11 tips for travelling in Costa Rica

written by Chloe Cann
updated 12/15/2020
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Inspired by pictures of Costa Rica’s rainforests brimming with exotic flora and fauna, steaming volcanoes and world-class beaches? Us too. If you're dreaming of a trip to this Central American nation, here are eleven indispensable Costa Rica travel tips to help you plan your holiday.

Given that it features in our article on the most magical places to travel with kids before they grow up, and our round-up of the world's best adventure holidays for 2022, it's fair to say that Costa Rica has a richness of experiences for all kinds of travellers.

1. Plan for the high season

With so many North Americans flying south for the winter – not to mention locals travelling home – it’s pivotal to book in advance if you want to visit Costa Rica during high season. Christmas and New Year period are especially busy.

Hotel rooms and buses can sell out weeks ahead, but by being savvy and using several transport links (such as a private shuttle), it’s possible to make things work. Alternatively, you can hire a car for greater flexibility.

The week leading up to Easter is another pressure point, though the parades and processions that take place during this time are quite unique and well worth seeing.

Arenal Volcano © Esdelval/Shutterstock

2. Consider an organised tour

Veteran independent travellers might sniff at the idea of taking an escorted tour. Doubly so as Costa Rica is a country where hostels and hotels are plentiful and English is quite widely spoken.

Despite this, we recommend you don't rule out a tour entirely. Many activities have both high demand and surprisingly high prices, and there are few regular public bus services around the country. Joining a guided tour is a top Costa Rica travel tip as it means you can pack a lot of experiences into one 10-day visit without fretting about availability or logistics. Rough Guides' own Tailor-Made Trips offers a full trip-planning and booking service in Costa Rica. We pair you with a local expert on the ground working for a local tour operator to design, book and execute a personalised itinerary that works for you. Get inspired by one of our sample itineraries, such as our 'Discover Northern Costa Rica' or 'Beaches and Volcanoes' - of course, all modifiable to fit your preferences.

3. Be prepared to spend

Costa Rica is among the most expensive countries to visit in Latin America – and it’s not just pricey when compared to its neighbours. For certain supermarket items, such as bottled water and sunscreen, the country can even rival the UK and USA.

To save money, eat plates of gallo pinto at small family-run sodas, pay for groceries and other small purchases with local currency colónes instead of dollars and travel during the low season (aka the rainy season) for reduced room rates. If you're eating out, be aware that 10% service charge and 13% tax is added to most restaurant bills and budget accordingly.

Additionally many nature sites, from waterfalls to national parks, charge an entry fee so you'll need to factor than in too. Read our Costa Rica Travel Essentials page for tips on budgeting and more.

Plantain, rice and beans is a Costa Rican lunch staple © EQRoy / Shutterstock

4. Watch your belongings

While Costa Rica is, in general, a very safe country, pickpockets and petty theft can be a problem. Applying basic common sense will mean you avoid the hassle of lost belongings. Firstly, never leave items on show in your parked car. If you're heading to the beach try and park in a carpark (some are guarded by enterprising locals) or near other cars.

Next, be aware that pickpockets operate at bus stations and other crowded places like markets. Don't leave your bags unattended, and if you are unlucky, report the theft at the local police station.

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5. Heed caution when it comes to the weather

Even in dry season (between December and April) visitors to the central highlands and the Atlantic coastal plain should prepare for frequent downpours. The rainy season starts in earnest in May.

In late September and October, many Pacific coast hotels and restaurants are closed for a break before gearing up again for high season. You might find a few more options on the Caribbean coast at this time of year.

No matter how clear the skies look at daybreak, make sure you pack waterproof clothing and dry bags for valuables on any trips into the rainforest. And if the showers are dampening your spirits you can always head west to the sun-scorched plains of the Pacific slope.

A rope bridge through Monteverde's Cloud Forest Reserve © Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock

6. Learn the language

You won’t struggle to find locals with good English in Costa Rica, but picking up some Spanish can not only earn you kudos and a warm welcome – it can really boost your bargaining power.

Those with a good chunk of time on their hands can go one step further and enrol in one of the many local language schools that are scattered across the country, putting their tico accent straight to the test.

7. Choose between the adventure gateways

Monteverde and La Fortuna are two of northern Costa Rica’s backpacker favourites and both are excellent for outdoor activities. However, getting between the two can prove a lengthy process and much of the adventure offering is similar.

If you don’t have time for both, our top travel tip is to pick Monteverde, as it boasts the trump card thanks to its drier climate and bohemian hilltop charm. Book ahead for an all-in-one adventure tour in Monteverde or if you prefer a more relaxed pace, check out this authentic farm experience, a fun tour for the whole family.

La Fortuna de San Carlos waterfall in Arenal volcano national park, Costa Rica © FCG/Shutterstock

8. Rent a 4x4

If you're planning to self-drive in Costa Rica, you need to consider a 4x4. While some major roads are paved, many others are still little more than dirt tracks. Add in heavy rainfall and you've got a muddy mess to navigate. Even if the weather is dry, keep your eyes peeled for potholes which can cause car trouble. Keep water and snacks in the car in case you break down, and try to carry a mobile with you so you can contact the car rental company if needed. Our local expert in Costa Rica is happy to assist you with the planning and booking process, like this self-driving trip on the Caribbean coast. If the idea of driving sounds intimidating you can opt for a guided trip that includes transport, like this trip discovering the beaches in the South as well as cloud forests and volcanoes.

9. Swap the Pacific coast for the Caribbean

One quick fix for escaping Costa Rica’s crowds is to head east instead of west. With the international airport of Liberia so close to the Pacific coastline, it’s an easily accessible beach destination. The beaches of the Caribbean coast, are much harder to reach, meaning the region is also much less developed. If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience you'll enjoy exploring the Caribbean coast.

Costa Rica has so many beautiful beaches, that it can be difficult to choose. Check our pick of the best beaches in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica's Caribbean coastline is less well known © Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock

10. Tie in a neighbour

Although they’re tightly packed into the waist of the Americas, each Central American nation boasts its own character, attractions and heritage. Next-door neighbours Nicaragua and Panama make the easiest and most obvious add-ons to a sojourn in Costa Rica.

Nicaragua is a more raw destination that’s best suited to intrepid, budget-conscious travellers. Panama offers a cosmopolitan capital as well as lashings of more rural adventure activities. The local expert in Panama is happy to help you with your planning and booking process, trips like 'Highlights of Panama' or 'Thrilling adventures in Panama' are great extensions to your Central America trip.

11. Respect the country’s sustainability credentials

Costa Rica has set its sights on becoming the world’s second carbon-neutral country (after Bhutan) by 2021. To help support its green goals, opt for locally owned ecolodges and operators that practise sustainable tourism wherever possible.

To help distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly, the Costa Rica Tourism Institute has developed the CST (Certificate of Sustainable Tourism). Businesses are ranked from levels one to five based on their commitment to the cause.

Ecolodge with a view of Lake Arenal in central Costa Rica © Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Header image: Sunrise Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, Central America © Antonio Fernandez Dieguez/Shutterstock

Travel advice for Costa Rica

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written by Chloe Cann
updated 12/15/2020
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