Road Trip to Mexico, Central America, and South America: What to Take with You, What to Leave Behind
Central America Mexico North America South America United States of America Trips

Road Trip to Mexico, Central America, and South America: What to Take with You, What to Leave Behind

As an American, we’ve been socialized to believe that we need a lot more stuff than we really do (for travel and for life). It’s part of our culture to place faith in our things to get us through tough situations, but as a general rule, it’s best to travel light. The value of being mobile and carrying very little rates high for us when we’re traveling. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have a cool gadget that could solve your problem if you’re carrying so much stuff that you either a) forget that you have the gadget or b) can’t get to the gadget in your time-of-need because it’s buried under so many other things you don’t need. A big part of the adventure and fun of travel is discovering how to use your mind to solve problems; how to be creative in a pinch and find a way out of challenging situations with whatever happens to be available.

That being said, below is a list of items that we always take with us when we travel overland in a car through Latin America:

  • Medications

We carry a full bag of medications, including an array of antibiotic treatments for things like traveler’s diarrhea. We do NOT carry narcotics or any kind of substance that might get us flagged by security, however. Our med bag contains at least one dose of each of the following antibiotics for illnesses we encounter in our travels:

  • Azithromycin (Zithromax)
  • Trimethoprim/Sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim)
  • Amoxicillin/Clavulanate (Augmentin)
  • Tobramycin or Gentamycin Eye Ointment
  • Fluconazole (Diflucan)
  • Antifungal drops for ringworm, jock itch, or athlete’s foot
  • Atovaquone/Proguanil
  • Pyrantel Pamoate to treat intestinal parasites
  • Albendazole also to treat intestinal parasites (we buy Valbazen, a veterinary medicine, because it’s readily available on Amazon)

In addition to these pharmaceutical medications, we also bring along Papaya Leaf Extract (to treat dengue fever), and Clove Oil for mouth infections and/or tooth pain.

If you have medications that you take chronically, bring them along of course. Health is at the top of the list of things to manage and maintain while you’re traveling. The med-bag takes up a lot of space and you probably won’t open it very often, but when you do, you’ll be grateful to have it there. It’s worth its weight and space. Most of the antibiotic medications can be found in Mexico, just across the border. Buy a stash of antibiotics and carry it with you—enough for one dose for everyone who’s traveling with you.

  • Clothing

Obviously, you wouldn’t leave home without your clothes, but the question is: what clothes do you need to bring along? Remember, less is more. BUT, bring along clothes for both hot and cold weather. Under Armour is a good choice for cold-weather gear because it packs compactly, but it does keep you warm. Latin American countries can be surprisingly cold at higher altitudes and chances are, you’ll visit some of these places. Think pragmatically and make sure that you pack clothes that will help you manage and remain comfortable in temperature and humidity extremes.

  • Vehicle Tools

Bring along tools that you can use to repair your vehicle.

  • Communication Tools

Be sure you have a cell phone or some other method of communication while you’re on the road. You may need a SIM card for the countries you’re visiting, for example. Get these as soon as soon as possible after you get across the border.

  • Copy of Vehicle Title

Usually, it’s not advisable to bring along the original vehicle title because of the car gets stole with the title in it, you’re screwed. But you may need the original title if you’re planning to hit the road full-time, digital-nomad-style. At some of the border crossings they may ask you for the original title to your vehicle too and it might speed up the process to be able to just give it to them. We were asked for an original title to our vehicle at the Otay Border Crossing, but in the end, they accepted the original vehicle registration instead.

  • Original Vehicle Registration

Carry the original vehicle registration with you at all times when you’re driving. Expect that border crossing agents will want to see it when you cross over from the U.S. to Mexico.

  • Passports

Obviously, you’ll have your passports with you if you’re traveling in Mexico, Central, or South America. Keep them in a safe place.

  • Driver’s licenses

Again, this is a no-brainer, but still an essential thing to bring with you on a road trip in Latin America.


You’ll want to create a banking strategy to make it easy (and inexpensive or FREE) for you to withdraw funds from an ATM anywhere in your travels. If you use an American bank, you’ll need to notify them in advance about which countries you’ll be visiting.


Inflatable pillows are important. It’s hard to believe just how noxious and awful some pillows are in hotels or vacation rentals that you’ll stay in. Though most places will have nice, soft, clean, and fluffy pillows, it only take one experience with stained, sweaty, gross pillows to make it worth the while to bring along these space-saving inflatable pillows.


If your car breaks down along the road, having an umbrella can make it MUCH easier to fix the problem. If you have to walk, an umbrella won’t always keep you dry, but it will make it easier to see where you’re going.


Chances are, if you don’t pack a portable fan, you’ll end up having to buy one and it probably won’t be portable, which means you’ll have to leave it behind and buy ANOTHER fan each time you hit the road.

Believe it or not, a portable heater can be a really handy, even in hot and steamy countries like Costa Rica. I would’ve given my last pair of dry socks to have a portable heater to help dry our clothes when we were in Central America in 2012. And you never know when you’re going to end up in a vacation rental or hotel room in a high-altitude location where heaters just aren’t available because the locals are used to the cold (for example: Puno, Peru).


  • Computers and other electronic equipment for work


If you work online, be sure to pack any electronic equipment you need to do your job.


  • Tiny notebook for writing down information

Jennifer always carries a little notebook in her purse for writing down people’s contact information while traveling. Having a notebook can also help you communicate better if you don’t speak the language fluently. It takes very little space, but a small notebook can help you make connections in far-off places.


John carries a pick-pocket-proof wallet and Lydian and Jennifer carry purses with special zipper locks that prevent pick-pocketing. Always wear your purse across your shoulder diagonally to make you and your purse less of a target as you’re walking along busy streets.


Even if you plan to drive the entire distance from the United States to the tip of South America, bring along airline-friendly bags because you never know when you’ll have to a) evacuate a country due to a tsunami or a civil unrest, etc. or b) a loved one at home has an emergency and you need to get back home fast. Think about airlines and packing even if you’re doing a road trip. Our favorite brand of luggage is Osprey because the bags last forever, the zipper never give out, and they’re extremely versatile.


Keep it in your purse, on the keychain, or in the glove compartment. Just like in the United States, you never know when you might need something like pepper spray, if only just to boost your self-confidence in ambiguous situations.


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