Inspired by pictures of Costa Rica’s rainforests brimming with exotic flora and fauna, steaming volcanoes and world-class beaches? Us too. If you're dreaming of a trip to this Central American nation, here are eleven indispensable Costa Rica travel tips to help you plan your holiday.
Given that has made our list of the best places to go with kids, and our round-up of the world's best adventure holidays, it's fair to say that Costa Rica has a richness of experiences for all kinds of travellers.
With so many North Americans flying south for the winter – not to mention locals travelling home – it’s pivotal to book in advance if you want to visit Costa Rica during the high season. Christmas and New Year periods are especially busy.
Hotel rooms and buses can sell out weeks ahead, but by being savvy and using several transport links (such as a private shuttle), it’s possible to make things work. Alternatively, you can hire a car for greater flexibility.
The week leading up to Easter is another pressure point, though the parades and processions that take place during this time are quite unique and well worth seeing.
Veteran independent travellers might sniff at the idea of taking an escorted tour. Doubly so as Costa Rica is a country where hostels and hotels are plentiful and English is quite widely spoken.
Despite this, we recommend you don't rule out a tour entirely. Many activities have both high demand and surprisingly high prices, and there are few regular public bus services around the country. Joining a guided tour is one of the top Costa Rica travel tips as it means you can pack a lot of experiences into one 10-day visit without fretting about availability or logistics.
Rough Guides' own Tailor-Made Trips offers a full trip-planning and booking service in Costa Rica. We pair you with a local expert on the ground working for a local tour operator to design, book and execute a personalised itinerary that works for you. Get inspired by one of our sample itineraries, such as our 'Discover Northern Costa Rica' or 'Beaches and Volcanoes' - of course, all modifiable to fit your preferences.
When heading for the more remote areas in Costa Rica, try to carry sufficient colones (the official currency of Costa Rica) with you, especially in small denominations. Banking facilities can be scarcer here, and you may have trouble changing a 5000 note in the middle of the Nicoya Peninsula, for example.
Going around with stacks of colones may not seem safe, but you should be alright if you keep them in a money belt — and it will save hours of time waiting in line. Some banks may not accept bent, smudged or torn dollars.
It’s also worth noting that, due to an influx of counterfeit US$100 notes a few years ago, some shops, and even banks, are unwilling to accept them. If you bring any into the country, make sure that they are in mint condition.
Costa Rica is among the most expensive countries to visit in Latin America – and it’s not just pricey when compared to its neighbours. The country can rival the UK and the USA for certain supermarket items, such as bottled water and sunscreen.
To save money, eat plates of gallo pinto at small family-run sodas, pay for groceries and other small purchases with local currency colónes instead of dollars and travel during the low season (aka the rainy season) for reduced room rates. If you're eating out, be aware that a 10% service charge and 13% tax are added to most restaurant bills and budget accordingly.
Additionally, many nature sites, from waterfalls to national parks, charge an entry fee so you'll need to factor that in too. Read our Costa Rica Travel Essentials page for Costa Rica travel tips on budgeting and more.
Costa Rican food – called comida típica (“native” or “local” food) by Ticos – is best described as unpretentious. Simple it may be, but it’s tasty nonetheless. Especially when it comes to the interesting regional variations found along the Caribbean coast, with its Creole-influenced cooking, and in Guanacaste, where there are vestiges of the ancient indigenous peoples’ use of maize.
Típico dishes you’ll find all over Costa Rica include rice and some kind of meat or fish often served as part of a special plate with coleslaw salad and plantain, in which case it’s called a casado (literally, “married person”).
The ubiquitous gallo pinto (“painted rooster”), often described as the national dish of Costa Rica is a filling breakfast combination of red and white beans with rice, sometimes served with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs). The heavy concentration of starch and protein reveals the rural origins of Costa Rican food: gallo pinto is food for people who are going out to work it off.
While Costa Rica is, in general, a very safe country, pickpockets and petty theft can be a problem. Applying basic common sense will mean you avoid the hassle of lost belongings. Firstly, never leave items on show in your parked car. If you're heading to the beach try and park in a carpark (some are guarded by enterprising locals) or near other cars.
Next, be aware that pickpockets operate at bus stations and other crowded places like markets. Don't leave your bags unattended.
Even in the dry season (between December and April) visitors to the central highlands and the Atlantic coastal plain should prepare for frequent downpours. The rainy season starts in earnest in May.
In late September and October, many Pacific coast hotels and restaurants are closed for a break before gearing up again for high season. You might find a few more options on the Caribbean coast at this time of year.
No matter how clear the skies look at daybreak, make sure you pack waterproof clothing and dry bags for valuables on any trips into the rainforest. And if the showers are dampening your spirits you can always head west to the sun-scorched plains of the Pacific slope.
In Costa Rica, insect protection is crucial to prevent diseases such as dengue and zika. One of the essential Costa Rica travel tips to repel mosquitoes and other insects is to use a bug spray containing DEET. It is important to apply the spray to exposed skin and clothing, especially during the rainy season when mosquito populations increase.
In addition to bug spray, wearing long-sleeved clothing and using mosquito nets will also help prevent insect bites.
You won’t struggle to find locals with good English in Costa Rica, but picking up some Spanish can not only earn you kudos and a warm welcome – it can really boost your bargaining power.
Those with a good chunk of time on their hands can go one step further and enrol in one of the many local language schools that are scattered across the country, putting their tico accent straight to the test.
Monteverde and La Fortuna are two of northern Costa Rica’s backpacker favourites and both are excellent for outdoor activities. However, getting between the two can prove a lengthy process and much of the adventure offering is similar.
If you don’t have time for both, among our top Costa Rica travel tips is to pick Monteverde, as it boasts the trump card thanks to its drier climate and bohemian hilltop charm. Book ahead for an all-in-one adventure tour in Monteverde or if you prefer a more relaxed pace, check out this authentic farm experience, a fun tour for the whole family.
Find more accommodation options to stay in Monteverde
If you're planning to self-drive in Costa Rica, you need to consider a 4x4. While some major roads are paved, many others are still little more than dirt tracks. Add in heavy rainfall and you've got a muddy mess to navigate.
Even if the weather is dry, keep your eyes peeled for potholes which can cause car trouble. Keep water and snacks in the car in case you break down, and try to carry a mobile with you so you can contact the car rental company if needed.
Our local expert in Costa Rica is happy to assist you with the planning and booking process, like this self-driving trip on the Caribbean coast. If the idea of driving sounds intimidating you can opt for a guided trip that includes transport, like this trip discovering the beaches in the South as well as cloud forests and volcanoes.
One quick fix for escaping Costa Rica’s crowds is to head east instead of west. With the international airport of Liberia so close to the Pacific coastline, it’s an easily accessible beach destination. The beaches of the Caribbean coast, are much harder to reach, meaning the region is also much less developed. If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience you'll enjoy exploring the Caribbean coast.
Although they’re tightly packed into the waist of the Americas, each Central American nation boasts its own character, attractions and heritage. Next-door neighbours Nicaragua and Panama make the easiest and most obvious add-ons to a sojourn in Costa Rica.
Nicaragua is a more raw destination that’s best suited to intrepid, budget-conscious travellers. Panama offers a cosmopolitan capital as well as lashings of more rural adventure activities. To plan the trip of your dreams, see our tailor-made trip service. Trips like 'Highlights of Panama' or 'Thrilling Adventures in Panama' can be great extensions to your Central America trip.
Costa Rica has set its sights on becoming the world’s second carbon-neutral country (after Bhutan) by 2021. To help support its green goals, opt for locally owned ecolodges and operators that practise sustainable tourism wherever possible.
To help distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly, the Costa Rica Tourism Institute has developed the CST (Certificate of Sustainable Tourism). Businesses are ranked from levels one to five based on their commitment to the cause.
The phrase Pura Vida does not just mean "simple life" or "pure life" for the people of Costa Rica it is a philosophy and a motto for life. Pura Vida is a way of life that incorporates relaxation, enjoyment of nature and good spirits.
Whether hiking through lush rainforests, relaxing on a white sand beach or enjoying the local cuisine, one of the best Costa Rica travel tips is to enjoy Pura Vida, which reminds us to live in the present moment and enjoy the simple joys of life.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Costa Rica without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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Header image: Sunrise Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, Central America © Antonio Fernandez Dieguez/Shutterstock