In Buenos Aires/ Cusco/ Machu Picchu/ Travel

How I Packed for 3 Months in South America in 1 Carry-On Bag

*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Not sure what to pack for South America? I’ve got you covered. While I ended up staying in South America for five months, I packed with three months in mind.

How to Pack for 3 Months in South America

Before we begin, let’s start with this major premise: South America is a large continent consisting of a diverse array of climates, from the hot and humid Amazon jungle to to the arid and cold Andean mountains, so obviously this really depends on where you plan on going exactly. Also, I lived in South America (mostly Peru) for those five months; it wasn’t like I was constantly on the move, so of course I ended up buying things to settle in to my apartment, such as dishes, towels, and a space heater. Unlike more trendy destinations, Western Europe for example, trips to South America tend to involve more rugged and outdoor activities, so the items you pack will likely reflect that. 

My original plan was to go to Cusco, Peru and then Buenos Aires, Argentina–two very different climates. To deal with this disparity, I packed clothes that I knew I could layer. Cusco, at 11,000 feet in the Andean region, is much dryer and colder than Buenos Aires, which is at 80 feet and borders a large river. Additionally, I knew I would be trekking the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu one week, and then strolling the fashionable metropolis of Buenos Aires the next. Quite the packing conundrum.

So what did I end up bringing?

whats in my bag to South America

Here’s my list of what I packed for Cusco, Peru. I’ve included some affiliate links, and tried to link to the exact product models I purchased, when possible.

  1. 7 shirts (1 for dressier occasions, 3 made of breathable material, and 3 T-shirts)
  2. 1 cardigan
  3. 1 scarf
  4. 2 jackets (1 lightweight faux leather jacket and 1 rain jacket)
  5. 1 swimsuit
  6. 1 dress
  7. 3 pants (1 khaki, 1 jeans, 1 sweatpants)
  8. 1 pair of leggings
  9. 1 pair of ballet flats
  10. 1 pair of sandals
  11. 1 pair of sunglasses
  12. 1 pair of prescription glasses + glasses case
  13. 1 pair of zip-up hiking shoes
  14. MacBook Air 13″ + charger
  15. Kindle (this is the newer version; I had the old, discontinued one) + charger
  16. Smartphone + charger
  17. Lonely Planet Spanish phrasebook
  18. Small notebook
  19. 1 pack of different outlet adapters
  20. Canon DSLR camera+ charger
  21. 2 debit cards and 1 credit card
  22. $100 in U.S. dollars
  23. Driver’s license and passport
  24. Passport holder
  25. Sea to Summit Laundry detergent sheets
  26. Travel laundry clothesline
  27. Rubber sink stopper (For doing laundry in the sink in a pinch; rarely used this, but was nice to have)
  28. Daypack
  29. Aluminum water bottle
  30. 1 pack of Pepto Bismol chewables
  31. Tylenol
  32. Ginger candy (If you’re like me and get motion sickness in cars and buses, I highly recommend these for Cusco’s winding mountain roads!) I also love these ginger chews.
  33. 7 bottles of prescriptions (I visited a doctor and got precautionary medications for any travel illnesses, such as Cipro for traveler’s diarrhea and Diamox for altitude sickness. Never ended up using either of those. I did end up using Meclizine, which is for motion sickness. I got major motion sickness anytime I got in a car in Cusco, with its high altitude, winding roads, and crazy drivers)
  34. 1 pack of wet wipes
  35. Travel water purifying system (Never ended up using this, but would be good if you plan on camping in the jungle or something)
  36. Headlamp



These items that are pictured above I ended up not bringing: 1 towel, 1 hairbrush, 1 pair of running shoes. These things pictured above are what I wore on the plane: shirt, tank top, jacket, pair of jeans, pair of boots, leggings, wool socks, and a scarf.

It’s important to note that I was not exactly a fashionista during this time; backpacking through South America made me care only about functionality, not style. This made packing much easier.

Recommended South America Packing List

  1. Scarves
    These are great because they’re versatile and can be layered for warmth.
  2. Rain-resistant jacket
    For the times you’re in rainy weather.
  3. Good walking shoes
    One thing is true across the board for most of South America: You’ll be walking a lot.
  4. Insect repellant
    Much of South America is jungle, which has lots of biting insects
  5. Sunscreen
    This is a MUST for the Cusco region, where high altitude means some intense UV rays.
  6. Sunglasses
  7. A wide-brimmed hat
  8. Toiletries you need
    Yes, you will find that you often can buy anything you need in the place you’re traveling to, but, as a female, I can tell you the hardest things to find will be toiletries you’re accustomed to using, such as tampons or makeup, for example.
  9. Socks
  10. Slip-on shoes (flip-flops or sandals)
    One pair can be for walking around town. Don’t forget water-resistant flip-flops for showering!
  11. Shorts
  12. Swimsuit
  13. Versatile hiking pants
  14. Jeans
    Don’t let anyone talk you out of this; everywhere I went in South America, the locals wore jeans regularly
  15. Earplugs
    Especially if you’ll be staying in hostels, you’ll find the world to be a noisy place.
  16. Pocket phrasebook for Spanish (and Portuguese if you’ll be visiting Brazil)
  17. Daypack
  18. Headlamp


Frequently Asked Packing Questions

Do I need to bring a sleeping bag?

No. Unless you plan on camping every night, you do not need a sleeping bag. Occasional campers can rent gear once they get there.

Do I need to bring hiking boots?

Unless you are going to wear them on the plane and then use them on a weekly basis while in South America, I say leave the hiking boots at home. They are way too bulky and you can always rent a pair if you go on a major trek.

How many pairs of clothes should I pack?

Fewer than you think you need. My weekly wardrobe consisted of the same 2 pairs of paints (1 khaki and 1 jeans) and about 5 shirts I rotated. This, of course, will mean you have to do laundry every week (super cheap usually) and you won’t be a fashionista. Anyway, you can always buy more clothes if needed.

Should I bring my DSLR?

This is tough. DSLRs take up precious space in your bag and are heavy. Basically, if you are a professional blogger or photographer, then yes, bring that professional camera because you need high-quality photos. If you’re not either of those things, then a point-and-shoot–or maybe even your smartphone–will be sufficient for capturing memories.

My Best General Packing Tips

  1. Pack clothes you can layer
    This is essential because you’ll be traveling across different climates.
  2. Don’t worry about getting everything you think you need into your luggage–you can buy things when you get there.
    As you can see, I did NOT pack well for an Andean winter, so I had to buy a down feather jacket while in Cusco. This worked out perfectly for two reasons: 1) A puffy jacket would’ve taken up WAY too much room in my bag and 2) Buying a North Face jacket (even if it was a knock-off) was much cheaper in Cusco than in the United States.
  3. Trying to go carry-on only? Find ways to work around the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule (where you can only bring 3.4-ounce size bottles that can fit into one 1-quart-sized bag)
    I did this in a number of ways: Packing powder shampoo, dry laundry detergent sheets, moist wipes (these don’t count as liquids!)
  4. Wear as much as you can comfortably wear on your flight
    This saves room in your bag! Plus, I tend to freeze anyway on flights, so this works out perfectly for me.
  5. Roll your clothes
    Yes, this does enable you to pack more.
  6. Use packing cubes
    Packing cubes enable you to pack more, by compressing items and keeping them organized so they don’t slide around in your bag.

What are your best packing tips? Comment below!

*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you buy a product through one of the links I provide, then I will receive a commission–at no extra cost to you. I included links either to the exact products I personally used or products that are similar. Thank you!

If you’re going to Peru or Bolivia, you may encounter high altitudes and altitude sickness. Be sure to check out the 10 ways I avoided altitude sickness in Cusco and Machu Picchu.

How to Pack for South America in One Carry-On

South America Packing List
How I Packed for 3 Months in South America in 1 Carry-On Bag
How I Packed for 3 Months in South America in 1 Carry-On Bag


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  • Elodie
    December 27, 2014 at 6:16 am

    Hi Amy,
    Really good post and helpful as i am planning a 3 months trip to South America.
    Would you recommend a 65 litres backpack + day pack or i should be ok with a medium suitcase with wheels and a 30L day pack?
    I just don’t like carrying too much on my shoulder and i found suitcase either to find my clothes…
    Let me know what you think?
    Cheers

    Elodie

    • Amy
      December 27, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Hi Elodie!

      Well, in my opinion, 65L will be way too much to carry around South America for 3 months. I had 40L and it was more than enough at times.

      When it comes to packing, buy the smallest possible bag and then find a way to fit what you need in it. If you buy a big bag (like 65L) you will find a way to stuff it to the brim as well. Everything expands according to the size of the bag you choose.

      You should be totally fine with the suitcase and 30L backpack! Follow the tips in my blog post, and just remember, anything you end up needing you will probably be able to find on the road. It’s best to keep it light so you’re not regretting packing too much when you’re on the 10th hour of your journey and your back is aching.

      Hope this helps! If you have any other questions, please ask.

      Safe travels,
      Amy

  • Heather
    June 25, 2015 at 4:51 am

    Hi
    I have just returned from South America. In Patagonia it got below zero. Definitely needed puffer jackets, scarf beanie and the thermals. Only took sandals and hiking shoes, that was all I needed even at good restaurants. Recommend 2 scarfs one to dress up a basic outfit and one for warmth.
    What about the return trip if you shop. I checked posting items back but the cost was horrific so I took a luggage sufficient to cope with this.
    Great travels
    Heather

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