There are many reasons one wouldn't want to stick out as an obvious tourist in Latin America, including safety (criminals are far more likely to target an obvious tourist), social acceptance, not feeling stupid, merely wanting to blend in by dressing in the local fashion, etc. Still, the best reason is none of those.
It requires a bit of explaining; it delves right into the culture of Latin America, and it has to do with poverty.
Ordinary people dress more formally in Latin America than elsewhere.
This is because a more significant proportion of their population is relatively poor than in wealthier developed nations like the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe.
Consequently, it isn't, and never has been, considered fashionable to dress down or to dress like you're poorer than you are.
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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 fit correctly).
No one dresses informally because it looks “cool” (because it doesn't there), etc.
Latin America is a highly class-conscious society.
The A-number-one way 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 afford.
Even 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 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 caught out with you but will be too polite to tell you that your dressing habits make you look like a homeless person.
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 cannot hold that against them (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 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 of 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. God help you if you're wearing three or four of those.
The following list contains what I've found to be the most common things that gringos 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.
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 doing (or on their way to do) some physical or athletic activity that requires them.
And even then, many people would wear their regular 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 regular dress shoes that people wear day-to-day.
3. They would never wear a tracksuit, exercise shorts, or exercise pants unless they were 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 before 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.
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 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 okay with me, 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.
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 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, etc.
This is primarily 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 typically see it, to “that's f*ing offensive, someone should throw her out.”
Be careful about what you wear to churches.
If you don't usually bother, please just this once make an effort to wear something nice, it's 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; it 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 hope 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 decide what to wear and when.
This is meant to be only for the people who would be concerned about this in the first place.
If you're not worried about blending in, then don't worry about it.
I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and even then, this should still help you understand part of the culture you'll be interacting in.
There's no judgment here. I'm just trying to inform you, 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 explicitly aimed 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.
This post was written by a guest contributor. Please reference the author's byline in the post above for more information. If you would like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines. For information on advertising opportunities, go here.
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Wednesday 7th of June 2017
Wow, so many run-on sentences. Such a clunky article. The content is fine but Jesus Christ hire yourselves an editor.
Monday 27th of February 2017
I am a Colombian mid-class woman (from Barranquilla City, in the coast) and I can tell you the author is completely right about class-centered culture and how we pay attention to that. People may try and say how wrong it is, but it's just the awful truth they don't want to accept or do not analyze well enough to understand. At least he is not even mentioning the racism part which is still huge thing (yes, RACISM in Colombia).
I have lived in different cities in the country and have relationship with high, mid and lower class and yes, most people are very aware of appearance. I also worked as a translator back in my College days and had the chance to travel with a lot of foreign people and visited all kinds of places.
There are certain behavioral changes depending on the city you go to. If you go to Bogotá (the capital city), you will find a more liberal, open-minded crowd, for instance, you can find people wearing different things: from dreadlocks, to mohawk, to slutty, to formal clothes, and you will be allowed in most places with a "casual look" (the concept of "gringo" casual is more relaxed than ours). If you go to the Caribbean coast and other areas of the country with more conservative cities, they WILL be paying attention to what you wear, what you do, how you behave, everything, and trust me, this will make a difference in how you get treated and whether you are allowed in a place or not, not just nightclubs, but nice restaurants and other places.
Unfortunately it is a society that has a lot of elitism and racism in it. There are areas where you might get away with it because you are foreign and they will think you bring money to spend, but if you go to upper class, they will not care if it's a gringo, canadian, aussie or local: if you don't look like decent, they won't let you in, they already have people that spend a lot there and aren't going to risk their reputation.
I personally think that how you dress shows you care enough about the people around in order to look a certain way, expecting to be appropriate for the occasion and people around, no matter how shallow you consider it to, it is my personal opinion and I will not stop being judgemental about it.
Keeping in mind that you dress according to the city, place and activity you are attending, here is a couple of tips for you:
1. If you are in the Caribbean coast area, Cali, Medellín, Bucaramanga, Llanos, etc.:
-Wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip flops during the day for informal activities like going to the mall, park, is fine, even more if you are a tourist. About the flip flops, plastic or foamy ones are more likely to be seen at the beach, or malls by a really young crowd. It would be better to use open toe sandals, those that are made of leather or similar materials, it's up to you and your style about the heels or flats.
-If you are going out at night, restaurant, movies, mall, you ought to be a little more dressed up. Shorts are fine, but switch the jean or drill material to linen or other formal fabrics. Skirts are ok too, just choose fabrics that look more elegant.
-Wearing jeans is fine, and most of the locals do, they are thin fabric jeans, comfortable and fresh, the top is what makes the difference.
-All neon, full bright colors are more than welcome, make good combinations,however.
NOTE: If all you do revolves around the beach, casual look will do just fine every time.
-Wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip flops during the day for informal activities like going to the mall, park, is fine, even more if you are a tourist. for more dressed up plans.
-If you are going out at night, restaurant, movies, mall, you ought to be a little more dressed up. Shorts are a NO NO, and so are most of the T-shirts. Polo shirts give a casual but decent look, long sleeve ones add a bit of "fancy" look to it, depends of your style.
Wearing jeans is fine, and most of the locals do, they are thin fabric jeans, comfortable and fresh, the top is what makes the difference.
NOTE: If all you do revolves around the beach, casual look will do just fine every time.
2. In cold cities like Bogotá, Tunja, Pasto, etc.:
-Wearing open toe sandals is considered to be bad taste, really really bad, a no no in fashion. You are free to wear all the variations of closed-toe shoes, according to activity.
-Be careful and wise about neon, full bright colors, you can be edgy but be a bit more discrete about them, unlike in the coast and other cities mentioned above.
-Wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip flops during the day for informal activities like going to the mall, park, is a NO NO NO! Even if you feel comfortable about the weather unlike a lot of locals and think you can show a lot of your lovely skin legs, please don't do it.
-Wearing jeans is fine here, as well as slacks, it's all about where you are going.
Monday 27th of February 2017
Oh, and one more thing: this is just Colombia that I am talking about, and YES, most women make a REAL effort to look nice, no matter if they are tall or short, light or dark, slim or chubby, straight or curly hair.
Thursday 26th of January 2017
jjjjjj this post is hilarious xD I want to be honest with u guys, people from central america or south america can smell that you arent Latino. Only if u never take pictures outside and never talk to someone maybe.. At latest when u are open ur mouth and try to communicate in gringo language or broken spanish they will notice...
Cold regards desde suiza
Thursday 5th of January 2017
This is why people think what they think about latin america, I´m from Colombia and all of this it's so wrong, yes, poverty it's an issue like in many other places in the world but there is not like you said that basically we don't have money to dress decent, if that was true designers like Calvin Klein, Cartier, Burberry, Loewe, Armani, Victoria´s Secret, Carolina Herrera, Custo Barcelona, Gues, etc wouldn't even think about opening a store in this countrys but guess what, they're doing it and with great success because people in latin america has the potential to afford clothes and luxury just as many other countrys with less history of violence and poverty and I'm really proud to say this because nothing came free to us every country of this region worked really hard and fought to be better and to create better countrys and cultures for the new generations
Monday 27th of February 2017
With your comment you are helping reaffirm his point about how important it is to us as COLOMBIANS to demonstrate social status through our clothes. I don't think he ever said there weren't people that could afford looking good, he was just saying that it's important for all people, specially for the low and mid class ones, to show that they look good and dress appropriately, even if that means to only have one nice pair of pants and a couple of nice shirts.
Tuesday 29th of November 2016
I disagree with so much of this post I don't even know where to start. Did you see all of the ladies in Medellin wearing leggings with sandals?? In Cusco it is very popular for the boys to wear sweat pants because that means they are on a futbol team. I lived in and traveled around all of South America for 3 years. Your opinion is very interesting to say the least. But thanks for sharing! P.S. I am a white, blonde hair, blue eyed girl from Texas. Walking down the street with a purpose like you know where you are going is the most important. Clothes not so much.