Travel tips and advice: The essential items you must pack for a trip to South America

Investigate a recent rain jacket. Photo: iStock
Investigate a recent rain jacket. Photo: iStock

There's no exact science to packing. One person's carefully curated selection of travel essentials is the next person's bag of useless crap. The idea of travelling light to some might seem like a waste of baggage allowance to others.

But still, there are items that most people should be able to agree upon when it comes to travel – the real essentials that everyone should take with them. This goes further than just a toothbrush and a passport. There are plenty of things that will come in handy, many of which can be tailored to your destination.

This column will be the first in a semi-regular look at how to pack properly for some of your favourite travel destinations. What to take, and what to leave at home.

And we begin with South America.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you're getting ready for a trip to this amazing continent, to countries such as Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Brazil, is not what to bring, but rather what to ditch. Namely, anything nice, or expensive.

Most South American countries might not be quite as dangerous as their reputation suggests, but still, this is not a continent in which you want to be drawing undue attention to yourself as a rich tourist. Wandering the streets of Sao Paulo, or Lima, or even La Paz, it's best not to be the one traveller with the expensive jewellery or the fancy clothes. That's a sure-fire way to get yourself mugged.

You want to be the traveller in the clothes that everyone else is wearing. And that means keeping it casual: non-branded clothing that is well worn; nothing too expensive, nothing too new. Specially designed, branded travel gear might seem like a good idea back home, but it's going to make you look like a ridiculous gringo in South America. Stick to comfortable, casual, cheap clothing. Aim to blend in rather than stand out.

On most days in most parts of South America, a pair of trousers or jeans, a shirt or casual top and a light jumper will get you by. This is going to be different, obviously, if you're hanging out on a beach in Colombia, or hiking in the south of Patagonia, but in most places this standard of casual dress will get you by. It's only if you plan to hit the clubs of Buenos Aires, or the fancy restaurants in Rio, that you might want to have a good outfit stashed away.

So that's the first rule: keep it casual. The next is to bring a pair of sturdy boots. They don't have to be really expensive hiking shoes, the sort of things that could conquer Everest – just a pair of solid walking shoes that you don't mind getting dirty. Because they will get dirty. Even if you're not planning on a hiking trip while you're there, sturdy shoes are a good purchase.

Though I'm not a fan of specialised adventure gear for regular travellers, it will be worth investing in a good rain jacket, since this is the kind of trip where you're likely to be spending time out in the elements, and rainfall is fairly regular in places such as Patagonia and the Andes. Bring a waterproof cover for your backpack or suitcase, too.

A head torch is also a good idea if you're planning to do any hiking (most Inca Trail treks involve a two-hour walk before dawn on the final day), though for most other situations the torch on your mobile phone will do the job. And zip-off pants, though incredibly dorky, will actually prove useful if you're heading out on a Peruvian trek, or exploring the Amazon in Brazil.

Don't go too crazy in the travel store, however. A money belt will be easy to spot and mark you out as someone with things to steal. A silk sleeping bag liner is fine, if you really want it, but most hostels and hotels in South America are clean and comfortable. And any of those multi-tool army knives or sewing kits or other little knick-knacks that look so handy in the store will probably just languish at the bottom of your bag the entire time you're away.

That brings up another thing to consider: the actual bag you'll be dragging all your stuff around in. South America is the sort of continent where you'll find yourself needing to physically carry your bag more often than in other places, which means a backpack is the way to go over wheels. This will depend slightly upon the style of travel you're going for, but unless you're sticking to big hotels in major cities, a backpack will be handy.

If you're going to be carrying that thing, here's another tip, which is perhaps the most important one of all: pack light. You need far less in South America than you think. You won't need to dress up often. You can re-wear clothes for a few days without being too concerned. And you can buy essentials like toiletries and medication as you go. Anything expensive or fancy will just make you feel uncomfortable when you use it.

Some gadgets are handy, such as a mobile phone, a good compact camera, and a small, cheap laptop if you're planning to do a lot of emailing, or need to store and edit photos. Anything else, however, will just be a source of worry – and that's not what this journey should be about.

What would you tell travellers to South America to take with them? What should they definitely leave at home?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: The 11 essential items every traveller should own

See also: What you should pack in your carry-on luggage

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This story Travel tips and advice: The essential items you must pack for a trip to South America first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.