Costa Rica it’s a travel paradise with its amazing attractions and things to do like no other country, so any travel itinerary of Costa Rica needs to be perfectly prepared
Costa Rica is not a hidden gem anymore but its key highlights and top things to do continue to marvel travelers thanks to an unparalleled biodiversity that takes you through active volcanoes, lush waterfalls, cloud forests and rain forests, paradise beaches and wildlife photography shots wherever you go. The reason is that Costa Rica occupies less than 0,05% of Earth’s surface but contains an incredible 5% of the total biodiversity in the World!
This travel guide to Costa Rica pretends to help you to learn the most important things to know when preparing your travel itinerary. It contains practical travel tips and insights on how to make your trip unforgettable.
It contains recommendations on when to go to Costa Rica , how to get there and get around Costa Rica, suggestions on where to eat and stay in Costa Rica and a list of the top attractions in Costa Rica. From here you should be able to define your trip draft of your visit to Costa Rica. Have also a look to some more detailed posts i will publish about top things to do in Costa Rica.
Here below is a map of Costa Rica to familiarize you with the geography of the country, highlighting some of the cities and main travel hubs of the country. Despite being a small country with distances not as large as in most countries, travel between points of interest in Costa Rica will be very time consuming
WHEN TO GO TO COSTA RICA
The best time to go to Costa Rica is usually during the dry season from November to April. Despite the name dry season, it doesn’t mean it won’t rain but just that it will rain less across the country. This applies specially to the cloud forest regions in the Northern part of the country as well as to the rainforest, that is spread all over Costa Rica.
Temperatures in Costa Rica will vary significantly between regions. In the North expect 10 to 15 degrees celsius during the morning and evenings, with afternoons going to high twenties. Expect showers during parts of the day. In the Center and South, weather will rarely go below twenty degrees celsius, with high humidity levels making the heat quite intense
The other season in Costa Rica is the Wet season running from mid- April to October. Like in the dry season, it won’t rain all day long but it will rain more often, making several roads more difficult to traverse or even making transit there impossible. Temperatures in the wet season in Costa Rica will drop mainly in the North and Central Valley but remain overall still mild between 15-20 degrees during the day, dropping lower at night. In the Southern part of Costa Rica , days are warm and temperature will remain high twenties or more during the day. Again rainfall is more intense so beware of less travelled gravel roads that will become quite muddy as wells as trails that might become harder to walk by.
Wet season in Costa Rica is of course when prices tend to drop even if the demand remains high. Its also the best season to see the humpback whales migration on the Pacific side and Turtles nesting / birth on the Caribbean side.
Dry season in Costa Rica is best for hiking and go on trails less known due ton easier accessibility, but try to avoid Christmas and Easter when tourists flock over in much bigger quantities and prices will be more expensive.
HOW TO GET TO COSTA RICA AND GET AROUND COSTA RICA
The best way to get to Costa Rica is by air to any of the main international airports, San José (do enter San Juan Santamaría as not to mix with San José in the USA) and Liberia International Airport (close to the Western coast) . All the main international flight companies fly to both airports such as Air France/KLM, Lufthansa and several US or Canada flight companies.
From San José or Liberia, you can then take a rental car from one the many rental companies, do reserve in advance to save money and ensure availability as there is a limited number of rental cars available in Costa Rica. Just beware of car insurance costs, as its a very important fee in Costa Rica and many travellers are sometimes confused about it. To keep it short you are only obliged to take Liability Insurance from the INS, everything else is optional! The more coverage you get, the less the deposit will be and the reduction of your repair costs contribution, in case of an accident where you were responsible. Be very wary of the costs, namely when booking in generic websites like Expedia or Booking.com , that might sound cheap but then di not include any car insurance. My recommended car rental companies in Costa Rica are Wild Rider, Vamos, Adobe and Alamo. Ideally book directly with them to avoid hidden fees.
Other alternatives from the airport are:
- Uber – the cheapest option other than bus as it offers the most competitive fares . It will be around 10$ maximum to the city center
- Taxi – always go on a metered one but always ask the price beforehand. Expect to pay 12-15$ to get to the city center
- Private shuttles – organized by your hotel or then use one of the many good reliable companies like Caribe Shuttle
- Public bus – get to the central bus station and from there you will have buses for the most important cities. Pay with colones (local currency ) or in US dollars
As mentioned above, the best way to move around Costa Rica is by car. This allows you to move between cities and points of interest quicker and always with some flexibility. In the dry season a normal car should be fine but the recommendation is to rent a 4×4 , not because of the traction but more due to the high clearance that is very useful on gravel or dirt roads. In the wet season, you should rent a 4×4 as it will be the best solution to drive on muddy roads in Costa Rica.
If you decide to not drive, then the private shuttles across Costa Rica are a good time saving solution. Only if you are really short on time and want to quickly change coasts or just go quicker down the country then you can take one of many domestic flights that are done by Sansa Air, the national company of Costa Rica. Most of the main attractions in Costa Rica have a small airport nearby.
The most effective way to travel on a budget in Costa Rica is of course by public bus . All cities have a connection, sometimes needing to go through San José to change buses. Typically there is no way to make reservations online or by phone for any bus but do look online for your route and book directly with the company if you find it. Beware of advance reservations for “bus tickets” because they will most likely be selling tourist shuttle services that cost 5 times more.
There is no real central bus station in San José, as the terminals are spread across several streets in the city center of the capital of Costa Rica. So depending on your destination you will need to look for your bus. But all are within walking distance.
HOW MUCH TIME TO PLAN FOR COSTA RICA TRIP
The recommended time to make a trip to Costa Rica is 2 to 3 weeks. With this amount of time, you will be able to explore the Pacific Coast, the Central Valley with its volcanoes and waterfalls and the Caribbean coast paradise places.
Below you can find an example of a travek itinerary for Costa Rica. There aren’t that many main roads in Costa Rica, but they tend to be well maintained. The further you move inland and up the mountains then roads will start to become more narrow and with some potholes, plus some more gravel roads. Because of this, a 4×4 is recommended when driving in Costa Rica even if not mandatory if you drive slower and with greater care. When crossing from East & Wesr coasts and North and South from Costa Rica, you will need to invest a significant amount of time crossing via San José plus some toll roads on the way there- you can pay with credit card or colones.
The main regions of Costa Rica to consider in your travel itinerary are:
- Central Valley – this is where most volcanoes are located as well as the cloud forests with unique wildlife to be spotted and lush waterfalls. Main volcanoes are Arenal , Tenório, Poás and Rincon de la Vieja. Main tourist hub here is La Fortuna.
- Monteverde area – even if not far from the main volcanoes, on the southern part of Lake Arenal you can find the remotely located area of the Monteverde cloud forest, accessible only via curvy narrow roads but also the home of an amazing ecossystem where you can see the famous quetzal, the most beautiful bird in Costa Rica
- San José – the capital isn’t the biggest touristic highlight but it’s the most important transit hub of Costa Rica. From here you can catch the bus or a flight to anywhere in Costa Rica. Its also a good place to kill of some time if you are around it, I personally liked San Rafael Escazu area
- Nicoya Peninsula / Guanacaste – home of most expats, surf schools and an endless party vibe, this is the place closest to the other international airport of Costa Rica in Liberia. Might not have the local feeling anymore but for many its just a great place to unwind and relax by the beach or do some adventure tours.
- Puntarenas/ Pacific Coast- Stretching from Jacó beach are all the way down to Corcovado national park, its where the most beautiful Pacifc Coast beaches of Costa Rica are as well as amazing national parks and some great waterfalls
- Corcovado Park/ Drake Bay – even if its part of Puntarenas region, this is where 3% of biodiversity in the World is (Costa Rica has 5% in total) , the last jungle frontier in Costa Rica, the only place where you can find endangered species as the tapir, puma and many others if you are luxky to spot them Plus the best snorkeling/ diving spot on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica called Isla del Cano.
- North Caribbean coast – Tortuguero is probably the most unique location in Costa Rica as its not an island but is only accessible by boat, Full of water canals that pass through thousands of mangroves with great wildlife, its also where most turtles nest from April to October and where you can see the baby turtles running into the sea in September – October. Unfortunately beaches are too dangerous to swim due to currents and crocodiles
- South Caribbean coast – The most paradisiac beaches of Costa Rica can be found here with the typical Caribbean vibe, great surf and amazing national parks to see wildlife and snorkeling. Coconut and Palm trees with long sandy beaches of different colors, you choose.
Contact me for a personalized itinerary that can fit your schedule, budget and interests.
WHERE TO STAY IN COSTA RICA
The best places to stay in Costa Rica really depend on your budget as there are options for all types of budget. The quality of the hotels / hostels/ B&B’s and apartments in Costa Rica is more or less the same as in Europe or the US & Canada. This is mostly due to the fast touristic development in Costa Rica.
I will share in my posts in the Costa Rica more specific accommodation names, but my recommendation are usually hotels near the main city hubs, as they will grant you access to most attractions without having to catch too many transfers or driving too much everyday.
I tried all of them – from luxury to hostels and my recommendation is that you try to go for specialty lodging like lodges, glamping or bungalows. Hostels are great if you want to meet and befriend other travellers, even organizing some trips together but sleep quality will obviously be less – Selina hostels chain is a great option as they have hostels all over Costa Rica with different rates but there are other local ones very good value. And if in Corcovado do stay one night in a ranger station, priceless experience! To splurge a little the Arenal area has some great hot springs resorts like Tabacon or Baldi as well as most beach sides will offer great options.
Most places will be available throughout the year but do try to book 2-3 months n advance if they top the ranks of trip advisor or booking.com as they might be full during high season.
As almost anywhere accommodation is a very personal choice depending on your budget, desired options and areas that you will stay, that I ask you to contact me for specific recommendations when doing a personalized itinerary.
WHERE TO EAT IN COSTA RICA
Being a touristrc destination, Costa Rica offers in almost every corner international cuisine, from Italian to sushi. . But of course if you are in Costa Rica, then you should eat like a Costa Rican whenever you can. For that the most typical restaurants in Costa Rica are really unique in terms of quality – the so called “Soda” or small restaurant. They can be found everywhere and they have usually that home made kitchen feeling. Then you have the most normal restaurants that basically offer the same dishes but just have a larger scale but can sometime lose some of that quality.
The most famous dish in Costa Rica is the “Casado” that translatead means married. This makes sense as the Casado marries white rice with different kinds of meat or fish, accompanied by beans and a salad and fried banana. Then you have the “arroz” that combine again meat or fish with rice but differ from the casado as they don’t have beans and is a saffran yellow colored rice. It might come with french fries as its now part of the menu. There is also a very delicious fish choice in all restaurants called ceviche, a kind of fresh fish cut in some vinegar sauce accompanied by patacones. Patacones are flattened fried banana slices that usually are served with fish or then with grilled meat instead of french fries. Finally a reference to the “pico de gallo”, literally “rooster beak” that is a side dish made by combining sliced tomatoes with onions, coriander and and lime juice. Its simply delicious!
A final note on breakfasts: if you want to have the traditional Costa Rica breakfast, then you need to choose the “gallo pinto”, a great combined plate with rice and beans, eggs, home-made corn tortillas or fresh bread from the bakery, sweet plantains and sour cream plus or local soft cheese.
The famous “Casado”, the most traditional dish of Costa Rica, combining rice , beans, fried egg, fried banana, salad and fish (can also be vegetarian, with chicken or other meat)
Its generally safe to drink tap water in whole Costa Rica due to huge amount of nature springs across the country. So unless stated otherwise you can drink and refill youtr bottles everywhere in Costa Rica for free.
TOP 15 THINGS TO DO IN COSTA RICA
My top things to do in Costa Rica are all related to nature as this is the main reason why you would visit here. Its a combination of the best beaches, waterfalls, rainforests and hikes in Costa Rica. I will have a separate post to cover this top 11 plus some specific regional posts for the most important parts of Costa Rica.
These are then the top 15 attractions you must experience in Costa Rica:
- Monteverde Cloud Forest day & night tour
- Poás Volcano
- Manuel Antonio park & beach
- La Fortuna Hot Springs & Waterfall
- Arenal Volcano & Hanging Bridges
- Tortuguero canals
- Cahuita National Park
- Corcovado Park & Drake Bay
- Bajos del Toro waterfall & Blue Falls
- Rio Celeste
- Llanos de Cortés waterfall
- La Paz waterfall & gardens
- Marino Ballena Park & Uvita beach
- Nayuaca waterfalls
- Playa Punta Uva & Cocles
USEFUL TRAVEL TIPS FOR COSTA RICA TRIP
- Money – both colones and US dollars are accepted everywhere in Costa Rica. Best is to exchange your money by the bank or withdraw it in an ATM. Do not exchange money at the airport or on the street bureaus.
- Telephone – buy a local SIM Card at any supermarket as well as recharges to the card itself, they can’t be bought at the airport. Your rental car company can also get you a SIM card if you ask for it beforehand
- Car rental – as referred above, you should pay attention that on your rental agreement the mandatory liability insurance is included, everything else is optional and only a way to increase the coverage. Book directly with the rental companies, beware of third parties and companies with hidden fees
- Travel essentials – bring a rain jacket, waterproof hiking shoes, water shoes , sunscreen , insect repellent, refillable bottle, torchlight and a dry bag. You will need them all, I can guarantee you !
Hope this travel guide gives you enough information to build a perfect travel itinerary in Costa Rica.
Do ask me for a personalized itinerary because Costa Rica is a very special country with many specificities and you need to know your way how to get to places efficiently and getting to places quickly.
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My name is Renato Azambujo. I live currently in Hamburg, but was born and raised in sunny capital of Portugal, Lisbon. I also lived in Switzerland for some years, before settling in Germany for the last years.
I am huge passionate about travel, photographer and a global explorer, always looking to the next destination.
I have so far visited over 70 countries across the 5 continents, because I really love knowing about new places, interact with different cultures and get to know myself better after each journey.