So you’re heading to Costa Rica, the (unofficial) adventure and nature capital of the world! Lucky you! There’s something for everyone in Costa Rica, in part because there are 12 distinct microclimates in this small tropical country. There are beautiful beaches for surfing and sunbathing, 28 national parks to explore, and volcanoes to climb. All this terrain, and the seasonal weather, makes packing a bit of a challenge. Can you travel light with all of this? Well, good news, as we have put together the ultimate Costa Rica packing list that’ll have you prepared for (almost) everything.
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Your Costa Rica Packing List: Dates and Destinations
Costa Rica is a tropical country in Central America so it’s never going to be too cold. But there are variations in temperature and weather conditions throughout the country, so read on to understand the climate where you’ll be traveling.
Seasons and Microclimates in Costa Rica
The Pacific coast side of Costa Rica experiences distinct rainy and dry seasons. Expect rain from May until December, with the rainiest months September and October.
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is quite different with occasional rain year round. If your plans are to visit between May and December, look at locations here and enjoy the fact that they’ll be fewer tourists everywhere.
Temperatures are relatively consistent all year, averaging 75°F to 85°F (24°C -29°C)
There are 12 microclimates in Costa Rica. A microclimate is a small climate very distinct from the surrounding area. In Costa Rica there are beautiful beaches, steamy jungles, and cool cloud forests in the high elevations. As you plan your itinerary, make note of what area you’re visiting to know what to bring.
For example, if you’re on a golf holiday on the Pacific coast in the dry season, you can leave the heavy sweaters at home. But if you’re heading to the Arenal Volcano in the La Fortuna area or to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, you’ll want warm layers. And if you’re planning on exploring the Osa Peninsula, with its high humidity, bring lightweight, quick-dry clothing.
Your Costa Rica packing list: Activities
Before beginning your packing, think about your anticipated outdoor activities. For example:
Birdwatching or nature exploring? Good footwear is important. Binoculars, mosquito repellent, and light daypack. Download an app for nature identification.
Hiking? Hiking boots. And wear a hat for sun protection.
Rain forest exploration? lightweight rain jacket or poncho, dry bag for gear, and again, good footwear and insect repellent.
Snorkeling or lounging at the beach? Reef safe sun protection. The sun is intense! You can purchase sunscreen in Costa Rica, but if you have sensitive skin and require a particular brand, bring it with you. Pack rash guards or swim shirt if you’ll be spending a lot of time on the water. This can double as a top if you choose a simple one.
Your Costa Rica Packing List: Clothing
Costa Rica is very casual. No need for fancy clothes, shoes, or jewelry. In fact, leaving anything flashy behind is best for security. Costa Rica is very safe but petty crimes, such as robbery, is here as everywhere. Note: our guides advised against leaving anything in a car unguarded. If you’re driving, park in a pay lot in San Jose where you car will be safer.
It’s interesting to note that most Costa Ricans don’t wear shorts in San José. Even in the heat both men and women wear long pants. We wore shorts and though it was not an issue, our shorts definitely marked us as tourists. (As if our hair, shoes, etc., didn’t already make that obvious…)
Pack Light with a Capsule Wardrobe
Adapting this travel capsule formula to a visit to Costa Rica where there’s little need to dress up:
- 2-3 pairs of bottoms – shorts or convertible pants
- 3-4 quick dry, lightweight tops (tees, tank tops and/or a warmer base layer depending on where youwill be)
- 1 button down shirt with long sleeves (wear alone or open as a light jacket over a top)
- Sundress or convertible dress (the dress in image can be worn as a dress, top, skirt, or swim coverup.)
- Fleece or light sweater
Every item in your capsule should coordinate with everything else! And every item on your packing list should be lightweight and easy-care.
The most important thing (and one of my favorite travel tips): Do NOT pack something you’ve never worn before. When you’re depending on a small number of items for a trip, you need to be sure you’ll enjoy them. Create a capsule wardrobe from your favorite and most comfortable items.
Be Selective About Shoes
Shoes are always a challenge. Try to limit yourself to two pairs of shoes. Hiking or sneakers, and flip flops, sandals or water shoes. Closed-toed shoes are always a good idea when hiking on rough terrain.
More essential items for your Costa Rican vacation
- Passport and photo ID
- Travel documents
- Prescription medicines and basic over-the-counter medications
- Miscellaneous personal items- lip balm, cosmetics, toiletries
- Sunscreen (reef-safe), after-sun lotion, and other lotions for your skin type. There are plenty of stores where you can buy these, but if there’s something that works especially well for you, pack it.
- Bug spray – Costa Rica has almost 6% of the world’s biodiversity but more than half of these species are bugs! Make sure you’re prepared by bringing insect repellent or purchasing it when you get to Costa Rica.
- Sun hat
- Small first aid kit
- Day pack – this might be a backpack or your airline personal item. Just be sure it’s lightweight but large enough for beach towels.
- Dry bag – choose a small one if you’re just want to keep your cell phone and wallet dry or choose a larger one that’ll double as your day pack.
- Reusable water bottle – For more ideas on being an earthy-friendly traveler read: Sustainable Travel
- Lightweight rain jacket or poncho (easier than a travel umbrella but pack that if you prefer)
- Hand sanitizer, face masks, etc.
- Reusable shopping bag – Costa Rica is committed to sustainability and bans plastic bags, so bring your own bags!
- [optional] Travel towel
On every packing list: My Must Have Travel Accessories
Gear & Gadgets to Pack for Costa Rica
- Camera or high-quality cell phone, and a waterproof phone case if you’ll be doing water activities.
- Chargers for all electronics and extra memory card and battery pack if you’re bring a camera.
- Portable charger (Remember: items with lithium batteries must be packed in carry-on)
- eReader – for the flight, beach, or pool. eReaders are easier to read in direct sunlight than a tablet.
- Binoculars – for most destinations, I’d say this was optional, but you absolutely don’t want to miss the wildlife and birds of Costa Rica!
- [optional] Portable lock box for securing items by the pool or at the beach. This small pouch from Loctote will hold your cash, key card, and phone, and attaches to a lounge chair.
Suggestions for packing light for Costa Rica
Packing Light Tips: carry-on if possible!
For many of us, a trip to Central America involves a flight, with all the usual luggage challenges. Pack carry-on only or at least pack one carry-on bag with 2-3 days of clothes.
If you’re traveling with a friend or partner and checking bags, cross pack a few items in each bag. That way if one bag is lost, you’ll still have a few items available.
Wear your heaviest items on the plane. Carry, or wear, your lightweight rain jacket, a sweater, and your hiking or walking shoes.
Investigate laundry services or be prepared to do your own wash:
- Pack laundry packets to do any necessary sink washes.
- Choose clothing made from natural fibers, especially merino wool whenever possible. Merino wool is naturally odor resistant so you can wear it several times before washing.
I hope I’ve listed all the important items you’ll need for your visit to this beautiful country. No matter the time of year, you will have a great time! Where else can you visit a pre-Columbian gold museum in the morning and be soaking in hot springs in the same evening?
Only in Pura Vida Costa Rica!