Costa Rica is the most popular country to visit in Central America. Visitors can enjoy natural landscapes and lush rainforests, spot unique wildlife, relax at beautiful beaches, and do outdoor activities like zip-lining, white-water rafting and hiking.
I spent two amazing weeks in Costa Rica and in this travel guide, I share practical travel tips that are especially useful for first-time visitors who are planning a trip there.
- 1. Top Places To Visit
- 2. When To Visit
- 3. How Long To Visit
- 4. Visa Requirements
- 5. Budgeting and Costs
- 6. Cash and Tipping
- 7. How To Get Around
- 8. Safety and Scams
- 9. Health Concerns
- 10. Speaking English
- 11. Cultural Differences
- 12. What To Pack
- 13. Itinerary
- Summary: Costa Rica at a Glance
- Costa Rica Trip Planner
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1. Top Places To Visit in Costa Rica
Below are the best places to visit in Costa Rica and the top things to see and do in each one.
Best Quintessential Costa Rica Towns: La Fortuna and Monteverde
🦥 Known For: The best quintessential Costa Rica towns are destinations that have everything that the country is known for: outdoor activities, abundant wildlife spotting, stunning natural landscapes and happy locals.
🌋 Top Attractions: Here’s a quick overview of the top attractions in La Fortuna and Monteverde:
- La Fortuna is a small town located next to Arenal Volcano National Park. Its top attractions include the active Arenal Volcano, the many hot springs heated by the volcano and the suspension bridge-filled park, Místico Arenal Hanging Bridges (here’s a great hiking tour of the park).
This La Fortuna travel guide shares a busy three-day and five-day itinerary as well as great things to do there.
- Monteverde is famous for its cloud forests where the cloud hangs at lower altitudes around the canopy level, giving the forests a mystical atmosphere. It boasts three cloud forests with Monteverde Cloud Forest being the most famous one.
This Monteverde travel guide shares an optimized two-day itinerary and great things to do there.
🍀 My Experience: I spent a week in La Fortuna, my favorite place, and two days in Monteverde. My trip’s highlights were white-water rafting in class III rapids, horseback riding around the Arenal Volcano and 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: Manuel Antonio, Santa Teresa, and Puerto Viejo
🏖️ Known For: The best beach towns in Costa Rica have soft white sand, stunning sunsets and excellent waves for surfing.
Costa Rica is known as one of the best destinations for surfers.
📍 Best Places: Costa Rica boasts more than 20 beach towns and some of the most popular ones are Manuel Antonio, Santa Teresa and Puerto Viejo.
🏄♀️ Top Towns and Attractions: Here’s a quick overview of the top beach towns in Costa Rica:
- 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. Learn about the park’s ecosystem in this highly-rated guided tour.
- 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. Lastly, Puerto Viejo is a lively town with a party scene and is popular with a younger crowd.
This Nosara travel guide shares a four-day itinerary and great things to do there.
🍀 My Experience: 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: Tortuguero and Corcovado National Park
🌳 Known For: Costa Rica has remote areas with incredible biodiversity that are perfect for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.
📍 Best Places: The two best wildlife areas in Costa Rica are Tortuguero National Park and Corcovado National Park.
🐢 Top Attractions: Here’s a quick overview of the top national parks known for wildlife:
- 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 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 Experience: 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 and visitors who are staying in Costa Rica for longer than two weeks.
2. When To Visit Costa Rica
☀️ Best Time To Visit: The best time to visit Costa Rica is during the dry season, which is also considered the summer season.
However, the weather can vary by region (e.g., Monteverde is almost always more rainy and cold) and there are good reasons to visit Costa Rica during the wet season.
🌧️ Seasons: Here’s a quick overview of Costa Rica’s two seasons:
- The dry season, which runs from December to April, is generally sunny and is also the peak season. During the dry season, you don’t have to worry about the rain canceling or changing your travel plans, but you’ll see more crowds.
- The rainy season, which runs from May to November, 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: I traveled to Costa Rica in March during the dry season and experienced fantastic sunny weather across different regions. The only exception was Monteverde, where it persistently rains. During my two-week trip, I mostly wore rompers, shorts, bathing suits and tank tops.
3. How Long To Visit Costa Rica
🗓️ Ideal Duration: You’ll want to stay in Costa Rica for at least five days, which will give you enough time to explore two different distinct areas at a minimum. Ideally, you’d be able to stay in Costa Rica for one to three weeks.
- 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.
🍀 My Experience: 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. Visa Requirements for Costa Rica
🛃 Visa: A tourist visa is not required for United States citizens visiting Costa Rica for up to 90 days.
🎟️ Flight Ticket: A return flight ticket is required to enter Costa Rica.
🍀 My Experience: I flew to Costa Rica from the United States and had no issues with paperwork as an American citizen with a valid passport.
5. Budgeting and Costs for Costa Rica
💰 Cost Ranking: Costa Rica is the most expensive country to visit in Central America. Many other countries in Latin America are much more affordable, but are also less popular (e.g., Peru, Mexico, Belize, Brazil).
💵 Expected Budget: Budget travelers can expect to spend about $70 per day and mid-range budget travelers, such as myself, can expect to spend approximately $200 per day in Costa Rica, excluding flights.
🍀 My Experience: I share all my travel expenses in this Costa Rica budget breakdown. As an American, I didn’t find the high costs of Costa Rica very surprising, especially when I remembered that tourism is the country’s biggest industry.
6. Cash and Tipping in Costa Rica
💰 Currency: Costa Rica’s local currency is the Costa Rican Colón (CRC). US dollars are widely accepted, but you may not always get the best exchange rate if you use it. The exchange rate was $1 USD = 540₡ at the time of writing.
💳 Credit Cards: Costa Rica’s credit card infrastructure is a bit of a hit or miss depending on the area, so bring some cash.
💵 Tipping Etiquette: A 10% tip is customary and expected in Costa Rica.
🍀 My Experience: 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.
7. 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.
✈️ Airports: Costa Rica has two international airports: Juan Santamaria Airport is the San Jose airport and Guanacaste Airport is the Liberia airport. After landing, you can drive, take a shuttle, call a taxi, ride a public bus or fly to other places in the country.
The highly-rated airport transfer service, Welcome Pickups, is also a great option if you want to have your ride ready when you land in San Jose. They provide English-speaking local drivers for the same price as a regular taxi.
🚙 Rental Cars: 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.
🚐 Shuttles: 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 (~$30 to $50 USD), 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+ USD).
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 sightsee.
🚌 Bus: 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.
🚗 Taxis: 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.
🚙 Ridesharing Apps: Uber is technically illegal in Costa Rica (they’re in the gray area of Costa Rica’s law), but they’re becoming increasingly common. Uber is generally available in major cities (e.g., La Fortuna, San José) and they’re competitively priced ($3 to $10 USD for 30-minute rides), but are better for shorter trips that are less than 45 minutes.
✈️ Local Airlines: Some popular areas (e.g., La Fortuna, Nosara) have a small airport that you can fly into. Booking a local airline is a much faster travel option (e.g., a three-hour trip by car can take less than an hour by air) and is usually priced at around the same as a private shuttle (a bit over $100+ USD).
🍀 My Experience: 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.
8. Safety and Scams in Costa Rica
⚠️ Safety Rating: Costa Rica is considered a safe country to travel to. It has a travel advisory level of 2 per the US Department of State and is ranked #39 out of #163 safest countries by the Global Peace Index (for reference, the United States is ranked #131).
🥷🏻 Common Crimes: The most common crimes against tourists in Costa Rica are nonviolent and include petty theft, bag snatching, pickpocketing and passport theft.
💎 Common Scams: These are some 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.
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.
- The currency exchange scam involves the scammer shortchanging tourists, so it’s a good idea to know the exchange rate and count your change carefully.
- The distraction scam involves scammers distracting tourists (e.g., spilling something on them) while pickpocketing them.
🍀 My Experience: I pre-booked a lot of my tours through my accommodations and did not experience any theft or scams during my Costa Rica vacation. I made sure to never leave my things unattended and carried cash in my crossbody phone pouch.
9. Health Concerns in Costa Rica
💧 Tap Water: Tap water is safe to drink in most developed districts of Costa Rica, but many accommodations, tours and restaurants will provide bottled water regardless.
🦟 Mosquitoes: The Costa Rican government has run multiple campaigns to decrease the spread of mosquito-borne illness, but some areas still have a lot of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
💉 Vaccines: Here are the vaccines recommended by the CDC when traveling to Costa Rica.
🍀 My Experience: I drank tap water in developed, tourist areas, so I carried around my insulated, reusable water bottle. I tend to get bitten, so I used this lotion insect repellent that works better than the spray alternative in my experience (per the CDC: “DEET offers the best protection against mosquito bites.”)
10. Speaking English in Costa Rica
🗣️ Language: Costa Rica’s official language 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.
🇨🇷 Spanish Phrases: Some Spanish phrases to learn in Costa Rica are:
- “Hola,” which means “Hello”
- “Gracias,” which means “Thank you”
- “Pura vida,” which can mean “Great,” “Awesome” and “No worries”
🍀 My Experience: 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.
11. Cultural Differences in Costa Rica
🇪🇸 Historical Context: Costa Rica’s culture is influenced by its indigenous roots, Spanish colonial history and modern global interactions.
😊 Cultural Differences: Here are some cultural differences to keep in mind while visiting Costa Rica:
- 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: 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.
12. What To Pack for Costa Rica
🎒 Packing List: No matter where you go in 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.
13. Costa Rica Itinerary
🗓️ 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 of Costa Rica.
- Costa Rica has many different regions with distinct activities and atmospheres. A well-rounded trip mixes a bit of 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.
- 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.
For more itinerary guidance, this Costa Rica guide gives three different optimized itineraries to experience 10 to 12 epic days there.
Summary: Costa Rica at a Glance
Here’s a quick summary of important trip-planning information for Costa Rica:
📍 Popular Destinations: La Fortuna, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, Santa Teresa, Puerto Viejo, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park
☀️ Best Time To Visit: Dry season (December to April)
🗓️ How Long To Visit: 1-3 weeks to visit several regions
🛃 Visa: Not required for United States citizens visiting for less than 90 days
💰 Currency: Costa Rican Colón. USD is widely accepted.
💳 Credit Cards: Credit card infrastructure is decent depending on the area, but make sure to bring some cash.
💵 Tipping Etiquette: A 10% tip is customary for tourists
💬 Language: Spanish; only 10% of locals speak English
🌎 Time Zone: Central Standard Time (see the current time)
💧 Tap Water: Safe to drink in developed districts
🔌 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 planning template below and use it as a starting point. The template has country-specific travel information as well as an itinerary, packing list and map with recommended places pinned.
The template is built on Notion, which is what I use for all my travel planning (I’m not paid to say this; I just like the tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Costa Rica Travel Guides
- ✈️ Planning A Trip to Costa Rica: 13 Things To Know
- 🦥 10-12 Amazing Days in Costa Rica: 3 Itineraries
- 💰 Costa Rica Trip Cost: 2023 Travel Expense Breakdown
- 🌋 La Fortuna Guide: Itinerary + 10 Great Things To Do
- 🌳 Monteverde Guide: Itinerary + 5 Great Things To Do
- 🏄🏻♀️ Nosara Guide: Itinerary + 7 Great Things To Do
🧋 This site is run entirely by me, Lukiih. I spend hours writing each article to ensure its accuracy and conciseness. If you find my site helpful, you can say thanks by buying me bubble tea!