What to Pack for Colombia

Shawn Forno

When people ask, “So why did you live in Colombia for a few months?” I always answer with two words—“Bailar, amigo.” Then I usually wait a second and repeat them in a super spooky whisper. “Bailar, amigo.” It usually stops the boring line of questions right off the bat, which is great. For those that persevere, I have this Colombia packing list. In all seriousness, my month of intense two-a-day salsa classes in Cali, Colombia during the annual Feria de Cali aka the “Salsodromo Festival” left a big impression on me. Those classes were how my brother and I met all of our friends (I traveled with my brother), how we planned our days—and our nights—and dictated what we packed for the duration of our stay. I honestly can’t think of Colombia without thinking about dancing, but even if you don’t like to shake it-shake it, there are dozens of other great reasons to visit Colombia.

What to Pack for Colombia

From the sprawling skyline of Medellin and the sophistication of Bogota to the sultry streets of Cartagena and the mist shrouded coffee plantations in the foothills near Pereira, each corner of Colombia comes with its own unique packing problems. Roughly the size of Texas, Colombia is a nation with unique cultural demands that vary from city to city, and region to region. Colombia straddles the equator, touches the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and ranges from obscure beach towns and isolated hill villages to bustling megacities. What you “need to pack for Colombia” really depends on where you’re going, what you’re doing (other than dancing obviously), and how long you’re staying. This Colombia packing list is just a template of the most common essentials to get you prepared. Feel free to customize, mix and match, and completely ignore sections of this packing list, but just remember—Porque hay baile, amigo. Porque hay baile, amigo.

Clothes for Dancing

When my brother offered to travel with me for six months from Mexico to Peru, I never imagined I’d be doing so much friggin’ dancing. But when it comes to Salsa dancing, Colombia is ground zero. Dancing is how many Colombian people socialize—regardless of age—so pack with dancing in mind, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Dancing is a great way to bridge the language gap and connect with locals.

Dancing Shoes

A decent pair of black sneakers will actually do you fine for most nights out. You don’t need to buy “dance shoes” unless you’re super serious about taking classes. I wore boat shoes most nights, and I got moved into the intermediate class after a few days. The important thing about packing dance shoes for travel is that they be light, comfortable, and stylish. Tom’s Chambray Classics ($55) actually make a great pair of dance shoes, and they don’t weigh a thing (or take up any room in your bag.

This pair of tan Royale Greats ($169) is exactly what you should look for in a travel/dance shoe. These shoes are slick, stylish, streamlined, and look good just about anywhere.

Dance Pants

It sounds like I’m messing with you, but you need a pair of pants that you can dance in, and by dance I mean, “sweat your balls off in.” A lightweight pair of running pants works for most people (that’s what my brother wore to class everyday), but even if you don’t want to go for that “hi-tech runner look” you need a pair of pants that can take a beating and wick off your swamp ass.

Bluffworks Travel Chinos ($125)  

These pants are my first choice and are perfect for Colombia. Available in vibrant colors which will make you stand out on the dance floor (in a good way), they also stand up to solid abuse. They handle my sweet moves on the dance floor and have a deep capacity internal zippered pocket so you can stash your cash without worrying about anything falling out—even when you do those sexy dips, amiright?!

Uniqlo Ultra Stretch Flat Front Chinos 

At $39 these are also a great budget option, they come in a range of great colors, and will take an absolute beating. Plus, if it gets too hot and you need an extra pair of shorts—blammo, cut ’em into shorts. You won’t feel bad “ruining” an expensive pair of pants because first off, you just made them into a great pair of shorts, and second, they weren’t expensive. Win-win.

Short-Sleeved Henley Shirts

I’m really big on tank tops—and I obviously think you should pack at least a few of them for Colombia—however, tank tops aren’t the best for dancing. Sure, they may keep you a little cooler, but all they do is make it so your dance partner has to touch your clammy, sweaty skin. That’s a big no-no on the dance floor. A better way to go is with a lightweight, short sleeved henley shirt.

On a total whim, I recently found a soft-washed short-sleeved henley from Old Navy ($16) and it might be my new favorite shirt. This thing is amazing. I want 10 of these. I bartended in it the other night. I went dancing in it. I ride my bike with it on. This shirt is a wicking wonder, and it looks fantastic. Also, quick shoutout to my buddy Nathan Owens (he’s the model rocking that sweet henley in this pic).

 

Fluctuating fashion trends and temperature in every city means that what works at the beach, doesn’t fly in Bogota—and vice versa. However, a nice short-sleeved Henley shirt gives the illusion of classiness, with the faux buttons, but doesn’t have the restrictive feel of a collar against your neck while you dance, or the hassle of wrinkles from most other “nice” shirts. Pack three henleys. You’ll be glad you did.

Dresses for the Ladies

Ladies, I’m no authority on the matter, but I remember patterned dresses were are all the rage on the dance floor in most places. Bogota is more conservative—you’ll see a lot of black and fashionable scarves, but fashion-conscious Medellin is where the real chic dance couture comes out at night. Skinny jeans and short shirts are popular, but trends change in Medellin faster than a melting ice cream cone, so double check a few fashion blogs if you’re super curious before you go.

Clothes for Everything Else (Besides Dancing)

Is there anything besides dancing in Colombia? Of course there is! If you’re ready to hit the streets and do some touring or get your adventure on, you’ll be glad you packed the following:

Sandals (NOT Flip Flops)

Noting sounds more touristy than the sound of your cheap ass flip flops slapping against the soles of your feet with every plodding, confused step. Flip flops are terrible for dancing, awful for walking, and just plain tacky at the club or cafe. Pack a nice pair of wrap around leather sandals or go with a simple espadrille if you want to give your feet a break. Ditch the flip flop and embrace sandals – and yes, there is a difference. 

Sweat Wicking Socks

Even if you don’t dance a single beat, your feet are going to get sweaty walking around Colombia. Make sure you pack two pairs of sweat wicking socks. Darn Tough merino wool 1/4 cushioned hiking socks ($17) are fantastic at keeping your feet comfy and dry. They’re pricey, but worth the investment.  
If you want to upgrade even more, try out the Crosspoint Waterproof Socks ($35). They’re designed for even the wettest environments (aka “your stanky feet”).

Travel Underwear

If keeping your feet dry is important, keeping your…everything else dry is essential. Pack (2) pair of Ex-Officio travel underwear ($20) and travel with the peace of mind that you’re always clean, dry, and odor free—no matter how hard you dance.

Lightweight Rainproof Jacket

The wet season in Colombia is generally from March – May and September – November, but that really depends on where you’re staying. The highlands get a little more moisture year round, and temperatures can be significantly chillier than Cartagena or other beach towns. Again, don’t just assume that sun = hot. The general rule of thumb is that every 1,000 ft = 2-3 °F chill. Colombia has diverse climate regions, so pack accordingly. 

 

The Patagonia Airshed Pullover ($119) is designed for runners, so it’s perfect for hiking or you know… working up a sweat schlepping your backpack all over the place. Best part—it folds down into this tiny little pouch that even comes with a convenient carabiner. If it’s blazing hot you can clip this to the outside of your bag and forget about it until you go coffee tasting in the chilly foothills.

The Columbia Outdry Tech Shell ($130) is a great jacket for full coverage (it’s seam sealed with a great hood) if you think you’ll be in a particularly rainy spot. Don’t worry, the arm vents will help keep you cool.

Travel Blazer

If you’re going to spend most of your time in cities like Bogota or Medellin, I recommend a travel blazer instead of the lightweight jacket. The Bluffworks Gramercy Slim Fit Travel Blazer ($295) is a great stylish alternative to the backpacker look, which is nice if you’re spending any considerable stretch of time in one place.
Colombia has certain expectations when it comes to attire—both in the workplace and at the dance club—so try to look a little presentable if you want to fit in. If you don’t mind looking like a tourist, great! Grab your hacky sack, dread your shoulder length hair, and have a blast.

Hybrid Travel Shorts

I’ve got a full review of bathing suits, swim shorts, etc. coming soon, but until then I recommend a nice, durable, comfortable pair of hybrid travel shorts. These dry in a few hours (or faster if you don’t mind a little dampness), but also look good walking around town. Toad & Co. Mission Ridge shorts ($59) are comfy and great for everyday use. Although not designed to be worn as a swimsuit, I never let stuff like “recommended use” hold me back.
Patagonia makes a more traditional “hybrid” short for the same price, but they don’t look as comfy or as cool. REI and even Oneil have made their own version of the hybrid swimsuit/shorts, but they look way too “travely” for me, especially with the cargo pockets. But if that’s your jam, you’ll probably love ’em.

What to Pack for Colombia: Travel Gear

Let’s begin with what to pack in, shall we? The perfect set up for Colombia would be the Everything Outbreaker Bundle. Sleek, well organized, and designed to work seamlessly together, this collection makes packing a joy. The bundle includes:

Outbreaker Travel Backpack

  • Carry on sized
  • Durable materials
  • Weather resistant
  • Ergonomic suspension system
  • Height-adjustable straps
  • Comfortable padding
  • Organization pockets
  • Checkpoint-friendly laptop compartment
  • Padded laptop and tablet sleeves
  • Lie-flat water bottle pockets

Sturdy Daypack

You will absolutely use the crap out of your daypack in Colombia for everything from day hikes, weekend trips, dance class, and just heading out to explore the city. The last thing you want is your day bag bogging you down and making your back sweat like a yeti. The 21L Outbreaker Daybag ($99) packs flat in your backpack when you’re not using it (essential), but functions as a great work bag if you feel like getting out to a cafe to get some work done. The waterproof sailcloth will keep your electronics dry, and it only weighs a pound so you won’t feel bogged down.
The wet/dry bag is a little piece of magic. Your damp sweaty dance stuff is kept away from your clean things in your bag and that sandy salty beach towel won’t mess up your evening wear. Seriously, don’t go anywhere without it.
The packing cubes fit perfectly inside the Outbreaker travel backpack… on purpose. Beefier than the cheap-o cubes you bought last time, these will go the distance. The piping helps them hold their shape.
The packable duffle is a godsend. You’ll use this bag on beach outings and adventures around town, as a shopping bag, and then as the bag you stash your souvenirs in for the flight home. Perfect as a personal item on your flight.

Trader Joe’s Sunscreen Stick

No matter where you go in Colombia, the sun is a factor. If you’re down south near the equator, sunscreen is especially important, but I’m a big fan of a little sunscreen everyday. I’m a worrier. I’ve recently become a big fan of sunscreen sticks for two reasons—they dodge the TSA 3-1-1 Rule, and you never have to worry about your sunscreen bottle exploding in your bag and getting all over your new dance shoes. It happens more than you think.

I like the SPF 30 Sunbum Sunscreen Stick ($11) and they make a tasty SPF 30 Lip Balm ($3) (try the pomegranate). However, Trader Joe’s makes a great little palm-sized SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen Stick ($6). It only weighs 15g (that’s 0.5oz!) and goes on like a champ. Toss one of these in your bag and you’re good for a few weeks.

Mosquito Repellant

Zika is still a thing in much of South America, including Colombia. The CDC recommends that “Travelers to Colombia protect themselves from mosquito bites,” and cautions that “the mosquitoes that spread Zika usually do not live at elevations above 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) because of environmental conditions.” As always, take CDC warnings seriously, but remember that millions of people live in this region and if you take precautions, you should be fine.

Tek Towel

Always bring a quick dry towel. Haven’t you read Douglas Adams? 

“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Mophie Battery Pack Phone Case

I’ll never travel for any long stretch without a phone battery case. They’re just too damned useful. We used the Mophie Juice Battery Pack iPhone Case ($54-99 depending on your phone) during our month-long race across India in a 7hp rickshaw and it was a game-changer. You can take all the video you want, check the weather, book accommodation, blog, or listen to all your podcasts without the fear that you’ll run out of juice. I don’t condone spending your day with your face stuck in a screen, but let’s face facts—we travel with our phones. Get a portable battery pack that you can rely on.

Dual USB port charger

If you travel without a laptop, all you need is a single usb charger with 2 ports to charge your phone, external battery pack, GoPro, or what have you. Save precious packback real estate and invest in a dual USB charger. Weighing in at just 1.5 oz. the iClever Boostcube ($11) charges two devices and fits in the palm of your hand.

Things You Don’t Need

A Power Converter

The voltage in Colombia is 110V – 120V (the same as the US), and the prongs are what you’re used to, if you’re North American. If you’re from Europe, you’ll need adaptors, sorry! Note for North Americans: You might run into older outlets that don’t have a grounding slot (that’s the third prong thingy on the bottom). So pack a “cheater plug” adaptor to turn your 3-prong plug into a 2-prong plug, especially if you plan to work on your laptop.

Sunglasses

I hate sunglasses for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they don’t travel well, the good ones are super expensive, and they make you look like an ass. If sunnies really are your thing, just wait ’til you get to Colombia and pick up a pair for a few bucks. Now you’ve got a souvenir instead of a liability.

Hiking Boots

You do not need hiking boots for Colombia. Seriously. You’ll spend most of your time in cities, on busses, on dance floors, and at the beach. If you do head up into the beautiful coffee foothills, you won’t need hiking boots. Don’t pack hiking boots. Stop it.

TL;DR

Colombia is a diverse country with widely varying weather, climate, and cultural expectations. Pack for your activities—not for the weather—and you’ll be just fine. 

  • Bring “movement” clothes for dancing, hiking, and sightseeing
  • Elevation changes everything in Colombia. Pack a light jacket to stay warm
  • A travel blazer goes a long way to making you look like you belong
  • Quick-dry henley shirts and comfy shorts are essential to your happiness
  • Bring a daypack you can rely on day in and day out