Your Trip to Costa Rica: The Complete Guide

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The name of this Central American country—meaning “rich coast”—evokes paradisiacal visions of beaches lapped with world-class waves and bordered by dense jungles. Costa Rica has that and much more: the highest level of biodiversity in the world (sloths, sea turtles, and rainbow-colored birds, to name just a few), towering volcanoes and winding rainforest trails to trek, a lively capital with a growing culinary and craft beer scene, and a taste of Caribbean culture on the eastern coast. It’s the perfect place to get your blood pumping with an active adventure and then slow down and immerse yourself in nature—at an eco-retreat, on the beach, in the jungle, under a waterfall, or with a soak in some thermal hot springs. This guide will get you acquainted with some of the best of Costa Rica so you can design your dream trip.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Dry season is the best time to visit, which is generally mid-November through April. However, prices are cheaper during the wet, green season.
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Colones
  • Getting Around: Due to rough and often winding roads, elevation changes, and weather conditions, journeys that appear short on the map can take much longer than you might expect. Public transportation is not always the most efficient way to get around and can be a challenge if you don’t speak Spanish (though it is quite safe), so it’s best to either rent a car if you’re comfortable driving; book a shuttle such as Interbus (which offsets 100 percent of its carbon footprint!), or hire a driver-guide. In the main cities like San José, you can also make use of taxis and rideshare apps but keep in mind that the local taxis are currently opposed to rideshare apps so this can cause some tension. If you book a ride in a rideshare app, locals recommend sitting in the front seat to avoid becoming a target of disgruntled taxi drivers.
  • Travel Tip: Pack a rain jacket and don’t be deterred by rain in the forecast, it's a common occurrence in Costa Rica but the sun is still out for at least part of the day. Embrace the rain; after all, it is one of the reasons this country is so lush and abundant.

Things to Do

Build an ideal itinerary that balances the best of Costa Rica: adventure, nature, culture, wildlife, and wellness. And, of course, food! Sample the comida tipica (typical or traditional food) around town or the local brew on a culinary or craft beer tour. Fly through the treetops on a zipline and immerse yourself in the natural environment at a jungle eco-retreat. Tour an organic coffee or chocolate plantation and learn to cook corn tortillas with a local family. Take a surf lesson, dive into the underwater world, or reset yourself with some peaceful days by the sea. 

  • Get your adrenaline fix at Lost Canyon where you’ll hike deep into the jungle near Arenal Volcano and rappel a 200-foot waterfall. 
  • If sun, sand, and surf are more your speed, head for the Pacific side and beach hop down the coast to find your favorite
  • Visit the Caribbean coast from August through December and witness tiny green sea turtles as they hatch and scurry into the sea. Tortuguero National Park is the largest nesting site in the Western Hemisphere for endangered green sea turtles.

Unearth more Costa Rican adventures with our articles on the best hiking trails and family-friendly resorts in Costa Rica.

What to Eat and Drink

Costa Rican food may not have the same level of international recognition as other Latin American cuisines, but you will certainly find hearty and delicious dishes here. Meals are traditionally uncomplicated and home-cooked, incorporating fresh produce, meats, cheese, rice, and tortillas. Start your day with some tropical fruits, a big scoop of gallo pinto (rice with black beans, seasoned with garlic, onions, peppers, cilantro, and often, Lizano sauce), eggs, a side of sweet plantains, and a mug of Costa Rican-grown coffee poured through the choreador (a cloth filter traditionally used here). Lunch is often arroz con pollo (a bowl of seasoned rice and chicken) or a casado of rice, picadillo (a cooked vegetable hash) or salad, and a protein such as beans, grilled chicken, or fish. If you want authentic local food like a Costa Rican grandmother makes, try La Esquinita de JM in San José. Wherever you dine, don’t forget dessert; grab a locally-made bar of chocolate to go or lap up a plate of tres leches (cake doused in three kinds of milk and considered the national dessert).

Beer lovers rejoice: Costa Rica has a growing craft beer scene. Join local guides from Carpe Chepe for a craft beer tour and sip your way around the city, learning how local brews like Cerveceria Calle Cimarrona are made and where they are served.

Where to Stay

When you touchdown in San José, a stay at Gran Hotel puts you in the heart of the city, next to the National Theatre and walking distance to a number of attractions like the Central Market and the trendy Barrio Escalante neighborhood.

Arenal has it all—except a coastline. And it should be your next stop. Spend at least a day or two here soaking in thermal hot springs, hiking an active volcano, zipping through the forest canopy, and scouting wildlife (yes, sloths live here) before you head for the beaches. You can find the full range of accommodations in the area around Arenal: sustainable farm stays at Rancho Margot, luxury hotels such as Arenal Kioro with direct views to the volcano, and serene escapes at eco-inns such as Living Forest.

If you’re after black sand beaches and breaking waves, spend some time on the Caribbean coast. En route, book a stay at family-run Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat in the Sarapiqui area for wildlife (toucans, howler monkey, red-eyed tree frogs, and green macaws are common in this biological corridor) and white water rafting.

On the opposite side of the country, the Pacific coast is the perfect place to soak up some sun and do some deep diving—both into the ocean and internally, as this Blue Zone is known for its colorful marine life as well as its wellness retreats.

Getting There

From the U.S., the majority of travelers arrive by plane to San José’s Juan Santamaria International Airport or Liberia International Airport on international carriers such as Delta Airlines, United Airlines, American Airlines, Jet Blue, and Southwest. Decide first where you will be staying in Costa Rica before choosing your arrival airport. If you’re starting your trip in Guanacaste, for example, flying to Liberia will get you closer to your destination. Whereas if your trip begins with Arenal, you’ll need to arrive in San José. 

If you’re confident about driving in Costa Rica, you can rent a car at the airport. It’s wise to book ahead to ensure one will be available. Shared shuttles are another option and most, such as Interbus, are efficient and comfortable. Ask your hotel what shuttle options are available to your first stop, as many of them run set routes. Private shuttles or private driver-guides are other (and arguably the best if you’d like to relax and let someone else handle the driving) possibilities, though they are more expensive.  

Culture and Customs

  • The spirit of pura vida (translated directly to “pure life” but is used to convey many meanings including “no worries” and “all is good”) is infectious and you’ll find Ticos (Costa Ricans) are typically friendly and welcoming, particularly if you spend time in the rural areas.
  • Tipping is not mandatory but you’ll see that restaurants include a 10 percent service charge and leaving some extra cash for the server is always appreciated. It’s also common to tip $1: per bag to the airport driver and bellhop, per drink to the bartender, to the doorman for hailing a cab, to the concierge, if they help with a difficult request or make an exceptional recommendation
  • You should also tip tour guides and drivers that give great service. These tips range from $5-20 per day per person depending on the group size; the larger the group, the less per person. If you are pleased with your salon or spa experiences, leave 15 percent for the provider.
  • Ask permission before photographing anyone.
  • Costa Rica contains the highest density of biodiversity in the world, so do your part to protect it. Don’t disturb wildlife and natural environments and always heed guide instructions.
  • Be mindful of your valuables when walking in crowded areas or on public transportation. While Costa Rica is generally a safe country, pickpockets do exist. Necklace snatching occurs occasionally in San José, so it’s best to leave jewelry in a safe or at home.
  • San José is a growing city with neighborhoods evolving every day. If you’ll be spending time in San José, take advantage of the free city tour so you can familiarize yourself with the walkable neighborhoods and get the best and most up-to-date insight from locals.

Money Saving Tips

  • Take a free walking tour in San José.
  • Skip expensive meals and hit up a local pulperia (grocery store) for snacks such as tortilla chips, cheese, refried beans, and avocados instead. 
  • Book a homestay experience to connect with locals and save some cash. 
  • Travel in the green season when rates are lower. 
  • If you’re visiting Arenal area, consider staying at a hotel with hot springs on-site so you can avoid paying an additional fee for one of the larger hot springs facilities. 
  • Buy gifts such as coffee, Lizano sauce, and chorreador in a grocery store where prices are generally lower than the tourist shops. If you’ve got time in San José, the Mercado Central (Central Market) is also an option. Patrons are largely local, so prices tend to be more reasonable than you might find in other areas frequented by visitors.
  • Bring your own reusable water bottle to refill from the tap. You will not only save money but you’ll also help the planet by creating less single-use plastic waste. Tap water in Costa Rica is generally safe to drink, but you can pack a purification bottle such as GRAYL or a device like the Steripen for peace of mind (and stomach). 

Learn more about affordable ways to have fun with our article about what to do on a budget in San José.

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