Travel Tips For Costa Rica
A veritable Garden of Eden, the central American nation of Costa Rica – the ‘Rich Coast’ – is indeed rich. Leading the world in sustainable tourism practices, a quarter of the country’s area is protected by national park status. As a result, its rainforests are thick with wildlife, its warm coastal waters teem with colorful fish, and smoking volcanoes offer epic hiking opportunities. Its breakers attract the surf crowd from right around the world, while its many pristine beaches are the perfect destination for a Costa Rica honeymoon, adventure holiday, or family vacation. Check out our travel tips for Costa Rica below!
Best Time To Visit Costa Rica
First things first: what is the best time to visit Costa Rica? Costa Rica’s diverse landscapes mean there’s almost no season in the year when Costa Rica cannot be visited. For the country’s western, Pacific Coast, the best time to visit is generally considered to be the months of December to April. However, on the eastern, Caribbean Coast, from March to September are thought the best, with the least rainfall and sunniest skies. March would, therefore, make a great month to explore the small country more widely.
Although rainfall is very much a part of life in Costa Rica and can occur at any time of year, as a visitor you’ll want to avoid the heaviest rains around October, which therefore marks the low season. Head to the country during the shoulder seasons, of May/June and November, and you’ll find the national parks at their quietest and the landscape at its most lush – it is after all called Costa Rica’s green season.
Best places to visit in Costa Rica
With so many potential things to do in Costa Rica at night and day, where should you concentrate your hard-earned time? In other words, what are the best places to visit in Costa Rica? Here are our top picks.
Perhaps the country’s most famous landmark, Arenal Volcano is definitely one of the best things to do in Costa Rica with kids. Located just 90 kilometers from the capital, San Jose, this dormant volcano lies at the very heart of the country. It’s a great place in Costa Rica with toddlers thanks to the volcano’s magical cone-shape, a vast array of habitats, and bathable hot springs. Visiting Arenal as part of a trip to Costa Rica with kids that are slightly older will mean you can also enjoy getting up close to sloths, spider monkeys, and 850 bird species via the dedicated canopy walkways.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Located along the Cordillera de Tilarán mountains in Puntarenas and Alajuela provinces, Monteverde Cloud Forest draws visitors to a rainforest landscape that incorporates swaying suspension bridges, zip-lines, vivarium, frog pond, bat cave, and butterfly garden. It’s, therefore, a great place to get up close and personal with many of Costa Rica’s native species of plants and animals, and a great Costa Rica excursion as a result. If that’s not enough of an adventure, horseback tours of the reserve can also be arranged.
Tortuguero National Park protects 35 kilometres of beach on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast where sea turtles (tortuguero in Spanish) including the endangered green turtle lay their eggs each summer. Ideal for eco-tourists and those looking to get away from it all, the national park is in the isolated northeast of the country. Getting there is half the fun and involves either a Costa Rica boat tour or once-in-a-lifetime light aircraft experience (there’s no road access) over the unspoiled rainforest, canals, and lagoons that are simply ripe for adventure once you’ve got your feet back on the ground.
The small city of Turrialba is located in the central Cartago Province. As well as a unique architectural and ethnic make-up, the city is also home to cheese production with protected origin status that takes the city’s name and has been produced since the 1870s. However, the main reason to visit Turrialba is because of its reputation as Costa Rica’s hub for adventure sports. The nearby Pacuare and Reventazon Rivers are loved by adrenaline and thrill seekers because of their roaring white waters and the chance to raft them.
As any Costa Rica tour guide worth their salt will tell you, the province of Guanacaste is perhaps the best area to stay in Costa Rica for holidaymakers looking for sun and fun. It has some of the best Costa Rica luxury hotels, including a Four Seasons and an Andaz. Occupying an area of land in the country’s northwest, Guanacaste is the home to both Arenal Volcano National Park and Monteverde Cloud Forest. But Guanacaste is also known throughout the world for its status as a tropical idyll. It’s here you’ll want to head to soak up the sun beside a glittering swimming pool or beneath a beachside palm, with Playa Hermosa a particularly fine place to base yourself.
If the Nicoya Peninsula isn’t enough for you, how about the Osa Peninsula too? A little way south along the Pacific coast from Guanacaste is the Nicoya Peninsula, a popular destination for surfers and eco-tourists alike. Home to charismatic villages and long stretches of pale, yellow sand, surfers would be wise to base themselves around Playa El Carmen. One of the region’s main surfing beaches, it’s located at the southern end of the peninsula. It’s also a good spot for beginners, although pros might want to head further north to Playa Santa Teresa instead. For eco-tourists, the Nicoya Peninsula offers plenty of attractions too. There are no less than ten protected areas, including the nesting beaches of leatherback turtles, and subterranean caves.
Close to Costa Rica’s southern border, the Osa Peninsula is one for more intrepid vacationers. Providing endless, untouched rainforest vistas, the peninsula is one of the most ecologically diverse areas anywhere in the country and offers some of the best hikes in Costa Rica as a result. Costa Rica walking tours guide visitors through forest trails suitable for all levels of fitness and experience: from novice to hardened hikers. The highlight must be Corcovado National Park, which boasts one of the largest populations of scarlet macaws in the country.
The Costa Rican capital, San Jose, isn’t just somewhere to whiz through from the international airport to the beaches of national parks. Established in 1738, the city is one of the best places to interact with Costa Ricans in a neutral setting. But it also offers inquisitive visitors a couple of decent museums, grand parks, and some beautiful examples of Spanish colonial architecture to boot. Any first-time visit should concentrate around Paseo Colon, the city’s main thoroughfare. It is here, you’ll find the elegant cathedral and national museum where you can learn everything you need to know about Costa Rican history.
Back in Guanacaste province, Tamarindo combines a stunning Pacific coastline location with some of the best nightlife in Costa Rica, making it a great destination for those looking for the romance of the lapping shores and entertain to match come evening. Bars in Costa Rica simply don’t get better than those in Tamarindo. Together with good surfing conditions and a top-notch restaurant scene, Tamarindo offers visitors the best of all worlds, and for Costa Rica nightlife, in particular, there’s probably nowhere better!
Costa Rica Packing List
If you’ve ever wondered what to pack for Costa Rica, check out our checklist for those essentials you simply must pack for any trip to the central American country. Largely covered in rainforests, Costa Rica can be humid (and not to mention a little wet), but also cool in the mountains, and hot on the beaches.
Generally speaking, with regard to Costa Rica, clothes that you’ll want to pack will include plenty of quick-drying lighter fabrics (so leave those jeans at home!), and lighter colors too, which help to reflect the worst of the tropical sun. Unless you have hiked in mind, shorts and sandals will be absolutely fine. You’ll also want long-sleeved tops and bottoms, and a waterproof.
What To Wear in Costa Rica
- Vest tops/T-shirts/short-sleeved shirts
- Long-sleeved tops
- Lightweight waterproof jacket
- Waterproof walking shoes/boots, as appropriate
- Water shoes, if you have them
- Shade-giving hat
- Swimming gear
Other Essential Items for Costa Rica
- Insect repellent
- Large beach towel
- Money belt
- Snorkel and mask
What To Eat in Costa Rica
Given its lush environment, you won’t be surprised to learn that Costa Rican food relies heavily on fresh fruit and vegetables. Mild when it comes to spice levels, you’ll find rice and black beans as staples on most dishes, alongside fish or meat.
When it comes to costs, fast food in Costa Rica costs as little as US$6, while a three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant will cost somewhere in the region of $30. Beer will come in at less than $2, with soft drinks around half that. We mention some of the most popular dishes below, but if you’re really interested in discovering more, why not consider a Costa Rica food tour?
Often considered Costa Rica’s national dish, gallo pinto (‘painted chicken’ – although it is vegetarian-friendly) consists of a rice and black bean mix cooked together with onion, pepper, and the Costa Rican condiment Salsa Lizano. It’s traditionally eaten for breakfast.
A standard lunch dish, Casado is a platter of different items, from rice and beans to salad, meat, fish, french fries, tortillas, eggs, or the vegetable stew known as picadillo.
One for the fish lovers among us, this perennial Latin American favourite is made from raw, marinated fish and served chilled. In Costa Rica the fish is often tilapia marinated in lime juice.
One of Costa Rica’s lighter menu choices, sopa negra is a soup made from black beans (no surprise there) and chicken broth and additionally flavoured with onion and pepper.
More of a snack food than a full meal, Chifrijo is a savoury dish made from layers of black beans, rice, salty fried pork rind, tomato, and avocado. It’s normally served with tortilla chips or fresh corn tortillas.
Olla de Carne
A Costa Rican beef stew, olla de carne depends on slow cooking of the beef together with vegetables such as carrots, cassava, and corn. If you hadn’t guessed already, it is also generally served with rice and black beans!
How To Get Around in Costa Rica
Direct flights to Costa Rica are now thankfully easy to find, meaning there’s no real question about how to get to Costa Rica, but when you’re in the country, what’s the best way to travel?
For many, the best choice is to hire a car in Costa Rica. Renting a car gives you the freedom to move around as and when you feel the urge, without having to wait for public transport or negotiate with a Costa Rica taxi drivers. Interestingly, a hire car is also often the cheapest option.
But if you can’t, or don’t want to drive, what other options are there? Firstly, you could consider a private shuttle, such as one of the Costa Rica airport transfer services that exist. These become a particularly good option if your group size is such that other forms of transport become overly expensive. And, of course, there’s Costa Rica Uber too, which acts somewhere between a private shuttle and taxi.
Budget travelers will have half an eye on public transport options already. While the country’s buses are very viable means of transport, if your Costa Rica sightseeing trip is limited to just a few days, you’re not going to want to spend them traveling rather than exploring. You’ll also be limited to the destinations you can reach, with more remote corners of the country off-limits. If your time is the most important factor to any planned Costa Rica breaks, don’t forget about the country’s network of domestic flights, which can dramatically cut transport times.
For waterborne transport, check out our separate section that’s following.
Taking a Costa Rica Cruise
Costa Rica has become a popular destination stop for cruise ships. The smaller ship of Discover the World has a starting price of $7000 for a 10-day tour of Costa Rica and neighboring Panama, that takes in San Jose, the Nicoya Peninsula, and Osa Peninsula before crossing the maritime border.
The much larger vessels of Royal Caribbean have several tours that incorporate a stop at Puntarenas, home to the Casa de la Cultura cultural center and the rescue center of Parque Marino del Pacífico, including their $1000 16-night Panama Canal cruise. Celebrity Cruises have tours that visit Puntarenas, and others that visit Puerto Limon on the Caribbean Sea. Their 11 night ‘Ultimate Caribbean Cruise’ starts at around $1000.
Costa Rica is an incredible destination of unspoiled rainforest, pristine beaches, and incredible waters whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway, family escape, or backpacking adventure. Our travel tips for Costa Rica cover all you need to know before heading out on the trip of a lifetime!