Costa Rica – How to Plan your Visit and Tips

High Level:

Costa Rica is an amazing country to visit, it is one of the most visited countries in Central America, mainly by American tourists.

Located in Central America (north of Panama, south of Nicaragua) the country has coastlines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific oceans.

 

Costa Rica is known for its beaches, volcanoes, and rainforest biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of its area is made up of protected jungles and rugged mountains.





 












Like the rest of Central America, Costa Rica never fought for independence from Spain. On 15 September 1821, after the final Spanish defeat in the Mexican War of Independence the authorities in Guatemala declared the independence of all of Central America.

It has a population of around five million where 2 million of them are live in San Jose metropolitan area. Its economy, once heavily dependent on agriculture, has diversified to include tourism. By 2004, tourism was generating more revenue and foreign exchange than bananas and coffee combined, where each year around 2.6 million tourists are coming to visit this country, most are from the US.

 

The country become prime central America tourist destination due to its natural beauty, amazing outdoor activities, safety, friendly locals, and well-developed tourist ecosystem.

 

 



Note:
I'm not covering all what Costa Rica has to offer for tourists, we only spend here 11 days.
I'm basing my recommendation on our personal trip experience, where we visit and what we did and saw.
This is not complete guide to Costa Rica, Use this blog as one of your information gathering.


Other Costa Rica Blogs I wrote:


Important Note about the Cost of your Trip:

Costa Rica has a lot to offer for tourist but it’s not as cheap to visit as its south/central America neighbors.


I'm not traveling as mochilero so this Blog not a guide for low budget traveling.

 

From our personal experience I can say that on the dry season (Dec-April) and during US holidays a Costa Rican vacation for a family can get very expensive, maybe even on-par to other western world / US destinations.

For us this was our family Christmas vacation, and we weren’t aiming to cut coast so much. We booked hotels almost lust minute, thing that make it even more expensive, so our accommodation where on the high-price range.

 

 


Planning:

Note: I’m not trying here to provide full guide how to visit Costa Rica, I will provide information on things we did during our 11 days visit, places we visit, things we saw and did and few tips that will help you plan your visit.

 

Trip planning to Costa Rica could be overwhelming, with so many options of places, activities, experiences and services available for tourists.

 

The first step is to choose according to your main interest the places you’d like to visit.

Probably you are not coming to stay only in one place and that you do want to combine in your vacation beaches, volcanoes mountains, rainforests, and nature preserve.

 


Driving from one location to the next one can consume a half a day so do not plan to be in a different location every night, try to stay in one place fore 2-3 nights and than move to the next one.

 

There are many official national parks and many other private preserves and protected lands so you will have endless nature destination opportunities.

Costa Rica is world known for its animal diversity and you can see them almost everywhere, in national parks, rainforests, along the roads, private animal sanctuaries and private “mini zoo”, river boat tours along the river deltas and in many butterfly gardens.

 


In some locations you will find famous hot-springs, and, in many others, you can do chocolate and coffee tours, and other touristic attractions, you will find them in most of the main tourists’ destination hubs.

I can say that based on what I saw you can do many of the “special” activities almost everywhere, no matter where you stay.

There is almost everywhere available activities like: ATV, Zipline, rainforest bridges and hikes, horse trips, kayaking, and countless waterfalls hiking and swimming.

The same is for ocean beach activities like surfing, kayaking, boating, sailing, fishing, jet ski,…

 


 

How to start planning your trip:

When you are starting to plan your trip, you need first to define the number of days, what you want to do (more beaches and surfing or nature hikes and animal viewing, is it relax trip or pack with activity) and set few locations you want to stay at.

 

Except reading my blogs ๐Ÿ˜Š check with friends that already visit Costa Rica, read on line, and watch YouTube that show what you can do here.

 

Then you will start to see what there is to do in each location and how many days you want to be there. Do this process iteratively and start creating and defining your trip itinerary.


Start with all potential locations, decide what is a “must visit” from your perspective and start reducing the destination list, you must understand that there are so many places, and you can’t see them all in one trip.

 

This was the list of things we wanted to visit, we did not manage to visit in all of them in just 11 days:


I assume you will use a rental car, but if you are traveling very light (backpack) I learned that the option to use public transportation or shuttles to move around the country, this will help you to save a lot of money.

 


In our plan we want to combine the following activities:


·       Animal viewing in nature



·       Rainforest and hikes


·       Visit Volcanos



·       Activities like ATV and zipline (we did it in our hotel near the beach).


·       Spend relax time at the beaches


 

 

There are so many options to create trip plan that following the above wish list and although our final plan is not the optimal one from driving perspective overall it was OK, and we manage to do and see all what we wanted to.

Plan to have few days in each location and give yourself some flexible time to fit your activity to the local weather (like if it is raining one day beach is probably not the best activity for that day…), un-expected events or other changes you would like to do in your trip.

 

We fly into and from Costa Rice to San Jose Airport but there are also international flights to Liberia Airport at the north.

 


 



Our Final Visit Plan (in the below order):


·         Poรกs Volcano (1 day)


·         Manuel Antonio (3 days)


·         La Fortuna & Arenal Volcano (3 days)


·         Beaches near Tamarindo in Guanacaste Province (4 days)



This is a map of our trip:

 

 


Places we wanted to visit but did not have the time are:

·         Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park

·         Monte Verde and the surrounding rain forest

·         Pacific coast South of Manuel Antonio (Uvita)

 

In our 11 days trip we did not visit the Caribbean coast at all (there are many interesting places to visit there) and the same is for the capital San Jose, we did not visit the city.

 


 

General Information and Tips:

 

Weather:

The dry season is December to April, and the rainy season is May to November.

For beaches and visiting the central region, volcanoes and cloud forests, are best visited during the dry season. From November through April, rain and downpours usually do not last all day.

 

As expected, the dry season fit to peek US tourist season of Christmas & New Year holidays and winter/spring breaks. People are flying south from the cold winter to enjoy the tropic weather and at that time you will have higher flight/hotel/car prices and it can be crowed.

 

 

Coast of the trip:

As I noted above, for tourists that are coming for a week or two and want to see a lot of things than Costa Rica is not a low-cost destination, especially when traveling as a family.

Restaurants can be pricy, and Hotels are also in the high range price.

If you are renting a car this will also add to your trip cost.

 

The same is for tourist attractions, park entry fees, guided tours and any other “extra” activity quickly add to overall trip expenses.

 


 

Things tend to be less expensive and not as crowded during the rainy season from May to November, I saw that September-November tend to be the rainiest months.

I understand that the Caribbean side is less popular/crowded compared to the Pacific side, so it usually lower cost.

 


I can’t give you a range of cost per day.

It all depend on your hotel level, renting a car, restaurant level and type/number of activities (and how many people you are traveling with).

 


You can check all prices in advance on the web and decide what fit you.

We took a flight on Christmas day because it was much lower cost than day before/after.

On the other hand we remembered late to book hotels so we had less option and some hotels were already fully booked.

We book everything directly with Expedia.com.

 

 


Currency

 

As of Jan 2023, 1 USD = 590 Costa Rica Colon.

 

Most stores, restaurants and gas station, and tourist attractions accept credit card.

Some services and activities ask for cash, but they all accept US $, even tall road accepts $.

It’s good to have both US dollars (no larger than $20) as well as colones. If you pay in USD you will get CRC back.

The USD bills need to be in good condition, they will not be accepted if they are ripped or torn.

 

From our experience restaurants often add a service fee into your table bill, check if you need to add. If you are traveling together with friends you can split restaurant bills.

 

 


Car & Driving

 

Renting a car:

I do not think you really need 4x4 car if you are going to the more touristic places but for some destinations and driveways that Waze will take you through gravel/dirt roads, high clearance car is better.

 

We rented at a global rental car company and there are many local companies and individuals that rent car with probably lower rate.

Most rental car are off the airport, and you will take a shuttle to the rental office, you will find where to take your shuttle in the airport exit hall.

 

When renting the car, you will need to do a local car insurance.

Check the car before leaving the parking lot.

 



The benefits of renting a car from a international company:

Yes, it is probably lower cost to rent a car from local small companies, but we rented a car from Thrifty.

After few days where all went well, we arrived La Fortuna. On the night of 2022/23 new year on our way out from the hotel to the nearby town for dinner the car did not start.

We immediately call the number they gave us.

Someone answered and helped us, we send him the video of the car dashboard when we try to start it, it looks like bad battery issue.



This was already 8pm and He told us to wait, I was sure that he will say that this is new year evening, and he can’t do anything and that they will contact us in the morning… after 30 min he told us that someone will come to diagnose the issue.

At 9pm a local technician arrive (with his mother in the car, coming from new year dinner), he check the car and say that battery is ded.

He told us stores are close tomorrow (1/1/23) but that he will try to do something.

At 8am the following morning, they told us that the technician will come with new car battery and indeed he was there on time, after 15 he replace the battery and we can continue with our trip.

The service we receive was exceptional good !

 

 


Driving in Costa Rica:

The main road conditions are usually OK, but many are narrow and without shoulders, winding through the jungles and mountain-slopes, and with a lot of traffic, bike and pedestrians.

Even main “highways” that has a lot of traffic and trucks can be narrow, winding, one-lens road going through local villages.

 

Distance and speed limits is in km.

 

As the local, take your time and be patient.

Our impression was that they are very “relax and not in a harry” type of drivers, be the same.

 


Always expect traffic delays, if it is important to be somewhere on time take a lot of spare driving time. On long drive application always where wrong by at list 30 min…

 

All are using Waze and not Google maps as navigation app, we tried both and indeed Waze is more accurate with the roads it is selecting to take.

Prepare that your route will be change according to the changing conditions.

 

From our experience if you are driving in 2 cars you may get a different rout.

 

Even Waze can take you into dirt roads that are usually OK when it not raining or rivers are flooded. Sometimes you will need to cross streams (in dirt roads), look and see what the local are doing.


 


Set your drive when you have cell reception (or wifi), remote locations do not have cell receptions, overall, we manage to get cell reception in many places along long drives.

 

It is always taking us more time to reach destination.

In specific ride from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna, 255 km drive, it took us more than 7 hours compare to the expected 5 hours.

Even short local 2km drive through town to a restaurant will be longer than expected.


 


Everywhere people park their car on the road for short time and activate the Hazard 4-way blinking lights, you will need to wait for a gap in the incoming traffic to pass the “parking” car.

 

Many people ride their bike on the narrow and dark road and others are walking on the road, day and night, drive slowly especially in cities and near houses.


 


Unless stated otherwise right turns on red are allowed in general (like in the US).

 

We saw city intersection where there is a traffic light to the main road but if you are coming from a side road you do not have any light, you need to cross the main road only when you can.

 

Do not park where you see yellow colored sidewalk.

 


Do not drink and drive.

 

We drove only once in heavy rain for one hour, drive slowly and expect running water on the road.

 

Everywhere, you will see people, usually with some yellow vest, “organizing” the parking, the parking attendant will help you pull in and find a parking spot.

You will find this is at the beaches, along the road in touristic places, in large stores parking lot, almost everywhere.

This is not only for tourist but also for locals, you are expected to tip them, we usually gave something like 1-2 US $ for their service.

This will also help to reduce the risk of car damage; in any case we never left the car with luggage or other belonging alone.

 

 


Safety:

Costa Rica considered to be one of the safest countries for travel and backpacking in Central America.

Still, you need to be aware of what/where/when you are doing things, not to “invite” trouble and avoid situations that can lead to robbery.

 

Car break in: Coming from San Francisco we are used to this, we did not leave any bag or valuable stuff in our car. We arrive first to the hotel, put our luggage before going outside.

 

In big cities try to stay where the crowds are, do not stay in beaches late at night alone.

 

If you are on the beaches don’t leave your items unattended while going for a swim or walk.

 

 


Phone

You can come with your out of state carrier package or you can buy local SIM that fit your needs in many stores, just look for local phone company/fix store.

It simple to buy SIM.

 

All are using WhatsApp for messaging and communication (not text), this is convenience to reach out store, tourist guide, rental car company, hotels, …

We saw that they are highly responsive on WhatsApp.

Highly recommend installing this app prior your visit.

 

 


National parks

25% of Costa Rica land is designated as a protected, national park or reserve.

There are 26 national parks, and you can find them along the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans and in the central volcano mountain ranges. On top of the official national parks there are many other protected lands, forests and jungles and conservation wildlife refuges.

 

 

You must book on-line tickets, usually this is something around 18-20$ for adult.

 


How to buy tickets to a National Park:

Go online to the SINAC government website.

https://serviciosenlinea.sinac.go.cr/

 

Create an account.

Go to Buy on the left, then select Online Reservation.

Use the dropdowns to select the Park you are looking for.

Choose your date and time of visit. You’ll see that there are different available timeslots.

Select the number of people, adults and children.

On the last page, you will need to fill in everyone’s full names and passport numbers, enter your credit card information to pay.

You’ll then get a confirmation mailed to you.

 

 


Keep the ticket with you (print or save locally on your phone*) and show them at the park entrance.

 

*In some parks you do not have any cell reception and you need to show a copy of your order at the park entrance.

 

In some parks I saw that you can book park entrance + a guide package.

Consider this option if you know for sure you want a guide.

 


In many touristic parks you can book a nature tour guide on the location itself, usually you will be approach by them at the park entrance.

In one park (Manuel Antonio) we couldn’t find any booking for park entrance option at the days we wanted to visit the park, but we did manage to find last booking options for entry when we booked it with a tour guide.


 


When hiking in parks carry your own water with you, and it is better to wear comfortable shoes to protect yourself from the rain.

Flip flop are great for the beaches but are not recommended for hiking when it is wet.

 

Once you book your park entrance you will get a mail with your approved order, save it.

 

 



Animals Viewing:

 

Costa Rica is reach in animals and I was amaze that you can see interesting animals almost everywhere. If this is near the hotel, side-roads and in the jungle.

I highly recommending bringing binoculars for closer-look or a good zoom lens if you are using DSLR camera.

 


To take a guide or not to take, this is the question ?

And the answer to that is that it depends.


Definitely, a local guide know exactly what to look for and where exactly to find the animals + you will get a lot of explanations about the environments and the animals.

We saw that in most cases group are relatively small you can talk with the guide and get a lot more information.

If you take a guide, he will bring with him a good telescope on a tripod so you can all enjoy the view of the animals, you can also try to take picture with your phone through the telescope lens.


 

On the other hand, guided tour is a lot more expensive, and you probably do not want to do this in every park.

If you decided not to take a guide you can walk not so far from a group and listen to what the guide is telling them and look for the animal he spotted, you will not have the telescope so you can’t see the animals up close...

 

Do understand that this is a jungle and not a zoo, animal can be far up in the trees, moving fast or even not seen.

 

 

Sloths:

Most of the day they are sleeping up in the trees and hard to find, try looking for gray/dark section up in the trees.


Ask around, usually they are not moving between trees so if someone spotted them, they will be around for few days.

We did saw several times sloths moving during the day, usually this is mid-day when they got to hot, and they are trying to find a cooler place.

Sometimes when they are sleeping up in the trees you can’t really distinguish where is the head and where is the bottom (their tail is like a bump).

 

We saw sloths only in Manuel Antonio, but we did not go to sloths tour in La Fortuna so you can probably see them also there.

 


We saw many sloths in the woods in and near our La Fortuna hotel (Parador Resort) and even 3 sloths that were staying on trees just near the pool.

We also saw few sloths near the local small beach (Biesanz Beach).

And we saw few sloths when we walk the main trail in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio Park.

 


 

Monkeys:

There are monkeys in many natural places, and we saw them in Manuel Antonio, Arenal, and on the beaches.

In our trip we saw: Squirrel monkeys, Capuchin monkeys, and Howler monkeys.

 




 

We saw Iguanas almost everywhere, the same is for birds.

 




 

Misc:

·       US Central Standard Time Zone.


·       English is spoken and understood in most tourist areas, and the U.S. dollar is accepted virtually everywhere.


·       Electricity power outlet is the same as in the U.S, there's no need to bring an adapter and the voltage is the same.


·       Carry with you a raincoat, poncho or even simple disposable raincoat, as rain may come in any season.


·       If needed use mosquito repellent on your body to prevent bites.


·       On the beaches use sunscreen.


·       Both for mosquito and protection from the sun a long sleeve dry-fit shirt is highly recommended.


·       Tap water is safe to drink in Costa Rica but if you are sensitive to different foods, it’s recommended that you avoid drinking the tap water outside your hotel, we use to fill our water bottle at the hotel.


·       The legal alcohol drinking age in Costa Rica is 18.



Additional Pictures:

Poas Volcano






Jaco & Crocodile Bridge





Manuel Antonio


































La Fortuna & Arenal




















Tamarindo Beaches






































































Comments