What to Pack for a Trip to Costa Rica

What to Pack for a Trip to Costa Rica

Ben Espinola_Profile Photo_Tico Lingo Spanish School

Ben Espinola
Ben is a traveling educator, writer, and musician originally from Greensboro, NC. He has done a wide variety of teaching, youth work, freelance writing and tourism temp jobs across numerous countries on four continents. He can usually be found struggling to learn a new skill or down at a nearby watering hole sharing a drink with local characters.

Published November 17th, 2022

Packing is one of those essential functional tasks that seems to elude perfection. I’ve lived entire years of my life out of a backpack, and yet I’m constantly finding that there’s something I wish I had, or something unnecessary taking up valuable space in my bag. And while packing lists for Costa Rica abound (click here to see our list), I’ve never been much of a list maker myself, and have instead developed my own philosophy. Packing is personal. The most important thing is to determine what you absolutely need to feel comfortable and yourself, what I’ll call can’t-live-withouts. The rest is just filling in the gaps. No list can tell you exactly what you’ll need, though it helps to break down items by category. 

Bags

The first thing you have to decide for yourself is what kind of bag you want to take. Are you a backpacker, a suitcase traveler, a duffel bag person? They each have their merits. Suitcases are easier on your back, but can be cumbersome in rugged terrain. Backpacks are great for portability, but can be difficult to pack efficiently. Depending on the length of your journey and the amount of clothes you want to bring, you could even bring one of each. I would nevertheless recommend bringing a small bag for day trips. If you plan on staying mostly in cities, a suitcase should be fine, but if you plan on trekking in the wilderness you’ll need a backpack. 

The next question when it comes to bags is that of checked bag vs carry-on. Larger bags hold more volume, but can make travel between destinations more challenging, and packing and repacking a more lengthy process. With carry-on only you’ll have to do laundry more frequently, but will have less stuff to lug around. 

Check in luggage generally has a 50 pound weight limit, but could levy extra fees. It is worth checking your flight details to see if it includes a check bag. For most standard flights there will be a check bag included, for budget flights, it’s often carry on only. How you determine your volume of luggage can be broken down as follows:

2 weeks clothing – larger check bag + carry on
1 week clothing – carry on + personal item

Clothing

Speaking of clothing, absolute essentials for Costa Rica include a raincoat and good walking shoes. Overall, what you will need is a supply of comfortable, casual clothing. I recommend items that are easily mixed and matched. Unless you are traveling for business it is unlikely you will need more than 1 dress-up outfit. Numbers aren’t that important, but the bulk of what you’ll need is t-shirts, shorts, pants, underwear and socks. Enough to match your 1 or 2 week clothing plan. You will be able to do laundry at your homestay. Remember that you can easily buy good, cheap clothes in Costa Rica if you find you don’t have enough of something. It can also function as a souvenir. 

The most important thing is to bring the items you need to be comfortable. Are you super particular about your underwear? Do you need a specific bra for hiking or sports activities? That kind of thing. Additionally, in my experience underwear and socks are the things that are both most easily lost and cannot be worn more than once without washing.

Bathing suit, Beach towel and flip-flops are necessary if you plan on visiting the beach. (Although Heredia is not at the beach, it’s easy to get there via public and private transportation)

Toiletries

For toiletries, most things that you need are readily available in Costa Rica, but again your personal needs will dictate your packing habits. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, body wash shampoo, deodorant, shaving cream and razors can all be easily found here at a good price. Bring as much as you think you’ll need to get you through a couple weeks, but if you’re going to be here a while you can restock while you’re here. 

Contact solution, bug spray, and sunscreen are available but significantly more expensive in Costa Rica. It is worth noting that while pads are readily available, tampons are virtually impossible to find, so if you use those, bring them from home. It’s also a good idea to travel with a basic first aid kit as well as whatever medication you may need. First AId supplies and basic over the counter items like painkillers or antacids can be bought here in a pinch.

Documents

Obviously you’ll need your passport. It’s also a good idea to bring a secondary ID like a drivers license. You should also bring several photo copies of both. In order to enter Costa Rica you will need proof that you’re going to leave. The easiest way to achieve this is to print confirmation of your return flight. At customs, they will also ask you for where you’re staying so be sure to have this on hand as well. Central America doesn’t have conventional addresses, so you should have the name and address of the school on hand. You should also bring a pen or two for filling out forms at the airport. 

Electronics

Your phone and its charger are essential. Costa Rica has the same plugs as the US and Canada, so if you’re coming from those countries you won’t need an adapter. You will if you’re coming from Europe, the UK or Australia. Useful apps to download are Google maps (you can download specific geographic areas for offline use), Moovit (for public transportation) and Currency Converter. It’s possible to get an international plan from your home country, but you can easily get a prepaid SIM at a shop in town and at the airport. 

As for computers or tablets, determine whether you think you’ll need it for the amount of time you’ll be in the country. For shorter stays it might not be necessary to bring.

Money

Costa Rica uses the Colon, but US dollars are widely accepted in tourist areas and easily exchanged. You can buy some Colones from your bank at home and arrive with cash in hand. Calling ahead to see if they have them is a good idea, they may need to order them or you may need to go to a specific branch that deals with international transactions. Across Costa RIca, it is possible to exchange USD at banks or at the airport, although this can often be time consuming and the exchange rate may not be the best. Credit cards are widely accepted in Costa Rica, but many small stores and markets only accept cash. Additionally, with your debit card from home you can take out cash from an ATM, but this will come with a fee of a few dollars from the ATM and possibly an additional fee from your home bank.

In conclusion, the most important thing is to identify your can’t-live-withouts, decide what is essential. Firstly, from a purely legal/functional standpoint (passport, documents) and also from a personal comfort/health standpoint (medicine, personal items for comfort). For example, if you absolutely must have a specific toothpaste to feel like a person, own it, and by all means bring enough to get you through your whole stay. But if that’s not you, pick some up at a local shop when you run out. It’ll be an experience. 

Otherwise don’t stress. Don’t worry if you need exactly 6 t-shirts or 7. Don’t worry if they have your brand of shampoo. Pick a bag, decide 1 or 2 weeks of clothing, determine your essentials and can’t-live-withouts. What matters most is the fact you are coming.

The List for People Who Hate Lists

1st Tier Essentials

  • Passport
  • Bank card/cash
  • Exit ticket from Costa Rica
  • Your phone and charger

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush + toothpaste
  • Shampoo
  • Soap
  • Cosmetics
  • Medication
  • Tampons (impossible to find in Costa Rica)
  • Contact Solution

2nd Tier Essentials

  • Secondary ID
  • Photocopies of ID
  • Address of where you’re going to stay in Costa Rica

Other Useful Items to Consider

  • Umbrella
  • Hat & Sunglasses
  • External battery for charging phone
  • Water bottle 
  • A pen
  • Sunscreen and Bugspray (both expensive in Costa Rica)

The 1-Week Clothing Plan

This is the 1-week packing option which is usually sufficient for most travelers, especially for Tico Lingo students who will have access to laundry services at their homestay.

  • 7ish pairs of socks/underwear
  • 7ish tops (mostly t-shirts, maybe a tanktop or two)
  • Enough bottoms to get through 1 week (depends on how much you rewear between washing. I recommend 2 pairs of shorts and 2 pairs of pants.)
  • Something to sleep in
  • 1 sweatshirt or light jacket
  • 1 pair of good all purpose shoes
  • 1 pair flip-flops
  • 1 raincoat
  • 1 nice outfit
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 beach towel

The 2-Week Clothing Plan

Basically just double it up and add more bags

  • 14ish pairs of socks/underwear
  • 14ish tops (mostly t-shirts, a few tank-tops)
  • Enough bottoms for 2 weeks (4ish shorts, 4ish pants)
  • Something to sleep in
  • 1-2 sweatshirts
  • 1-2 pairs of good all purpose shoes
  • 1 pair flip-flops
  • 1 raincoat
  • 1 nice outfit
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 beach towel

Remember amigos, this is an all-inclusive list. Not everything above is completely necessary, but if you want to be ultra prepared, stick to the list above. Also note that many of these things can be purchased in Costa Rica (i.e. most of the toiletries and medicines), but can also be more expensive.

Let us know if you think of something we missed!

¡Pura Vida!

Ben Espinola | Contributing Editor
November 17, 2022

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