For my first trip to Costa Rica, I packed all the wrong things, even though I’d researched the climate and things I wanted to see and do. I was following a few Costa Rican Expat groups on Facebook, and felt I had a pretty good idea of what I needed to bring along for a month in Costa Rica. I have planning in my DNA because of my long career as an interior designer/building designer, and I thought I’d planned my Go-Pack well, but there were things I never unpacked and some I'd wished I'd brought along.
Oops! I could have done better if I'd only known. I dislike traveling with a lot of luggage, and I like to plan ahead and bring only what’s necessary. You don’t have to make my mistakes if you remember this:
Swimming is FANTASTIC in Costa Rica, whether it’s in a swimming pool, ocean, hot springs, or even if you’re “swimming” on a hike through the rainforest in a two-hour downpour. So, bring more than one bathing suit. I brought two, and next trip, I’ll bring three or maybe even four. Bring clothes that dry quickly. This is handy if you get soaked in a downpour or if you wash your sweaty clothes at the end of the day and want to wear them the next day. The weather is hot and humid in most parts of Costa Rica, most of the year, and you will get sweaty. Heavy clothes won’t dry overnight, and may never completely dry, unless you’re able to use a dryer.
Bring a pair of closed-toe shoes. I didn’t; thinking that the laid-back beach vibe of Costa Rica meant flip-flops every day, everywhere. Whoa, was I wrong! When we took a fabulous guided tour in the rainforest at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, I had to sign a special waiver allowing me to wear my Teva hiking sandals because there are critters you don’t want biting your bare toes--and you can bet the park doesn't want the liability for our dumb decisions! We opted out of taking the nighttime flashlight frog tour just because I didn't bring the right footwear. Disappointing. When we were traipsing through high grass and slushy mud on our guided sloth-search expedition, my ankles and feet got skeeter-bit, too. Next time I’m bringing closed shoes and socks; maybe even knee-socks!
Don’t forget to pack sunscreen and any special make-up or body products you can’t live without. You’d think sunscreen would be easy to get while visiting Costa Rica because of all the beaches and sun, but it’s hard to find and expensive. The same is true for personal care lines that we Gringas take for granted, or we buy online. You may be able to find what you need in a big city like San Jose, or maybe at a five-star hotel, but not in the small towns and villages. Pack this stuff in your carry-on, or if you pack it in your checked luggage, make sure you put each product in a separate zip-lock bag, so it doesn’t explode and get all over everything. Take it from me, it’s not a pleasant discovery to find sunscreen all over your two bathing suits or shampoo and toothpaste mixed together!
Leave It At Home
You don’t need to bring dressy clothes—at least for the kind of trip we enjoyed. We found that beach-casual is fine for dinners out, even in the fanciest restaurants. Stay away from heavy fabrics and polyesters; light weight cotton, linen, and bamboo are perfect for Costa Rica. I lived in flowy skirts and loose long dresses—comfortable for everything except hiking, swimming, zip-lining, horseback riding, river rafting, and ATVing. White and tropical colors will make you feel most comfortable. Don’t bring a jacket—a light sweater, shawl, sweatshirt, or light nylon poncho will be just fine for evenings or downpours. I don’t think I even took my sweater out of my suitcase, but it’s probably a good idea to have one, just in case.
Leave your expensive jewelry at home, too. It’s not the right accessory for beach-casual, and why bring something to worry about losing? The Pura Vida mindset and vibe is “Don’t worry, be happy”, so leave the priceless bling behind. You also don’t want to scream, “I’m a rich Gringa/Gringo,” and make yourself a target. While we never had any trouble like that, I’ve heard stories of tourists who have.
Don’t bother with Travelers Checks. There are very few places that will take them as payment for goods or services. Pack your credit cards but leave all kinds of checks at home. Cash is king in Costa Rica, and there is easy access to ATMs. Every place we needed money, both US dollars and Costa Rican colones were gladly accepted. Some places take credit cards, but ALL people and places take cash. Carry Costa Rican colones coins in your car to tip the enterprising Ticos who’ll help you find a place to park at the beach or to pay to use the restroom at some of the beaches. If you are staying at an all-inclusive resort, you’ll want to tip everyone who takes awesome care of you: the servers, housekeeping staff, bartenders. Tip your drivers and guides, too.
These are just a few “Do’s and Don’t’s” for your Go-Pack for your first trip to Costa Rica.
Click here for a more comprehensive list. If you have any questions about packing or preparing for your trip, ask them in the comments and I’ll either answer from my experience, refer you to someone with more experience, or research the answer for you. It may be something I’ll include in the book, Postcards From Paradise~Our Costa Rican adVENTURE, so that even more people will be inspired to take a risk, live a dream, and write their own postcards from paradise!