Note: These packing suggestions are specific to Iracambi Centro in Minas Gerais, Brazil, but many would still be relevant to other rainforest/tropical experiences. Hope travelers find this helpful!
Packing is hard. Packing for the rainforest is even harder. What do rainforest-appropriate clothes look like? What do you wear to protect skin from sunburn and bugs without overheating? What about mosquito netting? Drinking water?
I did some independent research to clarify exactly what I wanted to bring with me for three weeks at Iracambi. Here’s what I found.
What to Wear
- I wore my hiking boots every day at Iracambi, even on days we spent gardening in the nursery. Hiking boots are great for hiking mountains and trekking through the rainforest, but their thickness also provides an extra sense of security – it’s hard for a spider, snake, scorpion, or any other creepy-crawly creature hiding in the grass to have access to your foot when it’s clothed in thick material. Ankle-high boots help to prevent twisted ankles while moving over uneven ground or hiking uphill.
I bought my Vasque boots a few years ago at Eastern Mountain Sports. I’m not sure the exact style, but they look a lot like this.
Here you can see the hiking boots and tall socks combo. And my favorite new raincoat!
- I brought two pairs of sneakers in case one got wet. I ended up only using one pair since I wore my hiking boots most of the time, but it was nice to have a back-up option just in case. I would wear sneakers to a meal, in the Centro, or around the cabin.
- A pair of flip-flops was great for the bathroom floors, which were wet for the entire day after someone showered. (There’s no base to the showers, so water covers the bathroom floor until it all drains, leaving things damp.) It was helpful to have flip-flops to slide on when using the bathroom in the middle of the night.
- It’s always a good idea to tuck your pants into tall socks to keep bugs out. We do this back home in the northeastern United States to keep out ticks, so it’s not strictly jungle fashion. But it works well here. I bought a pack of five pairs for three weeks, and this was enough to wear while some were being washed/drying.
- Quick-wicking underwear is great because it dries fast. This is actually true for all clothing, but especially underwear and socks which you go through quickly. I personally didn’t bring any for this trip, but you can find them at many stores for a reasonable price, including REI.
- I decided to bring a fleece along last minute, and I’m so glad I did! My stay in the rainforest happened at the beginning of the summer, when it was getting quite hot. But the temperature dropped at night. There were several nights I wore the fleece to bed. This wasn’t something I expected. Definitely don’t forget a cozy warm layer!
- A light, water-resistant jacket is a must for spontaneous rain showers. I’ve had trouble in the past finding rain jackets that are actually waterproof. I always end up damp inside the jacket. After lots of research, I think I finally hit the jackpot with Columbia Women’s Arcadia II jacket. It kept me warm and dry, and it fit well.
- Layering in the rainforest is key! I liked to tuck in my undershirt or t-shirt to keep bugs off my skin. I also liked to always have at least one layer that was Permithin-protected (more on that later, in the Safety & Medical section).
I brought 3 outerwear options (in addition to the rain jacket and fleece): a light sweater, a light long-sleeved, and a pullover. The links are approximations to what I brought; I just found them in my closet.
- Long-sleeved cotton shirts are great to protect your arms from bites or sunburn. I had three light long-sleeved shirts that I alternated. I bought them at TJ Maxx, and they looked something like this.
- I brought 6 or 7 of these – just random tank tops I had in my drawer.
- Two sports bras from TJ Maxx made for comfortable days in the heat.
- Don’t bring jeans! They will take forever to dry. I brought two pairs of khakis and a pair of black sports leggings, all bought at TJ Maxx. I loved the leggings and wished I had brought two pairs. The khakis were a bit less comfortable but did their job of protecting my skin (plus I felt like they made me look like a jungle explorer! ha).
I had heard that pockets are key, but I didn’t consider the lack of pockets in the leggings to be much of a drawback because I usually wore a money belt/fanny pack that held all the things I most frequently reached for. The money belt was honestly more convenient than a pocket because it was so easy to access.
- I brought a pair of jean shorts (I know, I know, breaking my own rules) and a pair of athletic shorts. I wore these shorts on the walk home from swimming in the waterfall so I didn’t have to put pants over my wet bathing suit. I probably could have worn the shorts more frequently around the Centro but I preferred to keep my legs covered for mosquito reasons. If you’re trekking through forested area, pants are definitely the way to go over shorts.
- It’s always a good idea to have some nicer clothes for weekend trips or other occasions that might come up. I brought a casual dress, a pair of joggers, and a jumpsuit, and I ended up wearing them all.
- I used two pairs of pajama pants and two t-shirts.
- I only brought one suit, but could have brought two considering the number of times we went to the waterfall! Don’t forget one if you think you’ll be near any body of water.
- I only brought one shower towel. I typically showered every other day, so it was usually dry by the time I wanted to use it again. I used a fast-drying towel for when we went swimming in the waterfall, which I’ll reference in the Equipment section.
- Dark-colored clothes (bugs like colors)
- Fast-drying clothes
- Clothes that can be layered
Safety & Medical
Mosquito repellent & Permethrin:
I took more precautions against mosquitoes than most of my fellow volunteers. I will say that I also got a lot less bites, so something I did worked. Over the course of three weeks, I didn’t get any bites on my face or neck (as some volunteers did), nor on my legs, and I only got ~5-10 on my arms. (Also, side note: coming from New England, USA, where there are also lots of mosquitoes in the summer, and having never been to South America, I expected constant clouds of mosquitoes in the rainforest. Though the mosquitoes were there and biting, they weren’t a nuisance in the buzzing, “in-your-face” sense, which was nice.)
All this to say, I was on the more cautious side when it came to mosquitoes. But it worked. Here’s what I did:
- I purchased two 24 oz. bottles of Permethrin on Amazon. Permethrin is an insect-killing repellent that you can spray on clothing. It’s as effective as 100 DEET, and it lasts for six washes on clothing. Each 24 oz. bottle can protect 8 garments – 3 oz of fluid per garment. The bottle notes that the size of the garments doesn’t affect the amount of Permethrin that should be used on it; less than 3 oz is simply not as effective. So a sock and a jacket would each count as one garment.
I bought two bottles so I could spray 16 garments, and I chose to spray: three shirts, three pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, my backpack, my rain jacket, and three light outer layers. I did this a couple days before my trip.
- I bought two bottles of Repel Max Formula, 40% DEET, 6 fl oz for only $3.50 a bottle, and this was more than enough (though I’m glad I had two, so I could keep one in my backpack and another in my cabin).
Every morning, I sprayed my exposed skin (my wrists, neck, and face) with bug spray. I tried to always wear at least one top and bottom layer that had Permethrin on it; because mosquitoes couldn’t bite through them, I had less area to worry about for bug spray.
- Many volunteers don’t bring mosquito nets. I went back and forth on it, but brought one just in case. I ended up being glad I had it. I slept without the netting the first two nights and the last night, and I was totally fine. But it was nice to have a bug-free zone to retreat to at night, from not only the mosquitoes but also moths and beetles, which were everywhere. My roommate also had one. My other cabin mates didn’t, and there were a few mornings that they complained about the mosquitoes during the night.
I bought my net on Amazon. It came with hooks, which was great. The only complaint I had was that the openings to the net merely overlap; they don’t zip or Velcro or anything, so sometimes bugs could slip in the net opening if I didn’t tuck it under the mattress tight enough. Also the mesh was big enough for really tiny bugs to get in if they wanted – none wanted to though, so this wasn’t an issue for me.
My bunk before we hung up the mosquito net. My bottom bunkmate had hers up here.
I burn super easily – like, even with sunscreen on – so I carried a sunscreen stick with me and used it on my face several times a day. I also carried spray sunscreen in my backpack to easily spray on my arms and neck anytime they were exposed for a longer period of time. Other volunteers who were similarly light-skinned didn’t use much sunscreen at all and were completely fine – but I definitely needed as much as I put on, based on my slightly red cheeks in the mirror each night. I brought a small bottle of sun lotion too but I didn’t end up using any of it. The stick and spray were much easier to apply.
As far as SPF is concerned, SPF 30 is the most common choice. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. Note that there’s only a 1% difference between SPF 30 and 50.
What I brought and would recommend:
- Coppertone Sunscreen Spray, SPF 50, 5.5 oz (note: if you bring this, you will not be able to transport it in a carry-on bag when you fly)
- Neutrogena Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50, 1.5 oz
- I brought a baseball hat, and that worked for me (considering I was also slathering myself in sunscreen all the time). A friend wore a sunhat like this in place of sunscreen, and that seemed to be another great option.
- The sun is sunny, so if you can’t live without sunglasses, definitely bring them!
This was an item that I spent a lot of time researching. I was concerned about the drinking water quality, so I explored purifying & filtered water bottle options. So let me save you some time: the water at Iracambi is filtered and totally fine to drink. They use Brazilian ceramic filters (they look like a big piece of pottery), and there’s one in the dining area and one in the Centro. I refilled my water bottle at every meal, and I was set. The water had a bit of a taste to it, but I’m not picky about that. In short, there is a safe drinking option available at Iracambi.
If you’re planning on traveling a lot and want to have another purification option that you can carry with you on the go, it might be worth looking into personal purification products. (That said, I traveled to one city during my stay, and the place we stayed at had a filtering system that everyone used. The tap water generally isn’t drinkable in the area, so there will likely be some sort of filter available.)
After going back and forth, I figured I was better safe than sorry, and I did bring a GRAYL Ultralight Water Purifier +Filter bottle with me. I didn’t end up using it while at Iracambi – but mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to use it. (It’s not challenging to use… I just forgot to unscrew the cap… silly me.) But the reason I didn’t bother trying to figure out the GRAYL was because the ceramic filter worked fine and I had no need.
Because I didn’t use it much, I can’t really review the GRAYL. There’s a lot of discussion online about the difficulty of pressing the filter down over time, which was what gave me pause when I considered buying it. I did use it once in the airport in Rio on the way home with bathroom tap water, and the water tasted great (and was cheaper than bottled water! Well, maybe not, if you account for the price of the GRAYL… haha.)
- Long story short, the water bottle I primarily used was a 1 liter Camelback bottle from my local bank, and I carried this around everywhere. If you drink a lot of water, consider bringing two bottles.
Swiss Army Knife:
- I didn’t bring one, but another volunteer did and she used it all the time in the lab and the nursery!
First Aid Kit:
- A first aid kit is a smart idea to bring. Include things like:
- Bandaids (I used tons of these for little scratches or blisters)
- Bandage & medical tape
- Antibiotic ointment/antiseptic liquid
- Blister dressing
- Cortisol ointment for bug bites
- Antacids, such as pepto bismol
- Aspirin, ibuprofen, or tylenol
- Aloe vera
- Anti-fungal cream
- Dramamine if you get motion sick (the roads in the forest are windy and bumpy!)
- Antibacterial wipes
- Antidiarrheal medication
Some thoughts on this last item: I decided to buy a supplement called Travelan, a preventive measure for traveler’s diarrhea. You simply take one before each meal. I eventually stopped taking them when eating Larissa’s cooking – I figured my body had gotten used to her food, though I don’t know if science works like that – but I had one pill every time I ate food anywhere else. I don’t know if it helped, but I didn’t have any digestive issues while I was there, unlike other times I’ve traveled.
Equipment & Electronics:
- If you are stationed in one place for most of your trip, like at Iracambi, or are hoping to do work or blogging while traveling, a laptop is a good idea.
- From Electrical Safety First: “For Brazil there are two associated plug types, types C and N. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins. Plug type N is the plug which has two flat parallel pins and a grounding pin. Brazil operates on a 127/220V supply voltage and 60Hz.” I brought the universal adaptor that I always use for travel; it works great!
- This was another one of those things that I debated bringing and was so happy that I did. I carried it around with me in my backpack so that my phone was always charged. You want to have your phone charged so you can take photos when the time arises!! I used Anker PowerCore external battery, and it worked really well. You get at least 4 charges, and I only needed to charge the battery every other day at the most.
- I used my iPhone to capture photos and videos, and this served me well for my needs. There are so many incredible photo opportunities in the Atlantic Rainforest – all sorts of birds and insects, interesting plants, and beautiful landscapes. If you want to take photographs with a nicer camera, the opportunities are there! I also brought two disposable cameras which were just fun to use.
Flashlight with batteries:
- Many phones come with flashlights, but it’s nice to have a handheld flashlight too. The night is very dark in the rainforest.
- I would definitely recommend bringing a headlamp – they’re very handy in many situations. I actually would use mine in bed after my roommate had gone to sleep so I could read with the lights off. Sometimes volunteers will go on early morning hikes – in the dark – to catch the sunrise, and a headlamp will keep your hands free.
SIM Card for phone:
- Iracambi recommends getting CLARO or VIVO. I bought a CLARO card in the airport at one of the taxi booths. The staff there were very kind and helped me install it. They did overcharge, around R$100, so you’ll almost definitely get a cheaper SIM card elsewhere. I wanted data for the commute to Iracambi, which is why I bought one at the airport There are different plans, and mine had 1 GB data for one week. To refill the data, you can just go to a newsstand or pharmacy anywhere and they can do it for you there.
All this being said, my SIM card data never actually worked. I never figured out why. Calls probably did work, because I had service, but I couldn’t have used it to call anyone at Iracambi if I had had trouble with the commute because they don’t have service there. Other volunteers did have luck with SIM cards, so reach out to Rogéria if you have questions and she can give you better advice. (Also, a note: the trip from the Rio airport to Iracambi was very straight forward, and I was fine traveling without data. Just be sure to download any Netflix shows or songs you might want for the long bus ride!)
- I brought an Armitron Sport Women’s waterproof watch I bought a while back on Amazon. There isn’t much reason for keeping strict time at Iracambi – the schedule is fairly loose and you can hear when it’s meal time when Larissa bangs on her pan. I did appreciate having it though so I didn’t have to take out my phone to check the time, especially when my hands were dirty from planting seeds.
- My luggage consisted of a small suitcase and a large backpack. I decided to bring a second smaller backpack to use at Iracambi, which was great. I found a hiker’s backpack on Amazon that rolls up really small and fit into my large backpack easily. I carried it around Iracambi and on hikes, outings, and weekend trips. I had more stuff when I headed home than when I started – souvenirs – so I used the small backpack to carry this stuff on the way home.
I ended up choosing the OlarHike hiking backpack. The interior coloring wore down during the few weeks I was there, but it functioned perfectly. I was happy with it, especially for the low price.
- I used all sorts of different storage bags. I brought two travel vacuum storage bags to hold all my clothes. The vacuum helped me squeeze my clothes into one carry-on bag, while also keeping my clothes dry while I was there, and also giving me peace of mind that there weren’t any brown spiders hiding in my clothes. (Iracambi recommends that you shake out or check your shoes, sheets, and clothes because brown spiders are present, small, and like dark damp spaces. I only saw one while at Iracambi, and it was in the bathroom in the Centro.) I’ve had these for a couple years now and can’t find them online, but they look something like this.
- I also brought various gallon- and quart-sized bags, as well as sandwich bags. They frequently came in handy, for everything from saving cookies from lunch to holding my electronics or important receipts. They also keep things dry, or can hold things that are wet.
- I decided to bring a Chill Pal cooling towel to use in the heat. I didn’t end up using it for its cooling property (which is what it’s advertised for) but rather as a towel at the waterfall because it dried really quickly. I don’t think a cooling towel is necessary to bring, but a quick-drying towel is good to have, especially for the waterfall. Other volunteers brought towels like this.
There was one very hot day that I tried to use the cooling towel for its purpose: cooling. I thought it just felt like a wet towel. Which was, to be fair, cooling.
- I’ve used the RFID Travel Wallet on trips in Europe, Africa, and now Brazil, and I absolutely love it. Theft is common in big cities, so it was nice to have when traveling from and to Iracambi. Theft isn’t an issue at all in the forest, but I was grateful to have the belt for carrying my stuff during the day at Iracambi – usually, my sunscreen stick, phone, portable charger, pack of tissues, a few Reais, Travelan, and my earphones. A fanny pack would work just as well and perhaps be more fashionable!
- Make sure to tell your bank you’ll be traveling before you leave the country. It’s smart to have a few different sources of money in case you lose one for any reason. I was able to use my card at most restaurants, even smaller cities, but make sure to have currency on hand as well because you need it for taxis, farmstands, etc.
- I didn’t order currency before arriving in Brazil, though some other volunteers did. There is an ATM at the bus station in Muriae. I withdrew some money from the airport ATM, which had a higher fee for withdrawal but I felt most comfortable getting it there.
- I also brought $100 in US cash. A Brazilian friend recommended that I separate the bills and carry them in a few different spots, so I put some in my backpack and some in my money belt. Anything can happen, so having backups is important. I didn’t end up using any of this, but was glad to have it.
- Don’t forget this, and keep it safe!
Yellow fever certification:
- Brazil doesn’t require you to travel with this, but some countries in South America do, so it’s good to have if you’re thinking of traveling more around the continent. Mine was never checked.
- It’s a good idea to have photocopies of your passport, travel & health insurance, proof of vaccinations, tickets, and other important documents. Also take pictures of them, and email the photos to yourself so you can access them if you lose your phone.
Shampoo, conditioner, & body wash:
- I considered bringing only the minimum – e.g. no conditioner, and using shampoo as body wash. I was happy that I didn’t compromise. Especially if you’re going to be at Iracambi for a while, it’s nice to have the things you’re used to in the bathroom. Travel size probably would have been fine, but since I was bringing a checked bag on the plane anyways, I brought a larger bottle of shampoo. I left it at Iracambi for the other volunteers to use when I headed home.
Face and hand wipes:
- I brought two packets of antibacterial wipes and one packet of face wipes from CVS, and I was SO glad that I did. I used the hand wipes after putting on bug spray, working in the dirt, or before meals. The face wipes were great to use before bed to get off all the sunscreen and bug spray from the day.
- Another useful item to have. I got a slight cold while I was at Iracambi, so I went through a lot of them.
Toothbrush & paste
- Books, notebooks, headphones, playing cards, knitting needles. There’s lots of downtime at Iracambi for activities like this. Robin and Binka have a huge library at their house so they can provide you with a book if you run out, or kindles are useful if you’re a fast reader.
Snacks from home:
- Some volunteers brought tea bags from home which we all used! It’s always nice to have comfort snacks with you, especially for a longer stay.
Hope this helps!