Costa Rica is one of my favorite countries in the world. It was the first country I ever traveled to — and it was the country that sparked my wanderlust.
These days, Costa Rica is one of the most popular destinations in Central America. It’s popular with expats, luxury travelers, and backpackers alike. While it is on the higher end of the price spectrum for the region, it’s nevertheless a phenomenal country to visit.
I love the never-ending activities, gorgeous beaches, diverse wildlife, delicious food, and friendly people.
The country may be expensive by regional standards but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. The beaches are picturesque, there’s great surfing and amazing diving, and there are plenty of places to get away from the hordes of retired Americans that live here.
I really can’t say enough good things about this country!
This guide to Costa Rica can help you have the trip of a lifetime — and save money in the process!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Costa Rica
1. Climb a volcano
2. Visit Monteverde
3. Explore Tortuguero National Park
4. Explore Corcovado
5. Stay in Puerto Viejo
Other Things to See and Do in Costa Rica
1. Visit San José
Costa Rica’s capital is in the center of the country. It’s sort of gritty and there’s not a whole lot to do; the city only requires a few days. While you’re here, visit the Museum of Contemporary Art & Design to check out the future of Costa Rican art, as well as the magnificent Teatro Nacional to take in its décor. For a relaxing day trip, head to the La Paz waterfall for some hiking and swimming.
2. Zip through the rainforest canopy
The highest 10% of rainforest is where most activity takes place. To see it up close, take a zipline tour. They offer an adrenaline-pumping view of these vast, diverse ecosystems. There are dozens of companies throughout the country, though Monteverde is my favorite place to do it. Expect to pay around 50,000 CRC for a multi-line tour lasting a couple of hours.
3. Explore Baru Wildlife Refuge
With over 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. Located on the coast south of San Jose, here you can go birdwatching, take canopy tours, and explore the park via guided tours to see the wildlife. Don’t miss the orchid and butterfly gardens. For something more unique, take a nighttime guided tour to see the region’s nocturnal animals. Self-guided tours cost 9,000 CRC while guided tours start at 21,000 CRC.
4. Go surfing in Jaco
Located on the Pacific Coast west of San Jose, Jaco was once a sleepy resort town whose main attraction was its excellent surfing. Growing tourism has transformed it into a haven of beach parties and nightclubs. Surf lessons and rentals are widely available on the beaches and sport-fishing is also popular here. For a more laid-back visit, head to the nearby Carara National Park to spot scarlet macaws, armadillos, and hundreds of species of bird (admission is 6,200 CRC).
5. Learn some Spanish
Costa Rica is one of the most popular 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 an immersive homestay with a Costa Rican family. Expect to spend around 250,000 CRC for a basic week-long program.
6. See La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Located just one hour from San Jose, this makes for a popular day trip. Aside from the many stunning waterfalls throughout the lush cloud forest, here you’ll also find several beautiful gardens, an aviary, a hummingbird garden, a butterfly garden, and a reptile area. Plan to stay at least two hours to see everything. Admission is 30,000 CRC.
7. Go fishing
Costa Rica is home to Marlin, Sailfish, Dorado, Snapper, Wahoo, and much more. If you love to fish (or just want to give it a try), consider doing a half-day or full-day fishing excursion. A basic excursion costs around 55,000 CRC and usually includes food, though prices can be ten times as high for multiday or exclusive charters. You can usually find places that can cook your catch as well.
8. Chill out in Santa Theresa
At the bottom of the Nicoya Peninsula is the hippy backpacker town of Santa Theresa. This “town” is 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 enjoyed my time here as it’s a good place to just 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
Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Santa Theresa, or Tamarindo all offer plenty 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, this is your best place to in the region to learn. Lessons cost around 30,000 CRC while multiday courses cost around 80,000 CRC.
10. Walk through the treetops
The Rainmaker Aerial Walkway, located one hour from Jaco, was the first aerial walkway to be built in Central America. Spanning the canopy of a private rainforest, it’s still considered to be one of the top aerial walkways in the region. At the highest point on the walkway, you’ll find yourself 20 stories above the ground, giving you ample opportunities to spot all kinds of birds and monkeys. Tours start at 46,000 CRC.
11. Wander a coffee plantations
Costa Rican coffee is famous the world over. On a coffee plantation tour you can learn about the entire bean-to-cup process and see it all up close — all while learning about the lives of the local farmers who grow it. While I dislike the taste of coffee, the kind I had in Monteverde tasted like chocolate and was delicious! Prices vary but expect to pay at least 21,600 CRC for a tour.
For more information on specific destinations in the country, check out these guides:
Costa Rica Travel Costs
Accommodation – A bed in a hostel dorm with 6-8 beds costs between 6,000-11,000 CRC per night. Private rooms in hostels are usually 15,000-21,000 CRC. Free Wi-Fi is standard and many hostels also include free breakfast. The majority of hostels around the country also have self-catering facilities, too.
Budget hotels begin around 18,000 CRC per night but average closer to 30,000-40,000 CRC. Breakfast is often included and most have basic amenities like AC and TV.
For Airbnb, shared accommodation begins around 15,000 CRC per night. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay at least 30,000-60,000 CRC.
For those traveling with a tent, camping is an option all around the country. Most campgrounds usually charge 6,000 CRC per night for a basic plot without electricity though you’ll pay up to double that for camping in national parks. Avoid wild camping as it is often unsafe and is illegal in many areas.
Food – Costa Rican cuisine is centered around rice and beans, which are usually eaten for every meal. Potatoes, plantain, pork, and beef are also popular. Gallo pinto (rice and bean stir-fry) is the national dish. You’ll find it mixed with eggs for breakfast. Other popular meals include fried plantain and chicken and rice. Generally, the food here is quite mild.
At sodas (cheap local restaurants serving traditional cuisine), expect a meal of rice and beans to cost around 3,000-4,500 CRC. You can usually find tacos or empanadas for 2,000 CRC or less, while fuller meals like casado (rice, beans, veggies, and meat) or gallo pinto cost about 5,000 CRC.
A meal in a touristy area generally costs around 11,000 CRC for something like seafood or more upscale western fare. For fast food (pizza, burger and fries), expect to pay around 4,500 CRC.
Beer costs around 1,500 CRC, as does a latte/cappuccino. Bottled water is 815 CRC.
If you plan on cooking for yourself, a week’s worth of groceries costs around 20,000-30,000 CRC for basic staples like rice, beans, veggies, fruit, and some meat.
Activities – Entrance to most national parks is usually around 6,000 CRC. Canopy tours and day trips are around 25,000-40,000 CRC. A two-tank dive costs around 65,000 CRC. Surf lessons start around 30,000 CRC and 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 80,000 CRC for a week including lodging.
Backpacking Costa Rica Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Costa Rica, my suggested budget is 30,000-35,000 CRC per day. On this budget, you can stay in a hostel, cook most of your meals, have some cheap street food, take public transportation to get around, and enjoy mostly free activities like hiking and the beach.
On a mid-range budget of around 65,000 CRC per day, you can stay in an Airbnb or private hostel room, eat out at local sodas, enjoy a couple of drinks, take the occasional taxi, and do more paid activities like guided tours, surf lessons, and museum visits
On a “luxury” budget of 145,000 CRC or more per day, you can stay in a hotel, eat out anywhere you want, rent a car to get around, drink as much as you’d like, and do as many excursions as you want, including diving and canopy tours. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Prices are in CRC.
Costa Rica Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries in Central America. Fortuantely, there are plenty of ways to save while you’re here. Here are some of the best ways to save money in Costa Rica:
- Travel off-season – Late April to November is considered the rainy season and prices tend to be less expensive and the region less crowded. If you’re on a budget, visit during this time.
- Avoid tour activities – There are a lot of great (but expensive) group activities and tours in the country. Skip them and do free activities like hiking, swimming, and relaxing at the beach instead.
- Eat at the sodas – “Sodas” are small family run restaurants which specialize in inexpensive local meals, usually costing around 3,500 CRC. These hole-in-the-wall restaurants offer the best value in the country.
- Go camping – Many resorts and hostels let you camp on their property if you have a tent. Usually, this costs around 6,000 CRC per night.
- Visit the Caribbean side – Visiting the cheaper Caribbean side lets you see the beautiful country without the high prices of the popular Pacific destinations.
- 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.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier can help you save money (and thousands of plastic bottles) by purifying the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw.
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. Short bus trips (under 3 hours) are usually around 3,000 CRC while longer trips cost closer to 7,000 CRC. The Costa Rica tourism board has a comprehensive schedule and guide to help you plan your trip.
Private Bus – Private mini-buses 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 (but also more expensive). Ask your hotel/hostel staff for the local options as they vary around the country.
Air – Air travel within Costa Rica isn’t budget-friendly or efficient. I would skip this method of travel. It won’t really save you time or money.
Car Rental – Car rentals are surprisingly affordable in Costa Rica. You can rent a car for as little 13,500 CRC per day. However, the roads here are not always great and drivers can be aggressive. Make sure you have insurance if you do rent a vehicle.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking isn’t common for long distance rides, however, it’s possible in 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 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. If visiting during this time, make all your reservations well in advance since things fill up fast.
The rainy season is from May to November. 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.
Overall, temperatures and weather vary per region. If you’re around the Caribbean coast and the Northern Plains, you can expect year-round humidity and 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 here. Don’t flash your valuables and make sure they always secure while you’re out.
There are also some common scams here, including a taxi scam where the driver tells you the meter is broken once the drive has begun. For that reason, you should stick to metered taxis or negotiate a price in advance.
If you rent a car, don’t leave any valuables in it overnight as break-ins do occur. Be mindful of missing road signs and potholes, as well as aggressive drivers.
When going out for the night, only bring the money you need. Leave the rest of your cash and cards locked up in your accommodation.
If you go hiking, always check the weather in advance and never stray from the trail. When in doubt, hire a guide just to be safe.
If you experience an emergency, dial 911 for assistance.
Worried about other travel scams? Read about these 14 major travel scams to avoid.
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.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- 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!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B in the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, and 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 (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 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 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 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 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: