In October, my husband Josh and I finally took our belated honeymoon to Costa Rica. We did the most romantic thing we could think of- we took off to Costa Rica in a shared a bag.
We took the full-sized Tortuga backpack, because we both planned to pack light. And we’re in love. The week before departure, we each started making a pile of stuff to bring. About two days before takeoff we pared down to make it all fit. Besides the big backpack, I wore the Tortuga Daypack on the plane to hold our books and my bum bag.
Five days, two people, one bag!
Surprisingly, it was pretty easy to do. Josh is a minimalist in real life and I try to be when I travel. Together we talked each other out of anything extra. We each stuffed a ziplock with socks and underwear to keep the backpack from complete chaos. In retrospect, we should have invested in some packing cubes to keep our clothes separate and organized. At each place we stayed, we opened our bag and dug through all our shared belongings making a mess that needed to be repacked.
The trip was incredible. We rented a car and drove to La Fortuna, Monteverde, and then made a quick trip to the beach. Our week included ziplining, repelling off of waterfalls, relaxing in hot springs, a coffee tour, and exploring the jungle. Costa Rica is stunning to see and the perfect place to visit for two adventurous busy bodies like us.
So, here’s what we packed for five days in Costa Rica. If you’re planning to stay longer, you may need some extras, or plan to do a load of laundry.
We spent most of our trip away from the major cities. Our days were filled with hiking and other outdoorsy activities, so active clothes were a must. Josh and I donned gym shorts and moisture-wicking t-shirts or tank tops for the week.
I laughed at the difference between the clothes of the locals and the tourists. The Ticos (what Costa Ricans are called) had casual everyday clothes, while the foreigners were decked out in ultra technical gear. Our guides for the zipline tour wore jeans and sneakers. On the other hand, visitors had hiking pants that zipped into shorts, Keens, boots, and practically the whole REI catalog.
Sometimes having performance gear is important, but for a short, simple trip (no four-day hikes or Bear Grylls-level activity) you don’t need to invest in a bunch of new stuff.
Think light-weight and fast-drying clothes, especially shirts. Thanks to the humidity and water adventures, we experienced the whole spectrum, from dry, to damp, to wet, to damp, to dry, a couple of times each day. The sporty fabric dried off as we did. We brought free tees we had from races, but you’re probably working out in something similar already.
Josh wore nylon shorts all week and I switched between one pair of nylon running shorts and a pair of spandex yoga capris. In October the temperature stayed near 80F, so we were comfortable. The capris were perfect for the night hike when my legs made contact with more brush. Plus, they helped with the wedgie factor for the harness I wore while climbing and zip-lining.
Every place we stopped was crawling with backpackers, who aren’t known to be particularly fancy. Luckily, the Ticos tend to be pretty casual too, so we wore our clothes all day and out to grab dinner, or drinks, at night as well. I brought one sundress and Josh packed a pair of khaki shorts and a linen shirt. We wore them one night because we had them. Looking back, they weren’t necessary.
If you plan on visiting one of the beautiful beaches, or the hot springs near Arenal, you will need a swimsuit. I would recommend one suited for activity over a sunbathing suit, if you know what I mean. A racerback will be better for whitewater rafting or jumping into rivers over something stringy or strapless. I’m confident you could do just as well in a sports bra and gym shorts.
It rains everyday in many parts of Costa Rica. Don’t be disappointed when you check the forecast ahead of time and you see all those rain clouds. It moves in and out quickly, and life goes on in the rain. While you shouldn’t worry about it, you can plan for it.
Bring a light rain jacket. We wore ours for at least part of every day. It was the only item I bought specifically for this trip because my old one leaked. We found out Josh’s, too, was worse for the wear while we were there, but he powered through like a champ. The best type rain jacket for Costa Rica is a lightweight one that packs into a daypack or big purse. It’s also easy to tie around your waist and forget about when the sun comes out. Be sure your coat is not a softshell (too hot) or a trench coat (hard to pack).
The Shoe Situation
My usual dilemma before every trip involves shoes. Can I make one pair work for the whole time I’m gone? Which pair to wear on the plane? Does this match everything I’m packing? Shoes are tough.
For all the time we spent in the rainforest, I wanted a closed-toe shoe that could get muddy. Since we planned on some water activities, we brought old tennis shoes for tours that combined swimming and hiking. If Keens are your jam, they would be perfect. Sure, my kicks were dampish for a whole day, but I forgot within about 10 minutes of putting them on with dry socks. We planned to do a little throw away packing and leave our sneakers behind, but they ended up drying out and fitting into our bag. Maybe on our next trip.
Besides old tennis shoes, I packed my Salt Water Sandals, which can get wet, are comfortable for walking to into town and look ok with a nicer outfit. Josh’s alternate shoes were his boat shoes.
I had read, all over, about the mosquitos in Costa Rica and feared the worst. Additionally, I had heard that bug spray was crazy expensive down there, which wasn’t true ($6-$10 for a can, not great, but not awful). Josh and I each brought a travel-sized can of Off bug spray. We were pleasantly surprised by how few bites we ended up with. I had three from the whole trip. We used about half of one of our cans.
We also brought all the usual shower stuff, plus some extra sunscreen, and medicine to treat bites. Feel free to go easy on the makeup, Costa Rica is the perfect mix of casual and sweaty.
The outlets in Costa Rica are the standard ones used in the US. You won’t need your converter to charge your phone and camera.
If you have a waterproof camera, I’d pack it. We used a water-proof sleeve for my iPhone during our waterfall jumping and the pictures turned out ok. Since we weren’t working, we just had my camera and phone for the whole trip.
Just as important as what to bring, is what you don’t need. Here are a couple of things not to pack.
- High heels or any uncomfortable shoes aren’t worth the space in your bag. You will not wear them, I promise.
- Leave behind your hair straighter and curling iron for sure. The humidity leaves that battle fruitless.
- Jeans are stuffy for the weather. You’ll be fine in shorts or maybe a maxi dress for the ladies.
- A normal towel takes up too much room. A travel towel is handy, or a sarong. Most places will have towels you can borrow or rent.
The Packing List
- 1 athletic shirt/tank top for each day
- 2-3 athletic bottoms- either shorts, capris or a mix
- sundress or casual shorts and shirt (optional)
- underwear for each day
- 1 sports bra and 1 regular bra
- light rain jacket
- sarong or travel towel
Find two pairs or less that meet all these requirements
- shoes that can get wet
- close-toed hiking shoes
- sandals or boat shoes to stay dry
- bug spray
- regular toiletries, simplify makeup if possible
- waterproof camera
- electronics and chargers
If you’re heading to Costa Rica, you probably already have most of the necessary items in your closet; there’s no need to buy a bunch of technical gear. Don’t forget the most important stuff:
- Athletic clothes
- Shoes that can get wet
- Rain jacket
- Bug spray
Image: Arturo Sotillo (Flickr)