Costa Rica is a tropical adventure whose siren call beckons to many an American. It’s right there, the flights are affordable, and it’s short weather, like, all the time.
Speaking of shorts… if you’re planning a jaunt to this Central American destination, you’re going to want some advice on packing.
In addition to warm-weather gear, beach duds, and traditional tropical toiletries, you’ll want some less intuitive items as well. (For instance, if you’re going inland, you’ll need to prepare for different weather than the coast.)
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about Costa Rican weather, terrain, and activities. We’ll also discuss financial items, toiletries, and more, so jump on in!
Weather in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination for a reason. And by “a reason,” I mean the truly delightful tropical weather. Its temperatures typically range between 70 and 80 degrees, though they can drop significantly up in the mountains, sometimes below freezing!
On the beach, temperatures can soar up to 100 degrees during sunny summer weather on Pacific shores (the Caribbean is more temperate). Take care to pack lots of sunblock, light layers, hats, and shades to prepare. If you want to avoid roasting temps, you can stay farther inland… though it’s a shame to miss those turquoise waters.
Now, a note about the rain…
Always Pack for the Time of Year
Costa Rica has a distinct rainy season. It’s not cold during that time, but you’ll still get soaked if you step out into a thunderstorm. From May through October, Costa Rica sees much higher rainfall during the rest of the year, while November through April is typically mild and dry.
Note that even during the rainy season – or “green” season, as the locals say – you won’t face all-day rain. Typically the skies dawn clear and you get a nice morning before clouds roll in between 1 and 6 PM or so. Then you can pop back out for dinner, but mind the bugs!
Costa Rican Geography
Real quick, let’s do a quick crash course in Costa Rican Geography 101. Costa Rica is a beautiful country with a huge variety of terrains. It has two shores, one facing the vast and stormy Pacific, and one the milder Caribbean Sea.
Inland, it has coastal planes that climb to volcanic peaks. We’re talking serious peaks, too: Mount Chirripó, the highest point, sits at 12,530 feet above sea level.
If you want to see as much of the country as you can in a week-long period, then the variety of terrain and climates will mean some smart packing. Keep reading.
What to Pack for Costa Rica in 2023
Boys, girls, and otherwise-gendered friends, listen closely: Always! Pack! A Capsule! Wardrobe! What’s a capsule wardrobe? It’s a smart mix-and-match approach to clothes that lets you combine far fewer pieces into far more outfits, saving you space (and avoiding back surgery later).
Instead of taking seven tops and bottoms, you can take two pairs of jeans, one pair of pants, and three shirts; shake or stir; and have seven outfits with considerably less bulk.
The only catch: make sure all tops look good with all bottoms before you leave, or you’ll get there and face frustration.
- Q: Does this work for dudes?
- A: For sure. Assuming you, as a dude, also wear tops and bottoms on the reg. Which, please do.
Now for the more targeted wardrobe items. Make sure you include:
- Outerwear: Whether you’re hiking in the rainforest or going on an all-day horseback ride during the rainy season, you should prepare for precipitation. It’s hot, though, so bring a light rain shell and water-resistant pants – this will also keep mosquitoes away in buggy areas – that you can strip off easily.
- Beachwear: Two suits is a good idea in case yours tears or gets lost somehow. (What happens in Costa Rica, stays in Costa Rica.) Replacing swimwear on vacation is never cheap.
- Hiking gear: Good, solid hiking boots are a must if you’re going up into the mountains. Muddy trails, rocky terrain, and slippery conditions can result in a twisted ankle real quick if you’re not careful. If you’re going to be in the wild for several days, make sure you wear clothing that isn’t cotton and have all the backpacking essentials with you.
- Evening clothes: Costa Rica is very casual. However, if you want to go to a nice restaurant once or twice, you can certainly find them. Bring one upscale outfit that will still look good with flip-flops.
Speaking of flip-flops, that and a pair of hiking boots are all you should need. If you want to do a lot of fishing or day-tripping, a pair of flats or boaters won’t take up much space.
The Financial Side of Packing
Make sure to get your legal and financial ducks in a row well ahead of time. This includes:
- Passport and driver’s license: Yes, bring both in case you want to rent a car or need an alternate ID for a lost passport.
- Travel insurance: We all remember COVID (excuse me while I play “Taps” for my Croatian getaway), so I highly recommend this for international vacations.
- Credit card without foreign transaction fees: If you don’t already have one, ask your bank.
- Reservations saved as screenshots or printed out: Yes, links and QR codes are good, but they don’t prove anything if the WiFi goes down. Have a photo or printout of every hotel, flight, car, and activity reservation.
- Your return ticket: You can’t get into Costa Rica without a ticket proving you’re leaving the country within 90 days. Again, print it out to be safe, or they might not let you in.
Personal Care Items FTW
Now let’s take a quick look at your personal care items.
Costa Rica is well equipped with grocery and drug stores, so you can buy many items (e.g. feminine products) when you get there. The same goes for baby wipes, sunscreen, and bug spray (discussed more below). By leaving such things behind where possible, you can save room in your bag – and possibly bring fewer bags overall.
If you have long hair, you might want to pack a detangler to help sort out your strands after exposure to saltwater. SPF lip balm is also a good idea. Use contact lens solution? Bring that along as well; you never know what you’ll find in Costa Rica.
One of the best ways to save money when packing your meds is to use a day-of-the-week pill dispenser. This lets you leave all the bottles at home and just bring one small item for use while abroad.
Don’t take any chances with critical meds, though. For example, I take a seizure medication that is very dangerous to end abruptly, so I always travel with several weeks’ extra supply. Worst case scenario, then I can taper off of it gradually if a natural disaster/other apocalypse makes reupping impossible.
Bring just-in-case medications in small bottles packed in a Ziploc bag. Any prescription anti-diarrheal, nausea meds, antihistamines, and so forth should come with you to Costa Rica.
The same goes for EpiPens, since Costa Rica has its share of biting and stinging things. You can buy over-the-counter medications in Costa Rica, so feel free to bring a packet of Advil or two and leave the rest behind.
Bug Spray and Sunblock
Although you don’t need to be overly concerned, you should be wary of mosquito-borne diseases in Costa Rica. These include Dengue, Malaria, Chikungunya and Zika. (The last is particularly dangerous to unborn babies, so don’t travel anywhere below 6,500 feet if you’re pregnant.)
The best defense against potential diseases is good bug spray. DEET is and always has been very effective, and it’s the kind you will find readily available in stores there.
If you’re fine with it, you can purchase on arrival. The same goes for run-of-the-mill sunblock. If, however, you prefer natural brands, you’re unlikely to find those in Costa Rica. Pack your favorite brands and bring them with you.
Packing Hacks for Smart Travelers
- Unless you’re a pro, leave the camera behind. Today’s cell phones have nearly the same image quality as a good camera, though they can’t replace every function. Still, if you’re looking to de-bulk, this is a great place to start.
- Mix and match your outfits. See above for capsule wardrobe advice and learn about it.
- Store delicate items in your shoes. Think jewelry, perfume bottles, or souvenirs to protect them on the flight.
- Roll your hats and clothing instead of folding them. Not only does this keep them from crinkling, it’s a more effective use of space.
Frequently Asked Questions
Chances are if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve learned a lot and want the main details. Here are the most important FAQs for any Costa Rica trip!
What are the basic categories of packing?
When drawing up your packing list, be sure to include essential clothing; outerwear, beachwear, and hiking gear; toiletries, pharmaceuticals, bug spray, and sunblock; and all financial and legal items you might need.
What’s the weather like in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica has a mild, tropical climate. It’s between 70 and 80 degrees for most of the year. The main difference is the rainy season, which stretches from May through October.
The best time to go to Costa Rica – assuming you want to stay dry and enjoy lots of beachy weather without ducking inside come afternoon – is between December and April.
Besides the weather, what else should I keep in mind when packing?
Costa Rica has fabulously varied terrain, from crystalline beaches to cloud forests to mountaintops. You want the right shoes, coats, and personal care products (bug spray, sunscreen, moisturizer, etc.) for the microclimate you’re in.
How can I save money when packing?
Ditching checked baggage is one of the best ways to save money while packing. The average checked bag costs between $20 and $60 for the first, with an additional (often higher) cost for the second. Where possible, use our travel hacks to confine your packing to one carry-on and one personal item.
Can I do laundry in Costa Rica?
Yes, you’ll be able to do laundry in Costa Rica. In some towns, people offer private services out of their homes for varying rates. Laundromats exist in towns and cities, and many hotels will wash and fold your laundry for about $15 a bag.
What else might I need that hasn’t been discussed?
The only time you might need items not covered here is if you require specialty equipment for a class, work project, or retreat. Unless you’re taking Oil Painting on the Pacific, capturing high-res video clips for your website, or meeting up with the other hardcore anglers, you should be good.
If you are doing any of those things, check the tour website before making your packing list.
Over to You — Start Packing Your Bags Today!
We invite you to use this guide to create a just-for-you packing list that includes the above items tailored to your exact needs: intended destinations, personalized toiletries and meds, and so forth. Make it well ahead of time, then revisit it two weeks before travel to ensure you’ve included everything.
And don’t worry, no one ever died because they forgot their favorite swimsuit (even if it feels that way). Just stay calm and pack on, and you’ll do fine. So, with so much to see and do, what are you waiting for — book your trip to Costa Rica today!