Traveling in Costa Rica: The Ultimate Guide

Traveling in Costa Rica Guide

Why go?

 

Costa Rica receives a lot of hype. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. With captivating cloud forests, rich jungles, striking volcanoes, stunning beaches and 26 National Parks, there’s a little something for everyone. The country is teeming with wildlife and diversity, and the only problem for adventure seekers will be choosing between the myriad of thrills available.  If all you want to do is relax at a boutique hotel or resort, then of course there’s plenty of that too.  What’s more, Costa Rica leads the way in sustainable tourism practices, so it’s easy to enjoy the highlights of Costa Rica while remaining eco-conscious.

 

Yes, Costa Rica is extremely touristy. It’s also the most expensive country to visit in Central America. But that doesn’t mean you should bypass the country altogether. There are numerous hidden gems to be explored and remote corners that reveal a Costa Rica before sprawling resorts and towering condos. If budgeting is your concern, there are a few easy ways to keep costs down. (We’ve included our tips in the guide below.)

 

In short, our two months in Costa Rica were nothing less than magical. However, we encourage you to go and check it out for yourself! We’re confident you’ll find this small country leaves a lasting impression.

Love Costa Rica

Getting In

 

Check with your embassy to learn if you need a tourist visa or not. Americans and Canadians do not and can enter the country on a 90-day tourist visa.

 

Airports: There are two international airports in Costa Rica. The largest is the San Juantamaria Airport (SJO) in Alajuela, just outside of San Jose. There’s also the Daniel Oduber Airport (LIR) in Liberia, which is more convenient if you are headed to the Guanacaste region.

 

From Panama: We did this once after our trip to Bocas del Toro, and it is fairly straightforward. Be prepared to present your passport for Panamanian exit stamps. You might be asked to show proof of departure, such as a return flight home. We were through immigration in moments with just a quick glance and stamp of our passports. There were numerous buses waiting at the border to continue us on our journey. We recommend researching additional tips and recommendations for each border crossing.

 

From Nicaragua: We have no experience with this, but from our understanding it is also pretty straightforward. You’ll have to pay a $1 tax and $2 exit fee to receive your Nicaraguan exit stamp. To enter Costa Rica, you’ll likely be asked for proof of departure within 90 days. There are numerous buses that depart from the border.

 

Getting Out

 

There is an airport departure fee of $28.00, payable via cash or credit card.

 

Note: We recently read on TripAdvisor that there is a new land departure fee of $7.00 if exiting to Panama or Nicaragua; however, the machines have not yet been installed, so you must pay the fee at a Banco Credito Agricola or Coopelianza before heading to the border.

 

Getting Around

 

Buses: Buses are frequent, inexpensive and fairly reliable around Costa Rica. These were our primary mode of transportation. If you’re trying to keep costs down, buses are a great way. Expect to pay around $3-$10 depending on length of trip.

 

Shuttles: If you want to expedite your transportation time, there are numerous shuttles that operate between tourist hubs. They are more expensive but for long journeys the investment might be worth it. These are easily booked in tourist hot spots. They typically cost $25-$40 depending on length of trip.

 

Car: If you have a car at your disposal, that will make traveling in Costa Rica much easier. There were a few places we stayed where hotel owners were shocked we had shown up without a car, such as in Playa Grande and Cahuita. However, rental cars are very expensive and not at all necessary.

 

Air: Costa Rica has numerous airports across the country. With the exception of the Caribbean, the majority of the country is easily accessible via air. Nature Air is one of the major providers. It’s also the world’s first carbon neutral airline, which is pretty cool.

 

Within some beach towns, it’s not uncommon to see ATVs, bicycles and motorbikes used as primary transportation. This is especially relevant in towns with poor road conditions.

 

What To Eat

Typical Costa Rican Food

 

As so many foreigners now call Costa Rica home, expect to find a large range of delicious and authentic cuisine from around the world. For example, we had some of the best sushi of our lives at a Japanese restaurant in Santa Teresa and delectable gnocchi from an Italian restaurant in Samara (three nights in a row). These restaurants aren’t inexpensive though. Typically venues that are owned and operated by foreigners charge foreign prices.

 

We found Costa Rican cuisine to be a bit uninspiring. That said, there are still a few dishes that you have to try at least once. Note that local restaurants are called ‘sodas’. That’s the best place to find the dishes listed below:

 

Gallo Pinto: Typically served as a breakfast dish, Gallo Pinto consists of rice and beans (mixed together), scrambled eggs, fried plantains, tortillas and sometimes a meat. Locals drench the dish in Salsa Lizano, a slightly spicy sauce. If you’re not headed to Costa Rica anytime soon but still want to give Gallo Pinto a try, we posted a simple recipe here.

 

Casados: The word ‘casado’ translates into ‘married’, and that’s really what this dish is all about—the marriage of rice and beans. Expect rice, beans, fried plantains, cabbage salad, and your choice of meat or fish. The dish is also called ‘Comida Tipica’ as it is commonly eaten throughout the country.

 

Ceviche and Fish: With so much coastline, it should come as no surprise that fresh fish and ceviche are common—and delicious! If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s a dish that consists of raw fish marinated in citrus juices, served with diced vegetables (often tomatoes, onion, cilantro and garlic).

 

Caribbean Cuisine: A visit to the Caribbean coast opens up a whole new world of flavors and dishes, in our opinion more memorable than that of the Pacific. Rice and beans still serve as the base, but are cooked with coconut milk, curry and ginger. Don’t miss Rondon, a Jamaican seafood soup, and Jerk Chicken.

 

Chocolate: There are plenty of opportunities around Costa Rica to go on a chocolate tasting tour and learn about the cacao making process. Chocolate has played an important role in the history of Costa Rica, and these tours are not only informative, but delicious! If you visit Puerto Viejo, don’t miss a stop at the Caribbeans chocolate tasting room.

 

What to drink

 

Coffee: Costa Rican coffee is fantastic, and unlike other Latin American countries, we found most restaurants serve a local brew (rather than imported instant coffee). There are plenty of coffee tours that take you through the bean-to-cup process. Our Coffee N’ Jungle Night Tour was informative and lots of fun.

 

Smoothies: With so much fresh fruit in Costa Rica, it’s only natural to blend them up and serve delicious smoothies and juices. These quickly become an addiction of mine anytime we are in a tropical area.

 

Beer: The primary beers of choice are Imperial and Pilsner. They’re light beers, good but not necessarily memorable. If you’re on a budget though, you’ll likely be drinking these bad boys. Imported beers are much more expensive.

 

Cacique: This local sugar cane liquor is a staple throughout Costa Rica. It’s strong, but goes down surprisingly easy.

 

Accommodation

Casa Corcovado

 

It’s possible to find virtually any range of accommodation in Costa Rica, from 5-star resorts to chain hotels to camping hammocks. Costs vary depending on the region of Costa Rica. These prices are a rough estimate:

 

Camping: When we were doing research, we kept hearing that it is easy to camp anywhere in Costa Rica for a minimal fee. So, we bought a camping hammock, thinking in the long run it would minimize our costs. We didn’t use it once. There are some places to camp around Costa Rica, and if you are really diligent about it, perhaps you’ll find more opportunities. However, we only remember it being a popular choice in Puerto Viejo, Santa Teresa, and around some national parks. Don’t expect to find much camping information online; it’s easier to arrive and then ask around.

 

Hostels: They’re common throughout Costa Rica. Expect to pay around $10 for a bed in a dormitory or $20-25 for a private room.

 

Small Hotels: We would say that small guesthouses and bed and breakfasts are the most prevalent type of accommodation. Expect to pay anywhere from $30 upwards, depending upon how ‘boutique’ the hotel is. Most include breakfast.

 

Eco-Resorts: Eco-resorts and jungle lodges are increasingly popular in Costa Rica. They are a great way to travel responsibly and in comfort. Prices vary, often starting at $150 a night.

 

We’ve included accommodation reviews for the majority of hotels we stayed at with their corresponding town or region below. 

  

Navigating the Country

 

For such a small country, there’s an endless amount to see and do in Costa Rica. We’ve already written about the majority of our experiences. What follows below is an outline to some of the major destinations and attractions.

 

La Fortuna

Visit for the Arenal volcano and the numerous adventure activities in the area. The town itself is just a hub for tour operators, but the surrounding areas are stunning.

-La Fortuna, Costa Rica: Navigating the Myriad of Adventure Activities

-La Fortuna Waterfall: A Journey of Three Horses

-The Gift of Gods: Learning to Make Chocolate in Costa Rica

-Costa Rica Wildlife: Intimate Encounters Around Arenal Volcano

 

Monteverde

This area is famous for its cloud forests, the chance to site a Quetzal, and the best zip lining in the country.

-Up In The Clouds of Monteverde

-Wildlife in Costa Rica: A Coffee N’ Jungle Night Hike

-Accommodation Review: Cabinas Eddy (A highlight of all the places we stayed in Costa Rica.)

 

Playa del Coco

A popular beach in the northern Guanacaste area. We didn’t stay for long, but the highlight of our visit was meeting our friends at My Tan Feet and the phenomenal sunsets that pain the sky each night.

 

Playa Grande

There’s not much happening around Playa Grande, but that’s part of the beach’s charm. Come here for its world-renowned surf or a chance to see the leatherback turtles that nest upon its shores. We chose the latter, and after staying up to the wee hours of the morning, we were able to catch a glimpse of a mother as she laid and buried her eggs—a truly spectacular site. Note that there are no ATMs in Playa Grande.

-Accommodation Review: Sol y Luna Lodge

 

Playa Tamarindo

Just a stone’s throw from Playa Grande, this is the beach of choice for most surfers and tourists visiting the region. The town is excessively touristy, but if you’re looking for nightlife and creature comforts, than it might be for you. We stopped to use the ATM one night and that’s about all.

 

Samara 

Samara is one of our favorite beach towns in Costa Rica. The town itself has managed to maintain a slow and sleepy feel despite the regular flow of tourists it receives. Expect long strips of sandy beaches and gentle, lapping waves.

-Accommodation Review: Casa Esmeralda

 

Santa Teresa

We can’t sing Santa Teresa’s praises enough. The town itself is the perfect balance of off-the-beaten-path, while still having great restaurants and plenty of attractions. We found this beach to be one of the most beautiful we visited in all of Costa Rica.

-Santa Teresa, Costa Rica: First Impressions of the Surf and Yoga Paradise

-Learning to Surf in Costa Rica: An Embarrassing Photo Account

-Enhancing our Yoga Practice in Costa Rica

 

Montezuma and Cabo Blanco National Reserve Park

It’s just a short trip from Santa Teresa, though unfortunately we were so busy with the surfing and yoga that we didn’t have the opportunity to visit ourselves. You can learn more about the country’s first protected area here.

 

Jaco and Manuel Antonio National Park

We did not visit either of these places as well, largely because we have heard that the tourism is a bit out of control. Jaco is similar to Tamarindo. Expect surfing and partying, as well as upper-scale resorts. We have heard that Manuel Antonio is touristy for a reason, with coves of white sandy beaches, wildlife, and adventure activities. We would be interested in visiting this region on our return to Costa Rica.

 

The Osa Peninsula

If you only visit one region of Costa Rica, make it the Osa. In our opinion, it is the rest of Costa Rica but on steroids. We loved the Osa so much that <spoiler alert> we’ll be back there in October. More details on that coming soon. In the meantime:

-The Global Kitchen: Recipes from Blue Osa

-The Blue Osa Experience: A Total Mind-Body-Soul Transformation

-Wildlife in Costa Rica: An Adventure into the Osa

-How to Hike Corcovado National Park: The Ultimate Jungle Adventure

-Casa Corcovado: Eco-luxury in the Jungle
Accommodation reviews were included in the posts above. We can’t recommend both Blue Osa and Casa Corcovado enough.

 

Tortuguero National Park

We had plans to visit this park on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, but unfortunately we simply ran out of time. This region is best known for its turtles, as it is a unique nesting site for four different species. The region is best viewed on a boat tour through its canals. Learn more about the region here.

 

Cahuita

Just slightly north of Puerto Viejo, Cahuita is a quiet, one-town street. The beach isn’t the most beautiful, but it’s a superb base for visiting the Sloth Sanctuary or the Cahuita National Park.

-Why You Need to See Cahuita National Park: A Photo Essay

-Accommodation Review: Kenaki Lodge

 

Puerto Viejo

It used to be that only backpackers and surfers in search of the legendary wave ‘Salsa Brava’ knew about Puerto Viejo. While it is still largely off the tourist radar, it’s now catering to a larger audience. We loved Puerto Viejo, specifically the small beach town of Playa Cocles just a few kilometers down the road. We recommend basing yourself in Playa Cocles and exploring all that the Caribbean coast has to offer from there.

-Warning: Cute Animals Inside the Jaguar Rescue Center

-You Can Do That With Chocolate? Pure Jungle Spa

-Experiencing Community and Karma at Om

 

Again, Costa Rica packs a powerful punch, and there is even more to discover than what’s noted above! For more ideas, try the Poas Volcano, Palo Verde, or Irazu Volcano.

 

Top Experiences

 

It’s difficult to narrow down all the amazing experiences we had, but we gave it a go. In no particular order, they are as follows:

 

-Experiencing Blue Osa

Yoga Retreat in Costa Rica

We rarely return to the same destination twice, but we will be revisiting the retreat center for a month later this year. That should go to show what an impression it had on us.

 

-Surfing and Yoga with Lucero

Yoga in Costa Rica

Everything about the retreat was put together with precision and thoughtfulness. We loved our teachers, the hotel, the food and the town. It was a superb week, and a great way to stay active on vacation.

 

-The Community at Playa Cocles

 

One of the reasons why we loved the region around Puerto Viejo so much was the beautiful people we met. The area has a wonderful community vibe to it, with farmers markets, community yoga classes, and expats who still take the time to ask about your story.

 

-Hiking Into Corcovado National Park with Casa Corcovado

Hike Corcovado National Park

Casa Corcovado was an experience in and of itself. The jungle, the wildlife, the amenities, the staff and the eco-consciousness made this a trip to remember.

 

-Getting into Adventure in La Fortuna and Monteverde

Adventure travel in Costa Rica

We couldn’t get enough of all the adventure activities in the area. It was also our first time horseback riding, white water rafting, and zip lining over a cloud forest together.

 

-House sitting in San Ramon, Costa Rica

 

This was our first formal house sitting gig, and it was an incredible opportunity for us. Not only did it allow us to slow down and focus on a few projects, but it also allowed us to see a slow and local side of Costa Rica we likely would have missed otherwise. Plus, we got to have an adorable pet cat for a few weeks!

 

Budgeting Tips

 

We’ve included a few budgeting tips throughout the guide (eat local, take the bus, stay at small guesthouses), but here are a few more to help you stretch your funds:

 

-Drink the water. It’s actually safe to drink the water throughout Costa Rica, and it’s amazing how much money you can save by cutting out a few dollars on bottled water.

 

-Ask the locals. This is true anywhere in the world, but we’ll reiterate it here. Tourism has skyrocketed in Costa Rica in the past five years; with it prices have gone up. However, minimum wage has stayed largely the same. That means that locals know where to eat and what to do for a much lower price than at those places owned and operated by expats. What’s more, there are many large restaurants that claim ‘Comida Tipica’ but are actually owned by foreigners, and thus charging foreign prices.

 

-Go for DIY. It’s not always necessary to hire a guide to take you into the national parks or on hiking expeditions. If you want to see a lot of wildlife then you will likely want a guide; however, if you are going for the experience, it is often easily done with research and a tad of intrepidness.

 

-Go to the Caribbean. All in all, we found the Caribbean to be the least expensive region of Costa Rica, specifically around Puerto Viejo.

 

Rad Resources

 

Our knowledge to Costa Rica is limited to what we experienced in our two months of touring the country. For more on what to do and how to do it, don’t miss My Tan Feet. We turned to them countless times for advice in Costa Rica, and their website is an inexhaustible source of valuable information on all things Costa Rica.

 

 

You made it to the end of our Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica! And for that, you earn a congratulation, because this is likely one of the longest posts we have written on the blog. We hope it serves as a useful and informative guide to anyone planning a trip to Costa Rica, but not quite sure where to start.

 

Have you been to Costa Rica? What tips would you add? Anything we missed that you’re dying to know? Let’s make this guide even more ultimate!

 

More Resources on Costa Rica:

 

Meet: Casey Siemasko


Casey Siemasko is a blogger, content creator, and co-founder of A Cruising Couple. She has been living and traveling outside of the US full-time since 2011. She finds her life inspiration in exploring the world and seeks to find the magic in the most ordinary of places.

17 Comments

  1. Awesome round up guys! I love you included everything you did and I’m so glad you guys had a great time here and we got to meet up! For 2 months you guys did quite a bit even with some house sitting and headstands thrown in ;) Also casado means married, matrimonio is marriage :)
    Samantha @mytanfeet recently posted…Top 6 Activities for Couples in Costa RicaMy Profile

    Reply
    • Ahh thank you!! Totally what I meant to put- thanks for catching the edit! And it was so nice to get to hang out! We’ll definitely have to meet up again soon! :)

      Reply
  2. Awesome resource, guys! It is looking more and more likely that late 2015 will be our year to explore Central & South America, so this is incredibly helpful. Costa Rica really looks beautiful, but I had read it was the most expensive country in the area and worried that might mean we’d either have to cut it or, spend just a few days. It will be great to have this to refer back to whenever we start planning our next big trip! :)
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…A Traveler’s PrerogativeMy Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks Steph!! It’s definitely pricy, and in some ways more so than the U.S., but it’s definitely worth the stop all the same :) Let us know if we can help with any more of the planning details when you get closer! I think all in all we spent about $3,500 in two months of travel there. That said, we did partner with a lot of hotels and tourism agencies, but it is still very doable to see the country on a budget. Haha go figure… by the end of 2015 we might (very tentatively) be back in Asia. We need to find a way to have our travel plans line up!

      Reply
  3. What a great guide. I like your “drink the water” tip. We tend to not even think about it any more and just buy it. Costa Rica has been on our list, but we just haven’t gotten there…
    Corinne recently posted…Driving in (Eastern) MalaysiaMy Profile

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    • Thanks Corinne! We were shocked when we found out we could drink the water, but it’s one of those little things that can save a bit of money over the long haul :)

      Reply
    • Thank you so much!! Santa Teresa is seriously amaaaazing. Can’t wait to read all about your discoveries when you visit there!

      Reply
  4. Such a great resource! I can’t wait til the day I’m planning a trip to Costa Rica and can put all this info to good use! :-)
    Heather recently posted…Snapshot: Central Park in WinterMy Profile

    Reply
  5. Great in-depth guide. You were lucky to find that house-sit, it sounds amazing; we’re trying to find house-sits for London in the summer so we can save some cash and hopefully have a pet to look after! The retreat looks incredible too.
    Amy recently posted…The Fussy Eater Guide to TravelMy Profile

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    • Thanks Amy! Hope you find a housesitting opportunity- it is such a fun way to travel, save money, and get some animal lovin’ in :) We always see a lot of housesits for the UK so I bet you’ll find something!

      Reply
  6. Very useful info, thanks! I´m planning a trip around volcanoes — Arenal, Poas for sure, and the rest we´ll see.. Looking forward to the whole new level of hiking experience:)

    Reply
    • If you’re up for hiking then Costa Rica will be a dream come true!

      Reply
  7. Very informative and helpful guide indeed. You guys are really good at giving helpful tips and recommendations. So, I am wondering whether you are interested in publishing your expertise in a very different way, so that people can easily follow your tips on the road and us it as a smart guide on iphones. Here is a quick peek of what I am talking about.
    http://youtu.be/o3LLtIqpLAI
    Does it look interesting to you? If so, we would like to invite you as a beta tester while it is still in the development stage . Please let me know. Cheers. Daijie
    twitter:@GoLeafCanoe

    Reply
    • Thanks so much Daijie! We have sent you an email and look forward to being in touch.

      Reply

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