Sometimes I wish I could roam the earth in nothing but jungle leaves. I feel the most free without anything to carry and with next to nothing on.
Costa Rica will do that to a girl. It’s a country where you need little to be happy and between the monsoons, the humidity, and the jungle critters, most material possessions don’t survive. It’s taught me to let go of my attachment to “stuff” and travel with far less baggage.
I apply this attitude to the way I pack for all of my travel stints in the tropics. I leave precious cargo behind and I pack as little as possible.
The best advice I could give anyone packing for a trip is to, whenever possible, make due with what you already have. The more you spend on things for your trip, the less you can spend on your trip and the more you have to carry. Value experience over stuff. Value space over clutter.
Still, I recognize that in this day and age, having “things” is a necessary reality. After all, a modern woman traveling the world should be able to wear her jungle leaves and have her iPhone too.
Deciding what to pack requires a balance in packing light while humoring my fashionista tendencies, the special treasures that make me feel at home, and my technical necessities.
If you’re traveling to a tropical beach in search of raw, rugged, freedom, but you still want to feel connected, prepared, and like a pretty woman, you need this list.
Here is what every beach bumming chica should pack for a trip to the tropics:
To keep yourself from feeling weighed down, pack only what you can comfortably carry on your back. I personally use the 46 liter Osprey Porter Travel Pack. It’s big enough to fit everything that I need and has great compartments for organization, but it’s small enough that I can carry it anywhere. It opens like a duffel, which makes it much easier to live out of than your typical backpack.
Paper thin back pack
I use mine every day as a beach bag or daypack. It weighs nothing, takes up no space when it’s empty, and it’s very easy to clean. You can find a huge variety of these bags, but I travel with this one.
These are probably the most practical thing I own. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and are made from silicone making them ideal for throwing inside of a beach bag. I have one pouch for my sunglasses, one for loose change, and one for my cell phone. They also make wristlets, cell phone covers, wallets, and key chains. Buy them here.
Turkish towels are gifts from the beach gods. Designed for use at public bathhouses, they’re thin and lightweight, dry immediately, and are made of all natural organic cotton. They make a perfect beach blanket and can be worn as a sarong. Add to that their beautiful colors and classic design and you have my absolute most essential beach item. You can buy them on Amazon here.
In the evening when I want something a little “fancier,” I take a wristlet to carry just the essentials: some cash, my keys, and a lip balm. A wristlet is small, easy to carry, and keeps your belongings right in your hand which prevents theft.
I recommend a decent pair that are stylish and durable, but leave the expensive designer shades at home as they will most likely get scratched. I like sexy yet sporty Carreras, which come in all different neutral and bright colors.
Moleskine and Faber Kastel Pen Black XS
Journaling can add fulfillment to your travels by allowing you a medium for reflecting on your experiences. It’s also great if you ever want to look back and remember details of who you met, where you ate, etc on a trip. I’m very brand loyal to Moleskine journals because, well, they’re the best, and I love writing with Faber Kastel pens.
Perfect for night beach walks and bike rides, getting a headlamp is ESSENTIAL when you’re travel in beach/jungle/wilderness locales. You never know when you might be out past sunset on a dark path.
Essential for cutting fruit and avocados on the beach. There’s a reason why every boy scout has one! Check them out here.
Pack a few cute outfits for evenings out, especially if you will be in nearby cities, but generally beach towns tend to be extremely casual. Opt for natural, quick dry fabrics that you can dress up or dress down. Versatility is the key, so that you can be fashionable without overpacking. Here are my staples:
In the tropics the weather can change in a moment no matter where you are. Bring a very lightweight rain jacket so that you don’t get hot, or a very thin poncho, as dorky as it looks, works perfectly.
Depending on your itinerary, you will likely be moving your body a lot and will want to be comfortable. I pack a few sports bras, yoga pants (cropped and full length), and a basic hoodie for cold nights in the rainy season.
Tanks and Tees
In the beach and mountain towns cotton tank tops and t-shirts are perfect for daytime. I opt for loose, flowy cotton (my favorite brands are Splendid and C&C California) to throw on over my bikini and a few “fancier” ones for wearing with a skirt at night. I like American Apparel body suits for wearing under high waisted shorts or maxi skirts at night.
Linen Cover Up
Good for throwing on over my bikini when I get too much sun or tucking into high waisted shorts on a chilly night. I like a simple loose white linen button up.
To stay protected against mosquitos at night and to keep cozy in the rain, I like to wear loose flowy pants. Simple linen drawstring pants are great and easy to clean, I also like elastic waist pants in colorful prints like these.
I bring a couple of pairs of comfy beach shorts (Hurley, Roxy, and Volcom have good options) that I can throw on and feel like I’m still in my pajamas. I also pack a pair of jean shorts and one pair of short tight colorful ones for fun.
Skirts and Dresses
Women who want to dress up may want to include some maxi dresses or maxi skirts for evening dinners. They’re elegant and they keep the mosquitos at bay. If you plan to enjoy the party scene, I recommend packing some cotton bodycon dresses. I bring at least two on every trip: one black and one red backless cotton from American Apparel. They’re simple, classic, and flattering. H&M also has a great selection for around $10 each.
As a total beach bum, I live in bikinis so I pack as many as I can fit. Most people only need three: a simple string because I find it’s the most flattering cut, one that will stay on in the waves, and one without straps for tanning. I’m a big fan of Victoria’s Secret suits because they’re flattering and they’ve got great sales. When I want to splurge I love Mara Hoffman and Vix swimsuits.
I have a selection of cotton bandeaus and bralettes that can be worn for yoga or under loose tops at night. My favorites are these ones from American Apparel. For underwear I use lace boy short thongs that are comfortable and don’t show lines under tight clothes.
I tend to pack as few pairs of shoes as humanly possible to save lots of space in my bag. Leave the heels at home and opt for comfort. Here are the three pairs of shoes I always pack:
I pack one pair of flip flops for my everyday shoes. I like rubber because they’re comfortable and easy to clean and I choose a neutral color that won’t look dirty. My favorites are Havaiana Slims in gold. If they break you can buy more in some beach towns (especially in Latin America and Europe), but they may be more expensive than at home.
A pair of versatile sneakers are sufficient, unless you plan to be hiking in the mountains. I use Colombia Sportwear Drainmaker shoes that can bet wet and be worn at the gym, on a run, hiking in the jungle, crossing rivers, and climbing coral reef.
For dinners in nice restaurants, nights out on the town, and days spent in cities, I like to class it up with one pair of attractive sandals. Faux leather does best as the real thing can get destroyed in a rainstorm. My favorites are by Dolce Vita.
Gadgets and Gizmos
Tropical climates can be harsh on electronics and carrying them around can make you a target for theft. So keep it minimal and what you do bring keep protected and out of sight.
I travel with an iPhone for listening to music and connecting to wifi on the go. In the past I had two stolen while traveling, so if you’re attached to yours, keep it at home. If you have one that is unlocked you can buy local SIM cards and get unlimited data very inexpensively.
Deciding which camera to bring can be a challenge. You want great photos, but the sand, sea air, and humidity, can be tough on cameras. Unless you’re a professional I recommend bringing an inexpensive digital point and shoot that you won’t mind getting sandy, wet, or stolen. I take all of my photos with inexpensive Canon Powershots.
Many of the photos on my site were taken with a Canon Powershot A4000IS. It’s tiny and cheap so I’m never heartbroken when it falls in the sand (I can’t close the lens anymore) or gets stolen. Most importantly bring a camera you feel well acquainted with and will carry with you e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e. I’m now shooting with a Canon Powershot SX520 which has the same features as my old camera, is still really compact, but also has the ability to use manual settings. It’s a nice compromise between a full on DSLR and a tiny point and shoot.
It took me a long time to get on the Kindle bandwagon. I love holding a book in my hands and seeing how much I manhandled it by the end. However, practically speaking, a Kindle makes so much sense when traveling. You can download any book you want whenever you want and save lots of space in your bag. I’ve never regretted buying one. I usually go with the cheapest one since I only use it for reading books.
I do not recommend traveling with a laptop in general, too heavy and too much risk of it being stolen, but if you work remotely it’s unavoidable. Most people will do well with an iPad or a smartphone, but if you’re taking tons of photos or you’re working on the road, go for a Macbook Air and a remote hard drive. I travel with a 13″ Macbook Pro, which is a bit heavy, but not too bad. I protect mine from humidity, salt, bike falls, and jungle rain but keeping it in a Thule laptop case. The case is so heavy duty it looks like I’m packing heat, but it is fall and water proof.
Stuff That Makes Me Feel Pretty
When you spend your days swimming in the ocean and sweating in the heat, you’re covered in dirt, sand, and saltwater, sometimes you just want to feel pretty.
It can be hard to find your favorites overseas, so if you don’t mind checking your bag, stock up on your toiletries. Opt for all natural whenever possible. This protects you and the environment, especially if you’re camping at the beach and bathing in the ocean.
You can purchase coconut oil pretty much anywhere but I like to have some on hand just in case. The benefits of coconut oil are endless. It disinfects my skin to protect it from infection, keeps off the sand fleas on the beach, hydrates and protects my hair from saltwater, makes a great smoothing serum post shower, and combined with coarse sugar or seasalt makes an excellent exfoliating scrub in the shower. I also use it to cook with. Basically you can replace pretty much anything in your suitcase with coconut oil, just make sure it’s the organic raw stuff. You can buy it cheap at Trader Joe’s or order it online here.
Tea Tree Oil
I bring tea tree oil in case I have open wounds from scratching insect bites. It’s an incredible disinfectant and kills staph.
Activated Charcoal Soap
Nothing makes me feel cleaner than this soap. It’s all natural, detoxifying, a great exfoliant, and you can even use it to brush your teeth with… tastes bad but man it makes them white! I buy mine at the farmer’s markets in Costa Rica, but you can get it online here.
Keeps my hair from turning into dreadlocks and is all natural so I can use it for ocean showers when on deserted islands.
For my face I use Alba Botanica all natural suncreen so I don’t put poison into my skin or harm sea turtles when snorkeling. I also use coconut oil in lieu of sunscreen once I’ve got a good base tan. Raspberry seed oil and carrot oil also offer sun protection.
The refreshing all natural, hypoallergenic facial wipes by Yes to Cucumbers have saved me on long flights and bus rides, when camping, and during water shortages. I always travel with at least one pack just in case.
Rather than use bug spray when I know I’ll be somewhere really intense I use Please Don’t Bite Me skin patches which put Vitamin B and Aloe into your bloodstream so that insects don’t like your taste. If you want to prevent mosquito bites entirely, check out my post How I Cured Myself of Mosquito Bites Forever.
I travel with Pacifica’s Solid Perfume which comes in teeny tins that last forever and can be packed in a carry on. They smell amazing and are all natural. I also recommend traveling with small vials of essential oils and making your own blends with coconut oil.
The humid air in the tropics doesn’t marry well with makeup. Besides, with your big smile and healthy glow you won’t need makeup anyway! When I want to dress up and feel pretty I put on some waterproof mascara, lipgloss, and use a highlighter stick around my eyes.
As much as I love it I try not to pack much jewelry because it’s really heavy and can get ruined by the salty air. Also, you can find tons of cool jewelry while traveling made by local artisans. For daily wear I bring a couple of pairs of simple studs and my favorite ring. When I want to dress up I wear a statement necklace that I made myself or earrings that I discovered on one of my travels.
Health and Wellness
Traveling while feeling ill makes everything a challenge and when traveling overseas you may be exposed to new viruses and bacteria that can make you prone to illness. For everything that I pack to stay healthy on the road, check out My Travel Wellness Kit. To keep yourself from getting food poisoning, be sure to read my post How to Travel the World and Never Get Food Poisoning.
I’m a bit of a health nut and often struggle with the lack of available health foods abroad, especially in small beach towns. If I have the space and can handle the weight I pack organic raw almonds, which are expensive and scant in many parts of the world, organic chia seeds (which mixed into water give me energy on long travel days), raw coconut oil (it can be shockingly expensive to buy it in the tropics), spirulina to replace dark leafy greens, and any healthy snacks or bars I have space for.
Some travelers would call me crazy for carrying a heavy pouch full of crystals and oracle cards, but to me, they’re the most important goods in my bag. When you’re traveling for a long period of time, it’s important to have the special things that make wherever you go feel like home.
When I’m constantly moving, yoga is what keeps me grounded. Beach travel lends itself perfectly to yoga, because it’s all about relaxation and there’s nothing quite like stretching in front of the ocean at sunrise. Most studios carry yoga mats, but I like to have my own so that I can practice anywhere. I travel with a Manduka EcoLite mat which folds up into the size of a notebook. I’m also a big fan of the Jade Travel Mat.
For clearing the old energy of a space and making it my own, I follow the ancient tradition of smudging. A stick of Palo Santo lasts a long time, doesn’t make a mess, and smells heavenly.
Flower Therapy Oracle Cards
I often consult these cards when I’m looking for support and answers while traveling. They also make a wonderful activity to do with friends, especially around a beach bonfire. The flower therapy cards are always on point and I’m often humbled by how open people become when I give them a reading.
I use essential oils for anything from nipping a cold in the bud to treating a wound to clearing up skin breakouts. However what I treasure most about them, is how they can alter my mood. Sniffing some peppermint oil in the morning makes me feel instantly invigorated while lavender on my temples soothes and relaxes me. Get more info on essential oils here.
What I Leave at Home
Anything I would be heartbroken to lose or have stolen
Imagine how many items you lose each time you move houses or apartments. It’s no different when moving from one beach town to the next. I have also had many articles of clothing stolen from laundromats and was robbed once midday on my way to the beach. Learn to detach yourself from “needing” the things you have, or simply don’t bring anything you can’t afford to lose.
Hairdryer, curling iron, straightener
If you are in a nontropical beach town your hair will likely dry instantaneously and be so damaged it cannot withstand any heat tools. If you are in a tropical beach town your hair will never dry no matter what you do and will turn into a frizzy mess of curly one hour after styling. Save yourself the space and the time and leave these at home. Get used to looking natural.
I find these to be a waste of packing space. I wear underwear or yoga pants to bed instead.
They take up a lot of space and take a long time to dry. It’s also too hot to wear them most of the time. I usually opt for yoga pants or linen pants instead.
Where I Shop
When you’re shopping off season, or you’re too busy to make it into the stores, it can be a challenge to know where to go to buy everything you need. I’ve linked many of the items in the list to Amazon, but I also shop around on some of these sites and in these stores:
Carries most of the designers I love at huge discounts.
Designers from all over the world, many extremely affordable dresses.
Excellent selection of swimsuits, tanks, rompers, beachwear.
Best inexpensive and flattering bikinis.
Anything and everything practical I could ever want.
For cheap stuff that you won’t mind getting ruined.
On the Road
The less you pack, the more goodies you can buy on the road! Accessories, colorful tops, and jewelry are my favorite things to pick up from local markets while traveling.
And please remember, try not to go on a shopping frenzy before you leave. Use what you have, and learn to live with less. You’ll enjoy yourself even more, I promise.
Headed to the beach in Costa Rica? Don’t leave home without The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica: