Your dream vacation to Costa Rica is looming on the horizon, and you just realized that you’ve got no idea what to pack for all those cool adventures you’ve got planned?
Don’t dismay. The following Costa Rica packing list is comprised of all the top essentials you’ll need for a fabulous vacation – whether lounging on a sun-drenched beach or going for the all-out ecoadventure.
Despite being a relatively tiny country, Costa Rica’s climate and topography are incredibly diverse. You’ll find everything from dry coastal beaches, dripping cloud and rainforests, hot and steamy lowland jungles and mangroves, arid forests and grasslands, cool and misty mountain peaks, and even windswept volcanic summits. Each of the country’s 12 major life zones are influenced by variations in altitude, precipitation, and temperature. This doesn’t mean you’re going to need three suitcases for your trip to Costa Rica; on the contrary, by following these simple guidelines, you’ll be prepared for everything this fantastic country has to offer.
Rain vs. the Dry Season
Even if your packing list is geared for the dry season—from December to April (including September and October on the Caribbean Coast)—you should be prepared for rain. Popular destinations like the cloud forests of Monteverde, southwest Pacific Coast, and the Osa Peninsula still experience rain showers, or even downpours, from time to time during the summer months. Furthermore, the Caribbean Region as a whole, including favorites like Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, and Tortuguero, receives more annual rainfall, so play it safe and be prepared.
Urban or Rural?
As a rule of thumb, casual and comfortable clothing is best for Costa Rica. If you’re planning on spending any time in the capital, San José, staying at an all-inclusive resort, or going out to a nice restaurant now and then, then you’ll want something more than your favorite cutoffs, tank, and flip flops to wear. Keep in mind that the altitude in San José is around 3,800 feet (1,172 m); in such, sundresses or lightweight slacks, blouse, and a sweater, matched with a pair of dress sandals will be perfect for a capital city outing as well as a romantic air-conditioned restaurant on the beach. If you wear makeup, I recommend packing the bare essentials. Less is generally more when it comes to 90 percent humidity on a day hike or dip in a waterfall.
For men, light pants or dress shorts (not the kind that doubles as a bathing suit) and a collared shirt with a lightweight sweater or jacket and casual close-toed shoes are best. Kid’s wear can follow this basic attire, with a few extra changes of clothing in the event of play-induced accidents.
Don’t Leave Home Without It
Essential Documents, Passwords, and cash:
Surprisingly, many first-time travelers forget the importance of maintaining a lifeline to their lives back home. In addition to your passport, driver’s license (especially if you plan on renting a car), proof of insurance (travel insurance preferably), and credit cards, you’ll also need any and all of your passwords, pin numbers, and two-factor authentication codes so you can access your accounts while on the road. It’s also a great idea to make copies of these essentials to be carried in your carry-on luggage, or with your travel companion, in case of an emergency. Many beach towns only have one ATM at best, and high season crowds can quickly deplete their existing funds. Bring plenty of cash with you and make sure to wear your money and important documents in a money belt out of site from passersby.
Medications, eyeglasses, and a basic first-aid kit:
Although many medications can be bought over the counter in Costa Rica, it’s best to play it safe and pack any medications you regularly take – with a couple of back-up doses in your carry-on in case you become separated from your luggage. The same goes for eyeglasses and contact lenses. Navigating class IV rapids on the Pacuare River might result in your specs going overboard if not well secured, so make sure to bring a second pair. A basic first-aid kit doesn’t have to be bulky or heavy, just bring the fundamentals such as: antihistamines and Benadryl cream (lots of folks are slightly allergic to the humid tropics and some bugs), a rash ointment (I love Desitin), band-aids, antibiotic ointment, Tylenol, an upset stomach remedy, tweezers, nail cutters, birth control (if applicable), and anti-nausea medication.
Sunscreen, SPF lip balm, and insect repellent:
Nothing can ruin a Costa Rica vacation like a 2nd-degree sunburn or limbs covered in mosquito bites. Although you can buy all three of these items in-country, you’ll likely find a smaller and more expensive variety here than back home. This goes for natural products as well. Sunscreens and lip balms should have broad-coverage protection of at least 30 SPF, and it’s a good idea to bring both a small natural insect repellent (essential oil based) for everyday use, and something stronger (15% DEET options) if you plan on visiting the jungle or rainforest, or travel during the rainy season.
In general, tap water in Costa Rica is safe to drink. However, if you’re going to a remote location you should ask first before filling up, use a water filter, or buy the bottled version. Whenever possible play it safe and avoid risking a bad stomach.
Cell phone, camera, and binoculars:
Let’s face it, what good is a vacation in tropical paradise if you can’t share it with your friends and family? Most hotels and restaurants are WIFI equipped making it easy to connect with work and loved ones while avoiding high-cost roaming fees. In regards to cameras and binoculars, lots of travelers are happy with just their cell phones; but nothing beats an underwater photo of snorkeling around Caño Island (professional camera with a waterproof case) or seeing a resplendent quetzal up close in San Gerardo de Dota (with a good pair of binoculars). And don’t forget to pack your chargers and back-up batteries for all your electronic devices. Costa Rica uses a 110v power supply meaning those of you from Europe will most likely need a 220v converter.
Headlamp and/or flashlight:
When your hotel is off the beaten path, or you’re on a night excursion—like a turtle nesting tour or nocturnal animals hike—you’ll be thankful for this indispensable
Spanish phrasebook, waterproof map, and field guides:
It’s better to have a hard-copy of each of these items since you’re unlikely to have WIFI access when outdoors.
Car Rental Offices
Jaco Beach, Puerto Jiménez, Monteverde, Arenal, Rio Celeste, Turrialba, Playa Grande, Golfito, Dominical, Manzanito, Puerto Viejo, La Selva, Rincón de la Vieja, etc. etc.
Good walking shoes, water shoes, or secure walking sandals:
Light comfortable and secure footwear is paramount. Pack shoes that will dry quickly if at all possible, or bring an old pair of sneakers with good tread that you can discard when the trip ends. Water shoes or strappy hiking sandals are great for walking on reefs and rocks, as well as for white water rafting, beach take-outs if you travel by boat, or crossing rivers during a hike.
Rain jacket or poncho:
Make sure to bring a lightweight and waterproof version. Adjustable side vents are an added plus when it’s hot.
Sun hat, sunglasses, bandana, and a towel:
The bigger the hat, the better, however an easy-dry baseball cap will suffice. UV protection and a neck strap are a must when it comes to eyewear. A micro-fiber travel towel is also a handy convenience, as are bandanas for drying a sweaty face or neck.
Pack necessities like your toothbrush (with cover) and toothpaste, soap, antiperspirant, shampoo and conditioner, hairbrush and supplies, body lotion, shaving tools and cream, Kleenex or TP (for emergencies), and tampons if needed (these aren’t always available in-country).
Best Clothing Guide
While choosing your Costa Rica vacation attire, remember that light, quick-drying material you can easily layer is your best bet. It’s also a good idea to pack an extra change of clothing when embarking on day trips. Getting wet—whether from a rain shower, river, or waterfall—is just part of the fun.
- 1-2 long sleeve quick-dry shirts
- 3-5 short sleeve t-shirts (includes tank tops)
- 1-2 dress shirts or blouses
- 1 light sweater
- 1 pair of casual dress pants or dress
- 1-2 pairs of dress shorts
- 2-3 pairs of active shorts (quick dry if possible)
- 7 pairs of clean underwear and socks (sturdy hiking socks). Most hotels offer laundering service for those of you staying longer.
- 2 bathing suits
- 1 pair of breathable walking pants for hiking and protection
- Plastic zip lock bags to transport wet clothing (of varying sizes)
That sand gets HOT, and it’s best not to go barefoot in and around towns (even though some locals do).
Bathing suits, sarong, and beach towel:
Costa Rica essentials. Sarongs are great to lie on or use as a bathing suit cover-up when in town, and beach towels are rarely provided by hotels.
Sundresses and light skirts:
Keeping it cool and breezy is what’s needed for those hot and sunny afternoons or traveling along the coast.
Last but Not Least – The Extremes
For those of you into pushing the limits – from a week-long excursion into the heart of Corcovado National Park or a two-day hike up the summit of Chirripo—it’s a good idea to pack extra protective clothing like UV and waterproof trekking pants and long-sleeve shirts, dry socks, and warm layers. Even a light blanket may come in handy for higher elevations (or a freezing hotel room).
Follow this easy Costa Rica Essentials Packing List, and you’ll be sure to have just about all of your travel needs covered. Pura Vida Costa Rica!