Costa Rica Travel Guide

·15 min read
Scenic view of Arenal Volcano in central Costa Rica at sunrise
Scenic view of Arenal Volcano in central Costa Rica at sunrise

alexeys/Getty Images

Despite only being the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is the land of plenty. It literally translates to "rich coast." Christopher Columbus reportedly discovered it in 1502. But the only person who deserves credit for its breathtaking natural wonders is Mother Nature.

This peaceful Central American country boasts extensive coastlines along both the Caribbean and Pacific. In addition to world-class beaches, Costa Rica has some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on earth. Scientists, who invented ziplines as a means of studying the many layers of the country's cloud forests, say five percent of the world's species are found here.

For anyone who hasn't been to Africa yet, the wildlife watching is unparalleled. Think slumbering sloths, majestic scarlet macaws, tree frogs as pretty as they are poisonous, and thousands of nesting sea turtles (who leave behind hundreds of thousands of hatchlings). With dogged determination, they all thrive living in the shadow of some of the world's most active volcanoes.

Time Zone

Central Standard Time

Best Time to Go

The best time to go to Costa Rica depends on what your goals are. If you're looking for clear Caribbean waters to snorkel in, opt for a drier month like September. The central region, home to the volcanoes and cloud forests, are also best visited during the summer, or dry season. From November through April, roads are drivable and downpours don't last all day. That said, to take advantage of low season rates and avoid crowds, you'll want to visit during the wet season, usually May through October.

For the best cultural events, visit during the first two weeks of January for Palmares (basically Carnival meets rodeo meets music festival) or Easter week. As a Catholic country, many of Costa Rica's biggest holidays correspond with the Church's. Regardless of when you visit, you can always watch sea turtles either nest or hatch (both happen year-round), go zip-lining (they do it rain or shine), and learn how to surf (waves are always good).

Things to Know

When it comes to Latin America, Costa Rica is an entry level country. English is spoken and understood in most tourist areas, and the U.S. dollar is accepted virtually everywhere. Tipping isn't greatly encouraged; however, it's greatly appreciated. Before tipping, look to see if the establishment already included a tip or "service charge," usually 10%, on your receipt.

While the unpaved roads can be quite treacherous, especially during the rainy season, rental car agencies are everywhere. It's easy to find automatic rentals if you can't drive manual. On the contrary, it's hard to find an outlet that doesn't work with a U.S. plug, so there's no need to bring an adapter. The voltage is the same, too. Converters aren't needed.

Currency: Colon (CRC)

($1 USD = 613 CRC; check the current exchange rate)

Language: Spanish

I don't speak Spanish: No hablo español

How much does it cost: Cuánto cuesta

I would like…: Yo quiero

Learn more Spanish phrases

Calling Code: +506

Capital City: San José

How to Get Around

Trains and Buses: Costa Rica is working on rebuilding its train infrastructure, damaged during the 1991 earthquake. For now, buses are the best form of public transportation. Most are privately owned, but since they're subsidized by the government, fares are low. For example, a four-hour bus ride might only cost $8. For nonstop service opt for "directo" buses. For cheaper, more adventurous rides, opt for "colectivos." They stop pretty much everywhere along the route, even if it's not an official stop.

Taxis: Although not as cost-effective as buses, cabs can be a budget-friendly way of getting around. Costa Rica's official taxis are red. You can tell they're authorized and licensed by the yellow triangle on the car's doors. If you're taking a taxi from the airport, however, look for the orange cars. These taxis are the only cabs authorized and licensed for airport pickups. It's also easy to pre-book private car services or shuttles online. Drivers who approach you on the street, and don't have the yellow triangle, are most likely locals looking to make money using their personal cars.

Rideshare: Uber has been operating in Costa Rica for years; however, it's mostly limited to major cities and tourist hotspots. Don't rely on it in more remote destinations or during peak times as it can be hard to find a car.

Best Hotels

Tierra Magnifica

Address: Proyecto Americano Las Huacas, Lote EE90, Provincia de Guanacaste Nosara, Nicoya, 50206, Costa Rica
Phone: (800) 409-4760
Book Now

Perched at the top of a hill, this new luxury boutique property has panoramic views of Nosara's world class beaches. Between the outdoor pool, open-air yoga shala, hiking trails, restaurant, spa, and ridiculously fast Wi-Fi, it's the perfect jungleside retreat. Rates start at $400/night, including breakfast.

Tierra Magnifica
Tierra Magnifica

W Costa Rica - Reserva Conchal

Address: Reserva Conchal, Guanacaste, 50308, Costa Rica
Phone: (888) 236-2427
Book Now

With its audacious architecture and cheeky decor, W Costa Rica – Reserva Conchal stands out on a coast filled with cookie cutter beach resorts. Rooms run the gamut from traditional queens with balconies and ocean views to treehouse suites with private plunge pools. The property has a full-service spa, 18-hole golf course, beach club, adults' and kids' pools, and four restaurants. Rates start at $300/night.

Nayara Tented Camp

Address: La Palma 500 Mtr Northwest, Arenal Volcano National Park, 21007, Costa Rica
Phone: (844) 865-2002
Book Now

Nayara Tented Camp, located in Arenal Volcano National Park, is Central America's premier glamping resort. Each safari-style tent blends in seamlessly with the surrounding rainforest and is luxuriously outfitted with king-size beds, plunge pools (fed by nearby hot springs), AC, Wi-Fi, and unobstructed views of Costa Rica's most photographed volcano. Rates start at $900/night.

Nayara Tented Camp's private pool overlooking mountains
Nayara Tented Camp's private pool overlooking mountains

Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen

Address: 700 meters west from Bridgestone/Firestone, La Ribera de Belen Heredia, Costa Rica
Phone: (888) 236-2427
Book Now

Conveniently located just four miles from San José's airport, Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen is an ideal base for exploring the capital. That said, it feels a world away from all things urban thanks to its valley and mountain views and meticulously manicured gardens and outdoor spaces, including several pools and a working coffee plantation. Rates start at $130/night.

Tree House Lodge

Address: 200 meters south of the primary school in Playa Chiquita Punta Uvs, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, 7304 Costa Rica
Phone: ( 506) 2750-0706
Book Now

This family-owned eco-lodge on the Caribbean features unique accommodations ranging from suites on stilts to two-bedroom houses with flame heated hot tubs and even an upcycled 1980s-era school bus. The property sits on 10 oceanfront acres and its botanical garden includes more than 50 different types of palm trees. Several restaurants are within walking distance. Rates start at $200/night.

World's Coolest Tree-House Hotels: Tree House Lodge
World's Coolest Tree-House Hotels: Tree House Lodge

Discovery Beach House

Address: On the road to Manuel Antonio National Park, next to Hotel Karahe, 6350 Quepos, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 8331-9186
Website

Owned by wildlife photographers who worked with the late legendary primate researcher Dian Fossey, Discovery Beach House is a beautifully decorated (with personal art and photos from around the world) three-bedroom, four-bathroom rental property with direct oceanfront access. It's within walking distance of Manuel Antonio National Park and can come with housekeepers and a private chef. Rates start at $4,900/week.

ORIGINS Lodge in Costa Rica

Address: Pueblo Nuevo, Bijagua, Alajuela, 21304, Costa Rica
Phone: (800) 324-0519
Book Now

Extravagance meets eco-lodge on this remote estate in the mountains of northern Costa Rica. Each 1,000-square-foot villa features handcrafted canopy beds, terraces with fire-heated baths, and sweeping volcano views. The on-site restaurant, with Michelin-starred chef Jean-Luc L'Hourre at the helm, specializes in "haute cuisine." Rates start at $900/night.

Best Restaurants

Restaurante Celajes at Hotel Belmar (Organic)

Address: 300 meters east from the gas station in Cerro Plano of Monteverde, 5655, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Phone: (866) 978-6424
Website

With its organic gardens – complete with insect hotel and full-size working farm, including a coffee plantation, sugar cane fields, and livestock – Hotel Belmar takes farm-to-table to a whole new level. As a result, its pride and joy – Restaurant Celajes – is so well-respected diners drive from as far away as San José just for dinner (reservations are required). Book a private lunch in the terraced garden or sit on the outside deck with views of the Pacific.

Balcony table at Restaurante Celajes at Hotel Belmar
Balcony table at Restaurante Celajes at Hotel Belmar

El Mercadito (Italian, Seafood, Colombian, American)

Address: Next to Patagonia Restaurant, Guanacaste Province, Tamarindo, 50309, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 8301-0297
Website

El Mercadito is Tamarindo's beloved upscale outdoor food court where diners can find everything from gourmet pizza to traditional arepas and make-your-own poke bowls. The bar at the center is made out of an old ship, and it's one of the best places in town for people watching.

Sano Banano (Costa Rican, American)

Address: Main Street, Provincia de Puntarenas, Montezuma, 60111, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 2642-0638
Website

Translating to the healthy banana, Sano Banano serves feel-good food – breakfast, lunch and dinner – in an open-air restaurant. There's plenty of outdoor seating on the back patio and front porch overlooking Montezuma's lively main street. Save room for the homemade artisan chocolates featured in the glass case at the front.

Tables at Sano Banano Beachside Hotel & Restaurant
Tables at Sano Banano Beachside Hotel & Restaurant

Café Rico (Brunch)

Address: Avenida 69 Calle 217, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, 7304, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 2750-0510
Website

Don't judge Café Rico by the fact it doesn't have a website; on TripAdvisor it's the #1 restaurant, out of 94, in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. First timers become regulars thanks to its high quality coffee and memorable takes on classic comfort food like French fries and banana bread French toast.

El Tigre Vestido (Organic)

Address: 800 meters north of the Centro de Distribucion de Cafe Britt, Santa Barbara, Heredia, 40404, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 2269-9555
Website

Every dish served at El Tigre Vestido – part of the Finca Rosa Blanca boutique hotel – pays homage to Costa Rica, especially the coffee-growing highlands. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (reservations recommended), its best-sellers range from huevos a caballo to slow-braised tamarind short ribs and carrot macadamia cake.

Things to Do

National parks

Website

Between its flora, fauna, and geothermal features, Costa Rica is a nature-lover's paradise. With 28 diverse protected areas, you can national park hop for weeks here and still not see them all. Whether you're looking for live volcanoes, turquoise waterfalls, white sand beaches, Olive Ridley sea turtles, or the elusive ocelot, you can find it in Costa Rica's national parks.

Tamarindo

Address: 100 meters north of Hotel Diria, Playa Tamarindo, Guanacaste, 50309, Costa Rica
Phone: (813) 321-5532
Website

Between Costa Rica's 300 beaches there are plenty of waves suitable for diehard surfers, beginners, and everyone in between. One of the best places to learn or practice is in Tamarindo, where there's always surf and it's clear Iguana Surf's English-speaking instructors are as passionate about teaching as they are pipelines.

A man surfing with Iguana Surf Vacations
A man surfing with Iguana Surf Vacations

Vida Mía Healing Center & Spa

Address: Barrio Jesús de Atenas, Alajuela Province, Atenas, 20502, Costa Rica
Phone: (833) 760-4242
Website

Wellness has always been a way of life in Costa Rica – it's home to one of the world's five blue zones – so it seems sacrilegious to not get at least one spa treatment while in the country. Perhaps one of the best places to indulge is Vida Mía Healing Center & Spa, located at The Retreat just outside of San José. It sits atop a "high vibrational crystal mountain" and was named the "Best Spa in the Americas."

Exterior of the spa, VidaMia at The Retreat Costa Rica
Exterior of the spa, VidaMia at The Retreat Costa Rica

Selvatura Park

Address: Puntarenas Province, Monteverde, 60109, Costa Rica
Phone: (800) 771-1803
Website

Often considered to be the birthplace of ziplining, Costa Rica has no shortage of high-adrenaline canopy tours where visitors can see the rainforest as the birds do. For those who are afraid of heights or harnesses, hanging bridges are usually an option. At Selvatura Park, located in the cloud forest in Monteverde, there are nearly two miles of treetop walkways people of all ages can explore.

Aerial rope bridge at Selvatura Park
Aerial rope bridge at Selvatura Park

Centro de Rescate y Santuario Las Pumas

Address: 4.5 km north of Cañas, towards Liberia, on the Inter-American Highway, 89-5700, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 8479-7025
Website

Costa Rica is so dedicated to conservation that 25 percent of the country is protected. While wildlife refuges and rehabilitation centers are easy to find, one of the best for learning about Costa Rica's most endangered animals is Las Pumas. Its sanctuary is open to the public, and sadly, visitors have a good chance of seeing at least five of Costa Rica's six wild cat species here.

A mountain lion at Las Pumas Rescue Center and Sanctuary
A mountain lion at Las Pumas Rescue Center and Sanctuary

Best Shopping

Municipal Handicraft Market

Address: 200 meters south of the Social Security Fund, San José, 10104, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 7174-5391
Website

Most of the handicrafts sold at this San José must-stop for locals and tourists alike are made with Costa Rica's most sought-after raw materials. This market brings out the best craftsmen and artists in the country who come to sell everything from ox carts to coffee makers, furniture, paintings, and hammocks.

Lydia Beech Art

Address: On the beachfront, between Nogui's and Chiringuito Restaurant, Guanacaste Tamarindo, 50309, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 8614-8529
Website

For one-of-a-kind souvenirs and custom art, there's no better place in Costa Rica than this colorful little shop owned and operated by a well-known local, Lydia Beech. Show her a picture of your pet, and she'll turn it into a portrait, or painted t-shirt, you'll cherish forever.

Britt Coffee La Casita Factory Store

Address: Santa Lucia de Barba Heredia DE, 40205, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 2277-1600
Website

Britt coffee and chocolate is sold everywhere in Costa Rica; however, you'll find the biggest selection and best shipping options at this factory store. It's part of the Britt Coffee Tour just outside of San José, but you don't have to be on the tour to take advantage of the bargain prices.

Having coffee and eating at Britt Coffee Tour
Having coffee and eating at Britt Coffee Tour

Sarchi

Address: Alajuela, Costa Rica
Website

Sarchi may be home to less than 20,000 residents, but it boasts more than 200 furniture factories and stores. It's Costa Rica's woodworking capital and the ideal place to find everything from small hand-carved bowls to ornate king-sized beds.

Caribeans Coffee and Chocolate

Address: 25 meters south of Tasty Waves Playa Cocles, Puerto Viejo, Limón, Costa Rica
Phone: (506) 2750-0504
Website

Even well-traveled chocolate connoisseurs are blown away by the bean-to-bar sweets made here with organic locally grown cacao. Each purchase helps provide local farmers with living wages; shipping to the U.S. can be arranged on site.

Neighborhoods to Know

There are seven administrative provinces in Costa Rica and each has its own distinct culture and attractions.

San José: San José is the capital of Costa Rica and where most of the action takes place. There's plenty of shopping, great restaurants, and loads of cultural institutions to explore — including the Museum of Costa Rican Art, The National Gallery of Contemporary Art and Design, and the Children's Museum.

Alajuela: Alajuela is best for adventurous travelers as the area is home to Arenal Volcano National Park, where travelers can take in spectacular views, enjoy hot springs, or sign up for a number of adventure tours. There's also Poas Volcano National Park, which has one of the largest volcano craters in the world.

Cartago: Cartago is where the first colonial city in Costa Rica was established and where the first capital was created. There are two historical monuments worth a visit: the Basilica de Cartago and the ancient ruins of Cartago.

Guanacaste: Found on the northwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Guanacaste is best known for its white sand beaches and incomparable surf. The area is also home to a handful of great national parks, including Rincon de la Vieja National Park and Las Baulas Marine National Park.

Heredia: The Heredia province stretches from the north of San José up to Costa Rica's border with Nicaragua and is home to the city by the same name, also called "the city of flowers".

Limon: Limon is located on the Caribbean side of the country and is known for its lush greenery and beautiful parks — including Tortuguero National Park, the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, and La Amistad National Parkand. The area is also home to the Afro-Costa Rican community and it's where the annual Festival of Black Culture takes place.

Puntarenas: Puntarenas runs down the coast of the country on the Pacific side, all the way down to the Panama border and is best known for its national parks. Manuel Antonio National Park and the Corcovado National Park are two of the area's most popular.

Weather

Costa Rica has seven distinct provinces but only two distinct seasons: summer and winter. Summer, or the dry season, is December through April. Winter, or the wet or green season, is May through November. (However, things are slightly less predictable on the Caribbean coast which gets more rain.)

Costa Rica has pleasant temperatures year-round. February and March are the hottest months with temperatures reaching the mid-90s℉. The coolest months are usually September and October when temperatures can dip into the 60s℉, especially at higher elevations.

Expect rainy days year-round, but during the dry season they're few and far between. Showers are usually in the afternoon and short-lived. If you visit during the rainy season, expect serious downpours and washed out roads. However, there are usually a few hours of sunshine every day.

Apps to Download

Waze: GPS, maps, live navigation, accident alerts, traffic iOs | Android

Magic Seaweed: Surf forecasts, weather iOs | Android

Whatsapp: Messaging, calling iOs | Android

InCostaRica: Travel guides, dining and accommodation recommendations, maps, events iOs | Android