Costa Rica is one of my favorite countries in the world.
This was the first country I ever traveled to and it was the country that sparked my wanderlust.
I’ve since been back many times to backpack Costa Rica.
It’s one of the most popular destinations in Central America and, while it’s on the higher end of the price spectrum for the region, it’s a phenomenal country to visit.
I love the never-ending activities, gorgeous beaches, a plethora of wildlife, delicious food, and friendly people.
The country may be firmly 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.
I really can’t say enough good things about this country.
Whether you are backpacking, on a budget trip, or just looking for things to do and see, this Costa Rica travel guide will help you have the trip of a life time!
Table of Contents
Click Here for City Guides
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Costa Rica
5. Puerto Viejo
Other Things to See and Do in Costa Rica
1. Visit San José
Costa Rica’s capital is located in the center of the country making it a great hub. Overall, 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, the magnificent Teatro Nacional to take in its décor, and the history museum located in the town center too.
2. Zip through the rainforest canopy
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. Expect to pay around 30,000 CRC (50 USD).
3. Explore Baru 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. Birdwatching, canopy tours, and walking tours are the main attractions in the park.
4. Wander around 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 and sport-fishing is also 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.
5. Learn some Spanish
Costa Rica is one of the most popular Latin countries for learning Spanish due to the country’s easy to understand dialect. Programs vary in length and cost, but most offer the opportunity to do a homestay with a Costa Rican family.
6. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Aside from the famous 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.
7. Go sports fishing
The country’s waters are home to Marlin, Sailfish, Dorado, Snapper, Wahoo, and many other species. Consider doing either a one-day or multiday fishing excursion. A basic excursion can cost around 55,000 CRC though prices can by ten times as high for multiday trips.
8. Chill out in 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 like this place as it is 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.
9. 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.
10. Walk through the Treetops
The Rainmaker Aerial Walkway was the first aerial walkway to be built in Central America, and it is still considered to be one of the top ariel walkways in the region. At the highest point on the walkway, you’ll find yourself a 20 stories above the ground. Tours start at 45,000 CRC (75 USD) and include two light meals.
11. Wander a 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. Prices vary but expect to pay at least 14,000 CRC (25 USD) for a tour.
Be sure to visit our city travel guides for more detailed information about what to see and do in each place:
Costa Rica Travel Costs
Accommodation – Hostel dorm beds are between 5,500 to 10,000 CRC (10-15 USD) per night. Private rooms in hostels are usually around 15,000 CRC (25 USD). Free WiFi is standard, and most hostels also include free breakfast. The majority of hostels around the country also offer self-catering facilities, too. Budget hotels begin around 17,000 CRC (30 USD) per night for a double/twin room and go up from there (breakfast is often included). For Airbnb, shared accommodation usually begins around 15,000 CRC (25 USD) per night. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay around 25,000 CRC (40 USD) per night. For those traveling with a tent, camping is an option. Most campgrounds usually charge 5,500 CRC (10 USD) per night though you’ll pay up to double that for camping in national parks.
Food – By eating at local restaurants you can expect to pay around 535-1,600 CRC (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 2,670 CRC (5 USD). Most restaurant meals will cost around 3,900 CRC (5 USD) or more. A very nice meal in a tourist area will cost around 9,000 CRC (15 USD). For cheap food, eat from the street vendors where snacks and light meals can cost as little as 265 CRC (less than 1 USD). If you plan on cooking for yourself, a week’s worth of groceries will cost around 15,000-20,000 CRC (25-35 USD).
Activities – Entrance into most national parks is usually around 5,500 CRC (10 USD) with discounts available for students. Canopy tours and day trips are around 25,000 CRC (40 USD). A two tank dive can be between 30,000-53,325 CRC (55-90 USD). Surf lessons start around 11,000 CRC (20 USD) per hour. There are also lots of surf camps where you can spend the week learning how to surf (or honing your skills if you already know how to). Prices vary widely, though expect to pay at least 25,000 CRC (40 USD) for a week.
Backpacking Costa Rica Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Costa Rica, my suggested budget is 22,150-27,700 CRC (45-50 USD). On this budget, you can stay in a nice hostel, do your own cooking, have some drinks, and enjoy an activity or excursion each day.
On a mid-range budget of about 30,350-60,700 CRC (50-100 USD), you can stay in a budget hotel or a private room at a hostel, do a couple of dives, eat at restaurants, and visit a few attractions.
For a luxury budget of about 60,705-91,055 CRC (100-160 USD), you’ll be able to do just about anything you want, including staying in private rooms, hiring a rental car, doing some dives (or private tours), and eating out at nicer restaurants throughout your trip.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style.
Costa Rica Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Looking to save money in Costa Rica? Good. As one of the more expensive destinations in Central America, you’ll probably want to cut down expenses! Here are some of the best ways to save money in Costa Rica:
- Travel off-season – Late April-November is considered the rainy season, and as a result, prices tend to be less expensive and the region less crowded.
- Avoid tour activities – There are a lot of great but expensive group activities and tours in the area. Skip them, and do the free activities such as hiking the park, the La Fortuna waterfall, and a few of the hot springs.
- Eat at the sodas – “Sodas” are small family run restaurants which specialize in inexpensive local meals, usually costing around 1,065 CRC (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. Usually, under 3,000 CRC (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 are 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 CRC (less than 2 USD), you can get a sandwich and a soda. Most of their pastries are only 300 CRC (less than 1 USD). 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.
Where To Stay in Costa Rica
Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Costa Rica:
How to Get Around Costa Rica
Bus – The cheapest and easiest way to get around Costa Rica is by bus. The public bus system runs frequently throughout the day, including the harder to reach areas. Short bus trips (under 3 hours) are around 2,000 CRC (3 USD) while longer trips will cost closer to 5,500 CRC (10 USD). The Costa Rica tourism board has a really comprehensive schedule and guide.
Private Bus – Private mini-buses that provide a cost-effective way to get around the country, or to and from the airport. They are all over the place and are often quicker and more direct than the public buses. Times, companies, and prices vary so just ask the local hotel / hostel you’re at for what’s currently available.
Air – Air travel within Costa Rica isn’t budget friendly or efficient. I would skip this method of travel. Plus, Nature Air, the only main airline in the country, has a quite the iffy safety record.
Car Rental – Car rentals are a great way to get around (outside the larger cities), and surprisingly affordable in Costa Rica. You can rent a car for as little as 3,035 CRC (5 USD) per day. The roads here aren’t in great condition so make sure you get something durable.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking isn’t common for long distance rides among the locals, but it’s more usual near the beach destinations or in remote places with less public transport. HitchWiki is the best website for hitchhiking info in the country.
When to Go to Costa Rica
Most people go to Costa Rica during the dry season, which takes place from mid-December to April. Although it’s peak season and tourism is at its highest, there’s almost non-stop sunshine ideal for enjoying the country’s beaches and rainforests (and everything in between). It’s the most expensive time of year to visit, though – you’ll want to make all your reservations well in advance.
The rainy season is from May to November, and this is when it’s cheapest to visit Costa Rica. It doesn’t rain all the time though, and temperatures are still warm. The rain tends to lighten during June and July, making the country’s rainforests burst with life.
Temperatures and weather vary per region, of course. If you’re around the Caribbean Sea coast and the Northern Plains, you can expect year-round humidity and high temperatures somewhere in the 70s-80s°F (20s-30s°C). It’s not so humid in the North Pacific, but temperatures can get even hotter in this area during the dry season.
How to Stay Safe in Costa Rica
While Costa Rica is one of the safest countries for traveling and backpacking in Central America, it’s always good to play it safe!
Petty theft (including bag snatching) is one of the most common types of crime in Central America. There are some common scams around, especially the taxi cab scam where a driver tells you the meter is broken once the drive has already begun.
The people who do tend to be involved in some sort of incident are usually drinking or doing drugs or taking part sex tourism.
Stay away from that stuff and you’ll be fine. People are nice and helpful and you’re unlikely to get into trouble.
Always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it here! Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Costa Rica Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Costa Rica. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Central America, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Costa Rica Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Costa Rica Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica, by Jack Ewing
This book gives a fascinating overview of how animals, plants, and people interact with one another in Costa Rica’s rainforests. It’s written by Jack Ewing, a naturalist and natural born storyteller. Here, he shares a treasure trove of observations and stories gathered for more than 30 years of living in the country. Chances are, you’re coming to Costa Rica to discover some of the country’s amazing ecosystems. This book will get you excited about it.
In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road, by Allan Weisbecker
In 1996, Allan Weisbecker sold all his worldly possessions and set out in search of his long-time surfing friend, Patrick, who had went missing somewhere in Central America. Traveling with only his dog, his surfboards, and his truck, Allan’s journey from Mexico to Costa Rica is a memorable one, filled with scarier moments (like evading bandits) and warmer ones (like befriending the locals). It’s really the tale of ultimate friendship.
Happier Than a Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week, by Nadine Hays Pisani
It’s the classic travel tale – overworked professional realizes that the 9-5 to grind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sets out to seek greener pastures. This witty tale comes from Nadine Pisani, who shares her story of quitting her job to forge a new life in sunny Costa Rica. This is a nice, light read for when you’re just flaking out on the beach or by the pool. But along the way you’ll learn why Costa Rica is one of the happiest places on earth.
Costa Rica Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Costa Rica and continue planning your trip: