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What to Bring: The Costa Rican Expat’s Wishlist of Things from Back Home

Packing up your life back home is overwhelming.  It’s a time for reflection, going through all of the things that you use every day, and all of the things that you hardly use and sometimes forgot that you have.  And if you are moving to a whole new country and climate, like Costa Rica is bound to be for a lot of people, it is a time to deliberate on what it is that you will need moving forward in your new, tropical home.  And who better to ask than the expats who have already migrated over and come to the realizations of what was important and what could have easily been left behind?

Below is a list of items to potentially bring with you, organized by the typical rooms of the house.  We will also include items to exclude from packing and the reasons why.

Bedrooms

Good sheets are hard to find when you don’t have dozens of strip malls, each filled with stores all competing with each other for stock and prices.  Most expats in Costa Rica do their big shopping expeditions on infrequent trips to San Jose, the border of Panama, or on a lesser scale, to San Isidro (the closest of the three destinations but with a few less options than the other two).  So, if you are looking for high-quality bedding like a very high thread count or made out of specialty material like bamboo or vintage-washed cotton, you are better to bring these items from home.

Don’t bother bringing furniture, which can be purchased here for very reasonable prices, made from locally-sourced hardwoods (see here for a list of typical woods used in locally crafted furniture) that are especially treated for the climate and against bugs.  Pillows are easy enough to source here of all qualities, but if you have room for them, bring your favorites.  Curtains are easy to purchase off the shelves or have made by a local seamstress for a good price, same with blankets if you need them.  

Kitchen

Dish towels and cleaning cloths are small, easy to bring, and the ones you know and love will make you happier than the ones you can find here, which can leave you wanting more.  Cellulose sponges are also of a lesser quality here, falling apart far more quickly than the ones that you can bring with you, even those from the dollar store. What you don’t need to bring are generic dish liquids, degreasers, or any type of cleaning products including eco friendly ones, which are scarcer to source here than they are in Europe or North America, but you can find some locally produced brands for a reasonable price if you want to be eco-conscious and support the local economy, or you can make your own.

When it comes to kitchen appliances, you will find the basics (stove, refrigerator, microwave, toaster, etc) easily and of good quality and price in comparison to what you know.  But if you can’t live without your Vitamix, electric salad spinner or instant cooking pot, definitely consider bringing those because you won’t quickly replace them here. Good quality chef’s knives are hard to find here, too, and will undoubtedly cost more than bringing yours over.

Moving on to the cupboards, if you like to cook ethnic cuisines that require specialty spices, bring those with you in sealed pouches that are clearly labeled.  Items that people generally bring from home include anything authentically ethnic that you would typically have to travel to your nearest big city’s cultural clusters like Chinatown markets, Italian quarters, etc, where there are specialty shops dedicated to imported goods.  Also, bakers should bring their bread molds because you simply won’t find them here, and grillers should bring their cooking thermometers. Leave your bbq and utensils at home, though, unless they are top of the line and you can’t grill without them. In saying that, bring your favorite marinating spice mix and bbq sauce recipes for sure!

Water filtration /purification devices tend to be better from outside of Costa Rica. Although the water out of the taps in the Costa Ballena is clean spring water, some still prefer the peace of mind of a UV light filter that treats all the water entering the house and a Berkey for all the drinking and cooking water.  If you are one of those people (no judgment, because you are not alone), it’s best to bring these with you, too.

Bathrooms

Good quality, super plush towels are less abundant than where you are coming from, so if you have room in your luggage, bring some of these over for that homely feeling when you get out of the shower. You can always start with a small collection and grow it as time goes on.  It’s best not to keep closets full of towels and linens that you are not using because they take up space in the dry room and collect mold otherwise if they are not often used. Being a tropical beach country, beach towels can be bought from any seaside stall. Quick-dry towels, on the other hand, are not easy to find here.

If you have sensitive teeth and need your Sensodyne toothpaste, or if you have a particular brand of skin care product that you love, bring at least a one year’s supply.  Although you may find these items here, they are small enough to bring with you because you will pay more for them here.

Closets

Non-leather sneakers that are well-made and breathable are always nice to have here and yet difficult to find.  Same goes for hiking sandals like Tevas or Keens, or really good quality flip flops (made of hemp, for example).  Don’t bring anything leather (shoes, purses, belts, pants, etc) because it molds, so unless you wear an item every day, don’t bother.

A surprising suggestion for this hot climate is to bring 100% cotton clothing.  It’s very difficult to find pure cotton undergarments, shirts, shorts, really anything.  There is a lot of cheap synthetic clothing here, but unless you like to sweat non-stop or you want to sit inside in the A/C all day, it’s simply inadvisable.  Actually, don’t even bother bringing much else for yourself because you can find a lot of mildly used second-hand clothing in the prevalent tienda ropa americanas, where tourists and expats dump their heavy luggage contents off before leaving with suitcases full of souvenirs.

UV protection clothing and hats are recommended for children and you can probably find them at a cheaper price where you are coming from, so bring a few pairs because your little ones will wear through them quickly in the rugged outdoor play.  Bring water shoes for your little ones, too, who want to run and play in the waterfalls and rocky beaches. And on the subject of children, bring toys, books and educational materials for the language you want your children to be reading if it’s not Spanish.

For those who value a neat appearance, consider bringing a decent steaming device.  Silk will also get ruined, so leave those precious pieces with a trusted person in your hometown.

Living Spaces

Once again, don’t even think about bringing furniture — you can have it custom made here from tropical woods, which will undoubtedly last longer.

Although you can find all manner of electronics here, you may not find the brands you want for the prices you want.  So if it’s small enough or you really value a piece of sound-reproducing equipment and you can safely transport it, do so.  Nevertheless, don’t bring CDs, DVDs, or records because they will be ruined by the salty, moist air. Same goes for books and pictures, so only bring those photos or prints that are well-sealed in a tight frame.  But don’t bring things like flat screen tvs, which you can buy any size or brand here for pretty good prices.

If you’re an Apple user, bring an extra charger for your device(s) because you may not find the right one for your specific model in a pinch.  And if you are musical, bring the necessary cleaning items and replacement parts for your instruments, such as guitar strings or saxophone reeds. Again, you can find them here or order them online, but if you need extras handy, best to bring them or risk driving 4 hours in a crunch to find them.

Some people will tell you to bring a UPS backup device.  This is outdated information, considering the amount of devices that people have and how many heavy UPSs that would be for you to pack and you can buy them at any of the larger shopping destinations when you arrive.

Really good craft scissors are one of those items that not everyone will need, but if you are into crafting your own items out of cloth, this is something you will regret leaving behind.

Garage

Tools are often a man’s best friend, but finding the right ones here can be your worst nightmare!  Good luck trying to find a cordless cement drill or a set of diamond tipped drill bits, and no chance of seeing heavy duty wall anchors in your local ferreteria.  And if you have an arsenal of battery-operated devices, bring a Costco sized battery pack to save your money. Even better if you bring solar/or rechargeable lights for in the dark, which are hard to find here.

Outdoors

Strong DEET bug spray is best to bring with you, and high SPF sunscreen, too.  And if you prefer the natural vibes, there is plenty in the way of bug spray but less of the sunscreen that is non-toxic to coral reefs.

Being a country of water activities, swimming gear is fairly prevalent for kids and adults of average size.  But if you have special size requirements, consider bringing swimming gear with you from home or you will have to have it specially made for you here.  It’s a great alternative, but not very convenient for a quick purchase.

High quality beach chairs are good to bring for those camp outs on the beach, especially the ones with all of the extra pockets and drink holders.  If you have dogs, bring long leashes, tie-out cords, extra collars, ID tags (engraved), and again, make sure they are all non-leather.

In Conclusion

In 2018, Costa Rica began receiving parcels directly from Amazon, however at an extra cost than it would be to deliver in North America. As a result, expats tend to rely on periodic trips back to the first world, or friends and family visiting to bring packages with them to Costa Rica.

While living in the land of pura vida, expats learn to be resourceful and live without that which we once assumed that we needed.

Our recommendation is to come light, start off as simple as possible, and get a feel for what you would like to add to increase your enjoyment, not just to weigh you down for no reason. There will be things that you find that you need along the way, but they can also wait for the next trip up north.

And if it’s big ticket items that you find you want to import after you move, you can have your order delivered to the Southern Zone with Get It There Jerry for very reasonable shipping rates, and very reliable and professional service.