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 has made our list of the best places to go with kids, and our round-up of the world's best adventure holidays, it's fair to say that Costa Rica has a richness of experiences for all kinds of travellers.
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.
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 one of the top Costa Rica travel tips 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.
Going around with stacks of colones may not seem safe, but you should be alright if you keep them in a money belt — and it will save hours of time waiting in line. Some banks may not accept bent, smudged or torn dollars.
It’s also worth noting that, due to an influx of counterfeit US$100 notes a few years ago, some shops, and even banks, are unwilling to accept them. If you bring any into the country, make sure that they are in mint condition.
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 a 10% service charge and 13% tax are 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 that in too. Read our Costa Rica Travel Essentials page for Costa Rica travel tips on budgeting and more.
Típico dishes you’ll find all over Costa Rica include rice and some kind of meat or fish often served as part of a special plate with coleslaw salad and plantain, in which case it’s called a casado (literally, “married person”).
The ubiquitous gallo pinto (“painted rooster”), often described as the national dish of Costa Rica is a filling breakfast combination of red and white beans with rice, sometimes served with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs). The heavy concentration of starch and protein reveals the rural origins of Costa Rican food: gallo pinto is food for people who are going out to work it off.
Next, be aware that pickpockets operate at bus stations and other crowded places like markets. Don't leave your bags unattended.
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.
In addition to bug spray, wearing long-sleeved clothing and using mosquito nets will also help prevent insect bites.
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.
If you don’t have time for both, among our top Costa Rica travel tips 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.
Find more accommodation options to stay in Monteverde
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.
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. To plan the trip of your dreams, see our tailor-made trip service. Trips like 'Highlights of Panama' or 'Thrilling Adventures in Panama' can be great extensions to your Central America trip.
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.
Whether hiking through lush rainforests, relaxing on a white sand beach or enjoying the local cuisine, one of the best Costa Rica travel tips is to enjoy Pura Vida, which reminds us to live in the present moment and enjoy the simple joys of life.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Costa Rica without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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Header image: Sunrise Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, Central America © Antonio Fernandez Dieguez/Shutterstock