Last Updated: February 21, 2020
If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably bought your tickets and are getting excited for your trip to Costa Rica! You likely have a good idea of where you’ll be visiting and the types of activities you’ll be doing. What you might not know, though, is that each of those places is going to have slightly different weather. Costa Rica may be a small country, but it has an astounding 12 life zones, each with its own microclimate. In this post, we provide an essential packing list that will make sure you’re perfectly packed and ready for anything. Whether you’re visiting the hot and steamy jungle of the Southern Pacific, the cool, misty cloud forest of the northern mountains, or the arid beaches of Guanacaste, this post will tell you everything you need to bring on your trip to Costa Rica.
Packing List for Costa Rica Vacation
Keep it casual. With the exception of the San Jose metro area, Costa Rica is an extremely casual country. Leave that office-wear behind and slip into your more comfortable tops, shorts, and sandals. If you plan to go out for some nice dinners, simple dresses are a good option for the ladies and dressy shorts and polo shirts for the men. For shoes, we’re in our flip-flops most of the time but also have some dressier sandals for going out to eat or somewhere nice.
Visiting San Jose? If you’re planning a museum day in downtown, pack some pants, a nicer top, and closed-toe shoes (think flats for women). Things are a bit more refined in la ciudad (the city) than at the beach and in rural mountain towns. You’ll probably also want a lightweight sweater/cardigan or jacket for the cooler mornings and evenings.
Visiting the Cloud Forests of Monteverde or San Gerardo de Dota? Bring some layers like pants, long sleeve shirts, and lightweight rainjackets. Temperatures are a lot cooler in these areas compared to the beach, especially at night. Even temps around 65˚F (18˚C) can feel cold because of the high humidity.
Visiting Drake Bay, Puerto Jimenez, or the Caribbean Coast? These areas are extremely hot and humid so bring lots of lightweight clothes. Anything that wicks away moisture and dries quickly is great.
2. Raincoat or Light Waterproof Jacket
May through November is the rainy season in Costa Rica, though in many areas like the Caribbean coast it can rain at any time of year. It’s a good idea to pack a lightweight raincoat or at least a poncho no matter where you’re going. And if you’re visiting Monteverde, San Gerardo de Dota, or anywhere on the Osa Peninsula (Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez), it’s more of a necessity. We couldn’t believe it, but it rained on us on a recent visit to Drake Bay in February during the height of the dry season when rain is not expected at all.
If you’re looking for recommendations for a good raincoat, Jenn has this Columbia one. She loves it because it’s really breathable and keeps her dry even in a lot of rain. For the guys, Matt likes this one from Marmot because it’s super lightweight and packs up really small. He also enjoys the armpit zippers for extra ventilation while hiking—it gets steamy hiking in the tropics.
3. Hiking Boots or Sturdy Sneakers
If you plan to go hiking or walking, you’ll definitely want some sturdy shoes. Closed toe hiking boots or sneakers are best because of ants and other biting insects, but a lot of people love heavier hiking sandals like Keens. If you’re visiting during the rainy season and plan to do some more rugged hiking, opt for hiking boots or old sneakers as trails can get muddy.
For boots, Jenn has had Merrell Moabs for several years now and recently upgraded to the newest model, the Moab 2. They are still great shoes, for both light hikes and more challenging terrain. They’re waterproof, yet breathable, lightweight, and sturdy. They perform fairly well in all conditions, including on slippery mud and loose gravel. Matt has Moab 2s now as well and has been happy with them. He likes the Mids because of the ankle support but they also make a short, ankle option.
Sunscreen is 3-4 times more expensive in Costa Rica so be sure to bring as much as you’ll need. We like using Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch because it doesn’t sweat off that easily (good if you’re doing something active) and feels lightweight. Go with at least SPF 30 because the sun is very strong since Costa Rica is so close to the equator.
If you’re looking for a more natural option, we use Thinkbaby on the kids. It’s zinc-based but goes on really light and smells great.
5. Insect Protection – Repellent and Clothing
Mosquitoes are the worst in the rainy season but are bad in some areas year-round. The Central and Southern Pacific, Osa Peninsula, and Caribbean Coast (Tortuguero, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca) are probably the most buggy overall. Unfortunately, there are some nasty mosquito-borne illnesses in Costa Rica like Dengue so you’ll want to be protected. Lightweight pants like the zip-away kind are recommended for hiking in the rainforest. You can also get pants that have been treated with permethrin, a built-in insect repellent. Read our post Mosquito-Repellent Clothing for Costa Rica for more information.
We recommend insect repellent for other times that mosquitoes may be lurking. Key times we always get bit are at dusk or shortly thereafter when going out to dinner. Many restaurants are open air, which is wonderful, but does expose your legs to the pesky bugs. Here are some good options for travel size sprays or wipes, which fit right in your carry-on. If you’re looking for more natural options, we’ve had good luck with our Repel Lemon-Eucalyptus spray and doTERRA Terrashield Repellent, which is a blend of essential oils. If you want to wait until you arrive, you can also readily find the aerosol-type sprays with DEET in Costa Rica. Just know that most contain only 15% DEET and run about $8-10 per can.
6. Sunglasses and Sun Hat
If you’re planning on beaching it and are prone to burns, a sun hat is a great, chic option. Wide brim ones like these are the best. You can usually find them at souvenir shops in popular tourist destinations too if you want to wait to buy until you get here. Ball caps or visors are great for the guys, and sunglasses are also a necessity for obvious reasons.
7. Water Shoes
If you have water shoes, bring them. They’re really nice to have if you plan on visiting any of Costa Rica’s amazing waterfalls where the rocks are often slippery. They also come in handy if you plan to go whitewater rafting or kayaking.
8. Rash Guard Shirt
Rash guards, those stretchy polyester shirts that surfers often wear, can come in really handy. They’re great for keeping you from getting a sunburn when you’re swimming, snorkeling, or even boogie boarding. Jenn has this inexpensive one and really likes it.
9. Beach Towels/Sarong
In a few places like Manuel Antonio and Tamarindo, you can rent chairs on the beach. But in most places, it’s just you and miles of open sand. Having a towel or sarong to lie on definitely makes a day at the beach a lot more comfortable.
10. Spanish Phrasebook
English is widely spoken in major tourist destinations, but you’re sure to run into people who only speak Spanish. Bus drivers, shuttle van drivers, and cab drivers are generally Spanish only. If you don’t speak the native tongue, a pocket guide with commonly used phrases can be very helpful. We always used to travel with this compact one from Lonely Planet.
11. Dry Bag
Dry bags are essential if you’re planning on water sports and also helpful for keeping the humidity off your valuable electronics. Dry bags are available in all sizes, from small wallet-sized pouches to hefty 20 liter bags. Here is a link to an assortment to give you some ideas. It’s also a good practice to keep the inside of your dry bag or camera case moisture free. Bring a few of those silica packets from an old shoe box or purchase some new ones to pop in and absorb any moisture that may accumulate.
12. Portable Alarm Clock
For some reason, many hotels in Costa Rica don’t have alarm clocks and we’ve had hoteliers forget to give us a wake-up call more than once. Either bring along your cell phone and use that as an alarm or invest in an inexpensive portable alarm clock. We’ve been using this simple one, which costs around $15, and love it because it’s so small and uses a regular AAA battery.
13. Money Belt
Costa Rica is generally a very safe country, but like anywhere else in the world, petty crime does occur. Money belts and passport holders are always good and are especially important if you’ll be traveling by public bus. Matt has been wearing this belt almost daily since we moved to Costa Rica. It’s great because it keeps his money hidden and safe. He also keeps a few extra 20 mil bills in there in case a place is cash only, which has come in really handy.
14. Portable Medical Kit
We always carry a small medical kit in our day pack just in case. We’ve used it several times for minor injuries we’ve gotten while hiking like scrapes, cuts, or stings. There are many different kits to choose from. Here’s a link to one with a nice waterproof case. It has room for other things you may want to put in like a few Tylenol, tweezers, or nail clippers.
Special Considerations – Rainy Season
If you’re visiting Costa Rica during the rainy season (generally May through November), you’ll also want to bring the following.
It can rain a lot in the rainy season. You’ll probably want to double up on a raincoat and umbrella.
2. Shoes You Don’t Mind Getting Wet
It can be nice to have some casual waterproof shoes like Crocs in case it’s pouring rain and you need to walk to get somewhere. Sometimes rainwater on the road can be a few inches deep during a heavy downpour!
If you’re backpacking, a raincover for your pack will be essential to keeping your clothes and other belongings nice and dry.
4. Insect Repellent
We know it’s in the list above, but we can’t emphasize enough the importance of having bug spray for the rainy season. Costa Rica has some mosquito-borne illnesses that you don’t want to get. Here’s a link for some travel size options.
Special Considerations – Drake Bay or Tortuguero
If you’re visiting Drake Bay or Tortuguero, there are some additional things you’ll want to bring.
1. Flashlight or Headlamp
In these remote destinations, you’ll definitely want a flashlight. Lighting is used much less in these places than what you’re probably used to. We like the versatility of headlamps and have been using Energizer models for several years.
2. Waterproof Sandals
If you’re taking the boat shuttle from Sierpe to Drake Bay, you’ll need to be ready for a beach landing. Be sure to bring sandals or shoes you don’t mind getting wet for wading through the ankle-to-knee-deep water.
3. Plenty of Cash
Drake Bay does not have an ATM or bank and Tortuguero only recently got one ATM so sure to stock up on cash before you arrive. These are very small villages. Many of the businesses are cash only so keep that in mind.
Special Considerations – Driving
If you’re renting a car, we always recommend getting a GPS or Wifi stick. But sometimes, with Costa Rica’s infamously poor signage and rough mountain roads, you still end up getting lost. It’s a good idea to have a map handy just in case. You can find maps in Costa Rica, but they’re usually less expensive online. This waterproof map is one of the most popular.
Have a question about what to pack? Ask it below.
Last Updated: February 21, 2020
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Want more Costa Rica travel tips? Check out these posts:
- Money Matters: Tips on using local currency vs. US dollars, credit cards, and the best ways to get cash out.
- How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in San Jose, Costa Rica: Where to stay, eat, and play to get the most out of your overnight near SJO airport.
- Packing List for Traveling with a Baby – If you’re visiting with a baby or toddler, check out this post for some more kid-specific essentials.
- Simple Spanish for Costa Rica: Lists some common words and phrases that you can print out and bring with you.
- Tour Booking Service: Wondering where to have the best zip-line experience? Where to go whitewater rafting? Best activities with kids? We can help and give you customized recommendations.