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How to Pack for an International Vacation in a Purse

Going on vacation is about leaving it all behind, right?

By Katharine Shilcutt August 22, 2016

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Querétaro by night.

Although I've been paring down my packing list for years, I recently decided to try something totally new (to me): packing for a four-day international vacation in a purse. And yes—its primary function and purpose, on a daily basis, is as a purse, albeit a somewhat large one.

I chose this challenge because it seemed easy, honestly; of all the vacations that would be simplest to pack for, an upcoming jaunt to Querétaro, Mexico stood out. The climate is temperate year-round, hovering around 60 to 70 degrees and partly sunny every day thanks to its mountainous location, so I wouldn't need anything heavy. The atmosphere of the easygoing colonial city is decidedly casual, so I wouldn't need anything dressy. And we weren't planning anything other than historic walking tours and museum visits, so I wouldn't need anything athletic.

The purse I chose is divided into three compartments inside by a zippered pouch in the middle, so separating it into packing "areas" was equally straightforward: clothes in one large compartment; toiletries in the small zippered pouch; and everything else in the second large compartment, including sunglasses, camera, cell phone and charger, wallet, brush, book and passport.

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Before packing...

I've long been a fan of the idea of "leaving it all behind" when on vacation, and in no area am I more determined than in packing, which makes every trip both figuratively and literally lighter. This means the basics when it comes to not just clothes, but makeup and beauty tools.

Vacation is the time to give the hotel shampoo a shot and let your hair air-dry, to throw on mascara and lip balm and call it a day, to relax and enjoy the free time it gives you (and if you're traveling with someone who can't bear to see your bare face or untamed hair a few days in a row, I predict you'll find other issues develop in your travels than just this). So toiletries in this case amounted to toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, a handful of cotton balls soaked in witch hazel and a small tube of lotion, along with mascara, lipstick and chapstick. Regardless of where I've gone in the past, I've always found that forgetting any toiletries (or regretting not packing a particular item) is easily remedied; every country sells the basics, and often cheaper than you'll find here anyway.

A wardrobe was similarly easy: three light summer dresses and an even lighter rain jacket (just in case!), which I folded one into another, all wrapped around a central core of pajamas and delicates, with a pair of light leather slides tossed in on top. On the plane, I wore an oversized chambray shirt that could double as a jacket on slightly chilly Querétaro evenings, a simple pair of leggings and my best walking shoes (which would easily take up much of the room in the purse on their own). My only jewelry was my wedding ring and mother-of-pearl studs; the better to leave room for bringing home some of those famous opals and silver Querétaro mines and polishes.

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...and after. Dog for scale.

A short two-hour flight out of IAH and we were there—sooner than even anticipated. Not being able to check into our hotel for a few hours made me even happier I'd chosen this trip for my purse packing challenge. My mother and I happily strolled across the tree-shaded Plaza de Armas and under the cogent bronze gaze of La Corregidora, the bag no heavier than the laptop that's normally in there during the work week.

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The author, right, with purse.

The limited wardrobe-enforced uniform of "dress and walking shoes" each morning, in combination with the five-minute makeup routine, meant even more time each day to enjoy a leisurely plate of chilaquiles or a huitlacoche omelet and cafe before setting off to explore the city's historic aqueduct or visit the irreverent Museo del Calendario (a museum devoted solely to calendars).

Even the most depressing fact of all vacations—packing for the return trip home—was mostly avoided, as I tossed together my bag at the last minute, wanting to spend as much time as I could on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the bougainvillea-drenched, cobblestone-paved Calle Francsico I Madero below before heading to the airport. And even with a few souvenirs stashed in my purse, I still felt lighter after four days away—the whole goal of a vacation in the first place.

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