Costa Rica was my first time on a plane and out of the country. For the past 11 years, I have been traveling back to this beautiful place that I instantly fell in love with. I mean this literally and figuratively, as I actually ended up falling in love and marrying a Costa Rican.

After studying abroad in Costa Rica, working as an intern with an intensive field studies program, and returning for years to travel, I have explored Costa Rica deep into its nooks and crannies. I love this beautiful country and can’t wait to share everything with you.

So read on to learn more in this ultimate guide to Costa Rica travel!

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A woman wearing a red two-piece swim suit in posing on a boulder in front of a tall two-tiered waterfall
Nauyaca waterfall in rural San José, Costa Rica

General Information about Costa Rica

Costa Rica is located in Central America, between Nicaragua & Panama. It has two coasts, on the Pacific Ocean to the West, and the Caribbean Sea to the East.

Language: Costa Ricans primarily speak Spanish, and have their own form of Costa Rican slang. Younger generations are becoming more and more proficient and even fluent in English as well. On the East Coast, with influences from the Caribbean, Costa Ricans speak a version of English-Creole.

Visa: Advanced visas for tourists from the US are not required. Costa Rica recently changed visa requirements and now offers a full 180 days for visitors from the US, available upon entry. Make sure you have a valid passport that doesn’t expire for six months. While Costa Rica will allow you to enter as long as the passport doesn’t expire during the trip, most US airlines have a blanket 6-month requirement.

For those looking to work abroad from Costa Rica, digital nomad visas are available for up to 2 years!

Currency: Costa Rica’s currency is called Colones. While constantly in flux, the exchange rate generally shakes out to be around 500 CRC to $1 USD. Compared to its neighbors, Costa Rica is known as the most expensive country within Central America. Prices, while sometimes cheap, can often be comparable to similar experiences in the US.

Weather: The weather in Costa Rica stays relatively warm year-round. The capital city San Jose is located in a valley and is cooler than the coasts. Costa Rica has a rainy/wet season for half of the year, from May to November. December is usually a transition from the rain to dry season, and then from January to April is the dry season where it usually never rains. As the dry season goes on, it gets hotter without the rains to cool the Earth.

The Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica has a slightly different weather pattern. It rains here much more than the rest of the country, with two smaller dry seasons from March-April and September-October.

Costa Rica is also affected by the El Niño/La Niña weather patterns. During these years, El Niño brings dryer than normal weather, while La Niña is rainier than usual.

Provinces: Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces: Guanacaste, Puntarenas, Alajuela, Heredia, San Jose, Cartago, and Limon.

Guanacaste, known for its stunning Pacific coastline and sun-splashed beaches, is a paradise for surfers and sun-seekers. Puntarenas, the largest province, boasts national parks and a diverse wildlife along the Pacific Coast that adventure lovers would relish. Inland, you have Alajuela, beckoning with its mighty volcanoes and lush coffee farms. Heredia, sometimes referred to as ‘Little Switzerland’, enchants with its verdant hills and quaint villages. San Jose, the bustling capital, blends urban chaos with rich cultural heritage. Moving towards the east, Cartago offers a glimpse into Costa Rica’s past with its colonial architecture and ancient ruins, while Limón, with its Afro-Caribbean influence, enthralls with its vibrant music, unique cuisine, and the lush beauty of its rainforests.

🤩 Learn Spanish in Costa Rica

A girl wearing a red helmet and ziplining during a trip to Costa Rica.
Ziplining in Monteverde, a cloud forest in Costa Rica

What is Costa Rica known for?

Coffee: Costa Rica and coffee are intertwined like threads in a vibrant tapestry. As a traveler in this tropical paradise, you’ll be swept up in the rich aroma of coffee beans roasting, a daily ritual in the homes and cafés of the Ticos (locals). In fact, it was here in Costa Rica that I learned to drink quality coffee black, without any sugar or cream.

Costa Rica’s high-altitude and volcanic soils yield beans with a distinctive taste profile, highly sought after by consumers worldwide. This has cemented the nation’s reputation as a leading coffee exporter. Whether sipping a meticulously brewed cup in a hip San Jose café, or exploring a family-owned coffee farm nestled in the lush hills of Alajuela, you’ll come to appreciate why Costa Rican coffee is a point of national pride and global acclaim.

Incredible Nature: Though a small country of only 20,000 square miles, Costa Rica boasts some of the world’s most impressive natural features. Beaches, waterfalls, rainforests, cloud forests, rivers, hot springs, volcanos, and even the occasional bioluminescence all await the travelers who explore this amazing country.

Adventure Travel: Speaking of travelers, many visit Costa Rica for its adrenaline-pumping adventure travel. From ziplining and hiking, to the more daring river rafting, world-class surfing, skydiving, waterfall repelling, and more, there are wondrous adventures to be had here.

Tour a specialty coffee and chocolate farm in Costa Rica! 🍫

A waterfall pours into a bright blue river surrounded by lush green jungle in Costa Rica.
Rio Celeste is a famous waterfall in Costa Rica

Animals + Animal Watching: Costa Rica holds a whopping 4% of the world’s biodiversity despite covering only 0.03% of the world’s surface. This biodiversity hotspot is home to 4 species of monkeys, migrating whales, vibrant tropical birds, and charming turtles nesting on the beaches among others.

However, nothing encapsulates the slow-paced pura vida lifestyle more than the country’s icon, the sloth. Costa Rica is home to two species of sloth: the two-toed sloth and the three-toed sloth.

A visit here often turns into an impromptu safari, with magical encounters with these species and many more. Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher, a marine life enthusiast or just an animal lover, Costa Rica’s rich fauna promises an unforgettable experience.

Pro Tip: If you are driving around and see tourist cars or shuttles pulled over, or a group of people stopped on a trail, stop to take a look. Often you will catch a glimpse of what they stopped to see, be it a sloth, a toucan, or another animal of Costa Rican wildlife.

An ornately-decorated colorful hand-painted oxcart.
A hand-painted oxcart in Sarchí, Costa Rica

How to get around in Costa Rica

Navigating Costa Rica on a budget doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on the adventure, it just takes a bit of planning and savvy travel tactics. If you’re willing to trade a bit of comfort for the pocket-friendly option, public transportation could be your go-to. Costa Rica’s bus system is extensive and affordable, reaching even remote areas of the country. You’ll find yourself rubbing elbows with locals and fellow travelers alike. In fact, this is how I improved my Spanish when studying abroad in Costa Rica – always talking with the locals and even the bus driver when I traveled.

For those short on time, consider small flights to remote areas such as Tortuguero and Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. It’s a splurge compared to buses, but definitely less expensive than a private charter.

Hiring boats, like those to Tortuguero and the Nicoya Peninsula from mainland Costa Rica, offers quicker, more convenient options than slow-moving public buses. Though a bit pricier than public transport, they’re still budget-friendly and get you to your destination much faster.

Private shuttles, often called private transfers, are available to popular tourist destinations all over Costa Rica. This can be a great option if you are traveling with a big group, have lots of luggage, or don’t intend to move around much between destinations.

Alternatively, you could hire a private driver. This is an excellent option if you’re traveling in a group, as you can split the cost. Drivers are usually locals who can offer valuable insight and recommendations along the way.

Taxis are available throughout Costa Rica and are a great way to get around in major cities. The official taxis in San Jose are red with a yellow triangle. Always confirm they will turn on the meter, called “la maria” or agree on a set price ahead of time.

Though Uber is technically illegal in Costa Rica, it’s been operating for years and is often a cheaper alternative to taxis. Just be mindful and respectful of the local regulations.

Finally, adventurous spirits might consider renting a car. This truly gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace. This is our preferred method of traveling, but I always make my Costa Rican husband drive, as the traffic in Costa Rica is a bit more chaotic than I can handle. Just bear in mind that insurance is mandatory and can significantly increase the overall cost.

No matter your choice, traversing Costa Rica’s lush landscapes is sure to be an adventure in itself!

🚗 Check prices for car rentals in Costa Rica 🚗

Two people sitting in a hot spring pool in La Fortuna, surrounded by lush nature.
Enjoying hot springs in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Things to do in Costa Rica

San Jose: the capital of Costa Rica is where one of two main airports are located and thus the initial destination of many travelers coming into the country. In my opinion, San Jose gets a bad rap. Most visitors arrive and immediately head out to enjoy the beautiful nature in Costa Rica. However, there are plenty of things to do in San Jose as well, from museums to international cuisine, and even several lovely parks.

Beaches: Costa Rica is of course renowned for its stunning beaches. Some of the most popular beaches in Costa Rica are Papagayo, Tamarindo, Playa Conchal, and Playas del Coco in Guanacaste; Montezuma, Sámara, Nosara, and Manzanillo on the Nicoya Peninsula; Jacó, Playa Hermosa (of which there are several), Punta Leona, Manuel Antonio, Dominical, and Uvita on the Pacific Coast. Our favorites are the beaches of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast (Playa Negra, Playa Cocles, Punta Uvita, Playa Chiquita, and Playa Manzanillo).

Volcanos: Irazú, Poás, Arenal, Rincón de la Vieja, and Tenorio. Each one is unique in its own way and worth visiting if you have the time. The first three are close enough to San Jose that you can easily make a day trip!

National Parks: Delving into Costa Rica’s National Parks is like opening a door to a biodiversity paradise. Braulio Carillo National Park, easily accessible from San Jose, is a hiker’s dream, teeming with luxuriant rainforests, waterfalls, and a plethora of wildlife. On the other hand, Carara National Park serves as a biological bridge between the Amazonian and Mesoamerican ecosystems, making it a hotspot for birdwatchers.

Set on the Caribbean coast, Cahuita National Park is a blend of thriving coral reefs, white sandy beaches, and coastal rainforests, offering snorkeling and wildlife viewing opportunities galore. Tortuguero National Park is a labyrinth of mangrove forests and navigable lagoons, where you can witness the awe-inspiring sight of sea turtles nesting.

Manuel Antonio National Park, although small, is a gem, boasting stunning beaches, hiking trails, and the chance to spot monkeys and sloths. At Chirripó National Park, you can challenge yourself with a climb to Costa Rica’s highest peak, rewarding you with breathtaking views. Palo Verde National Park, located in the dry Guanacaste province, is a sanctuary for water birds and migratory species. Lastly, Corcovado National Park, often hailed as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’, is a must-visit for any adventurous traveler, offering the chance to see rare wildlife like jaguars and tapirs. Each of these parks offers a unique glimpse into Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems, ensuring an unforgettable travel experience.

🦥 Reserve this guided nature hike through Manuel Antonio National Park 🦥

Twelve young women sitting next to each other on a beach looking toward the ocean at sunset.
Friends looking at the sunset on one of Costa Rica’s famous black sand beaches

Other Popular Destinations in Costa Rica:

Monteverde: a cloud forest in the mountains filled with mist and incredible biodiversity. It’s also home to some of the best zip-lining in the country (and one of my favorite places in Costa Rica).

La Fortuna: located near Arenal, this charming town is a popular destination for adventure activities such as hiking, white water rafting, and horseback riding. La Fortuna is also home to the famous La Fortuna Waterfall, La Paz Gardens, and tons of hot springs in Costa Rica.

Osa Peninsula: Corcovado National Park, Drake Bay, and Puerto Jimenez are all popular destinations in this remote and biodiverse area. It’s perfect for eco-tourism and wildlife enthusiasts.

A couple on the foreground sitting on the grass in a city park, with more people walking on the sidewalk and street.
Costa Ricans, also known as Ticos, at an art festival in downtown San Jose

Day Trips from San Jose:

Cartago: Once the capital of Costa Rica, this historic city is just a short ride away from San Jose. It’s known for the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, a stunning example of Byzantine architecture, and the ruins of Santiago Apostol Church. Cartago also serves as the gateway to the Irazu Volcano National Park, perfect for adventurous day-trippers.

Alajuela: Located just northwest of San Jose, Alajuela is the birthplace of Costa Rica’s national hero, Juan Santamaria. Visit his museum or stroll around the Central Park, soaking in the city’s jovial atmosphere. If you’re an animal lover, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Zoo Ave, a wildlife rescue center.

Heredia: Known as the ‘City of Flowers’, Heredia is another pleasant day trip from San Jose. Explore the colonial architecture of the central square, including the elegant Church of the Immaculate Conception. Coffee enthusiasts will appreciate a visit to Café Britt, one of Costa Rica’s most famous coffee farms.

Sarchí: Famous for its colorful painted oxcarts, Sarchi is a wonderful place to shop for traditional Costa Rican handicrafts. Watch the artisans at work and take home a unique souvenir. The town is also home to the country’s largest hand-painted oxcart, listed in the Guinness World Records.

Zarcero: This charming mountain town is best known for its topiary garden filled with whimsical shrubs shaped into arches, animals, and mythical creatures. Zarcero’s striking pink and blue church, just behind the garden, is another must-see.

Orosi: Nestled in a tranquil valley, Orosi offers stunning views and a laid-back vibe. Visit the oldest church still in use in Costa Rica, explore the Tapanti National Park, or relax in the local hot springs to round off your day trip.

🌋 Take this tour to see a coffee farm, volcano, and waterfall in Costa Rica! 🌿

A mountain top coming out of the clouds in front of a tropical woody area.
There are many beautiful places accessible by day trip from San Jose in Costa Rica.

Safety in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is not an inherently dangerous country, but theft can be common.

In larger cities like San Jose, pick-pocketing is largely an issue. Leave the majority of valuables not needed locked up in your room when walking around. While it is okay to pull out a cell photo to take photos or orient yourself, keep it in your front pocket or a closed bag when not in use.

Wear long pants and closed-toed shoes to stand out less, and always carry any bookbags or purses in front of you, with a hand against them at all times.

We would advise to not walk around at night, even in groups, as petty theft is very common.

While we have not personally experienced this, stories of tourists and study-abroad students being threatened to give up even just their cell phones are unfortunately becoming more and more common.

911 is the emergency number in Costa Rica.

Make sure that you have travel insurance when traveling in Costa Rica to help protect against illness and other mishaps that are sure to occur.

🏥 Check pricing for travel insurance 🏥

A small set of ferny leaves sitting on top of a large banana leaf.
Costa Rica holds 4% of the world’s biodiversity

Map of Costa Rica

Frequently Asked Questions About Costa Rica

What is the best month to go to Costa Rica?

The best time to travel in Costa Rica is the dry season which is from December to April. As the country is Catholic by constitution, most locals will travel during Christmas and Holy weeks, so avoid traveling during late December and late March/early April to avoid heavy crowds.

Is it safe to travel to Costa Rica?

Yes, Costa Rica is a safe country to travel in. However, petty theft can be common so keep an eye on belongings when at the beach, and leave valuables in a locked hotel room when not in use. When in larger cities like San Jose, keep bags visible in front of you, and avoid walking alone at night. Finally, always keep a close eye on your drink when going out, and only accept drinks directly from staff at bars or restaurants.

Is Costa Rica cheap or expensive?

Costa Rica is not a cheap country to travel in anymore. It is the most expensive country to travel in Central America. Some things, like public transportation and local food may be cheaper, but most tourist areas will have prices similar to or slightly less than those in the US

Is tipping a thing in Costa Rica

Most restaurants automatically include a 10% service tip in listed prices, so adding an additional tip is not necessary. Unlike in the United States, service providers in Costa Rica such as waiters are paid a healthy living wage by their employer.
That being said, many tourists tend to leave an additional tip anyway, so in touristy areas, it is more commonly seen.
Locals generally don’t leave extra tips, and it’s culturally acceptable not to do so.

Is it illegal to remove shells or sand from Costa Rica?

Yes, Costa Rica does not permit the removal of sand or shells from the country. If found during security screenings at the airport, sand and shells will be removed from your luggage and returned to the land.

Can you drink the water in Costa Rica?

Yes, the water is safe to drink in Costa Rica. The exception is in the south Caribbean area of Puerto Viejo, where we would recommend to only use bottled water to drink and brush your teeth.

Wrapping up this Guide to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is probably my favorite country that I have been to, and I hope this guide has helped you learn more about traveling to this beautiful country.

Costa Rica is a perfect first country to visit, where it is relatively easy to get around and even to learn Spanish. The nature here is unmatched, and there is so much to do that you could visit from a short week to several months or even years.

I hope you enjoy your next trip to Costa Rica!

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