Packing for Costa Rica- Natural First Aid

Welcome to our new blog series about packing for Costa Rica. We have created a four part Ultimate Guide of what to pack for the tropics that we hope will be helpful for all of our readers. You can find a summarized list on our Questions and Answers page, but for these blogs we wanted to go into more detail about all the things we use on a daily or weekly basis and why. So, let’s dive into our Med Kit.

Insect Repellent

One of people’s biggest concerns about visiting the tropics is little stinging creatures. In Costa Rica, there is thankfully no Malaria from mosquitoes, nor Lyme Disease from ticks. However, in some areas, there can be flare ups of Dengue- although it is rare unless you are working in a school or around areas with poor trash management and stagnant water.

The main thing to worry about insect bites in Costa Rica is that it can be very annoying. So, the best way to protect yourself from bites is to use a natural insect repellent or essential oil blend.

Although DEET based repellent is available more readily, it is also considered to pose a risk to your health. Despite the fact that DEET has been declared “relatively safe” by the EPA and CDC, the results are mixed. In other studies, DEET has been linked to testicular cancer, insomnia, muscle cramps, DNA damage, and toxicity in freshwater fish and rivers. It can also eat through plastics and synthetic fabrics- including your waterproof bags.

Is this doesn’t sound like something you want to be putting on your skin, we highly recommend Lemon Eucalyptus, Citronella or Lemongrass essential oil blends. Scientific studies have shown that these oils are as effective and in some cases more effective than DEET, especially when mixed with coconut oil. They are also safe for children over 3, adults and the environment. It is not recommended for children under 3, only due to the risk that they may rub it into their eyes accidentally.

You can purchase pure essential oils, and mix them yourself into reusable spray bottles. Or you can purchase premixed natural repellents. These items can be difficult to find while exploring more remote areas of Costa Rica, so we suggest you bring a good supply with you.

If you are looking for something local to the Osa Peninsula, take a look at Osa Naturals, located in Puerto Jimenez.

Sun Protection

Another major concern for the tropics is Sun exposure. Especially when engaging in activities out on the water such as snorkeling, whale watching, or fishing, a light tan can turn into severe heat stoke very quickly even on cloudy days. Not to mention the risk of skin cancers.

On boat tours, it is a good idea to wear a rash guard, or at the very least, a shirt that covers your shoulders. You will also need a good pair of UVA sunglasses, a hat, and some sunscreen. The more you can cover your skin with UVA protective clothing, the less you will have to rely on sunscreens.

Many people are concerned about the environmental and health impacts of traditional sunscreens. And for good reason.

Although there are other factors involved in coral bleaching, the chemicals in sunscreen leach from your skin into the water and have been shown in 2 major studies to cause coral death. In 2018, Hawaii banned the sale of such sunscreens shortly followed by the small island of Palau. Haereticus Environmental Lab has a published list of chemicals that are harmful to marine and freshwater environments, as well as a list of safe products, which is updated annually.

Another concern with traditional sunscreens is absorption into the bloodstream. A 2019 study found that sunscreens containing avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene or ecamsule were absorbed into the bloodstream at levels that require “a toxicology assessment to see if it causes cancer, birth defects or other adverse effects.”

Further studies are needed in order to confirm or deny health risks, but for those who want to purchase more natural and reef-safe sunscreens we recommend Raw Elements. You can also check out a local Costa Rican brand called Jungle Mama, which is made in Uvita and is also available online. Both are non-nano zinc oxide suncreens, which contain 100% organic ingredients.

Snake and Spider Bites

In the Osa Peninsula, there are 19 species of venomous snakes. We also have several venomous spiders and scorpions. The incidence of tourists being bitten by such creatures is extremely rare. Our two main safety tips around animals are:

Watch where you are putting your feet
Don’t poke it with a stick

If you follow these rules, there is no reason for you to be afraid of these fascinating members of our biodiverse home.

Spider or scorpion bites are painful, but not deadly. The infamous Brazilian Wandering Spider exists here as a much less venomous cousin called the Peruvian Wandering Spider. And our scorpions pale in comparison to the Arizona desert variety.

Having said that, there are areas of Costa Rica outside the Osa, where natural habitats have been degraded, causing snakes and other animals to become more aggressive. Thus, travelers may feel more comfortable by packing a Bite and Sting Kit.

These handy, reusable kits come with a variety of venom “sucker” attachments, and are very effective and easy to use. We keep about 4 in the house and they recently proved very useful when Curt got bitten by a spider in the middle of the night. The pain was gone almost instantly, and it barely left a mark.

Pure Aloe Vera

The tropics are the perfect petri-dish for both bacterial and fungal infections. A small cut can turn into a huge nightmare very quickly. For those who like to use more natural remedies, as opposed to pharmaceuticals, Aloe Vera is an excellent thing to pack.

Not only is it effective for soothing sunburns, but numerous studies have shown it to be both an anti fungal and anti bacterial. Over the years we have found it extremely effective for all kinds of other skin issues ranging from excema to basic bug bites. Processed aloe vera gel is still effective for sunburns, but only the 100% pure variety is useful for fungal, bacterial and skin conditions.

You can purchase pure aloe vera gel, or in Costa Rica you may be lucky enough on stay on a property which grows the plant. To prepare the plant for application to your skin, simply choose a leaf, cut the spines away with a knife or scissors, then cut in half laterally. Rub or squeeze the gel onto the effected area.

A quick note about 100% pure aloe vera is that it should be refrigerated after opening.

Other First Aid

Because pharmaceutical items can be very expensive and difficult to find in remote areas, other items that we always have on hand are:

  • bandaids, bandages and medical tape
  • tweezers
  • Neosporin (or other antibiotic cream)
  • diarrhea and constipation remedies
  • seasickness tablets (or ginger tea, flavored with honey and lemon, for a natural remedy)
  • plenty of your prescription medications including birth control
  • antihistamine pills and/or cream
  • hydrogen peroxide spray and/or alcohol swabs (for cleaning wounds)

For those staying in Costa Rica for an extended period of time (particularly volunteers in remote areas) we would also suggest bringing: anti parasitic pills, and broad spectrum antibiotics. Of course, depending on how long you are in Costa Rica and your specific health needs, you may not end up using all of these items, but they will make your adventure much more comfortable. The top 5 that we would not leave home without would be:

Insect Repellent
Sun Protection
Neosporin (Antibiotic Cream)
Aloe Vera
Hydrogen Peroxide Spray

A Note About Product Links: We will never promote products that we have not used personally throughout the 10 years we have been living in the Osa. They pass the tropical torture test and are useful to put in your pack.