When one of my friends returned home from a trip to Costa Rica, he told me that the country is considered “the Switzerland of Central America”. I was confused by what he meant until I went and visited Costa Rica and its attractions myself. It was true. The country was distinct from its neighbors, especially in terms of tourism. The national parks established to protect areas like the Arenal volcano or Monteverde cloud forest were a strong testament to the intentional organization that the country has done not just to make tourism successful, but to make it sustainable as well. Needless to say, I fell in love with Costa Rica.
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How to get to Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s main airport is located right outside the capital city of San Jose. There is another international airport located in the northern city of Liberia, but landing in San Jose will put you in a more central location to the points of interest in Costa Rica. If you’re flying over the Atlantic to get to Costa Rica, chances are your flight will be connecting through the United States. Make sure that you are aware of the America transit requirements so that you aren’t surprised at the airport!
It’s also very important to be aware of the visa regulations before landing. Costa Rica gives most tourists a 90-day visa. The airport is actually located in Alajuela, a suburb of San Jose. There are various shuttles at the airport that provide service to the downtown area, but it’s also easy to snag a taxi. If you need to catch a bus out of the city, you will need to look up where the terminal is located for your particular bus company or desired destination.
What to expect in Costa Rica
If you speak Spanish, traveling in Costa Rica will be much easier. However, there are plenty of people that speak English due to the developed tourism infrastructure. The one phrase you will want to know is “pura vida”, which literally translates to “pure life”. Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they like to call themselves, use the phrase to let each other know everything is A-okay. They also use it to greet and say goodbye to one another.
Pura Vida is much more than just a motto for Costa Rica. The saying embodies their way of life so much, it’s been introduced into the daily vocabulary. Unless you are a rude or shut-off person, you will find Costa Ricans to be some of the friendliest people you’ve ever encountered in a foreign country. Be sure to slow down, relax, and really adapt to their pace of life. You’re on vacation anyways!
The official currency for Costa Rica is the Colon, but American dollars are accepted at more touristy destinations, like Corcovado National Park, Manuel Antonio, or Puerto Viejo. I was also surprised by the number of times I was able to use my credit card. If you’re eating at a nice restaurant or grabbing coffees at a trendy café, chances are they will take your plastic.
Tipping is not mandatory, and you will find that a 10% tip has already been added to your bill whenever eating at a fancier restaurant. Most Ticos won’t tip beyond this, but the servers will welcome your financial contribution if the service was exceptionally well.
Costa Rica’s attractions depend on good weather, something that isn’t all too hard to come by in this country. Due to its location so near the equator, Costa Rica’s temperature typically hovers between 20 and 27 degrees Celsius. The best time to visit is during the dry season, from mid-December to the end of April. It hardly rains during these months, which makes it much easier to enjoy the natural points of interest in Costa Rica.
If you prefer cheaper prices and fewer crowds, you will want to plan on visiting the country from April – November. Yes, you may get rained on during the afternoon, but the weather will not be wild enough to spoil your trip. Spending time hiking or on the beach should be on your must to do in Costa Rica list because the ecology of this country is truly something remarkable.
Eating in Costa Rica is not the same as it is in other exotic destinations. The foods I enjoyed most were the fresh fruits and vegetables. Be sure to swing by the local market or a corner store to stock up before a hike, as a mid-hike guava or passion fruit will quench your thirst and your appetite. Every meal in Costa Rica is usually served with gallo pinto, a mixture of rice and beans that is spiced with onions, garlic, and chili.
The most popular dish is called Casado, but there is no standard on what the dish is. Typically it involves a piece of grilled meat served with gallo pinto, tortillas, salad, a fried sweet plantain, and a fresh juice. I also recommend trying local tamales, arroz con leche, and flan. The food in Costa Rica may lack a bit of flair, but it is always very fresh.
Things to do in Costa Rica
One thing is for certain– you will never be bored in this country. Not only are there incredible tourist attractions, but there are also plenty of free things to do in Costa Rica. One of my favorite places to hang out for the day is the beach, and Costa Rica has tons of them! Your trip to Costa Rica is bound to feel like a real vacation because of the countless opportunities to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.
Another great free thing to do in Costa Rica is hike or birdwatch. There are over 800 different species of birds in Costa Rica alone, and birdwatchers are typically able to see around 150 different ones in a single afternoon! Costa Rica is home to 12 of the earth’s 18 major biosystems, making it a great place for nature lovers to get their fix of animal sightings.
Step out of your comfort zone
If you haven’t realized it yet, Costa Rica is an adventure lover’s paradise. Going out of your comfort zone is a must do in Costa Rica, and you can do so by going surfing, zip lining, horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba diving, white water rafting, or mountain biking.
I will never forget my experience zip lining over the jungle canopy, trying to contain my scream so as not to disturb all of the animals in the jungle canopy below me. Thrill seekers will feel right at home in Costa Rica.
Learn about the culture
However, Costa Rica is not only a destination for outdoorsy people. There is also a rich culture to dive into and learn about. One of my favorite ways to really get up close and personal with a new country is by visiting a local market.
The most memorable market to visit in the country is the Mercado Central, located in the historical district of downtown San Jose. Getting lost in this massive market is a great way to spend an afternoon and really get a feel for the authentic tico culture. While you’re in San José, you should also go and check out some of Costa Rica’s museums.
The Costa Rica Gold Musuem, The Jade Museum, and The Museum of Natural Science are free things to do in Costa Rica and will give you much more of a context on the country you are visiting. Another way to experience Costa Rican culture is to attend a festival. Typically they involve several days of music, dancing, parades, and bullfighting.
Places to visit in Costa Rica
The tough part about visiting Costa Rica is deciding where you want to visit. This small country is really packed with cool places. After all, it is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and Carribean sea, home to five active volcanoes, and produces some of the best coffee in the world. After spending a few days exploring San Jose, I recommend spending a day or two at Monteverde Cloud Forest. This is the place where you are going to get your wildlife fix, seeing as there are multiple hiking trails to embark on.
The cloud forest is home to monkeys, sloths, butterflies, and hummingbirds! Like I mentioned earlier, Costa Rica is a really diverse place. If you head south to the Osa Peninsula, be sure to visit Corcovado National Park.
This park is enormous and much more rugged than any other in Costa Rica. If you want a true jungle experience, this is the best place. You will fall asleep every night to the jungle sounds that you always dreamed about as a kid.
Manuel Antonio is a national park home to some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. There are so many different ways to spend your time here. You could sit back, relax, and enjoy the beach. You could also spend the time hiking around the park or surfing giants breaks.
If you’ve ever dreamt about having a giant beach to yourself, Manuel Antonio is the place to make that happen. There are simply so many places to enjoy in this small national park. Puerto Viejo is another popular place to visit multiple beaches, especially for those looking to snorkel or scuba dive.
Come here and you could spend every day of the week at a different beach, each of which has its own charm. If surfing is your main objective for your time in Costa Rica, then you will want to head north to Guanacaste. Tamarindo and Langosta are two of the more popular beaches to catch waves and meet other travelers.
Two other beaches, Conchal and Flamingo, are famous for their white sands and crystal clear water. Costa Ballena (or Whale Coast) is where whales come to give birth from August to October and then again from December to April.
Sea turtles also use the beach as a nesting ground from May to November. The beaches are one of my favorite parts of Costa Rica, seeing as you could realistically spend one day on the Pacific and then the next on the Caribbean. No matter how you travel, Costa Rica has a beach that you may never want to leave.
The volcano national parks in Costa Rica are home to over 60 volcanoes, 5 of which that are still active today. Arenal Volcano National Park is by far the most visited and serves as a base for a bunch of different adventure activities. If you want to zip line, mountain bike, or horseback ride, this is an awesome place to do so. The fertile land surrounding this massive volcano grows some of the best coffee in the world.
I recommend doing a coffee plantation tour to learn about the coffee growing process and sample some incredible coffee. Rincón de la Vieja is another volcano that is worth visiting. There are mud pools, hot springs, and waterfalls surrounding this volcano.
It is located in Guanacaste, which is usually only mentioned when talking about beaches. However, this volcano is a great way to get off the beaten path and see something truly remarkable. The central valley of the country is where most of the volcanos lie, and Poas is probably the most visited.
There are two different lakes, one at the top and one at the bottom, that make this volcano a great place to hike. No, you can’t swim in the water. But you can get up close to some of the most interesting formations in the world.
Where to stay in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is much more than a backpacker’s destination. In fact, due to higher prices than its neighboring countries, many would argue that this place isn’t much of a backpacker’s destination at all. Still, you can find many hostels or cheap hotels if you want to travel on a budget here. But Costa Rica offers the luxury experience that is hard to find in other Latin American countries.
If you really want a stress free vacation, I recommend looking into some of Costa Rica’s all-inclusive resorts. These places take the stress away, and you will still be able to do a bunch of tours that you came to Costa Rica to do.
The eco-lodge is really taking off in Costa Rica, allowing you to have a comfortable stay and an intimate experience with nature. They are often located near the shore of the ocean or in a secluded spot in the jungle. I especially recommend staying at eco-lodges because of the food!
Another lodging option is to use popular home sharing sites like VRBO or Airbnb. Going this route may require a bit more research into transportation, but you will be rewarded by having your own space wherever in the country you may be.
Tours to do in Costa Rica
Take advantage of Costa Rica’s tourism infrastructure and book yourself some tours. You won’t have to stress about a thing with these awesome packages! There is no better way to ensure yourself a 5-star experience in Costa Rica.
Arenal Volcano Tours
There are so many different options for things to do in Costa Rica, but visiting Arenal Volcano should be at the top of your list. Tours here typically involve zip lining, visiting the La Paz waterfall, and relaxing in the hot springs.
Tortuga Island Tour
The Tortuga Island Tour isn’t just about the island you get to visit, but more about the boat ride on the way there. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot dolphins, whales, and sea turtles! The island features some beautiful beaches and is a great place to spend the day.
Canopy Adventure Tour
There are countless areas around Costa Rica to do a canopy tour. Zip lining through the trees is a great way to experience the rainforest in a similar manner as the birds who dwell there.
Tortugero National Park Tour
Tortugero National Park is often compared to the Amazon rainforest because the main way to navigate the area is by boat. It’s almost impossible to visit this area without a tour. Going with a tour guide also makes it much easier to spot wildlife, and trust me, there is plenty to see.
Doka Coffee Plantation Tour
Costa Rica is famous for its coffee. A plantation tour will leave you feeling like a coffee expert, and you’ll also appreciate your local coffee shop much more upon returning home. Chances are you will get to sample the coffee from the farm you visit too!
Recommend budget tours in Costa Rica
- Canopy Tour from Playa Hermosa
- 6-in-1 Combo Tour: Puerto Limon Highlights
- Guanacaste Snorkel and Sunset Cruise
- Palo Verde National Park and Liberia Combo Tour
- Monteverde Sky Walk and Coffee Tour
- Zip Line with ATV and Waterfalls Combination Tour
- Vida Aventura Park in Guanacaste: Zipline Tour, Horseback Ride and Hot Springs
- Tranopy from Jaco
- Tortuga Island Day Trip from San Jose
- Costa Rica Day Trip from San Jose
- Buena Vista Transition Forest Combo Tour
- Guachipelin Adventure Zipline Horseback River Tubing Combo
- 6 in 1 Tour: Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica
- Extreme Arenal and Cerro Chato Volcano Hike in La Fortuna
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