Costa Rica Travel Guide
Costa Rica is more than a vacation destination; it is an interactive sensory experience. The country has an array of environmental attractions - majestic volcanoes, misty cloud forests, stunning river valleys, and hundreds of beaches along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Luxurious hotels boast hot springs and massages; simple, family-owned cabins dot the landscape; and a peaceful, family-oriented culture weaves it all together.
What is Costa Rica Known For?
A national motto of “Pura Vida!” or “Pure Life!”; delicious and hearty fresh food; succulent tropical fruit; great weather, friendly people, and outdoor adventure are all reasons why Costa Rica is a popular vacation destination. In terms of the country’s background, the nation is approximately the same size as West Virginia in the United States. Containing 4 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity, Costa Rica is one of the world's most biologically diverse countries. Scientists have estimated that close to 4 percent of the Earth’s species live in Costa Rica. The nation boasts rainforests and cloud forests (there is a difference), sunny beaches, mountains, volcanoes, hot springs, waterfalls and rivers – as well as all of the action you would expect to find across these terrains.
Why Visit Costa Rica?
You should visit Costa Rica because it is one of the most biodiverse and naturally beautiful places on planet Earth. Over 500,000 species call Costa Rica home – on land and in the sea. Countless plants thrive here, including more than 1,400 species of orchid flower, and hollow ficus or fig trees that you can scale from the inside. Outdoor adventure, relaxing by the beach, seeing animals in their native habitat, learning about a new culture, supporting sustainable travel and local family-owned businesses… When you vacation in Costa Rica, you’ll not only have an amazing time, you can actually feel good about where your travel dollars are going. Because Costa Rica offers a little bit of everything, even the pickiest travelers will find something to satisfy their tastes, making this a truly unique destination:
It’s a tropical paradise. Pristine beaches, emerald forests, and birds in almost every color of the rainbow dot the nation’s landscape. The vibrant color extends to your plate when you feast upon the nation’s tropical fruits – the vegetables are tasty too. The best part? Even the people are friendly in this family-oriented country; there is no military, giving the national motto of “Pura Vida!” or “Pure Life” a dual meaning.
The beaches are absolutely stunning. Golden sand, white sand, even crunchy sand made up of crushed seashells (Playa Conchal; you’re welcome) – gracing it all are the rolling waves of the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, thanks to the nation’s dual coasts. One of the reasons the beaches stay so beautiful? They are fiercely protected. A 200 meter maritime zoning law has prevented heavy beachfront hotel construction so everyone can enjoy nature’s bounty.
Rainforests and cloud forests. You’re probably already familiar with rainforests, but if you’ve never been to one of the world’s cloud forests then you’re in for an extra special treat. Less than 2.5 percent of the world’s tropical forests are cloud forests – shrouded in a perpetual misty haze. Costa Rica’s forests are some of the most biodiverse places on planet Earth, including orchids, countless insects, birds, and even land and sea mammals.
One word: Sustainability. From ecolodges to reforestation, the entire nation of Costa Rica is incredibly green. In fact, Costa Rica is so green that they’re on track to become the world’s first carbon neutral country - already, over 99 percent of their electricity is generated by renewable energy (geothermal, hydroelectricity, wind, solar, and biomass). 30 percent of the land is under conservation measurements, and your travel dollars directly support these efforts. Even activities offer visitors the chance to enjoy hands-on environmentally friendly activities such as tree planting or helping nesting or baby sea turtles.
Action and adventure. In Costa Rica, your vacation will be anything but boring. One minute, you’re walking through a forest canopy on a suspension bridge, the next, you’re zooming through it on a zip line. Whitewater rafting down river rapids, kayaking across the sea, surfing, snorkeling, and diving, are just a few of the aquatic adventures that await you. Prefer to stay dry? How about exploring the local area on a catamaran, or whale watching tour? Hike near a volcano, enjoy early morning birdwatching to spot rare breeds, and explore the forest at night. See? So much to choose from!
Where to Visit in Costa Rica?
If it’s your first time visiting the country, you may be overwhelmed by how much choice you have – beaches, mountains, lakes, volcanoes, rainforests, cloud forests… Choose your own adventure when you explore the nation’s landscapes. Here are the top five best Costa Rica places to visit
First on the list is Arenal. Technically, the name of the town is La Fortuna, Costa Rica but ‘Arenal’ is the catchall term used to refer to the Arenal recreational area – which includes Arenal Volcano, Arenal Volcano National Park, Lake Arenal, and some excellent whitewater rafting rivers. Incredible views of the volcano are available throughout town. Here, you can enjoy rugged activities like hiking near a volcano, rappelling, rafting, and mountain biking around the lake.
Monteverde, Costa Rica is on the other side of Lake Arenal and offers you a different kind of outdoor adventure. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is definitely a place you should see within your lifetime, and is home to an impressive variety of plants and animals. Other popular attractions include zip lines, suspension bridges, aerial trams, horseback riding, and night tours of the forest.
If it’s the beach you’re after, start with Manuel Antonio, because this destination has something for everyone – snorkeling, jungle excursions, birdwatching, river tubing, and day trips on catamarans…you have serious options. The best part? Manuel Antonio National Park is home to a wide variety of animals, so you can see wildlife up-close while supporting the infrastructure that maintains their natural habitat.
Santa Teresa - Mal Pais
Looking to live the life of a quintessential beachbum or surfer? Welcome to the twin towns of Santa Teresa - Mal Pais, Costa Rica. In Santa Teresa, you can enjoy sun soaked days surfing and evenings sipping an ice cold beer at a beach party. Meanwhile, the quiet hamlet of Mal Pais lets you fish to your heart’s content and enjoy quiet, uncrowded beaches (they’re great for yoga, reading, and sketching).
Tortuguero, Costa Rica features an Afro-Caribbean vibe that you’ll miss in other parts of the country. You know what else you won’t want to miss? Floating safaris where caimans, crocodiles, and birds call canals and the surrounding marsh home. The region is also home to nesting sea turtles, hence its name – Tortuguero translates as ‘region of turtles’.
When is The Best Time to Visit Costa Rica?
Anytime is a great time to visit Costa Rica! But odds are by “best time to visit” you mean, “When is Costa Rica’s Dry Season?” That’s going to be December to April on the country’s Pacific Slope, but keep in mind, that this is also the busiest time of the year – international sunseekers flock to the country in droves to beat the winter blues. On the Caribbean Slope, the dry season is July to October. Keep in mind that each coast is prone to occasional rain showers any time of year, and it is not uncommon for mountainous regions to be cooler than their lower elevation counterparts.
May to November is dubbed ‘green season’ because the rainy portion of the year is what keeps the nation’s foliage vibrant and beautiful. During this period, the Pacific Coast undergoes a stunning transformation – Pacific Dry Forests are transformed into lush rainforests, making the terrain incredibly picturesque. The term ‘green season’ also takes on a double meaning when you book your trip, because it’s also the time of year when you can ‘save some green.’ Low-season means great savings on accommodations and activities, and it’s not uncommon for showers to pass in the afternoon and give way to sunbreaks, so it’s not like your entire vacation will be a literal wash. If you don’t want to sacrifice indulgences, but still need to travel to Costa Rica economically, consider vacationing this time of year.
The busiest travel times in Costa Rica (non-weather related) are during Christmas and New Year's, as well as the week leading up to Easter Sunday, which is known as Semana Santa or Holy Week. If you plan to travel during these weeks then you must book your hotel well in advance — but it’s a better idea to simply plan your visit to Costa Rica for another time.
Does Costa Rica Have Good Beaches?
Costa Rica’s beaches are great! Even better, there’s a beach for you – whether you’re looking to enjoy romantic interludes, outdoor adventure, or quiet, uncrowded bliss.
Need something more down to Earth and laid-back? Check out the twin towns of Santa Teresa - Mal Pais; the former is great for surfing and bonfire kickbacks, the latter is a quiet fishing hamlet with uncrowded beaches. Nearby and super chill Montezuma is also worth considering.
If nature is the name of the game, then you’ll definitely want to head to Drake Bay, aka the gateway to Corcovado National Park. This shoreline is not for sunning yourself. Trek through ecologically diverse primary rainforests; snorkel in waters teeming with marine life; go sea kayaking, horseback riding, and more.
For the perfect mix of outdoor adventure, nighttime fun, and even romance, Tamarindo fits the bill. Its golden beaches promise a good time for children and adults alike.
As for exploring, you can take plenty of day trips to additional beaches that offer great snorkeling and jungle access – some of which are within national parks, so you’ll have an even better chance of spotting local wildlife.
How to Plan A Trip to Costa Rica?
There are three simple steps to planning your Costa Rica itinerary.
Step 1: Determine your travel budget, because this is the one thing that has the least amount of flexibility. Your travel budget dictates which time of year you should visit, and the kind of experiences and accommodations you should consider. Need an example?
Let’s say you have to factor the children’s schedules in; well, they have both winter and summer off. North American and European winters are Costa Rica’s high-season, but summer is “green season”. So the time of year that might be a stretch for a family of four is within reach if they don’t mind a little rain. By the way; even Costa Rica’s rainy season is known for having moderate temperatures and sun bursts.
Step 2: Choose the type travel experience you’d like to have – economical, moderate, luxury? Want to splurge on accommodations because you want to spend most of your time relaxing? Or, do you just need a clean place to rest your head and take a hot shower because you’re heading to Costa Rica for back-to-back adventures? Once you know where you want your travel budget to go, and why, you can finally…
Step 3: Determine when you want to go. If your budget allows for the high-season, you can consider visiting Costa Rica from December to April. Need to save a little green during green season? You’ll be booking your trip from May to November. Either way, you have several months to choose from, no matter your budget!
Bonus Points: Let an Anywhere Local Expert manage all of your accommodations, activities, and transportation. We’ll do all the heavy lifting when it comes to designing a personalized travel itinerary – whatever your needs. Instead of spending hours online researching, you get to pick and choose from the options that already meet your specifications for budget, trip type, and time of year!
Is Costa Rica’s Food Safe?
Costa Rica’s food is not only safe, it’s delicious! Hearty helpings of chicken, rice, and beans make frequent appearances on restaurant menus. As a tropical Central American nation, the region also boasts superb fruits and vegetables. As for beverages, you’re probably wondering, “Is Costa Rica’s water safe?” More specifically, “Is Costa Rica’s water safe to drink?” Yes, on both counts! It’s safe to splash around in the water, and you can find clean tap water throughout Costa Rica and in most tourist destinations. You are also much less likely to suffer from stomach upset than in other countries in Central America. So, if the restaurant you’re in looks clean, feel free to order whatever strikes your fancy – and a nice cold drink to go with it.
What is The Currency in Costa Rica?
The Costa Rican currency is the ‘colon’, which hovers between 550 - 600 colones/ $1 USD. U.S. dollars are widely accepted, provided the bill is not too large ($50 and $100 bills are rarely accepted). Hotels and tours generally list their prices in dollars.
Compared to the rest of Central America, prices in Costa Rica are relatively high, due in large part to the country’s high standard of living. Typical Costa Rican food and produce is quite inexpensive, while imported products are priced similarly to U.S. prices. A typical Costa Rican breakfast and lunch will cost around 2000-5000 colones ($4-10). So, when shopping in Costa Rica, you have plenty of options whether you’ve exchanged your money into the local Costa Rican currency or not.
Is It Safe to Drive in Costa Rica?
Yes, it is technically safe to drive in Costa Rica. In truth, it is more accurate to say that driving in Costa Rica is safe if you are a defensive driver who is down for an adventure. Love a good road trip and figure you’ll take the scenic route during your getaway? There are a few things you should know about Costa Rica’s driving conditions first. Here, when the rubber meets the road you never know what you’re going to get – Costa Rica’s road conditions vary widely throughout the country. So, that road trip you’re envisioning will be less exploring dusty, open roads to beautiful beaches, and more driving on two-lane freeways.
With the nation’s tropical climate and mountainous terrain, many roads are difficult to maintain, and many have never been paved. Relatively short distances can take many hours due to poor road conditions or traffic, and some roads are simply inaccessible during the rainy season when rivers swell. It is always a good idea to check with the locals about current road conditions before planning a day trip or taking off in your rental car (which may not be maintained to the standards you’re used to).
These tips can make or break your day, so it’s best to book transportation with Anywhere, and leave the driving to the professionals. They are used to the quirks of the roads and getting you from point A to point B as efficiently (and safely) as possible.
What is Costa Rica’s Geography?
Costa Rica is in Central America; the country's total area is 19,730 square miles (51,100 sq km), which is slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia in the U.S. The nation shares land borders with Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south; the west coast is lined by the Pacific Ocean, while the Caribbean Sea dominates the east coast.
Costa Rica's terrain varies between coastal plains and rugged mountains. In fact, the mountains separate the coasts almost perfectly thanks to the Continental Divide, or ‘backbone of Central America’, running right through the country. The drastic change from beaches to high-elevation mountains is a large part of why Costa Rica is known for having “15 climates in a day”. It might not actually be that drastic, but the weather does vary significantly from beach to forest, lowland to highland, and coast to coast.
The nation’s highest point is Cerro Chirripo, which rises to 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) in the Chirripó National Park. More than 100 volcanic cones dot the landscape and five of them are still active – Arenal, Irazu, Poas, Rincon de La Vieja, and Turrialba.
What is Costa Rica’s Climate Like?
Seasonal, but mostly divided between a wet season and dry season – you won’t find the extremely harsh winters some regions endure in North America and Europe. With a variety of terrains and elevations comes many microclimates in Costa Rica, so although there is a general ‘best time of year’ to visit Costa Rica, the specific weather is likely to vary from coast to coast.
It rains year-round in Costa Rica (gotta’ keep the country green), so bring a light rain jacket. From December to April is generally considered the dry season, and the rainy season starts in May. However, the Caribbean Coast is much less predictable than the Pacific Coast and can receive rain throughout the year, but it too has a mostly dry stretch from July to October. The nation’s mountains and volcanoes further create their own series of Costa Rica microclimates; a rainy day at the beach may be nothing more than a morning or afternoon shower here. Likewise, the mountains may be cooler when other parts of the country are pleasantly warm.
What is Costa Rica’s Culture Like?
The word to best describe Costa Rica’s culture is: friendly – from the food to the landscape, the nation is friendly, beautiful, eclectic, outdoorsy, and extremely eco-friendly. Sustainability has become one of the cornerstones of modern-day Costa Rican culture; it is understood that to continue enjoying the land for generations to come, we must take care of it now. In the past 40 years, the Costa Rican government has demonstrated a keen awareness of the relationship between tourism and the environment. In order to maintain Costa Rica’s awe-inspiring biodiversity, the Institute of Costa Rican Tourism has implemented a system that rewards hotels and tour providers that implement green business practices.
What is Costa Rica’s Government?
Costa Rica’s government type is a “Democratic Republic”. The nation has an “Executive Power System” which consists of a President, two Vice Presidents, and an extended Legislative Assembly. Much like the United States, Costa Rica has an Executive Branch, Legislative Branch, and Judicial Branch. The people electing their President is a large portion of why the nation enjoys strong governmental (and economic) stability. Another reason? A lack of military.
Since Costa Rica has no military, it is able to put additional funding toward the betterment of the nation and its citizens. Public education up to the 11th grade, universal healthcare, national parks, and reserves are a few of the core benefits. Another is the nation’s high degree of sustainability. Again, without having to factor in a military budget, Costa Rica has been able to focus on building it’s sustainable infrastructure and is on track to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country. The government continues to support these endeavors rather than allow businesses to plunder the nation’s exhaustible resources.
With a government that ensures basic social needs are met, a high degree of literacy, and plenty of safe and clean outdoor space, there is very little need for dissension amongst citizens.
How is Costa Rica’s Economy?
It’s great! There are many reasons Costa Rica’s society is so pleasant, and enjoying economic stability is chief among them. Costa Rica is a peaceful country, and has not had a standing army since 1948. The government provides free education for citizens through the 11th grade, as well as healthcare. Citizens of Costa Rica enjoy a high standard of living — there is a 96 percent literacy rate and an average life expectancy of 78 years.
“Okay, but what is what is Costa Rica’s economy based on?” you ask. Costa Rica’s economy revolves around foreign investment and tourism. In the past decade, Costa Rica has attracted businesses from the United States, including IBM, Dell, and Western Union. 25 percent of the nation’s territory is devoted to national parks and reserves, and Costa Rica has put a stop to deforestation. The country also enjoys a healthy agricultural industry which includes coffee, chocolate, and fruit as popular exports.
Why is Costa Rica So Sustainable?
What makes Costa Rica so sustainable is a firm commitment to sustainability – nationwide. This is one of the reasons why ecotourism and sustainable development in Costa Rica go hand in hand. However, living up to environmental virtues and sustainable development remains a constant battle throughout the country, whether due to lucrative contract offers, corrupt politics, or illegal poaching and logging. Nevertheless, Costa Rica has largely resisted opportunities to exploit its vast natural resources for valued commodities, despite having a high density of precious metals in the South Pacific, oil along the Pacific Coast, and rare hardwoods in the rainforest.
Instead of plundering its own exhaustible resources, Costa Rica has opted for an ethic of sustainable development and a commitment to develop renewable energy.The nation is already on track to become the first carbon-neutral country; as of 2020, more than 99 percent of its energy needs are met through a combination of geothermal, hydroelectric, and wind power, with strides being made in the solar and biomass sectors as well. Energy alternatives already in place are a large part of what keeps Costa Rica sustainable, and allows the country to focus on researching and implementing new sustainable methods in other areas.
How to Travel Sustainably in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica already has lots of sustainability measures in place, making eco-friendly travel relatively simple.
1. Choose “Certification for Sustainable Tourism” (CST) and “Blue Flag” rated hotels and activities, and beaches.
2. Eat farm to table. Although this may be a trendy term in some countries, it’s simple in Costa Rica. Choose accommodations that have a garden and frequent restaurants that support local farmers. A good rule of thumb is to choose local and family-owned operations.
3. If you can’t avoid flying you can offset your carbon emissions. Eco-conscious travel agencies such as Anywhere help you offset your carbon output by allowing you to purchase trees that will be planted, and grow for years to come – slowly but surely absorbing the Earth’s carbon output.
4. Go green with group travel. If you aren’t in a rush, you can still enjoy the comfort of personal transportation when you choose Anywhere’s shuttle option. Our professional driver’s will chauffeur you around in clean, cool vehicles, but because you share your ride with other passengers there’s less wasted space in the vehicle. It’s the best of both worlds!
5. Choose local. From food and beverages, to crafts, to accommodations and tours, locals have a vested interest in maintaining the country’s health and natural beauty – after all, that pristine and fertile landscape is a large part of the country’s thriving tourism economy. So, put your travel dollars toward the greater good by supporting Costa Rican citizens and the environment whenever possible.