Travel Guide Costa Rica

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Travel to Costa Rica and you’ll be rewarded with an ecological treasure-trove. Despite its small size, the country is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. You’ll discover lush rainforests and untouched beaches, steaming volcanoes and dense mangrove swamps. These habitats support an incredible variety of wildlife, from lovable sloths and tiny, green frogs to brightly plumed macaws and toucans. Read our travel guide to Costa Rica for everything you need to know before you go.

Costa Rica travel facts

  • Spoken language: Spanish.
  • Currency: Costa Rican colón (CRC).
  • Area: 51,100 square kilometres.
  • Population: 4.8 million, with around a quarter aged under 15.
  • Origins: Largely of Spanish extraction, though there’s a substantial community of English-speaking Costa Ricans of African origin along the Caribbean coast, as well as 64,000 indigenous people.
  • Exports: Coffee and bananas, but in recent years most income has been from tourism.
  • Wildlife: Costa Rica is home to around 250 species of mammal; over 400 varieties of

    reptile and amphibian; nearly 900 species of bird; and 250,000 types of insect, including a quarter of the world’s known butterflies.

  • Conservation: Around 25 percent of land is protected, mostly through an extensive network of national parks and wildlife refuges.

Where to go in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has many beautiful sights: the jungle-cloaked Osa Peninsula; the cascading Nauyaca Waterfalls; the mist-shrouded cloudforest; the sandy beaches of Parque Nacional Tortuguero, where turtles come ashore to nest.

If you’re travelling to Costa Rica to spot wildlife, Corcovado is home to the country’s more exotic species, while the jungly Sarapiquí region conceals the endangered great green macaw.

Bear in mind that many people visit Costa Rica for its curious critters, though there are ways that you can escape the crowds. The lesser-trodden Parque Nacional Los Quetzales is home to the iconic quetzal, for instance, and the southern Nicoya Peninsula is a remote spot to kayak past monkeys and sloths.

Read below for our guide on where to go in Costa Rica.

San José and Valle Central

Though everyone passes through it, hardly anyone falls in love with San José. Yet Costa Rica’s underrated capital has some excellent cafés and restaurants, a lively university district and a good arts scene. The surrounding Valle Central is home to the steaming Volcán Poás and the largely dormant and lunar-like Volcán Irazú.

Volcán Arenal and Zona Norte

To the north, the broad alluvial plains of the Zona Norte feature the active Volcán Arenal. The iconic volcano spouts and spews within sight of the jungles of Sarapiquí, home to monkeys, poison-dart frogs and the endangered great green macaw. Up by the border with Nicaragua, the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro provides a haven for water birds and basking caiman.

Osa Peninsula and Zona Sur

Off-the-beaten-path travellers should head south to Cerro Chirripó, which looms high above the rugged plains of Zona Sur, and further still to the Osa Peninsula. Parque Nacional Corcovado is probably the best hiking destination in Costa Rica. It’s also one of the few places where you have a fighting chance of seeing the country’s more exotic wildlife.

Guanacaste province

In the northwest, the cattle-ranching province of Guanacaste is dominated by sabanero culture, with exuberant ragtag rodeos and large cattle haciendas. The beaches are some of the best – and, in parts, most developed – in the country. Sámara and Nosara, on the Nicoya Peninsula, provide picture-postcard scenery without the crowds.

Limón province

The Limón province, on the Caribbean coast, is home to descendants of the Afro-Caribbeans who came to Costa Rica at the end of the nineteenth century to work on the San José-Limón railroad. Today their language (Creole English), Protestantism and the West Indian traditions remain relatively intact. Most visitors venture here, however, for Parque Nacional Tortuguero, and the sea turtles that nest on its beaches.

Monteverde and Manuel Antonio

Close to the Pacific coast, travel to Monteverde to walk through one of Americas’ remaining high-altitude cloudforests. Further down the coast is popular Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, with its sublime ocean setting and tempting beaches. You’ll also find the surf-oriented sands of Montezuma and Santa Teresa/Mal País on the southern Nicoya Peninsula.

Discover more places in Costa Rica

Best time to go to Costa Rica

The months of November, April (after Easter) and May are the best times to visit Costa Rica. At this time, the rains have either just started or have died off, and the country is refreshed, green and relatively untouristy.

The dry season runs from mid-November to April, with sunshine and warm temperatures. he wet season (May to mid-November) has sunny mornings and afternoon rains – heaviest in September and October.

Costa Rica is generally fully booked during the peak season – the North American winter months.he crowds peter out after Easter, returning again in July and August.

Travellers who prefer to play it by ear are better off visiting during the low or rainy season, when many hotels offer discounts. Find out more information on weather in Costa Rica and when to go.

How to get to Costa Rica

Though some people travel to Costa Rica by land, most fly into Juan Santamaría (SJO) international airport, just outside San José. However, Costa Rica’s other international airport, Daniel Oduber Quiros (LIR), near Liberia, handles an increasing range of flights from the US, Canada and the UK.

Airfares depend on the season, with the highest being around July, August and December to mid-January. You’ll get the best prices during the wet summer (May–Nov). Compare prices before booking.

Find out more about how to travel to Costa Rica.

How to get around Costa Rica

This section of our Costa Rica travel guide will help you plan your travel around the country.

The public bus system is excellent, inexpensive and relatively frequent, even in remote areas. Privately run shuttle buses offer quicker but more expensive transfers, while taxis also regularly do long- as well as short-distance trips, and are decent value if you’re travelling in a group.

Car rental in Costa Rica is more common than in the rest of Central America, but is quite expensive. Expect to pay from about US$40 per day for a regular vehicle, and up to US$80 for an intermediate 4WD (both including full insurance). Extras such as additional driver, child seats, mobile phone and cool box will increase the price.

Driving can also be quite a hair-raising experience, with precipitous drops in the highlands and potholed roads just about everywhere else. Bear in mind that the difficult terrain makes driving distances longer than they appear on the map.

Domestic flights are a time-saver. The two domestic carriers, Sansa and NatureAir, offer reasonably economical flights between San José and many beach destinations and provincial towns. For more Costa Rica travel tips, visit this page.

Best places to visit in Costa Rica

Spanning two coastlines – Pacific and Caribbean – and filled with tropical cloud forest, waterfalls and volcanoes in between, Costa Rica is ripe for exploration. Here’s our round-up of the 10 best places to visit in Costa Rica.

1) Parque Nacional Corcovado

Draped across the Osa Peninsula in the far south of the country, this biologically rich, coastal rainforest is one of Costa Rica’s finest destinations for walking and wildlife-spotting.

2) Monteverde

Walk across a suspended bridge in the lush Monteverde cloudforest to experience the bird’s-eye view – and possibly a touch of vertigo.

3) Volcán Arenal

Though long dormant, Arenal is still a magnificent sight, and the surrounding area is one giant adventure playground – soak in volcanic hot springs, zipwire through the forest canopy or sign up for any number of other outdoor activities.

4) Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles

In a country not necessarily known for its architectural heritage, Cartago’s showpiece church is a stunner, with a gilded interior to match.

5) Parque Nacional Santa Rosa

This magnificent park protects a rare stretch of dry tropical rainforest – and the wildlife that calls it home.

6) Curú, Nicoya Peninsula

There are few more enjoyable ways of watching wildlife than paddling a kayak through the limpid waters of the southern Nicoya Peninsula, camping on beaches and spotting monkeys, sloths and seabirds along the way.

7) Organization of Tropical Studies

Spend a few days with the Organization of Tropical Studies at their biological stations in La Selva or Palo Verde and you’ll see why their guides are rated some of the best in the country.

8) Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Expect white-sand beaches, tropical forests full of sloths and monkeys, and dramatic coastal scenery.

9) Nauyaca Waterfalls

Hidden deep in the jungle, this off-grid jungle cascade is one of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica.

10) Off-the-beaten-track beaches

Escape the crowds at the gorgeous beaches of Playa Junquillal in Guanacaste and Ojochal’s Playa Tortuga on the southern Pacific coast.

Itineraries for Costa Rica

The carefully curated itineraries in our travel guide to Costa Rica will give you a taste of all the diverse country has to offer, from the wildlife-rich wetlands of the north and the remote rainforests of the south, to surf-lashed Pacific beaches and nesting turtles on the Atlantic coast.

Classic Costa Rica itinerary

Here is a sample itinerary, ideal for the first-time visitor to Costa Rica with a fortnight to play with. See all the itineraries in our Costa Rica travel guide here.

All the big hitters, from volcanoes to beaches via wildlife-rich national parks, can be ticked off on a simple, fairly central two-week circuit.

  1. San José

    The oft-overlooked capital has Costa Rica’s best museums and its widest range of restaurants, and is worth at least a night at the beginning or end of your trip.

  2. Poás or Irazú

    Two active volcanoes lie a short hop from San José: choose Volcán Poás for its boiling acid pools, Volcán Irazú for its milky-green crater lake and views of both oceans.

  3. Parque Nacional Tortuguero

    Even if you’re not here for the turtle-nesting seasons, you’ll see plenty of other jungle wildlife as you paddle through the network of forest-fringed canals.

  4. The Arenal region

    Volcán Arenal itself may be quiet, but the bustling town of La Fortuna is still an essential stop for walks in the national park and all manner of other outdoor activities.

  5. Monteverde

    Arguably the most famous reserve in Costa Rica, where you can hike through the cloudforest in search of resplendent quetzals.

  6. Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

    Further south along the coast, Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest national park – and also its most popular. Finish your trip spotting sloths and squirrel monkeys, or relaxing on a white-sand beach.

Volunteering in Costa Rica

An increasing number of visitors kick off their Costa Rica trip with an immersive language course, or break up their vacation with a few days of volunteering, whether that’s helping maintain trails in a cloudforest reserve or measuring turtles on the Pacific coast.

Study programmes and learning Spanish

There are scores of language schools in Costa Rica, with a wealth of Spanish courses in San José and the Valle Central. Most schools have a number of Costa Rican families on their books with whom they regularly place students for homestays. If you want private tuition, rates run from US$20 to US$30 per hour. A couple of good language schools include Academia Latinoamericana de Español and the Costa Rican Language Academy.

Volunteer work and research projects

There’s a considerable range of volunteer work and research projects in Costa Rica, such as monitoring sea turtles, helping conserve ­endangered parrots or working with rural communities. Some include food and lodging, and many can be organized from overseas. You’ll be required to spend at least a week working on a project, sometimes up to three months, though the extra insight you’ll gain is ample reward. Check out Volunteer South America for a list of free and low-cost volunteer placements.

Prospective US volunteers should visit Transitions Abroad for information on living and working overseas, while British volunteers should contact the Costa Rican Embassy in London. In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, you should contact the American Field Service in Sydney, Wellington and Johannesburg, respectively. A few good volunteer programmes in Costa Rica include ASVO, Earthwatch and the Monteverde Institute.

Adventure activities in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a giant playground for adventurous travellers, with everything from whitewater rafting to canopy tours on offer.

Hiking

Many people travel to Costa Rica for its excellent hiking, whether it be multi-day hikes through remote rainforest or ambling along well-maintained national park trails. Make sure to bring hiking boots, lightweight rain gear and potentially binoculars. 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.

Whitewater rafting

Some of the best rapids south of the Colorado are found in Costa Rica, with a growing mini-industry of rafting outfitters in San José, Turrialba and La Virgen. Most trips last a day, though some companies run overnight or multi-day excursions; costs range between US$60 and US$150 for a day, including transport, equipment and lunch. Rafters rate their rivers from Class I (easiest – Río Corobicí) to Class V (pretty hard, such as Upper Balsa – don’t venture onto one of these unless you know what you’re doing).

Kayaking

More than 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. Sea-kayaking is for experienced kayakers, and only ever with a guide – both coasts have treacherous currents.

Canopy tours, hanging bridges and aerial trams

Monteverde and the area around Volcán Arenal have some of the best canopy tours in Costa Rica. These are also great places for a more sedate “sky walk” across a series of hanging bridges, many right alongside the tree canopy – perfect for wildlife-spotting. You can also ride on an aerial tram: a gondola-like cable car that slowly circuits the upper reaches of the rainforest. Try the Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica Atlantic, just outside Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo.

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, the finest year-round beaches are at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Punta Uva. There are numerous camps and schools where you can learn to surf in Tamarindo, Santa Teresa/Mal País and Jacó.

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 underwater life, try the small reef near Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast.

Birdwatching

Costa Rica boasts more than 885 species of bird (including migratory ones) – a higher number than all of North America. You’ll likely spot hummingbirds, toucans, kingfishers and trogons. The iconic resplendent quetzal can be found in the higher elevations of Monteverde and the Cordillera de Talamanca. It is elusive but can still be spotted – most likely at San Gerardo de Dota, close to Cerro de la Muerte, and Parque Nacional Los Quetzales.

Mountain biking

The best places for mountain biking are Parque Nacional Corcovado, the road from Montezuma to the Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco on the southern Nicoya Peninsula, and Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. The La Fortuna and Volcán Arenal area is also increasingly popular: you can bike to see the volcano (although not up it) and around Laguna de Arenal.

Tips for travelling to Costa Rica

Follow our comprehensive Costa Rica travel tips and advice for a stress-free trip.

Travel with children in Costa Rica

A small, inherently peaceful country with a friendly populace, good healthcare and decent transport, Costa Rica is arguably the most child-friendly destination in Central America. Add a bounty of exotic wildlife, countless beaches and outdoor adventures galore, and you’ve enough to keep even the most adrenaline-fuelled teenager quiet for a week or two.

Families with children will be made to feel more than welcome in hotels and restaurants and on guided tours and trips. Most national parks have well-maintained trails: Poás and Carara and the Reserva Santa Elena have pushchair-friendly paths, while the main-crater viewpoint at Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú is also reachable with a buggy.

Safety in Costa Rica

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. Be vigilant in bus terminals and markets, and if you do have anything stolen, report it immediately at the nearest police station.

Car-related crime, especially involving rental vehicles, is on the rise, so always park securely, particularly at night. A common scam is for people to pre-puncture rental-car tyres, follow the vehicle and then pull over to “offer assistance”. Drug-trafficking is a growing problem, and dealers in tourist hangouts such as Jacó and Tamarindo occasionally approach travellers. Drug possession carries stiff penalties.

Health

Health-wise, travelling to Costa Rica is generally very safe. Food tends to be hygienically prepared, so upsets are normally limited to the usual “traveller’s tummy”. The only areas where it’s best not to drink tap water (including ice cubes) are Limón and Puntarenas. Guard against the blazing sun by wearing sunscreen and a hat, even on overcast days.

If you do require medical help, the (private) healthcare system in Costa Rica is excellent, with a couple of top-notch clinics in San José. In addition, the capital’s Hospital Nacional de Niños (C 14, at Av Central) has the best paediatric specialists in Central America.

Inoculations

No inoculations are required before you travel to Costa Rica unless you’re coming from a country that has yellow fever, such as Colombia, in which case you must be able to produce an up-to-date inoculation certificate. You may, however, want to make sure that your polio, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria and hepatitis A jabs are up to date. Rabies should be taken seriously for prolonged periods in the countryside.

Malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus

There is a small risk of malaria on the southern Caribbean coast, particularly in Puerto Limón and towards Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. A course of prophylactics can be a sensible precaution. There were a record 50,000 cases of dengue fever reported in Costa Rica in 2013, although numbers have since declined.

In 2016, over a hundred Zika virus cases were reported in the country, mostly in the Puntarenas and Guanacaste provinces. The virus can be dangerous for pregnant women, who are advised to seek medical advice before travelling to Costa Rica.

For malaria, dengue fever and the Zika virus, the best course of action is prevention. To avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, cover up with long sleeves and long trousers, use insect repellents (containing DEET) and, where necessary, sleep under a mosquito net.

Snakes and spiders

Snakes abound, but the risk of being bitten is incredibly small. Just in case, however, travellers hiking off the beaten track may want to take specific antivenins, available from Instituto Clodomiro Picado, and sterile hypodermic needles.

Most spiders in Costa Rica are harmless, but one species that’s definitely worth avoiding is the Brazilian wandering spider, a large dark-brown arachnid, often with bright red patches. The most venomous spider in the world, it hides under logs and dried banana leaves during the daytime. If you are bitten, seek medical attention immediately.

Travel insurance

It’s always a good idea to take out insurance before travelling. It’s important to have one that includes health cover as well as cover theft or loss of belongings, since private medical treatment in Costa Rica can be expensive. Always check whether medical benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or after you return home, and if there is a 24-hour medical emergency number.

Travel visa requirements for Costa Rica

Citizens of the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and most European countries do not need a visa for trips to Costa Rica of up to ninety days. All visitors need a valid passport. Your entrance stamp is very important: no matter where you arrive, make sure you get it. You have to carry your passport (or a photocopy) with you at all times in Costa Rica; if you are asked for it and cannot produce it, you may well be detained and fined.

Food and drink in Costa Rica

Costa Rican food – called comida típica (“native” or “local” food) by Ticos – is best described as unpretentious. Simple it may be, but it’s tasty nonetheless, especially when it comes to the 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.

What to eat and drink in Costa Rica

  • Casado (literally, “married person”): rice, meat or fish, coleslaw salad and plantain.
  • Gallo pinto (“painted rooster”): breakfast combination of red and white beans with rice, sometimes served with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) – often described as the national dish of Costa Rica.
  • Chicarrones: fried pork rind, often with a squeeze of rangpur or lime juice.
  • Ceviche: raw fish “cooked” in lime juice with coriander and peppers.
  • Fresh fish: pargo (red snapper) or corvina (sea bass).
  • Fruit: papayas, pineapple and bananas are all cheap and plentiful in Costa Rica, along with some less familiar fruits like mamones chinos (a kind of lychee), anona (custard fruit), pejibaye (peach palm fruit) and guanábana (soursop) along the Caribbean coast.
  • Coffee: Costa Rica is famous for its coffee, and it’s usual to end a meal with a small cup, Most of the best blends are exported, so premium coffee is generally only served in high-end restaurants and sold in shops.
  • Refrescos: cool drinks made with fresh fruit, ice and either milk (leche) or water (agua), all whipped up in a blender. You can buy them at stalls or in cartons, though the latter tend to be sugary.
  • Horchata or pinolillo: corn-based drinks made with milk and sugar, found in Guanacaste.

The most economical places to eat in Costa Rica – and where most workers have lunch, their main meal – are the ubiquitous sodas (diners). Because Costa Ricans start the day early, they are less likely to hang about late in restaurants in the evening, and establishments are usually empty or closed by 10pm.

Culture of Costa Rica

While Costa Rica is modernizing fast, its character continues to be rooted in distinct local cultures. For example, the Afro-Caribbean province of Limón, has Creole cuisine, games and dialect, whilst in Guanacaste, the cowboys and sabanero embody traditional ladino values.

Above all, the country still has the highest rural population density in Latin America, and society continues to revolve around the twin axes of countryside and family. Wherever you go, you’ll see snapshots of rural life, whether it be horsemen trotting by on dirt roads, coffee-plantation labourers setting off to work in the highlands or avocado-pickers cycling home at sunset.

Accommodation in Costa Rica

There is a wide range of places to stay in Costa Rica. Budget accommodation ranges from the extremely basic, where US$25 will only get you a room and a bed, to a clean, comfortable en-suite room with a fan and possibly a TV for around US$40.

In the middle and upper price ranges, facilities and services are generally of a very good standard.

The larger places to stay in Costa Rica are usually called hotels; while posadas, hostals, hospedajes and pensiones are smaller.

Casas tend to be private guesthouses or B&Bs, while albergues are the equivalent of lodges.

Cabinas are common in coastal areas: they’re usually either a string of motel-style rooms in an annexe away from the main building or, more often, separate self-contained units. Anything called a motel – as in most of Latin America – is unlikely to be used for sleeping.

Staying with a Costa Rican family

There’s no better way to experience life off the tourist trail and to practise your Spanish than by staying with a Tico family.

Most homestay programmes in Costa Rica are organized by the country’s various language schools and cater mainly to students. However, some schools may be willing to put you in contact with a family even if you are not a student at the school in question – such as the Ilisa Language School.

Stays can last from one week up to several months, and many travellers use the family home as a base while touring the country. For a non-study-based option, try Bells’ Home Hospitality or the Monteverde Institute.

Top image © Geoffrey Newland/Shutterstock

Biodiversity under protection

Despite its small size, Costa Rica possesses no less than 5% of the world’s total biodiversity, in part due to its position as a transition zone between temperate North and tropical South America, and also thanks to its complex system of interlocking micro-climates, created by differences in topography and altitude. This biological abundance (which includes over 885 species of birds and a quarter of the world’s known butterflies) is now safeguarded by one of the world’s most enlightened and dedicated conservation programmes – about 25% of Costa Rica’s land is protected, most of it through the country’s extensive system of national parks and wildlife refuges.

Costa Rica’s national parks range from the tropical jungle lowlands of Corcovado to the grassy volcanic uplands of Rincón de la Vieja, an impressive and varied range of terrain that has enhanced the country’s popularity with eco-tourists. Outside the park system, however, land is assailed by deforestation – ironically, there are now no more significant patches of forest left anywhere in the country outside of protected areas.

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Rough Guides Editors
11/5/2020
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