Not sure what to pack for Costa Rica? It can be a challenge because this beautiful, diverse Central American country has everything from tropical beaches to cool mountain towns. My list covers all eventualities. Below, I’ve separated your packing essentials in case you’re focusing on just one trip type, whether that’s hiking and adventure or luxury resorts. If you want something more detailed for future trips, check out my ultimate packing list.
This post is part of a series about Costa Rica – I have links to my destination guides below. If you’re planning your trip, you may especially want to check out my Costa Rica Travel Planning Guide which includes everything from currency to culture to food and safety. And my guide to The Best Places To Visit in Costa Rica will help if you’re still deciding on your itinerary.
At the end of this post, I have a link to the printable packing list in high-resolution PDF.
Costa Rica Essentials
- What to wear in Costa Rica: this will depend on where you visit but generally, the clothing style in Costa Rica is similar to North America and Europe – jeans, tops and jackets in cities; shorts and dresses at the beach; hiking and sportswear in the adventure centres like Monteverde. There aren’t (as far as I’ve seen), any/many ultra high-end restaurants where you need to pull out the designer gear. Even the high-end eateries will take you if you’re smart casual. You’re on vacay. Let your hair down, put on your favourite casual frock and let go of the fashion pressures for a short while.
- Clothes: generally go for lightweight, quick-drying materials. Costa Rica is tropical with high humidity so cotton and light linen will be kinder than wools and denims. Also, keep in mind that you can ‘wash as you go’. Costa Rica is well set up with cheap laundry services, usually by the kilo/lb rather than the item. You’ll typically find you re-wear the same items on repeat (most of us do), so there’s no need to pack your entire wardrobe. More tips: 25 Quick Swaps for Packing Light
- Shoes: what shoes you pack will depend on what you plan to do. For a beach vacay, you can get away with flip-flops and sandals. I find folding ballet flats invaluable on a trip – great for smarter eateries and bars but they fold and therefore don’t take up the space that heels require. Also, see the trip style section below for trekking shoe tips. More tips: What are the Best Shoes for Travelling?
- Documents – Passport & visa requirements: this is a commonly asked question and the answer is, yes you need a passport to travel to Costa Rica, even if you’re from the USA. Typically, you won’t need a visa, although this depends on where you’re from. Residents of Europe and the USA don’t usually need a visa for Costa Rica. Speaking of flights, you might like my list of 15 Long Haul Flight Essentials.
- Documents – Yellow Fever certificate: you’ll only need this if you have previously travelled through South America or parts of Africa. Find out more on the Fit For Travel website.
- Currency: the local currency is Colon but USD is also commonly accepted (and often preferred for things like tours) so take both.
- Electrics – plug adaptor: the Costa Rican plug is the flat 2-pin type similar to that used in the USA, so people from Europe will need to pack an adaptor. Tip: including for USA friends – pack a plug adaptor that also includes multiple USB charging ports. Trying to charge your and your travel companion’s phone, plus possibly camera, tablet and other devices after a long day of sightseeing but before going out for dinner can feel time-pressured.
- Electrics – Kindle: don’t spill a bottle of water in your bag over your non-waterproof Kindle. Just me? Oh, ok…as you were…
You might also like my list – 21 Long Haul Flight Essentials: What to Take In Your Carry-On Bag
Packing For Health
- Medicines: while it’s always important to pack your personal prescription medications, there’s no need to pack a small pharmacy for the ‘what if’ situations. Costa Rica has lots of pharmacies, usually with English-speaking staff in the tourist areas so you can grab what you need as you go. I know, I had to take my dad to one in La Fortuna. Typically, I carry a small pouch with essentials: pain pills, band-aids and antihistamines.
- Rehydration salts and imodium: it’s normal for there to be small changes to your stomach and bowel habits when you travel. Usually, it’s just new foods and flight dehydration. I try not to take immodium unless absolutely necessary (like a long bus trip) but I do keep replenished with rehydration salts, especially if my stomach is making me go the loo a lot. Tip: mint pills (from your herbal store) are great at calming a stomach that’s just generally upset.
- Mosquito repellent is an absolute must, especially if you’re off to Tortuguero National Park. Although Costa Rica doesn’t have malaria (meaning you won’t need anti-malaria pills), dengue fever is present. I promise you, having caught dengue in Mexico, you do not want it. It can be deadly and there’s no cure besides drinking water, lying down and crossing your fingers. Don’t panic! Just apply your repellent day and night (dengue mosquitos bite during the day). You can read my guide to the best mosquito repellent. And here is my experience getting Dengue Fever including symptoms and what to do if you get it.
- Sanitary products – while pads are readily available throughout Costa Rica, getting hold of tampons can be more of a challenge. I’ve never had a problem buying them but they are expensive and rarely available with a good range of brands or absorbencies. Take your own.
- Reusable water bottle – not only is this great for keeping hydrated on your flight, Costa Rica is trying to stamp out single-use plastic. There are water refilling stations everywhere. I pack a Contigo bottle – it’s leakproof, holds a lot and gives easy drinking access. The built-in carabiner is a bonus for hiking.
Packing for Costa Rica luxury resort trips
- Make-up – apologies if the packing list looks like you should only wear make-up if you’re going to a fancy resort, I know that’s not the case. However, luxury travellers who plan to visit one destination are more likely to go large with the packing and will therefore have more suitcase space for luxuries like make-up. What I would say is either go minimalist on the make-up or go waterproof – Costa Rica is tropical and your normal make-up may slide right off your face.
- Face make-up – if you plan to wear foundation your entire trip, keep in mind that even with sunscreen, your face shade will change in the sun. I can’t un-see the image of the girl who looked like a ghost because she was still applying her oh-so-pale foundation to her oh-so-newly-tanned face.
- Perfume – I travel like to travel with perfume but often it stays in my bag outside cities because perfume can attract mosquitoes, especially perfumes with floral notes. By the time you’ve applied your eau de mosquito repellent, most fragrance is drowned out anyway. If anything, travel with a miniature rather than having a full bottle taking up case space.
- Heels – if you’re going to a well-kept resort and need heels to go with your pretty dress, I get it. But most of the rest of Costa Rica has bad roads and pavements and is not high heels friendly. Consider trading your heels for some cute ballet flats.
- Travel hairdryer /straightener – I have a friend who won’t travel without hers because she has curly hair and if that’s you, I understand. Do keep in mind that Costa Rica is very humid so all your straightening and blow-drying efforts may be no match for Mother Nature.
Packing for Costa Rica backpacking trips
- Swiss Army knife – from the small saw (great for cutting baguette) to the cork-screw and can opener, to the nail scissors and tweezers, I can’t think of a more compact and handy tool to pack on a backpacking trip. Some might say having a few small blades available is handy for solo female travellers. Just don’t forget you’ll need checked luggage to carry this. I pack the Huntsman by Victoria Knoxx.
- Padlock/travel cable lock – padlocks are great for hostel dorm lockers while a small travel bike lock can be good for leashing your backpack to a bedframe or other places if you need to leave it unattended and don’t have a locker to use. Of course, a bike lock won’t deter a thief with a knife but it should keep opportunists away. This is the cable lock I use.
- Sleep sheet – while not essential, climbing into your own silk sleep sheet rather than the rough, washed many times sheets you’re given in dorms, can feel like a luxury on a long trip. Spray with permethrin and you might have a fighting chance of warding off stray bed bugs. You can read about my bed bugs tips here. This is a sleep sheet if you don’t know what I mean.
- Zip-lock bags have so many uses but mainly I pack a few when I dine out – put that last slice of pizza into one for later or use them for ‘home-made’ lunches on hiking trips. Wet bikini in your bag? Cheap dry bag? You’ll come to see how handy these are and they don’t take up much space.
Packing for active and adventure trips
- Trail runners or hiking boots – most people will only need one of these for their adventures in Costa Rica. Some sort of closed shoe will be necessary for most hiking trails in Costa Rica (keeps the tarantulas out – just kidding, kind of). Trail shoes or running shoes with good grip have the advantage of drying quickly, being light and small to pack. I tend to travel with trail runners. I have a pair by Brooks. Hiking boots on the other hand have the advantage of being waterproof, which will help if you plan on any serious hiking. Routes can be muddy, especially during or after the rainy season and hiking boots usually have better grip and ankle protection for uneven terrain. That said, they’re heavier and bulkier to pack. My hiking boots are by Salomon and they were comfy right out of the box. See my guide to the best travel shoes here.
- Waterproof bag – from boat trips to beach days to rainforest deluges, a waterproof bag has saved my electrical items many times. It’s become part of my daypack ritual now – all my electricals go into the waterproof sack and into my backpack before I leave my room. I pack a small waterproof bag by Sea To Summit.
- Day pack – you’ll want a small backpack to carry your items for days out hiking – snacks, water, valuable, extra layers. If you’re new to hiking, don’t take your office laptop bag. Not only is it likely to be heavy and of the sweat-inducing variety, it might get ruined. I pack a cheap, foldable waterproof day pack I picked up on Amazon. It goes in the wash very easily and has lasted years.
- Head torch – if you’re thinking of doing any night hiking, bring a head torch. Sure, your phone likely has a torch but don’t burn through your battery. Head torches also keep your hands free.
- Binoculars – I’ve never packed binoculars before and I wasn’t sure that I’d use them but I used them a lot in Costa Rica. Wildlife, being wild, doesn’t tend to present itself for your close-up enjoyment. A lot of animals are ‘over there, in the trees…no, there…see?’. I pack this cheap, lightweight pair of Binoculars from Amazon.
Tip: some hikes in Costa Rica can be very foot-friendly, and can be done in flip-flops. That was the case in Cahuita National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park. Check your planned hikes before you pack heavy walking shoes you might not need. You might also like: Trekking Kit – 10 Essentials for Every Long Hike
Packing for the rainy season and cooler locations
If you’re heading from the airport to the beach in dry-season (December to April), you can ignore this section entirely. However, if you are travelling during the rainy season (May to November), you’ll want warmer and dryer clothes. This applies also if you’re heading anywhere mountainous or with elevation, like San Jose or Monteverde, where the nights can get cooler; warmer wear is also useful for night hikes. I generally find a few items of ‘technical’ wear i.e. clothing designed to give maximum warmth with the least weight, which means you don’t need to pack bulky winter clothes. Most of the adventure brands focus on technical wear – I’m a fan of The North Face. But cheaper brands like Uniqlo offer some technical wear.
- A lightweight waterproof jacket – I suggest packing an actual jacket rather than a poncho as it will add warmth as well as some waterproofing. A jacket with a lining means you won’t be sweating in plastic sleeves. I pack one by The North Face and it’s lasted years.
- A warm layer – I tend to carry just one ‘base’ layer which includes a pair of normal leggings and a standard, cotton long-sleeved top. I also add a thin fleece (also The North Face) which is as useful on flights and in cities as it is in the cloud forest.
- Neck gaiter – The final warm item I carry is a neck gaiter. It doubles as a neck scarf, bandana and even an emergency mask.
- Umbrella – this will come down to personal preference. If you’re hiking in a wet cloud forest, an umbrella won’t be ideal. However, if you’re in San Jose for a while, you might find it useful to pack a brolly during the wet season.
Packing for Costa Rica beach vacations
- Beach wear – This list is pretty easy and just involves your usual beach wear. If you are going to try surfing (in Puerto Viejo or Santa Teresa), you may prefer a full swim-suit rather than a bikini because the surf can be very good at liberating nipples from your bikini top and pulling down bikini bottoms. If the surf were a human, it would be a frisky young man!
- Sarong – I find sarongs are great to pack as an extra towel and for lying on at the beach – they dry quicker than beach towels and can be washed. Costa Rica has lots of amazing sarongs for sale so consider shopping local when you arrive. You’ll likely pay less, too.
- What to wear in Costa Rica at the beach? The good news is there are no major cultural differences to be aware of. Locals tend to get down to their swimsuits and there are no specific rules about covering up when you’re off the beach (unlike the ‘no bare chests for men outside the beach’ rule in neighbouring Panama).
What you don’t need to pack for Costa Rica
- Anti-malaria pills – though you DO need mosquito repellent.
- Ultra-cold-weather-wear like hats and gloves and bulky coats – if you’re leaving a cold climate, wear layers (rain jacket, fleece, base layer and jeans) to the airport. Leave the duvet-sized coat at home.
- An entire pharmacy – there are plenty of English-language pharmacists in all of the tourist spots and consultations are free!
- More than one pair of jeans – possibly a controversial suggestion but multiple pairs of jeans are not necessary unless you’re spending more than a night or two in San Jose or Monteverde. If you wear them on your flight and tip your gin and tonic over your only pair, just get them laundered when you arrive – it is cheap and easy and your hotel usually manages it for you.
- Expensive jewellery – it’s safer at home. If you feel bare without jewellery, consider buying something hand-made locally.
- Coffee or chocolate – I promise, it won’t be as good as what you can find in Costa Rica.
So, that’s my guide to what to pack for Costa Rica. Got any questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, happy packing and buen viaje!