Costa Rica has always been one of the top countries on my list. Early this year, I started researching on the visa requirements. After some research and a few emails to the consulate, I was clear on the visa requirements. I booked my tickets. When I arrived in Costa Rica, I was amazed by the landscapes and the natural beauty of the country. It’s hard to describe Costa Rica’s beauty in words. It’s a beautiful country with lush green rain forests, exotic wildlife, smoking volcanos and stunning beaches. It’s a nature lover’s paradise. A natural habitat for monkeys, sloths and quetzals. It’s a safe country with great climate all year around. Locals are warm and welcoming.
You can zip line through the canopies, hike in the rain forests, raft in the rushing white-water rapids or surf at some of the world class surfing spots – costa rica has no limits for outdoor adventures. You can enjoy a Costa Rican coffee, chill on the beach or dance to reggaeton tunes. There is something for everyone. Be it a short trip or a long trip, I can guarantee that you’ll have a great time in Costa Rica.
Compared to other countries in Central America, Costa Rica is expensive. So planning ahead is important. Tourists flock to Costa Rica in the dry season (Dec – Apr). Hotels are pricey in the dry season. Budget travelers should prefer wet season (May – Nov). Most think that it rains a lot during the wet season. Not really. It rains for an hour or two a day and clears after that. There will still be plenty of time to hike, explore or surf during the day.
Visa – Most passport holders do not require a visa. Even if you require a visa, you can use one of your existing US/Canada/Schengen visa. Refer to my Costa Rica visa guide for more details.
Flight – There are two international airports in Costa Rica – Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) in Alajuela/San Jose and Daniel Oduber Airport (LIR) in Liberia. Prefer LIR only if your destination is Guanacaste region or Nicoya peninsula. See “Getting around” below on how to get to your destination from the airport.
Accommodation – You’ll find hotels/hostels in all towns and also condos in some of the beach towns. Stay a day or two at each destination. You can also stay in San Jose and do day trips to various destinations.
Guide – I personally prefer Lonely Planet Costa Rica guide and Anywhere Costa Rica
Bus – Bus is the most economical transit option. They are frequent and punctual. But they tend to be very slow and stop at most of the stops during the trip. Keep an eye on your bags and do not put them in the overhead bins.
There is not an easy way to catch the public bus from SJO airport. The bus station is on the high way. Sometimes the bus doesn’t stop, so you must wave. Buses usually become full in San Jose itself, so getting seat on the bus is very difficult. Other option is to take a taxi/shuttle to Coca Cola bus station in San Jose. If you are a little hesitant to catch the bus on your own or worried about waiting at the Coca Cola station (people say it’s a bit sketchy around there), you can try A Safe Passage who makes it a little bit easier to rely on public transport. They prebook your ticket, pick you up and put you on the right bus.
If you need cash, there is one ATM inside the SJO airport. It’s next to the currency exchange booth but right before the customs. If you miss it and pass through the customs, there is no easy way to get back in. So, keep an eye out for it after your immigration check.
Shuttle – Shuttles are mini vans with a capacity of 8-10. They are good for hotel to hotel transportation. They’ll pick you up at your hotel/hostel/airport and drop you off at the hotel/hostel/airport at your destination. You must book them in advance. They can be booked from most travel agencies. Interbus and Grayline are two major shuttle providers. I recommend Anywhere Costa Rica. They are a travel agency who will book shuttles, taxis and tours for you. It’s very easy to book shuttles on their website. They also have a chat feature on their website to talk to their staff if you need immediate assistance.
If you plan to take a shuttle from SJO airport to your destination, make sure you book your shuttle in advance. Most shuttles pick up their passengers at the airport from Malinche restaurant. If you must wait for your shuttle/taxi or someone, I highly recommend Malinche restaurant. It’s on the right side when you exit SJO airport. This restaurant is quite, cheap, has good food and wifi. Some shuttles pick up from nearby hotels or Denny’s restaurant near Fiesta Casino. A taxi ride to Denny’s will cost you around 4USD.
Taxi – Long distance taxis can be booked from most travel agencies or from your hotel/hostel front desk. They pick you up from your hotel/hostel and drop you off at the destination. If you are a party of 3 or more, a taxi would cost you same as shuttle. So, prefer a taxi in such a case. City taxis can be hailed from anywhere. They are very cheap and comfortable.
For airport pickup, you can book a private taxi by calling your hotel/hostel or at Anywhere Costa Rica
Car – Having a car at hand can make your travel much flexible. But driving in Costa Rica is much harder due to curvy and mountainous roads. Use Google maps on your smart phone, otherwise it can get really confusing. Me and my friends drove from Jaco to Arenal and then to San Jose. Without Google maps it would have been extremely difficult. Also, most rental cars are sticks. If you are not used to driving a stick car with gears, prefer a shuttle or taxi.
You can book a rental car online. Most major rental car providers are available – Alamo, Avis, Budget, National, etc.
Money – ATMs are available pretty much everywhere. Most ATMs dispense cash in both US Dollars (USD) and local Colónes. You just need to specify the currency during the withdrawal. All places accept payments in USD or Colónes. But they exchange 1USD for 500Colónes. For better exchange rate, use Colónes instead of USD. At the time of writing this post, exchange rate was 1USD=527Colónes.
Most places accept credit cards except some small Sodas. So, keep some cash for just in case. Make sure you watch while they swipe your card.
Water – Tap water is safe in Costa Rica. But bottled water is also available in pretty much all super markets and stores. Another alternative is to use a purifier like Steripen.
Food – Traditional Costa Rican cuisine is very typical. Many international options are also available pretty much everywhere. Due to Costa Rica’s vegetation, vegetables and fruits are very fresh and tastes great.
If you are like me and want to try Costa Rican cuisine, then for breakfast try eggs with gallo pinto (rice cooked with beans). For lunch/dinner try Casados at a Soda. A Casado contains a salad, rice, beans and a choice of meat (fish/chicken/pork/beaf). Sodas are small family owned restaurants serving low cost Costa Rican food. You should definitely try some coffee. Costa Rican coffee is considered as some of the world’s best.
A 10% tip is already included in the bill. So no need to tip again. If you are feeling generous you can always tip an additional 5-10%.
Drinks – Costa Rica has some really good local beers – Imperial, Pilsen and Bavaria. My favorite is Imperial silver. There is also a huge craft beer scene. If you are into craft beer, make sure to check out some of the craft beers and breweries.
Safety – Costa Rica is a safe country. But, due to high influx of tourists, drugs and prostitution are prevalent in some areas in the night. Exercise caution when walking in such areas in the night.
Arenal – Volcán Arenal has been inactive since 2010. But, standing at 5,000 feet high, it is still the top attraction of Costa Rica. Most of the activities involve hiking in the national park at the base of the volcano. Near by hot springs and the lake are also popular. Most visitors stay in the near by town La Fortuna. This town offers hotels, restaurants and night life.
Monteverde – With mossy vines and dripping mist, Monteverde is just breathtaking. It’s one of the top attractions of Costa Rica and very popular for zip lining and hanging bridges. Bungee jumping and night hikes with a flash light are also very popular. Most visitors stay in the near by village Santa Elena. This village offers a lot of hostels, hotels and restaurants.
Jaco – Jaco is known for it’s excellent surfing, great restaurants and vibrant nightlife. Surf lessons and board rentals are widely available on the beaches. Sport fishing and hiking in the surrounding jungle are also popular.
Manual Antonio – Manual Antonio is Costa Rica’s most popular national park. It’s know for it’s beaches, trails and wildlife. Some of the wildlife that you can spot here are monkeys, sloths and toucans.
San Jose – San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica. It’s centrally located in the middle of the country. You can actually stay in San Jose and do day trips to all the above locations. Museums are popular here.
Costa Rica is a beautiful country. From misty cloud forests to world class surfing, there is something for everyone. If you have never been there or still thinking about visiting, now is the time. Happy travels!
If you have been to Costa Rica already, what was your experience like? What did you enjoy the most?