What to Take to Costa Rica?
If you’d like to skip the text just get the packing checklist here.
It’s unlikely that any two people traveling to Costa Rica would want to use exactly the same packing list. Some would be perfectly comfortable with little more than a swimsuit, some sandals, and a couple of T-shirts, while others might have a forty-pound case of photographic equipment or dive gear. We’ve put together some suggestions to help you make a start.
Don’t forget to take a look at the unpacking list because there are some things that it’s as important to remember to leave as the things you remember to take.
Obviously, what you take depends on how you are planning to travel, how long you stay, and your personal preferences. We’ve developed the following list over the course of more than a decade of trips to Costa Rica. It takes into account most of the situations you are likely to encounter: outdoor activities, a little nightlife, being invited into a home or to a special family occasion (more likely than you might think), and a lot of tropical relaxation.
If you are planning on washing clothes as you go, be aware that laundromats are few and far between in Costa Rica, but hand washing isn’t too onerous if you only have a few items (things like jeans can take forever to dry). Many mid-range and upscale hotels have laundry services—expect to pay a buck or two per item.
Since you’re headed to the beach, it’s unlikely that you’ll overlook your swimsuit, but some other items might be a little less obvious. Popular destinations like Poás and Irazú volcanoes, Monteverde cloud forest, and Chirripó peak are at elevations approaching or exceeding 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) where it is cool enough to want a sweater and jacket most of the time, and a hat and gloves aren’t out of the question. You may also be surprised to find that neither your rental car nor hotel room have a warm setting on their thermostat. Air-conditioning is common but heaters are almost unknown.
Water is another consideration when planning your wardrobe. Cloud and rainforests have little regard for phrases like “the dry season.” It may not rain during your visit, but the saturating humidity dripping from the leaves and the spray from the inevitable waterfall will make you glad for quick-drying garments.
- 3-5 T-shirts, one or two long sleeved for bushwhacking and to protect your sunburn if you don’t use enough sunscreen on day one.
- 1-2 dress shirts or blouses
- 3-4 pairs of shorts. One or two pairs of quick drying nylon and one or two pairs of dressy cotton shorts or tropical weight/length skirts.
- 1-2 pairs of long pants. Something dressy and something for the bush. If you can find a pair you like, convertible pants (zip-off legs) can serve as shorts and long pants. Surprisingly for the tropics, you’ll almost always be happier in long pants while you’re out exploring. Rainforest plants and insects have chemical and physical defense mechanisms that you almost certainly don’t want to experience first-hand. Long pants will protect your legs from scrapes, scratches, and insect invasions in the field. Horseback rides and the cool to cold temperatures at higher altitudes call for log pants as well.
- Underwear. If you bring a few pair that are almost worn out you can wear them for a day (or even two) and throw them out. You’ll have more room to bring home souvenirs.
- 2-8 pairs of socks. Sock type and count varies a lot. We typically wear sports sandals without socks and carry only a couple of pairs. If you’re going to wear closed shoes most of the time you’ll want extra socks because they’ll get wet fast either because of tropical perspiration or precipitation. As for underwear, tossing out old socks means you don’t have to wash, and you have space for another pound or two of Costa Rican coffee on the trip home.
- PJs or a long T-shirt in case you have to wander around the hotel in the middle of the night
- Jacket- It is the tropics, but you will need something to keep you warm at higher elevations, or on the open ocean. It gets genuinely cold in the cloud forest and on volcano rims. We recommend a lightweight pile jacket, and a water and wind resistant jacket that can be folded into its own pocket. The concern isn’t so much the weight as the size. If it’s small enough to cram in your fanny pack or pocket, you’re much more likely to have it when you need it.
- Bandana- okay, it’s not the 60’s but bandanas are practical apparel and cool in a retro sort of way. Dip it in a stream and wipe your brow, clean your glasses, shade your neck, sling a broken arm… use your imagination
- Baseball cap or brimmed hat- to keep the sun off. If you choose the baseball cap, bring a bandana to hang out the back and protect your neck.
- Mesh bag for wet clothes-Some people suggest a plastic bag or dry bag, but if you go the waterproof route you better make sure you get the clothes out of the bag in a hour or two or you might as well have just thrown the clothes away. If you forget them they’ll putrefy.
- Oh yeah, don’t forget your swimsuit. Active/sports swimsuit and a tanning suit (guys you may not know what we mean, so just bring your suit). You may also want a sarong or other casual beach cover-up.
Shoes are a difficult choice. Gear heads would want several pairs to match the wide variety of terrain and conditions in Costa Rica. Good choices include amphibian hikers, nylon/goretex® boots, army surplus jungle boots, high top tennis shoes, or just your most comfortable walking shoes.
For heavy slogging it’s possible to borrow or rent the heavy rubber boots that the locals favor. However, don’t expect to find anything larger than men’s size 11 (size 45 European).
I love my Vasque Skywalks, but leather mountaineering boots are typically designed for boulder fields and glissading and are not ideal for rainforest conditions. They weigh a ton, can cause blisters when they are wet, and in Costa Rica they will never dry out.
When traveling light, we’ve always worn Alp sandals as our only pair of shoes (this small California company has since been taken over by Teva, who produces and markets a substitute of similar design). This might be too minimalist for anyone who isn’t traveling by bicycle.
Sometimes we didn’t have the ideal traction, support or protection, but the light weight, ultimate breatheability, rapid drying, ease of washing, and comfort more than made up for the negatives.
You might want to pack a combination of
- amphibian hikers
- hiking/walking shoes
- river/reef sandals
- beach sandals/flip-flops
- dressy sandals or light weight dress shoes
If you’re going hardcore and want a definitive statement then take the advice National Geographic Conservation Fellow Mike Fay gives after 456 days and over 2,000 miles on foot across the central African rainforest. ” Don’t bother with shoes or boots. Water and sand mix in shoes to turn feet into hamburger. I wore sport sandals every day—and when needed some duct tape.”
We saw the hamburger effect in action when the only Tico member of our more modest week long expedition across the Talamancas insisted that he was going to wear mountaineering boots. The Gringos in their water shoes and indigenous guides in Crocs and Flip Flops (I kid you not) had to carry him to a taxi at the end of the trail but fortunately he made a full recovery.
Snake Proof Shoes
We’ve taken a lot of flack from people who let us know that our recommendations for wearing sport sandals or mesh amphibian hikers are reckless and unsafe. “Because of the danger of snake bite you should really recommend hiking boots.”
While they are correct in assuming that the sandals and amphibians won’t provide any protection from snake bite they’re mistaken in thinking that hiking boots will. You might as well be wearing slippers when it comes to fangs.
Scientists and others who spend considerable amounts of time in areas where snakes are common know this and use what are called snake gaiters. They’re light-weight kevlar and cordura armor that covers the top of the foot and the calf nearly up to the knee. They are definitely a pain but they work.
The second best option are the rubber muck boots worn by farm workers and ranchers. They won’t stop the fangs from penetrating but unless you have huge calves they are usually floppy enough that they may keep the fangs from reaching your leg. Not great, but maybe better than nothing.
The best defense against snakebite regardless of the sort of armor you’re wearing is to look carefully where you are placing your feet and hands. If you don’t step on them or grab them most Costa Rican snakes are very unlikely to bite.
All of these items are readily available (except tampons in more remote areas) in the local Supermercado or Famacía, but unless you’re on an extended trip, you might as well bring them from home and spend your time on the beach rather than in line at the checkout.
- toothbrush with cover, and toothpaste
- shampoo and conditioner
- brush or comb
- towel- if you’re staying anywhere that charges less than $US 30 per night, they may not be provided. Even if your hotels provide towels, they may not appreciate you “borrowing” them for your hike to the rain forest waterfall or hot spring. Synthetic backpacking towels are small, lightweight, wringable, and quick drying- great for everything except modesty (too small to cover much).
- toilet paper
Books & Maps
Besides some light reading, a good map and guidebook you may also want to pick these up while you’re at the bookstore.
- Nature Guide-“The Travelers’ Wildlife Guide” to Costa Rica is the recommended field guide book or the Costa Rica Wildlife-Introduction to familiar species” is a great 12 panel laminated quick reference card.
- Spanish/English Phrase book-The Lonely Planet pocket phrase book is specific to Costa Rican Spanish.
- Bird Book-Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch, Illustrated by Dana Gardner is highly recommended.
- Serious naturalists might want Janzen’s “Costa Rican Natural History.” This would also be a great gift for an exceptional guide; it’s considered the bible of Costa Rican Ecology.
If you’re traveling with more than one person you should spread your important documents out so if something happens to some of them you’ll have a back up. For example I carry both passports and Sue carries both driver’s licenses. That way we at least have ID if one of us loses our wallet.
- money belt or passport pendant-somewhere to carry your documents.
- passport- it was once possible (although ill advised) to travel from the United States to Costa Rica with only a drivers license for documentation. Now a passport is required. If you are traveling with someone, it’s a good idea to exchange photocopies of your passports. Your passport will also be required for bank transactions, checking into hotels, and car rentals.
- drivers license- required to rent a car and a good backup ID. Keep it separate from your passport.
- Money-Read up on the pros and cons of each method of getting, carrying and spending your money, but make sure you’ve got a couple of days worth of cash and a credit/debit/bank card or travelers check as backup.
- Insurance card and contact information. While medical care in Costa Rica is nationalized, and it is unlikely that your health insurance will be recognized or needed, some providers will arrange and pay for medically necessary evacuation.
The health care system in Costa Rica is good, but there are a few things you should bring from home. Health and medical care information is available in this document.
- First aid kit– yes we know we are repeating ourselves. There is a good reason for it.
- Personal prescriptions should be filled before you leave home. Although it is probably possible to get any medication you might need, it’s not worth wasting the time it might take.
- sunglasses- don’t mess around with your eyes. Get 100% UV blocking and when choosing a shape, remember that water and sand will reflect dangerous rays around the bottom and sides of the glasses.
- Tampons are hard to find in rural areas, and expensive when you do find them. If you use them bring them.
- Contact lenses and cleaning solutions are available in Costa Rica but hard to find. If you rely on them, bring enough for your whole trip and a pair of glasses just in case.
- If you wear prescription glasses, pack a spare pair
- Plastic bags – plastic may be the worst enemy of our environment, but it might be the travelers best friend. Reuse and recycle, but take advantage of this miracle of modern science.
- A photo of your home or family can jump start a conversation. Family is very important to Ticos.
- Your Internet logon information will come in handy, and if you’re like me you’ll need to check to be sure what the password for your e-mail account actually is because normally you have it autologin. Cyber cafes are becoming more common all the time. If you use AOL or another service that requires it, be sure to establish a remote profile before you leave home.
- Don’t forget your address book so you can make everyone at home jealous with post cards.
- Clothesline – hang muddy pants on the terrace or for a quick hand wash in the sink (things like jeans might take forever to dry, but underwear aren’t bad).
- Water bottle or bag. The best we’ve found are the Platypus bags and we usually carry a 1 L small mouth for convenient access on the trail.
- Flashlight – The white led lights are amazing. Tiny, bright, long-lasting and often shock and waterproof, there’s one in our first aid kit and another in a pocket. Power outages are not terribly common, but do occur, and the path you take along the beach to a restaurant may not be so obvious on your way back after sunset.
- A drinking cup. This may sound a little strange but outside chain hotels and resorts those sanitary wrapped, disposable plastic drinking cups are rare.
- Something to read while swinging in a hammock on the beach, when the ferry is a couple of hours late, or you miss your bus and have to wait for the next one.
- Croakies® or other glasses retainer system for your prescription or sunglasses.
- pocket knife-don’t forget to take it out of your pocket and put it in your checked baggage for flights.
- mp3 player- if you want to carry music, and don’t already have one, buy an mp3 player. They have huge advantages over portable cd or tape players. Not only is the player significantly smaller you don’t have to carry the music separately. Because you aren’t running a motor to spin a cd, the batteries last longer and are generally rechargeable.
- Zipties—useful for repairs and to “lock” your backpack. Obviously anyone with a knife can cut the tie, but it will reduce opportunistic pilfering. Anyone with a knife can also slit the pack open.
- Gifts—small tokens of your appreciation, or something to keep a small child entertained so you don’t have to listen to them cry on a 200 km bus ride.