What to Pack for Costa Rica
A Costa Rica packing list usually changes by the season – but you’ll need these items year-round. Lace your hiking shoes and hit the cloud forest with these things in your bag as I cover what to pack for Costa Rica.
12 Things You Need to Have
Obviously, this pack will be on your back for days. So just like your hiking shoes – make an investment in something good.
For me, that’s the Osprey Farpoint 55 ($180). It’s one of the only backpacks with a detachable daypack – both of which are compliant with the size policy on most budget airlines. The big bag is your carry-on and the small one is your personal item. It held everything I needed for a three-week trip in Costa Rica. Not too big. Not too small. Osprey is a quality brand.
If possible, bring all sunscreen you’ll need for the entire trip – especially if it’s something special. Because even in less tourist-heavy destinations, the price of sunscreen is UNGODLY. Expect a 500% markup on just about everything related to the sun and your largest organ (phrasing?).
Whatever your skincare regimen, live your truth. I use Neutrogena ($11) for my precious face. Bring some mosquito repellant too if you’re spending a lot of time on the coast during the rainy season.
Small dry bag
I recommend this Friendly Swede dry bag ($17). The bright pink version is easy to spot from a distance – something you’ll appreciate for those days on the beach since petty theft is a problem in Costa Rica.
It’s water-resistant, not water proof. That’s good enough for jumping between boats or hiking in the rain forest. But it’s not something I’d recommend submerging for an extended period of time.
I was roundly mocked for getting a headlamp – then the power went out. And through the dead of night I still found my way to the bar. Who’s crying over an empty glass of beer now?
Really, a headlamp is super handy in hostels when you’re trying to find stuff in your locker or under the bed – without waking up the roommates. In which case, you’ll appreciate having both of your hands free.
Nothing fancy here – just this little thing from Energizer ($13).
When you’re wet, naked, and alone in the hostel shower with nothing but a roll of toilet paper – you’ll wish you brought a travel towel. Most are compact, reusable, and made of microfiber – which dries quickly (a must-have in Costa Rica’s humidity).
A Rainleaf towel ($10-12) isn’t luxurious, but it gets the job done. Buy one large enough to wrap around your waist.
My single best purchase before the trip, BUFF is a multifunctional sleeve of stretchy fabric ($20). I used it as a headband, hat or scarf almost every day of my trip. It comes in over 80 colors and multiple fabrics – depending on the climate you’ll be in.
This thing saved my neck from sunburn and provided heat-relief when dipped in some cold water. If you get anything on the list – make it this.
I’m a recent convert to the religion of packing cubes (no relation to the Harmonic Time Cube).
The concept is to avoid having all your clothes in a big, disorganized lump inside your backpack. These eBags ($28) use the revolutionary concept of – wait for it – cubes. In the long run, you’ll save space and stay organized as you hop between destinations.
There’s no need to harp on the benefits of a full-power phone – just know this battery has saved my butt countless times. And if not this brand, then you should splurge on something that lasts multiple charges. Bright screens and GPS use a lot of battery life.
The right clothes
You’ll find entire articles about what clothes to pack in Costa Rica. But whatever you do, follow two basic rules: make sure it’s breathable and make sure it dries quickly. It’s almost impossible to air dry your clothes in Costa Rica – the humidity is just too high. I had similar problems in Panama.
I found the best success putting clothes out in the sun, on hot water pipes, or in front of a fan – after thoroughly wringing the water out. If you’re one of those fancy “washer and dryer” people then keep reading.
Light rain jacket
I bought my rain jacket from Walmart five years ago – so I doubt it’s on Amazon. But the key is to find something lightweight, compact and relatively water resistant. You’ll want to shove it in your day bag in case a rainstorm strikes.
Plenty of cash and backup cards
I had a hard time withdrawing money in Costa Rica – something I talked about in an article for Gay Star News. The moral is: CR’s banking system can be pretty hit-or-miss. Pack plenty of cash and get it exchanged for colóns as soon as possible. Some cities, like Puerto Viejo, only have two or three ATMs and even fewer card readers. Other places, such as Manuel Antonio, are abundant in credit card terminals.
Be sure to notify your bank of travel – and have a couple of credit cards with cash advances set up (it’s harder to activate the cash advance option when you’re out of the country). Keep your currency in a pill bottle at the bottom of your bag – or slip some dough in a plastic bag under your insoles. I notified my bank of travel and still couldn’t withdraw money, so keep your options open.
Here’s my credit card recommendation if you need one.
You and your clothes are going to smell – and unfortunately, it won’t be the scent of fresh rain. Get this cheap, little bag ($10) to keep dirty clothes separate from the clean ones. As an added bonus it folds up into itself, which saves on much-needed space.
3 Things You Don’t N
I know it’s the rainforest – but don’t bring an umbrella. It looks silly, and you’ll need both your hands more often than not. But if you insist, there’s always this option.
If you’re from the United States or Canada, then you’re in luck – all of Central America uses the standard North American plug (Type A and Type B).
I bought a cheap pair of binoculars before my trip – but even with them, everything is too far away. On most nature tours, your guide will have a high-magnification scope on a tripod. Save your money.
Good luck in Costa Rica! If you’re visiting Puerto Viejo, check out my recommendations for lodging.