COSTA RICA TRAVEL GUIDE
Far, far away from city life, lost somewhere in dense jungles and uneven terrain lies Costa Rica. But it's not all leafy and green as San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, could just be another North American city - with its department stores and streets lined with fast-food restaurants. But the urban character of the city ends rapidly along its edges. There’s much to explore in this country with its dripping cloud forest, belching volcanoes and sprawling parks. A fair part of the country is inhabited by the Ticos (or locals) but it is also home to a variety of wildlife.
COSTA RICA QUICK FACTS
Capital: San José
Currency: Costa Rican colón (₡, CRC)
Area: 51,100 km²
Population: 4,999 million (2018)
Language: Spanish (official), Limonese creole (Mekatelyu) spoken in Limón Province
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COSTA RICA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 19 March, Feast of Saint Joseph
- 11 April, Anniversary of the Battle of Rivas (Juan Santamaría Day) (not banks)*
- 1 May, Labor Day
- 29 June, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Day
- 25 July, Anniversary of the Annexation of Guanacaste Province*
- 2 August, Our Lady of the Angels (not banks)
- 15 August, Assumption/Mother’s Day*
- 15 September, Independence Day
- 12 October, Day of the Meeting of Cultures
- 8 December, Immaculate Conception (not banks)
* Observed on the Monday following if holiday falls on a Tuesday through Friday. If holiday falls on a weekend, it is not moved.
Also, Semana Santa (Holy Week) from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, especially Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday, and the Feast of Corpus Christi.
FESTIVALS IN COSTA RICA
Día de Juan Santamaria - April 11 commemorates Costa Rica's national hero, who died driving William Walker out of Costa Rica in 1856. The week-long national holiday features parades, parties and other celebrations, especially in Santamaria's hometown of Alajuela.
Las Fiestas de Zapote - (December) For one week, this celebration embraces all things Costa Rican – from rodeos to fried food, and a whole lot of drinking – in Zapote, southeast of San José.
BEST TIME TO VISIT COSTA RICA
Costa Rica lies within the tropics, around ten degrees north of the equator which means that days and nights are roughly the same lengths throughout the year. Temperatures are also based on elevation and microclimates rather than latitude. There are no seasons as such - just a wet season and a dry season. The wet season, running from May to November, is known as invierno (winter) and the dry season – December to April – is known as verano (summer).
- January to April - The 'dry' season sees consistently hot temperatures and sunny skies.
- May to July - Crowds thin out and prices drop during the 'green' rainy season.
- December - The holidays are festive, though accommodation prices skyrocket.
The best time to visit Costa Rica is from mid-December to April (the dry season). This peak tourist season boasts plenty of sunshine making it an ideal time for exploring rainforests and lounging on beaches. That said, the dry season is the most popular (and expensive) time to visit. You'll have to book your room and tour reservations three months in advance to secure a spot. If you don't mind getting a little wet, visit between May and November when prices are at their lowest. During June and July, rain showers pause briefly, and Costa Rica's forests burst with green foliage.
At lower elevations, along the coasts and in the northern lowlands of Costa Rica, temperatures can be very high. Hot and humid is the name of the game - it’s either raining or it feels like it's about to. Temperatures drop somewhat the higher you travel, and the mountains can be cool enough for a light jacket or sweater. The Central Valley, where the capital city of San Jose is, is temperate year-round and you will rarely find a need for air conditioning or heating here.
COSTA RICA WEATHER SYNOPSIS
The lowlands of Costa Rica harbor a tropical and subtropical climate while the highlands experience a mountainous climate. The interactions between the trade winds from the east and the region’s topographic diversity creates a "rain shadow" effect, with the Caribbean slope experiencing rain practically all year round and the Pacific slope characterised by a prolonged dry season lasting approximately from November until April or May and a wet season during the rest of the year. The increased intensity of the trade winds in July produces a peak of precipitation on the Caribbean slope. Daily temperatures reach their maximum value before the start of the rainy season. Minimum temperatures show a different pattern, with the highest values observed in July and the lowest values during the Northern Hemisphere winter.
COSTA RICA TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN COSTA RICA
HIKING & CYCLING IN COSTA RICA
The best time for outdoor activities in Costa Rica is during the dry season, from December to April. Hike to waterfalls and volcano lakes near Arenal; lose yourself in the clouds at Monteverde. It takes two days to summit Cerro Chirripó, the country's highest peak.
BEACH OPTIONS IN COSTA RICA
The beaches in Costa Rica are best enjoyed during the dry season from late November to April.
SURFING IN COSTA RICA
Costa Rica is a year round surfing destination, with the best surf during the wet season from May to mid November, with June, July, August and September being the best months. You can still find surf during the dry season from December to April, it's just smaller waves and less consistent and you're better off heading to the Caribbean coast.
KITESURF IN COSTA RICA
The windy kitesurfing season in Costa Rica starts late in October and lasts until May. The best months are from December to March.
For more details on kite surfing in Costa Rica expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN COSTA RICA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
COSTA RICA TRAVEL COSTS
Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful and naturally-diverse countries in Central America.
Unfortunately, it’s also the most expensive. It’s not uncommon for budget travellers to actually skip visiting Costa Rica, heading to cheaper destinations like Nicaragua or Guatemala. Can travel Costa Rica for cheap? Yes, but it won't be a great experience as if you simply account for food, room, and buses, you can probably get by on a bare-bones budget of US$ 30 per day. That budget has no activities included, and the fun adventure activities like zip lining, surfing, diving, and jungle trekking are what make this country as amazing as it is.
Spending closer to US$ 50 per day will give you better accommodation (still on the budget end!), mostly local food and some Western meals, going out, and many activities. (If you manage to avoid taxis, you can have even more money for fun adventure activities.) There are plenty of ways to save money in Costa Rica. And if you don’t at least try to do some inexpensive things while here, your budget will go through the roof.
Some money saving tips for Costa Rica include:
- Don’t drink. Drinking in bars in Costa Rica can be massively expensive. Best is just to avoid it.
- Eat at the sodas. The “sodas” are the local Tico restaurants and a great bargain. You can usually find casado, a typical local dish, for around less than half of what you would pay in a tourist restaurants. In many of the towns on the Caribbean coast, you can find meals for under US$2. Snacks like empanadas will best value for money and go for as little as US$ 0.75.
- Eat at Musmanni. Musmanni is a bakery chain found all over the country which offers great lunch specials. For under US$ 2 you can get a sandwich and a soda; most of their pastries are less than US$ 0.50.
- Stay in dorms. Accommodation in Costa Rica is NOT cheap. Budget hotel rooms can be found for around US$ 30 per night but dorm rooms offer the best value, as they will cost a third of that; on the Caribbean coast, you can find dorm rooms for even less.
- Drink the water. The water in Costa Rica is safe to drink. Get a refillable bottle and make use of every opportunity to fill it up.
COSTA RICA TRAVEL TIPS
The Caribbean coast is the most affordable part of the country. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca has some great budget lodging. It's free to go to the beach – and you can rent a bicycle to get there. You can also hike for free in the nearby Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
The best way to get around Costa Rica is by bus, which is reliable, navigable, inexpensive and frequently runs through San José, Costa Rica's capital. The one drawback is how slow they can be and although Costa Rica is small, getting from one end of the country to the other by bus will take several hours.
Driving on your own is not highly recommended as some roads are tricky (with potholes and ambiguously marked intersections). A better alternative to renting your own set of wheels is hiring a car-and-driver service recommended from your hotel, so you can enjoy the country's gorgeous scenery without having to tackle challenging roads with confusing signage.
San Jose first saw its first Uber drivers taking to the streets in August 2015. Since the beginning, Uber in Costa Rica has been contentious and sometimes violent. Continuing efforts persist on both sides to either ban Uber outright or enshrine it into law. It operates in a grey area – legal but not legal. That said, Uber carved out a gigantic market slice since than that made Uber Costa Rica the biggest in Latin America with well over 20,000 Uber drivers. Most drivers operate from the Central Valley but will drive all over the country. Getting from San Jose to the international airport is about US$10 with an Uber where a taxi would be closer to US$30.
Taxis are the most convenient way of getting around popular cities and towns (apart from Uber). However, they can be difficult to hail during inclement weather. If you're in a more remote destination, you should also plan to call a taxi ahead of time. City taxis are metered but you should ensure the driver turns the meter on. If you're in an unmetered cab, negotiate a price with the driver before you depart.
Flights throughout Costa Rica are quick, cheap and plentiful. Sansa operates flights to domestic airports across Costa Rica but you should take note of luggage restrictions.
You can enter overland from Nicaragua (at Peñas Blancas, Las Tablillas or Los Chiles) and from Panama (at Sixaola, Paso Canoas or Río Sereno).
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF COSTA RICA
- Tortuguero - Slide through jungle canals in search of wildlife or offer time to volunteer helping endangered sea turtles.
- Puerto Viejo de Talamanca - Surf, sample the vibrant culinary scene, laze on the beach and enjoy life.
- La Fortuna - Hike the slopes of Volcán Arenal, then soothe your weary muscles with a soak in volcano-heated pools.
- Monteverde - Spot the resplendent quetzal through the mist at one of the nearby reserves.
- Mal País & Santa Teresa - Surf luscious breaks and feast on farm-fresh cooking
- Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio - Watch troops of monkeys, slow-moving sloths and gliding brown pelicans.
- Cerro Chirripó - Climb atop Costa Rica's tallest peak to watch the sunrise.
- Parque Nacional Corcovado - Hike the remote coast and rich rainforest in the country’s premier wilderness experience.
From San José, make your way north to La Fortuna. After a forest hike on the ridge of Volcán Arenal, soak in the country’s best hot springs. Catch a boat across Laguna de Arenal, and a bus to Monteverde, where you might encounter the elusive quetzal on a n outing through the Bosque Nuboso Monteverde. For some beach action head west to the biggest party town in Guanacaste, Playa Tamarindo, and enjoy the ideal surf, top-notch restaurants and a rambunctious nightlife.
In week two, visit waterfalls and linger in chilled-out Montezuma, where you can connect via jet boat to Jacó, another town with equal affection for surfing and partying. Bus to Quepos, the gateway to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. A full day in the park starts with jungle hikes and wildlife-watching and ends with a picnic and a dip in the park’s perfect waters.
Although San José is not that high on the list of most visitors to Costa Rica, take some time to poke around historic neighbourhoods like Barrio Amón, where colonial mansions have been converted into contemporary art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels. Stroll with Saturday shoppers at the farmers market, dance the night away to live music at one of the city's vibrant clubs, or visit the museums, and you'll begin to understand the multidimensional appeal of Costa Rica's largest city and cultural capital.
CENTRAL VALLEY & HIGHLANDS
It is on the coffee-cultivated hillsides of the Central Valley that you'll find Costa Rica’s heart and soul. This is not only the geographical center of the country, but also its cultural and spiritual core. It is here that the Spanish first settled, here that coffee built a prosperous nation, here that picturesque highland villages still gather for centuries-old fiestas. It is also here that you’ll get to fully appreciate Costa Rica’s country cooking: artisanal cheeses, steamy corn cakes and freshly caught river trout. The Central Valley is home to four of the seven biggest cities in Costa Rica, including the capital, San Jose.
Outside of the larger cities, quaint and quirky agricultural towns invite leisurely detours to farmers markets and church processions, a refreshing break from the tourist-industrial complex on the coasts. But it's not all cows and coffee – world-class rapids, resplendent quetzals and close encounters with active volcanoes all show off the rich landscape in which Costa Rica's character is rooted.
While the sunny climate and easy accessibility of the Pacific have paved the way (literally) for development on that rich coast, the Caribbean side has languished in comparison. The same rain-drenched malarial wildness that thwarted the first 16th-century Spaniards from settling here also isolated this region for centuries afterward. The culture is very different from the rest of the country. Hot, humid, and steamy, even the light feels different here, all pastel shades. Influenced by indigenous peoples and West Indian immigrants it blended slowly and organically.
It still takes a little more effort to travel here to see the nesting turtles of Tortuguero, raft the Río Pacuare or dive the reefs of Manzanillo. Life is more rugged and rustic on this coast, allowing wildlife to thrive. And it's well worth tasting its unique flavours: the rondón (spicy seafood gumbo), the lilt of patois, and the uncrowded stretches of palm-lined beaches.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map.
ARENAL & NORTHERN LOWLANDS
North of the Central Valley and across the mountains lies a vast, flat area known as the northern lowlands. The centrepiece of this area is Volcan Arenal, a perfectly cone-shaped volcano. This is the adventure capital of Costa Rica. Venture further onto the wild rivers and into the tropical jungle of the northern lowlands and you will discover real-life Costa Rica, where agricultural commerce and ecological conservation converge as a work in green progress. Stretching from the borderlands of Nicaragua south to the Cordillera de Tilarán, fincas (farms) of banana, sugarcane and pineapple roll across humid plains. When the tourist hordes get you down, make your way here for a refreshing blast of rural realism and an invigorating dose of wild beauty.
NORTHWESTERN COSTA RICA
What did you come to Costa Rica for? To lounge on pristine beaches and ride glorious waves? To hike up volcanoes and soak in geothermal springs? To spy on birds and monkeys and get lost among ancient trees? The north-western corner of Costa Rica packs in all this and more. Unlike any other part of Costa Rica, Guanacaste – in the far northwest – is a wide, flat expanse of grasslands and dry tropical forest, where savanna vistas are broken only by windblown trees. Further east, the Cordillera de Guanacaste rises majestically out of the plains in a line of sputtering, steaming volcanic peaks that beg exploration. Guanacaste was once part of Nicaragua and the accent here is different. This region is fiercely proud to be Costa Rican and has arguably been more influenced than any other part of the country by the tourist boom. With some of the best surfing beaches in the world, funky tourist beach towns and the city of Liberia (plus its airport) - this is probably why you came to Costa Rica.
PENÍNSULA DE NICOYA
Península de Nicoya is where you want to go to sample sapphire waters, curling into perfect barrels up and down the coast. Or perhaps you just want to hang out on a pristine patch of sand and jut soak up some sun. By day, you might ramble down rugged roads, fording rivers and navigating ridges with vast coastal views. By night, you can spy on nesting sea turtles or take a midnight dip in the Pacific. In between adventures, you'll find no shortage of boutique sleeping pads, classy kitchens and indulgent spas to shelter and nourish your body and soul. Whether you come for the thrills or just to chill, the Nicoya Peninsula will deliver.
CENTRAL PACIFIC COAST
Stretching from the rough-and-ready port of Puntarenas to the tiny town of Uvita, the central Pacific coast is home to both wet and dry tropical rainforests, sun-drenched sandy beaches and a healthy dose of wildlife. On shore, national parks protect endangered squirrel monkeys and scarlet macaws, while offshore waters are home to migrating whales and pods of dolphins. With so much biodiversity packed into a small geographic area, it’s no wonder the coastal region is often thought of as Costa Rica in miniature.
Given its close proximity to San José and the Central Valley and highlands, and its well-developed system of paved roads, this part of the country is a favourite weekend getaway for domestic and international travellers. Jaco and Manuel Antonio are both with an easy drive from the Central Valley and are among the busiest beach areas in Central America. One look at the beauty of Manuel Antonio National Park will explain everything about why people come here.
SOUTHERN COSTA RICA & PENÍNSULA DE OSA
From the chilly heights of Cerro Chirripó (3820m) to the steamy coastal jungles of the Península de Osa, this sector of Costa Rica encompasses some of the country's least-explored and least-developed land. Vast tracts of wilderness remain untouched in Parque Internacional La Amistad, and the country's most visible indigenous groups – the Bribrí, Cabécar, Boruc and Ngöbe – maintain traditional ways of living in their remote territories.
Quetzal sightings in the cloud forests are not unusual, and scarlet macaw appearances throughout the coastal region are the norm. Besides the easily spotted birds, and monkeys, sloths and coatis roaming the region's abundant parks and reserves, in Parque Nacional Corcovado there's also the rare chance to spy on slumbering tapir. Meanwhile, the rugged coasts of the Golfo Dulce and Península de Osa captivate travellers with abandoned wilderness beaches, world-class surf and opportunities for rugged exploration. This is the land for intrepid travellers yearning for something truly wild.
WHAT TO EAT IN COSTA RICA
With its tropical temperatures, Costa Rican cuisine features an abundance of exotic fruits and vegetables, and depending on what part of the country you are in, lots of fresh fish. Black beans and rice are a staple and are a part of almost every traditional meal. Of course, Costa Rica is famous for its coffee beans (though much of it is exported), but you shouldn't leave without trying a cup.
Common dishes you will see on menus include gallo pinto (rice and beans), ceviche (fish marinated in lemon juice), pati (pastry dough stuffed with curried beef and onions) and agua dulce (warm melted sugarcane). If you visit San José, don't miss the Central Market, which opened in 1880, and is the largest market in the city, with more than 200 shops, stalls and small restaurants.
Most restaurants offer a set meal at lunch and dinner called a casado, or a ‘married man’s’ lunch, featuring meat, beans, rice and salad. An extremely popular casado is the ubiquitous arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). On the Caribbean coast, the cuisine shows off its local roots. Don't miss a chance to sample rondón, a spicy seafood gumbo.
Where to Eat
- The most popular eating establishment in Costa Rica is the soda. These are small, informal lunch counters dishing up a few daily casados (set meals). Other popular cheapies include the omnipresent fried- and rotisserie-chicken stands.
- A regular restaurante is usually higher on the price scale and has slightly more atmosphere. Many restaurantes serve casados, while the fancier places refer to the set lunch as the almuerzo ejecutivo (literally ‘executive lunch’).
- For something smaller, pastelerías and panaderías are shops that sell pastries and bread, while many bars serve bocas (snack-sized portions of main meals).
LGBTQ IN COSTA RICA
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in Costa Rica have evolved significantly in the past decades. Although same-sex sexual relations have been legal since 1971, same-sex marriage in Costa Rica has only been legal since 26 May 2020, making Costa Rica was the first country in Central America to recognise and perform same-sex marriages.
Although progressing steadily, currently the country as a whole is only fairly LGBTQ tolerant, with the exception of San José which is known as a gay-friendly city. There are many openly gay bars in town, lots of gay-friendly restaurants and guesthouses and the city has held organised gay pride festivals since 2003.
WHERE TO STAY IN COSTA RICA
Accommodations in Costa Rica come at every price and comfort level: from luxurious ecolodges and sparkling all-inclusive resorts and backpacker palaces to spartan rooms with little more than a bed and four cinderblock walls. The variety and number of rooms on offer means that advance booking is not usually mandatory, although it's recommended during holiday weeks (Christmas, New Year and Easter). If you’re traveling in from another part of Central America, you’ll notice that prices in Costa Rica are much higher than in the rest of the region.
The term cabina (cabin) is a catch-all that can define a wide range of prices and amenities – from very rustic to very expensive. In general, dorm rooms cost around US$15, and a budget double costs around US$40. Most destinations have at least one campground, which usually includes toilets and cold showers. Campsites are available at many national parks as well; take insect repellent, food and supplies. Camping prices are generally per person, per night.
You’ll find the cheapest sleeps in the city centre, with nicer midrange and top-end spots clustered in more well-to-do districts such as Barrio Amón and La Sabana. Also worthwhile for their charm, safety and serenity are the adjacent neighbourhoods of Los Yoses and San Pedro, which lie within walking distance of downtown. For tonier options, the upscale suburb of Escazú – a 20-minute bus ride away – is a good choice.
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