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Best 12 Things to Do in Costa Rica – Fun Vacation Activities on a Budget

Are you gearing up for your next spring break trip?

If you’re set on taking a vacation that doesn’t require a passport renewal or long international flight, you can find plenty of popular U.S. vacation towns close to home.

If your sights are set on a slightly more exotic destination, look south. Not too far south: just beyond the gleaming waters of the Caribbean. There, straddling the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, lies Costa Rica. From most major U.S. cities, it’s less than six hours by plane to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. And, unlike transoceanic tropical destinations like Thailand and Indonesia, Costa Rica doesn’t demand much from your body’s clock: It’s in the Central Time Zone, meaning little to no jet lag for folks from North America.

Costa Rica is a true diamond in the Central American rough. Situated between Nicaragua and Panama, it’s less than 100 miles wide in places. From the tops of the highest peaks, it’s possible to glimpse both the Atlantic and Pacific basins on a clear day – though, as we’ll see, clear days are (ironically) in short supply in some of Costa Rica’s fairest provinces.

Despite its small size, the country has more than 800 miles of coastline, and its tallest mountains rise more than 12,000 feet above sea level. In many cases, just a few miles separate dry tropical savannas and scrublands from montane grasslands, lush rainforests, and breathtakingly diverse marine ecosystems. The Costa Rican government protects much of this natural bounty from human development, having littered the countryside with national parks and wildlife reserves. Not surprisingly, Costa Rica has long been held in high regard as an ecotourism destination.

Whether your plans fit the technical definition of ecotourism or you’re simply planning a relaxing fitness vacation thousands of miles from your troubles and concerns, Costa Rica doesn’t disappoint.

Let’s take a closer look at the best things to do in Costa Rica without breaking the bank. If you already have an itinerary in place, skip ahead for a detailed overview of what to expect from your Costa Rican getaway: climate, crowds, language, currency, budgeting, local transportation, lodging, and more.

Top Tourist Activities in Costa Rica

No matter where your Costa Rica trip takes you, these activities all have a place on your itinerary.

1. Take an Aerial Zipline Ride or Forest Canopy Tour

zipline costa rica
A man ziplining in the Costa Rican jungle

Costa Rica has hundreds of privately run aerial conveyances designed to show off the country’s natural beauty, usually in rainforests or in higher (and even wetter) montane forests. According to Costa Rica Guide, these attractions come in several different forms:

  • Super-fast, amusement park-style ziplines that can reach up to 40 miles per hour and stretch more than a mile
  • Ground-based “ziprails” that traverse rugged forests in up-close-and-personal fashion
  • Tree-to-tree ziplines that move more slowly than the amusement-style rides and provide more detailed views of flora and fauna
  • Multi-sport ziplines that combine several different activities – for instance, kayaking and hiking up to a remote starting point, taking a zipline across a gorge, and then rappelling down the other side

Costs vary widely by conveyance type and what else is included, if anything, with the price of admission. Sky Trek, a popular option with two locations in Monteverde and Arenal National Parks, costs $77 per adult. Monteverde Extremo Park costs $50 per adult.

2. Sip a Coffee Tour

coffee costa rica Rob Crandall
A coffee plantation on the slopes of Poas Volcano in the Central Highlands, photo by Rob Crandall

Costa Rica’s temperate Central Valley is to coffee as Bordeaux is to wine. Even for non-connoisseurs, coffee tours are fun and informative – a great way to spend a laid-back (or perked-up) few hours in what’s likely to be gorgeous weather.

Most Costa Rican coffee tours cover a single plantation, though it’s possible to string together several stops, just as in wine country, if variety is a priority. Each tour includes a walk through the plantation’s fields, a discussion of local coffee history and terroir, and a look at the processing facilities that turn coffee fruits into liquid enthusiasm. Fresh-made coffee is almost always available. Some tours allow participants to pick raw coffee fruits as souvenirs, depending on the season.

Popular coffee tours include Doka Estate, in Sabanilla de Alajuela; and Espiritu Santo, in Naranjo. Tour prices typically range between $15 and $30, not including any coffee or souvenirs purchased onsite.

3. Nibble a Chocolate Tour

cacao beans costa rica
Cacao beans harvested in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Coffee and chocolate (cacao, technically) go great together. They also grow in similar climates, so it’s no surprise that both are found in close proximity in Costa Rica. Most Costa Rican cacao plantations are in the country’s southern region, around Puerto Viejo. Some offer a glimpse into Costa Rica’s distant past: ChocoRart, an organic farm near Puerto Viejo, harvests and processes cacao in the millennia-old Mayan tradition, while Caribeans focuses on heirloom varieties not widely available outside Central America.

Like coffee tours, chocolate tours generally include plantation tours, looks at the post-harvest process, and tasting sessions. Costs are comparable to coffee tours, though getting in the door can be tough – many cacao plantations, including ChocoRart, are lean operations that only offer tours by reservation.

4. Experience Envision Festival

envision festival photo by Leo Carvajal
Envision Festival, photo by Leo Carvajal

Have flexible travel dates? Schedule your trip for late February, when the annual Envision Festival comes to Rancho La Merced in Uvita, southern Costa Rica.

Envision describes itself as “a platform for different cultures to coexist in sustainable community, and inspire one another through art, spirituality, yoga, music, dance, performance, education, sustainability, and our fundamental connection with nature.” The festival features more than 60 musical performers, non-musical performance artists on display around the clock, world-class yogis, body healing workshops, static and dynamic art installations (art is truly everywhere you look), and much more. Dozens of composting toilets, zero landfill waste of any kind distributed, biodegradable disposables such as plates and utensils, and other sustainable initiatives set Envision apart from more wasteful events of its scale. Consider attending even if this type of environment is outside of your comfort zone; it can be a truly transformative experience that will stay with you forever.

Four-day general admission tickets start in the $300 range, not including add-ons such as car camping and airport shuttles. VIP tickets start in the $600 range. If you’re on a tight budget, check Envision Festival’s Facebook page for opportunities to win free or discounted tickets.

5. Get Lost at the Teatro Nacional Costa Rica

teatro nacional aceshot1
Teatro Nacional, photo by Aceshot1

Trade the humid Costa Rican jungle for the rare air of the Teatro Nacional Costa Rica, or National Theater, a stunning Neoclassical edifice in the heart of San Juan, Costa Rica’s economic and political capital. As Costa Rica’s foremost performance art institution, the National Theater puts on an eclectic array of shows, including orchestral performances, dance extravaganzas, mixed-media performance art, lectures, and more.

Consider incorporating a National Theater show into an organized San Juan tour, such as TripAdvisor’s Discover Costa Rica’s Capital City and Museums. For $72.50, the tour hits the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Jose, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, the National Museum, and the National Theater.

6. Hit the Breaks

a young surfer woman
A young surfer woman

While you’re at the beach, why not strap on a surf board and hit the waves? You don’t have to be an expert to tackle Costa Rica’s waves, particularly on the tamer Caribbean side. There, the December-through-March window offers reliable waves, particularly at beginner-friendly Westfalia and Playa Negra in Cahuita.

On the Pacific side, heavy surf is a year-round phenomenon. In fact, it’s advisable to check weather and surf conditions before venturing out, since offshore storms can create dangerous rip currents even when beach-side conditions appear fair. Boca Barranca is renowned for its half-mile wave breaks, while Playa Escondida is popular with novice and intermediate surfers. Board rentals generally start around $10 and range up to $20 or more for high-end options.

7. Raft a Wild River

rafting couple
A couple prepares to go rafting

Costa Rica is a narrow, mountainous, tropical country bounded by two oceans. Persistent storms unload huge amounts of rain at its higher elevations, forming a jumble of lively rivers that tumble their way to sea level in just a few dozen miles. It’s no wonder Costa Rica is renowned as a whitewater rafting and boating destination.

Experienced American whitewater rafters and boaters feel right at home in Costa Rica, with one major exception: no wetsuits. Unlike U.S. whitewater, which is generally fed by alpine snowmelt, Costa Rican rivers are much more temperate. This distinction reduces boaters’ prep time, broadens their range of motion, and increases their comfort. In fact, many of Costa Rica’s most exciting whitewater routes end within easy driving distance of a beach. As an added bonus, many routes go near – and sometimes over or around – spectacular waterfalls.

If you’re all in on whitewater rafting, consider an immersive, multi-day (two or three) tour, which can run anywhere from $300 to $1,500. Popular rafting rivers include the Pacuare, Pejivalle, and Sarapiqui.

For a lower-stakes excursion that provides VIP private service and the best bang for your buck, try gentle wildlife floats such as the one offered by Green Frog Adventures, or meet in the middle with a Class III (moderate intensity) day excursion. Green Frog is a top rafting company: You can expect top-notch guides to escort you every step of the way on a fully catered journey that includes transport to and from the river – and even, if need be, accommodations for your flight or other travel plans.

8. Jump Off a Bridge

bungee jumping in costa rica
Bungee jumping from a bridge in Costa Rica

Bungee jumping is a big business in rugged Costa Rica. In fact, Monteverde Extremo houses Central America’s largest bungee jump: 460 feet of sheer terror overlooking a stunning rainforest valley. For a slightly less terrifying experience, the Colorado River Bridge offers a 265-foot drop.

Costs range from $50 to $75 per jump and typically include complimentary GoPro footage of the experience. Since most jump points are fairly accessible by road, it’s definitely possible to work your jump in between other activities – though, after falling hundreds of feet toward a raging river, it’s not certain you’d want to.

9. Watch for Whales

a humpback whale
A humpback whale

Costa Rica’s Pacific waters are among the world’s best places to glimpse humpback whales in their natural element. They’re present roughly 50% of the year, in two distinct episodes: late July through November, and December through March. The most reliable sightings happen off the Osa Peninsula, in southern Costa Rica, where distinct populations from both hemispheres intermingle. You’re also likely to encounter bottlenose and spotted dolphins – about 25 cetacean species in all – in this area.

It doesn’t cost anything to stand on shore and scan the seas for whales and dolphins. If you’d like a closer look, consider taking an offshore whale watching tour. Bahia Aventuras, based a bit north of the Osa Peninsula, offers tours for $90 per adult.

10. Dive Deep

Cortez angelfish can be seen off the coast of Costa Rica
Cortez angelfish can be seen off the coast of Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s national parks and reserves aren’t confined to its land area. The country’s continental shelf is dotted with marine reserves housing hundreds of fish, amphibians, birds, and marine mammals, many found only in this part of the world. There’s no better way to experience this biodiversity than to dive for it.

Dive sites abound on both sides of Costa Rica, though the Pacific coast is more heavily trafficked. There, the area around Herradura Bay and Jaco has a number of relatively shallow, high-visibility sites that are appropriate for novices. On the Caribbean side, the area around Cahuita National Park is a hidden gem that sees just a fraction of the dive traffic of Pacific alternatives, and has sites appropriate for all skill levels. If you’re not already scuba-certified, enroll in a certification course through a local resort. These can be found for $200 to $400, depending on the location and nature of the course.

If you’re already certified and interested in a day dive, costs range from $75 to more than $200 per person, depending on the site’s location – some are offshore and require transportation by boat. It’s also worth checking out resort packages. Depending on the dates of your stay, some resorts may offer room-plus-dive packages starting at just over $200 per night.

Top Parks and Reserves in Costa Rica

Vast swathes of Costa Rica are preserved in perpetuity, either as national parks or public-private reserves protected from all but the most gentle development. These oases harbor untold multitudes of flora and fauna, many found nowhere else in the world.

Every Costa Rican protected area is worth visiting, but these are among the true gems.

11. Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal

arenal volcano in costa rica
Costa Rica’s Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal

For much of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Arenal volcano terrorized the predominantly agricultural communities at its base with frequent belches of caustic smoke, ash, and lava. A major eruption in the late 1960s killed scores and seriously damaged local infrastructure, but things have quieted down significantly – the volcano hasn’t seen much activity since 2010.

That’s great news for visitors to Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal (Arenal Volcano National Park), one of Costa Rica’s newest protected areas. Arenal is a striking, still-bare stratovolcano reminiscent of Japan’s Mount Fuji, sans snow. The surrounding forests harbor stunning biodiversity – about half of Costa Rica’s land-dwelling species live here.

Popular attractions within the protected area include:

  • Hiking trails through otherworldly landscapes, including the beautiful Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park ($12 to $38 for a 2.5-hour Natural History walk, which wends through dense rainforests teeming with native plants and wildlife)
  • Nighttime tours, which offer singular opportunities to see or hear some of Costa Rica’s endemic plants and animals ($23 to $49 at Hanging Bridges)
  • Boating opportunities on Lake Arenal, one of Costa Rica’s largest inland bodies of water and the source of nearly 20% of the country’s renewable power, thanks to extensive hydroelectric development
  • Breathtaking hot springs like the ones at Eco Termales, the only natural warm-water springs in the Arenal area (day passes start at $40)

12. Manuel Antonio National Park

Don’t let its small size fool you. Located due south of San Jose, near the Pacific mouth of Rio Naranjo, Manuel Antonio National Park boasts four distinct beaches and a pristine swathe of rugged inland rainforest. Highlights include:

  • Punta Catedral trail, a one-hour jaunt from Espadilla Beach to the top of a 100-meter formation with gorgeous ocean views
  • Dazzling sunsets visible from any of the park’s four beaches
  • Guided forest tours, starting at $51 per person
  • Opportunities to rent sea kayaks or stand up paddleboards to explore less accessible portions of the shoreline and minor offshore islands
  • Playa Escondido, the park’s most secluded stretch of sand

13. Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (Monteverde Cloud Forest)

Yeah, the name is weird: “Eternal Forest of the Children.” But don’t let that put you off. Bosque Eterno de los Ninos, frequently referred to as Monteverde Cloud Forest, is a must-visit for anyone who plans to visit northwestern Costa Rica. (Which, for a variety of other reasons, one should.)

Bosque Eterno straddles several minor mountain ranges at the crest of the continental divide separating the Atlantic (Caribbean) and Pacific watersheds, from about 750 meters altitude (roughly 2,500 feet) to the highest peaks (about 1,850 meters or 6,100 feet). Most of it is off-limits to humans, but enough is preserved in the singular Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to make your visit worthwhile. I spent the better part of a day in the reserve and can say without hesitation that it was the highlight of my trip.

If you have a few hours, I highly recommend taking a guided tour. We did the Natural History Walk, a 2.5-hour, English-language wander that set us back $37 per person (including the $20 park entry fee). You’ll learn a lot more about what you’re seeing in the forest – which is of course unlike any temperate forest in the United States – with someone who knows what to point out. We identified dozens of bird species, caught glimpses of sloths and monkeys that we would have otherwise missed, and learned a ton about the history of the reserve. (It was founded in partnership with a local North American Quaker community, whose founding members headed south during the Korean War. It’s an interesting story; learn more on the park’s history page.)

Whether you take a guided tour or stand in as your own guide, don’t miss the stomach-churning Hanging Bridge, beyond whose wholly insubstantial guardrails you can practically touch the staggering variety of epiphytes, shrubs, and parasitic vines that make their homes in the cloud forest’s canopy – the upper branches of the tallest trees.

14. Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco

Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco protects the forested slopes and bare summits of two nearly 7,000-foot volcanoes in north-central Costa Rica, within sight (but more than an hour by road) of Monteverde’s peaks. There’s no entrance fee.

Five rivers have their headwaters here, making it a popular destination for anglers. For best results, you’ll want to hire your own guide, which you can do for as little as $50 for a half-day trip. If you’re content not to fish and don’t want to explore the backcountry or summits, you can explore on foot any of the short, moderately strenuous trails originating at the main visitor center.

15. Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo

If convenience is solely a function of distance from San Jose, Parque Nacional Braulio Carillo tops the list. It peters out less than an hour north of the city, though actually getting into its heart is a more complicated matter (and may require a lengthy walk or a four-wheel-drive vehicle).

People come to Parque Nacional Braulio Carillo to hike, marvel at the Costa Rican jungle’s stunning biodiversity, and swim (if they’re feeling adventurous) in an alpine lagoon. The crown jewel is Barva, a 9,500-foot volcano cloaked in dense montane forests that change drastically as you ascend. Use the Barva Sector Ranger Station as a staging ground for easy summit hikes, like the 1.5-mile crater walk. Cacho de Venado trail, another quick high-altitude jaunt, is the best birdwatching spot in the park – if you’re lucky, you’ll see a rare quetzal.

16. Parque Nacional Corcovado

According to Lonely Planet, Parque Nacional Corcovado houses “the last great original tract of tropical rainforest in Pacific Central America.” It’s home to half of all Costa Rican species, including the world’s largest bird of prey (the harpy) eagle and several endangered mammals. Some naturalists regard Corcovado as the most biologically diverse place on the planet, as measured by density of unique species.

Corcovado is best explored on foot: dozens of kilometers of trails ascend and descend the rugged (though, mercifully, relatively low-altitude) terrain, and the ideal visit includes a multi-day long distance hike. That’s the other thing: Corcovado is really isolated, at the far side of the Osa Peninsula in far southern Costa Rica. If you make it all the way down here, you might as well make the most of it.

If you don’t have more than one day, hike the nine miles or so from La Leona to Sirena, a mainly flat (though super buggy) route that passes on or near several pristine beaches. You can stay overnight at Sirena Ranger Station.

Note: Corcovado visitors are required to hire registered guides, an understandable necessity in such a remote, dangerous place. (You don’t even want to know how many poisonous reptiles and insects lurk in the jungle, not to mention carnivorous mammals and constrictor snakes more than capable of killing adult humans.)

Cabinas Jimenez has a good list of aboveboard guides with encyclopedic local knowledge. Expect to pay at least $75 per day for a quality guide – a small price for personal safety and education. The park entrance fee is $15 per day, per visitor.

17. Parque Nacional Tortuguero

Parque Nacional Tortuguero covers a swampy stretch of Caribbean coastline in the country’s northeastern corner, near the much larger Refugio de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado, a mostly off-limits wildlife reserve.

The park’s highlights are its beaches, parts of which double as nesting and spawning grounds for threatened Atlantic sea turtles. Turtles lay eggs in vast numbers in July and August, but nesting season technically runs from March through October, so you have some leeway. If you visit the right beaches during nesting season, you will see turtles and their eggs. The $25-per-person guided tour is well worth it.

The watery mangrove swamps and thick rainforests are worth seeing too, though with a virtually nonexistent terrestrial trail network, you’ll need to hire a guided boat (at $50 per day or more) or rent your own kayak (cheaper, but more strenuous). Navigable canals make traveling around here by water a lot safer and easier than in years past.

18. Parque Nacional Tapanti

Parque Nacional Tapanti protects part of the high Costa Rican cordillera, which extends south and east from San Jose into western Panama. Thanks to its position on the windward side of Costa Rica’s highest mountain ranges, it’s the wettest place in the entire country: a teeming rainforest that’s more likely to be shrouded in mist (or pelted by torrential rain) than not. The highest elevations harbor paramo, a relatively rare (in Costa Rica) high-altitude grassland ecosystem characterized by tough, deep-rooted grasses and knotted shrubs. The paramo is home to dozens of rare and endemic bird species.

Don’t let the high likelihood of rain dampen your spirits though. Tapanti boasts a slew of plant and animal species not found anywhere else, including newly discovered miniature orchid species smaller than 5 millimeters (less than one-fifth of an inch). Expect to pay $10 per person, per day, to enter. If you want to fish in any of the dozens of rivers here, you can buy a permit (cost varies) at the visitor center.

19. Parque Nacional Los Quetzales

Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, named for Costa Rica’s unmistakable national bird, protects a montane cloud forest southeast of San Jose. The altitude here is higher than in Bosque Eterno de los Ninos – anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000-plus feet – so the flora and fauna are quite different from Monteverde. Not necessarily less lush, just different.

The highlight here is the six-mile trail from the main ranger station to San Gerardo de Dota. The Ojo de Agua trail is shorter and less strenuous. Bring your binoculars or zoom lens – quetzals are out there!

20. Parque Nacional Chirripo

Topping out well above 12,000 feet, Cerro Chirripo is Costa Rica’s highest peak. Along with surrounding high peaks, it harbors rare high-altitude ecosystems: supermontane forests, dwarf forests, and paramo, among others. Above the treeline, it’s harder for wildlife to hide, so you’re more likely to see rare mammals like Dice’s rabbit, charismatic carnivores like cougars (known locally as pumas), and – of course – colorful birds like quetzals. The high slopes and summit boast unusual vertical rock formations called crestones, which resemble the pinnacles and spires found in the badlands of North and South Dakota.

If you’re in good shape, you can easily climb Chirripo without technical equipment. That said, you’ll need to spend at least one night on the mountain, likely at Crestones Base Lodge, which (confusingly) is actually pretty close to the summit and takes most of a day to reach from the actual base of the range. If you’re worried about the altitude, consider spending a few days on the mountain to properly acclimate. And pack clothing for any weather conditions you can imagine: you’ll move from the tropics to the tundra as you head skyward.

You can parlay your Chirripo hike into a longer, multiday trek along the cordillera. Lonely Planet has a good play-by-play description of the route up and options for further exploration. Park entry is $18 per person, plus a 13% foreigner surcharge. Purchase a permit online to save time.

21. Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja

Rincon de la Vieja, an active volcano with a heat-sterilized summit and ominous scores running down its upper slopes, looms over the northwestern city of Liberia. Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja protects the twin-peaked massif and the surrounding moist forests. We spent two nights on the far side of Rincon de la Vieja, lounging in hot springs and hunting for hidden waterfalls, and had a blast.

If you’re in the area for a day trip, start at the Las Pailas ranger station (entry fee: $15 per adult) and spend an hour or two on the eponymous trail that loops for a couple miles through dense forests and rocky canyons. For a longer excursion during the rainy season, set your sights on one of the park’s two spectacular waterfalls: Catarata Escondida or Catarata la Congreja. (Skip them during the dry season, when they slow to a trickle.)

You can also hike to the summit, where you can peer (if you dare) into the steaming lower crater. Theoretically, it could blow at any time, but you’re unlikely to be so lucky. On the right trail, though, you will see fumaroles: holes, some hidden deep in the forest, that constantly emit sulfurous steam. On wet days, look for bubbling mud pots, another volcanic mainstay.

22. Parque Nacional Guanacaste

Parque Nacional Guanacaste protects Costa Rica’s northernmost volcanoes, Orosi and Cacao. Like some of the other parks on this list, it encompasses a wide range of altitudes and ecosystems: from the Pacific dry forests near sea level to the premontane cloud forests above 3,000 feet, to the true cloud forests above 5,000 feet or so. It’s well worth the $10-per-adult price of admission.

The dry forest isn’t as exciting as the wetter, lusher montane forests, but it’s a lot easier to walk through. Take a few hours for a leisurely circuit hike here and you’ll likely encounter multiple monkey species, more iguanas than you’ll know what to do with, and a slew of drought-adapted plants that favor this hot, seasonally arid biome.

Parque Nacional Guanacaste is one of the best places in Central America to experience a pristine Pacific dry forest. Perhaps because the dry forest lacks the jungle’s charisma, it’s under relentless attack by prosperous cattle ranchers hungry to expand their holdings elsewhere in northwestern Costa Rica and western Nicaragua. Just bear in mind that it’s not particularly scenic during the dry season, when most trees lose their leaves and the understory turns various shades of brown and yellow.

23. Parque Nacional Santa Rosa

Just west of Parque Nacional Guanacaste is Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, probably the country’s second best place to experience a Pacific dry forest. Sadly, much of the original habitat was destroyed by intentionally set fires and replaced by imported a mix of cultivated and non-native plants; it’s been a long, mostly fruitless slog to get things back to the way they were.

Still, Parque Nacional Santa Rosa teems with drought-hardy lowland-dwelling wildlife, including adorable spider monkeys. Other biomes abound too, including slightly moister deciduous forests and beautiful beaches that shelter a variety of tidal zone fauna. And Santa Rosa features a rare site of military significance in a pacifist country without a standing army: the plantation at which Costa Rican forces made a successful stand against American mercenary William Walker, a mid-19th century Bond villain who dreamed of turning this part of Central America into an English-speaking capitalist utopia.

Top Beaches in Costa Rica

Despite its tropical setting and beautiful weather, Costa Rica is often overlooked as a beach destination. That’s too bad, because it has a pretty amazing roster of clean, uncrowded beaches. If you have reliable transportation and ample time, aim for beaches off the beaten path.

Generally speaking, the Caribbean side’s waters are calmer and slightly warmer, while the Pacific side is rougher and more temperamental. Both sides are stunningly beautiful, with broad beaches, lush forests, dramatic cliffs, and engaging marine environments. Just be sure to obey all posted warnings, including wildlife warnings and “no trespassing” signs. And never swim alone, especially on the Pacific side: Costa Rica’s Pacific waters are notorious for dangerous, changeable rip currents.

24. Playa Ventanas

beach costa rica
Playa Ventanas in Costa Rica

Playa Ventanas is a short walk or bike ride from better-known Playa Grande, but it might as well be a world away.

This quiet – often deserted – stretch is known for the distinctive “window” formations that punctuate an otherwise nondescript headland jutting out into the waves. At low tide, it’s safe to walk through the window, pausing only to marvel at little critters temporarily marooned in tidal pools. At high tide, stand back and admire the ocean’s awesome power as the waves tear through the waning void.

When you’ve had your fill, take a respite in the nearby seaside town of Tamarindo. Have an early dinner and watch the sun set from the patio at Langosta Beach Club, then wind down with a tropical cocktail at the open-air bar at Occidental Tamarindo, an ever-popular all-inclusive property with amazing beachfront, secluded hacienda rooms, and a pool that has to be seen to be believed.

25. Playa Avellana

Playa Avellana is a tranquil beach just a few kilometers south of Tamarindo.

With breakers that routinely reach 15 feet or higher, this south-southeast-trending stretch is one of Costa Rica’s best surfing spots. If you prefer to stay onshore, no worries: It’s rarely crowded, so you’re virtually guaranteed a spread of sand to call your own. Play your cards right and you might just run into Lola, the oversized hog who doubles as the area’s spirit animal.

Playa Avellana’s seclusion belies its worldliness. One of the Costa Rican Pacific’s most exclusive resorts, the JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort and Spa, lies just to the north. Yes, it’s pricey, but it’s also all-inclusive – a perfect honeymoon destination for a truly unforgettable post-wedding experience. Hacienda Pinilla Beach Club, on the beach itself, is only slightly less accommodating.

26. Playa Conchal

Playa Conchal looks exactly as you’d expect a tropical beach to expect: brilliant, fine-grained white sand; lazily leaning palm trees; a picturesque curve; turquoise waters; and a torrid green backdrop. Nestled in a north-facing cove, it’s known for lazy wave action: not much of a surfer’s beach, but great for swimming and lounging.

Despite its ostentatious good looks, Playa Conchal among Costa Rica’s best-kept waterfront secrets. Yes, you’ll find plenty of sunbathers here during the dry season, but most hail from the Tamarindo area, just a few miles to the south. Few drive out of their way to get here.

27. Cabo Blanco

Cabo Blanco lies at the southernmost tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, beyond Malpais. It’s actually a collection of beaches and rocky headlands, some within Reserva Natural Cabo Blanco and some outside.

Few tourists make it this far down the peninsula, so you’ll have whatever beach or trail you choose to explore to yourself. Just don’t expect any true stunners: the closest broad beach is Playa Carmen, up the road a few miles. Stay the night at Hotel Vista de Olas or Hotel Moana, both rustic but comfortable properties within walking distance of the shore.

28. Playa Manzanillo (Pacific)

Located on the northern ocean coast of the beautiful Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Manzanillo is a lively – but not overcrowded – destination for sun-seeking tourists. Despite its open ocean frontage, Playa Manzanillo has small waves and manageable rip currents by Costa Rican standards, so it’s a relatively safe place to swim.

Highlights include a well-worn hiking route that begins at Playa Coyote and wends through pristine coastal habitats and an annual sand castle contest held every March. Of course, there’s plenty of sandy real estate if you prefer to stretch out with a good book.

29. Manzanillo Beach (Caribbean)

Tucked away on an isolated stretch of Caribbean coast, just west of the Panamanian border, is Costa Rica’s other Playa Manzanillo – more commonly known by its English name. The area’s isolation, and the fact that much of the surrounding coastline is protected by a wildlife refuge, makes for a truly secluded experience. If you’re up for exploring the coastline by boat, rent a kayak in nearby Puerto Viejo or hop on a guided boat tour for $50 per day and up.

30. Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste)

Playa Hermosa is a comely, uncrowded gray sand beach on the Papagayo Peninsula. The beach itself fronts a deep cove that’s sheltered from the open Pacific, moderating local wave action. Even if you’re not staying at one of the four- or five-star properties near the cove, or at one of the upscale condos just over the ridge on the Pacific side, you can access Playa Hermosa without paying at the public beach along the area’s main paved road. Get the full local resort experience for less at Papagayo Golden Palms Resort, just off the beach: we spent less than $150 per night there and got as nice a five-star resort experience as I’ve ever had.

After you’ve had your fill of Playa Hermosa, head over the ridge – a short drive or long walk – and grab a cheap drink and plate at any of the beachfront cantinas along the area’s main drag. If you’re up for more adventure, sign up for a scuba or boat tour here – you’ll see signs lining the roads. Expect a daylong trip out on the water to set you back $100 per person.

31. Playa Nosara

Playa Nosara, often referred to as Nosara Beach, is one of the more tourist-friendly stretches of Costa Rica’s coastline. The area is a playground for sun- and adventure-seeking visitors, with:

  • World-class fishing (some tour operators, such as Fishing Nosara, have U.S. offices that are both easier and cheaper to contact before your trip)
  • Certified scuba instructors (try Buceo Gavilana, where dives start at $110)
  • Big-wave surfing (Coconut Harry’s rents boards starting at $20 per day)
  • Stunning inland wilderness areas to explore

The regional anchor, Guiones, is touristy but rarely overrun, even during the busy dry season. Expect to pay $80 or more per night at local, even at three-star properties – pricey by Costa Rica standards. Airbnb may offer better value.

32. Playa Jaco

The picturesque beach town of Jaco anchors one of Costa Rica’s busiest stretches of coastline. Here, you’ll find the other Playa Hermosa, a famed surfing beach that hosts the Quicksilver International Surfing Competition every August. If you visit in late summer, you’ll definitely want to head down this way to catch a glimpse of elite amateurs mixing it up with 15-foot swells. Or skip the crowds and seek out one of the area’s quieter black sand beaches – pristine reminders of the region’s volcanic origins.

33. Playa Negra

True to its name, Playa Negra is a black sand beach with a gentle slope and fantastic waves. Among hardcore surfing enthusiasts, it’s notable as the filming location for “Endless Summer II.” (If you haven’t heard of that one, don’t worry about it.) You’ll find several board rental shops in town.

Top Cities and Towns to Visit in Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s boundless natural beauty was probably what first piqued your interest, but it’s only part of the story here. Amid the stunning landscapes and pristine vistas, you’ll find quaint little towns and vibrant cities brimming with under-the-radar attractions and irresistible Tico charm. Make time for a few.

Some of these communities are popular with out-of-country visitors; others are lower-key. All are worth checking out.

34. San Jose and the Central Valley

There’s a good chance your Costa Rica journey will begin and end in San Jose. Rather than head out of town the same day you land, why not spend 48 or 72 hours exploring the city and its environs? Roughly 40% of Costa Rica’s population lives in the Central Valley – basically, the extended San Jose metro area – so there’s quite a bit to see here.

Activities in San Jose and the Central Valley
The Activities section above calls out some of the top things to do in San Jose, like the Discover Costa Rica’s Capital City and Museums. But there’s plenty more where they came from. Some highlights:

  • Street Art: Like many big Latin American cities, San Jose has a vibrant street art scene. Artists favor retaining walls off main thoroughfares and railroad underpasses. There’s no organized street art tour that I could find, so you’ll have to plan your own walking route.
  • National Artisans Market: This is an upscale street market where vendors hawk well-made crafts and souvenirs. If you’re retaining a friend or family member to watch your house or pets while you’re gone, this is a great place to find an affordable gift – $15 or less buys a nice range of jewelry and ceramics, for instance.
  • Gran Hotel Costa Rica: This is a must-stop for architecture buffs. Though it has lost some of its shine since its early 20th century heyday, it’s free to explore the lobby.
  • Restaurants: San Jose is the epicenter of Costa Rica’s haute cuisine movement, such as it is. If you have room in your budget for a culinary splurge, I’d highly recommend doing it in San Jose rather than a beachfront or hot springs resort. You’ll have more choice and probably pay less. Of course, if your main goal is reducing your dining out budget, you can find plenty of cheap cafeteria-style eateries. We had great success with Google Maps.

35. Liberia

Liberia is the capital of Guanacaste province and, thanks to the nearby international airport, the first stop for most out-of-country visitors arriving in Costa Rica’s northwest. Many continue on to the beach or north toward the volcanoes, but Liberia is worth exploring for a day or two. It’s also an affordable alternative to staying right on the beach: our first night found us at Best Western El Sitio, where rooms cost less than $60 per night and dinner cost less than $8 per person.

Activities in Liberia
Unlike true tourist towns, Liberia doesn’t give up its secrets easily. You have to explore a little to find the good stuff.

One highlight that won’t cost you anything is Museo de Guanacaste, which – despite its name – remains in a pre-museum state. However, if the building is open, you can walk in and explore for free – just be mindful of posted signs and guards. It’s an old police station and jail, so the interior is pretty cool.

Another must-see: Hidden Garden Art Gallery, out by the airport. It’s a nice respite from the hot sun, and the owners are apparently pretty friendly. And it’s free, unless you buy something.

If you’re in the area on a weekend, check out Maderos Brewery, an unassuming spot on the outskirts of Liberia. Check ahead for hours. Some sources say it’s open Thursday through Sunday only; others say Wednesday through Sunday.

36. Tilaran

Halfway between the Carretera Centroamericana and beautiful Lake Arenal lies the hilltop town of Tilaran. It’s a picturesque community: seeing its red roofs spread out before you as you descend from Santa Elena is something else.

It’s also not particularly touristy, which is part of its appeal. Tilaran is an affordable overnight alternative for visitors who want to continue on to La Fortuna or Monteverde, but don’t want to pay tourist premiums in either locale. Our place in Tilaran was awesome: a motel with a nice pool, free breakfast, great WiFi, and tons of satellite TV channels for $35 per night.

Activities in Tilaran

There’s not much to do in Tilaran itself, but the surrounding area has some highlights. For starters, Lake Arenal is less than 15 minutes away in good traffic conditions. Don’t miss Lake Arenal Hotel & Brewery, one of Costa Rica’s few homegrown microbreweries. (The beer isn’t bad at all – much better than your typical homebrew.) You can find hostel-style rooms there for less than $60 per night; the clientele is eclectic and largely non-Tico. For exercise, walk the steep jungle trail on the property – just watch overhead for roaring howler monkeys.

37. Santa Elena

About 45 kilometers down a series of torturous earthen roads from Tilaran lies the charming mountain town of Santa Elena. Part of a larger cluster of villages in the Monteverde district, Santa Elena is the primary gateway to the nearby cloud forest and a popular overnight spot for tourists venturing into the mountains.

Activities in Santa Elena
Don’t be fooled by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown. There’s quite a lot to do here. Local highlights include:

  • Monteverde Orchid Garden: The entrance might be hidden at the far end of a restaurant parking lot, but it’s worth turning around for. Monteverde Orchid Garden has hundreds of species of epiphytic and terrestrial orchids, many native to the Monteverde area. Come in time for a regularly scheduled English tour. And don’t laugh when the guide hands you a magnifying glass – some miniature orchids are barely large enough to make out with the naked eye. Admission is $12 per adult.
  • Serpentario Monteverde: Trust me, you’d rather see them under glass than out in the jungle. Serpentario Monteverde has about 50 species of local and non-native snakes, some big enough to take down a medium-sized mammal. The $15 admission price is well worth it if you can find room on an English-language tour.
  • Monteverde Butterfly Garden: The Monteverde area teems with native butterflies, including iridescent-blue lunas. You’ll find those and many others at Monteverde Butterfly Garden, less than a kilometer out of town. Adult admission is about $16.
  • Sanituario Ecologico: Sanituario Ecologico is a family-run alternative to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, described in detail above. It encompasses 48 acres of pristine montane forest – plenty of room to encounter the various reptiles, birds, and mammals that make their home here.

38. La Fortuna

Drive past Lake Arenal from Tilaran and you’ll eventually run into La Fortuna, the biggest and most tourist-friendly town in the Arenal area. This is a natural overnight spot for tourists continuing on to the volcano or the mountainous national parks between there and San Jose, and the hotel supply reflects that: you’ll find everything from $400-a-night luxury resorts built around hot springs to $30-per-night ecolodges half-hidden in the jungle here.

Activities in La Fortuna
Most Costa Rican mountain towns shut down after dark, but La Fortuna has a pretty lively nightlife scene. Drinks are cheap by North American standards: $2 or $3 for beer, $5 or $6 for cocktails.

La Fortuna is home to multiple whitewater rafting and jungle tour outfitters: Aventura Arenal, Canoa Aventura, Chavez Tours, and others. Costs and inclusions vary; do your own research. La Fortuna also has at least one chocolate tour nearby: Rainforest Chocolate Tour, a 1.5-hour experience that costs $25 per adult (including plenty of samples).

Before you continue on to Arenal or wherever it is you’re headed next, hit Ecocentro Danaus, a small reserve teeming with birds and reptiles. (If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a sloth or two.) Call ahead for pricing.

39. Montezuma

If you make it to all the way to Montezuma, congratulations are in order. Most tourists don’t get all the way down to the far end of the Nicoya Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean wraps its loving (and occasionally storm-tossed) arms around a beautiful stretch of rocky headlands and white-sand beaches.

Montezuma itself has a laid-back, Bohemian vibe. Locals are chill, even by Tico standards, and there’s a sizable community of North American expats who’ve put down roots. Most visitors come to hang out on the beach, explore nearby forests, and lose track of time.

The fastest way to get here from San Jose is the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry, which costs $21 for a regular-sized car and $1.50 per person. Pricing and timetables are subject to change, so call ahead. If you’re coming down from Liberia, you can drive all the way, but be warned: you’ll need a 4WD vehicle during the wet season.

40. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Clear across the country, on the southeasternmost stretch of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, the seaside town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is Montezuma turned up a few notches: a bit bigger, and definitely livelier.

It’s also one of the few places in Costa Rica where English is the de facto language. That’s down to the area’s unique Afro-Caribbean pedigree, which shows in local cuisine and culture too. The best way to experience the unique flavors (literally) of this distinctive corner of Costa Rica is to spring for Wolaba Tours’ 3.5-hour Food and Culture Tour. It’ll set you back $65 per person, but you won’t walk away hungry.

Logistical Considerations

Traveling to Costa Rica requires more advance planning, and a bigger budget, than a weekend jaunt to the nearest ocean or lake beach. Keep these practical considerations in mind as you plan your adventure.

When to Visit

There’s no bad time to visit Costa Rica, but two major factors could influence your thinking: crowds and weather, both of which affect pricing for flights and accommodations.

Climate Considerations
Costa Rica is a nation of microclimates. Altitude, wind direction, solar radiation, and other factors all affect local weather patterns, and conditions can change dramatically over shockingly small distances. The one constant: Regardless of your location or the time of year, Costa Rica’s climate grows cooler and wetter as you ascend.

Costa Rica’s coastal lowlands are hot year-round. The hottest part of the country is probably the northwestern quadrant, particularly the Pacific-adjacent plains of Guanacaste province. Temperatures routinely approach 95 degrees during the dry season here, though humidity is lower than on the Caribbean side.

Temperatures are more moderate along the country’s mountainous spine and in the populous Central Valley. The capital, San Jose, sits at nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, above the worst of the heat. In the eastern mountains, a sort of eternal early spring persists: above 7,000 or 8,000 feet, highs above 65 degrees are rare, and nighttime lows routinely dip below freezing above 10,000 feet or so.

Beyond altitude-related temperature considerations, the biggest issue for first-time Costa Rica visitors is the timing of the rainy season. On the Pacific side, the rainy season runs from April or May through October or November, with a brief pause in June and July. Precipitation levels are highest along the southern Pacific coast, where late summer and early fall are washout seasons. The balance of the year is dry. At low elevations in the northwest, you’re unlikely to encounter anything more than a brief shower between December and April.

On the Caribbean side, the rainy season runs a few months later, winding down only in February or early March. Spring and early summer are drier here than on the Pacific side, though overall humidity and precipitation levels are higher at any time of year.

Again, once you’re in the mountains, you should expect to encounter rain no matter when you visit. The Monteverde cloud forest only experiences 30 to 50 completely dry days per year, concentrated during the spring months, according to our guide. Sure enough, our late-February visit featured a brief but enthusiastic downpour.

Note: I have one quibble with the Costa Rican dry season: seasonal foliage loss in low-elevation forests. This is especially noticeable along the northwestern Pacific coast. As our plane descended into brown, dusty Liberia, I wondered whether there’d been some kind of mistake and we’d diverted to, say, Albuquerque.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the dry season just isn’t very pretty in this part of Costa Rica. If you’re really looking forward to tropical lushness, visit during the wet season (and take your rainy lumps) or plan to spend most of your time in the mountains.

Crowds and Pricing
Tourist volumes generally increase during the Costa Rican dry season, which conveniently coincides with winter in North America – the source of most English-speaking visitors. Beach areas, in particular, see three distinct spikes:

  • December and early January, coinciding with the winter holidays
  • Late February through late March, coinciding with spring break in the U.S.
  • Easter, coinciding with busy Semana Santa in Latin America

Visitor volumes slump during the summer months, when North American beaches temporarily become habitable and more persistent precipitation dampens the beachgoing experience down south. Summer is the cheapest time to visit, with flights anywhere from 20% to 40% cheaper, and four- and five-star hotels upwards of 50% cheaper, than winter and early spring. Last-minute hotel and flight deals are more common in summer, too: great for accommodating a spur-of-the-moment extended weekend on the beach.

What to Bring

This is a non-exhaustive packing list. Yours may vary based on your itinerary and plans.

  • Your Passport: Though it’s fairly easy for North American travelers to reach and lacks a standing army, Costa Rica is indeed a sovereign nation. Don’t forget your passport and passport card. If your passport is expired, apply at least three months in advance to avoid bureaucratic delays. A new or renewed U.S. passport and card costs $140, per the State Department.
  • Sun Protection: Costa Rica is a tropical country. Don’t let mild mountain air fool you: the sun here is intense. I made the mistake of spending a sunny morning by the pool without first applying sunblock and paid dearly for the rest of the trip. My advice: bring more sunblock than you think you need and apply before every outdoor activity. Don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat or baseball cap either. If you’re not checking a bag, keep liquids containers to 3 ounces or smaller.
  • Insect Protection: In rainforests and cloud forests year-round, and everywhere during the wet season, you’re likely to encounter nasty mosquitoes and other assorted biting insects. Though life-threatening tropical illnesses like malaria, dengue, and yellow fever aren’t super common here, zika is. Pregnant couples and those planning to become pregnant soon need to be fastidious about insect protection: repellent, tucked-in clothing, window screens. Remember the 3-ounce rule in carry-on baggage.
  • Waterproof Clothing and Luggage: Unless you visit during the dry season and stick exclusively to lowland areas, you’ll want to bring rain gear, waterproof shoes, and water-resistant luggage. Rather than buying a new bag, opt for a rain cover for your backpack ($15 to $25).
  • Sturdy Footwear: Flip flops might be fine for the beach, but you’ll want sturdy footwear pretty much everywhere else. I got by fine with one pair of rugged-soled running shoes and one pair of hiking boots. In the mountains, you’re guaranteed to get your shoes muddy; plan accordingly.
  • Weather Appropriate Outerwear: If you’re sticking to the beach, you can get by with beach wear: shorts an dresses, short-sleeved shirts, bathing suits. At altitude, including in San Jose, expect chilly evenings and mornings. At certain times of year, stiff winds contribute to the chill, especially in the mountains. I got by with a windbreaker and warm jeans, though we didn’t venture above 6,000 feet. At higher altitudes, you may need a heavier jacket.

Getting There and Getting Around

If you’ve committed to RV living, chosen a forwarding address for your mail, and lined up sufficient freelance or solopreneur work to finance your travels, you can definitely drive to Costa Rica from the continental United States. It’ll take you the better part of a week to get down there, but you can do it.

More likely, you don’t have the luxury of a leisurely drive through most of Central America. No worries: Costa Rica has four international airports, though most U.S. visitors come through one of two.

Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (Liberia)
Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR), between Liberia and Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste province, is Costa Rica’s second-busiest airport. It’s convenient to the endless beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula and the inland parks and protected areas of northwestern Costa Rica, including Arenal, Monteverde, Rincon de la Vieja, Guanacaste, and on and on.

If you plan to spend most of your time in this part of the country (or all of your time at a beach resort – no judging), skip San Jose and fly directly to LIR. Depending on your final destination, you can expect to spend four or five hours driving from San Jose to the Nicoya Peninsula, compared with less than an hour from LIR. That means more time on the beach.

LIR has direct service to about a dozen major U.S. cities: New York, L.A., Charlotte, Miami, Houston, Minneapolis, and others. Virtually all other major cities and regional hubs have one-stop service through one of LIR’s direct destinations. Pricing is, unfortunately, very seasonal: a weekend-to-weekend itinerary will set you back anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000, round-trip, during peak travel times. During the summer, expect to pay as little as $300 or $400 round-trip. Check airline schedules before you book, as some carriers fly to LIR only during the North American winter and spring.

Juan Santamaria International Airport (San Jose)
Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is Costa Rica’s biggest and busiest airport. Located near the geographical center of the country, it’s a natural entry point for tourists planning to spend time in the mountains, but it’s also within a couple hours’ drive of both coasts.

On balance, SJO is cheaper and more convenient than LIR, though seasonality plans a role here too. On a casual search of late-spring travel times, I found round-trips from East Coast cities like New York and Washington, D.C., for less than $300 – though all involved at least one layover that pushed total flight times north of eight hours. Expect to pay at least $500 during the high season, especially for weekend-to-weekend travel.

SJO serves more Latin American destinations than LIR, so it’s suitable for a multi-country journey through the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. It also has regular service to LIR for visitors not inclined to make the four-hour drive themselves.

Pro Tip: Most Costa Rican vehicles have standard transmissions – stick shifts. This is a scary prospect for most North Americans, many of whom have no reason to know how to drive stick. If you know anyone with a standard transmission vehicle, ask them to show you the ropes before you arrive in Costa Rica. It’s better to learn in a parking lot near your house than an unfamiliar dirt road with jungle on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

Renting a Car in Costa Rica
If you’re planning a self-directed, multi-stop tour through Costa Rica, I’d highly recommend renting a car. It’s much more convenient, and likely cheaper, than stringing together intercity bus legs or latching onto an English-speaking tour.

All you need to drive in Costa Rica is a valid North American driver’s license. The local road system is rudimentary, with one main highway on which traffic moves at about 65 miles per hour, a decent network of curvy paved roads on which traffic moves at an average of 20 to 40 miles per hour, and a ton of unpaved roads (some comically rutted) on which you’ll be lucky to average 15 or 20 miles per hour. Speed limits and other rules of the road are more suggestion than law. Watch for frequent slowdowns and backups caused by animals, workmen, and trucks struggling up steep grades.

Both major airports have extensive rental car facilities served by name-brand rental car companies like Enterprise, Alamo, Hertz, Dollar, and others. Headline rental costs are lower than in the U.S.: We got a compact SUV for about $30 per day, including taxes and fees.

The rub is insurance, the full cost of which often exceeds the cost of the rental itself. Rental companies operating in Costa Rica offer several different types of optional insurance and one type of mandatory insurance – a liability policy that’ll set you back $15 to $25 per day, depending on the vehicle and carrier. Costa Rica Guide has a good primer on the confusing insurance regime. Bottom line: You can’t avoid mandatory insurance coverage, and you’ll probably want a supplemental policy that covers body damage if you plan to drive on unpaved mountain roads.

Pro Tip: If you have a premium credit card, your CDW or zero liability policies likely offer better value and lower deductibles than the optional add-ons. For ideas, check out our roundups of the top travel rewards credit cards and best cash back credit cards on the market today.

Intercity Buses and Tourist Buses
Not keen on driving on primitive roads in an unfamiliar country? I don’t blame you. Costa Rica has a solid intercity bus system and a pricier “gringo bus” network that specializes in tourist transport.

Visit Costa Rica is the best resource for up-to-date fare and schedule information for the slew of private companies that form the backbone of Costa Rica’s intercity bus system.

Fares vary widely by destination and demand, but you can expect local journeys (under two hours) to cost less than $10 one-way and longer trips to cost less than $20. Be mindful of the difference between directo (direct) and colectivo (multi-stop) buses; the latter might be a few bucks cheaper, but it’s also really slow. Pay close attention to bus stop locations: central bus terminals are unheard of in Costa Rica, even in San Jose, and virtually every company maintains its own hubs in towns served. It’s distressingly easy for non-Spanish speakers to get on the wrong bus.

Pro Tip: Most intercity buses have overhead luggage racks. Arrive early to claim rack space, and watch your stuff closely throughout your trip. Luggage theft is one of the most common types of tourism theft in Costa Rica.

“Gringo buses,” or tourist shuttles, are much more expensive than intercity buses. They’re also far more convenient for tourists traveling from the airport to coastal resort towns, where door-to-door service is available. (If you take the regular bus, you’ll have to walk a kilometer or two with your luggage.) Easy Ride, one of several aboveboard operators, runs regular routes from San Jose to Jaco and other coastal towns for $45 to $90 one-way, depending on destination and demand. Private rides cost roughly double.

Language

Costa Rica’s primary language is Spanish. In my experience, most service industry folks could speak enough English to complete routine interactions.

English was more prevalent in the touristy areas we visited, notably the northwestern beaches and the Monteverde area. We had the most trouble in the least touristy areas. In Tilaran, the couple who ran our hotel relied for English-language help entirely on a younger employee who’d previously worked at a call center. The Rincon de la Vieja area was more remote than Tilaran, of course, but our resort catered mostly to English-speaking tourists and most staff communicated accordingly.

All that said, you’ll get a lot farther in Costa Rica with basic Spanish familiarity. My wife and I can both navigate basic social and commercial situations in Spanish, and (not surprisingly) we found that people were both friendlier and more communicative in the local language. If you already know some Spanish, spend a few hours before your trip brushing up,  and get in the habit of beginning interactions in the local tongue.

Pro Tip: Spanish is a pretty diverse language with dozens of regional dialects. Most U.S. students learn either Mexican or Castilian Spanish, both among the most commonly spoken variations. Though comprehensible to other Spanish speakers, the Costa Rican variation has some interesting idiosyncrasies, such as voseo – the use of the second person singular pronoun, vos, and its plural, vosotros, in place of the more common .

Budgeting and Exchange Rates

Here’s what you need to know about spending (and saving) on your Costa Rican getaway.

Currency and Exchange
Costa Rica’s currency is the colón. It’s not worth much: you need at least 500 colones to buy $1, and the currency’s value has steadily decreased in recent years due to deterioration in Costa Rica’s fiscal health. When we visited, in February 2018, the exchange rate was about $1 to 572 colones.

Costa Rica has a thriving cash economy. If you plan to use taxis, hire guides, or patronize street or beach vendors, you’ll want cash on hand. Skip the airport currency exchange bureau, which charges north of 6% to convert your money, and head to an ATM operated by Banco de Costa Rica (a popular state-owned bank) or another legitimate financial institution. You shouldn’t have trouble finding one at larger hotel properties or in sizable towns.

Like many other small nations grappling with fiscal problems, Costa Rica has a soft spot for U.S. dollars. Just about every merchant we encountered, including people hawking crafts on the beach, accepted American currency. This is apparently the norm throughout Costa Rica.

The catch is that the exchange rate on dollar-denominated purchases isn’t great: to simplify mental math, most merchants use a 500-to-1 exchange rate. That amounts to a 15% surcharge – not ideal. If you plan to make just a few cash purchases, this might be acceptable. Otherwise, take the time to get some colones.

Or skip cash altogether. Every brick-and-mortar merchant we patronized, including hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Liberia, accepted major credit cards. Because they’re dollar-denominated at contemporaneous exchange rates, credit card transactions with foreign-transaction-fee-free cards are cheaper than cash transactions, which require withdrawals from ATMs charging 2% to 3% for the privilege. If you rent your own car and avoid the informal economy, you can get by without touching a paper note.

Pro Tip: You can get by without touching a paper note, I should say, until it’s time to depart. Costa Rica charges a $29-per-head departure tax for all foreign nationals, payable at the airport. It’s for a good cause: the proceeds fund government aviation and tourism initiatives.

Some airlines fold the departure tax into ticket prices, but others require passengers to pay it themselves. Cash is strongly encouraged, thanks to an insane 15% surcharge on credit card payments.

Daily Budgeting & Major Purchases
By global standards, Costa Rica is pretty affordable. London or Paris, San Jose is not.

By Central American standards, though, Costa Rica is pricey. In some cases, basic necessities are actually more expensive than in the U.S.: gas prices run 25% to 40% ahead of the U.S., for instance.

Here’s what you can do to manage the cost of unavoidable and discretionary purchases in Costa Rica:

  • Airfare: Have flexible travel dates. Begin and end your journey during the workweek, if possible. Travel during the low or shoulder seasons (i.e., not around Christmas or during spring break). Be willing to lay over if it means a cheaper flight. Many U.S. cities have limited direct service to Costa Rica.
  • Lodging: Avoid name-brand four- and five-star beach resorts, looking instead to locally owned properties with comparable amenities. (We saved more than 50% on our beach hotel by going local.) If you’re staying in one location for more than a couple nights, look for a short-term rental. Most popular beaches teem with modern condos and villas with in-unit kitchens, pools, and other amenities. Away from the beach, look to rustic resorts (such as ecolodges) and motel-style properties. Our place in Tilaran, essentially a roadside motel, cost about $35 per night with full (delicious) breakfast included. You’ll pay a lot less if you’re willing to sacrifice ostentatious onsite bells and whistles, like full-service spas and gourmet restaurants.
  • Food: Get off the beaten path to eat whenever possible. Our best-value meals came at independently owned restaurants in Liberia. One place, basically a lunch counter serving authentic Costa Rican cuisine, set us back about $5 per person for a lunch big enough to skip dinner on. The area’s touristy restaurants cost triple that. If you’re renting, make sure your place has a kitchen, and hit the grocery store as soon as you get settled. We visited a Walmart in Liberia and a Super Compro in Tilaran; both had excellent meat counters and solid produce sections.
  • Local Transportation: Rent the most basic vehicle possible. If you drive on paved roads, it’s going to get dirty anyway. Our 4WD ride, a Daihatsu Terios, was a glorified World War II jeep – but it got the job done. A nicer car with a civilized suspension would have cost double.

Health and Safety

Costa Rica is one of Latin America’s safest, most tourist-friendly destinations, but it’s not completely without risks. These fall into two broad categories: crime and health.

Crime in Costa Rica
Property crime is pretty common in Costa Rica, particularly in touristy areas near beaches and major attractions. Follow these commonsense tips to reduce your exposure:

  • Use Your Room’s Lockbox: If you’re staying in a hotel or resort, you’ll probably have a lockbox in your room. Use it to store valuables: jewelry, extra cash, passport, small electronic devices, and anything else you’d prefer not to go missing.
  • Don’t Carry Your Passport Around: On short excursions from your home base, don’t bother taking your passport. If you misplace it or lose it in a robbery, you’ll need to interrupt your vacation and contact the nearest embassy or consulate.
  • Don’t Leave Valuables in Your Car: Theft from vehicles is rampant in Costa Rica’s touristy precincts, far more so than muggings. Don’t leave anything in your car that you don’t want stolen.
  • Register Your Trip with the State Department: Take a few minutes before you leave to register your journey with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. (Other countries’ foreign affairs offices should have similar services as well.) You’ll specify your arrival and departure dates, the purpose of your trip, your general itinerary, and identification details for everyone in your travel party. By registering ahead of time, you’ll alert local embassy or consulate staff to your plans and help them mount a speedier response should you run into trouble.
  • Pay Attention to Travel Advisories: Before you get too deep into the planning process, the check State Department’s travel advisories and adjust your itinerary accordingly. You shouldn’t have too much to worry about in Costa Rica. When we visited, only Liberia was on the State Department’s radar, and the advisory was pretty standard stuff: avoid certain areas at night, keep close watch on your valuables, and don’t expect the cops to help you. We took that advice to heart and encountered no trouble.

Health Risks in Costa Rica
I mentioned above that zika is of significant concern for pregnant and planning-to-become-pregnant visitors. Zika infections are often mild (low fever, chills) or entirely asymptomatic, so you won’t necessarily know that you’ve been afflicted. And it’s not just women who have to worry: though more research needs to be done, it appears that sexual transmission is possible.

Other realistic health risks include:

  • Jellyfish: Don’t laugh. Jellyfish stings vary from annoying to excruciatingly painful. A few species can cause serious complications and even death. They’re pretty common at tourist beaches: At a waterfront restaurant one day, we saw a young woman with a nasty-looking, baseball-sized sting on her shoulder. Ask locals which jellyfish to watch for. Seek medical attention right away if you’re stung.
  • Monkeys: You’re virtually guaranteed to see (or hear) monkeys in Costa Rica. Howler monkeys are among the loudest mammals on earth – their roars echo for miles through the jungle. If they keep their distance, they’re cute enough, but attacks aren’t unheard of. The biggest risk here isn’t trauma – it’s rabies, an invariably fatal disease that’s quite common in Costa Rican monkeys. Even a trivial-seeming scratch or bite requires immediate medical attention – an emergency vaccine course can stave off the disease.
  • Biting and Stinging Insects and Arachnids: Unfortunately, there are too many to name. Spiders, centipedes, scorpions, ants: all have poisonous stings or bites that demand varying degrees of concern (and impart varying degrees of pain). Since it’s nearly impossible to sort (relatively) harmless critters from dangerous ones, it’s best to avoid them all – but, at the same time, not to panic and risk antagonizing them.
  • Poisonous Snakes and Amphibians: You’re encouraged (or required, in some parks) to hire a guide to take you into the jungle for a reason: Costa Rica is home to several species of highly venomous snakes whose bites will kill you if not treated immediately. Poison dart frogs are also extremely dangerous.
  • Crocodiles: Crocodiles aren’t quite as common in Costa Rica as alligators are in the southeastern U.S., but you’ll probably see them (or signs of them) if you spend any time in rural, low-lying areas. It’s best to give them a wide berth.
  • Auto Accidents: Poor maintenance and aggressive driving make for a dangerous combination. If you’re driving yourself, drive with abundant caution. Be especially vigilant about head-on risks: on faster roads, people often pass aggressively, with little warning.

Big cats get an honorable mention here. Costa Rica is home to ocelots, pumas, and jaguars, all of which are big enough to fatally injure humans. Fortunately, they’re pretty elusive and not known for their aggression. You probably won’t encounter them unless you spend lots of time in the deep jungle.

Final Word

Planning a frugal international vacation, even a relatively low-stress jaunt to Costa Rica, is a logistical challenge. As you scramble to tick the most important boxes on your planning checklist and ensure that nothing major gets lost in the shuffle, you’re not likely to check the latest currency market action – but maybe you should.

Currency fluctuations can have an outsize impact on your overseas spending power. In the late 2000s, when the U.S. dollar was weak and the euro, pound, and Canadian dollar were all strong, it took lots of U.S. dollars to buy hotel rooms, transportation tickets, food, and souvenirs denominated in those currencies. For Americans, that meant traveling abroad was a pricey affair. British and European tourists flooded major U.S. cities and resort towns, snapping up hotel rooms and knickknacks at what seemed to them incredible bargains, while few Americans went the other way.

Today, despite continued fluctuations, the U.S. dollar is in a much stronger position. While that’s not such good news for American exporters, it’s a huge boon for Americans planning overseas trips. So, as you finalize your Costa Rica vacation plans, keep in mind that your tropical excursion could end up costing even less than you expect.

Have you ever been to Costa Rica? What’s your favorite thing to do there?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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