Camping in Costa Rica is a great way to get to out of the way places, and experience the fascinating night and very early morning hours in the tropical forests.
- Shade is essential and multiple overlapping layers are better. A big umbrella under a huge tarp beneath a gigantic tree. The tropical sun is insanely powerful and feels like it’s burning straight through the canopy.
- Often the bugs aren’t bad. They can be relentless and maddening but it has always surprised us how much of our time outdoors in Costa Rica is relatively bug free.
- Days are short. If you’re used to summer camping in the Rocky Mountains or Alps where there’s 16-18 hours between sunrise and sunset remember that in the tropics in dry season there’s less than 12 hours of daylight.
- Nights can be wet. Especially from May through December 80% of the rain falls in the evening and overnight.
- Sleeping up off the ground is a good idea. Ants.
- Keep a clean camp with all food and garbage containers well sealed. Ants.
- Occasionally cabinas or ecolodges offer an extension cord and hose that reach to a grassy patch rented out as campsites but there are basically no RV Parks or full service campgrounds.
- Siestas were invented to escape the heat. The intensity of the tropical sun at mid-day is ridiculous and one of the best ways to prevent heat stroke is a nap in a hammock in the shade.
- Bring plenty of water. Start with 2x what you think you’ll need then double it again.
- Thieves abound. Pizotes (coatimundis), mapaches (raccoon), hormigas (ants) and ladrones (humans) will make off with your unattended food stash and shiny objects in the blink of an eye.
- Learn about the environment. Beach apple tree’s leaves, bark and fruit contain and exude toxic phenols – catechols, resorcinols and biflavonoids – just sitting under one for shade can result in a trip to the emergency room. Rip currents and sunstroke are other common causes of medical emergencies and death.
- A bag of ice lasts about 25 minutes…
Twenty years ago, camping was permitted or at least tolerated on most of Costa Rica’s beaches. It was also relatively easy to find a spot far enough off the beaten path that you didn’t have to worry much about someone happening by and cleaning out your tent while you were out for a swim.
Camping is prevented or at least strongly discouraged on developed beaches national parks and wildlife refuges) beaches.
For us the best reason to choose a tent or van over a hotel or resort is to reach places where there’s no development, escape the crowds and have a unique experience.
Especially as we’ve gotten older we understand there’s a price to pay in the currency of bug bites, sun burn and lumpy sleeping pads but the rewards are worth it. Falling asleep to the patter of rain and waking up to the sound of the waves and the birds keeps us setting up camp.
We frequently hear people imagining they can camp to save money. While that may be a great strategy in Europe or the U.S. it’s marginal at best in Costa Rica. Budget lodgings may be a better choice.
How to Camp in Costa Rica?
“Costa Rica – The Ultimate Offroad Camping Guide” by Anna Riedel-Jahn & Lucas T. Jahn reveals locations it took us almost thirty years of exploring to find and includes sections on appropriate gear plus four wheel drive routes and how to drive them – highly recommended!
The outfits like Nomad America and PuraVan that rent the vehicles offer packages of camping equipment like stoves, dishes, water tanks, sleeping bags, additional tents (to set up on the ground for more people). These rigs are ideal for exploring some of the National Parks (see list where camping is allowed) and remote beaches as a base of operations in the wilderness.
Diesel pushers and other full size RVs are non-existent in Costa Rica.
As long as you’re not too picky or demanding it’s pretty easy and cheap to buy camping basics in Costa Rican supermarkets. Yes, I said supermarkets. Around the popular beach destinations you can pick up a stove, tarp, grill, blankets, or even a tent while stocking up on chips, beer and sandwich fixings.
If you’re planning to trek into the wilderness it’s probably a good idea to bring your own gear because what’s available in Costa Rica is cheap, heavy, breakable and unreliable. Quality gear is sparingly available at astronomical prices in a few specialty shops around San José.
If you’re trying to stretch your budget camping may not be the best way to save money. Camper van or tent top 4WD rentals are typically about $100 per day or double the cost of a standard vehicle. Private campgrounds charge around $10 per person or $15-$25 per site.
At national parks fees range from $10 to $18 per person for entry per day plus $8 to $15 per person for camping per night. For a couple that could be as much as $102 fees for one night (two days entry fees plus the camping fee) in addition to the camper rental.
If you’re roughing it in your own tent or parking the camper in an unimproved free spot on the beach you may save a bit compared to a dorm bed at $8-$15 or a clean simple cabina around $40 for a double room with private bath.
If you can squeeze the extra few bucks out of your budget it’s nice to have lights, screens, hammocks on the lawn, not having to try to dry your tent out before packing it, bathrooms you don’t have to put your shoes on to get to…