What I Packed for a Year in Latin America

I did the research, so you don’t have to.

TL;DR, I made a detailed packing list, and it’s at the bottom of this post.

Before embarking on what would turn out to be fifteen months of non-stop travel, I did a lot of research. Quite a bit of it was about how and what to pack. On this trip, I wanted to travel with carry-on luggage only. I had heard some horror stories about lost checked bags, and I also knew that my life would be a lot easier if I traveled light. But minimalism wasn’t something that came naturally to me. I like to be prepared for whatever might happen, which sometimes results in me having a bunch of unnecessary stuff with me. I knew that on my big trip, I would deeply regret overpacking. I also wanted to be smart about my spending so I would have more money left for the actual trip. So, I spent hours on packing research. I watched YouTube videos from other long-term travelers, watched backpack comparison reviews, read various blogs, and spent a lot of time on the One Bag subreddit. And I’d say it paid off. I went from the balmy beaches of Puerto Rico to the snowy mountains of Peru with nothing but the things in this list. In recent months, I’ve had a few friends ask me for advice on what to pack for their own trips, so I figured I’d write a post about this so I can just send the link to anybody who asks in the future. Nobody paid me to talk about their products, I’m not an influencer. But if someone wants to pay me, I’d love that.

The Bags

My starting point was choosing a backpack. The bag would dictate how much space I had for other things. I went with the Osprey Fairvew 40L. It’s a super popular backpack for long-term travel, I saw a lot of other people with the same bag.

I chose it because:

  • It opens like a clamshell. I would not even consider a bag that doesn’t. You’re going to be unpacking and re-packing the bag a lot, and being able to fully open it makes life so much easier.
  • It’s small enough to fit in the overhead bin of an airplane. If you’re flying a lot, luggage costs add up, and checked bags are usually more expensive than carry-ons. Checking bags also makes you vulnerable to lost luggage. I met a trio of English girls in Guatemala who were all wearing cheesy tourist t-shirts because their bags somehow got left at Heathrow airport in the Great Lost Luggage Crisis of 2022. And if you have a tight layover in a place where you have to retrieve your bags, go through customs, and then re-check them, those extra steps might be the difference between making and missing your flight.
  • The size makes it difficult to overpack. By choosing a 40L backpack, I forcibly taught myself minimalism.
  • The zippers can be locked shut. It won’t keep someone from running off with your whole backpack or slicing it open, but those situations are rare, and it’s a sufficient deterrent for a crime of opportunity.
  • It’s a pretty economical choice. The newest version of this backpack costs $185, which might sound like a lot if you’re a budget traveler like me, but I think it was worth the money for something I used every day for over a year. And if you look around, there are definitely way more expensive options out there. I also had an REI merchandise credit, so that helped to offset the cost.

I also took a 25L REI day pack. Despite my push towards minimalism, I couldn’t fit all of my things in the Osprey bag. And if you’re going to have 65L of stuff, in my opinion, it’s better to split it up. Wearing a front-pack with your big backpack is a bit of a dorky backpacker look, but see my above points about airline travel. The 25L backpack can fit comfortably under an airplane seat as your personal item.

I had actually done a lot of research into slash-proof and locking bags because I was nervous about getting my stuff stolen. I even bought a nice Pacsafe x Quiksilver backpack on Poshmark. (Sidenote: If you don’t know about Poshmark, check it out. It’s like an indexed, high-quality thrift store. Great if you know exactly what you want and what size you need.) In the end, I decided that the Pacsafe bag looked a little too fancy and conspicuous. It’s a cool bag, but it kind of screams, “I HAVE A LAPTOP IN HERE!” Plus it’s not made out of technical fabric. I knew I was going to be doing a lot of hiking, and I wanted something that would stand up to some sweat. The REI pack was my dad’s, and I chose to bring it instead it because it was lowkey, the right size, and came with its own rain cover. Any other small backpack meeting those criteria would have also worked.

Am I satisfied with my choices? In a word, yes. Do I have a list of suggestions for the manufacturers of both of these bags? Yes. But they got the job done, and if you have the same priorities as I do, these will be fine for you.

The Shoes

The other area where I spent a lot of time doing research was for shoes. It can be tempting to bring a few different pairs for different uses. E.g. hiking and city walking. But I wanted to find a single shoe that I could use for almost every situation. After a lot of research, I decided on the VivoBarefoot Magna FG. This review video on YouTube convinced me. I figured if that guy was able to do a hike of that intensity in the Magna FG, it would be more than sufficient for the level of hiking that I typically do. However, if I were buying a Vivo shoe right now, I think I’d go with the new style Magna Lite WR or Magna Forest Escape instead. Better traction. There are also a lot of more economical barefoot shoe options if you’re interested in going down that rabbit hole. Vivo is one of the most expensive brands (though they do have a secondhand branch). And if I’m being honest, they are not the most stylish looking. But if I’m being extra honest, neither am I. And I wore them almost every day, from the cobbled streets of Antigua, to the top of Volcán Acatenango, from the Inca Trail to the sidewalks of Buenos Aires and the pyramids of Teotihuacan. They served me very well, and I’d totally buy another pair. (Though when I bought them, I thought you could send them in to be re-soled. Apparently only if you live in the UK.)

I made friends with a guy with the same Vivos.

Though the Vivos did well from street to trail, they look pretty out of place with a skirt. So I also brought my super simple black flats. Didn’t use them that much, but they didn’t take up much space in my bag, and they were worth having for the few occasions I wore them.

Finally, I brought my Locals slippers (flip-flops for folks who aren’t from Hawaii). Back home, these are my everyday footwear of choice (which I think is why barefoot shoes are nice for me). They’re comfortable, durable, and have pretty decent traction. For travel, they’re perfect for the beach and hostel showers of questionable cleanliness. I can even do moderate hikes in them. However, if you’re not super used to wearing slippers all the time, I could understand the argument for opting for Chacos or something like that.

Some Packing Philosophy

There are a few important rules that I applied to my packing:

  1. Capsule wardrobe. Every single item of clothing you bring should mix and match with all of the other clothing.
  2. You only need about one week’s worth of clothes. You will do laundry.
  3. Don’t bring anything that needs to be washed separately. It’s a hassle and potentially expensive to have to do multiple loads. I didn’t bring anything white.
  4. Bring things you like, but not things you’d be heartbroken to lose. You’re going to lose some stuff. It’s inevitable. Someone stole my Lululemon leggings off a clothesline. I forgot a cool t-shirt at one of my volunteer jobs.
  5. Try not to look like a tourist. I met an Australian guy in Guatemala who was always dressed for a day at an Australian beach. He wore board shorts, a tank top, and slippers (flip flops). It made him stick out. I noticed he got approached by a lot more people trying to sell him stuff than I did. There are countries where, even when it’s hot out, you’re not going to see any locals wearing shorts. More on shorts later.
  6. Multifunctionality. Whenever possible, choose to bring the item that serves more than one purpose.
  7. Have a specific setup for each bag. Organize things according to when and how you’ll need to access them. This way you’ll know exactly what is in each pocket, and when you’re in the airport security line, it’ll be easy to quickly take out your liquids and laptop. It also makes it way easier to re-pack your bag.
  8. Don’t keep all of your very important things in one place. If a bag gets lost or stolen, you want at the very least to have some backup cash and a card stashed away somewhere else.

Packing List – What I packed for a year of travel.

I was lucky to be able to see my parents about two months into my trip, and request a couple of things from home and send a couple of things back with them. The items on this list are what I had with me for the rest of the trip. And a couple of things that in retrospect, would’ve been nice to have.

  • Osprey Fairvew 40L
  • REI Trail 25
  • Fanny pack
  • Cross-body purse – Used rarely, but the fanny pack just didn’t go well with my one “fancy” outfit.
  • Reusable shopping tote – Mine packs down to the size of my palm. I used it a ton.
  • It might also be nice to have an ultralight collapsible backpack. I didn’t, but it would’ve been useful on occasions when I wanted a smaller bag for a hike or outing and didn’t want to unpack my 25L.
  • 6 socks – mix of lengths and weights (I bought a two pairs of DarnTough wool blend ones that you can wear a couple of times before washing. They were a little pricey, but with a bigger budget I would’ve taken all DarnTough socks.)
  • 10 underwear – All quick-drying fabric
  • 4 bras – 3 sport, 1 underwire
  • Pajamas that can double as day wear (see: Multifunctionality)
  • Cap/visor
  • 1 Swimsuit – I’m from Hawaii, so I own like 15, and this was a tough call. I originally brought two but ended up sending one back with my parents.
  • 1 pair denim shorts – I was really on the fence about bringing any shorts because of what I’d read about shorts in Latin America, but I ended up wearing them a lot in certain places.
  • Workout shorts
  • Workout tank top
  • 2 basic tanks 
  • 2 v-neck tees
  • Maxi skirt 
  • Nicer top
  • Long-sleeve quick-dry shirt
  • Poof jacket
  • Cardigan – I opted for this instead of a hoodie because it could be dressed up and also layer with everything (Multifunctionality), but there were occasions where I wished I had a cozy sweatshirt.
  • Rain jacket
  • Beanie
  • Light gloves
  • Gaiter – Doubles as an eye mask. Actually, I mostly used it as an eye mask, and I think it’s more comfortable and more likely to stay on your head.
  • Sarong – Used as a beach towel, dorm bed curtain, light blanket, dress, etc, etc. very useful.
  • Leggings
  • Lightweight hiking pants 
  • Casual pants – I didn’t bring jeans to South America. Would’ve been useful on lots of occasions, but they’re heavy and take a long time to line dry. The pants I brought were like if chinos and jeggings had a baby. They were already old when I started the trip and ended up ripping four months in. I sewed them, but when they ripped again, I ended up throwing them away. I then bought a pretty similar-looking pair to replace them. But I think if you could find a pair of pants that you could dress up, but also potentially hike and exercise in, that would be ideal. I have yet to find this pant. If you do, please let me know. For me, pants were the most challenging thing about this packing list.
Dry Toiletries
  • Hangable toiletries bag with pockets and compartments
  • Toothbrush
  • Tongue scraper 
  • Floss
  • Hairbrush
  • Deodorant
  • Chapstick 
  • Shampoo and Conditioner bars in cases – I used dental appliance cases for these. Also, my shampoo and conditioner bars lasted the entire year. Probably partly because I shaved my head halfway through, but my point is that they are very long-lasting. And they don’t use up your carry-on luggage liquids allowance.
  • Soap in case
  • Razor and blades
  • Tissues – There are a lot of times when you will encounter bathrooms with no toilet paper. Always keep an emergency stash of tissues or napkins in your fanny pack and day pack. And remember, Don’t Flush the Toilet Paper.
  • Menstrual cup and collapsible sterilizing container – Ladies, if you’re not on that cup game yet, it’s going to change your life.
  • Scrub cloth
  • Quick-dry towel
  • Nail clippers – I originally also brought a cuticle nipper, but it immediately got confiscated in the airport in Guatemala.
  • Nail brush 
  • Thermometer
  • Tweezers
  • Earplugs – Essential. Bring two pairs. Mine had a little carrying case, which was useful.
  • Makeup
  • Jewelry – Don’t bring anything too flashy or expensive. See: Packing Philosophy.
  • N95 masks – I always wear N95s on long flights. COVID aside, planes are gross. Also, I drool in my sleep, and with an N95 mask, nobody can tell.
  • Normal masks – At the beginning of my trip they were still required in a lot of public places. Even now, it’s still good to have a couple on hand just in case.
  • Laundry soap sheets – A friend had some backpacking-size ones which were cool. Bring more than you think you need, you won’t find these in Latin America and regular laundry soap is heavy.
Wet Toiletries 

Make sure every container is 100 ml capacity or less. I kept all of this stuff together in a clear, zippered bag. Some airports will make you take it all out and put it in a 1L Ziplock anyway, so it’s good to keep one of those with your liquids.

  • Toothpaste
  • Face products – I actually just took hyaluronic acid and face sunscreen. But whatever you need.
  • Sunscreen – If you are like me and have a favorite non-toxic mineral-based one, keep in mind that you are never going to find it in Latin American pharmacies. I ended up having to restock with whatever was available. A fellow traveler introduced me to the Inci Beauty app, which you can use to get a quick overview of the products you’re considering buying, and go with the least harmful one.
  • Alcohol ear drops – I had a Visine bottle filled with isopropyl alcohol for dripping in my ears after a swim.
  • Mupirocin ointment – An ER doctor family friend swears by this. Cuts seem to heal faster. Helps prevent and treat infection.
  • Mosquito repellent 
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Hair products
  • Hand sanitizer mini – I’ve been using the same tiny Purell bottle for two years. I just help myself to a refill whenever I encounter a big pump bottle of sanitizer in a public place.
  • Lotion
First Aid and Medications

My physician father sent me off into the world with a small pharmacy. I took all the pills out of their original containers and put them into mini Ziplock bags with labels to save space. It’s good to have the basic things on hand. You can obviously buy most things in any pharmacy, but if you suddenly feel awful in a foreign country, it’s nice to already have a starter pack of meds in your backpack.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you’re up-to-date on your vaccinations before leaving. Particularly tetanus, typhoid, and depending where you’re going, yellow fever.

  • Band Aids – various sizes
  • Alcohol wipes – I also use these to clean my phone sometimes.
  • Ibuprofen
  • Cold and flu medicine 
  • Anti-diarrheal – Prescription Ciprofloxacin if you can get it, just in case you get a bacterial infection. But it can also be nice to have over-the-counter stuff to settle an upset stomach.
  • Systemic antihistamine
  • Non-drowsy anti-nausea meds
  • Antimalarial – Check if malaria is a problem in the places you’re going to visit. Some antimalarial meds need to be started a couple of weeks before you go to the risky region.
  • Lactaid – If you struggle with dairy products, this helps.
  • COVID test
  • COVID meds – I traveled with Paxlovid and it ended up coming in very handy when I got COVID in Guatemala.
  • Hydrocolloid zit stickers – These work better than anything else I’ve used.

It’s important to have backups of everything in case of emergency. Scan or take photos of everything listed below, and upload them to secure cloud storage (I use Sync and Keeper). Make sure you have photos of the front and back of all your cards, even the ones you’re not bringing with you. Carry photocopies of important documents.

  • Document holder – This could be a folder or something. I had a little folio with pockets for my passport, papers, cash, etc.
  • Passport – I carried 2 photocopies, one to keep in my wallet. I don’t carry my actual passport around if I don’t absolutely need to.
  • Drivers license – If you’re planning to rent a car at any point, you’ll also want to get an International Driver’s Permit
  • COVID Vaccine Card – During my trip this was still necessary to get into some countries and some public spaces. Probably not required almost anywhere anymore, but still good to have on hand.
  • Proof of travel insurance – I use SafetyWing and they fully reimbursed all the costs associated with my knee injury, so I’m satisfied with them.
  • Regular health insurance card
  • Vaccination records
  • Credit card(s) – There are a lot of places in Latin America where the economy is largely cash-based. But anytime I can earn points on my purchases, I do.
  • Debit card – My primary debit card (Schwab) reimburses all ATM fees. If you can find one that does that, it’s so nice to have, especially in countries where you’re mostly using cash.
  • Wise debit card – I got this extra debit card just in case my main one got stolen. Wise is also good for international transfers, lower fees than Western Union. I never ended up using it, but I think it’s good to have.
  • Chromebook – I bought a $130 laptop to bring with me instead of my MacBook. I wanted to be able to do travel research and logistical work and write on this blog. But if you don’t have anything like that to do, you save a lot of weight in your bag by not bringing a computer.
  • Chromebook charger
  • External battery pack for charging cellphone 
  • Charger cord (same as Kindle?)
  • 2 phone cords – I ended up having to replace my phone charger cord 3 times in the last year
  • Wall block with 2 USB slots
  • USB to USB3 converter
  • Simcard tool – A paperclip will work too.
  • Outlet converters – Most of Latin America uses the same plug as the USA but a few countries are different. Also keep in mind that many places use 220 or 230 V, which will be fine for most of your electronics, but it’s worth double-checking.
  • Airpods – I found a handy case with a carabiner that I think is great.
  • Marshmallow headphones with aux jack – For airplanes and laptop
  • Kindle
  • Kindle charger
  • Fitbit charger
  • Epilator
  • Headlamp with charger or batteries
  • Rain covers for backpacks – Essential. Do not skip.
  • Luggage locks – Don’t get TSA ones, they’re easy to break into. Something small with a combination instead of a key is good. I traveled with 3.
  • Wire cable for locking luggage together or to other things  – I actually only used this once, but it’s lightweight and nice to have.
  • Water purifying water bottle – I got a knockoff of the LifeStraw one. But if I were to choose today, I would’ve gotten one of the water bottles with a UV light purifier instead. I think it’s more effective and easier to drink from. But I was really happy that mine had a strap with a carabiner.
  • Journal – If you’re not journaling about your big adventure, you’ll be sad later.
  • Sketchbook – I like arts and crafts, but on a long-term trip, drawing is the most portable way to be creative.
  • Pens, pencils – I ended up also buying some double-sided colored pencils.
  • Various small zipping bags for organizing things – Can’t stress enough how useful these are.
  • Mini carabiners – Also very nice to have. You’d be surprised how often you want to attach things to other things.
  • Heroclip big carabiner – These are a little pricey, but when you’re traveling alone with two backpacks and you need to go to the bathroom in an airport or bus station, they are incredibly useful.
  • Stashbandz – This is like a Lycra money belt. Didn’t use it much, but felt safe keeping my passport and cash in there when I thought I might be going somewhere where pickpocketing or mugging might be more likely. More space and less conspicuous than a regular money belt.
  • 2 Sunglasses, croakie strap cleaning cloth, protective pouch
  • Swim goggles
  • Dummy Wallet – In case you get mugged, a wallet with only a little bit of cash and some useless cards. Didn’t end up using it, but not a bad idea. I left my nice wallet at home because I would be sad if it got stolen. See: Packing Philosophy.
  • Laundry mesh zip bag – For washing delicates
  • Large durable plastic bag for dirty laundry
  • Bandana
  • Dry pouch with lanyard for phone – Good for mediocre underwater photos. But also if you’re at the beach by yourself and don’t want to leave your phone and money unattended while you go for a swim.
  • Sewing kit
  • Bamboo utensil set
  • A few meters of string – Can be used as a clothesline.
  • Packing cubes – I had 2. One for socks and underwear, and one for all my other clothes.
  • Emergency snacks
  • Scrubba bag – I didn’t buy one of these because I thought it was too expensive at the time. But I ended up spending way more than that in laundry fees over the course of my trip. I think this would have been great to have. Also could double as a dry bag for water activities.
  • Umbrella – I also didn’t have an umbrella for the entire trip. But if you have space, you might want a small one.

And there you have it! It might be hard to believe, but all of that really did fit in two small backpacks. For anyone who needs some advice or encouragement for a big trip of their own, I’m happy to help!

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“I drool in my sleep” – I did not know that! Haha

Thanks for this hilarious and informative post. The reminder to bring copies of my passport is immediately actionable.

Also I heard about air alo e sims from someone and thought I’d pass it along here. You buy them online and download them to your phone, and they usually activate once you reach your destination. It’s great cause you don’t have to futz with a physical SIM card and you can buy them before you arrive in country. Kinda neat!