Costa Rica Travel Guide

Lucky enough to have both a Caribbean and Pacific coast, Costa Rica is a little Central American country with big surf and an untouched internal wilderness.

The capital San José sits at a cool 1,500 meters above sea level and is surrounded by lush rainforest, mountains and volcanoes which benefit from the country’s enlightened approach to conservation and eco-tourism, it also has an knack of avoiding the poor cliches that have blighted all its Central America neighbors.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: The delicious—if slightly addictive—coffee, lots of fantastic beaches, preserved wildlife areas, extra refreshing refresco fruit drinks and the tolerant locals.

What’s Not: High levels of prostitution in some areas, the often overuse of salt in cooking, the crazy driving and appalling quality of the roads.

When to Go

Costa Rica’s sub-tropical weather patterns are divided into two main seasons. The dry season, from December to April, is less humid than the rest of the year and cooler, but the Caribbean coast tends to see rain all year round. Downpours are prevalent during much of the rest of the year. Higher altitudes, including the capital, manage to escape the worst of the humidity for most of the year.

Getting There & Away

The way to San José is relatively straightforward, with flights from any number of destinations in the US, Central and South America along with selected destinations in Europe including Madrid and Frankfurt. Travel overland from the US and other countries in the region is a more interesting but bumpy way to get here, not least because of the seriously shoddy roads. Some highways do exist though and are of a better standard, not least the Panamerican Highway which connects Costa Rica to Panama and Nicaragua. In the cities, buses and taxis are reliable, safe and cheap.

Health & Safety

Aside from the smattering of deadly wildlife that lurks in Costa Rica’s rainforests, the greatest hazards come courtesy of the often ludicrous approach to driving and the fairly high crime rate, particularly in the cities.

Always know where your bag is and make sure you carry your passport at all times. Police here have a tendency to take tourists without travel documents to the nearest lock-up, a potential fiasco that is compounded by the fact that Costa Rican prisons are notoriously awful. Chances are you’ll have a better holiday on the beach than you will in a prison cell, so be safe rather than sorry. On the bright side, health facilities in the country are generally above average and are best in San José.

Food & Hospitality

Those of a delicate disposition will be glad to hear that the spiciness associated with much of the region’s cuisine is absent in Costa Rica, which has embraced western cuisine with enthusiasm along with ubiquitous fast-food chains.

Hotels throughout the country, including in the capital, are generally good value and varied. Hostels are available in most cities and towns, but tourists cannot usually stay overnight in protected areas and national parks, as much for their own safety as to maintain the environment. Those that break the rules here might want to bear in mind that there is, of course, no better way to ruin a holiday than getting mauled by a big cat, or worse, a fatal encounter with a poisonous dart frog.

Itineraries

Costa Rica can be seen in a relatively short space of time, but the beaches offer the perfect excuse to stay longer.

  • Three days on the Pacific coast in Jacó relaxing on the beach, eating good seafood and going out in the town’s many nightspots.
  • Two days in Manuel Antonio National Park exploring the rainforest and looking out for the diverse wildlife including monkeys and birds.
  • Two days in the capital San José, a cool antidote to the warmer lowlands and home to all manner of creature comforts as well as a number of museums.
  • Two days at Arenal Volcano, which remains active, erupting more than 40 times a day on average.

Extra time

  • Two days in Tamarindo, a surfer’s paradise with crystal clear Pacific waters and plenty of water sports opportunities.
  • Two days in Pochote, a small village surrounded by islands, beaches, wildlife and Costa Rica’s most notorious and now closed prison.

Highlights

Jacó: a Pacific coastal city that stays on holiday every day of the year with great surf, delicious seafood and a raucous and varied night scene.

Manuel Antonio National Park: how conservation areas should be—the flora and fauna come first and tourists a close second meaning this rainforest remains as it was thousands of years ago.

Arenal Volcano: the chance to see a regularly erupting volcano up close without fear of getting burned.

Tamarindo: a classic Costa Rican beach resort with all the trimmings including surfing, fishing, kayaking, diving and lots more besides.

San José: Costa Rica’s functional capital and the most cosmopolitan city in all of Central America.

Pochote: a small, isolated village and insight into rural Costa Rican life surrounded by stunning scenery, bays and islands.

Parismina: gateway to the Tortuguero canals and the nearby beaches, this is one of the few places in the world where visitors can see sea turtles come to lay their eggs.

Activities

Surfing: Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline is blessed with big surf and remains a favorite with boarders across the region.

Bird-watching: the rainforests and islands are teeming with wildlife including a huge variety of birds that attract keen bird-watchers.

Fishing: considered the best game fishing in the region and home to marlin, sea bass, mackerel and sharks.

Trekking: get out of the cities and see Costa Rica’s protected interior of lush rainforests.

Mountain biking: with roads this bad, you might as well get on a bike to enjoy unhindered stunning views.

Festivals & Events

Fiestas are enjoyed by young and old in the mainly Catholic Costa Rica and there is no shortage of opportunities for a good party.

March/April: processions and carnivals close down many parts of the country during week-long Easter celebrations.

September: Costa Rica’s Independence, marked by a relay run from Nicaragua, marching bands, lantern parades, parties and much more.

October: Columbus Day in the coastal city of Puerto Limon is party time Caribbean style.

November: San José’s international arts festival features plays and music along with colorful street entertainment.

December: week-long end of year festivals take over the capital with lots of rides, bullfights, fireworks, eating and drinking.