🦥 Costa Rica Travel Guide: 4 Amazing Destinations + 12-Day Itinerary

The blog author staring out into the ocean while standing on jungle's viewing platform.

Costa Rica was the first country I visited in 2022 and remains one of my favorite places even after visiting a dozen others. Costa Rica has everything from nature and wildlife, to friendly locals invested in tourism, to thrilling, outdoor activities.

Here, I share practical tips on visiting and getting around Costa Rica and the key basics on visiting four popular areas that are great for first-time visitors. I also share how to visit these four areas in a 12-day itinerary that combines thrilling activities, beach relaxation, mountain landscapes, wildlife spotting and hot springs.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, I may earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

Quick Travel Facts for Costa Rica

Here is some general information on Costa Rica to save you travel research time:

⭐ Known for: Costa Rica is known for rainforests, volcanoes, wildlife (e.g., toucans, sloths, howler monkeys), thrilling outdoor activities (e.g., zip lining, white water rafting) and happy people (”pura vida!” culture).

💬 Language: Costa Rica’s official language is Spanish. ~10% of the population speak English, but tourist areas are very English-friendly.

🌎 Time zone: Costa Rica’s time zone is Central Standard Time.

💰 Currency: The currency is the Costa Rican Colón and $1 USD = 631₡ at the time of writing. USD is widely accepted, but you may not always get the best exchange rate if you use it.

🛃 Visa: A visa is not required for US nationals visiting Costa Rica up to 90 days.

🔌 Outlet: Costa Rica has the same outlet as the US (typically the 2-pronged flat type), so an adapter may not be needed.

💧Tap water: Tap water is safe to drink in most developed districts of Costa Rica.

💳 Credit Card: Cards are not accepted everywhere in Costa Rica, so bring some cash.

💵 Tipping: Tipping is customary and expected in Costa Rica.

☀️ When to visit: The most popular time to visit Costa Rica is during the dry season, which runs from December to April.

⏳ How long to visit: How long you’ll want to stay in Costa Rica depends on how many places you want to visit. You’ll want at least 2-3 days if you’re staying in one location and can stay 2 weeks or more if you’re visiting several locations around the country.

😊 Fun Fact: Costa Rica generates 98% of its electricity from renewable sources (hydro, geothermal, wind, biomass and solar power), making it one of the top 10 renewable energy countries in the world.

A view from above of a Costa Rica lush, green rainforest.
A view of one of Costa Rica’s lush rainforests.

7 General Tips for Visiting Costa Rica

Here are seven general tips when traveling to Costa Rica:

  • Tip #1: Figure out if you want to drive and if not, how you plan to get around. Costa Rica is known for winding and not well-maintained roads. If you plan to rent a car, be prepared for potholes, one-way bridges, passing (or getting passed) and low cell signal. A 4×4 vehicle is highly recommended in some areas. For all these reasons, I didn’t rent a car. If you don’t plan to either, there are several ways to get around Costa Rica and you’ll want to plan your transportation ahead.
  • Tip #2: Download WhatsApp (iOS, Android). Almost everyone (e.g., hotel concierge, Airbnb hosts, tour operators, taxi drivers) communicate through WhatsApp in Costa Rica.
  • Tip #3: Be ready to budget and tip. Tourism is Costa Rica’s biggest industry and main source of income, so it’s not surprising that Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries to visit in Central America. Hotels are usually $100 a night and almost all activities operate with tours. Costa Rica also has a tipping culture, so expect to add 5-10% to all tours and services.

All my Costa Rica travel expenses are broken down by location and category in this Costa Rica cost breakdown.

  • Tip #4: Bring cash, but you don’t need to exchange USD. USD is widely accepted in Costa Rica, but expect to receive change in Costa Rican Colón. A lot of tourist areas accept credit card, but you’ll want to bring cash for smaller, local businesses and for tipping.
  • Tip #5: Eat fruits and look for wildlife. The fruit in Costa Rica is fresh, so be sure to stop by fruit stalls or order fresh fruits at restaurants (ask locals what’s in season). There’s also wildlife everywhere, so even though you’ll have a higher chance of spotting them with a guide, you can also find them on your own.
A close-up shot of a green and orange bird hiding in the rainforest.
Spotting wildlife in a Costa Rica rainforest.
  • Tip #6: Bring mosquito repellent and sunscreen. The Costa Rica government has run multiple campaigns to decrease the spread of mosquito-borne illness, but some areas still have a lot of mosquitos. I tend to get bitten and I find that this lotion insect repellent works better than the spray kind (per the CDC: “DEET offers the best protection against mosquito bites.”) Also, since Costa Rica is near the equator, you can sunburn easily. I bring my face sunscreen everywhere.
  • Tip #7: If you get motion sickness, bring medication. As mentioned above, Costa Rica has bumpy and a lot of winding roads. If you plan to travel by land and you get motion sickness, bring your medication. I get car sick and I had to use my medication for almost all my shuttle rides (e.g., from Liberia to Nosara, Nosara to Monteverde, Monteverde to La Fortuna, and La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio). The ride from Manuel Antonio to San José was relatively flat and smooth in comparison.

Getting Around Costa Rica

After flying into one of Costa Rica’s international airports (Juan Santamaria Airport in San José or Guanacaste Airport in Liberia), you can get around Costa Rica in several ways:

  • Car rental. Renting a car will give you the most flexibility in moving around Costa Rica, but keep in mind the road conditions mentioned above.
  • Shared/private shuttles. Costa Rica has several companies that run shuttles from one location to another. Shared shuttles will be significantly less expensive (~$30-$50), but they usually run only a few times a day and you won’t get to determine the departure time. Private shuttles are very convenient, but cost significantly more (~$100+).

If you book a private shuttle to get around Costa Rica, you can set the departure time and usually request a stop somewhere along the route to pick up fruits or sight see.

  • Taxis. Official taxis in Costa Rica are red cars with a yellow triangle on the side. Taxis are a common transportation options for locals and tourists. They’re generally more expensive than Uber.

Ridesharing services, like Uber, are technically illegal in Costa Rica (they’re in the gray area of Costa Rica’s law). Uber won’t be available except in major cities (e.g., La Fortuna, San José) and they’re competitively priced ($3-$10 for 30-minute rides), but are better for shorter trips (<45 minutes).

  • Public buses. Local buses are the budget option, but they are the most inconvenient way to get around Costa Rica. I only used local buses for short trips (<30 minutes) and didn’t find them the most tourist-accessible (even though I speak Spanish).
  • Local airlines. Some areas (e.g., La Fortuna, Nosara) have a small airport that you can fly into. They’re a much faster travel option (e.g., a 3-hour trip by car can take less than an hour by air) and are usually priced at around the same as a private shuttle (~$100+). In retrospect, I wished I had taken more flights and less shuttles as Costa Rica travel times can add up.

I spent two active, packed weeks in Costa Rica visiting these four destinations that are great for first-time visitors. All four destinations are some of Costa Rica’s most visited destinations offering a mix of activities, wildlife and culture that’s quintessential Costa Rica.

A map of Costa Rica with red pins highlighting key towns and an airplane showing the two international airports.
Map of Costa Rica, highlighting La Fortuna, Monteverde, Nosara and Manuel Antonio.

1. La Fortuna

Known for: The Arenal Volcano that looms over the La Fortuna town, hot springs and classic Costa Rica adventure activities.

Vibe: La Fortuna is a small, busy and pedestrian-friendly town that has a mix of locals walking around and tourists visiting the many shops and tours. It’s an easygoing (but not sleepy or relaxed) town with plenty to do for 1-3 days.

Top activities: La Fortuna has many activities, including zip lining, whitewater rafting, chocolate and coffee tours, horseback riding, waterfall swimming and much more.

The blog author leaning in a quiet pool with a bridge and lush trees in the background.
Relaxing in one of La Fortuna’s many hot springs.

Location: Located in the Northern Highlands of Costa Rica, La Fortuna is 2.5 hours away from the country’s two international airports.

Getting there: You can get to La Fortuna by all transportation methods mentioned above (e.g., by car, shuttle, taxi, bus or plane).

How long to visit: You’ll want to spend 3 days minimum in La Fortuna, so you can enjoy two tours, a hot spring and walking around the town. I stayed in La Fortuna for a week, which I personally enjoyed, but would recommend maximum of 5 days for most people if they have limited time in Costa Rica.

My take: La Fortuna was my favorite place to visit during my trip to Costa Rica because of how many activities it offered, how pedestrian-friendly the town area was, and how well it mixes locals and tourists together in one area.

This La Fortuna travel guide includes what to do and eat, an itinerary, a map of all places recommended, how to get around and my trip’s cost breakdown.

2. Monteverde

Known for: The cloud forests, which are tropical rainforests that have a persistent cloud cover at the canopy level, giving the forest a mystical look.

Vibe: Monteverde’s town is on a hill and the weather is often misty, so it feels more secluded than it actually is with less people walking around. You will be taken directly to the top attractions, so you won’t necessarily walk around much of Monteverde.

Top activities: Zip lining over a cloud forest, walking tour through a cloud forest, walking sloth sanctuary tour, butterfly gardens and a few others.

The blog author hanging on a zipline overlooking a misty rainforest.
Ziplining through one of Monteverde’s cloud forests.

Location: Sitting at 4,600+ feet above sea level on a mountain range, Monteverde is ~2.5 hours away from both country’s two international airports.

Due to its location on a mountain, Monteverde is known to be much colder and rainier (sometimes dipping into high 50°F when everywhere else in Costa Rica is 70°F or above). Make sure to pack some light warm layers and a light rain jacket, especially if you want to visit the cloud forest or go zip lining.

Getting there: You can get to Monteverde by all transportation methods mentioned above, except for by plane (i.e., you can get to Monteverde by car, shuttle, taxi or bus).

How long to visit: Most people recommend spending 2-3 days in Monteverde. I spent 2 days and I thought that was sufficient to do a lot of the big attractions.

My take: Monteverde offers a lot a lot of the same activities as La Fortuna, so its primary uniqueness is the three mystical-looking cloud forests that warrant a visit. Zip lining over the cloud forest was one of the most magical experiences I had in Costa Rica and Monteverde offers the longest zip line in the country (~1 mile long).

This Monteverde travel guide includes what to do, an itinerary, a map of all places recommended, how to get around and my trip’s cost breakdown.

3. Nosara

Known for: World-renowned surf and yoga culture, beautiful beaches with stunning sunsets, and an international community of local Ticos, expats and digital nomads.

Vibe: The area near the beach has a relaxed, wellness-minded and zen vibe. Nosara doesn’t have an obvious town center, so walking through it can feel more quiet and secluded than it actually is.

Silhouettes of a man carrying a surfboard against a sunset dipping into the ocean.
One of Nosara’s many vivid sunsets.

Top activities: Surfing, yoga, catching the sunsets and seeing the famous Olive Ridley sea turtles’ arrival.

Location: Located in the Nicoya peninsula, Nosara is 80 miles south of the closest international airport, Guanacaste Airport in Liberia (90 miles west).

Getting there: You can get to Nosara by all transportation methods mentioned above (e.g., by car, shuttle, taxi, bus or plane). The road leading to Nosara is winding and has a lot of pot holes.

How long to visit: You’ll want to spend 3 days minimum to make the travel to Nosara worth it or if you want to commit to a longer surf or yoga course. People who want to focus on relaxing or getting to know Nosara’s community stay 1 week or more.

My take: Thanks to its wellness-minded vibe, beautiful beaches and vivid sunsets, Nosara was the most relaxing area I visited during my trip to Costa Rica. Nosara is not the most convenient location to get to, so I really recommend only going if you can afford 3 days to a week there (many people stay much longer).

This Nosara travel guide includes what to do, an itinerary, a map of all places recommended, how to get around and my trip’s cost breakdown.

4. Manuel Antonio

Known for: Manuel Antonio is a coastal village known for its white sand beaches and lush jungles.

Vibe: Manuel Antonio has a much more crowded and touristy vibe mixed in with your typical relaxed-beach feel.

Top activities: Visiting the Manuel Antonio National Park, which features well-maintained trails, wild life and beautiful white-sand beaches; catching the sunset; visiting several beaches.

The blog author laying down inside a tide pool part of an ocean surrounded by jungle.
Enjoying a tide pool inside the Manuel Antonio National Park.

Location: Located on the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio is 104 miles south of San José international airport (3-3.5 drive by car).

Getting there: You can get to Manuel Antonio by all transportation methods mentioned above (e.g., by car, shuttle, taxi, bus or plane). The road to Manuel Antonio is mostly flat.

How long to visit: 2-3 days is a good amount of time to spend in Manuel Antonio. You can add 1-2 more days if you want to do day trips or tours to nearby towns.

My take: While this was my least favorite area out of the four destinations I visited in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio has no doubt some of the best beaches I saw with its white sand and surrounding jungle. This area is also much easier to get to from San José compared to Nosara, so it’s a great option if you don’t want go that far for a beach town.

12-Day Itinerary for Costa Rica

If you have 10-14 days to spend in Costa Rica, visiting 3-4 locations is ideal. Below is how to spend 12 days in Costa Rica while doing a variety of activities. The 12 days are broken down to:

  • 3 days in Nosara
  • 2 days in Monteverde
  • 5 days in La Fortuna
  • 2 days in Manuel Antonio.

This itinerary resembles how I spent my 2-weeks in Costa Rica while incorporating improvements. I’ve included some of my actual timestamps to give you an idea of how long you might need for each activity and how to efficiently sequence things.

For more details on each activity, you can check out each location’s comprehensive travel guide: Nosara, Monteverde, and La Fortuna.

🚗 Arrive in Nosara (afternoon)
🌤️ Sunset at Guiones Beach (5:30pm-6:45pm)
🎵 Live music and dinner at Beach Dog Cafe (7pm-8pm)
🏄🏻 Surf lessons (7:30am-9am)
🚲 Bike through and explore Nosara’s town (11am-1:30pm)
🧘🏻 Walk-in yoga class (2:30pm-3:30pm)
🌙 Dinner and sunset at La Luna (5:30pm-7:30pm)
🏄🏻 Surf lessons (7:30am-9am)
🏍️ ATV ride tour (10am-3pm)
⛅ Catch the sea turtles at Ostional beach (4pm-6pm)
🐠 Dinner and vibes at Harmony Cafe (7pm-8pm)
🏄🏻 Surf lessons (7:30-9am)
🧘🏻 Hotel outdoor walk-in yoga (9:30am-10:30am)
💆🏻‍♀️ Get an outdoor massage (11am -12pm)
🚗 Travel to Monteverde (afternoon)
🦇 Go on a wildlife refuge night walk (7:30pm-10pm)
☁️ Monteverde Cloud Forest tour (7:30am-11am)
🦥 Visit the sloth sanctuary (1pm-2pm)
🌳 Cloud forest zip lining (2:30pm-5pm)
🦋 Visit the Monteverde Butterfly Garden (10am-12pm)
🚗 Travel to La Fortuna (afternoon)
♨️ Settle down and enjoy a hot spring (4pm-9pm)
🍫 Go on a coffee and chocolate tour (10am-12:30pm)
🌋 Horseback ride around Arenal Volcano (1pm-4:30pm)
🌳 Walk Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges tour (7:30am-11:30am)
💧Visit La Fortuna Waterfall (1pm-2pm)
🚡 Go up the sky tram (2:30pm-4pm)
🛍️ Hot spring or explore La Fortuna town (5pm-7pm)
🍃 Zip line over La Fortuna (7:30-10:30am)
🌊 White water raft (11-4pm)
🛍️ Explore La Fortuna town (5pm-7pm)
🚗 Travel to Manuel Antonio (morning)
🏖️ Relax or snorkel at Playa Biesanz (2pm-4pm)
☀️ Catch the sunset at El Avión (6pm-7:30pm)
🐒 Hike and beach at Manuel Antonio National Park (9:30am-4pm)
☀️ Catch the sunset at Espandilla Beach (6pm-7:30pm)
✈️ Travel to the airport and fly home (all day)

This Costa Rica cost breakdown details my trip’s cost by location and category for an itinerary similar to the one above.

If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

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