Top 9 Ways to Avoid Looking Like a Gringo in Latin America

by Guest Blogger on March 25, 2011 · 95 comments

The following is a guest post by Andrew. If you’d like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.

Hi! I'm a douchebag!

I realize there are numerous obvious reasons you can think of that would make someone not want to stick out as an obvious tourist in Latin America–safety (criminals are far more likely to target an obvious tourist), social acceptance, not feeling stupid, simply wanting to blend in by dressing in the local fashion, etc.–but the best reason isn’t any of those, and it’s one that requires a bit of explaining and delves right into the culture of Latin America, and it has to do with poverty…

Normal people dress more formally in Latin America than elsewhere, and the reason for this is that a much, much larger proportion of their population is relatively poor than in wealthier developed nations like the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, and consequently it isn’t, and never has been, considered fashionable to dress down or to dress like you’re poorer than you really are.

No one wants to be mistaken for the lowest lower class (Latin America is also a much more class-centered society), no one wears jeans that are intentionally torn (if your jeans are torn it must be because you’re too poor to afford new ones), no one wears clothes that are baggy and don’t fit (if they don’t fit, it must be because you can’t afford proper clothes that do fit correctly), no one dresses informally because it looks “cool” (because it doesn’t there), etc.

Latin America is an extremely class-conscious society, and the A-number-one way that people communicate to everyone else that they’re respectable, not a criminal, and not a violent delinquent is by dressing as smartly and as nicely as they can possibly afford to.

Even very poor people will still do this, they’ll own just one nice pair of dress pants that they wear every single day and wash and iron every single night if they have to, only the worst of the worst don’t–they’re not being snobs, this isn’t our culture, it’s not the same as if you were to do this here.

When you dress shabbily (shabbily by their standards, normal by ours), you’re associating yourself immediately with some very ‘undesirable’ people that no one else wants to be associated with, people will avoid being seen with you and any friends you might make will not want to be seen out with you but will be too polite to tell you that your dressing habits make you look like a desperate heroin addict.

Please, before you start ranting at me in the comments, understand that I’m not saying you can’t wear what you want, I’m not telling you how to dress, I’m just saying people are going to judge you for it and you really cannot hold that against them since they’re just being normal (you’re in their culture, right?) and you’re the one being weird, I’m just telling you what’s socially acceptable and what’s not and why.

Just as an example of how this can cause problems, having had this same exact experience related to me by several backpackers who have had this happen in several different Latin American countries: you will get turned away at the door at clubs and even bars if you’re wearing sneakers, or shorts, or a t-shirt (without a nice button-up shirt on top of it), and frequently even jeans, and god help you if you’re wearing 3 or 4 of those.

The Top 9 Gringo Giveaways

The following list contains what I’ve found are the most common and obvious things that gringos will tend to do that you would never see a native doing, thereby being the things that are most commonly known by the natives to indicate that someone isn’t from around there (and most of these tend to be associated with the stereotypical white American/Canadian/European tourist).

Follow these tips to avoid looking like a gringo in Latin America:

1. People don’t usually wear just a t-shirt when they go out.

This is something that would be worn around the house after work or perhaps while one was working out or doing some gardening or landscaping at home, though people do wear them underneath a nice button-up shirt, so that’s fine.

2. They don’t wear sneakers unless they’re going running or they’re doing (or on their way to do) some sort of physical or athletic activity that requires them.

And even then, many people would wear their normal clothes on the way over while bringing their running/sports clothes with them that they’ll change into when they get there.

Also, white socks are only worn with sneakers, never with normal dress shoes that people wear day-to-day.

3. They would never wear a tracksuit, exercise shorts, or exercise pants unless they were actually exercising.

Even going to and from the gym they’d wear something nicer and bring their workout clothes back and forth with them and change at the gym (which would almost certainly involve a shower post-workout prior to changing back into their nice clothes).

4. Fanny packs.

No. Never. Not ever. This makes you a walking target as far as muggers are concerned, and with there being plenty of other less obtrusive options such as money belts, backpacks (student-style backpack that is: students are poor, they have no money, don’t bother robbing them, you know?), briefcases/man-purses, etc. there just isn’t a good reason to have one.

5. Generally dressing like a hippy.

You already know if this applies to you: looking like you just rolled out of Woodstock is fine in most places in the U.S., and fine with me personally by the way (I have a bit of a soft spot for hippie chicks, I think they’re cute especially when they have dreadlocks), I have nothing against them, but the problem with it is that Latin Americans will perceive you as dirty, in a heroin-addict-who-might-just-stab-you sort of way.

Sorry, but you’ll get significantly better treatment and service if you take note of the fact that the locals will frequently be dressed in nice trousers/skirts and a starched button-up shirt even in sweltering heat and do what you can to blend in.

6. Very skimpy clothing.

Make no mistake, the women will certainly go to great lengths to show off their “assets” sometimes, especially if they’re going out clubbing or something, and plenty of them are frequently sporting a very respectable amount of cleavage (I’m looking at you, Medellín), but what you won’t ever see is really revealing stuff like shorts that are so short your ass is practically hanging out, a top so small that it’s essentially a bra, itty-bitty mini-skirts (again, with your ass practically hanging out), etc.

This is especially a no-no in a church, and this is one complaint I’ve heard from locals where the reaction goes from “oh that’s slutty”, which is how they would normally see it, to “that’s really f*ing offensive, someone should throw her out”. Be careful what you wear to churches, if you don’t normally bother please just this once make the effort to wear something nice, it’s really a big deal (this isn’t a religion thing–I’m agnostic–it’s a respect thing because it’s their culture you’re in).

7. Cargo pants.

Nope, they don’t do them, they never caught on down there and consequently no one wears them, it’ll immediately peg you as a gringo (whether that’s good or bad or irrelevant is entirely up to you by the way).

8. Flip-flops and sandals.

Sorry girls, outside of the beach or at the swimming pool, they’re never worn and are considered far too casual for everyday wear (kind of like walking around in bedroom slippers here). For guys, this includes sandals, with socks or without, doesn’t matter.

9. I’ve saved the worst offender for last: the men do not wear shorts. Ever.

This is the stereotypical gringo thing to do, it’s the one that everyone jokes about. Exceptions: working out, the beach, walking around the house, swimming pool.

That’s it. I honestly hopes this helps you, and please keep in mind the above list is not some strict “don’t do this unless you’re a jerk” type of thing, it’s just meant to be informative so that you can use it to help you make a decision about what to wear and when, that’s all.

This is really meant to be only for the people who would actually be concerned about this in the first place, if you’re not really worried about blending in then don’t worry about it, I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with that and even then this should still help you so that you understand part of the culture you’ll be interacting in.

No judgment here, I’m just trying to inform, that’s all.


About the Author: Andrew runs a blog on how to learn Spanish and has been learning Spanish on his own for nearly four years now. He posts information on his site aimed specifically at people who want to teach themselves Spanish on their own, from home, including things like using popular media to learn Spanish as in his recent series about Shakira’s music videos.

About the Author:

is the author of 233 posts on Go Backpacking.

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Categories: Central America, Features, South America
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bobsue July 3, 2014 at 9:36 pm

ok i’m in cartagena right now, and not one of these is true here. delete if you want, that’s just because you don’t want the truth vs. your self-righteousness. unfortunately i packed according to advice like yours and now i look very out of place. time to shop for some booty shorts with rhinestones on them :-/


Dave July 3, 2014 at 10:19 pm

I’ve been to Cartagena four times, and it’s so bloody hot and humid along Colombia’s coast, it’s impossible for me to wear long pants there, but if I’m leaving the house in Medellín where I live, I’m almost always in jeans or pants unless I’m heading to the gym. That’s the norm here, where the climate is a bit cooler.


Tony G July 6, 2014 at 5:11 am

I found this blog when googling “Do Mexican men wear shorts?” My wife and I are at a resort near Cancun. I refer to it as “Epcot Mexico”. This is fine with us since we just wanted a week to relax at a beach for our anniversary. As one of those who is believes strongly that those coming into the USA should speak at least a passable amount of English, I feel like a real jackass, coming to Mexico knowing hardly any Spanish. I remember the first trip I took through the “real Mexico” many years ago. I sort of got by on my halting Italian. At that time, I was warned by a savvy traveling companion that only boys wear shorts in Mexico, NEVER men. So, here we are, all these years later and I am just about the only Gringo wearing long pants. Thank you for verifying that the rule still holds and though I may sound like a jackass, at least I don’t look like one. By the way, I am old enough to remember when similar rules of dress held true in the USA. People just looked a lot better.


Atilla July 28, 2014 at 1:15 pm

I’m considering working in Medellin after living in the Balkans and then back into the USA for awhile. I’ve always identified with the motto “a gentleman doesn’t wear pants”. I always live in climates that allow for pants 9 months of the year. Is Medellin pushing it? Sorry, I just don’t want to be going to work every day drenched in sweat. My forearms are also tattooed and I’m assuming they’ll need to be covered up. Oh Medellin looks good, but maybe I have to move to Russia after all….


Dave July 29, 2014 at 10:28 am

Medellin’s climate is such that it’s usually in the low 80′s every day, though the strength of the sun given the 1500m elevation and proximity to the Equator can make it feel quite a bit hotter. I wear shorts when I’m feeling casual, not out of necessity here.

Colombian men are wearing shorts more and more, but it very much depends on the situation. It’s more common on the weekends, and for casual get togethers like a picnic in the park, playing sports, or walking around the immediate area near where you live (like stepping out to the corner store). It’s not nearly as common as in the USA.

Why would your tattoos need to be covered? If you mean for working in an office, yes, I suppose that may be the case. I’m not familiar with office culture here.


Celine August 3, 2014 at 2:59 am

For a tall Asian lady traveling in South America I always get the look somehow. It’s not because I’m not dressed appropriately for the place/culture but simple because I look different. Anyway once you get past the “blending in” phase you’ll be fine.
Some are true to this article, well the obvious belt bags for instance, and those are tacky anyway.
I agree with some commenters that in some countries like Argentina, Chile.. Dressing up like a European works, and somehow what I’d call chic in Paris would be chic here. In cities like Lima or Quito, I think the new high street fashion would be considered in, and I see a lot of young people wearing shorts with a carefree top, or skinnies and plaid shirt with Moto boots, I guess no different than other cosmopolitan cities.
Some notable points though that I would agree on, people here are kind of judgmental with how you dress up. I went to some posh restaurant in Lima and the receptionist checked me out head to toe, well I wasn’t wearing a dress but rather a more high street ensemble of cigarette pants, a printed tee and a tweed jacket with smoking slippers, and I had an LV tote, yet like the snobbish person that she was checked me head to toe. So she told me no available table without checking, if not with my driver coming over to ask what seems to be problem that she won’t have an idea of my capacity to dine there. Then she told me to follow her as magically there’s a table available for me. How ridiculous. I wouldn’t want to give in to the idea of superficiality but I certainly do respect cultures, the differences.
I wear flipflops with short shorts and a nice top and I don’t give a damn, granting the weather allows. Have fun. Oh and another thing, nothing is wrong with nice skimpy clothes, just make sure it doesn’t make you look like you have fat when you’re pretty slim in the first place. It seems to be the norm in some Latin countries, and jeans with no pockets! Duh Que horror! I don’t know if it’s to emphasize the rounded assets or just that some ladies have real tacky taste in clothes.
Guys I have a pretty good advice, at least bring a dress shirt that you can wear with clean smelling jeans, then top it off with a navy sport jacket. You can even get away with sneakers with this look. I’m out of reality here, I’ve realized it’s a backpackers forum. Chau guys


Laura August 21, 2014 at 1:57 am

Just to add my two cents. No offense but I’m from Mexico City and the reason you give for not dressing down is not poverty. Is not that you don’t want to be associated with a certain type. And believe me there are LOTS of people -young and otherwise- who wear torn and baggy jeans because they think it’s cool. Dressing a bit more formally is simply a matter of culture and common sense. Are you going to your workplace? Dress nicely. Are you going to the park to walk the dog? Wear whatever you feel like. Are you staying at a beach resort? Wear shorts for the love of God! Do we wear shorts (men and women) in Mexico City? Sometimes we do if the weather is hot enough. And Tony G. only boys wore shorts in Mexico during my grandpa’s times.


travis August 30, 2014 at 7:49 pm

I’m wondering when you were last in Central America? I’ve been here for more than two years, and would disagree with the majority of your list!
Flip-flops and sandals are worn all the time, especially by women. In the city, at the beach, walking around town, out at night even.
People wear t-shirts ALL the time.
Men live in running shoes – typically stylish Nike or Adidas street shoes, but running shoes nonetheless.
A number of people, especially those who work in tourism as guides, drivers, bartenders, waitresses and more, use fanny packs ALL the time.
Skimpy clothes – have you ever been to a bar or club in Central America?????????
And lastly, men most definitely wear shorts!
I know it says this list was published in 2011, but it’s more indicative of 1989, unless you’ve been living under a rock.


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