Ultimate Female Packing List for Central America

Ultimate Female Packing List for Central America

See all of HPL’s packing list posts.

Recently I spent 3 1/2 weeks traveling in Central America with my husband to escape the cold in Berlin where we live. We traveled in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, but the majority of our time was in Guatemala. The trip was from mid January to early February.

Update: A year later, we returned, this time to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua for one month. The trip was also mid January to mid February. My packing list for Central America was roughly the same, but updates are noted.

Luggage we traveled with

I love to travel light and go carry-on only, so we didn’t pack a lot. Between the two of us we packed all our stuff into two daypacks, including our new Osprey Momentum 22, plus my REI Trail 40. We brought along our REI stuff bag and used it often on transport days to make sure our food was easy to reach. We also used two packing cubes for socks and underwear. So remember, everything I’ve listed in this post plus my husband’s clothing, laptop, etc. fit into these three small bags.

Update: I have replace the Vaude daypack (the green one) with an Osprey Escapist 25 daypack, and I love it!

packing list for Central America
Packing carry-on only for 3 1/2 weeks in Central America

Clothing

This isn’t exactly what I brought with me, but it’s what I should’ve brought. I thought I was being so minimalist, but by the end of the trip I realized I still packed too much. I had one shirt I never wore and two others I only wore once. I almost always wore shirts twice before washing them, so a little goes a long way.

  • 5 short sleeve shirts
  • 2 long sleeve shirts – I only packed one because I didn’t think I’d need it too often, but in most places it was cool enough in the early morning and at night that I wanted my long sleeve shirt and my hoodie over my short sleeve shirt. The middle of the day was nicely warm though.
    Update: If you’re traveling primarily in hotter places, one is sufficient. I did not need 2 for Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
  • 1 hoodie or light jacket – I think the only place where I didn’t wear my hoodie at all was in Belize. Plus it’s always good to be prepared for freezing cold buses.
  • 2 pairs of shorts – I had one pair of jean shorts and one pair of gym shorts.
  • 1 pair of jeans – The temperatures were warm but still comfortable enough to wear jeans most days.
    Update: I didn’t wear my jeans nearly as often in Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, but I was still happy to have them. You’d probably be fine leaving them at home.
  • 1 pair of gym pants or leggings – Perfect for long transport days and for sleeping.
  • 1 bathing suit – Bring two if you plan on doing lots of water activities. We were only at the beach for a few days in Belize.
  • 4-5 pairs of socks
  • 2 bras – I’d also recommend packing a sports bra if you plan on doing active things like hiking a volcano.
  • Underwear – As many pairs as you feel comfortable with. I usually aim for 7 on the assumption that I’ll do laundry once a week. If you don’t mind washing your underwear in the sink, you can get away with two or three pairs.

I’m not a dress person and I never felt under-dressed in Central America, but if you like to wear dresses, pack something casual.

packing list for Central America
I took a scenic flight over the Blue Hole Reef in Belize – so much fun!

Shoes

I did a lot of walking in Central America, including light hiking through forests and climbing on ruins at Tikal and Copan. It’s definitely important to have comfortable shoes. If you’re packing a dress or nicer outfit, bring a pair of foldable flats to save on space.

  • 1 pair of sneakers or other comfortable walking shoes
  • 1 pair of flip flops – For the beach and hostel showers.
  • Tevas sandals – I brought these instead of my flip flops the second time around, and I was happy to have them for longer walks in seaside locations.

Toiletries and Medical Items

I saw grocery stores and convenience stores that sell all kinds of toiletries in every single place we visited on this trip, so if you forget something or run out of something, you will be able to buy things along the way.

packing list for Central America
Antigua, Guatemala at night

Electronics

  • Laptop – If you’re working from the road, this is a must. If not, think about if you really need to bring your laptop; it might not be worth the extra weight.
  • Camera and memory cards
  • Kindle or other e-reader
  • Cords, chargers, batteries
  • Plug adapter – This depends on where you’re coming from. Central American countries use the same plug style as the US and Canada.

Other Items to Pack

  • Travel towel or sarong – I always want to pack a normal beach towel since they’re more absorbent, but really if you’re going to the beach, it’s probably warm enough and sunny enough that you don’t need much to dry off. A travel towel or sarong will do the trick.
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat – I really hate hats, but there were a few days when I was glad to have it to protect my face from the sun.
  • Headlamp – The power went out several times in Honduras, so I actually did use my headlamp.
  • Laundry detergent sheets – Perfect for washing underwear, or anything else, in the sink.
  • Passport – Make sure it’s valid for at least six months past the end of your trip, and make sure you have plenty of blank pages for all those border crossings.
  • Travel insurance – Always worth protecting yourself with travel insurance.
  • ATM and credit cards
  • Small amount of cash – El Salvador and Panama even use the US dollar as their currency.
  • Tissues – I’ve never regretted having a few packets of tissues with me.
packing list for Central America
Andy and I at Puerta del Diablo in San Salvador

Tips for traveling in Central America

Guatemala is packed with things to do and see. Lake Atitlan has several towns all around the lake, each with its own feel to it. Antigua is a pretty city to explore and has several tour options for day trips, including hiking a volcano to learning about coffee farming. Tikal is a fascinating set of ruins, most of which are still buried under the jungle, and it’s definitely worth getting a guided tour. And these are just the top sights – there are tons of other places worth seeing throughout the country.

Transportation in Central America can be a little tricky to figure out before you get there. We found information on some routes, but not all, before we started our trip. It’s worth doing a little research so you know the distances and how far you can go in one day, but you can figure things out on the road and book almost any route the day before or even the day you want to leave.

In Panama, I highly recommend doing a Panama Canal tour. However, the half day one is sufficient. We did the full day, and I kind of lost interest towards the end. Plus the full day tours only run once or twice a month, but the half day ones are more frequent.

If you’re on a budget, Panama and Nicaragua can be cheaper than Costa Rica, and they offer a lot of the same activities. I went ziplining in Bocas del Toro, Panama and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, and both were cheaper than what I saw in Costa Rica. We did a coffee tour and a cloud forest bridge tour in Boquete, Panama, both of which were cheaper than what we saw in Costa Rica. However, the La Fortuna/Arenal area of Costa Rica can’t be beat for a little splurge on the thermal pools.

>>Traveling to Costa Rica? Check out our travel guide for Costa Rica and the female packing list for Costa Rica.

packing list for Central America
One of many temples at Tikal in Guatemala

The food was decent but not super exciting in most places. There’s a lot of eggs for breakfast and corn tortillas at any meal. I personally can’t eat a lot of eggs or corn without getting sick, but I was able to work around this by ordering fruit for breakfast, sometimes with bacon and hashbrowns, and I started looking for places that made smoothies. I also stuck to rice dishes and avoided the corn tortillas for most of the trip. Gluten and dairy were fairly easy to avoid also. So if you have dietary restrictions, you can make it work here.

Certain regions of Central America has a reputation for being dangerous, but we didn’t have any problems while we were there. Like anywhere, you have to be smart about things. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, keep your money in a safe place, keep your valuables with you on buses when your luggage gets stored below, and be aware of your surroundings. But again, I never once felt unsafe, and the people we met were warm and friendly.

>> Read about traveling alone in Guatemala for more solo travel tips on the region.

Have you been to Central America? What would you pack?

What to pack for Central America

Written by Ali

Ali Garland is a freelance writer, blogger, and travel addict who made it to all 7 continents before her 30th birthday. She enjoys travel planning, encouraging others to see the world, and packing carry-on only. She and her husband are expats living in Berlin. You can find Ali at Ali's Adventures and Travel Made Simple.

Add your voice & leave a comment!

Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Danielle says

    Great post! I always regret the amount I take travelling with me – you did a great job packing! My parents will kill me when I eventually get on the road and head to Central America – great to hear that you felt safe, do you think you would have felt safe if you were a solo female traveller?

    • Ali says

      Thanks Danielle! That’s a tricky question, though one I’ve been thinking about since a friend asked me the same thing. I think I would’ve felt safe on my own in Belize and Guatemala for sure. Copan, Honduras would’ve been fine too. El Salvador…I honestly felt safe the whole time we were there, so I probably would consider it as a solo traveler too. I know several females who have traveled solo to El Tunco, which is on the coast of El Salvador, and they were fine. There are parts of San Salvador (which is where we went) that I wouldn’t go even with my husband, but the area we stayed in was rather upscale and definitely felt safe. Taking tours helped me feel safe too, so I would do that as a solo traveler in places that made me uneasy. In the end, you have to go with your gut. Take precautions, but don’t be overly paranoid.

  2. Elizabeth Lewis says

    I am going to Belize this summer and would love if you had tips for beating the heat. I am teaching a class for 1 week in a rural valley. While I am excited I have started thinking about what I need to be sure I have:

    I am hearing that moisture wicking shirts are very helpful and high concentration DEET is a must. I’m exciting but very nervous about no air conditioning. =]

    • Ali says

      Hi Elizabeth! I’m probably the worst about this. All my shirts are cotton, and I sweat tons even with really good deodorant. But yes, if you have moisture wicking shirts, that would be helpful. Where I was in Belize, the heat didn’t bother me so much because we were on the water and there was almost always a nice breeze. But if you’re going to be inland, it might be different. If there’s no a/c, hopefully they have a fan at least? Drink lots of water (bottled or filtered because I don’t think the tap water is safe to drink there) and I think just try to embrace it. At a certain point, it’s hard to not be hot. But enjoy your time there!

  3. Tam says

    Hi Elizabeth! I travel to Belize almost every summer and one item I am never without is a folding hand fan. It definitely comes in handy if you are inland where the air can be pretty still.

  4. Katie says

    hi i would love to know what the green and grey backpack on the left in the photo is called ! thankyou, Katie 🙂

  5. Bree says

    Hi Ali, thanks for all the advice, really love looking at your site! I’m heading off to Cuba & central america soon. Question about water purification tablets, did you ever use them/would you recommend using?

  6. Natalie says

    Hi Ali! Came across this page and found it super helpful. I have this giant old backpack from my early travel years that I was going to take to Panama next week but am now feeling inspired to downsize. I’m traveling alone, so wondering if you’d be fine with just the one backpack for 3 weeks? If so, any size recommendations? Thanks!

    • Ali says

      Hi Natalie! On at least one of these Central America trips, my husband and I put all our stuff into one 40L backpack plus two 22-25L backpacks. These days, we’ve decided it’s easier to each have our own 40L backpack, but we skip the smaller backpacks. So basically any trip I take that’s a week or longer, I travel with a 40L backpack and maybe a purse. I’d still do that for a 3 week trip. You really only need roughly a week’s worth of clothes, you can get laundry done at almost any hostel or guesthouse along the way. My carry-on sized liquids are usually enough for a trip of that length, but if you use more, you can buy more toothpaste/shampoo/soap along the way. I can’t remember the last time I checked a bag, and I regularly make my 40L bag work for 3-4 week trips. I hope that helps!

Leave A Reply