South American Packing Essentials

By Tiffany L. Murnan

It's amazing how much stuff people take when taking a trip to Latin America. A backpacker may be willing to take a cold shower, but she thinks she needs all of the amenities of a Roman bath to accompany the freezing water! Many travelers pack for South American trips with the thought, "I won't be able to buy this down there. Better take it." It's only later, when buying stove fuel at Ace Hardware in Quito, that she realizes how wrong she was!

One of the pleasures of traveling is bringing home crafts and memories of the host country, so why miss out by bringing too many odds and ends from home! In Iquiue, Chile, I once saw two backpackers with four 100-gallon backpacks and a cat. I nearly lost my senses laughing and pondering, "What can be so important to kill yourself carrying it." As it turns out, the refrigerator-toting travleres had an intriguing story to go along with their packs, but I don't really think they needed the cat.

Surprisingly, all a South American traveler really needs is a passport and plance ticket. Everything else he can buy as needed in markets, malls, or from other travelers. And the price for items bought on the road? Let's just say it won't break your budget. Although I love buying and exchanging travel items along the road, there are a few things that I would never leave home without. Here's my personal travel essentials!


  • ATM/ Debit card with my mother's name on the account incase of an emergency. In every major and most minor cities in South America, I've found ATM machines that accept my debit card. Arrange for a fee waiver before leaving and save receipts in case there are errors. I was double charged or incorrectly charged more than three times totaling a staggering $970. I got it back, but it was a fight.

  • Teva Sandals, durable and comfortable boots, and hiking socks. Hiking boots are versatile enough to wear to a show and tough enough for slogging through mud during an Andean shower. Your feet will thank you for the breather when you wear the sandals.

  • Money belt for important documents, passport, and money. Do not use the kind that hang from your neck. They're not very secure and a pain to use.

  • ELPH Camera by Cannon (fits in the palm of your hand). Advantix film can be purchased in most major cities.

  • REI convertible pants. Light, fast drying, and the legs zip off to form shorts.

  • REI travel vest has four pockets for money, passport, even my ELPH camera.
  • Fleece sweater and light rain jacket. Need I say more?

  • Hat to block the sun. That equatorial sun is strong. Consider buying the hat when you arrive. It makes a great memory of all of your travel miles.

  • Shammy in place of a towel. Shammies dry fast, they're durable, compact.… I've given these out as gifts to other travelers who thought they were the coolest.

  • Deodorant when you can't shower, you can always roll on the Speed Stick!

  • Headlamp It's better than a flashlight because it frees up your hands.

  • Merriam Webster’s Pocket Atlas All of the countries in the world in your back pocket; for quick reference when meeting traveler’s from foreign neighborhoods.

  • Contact lenses and medications. Keep in mind that Latin American pharmacies sell many of the most common medications without a prescription (including malaria pills).

  • Miscellaneous: small pocket dictionary, journal, guide book, a paperback novel to read and exchange with other travelers, compact cassette player, and a backpack a size smaller than you think you need.


Try not to be a gear head! If you aren't going to camp, don’t take a sleeping bag, and if you only want to camp occasionally, consider renting the equipment there. Remember, when traveling, often it’s better to have too little than too much!