With stunning beaches, volcanoes, and rainforests, Costa Rica is a country that thrives off of ecotourism. The small country has devoted 26% of its land to protect the environment by making national parks and wildlife reserves.
The unique biodiversity of the country makes it wealthy in various animal species and ecosystems. With a lush tropical climate, Costa Rica sits in the lower half of Central America and features both a Caribbean and Pacific coast. The population of just over 4.9 million people are known for being very friendly and welcoming.
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What To Do in Costa Rica
Pura Vida – Welcome to Costa Rica!
San José is the capital of the country and it rests almost in the center of the country. The central location of the capital makes it a popular destination for tourists who are looking to explore the country’s urban culture before jumping to more remote or rugged destinations within the country.
Culture and Language
Costa Rica sits within Latin America and has strong ties to both indigenous and Spanish colonial culture. The indigenous people of Costa Rica exist today within 8 tribes that are located throughout the country and make up about 1.7% of the population. However, there are many Ticos or Ticas who have both European and indigenous heritage.
Tourists will also find that the culture on the Caribbean coast is different from the rest of the country because the Afro-Caribbean community within Costa Rica have their own rich heritage. Immigrant populations from Asia have a small influence on Costa Rica’s culture and have helped make it the laid-back and calm country that it is today.
Tourists will find that the predominant and official language spoken is Spanish. But with the strong influence from Caribbean culture on the East Coast and the indigenous tribes, you may hear a variety of languages. While it is rare to hear indigenous languages spoken, a type of Jamaican patois is spoken on the Caribbean coast and it is a creole-based language.
While Latin and Caribbean culture dominate the country, Costa Rica is diverse and does have a thriving immigrant population. Small immigrant communities, mostly from Asia, can be found throughout the country. These immigrant groups often bring their own culture and language, which makes Costa Rica a diverse home.
Before you can explore Costa Rica, you will have to obtain your tourist visa. Costa Rica requires that you have a valid passport for easy entry. While Costa Rica officially states that your passport needs to be valid for one day past your departure date, you should be aware that many airlines will require that your passport is valid for 3 months after your date of departure.
For their tourist visas, Costa Rica has four groups of countries that each have a different visa requirement. If you are traveling from the United States, you are part of Group One and do not need to pre-apply for a tourist visa. For US citizens to enter Costa Rica, they will need a valid passport and have proof of a return ticket.
The tourist visa is valid for a full 90 days. Your return ticket must have a date of departure that is less than or exactly 90 days from your date of entry. Tourists can enter the country from the Nicaraguan or Panama border or fly into any airport and receive their tourist visa upon the conditions listed above.
Tourists should also be aware that there is a departure tax that must be paid before you leave the country. If you are traveling by a professional airline, the departure tax should be included in your airline fees. However, in the rare chance that it is not, you will have to pay the tax before you check-in for your flight.
At any airport, the departure tax is currently $29 US dollars per person. There should be a special counter at the airport where you can pay. You should not pay the tax anywhere except the counter. Some people run scams where they try to help tourists pay the tax, but instead steal the money. Do not except help from anyone except the officials located at the counter.
If you are traveling by land to Costa Rica and crossing from either Nicaragua or Panama, the exit tax will be $9 US dollars. Again, there should be an official place where you can pay and get a receipt for your payment as proof to ensure that you will be allowed to leave the country.
A nature lover’s paradise, many people are eager to explore the rich biodiversity of Costa Rica, but it is important to consider your spending budget when you are planning your trip. With the country thriving off of tourism, the cost of visiting Costa Rica may not be as affordable as you would think for a Central American country. Many visitors will even make statements about how expensive Costa Rica is because of the tourism. While it is true that Costa Rica is not the most affordable, it can be traveled on a backpacker’s budget.
The plane ticket, accommodations, and transportation will be the three largest expenses of your trip. If you are traveling from the United States from Los Angeles, you should expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $1300 US dollars for a plane ticket. The $1,000-dollar price difference is based on when you plan your trip and how far in advance you book the ticket.
The tourist season correlates to the dry season in Costa Rica, which makes December to April the most popular months to travel to the country. You will find that tickets are more expensive during these times because of the increase in tourism. In the off season, you may find plane tickets for as low as $300 US dollars. If you book your plane ticket further in advance, you can also save more money.
Once you have booked a plane ticket, finding accommodation can be difficult because there are many options that range in prices. The most affordable accommodation options would be to stay in a hostel, which is a popular choice for backpackers. Most Costa Rican hostels will cost about $30 US dollars per night, per person. If you want to stay in a private or chain hotel, you should expect the prices to range from $110 US dollars to $800 US dollars per night. Other luxury accommodations can have prices that are well into a couple thousand dollars per night.
If you still want private accommodations, but are looking to reduce the budget, Airbnb is a popular choice for travelers. There are plenty of Airbnb listings around Costa Rica for apartments and houses. For an apartment, you can find listings for as low as $35 US dollars per night and for houses, there may be prices for about $300 US dollars per night. However, the location of the Airbnb and the size will affect the cost per night. Larger homes or luxury accommodations can be very expensive.
But you will also have to consider food, drink, and entertainment as part of your budget. Costa Rica has a food culture based around Latin flavors and spices. The local cuisine is known for gallo pinto, which is rice and beans with a meat or fish and plantains. When placed all together on a plate, the dish is known as Casado. However, the coasts of Costa Rica provide rich fishing grounds and there are plenty of marine dishes available too. The most popular desserts are tres leches cake or arroz con leche. Tres leches cake has three forms of milk, while arroz con leche is a mixture of rice and milk with cinnamon and lemon flavors.
Food is always fun to try on vacation, but tourists also want to do fun things during the day and night. Costa Rica has plenty of activities that are outdoor based like hiking, zip lining, horseback riding, and boating. There are many different tour companies that offer package experiences that are sure to give you a thrill. For the nightlife, San José has plenty of bars with a fun atmosphere. Downtown San José is extremely popular with tourists and you may find yourself sipping a drink in fun places like The Cinebar. Tamarindo, which is centered around tourism also has a lively bar called Sharky’s.
If food and drink sound appetizing, you might be curious to know the cost. The average cost that you should plan to spend would be about $30-$50 US dollars per day for food and drink. The costs of accommodation, transportation (which is discussed below), excursions, and experiences are additional to that budget and can be quite expensive. If you want to reduce your budget, you should consider finding accommodation with a kitchen so that you can cook your own food. There are many quality grocery stores and local markets throughout Costa Rica, which can reduce your overall budget.
How to Get Around
How you travel around Costa Rica can greatly impact your budget. Most cities in Costa Rica are easy to navigate and will have multiple transportation options. Public transport is available throughout the country in the form of city buses. Other ways to travel include renting a car, taking a taxi, hiring a private driver, or walking.
If you are staying within San José, the best ways to get around are an official taxi or walking. If you need to go further, a taxi would be the safest option. But if you are just looking to explore a small tourist area, walking will be safe in the daytime. Costa Rica looks to increase tourist safety by having official taxis that service the country. An official taxi is always red and should have a yellow triangle on the side that has information about the taxi.
If you are looking to go further, the better option would be to fly into an airport close to your destination and then rent a car, take a taxi, find a shuttle, or hire a private driver. Renting a car can be expensive and you should expect to spend about $50 US dollars per day. You should also be aware that outside of large cities, most roads are two lanes with one lane for each direction. You should also be very aware of obstacles in the road. Animals are also frequently free roaming and may try to cross the road.
If you are looking to take a taxi, you should expect to spend about $1.13 US dollars per kilometer. For short distances, a taxi can be affordable. But if you are looking to go longer distances you could pay up to $80 US dollars. Shuttle services from the airport can be more affordable with the cost averaging about $25 US dollars per person. Uber is also legal in Costa Rica and can be much more affordable than an official taxi. However, you will need Wi-Fi or internet service on your telephone to access the Uber app.
For tourists who want to tour the entire country, renting a private car or finding a charter bus would be the safest and most affordable option. There are many buses that depart from San José and head both north and south so that you can position yourself closer to your final destination. Renting a car would allow you to travel at your own pace and have a safe and reliable vehicle at the ready.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
Costa Rica is a small country, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an abundance of places to visit. Here, we will give you a brief overview of some of the most popular city destinations within the country.
Translated to Saint Joseph, San José is the capital of the country and rests almost in the center. The sprawling urban landscape is surrounded by green hills and lush mountains. The tropical climate is both wet and dry, depending on the time of year and can bring heavy rains. The Pre-Colombian Gold Museum and The National Theater are popular tourist attractions in the city. But Downtown San José remains the most popular destination for tourists to eat, drink, stay, and find entertainment in the city.
Monteverde is a small community located in the Puntarenas Province of Costa Rica. It is situated in the Cordillera de Tilarán mountain range and is one of the most famous ecotourism destinations in the country. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve displays the country’s unique biodiversity and have many trails and tours available for exploring. The hanging bridges are a popular attraction that put you high up in the rainforest canopy. However, extreme ziplining is also popular.
Tamarindo is a small beachside town located in the Guanacaste Province on the Pacific coast. The beach is extremely popular for surfers because of its strong surf at Playa Tamarindo and Playa Langosta. Just north, Playa Grande is a major nesting site for leatherback turtles and is part of the Las Baulas National Marine Park. The small town is also lively and host to a variety of tourists who are seeking a relaxing day and thriving nightlife scene.
Jacó is located on the Pacific coast, just south of San José. The Jacó and Hermoso beaches are known for a strong surf. With numerous protected lands around Jacó, the town is often considered to be a gateway to the national parks. Carara National Park is where tourists can see crocodiles and the Pura Vida Park has the Bijagual waterfall. The town of Jacó is also lively because it has a thriving nightlife scene. Many bars line the main strip and are popular with tourists.
The stunning Puerto Viejo is located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and provides the chance for tourists to see wildlife and black sand beaches. The Jaguar Rescue Center is a rehabilitation center for wild cats and the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is home to an abundance of critters. Just to the north of Puerto Viejo, open water enthusiasts can dive a shipwreck or coral reef in the Cahuita National Park.
Drake Bay derives its name from the famous explorer, Sir Francis Drake and is fabled to hold hidden treasure. Located in the north of the Osa Peninsula, it is one of the more remote locations on our list. But the isolation leads to gorgeous scenery and a Lost World view. Corcovado National Park has a Jurassic Park feel and is home to howler monkeys, macaws, and a sprawling rainforest canopy.
Tortuguero is a unique location because it is a rainforest covered sandbar located on the Caribbean coast. Part of the Tortuguero National Park, this area is a major nesting site for green turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy runs a research station and visitor center close to the beach. Other animals in the area include jaguars, tapirs, and manatees which call the freshwater canals, wetlands, and forests their home.
Points of Interest
Cities are always providing tourists with great exploration options, but you may also find that there is a specific attraction or point of interest that you want to see.
Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve
The Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve is located near Mal Pais in the Nicoya Peninsula. It is often considered one of the most beautiful areas within the country and was the country’s first area that was protected specifically for nature conservation in 1963. Today, there is an abundance of wildlife both on land and underwater. Nature enthusiasts are certain to love the reserve and can explore a variety of hiking options for a chance to catch a glimpse of the unique wildlife.
Manuel Antonio National Park
The Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest park but has the most beautiful beaches. Many people consider Manuel Antonio to be the jewel of the country because of the stunning white sand beaches and clear blue water. A guided park tour is available and would give the best overview to the area, but there are many adrenaline tours offered as well.
Arenal Volcano and Lake
The Arenal Volcano is an active volcano that hosts the Arenal Lake at its base. Located in the La Fortuna area, the volcano is a popular destination for tourists because of the stunning views and nearby all-natural hot springs. The mineral water of the area has been collected into several hot spring resorts, which guests can enjoy for relaxation. The Baldi Hot Springs Resort Hotel and Spa is a luxury option and is located at the base of the volcano.
La Fortuna Waterfall
The La Fortuna Waterfall is a gorgeous hike and destination within Costa Rica that draws many tourists. The waterfall rests at the base of the Chato Volcano and drops about 200 feet down into the jungle. The base of the waterfall forms a large pool and river, which is where most tourists spend their time relaxing. A 500-step staircase hike gives you access to the base of the falls and the river.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
The Rincón de la Vieja National Park is located just outside of Liberia and boasts an impressive 2 volcanos and 32 rivers. There are 7 different trails that are the most hiked and they have beautiful viewpoints and landscapes. A few unique locations in the park include the Mud Pots and the Guachipelin Hot Springs.
Playa Sámara is the ideal location if you want to break away from the tourist crowds. This beach is considered to be more popular amongst the locals but does have a small tourist crowd. Located south of Tamarindo, the white sand beach is a unique horseshoe shape and has a stunning coral reef for snorkelers. Various outdoor activities make this beach popular for water sport enthusiasts.
Get Out and Go
It is extremely difficult to find a poor destination in Costa Rica because the country has such a stunning landscape full of beaches, rainforests, and waterfalls. The diversity of the country in the people, environment, and wildlife make it ideal for ecotourists. But in truth be told, any traveler can enjoy the beauty of Costa Rica. The numerous protected lands provide you with endless adventures and will surely have you returning for more.