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What to take?

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If you’re thinking of going to Costa Rica without a map you’ll want to reconsider.

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 midrange 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.
  • 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.
  • 5-8 pairs of 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- ok, 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, but the ladies appreciate the difference). You may also want a sarong or other casual beach cover-up.

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