Costa Rica is a small country and it is easy to plan a trip that includes everything from relaxing at the beach to whitewater rafting, hiking muddy trails through the rainforest or ziplining through the cloud forest. There is great diversity in the landscape and climate, so knowing what to pack for your trip can be a challenge.
Depending on your plans and time of year, these tips will help ensure you bring what you need (and not too much):
COVID-19 health protocols
Masks are mandatory in all public spaces – please be enviro-friendly and avoid using disposable masks. They are hazardous for wildlife when improperly disposed, and many are ending up in the rivers and oceans. There are many great reusable alternatives that can easily be washed and re-worn. Health protocols require all establishments to provide sanitizer but it’s a good idea to bring travel bottles for use in restaurants before you eat, before you get in your vehicle, to wipe down handles etc. I always carry Purell travel size sanitizer in my car, purse and pack so I have it when I need it.
A good eco-friendly 30 SPF or higher sunscreen and lip balm
Costa Rica is just 7 – 9% north of the equator and the sun is very strong, so bring plenty of sunscreen. It’s also very expensive to buy here. Be sure to re-apply after swimming and about 20 minutes before you apply mosquito repellent.
Please care for the reefs and your health and only buy environmentally safe products without the damaging chemicals. I love Sun Bum SPF30 which is reef safe, hypoallergenic and oxybenzone, octinoxate, cruelty (fully vegan) and paraben free. Another good option is Suntegrity 30 SPF which is scented with sweet orange and tangerine essential oils. It is free of parabens, phthalates, propylene glycol, mineral oil, synthetic dyes, sulfates, nanoparticles and chemical UV absorbers, and contains organic green tea extract, cucumber extract, and pomegranate seed oil. It is also a cruelty-free vegan product. For lip protection, check out the amazing flavors from Sun Bum with SPF30 protection.
Mosquitos are prevalent throughout the country, although much worse at the coasts and in the rainforest than at higher elevations. There are several mosquito-borne diseases including dengue fever, so it’s important to apply repellent whenever you’re heading into the rainforest and in the early and evening hours. I occasionally use a 30% DEET product but prefer products like Natrapel with 20% Picaridin which doesn’t damage synthetics and plastics like DEET does. For a completely natural DEET-free solution, Repel has a lemon eucalyptus oil that works for up to 6 hours.
If you’re going to be hiking or even traveling around you’ll want a pack to carry your water, camera, snacks etc. There are a few types of packs that I like to bring with me on my travels.
I always have a collapsible sport bag that I can use when I head to the pool or to a beach or café. They’re super light and don’t take up any space in your bag, and are great for stashing dirty laundry in for the trip home. I have a Sea to Summit 20L daypack that rolls into a tiny ball for easy carrying and I use it frequently. I also love the Sea to Summit compression dry sacks and have a couple sizes that I travel with. They’re especially great if you’re backpacking.
For a sturdier option I love the PacSafe packs when traveling in the city or going to the beach because you can lock them to a nearby palm tree to keep your possessions safe, and don’t need to worry about someone behind you getting into your bag. I have the 25L Metrosafe and the Exp55 Venturesafe and love them both. I also like to travel with my Sea to Summit dry bag, especially if I’m planning to go surfing, kayaking or spend any time on the water, so I know that my camera and personal items are safe and dry.
If it’s rainy season, or if you’re heading to the Caribbean coast or South Pacific and plan to do some hiking, it’s always good to be prepared for rain so don’t forget to bring a waterproof cover for your pack!
I’m torn on microfiber because of the damaging environmental impacts, but it’s almost impossible to avoid. I think it’s important that people are aware of the issue and how to minimize the impact. If you choose microfiber, try to buy quality products and consider using a Guppyfriend laundry bag to protect the loss of fiber particles in the wash. I travel with a light microfiber towel from Rainleaf and they are fantastic because of how absorbent they are and how quickly they dry. Better still, choose the environmentally-friendly, microfiber-free, antimicrobial towel from FaceSoft that is naturally infused with activated charcoal. Good for your skin and the ocean!
Don’t forget your shades! It’s best to leave the expensive ones at home in case of loss or theft, but it’s a good idea to pack a couple pairs. I like to have a cheap pair that I can wear at the beach and around the water in case they get lost, and a better pair for when I travel around, eat out etc.
Costa Rica has a tropical climate with fairly high temperatures and humidity throughout the year in most areas, so it’s best to bring light, breathable clothing. On the coasts and especially at the Osa Peninsula it will take forever for clothes to dry, so be sure to have enough tops, shorts and swimwear. My first visit was to the Osa Peninsula and I had bought a couple Lululemon Swiftly Tech racerback tanks beforehand. I remember the salesperson telling me about the anti-stink technology and how they passed a “hockey bag test”. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but those 2 tank tops saved me on that trip! We were traveling with just a backpack so my plan was to wash and re-wear tops, but nothing dried fast enough. I wore those tanks for days and they still smelled like they just came out of the wash! 😀
If your travel includes a visit into the mountains, in areas such as Monteverde cloud forest or even into the hills around central valley, it can get quite cool in the evening even during dry season, so pack a long sleeve and pants. I was happy to have packed some socks and a fleece for the evening in these areas. It’s great to have layers so that you can always dress according to the weather.
Casual apparel is appropriate for most of the country, but men should wear long pants in the city and not board shorts. Women can wear sleeveless tops and shorts, and light dresses are great to have for dining or an evening out, although not necessary. A sarong is a great multi-purpose item to have for beachwear or to use as a towel or blanket. There are many shops in the beach areas where you can pick one up and help support the local vendors.
Don’t forget to pack a cap or sunhat! They’re great to have for hiking, on the beach or at the pool to protect your face from the sun, and handy to have if you get caught in the rain.
Rainy season, which is May through November in much of the country, can bring strong afternoon downpours and cooler temps in most areas. While the coasts are still hot and humid during this time, the central valley and mountainous regions can often see temperatures drop later in the day as the wind and rain sets in, especially during October and November. The Caribbean coast has its own climate and sees more consistent rain throughout the year. Even during dry season you can see downpours in places like the South Pacific, Osa Peninsula and Monteverde cloud forest so if you’re heading to these areas pack a light rain jacket. I also keep a poncho in the car just in case I get stuck unexpectedly.
Flip flops are easy and lightweight to pack and are great to have when you’re around the pool, going to the beach, or into town for lunch. If you have a comfortable, good quality pair they can be very functional for a lot of activities but they’re not always great in the rain. Crocs are ideal for how perfect they are for wet weather. I have both the wedge sandal for casual outings and a strappy hiking style for longer walks. Like most products on the market today they are not environmentally friendly since the croslite material is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled, but they are fairly long-lasting. Consider donating or repurposing them after use.
However if you’re doing intense hikes through the jungle that might involve water, you’re better to have a sturdy pair of hiking sandals. Ziplining requires a closed toe shoe so either Keen or similar style sandals or a walking or running shoe are needed. I finally picked up a pair of Keen Evofit One sandals and love them! Most sidewalks in Costa Rica are in poor condition (or non-existent), even in the cities, so closed toe shoes are good to have if you’re doing a lot of walking. I brushed this advice off until I stubbed my toe on a hunk of concrete jutting out on a sidewalk once.
I recommend bringing an adequate supply of most personal items including any medications (carry a list with the Spanish name if possible) and OTC drugs such as anti-nausea, allergy, pain relief, sleeping pills etc. Most over the counter medications are quite expensive in Costa Rica.
If you are a light sleeper bring ear plugs – you can be awoken by anything from howler monkeys to roosters and barking dogs at ungodly hours.
Contact lens wearers should bring at least one spare pair and plenty of solution as it’s extremely expensive here.
For women it’s a good idea to bring tampons because they can be hard to find, especially in smaller towns, or go the environmentally-friendly route and use a menstrual cup like the Diva Cup.
Even if you’re wearing old sandals or hikers, your feet tend to swell in the heat and there’s nothing like a bad blister to take the enjoyment out of a hike. I always like to have an assortment of waterproof bandages just in case.
I always pack a travel hair dryer as many places don’t have one, and with the humidity I bring plenty of hair ties and clips 😉
Be mindful of what gadgets you bring because you’ll need to keep them secure, either on your person or in a safe where you’re staying. Bring what you know you’ll use and leave the rest at home.
A cell phone is a given, and a camera with a good telephoto lens is great to have for capturing the beauty and wildlife you’ll encounter during your trip. If you want to capture all the action while ziplining, whitewater rafting or surfing then pack the GoPro! I opted for the 30m underwater waterproof from AKASO and it’s been reliable and fun to use. Be sure to bring extra SD cards, a backup battery and your chargers. It’s also good to have a waterproof case for your phone if you’re going to be out on the water.
A pair of binoculars can also be nice to have, although if you tour with a guide they’ll have a powerful scope so you can get an up-close look at your subject. I have had Minox compact waterproof binoculars for over a decade and they’re still in use, even after being chewed up by one of the dogs (although likely not waterproof anymore).
I always pack a small LED flashlight and these can be really handy in Costa Rica. Many places don’t have great lighting at night and there are occasions when the power goes out. I’ve tried others but these tactical LED compact flashlights from Fenix are my favorite because they have great output, weigh only a little over 7oz, easily fit in your pocket and are waterproof.
Don’t forget chargers for your devices. If you’re renting a car the Waze application will be your best friend, but you don’t want to get lost because your phone battery died when the charging cable stopped working (speaking from experience) or you lost the car charger. I always bring a car charger if I’m going to be renting a vehicle, and also bring a small battery pack for those times when you get stuck without access to a plug.
Costa Rica has the same voltage as the US and Canada at 120V and frequency of 60Hz.
A few other favorites
These are my must-haves for traveling, and in fact I carry them with me everywhere!
I hope that everyone has (and uses!) a reusable bottle at this point but one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased globally every minute. It is estimated that over 500 billion will be sold in 2021, and only a small percentage is recycled. It is estimated that between 5 and 13 million tons of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year, and according to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish. Truly staggering statistics. When it comes to a reusable bottle I prefer simple, and love my wide mouth stainless bottle from Kleen Kanteen. I’ve tried the colored coatings and find that even with gentle use they eventually chip off, and that other lid styles are hard to drink from or leak.
Another big contributor to plastic pollution is disposable cutlery, and it can be hard to avoid when you’re traveling. I always carry this bamboo cutlery set from To Go Ware in my purse or bag, and just stick one of my stainless steel straws in the case.
Lastly, I love reusable snack bags when on the go to carry nuts and other snacks that I like to pack and take along.
Let’s not forget the obvious – passport, money and credit cards (only bring what you’re going to use), your driver’s license (if you’re planning to drive), travel insurance and return ticket. Visitors to Costa Rica (for many nationalities including Canada and the United States – see list) must have a ticket to exit the country within 90 days of arrival .
A travel belt isn’t necessary but can be help reduce the risk of theft or loss of a wallet. I have a Spibelt that’s perfect because it can be used for everyday activities like running or at the gym, but doubles when traveling to carry your passport, phone, key, cards etc. For women, I recommend a good cross-body purse when traveling. I use the Travelon anti-theft cross-body bag for everyday use, and love that it has zippered expansion pockets on the ends when carrying a water bottle, umbrella, reading glasses (yup) etc.
Ok, maybe not essential, but if you’re traveling to a Spanish speaking country it helps to know at least some basic phrases. Costa Rica has a polite and courteous culture and although they are very tolerant and helpful with English speakers there are many who don’t speak the language, so a little goes a long way. Lonely Planet has a great Costa Rican Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary that is small enough to carry along and study while lounging in your hammock.
Lastly, have fun! See my post on safety in Costa Rica to help ensure your visit is trouble-free.