IMPORTANT 2017 UPDATE
We are excited to announce we have recently released our FREE ebook on living and traveling in Costa Rica. It has all the information in this post—and MORE!
If you want to learn more about where to go and what to do while you’re exploring Costa Rica, then we highly recommend checking out our guide. Of course, you can read this blog post too, but our guide as more updated and extensive information 🙂 Take a look below!
Why Visit Costa Rica
Costa Rica receives a lot of hype. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. With captivating cloud forests, rich jungles, striking volcanoes, stunning beaches and 26 National Parks, there’s a little something for everyone. The country is teeming with wildlife and diversity, and the only problem for adventure seekers will be choosing between the myriad of thrills available. If all you want to do is relax at a boutique hotel or resort,
If all you want to do is relax at a boutique hotel or resort, then, of course, there’s plenty of that too. What’s more, Costa Rica leads the way in sustainable tourism practices, so it’s easy to enjoy the highlights of Costa Rica while remaining eco-conscious.
Yes, Costa Rica is touristy. It’s also the most expensive country to visit in Central America. But that doesn’t mean you should bypass the country altogether. There are numerous hidden gems to be explored and remote corners that reveal a Costa Rica before sprawling resorts and towering condos. If budgeting is your concern, there are a few easy ways to keep costs down. (We’ve included our tips in the guide below.)
Your Costa Rica Travel Guide
Getting Into Costa Rica
Check with your embassy to learn if you need a tourist visa or not. Americans and Canadians do not and can enter the country on a 90-day tourist visa.
Airports: There are two international airports in Costa Rica. The largest is the San Juantamaria Airport (SJO) in Alajuela, just outside of San Jose. There’s also the Daniel Oduber Airport (LIR) in Liberia, which is more convenient if you are headed to the Guanacaste region.
From Panama: We did this once after our trip to Bocas del Toro, and it is fairly straightforward. Be prepared to present your passport for Panamanian exit stamps. You might be asked to show proof of departure, such as a return flight home. We were through immigration in moments with just a quick glance and stamp of our passports. There were numerous buses waiting at the border to continue us on our journey. We recommend researching additional tips and recommendations for each border crossing.
From Nicaragua: We have no experience crossing the border on land, but from our understanding, it is also pretty straightforward. You’ll have to pay a $1 tax and $2 exit fee to receive your Nicaraguan exit stamp. To enter Costa Rica, you’ll likely be asked for proof of departure within 90 days. There are numerous buses that depart from the border. We highly recommend Nature Air flights between San Jose and Managua for easy travel and gorgeous views.
Getting Out Of Costa Rica
There is an airport departure fee of $28.00, payable via cash or credit card. Many major airlines now include this fee in your flight price.
Note: There is a new(ish) land departure fee of $7.00 if exiting to Panama or Nicaragua; it’s recommend to pay the fee at a Banco Credito Agricola or Coopelianza before heading to the border so you don’t hit unexpected delays.
Buses: Buses are frequent, inexpensive and fairly reliable around Costa Rica. If you’re trying to keep costs down, buses are a great way. Expect to pay around $3-$10 depending on the length of trip.
Shuttles: If you want to expedite your transportation time, there are numerous shuttles that operate between tourist hubs. They are more expensive but for long journeys the investment might be worth it. These are easily booked in tourist hot spots. They typically cost $25-$40 depending on the length of trip.
Car: If you have a car at your disposal, that will make traveling in Costa Rica much easier. There were a few places we stayed where hotel owners were shocked we had shown up without a car, such as in Playa Grande and Cahuita. Now that we own a Jeep, we have no idea how we ever explored Costa Rica without it. Of course, it is possible.
If renting a car, you’ll want a 4×4. There is a mandatory liability insurance. Rental companies will try to convince you that you need all the bells and whistles, but more often than not, your credit card will cover all insurance apart from the mandatory liability insurance. It’s a hassle dealing with the rental car companies—expect the rate to be much higher than what’s advertised on their website (which typically doesn’t include the insurance fees.) This is a great article that goes more in-depth on renting a car in Costa Rica.
Air: Costa Rica has numerous airports across the country. With the exception of the Caribbean, the majority of the country is easily accessible via air. Nature Air is one of the major providers. It’s also the world’s first carbon neutral airline, which is pretty cool.
Within some beach towns, it’s not uncommon to see ATVs, bicycles and motorbikes used as primary transportation. This is especially relevant in towns with poor road conditions.
What To Eat In Costa Rica
As so many foreigners now call Costa Rica home, expect to find a large range of delicious and authentic cuisine from around the world. We had some of the best sushi of our lives at a Japanese restaurant in Santa Teresa and delectable gnocchi from an Italian restaurant in Samara (three nights in a row). These restaurants aren’t inexpensive, though. Typically venues that are owned and operated by foreigners charge foreign prices.
We found Costa Rican cuisine to be a bit uninspiring. That said, there are still a few dishes that you have to try at least once. Note that local restaurants are called ‘sodas’. That’s the best place to find the dishes listed below:
Gallo Pinto: Typically served as a breakfast dish, Gallo Pinto consists of rice and beans (mixed together), scrambled eggs, fried plantains, tortillas and sometimes a meat. Locals drench the dish in Salsa Lizano, a slightly spicy sauce. If you’re not headed to Costa Rica anytime soon but still want to give Gallo Pinto a try, we posted a simple recipe here.
Casados: The word ‘casado’ translates into ‘married’, and that’s really what this dish is all about—the marriage of rice and beans. Expect rice, beans, fried plantains, cabbage salad, and your choice of meat or fish. The dish is also called ‘Comida Tipica’ as it is commonly eaten throughout the country.
Ceviche and Fish: With so much coastline, it should come as no surprise that fresh fish and ceviche are common—and delicious! If you’ve never had ceviche, it’s a dish that consists of raw fish marinated in citrus juices, served with diced vegetables (often tomatoes, onion, cilantro and garlic).
Caribbean Cuisine: A visit to the Caribbean coast opens up a whole new world of flavors and dishes, in our opinion more memorable than that of the Pacific. Rice and beans still serve as the base but are cooked with coconut milk, curry and ginger. Don’t miss Rondon, a Jamaican seafood soup, and Jerk Chicken.
Chocolate: There are plenty of opportunities around Costa Rica to go on a chocolate tasting tour and learn about the cacao making process. Chocolate has played an important role in the history of Costa Rica, and these tours are not only informative but also delicious! If you visit Puerto Viejo, don’t miss a stop at the Caribbeans chocolate tasting room.
What to drink
Coffee: Costa Rican coffee is fantastic, and unlike other Latin American countries, we found most restaurants serve a local brew (rather than imported instant coffee). There are plenty of coffee tours that take you through the bean-to-cup process. Our Coffee N’ Jungle Night Tour was informative and lots of fun.
Smoothies: With so much fresh fruit in Costa Rica, it’s only natural to blend them up and serve delicious smoothies and juices. These quickly become an addiction of mine anytime we are in a tropical area.
Beer: The primary beers of choice are Imperial and Pilsner. They’re light beers, good but not necessarily memorable. If you’re on a budget though, you’ll likely be drinking these bad boys. Imported beers are much more expensive. Costa Rica is finally starting to get a bit of a craft beer scene. We think an article detailing the best draft beers is in the near future…
Cacique: This local sugar cane liquor is a staple throughout Costa Rica. It’s strong but goes down surprisingly easy.
It’s possible to find virtually any range of accommodation in Costa Rica, from 5-star resorts to chain hotels to camping hammocks. Costs vary depending on the region of Costa Rica. These prices are a rough estimate:
Camping: When we were doing research, we kept hearing that it is easy to camp anywhere in Costa Rica for a minimal fee. So, we bought a camping hammock, thinking in the long run it would minimize our costs. We didn’t use it once. There are some places to camp around Costa Rica, and if you are really diligent about it, perhaps you’ll find more opportunities. However, we only remember it being a popular choice in Puerto Viejo, Santa Teresa, and around some national parks. Don’t expect to find much camping information online; it’s easier to arrive and then ask around.
Hostels: They’re common throughout Costa Rica. Expect to pay around $10 for a bed in a dormitory or $20-25 for a private room.
Small Hotels: We would say that small guesthouses and bed and breakfasts are the most prevalent type of accommodation. Expect to pay anywhere from $30 upwards, depending upon how ‘boutique’ the hotel is. Most include breakfast.
Eco-Resorts: Eco-resorts and jungle lodges are increasingly popular in Costa Rica. They are a great way to travel responsibly and in comfort. Prices vary, often starting at $150 a night.
We’ve included accommodation reviews for the majority of hotels we stayed at with their corresponding town or region below.
Navigating the Country
For such a small country, there’s an endless amount to see and do in Costa Rica. We’ve already written about the majority of our experiences. What follows below is an outline to some of the major destinations and attractions.
Visit for the Arenal volcano and the numerous adventure activities in the area. The town itself is just a hub for tour operators, but the surrounding areas are stunning.
This area is famous for its cloud forests, the chance to site a Quetzal, and the best zip lining in the country.
–Accommodation Review: Cabinas Eddy (A highlight of all the places we stayed in Costa Rica.)
Playa del Coco
A popular beach in the northern Guanacaste area. We didn’t stay for long, but the highlight of our visit was meeting our friends at My Tan Feet and the phenomenal sunsets that pain the sky each night.
There’s not much happening around Playa Grande, but that’s part of the beach’s charm. Come here for its world-renowned surf or a chance to see the leatherback turtles that nest upon its shores. We chose the latter, and after staying up to the wee hours of the morning, we were able to catch a glimpse of a mother as she laid and buried her eggs—a truly spectacular site. Note that there are no ATMs in Playa Grande.
Just a stone’s throw from Playa Grande, this is the beach of choice for most surfers and tourists visiting the region. The town is touristy, but if you’re looking for nightlife and creature comforts, then it might be for you. The best part about Tamarindo is that it grants easy accessibility to tons of gorgeous beaches, national parks, hiking, activities and more:
Samara is one of our favorite beach towns in Costa Rica. The town itself has managed to maintain a slow and sleepy feel despite the regular flow of tourists it receives. Expect long strips of sandy beaches and gentle, lapping waves.
We can’t sing Santa Teresa’s praises enough. The town itself is off-the-beaten-path, while still having great restaurants and plenty of attractions. We found this beach to be one of the most beautiful we visited in all of Costa Rica.
Montezuma and Cabo Blanco National Reserve Park
It’s just a short trip from Santa Teresa, though unfortunately, we were so busy with the surfing and yoga that we didn’t have the opportunity to visit ourselves. You can learn more about the country’s first protected area here.
Jaco and Manuel Antonio National Park
Jaco is similar to Tamarindo. Expect surfing and partying, as well as upper-scale resorts. Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most visited National Parks for a reason, with coves of white sandy beaches, wildlife, and adventure activities. The entrance to Manuel Antonio is pricy, but it’s well worth the trip.
The Osa Peninsula
If you only visit one region of Costa Rica, make it the Osa. In our opinion, it is the rest of Costa Rica but on steroids. We spent two months at Blue Osa, where we volunteered and Casey participated in their one-month immersion yoga teacher training. Learn all about it below!
–A Day In The Life Of A Yogi In Training
Accommodation reviews were included in the posts above. We can’t recommend both Blue Osa and Casa Corcovado enough.
Tortuguero National Park
We had plans to visit this park on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, but we simply ran out of time. It will be one of the next trips we hope to take though! This region is best known for its turtles, as it is a unique nesting site for four different species. The region is best viewed on a boat tour through its canals. Learn more about the region here.
The Southern Zone
This is where we now live! Since we’ve put down roots here, naturally we’re a bit biased about how wonderful the area is. One of the things we love the most about the Southern Zone is that though it’s a bit developed, it is one of the least touristy regions in all of Costa Rica. The lush jungle runs right up to the many secluded beaches. The people are warm and friendly. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities for swimming in waterfalls, spotting wildlife, jungle hopping and surfing epic waves.
Just slightly north of Puerto Viejo, Cahuita is a quiet, one-town street. The beach isn’t the most beautiful, but it’s a superb base for visiting the Sloth Sanctuary or the Cahuita National Park.
It used to be that only backpackers and surfers in search of the legendary wave ‘Salsa Brava’ knew about Puerto Viejo. While it is still largely off the tourist radar, it’s now catering to a larger audience. We loved Puerto Viejo, specifically the small beach town of Playa Cocles just a few kilometers down the road. We recommend basing yourself in Playa Cocles and exploring all that the Caribbean coast has to offer from there.
Again, Costa Rica packs a powerful punch, and there is even more to discover than what’s noted above! For more ideas, try the Poas Volcano, Palo Verde, or Irazu Volcano.
Top Experiences In Costa Rica
It’s difficult to narrow down all the amazing experiences we had, but we gave it a go. In no particular order, they are as follows:
-Surfing and Yoga with Lucero
Everything about the retreat was put together with precision and thoughtfulness. We loved our teachers, the hotel, the food and the town. It was a superb week, and a great way to stay active on vacation.
-The Community at Playa Cocles
One of the reasons why we loved the region around Puerto Viejo so much was the beautiful people we met. The area has a wonderful community vibe to it, with farmers markets, community yoga classes, and expats who still take the time to ask about your story.
-Hiking Into Corcovado National Park with Casa Corcovado
Casa Corcovado was an experience in and of itself. The jungle, the wildlife, the amenities, the staff and the eco-consciousness made this a trip to remember.
-Getting into Adventure in La Fortuna and Monteverde
We couldn’t get enough of all the adventure activities in the area. It was also our first time horseback riding, white water rafting, and zip lining over a cloud forest together.
-House sitting in San Ramon, Costa Rica
This was our first formal house sitting gig, and it was an incredible opportunity for us. Not only did it allow us to slow down and focus on a few projects, but it also allowed us to see a slow and local side of Costa Rica we likely would have missed otherwise. Plus, we got to have an adorable pet cat for a few weeks! If you’re interested in house sitting, read more about our house sitting round up, or sign up for TrustedHousesitters here.
We’ve included a few budgeting tips throughout the guide (eat local, take the bus, stay at small guesthouses), but here are a few more to help you stretch your funds:
-Drink the water. It’s actually safe to drink the water throughout Costa Rica, and it’s amazing how much money you can save by cutting out a few dollars on bottled water.
-Ask the locals. This is true anywhere in the world, but we’ll reiterate it here. Tourism has skyrocketed in Costa Rica in the past five years; with it prices have gone up. However, minimum wage has stayed largely the same. That means that locals know where to eat and what to do for a much lower price than at those places owned and operated by expats. What’s more, there are many large restaurants that claim ‘Comida Tipica’ but are actually owned by foreigners, and thus charging foreign prices.
-Go for DIY. It’s not always necessary to hire a guide to take you into the national parks or on hiking expeditions. If you want to see a lot of wildlife then you will likely want a guide; however, if you are going for the experience, it is often easily done with research and a tad of intrepidness.
–Go to the Caribbean. All in all, we found the Caribbean to be the least expensive region of Costa Rica.
As mentioned above, now that we live in Costa Rica, we will do our best to return to this post to update it as we have more awesome resources and tips! But be sure to follow us on IG and FB for live updates from life in Southern Costa Rica!
Have you been to Costa Rica? What tips would you add? Anything we missed that you’re dying to know? Let’s make this guide even more ultimate!
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More Resources on Costa Rica: