Costa Rica Travel Tips: Things to Know Before You Go
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These days, a trip to Costa Rica seems to be on everyone’s bucket list! We’ve been hearing more and more stories of friends, acquaintances, and lots of our readers planning their upcoming trips and activities in Costa Rica and asking us for some Costa Rica travel tips!
Planning a Trip in the time of COVID?
Keep in mind that information found in this article may have been impacted by travel restrictions and other closures. Double check opening hours, tour providers and hotel status before you go. And don’t leave your home without travel insurance! If you are looking for an insurance provider that covers COVID-19, we recommend Safety Wing. Get Medical and Travel Insurance starting at just $40/month and you can sign up even if your trip has already started!
Every year, close to 3 million tourists visit Costa Rica, that’s equivalent to the size of the entire population of Costa Rica! It’s a huge number and one that’s likely going to increase in the coming years. Some expats in Costa Rica grunt and complain about the crowds, but we are thrilled to hear that more people are traveling to experience this beautiful country!
If you are one of the lucky many that are planning a Costa Rica travel in the near future, there are some helpful things to know about Costa Rica.
Having spent many months in Costa Rica, and with Max having grown up here, we can share a few things to know before going to Costa Rica. After helping 40 of our friends and family make their way to Costa Rica for our wedding in 2015, we know exactly the questions on first-time travelers’ minds.
Yet another beautiful beach in Costa Rica. Playa Carillo, Sámara, Guanacaste
We decided to compile all our tips and tricks for traveling to Costa Rica: what to bring, what to avoid, and what to wear! Here are our top Costa Rica travel tips!
Brush up on Your Spanish
The official language in Costa Rica is Spanish and a large majority of Costa Ricans speak English in the touristic areas. But, not all of them do!
It’s a good idea to brush up on your Spanish or bring a phrasebook to get around if you plan on visiting Costa Rica. It never hurts to know a bit of the local language.
Locals love to chat. Don’t be surprised if someone strikes up a conversation with you in the streets. Tourism is on the rise in Costa Rica, and locals are eager to welcome you to their country.
You Can Visit Costa Rica Any Time of the Year
When people think of visiting Costa Rica, we often get asked, “What’s the best time of the year for visiting Costa Rica?” And our answer is always the same, “Any time is a good time!”
Costa Rica has two well defined seasons: The dry season, which runs from December to April and green season from May to November.
Dry Season in Costa Rica
Don’t be fooled by generic weather forecasts; the weather here really depends on what part of Costa Rica you are visiting.
Dry Season in Northern Guanacaste
Costa Rica’s northern Guanacaste is the country’s driest region. If you are spending time in Guanacaste during the dry season, prepare for very hot days. Beautiful blue skies are common, but so are droughts.
One of our most important travel tips for Costa Rica? Always bring water with you.
Dry season in Playa Lagartillo, Guanacaste
During the rainy season, you can expect less rain in the Guanacaste than the rest of the country. Afternoons and evenings are usually rainy but mornings remain clear and sunny.
Dry Season in Central Valley
In the Central Valley surrounding San Jose, in Monteverde, Arenal and other mountainous regions across the country, the weather is much cooler and rainier. So if your itinerary includes a stop in any of these regions, pack layers and rain gear no matter what time of the year you are visiting.
It’s lush and wet on the trail inside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, despite it being the dry season
Dry Season in Southern Puntarenas
The lusher parts of the country in the south like Manuel Antonio, Osa Peninsula, and Southern Puntarenas have a longer rainy season but that means they stay green for longer during peak months.
Mangroves in Osa Peninsula stay wet all year round
Green Season in Costa Rica
September to October is Costa Rica’s low season. It is also known as green season because of the country’s forest and flora are lush from the season’s extra rainfall.
Many businesses shut down during this time of year; so if you do decide to visit, expect a quieter experience.
Our Costa Rica travel guide advice: don’t be afraid to visit Costa Rica during the rainy season. The prices are the lowest you will find all year round, and the crowds are almost non-existent. This time of the year, travelers simply jam pack their mornings and enjoy lazy afternoons reading a book in a hammock to avoid the rain!
Hazy afternoon in Playa Ventanas, Uvita, Costa Ballena during the Green Season
Peak Season in Costa Rica
December and January are the most popular months for tourism. The surroundings are still lush after the rainy season, and the weather along the coast is fantastic: 25-30°C (77 – 86°F) during the day and 20-25°C (68 – 77°F) at night. This is the busiest time in Costa Rica and the most expensive time to visit.
All hotels and even some tours will add a “high season” premium to their prices. Foreign tourists are not the only ones traveling during this time. Domestic tourism is also on the rise during this time of year.
Busy day on Tamarindo Beach, Guanacaste during Peak Season
Tips for Booking During High-Season
If you have no choice but to travel during the high season, consider these travel tips:
- Always book well in advance.
- Start your sightseeing early in the day, or opt for later in the afternoon when crowds are at their lowest.
- Consider going off the beaten path and visiting some lesser-known destinations. By doing so, you will ditch the crowds and get to experience a different side of the country: cheaper prices, authentic experiences, and local interaction.
Best Time to Visit Costa Rica is Late November or Early December
We recommend visiting in late November or early December. During this time of year, the rainy season is typically over, and there is lots of sunshine to enjoy.
The landscape is super green and lush from the rainy season. Restaurants, accommodations, and attractions are all open the prices are reasonable because the crowds have not arrived yet.
Tamarindo Beach without the crowds!
We recommend starting on the Northern Guanacaste. These areas are the driest in the country during this time. In the Southern Peninsula rain sometimes lingers a little longer.
One Week in Costa Rica is Not Enough
The country may look small, but there are so many amazing activities in Costa Rica. There are hundreds of beaches to explore, two dozen national parks, half a dozen volcanoes and an immense number of activities to take part in during your visit.
Many travelers ask whether it is possible to see Costa Rica in a week and our answer is: it really isn’t.
To really appreciate Costa Rica, you have to give yourself time to really soak it in. You can’t base yourself on the beach in Guanacaste and take day trips to check out Arenal Volcano, Manuel Antonio National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest, and other main sights in Costa Rica. The distances between them may not look far apart, but trust us, the drives are long and exhausting!
For example, the drive time between Tamarindo Beach, Guanacaste to Monteverde Cloud Forest is a minimum of 3 and a half hours by car. If your taking public buses add a couple of hours more. The trip requires bus transfers.
Suspension bridge along the Puente Trail in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
It is not realistic (or enjoyable) to travel a minimum of 7 hours for a day trip. If a week is all you have, come to terms with the fact that you won’t see it all and treat it like a little sneak preview.
We think that each destination in Costa Rica warrants at least 2-3 days to appreciate and to get a good taste of the country.
You’ll want to spend at least 2 weeks in Costa Rica. A fortnight will give you just enough time to soak up the atmosphere and try the wide variety of fun activities Costa Rica has to offer.
Is Costa Rica Safe?
Yes – Costa Rica is a safe country when using common sense and basic safety precautions. The most dangerous part of the country is the capital, San Jose, especially at night.
Our traveler tip for San Jose is not to linger in the city for too long, but if you must spend a few days in the capital, opt to stay in Escazu, the safest and nicest neighbourhood in San Jose, and explore the city during the day.
Inside a “Soda” in San Jose
Other Costa Rica Safety Tips & Considerations
The biggest safety risk in other parts of the country is petty theft, like pickpocketing or bag snatching, so keep your valuables in a safe place and don’t flaunt your expensive possessions.
The beaches at night are a popular place for petty theft!
When traveling around the country, don’t carry your passport with you at all times. Instead, take a photo of your passport picture and your entry stamp page on your phone to be able to present it in the case of random inspection.
Don’t venture off the beaten path at night in busy touristic areas. Opportunistic crime and drug-related scams are more likely to occur. Be careful to always keep an eye on your drinks when enjoying a night out. Solo women travelers should be especially careful.
Tap Water in Costa Rica is Safe to Drink
One of the important things to know about Costa Rica is that tap water in most parts of the country is perfectly safe to drink. So, save the environment and don’t buy bottled water.
We served flavoured tap water at our wedding in Costa Rica
Bring a good insulated reusable water bottle with you and refill it straight out of a tap. We recommend HydroFlask, it’ll keep your water cold for up to 12 hours even in the hot sun. This is one of our most important Costa Rica tips and tricks!
Their double wall and vacuum insulated technology makes HydroFlask so effective. Cold drinks stay icy for up to 24 hours, and hot drinks will stay steaming for up to 6 hours.
There is a good variety of colours and designs to choose from too. It also protects against flavour transfer. So, your water won’t end up tasting like yesterday’s juice.
For parts of Costa Rica where potable water is not available, we recommend using SteriPen Ultra. This powerful tool kills up to 99.9% of bacteria and viruses in water, using a UV light. Simply, hold the pen in the water for 90 seconds. No need to buy any more single-use plastic bottles.
Buy a Local Sim Card to Stay Connected in Costa Rica
Staying connected while in Costa Rica is easy without paying $30-50 for a roaming plan. Wi-Fi is easy to find in touristy areas in Costa Rica. Most hotels and restaurants that cater to foreigners will have free Wi-Fi for you to use during your stay. You can call and message your family and friends back home for free using Whatsapp, Facebook, Viber, Facetime, or Skype.
You can top up your local SIM in any supermarket in Costa Rica
You can also save on roaming fees by unlocking your phone before you leave home and buying a local sim card upon arrival in Costa Rica. When in doubt, go with Kolbi.
There is a Kolbi Shop in Liberia Airport. A tourist SIM Card will set you back less than a dollar. They offer a number of pre-paid plans, depending on what you need.
For 2,500 Colones ($4.30 USD), you can get 200 SMS, 3.4 minutes of talk and 150 MB of Data.
Our Skyroam hotspot keeps us connected in Costa Rica
If unlocking your phone is not an option, we recommend investing in a Wi-Fi Hotspot device, like SkyRoam that gives you unlimited Wi-Fi for just $8 USD/day. And the best part is that you can use it across multiple devices, so the whole family can stay connected at once!
Currency Exchanges in Airports Don’t Always Offer the Greatest Rates
Costa Rica’s local currency is the Colon. It was named after Christopher Columbus, who is known as Cristobal Colon in Spanish. The value of the Colon has been slowly inching upward as their economy continues to grow largely from tourism, agriculture, and electronics.
Tourism in Costa Rica is on the rise!
Both USD and Colones are interchangeable across the country, but if you are going to use USD, keep the bills small (under $20). If you are buying souvenirs or bargaining with someone, paying in Colones will often land you a better price since most places exchange at a lower rate.
When it comes to money, one of the most important things to know about Costa Rica is that currency exchange rates at the airports can be hit or miss.
More often than not we have found these rates to be daylight robbery, so here are our travel tips for Costa Rica to save you some money:
Bring US cash and exchange into local currency (Colones) as you go.
Any local business big or small will offer you a minimum rate of 550 Colones to USD $1 (At the time of writing the exchange was 578 Colones to USD $1).
Pay with US dollars at large grocery stores and get Colones back
They have computerized rates that are very favourable and some of the best in Costa Rica.
Withdraw cash from an ATM
We recommend Scotia Bank or BNCR. Withdraw the maximum amount ($500, if you can) to avoid paying the $5 foreign transaction fee on every $100 you withdraw. If you can manage to take out over $500 in one go, then you are likely only paying around 1% per transaction and getting a great exchange rate in the process.
Get cash out in cities so you can enjoy the Costa Rican countryside worry-free
Banks Aren’t Always Easy to Find
If you run out of cash, you can always withdraw more using your Debit/Credit Card from any ATM. Some machines will even give you the option to withdraw both USD and Colones. But, keep in mind that there are NO ATMs in smaller towns, so make sure you withdraw cash in big cities.
Don’t Forget to Add Insurance to Your Car’s Rental Price
Insurance on car rentals is mandatory in Costa Rica, but be aware that it’s not included in the price listed on many car rental websites online. Typically the additional cost is around $10/15 a day for mandatory third party insurance and unfortunately in 9 cases out of 10 it’s not something that can be covered by your travel insurance or your credit card insurance, so budget accordingly.
It is worth checking your credit card, and travel insurance before you rent to see what is included. Liability insurance is sometimes covered by some credit cards.
Rental car insurance is mandatory in Costa Rica and you can only imagine why…
Driving in Costa Rica Can Be Tricky
Follow These Travel Tips for a Smooth Ride:
Driving in Costa Rica should be left to confident drivers. Drivers here can be aggressive and if you want to get anywhere, especially in places like San Jose, you’ll have to keep up with the locals.
Driving in Costa Rica is not for the light hearted
A lot of the roads in Costa Rica and not paved, they are dirt roads with potholes and are often in bad condition. Drive slowly, watch out for potholes and for other cars driving on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes the potholes are so bad that driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid a huge pothole is the only option.
There are no road/street names or house numbers in Costa Rica. With the exception of San Jose, street names and house numbers do not exist in other parts of the country.
Instead, directions are given using landmarks and sights as references. For example, “300 meters north of the blue church, 80 meters west, house before the barking dog with one eye.” Yes. We are not joking!
No public transport can get you here!
Waze is community-based, which means that every day thousands of locals update the service in real time. The app provides information on construction, real-time traffic, and even the location of police speed traps.
This road to the Nauyaca Waterfalls, is a typical road in Costa Rica
Driving at night has its own set of challenges. The roads are rarely well lit and are always shared with people, cattle, stray dogs, iguanas, and so on. Exercise an extra level of caution and don’t be afraid to use your high beams.
If you come to a river crossing, don’t stress. Cars cross it on a daily basis and you can too. Test the depth of the river by walking across it on foot first. If it the level is below your exhaust pipe, it’s safe to cross. Drive SLOWLY, or you will flood your car’s engine!
Evaluating the river depth at a river crossing in Costa Rica
If you are driving on the beach, avoid soft sand and always use 4WD, go fast or you are bound to get bogged down.
Always fill up at gas stations in big cities to get the best price. Gas may be hard to find and will likely be a lot more expensive in smaller towns.
Buses in Costa Rica are Reliable and a Great Alternative to Getting Around by Car
There is a well-developed bus system in Costa Rica that you can use to get absolutely everywhere in the country. The buses are not chicken buses, but comfortable, often air-conditioned coaches. The ride may be a bit longer (depending on the number of stops along the way) than driving by car, but it can be quite comfortable.
How locals get around in Costa Rica
You can plan your journey ahead of time by using The Bus Schedule or get advice on the best route from your hotel/hostel. Keep in mind that most of the time bus tickets can’t be purchased ahead of time, you simply pay the driver (in Colones) when you get on at the bus station.
Keep in mind, that some buses will continue past your stop. So it is a good idea to ask the driver to notify you of your stop or follow the route with a navigation app.
Popular Bus Routes
San Jose to Arenal Volcano (La Fortuna)
Buses leave every few hours, with 1 transfer in Ciudad Quesada. There are 2-3 direct buses per day that take approximately 4 hours and leave in the morning.
Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, Costa Rica
San Jose to Manuel Antonio National Park
Direct buses leave San Jose a minimum of 5 times per day, depending on the day of the week. They typically leave early in the morning and take 4.5 hours, or 3.45 hours respectively.
Manuel Antonio National Park
San Jose to Tamarindo
There are 2 direct buses per day. The first leaves at 8:30 a.m and arrives at 2:00 p.m, and the second leaves at 4:00 pm and arrives at 9:30 pm. Buses take approximately 5.5 hours.
Manuel Antonio to Tamarindo
This route requires 2 transfers. It begins from Manuel Antonio to Orotina, Orotina to Espanza, and finally Espanza to Tamarindo. There are two bus routes per day, the first route leaves at 5:00 a.m to arrive at 2:00 p.m.
However, we don’t recommend it because the first transfer is scheduled to arrive at 8:00 a.m, which is the same time the second bus leaves. There may be traffic or other complications that may delay the bus. The second bus leaves at 8:00 a.m and arrives at 9:30 p.m, for a 13.5 hour travel day.
Tamarindo Beach, Costa Rica
Costa Rica Can Be Expensive
One thing to know about Costa Rica is that traveling here is not cheap. In fact, it’s the most expensive country in Central America!
Budget at least $50USD/day/person for a backpacker style trip, and anywhere between $100-300 USD for a nice hotel, organized activities, and daily meals at highly rated restaurants.
Price list at the Harmony Hotel Juice Bar in Nosara, Costa RicaHotels add up to a lot, especially if you are planning to travel during the high season. If you are looking for the best deal online, search for your dates and destinations using Booking.com.
READ NEXT: WHAT TO BUDGET FOR YOUR TRIP TO COSTA RICA
Vaccinations are Not Needed For a Trip to Costa Rica
The mosquitos here carry a number of diseases like Dengue, Zika, and Chikungunya. They are not widespread, but we know plenty of locals that have caught these diseases.
Don’t forget to bring bug-spray to Manuel Antonio Beach!
Don’t Dress To Impress
Costa Rica isn’t really a place for fancy dresses and nice clothes. Simplicity and comfort rule the local dress code across the country. Trust us when we say, the ocean and the jungle don’t care for your jewelry and perfectly done hair. In Costa Rica, less is more.
Your clothes will get dirty, your hair will be frizzy, your nail polish will peel off, and being constantly dirty from dust, sand, or mud will become the norm. Don’t stress about it. Embrace it!
The ocean doesn’t care what you wear, it just cares that you stop by for a visit! Breathable, quick-drying fabrics will be your best friend in Costa Rica. In the beach towns, you’ll live in a bathing suit. Flip Flops will be your go-to choice of footwear 90% of the time but do bring a pair of closed-toe shoes for zip-lining and hikes. We recommend Keen or Chaco sandals.
Rain gear is a must at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Don’t Forget The Exit Tax
This often catches travelers off-guard. A $29 USD tax is due at the airport before you can check into your flight. It can be paid with cash (USD or Pesos), or credit card at the airport. Some airlines have begun to build this tax into the price of the flight ticket.
If your airline has taken care of it, it will be listed as Costa Rica Baggage Inspection Fee, International Boarding Tax or something of the like on your airfare breakdown. Unfortunately, there is no collective term that has been adopted by the participating airlines just yet.
A great place to enjoy the ‘Pura Vida’ lifestyle
Expect The Unexpected
This is our most important Costa Rica tip for travelers! In Costa Rica, nothing ever goes according to plan. If you think you have your Costa Rican trip planned out to the tee and that nothing can shake up your perfect holiday plan, we promise you are wrong. Travel is unpredictable no matter where in the world you go.
Back in 2016, Oksana broke her leg while surfing in Costa Rica simply from hopping off her surfboard. We didn’t have travel insurance at the time and had to pay over $7000 for her surgery in a private hospital. That is a mistake we are never going to make again! Now we always travel with insurance and recommend it to others!
Travel insurance covers the unexpected, which is why it’s among our most important Costa Rica tips and tricks. Aside from getting sick or hurt, missed flights, lost baggage, car accidents, natural disasters, even the death of a family member is often covered.
In Costa Rica, the unexpected seems to creep up a lot more often. And if you are not prepared for it (mentally more so than anything else), it will undoubtedly hit you over the head and threatened to ruin your Costa Rican holiday.
Playa Samara, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
We witness it on a daily basis here. It’s not that Costa Rica is an unsafe country, or that there is more corruption here, or that things are less organized. It’s just that the country is run on the Pura Vida outlook, a feeling of optimism and positivity.
The locals swear by their stress-free laid back attitude and aren’t about to ruffle their feathers when something doesn’t go according to plan. “Pura Vida”, they say, as they sit down and crack open a can of Imperial. Everything will be ok in the end.
So follow their advice and embrace their attitude. When things go wrong, shrug it off and roll with the punches.
Are you planning a trip to Costa Rica? Have questions about your trip? Leave a comment below and we’ll try to help you out!
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