Costa Rica is beautiful, friendly, and full of adventure. The great thing about Costa Rica is there is an abundance of places to visit and a variety of things to do. Use this Costa Rica travel guide to plan your trip!
From the Pacific side to the Caribbean side, beach to rainforest, there are memorable experiences throughout the country. It’s been seven years since my first trip to Costa Rica and I’ve been able to visit three times. I’ve learned a lot more about the country since that first trip, so here’s an updated travel guide for you.
- Pura Vida is a state of mind. Take every moment to live life to the fullest. As a greeting and farewell, the phrase gets used a lot. This kind of thinking is probably why the country has one of the highest life expectancies in the world and the people are considered the happiest in the world.
- Costa Rica’s military was abolished in 1948. Yes, they have no military! They have police but no united force against other countries.
- Over 26% of Costa Rica’s land is protected through national parks, animal refugees, and biological reserves.
- Costa Rica occupies 0.03% of earth’s landmass yet it has 6% of earth’s total biodiversity.
- Costa Rica didn’t use street signs until 2012. Locals used landmarks and buildings for reference.
- Tourism is Costa Rica’s top source of foreign exchange. Their main cash crops are bananas, pineapples and coffee.
- Visa: Most countries, including the U.S., will receive a 90-day visa upon arrival.
- Language: Spanish
- Currency: Costa Rican Colón (CRC). $1 USD is about 646 colones.
- Credit Cards: Can be used at hotels and ATMs but cash is preferred and easiest. It was hard for us to find a working ATM! One bed and breakfast gave us cash in exchange for a credit card charge.
- Capital City: San José
- Water: Generally safe to drink from the tap unless you’re in rural areas
Common Costa Rican Phrases
- Tico (colloquial term for Costa Rican): You’ll find this to describe things that locals like, such as ’tico breakfast’ and Costa Ricans call themselves tico or tica.
- Pure Vida (translates to Pure Life): This phrase is a way to express the happiness of being in Costa Rica. It’s like ‘heck yeah’ or ‘this is the life!’
- Comida Tipica or Comida Casado (translates to Typical Food): the name of the standard and simple dish that includes gallo pinto, fried plantains, a salad, and some kind of protein.
- Guaro: a clear liquor made from sugar cane found in Central America. The Costa Rican brand is Cacique Guaro.
- Pescado, Carne, Pollo (translates to fish, beef, chicken): You usually get your choice of protein in your comida tipica dish.
Best Time to Visit
Dry season is the most popular time to visit. Close to the equator, Costa Rica has a tropical climate year-round and differentiates the seasons by the amount of rainfall: wet (May to November) and dry (December to April) seasons.
How to Get to Costa Rica
Costa Rica has two international airports: one in San Jose (SJO), the capital and largest city in the country, and one in Liberia (LIR), the capital and largest city of the Guanacaste province.
Unless you’re staying in San Jose, you’ll likely take ground transportation to your final destination in Costa Rica. See the section below to decide what city to visit.
How to Get Around
If you will be visiting more than one city, I recommend renting a car and especially a 4×4 if you’ll be exploring. Most roads getting around are paved but you may encounter unpaved roads and muddy, sloped parking lots. Also, rent a GPS or make sure you have the Waze app on your phone. Some recommended car rental companies I’ve found are Mapache Rent-a-Car, Wild Rider, and Vamos Rent-a-Car. You’ll also find international car rental companies like Hertz, Alamo, Enterprise, and Budget. If you’re traveling during the high season (like around Christmas and New Year’s), be sure to reserve your car months in advance.
If you don’t want to rent a car or drive, shuttles and drivers are readily available. There are also taxis and rideshare in busier areas. A shuttle I’ve used is Interbus. My experience with them was efficient, friendly, and very affordable. They pick up and drop off at your exact location.
Where to Visit in Costa Rica – Best Cities
Here are some of the most popular cities in Costa Rica for visitors. These are the best cities set up for tourists, meaning there are plenty of options for places to stay and convenient tour options. Below gives some details about each place to help you decide.
If you’re visiting for a week, I recommend splitting your time between the beach and Arenal or Monteverde, which are rainforest locations and where the best zipline tours can be found.
If you’d rather stay in one place, my recommendation is the Manuel Antonio area. From there, you can take day trips to Jaco, Dominical, or Uvita if you want to explore. The four cities I’ve mentioned here are a bit overrun but there are activities in the area, like a hike or dive trip, that will take you away from the crowds. It’s about two hours from Jaco to Uvita.
Here’s more about each city on the map.
- 1.5 hrs from Liberia, 4.5 hrs from San Jose
- Small beach town but very developed
- Hotel recommendations: Hotel Arco Iris, Capitan Suizo
- See my Tamarindo guide here
- 3 hrs from Liberia, 5 hrs from San Jose
- Small town known for yoga options
- Also has beaches and boutique hotels
- 4.5 hrs from Liberia, 5 hrs from San Jose
- A little harder to get to but that means this beach town is a little quieter
- lots of recommended beaches for surfing and swimming in this area including Playa Carmen, Playa Santa Teresa, and Playa Hermosa
- 2 hrs from San Jose, 3.5 hrs from Liberia
- popular for surfing but also one of the most developed (busiest) beach towns
- come to party
- El Miro is a short hike with a great lookout point
- 3 hrs from San Jose, 4.5 hrs from Liberia
- Manuel Antonio National Park is the second most visited in Central America; see lots of wildlife here
- Manuel Antonio is said to be the prettiest beach in Costa Rica
- Rainmaker is a nice hike nearby
- 3.5 hrs from San Jose, 5 hrs from Liberia
- Dominical is popular for surfing
- Dive boats to Cano Island leave from Uvita
- Near waterfalls and hiking – Nauyaca Waterfall is one of the most famous
- 1.5 hrs from Liberia, 3 hrs from San Jose
- Rainforest location for ziplining, Arenal Volcano, hot springs, white water rafting
- Hotel recommendations (lots of luxury hotels in this area): Nayara Hotel
- 2.5 hrs from Liberia, 3 hrs from San Jose
- if you want the cloud forest of Arenal but with fewer tourists, less development, and cooler weather
- 6.5 hrs from San Jose, 8 hrs from Liberia
- Most remote place in Costa Rica and premier rainforest destination
- Visit Corcovado National Park
What to Eat
Take a look at this post to learn more about Costa Rican food! I recommend trying a casado plate and gallo pinto during your trip.
What to Do in Costa Rica
My favorite (and the more unique) things you’ll do in Costa Rica are seeing the wildlife (sloth guaranteed) in Manuel Antonio National Park, ziplining in the rainforest, and canyoning down waterfalls.
I definitely recommend putting this country on your travel list. It was a fun, easy, and adventurous trip!
Check out my other posts about Costa Rica: