This post is for my fellow female travelers. It is about avoiding stereotypes, and it is about avoiding that feeling that you stick out with a sore thumb because you are wearing a bright red dress with multi-colored stripes and a full skirt that you assumed would be culturally appropriate based on preconceived notions of what people wear in Latin America. (I did this. Not my best move.)
I spent a year teaching in Colombia and perpetually felt under or over-dressed. Latin American style is hard to define. In the cities, most women are very well dressed. The clothing is more professional, more fashionable, and slightly more conservative than in more rural regions. Sometimes the clothing tends to be heavily influenced by cultural traditions, while other times it’s hard to tell their style apart from someone in Madrid. The weather varies drastically both within countries and between countries, so it’s important to understand what the temperatures will be like wherever you are. For example, many South American cities are in the Andes, so even though they are close to the Equator, they are also COLD. The beaches, at a much lower altitude, will be humid, hot, and sometimes very sticky. In many Latin American countries, there aren’t really four seasons. There is a dryer season and a wetter season. Usually, those seasons aren’t as clearly defined as seasons in Kansas. So, the best advice is to check average temperatures and rainfall for the places you will be visiting BEFORE you start packing. (Also, don’t forget that their “seasons” are opposite the seasons in the U.S., so that summer here is winter in Argentina.)
Depending on the region, you may see traditional dress, but you might also see women wearing tighter clothing than we might wear in the United States. This is culturally appropriate, so don’t make comments or stare.
The above two styles would be appropriate in many Latin American cities. You may want to substitute flats if you are doing a lot of walking, especially in places where the streets are muddier or less even. Boots can be a good option, especially in places that receive a lot of rain. Bringing a jacket is a good idea because temperatures can vary drastically during the day, and you never know when you’ll get stuck in a light rain or a cool breeze. If you are somewhere warm (the coasts), you can wear sleeveless styles and strappy, fashionable sandals (not flip flops).
Accessories are important. They show that you took time and thought in getting ready. Latin Americans tend to put more effort in to their appearance than we do. (They would not be caught out on the street in sweat pants, for example.) Wearing a few accessories, like a nice necklace or bracelet, will show you thought about your outfit. Wear cheaper jewelry so you don’t have to worry about theft.
Overall, keep your appearance neat. Women should consider wearing some makeup, and styling your hair will help you fit in better. Longer hair is much more common for young women than short hair. Hair styles in general tend to be more conservative. Manicures are a good idea (and are usually very affordable in Latin America), and most women will get manicures on a weekly basis.
Finally, resist the urge to visit a tanning salon. There is a preconceived notion about what people in Latin America look like and what they wear based on a lot of stereotypes. Most Latin Americans will have some European ancestry, and they look a lot like people in the U.S. The farther south you go, the more this is true (especially in places like Argentina and Uruguay).
Ultimately, be yourself and be comfortable. Confidence is always much more important than what you might be wearing or whether or not you have had your nails done.