The Fine Art of Packing Light

A hamper, a thermos, a pith helmet, and two tigers.


As I recently noted, it’s been awhile since I was forced to pack light. Last year we drove the van to Mexico, and I was able to tote my vintage Samsonite suitcases, overflowing with all manner of impractical items, including multiple pairs of heels, and, yes, two stuffed tigers and a pith helmet.

This trip, I’m spending five weeks on the coast of Jalisco and Nayarit, including (hopefully) a few weeks camping, and I’m limited to whatever I can stuff into one piece of luggage and a carry-on.  I’ll surely be gnashing my teeth when I’m crouched in the sand like a philistine, attempting to cook a six course meal on a one burner stove. But at least it’ll give me the chance to hone a skill long gone rusty: the fine art of packing light.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these travelers (cough, Carl) who only packs zipper-festooned lightweight microfiber REI garments that can, say, double as a vest and a coffee strainer. My questionable but distinct fashion sense prohibits such practicalities. Plus, I can’t afford that shit. Instead, I choose garments that are versatile in the normal sense of the word. In other words, heavy on the black tank tops.

When I first started flying down to Mexico as an adult (as opposed to my childhood traveling by van with my parents) I packed in a frugal manner. I knew I’d be spending most of my time camping at the beach, so I thought like the college student that I was: multiple bikinis, cargo shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, and “bug clothes”: lightweight pants and long-sleeve shirts for surviving the sunset hour in a palapa (hut) just a hair too close to a giant mangrove swamp, otherwise known as mosquito heaven.

But I quickly realized the error of my ways. Here’s the thing: Mexico is a dressy country. Even in the campo, where people aren’t exactly rolling in cash, everyone has spiffy duds for fiesta. And, this being Mexico, there’s a always a fiesta. I found myself on the sidelines of many a quinceañera, wedding, rodeo, etc.: the gringa in the stretched out tank top and “practical” cotton skirt, my scraggy toes hanging off the end of a pair of dirty flip-flops. Watching the local girls whirl across the dance floor in their finest (in this case campesina style: brand new bedazzled jeans, shiny cowboy boots, and ruffled blouses) I didn’t just feel frumpy. I felt downright rude.

These days, I always pack at least one good pair of heels and one nice outfit. If I’m really packing light, I’ll just pick a blouse or shirt, something really dressy, that I can pair with a more casual “every day” skirt. A nice piece of jewelry helps too. And a good lightweight jacket. OK, also maybe a dressy evening bag…See how quickly this can get out of hand? (Settle down, Churpa, you’re going to be living in a hut with a sand floor and no running water, remember?)

Speaking of which, we must, of course, consider the kitchen. When traveling by van (which is the only civilized way to travel) Rich and I haul a kitchen trunk that weighs as much as a baby grand. It’s the cast iron. I can’t live without my pans. This year, I’ll have to content myself with one large cast iron pan. One mid-sized knife, one dish towel, one small cutting board, one fork, one spoon, one metal plate, one mug, a coffee cone, a decanter, and of course, my fantastic heating coil, aka humankind’s most ingenious invention.

In the interest of having a functional kitchen, I’ll probably end up packing everything in a cooler instead of a suitcase. And while the idea of a cooler as luggage may send some fashionistas screaming, I think I can make it work. It’ll give my polished evening ensemble and enviable touch of boho chic.



7 Responses to “The Fine Art of Packing Light”

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  1. Tina Rosa says:

    OMG, here I am, winner of the Most Luggage Award at the 30 day retreat, heading out to Colorado with carry-on that weighs more than me (it’s those blasted glass baubles for mosaics–about 30 pounds–and ten pounds of Trader Joe chocolate!) Almost 70, and I still CAN’T Travel Light. Good luck to you, my intrepid daughter. May you be liberated from STUFF!

  2. Churpa says:

    Don’t wish that on me! Do you want the house to burn down?

  3. Becky says:

    This is fantastic and you are brilliant.

  4. -El Codo- says:

    Looking way back in history one steamship company (P & O) stated that 95% of steamer trunks loaded aboard for round-the-world excursions, contained women’s “essentials”.

    Remember that image in the PG of the little truck that stops and the driver expands it out into a full size home, complete with dog house and antenna?

    What’cha going to do for coffee, Churpa? Surely you aren’t going to start the day by figuratively rubbing two sticks together? Chowing in a palapa restaurant means tolerating no-es-cafe and facing a depressingly high cost over a period of time. How close is the nearest market?

    I guess i should have forwarded that link of the solar rechargeable flashlight to you. Have you thought of a pabellon?

    I’m not scared of mosquitoes on those beaches – it’s those damned jejenes that will raise a welt the size of a pea and itch for 2-weeks that leave my knees knocking. Don’t forget the pennyroyal oil!

    Better than nothing breakfast menu: Avena. With Nido to make it richer. Then shave piloncillo to gussy it up. Go steal a banana to mix-in. Get a can of corn, a few spuds, and the Nido and you’ll have corn chowder bubbling in no time. Toss in a few bolillos and there’s a great cool evening dinner for you and yours. I like this because I can re-heat it easily after dark and chow down when it’s chilly enough to see my breath. Yes, we all know tenacatita often gets “that chilly” on winter eves. A person has to travel a few hundred miles south of Mazanillo to escape any chance of a cool snap during night time hours. Daytime of course will be warm enough to encourage hydration-by-beer.

    Welcome home Churpa!


  1. […] 2. Pack a few nicer items of clothing. Mexico is a dressy country. When you’re invited to a fiesta or out on the town with the locals, show respect by ditching your flip-flops. […]