Costa Rica Travel Guide
Costa Rica is one of my favorite countries in the world. I love the never-ending activities, gorgeous beaches, plethora of wildlife, food, and people. It may be well on the tourist trail and expensive by regional standards but that doesn’t make this country any less amazing. The beaches feel like paradise, there’s great surfing, diving, and plenty of places to get away from the hoards of retired Americans that live here. There is always a quiet spot to be found if you look. Moreover, the local food uses a variety of spices and flavors that excite your mouth. I really can’t say enough good things about this country. It’s a place I happily revisit.
Destination Guides for Costa Rica
Accommodation – Hostel dorm beds are between $6 to 13 USD per day. Private rooms in hostels are usually around $25 USD. Hotels begin around $40 USD per night and go up from there.
Food – By eating at local restaurants you can expect to pay around $1-3 USD for meals. These are a local favorite and will save you from paying tourist prices in other establishments. Typical meals like the traditional casado are $5 USD. Most restaurant meals will cost $7 USD or more. A very nice meal in a tourist area will cost around $12-20 USD. For cheap food, eat from the street vendors where snacks and light meals can cost as little as .50 cents.
Transportation – Public transportation here is cheap. Short trips (3 hours) are about $3 USD while longer trips are no more than $10 USD. There are a number of private coach operators who go directly between major cities and tourist attractions. Those buses are about triple the price of the local public bus.
Activities – Entrance in to most national parks is usually around $10 USD with discounts available for students. Canopy tours and day trips are around $45 USD. A two tank dive can be between $60 – 100 USD. Surfing is about $20 USD.
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Money Saving Tips
Travel off season – Late April through November is considered the rainy season here and as a result, prices tend to be less expensive and beaches less crowded.
Eat at the sodas – “Sodas” are small family run restaurants which specialize in inexpensive local meals, usually costing around $2 USD including a drink. These hole-in-the-wall restaurants offer the best value in the country.
Go camping – Most of the resorts and hostels in many places will let you camp. If you don’t have your own tent, you can rent them. For usually just $5 USD per night, this is the best way to keep your accommodation costs down.
Visit the Caribbean side – Costa Rica is pretty expensive. There’s few ways around that fact. But visiting the cheaper Caribbean side will let you see the beautiful country without the high prices of the popular Pacific destinations.
Eat at Musmanni – Musmanni is a bakery found all over the country. The offer a great lunch special. For 1,000 Colones, you can get a sandwich and a soda. Most of their pastries are only 300 Colones. I ate at this place whenever I found one because it helped keep my food costs down.
Avoid the tourist buses – While local buses are a lot slower than the tourist buses, they are also about half the price. If you aren’t rushed for time, take the local buses. No trip is ever more than $10 USD.
Top Things to See and Do in Costa Rica
Tortuguero National Park – This park on the Caribbean coast is regarded as one of the most important breeding grounds for the endangered green turtle. It also helps to protect manatees, sloths and various species of monkey. Visit at night to catch the turtles laying their eggs on the beach. It’s very out of the way and hard to get to. There isn’t much there but if you like jungles, birds, and quiet this is a must see.
San José – Costa Rica’s capital is located in the center of the country making it a great hub. Overall though, the city only requires a few days. It’s sort of gritty and there’s not a whole lot to do. Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art & Design to check out the future of Costa Rican art or to the magnificent Teatro Nacional to take in its décor or to see the orchestra if your budget allows. The history museum located in the town center is the highlight of a visit here.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens – Aside from the waterfalls, La Paz also includes an aviary, hummingbird garden, butterfly garden, reptiles, big cats and more. The gardens are the most popular tour from San José have recently been restored.
Volcanoes – The volcanoes are among the country’s top tourist attractions. Since many are located in national parks you can combine a visit with kayaking, rafting or hiking. Arenal is famous for the lava coming down its side but as of 2010 that has stopped. There’s still beautiful trails nearby though. Irazu is known for its astonishing green blue lake that sits in one of its craters, while there is a boiling acid lake within a crater of the Poas Volcano.
Rainforest Canopies – The highest 10% of a rainforest is where most activity takes place. By going on a zip-line tour, you can have a hair-raising close view of these vast forests. There are dozens of companies offering tours throughout the country, though Monteverde is my favorite place to do it.
Coffee plantations – Costa Rican coffee is famous all over the world. By taking one of the coffee plantation tours you can see every step of the refining process and get the chance to buy discounted coffee in the gift shops. I hate the taste of coffee but the kind I had in Monteverde tasted like chocolate. I bought bags home to drink – it’s that good.
Jaco – Jaco was once a sleepy resort town whose main attraction was its excellent surfing, but growing tourism has transformed it into a haven of beach parties and pumping nightclubs. Surf lessons and rentals are widely available on the beaches, with sport fishing also being popular here. For a more sedate affair, head to the nearby Carara Biological Reserve to spot scarlet macaws, armadillos and hundreds of species of bird.
Puerto Viejo – Located on the Caribbean coast, this city is popular with young people and backpackers because of its great beaches, surf, and party atmosphere. The town is very lively, and you’ll find something going on every night. For those looking for a quieter place, there are many tranquil beach hotels around. It was one of my favorite towns in the country because its Rasta influence made it very different than the rest of Costa Rica.
Corcovado – Corcovado National Park is on the remote Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. It’s more popular than it used to be but still offers a very rugged, quiet, and off the beaten path destination. Here you’ll find pristine jungles, dolphins, and diving away from the much more developed northern western coast. The peninsula is still not easy to get too (which helps keep tourists away) but your efforts will be greatly rewarded. It’s the highlight of the country for me.
Santa Theresa – At the bottom of the Nicoya coast is the hippy backpacker town of Santa Theresa. This “town” really nothing more than a beach with a road lined with eateries, surf shops, and hostels. Not much goes on here as everyone is up early to hit the waves. I liked that. It was a good place to just go, lay on the beach, hang out with people, and relax. It’s an easy place to fall into and spend weeks. Or like most people, months.
Learn to Surf – Whether in Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Santa Theresa, or Tamarindo, Costa Rica has a lot of waves and lots of places to learn to surf. In fact, most travelers come here to surf because the waves are world renowned. If you never learned but always wanted to try and Australia, Hawaii, or Bali seem too far, this is your best place to in the region to learn.
Explore Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge – With 800 acres of land, seven kilometers of walking trails, and three kilometers of fantastic beaches, this refuge is another prime example of Costa Rica’s natural beauty. The park is located on the southern pacific coast. Birdwatching, canopy tours, and ecological tours are the main attractions in the park.
Go sports fishing – Known for some of the best sport fishing in the world, Costa Rica is the perfect place for fishers to catch a new personal record. The waters are home to Marlin, Sailfish, Dorado, Snapper, Wahoo, and many other species. Consider doing either a one-day or multi-day fishing excursion.
Learn some Spanish – Costa Rica is one of the most popular Latin countries for taking Spanish lessons. This is due to the country’s dialect, which is generally easy to understand, and the high education level. You can expect good quality classes and teachers. Programs vary in length and cost, but most offer the opportunity to do a home-stay with a Costa Rican family, which is highly recommended.
Walk through the Treetops – The Rainmaker Aerial Walkway is located within the private Rainmaker rainforest. This was the first aerial walkway to be built in Central America, and it is still considered to be one of the top in the region. At the highest point on the walkway, you’ll find yourself at a staggering 20 stories above the ground. Tours start at $70 USD, and include two light meals.