A tropical and eco-friendly destination in Central America, Costa Rica is known for its lush rainforests, cloud forests, beautiful beaches, volcanoes, and incredible biodiversity. Planning a trip to the land of pura vida (pure life)? Here are seven things you should know before visiting Costa Rica.
1. Costa Rica is not as cheap as you might think
There is an assumption that Costa Rica is cheap because it’s in Central America, but that is not the case. The most expensive country in Central America, prices for certain things are comparable to or even more expensive than in the US, particularly during the high season.
Backpackers should budget at least US$50 a day while others should plan on spending US$100 to US$300 a day for nicer hotels, meals, tours, and activities. Tours alone can cost upwards of US$100, while food costs are comparable to the US and gas prices are often higher.
2. US dollars are accepted in Costa Rica
The local currency is the colon, but US dollars are also widely accepted, especially in touristy areas. Tour companies, national parks, and many restaurants and hotels all accept dollars but will give you change in colones. They will sometimes even price goods and services in US dollars.
You can get US dollars out of most ATMs. However, it may be difficult to find an ATM in smaller towns, so it’s a good idea to bring some US dollars in small denominations with you, or to withdraw money from ATMs in larger towns and cities. Also always check that the exchange rates are reasonable before paying in US dollars.
3. You can visit year-round
The rainy season in Costa Rica typically runs from May to October, though it depends on the region. Rainy season is a good time for surfers chasing big swells and visitors looking for cheaper prices, though some businesses may be closed during September and October. The northern Guanacaste region is the driest, and will see less rainfall during the rainy season.
Late November and early December are good time to visit, as everything will be extra lush from the recent rainy season. Businesses will all be open, but prices are still reasonable, and crowds have yet to arrive. December and January are the peak seasons, so expect premium prices and large crowds from both local and international tourists.
4. It will take longer than you expect to travel around Costa Rica
Although less than 20,000 square miles (larger than Switzerland but smaller than West Virginia), it can take a while to get around the country. For example, it takes more than 5 hours to drive between San Jose and Tamarindo, and more than 3 hours between Tamarindo and Monteverde Cloud Forest by car. Be sure to factor in the extra time when planning your trip, and add a few more hours if you’re taking the bus.
If you plan to rent a car, be aware that most listed prices do not include insurance, which is mandatory. The roads are often in bad condition, and drivers can be aggressive. The police can also stop any car at any time to ask for papers, so make sure you have your original passport, tourist stamp, and driver’s license if driving.
5. There’s plenty of wildlife, if you know where to look
Home to more than half a millions species of wildlife, Costa Rica is incredibly biodiverse. From adorable sloths and monkeys to colorful toucans and quetzals, tiny tree frogs, massive crocodiles, and majestic jaguars and humpback whales, you can see them all here. If you know where to look, that is.
Some animals, like sloths, are quite common, but are great at camouflage and difficult to spot. Others can only be found in specific areas, or at certain times (like at night, with more than half the wildlife nocturnal). A guided tour with a local naturalist is a great way to ensure you get the most out of your wildlife spotting experience, and may even be required to access certain parks. Bring binoculars, and a big zoom lens for your camera if you have one.
6. You can be as relaxed or as adventurous as you want
Home to more than 800 miles of coastline and 300 beaches, you could spend your entire trip just relaxing on a pretty patch of sand. Yoga retreats are also very popular. But for those looking for more thrills, Costa Rica also offers a wide range of adventurous activities.
With plenty of surf schools, Costa Rica is a great place for beginners to learn, while there are plenty of large swells for more advanced surfers. Ziplining above the tree canopy is also very popular (not surprising since ziplining was invented here). Other popular activities include scuba diving, snorkeling, white-water rafting, hiking, and canyoning.
7. The Pacific and Caribbean coasts offer different experiences
Costa Rica offers more than 600 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, and more than 200 miles of coastline along the Caribbean Sea. While both are beautiful, the two coasts are quite different from each other. If you have the time, it’s ideal to visit
both coasts, but most visitors pick one or the other, especially for their first trip, depending on their preferences.
The Pacific Coast is the most developed, and will offer accommodation from budget to deluxe (including all-inclusive resorts), along with shopping, dining, and other tourist amenities. Consistent waves make it ideal for surfers. It’s also home to 10 national parks.
The Caribbean Coast is more laid back, affordable, and less crowded. This is where to go for pristine beaches and jungles. There aren’t as many parks, but the bidoversity is some of the best in the country. This area also sees an Afro-Caribbean influence in the food, language, and music.