I was prepared for a trip to the middle of the jungle in the dead of the rainy season, instead I arrived to Costa Rica – a place so safe and organized it looked like Little America (or a Latin neighborhood in LA to be exact). Credit cards and US dollars are accepted in most places in Central America (EUR are NOT), tap water is potable in Costa Rica, roads are well maintained (where there are roads), the weather is very pleasant at 80F max even in the midst of the rainy season and mosquitos are not bird-sized vultures like the ones I’m used to back home in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Costa Rica and Nicaragua are tropical countries located slightly north of the Equator. As James Kaiser, a favorite travel photographer and guide books writer, puts it:
“Located at 10 degrees latitude (slightly north of the Equator), the sun shines brighter and the rain falls harder here.”
Depending on whether you are visiting Central America in the dry or wet season you would need to prepare somewhat differently. Wet season (also known as “green” season) is from May to October and is more noticeable at higher altitudes where it can get colder and much wetter. The tops of the mountains get a lot more rain than the beach so if you are planning on hiking volcanos or exploring the jungle, maybe you’d prefer to visit in the dry season. If you are looking to spend more time by the beach, rain season shouldn’t affect you that much, especially if you head to Nicaragua or the Northwest province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica. The ocean water is warm year round, beaches are uncrowded and surf is amazing! Sure, you may experience a downpour in the afternoon but you are already wet from swimming and surfing in a storm is the coolest experience anyways 🙂
The dry season is from November to April, which coincides perfectly with the chilly weather in the US, Europe, and Canada. Expect more tourists and some popular beach areas such as Jaco, Santa Teresa and Manuel Antonio may be overpopulated.
Essentials to bring with you to Nicaragua and Costa Rica
- Bikini / board shorts – bring all the pairs you’ve got, even purchase some new ones. There will be VERY few times that you’ll be living outside of your beach gear. What is a mermaid without a weekly supply of bikinis?! And nothing else dries in the tropics anyways…
- Rashguard – cheaper to order online while at home and you’ve got more choices. Provides SPF protection for your upper body while surfing (you’ll need it 🙂 ) and will serve as a barrier between you and the board (called “rashguard” for a reason). The bikini cut 1mm wetsuit is also a great option and finally I found a place where to wear this uber cute garment, even if I were slightly “hot” in it 🙂
- Sunscreen – 50 SPF ocean-friendly water-resistant sunscreen for the beach and zinc paste for surfing. Bring double the amount of sunscreen as your favorite brand may not be available here and it is at least double the price. Zinc is the only thing that will save you during surfing as it is the ultimate sunscreen barrier.
- Hat / sunshades – it’s the tropics, it’s hot and sunny (even in the wet season) 🙂 Any wide-brimmed hat will do, the sunshades should be polarized if possible or with very dark lenses at least. The sun is very strong, protect your eyes!
- Mosquito repellent – some sources recommend DEET, others mentioned mosquito repellent wristbands. I opted in for All-Natural repellent and made my own with citronella, orange and lavender oils – I smell great, cut on “french perfume” costs and the bugs don’t bug me 🙂
- Flashlight / headlamp – a headlamp is something I always bring with me wherever I go. Big towns in Costa Rica and Nicaragua have plenty of street lighting but small beach towns can be dark at night and the areas where I stayed were good 30min away from civilization down dirt roads and in pitch black jungle. At hostels or surf camps, even if you don’t need the headlamp outside, it may come in handy when you enter your room late at night and don’t want to bother everyone else sleeping…
- Sarong (or a light micro fiber quick dry towel for guys) – you can use it as a beach dress and it is lighter than a regular towel. Bath towels are usually provided at hostels/camps.
- Power banks / battery packs – if the electricity goes out or if you are on a long bus trip, you don’t want to be caught without your electronics fully charged. Plugs are 110 Vt, US/Canada standard, plan accordingly and bring your adapters.
- Travel insurance – I hope you won’t need it but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get it 🙂 I recommend WorldNomads and I use it for all my adventure travels.
- Hiking / water shoes – in general flip flops and sneakers should do, but if you plan to go on adventures bring hiking shoes and sports sandals/water shoes. NO, you will not need high heels or elegant shoes, spare yourself shlepping that extra weight.
- Waterproof phone case (cord that hangs on your neck) – if you’d like to use your camera while adventuring on land and water, buy a waterproof case and a cord that hangs off your neck. You don’t want to drop your phone while rafting, horseback riding, or going on boat trips (even if the phone itself is waterproof). For surfing and in-water photography you need a special water casing for your camera.
First aid kit – you will get insect bites, board cuts, rock scratches that you don’t want to visit the doctor for. Don’t let minor surface wounds ruin your trip. Be prepared, bring a first aid kit that works for you. Moleskin, bandaids, wound treatments, topical pain relief balms, muscle relaxants if you get sore, Alka Seltzer for hangovers, insect bite salve, burn medicine (you will get a sunburn, I promise you that too), and any prescription medication you use.
Day pack – If you are smart, you’ll travel with a 45L backpack on your back and a 20L day pack with your valuables on your chest. I wasn’t that smart (or more like I was going for work for a few months rather than a couple weeks) so I took a medium suitcase and a computer backpack (in addition to my daypack).
Additional items you’d want to have in rainy season
- Sturdy raincoat or poncho that covers your backpack too – trust me, when it rains, it pours and it will get you soaked
- Long pants – preferably water-proof if you have such or hiking pants that unzip under the knee so the part under your rain jacket remains dry
- Warm clothes – at least one sweatshirt / sweater, jeans / long pants and a warm hat if you plan to hike at altitude.
Depending on the type of trip you are planning to take, these are some optionals
Pocket knife or multitool (I always have a knife with me in checked luggage 🙂 )
Trecking poles – I rarely use them but I would it is were a strenuous volcano hike
Water filter (or water tablets if you drink from unsafe sources) – Life Straw is great, so are charcoal filters and water purification drops.
For more packing tips check out the following posts: