Costa Rica is a beautiful, vibrant country that has recently gained some serious traction in the tourist world. Costa Rica extends majestically from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, and its distance is barely 200 miles. Don’t let the country’s small size dissuade you; there’s a lot packed into those 200 miles! Whether you’re testing your own fear of heights on a skywalk in the cloud forests, snuggling with sloths at a sanctuary, or going on adventure to the volcanoes, it’s important to have the right supplies for your adventure vacation and your newfound Pura Vida.
Here are our tips and tricks for packing light and packing well for your upcoming trip to Costa Rica!
There are few exceptions in Costa Rica where you’ll need anything but casual, breathable, athletic-friendly clothes. Costa Rica is a destination meant for adventure, so you want to be comfortable for the duration of your trip. Items like tennis skirts, skorts, hiking shorts or pants, tank tops, and athletic tops are great things to pack for the rainforest AND the beach; two places you’ll spend plenty of time in if you visit this gorgeous country. If you’re planning any nice dinners, a basic sun dress, or shorts and a polo will suffice and you’ll fit right in.
A good practice to following if you’re going from rainforest to ocean is layers. There are some high elevation areas (Monteverde, San Jose/Central Valley) that require long pants and sweaters or a light jacket for comfort, so don’t get stuck without anything to keep you warm! Clothing that dries quickly is best; if you plan on doing laundry keep in mind that most laundromats and services don’t use dryers like we do here in the USA. Between hiking, zip lining, and water based activities, you won’t want to be stuck in your heavy, soaking wet cotton fabrics all day, either! Bring a light weight, rain jacket with you as well- one you can fit into a compact day bag is best!
As far as footwear goes, stick to comfort. If you can walk in flip flops or those cute sandals you just bought, GREAT! But remember if you’re hiking through wet/muddy terrain, you’ll want something with more support and more coverage. Water shoes are a great thing to throw in your bag for walking along the beaches and getting to and from your resort or when you’re in that kayak for six hours admiring the ocean views. If you’re planning any serious hiking then be sure to carry along a shoe or sandal (like the Keen hiking sandals. We love them!) that will provide both comfort and support. Make sure your shoes are broken in and comfortable BEFORE you go.
The Exception to the Rule: City Life
While moisture wicking athletic attire is great for 90% of your adventures in Costa Rica, if you plan on spending any time in the city keep in mind things are a little more formal. It’s not common practice for women to go out in leggings, so you may get some looks if you wear your yoga pants and lululemon top for that San Jose culinary tour you planned. You can stick to jeans and comfortable tops with closed toe shoes. We’re talking a city here. Cities are inherently dirty. Closed toe shoes protect your feet and keep you clean. Think of walking in flip flops in New York City. Doable…but dirty. There are no cultural dress codes in Costa Rica in terms of modesty. Women are free to wear tank tops and show their shoulders.
Having the right toiletries and medications can make or break a vacation. As usual, be sure you’ve packed enough of any over the counter or prescription medications to get you through the trip and any (heaven forbid!) delays. Pro tip: NEVER pack your medication in a checked bag. Always carry it on with you. In addition to your necessary medications, here’s a suggested list for what else you should tuck away in that toiletries bag of yours to ensure your most comfortable trip:
A list of all the medications you’re taking and any allergies. Keep this list on you at all times. The native language in Costa Rica is Spanish, and drug names may not translate. Try to list the active ingredients in your medication and find the Spanish names for the medication and ingredients.
Take a travel sized medical kit with bandaids, triple antibiotic ointment, etc. This way if you’re on a trail and you’ve suddenly got a blister, you can take care of it and keep moving.
Mosquito repellant/bug spray: Costa Rica is a very conservation focused country. If you have natural products that work for you, great! If not, bring what you know will keep the bugs off of your body. It’s not fun to be on vacation when you’re covered in bites and itching yourself to death.
Sunscreen: When you think you have enough sunscreen, pack another bottle. Costa Rica is only 8-12 degrees from the equator so even if you’re going to the cloud forest or visiting during rainy season, you will still need sunscreen. One of our travel advisors learned this lesson the hard way. A naturally tan woman who grew up by the ocean surely doesn’t need sunscreen in South America, right? Wrong. She went to El Salvador, which is also close to the equator, and burned so badly she had blisters. Don’t. Skimp. On. The. Sunscreen.
Feminine hygiene products: Ladies, go prepared. These items are expensive, and not all grocery stores sell them.
Face wash: this is another expensive item in Costa Rica. Make sure you’ve got enough to get you through your trip.
Hand sanitizer and face wipes: You’re in the jungle and by the ocean. You’re going to get dirty and sweaty.
Contact lens solution and allergy medication (Claritin, Sudafed, Benadryl): These are only sold in pharmacies and are very expensive in Costa Rica.
In addition to your basics, here are a few other things that will be useful for the best trip in Costa Rica.
Day Bag: Backpacks are going to be much more comfortable shoulder strap purses. Especially for trips where you’re gone all day (which happens OFTEN in Costa Rica), you’ll want to be able to carry snacks, water, a towel, a change of clothes, your camera, etc. Make sure your bags are waterproof, no matter in which season you’re visiting.
Insulated water bottle: Remember, Costa Rica is a very conservation focused country. You CAN drink tap water in most places in Costa Rica, or you can bring a portable water filter. This cuts down on plastic waste and you’ll always have a vessel to drink from, instead of having to find a shop to buy another bottle.
Sunglasses and hat: I recommend bringing two pairs of sunglasses. Make them both cheap. Odds are, you’re going to lose one pair, probably in the ocean! Something to protect your face from the sun is also essential.
Camera: There are so many beautiful and unique things to see in Costa Rica. Whether you’re photographing wild life or the gorgeous coastline, you’ll want a good, small, portable camera to take absolutely everywhere with you. If you’ve caught the photography bug and want to bring your professional camera, be sure to bring a wide angle lens and a telephoto lens (at least 300) to capture the landscape and the wildlife. A tripod is helpful for capturing wild life. Bring all the SD cards you think you’ll need. It is very hard to find the Class 10 SD cards outside the major cities. If you’re charing your camera, be sure to bring a surge protector. Most hotels won’t have enough outlets to charge your phone, your laptop, and your camera while you’re shaving or doing your hair.
Flashlight: A small flashlight that fits in your bag will suffice. It’s common for the electricity to flicker and go out altogether during rainy season. Many streets also are not well lit, and there aren’t many sidewalks. A flashlight can be a great safety feature.
If your technology is important to you, bring a battery pack (and keep it fully charged). This is great for visiting rural areas, camping and glamping, and for when the electricity decides to take a rainy-day break.
Waterproof phone case: Make as many things as you possibly can water proof. Costa Rica is wet.
Spanish dictionary or guide: English is widely spoken in Costa Rica, but Spanish is still the native language. It is helpful, especially in rural areas, to know your key phrases.
When and Where you Go
Rainy Season in Costa Rica is generally from the end of April through the beginning of December. Rainy doesn’t necessarily mean cold. Temperatures can range from the low to mid 60’s (Fahrenheit) all the way into the 90’s. Always check the weather before you pack! This season coincides with hurricane season in the United States. If you wouldn’t want to be out in our weather in a shorts and a cotton t-shirt….well. You know the rest. Plan ahead and remember things like fast-drying socks, water proof shoes, tops you can layer (including long sleeves!) and a good, waterproof coat if you’re going during rainy season.
Monteverde is about 1500 meters in elevation, so it gets chilly. Dry season runs around the mid 80’s (in the 60’s at night- make sure you plan for that!) and stays around the 60’s during rainy season. You will need long pants, socks, and a jacket for this area, no matter the time of year.
Osa Peninsula & South Pacific are humid. Humid humid humid. The trails in the national park are beautiful, but absolutely require hiking shoes. There are a few trails in the park where you’ll have to cross rivers and walk on the beach, so plan accordingly. Keep in mind- if you’re bringing camera equipment, make it waterproof. It’s that humid.
Guanacaste is remarkably warm and dry and the area follows the typical tropical season pattern. Stock up on your sunscreen and mosquito repellant and make sure you are diligent about applying it. Wear your hat and sunglasses and make sure you don’t get dehydrated.