17 Must-Have Costa Rica Packing List Items + What NOT to Bring

sloth-costa-ricaIt won’t take long after you’ve landed in Costa Rica to hear the phrase “la pura vida”. While its direct translation means “the pure life”, it is more of a way of life for folks in this small piece of paradise. It might as well mean, “sit in a hammock and relax all day” or “grab your surfboard, the water is perfect.”

Whether it’s a sleepy beach town you’re after or an adventure through the treetops of a tropical rainforest, Costa Rica has an array of draws that set it apart. One of the more tourism-focused locales of Central America, it’s an easy spot to travel, from backpackers to families. But you won’t be alone — Costa Rica has seen a boom in visitors, with a record 2.66 million visiting in 2015.

But don’t let that stop you. There’s plenty of beauty to go around. Its warm weather and long list of activities are sure to have you living “la pura vida” by the end of your trip.

What to pack?

1) Bathing suit – With both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, a trip to Costa Rica wouldn’t be complete without a dip in the ocean. Each boasts its own set of reasons why you should spend time with your toes in their respective beaches. The Pacific side has numerous surf spots, some with black sand beaches. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but you can check out Lonely Planet for a list of suggestions on where to head. While the Caribbean side often has more rain, it also has unique wildlife and is quickly gaining a loyalty among visitors.
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2) Flip flops – Not just for the beach, flip flops are the footwear of choice for many in these parts. Along the coast, it can feel like you’re in a nonstop trip from beach town to beach town. Open air restaurants are the norm. Dress code is casual.
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3) Walking/Hiking shoes – If you’re looking for a change from the beach, there are numerous treks and zipline courses throughout the country. Pack some sturdier shoes — but throw those flip flops in your daypack. There are waterfalls to see and play in.
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4) Bug spray – Like the rest of the region, Costa Rica has mosquitos that can carry dengue and chikungunya. Currently, Costa Rica is on a level 2 alert of zika with the CDC recommending visitors “practice enhanced precautions.” Bug spray is one of your best defenses — look for those containing deet or picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE, also called para-menthane-diol [PMD]), IR3535, or 2-undecanone. Read more from the CDC.
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5) Sunscreen – Due to its proximity to the equator, Costa Rica enjoys a tropical warm climate year-round. That also means the strength of the sun requires extra precautions. Bring a sunscreen that is SPF 50 or above, and make sure to reapply. There’s no quicker way to ruin a vacation.
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6) Hat & Sunglasses – Continuing on the recommendations in #5, the sun means you should cover up the protect your skin and eyes. Make sure to wear sunglasses that offer UV protection.
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7) Hand sanitizer – There’s no better way to enjoy fresh seafood and a cold beer than dinner at a open-air beach shack. Bathrooms might not be up to the same western standards you’re used to, so best to bring some hand sanitizer just in case.
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8) Reading materials – A perfectly acceptable daily pastime is lounging in a hammock, book-in-hand. While e-readers may not offer the same romantic notion as a good ‘ole print version of your favorite beach read, it sure makes it easier to carry more than one.
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9) OTC meds – If travelling in rural areas, the water may not be as clean as more urban parts of the country. Generally, anytime you’re in a new place and unfamiliar with the food, traveler’s diarrhea can occur. Best to load up on meds to bring just in case.
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10) Warm weather clothes – seasons here are wet and dry — but warm all year. Your go-to outfits should be casual and cool: think tanks and shorts. Most days you’ll likely find yourself in a bathing suit and cover-up most of the time anyway.
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11) Directions – Depending on where you’re headed in the country, one way to get there is by renting a car. If you’re planning to go it alone, make sure you have your directions printed ahead of time — and a good map. You’ll likely find yourself making a few wrong turns either way.
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12) Rain jacket – Costa Rica’s dry season is from December to April, but that doesn’t mean the occasional rain shower doesn’t pass through year-round. Most should be short and sweet due to the tropical climate. Pack a rain jacket and wait for it to pass.
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13) ATM card – Many places in Costa Rica will accept U.S. dollars. ATMs are available throughout the country, and many provide offer both colones (Costa Rica currency) and dollars. Bring only enough to cover a few days in case something happens — you can always take out more. Just make sure you’ve contacted your bank so that they can note your international travel. Otherwise you can run the risk of them freezing your account due to unusual behavior.

14) Day pack – From beach lounging to trekking, you don’t want to lug around a huge bag with you. A daypack is perfect for stashing a change of clothes and other essentials, like sunscreen, bug spray and water.
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15) Sarong/travel towel – A quick-drying towel is helpful since you’ll likely hit the beach more than one day. Yes, much of the coast are laid back beach towns, but for the sake of courtesy, wear a cover up when you’re off the sand. A sarong doubles as a fashionable cover and a towel.
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16) Driver’s License – A great way to see much of the country on your own timeline is by renting a car. It’s fairly easy, with many major car rental companies in Costa Rica. Most accept a driver’s license from your respective country, but make sure to check with the company just in case.

17) Camera – From pristine beaches to monkeys hanging in the jungle, there are countless picture perfect sites in Costa Rica. It’s worth bringing a camera. A cell phone can work too — but many aren’t as equipped to capture as good of quality images, like sunsets.
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Other packing list items to bring

What not to bring:

1) 🚫 Valuables: As with most tourist destinations, theft can happen. Best to leave any nonessentials at home for the sake of ease.
2) 🚫 Computer: Costa Rica is truly a place to kick and and relax. Instead of spending your time behind a screen, leave it at home — best not to risk it being stolen or broken.
3) 🚫Cold weather clothes: No need for a heavy coat here. While it can cool down at night, rain showers are more likely in the morning. A rain racket should suffice.
4) 🚫 Jewelry: : Costa Rica is causal, so trade your jewelry in for some shades.
5) 🚫 Fancy clothes: “La pura vida” is a life of relaxation and comfort. As mentioned, dress code is casual.
6) 🚫 Large amount of cash: While U.S. dollars are accepted in many places, it’s best not to travel with a lump sum. Colones are the Costa Rican currency, and ATMs are widely accessible to restock, either in U.S. dollars or colones.


1) Drink the water?

It’s technically safe to drink the water in much of the country, however many accommodations will still provide filtered water for your comfort and peace of mind. Once you venture into more rural locations you’re less likely to be able to drink from the tap, so bottled water is recommended.

2) When should I to visit?

For a majority of the country, the dry season is from December to April. However, with the diverse terrain, there are several microclimates throughout. The Go Visit Costa Rica site has a helpful guide depending on where you’re headed.

3) Where to go and what to do?

  • Trekking: from a simple stroll to a guided night hike, there’s a spectrum of options when it comes to seeing Costa Rica’s natural beauty up close. Most treks are 2-3 hours long, and you can book a guide through your accommodations.
  • Surfing: From Playa Hermosa to Playa Tamarindo one thing you won’t find is a lack of good surf spots. If you’re a first timer, there are schools in many of the beach towns.
  • Beaches: The list is nearly endless. Your first choice will be Carribbean vs. Pacific. From there, it’s easy to simply rent a car and find them for yourself.
  • National parks and reserves: With more than two dozen national parks in the country, you should save time to savor the ecological diversity they provide. There’s the chance to see nesting sea turtles to spider monkeys. One of the most popular spots is the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
  • Check out Costa Rica’s neighbors: If you’re on the backpacking trail, Costa Rica’s neighbors are two spots that are worth the look. Nicaragua and Panama offer unique culture and food — with equally beautiful sites. It’s best travelled by bus.

4) Are any vaccinations recommended?

Besides the routine vaccinations for anywhere — measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot — the CDC recommends Hepatitis A and Typhoid if you’re planning to travel to Costa Rica. Additional suggestions are Hepatitis B, rabies and Yellow Fever depending on length of stay and if you intend to travel elsewhere.

5) What is medical care like?

There is a fairly high quality of medical care available in Costa Rica. However, keep in mind, many U.S. insurance policies do not cover some international incidents, so best to check with your provider. Trip insurance is also recommended in case of last minute cancellations due to emergency.

6) What’s the best way to get around?

When we visited, we rented a car — a popular choice to be able to see much of the country on your own. There were days we simply just drove along the coast stopping at several beaches along the way. The car was a stick shift, so best to make sure you check ahead of time or know how to drive one. Some of the roads could get a bit tough at times. Another option would be to book ahead with your accommodation or hire a driver.

7) Do I need a plug adaptor?

Costa Rica electrical outlets run on 110 volts — the same as the United States.

8) Do I need a visa for Costa Rica?

U.S. passport holders do not need a visa to travel to Costa Rica, however you are required to show proof of onward travel. Check the embassy website for requirements of other nationalities.

9) What’s the food like?

Fresh seafood, beans and rice are staples of the diet here. One of my favorite dishes here was the simple arroz con marisco — or rice with seafood. Ceviche is also very popular here. You’ll get plenty of fresh tropical fruit. Costa Rica is also known for it’s coffee, so make sure you enjoy a cup…or three.

For the perfect mix of relaxation and adventure, pack your bags for Costa Rica and enjoy “la pura vida”.

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