14 min read

Costa Rica

Ben and Kayla in Costa Rica

Our recent visit to Costa Rica marked the 12th country on our travel adventures together. We received numerous inquiries about our time and experiences in this alluring paradise. If Costa Rica hasn't made it onto your travel bucket list yet, this should place it squarely at the top. Despite our extensive research before the trip, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of highly-rated activities and sights to explore. With almost everything showing a five-star rating, it was challenging to narrow down where we should stay and how we should spend our limited time. To help our fellow travelers navigate the wealth of possibilities, we've compiled our top recommendations for anyone considering or already planning a journey to Costa Rica.

Costs

While Costa Rica is not known as a budget destination, it's still possible to make your trip more affordable with some strategic planning and cost-cutting methods. Due to the rising popularity of Costa Rica as a desirable destination and general inflation, the affordability of this trip is moderately in jeopardy. The fundamental elements that impact trip costs in Costa Rica are the season and the level of luxury you desire: at your hotels, on your tours, and at your restaurants. Almost everything in Costa Rica tourist-related has an entry fee or tour fee and/or other costs associated with getting there. Additionally, there is often a tax and service fee adding ≈23% to every bill at hotels and restaurants. This can make for a unexpected surprise when you get your final bill.

Seasonality

The dry season (December to April) is the peak tourist time, with higher prices for accommodation, tours, and activities. The dry seasons bring crowds, parking problems, and lines to the most popular tourist areas in Costa Rica. The wet season (May to November) brings bright green forests and offers lower hotel rates, albeit with the occasional rain shower or heavy downpour. The later rainy season does make accessing some areas of the country exceedingly difficult, especially by road, and can make it increasingly humid. However, if you appreciate afternoon thunderstorms or rainy days relaxing at a five-star resort, while you save some money, this is a great option. Shoulder seasons are good options especially May but you should expect year-to-year variability in the weather and costs.

Service Level

Costa Rica has various accommodation and dining options that try and meet various price points. Many of the cheaper options we found had significant drawbacks like being much farther out of town, no nearby restaurants, shared bathrooms, or shared bedrooms. We should note a number of our hotels did not have air conditioning which did make the rooms quite hot during the day, however at night they cooled down nicely. We liked having hotels that had restaurants on the premises, this repeatedly made dinners or breakfasts easy when trying to get out and glimpse more of this incredible country during the day.

We also made an effort to find more local places to eat such as sodas, and local eateries. Grocery stores are one of our favorite places to visit when traveling and are also a great way to save on a night or two (or just for the snacks). Eating at hotel restaurants can make it significantly more expensive but the tradeoff is saving time or sometimes your only reasonable option… we recommend mixing it up!

Tour Costs

Regardless of your budget, we recommend taking advantage of Costa Rica's natural beauty by exploring national parks and reserves (as there are plenty). Engaging with local communities through cultural activities can also provide an enriching experience without breaking the bank. Guides can be relatively expensive but often are worth it for the knowledge and animal-spotting abilities alone.

Group guided trips are available as well as private trips, however, most of our guides recommended private tours as they felt they could tailor an itinerary to what you want to see. Private tours will cost you more, but often results in an overall better experience, as you have more of an opportunity to ask questions and talk with your guide!

You can also save some money if you go without a guide which we did in several places but you definitely will not learn or see as much. This does allow you to go at your own pace, as guides are often on a timed route and have to keep a reasonable schedule to get the multiple groups through at busier parks and refuges.

Ultimately, with some hard choices, you can create a memorable Costa Rican adventure that aligns with your financial means, whether on a backpacker budget or a luxury splurge trip.

Where We Went

During our Costa Rican adventure, our itinerary took us to three distinct destinations, each offering its own unique charm and experiences. We attempted to explore as much as the country had to offer in our short one-week period and tried to mix in as many different climates and cultural experiences as possible. If you are looking for a place to stay one of the options below should give you a good idea of what is available and what matches your travel style.

Los Bajos del Toro Amarillo and El Silencio Lodge

Our first stop was Los Bajos del Toro Amarillo, a remote region nestled in the heart of the Guanacaste province. This off-the-beaten-path destination is a true haven for nature lovers, boasting verdant landscapes, cascading waterfalls, and an abundance of wildlife. Immersing ourselves in the tranquility of this secluded area allowed us to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of daily life and reconnect with the natural world. There is a bit of a trek to get here as the mountain roads are steep and winding but it is worth it.

Monteverde and Hotel Belmar

Next, we ventured to Monteverde, a quaint town that has been steadily gaining popularity among tourists in recent years. Perched atop the Continental Divide, Monteverde offers a unique blend of natural wonders and cultural richness. We explored the renowned cloud forests, visited coffee farms (on the way), and gained insights into the local way of life through engaging interactions with the friendly locals. Eco-tourism is popular all over Costa Rica but we saw a heavy presence in this area as the Monteverde cloud forest has a storied history as some areas were clear-cut in the 60s and 70s and some areas are virgin forests.

Manuel Antonio and Parador Hotel

Our final destination was Manuel Antonio, a renowned coastal town that is undoubtedly one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist spots. While the crowds and commercialization were hard to miss, Manuel Antonio's allure lies in its stunning beaches, wild monkeys, and lush tropical landscapes. We spent our days basking (maybe baking) in the sun at the beach and hiking through the dense rainforests some which stretch to the shoreline. Quepos is also nearby which is a larger (relative) city that has several tour options and a beach to help you enjoy your time in the country.

Each of these destinations offered a distinct perspective on Costa Rica's remarkable diversity, from remote escapes to bustling tourist hotspots. By combining these contrasting experiences, we were able to appreciate the country's charm, meet interesting people, and create lasting memories that will forever shape our perception of this Central American paradise.

Transportation

Exploring Costa Rica's diverse landscapes and attractions requires some consideration of your transportation options. From rental car adventures to private tours and public transit, each mode of travel offers its own set of pros and cons. As an upfront note walking can be difficult here as many of hotels and restaurants can be spread out.

Car Rental: Calm Chaos

Renting a car in Costa Rica can be an…. experience….. allowing you to explore at your own pace, finding unique local places and saving time. However, be prepared for a driving experience that can range from, being the only one on the road, to barely organized chaos. Costa Rican roads can be narrow, winding, and riddled with potholes (or just straight-up HOLES), especially in rural areas. However, some of the toll roads can be reasonably well put together Navigating through bustling cities like San José or the tight streets of Quepos can be a true test of your driving skills and patience (it's a virtue)!

If you choose to rent a car, it's highly recommended to use the Waze app for navigation. This crowdsourced app provides real-time updates on traffic conditions, road closures, and even police traps, making it an invaluable tool for navigating Costa Rica's roads. Rental car insurance is also mandatory in Costa Rica which can make this very expensive… and some of the rental companies (even well know names) can be… lets say unyielding about you taking their “premium”insurance even if you are covered by your credit card insurance.

Private Transportation

For those seeking a more relaxed journey, private transportation, and taxi services can be a great option for getting around from resort into town or from resort to resort if booked in advance. Professional drivers are quite familiar with the roads and can navigate the chaotic roads without much issue. However, this convenience comes at a premium price, and the costs can quickly add up, especially for longer distances or extended tours. Private buses might be a better option especially if you are with a larger group going to and from common tourist places. Many resorts in Costa Rica offer a shuttle bus to and from the airport for a nominal fee, which may be an option for those staying at just one resort.

Public Transit

Adventurous travelers on a tight budget may consider Costa Rica's public transportation system, which includes buses, shuttles, and even domestic flights. While affordable, navigating public transit can be a daunting task, especially for those unfamiliar with the language and local customs. Schedules can be unpredictable or outright unreasonable to go longer distances, and navigating between different modes of transportation can be logistically challenging. which is why we bailed on this option… this is not something we can personally recommend, not that it is not possible to do.

Regardless of your chosen mode of transportation, the key to a successful Costa Rican adventure is to accept the unpredictable nature of the journey. Whether you're white-knuckling it through wet winding mountain roads or enjoying the abundant scenery while peacefully riding in a private van, the experiences you'll encounter along the way will undoubtedly become lasting memories of your time in Costa Rica.

Flights

Before jetting off to Costa Rican paradise there are a few considerations that need to be observed, or you might end up in California for a day!? There were several humorous, but slightly tragic stories of people booking their flights to San Jose, California, USA (SJC) instead of Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, Costa Rica (SJO). This is an easy mistake to make when booking flights, as they are similarly named and only one easily mistakable character different on the IATA airport identifier. Flight times are also fairly similar (especially from the east coast of the US) so it can be tough to catch your mistake until it is to late.

There is however two major options for airports in Costa Rica and a number of domestic airports after you enter the country. The two primary airports are Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) in Liberia, Costa Rica (also potentially confused with Liberia Africa). While SJO is the most popular and most central, LIR is growing and provides a good option if you are planning of visiting the North Western part of the country.

There are also various flight options for saving you time and the stress of driving where you can fly from SJO to a number of popular domestic tourist destinations. This was an option we only learned of later but is a time-saving method for seeing diverse locations around Costa Rica.

What to do in Costa Rica

Eco-tourism is the name of the game in Costa Rica, and that was why we wanted to visit. The world is moving in a more sustainable direction, why not the tourism industry? One of the most thought-provoking experiences we had, was all of the unique ways the hotels, tours, and local businesses were reducing their (and therefore our) impact on the environment. Costa Rica is a thriving vacation hot spot with eco-conscious tours, hotels, and offerings for all vacation styles.

The immense quantity of protected areas and national parks in Costa Rica offer biodiversity not seen anywhere else on this planet. This is the prevalent attraction for those visiting Costa Rica, but this does not preclude the more standard tropical vacation activities! There are a few notable activities that we can recommend to anyone going to Costa Rica, but there are many other options available depending on where you are going and where you are staying in country.

Rainmaker

A virgin rain/cloud forest that is known for an astounding variety of wildlife and microclimates. A breathtaking river with crystal clear water flows through the forest which has created many natural pools to cool off after a long hike. Rainmaker also has quite a few bright red rope bridges taking you from tree top to tree top, which is not for the faint of heart or those afraid of heights… this is one of our top recommendations especially if you are in the Manual Antonio area. However this is off the beaten path and down a few dirt roads, we might recommend taking a tour or getting a knowledgeable driver to take you here if you are not comfortable.

Rainmaker Conservation Park - Rainmaker Park Costa Rica
For day tours we suggest you book your tour before 12:00 p.m. m. during the winter months, since the rain usually arrives in the afternoon.

Espíritu Santo Coffee Tour

Espíritu Santo is a coffee farm co-op, located in Naranjo, which offers both private and group tours. While this co-op does not have a website (at least at the time of writing) this was one of our top experiences. Ronny taught us so much about how coffee is grown and processed in Costa Rica! It was also an excellent cultural opportunity for us to learn about the history of coffee in Costa Rica and some of the traditional methods of harvesting, roasting, and brewing this popular and slightly addictive elixir. Due to the terrain in Naranjo, most of the work is still done by hand as they use a mix of traditional and modern methods for harvesting, drying, processing, and roasting the coffee beans. This is the best way I can share this tour -> Trip Advisor Link

Finca Madre Terra

This is the first certified carbon-neutral farm in Costa Rica which also provides a significant portion of the produce and provisions for the Hotel Belmar restaurant. This was another unique experience to learn about how agriculture in Costa Rica has progressed and all of the various methods that Finca Madre Terra employed to ensure they stay carbon neutral and continue to provide a significant portion of produce to the Hotel. It was also fun to meet all of the animals they rescued as a no-kill farm. We learned how to milk a cow, make cheese, process sugar cane, and a number of other agricultural insights. This made eating at the hotel restaurant all that much better!

Finca Madre Tierra
As a fully-operational organic farm, Finca Madre Tierra offers beautiful landscapes to explore on rugged horseback riding paths plus the opportunity to experience the land’s life-giving wonders.

General Tour Notes

There are so many tours and places to see in Costa Rica you could easily fill weeks and months with numerous activities. With tourism in Costa Rica growing almost every year our top tip is to go early in the day, not only is it cooler and not as humid but it is also less crowded which will make your tour that much more pleasant. For any tour in any of the forests bring some bug spray that should help keep the gnats, the despised mosquitoes, and innumerable other insects from making you their lunch. Additionally, close-toed shoes are highly recommended for all hikes and tours as many of the trails are steep and rocky, and as previously mentioned insects like ants might attempt to carry chunks of you away for a nice snack. Finally, if you are going to see wildlife, which you should as Costa Rica is one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet, a guide is key to spotting the well camouflage animals in the dense rain/cloud forests of Central America.

Recommendations

Below is a rapid-fire bullet list of knowledge we collected from our research or acquired during our trip that we believe will be valuable to anyone planning a trip to Costa Rica.

  • Make sure you book to SJO (Costa Rica) NOT SJC (California)
  • learn some Spanish (basic phrases help a lot)!
  • Talk with a travel doctor before you go!
  • Bugs and critters are common everywhere
  • Bring some bug spray to help with mosquitoes and gnats
  • rooms with bug screens are great for letting that cool night air in without all the bugs
  • Costa Rica can be very hot 90F+ (32+C) with high humidity 99% this can make it feel overwhelming, especially at 5500ft (1700m)
  • The temperature is stable and remains the same year-round
  • The sun rises and sets at around the same time year-round
  • The sun towards the equator can be intense year-round, Sunscreen is a must
  • The tap water is generally drinkable but there are some areas where its not advisable (check with your hotelier)
  • Book a hotel with a restaurant
  • Visit at least 2 towns/Cities (Monteverde and Manual Antonio are good options)
  • San José City has some mixed reviews, however, there are things to do maybe only for a day or two if you want to stay close to the airport before you leave
  • Bring cash (USD) for most tourist attractions and locations
  • Colóns are useful for local businesses and Tolls
  • Check the conversion rate before you go… some places may try and take advantage of you by giving you a poor conversion rate (the general rate in 2024 is 1USD ≈ 500-550) CRC
  • Tips are not always required but they are a nice gesture
  • Do NOT leave stuff in your car... (We were warned about this)
  • Road signage is questionable... sometimes it is accurate sometimes it is leftover from the past and has not been taken down(use caution)
  • We do not recommend driving after sunset for any significant distance, especially in more rural areas, as it is harder to see the potholes, and the roads are often not lit at all.
  • Police often drive around with their lights on -> they are not pulling you over…
  • There are some tourist scams, especially around parking in tourist areas
  • Download offline maps
  • Use Waze or Google Maps
  • Driving short distances can take a LONG time i.e 60km can take 2-3 hours

Packing Shortlist

  • Bug spray!
  • Reef safe sunscreen
  • Bug and Sun protective clothing
    • lightweight long sleeve shirts
    • lightweight pants
    • longer socks
  • swimsuit
  • Camera!

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Closing Thoughts on Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a venerable tropical paradise with diverse ecosystems and climates that can be found nowhere else on the planet, but the friendly and inviting people are what make it Costa Rica! Pura Vida! This is the local phrase which encapsulates the lifestyle of Costa Rica. Meaning "Pure life", or "enjoy the little things", or several other valid translations or connotations which get the point across... "you should add this beautiful country to your bucket list".

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Ben & Kayla
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