, battery charger, extra memory cards – I love my compact but powerful Fuji x-t10, with a wide angle lens for landscape, architecture, and room shots; and a 50 mm lens for portraits and food.
- Macbook Pro and charger
- Laptop hardcover – I feel like my Macbook is too shiny to have peeking out of my bag or on an outdoor table at a cafe in a developing country. So I bought a case for it and slapped a black sticker over the light-up Apple logo. You could get one of these pretty (but not eye-catching) wood covers.
- Matador lens bag and camera bag
- Chico reusable bag with stuff sack
- Wide-mouth reusable coffee cup with sealable lid – Can be used for coffee, or also as a to-go container in a pinch for soup, fruit, snacks, etc.
- SPF chapstick
- Mini tube of SPF cream. It’s so great to have this in your backpack or purse at all times, because you’ll find yourself walking around a sunny city and think, oops! Should have put on sunscreen! Here are my favorites.
- Hand sanitizer – It was common in Latin America that the public bathroom wherever doesn’t have any soap available. Or, if you’re like me, that you’ll want to pet a friendly stray cat or dog!
- Bamboo travel utensil set – so you don’t have to use disposable one in areas that have terrible or non-existent waste disposal. Make sure it’s plastic or wood (not metal) so it doesn’t get confiscated by airport security (whoops).
- Reusable straw – Most drinks don’t need straws, but mojitos and coconuts do!
- Pack of tissues – this isn’t for your nose, so don’t think I’m advocating this over a reusable handkerchief. It’s for bathroom emergencies.
- Reusable handkerchief – Yup, this one is for your nose, or you can use it as a napkin.
- Travel pen with carabiner – so handy! I went 10 months without losing this pen, which is astounding.
- Portable pillow – always bring this, even on a side trip if your plane ride is an hour. You never know when it will be delayed by five hours until 2 am, as happened to us in Zihuatanejo. I bought mine in Singapore – it converts from a neck pillow to a square pillow.
- Matador droplet wet bag
In My Suitcase
I have a Samsonite carry-on with an expansion zipper that is made with recycled water bottles. Here’s a list of eco-friendly luggage options.
- Black-and-white striped long-sleeved tee – Long-sleeved striped tees can go from high summer to winter, and it’s saved me from many a sunburn! I brought a Saint James one, and one year later it still looks new.
- Reversible washable tie top – I wore this to the beach and out on New Year’s Eve in Oaxaca. Tie it in the back and it’s a lovely top that goes with any bottom, from jeans to a skirt. Tie it in the front and it’s super sexy. It seems to be sold out at Elizabeth Suzanne, but Whimsy & Row has a linen version.
- Par en Par robe/dress – I can wear this as a beach cover-up, a dress, or a robe. Having a robe on hand is so helpful!
- Par en Par culottes – modest, fashionable, and comfortable, they’re super versatile, from the beach to a restaurant to a religious site.
- Linen long-sleeved button-down – It’s versatile and can be worn from daytime to nighttime to guard against mosquitoes. Tradland has some great versions
- Slim jeans – I would go with black or dark indigo, which stylistically are a little more versatile than a light wash. Here’s a list of eco-friendly denim brands.
- High-waisted shorts – Either in denim or cotton. I chose black cotton because I’m getting too old for short jean shorts and cloth is lighter than denim.
- Long vest – I picked this up in Mexico City, a sleeveless cotton, striped, long, fringed vest that was so versatile I wore it constantly (see four pictures in a section above.) The closest I can find on the internet is this pima cotton wrap from Voz, and this cotton vest at Galerie LA.
- Caftan dress – modest yet flattering, doubles as a personal mosquito net when you’re in tropical locations! I love this one at Accompany.
- Midi skirt – I got one in a jersey cotton, and wore it in hot casual weather as well as the city.
- Yummy sweater – You will want something warm, trust me.
- Leather jacket – A must for every city in the world in which it gets chilly at night. Go with a lightweight, soft one that folds and packs small. So no stiff motorcycle jackets.
- MATTER pants – A must for traveling, these pants will take you from the city to the temple.
- Hobes shoes – They flat pack and look super cute on.
- 2 tanks in black and white – For layering under your day outfit or for a hot hike. I packed the scoop necks from Groceries Apparel, or try a stain resistant one from Ably.
- Pons Avarcas walking sandals in camel brown – These last forever and are super comfortable and versatile. Read my full review.
- Pretty sandals – in Europe Birkenstocks would do it, but Latin American ladies are into something more feminine.
- Chila Bag from Noa Trade or leather backpack from Raven + Lily– Both serve the same function as a flat-pack stylish bag that holds a lot. I’ve used both and love them both.
- Rain jacket with hood by Marmot – Folds up tiny. I’ve been so grateful for this multiple times.
- Patagonia athletic shorts – for hiking, doing yoga, or working out. I originally brought two, but I realized I only needed one pair.
- 3 bras and 8 pairs of underwear. Here’s my 5 rules for packing undies for travel.
- Wool socks – Merino wool keeps your feet cool or warm, and wicks away odor and sweat.
- Long-sleeved white tee – Cute enough to wear in the city, at night against mosquitos, but also great for hiking. Get one from Ably, so that it resists stains.
- Sarong – Great as a cover up, towel, or beach blanket. I got mine in India from Anokhi, but of course you can get these anywhere!
- Pajamas – I chose this set because I could wear the t-shirt separately out in public (and did!), and the shorts to the beach.
- Simple jewelry basics – I had so much fun jewelry shopping, that I actually wish I hadn’t packed anything except my ear studs. So just pack the very basics: studs, a ring, maybe one favorite delicate necklace.
- Skinny belt – This one from Nudie is the perfect size for me because the last hole lets me use it for my jeans, and the first hole lets me wrap it around my waist.
- Small scarf – I use this for wrapping my hair a lot. I had a white cotton one, but colorful is fun too!
- 2 bathing suits – 1 one-piece and one bikini. I have a Black Vitamin A one-piece and a pink bikini. Here’s my list of favorite sustainable swimwear brands.
- Packable wide-brimmed hat – You’ll be in the sun a lot, whether at a beach or doing walking tours in the city.
- Sports bra
- Kayu clutch — I’ve had mine since 2011. It fits easily into your suitcase and great to throw your phone, wallet, and lipstick in before going out.
- Teva’s or other water shoes that strap on – Not just for hiking or waterfalls, also helpful with it’s raining buckets!
- Extra sunglasses – Beyond the city-style ones, you’ll want beach-y, festival style ones, too. Here’s my list of eco-friendly sunglasses.
- Casual watch
- A hand fan – A must for festivals or dancing on the beach to music. You can also buy this as a souvenir while traveling from literally any museum.
- PurSteam traveling iron/steamer – this thing is tiny, but crucial!
- Solar lamp by Luci – This definitely came in handy for excursions and eco-camping sites.
- Travel yoga mat – So you can get a good long stretch in every morning, regardless of where you are. I fold mine up and pack it inside the suitcase
- Universal sink plug – So you can wash your clothing in the sink. I used mine constantly.
- Travel dry line – I like this one because it comes with a stuff sack.
- Waterproof reusable laundry bag – Things will get wet and you’ll want to put them in something waterproof…so synthetics wins out on this one.
- Travel sewing kit – I used this several times.
- Reusable sealable bags – I got these on recommendation from a digital nomad blog, and I’m so glad I did. We’ve been using various sizes already for things that come up, but they take up no room in my suitcase side interior pocket.
- Luggage locks – Bring two! When we were in a camping situation with no safe, I put one on my suitcase and one on the tent zippers when we stepped out.
- Travel first aid kit – Get a basic one, then add in medications you’ll need, like malaria pills, altitude medication, ibuprofen, Imodium, etc. You can always get more medicine where you’re going, most likely, for cheaper than in the U.S.
In My Toiletry Bag
- Travel toiletry bag – So, I ditched my eco-friendly but not very organized travel toiletry bag. My husband ordered two sizes of this nylon one, and gave me the larger one and I love it. It has a travel mirror, so many pockets, and isn’t stiff so it takes up less room.
- Argan oil – I can’t live without argan oil for making my hair shiny and smooth, plus sealing in moisture on my face after a shower.
- Coola Tinted SPF BB cream – This is my absolute favorite tinted SPF moisturizer. It’s not too thick and makes your face glow!
- Micellar water – I love traveling with Micellar water, because you don’t need to use water for it. I like Yes to Cucumbers, which you can find in the travel size in your local CVS or Walgreens.
- Reusable cotton rounds
- Ultra moisturizing night face cream – For when you’re in arid, mountainous regions. My night regenerative balm from Apoterra was a lifesaver in Mexico.
- Body lotion – this one from Osea comes in the travel size.
- Travel toothbrush and toothpaste – I have to admit, mine is plastic, because I wanted a compact toothbrush with a protective cap.
- Deodorant – here’s my roundup of my favorites.
- Mini hair iron and/or hairdryer – I did not have room to bring both, though I wish I did! I went with the hair iron for my bangs.
- Mini hair brush
- Hair elastics
- Reusable metal nail file – great for both filing and digging crud out from under your nails.
- 1 matte lipstick – I like Jane Iredale lipstick in red
- 1 lip tint – Something more subtle and beach-appropriate
- Shower bag – Having all my shower stuff in a separate bag is crucial to ensure I don’t leave things behind in the shower, because I see the empty shower bag when I’m packing and remember I need to fill it up.
- Shampoo and conditioner in travel size – I use conditioner for shaving, too. I refilled the mini bottles whenever I was in a hotel or place that keeps large bottles in the shower.
- Shower cap – I got one from Shhhowercap that wouldn’t be thrown away by the cleaning people the way small plastic ones are, but it came in over-the-top, wasteful packaging, so I don’t recommend it. But once I had it, I stuffed it in a little cotton bag.
- Safety razor and razor blades – I switched to this because it’s easier to find razor blade replacements abroad then the fancy heads that come with whatever fancy razor blade you can get from your drugstore in the U.S. I got a replacement pack of 4 blades for $3 in Ecuador! It’s also less wasteful and less expensive, and the replacements take up no room. I thought Illich and I would share, but then he went and got his own! Just be aware that you have to check the bag with razor blades because security will confiscate them.
- Sunscreen – Here’s my guide to non-toxic sunscreen.
- Dr. Bronner travel sized soap – Great for if the place you are staying doesn’t provide hand soap, or if you need to wash your clothes in the sink.
- Ear plugs – Get them on a string so you don’t lose them when they fall out
- Safety pins
- 1 bottle nail polish and 1 bottle top coat – read my reviews of the best non-toxic brands
- Nail polish remover pads – get ones that come in a little screw-shut container, instead of individually wrapped ones.
- Bugspray – My absolute favorite