It was only natural that we had to travel in Costa Rica, the first country to run 100% on renewable energy and home to 5% of the world’s species. If you’ve followed our blog you know we’re super passionate about wildlife and nature. As we grow older and become more educated we value environmental sustainability and conservation more and more.
Our trip through Costa Rica came with some highs and lows. We loved so much but also got frustrated with a number of things. With almost a month in the country, we were able to cover some serious ground visiting several different biomes, beaches, towns, and regions.
We have a lot of information to share and posts planned so be prepared to plan a trip to Costa Rica. It’s easily accessible from the United States and seriously beautiful. Here’s what it’s like to travel in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica Pioneered Ecotourism
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 the Costa Rican government has taken active measures to protect the countries biodiversity. For instance, they impose a five percent tax on gasoline that is allocated to landowners for tree plantations and not clear cutting land for use as farming.
This is what drew us to Costa Rica. We wanted to see incredible forests, waterfalls, wildlife, and reinvigorate ourselves with yoga and activities. With that in mind, we tried to stick to smaller properties, lodges, and Airbnb’s – no major resorts. Throughout the country, there are hundreds of eco-lodges, dozens of national parks, a plethora of private reserves, and a wide range of activities to enjoy the natural sights.
Oh, I forgot to add Costa Rica generates 99% of its power on renewables and went for 300 days in a row solely on renewables in 2017! That’s the world record until they set the next one.
We didn’t just come to Costa Rica for its amazing beaches, but the abundant wildlife. There are a lot of amazing animals and birds to be found here, most notable sloths, 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, fiery acari, coati, green and black poison dart frog, and squirrel monkeys. If you have better luck than us you may even 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.
Where to go in Costa Rica
We traveled all over Costa Rica and these are some of our favorite places during our time there. There are a few places we left off that you might expect such as Manuel Antonio and Guanacaste. We did visit but found them 0verdeveloped and becoming ugly from mass tourism. We love travelers, but perhaps it’s best we all spread out a bit.
Costa Rica is home to a unique biome called the cloud forest. It is a cool rainforest with unique flora and fauna. The most popular area to experience a cloud forest is Monteverde, but it’s also one of the most popular places to travel to in Costa Rica. If you can afford it we opted for a more secluded and intimate experience and at El Silencio Eco Lodge which had their own private section of the cloud forests for guests. It’s also a haven for waterfalls. We went to five while here – including the mighty catarata del toro.
Tenorio National Park
This park is a stunning example of Costa Rican jungle and home to one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. The Rio Celeste is unique in its color as it a deep turquoise blue. It looks absolutely unreal and caused by the convergence of two rivers. One river is acidic and the other carries a volcanic mineral so that when they meet the mineral enlarges reflecting the light in an effect called Mie Scattering.
Arenal or La Fortuna
Close your eyes and picture a volcano in your head…what you likely envisioned is Arenal Volcano. The volcano is a perfectly formed cone volcano and surrounded by a biodiverse national park that is home to toucans, sloths, and even pumas. There are plenty of adventure activities to be had in the area such as horseback riding, ATV tours, and zip lining. After the end of the action-packed day, you can head to any number of the hot springs in the area (located within resorts that charge an admission). If you want to find out where we took this photo, check it out here.
Guanacaste is the most popular destination for tourists to Costa Rica, but it’s also the aridest region in the country. The primary reason for this is the large amount of sunshine with good surf and beaches. Santa Teresa is located in Guanacaste, but in the far southwest of the peninsula where rain is abundant. Here you’ll find a buffer of rainforest along the coast where the ocean dumps large amounts of rain. It’s hip, eclectic and full of yoga studios and eco-lodges. Everything here still operates off one dirt road and isn’t completely easy to get to. Meaning that if you want something more off the beaten path than Santa Teresa is the place to head.
The town and main beach of Jaco are ugly and overdeveloped in comparison to the rest of Costa Rica. However Jaco does have some massive upsides. It’s close to San Jose, affordable, well developed with good roads, restaurants, bars, shops, and provides access to some beautiful beaches in the area. Due to this, we left Jaco wishing we had spent more of our time in Costa Rica here. If you’re a digital nomad like us, Jaco would be a good call.
This small town on the Central Pacific Coast is surrounded by mountains, beaches, and rainforest. It’s twenty minutes down the road from the more famous Uvitas, or the “Whales Tail.” It’s a gorgeous little piece of Costa Rica and we’re happy we made a stop along the coastline. The beaches here are quiet and empty.
Anyone in search nature and seclusion should head to the Osa Peninsula. It’s considered the most biodiverse region in the planet with nearly 2.5% of the planet’s species packed into a tiny area. As big conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts we knew we had to make it to the Osa Peninsula. We were by no means disappointed as within our first hour we found a tree full of 13 scarlet macaws. It is on the Osa Peninsula that we would go on to find anteaters, armadillos, fer-de-lance snakes, and tapirs. This is also where Corcovado National Park is, a true gem of Costa Rica.
Where we stayed in Costa Rica
There is a wide range of price points for hotels, lodges, Airbnb, and hostels throughout Costa Rica. Overall, we found accommodation to be the best value in Costa Rica. We stayed in just about every price point level other than hostels. Price points vary a lot by location, for example, a nice hotel in Guanacaste may cost double what it does on the central Pacific Coast. Here are few of the notable places we stayed.
This eco-lodge features a private cloud forest reserve with a number of hiking trails and activities. The rooms are a series of villas nestled along a hillside each featuring a private deck, morning coffee delivery, and a hot tub. Rates start at $500 a night. If you want to learn more we wrote a post about our time at El Silencio Eco Lodge.
Three Sixty Boutique Hotel
For the best views in all of Costa Rica, or perhaps the best in the world you have to stop by Hotel Three Sixty. Set on top of a hill in the middle of the rainforest the ultra-modern hotel features exposed beams, a massive pool with 360 degree views of the ocean and jungle, and luxurious rooms with fine linen and high def Bluetooth speakers. Rates start at $350 a night. (Website)
One of the pioneers of ecotourism in Costa Rica and likely one of the most famous lodges in the country. It’s located in the Osa Peninsula considered one of the most biodiverse locations in the world. Rooms here have outdoor showers, private decks, and screen walls allowing for the sounds of nature to enter the room. Food and activities are all-inclusive. Rates start at $800 a night. (Website)
This eco-community is set in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle along the Pacific Coast. It’s a stunning track of secondary and primary forest with a network of hiking trails to explore on your own. Rooms here come in the form of treehouses spread throughout the forest, some an hour plus hike. The whole community is off the grid and runs on solar power. With a down to earth vibe, it attracts a clientele in search of a digital detox and good conversation. Rooms start at $100 a night. (Website)
A collection of casitas spread among a hamlet of a primary rainforest. The bed and breakfast is family run and very active in the rural community. We loved the rooms, murals, and the location of Casitas Tenorio. The beautiful little property is home to a few sloths and tons of birds which the owner Donald was kind enough to show us on a short tour. Rates start at $120 a night. (Website)
Latitude 10 Resort
This little beach lodge in Santa Teresa may have the most beautiful spot on the entire beach. It’s a collection of open-air casitas scattered throughout the lush seaside forest. We loved the morning yoga class on the beach and breakfast overlooking the ocean. Rates here start at $225 a night. (Website)
Villa Beuna Onda
An all-inclusive adult only villa that sits high above Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste. The pool and swim up pool bar provide stunning sunsets over the coastline. It’s all-inclusive with attentive staff helping those looking to unwind on the Costa Rican coast. Rates start at $225 per person a night. (Website)
How to get around Costa Rica
There is not much in the form of public transport in Costa Rica. However, the bus system is extensive enough that you can get between most major destinations, towns, and cities. It can save a lot as car rentals can be expensive, though it will take some serious patience. Often bus routes do not link destinations resulting in multiple transfers and a lot of wasted time in uncomfortable spaces. That’s why we opted for a car rental to get from destination to destination.
There are some things you should know in regard to renting a car for travel in Costa Rica. Keep in mind the destinations you plan to travel to Costa Rica as many roads are notoriously bad. Due to the poor roads, we rented a small 4×4 and would advise the same. While many of the main roads may be fine with a small car, it’s once you turn off that the need for a 4×4 is necessary. Another important thing to note is that in Costa Rica you are required to have third party liability insurance. This is not covered with your credit card or home insurance provider 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.
This was the most mixed bag for us in regards to travel to Costa Rica. With plenty of sunshine and rich soil the country produces a lot of products; however, much of it is invaluable tropical fruits for export. This resulted in Costa Rica importing much of its produce to curtail this the government implemented tariffs on imported produce. To top it off all restaurants have a mandatory 13% tax and 10% tip on the bill, so another 23% from the prices you are already seeing.
The result is high food prices and it’s reflected in the grocery stores, cafes, roadside stands, and restaurants. For the most part, we found food to be a really poor value, even a meal at a small local soda shop could end up costing us $25-$30. While on the high end the quality of a $100 meal for two still left a lot to be desired. This is Central America after all!
The local staple is gallo pinta, a mixture of rice, beans, and spices. It’s a decent staple and can often be found in the national dish of casado. Casado is the typical lunch with a meat, salad, cheese, gallo pinta, tomato, salsa, and plantains. You definitely need to try it with a “batido,” which is fruit smoothie made with ice “aqua” or milk “leche.”
Costa Rica is located in Central America and we assumed it would be a cheap destination, but this assumption could not be further from the truth. It left us with really mixed feeling on Costa Rica as the country is stunning, the people friendly, wildlife amazing, and activities are great. However, the cost of accommodation, food, and those activities are high and sometimes the price tag doesn’t match the experience. There aren’t many free things in Costa Rica. Even going for a hike or visiting a waterfall will run you $10-$15 a person for the experience. The average meal with fish at a soda shop with drinks cost us around $30 and found it to be even more expensive at spots geared for tourists.
Plan Your Visit to Costa Rica
We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below:
- Wondering what to bring to Costa Rica? Check out our ultimate Central America packing list.
- Rent a car: Having your own car is the best way to get around Costa Rica. Compare rates here.
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads is ideal for flexible and great plans!
- Water: We found most of the water in Costa Rica fine to drink, if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle.
- Guide Book: You may not have internet to do research in all of Costa Rica. For wireless nights we typically turn to Lonely Planet.