Receiving over 2 million tourists last year in 2023, Costa Rica is a popular destination in Central America that is known for its lush rainforests, unique wildlife, and outdoor activities.
Having spent an amazing two weeks in Costa Rica, I share must-know travel tips that are especially useful for first-time visitors.
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1. Best Places To Visit in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has incredible places to visit ranging from pristine beach towns to beautiful wildlife areas.
Below are Costa Rica’s most popular destinations and the top things to see and do in each location.
Best Quintessential Costa Rica Towns
The best quintessential Costa Rica towns are destinations that have everything that the beautiful country is known for, such as outdoor activities, abundant wildlife spotting, stunning natural landscapes, and happy locals.
📍 La Fortuna
The small town of La Fortuna is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. The town is eclipsed by the towering, active Arenal Volcano, serves authentic food for cheap, and is a gateway to thrilling outdoor adventures.
Top attractions in La Fortuna include:
- Arenal Volcano National Park, home of the volcano
- The dozen hot springs heated by the volcano
- The suspension bridge-filled park, Místico Arenal Hanging Bridges
Check out great things to do in La Fortuna.
Monteverde is another town in the Arenal region, famous for its cloud forests. In these forests, the cloud hangs at lower altitudes around the canopy level, giving the forests a mystical atmosphere.
Monteverde boasts three cloud forests with Monteverde Cloud Forest being the most famous one.
Check out great things to do in La Fortuna.
🍀 My Take on La Fortuna and Monteverde
I spent a week in La Fortuna and two days in Monteverde. My trip’s highlights were:
- White-water rafting in class III rapids
- Horseback riding around the Arenal Volcano
- Zip lining over the Monteverde Cloud Forest
These three activities were thrilling and cemented my sentiment that Costa Rica is a paradise for visitors who enjoy outdoor adventures.
Best Beach Towns in Costa Rica
The best beach towns in Costa Rica have soft white sand, stunning sunsets, and excellent waves for surfing.
📍 Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is a coastal town south of the capital city, San José. It’s primarily known for the Manuel Antonio National Park, which has stunning beaches next to lush rainforests.
📍 Nicoya Peninsula Beach Towns
The Nicoya Peninsula is home to several well-known beach towns.
- Santa Teresa is a laid-back town known for surfing.
- Sámara is a quiet town with calm waters and a great place for a family vacation.
- Nosara is a wellness-minded haven for expats and it’s known for its surfing and yoga culture.
- Puerto Viejo is a lively town with a party scene and is popular with a younger crowd.
Check out great things to do in Nosara.
🍀 My Take on Manuel Antonio and Nosara
I spent three days in Nosara and two days in Manuel Antonio. I found Manuel Antonio a bit touristy, but the beaches were truly stunning.
Nosara is a quiet, beautiful place and I loved its daily vivid sunsets. I met several expats and digital nomads who spent weeks and months in the Nicoya Peninsula.
Best Wildlife Areas in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has remote areas with incredible biodiversity that are perfect for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.
📍 Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is located on the Caribbean coast and is composed of canals running through a jungle. Called “Land of the Turtles“, it’s best known for its sea turtle nesting.
The nesting season runs from July to October and visitors can watch green turtles, hawksbill turtles, and leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Here’s a well-rated turtle tour if you’re visiting during the season.
📍 Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park is a remote area that’s more difficult to reach, but it’s known for its incredible biodiversity.
National Geographic called it “the most biologically intense place on earth“. A trip here allows visitors to see rare animals, such as jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys, and squirrel monkeys.
🍀 My Take on Tortuguero and Corcovado
I didn’t make it to either one of the national parks given their more remote locations. From all I’ve heard and know about them, I highly recommend the national parks for wildlife lovers.
I also recommend them to visitors who are staying in Costa Rica for longer than two weeks and who are visiting the country not for the first time.
2. When To Visit Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a tropical destination with warm temperatures year-round.
☀️ Best Time To Visit Costa Rica
The best time to visit Costa Rica is during the dry season, which is also considered the summer season.
🍃 Costa Rica’s Seasons
Costa Rica has two seasons. Here’s a quick overview of its seasons:
|☀️ Dry Season
|– Lower humidity
– Less rainfall
|🌧️ Rainy Season
|– Very green and lush
– Rain is prevalent
Here are some things to keep in mind about the seasons and climate in Costa Rica:
- Regardless of the season, Costa Rica’s temperature tends to stay between 65 °F to 95 °F, with coastal areas being about 10 °F cooler than inland areas at any given time.
- The dry season coincides with the peak season. During these months, you don’t have to worry about the rain canceling or changing your travel plans, but you’ll see more crowds.
- The rainy season is also known as the “green season” and Costa Rica is extremely lush at this time. Rain is frequent, but not constant during this time of the year and you’ll see fewer crowds.
You’ll generally get to see sea turtles nesting during the months between March and November in Costa Rica. This mass synchronized sea turtle nesting is known as arribada.
🍀 My Experience With Costa Rica’s Weather
I traveled to Costa Rica in March during the dry season and experienced fantastic sunny weather across four different regions.
The only exception was Monteverde, where it persistently rains due to its location on a mountain range. During my two-week trip, I mostly wore rompers, shorts, bathing suits, and tank tops.
3. How Long To Spend in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a small country where visitors typically spend one to two weeks traveling.
🗓️ Ideal Number of Days in Costa Rica
First-time visitors should spend at least a week in Costa Rica to get the chance to see some volcanoes and rainforests and explore two areas minimum.
- With one week in Costa Rica, you can visit two areas or travel to a more remote area and immerse yourself.
- Consider staying two weeks or longer if you want to visit several areas around the country. Many remote workers and long-term visitors find it easy to stay in Costa Rica for a long time.
🍀 How Long I Stayed in Costa Rica
I spent two weeks in Costa Rica, which gave me enough time to visit four distinct destinations.
Having now done my Costa Rica trip, I feel that I could have stayed longer and visited the more remote national parks.
4. Entry Requirements for Costa Rica
The entry requirement for Costa Rica is straightforward for US citizens.
🛃 Costa Rica’s Visa and Passport Requirements
A tourist visa is not required for United States citizens visiting Costa Rica for up to 90 days.
Also, proof of a return flight ticket is required to enter Costa Rica.
🍀 My Experience Entering Costa Rica
Being an American citizen comes with the privilege of holding one of the world’s most powerful passports, so I had no issues entering Costa Rica.
5. Budgeting and Cash in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is an expensive tourist destination for Central America.
💰 Expected Budget in Costa Rica
Here’s approximately how much you can expect to spend when visiting Costa Rica:
|Budget per Day
|Mid-Range Budget Travelers
💵 Costa Rica’s Currency
Costa Rica’s local currency is the Costa Rican Colón (CRC). The US dollar is widely accepted, but you may not always get the best exchange rate if you use it.
The exchange rate was $1 USD = 520₡ at the time of writing.
🏧 Cash Needed in Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s credit card infrastructure is a bit of a hit or miss depending on the area, so make sure to bring some cash.
I was able to use my credit card in a lot of places in Costa Rica, but I still needed cash for tipping tour guides and drivers, eating at small, local restaurants, and buying things from fruit and juice stands as well as souvenir shops.
🍀 My Costa Rica Trip’s Budget
I share all my travel expenses in this Costa Rica budget breakdown. Costa Rica is one of the most expensive vacations I’ve ever taken.
6. How To Get Around in Costa Rica
There are several ways to get around Costa Rica and you can easily travel around the country without having to rent a car, but you might want one depending on your trip itinerary.
✈️ Costa Rica’s International Airports
|Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO)
|Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR)
After landing in one of the airports, you can drive, take a shuttle, call a taxi, ride a public bus, or fly to other places in Costa Rica.
🚙 Driving a Rental Car in Costa Rica
Renting a car in Costa Rica will give you the most flexibility, but keep in mind that the road conditions in the country can be poor (e.g., dirt roads, one-way bridges, winding streets, stretches of unpaved roads full of potholes). In some areas, a 4×4 rental car is recommended.
Drive times between different regions in Costa Rica can be much longer than what your GPS says due to winding paths, unpaved roads, and weather conditions. Download the Waze app (iOS, Android) for the best way to navigate around the country.
🚐 Taking Shuttles in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has several companies that run shuttles from one location to another. I used both shared and private shuttles several times and think it’s a judgment call on whether the premium private shuttles are worth it to you.
- Shared shuttles will be significantly less expensive (about $30 to $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 (expect $100 or more per trip).
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.
🚌 Riding the Bus in Costa Rica
Costa Rica doesn’t generally have public transport, but it does have public buses. Local buses are the budget option, but they are the most inconvenient way to get around.
🚙 Taking a Taxi or Uber in Costa Rica
Taxis are a common transportation option for locals and tourists. They’re generally more expensive than Uber.
Official taxis in Costa Rica are red cars with a yellow triangle on the side.
Uber is technically illegal per local laws, but they’re becoming increasingly common. Uber is generally available in major cities and they’re competitively priced (e.g., $3 to $10 for 30-minute rides).
✈️ Taking a Domestic Flight in Costa Rica
Some popular areas (e.g., La Fortuna, Nosara) have a small airport that you can fly into.
Booking a local airline is one of the best ways to travel long distances as it saves significant travel time. A flight is usually priced at around the same as a private shuttle (a bit over $100).
🍀 How I Got Around Costa Rica
I got around Costa Rica in every way listed above, except for a rental car.
I only used local buses for short trips (less than 30 minutes) and didn’t find them the most accessible for tourists, even though I speak Spanish. In retrospect, I wish I had taken more domestic flights and fewer shuttles, as drive times in Costa Rica can add up.
Almost everyone, including hotel concierges, Airbnb hosts, tour operators, taxi drivers, and others, communicates through WhatsApp (iOS, Android) in Costa Rica, so make sure to download it in advance.
7. How To Stay Safe in Costa Rica
Here are safety tips to keep in mind when traveling to Costa Rica.
⚠️ How Safe is Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is considered a safe country to visit. Like many countries in Central and South America, it’s important to be vigilant in high-crime areas.
See the OSAC Costa Rica Country Security Report to see areas with high crime rates.
The most common crimes against tourists in Costa Rica are petty theft such as pickpocketing and passport theft. Violence against tourists is rare.
💵 Common Scams in Costa Rica
Here are common scams to watch out for in Costa Rica:
- The fake tour guide scam involves the scammer pretending to be a legitimate tour guide or tour operator when they’re not authorized or licensed to do so.
Tourism is Costa Rica’s #1 industry, so many of the experiences and activities are packaged in a tour. Make sure to book tours from trusted and verified sources like Viator.
- The currency exchange scam involves the scammer shortchanging tourists, so make sure to roughly know the exchange rate and count your change carefully.
- The distraction scam entails the scammer distracting a tourist (e.g., by spilling coffee on you) while pickpocketing them, so make sure to stay vigilant if this happens to you.
💧 Is Tap Water Safe To Drink in Costa Rica?
Tap water is safe to drink in most developed districts of Costa Rica, but many accommodations, tours, and restaurants will provide bottled water regardless.
I brought my reusable water bottle, which I refilled at restaurants and my hotel with no issues.
🦟 Does Costa Rica Have Mosquitoes?
The Costa Rican government has run multiple campaigns to decrease the spread of mosquito-borne illness. Some areas still have disease-carrying mosquitoes, so protect yourself as best as you can.
🍀 My Safety Tips for Costa Rica
I didn’t have any issues with theft, scams, or violence in Costa Rica. Based on my experience, I recommend these safety tips:
- It’s a good idea to pack insect repellent. I tend to get bitten and I find that the lotion works better than the spray alternative (per the CDC: “DEET offers the best protection against mosquito bites.”).
- Make sure to book tours with legitimate sources. I pre-booked a few of my tours online and relied on my hotel’s concierge to help me book other tours.
8. Language Barrier in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is not as English-friendly as some people might think.
🗣️ Costa Rica’s Official Language
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. About 10% of the population speak English, but tourist areas are very English-friendly.
Given that tourism is Costa Rica’s #1 industry, you’ll have no trouble navigating the country as long as you’re visiting tourist areas.
Here are some common Spanish words and phrases to know while visiting Costa Rica:
|Common Word or Phrase
|Great, Awesome, No worries
|How much does it cost?
🍀 Traveling Costa Rica With Just English
I was able to navigate Costa Rica just fine while speaking mostly English. I speak conversational Spanish and found that it wasn’t necessary to get around. Knowing a little bit of Spanish primarily helps with establishing friendlier interactions with locals.
9. Cultural Differences in Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s culture is influenced by its indigenous roots, Spanish colonial history, and modern global interactions.
✌️ Proper Etiquette in Costa Rica
Here are a few cultural norms and Costa Rican etiquette to keep in mind when visiting:
- One of the most common phrases you’ll hear is “pura vida,” which translates to “pure life.” It’s a way of life for Costa Ricans and the phrase is used to mean many things, usually to express optimism and appreciation.
- Costa Ricans are more comfortable with closer personal space and physical contact compared to Americans (e.g., handshakes, hugs, and cheek kisses are not uncommon among acquaintances).
- Tours and businesses will run on time, but Costa Ricans otherwise run on a more relaxed schedule, so meals may take longer and social events may start later.
🍀 My Experience With Costa Rica’s Culture
The primary thing I noticed during my two weeks in Costa Rica was that the locals, also called “ticos”, are generally more friendly, warm, and hospitable, so I always made an effort to greet people with a smile.
10. What To Pack for Costa Rica
No matter where or when you go to Costa Rica, here are the essential items to pack and bring with you:
- Insect repellent. Costa Rica has a tropical climate and has disease-carrying mosquitoes. I tend to get bitten and I find that this insect repellent lotion works better than the spray alternative.
- Sunscreen. Costa Rica gets a lot of sun and is a country with warm temperatures. Make sure to bring reef-safe sunscreen if you plan to visit beach towns and go into the ocean.
- Outlet adapter, if you’re not from the United States. Costa Rica has the same outlet type as the United States.
- Reusable water bottle. Costa Rica’s tap water is safe to drink in developed areas. Many hotels, restaurants, and tours will provide filtered or bottled water. I brought my reusable, insulated water bottle, which kept my water cold for hours.
- Comfortable shoes. Costa Rica is known for its outdoor activities and rainforests, so you can expect to be walking a lot.
- Rain jacket. Make sure to pack one if you’re traveling during the wet season or are visiting perpetually misty Monteverde.
11. Costa Rica Itinerary Tips
When creating your Costa Rica itinerary, keep these tips in mind:
- You’ll likely want to spend at least two to four days in each town or city in Costa Rica.
- Costa Rica has many different regions with distinct activities and atmospheres. A well-rounded trip covers beach time, wildlife spotting, rainforest visits, and outdoor activities.
- Unless you plan to take domestic flights, do not underestimate the many hours you have to budget to get from one region to another in Costa Rica as shuttles are a common way to get around.
- It’s not necessary to hire a tour operator to plan your entire trip. But remember that most activities and attractions in Costa Rica will require a guided tour or an entrance ticket, so book those in advance during the high season.
Costa Rica at a Glance
Below is a quick summary of important information when planning your trip to Costa Rica.
Trip Planning Basics for Costa Rica
📍 Popular Destinations: La Fortuna, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, Santa Teresa, Puerto Viejo, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park
🗓️ How Long To Visit: Visitors typically spend one to two weeks traveling
☀️ Best Time To Visit: Dry season (December to April)
🛃 Tourist Visa: Not required for United States citizens visiting for less than 90 days
💬 Language: Spanish; only 10% of locals speak English
🌎 Time Zone: Central Standard Time (see Costa Rica’s current time)
Money Basics in Costa Rica
💰 Currency: Costa Rican Colón. USD is widely accepted.
💳 Credit Cards: Credit card infrastructure is decent depending on the area
🏧 Cash: Bring cash as many places are still cash-only
💵 Tipping Etiquette: A 10% tip is customary for tourists
Safety Basics in Costa Rica
⚠️ Crime: Safe country to visit; violence against tourists are rare
💧 Tap Water: Safe to drink in developed districts
🦟 Mosquitoes: Disease-carrying mosquitoes are prevalent; bring bug spray
Packing Basics for Costa Rica
🔌 Outlet Type: Same as the United States
🌐 Wi-Fi: Readily available at most tourist places
My Google Fi’s international plan worked well during my Costa Rica trip. You can get a $20 credit when you use my Google Fi referral code.
Costa Rica Trip Planner
To make your travel planning easier, download the trip planner below and use it as a starting point. The planner has country-specific travel information, an itinerary, a packing list, and a map with key places pinned.
The trip planner is built on Notion, which I use for all my travel planning (I genuinely love this tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
Costa Rica Travel Guides
- 🇨🇷 Planning a Trip to Costa Rica: 11 Practical Things To Know
- 🦥 10 Amazing Days in Costa Rica: 2 Itinerary Options
- 💰 Costa Rica Trip Cost: 2024 Budget Breakdown
- 🌋 La Fortuna Guide: Top Things To Do + 3-5 Day Itinerary
- 🌳 Monteverde Guide: 2-3 Day Itinerary + 7 Great Things To Do
- 🏄🏻♀️ Nosara Travel Guide: 8 Great Things To Do + Itinerary
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