So you’ve decided to take a trip to South America?
Congratulations! Get ready for one of the most epic adventures you’ll ever experience. This continent is home to some of the most exhilarating travel destinations on Earth.
Visualize interacting walking across glaciers in Argentina.
Picture yourself practicing Spanish in bars around Santiago.
Imagine mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia.
It’ll all be a reality soon.
Your flights are booked and your annual leave is confirmed. What’s left to do?
Pack your bags, obviously. It’s a daunting task. In fact, packing is many travelers’ least favorite part of a trip.
Thankfully, we have you covered. Follow this ultimate packing list for South America, and the only list you’ll have to worry about is the one of all the local dishes you should try.
Preparing for your trip to South America
As you pack for South America, there are a few other preparation steps you should keep in mind.
Unless you’re an avid nomad who has already had your fill of vaccinations, you’ll need to pay a visit to your travel doctor. The following are the most common vaccinations for South America:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Yellow Fever (mandatory for travel to certain regions)
Learn the lingo
Spanish is the main language in South America, although you’ll hear and speak plenty of Portuguese if you visit Brazil.
Sure, you can manage by speaking only English, but doing so will make life difficult. If you want to build relationships with locals, order authentic food and ask for directions, you’ll need to brush up on your language skills!
Sign up with FluentU to practice Spanish before and during your trip. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences.
While on the road, employ some tips and tricks to further heighten your linguistic prowess.
Some locals speak an indigenous language. Learning just a few phrases is a great way to impress people.
Load up on apps
The following apps are a must for travelers in South America.
- Google Maps is nothing short of amazing. Type “ok maps” to save an area to the cache, which can be used offline, along with your GPS, to ensure you never get lost again. But there’s more! The inbuilt “public transport route finder” function works surprisingly well in bigger cities.[iOS / Android]
- XE can be used offline to view exchange rates for multiple currencies. It updates automatically whenever you find Wi-Fi to ensure rates are always up to date.[Android]
- Hostelworld allows backpackers to quickly find a bed, while Booking and Airbnb do the same for hotels and holiday rentals.[Hostelworld Android][Booking Android][Airbnb iOS / Android]
- Uber is a great alternative to taxis, which are notoriously dangerous in some South American cities.[iOS / Android]
- Skyscanner allows travelers to quickly check airfares. If you’re backpacking around South America, you’ll make a lot of travel decisions by the seat of your pants. When you’re in Uruguay, Skyscanner will tell you whether it’s cheaper to fly into Brazil or Argentina.[Android]
- FluentU is great for honing your language skills and works both online and offline. Learn Spanish through authentic videos, like news broadcasts and music videos. This app is a perfect way to make use of long bus rides, which you’ll endure plenty of in South America!
Choose either a backpack or suitcase
South America is chock full of potholed and cobblestone streets. Cheap accommodation has a distinct lack of porters and lifts. For these reasons, most budget travelers opt for the trusty backpack.
The ideal backpack size is around 45 liters. It’s worth investing in a reputable brand such as Osprey because quality bags last longer. This way, you won’t find yourself debating the price of a new backpack with a random merchant in Chile!
Nevertheless, suitcases have more space and are relatively mobile if taking taxis isn’t an issue. A solid brand such as Joy Mangano is a good investment.
Let’s Get Ready! What to Pack for South America
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Deciding which and how many articles of clothing to bring comes down to a number of factors: The climatic zones you’ll visit, your tendency to dress well (or not), how much you can comfortably carry and the activities you plan to take on in South America.
As a general rule, less is better. Laundromats are available everywhere, and even the grubbiest backpackers tend to wash their clothes at least once per week.
Hot weather climates only
- Two shorts and/or skirts
- Four shirts, long and/or short sleeve
- Two tank tops or singlets
- One dress
- Five pairs of socks
- Five pairs of underwear
Additional clothes for cold weather climates
- Two pairs of jeans/pants/chinos
- Two sweatshirts
- A pair of comfy casual shoes for everyday wear.
- Hiking boots or shoes for outdoor enthusiasts. They’re quite heavy, however, so only bring them if you plan on spending a lot of time trekking. Hiking boots take a heck of a beating. Avoid the cheaper options, because they’ll fall apart quickly and you’ll just spend more money in the end! This men’s pair from Keen and this women’s pair from Salomon should do the trick.
- Flip flops or sandals for hot places or hanging out at the beach.
- A pair of smart shoes or high heels for going out at night. Dress codes are fairly relaxed in South America, so this isn’t strictly necessary.
- Flashy jewelry, including fakes that look expensive, are generally a bad idea because they’re tempting for thieves.
- High UV sunglasses and a hat are essential, because you’ll be spending a lot of time in the sun.
- Money belts are an excellent way to safeguard your valuables. Most thefts occur while in transit so, at the very least, safely tuck your money, credit cards and passport away while on the road.
In today’s increasingly interconnected world, packing a device or two is a no-brainer.
- Laptops are heavy, easily stolen and just not that important. Unless you’re a digital nomad or blogger, consider leaving the notebook at home.
- A smartphone is incredibly useful on the road, much like at home. If you’re in the market for a new one, aim for something relatively cheap, in case it gets lost or stolen. Make sure it has a long battery life and a decent camera. The Moto E4 Plus ticks all these boxes.
- A keen photographer wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their trusty SLR. Ensure you have a sturdy camera bag to protect it from the elements. A camera bag will keep it out of sight to reduce the likelihood of theft. Beginner photographers could try the relatively affordable Canon EOS 1300D.
- E-books are a great way to pass the time, particularly on those all-too-common 20-something hour bus rides. We like the classic Paperwhite Amazon Kindle because it’s cheap and lightweight. Plus, the battery life is amazing.
- AC plugs vary between nations, so grab a universal adapter. This Bluegogo option from Amazon does the trick.
Toiletries can add a significant amount of weight, so seek out smaller sized bottles wherever possible.
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Deodorant or perfume
- Shower gel or soap
- Nail clippers
- Makeup and skincare products
- A toiletries bag to carry it all
All common medicines are widely available in South American pharmacies. However, some could be difficult to find, especially if the language barrier gets in the way.
Most importantly, having a small medical kit on hand helps you avoid hunting for a drug store in a foreign city when you’re not feeling your best.
Again, packing a lot of medicine can add a ton of weight to your pack, so look for smaller packages.
- Bandages, band-aids, cotton wool and disinfectant for cuts and scrapes.
- Ibuprofen and Tylenol for headaches, pain, fever and inflammations.
- Cough suppressant syrup to relieve coughs, which you’ll likely develop if you spend time in the cold Andes Mountains.
- Mosquito repellant and anti-itch cream to prevent and cure the inevitable Amazon mosquito bites.
- Anti-acid meds such as Pepto-Bismol or Mylanta to relieve upset stomachs. Immodium works wonders as a blocker in the event that you should need to travel while suffering from diarrhea. Hydration salts are excellent at quickly replacing lost fluids. This can be helpful when you hike, as well as to cure a hangover if you’ve spent all night partying in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro.
- Cold and flu tablets. One blister pack will do.
- Water purification tablets for trekkers venturing into wilderness areas.
- Birth control. You definitely don’t want to run out of this and not be able to refill!
- Diamox for altitude sickness. This is a prescription drug so you need to consult with your doctor.
- Antihistamine to relieve allergies, especially for chronic sufferers.
- Anti-motion sickness tablets for those who travel by boat.
- Antibacterial and antifungal ointments for topical relief.
- Feminine hygiene products such as pads or tampons.
- Hand sanitizer to reduce the likelihood of contracting food poisoning.
Above all else, don’t—under any circumstances—forget the following essentials:
- Your passport with any visas that must be obtained in advance. Check the requirements for each country you plan to visit.
- At least two credit or debit cards. Always carry them separately to ensure you have a backup in case one gets lost or stolen.
- A copy of all your travel documents, including your passport, preferably scanned and uploaded to the cloud.
- Comprehensive travel insurance to save your bacon should you run into trouble. World Nomads offers competitive rates to a huge array of nationalities.
Now that you’re packed and ready to go, there’s nothing left to do but get out there and explore this incredible continent for yourself.
Oh, and eat! Don’t forget to make that list of delicious food to taste.
¡Buen Viaje! (Have a nice trip!)