Have plans to travel to Costa Rica?
With cheap and direct flights from the US, a plethora of wildlife, stunning coastline, and pristine jungle it’s no wonder Costa Rica has become a hot travel destination in the last decade.
We too were transfixed on beautiful images of the country and knew that it was time to make the trip. If you’re like us and dreaming of a Costa Rican vacation here are 24 Costa Rica travel tips to help you plan.
Costa Rica Travel Tips
Welcome to an eco-lovers paradise
All the way back in the 80’s the first boom of ecotourism began in Costa Rica. Travelers began to learn of the country’s wealth of natural flora and fauna and acted fast to preserve. As tourism dollars continued to come in the Costa Ricans were quick to fall in step and preserve the beauty of their country. It’s now trickled down to almost every level, we even found small soda shops (local restaurants) using biodegradable straws and ditching styrofoam take away.
What’s amazing is over twenty-seven percent of the country is protected as a national park, wildlife refuge, or reserve. To make matters better is that even the Costa Rican government has taken active measures to protect the countries biodiversity
Take note of your bill
It’s worth noting that anytime you eat out whether it be at a cafe, soda shop, or restaurant there will be a 10% service charge and 13% tax added to every bill. So don’t be surprised if your bill is 23% more than what you thought it was going to be. This also means that there is no need to leave an extra tip for your server unless you want to (looking at you Americanos)
If you plan on driving in Costa Rica it’s best to know that the roads can be pretty awful, some of the worst in all the Americas to be exact. It all depends on where you travel, but almost any road not part of the national highway we found to be pretty meh. The worst we personally traveled on was from Nicoya to Santa Teresa (I may or may not have had back spasms from the constant crater-like potholes).
It’s best to rent a 4×4 if you are driving in Costa Rica. Trust me, pay the extra amount and save yourself the headache of traveling with a small vehicle. You’ll want the high clearance and power from a four-wheel drive vehicle, granted it doesn’t need to be anything huge.
Make sure to check your car rental prices
If there is one Costa Rica travel tip I can give you it would be to double check your car rental prices. When we first started searching for car rentals in Costa Rica we were shocked by the crazy low prices we were seeing. Unfortunately for our wallets we just hadn’t clicked all the way to the payment page yet. In Costa Rica all drivers are required to have third party liability insurance.
This is not covered with your credit card or home insurance provider like in other countries (but check just in case you feel it may be covered). Even our primary insurance covered by our Chase Sapphire Reserve (one of the top travel credit cards on the market) does not work in Costa Rica as a third party liability plan.
Due to the insurance, the price you see online is a lot more expensive than you may think, we suggest adding the insurance on to your booking to ensure you aren’t met with a surprise cost addition when you land in Costa Rica. For 25 days we were able to get a small 4×4 for $436 from Alamo and had a great experience. Read more about renting a car abroad here.
Now that you have your rental car it’s time to practice safe driving. Again, many of the roads in Costa Rica are pot hole ridden and dirt. They can be tough for an inexperienced driver to navigate. Not to mention as with many countries we found the drivers here to be impatient, fast, and scary and I’m not even talking about the semi-truck drivers who don’t seem to value life. In our 25 days in Costa Rica we saw one motorbike accident and two, yes two, overturned semis in a ditch. Be careful and remember to get travel insurance before you travel to Costa Rica.
USD is totally acceptable
The colón is the currency of Costa Rica, but just about anywhere will accept USD as payment too, you just may get a bad exchange rate. At the time of writing the exchange rate is 1 USD =566.518CRC. Make sure to download the XE app so you can always stay up to date with the rates.
Nature is not free
The first waterfall we visited in Costa Rica was Catarata del Toro and I was shocked when they asked a whopping $14 admission fee to see it. I mean, I guess I sorta expected I would have to pay something, maybe $5 – but $14? Little did I know that this would not be a first-time occurrence. Throughout our time in Costa Rica we visited countless waterfalls. Always paying and always paying at least $12-$20 per person to visit. Don’t be shocked if you visit La Paz waterfalls and pay a $42 entrance fee! I do hope that all these fees are going back to conservation instead of into a government officials pocket.
The Ticos are so welcoming
One thing is for certain about Costa Rica – the people are incredibly friendly. Costa Ricans or “Ticos” are happy to welcome you to their beautiful country, help you out, chat with you, and share their piece of paradise with visitors. We also found that most Ticos could speak English well too, but it certainly will help to pick up a few Spanish words.Here’s a small pocket phrasebook for your trip.
Watch out for the humidity
If there is one thing that killed us (and our electronics) it was the humidity in Costa Rica. We found the humidity in Costa Rica particularly bad in the south, along with the coast, and pretty much anywhere away from the cloud forest. It was particularly hard to dry our clothes and keep them from not smelling and molding, but the real problem was with our electronics going haywire.
If you’re traveling with a lot of electronics like we did it’s best to stuff socks full of rice in your bag to soak of the moisture. Or if you think you will have trouble in the heat make sure to book places with AC. We booked Airbnb’s a few times with a washer and dryer and AC to dry our stuff out.
Bring water shoes
Cameron may have laughed at me a few times when we were exploring the waterfalls, but I got the last laugh with beautiful feet protected by my water shoes.
Seriously if you plan on spending time around the waterfalls and going in the water it’s worth it to pick up a pair of cheap water shoes. They will help you grip the slippery rocks and protect your feet from cuts.
Costa Rica ain’t cheap
You may think that Costa Rica is a cheap destination to travel to given its location in Central America. We found out first hand that couldn’t be further from the truth. While traveling around Costa Rica we found park fees to be high for the tourists (remember those waterfalls I talked about?), fuel prices expensive at $1.20/liter, car rental prices high given that you had to add insurance to everything, and food prices a rip off.
Think I’m lying? Costa Rica is rated as one of the most expensive places to live in Latin America and has the highest prices in all of Central America.
The country is full of tourists, expats, and American retirees seeking their little slice of paradise. This combined with high taxes on imports and sustainability efforts have driven up the prices over the years. Save up for this trip guys!
There are ways to save money
Despite the country being a bit expensive there are ways to save money in Costa Rica. My advice would be to:
- Stay in dorm rooms or camp: Like anywhere in the world hostels and campsites are the cheapest accommodation options.
- Eat local: Sodas will give you a chance to try the local food at the best price.
- Skip the touristy sites: Things like zip lining, four wheeling, and horseback riding are fun but are not exactly budget-friendly.
- Visit in the off Season: Visiting in the green season will yield lower prices and fewer tourists.
- Stay out of San Jose: Not that you’ll really want to hang out in the capital anyway, but accommodation and getting around this area can add up.
Plan your trip accordingly with the rainy season
You’re not guaranteed dry sunny weather anytime in Costa Rica, but the usual rainy season in Costa Rica is from May to December. Rainy season here could affect where you travel and I would pay particular attention to the weather patterns.
As previously mentioned many Costa Rican roads are dirt and mud so if you add in a little rain to that they will quickly become impassable. We visited at the beginning of the rainy season in May and had absolutely no trouble driving. Although it did rain a bit more than we liked the lush jungle scenery was gorgeous, prices were cheaper, and it was indeed less busy than in the dry season.
A word of warning – We were told that the month of October is the worst time to visit Costa Rica. Rainfall is high and many businesses shut down. If you cannot avoid traveling in September or October head to the Caribbean coast for the best chance of dry weather.
Credit cards are widely accepted
I was pleasantly surprised to pay with my credit card at most establishments in Costa Rica. Even little soda shops were accepting cards. We always try to pay with a card when we can while traveling so we can rack up airline points.
However, I would never suggest traveling around Costa Rica cashless. Always have some USD or Colons in your pocket just in case. Read more of our travel banking tips here.
It’s the Switzerland of Central America
Costa Rica has been dubbed the “Switzerland of Central America” for a few reasons. They have a stable democracy and no military. They prefer to remain neutral and not get involved in conflict and violence.
Costa Ricans typically live decent lives out of poverty unlike much of the rest of Central America. There is a good health care and education system in place as well. In general, Ticos are very happy and proud of their small nation.
The real rainforest cafe
I wanted to travel to Costa Rica for the jungle and to feel like I was in Jurassic Park 8. Thankfully, I was not disappointed when visiting Costa Rica. It truly is a beautiful country with so much primary and secondary forest, wildlife, and pure lushness.
It was hard for me to believe this stunning country was so close and accessible to the United States and even Europe. Seriously we traveled to Costa Rica cheaper than it would have cost us to fly back to North Carolina.
My suggestion is to do a flight comparison search with Kayak to get a good deal. Being flexible with dates will help you save on travel costs.
Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species with 300,000 of those insects. This staggering number represents nearly 4% of the total species estimated worldwide. That’s a whole lotta wildlife in one little country. Costa Rica is actually one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. No matter where you are in the country there are many amazing animals and birds to be found.
If you’re in search of a sloth you probably know to visit Costa Rica. Then there are the monkeys, coati, ocelots, toucans, macaws, and the quetzal. They even have jaguars, but good luck finding one of the most elusive animals in the world!
In our time in the country, we saw a countless amount of monkeys, toucans, macaws, birds, anteaters, and frogs. The highlights for us would have to be the scarlet macaw, sloth, fiery acari, coati, green and black poison dart frog, and squirrel monkeys.
You may have better luck than us and spot the famous Resplendent Quetzal in the cloud forests. If you’re looking to find the best place for wildlife in Costa Rica you have to check out the Osa Peninsula. It’s been named the most biodiverse region on earth.
Costa Rica saved their environment
So where does all this wildlife live? In an effort to protect the beauty over 25% of Costa Rica’s land has been turned into protected parks and reserves. According to Go Costa Rica, there are actually 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas/mangroves, 11 forest reserves and 8 biological reserves, as well as 12 other conservation regions that protect the distinctive and diverse natural habitats found throughout the country. Wowza!
It’s great for families, honeymooners, friends, and solo travelers
Costa Rica is an every mans destination. While there we found every walk of life including solo backpackers, surfers chasing the waves, couples, honeymooners, groups of friends, and families. Seriously it’s got some kind of adventure or romantic activity for everyone!
The married man’s meal
There are many typical Costa Rican dishes to try, but perhaps the one we found the most was the cascado. A cascado, or a “set meal of meat,” or a “married mans meal” consists of basically rice, beans, meat –it could be fish, chicken or beef.
There are also vegetarian cascados that usually include plantains and avocado too. It’s one of the cheapest meals that can be had in Costa Rica at 2500-3500 colon and it’s delicious and plentiful.
These casados that I speak of and many other typical dishes can be found at sodas. Sodas are local family run restaurants that serve typical Costa Rican food and drinks. Sodas are where the locals eat and where your best value for food can be had.
There is no way you can miss seeing a soda shop as they are everywhere in the country. Make sure to give one a try! Hint Look for the one with the most locals eating there at lunchtime. It’s likely the best one!
There is a lot of weather going on
For a small country, there is a whole lot of weather and different environments going on. Around Monteverde and the cloud forest temperatures drop and it stays quite cool, especially at night.
San Jose and the surrounding area are known to have an “eternal spring,” Guanacaste is dry and hot, while the coastal areas are just miserably hot and humid all year around. In general, the country sees a lot of sun and typically enjoys 12 hours of light every day. The sun usually rises before 6 am and sets just before 6 pm.
Tap water is generally safe to drink
The tap water in Costa Rica is generally okay to drink. However, if you feel you could get an upset stomach easily you should stick to a water filter, bottled water, or boiling your water before you drink it.
Whenever we arrived at a new place we would just ask if the water was okay to drink, for the most part, it was. Our friends at My Tan Feet do a great job of delving in depth into the water situation in Costa Rica.
Pura Vida means Pure Life and is a way of life in Costa Rica. Ticos will use this term with each other and visitors to say hello, goodbye, and anything in between. It essentially means don’t stress, enjoy life, don’t worry, and be thankful. Embrace it and enjoy the Pura Vida lifestyle!
What to Pack and Plan for in Costa Rica
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun since you’ll likely spend a lot of time in the sun in Costa Rica. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. It’s a brand name you’ll see a lot in Costa Rica, in surf towns, as it’s popular with surfers — and ski bums like us.
Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses; however, we love ours and will never buy cheap ones again. Polarized glasses are great at enhancing vision in bright environments and removing glare from windshields and the water.
Grayl Ultralight Water Bottle
Costa Rica has great water quality with an abundance of rainfall. However, we like to travel with a water bottle that purifies water when traveling in Central and South America. We previously used the Lifestraw Go for all those times during our travels when the water is questionable.
However, over time we became annoyed with the water bottle as the filter aged and clogged. Plus the bottle leaks when it is on its side. We now switched to the Grayl Ultralight Purifier. It’s a more simplistic design than the Lifestraw that is more effective and does not leak. Most importantly it is a purifier, not a filter. The Grayl water bottle system purifies water vs. filters which removes viruses and virtually removes all threat of waterborne illnesses.
Quick Dry Towel
We always recommend bringing a travel towel for just about every destination.Quick dry towels are great when you’re out exploring Costa Rica. You can make an impromptu dip in ocean before drying off and heading to one of Costa Rica’s many surf town spots for fish tacos or an Imperial (local beer). They’re also tremendous when you hike to any one of Costa Rica’s numerous waterfalls as the towels are small enough to throw in your daypack and leave room for additional items.
The biggest complaint about travel towels is that they often feel nothing like the plush cotton towels we are accustomed to at home and in hotels. However, with the PackTowl you can forget about all of that because they set out to create a towel that mimics its cotton counterparts with the technical features of a travel towel. It comes pretty close to the real thing.
In case you didn’t know, Costa Rica has something called the rainforest. It’s a safe bet that you’ll be caught in one of the countries many thunderstorms. If you are traveling Costa Rica in the wet season (May-December), a rain jacket is essential, but I would bring one any time of year just to be safe. The rain is typically short-lived, but you won’t want to get soaked during that time.
We both have rain jackets made by Kathmandu and Patagonia. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof. Any rain jacket will do, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
I have to admit we travel a lot in rainy environments so we’ve invested in top of line Gore-Tex shell jackets. If you’re looking for a more affordable jacket we’re big fans of Columbia’s outdoor wear for a good value.
We pretty much live in loose pants when at the beach. After wearing several different pants we’ve landed on prAna for the companies commitment to sustainability and the awesome pants that they produce.
Their women’s Summit Pant is made out of hemp and recycled polyester while offering 50+ UPF protection. They are perfect for beach destinations, especially if you find yourself in more conservative areas.
These men’s Vaha pants are lightweight and weigh nothing in a carry-on bag. I could literally live in these pants if it were acceptable to wear them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner out. While in the Costa Rica, they were a wardrobe staple for nighttime as they are appropriate to wear barefoot out to a restaurant or bar while covering our legs from the pesky mosquitos.
Something to keep in mind for men, most Ticos wear long pants so it’s a good way to blend without feeling too hot in a pair of jeans.
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling to the around Costa Rica as you’re close to the Equator. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will find much higher prices in Costa Rica.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals. They’re mineral based and usually only cost a few dollars more to help protect our oceans. If you’re not going to swim in the ocean just go with a reliable name brand — granted run off often still ends in our oceans.
We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. World Nomads is ideal for flexible and great plans!
You may not have internet to do research in all of Costa Rica. For wireless nights we typically turn to Lonely Planet.
- What’s it like to travel in Costa Rica?
- Reenergizing in the Costa Rican Cloud Forest at El Silencio Eco-Lodge
- 50 Adventure Quotes Sure To Ignite Your Wanderlust
- The 15 Best Honeymoon Destinations in the World to go in 2018
- 18 Eco Friendly Products • Be Green and Save the Earth (Travel Edition)
- Our Tips For Eco Friendly Travel
- The Eight Best Places to Stay in Costa Rica
- How to Start A Travel Blog That Makes Money
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