Packing Light for Central America: Lightweight Nomad’s Guide
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Central America is a unique and wonderful place! Full of spectacular beaches, volcanic mountains, lush jungles, Colonial Spanish cities, and ancient ruins, it has something to inspire nearly any visitor. Aside from the beautiful landscape and wonderful sights, there are several travel hacks for the minimalist traveler; and thanks to the warm climate and water activities, packing light for Central America is easy. As a lightweight digital nomad, let me share a guide to the region, along with some of my personal packing tips to get the most out of your trip.
What to Expect
The weather in Central America is mostly warm and tropical, but you will be surprised how many different micro climates exist in a relatively small area. As for seasons, there are only two, wet and dry. Even in the dry season you are likely to visit a rain forest, waterfall, or beach, so moisture is a constant concern when traveling here. Just be prepared and expect to get wet at some point.
If the climate seems a little foreign, the sense of time may really throw you. Things move slowly here. It’s best to embrace it. Try to slow down and enjoy the experience; and don’t expect anything to happen quickly.
The people you meet are genuine, helpful, warm, and friendly. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you will find a way to communicate. Overall, they share western values, although they tend to be a bit more traditional. You might want to dress slightly more conservatively than the weather dictates when sightseeing around town. However, bikinis and swim shorts are perfectly acceptable for beaches and water sports. Each area is a little different. Just be respectful of the local customs and you’ll be fine.
Packing Light for Central America
If you are staying at only one or two destinations, any sort of luggage will work. The clothing and gear you need for Central America isn’t bulky, so you can travel for weeks with a carry-on bag, just do your laundry along the way. Your luggage is important and there are many options to choose from, but we recommend a backpack. Carrying a suitcase or duffel is physically more difficult and leaves you without free hands. Bags with wheels aren’t much help either because the sidewalks probably won’t be flat enough to roll on. If you intend to maximize your trip and visit multiple destinations, a backpack is the answer. They’re more versatile and easier to travel with than traditional luggage and they allow for packing light and staying agile.
Slinging your stuff on your back is the way to go, I ordered a nice Mountaintop 40 Liter Hiking Backpack with Rain Cover from Amazon for cheap and it has been great. Plan for the unexpected and pick something that can stand up to rain, bus storage compartments, luggage racks, and even a “chicken bus” or two. It is a bonus that this pack has the right pockets and straps to be used for light backpacking, if you need it.
If you want something with a better (read: lifetime!) warranty that comes from a great company, try the Osprey Kestrel 38 liter pack. It’s small enough to fit in the overhead bin on a plane, yet packs an amazing amount of stuff. Plus, it comes with an integrated rain cover that unfurls from a pocket on the back (perfect for a sudden rain storm down here). It’s very streamlined and has all the right storage compartments, including a top-loading flap and a front-loading “sleeping bag compartment.” My friend swears by this pack and has carried it throughout Central America as well as Europe and to the top of many mountains.
If you haven’t tried them yet, you should! Travel cubes are a solid travel hack for any trip. They make packing and unpacking simple, they help compress your stuff to maximize space in your bags, and many brands are water resistant. I ordered an inexpensive eight piece set on Amazon from L&N Always. It is more than I needed, but you can use them for all your travels and pick the right bags for each trip. The shoe bag is a bonus to keep your shoes separate from your things.
You will want your favorite soaps and toiletries from home. Many hotels don’t provide them and if they do, they are not the luxurious sample bottles that you take home and horde under your sink back home. A hanger is also a nice feature to have since counter tops in the bathroom seem to be scarce in Central America. I use the Travel Toiletry Bag from ProPacking Cubes. At first glance it looks too big, but I use the side pockets for my travel towel, socks, and underwear.
Keep in mind the activities you plan to do during your trip. If you don’t intend to leave your beach resort, you can probably get by with sandals, boardshorts, and bikinis, with a cover up for the girls. No joke! But if you plan to venture out, here are some tips to help you pack light for Central America and stay comfortable.
Short Sleeve Tops
Bring one nice wrinkle-resistant collared shirt or blouse so you can dress appropriately for a night out. Comfortable button-ups and t-shirts are fine for the rest of your wardrobe. No need to get any travel specific clothing here.
Bring a comfortable light hoodie, flannel or long sleeve shirt. You will appreciate a little extra warmth if you visit places with higher elevations or breezy evenings. You won’t find snow, but it’s chilly enough to see your breath on some of the mountains and volcanoes.
This is an essential, especially in the wet season. I went for the lightest waterproof option Columbia offers, the Watertight II Jacket – it’s pack-able and It keeps me dry without adding extra warmth. It works great in the heaviest rain and you can use it as an added layer and wind breaker at higher elevations.
Shorts, Skirts and Dresses
My trick for shorts is to use boardshorts that look like regular shorts. Rip Curl Boardwalk Boardshorts are my favorite – they give me style and versatility. No one will ever know that you are wearing a pair of swim trunks! Girls should pack a couple light, comfortable shorts or skirts. Not too much need for travel specific clothing here, just think light. And ladies remember the ever so useful, lightweight, wrinkle resistant, little black dress or convertible skirt – dress them up for a night out or use them with your other tops for variety.
Convertible travel pants
One of the few travel specific items you want is at least one pair of lightweight convertible travel pants. Silver Ridge Stretch Convertible Pants from Columbia are a great product. These pants are water resistant, they help protect you from bug bites and scratches, the light breathable fabric will keep you cool and comfortable, and changing them into shorts is easy and offers versatility without taking up more space in your bag. They have all the right features and quality that you expect since you are likely to visit at least one jungle. They also make a fantastic women’s version.
If you have room in your bag or know that you will be visiting higher elevations jeans could come in handy. Use them to dress up for a nice night out or to keep warm in the mountains.
Boardshorts and bikinis
The region is famous for beaches, sunbathing, swimming, and watersports. Your favorite trunks or bikinis are a must have. Girls should bring a one-piece suit for unexpected adventures such as surfing, cliff diving, white water rafting, etc…it happens.
Light hiking trainers or cross trainers
I picked up a great pair of Nike Cross Trainers on sale. They practically weigh nothing and the light breathable material helps them dry fast if they get wet. A friend of mine has also had great luck with the Merrell Moab. These are sturdy, lightweight hikers with mesh panels. He prefers the shoe model with Gore-tex liners. They breathe well and are waterproof – both excellent qualities for this climate. They also make an excellent mid-boot, if you need something a little taller.
I’m from Southern California so I love my Rainbow Sandals! I picked up a pair of the new Classic Rubber Sandals with Nylon Straps. Rubber and nylon work great since leather will become hard and cracked when it gets wet. Chacos and Teva make some great options too and both are a bit more rugged than the Rainbows. However, and this is a BIG however, roads and sidewalks in Central America are often in very poor condition. Pot holes, uneven ground, loose gravel, stumps from broken sign posts, and even missing manhole covers are a common sight! I quickly traded my favorite sandals for tennis shoes when walking around town. Keep the sandals for the beach.
Only take these if you intend to do some serious hiking! My boots were only useful for climbing young volcanoes with lots of rocks, pebbles, and sand. They are recommended for ankle deep mud in the jungles as well. However, I used travel sandals and let my feet get gross! It was fun and the cleanup was easy, but you might get an extra scratch or bug bite. Long story short – if you need them, wear them on the plane, because they are probably the largest item you need for your visit to Central America.
Socks and Underwear
Get the “good” socks and your feet will thank you! I picked up a few pairs of Thorlo Lite Hiking Crew Socks for all the sightseeing, trekking, hiking, and strolling around colonial towns. The added breath-ability, padding, and comfort is well worth it. Pack your most comfortable undergarments with light fabrics and breathable materials. Undergarments meant for exercise work great. You may want to consider upgrading to something non-cotton with water wicking fabric. We’re really fond of ExOfficio’s Give-N-Go and Modern Travel options. They’re quick-drying, odor resistant, breathable, lightweight and super comfortable. We just sink-wash them and they dry in no time.
Backup Battery Charger
A must for traveling. All your electronic gadgets have made Central America accessible and easy to navigate. If your Spanish isn’t great, it will be difficult to get directions after your toys are dead. I ordered an Anker PowerCore 5000 from Amazon. It takes up very little space and has saved me a few times.
This is different from your main pack. You’ll find these useful for quick excursions or trips to the beach. They take up very little space but expand to become a full backpack, perfect for day trips. I ordered a cheap one on Amazon – the 20 liter pack made by HIKPRO – and it has been one of the most useful gadgets in my inventory. Some of these even fold up into one of the front pockets, creating a package about the size of a baseball.
Remember to stay hydrated during your adventures. It gets hot near the equator so you will need more water than usual to stay healthy. To make things more complicated, the majority of the water in this part of the world is not safe to drink. Save money and the planet, skip the endless parade of bottled water by filling up with safe water from your hotel. I like my CamelBak Chute 1 Liter Water Bottle, it’s BPA and BPS free, easy to clean and a tether securely attaches the cap to the bottle for easy filling. Another easy option is the LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle. Get the one with two-stage filtration, which eliminates nearly all waterborne bacteria and protozoan parasites. This allows you to fill up nearly anywhere and have safe drinking water.
Bring cheap ones that you can scratch or lose – you will be amazed how bright it can be in the tropical sun. An inexpensive option are the TOREGE Polarized Sports Sunglasses. They come with five interchangeable lenses and they’re polarized, which is important as the sun is more intense near the equator.
Sunblock and Bug Spray
Both important to protect your skin, sun and bugs are more plentiful near the equator. So, lather up and save yourself the regret of burning itchy skin! I’m a surfer so I use Headhunters SPF 45 Mineral Sunscreen Face Stick to keep the sunblock from getting in my eyes. For the rest of me I use Sun Bum – their products are safe for sea creatures and coral, which means those technicolor beauties will still be there next time you go snorkeling!
A good idea for the girls, or anyone with long hair. In the hotter parts of Central America, warm water may not be available, so it’s nice to get rid of knots and frizzy hair without a shower.
Perfect for keeping electronics documents, towels, and anything else you need dry. I bought a three pack with different sizes from Columbia. The outdoor beauty of the area is one of the main attractions so you will probably find yourself on boats, fording rivers, or stuck in an unexpected downpour. If you think your equipment will get submerged during your adventures, get a thicker more durable style.
Camera – You need a camera to capture all the beauty of this spectacular area; but the hot, humid and sandy conditions can be a bit harsh for some models. For trips like this, I prefer my GoPro HERO5 Session – it is easy to use, durable and has great quality picture and sound. It allows you to play with shots and videos you never thought possible, with endless accessories to record your adventures for posterity.
This one is easy to overlook, but it’s hard to beat relaxing in a hammock listening to your favorite tunes. I like my JBL Clip 3 Portable Bluetooth speaker, it has a great battery life and it’s waterproof.
Clothesline and Universal Sink Stopper
For more minimal travel, pack each of these for your trip to wash a few articles of clothes at a time in a sink and hang them to dry. You can also find “lavanderias” connected to your hotel, hostel, or in town that can clean and dry your clothes for cheap, and often in only a few hours. Now you can pack only five days of clothes or less!
Unfortunately a good cup of coffee is hard to find, the good stuff gets shipped away. I like Starbucks Via – it is one of the best tasting instant coffees on the market and comes in convenient individual packs, perfect for travel.
A regular towel takes up entirely too much space, so a travel towel is a must. Use towels provided by your hotel whenever you can. The travel towel will come in handy for waterfalls, swimming holes, and secluded beaches. No need to be fancy here; I ordered a cheap Relefree Microfiber Towel on Amazon and it has survived six countries and counting.
Other than a good packable hat to keep the sun off your face, don’t bring any other accessories. Treat yourself to some great earrings, bracelets, or necklaces from local artisans while you explore colorful shops and markets.
Overall, Central America truly is the land of perpetual summer. Packing light is easy since your main goal here is to stay cool and dry. Opportunities for adventure are everywhere, and truly getting away from it all only takes a ten-minute stroll in the jungle. Remember the culture is colorful, rich, and vibrant. Your imagination will run wild when you feel like you’ve been transported back in time to Colonial Spain or conjure up images of Indiana Jones in the ancient jungle ruins of the Maya. Slow down, relax, take it all in and be glad you packed light.
As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!