Costa Rica Travel Guide

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All this - and more - can be found in The Rough Guide to Costa Rica

- check it out for top Costa Rica travel inspiration and advice.

Travel Facts about Costa Rica

  • Language: Central American Spanish.
  • Currency: Costa Rican colón (CRC).
  • Area: 51,100 square kilometres.
  • Population 4.8 million.
  • People: Largely of Spanish origin, with a substantial community of English-speaking Costa Ricans of African origin along the Caribbean coast, plus 64,000 indigenous people.
  • Costa Ricans are known as Ticos.
  • Costa Rica is home to around 250 species of mammal, over 400 species of reptiles and amphibians, nearly 900 species of bird, and 250,000 types of insect.

Find out more essential information about travel to Costa Rica

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Costa Rica Sunset at Manuel Antonio Antonio National Park © thefilmpoets/Shutterstock

Where to go in Costa Rica - Regions and Areas

All regions of Costa Rica offer a richness of natural attractions, from the jungle-cloaked Osa Peninsula, to the turtle-nesting beaches of Parque Nacional Tortuguero. Lesser-trodden sites for wildlife wonders can be found at Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, while the Nicoya Peninsula is a remote spot to kayak in the company of monkeys and sloths - Costa Rica travel at its most immersive.

San José and Valle Central

Costa Rica’s capital San José

has a good arts scene and the surrounding Valle Central is home to the steaming Volcán Poás and the lunar-like Volcán Irazú.

Volcán Arenal and Zona Norte

The plains of the Zona Norte

feature iconic Volcán Arenal, while the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro (near the Nicaraguan border) is a haven for birds and basking caiman.

Osa Peninsula and Zona Sur

Off-the-beaten-path travellers should head to Cerro Chirripó, which looms above the plains of Zona Sur

. Parque Nacional Corcovado is arguably the best hiking destination in Costa Rica.

Guanacaste province

The province of Guanacaste

boasts some of Costa Rica’s best (and most popular) beaches. Try Sámara and Nosara on the Nicoya Peninsula for stunning scenery without the crowds.

Limón province

Limón province

is home to descendants of Afro-Caribbeans who came to Costa Rica in the late nineteenth-century. It’s best known for the sea turtles that nest on Parque Nacional Tortuguero’s beaches.

Monteverde and Manuel Antonio

Near the Pacific coast

, Monteverde presents one of Americas’ last remaining high-altitude cloudforests. Further south is Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio.

Arenal volcano, Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Discover more places in Costa Rica

Top Attractions - What to see in Costa Rica

Here’s a run-down of famous landmarks and attractions in Costa Rica everyone should see in a lifetime - top choices you’ll definitely want to consider when planning to travel to Costa Rica.

  • Volcán Arenal - enjoy an array of activities around Arenal volcano, from soaking in hot springs, to forest zipwiring.
  • Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio - untouched beaches and lush tropical forests full of sloths and monkeys.
  • Monteverde cloud forest - walk a suspended bridge to experience a bird’s-eye view of the forest.
  • Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja - experience sulphurous smoke clouds and steaming mud pots en route to an epic waterfall.
  • Parque Nacional Tortuguero - thousands of turtles (including giant leatherbacks) come ashore to lay their eggs here each year. An unforgettable experience.

Discover more great places to see in our ultimate list of things not to miss in Costa Rica

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Best things to do in Costa Rica

Birdwatching

When you visit Costa Rica, birdwatching should be near the top of your must-do list, even if you’ve never done it before. With almost 900 species - a higher number than all of North America - it really is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with an abundance of hummingbirds, toucans, kingfishers and trogons. The iconic resplendent quetzal can be found in the higher elevations of Monteverde and the Cordillera de Talamanca. Most hotels and all eco ldoges will be able to hook you up with a Costa Rica travel guide with avian expertise. Catching sight of this shimmering beauty is a true a Costa Rica travel highlight.

Hiking

From multi-day hikes through remote rainforest to rambles around national park

trails, Costa Rica offers heavenly hiking experiences. Some of the finest hikes include Cerro Chirripó for incredible views, Sendero Laguna Meándrica for birdwatching, Sendero Los Patos–Sirena for wildlife and Sendero Las Pailas for scenery.

Kayaking

Over 20 rivers in Costa Rica offer good kayaking opportunities, especially the Sarapiquí, Reventazón, Pacuare and Corobicí, and the wildlife-rich mangroves of Isla Damas and Bahía Drake. La Virgen in the Zona Norte is a good base for customized kayaking tours, with specialist operators or lodges renting boats, equipment and guides. Be warned, though, sea-kayaking is for experienced kayakers, and only ever with a guide - both coasts have treacherous currents.

Surfing

Both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts offer good surfing. You can surf all year round on the Pacific: running north to south the best beaches in Costa Rica

for surfing are Naranjo, Tamarindo, Boca de Barranca, Jacó, Hermosa, Quepos, Dominical and, near the Panama border, Pavones. On the Caribbean coast, the finest year-round beaches are at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Punta Uva.

Diving and snorkelling

Though diving is less of a big deal in Costa Rica than in Belize or Honduras’ Bay Islands, there are a few worthwhile dive sites around the country. The best, however, lie some 535km off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast in the waters around Parque Nacional Isla del Coco. To see an abundance of concentrated underwater life, try the small reef near Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock

When is the best time to visit Costa Rica

If you’re wondering “what’s the best month to go to Costa Rica?”, November, April and early May are most ideal. The dry season runs from mid-November to April, with sunshine and warm temperatures, while the rainy season (May to mid-November) is at its wettest in September and October. Visiting pre-Easter is best if you want to avoid too many crowds.

Find out more about the best time to visit Costa Rica

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How to get to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is served by two international airports. Juan Santamaría (SJO), just outside San José, receives the majority of flights, though Daniel Oduber Quiros (LIR), near Liberia, handles an increasing range from the US, Canada and the UK. If you’re already in the region, Costa Rican airlines Sansa and Nature Air run regular flights between San José and Nicaragua and Panama.

Read on for the best ways to get to Costa Rica

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How to get around Costa Rica

Travelling in Costa Rica is relatively straightforward and, if you’re wondering how to travel around Costa Rica on a budget, the bus is an excellent, inexpensive way to get around - even in remote areas. Car rental in Costa Rica is more common than in the rest of Central America, but it can be a pretty a hair-raising experience, with precipitous drops in the highlands and potholed roads just about everywhere else.

Learn more about transport and how to get around Costa Rica

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Where to stay in Costa Rica?

When you travel to Costa Rica, there are a wide range of accommodation options to consider - from upscale all-inclusive resorts, to private guesthouses (casas). And, given its exceptional natural attractions, it’ll come as no surprise that Costa Rica is blessed with excellent eco-lodges that afford the country’s best wildlife-watching opportunities.

Food in Costa Rica you need to try

A top Costa Rica travel experience is trying the local food. Called comida típica (“native” or “local” food) by Ticos, it’s tasty and unpretentious with interesting regional variations found along the Caribbean coast, with its Creole-influenced cooking, and in Guanacaste, where there are vestiges of the ancient indigenous peoples’ use of maize. A must-try meal is Gallo pinto (“painted rooster”), a breakfast of red and white beans with rice that’s often described as the national dish.

Read more about local food and drink in Costa Rica

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Monteverde cloudforest, Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Culture and festivals in Costa Rica

Though not on the scale of, say, the fiestas in Mexico or Guatemala, Costa Rica has its fair share of lively holidays and festivals (feriados) when banks, post offices, museums and government offices close and people take to the streets and beaches to celebrate. Perhaps the biggest and brightest of them all is held on 15th September - Independence Day - with patriotic parades celebrating Costa Rica’s independence from Spain in 1821. For culture vultures, this is perhaps the best time to travel to Costa Rica.

To include a festival in your trip to Costa Rica, check out the month-to-month overview of festivals in Costa Rica

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Nightlife in Costa Rica

Capital San José pulsates with the country’s most diverse nightlife, and is home to scores of bars, clubs, live music venues and theatres. Avenida Central in Los Yoses is a well-known trail of upmarket bars, while San Pedro’s Calle de la Amargura nightlife is geared more towards students. Those looking to kick back with locals should head to a boca bar. In Costa Rica, bocas (appetizers) are the tasty little snacks traditionally served free in bars. If you’re lucky enough to score a table at a boca bar you’ll be handed a menu of free bocas - one beer gets you one boca, so keep drinking and you can keep eating, and very possibly feel spurred to salsa. Even in remote rural areas you’ll find bars buzzing to the beat of live music.

Plan your trip to Costa Rica

How many days do you need in Costa Rica? The honest answer is as many as you can spare - a Costa Rica trip offers such a diversity of experiences. That said, here are some ideas if you have at least a week in Costa Rica. You could begin by exploring the area around awe-inspiring Arenal volcano, where a wealth of waterfalls, wildlife reserves and river-rafting opportunities await, before zipping to the Central Pacific coast for sand and surf fringed by fertile forests.

Alternatively, start out at Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast and enjoy a wildlife-rich lagoon tour before heading to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast for more epic wildlife-watching.

For more inspiration, see some of the Costa Rica itineraries from our Costa Rica travel guide and local travel experts.

Things you need to know before going to Costa Rica

  • Ticos love to dance, so you might want to take salsa lessons before your Costa Rica travel adventure.
  • Unless service has been exceptional, you don’t need to leave a tip in restaurants, where a ten percent service charge is automatically levied.
  • Accessible nature trails can be enjoyed at Poás and Carara National Parks, and the Reserva Santa Elena. In addition, the main-crater viewpoint at Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú is accessible to wheelchair users.
  • Costa Rica has a good reputation among LBGT travellers, with a large gay and lesbian community (by Central American standards). San José holds a Gay Pride Festival every June.

Before you travel, read more travel advice

and get a more in-depth understanding of culture and etiquette in Costa Rica.

Practical travel tips for Costa Rica

  • While tourists who stay in large resorts might claim that “everyone speaks English”, that’s not the case in more rural areas - your time in Costa Rica will be more meaningful if you arm yourself with a few Spanish phrases.
  • The electrical current in Costa Rica is 110 volts - the same as Canada and the US - although plugs are two-pronged.
  • While official currency of Costa Rica is the colón, the US dollar has long been the second currency of Costa Rica and is accepted almost everywhere.
  • When heading for the more remote areas, carry cash with you, and in small denominations - you may have trouble finding an ATM, or changing a 5000 note in the middle of the Nicoya Peninsula, for example.

For everything practical when travelling in Costa Rica

, check the travel advice for Costa Rica.

Typical cost and Money Saving Tips for Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America. Just about everything - from ice-cream cones and groceries, to hotel rooms and car rental - costs more than you might expect. Even on a rock-bottom budget, you’re looking at spending at least $50 a day for lodging, three meals and the odd bus ticket. Staying in mid-range accommodation, and enjoying the odd excursion could push you over $130 a day, while the sky’s the limit at the upper end, where one night in a swanky hotel can cost over $500 in some places. The good news is that bus travel is always cheap - about $1.50 for local buses, and around $5-7.50 for long-distance buses.

Tortuguero Canal, Costa Rica © Kenneth Vargas Torres/Shutterstock

What to pack for a trip to Costa Rica

  • Decent hiking boots - essential for enjoying top Costa Rica travel experiences
  • Binoculars to get the best views of Costa Rica’s wildlife - vital when it comes to trying to find the more elusive birds, and also very handy for sloth-spotting.
  • Sunscreen and a hat - Costa Rica is in the tropics, after all.
  • Mosquito repellent, especially if you’re staying in the forests.
  • Lightweight rain gear to keep dry during those brief blasts of tropical rain showers (or long blasts, if you visit Costa Rica during the rainy season)
  • Headlamp or torch - if you’re planning to stay off-the-beaten-track, you never know when the power might go.

Is Costa Rica safe for travel?

Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Latin America. Pickpockets and luggage theft are the greatest problems, particularly in San José and other larger cities, so be vigilant in bus terminals and markets. Car-related crime, especially involving rental vehicles, is on the rise, so always park securely.

For up to date information about safety and travel requirements for Costa Rica, check government guidelines. UK nationals should heed Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office advice, while travellers from the US should check governmental travel advisory guidelines for Costa Rica.

What you should avoid in Costa Rica?

  • Don’t drive at speed - there are sharp curves and pot holes aplenty, plus you never know when a dog, cow, goat, iguana, or armadillo might be crossing the road.
  • Avoid buying anything made from coral, tortoise shells, and furs such as ocelot or jaguar.
  • If you have qualms about buying goods made from tropical hardwoods, steer clear of mahogany, laurel, purple heart and almond (which is illegal anyway).
  • Don’t take a dip in a river - you never know when a crocodile or caiman might appear.
  • Don’t mess with wildlife or their habitats when you visit Costa Rica. Whether you’re watching turtles on a beach, or spotting birds in a forest, remember you’re a guest in their home.

Useful resources for your travel to Costa Rica

  • If you’re keen to explore Arenal’s varied attractions after reading about them in this Costa Rica guide, you could look to book a tour that takes in trekking to La Fortuna waterfall, visiting an indigenous village, and hiking a lava field.
  • To truly experience Costa Rica’s natural beauty, staying in a rainforest eco-lodge comes highly recommended, and luxurious Lapa Rios Lodge sits top of the canopy.
  • For more ideas about what to see and do in Costa Rica, plus plenty of practical guidance that will help you make the most of your trip, take a look at The Rough Guide to Costa Rica.
  • To take the hassle out of planning, Rough Guides’ tailor-made travel platform has a range of customisable Costa Rica itineraries.

Find even more inspiration for Costa Rica here

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updated 9/22/2021
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