Updated: December 2017.
I’ve been traveling back and forth between Costa Rica and the United States for almost 10 years now. It’s amazing how much Costa Rica has developed in that time. My packing list has shrunk considerably because so many products are available now in Costa Rica. Even though the price might be a little higher due to import taxes, it’s worth it to buy most things I need in Costa Rica to save money on airline luggage fees and to take the extra weight off of my back.
That being said, there are still some things that are not available to purchase in Costa Rica or that have a much higher quality outside of Costa Rica that I absolutely must bring with me or suggest that you bring with you on your vacation or if you are moving to Costa Rica. One of the most frequent emails I get are questions like “What should I bring on my trip to Costa Rica?” or “Help! I’m moving to Costa Rica and I don’t know what to pack!”
My advice is to bring as little as possible, shred that material baggage!, and make room for the following items:
The best DEET-free bug spray for the tropics
This bug spray is amazing, free of harmful chemicals, and in my experience works better than those crazy DEET bug sprays. I’ve used both. I still get attacked while wearing DEET spray. I’m pretty sure that the mosquitos in Costa Rica have become so accustomed to tourists lathering themselves in harmful DEET spray that they have developed an immunity to DEET. When I wear Herbal Armor, they leave me alone. I might smell like a walking citronella and peppermint candle, but it’s a million times better than smelling like and wearing DEET. Do everyone a favor, don’t wear DEET. If you have to wear bug spray, wear Herbal Armor. If you’re checking a bag get it in the 8 oz bottle and if you are only bringing a carry-on, stock up on the 2 oz bottles.
A waterproof headlamp
Indispensable. Electricity goes in and out all over Costa Rica and the sun goes down at about 5:30pm and stays down until about 5:30am. When the lights are out, it’s dark. If you are traveling to the beach or the middle of the jungle, there won’t be city lights to light the night sky – it’s going to be pitch black because starlight and moonlight don’t shine down through thick jungle canopy. A headlamp is better than a flashlight or your phone light because you have your hands free! You don’t have to buy this particular headlamp, but at least look for a similar one with these features: waterproof, tilting adjustable light, lightweight, with more than one light setting. The red light is useful on turtle walks and other nighttime nature walks because you can see without blinding the animals. Pick a headlamp up at a local camping store, or online here.
Garmin GPS for Driving in Costa Rica
There are a few ways to use navigational help to get around Costa Rica. “A cell phone with a data plan and reliable connectivity will work for most trips” is what I used to tell my friends coming to visit. But after soooo many complained about the lack of addresses, missing or misleading street signs, internet connectivity issues, and confusing landmark-based directions, I now say just get a Garmin and spend less time lost in Costa Rica. I mean, getting lost can be fun, but it’s not for everyone. Get your Garmin GPS here and download the Garmin Map for Costa Rica.
Waterproof / fogproof binoculars
There is an abundance of wildlife all over Costa Rica and you will want some good binoculars to get a close up view of some of the skittish creatures like birds, or maybe you want to gaze deeply in to the eyes of the sloth in the tree above you. Fortunately you don’t need anything super fancy or expensive. I just so happen to be good friends with the editor of THE Costa Rica bird field guide and she recommends a max magnification of 7 or 8 because the wildlife in Costa Rica is not that far away and a higher magnification will actually make it harder to hold the closer wildlife in view. Also, the binoculars need to be waterproof and fogproof because without those two things, you are going to find your binoculars ruined and useless in no time from the high levels of tropical humidity in Costa Rica. These Bushnell Waterproof/Fogproof 8 x 25-mm Binoculars or something with similar specs will be great!
This is very personal and the clothing that you will want to bring to Costa Rica will depend on where you are going, what you are doing, and what time of year it is. Costa Rica is known as the country of microclimates, but chances are high that you will need mostly clothing for warm weather. If you plan on visiting Poas Volcano, Irazu Volcano, Monteverde, or are going to be at a high altitude anywhere besides Guanacaste, you will also need to bring a jacket, long pants, and maybe even a hat. It does get chilly up there believe it or not. It also gets chilly in San José at night, but never in Alajuela where the airport is. It’s blazing hot in Alajuela.
I like shopping on Backcountry.com for super comfortable travel clothing made for adventure sports and different climates. Check them out here. They have super cute and practical stuff!
One piece of clothing that you will need at those higher altitudes or between March and December is a lightweight rain jacket or poncho… unless you don’t mind getting wet.
Shoes that won’t disintegrate when wet
Shoes disintegrate at a rapid rate in Costa Rica. Through trial and error, I’ve found a few pairs that will conquer any situation.
I’ve spent the majority of my time in flip flops, when I’m wearing shoes. These Teva Olowahu flip flops have lasted forever and the sole is thick enough that I can step on all kinds of spiny nature stuff (pochotes!) without piercing my foot. So far they have held up through two Envision Festivals and for over two years of wearing them almost daily. You can often find me hiking in them, too, although everyone else recommends more coverage for your feet. To buy, check Amazon, Teva’s website,and Teva Sales: 40% Off Best-Selling Teva Styles.
When I do need extra protection for things like hiking, trail running, walking from San José to Cartago in the romería, or working out at the gym, I wear my Salomon XR Mission Trail Runners. They are the most comfortable closed-toe shoe I have ever put on my foot. They are waterproof, but NOT hot. They breathe! They have also lasted forever. I’m still using the same pair I bought in September 2013. As long as they keep up the same level of quality, I’m never buying another pair of tennis shoes again. Speaking of tennis, the soles are non-marking, so I can even wear them on the court. It’s the shoe that keeps on giving.
Sometimes I repel down waterfalls, go white water rafting, and hike through mud or creeks, and you might be doing that, too. In those situations, I’ve worn the shoes above or water hiking shoes. If it’s a really muddy hike I’ve worn rain boots (you can get in Costa Rica if your foot is size 40 or smaller), or mud boots (much more effective than rain boots, but heavy). The boots come in handy if you’re living in Costa Rica. For a vacation, the water shoes or sneakers are a better option because they fit a lot better in a suitcase or a daypack and offer better protection than flip flops.
You will want rain boots, though, if you are moving to the Central Valley to volunteer or teach English during the rainy season and you plan on walking and taking the bus around town.
Eco-friendly, reef safe, non-toxic sunscreen
If you have to wear sunblock, please do yourself and the earth a favor by wearing one that isn’t full of harmful chemicals. That means a sunscreen WITHOUT parabens, oxybenzone, nano-particles, chemical fragrance, phalates, retinyl palmitate, Paba or whatever other toxic chemicals they’re throwing in there these days. All of those harmful chemicals aren’t good for us and if we go in to the ocean wearing them, they wash off and harm coral reefs and who knows what other wildlife.
Beauty by Earth makes a nice mineral sunscreen that is effective immediately and is suitable for face and body. This does leave white film on your skin, but it’s not as drastic as some of the others I’ve tried. It’s also super hard to get off which is a pro or con depending on your values lol. In fact, to get this off, I had to scrub so hard that it was the best facial I’d ever had. Give yourself plenty of time to apply and rub in.
If you are in the least bit crafty, you can make your own sun block powder with this zinc oxide powder and some coconut oil. There are some great recipes in the comments section on Amazon.
Don’t forget this. You need it for all the day excursions you are going to take because lugging everything around with you all the time sucks! It’s nice to be able to take a small bag that fits a change of clothes, shoes, water, your camera, and sometimes a laptop if you are a digital nomad like me.
Daypacks come in many shapes and sizes with a plethora of options. I recommend trying several on at a local outdoor or camping store and aim for light weight. If you can’t find one that is waterproof, just look for one that has an extra pocket you can fill with a big ‘ol plastic trash bag, which will make that daypack waterproof when you stuff it in there. #ProTip
Nutritional powders, vitamins, supplements
There is a macrobiotica on every corner selling individual vitamins like C or B or herbal pills for ailments like stomach pain, but in Costa Rica good quality multivitamins and super food powders are nonexistent or double the US cost (GNC), so bring your own. My favorite is Green Vibrance – it’s a plant-based daily superfood with probiotics and digestive enzymes. It supports nutrition, digestion, circulation and immunity. Each serving equates to four and a half servings of fruits and vegetables. I don’t feel my normal fabulous self if I go a day without it. It’s in powder form and needs to be refrigerated or frozen, so kind of high maintenance. I highly recommend it, though, and I take it with me if I’m going to be somewhere for 2 weeks or more.
I add this awesome multivitamin to the mix when I feel I need an extra boost, like if I wasn’t able to eat as healthily as I should or if I feel I’m getting sick. Sometimes I can’t take the Green Vibrance on short trips, so I take the multivitamins instead.
I also always bring probiotics that actually work because they reach the intestinal track. Probiotics are awesome while traveling because they will prevent you from getting traveler’s diarrhea and will fight any foreign bug that tries to enter your system.
Leave the vitamin D at home. There is so much sunshine in Costa Rica!
A travel-sized surge protector
Voltage isn’t consistent in Costa Rica. There are power outages, surges, voltage spikes. I carry a travel size surge protector with me wherever I go and it protects my devices (laptop, cell phone, tablet, etc) from harm caused by the frequent power fluctuations while they are charging.
At home, I use a bigger version. You can even use the surge protectors for your appliances. The worst thing they will do is extend the life of your electronics!
If you’re moving to Costa Rica and want to take it to the next level of protection and uninterrupted power, an uninterrupted power supply might be right for you. Don’t bring this beast on vacation, obviously.
A case that will protect your phone from the humidity, dust, volcanic ash, and water
I use iPhones, they work great for all my business needs. But they don’t last in Costa Rica. I went through two before I realized I needed to protect the phone from the corrosive tropical climate of Costa Rica. The first phone fell in a puddle of water and every effort to save it failed. The second phone succumbed to excessive humidity and dust. I thought because I was from SC, that the phone could handle the humidity like it did in SC with a normal case, but it did not.
After putting a Lifeproof Case on my phone, they now last for years. I can’t tell you how long, because I upgrade the phone before the phone dies. I upgrade every two to three years, by the way, which is a long time for some! So make sure your phone is protected with the best case – a Lifeproof case!
Waterproof cases and pouches for your gear that can’t get wet
Something is going to get wet, especially if you are planning on adventures like rafting rivers, repelling waterfalls, or even being near the ocean. Come prepared – have it be the pouch and not the thing inside of it.
Waterproof pouches are like the new beach fanny pack. All the cool kids are wearing them. OK so not really a fashion accessory, but at least you can leave the beach knowing your phone isn’t wet and sandy. …they do come in different colors. And you can even get a floating waterproof pouch if you think there is a chance you might completely lose it in the water.
If you are a serious gear hauler, or maybe just a klutz, and you want to step it up a notch to a hard case, Pelican makes a TON of different size hard cases.
If you have an iPhone, I highly recommend a Lifeproof case. They have extended the life of my phones by several years by keeping dust and humidity from entering the phone. Before I used them, my phones would glitch and become useless within a year. After I started using them, my phones haven’t died (knock on wood) – I end up upgrading before the old one even glitches.
A camera that takes amazing photos, is easy to use and lightweight
I love taking photos, but I hate lugging around a ton of stuff, so a DSLR just isn’t for me. I struggle even with the thought of carrying multiple lenses for the new mirrorless cameras. I mean, when I’m traveling, I’m enjoying the moment and part of that involves the art of taking photos, but not the art of changing lenses and lugging around more stuff.
A compact camera that takes great photos is the solution. This Panasonic Lumix has auto and manual controls, a fast Leica lens, a long zoom, macro mode, a nifty 4k photo mode that ensures I get the perfect shot, and super sweet 4k video. You can read the full review on DP Review and read user reviews and buy it online at Amazon.
This ZS100 is the upgraded zoom version of the camera I’ve been shooting with for 6 years (I have the LX5). In fact, most of the photos on this blog were taken with this camera. They say the best camera is the one you will use the most and I LOVE taking photos with my Lumix.
Bandanas are super useful in Costa Rica. I’ve used them to:
- protect my face from dust blowing up off of dirt roads
- tie my hair back on boats
- dab away sweat
- hold things in place
- blow my nose
- make a makeshift bag
- clean things
- decorate a space
- protect a wound
I now travel with at least two. These bandanas here are made in the USA, 100% cotton, and come in tons of different colors. You might already have some around the house or can find some 100% cotton fabric like an old t-shirt to cut in to a custom sized square that fits your head and needs. The cotton thing is important because cotton breathes and you will want breathable fabric on your body in the tropics to keep cool.
You might think no, but I just went on a little trip with some friends who came to visit and two of them snored so loud I thought they needed medical attention! I forgot my ear plugs and was miserable after losing a night’s sleep!
If you’re coming to Costa Rica, you’ll likely find yourself kept awake by torrential downpours on tin roofs, soccer fans incessantly honking in celebration, excessive fireworks celebrations, mariachi bands, chirping birds, screaming skunks, fighting monkeys… sometimes the noises in the jungle at night are a mystery. If you’re coming for Envision, these ear plugs totally drown out the music and the jungle so you can get your peaceful sleep, whenever you need it.
The foam ear plugs just pop right out of my ear, they never worked. The only kind I’ve ever been satisfied with are these moldable silicone ear plugs.
A sarong or two or three…
Sarongs are versatile, like bandanas. I use a sarong:
- as a skirt
- as a dress
- as a beach cover-up
- as a beach towel to lay on
- for a little warmth
- for protection from the sun
- for protection from bugs
- this one time to hide a tiny dog on a bus
- to decorate a temporary space to make it feel more like my home
You probably already have one of these, but if not you can pick one up in Costa Rica – they’re everywhere and inexpensive. Or shop online before your trip. Sarongs are easy to travel with because they weigh practically nothing and take up minimal space…and are soooo pretty.
Check the outlet sales at Backcountry Outlet. You can often find clothing, gear, and accessories here on sale for cheaper than Amazon.
I hope you found this post helpful. What essentials did you pack when moving to or vacationing in Costa Rica? What did you bring on the move or vacation that you wish you had left at home? Please comment below with your experience and especially if you think I left anything off the list!
*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which means I get a fee if you buy from that link. The cost does not go up for you. I only recommend products and stores I have actually used and have thoroughly tested over time.
After lugging a UPS to CR I found one at PriceSmart for close to the same price, so just pick one up there. And I would definitely say that a whole house surge protector is a must. Well worth the $150.
Excellent tip, thanks!
Thank you for the tips! I bought some of these products and am looking forward to using them in Costa Rica
You’re welcome! Hope you have a great time in Costa Rica!
Thanks for the advice!
I’ve been researching for my upcoming trip to Costa Rica and I found tips here that I didn’t see anywhere else! Thank you for sharing! 🙂
You’re welcome, hope you had a good trip!
Any kind of electronic gadget, from computers to cellphones to TVs, is both double or more the US price AND painfully obsolete in Costa Rica.
Curiously enough, Apple does not honor its warranty in CR. Get a backup phone if you can.
Claro is the only cell carrier in Costa Rica with good data service. They are not lying to you when they advertise higher speeds – the difference is enormous.
Apple has honored warranties on my devices when I have taken them to the iCon store in Multiplaza. It took a month or more to get them fixed lol, but honored they were. Those lifeproof cases and a good drybox = essential to extending the life of electronics in Costa Rica.