Costa Rica: the land of pura vida, or pure life. This gorgeous country is blessed with amazing shorelines, gorgeous tropical rainforests, incredible biodiversity, and even active volcanoes. From outdoor adventures to kicking back on the beach, there is something for everyone in this small Central American country. Costa Ricans, or Ticos, are renowned for their hospitality and sunny outlooks. It’s contagious: One trip here and you’ll understand what all the hype is about, and why everyone is so happy!
To make the most of your time in Costa Rica, follow these travel tips.
Due to its location near the equator, Costa Rica never really experiences a winter, but there are separate rainy and dry seasons. To avoid downpours and get maximum sunshine, a trip in mid-December to April will be your best bet. That said, it’s also the most expensive time to visit.
With major sites scattered across the country, you’ll likely be staying -- and sleeping -- in a couple of different locations during your trip. Here are some spots to consider.
Although it’s landlocked, Costa Rica’s capital city has its own charms and loads of culture. It’s a good place to spend an evening before heading to the volcanoes or coasts. Museums, theatres, and markets abound. For a historic and luxe stay, consider the Gran Hotel.
An inn has occupied this spot since the 1820s. The current building was constructed in 1930 and completely renovated several years ago. U.S. President John F. Kennedy stayed here in 1963, and the Presidential Suite remains.
This sleepy surf town is located on the central Pacific coast about two hours from San Jose and is a great spot for accessing Manuel Antonio National Park. We loved our time at Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort. Tico hospitality was on full display with stellar service, the food was terrific, and the resort is located in a 1,110-acre rainforest right on the Pacific.
Located in the northern part of Costa Rica, this town puts you in close proximity to Arenal Volcano and all it has to offer, including hot springs and lush rainforest landscapes. In spite of its small size, La Fortuna has lodging to fit every budget. The Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa is located in the national park that surrounds the volcano, and guests have access to hiking trails that lead right to the peak.
Also of note: There is a considerable expat population in Costa Rica, and many list their homes on Airbnb and other sites. These alternative accommodations might also be worth checking out.
There is so much to see and do in Costa Rica, and much of it focuses on natural beauty.
Costa Rican biodiversity is jaw-dropping, so much so that parks can feel much like zoos without cages. Manuel Antonio National Park stands out. Located on the Pacific coast about 80 miles southwest of San Jose, this 4,000 acre park contains hundreds of animal species. Sloths laze in the branches overhead; howler and squirrel monkeys jump across the forest canopy, and white-nosed coatimundis—long-snouted cousins of the raccoon—scrounge up grubs and other food on the ground.
Iguanas, huge spiders, and many snake species also live in the park. At one point during our visit, the monkeys began shrieking up above us. Our guide told us not to move, took our camera, and dashed away. When he returned a few minutes later, he showed us a blurry photo of a small coiled snake. It was a fer-de-lance, he told us, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. Word to the wise: Stay on the trail at Manuel Antonio, especially when the monkeys scream.
We also spied toucans, flocks of both scarlet and hyacinth macaws, and were even dive-bombed briefly by small fruit bats one evening upon returning to our resort. (They were likely more scared of us than we were of them!)
Costa Rica’s many volcanoes dot the country’s landscape. Most are extinct or sleeping, but there are a handful of active peaks, including Poas and Irazu. Both are located about an hour from San Jose, and offer terrific hiking.
The country’s most famous volcano is Arenal, in the northern plains near the ecotourism hotspot of La Fortuna. Arenal boasts natural hot springs, lush landscapes, gorgeous waterfalls, and breathtaking views.
With enormous shorelines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific, you’re never too far from surf and sand in Costa Rica. That said, there are incredible variances in the beaches. Some have sugar-white sand and are dotted with palm trees.
Others, such as Hermosa Beach on the Pacific coast, are volcanic and gray, with epic waves that attract surfers from around the world. And Manzanillo Beach, on the south Caribbean, boasts some of the best snorkeling and kayaking in the country.
Hiking, rafting, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, ziplining, horseback riding, surfing, and canopy tours are all on offer in Costa Rica. The sky truly is the limit for enjoying the great outdoors here!
To get the best bargains, check out the sodas, or cafes. These small spots serve traditional Costa Rican cuisine, from patacones (plantain fritters served with beans and guacamole) to empanadas and gallo pinto (rice, beans, and veggies). Be sure to wash it down with an Imperial, Costa Rica’s local beer.
Of course, you’ll want to take back some pura vida to remind you of your travels! Here are a few of our favorite things from Costa Rica worth stuffing into your checked luggage and hauling home:
In specialty shops such as Tico Pod in Jaco, you’ll see gorgeous hand-hewn wooden statues called santos. Santos are traditional religious statues depicting Catholic saints and idols. While you might stumble across antique examples (with hefty price tags to boot) it can be difficult to trace their provenance and authenticity.
That said, many artists today still craft these gorgeous traditional figures. Each saint has her or his own backstory; we opted for Our Lady of Guadalupe, who holds a special significance for Latin America. She’s a wonderful reminder of our time in Costa Rica.
Normally, cigar aficionados look to Cuba for their stogies. Since they are still so difficult to purchase in the U.S., consider their Costa Rican cousins instead. There are tobacco shops across the country; you’ll see cigars being hand-rolled at the airport, throughout San Jose, and up and down both coasts. They aren’t cheap, but their quality is excellent.
Cacao grows well in Costa Rica’s tropical climate, and local chocolatiers have made a booming business of crafting single-source organic bars and truffles. The best ones are happy to explain the bean-to-bar process and will show you around. Check out Sibu near San Jose for a comprehensive tasting and tour experience.
There is nothing like having a perfectly brewed cup of locally-grown coffee before starting the day’s adventures in Costa Rica. As with cacao, the coffee bean also thrives in this jungle climate, and has a light, bright taste. The beans, ground or whole, make great gifts back home. One of the best-known coffee growers in Costa Rica is Britt; they offer tours of their facility and farm just north of San Jose.
You are perilously close to the equator in Costa Rica, and chances are you’ll be enjoying plenty of beach or pool time. Make sure you’re always screened with adequate SPF, be that in the form of a cream or clothing. If not, be prepared for a burn unlike any other -- one that could put a real crimp in your vacation. Keep in mind, it will be cooler near the mountains than on the coasts, so you’ll need to pack layers if your adventure will include volcano visits.
Consider renting a vehicle. Many resorts on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides offer shuttle service from the airports in Liberia or San Jose. However, once you’re there, without a vehicle, you’re locked into their excursions. We opted to rent a Jeep at the airport. The roads were a mix of brand-new and rough riding, but it was great to have the freedom and flexibility to explore on our own.
Bring a bottle of water with you during your adventures, but make sure it’s filled with filtered H2O. Water in Costa Rica is not quite pura vida.
Also, make sure you’ve got a stash of cash for your travels. From park admission fees to tips, and even toll roads, many places in Costa Rica still don’t accept plastic.
Costa Rica is a beautiful, peaceful place with incredible natural wonders, an astounding amount of biodiversity, and beautiful beaches on both its coasts. The people we met made us feel immediately welcomed and at home.
Photo Credit: Zdenek Machacek / Unsplash