This was the first post in a three-part series of posts about what I packed for Peace Corps service in Colombia. See this post to read about the electronics I brought, or this one to read about the toiletries and miscellany I brought.
I’m writing this post for all my Type A CII-10 (and beyond, because the internet is forever) homies, because I know that October is around when I started Googling “Peace Corps packing list” and “Peace Corps Colombia packing list.” The former brings up a bajillion results, but a packing list for Mongolia isn’t going to help a Colombia volunteer; the latter only brings up two real results, neither of which are super comprehensive because they lack follow-up.
I’ve been in country nine months now. I know what I am glad I brought, I know what I wish I had brought, and I know what I wish I hadn’t (for me: not much).
I want to emphasize the words my and I; I could ask each of my fellow cohort members to write a post like this and all 24 would look very different. This is specific to my experience (no volunteer’s experience is the same, even if we’re in the same sector in the same country), and is much more a guideline than a Bible. And it’s long so sorrrrrrrryyyyyyy.
To make it slightly easier to see what I don’t recommend bringing based on my own experience, I have marked those things with red text.
The items marked in orange text are things I am still glad I brought, but would have changed somehow.
Everyone is allowed 2 large bags, maximum 50 pounds each, to check, plus a carry on and personal item. I brought all of these. One thing that’s important to keep in mind is how you are going to get your stuff around. Fortunately, Peace Corps will work with you to help you get your stuff to site gradually if you can’t safely manage everything all at once on public transportation. Generally, big packpacks are frowned upon because they’re a very clear indicator that you are a gringo, but I brought one and don’t regret it because it made carrying all of my stuff easier. It just sits under my bed until I go home.
What I brought:
- Osprey Porter 65 – I got mine on sale at REI. A lot of PCVs have Eagle Creek backpacks because they offer PCVs a discount. This was packed to 29 pounds
- A big ol’ wheelie suitcase – this was packed to 36 pounds
- A wheely carry-on suitcase
- My medium Timbuk2 messenger bag
- A canvas tote bag and a leather purse, both of which were packed within these other items
What I wish I had brought:
- A backpack instead of the messenger bag. I ended up buying one in-country and it was a big chunk of my stipend, but I use it all the time for weekend trips. I do still use my messenger bag, but the backpack is more universally useful.
The volunteer handbook talks a lot about how important it is for Volunteers to dress well to enhance credibility. It outlined a lot of specific guidelines for what is and isn’t acceptable. It’s certainly true that Colombians, especially the women, dress well. They also dress much sexier than I expected, even in the classroom. Tight pants, tight shirts, sheer tops, etc. I was really concerned about covering my shoulder tattoo when I was packing, but once I had spent a couple of weeks in my schools and had established myself, I quit that.
The volunteer handbook does not talk about how hard life is on clothes here. It’s hot. We sweat. A lot. I wash my clothes far more frequently here than I ever did in the States (especially in those cold Minnesota winters). If you’ve lived in a place with ice or snow in the winter, you’re familiar with the salt lines your jeans may get at the hem…well, I’ve had those salt lines around my knees from sweat. Besides this, the washers and/or hands that are used to wash clothes are rough on them.
White is a very formal and dressy color. It’s good to have in your wardrobe. It’s also very difficult to get your clothes to stay clean and/or to actually get clean (depending on where you end up living, your water may have a murkiness to it), so this may be something to consider when thinking about colors to pack. Obviously light colors are more comfortable with the sun and the heat, but they won’t wash as well.
Finally, I’ve never had a ton of luck shopping here. Clothes are always more expensive than I want them to be, and until I had lost 25 pounds, I had a hard time finding clothes that fit me (I was a US size 12 when I came here, which is a 16 or so here and isn’t frequently sold in stores). Meanwhile, I was a clotheshorse back home and left a lot behind.
All that to say that in general, I wish I had packed more clothes.
What I brought:
- 3 layering pieces (sweaters/jackets) – so far I’ve just worn one of these on the bus, but I’m hoping that my supercute jacket will be useful in Medellín
- 2 lightweight long-sleeve blouses
- 10 short-sleeve blouses
- 4 sleeveless blouses
- 2 casual tank tops
- 4 pairs of jeans
- 1 pair of ankle-pants – I can’t discourage anything more than ponte pants in this weather. They were my faves in my corporate days in cold Minnesota, but the fabric is super heavy and doesn’t release any sweat whatsoever.
- 5 skirts
- 2 pairs of casual shorts – one of these immediately got a hole in it, the other pair I quickly grew out of.
- 1 romper
- 8 dresses – See next section for more information
Note: You do need at least one dressy outfit to wear for swearing in, so if that looks like a dress for you, be sure to pack at least one! It’s also nice to have on hand should you be invited to a wedding, quinceañera, or graduation.
- 2 swimsuits – 1 1-piece athletic suit (I will never use it here), 1 bikini
- 8 bras, 3 really good sports bras, and 3 more casual sports bras – this might seem extreme, but remember what I said about sweaty clothes and clothes wearing out quickly. Also, every bra I’ve ever seen for sale here is a B-cup. They only sell different band sizes. If anyone can tell me howtf that works, I’m dying to know.
- Underwear – honestly, I didn’t count how many I brought. I had started buying them everytime they were on sale months before leaving, and just packed them all. It’s something that is relatively expensive here and styles like thongs and cheekies aren’t really common here.
- 2 sleep shirts
- 4 pairs of athletic shorts – these are what I sleep in, and I use a couple of the pairs for rugby
- 5 camis – I really quickly adopted the costeña way of not wearing camis under sheer shirts, so I only use these when I’m wearing special blouses that get too sweaty-looking if I don’t have an extra barrier.
- 4 pairs bike shorts – for wearing under skirts/dresses
- 4 pairs workout capris & 1 pair of yoga pants
- 4 workout tanks and 2 workout tees – cotton does not cut it for workouts here
- 8 pairs of socks
- 4 belts – 2 for holding up pants (black and brown), and 2 for looking cute on dresses
- Maybe 10 necklaces? I love necklaces. Bring whatever jewelry makes you happy, as long as it’s not too valuable or expensive.
- 1 rain jacket
- 1 mid-weight jacket – Just holding onto the fact that I’ll want this when I visit the interior, because the 50 degree evenings will be a shock to me after living in 80 degree+ all the time.
What I wish I had brought:
- 3 more bikinis – I actually ordered these to my parents and had them sent to me pretty early on during Pre-Service Training. Even then, when I wasn’t at a beach site, I was going to a pool or a beach at least twice a month and my one bikini was fading fast. Like with bras, I looked and only saw things in B-cups.
- Different dresses – I brought almost all corporate-world A-line, wide-strap tank dresses in heavy fabrics. These dresses look great on me, but they’re too nice for the school environment. Meanwhile, I left back my strappy lightweight summer dresses because I was worried they’d be too scandalous (lololol no such thing)
- More tops of all kinds – work tops, casual tops, going-out tops, and casual tanks
- More casual shorts – I ended up buying 2 pairs here, but at a pretty penny
- More workout shorts – for me this is specifically because the shorts are important for rugby, but fortunately they can be made for a really reasonable price
I brought quite a few pairs of shoes, yet I always feel short at least one pair. I’ve got big-lady size 10.5 feet, so I knew it would be impossible for me to find shoes here (they can be found at Payless, but they’re crazy expensive for the quality/fit of the shoe).
What I brought:
- Running shoes
- Brown leather booties – I left on a -11F day in Wisconsin, but wanted shoes that were easy to slip off for airport security. These have since just been sitting in one of my suitcases, where they had been doing fine…but just a couple weeks ago I found that they had grown mold and moss during the rainy season. So…no to leather shoes unless you’re going to wear them a lot and can keep them dry and clean.
- Brown flat leather sandals
- Teva sandals – purchased with Peace Corps discount; I’ve only worn these a couple times here, so I don’t know that I necessarily would bother with these now.
- Teva wedges in both brown and black – also purchased with Peace Corps discount; these are nice to have, but honestly sometimes I just put them on because I haven’t worn them in a while.
- Crocs Adrina III in black
- Crocs Huarache in a blue combo not shown – about half of the girls in my group had one or both of these sandals, but it gets less weird once you’re out of PST and are at site away from the other gringas. These two pairs of sandals are what I wear most commonly because they let my feet breathe but it also doesn’t matter if they get wet in the rainy season.
What I wish I had brought:
- Flip-flops. Seriously, how did I forget my flip-flops? This is the slipper of South America; most people, including myself, wear them all the time in the home as well as to the beach. Fortunately, I found a pair in my size
- Closed-toe flats like Converse or Keds. These are commonly-worn for casual birthday parties and going out. Also, you’ll want a pair of closed-toe shoes for when you leave the coast.
- Dressier wedges and/or heels. I’m actually having these brought to me so I have them for graduation in December.
Be sure to check out my other posts regarding my packing lists for electronics, toiletries, and beyond!
For more great suggestions from PCVs around the world, check out My Peace Corps Story’s ultimate packing list.