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What to Pack for Costa Rica

Packing Guide for Costa Rica

You just hit Complete Purchase on plane tickets to Costa Rica. Congrats! You’re going to love it! I’ve been to the beautiful little Central American country twice and had amazing experiences both times. But knowing what to pack for Costa Rica can be tricky. You want to explore all the country has to offer from volcanic hot springs to great surfing, rainforest hikes to beach bumming but don’t want to drag a 50lb suitcase around with you either.

Costa Rica has many different microclimates so it’s important to check out the typical weather in the destinations on your itinerary first. If you just pack bikinis, shorts, and flip flops, you’re going to have a terrible time in the Monteverde cloud forest. Meanwhile your hiking boots are going to look a bit silly on the urban streets of San Jose.

Using my 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 packing list method, I’ve put together a guide to help you cover all your activities with style. Whether you’re visiting the humid Caribbean coast, the cool, cool misty cloud forest, or the arid beaches of Guanacaste you’ll be covered.

What to Pack for Costa Rica

For the most part, casual clothes rule the day on a Costa Rican vacation. As much as I love them, I actually leave my heels at home when visiting the country. Sandals for the beach, sneakers for things like walking trails and horseback riding. If you’re staying on a resort or in San Jose you may have occasion to dress up more but even for a nice dinner out in La Fortuna or Tamarindo, a cotton dress and sandals will have you fitting right in.

It’s important to remember that many parts of Costa Rica are humid and wet clothing will take longer to dry, so you’ll want to pack quick-dry items as well as a travel clothesline and a wet bag to keep damp swimsuits from making your dry clothes damp in your bag.

If you plan to take part in activities like ziplining or horseback riding, you’ll need a pair of closed toe shoes. Look for lightweight ones that will dry quickly if they get wet. A pair of athletic leggings are another useful item to pack for Costa Rica if you don’t want zipline harnesses digging into bare skin or calves being irritated by horsehair. Bonus: you can wear them as pjs.

Is Monteverde on your list? I hope so, because it’s magnificent. You may be looking at the forecast and thinking, “20C, that sounds pretty warm. I don’t need to pack a long-sleeved shirt.” Trust me, pack the shirt…and a pair of pants. Monteverde is misty more often than it’s not – it’s why the vegetation is so lush – but it makes the air chillier than you’d think. If you have space in your bag, pack a light sweater even.

Costa Rica Packing List Essentials

So we’ve got the clothes figured out, but what else will you need for a successful trip?

Sunglasses and Hat

I think sunglasses go without saying. You’re travelling to a country that gets over 2000 hours of sunshine a year so you’ll want to protect your eyes. In fact, pack a second pair as a backup. A hat is not only a good way to cover up messy hair, wet with ocean salt, but it’s also useful to help protect you from heat stroke.

Reef-safe Sunscreen and Aloe Vera Gel

We all know that sunscreen is a must-have when travelling to a sunny tropical destination. It’s a no-brainer. You might think, “I don’t want to travel with another liquid, I’ll just buy it when I get there,” but did you know that sunscreen in Costa Rica can cost 4x as much as it would at home? Another important thing to remember when you’re sunscreen shopping is to look for one that’s safe for coral reefs. Two main ingredients in many big name sunscreens have been shown to contribute to coral bleaching. While you’re small and the ocean is big, sunscreen washes off and all those tourists add up.

No matter how careful you are, getting a bit too much sun is always a possibility so pack a small tube of aloe vera gel to give you some comfort and relief. After accumulating a small collection of gels around the world I now save myself the trouble and just bring it with me. When your back starts turning pink after that awesome snorkel session you’ll be glad you packed the aloe vera.

Bug Spray and Anti-itch Cream

Costa Rica is home to over 300,000 different types of insects so you know that mosquitos are something you need to prepare for. Like in many tropical countries, mosquito bites are at best annoying but at worst can make you very sick. Mosquitos can carry diseases like zika, malaria, and dengue so it’s best to arm yourself. The best defense are products containing DEET. When applied correctly  forms a vapor barrier at the skin surface that deters mosquitoes from landing on the skin. Basically, it throws off their landing gear so they can’t get at you. When shopping for bug spray know that the percentage of DEET doesn’t indicate how protected you are, only how long the protection will last. A 7% DEET solution may need to be reapplied every two hours, while a 100% DEET solution can last up to 10 hours. I personally use Ben’s 30% DEET Tick & Insect Repellent.

And just like sunscreen, despite your best efforts, finding yourself itchy with bug bites is a real possibility so be ready by packing some anti-itch cream. My pharmacist recommends a hydrocortisone cream since it’s also helpful for other skin irritations that might pop up.

Waterproof Phone Case

Whether you’re kayaking, canyoning, or exploring by speedboat, having a waterproof case for your phone makes good sense. You can go advanced with something like a Lifeproof case or you can go basic with a waterproof pouch, but you don’t want to leave your phone completely unprotected. Bonus: a waterproof case will also keep out dust and beach sand. No one wants their vacation ruined by a busted phone.

Phone Battery Pack

With so many people using their phones to look up information and document their travels, battery life on vacation just isn’t the same as it is at home. Be sure to pack a portable battery pack so you can charge on the go. Look for one that has at least 2000mAh in order to get a full charge. The higher the mAh on your battery pack, the more times you’ll be able to charge your phone before having to recharge the battery pack.

First Aid Kit

No need to go wild here but having a small kit that includes some band-aids, blister pads, antibacterial cream, antihistamines, anti-diarrheals, and a few pain killers is always a good idea. I have a bad habit of beating myself up on trips so I’m always glad I had a few basic supplies right at hand.

Water Bottle with Filter

I wouldn’t recommend drinking tap water in Costa Rica but continuously buying bottled water can add up and also create a lot of plastic waste. So what’s a girl to do? Bring along a reusable water bottle that will filter the water at the same time! I really like the LifeStraw Flex for this. The filter is so good you could even drink directly from streams or waterfalls without fear of getting sick. Since staying hydrated is so important in hot climates, I would put this high up on your Costa Rica packing list.

Laundry Sheets and Travel Clothesline

Even if you’re only travelling for two weeks you may find that you want to wash a few items like socks or underwear or freshen up your sweaty shirts. Instead of packing yet another liquid, I like to throw a couple laundry soap sheets into my bag. They provide just enough suds to sink wash the few items you’ll have.

In a humid country like Costa Rica, a travel clothesline can come in handy when you want to dry your recently washed socks or hang up a wet swimsuit. My preferred one can be strung up with by hooks or suction cups and doesn’t require clothespins.

Wet Bag

In the case that your wet clothes don’t dry before you have to pack up, having a dedicated wet bag will keep them from making anything else in your bag damp. A repurposed plastic shopping bag is a breeding ground for mold and mildew so I’d recommend a bag designed to hold wet items. Tip: check the baby aisle for pouches designed to hold wet cloth diapers. Works just as well for your wet bikini.

Travel Towel

Whether you need to dry offer after a dip in a waterfall or just want something to sit on on the beach, a travel towel is key. While hotels will provide you with towels for your shower, they really don’t want you taking them off the property and getting them full of beach sand. Plus, a regular towel is bulky to pack in your day bag. If you don’t like the traditional microfibre travel towel, try a lightweight Turkish towel instead.

Headlamp

This one is more optional since many people will use the flashlight function on their phones, but it’s good to know that the sun sets by 6pm in Costa Rica and many streets aren’t well lit. Power outages in more rural areas are not uncommon so if you have the space in your bag, include a hands-free lighting system, aka a headlamp.

The most important thing to remember? Pura Vida! Enjoy your visit to Costa Rica!

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