If you’re planning a trip in the near future, it’s a good idea to make sure you have everything you’ll need for your upcoming adventure. Below, we provide a list of essential items to pack for your adventures in Central America.
Remember that what you forget to bring from home may be very costly or unavailable in your new destination!
DOCUMENTS & MONEY
First, don’t forget to bring your boarding pass, valid passport and drivers license. Each country has a validity date requirement, the most stringent being Panama which requires 6 months +1 day of validity upon entry. Costa Rica is 1 day of validity but you will still get hassled if you expire while traveling. Your printed itinerary.
Money and Credit/Debit Cards – Notify your bank you will be away and where your card may be used so it is not flagged. ATM take most US cards and particularly in Costa Rica and Panama, dispense in USD and local currency. USD$ accepted everywhere. Change may be given in local currency. Please don’t dwell on the exchange rate when dealing with local vendors, it is routinely head-calculated using a common rounding number; nobody has time to check daily exchange rates. Credit cards accepted at all tourist activity and stores; not at small stores, local farmers markets or roadside stands.
CASH IS KING, but DO NOT bring any bills larger than $20. Doing so will require a trip to the bank with passport in hand to break it. Do bring lots of small denomination bills. All of your residences will have in-room safes. Many small business prefer to be paid in cash. Merchants may be charged as much as 7% or more by their banks to process an international credit card transaction. Its not unusual for a credit card fee be added to a transaction separate from the amount of la quenta (the bill). Please be considerate when making credit card purchases, particularly with small merchants.
Second, know what items you are allowed / not allowed to carry in your checked luggage and in your personal carry on. TSA rules are similar in other countries and may even be more strict. Pay attention to liquids and aerosol limits.
Generally, it’s a good idea to keep it casual when packing for these climates. These countries are casual, and unless you are planning to attend social, business or cathedral events, plan to pack for comfort.
Dressy scene, Khaki slacks and a polo will do for men while a nice sundress with wrap and sandals will suffice for most women when out for dining in resort and vacation areas.
Casual scene, remember to pack items that will dry quickly and provide comfort in the humid conditions, water activity and rains. Shorts, short sleeve shirts What dries in your bathroom at home may not dry in an open-air humid environment. Jeans are heavy and do not dry. Silk does not breathe well.
Day excursions and beach activity should be casual quick dry shorts and tops over suits. Gentlemen, there are excellent quick dry undershorts available most everywhere. City scenes can be more conservative and long pant or dresses for ladies is respectful.
At night walking the local streets is always best to be conservative, not flaunting jewelry. Roaming in skimply club-wear is discouraged; taxi to the club.
Elevation: its not uncommon for higher elevation locations to drop into the 60 degree range day or night. If traveling above 4,000, consider a wrap or light jacket.
Sunglasses – Reflected light near the sea is very strong; please protect your eyes. Light near the equator is much stronger.
One swimsuit is simply not enough for Costa Rica. Bring one to wear and one you can dry to avoid the need to put on a cold swimsuit.
Sturdy sneakers or hiking boots are recommended for any exploration activities while in the tropics. If you plan to participate in whitewater rafting or exploring the waterfalls, canopy tours or hanging bridges (covered toe shoes), plan to bring shoes that are waterproof, mesh and have a heel strap. Many mesh and quick dry, non-slip shoes are available today; our favorite is the Speedo Aqua Multi-cross at $20USD. Most beaches are black sand and can be hot, rough sand or stones and can be very rough on your feet. Sandals and Flip flops are the normal on non slippery surfaces and general wear. Leather shoes will not dry once wet.
Waterproof Jacket or Raincoat
The rain season in Costa Rica takes place between May and November. Showers can occur any time. If you plan to travel during that time, remember to bring a poncho or waterproof jacket and umbrella.
Waterproof Sun Care
Given the proximity to the equator and or water reflection, these areas can have brutal sun, even on cloudy days or under the canopy of trees, don’t be fooled; its essential that you bring High SPF waterproof / sweatproof sunscreen as well as lip balm with SPF. Apply frequently and liberally. It’s also a good idea to bring along some aloe in case you happen to get a sunburn. Consider applying Sunscreen and Insect Repellent together. Remember you cannot add more sunscreen yesterday but you can wear less today. Many destinations are requiring reef-friendly formulas; a good idea anyway.
Waterproof Insect Repellent
These regions known for spectacular natural beauty are also known for their incredible variety of beautiful insects. Not all insects are harmful to humans so please be respectful. Each person has their own scent; making some more or less attractive to insects. You probably know where you are on the scale from none to bug bait; pack accordingly. Bring a good insect repellant that contains Deet. The key hours of insect activity are the hours around sunrise and sunset. Avoid fragrances when you can. There are some leatherette bracelets available on Amazon containing Citronella that can be worn on ankles or wrists. While I would not rely entirely on these, they can be good during the off hours, no pun intended.
Sprays may be easier to apply, however they often over-spray where you and others don’t appreciate them, on the floor they can be slippery, cause allergic reaction in others or inadvertently affect animals. Lotions or creams are easier to pack than spray.
Don’t be lulled into false sense of security. Many are diligent the first few days then think, well, no bites, no sunburn, then stop applying it. At night, make sure you close your screens before turning on the lights indoors. Bug activity will be greatest in still air and moist areas after rains. Breezes, including ceiling fans will keep them from you.
With so many wonderful outdoor adventures to enjoy in the sunshine, it’s recommended that you also pack a wide-brim hat to protect your head and face from the sun.
It is also vital that you bring along some dry bags for protecting your electronics from humidity. Such bags are available in all sizes, ranging from pocket-sized cell phone pouches to larger bags.
If traveling for flora and fauna, biodiversity, you will want to make sure you bring binoculars so you do not miss any opportunities to view exquisite wildlife.
LED Flashlights or Headlamps – My oh my, it’s dark out there. Getting to your car after dinner or around your room at night can be a challenge. Headlamps, once on your head they aways focus in your path. Cheap aluminum flashlights from Harbor Freight have been indispensable at $free to $1.97 for 2. Lightweight, easy to pocket but you need to keep them focused ahead of you.
ZipLock Bags – 1 Gallon or larger for packing is a preference to many professional travelers, keeping each type of garment in a separate bag. Another great use is for packing wet items on the way home. They will begin to smell and you will appreciate the mm of separation.
HEALTH AND MEDICATIONS
Staying hydrated is essential while you are exploring. Elevation and exertion, including water-based activity increase chances of dehydration. You may find it to be a good idea to bring a reusable water bottle that you can refill while exploring. They are available at all grocery stores, then buy an extra 2 Liter bottle to refill the sport bottles.
Always pack your RX medications in carry on luggage. If liquid, a TSA waiver can be obtained.
Our small First Aid Kit consists of;
Tylenol – can be expensive when you need it, be sure to bring some.
Benadryl – Great to help with jet lag for sleep and insect irritation or rash. Oral or ointment.
Cortisone Cream – rashes, bites, itching. See Allergical below.
Anti-Bacterial Ointment – for wounds, broken blisters, etc.
Small Swiss Army knife with tweezers IN PACKED SUITCASE.
Common Medications RX (excluding controlled narcotics) are generally available without prescription (but not cheap) at Farmacia or Pharmacy, even at WalMart Pharmacy. One great ointment not available in North America but found in local farmacia is Allergical cream, its a 4-in-1 for insect bites; drys insect bites overnight for most.
Lastly, Don’t forget to Pack for A Purpose.
Check if your phone is carrier locked or unlocked. You can request an unlock from your carrier but do not wait till the list minute to do so. It is very convenient and inexpensive to purchase a telephone SIM card but only if your phone is carrier-unlocked. Your carrier roaming charges may be excessive; we offer better plans for using your smartphone short-term in the Americas while roaming. Inquire about it.
Apps to install before you go;
WAZE, the most widely used GPS in Central America (speaks in English)
WhatsApp (our number is provided to you, many of our providers are given to you with a WhatsApp number)
SKYPE if you and friends and family use that.
Airline app for checkin and notifications from airline.
Google Translate. Practice with Google Translate – Did you know you can use the camera icon within Google Translate to access your camera, focus on a sign or menu and it will dynamically translate on the fly for you? You can also speak and have it translated for others.
Amazon Prime Photos – If you have Amazon Prime account, you can upload all your cell phone photos from wifi connected sites.
All of these require you have active wifi data or a phone with mobile data access. Central America is not like USA, almost every establishment has free wifi. The phone company mobile data is usually excellent and can easily be used with WAZE for GPS.
Please become acclimated to these tools before travel, you’ll be glad you did.