One of the least enjoyable parts of any holiday (with the exception of maybe returning home!), is packing… and even worse… deciding what to pack! These days we’re all bound by airline luggage allowances: weight restrictions and size restrictions. One of the hardest things is deciding what to pack, particularly if you are travelling to a destination you have never visited before – you don’t know what to expect.
This article is designed to assist those that are travelling to South America to decide what to pack. So, is travelling to South America really that different to travelling to the USA, Australia, Asia? Well, it is the little nuances that cause the most frustration, the tiny differences that many guide books won’t even mention but that can actually be the biggest problem when you are stuck in the middle of nowhere with no shops nearby. South America does have many of these little “nuances”, and the below guide is to (hopefully) assist you in avoiding these kinds of problems.
“There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”.
Deciding on what clothes to take on holiday is possibly the hardest decision of all – everyone has closets full of clothes, but for some reason deciding how many pairs of shorts to take, and deciding which shirts you can’t live without for 2 weeks suddenly becomes an incredibly important decision!
There are major differences with travel to South America compared to other parts of the world that should impact your decision on what clothing to take. Whereas Europe has “weather”, South America has “climate”, and that can change at a moments notice and also vary considerably if you travel around the continent.
Peru, for example, consists of coastal Pacific desert, high-altitude altiplano and the Andes mountain chain, and hot and humid Amazon Rainforest. The choice of clothing in each climate will vary considerably. Also spring, summer, autumn and winter don’t really exist in South America, with climate being better described in “seasons” – i.e. “wet season” or “dry season”. The climates also contradict each other – for example the rainy season in the highlands (e.g. in and around Cusco) coincides with the hot dry summer months on the coast (e.g. in cities like Lima).
Choosing what to take can therefore be a difficult and daunting task, but this guide will help you not to forget some of the most important:
Choose one that is easy to handle, strong enough to last the journey, lockable, and easily identifiable.
Daysack / Small Backpack
This is a very important item to take and will be invaluable as you journey out on day excursions to see the sights of your holiday destination. Choose one that is light but strong, with many pockets including external pockets for carrying bottles of water. Make sure it is lockable and fitted with a keylock or padlock of some description to stop pickpockets.
Hat and Gloves
At night, particularly in the altiplano and highlands of countries such as Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentine, it can be incredibly cold, so if you are travelling in these areas hat and gloves are a must.
If you are travelling in South America, it’s a good bet you will be walking a lot, whether it is exploring beautiful cities by foot, or maybe going on long Andean treks like the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Strong, comfortable shoes are essential.
Sunglasses / Shades
Due to the altitude in the highlands regions of the Andes, the light from the sun can appear very harsh and bright. Sunglasses or shades are a must – not just to look good, but to protect your eyes from the damaging light.
It is recommended to have one so after all day walking under the sun you won`t have sun exposure headache. Don`t forget it because this is also required.
Seems like an obvious one, but this is often something that many people forget to take with them on holiday. Many hotels in South America may only provide a limited number of towels, and won’t let you take them out of the hotel if you’ve forgotten your own. If you’re planning on swimming – maybe in the Amazon jungle, Lake Titicaca, or even in your own hotel – taking your own towel would be highly recommended.
The Amazon jungle is hot, sweaty and humid. Under normal circumstances shorts would be more than appropriate, but if you are visiting the jungle long trekking trousers (lightweight, but strong) would be needed to protect your legs from scratches from plants and animals you might walk past, and, maybe more importantly, from the billions of insects that come out in the evening.
Although travel documents are a requirement in every country, here are a few additional tips and hints on what to take.
It seems like an obvious one, but obviously you won’t be able to travel without a passport or travel document of some description. However it is always a good idea to take a copy of all relevant pages of your travel document – not just the photo page but any visas. Take both a paper photocopy, and, if possible, scan and email a copy to yourself so you have an electronic copy as a back up as well just in case. This way if for whatever reason your passport did get lost or stolen, you have a back up.
You won’t be able to “pack” this, as it is only given to you upon arrival in South America, but nevertheless it is an important document. When you arrive in any South American country you will be given a tourist card to complete prior to the border control, and when you enter the country the card will be stamped and part of it will be returned to you – you must keep this document with you as you will need to return it at the border when you leave the country. Failure to do so will create an administrative and bureaucratic nightmare!
Even if you’re on a fully inclusive pre-arranged tour, a guide book is always a good idea as it will always contain a little more information or history about the sights you are visiting.
Always take copies of both the certificate and policy detail with you, whether you are travelling to South America or anywhere else.
Money is an obvious one to pack – on holiday you are bound to have to spend some money sooner or later! Before travelling remember to inform your credit card companies and banks of your travel destinations and dates of travel, otherwise they may cancel your cards if you try to use them in some strange exotic South American country without telling them!
Here’s a few tips and hints that relate to money specifically in South America:
Cash – ATM machines are available throughout South America, particularly in cities and large towns. However in some of the more rural destinations, particularly in parts of Bolivia and Paraguay or in the middle of the Amazon jungle, ATM machines might be few and far between, so always plan ahead and make sure you have sufficient cash with you. However be aware of how much cash you carry with you at any one time, only carry small amounts on you and leave the rest in a safety deposit box in your hotel. United States dollars (US$) are the national currency in Ecuador, and in other countries where they are not the national currency they can be used to pay for more higher end items such as restaurant bills and hotels in larger cities. However in more rural areas, or for smaller purchases in shops, local currencies are recommended.
Credit Cards – Widely accepted across the continent.
Medicine and medical care when travelling are vitally important, and you should always seek professional medical advice before travelling. The below information is intended as a guide only.
First Aid Kit – You never know what might happen, wherever you travel. However travel to South American is normally more adventurous than your average Mediterranean holiday! Trekking, jungle trails, waterfalls, deserts, and high altitude, and possibly isolation, come with some of the territory, so a small but appropriately stocked first aid kit is a must.
Anti-Diarrhoea Medicine – New foods frequently can cause a jolting to the digestive system! However it does have to be said that food hygiene standards in South America are not always as good as they could be, so take some anti-diarrhoea tablets with you until your system resets to its new diet.
Malarial Tablets – Always seek professional medical advice before taking any medicine, however it should be noted that parts of South America are in malarial zones and anti-malarial tablets are advised.
It’s always the little things that you tend to forget to take with you on holiday – the one thing you always need is the one thing you’ve probably forgotten! Although the main things (clothing, medicine, money) have been detailed above, these final few items might just be amongst the most important!
Camera, Charger and Memory Cards
You’re on the holiday of a lifetime, so make sure you take plenty of photos to remember the occasion! Check before you leave that your charger will work abroad, and consider taking a second battery if you are travelling to rural areas and think you might not be able to recharge it regularly enough. Also take sufficient memory cards, as they may be difficult or expensive to purchase in tourist locations.
You never know when you might need this eternally useful little device.
Parts of South America, particularly in the humid jungle regions and flatlands, are mosquito and sand-fly territory, so a good insect repellent is a must.
Sun Protection Lotion
Many parts of the South American continent are very hot and sunny, and the harsh sun, particularly in the high Andean regions in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, or in the beach regions of the Brazilian coast, can be very damaging to the skin, so always pack a good sun protection lotion.
You’ll find it difficult to locate these in South America, so buy before you leave home and don’t forget to pack it.
This might seem like a strange one, but in many hotels, restaurants and public toilets in South America toilet paper is not provided as standard. This seems strange to tourists, but for South Americans it is the norm. Take a few rolls with you, or buy one or two when you arrive so you’re never without.
South America is a massive continent, so unless your staying in one area your trip will inevitably require some long distance bus travel. Take some ear plugs to help you sleep on these long journeys.
The continent of South America is a fascinating travel destination, featuring jungles, mountains, deserts, glaciers, and a fantastic array of geographical climates. It also has probably the greatest collection of archaeological splendours on the planet, with ruins from an array of cultures including the Nazca, Inca, Chachapoyas, Maya, Aztec, Moche, amongst countless others. Some of the greatest cities on the planet also adorn the continent, from Rio de Janeiro’s beauty, to Buenos Aires European-esque majesty, to Cusco and its fascinating Inca ruins, Quito and its old-colonial heart… and many more.
It really is a fascinating destination – enjoy it all the more, by not forgetting to pack correctly!
The article was written by Jonathan Lillie. Jonathan lived in South America throughout 2008 and 2009, still visits the continent regularly, and has travelled throughout most of the continent – so the above packing guide is based on his experiences, having learned the hard way!