All the top Costa Rica travel tips to plan your trip!
Whether you are a nature lover, beach bum, adventure enthusiast, or simply looking to relax, Costa Rica truly does have something to offer everyone. Wildlife, beaches, national parks, lakes, hot springs, volcanoes, waterfalls…the list is endless! I have to confess that when I started to plan my family’s two week trip this past year, I found myself quite overwhelmed by the sheer variety of things to see and do.
To help you plan an unforgettable Costa Rican giveaway, I’ve put together this guide which covers some of my best tips for visiting this diverse paradise. We’ll cover everything from where to go and when, to transportation and once-in-a-lifetime excursions. So what are we waiting for? Let’s dive in! Pura vida! (Pure life, as the locals say!)
Choosing Where to Go in Costa Rica
Whether you plan on visiting Costa Rica for one week or one month, I can promise you that it is simply impossible to “see it all.” There are so many cool and unique places scattered all throughout the country! I’d recommend spending at least 2 weeks in Costa Rica, as the country is much bigger than you’d think.
To help you figure out where to go in Costa Rica, I recommend first thinking about your interests, and choosing a region (or two or three, depending on time) based off of that. My family wanted to prioritize volcanoes, beaches with great surf, and rainforests, so we chose to base ourselves in Guanacaste and Arenal, as we only had two weeks.
However, for those with different interests, you may find yourself in a completely different part of the country! The great thing about Costa Rica is that each region has so much to offer. For a breakdown of what the different regions are best suited for, click here!
When to Visit Costa Rica
Once you’ve decided where you’d like to visit in Costa Rica and for how long, you’ll want to decide when. Costa Rica’s climate is tropical, and warm year round, making it a great destination at any time of year.
It is important to note that there are two seasons, the dry season and wet season. Depending on which region (or regions) you plan on visiting, you will want to research the weather before you go. Costa Rica is actually home to quite a few micro-climates, so weather will differ according to your destination of choice.
Dry Season: December to April
Dry season is typically from December to April, and consists of lots of sun and very little rain. Some areas even dry out and become quite desert-like! Temperatures are typically a bit warmer during this time. The dry season is the highest season in terms of tourism, so you’ll find that prices tend to be higher during these months.
Wet Season: May to November
The wet season, also called the “green season,” is characterized by lots of rain. Temperatures can be a little cooler, but still warm enough for shorts, sandals, and swimming. Thanks to all of the rain, the countryside becomes quite green and truly comes to life. The green season is the lowest season for tourists, and you’ll find that many accommodations and excursions offer lower rates during these times.
Many locals recommend visiting during the green season for these reasons! I was nervous to visit Costa Rica during the green season, but I found that, for the most part, it rained for just a few hours in the afternoon. We actually ended up with a day or two with no rain at all!
That being said, if you hate rain, or are only planning on a few days in Costa Rica with a jam-packed itinerary, you will definitely want to consider heading to Costa Rica in the dry season to avoid it raining on your parade!
Getting to Costa Rica
There are two possible airports to fly into when visiting Costa Rica, Liberia (LIR) and San José (SJO). When choosing an airport, you’ll want to consider where you are staying so you can fly into the closest one. It is typically recommended that you avoid staying near the airports, so you can get out of the city and instead begin your vacation right away!
Transportation in Costa Rica
Renting a Car
I typically avoid renting a car whenever possible, but I have to admit that in Costa Rica, your best option for getting around is renting a car. Renting a car will give you the flexibility that public transportation won’t, and help make your schedule a lot more efficient.
While renting a car may seem expensive up front, you will actually be able to save money by driving to excursions, instead of needing to book all of your excursions with hotel pickup. Some words of advice when driving:
- Locals can sometimes drive a little recklessly because they know the roads much better than us tourists!
- Get out of the city-if you are nervous about driving, your best bet is to get out of a big city ASAP for more relaxed driving and less traffic.
- Use Waze to help navigate. We got along just fine with Google Maps, but many locals recommend Waze for accurate directions.
- Our rental company recommended we didn’t drive at night, as in many areas lighting is dim (or non-existent). We always made sure our days ended with enough time to drive home before sundown.
If you are nervous about renting a car in Costa Rica, have the budget, or hate driving, you can also consider using private or shared shuttles to get around. This can be a great option if you aren’t on a tight budget, or if you are planning on spending most of your time in one or two locations and need an airport transfer.
For those on a budget, buses are a great option when it comes to getting around Costa Rica. The public transportation is actually quite reliable and affordable, however, buses take much longer than driving, and sometimes you’ll have to switch buses multiple times. Also, buses don’t typically reach those off-the-beaten path places that you’re better off driving to.
Be sure to research the bus schedule beforehand to make sure they can get you to any areas you are hoping to go. However, if you are an adventurous, budget-conscious traveler with lots of time in Costa Rica, then this might just do the trick! Just make sure you are comfortable with public transit and long stretches of travel.
For shorter distances, a taxi or Uber is a great solution. Uber tends to be cheaper than a taxi, however Uber is only in select cities at the moment, like San José. Great if you need to get from the airport to town!
The local currency in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican colón, or colones (plural). US Dollars are actually accepted in many places, but you’ll also want to withdraw cash from an ATM to use during your trip.
Prepaid SIM Card
If you don’t have an international cell phone plan, don’t spend any extra money to get one! Simply purchase an affordable prepaid SIM card while at the airport or in a local grocery store. Having data is a great way to navigate, translate, and communicate while visiting Costa Rica.
Accommodation in Costa Rica
I always recommend booking your accommodation as early as possible to get the best selection and deals on hotels. Costa Rica is a popular destination for families, backpackers, and luxury vacationers alike, which means that there are a wide variety of properties to suit every style and budget. Keep in mind that green season prices are usually lower.
I recommend using Hostelworld to find the best hostels in the areas you are looking into visiting. There are some really awesome hostels in Costa Rica, and prices typically range from $15-$20 per night. Great for budget travelers as well as solo travelers looking to meet people!
Airbnbs & Vacation Rentals
Airbnbs and vacation rentals are great if you’re looking for a more independent place to relax or are planning on cooking a lot of your own food while in Costa Rica. Selecting a rental with a kitchen can save you a lot of money by limiting meals out.
Keep in mind that there is no front desk, so it may be more difficult to book excursions and have your questions answered. Also, be sure to thoroughly read reviews beforehand!
Hotels range in price from more affordable to super luxurious. You can use Hotels.com or Booking to compare prices and locations. Once you think you’ve found a property you like, be sure to check if booking on the hotel’s website is any cheaper. Hotels often have amenities like a pool or gym, and many include breakfast. They’re also often happy to help you arrange excursions or tours in the area.
If you are looking to sit back and relax on your vacation, then an all inclusive resort may be for you. You’ll have all the amenities, food, and drink you’ll need on property. This can get expensive, but is great if you don’t want to drive around much and would rather be based in one place. Like other hotels, all inclusive resorts often work with local tour companies to arrange any off-property excursions.
Costa Rica Travel Tips: What to Do & See
There are so many things to see and do in Costa Rica! Nature tours, zip-lining, canyoning, bird watching, scuba diving, white water rafting, soaking in hot springs, hiking through the rainforest-you won’t be lacking in unique experiences! Here are some tips I learned when planning my visit:
Research before you go.
Though I recommend booking excursions after you arrive, it never hurts to do your research before you travel. If you have a rough idea of what excursions you’re interested in upon arrival, you’ll have an easier time selecting and booking them once you are in Costa Rica.
It can be overwhelming booking everything once you’re on vacation, but if you know what tours you are looking for, it will be easy to sort through the many offerings your hotel may provide. Check through Viator to get an idea of the excursions and tours you want to do.
Book when you arrive.
If you are staying in a hotel, I recommend waiting until you arrive to book any specific tours. Your hotel may have relationships with local tour operators, and you might be able to get a lower rate this way.
Be sure to budget.
Think about how much excursions cost when planning your trip. You’ll want to make sure you have funds available to check off everything from your Costa Rica bucket list!
Nature tours are worth it.
My family and I did a guided walk through Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. It cost a bit extra to go with a guide, but without his expert eye, we never would have noticed a tiny red tree frog, several beautiful species of local birds, and even a sloth! If you are into wildlife, the extra money might be worth it!
For some other nature tours, try these:
Sometimes the best things in life are free.
Concerned about budget when it comes to excursions? Well then, you are in luck, so much of what Costa Rica has to offer is natural beauty. All of the beaches in Costa Rica are free for the public to access, and many of the national parks are either free or have a small entrance fee. You don’t have to spend a lot on excursions when there are many ways to enjoy Costa Rica for less.
Food and Drink
When it comes to dining in Costa Rica, I recommend doing as the locals do and dining in “sodas.” These restaurants serve delicious local dishes (oftentimes dishes that include rice and beans) and are more affordable than many restaurants clearly catering to tourists. I usually try to ask locals where the best places to eat are in town!
In Costa Rica, tips are not typically expected, as there is usually a service charge added onto your meal. However, in touristy areas, a small tip may be commonplace for great service.
Great news! The water in Costa Rica is safe to drink, so feel free to pack that reusable water bottle! The only exception to this rule is some more rural locations within the country. When in doubt, just ask your hotel reception or Airbnb host if you aren’t sure.
What to Pack
In addition to the clothing and toiletries you’ll be packing, don’t forget these items when traveling to Costa Rica!
- Quick dry towel
- Insect repellent
- Water shoes
- Hiking boots or sneakers
There you have it, my top Costa Rica travel tips for planning your own adventure you’ll remember for years to come! What are you most excited to do in Costa Rica?
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