Stories that Shaped Us: Katie’s Ultimate Barranquilla Packing Guide

Katie Dickson is an ISA Barranquilla alumna at the University of Colorado Boulder whose experience abroad during spring 2022 helped her grow a love for Colombia and its people.

We reached out to learn more about why she chose to go abroad with ISA Colombia and how her study abroad experience helped her gain a better insight of how she can best prepare for all her future adventures. Check out this unique story below.

Everything I Wish I Packed for My Semester in Barranquilla

I am not going to lie; I was terrified the morning I left to live in Colombia for 5 months. While I have moved abroad before, this move felt very different. What was the same however was my channeling of anxiety into packing and organizing. As a self-aware material girl, the items I bring when I move bring me great comfort. Feeling prepared for what lies ahead by knowing I have everything I need/will want/will use makes me feel in control and less stressed. Colombia was no different. Packing in two bags for five months to a place you have never visited is not easy. Especially for somebody who loves fashion and products. ISA provided us with a great list to work off, but there are some things I wish I would have included in my luggage. I brought a checked bag, a carry-on and a backpack and overall, really enjoyed the capsule wardrobe I brought with me to Barranquilla. I also shopped. A lot. I found in my free time one of my favorite things to do was walk to Plaza del Parque, get a little drink, and wander around the stores. Make sure to check out Karibik when you go. It’s one of the only  Colombian brands with a storefront in the Plaza and where I got some of my favorite pieces from abroad.

Touring Medellin with my mom and we stopped to take this picture at the top of comuna 13

I could write an entirely separate post about the style, fashion, and beauty norms in Colombia. There is so much culture in clothing. In general, Colombian women are incredibly put together. Coming from a place where everybody wears sweatpants to class, I had a lot of fun “dressing up” every day. Don’t be worried though, tee shirts and jeans are perfectly acceptable. It is less formal and more hygiene oriented. While I never passed as a local, opting for jeans or a sundress rather than an oversized tee shirt and biker shorts helped me feel like I blended in. On that note, most Colombians do not wear shorts. A tour guide once told us the easiest way to spot a foreigner was to look at who had shorts on. That being said, I still wore all varieties of shorts I brought. At the end of the day, I am an American and I was SO hot. I found that I felt the most comfortable in my longer jean shorts day to day and bike shorts were perfect for under dresses as we did a lot of walking. Plus the athletic shorts I brought were perfect for Aerojumpy (the best workout in Barranquilla). However, by the end of my time in Barranquilla I found myself gravitating towards the pants and dresses since they were easy, light and comfortable.

Here is a list of items I wish I would have brought with me from the states, what I brought and did not use, and what I did bring and would highly recommend. 

First, a few disclaimers.

  1. You can 100% buy ALL these items in Barranquilla.
  2. This list is heavily biased by my personal experience and preferences.
  3. You will survive and thrive regardless of what you pack. At the end of the day, your focus will be on the new environment around you rather than the clothes on your back (as it should be).
Sitting on the boat we took to tour the Amazon river where we fished for piranhas and swam with pink dolphins

Amazon Rainforest Appropriate Clothing– If you are planning (or hope) to explore to the Amazon rainforest, I HIGHLY recommend bringing light, breathable, and durable hiking/workout pants, a long-sleeved top, and wool socks. My comrades and I scrambled to buy our Amazon rainforest kits right before our Semana Santa trip. Leggings are a no go as they do not protect from mosquitos and the vegetation is so thick the soft material doesn’t stand a chance. You’re going to want full protection from the elements. It is also hot and humid so try to keep it light. I wore a pair of men’s trackpants I bought the night before we left at what could be described as a Colombian Kmart (Dumbo). They were aggressively highwater, not breathable, and so inelastic my range of motion was limited to bending my knee halfway. I paired the track pants with an equally sweltering cropped polyester long sleeve (please don’t wear ANYTHING cropped). I spent the entire trek tucking and re-tucking and applying bug spray to the sliver of my exposed back and stomach. The outfit was topped off with ankle socks in high rubber boots which caused my ankles to chafe so badly I developed suspicious blisters. Luckily my amazing friend Jonathan gave me his extra pair of wool socks the second day of walking and I felt like a changed woman. In short, don’t do what I did. Even if you’re not sure where your travels will take you, be prepared for the rainforest. You could also use this outfit in Minca or Cuidad Perdida.

Travel bottles– So simple yet so useful. The places we stayed never supplied shampoo and conditioner. I wished the whole semester I had brought small, leak proof, refillable bottles for traveling instead of relying on other people or whatever soap had been left in the hostel shower.

Wallet that fits cash / coins– Colombia is a cash-based economy. Never be without cash, it puts you in a vulnerable position because there is no way of knowing if a tienda or restaurant takes card or if Uber’s will be available. Coins are therefore also extremely useful. I should have opted for a larger wallet that fit cash, my card, and had a coin pouch in it rather than a coin pouch and separate card holder. The small sizes meant I had to pull out all of my money to find the right amount and I had one more thing to keep up with. While the small size is convenient for traveling or going out to the club, I wish I had a full-sized wallet for day to day use.

On monkey Island with a monkey on my shoulder. This was one of the stops we made on our Amazon Trek

Water bottle– In my mind, not being able to drink the tap water meant I did not need a reusable water bottle since I could only drink from plastic. This is completely wrong. The water fountains on campus at UniNorte are filtered and your homestay will (probably) keep large jugs in the fridge. Bring one or buy one it doesn’t really matter but it is hot and you will probably be dehydrated from sweating. Also, ice isn’t really a thing so maybe leave the insulated bottle at home if you’re worried about losing it.

Bath towel– Towels are personal items in Colombia, they do not stay in the bathroom after you shower and are not provided by the homestay hosts. I recommend bringing two. A dedicated bath towel and a larger, lighter multipurpose towel. I only brought a Turkish towel and a couple small makeup removing cloths. The Turkish towel was great until we went to the beach, stayed in a hostel or my host mom waited a little longer to do laundry. Sometimes it got slightly gross between washes so, it would’ve been nice to have a backup.

Deet bug spray– “The mosquitos always love the Americans the most” – Fabiola (my host Abuela). I have always been a mosquito magnet, but the Colombian mosquitos are on a different level. Skip the child’s play and go straight for the big guns. I would have happily slathered my body in Deet if it meant I was not mascaraed on a daily basis. The mosquitos are everywhere, you cannot escape them and the off branded repellent only moderately deterred the insects.

Portable charger-Again, another obvious item I failed to bring. Your phone is important, it gets you places and keeps you safe. You never know what will happen when you’re traveling or out and about for the day and a dead phone will only make your life harder.  

Burner phone– While I personally did not bring a backup phone, my roommate did, and it was a genius move. More likely than not, you or someone you know will get their phone stolen. It happens and sometimes it’s just not preventable. If you have an old phone, I highly recommend bringing it just in case something unfortunate happens to yours. It’s always good to be prepared and buying a new phone abroad is a less than desirable situation.

Sunscreen– We spent a lot of time at the beach in the first few weeks. Sunscreen became a commodity as we all burned. Bring a little and buy more later on. You will be so busy that buying sunscreen will be the last thing on your mind until after you fry. 

Tiny umbrella– The rainy season is real. I am not sure why, but in my mind, it was not going to rain. This assumption again, was woefully incorrect. There were times when it was POURING and there was nothing to do but accept you were going to get drenched. I wish I had a tiny but mighty umbrella to keep in my backpack. But hey, it built character.

Cheering on the Colombia National Football Team!

Anti-perspirant that actually works (I used natural and it was a bad move)-When writing this list I asked my roommate what she would include and she noted she was surprised by how many of her shirts now have sweat stains. I share the sentiment especially since I decided to make the switch to natural deodorant right before I moved. I recommend not following in my footsteps if you are even a remotely sweaty person. It is so humid and so hot. All the time. And a lot of the Colombian women look like they have never sweat in their life.  Get a good anti-perspirant that actually works, being stinky is not a good look on anyone.

Cash ordered from the USA– ISA told us to do this, I ignored their advice. I then proceeded to spend a significant amount of money that I would rather not add up on ATM fees. My advice, do what they say, order as many Colombian pesos in the USA as you possibly can. While this will be in large bills which can be hard to spend, it is sooooo much better than having to constantly seek out an ATM and get killed by fees. We were constantly on the hunt for the lowest transaction expense. Plus, the exchange rate fluctuates pretty dramatically.

Meds (general)– Obviously you can buy these at any pharmacy but having ibuprofen, tums, Benadryl, hydrocortisone, cold medicine, and band-aids on hand when you need them. It will alleviate a lot of work on your end. Plus, depending on your language skills, it can be hard to properly describe what you are looking for to the pharmacist since all products are kept behind the counter. If you don’t bring along a medicine cabinet do not fear, your host family or the program director will guide you in the right direction. Band-Aids in a variety of sizes are my biggest recommendation. I slipped and fell while biking in Medellin and was never able to find the bandages I wanted / needed for the wound on my knee. It’s easier to have that kind of stuff on hand, just in case.

International credit card– Again, ISA told us to do this, I ignored their advice and went on to waste my money on international fees. 

Duffle bag (for the return)– I returned to the States with way more than I came with and you probably will too. Make your life a little easier and bring an extra duffle in your bag so you can focus on your goodbyes instead of stressing over how you are going to get everything home.

Making a quick stop to get an extra cheese arepa while on a bike tour of Medellin

Razor blades– This one is more of a personal problem. I use a Gillette razor and the replacement blades are really expensive in Colombia. The cheaper razors always gave me razor burn and rusted after a single use, which was inconvenient and made me feel bad about the environment.

Fan (one of the folding ones)- Equally excessive and not necessary, I would’ve loved to have one of these to keep in my purse for the many moments I wished to cool down.

Things I Brought that I Did Not Use

Hair dryer– Unless it is freezing outside, I do not personally blow dry my hair every time I wash it. With this in mind, I am unsure why I decided I needed to bring a hair dryer to a place that maintained 80 degrees and 90% humidity. I think I used mine once the whole time. If anything, I wish I would’ve brought a curler for those days I had extra time to get ready and was feeling myself.

Heels– I wore these once and they tore up my feet so bad I never wore them again. Plus, I’m pretty sure I ended up barefoot that night anyways. If you’re a tried-and-true heels girly then go for it, you will be in good company in Colombia. But if you’re on the fence, save on space and buy a pair there when you really need / want them.

Leggings / yoga pants– Athleisure is a newer trend in Colombia and not typically worn out and about. I am also not a gym girlie and leggings are basically useless against mosquitos. My yoga pants were also worn a single time and I sweat so much I wish I had not worn them. It is cooler in Bogota and Medellin, so if you will be traveling there you might want to include a pair but overall, I did not need these.

Leather pants– Leather pants might be the least breathable pants you could put on your body. Mine are slightly fuzzy on the inside so even putting them on my body in Barranquilla was a no go. While I did wear them to the clubs in Medellin a single time, I do not thing they were worth the space. Again this is completely a personal style thing, if you have a great pair, bring them!

Physical books-Books are large and heavy and you can buy books in English and Spanish in Barranquilla. My friend brought tons and said she regretted it because she was having so much fun, she didn’t have time to read all of them!

Watching the sunset over the Amazon River

Things to Absolutely Bring

Packing cubes– If you plan on traveling and like to be semi organized, invest in some packing cubes!! Colombian airlines only let you bring a backpack for free, a carryon is typically an extra $40-$60, and a backpack is much more convenient when taking the bus. Therefore, all of our packing is done with very little space. A packing cube means you don’t have to empty out your bag every time you’re trying to find something, it’s easier to keep your things together in a hostel, and you can maximize your precious backpack space.

Journal– My best friend gave me a journal before I left and I made it my goal to fill it before I came home. Not only was this a great personal goal that gave me an activity and forced me to reflect on my experiences, but also serves as a testament to the ups and downs I experienced abroad. I read the entries on my flight home in June and it was such a gift to recap my journey and be reminded of how scared I was going in. To this day it helps me remember all of the beautiful experiences and moments.

Shampoo bar– Lush shampoo bars are fantastic and don’t take up a ton of space, I never had to buy shampoo and it was easy to travel with.

Biking in Cartagena

Fanny pack/Cross body purse (that zips or clasps)– This is a universal study abroad staple. Especially when traveling with a backpack, a fanny pack helps keep all of your important things strapped to your body so you can’t lose them or get pick pocketed.

Backpack– Bring a sturdy backpack with lots of pockets that can be used for school and a weekend trip! My North Face backpack from high school served me well, I loved the internal zipper pockets for organization and to keep things more secure.

Kindle– Books are bulky but you will have time to read. For the first time in college, I had time to read for fun (which was so refreshing). I liked the kindle because it’s a little more lowkey than an iPad.

Passport holder– I was in Barranquilla during the tail end of COVID mask mandates so, we were constantly required to show our vaccination card. I loved my passport holder because it kept my passport, vaccine card and other important travel documents all in one place rather than floating around my backpack.

Tote bag/beach bag– The sand in Puerto Colombia is black and sticky; bring a beach tote that is durable or one that you don’t mind getting dirty. My friends would use their backpacks (which totally does the job) BUT the sand would never go away.  Plus a tote can be handy when you’re traveling if you need a little extra space.

Throwing maicena (corn starch) is a tradition while watching the Carnivales! Barranquilla has the second biggest carnival in the world.

Turkish towel– While I wish I would’ve brought an extra, I loved this towel for the beach and travel because it dried fast and could be used as a coverup situation. A sarong wrap is also a great option as it can serve as a towel, beach blanket, cover up and warm shawl while you travel.

Powdered dry shampoo– Another material girl product you don’t need but was nice to have. I am pretty specific about the brands that work for my hair and a powdered dry shampoo takes up less space and lasts much longer than the spray.

Favorite pens– I am attached to my favorite brand of pen (Pilot G-2) and dislike writing with anything else so it was nice to have a surplus of these since pens tend to get lost.

White sneakers– My most worn pair of shoes by far. Bring a pair that is comfy, can go with everything and not too expensive as they will most likely get destroyed. I didn’t even bring mine home because the sole fell off from all of the walking we did.

With my Colombian Abuela/ host mom Fabiola
Celebrating Fabiola’s birthday with my roommate Solana and Fabiola’s granddaughter

Curious to hear more from ISA/TEAN alumni? Read more blogs from Colombia Alumni or explore additional packing tips other study abroad participants have had.

Inspired by Katie’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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