Costa Rica quickly becomes a dream destination for many travellers after seeing pictures of lush rainforests, idyllic beaches and volcanoes galore.
The country’s favourite phrase is ‘pura vida’, meaning pure life. So much of the country and its people live and breathe this saying. Everyone just seems to be happy in Costa Rica!
Costa Rica has 28 national parks, 3 of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making it one of the best countries to see wildlife and incredible biodiversity. Some of its native animals include tapirs, sloths and a number of different monkeys.
There are plenty of hiking opportunities throughout Costa Rica, whether it be in one of the National Parks or even climbing up an active volcano. It’s a country made for adventure junkies as there are also a number of zipline parks, rivers perfect for white-water rafting and cloud forests to explore.
Just fancy lounging on the beach for a couple of weeks? Costa Rica is perfect for that too. It has beaches bordering both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, so you’re spoilt for choice.
Compared to other Central American countries, Costa Rica is definitely at the more expensive end of the scale. It’s influx of tourists, particularly American’s, has increased the price of almost everything. Food, hotels and tours are all quite expensive, but there are ways around this. Costa Rica can still be done on a budget if that’s the way you want to travel!
Top places to visit in Costa Rica
Costa Rica isn’t the biggest of countries, yet there’s so many places to visit. You’ll wonder where to start and if you’ll be able to fit them all in.
To help with the process of narrowing down where to visit, we’ve picked our top 3 places in Costa Rica. It was hard to choose, but here they are:
La Fortuna – is a small town situated in the North of Costa Rica. What makes this town special is it’s backdrop. From pretty much anywhere in La Fortuna, you’ll be able to spot the active stratovolcano, Arenal. Aside from the stunning views, there’s a plethora of activities to keep you busy. You can spend the day hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park, before soothing your muscles in one of the many hot springs that are heated by the volcano’s thermal energy. There’s also La Fortuna waterfall, ziplines, hanging bridges and plenty of great restaurants to fill your belly at after your long day of adventures. Check here the route on how to get from San Jose to La Fortuna.
Corcovado – the National Geographic named Corcovado as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’. Need we go on? If you’re a wildlife fanatic, or just interested in seeing amazing animals and plants, then you should head to Corcovado. It’s not the easiest place to get to, situated on the Osa Peninsula, but the fact that it contains over half of Costa Rica’s species makes it completely worth it. The park is virtually untouched, meaning it’s thriving with wildlife. If you’re lucky you can spot sloths, jaguage, howler monkeys, tapirs, toucans and crocodiles, to name just a few.
Puerto Viejo – is one of the best destinations along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. This laidback surfers town has been slowly growing in popularity over the past few years, but it’s still managed to maintain the charming vibe that visitors love it for. It’s a beach-lover’s paradise with it’s golden sand and caribbean blue sea. It’s also the place to head to if you love surfing or want to pick up the skill. It’s considered one of the best places to surf in Costa Rica. Puerto Viejo also backs on to a number of national parks, making it a great place to see some of Costa Rica’s wildlife. The route from San Jose to Puerto Viejo takes about 4-5 hours by bus or taxi.
When’s the best time to visit Costa Rica?
The answer to this question depends on what you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for the best weather conditions, sunny and dry days, then December to April is when you’ll want to visit. These months are considered the dry season in Costa Rica. During this period there’s little rainfall and temperatures stay around 22 and 28 °C.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the dry season is the best time to visit for every traveller. At this time of the year, Costa Rica will be at its busiest with lots of tourists, resulting in higher prices. Hotels and activities are likely to cost you more during this time.
The rainy season runs between May and November. Although the rainy season might not sound ideal, it’s isn’t that bad at all. There are much fewer tourists and the rains tend to come only in short bursts during the afternoon. Humidity does get slighter worse, but on the plus side, prices begin to fall!
There is one way to find some sunshine though. Head to the Caribbean coast! Mid-August to October are some of the best months to visit the Caribbean coast. These months are the driest of the year with crystal clear waters and no waves, making the water perfect for snorkelling and surfing without too many people stealing your wave.
You’ll also get to experience this magnificent country without the hordes of tourists which can sometimes take away the magic of Costa Rica.
PRO-TIP: In July there’s also a brief pocket of sunshine which locals like to call ‘little summer’. There’s a break in the rain, allowing you to enjoy Costa Rica when it’s at its lushest and without the rain. It’s perfect!
Do keep in mind that Costa Rica has a variety of landscapes and climates which vary by region. Generally the highlands are colder, whilst the coasts experience warmer weather.
How to get around in Costa Rica
Considering that Costa Rica is one of the most developed countries in Central America, it’s dramatically lacking when it comes to its transport system and infrastructure.
Getting around Costa Rica can take up a lot of time and can cost a lot of money, making it quite a difficult country to travel through if you’re a budget conscious backpacker.
Most people opt for a car during their time in Costa Rica as public transport takes a lot of time and is often convoluted.
Here’s a short overview of the main transport options so that you can work out which one is best suited for you:
By car – Renting a car for your time in Costa Rica is most likely going to be the easiest way to get around. Having a car gives you the freedom and flexibility to go where you want, when you want, rather than relying on public transport. It’s also considerably faster. For example La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio takes 4 buses and around 9 hours, whereas driving takes about 5. We’d recommend renting a 4×4 car as this will allow you to explore some of the off-the-beaten-track places. You also won’t have to worry if you come across a difficult road. Basic car rental can start for as little as $12 per day whilst SUVs start at $40 a day. The main place for rental being the capital, San Jose. (Tip: Check out our guide on car rental tips to avoid extra charges)
By bus – Exploring Costa Rica by bus is by far the cheapest way, but it’s certainly not the easiest, nor the fastest. Unless you’re travelling from San Jose to a destination, it’s likely that you’ll have to take more than 1 bus as there aren’t many direct buses between destinations. For example, Monteverde to Tamarindo requires 3 buses, taking 6-7 hours, for a journey that only takes about 4 hours by car. It can be a fun adventure taking the bus, just be prepared to dedicate whole days when moving between destinations.
By minivan – You’ll be able to find private and shared shuttles running between most of the popular towns in Costa Rica. These are often considerably faster than the bus and a good option if you don’t feel comfortable driving in a foreign country. The only downside is that they tend to be pretty expensive (but still a lot cheaper than a taxi). Most of the trips are around $50 per person. It’s by far the most stress-free way to travel around Costa Rica and some of them also offer door-to-door service.
By plane – If you have the cash to splash then taking a flight can be one of the quickest ways to travel around Costa Rica. Though with flying you’ll definitely have to weigh up the time vs. money as it’s also likely to be the most expensive option. The main domestic airline is Sansa. They fly from San Jose International Airport and Liberia International Airport to local airports such as La Fortuna, Quepos, Puerto Jiménez, Drakes Bay and Tamarindo. Essentially to most places you’ll need to get to. Flight prices tend to range between $60 and $300, with prices increasing during high season, January to April. Tip: Sansa also has a check-in luggage allowance of 12kg and a carry-on limit of 4.5kg.
By Taxi – Taxis are a great way to get around, but we’d recommend only for short distances. When it comes to longer distances, shuttles often work out more cost effective. City taxis charge approximately $2 as a base fare and then increase by $2 for every mile. Uber is slowly growing throughout Costa Rica and can be found in San Jose, Jaco, La Fortuna, Liberia and Tamarindo. An Uber is by far the best way to get around San Jose as they’re convenient and cheap.
Visa for Costa Rica
Luckily when it comes to visiting Costa Rica, the paperwork side of it is extremely easy. Most countries don’t require a visa and can stay for up to 90 days. These countries include the UK, US, countries within the EU and Canada to name just a few. You can check whether you will need a visa on the Costa Rican embassy website.
You will need proof of exit from Costa Rica though. They’re very hot on this. This can be in the form of a bus or plane ticket, for example, to prove that you will be leaving the country.
Passports also need to be valid for at least 6 months on arrival.
The Perfect Packing List for Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a hot country all year round (22 and 28 °C) and can get pretty humid!
It’s best to bring loose fitting, cool clothes and of course your swimsuit if you’re making your way to Costa Rica’s spectacular beaches.
There are also plenty of hiking and adventure opportunities throughout Costa Rica, so we’d recommend bringing hiking shoes and a raincoat as you never know when there’s going to be a downpour in Costa Rica’s jungles.
Aside from the essential travel gear, here are some that have become permanent fixtures on our packing list:
Reusable water bottle – they’re better for the environment and can save you money on water.
A portable charger – there’s probably going to be a time when your phone’s battery is on red, at a time that you desperately need it.
An adaptor – Costa Rica uses the same plugs as the US (A&B), which is different from European plugs. A universal travel adaptor is a great purchase if you’re travelling between different continents.
What other tips should you know?
Here’s a selection of the best tips and pieces of information that may make your trip to Italy that bit easier:
Costa Rica uses the Costa Rican Colon (CRC). As of June 2021, $1 was equivalent to around 610 CRC.
US Dollars are largely accepted throughout Costa Rica as well. You can withdraw both colones and dollars from ATMs, known as cajeros in Costa Rica.
It’s good to always have some cash on you as not all establishments take cards. You’ll also need cash for taking the bus, taxis and in Costa Rica’s popular cheap-eat restaurants, Sodas.
The language spoken in Costa Rica is Spanish.
It’s always good to know a few essential words before travelling to a place, so here’s a few to get you started:
Hello – Hola
Thank you – Gracias
Please – Por favor
Sorry – Lo siento
Beer – Cerveza
In Costa Rica you’ll also hear ‘Pura Vida’ a lot. This directly translates to pure life, but a lot of Costa Rican’s use it to say hello, goodbye, you’re welcome, that everythings good for example.
Basically if you ever don’t know how to respond, just say pura vida!
Food and drink
Gallo Pinto – is a staple when it comes to Costa Rican dishes, particularly for breakfast. You won’t struggle to find Gallo Pinto, you’ll probably end up having it most mornings. It’s essentially really tasty rice and beans, often served with scrambled or fried eggs.
Casado – is a dish that you’ll find in most of Costa Rica’s Sodas. It’s kind of a mixture of everything, mostly eaten at lunchtime. The dish is a combination of rice and beans, with salad, pasta, plantains and usually meat. It’s a pretty big dish that is super cheap. Usually costing between $3-6.
Plantain – look like bananas, but they’re not. They’re not as sweet and more starchier. It’s crazy how many ways they can cook one type of fruit. Plantains can be fried, made into crisps or chips, turned into patacones or fried in sugar to make them super sweet.