Have plans to travel to Costa Rica and need some Costa Rica travel tips? With cheap and direct flights from the US, a plethora of wildlife, stunning coastline, and pristine jungle, it’s no wonder Costa Rica has become a hot travel destination in the last decade.
We were transfixed by beautiful country images and knew it was time to make the trip. If you’re like us and dreaming of a Costa Rican vacation, here are my best Costa Rica travel tips to help you plan.
Helpful Costa Rica Travel Tips to know
Welcome to an Eco-Lovers Paradise
One of my top Costa Rica travel tips is to enjoy all the nature. In the ’80s, the first ecotourism boom began in Costa Rica. Travelers began to learn of the country’s wealth of natural flora and fauna and acted fast to preserve it.
As tourism dollars continued, the Costa Ricans quickly fell in step and preserved their country’s beauty. It’s now trickled down to almost every level; we even found small soda shops (local restaurants) using eco-friendly products like biodegradable straws and ditching styrofoam takeaway.
What’s amazing is over 27% of the country is protected as a national park, wildlife refuge, or reserve. To make matters better, even the Costa Rican government has taken active measures to protect the country’s biodiversity. If you’re wondering where to go in Costa Rica – make sure to include the rainforest!
Take Note of Your Bill
Another of my Costa Rica travel tips is to take note of your checks. It’s worth noting that anytime you eat out, whether at a cafe, soda shop, or restaurant, there will be a 10% service charge and a 13% tax added to every bill.
So don’t be surprised if your bill is 23% more than what you thought it would be. This also means that there is no need to leave an extra tip for your server unless you want to (looking at you Americanos).
Roads = Crap
No list of Costa Rica travel tips would be complete without mentioning that most of the roads are absolute crap. If you plan on driving in Costa Rica, it’s best to know that the roads can be pretty awful, some of the worst in all the Americas, to be exact.
It all depends on where you travel, but we found almost any road, not part of the national highway, to be pretty meh. The worst we personally traveled on was from Nicoya to Santa Teresa (I may or may not have had back spasms from the constant crater-like potholes).
It’s best to rent a 4×4 if you drive in Costa Rica. Trust me, pay the extra amount and save yourself the headache of traveling with a small vehicle. You’ll want the high clearance and power from a four-wheel-drive vehicle, granted it doesn’t need to be anything huge.
Check Your Car Rental Prices
If there is one Costa Rica travel tip I can give you, double-check your car rental prices. When we first started searching for car rentals in Costa Rica, we were shocked by the crazy low prices we saw. Unfortunately, for our wallets, we just hadn’t clicked to the payment page yet. In Costa Rica, all drivers are required to have third-party liability insurance.
This is not covered with your credit card or home insurance provider like in other countries (but check just in case you feel it may be covered). Even our primary insurance covered by our Chase Sapphire Reserve (one of the top travel credit cards on the market) does not work in Costa Rica as a third-party liability plan.
Due to the insurance, the online price is much more expensive than you think. We suggest adding the insurance to your booking to ensure you aren’t met with a surprise cost addition when you land in Costa Rica. For 25 days, we got a small 4×4 for $436 from Alamo and had a great experience, and that was a pretty decent deal, in my opinion! I generally like to check comparison sites to get the best prices. You can see our rental car tips here.
If you have more specific rental vehicle requirements, a few sites I like to compare rates and specs on are:
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals around the world.
- Discover Car Hire: Awesome car comparison site for Costa Rica!
Now that you have your rental car, it’s time to practice safe driving. Again, many of the roads in Costa Rica are pothole-ridden and dirt. They can be tough for an inexperienced driver to navigate. Not to mention as with many countries, we found the drivers here to be impatient, fast, and scary, and I’m not even talking about the semi-truck drivers who don’t seem to value life.
We saw one motorbike accident in our 25 days in Costa Rica and two, yes two, overturned semis in a ditch. Be careful and get travel insurance before traveling to Costa Rica.
USD is Totally Acceptable
The colón is the currency of Costa Rica, but just about anywhere will accept USD as payment too; you just may get a bad exchange rate. At the time of writing the exchange rate is 1 USD = 560 Costa Rican Colón. Make sure to download the XE app so you can always stay up to date with the rates.
Nature is Not Free
Of course visiting all the natural attractions is the best thing to do in Costa Rica. The first waterfall we visited in Costa Rica was Catarata del Toro, and I was shocked when they asked for a whopping $15 admission fee to see it.
I expected I would have to pay something, maybe $5 – but $14? Little did I know that this would not be a first-time occurrence.
Throughout our time in Costa Rica, we visited countless waterfalls. Always paying at least $12-$20 per person to visit. Don’t be shocked if you visit La Paz waterfalls and pay a $50 entrance fee! I hope all these fees are going back to conservation instead of a government official’s pocket.
The Ticos are So Welcoming
If there is one fact about Costa Rica I can stress, it’s that the people are amiable and represent Costa Rica tourism well! Costa Ricans or “Ticos” are happy to welcome you to their beautiful country, help you out, chat with you, and share their piece of paradise with visitors.
We also found that most Ticos could speak English well, but it certainly will help to pick up a few Spanish words.
Watch Out for the Humidity
If there is one thing that killed us (and our electronics) in Costa Rica, it was the humidity. We found the humidity in Costa Rica terrible in the south, along with the coast, and pretty much anywhere away from the cloud forest. It was tough to dry our clothes and keep them from not smelling and molding, but the real problem was with our electronics going haywire.
If you’re traveling with a lot of electronics, as we did, it’s best to stuff socks full of rice in your bag to soak of the moisture. Or, if you think you will have trouble in the heat, make sure to book places with AC.
We booked Airbnb a few times with a washer, dryer, and AC to dry our stuff out. Make sure to read about the best time to visit Costa Rica so you can access temperatures and rain for your visit.
Bring Water Shoes
Not one of your typical Costa Rica travel tips, but a helpful one! Cameron may have laughed at me a few times while exploring the waterfalls, but I got the last laugh with beautiful feet protected by my water shoes.
If you plan on spending time around the waterfalls and going in the water, it’s worth picking up a pair of cheap water shoes. They will help you grip the slippery rocks and protect your feet from cuts.
Costa Rica is Not Cheap
You may think that Costa Rica is a cheap destination to travel to, given its location in Central America. We found out first hand that this was not the case. While traveling around Costa Rica, we found park fees to be high for the tourists (remember those waterfalls I talked about?), fuel prices expensive, car rental prices are high given that you had to add insurance to everything, and food prices a rip-off.
Think I’m lying? Costa Rica is rated as one of the most expensive places to live in Latin America and has the highest prices in Central America.
The country is full of tourists, ex-pats, and American retirees seeking their little slice of paradise. This, combined with high taxes on imports and sustainability efforts, has increased prices over the years.
I’m not saying that Costa Rica is as expensive as Norway. It’s just one of the higher-cost places to travel in Central America.
There are Ways to Save Money
Despite the country being a bit expensive there are ways to save money in Costa Rica. My advice would be to:
- Stay in dorm rooms or camp: Like anywhere in the world, hostels and campsites are the cheapest accommodation options.
- Eat local: Sodas will give you a chance to try the local food at the best price.
- Skip the touristy sites: Things like zip-lining, four-wheeling, and horseback riding are fun but are not exactly budget-friendly.
- Visit in the Off Season: Visiting in the green season will yield lower prices and fewer tourists.
- Stay out of San Jose: Not that you’ll really want to hang out in the capital anyway, but accommodation and getting around this area can add up.
Plan Your Trip Accordingly With the Rainy Season
If you’re wondering how to travel in Costa Rica efficiently, make sure you time your trip right. You’re not guaranteed dry, sunny weather anytime in Costa Rica, but the usual rainy season in Costa Rica is from May to December. The rainy season here could affect where you travel, and I would pay particular attention to the weather patterns.
As previously mentioned, many Costa Rican roads are dirt and mud, so if you add a little rain to that, they will quickly become impassable. We visited at the beginning of the rainy season in May and had absolutely no trouble driving. Although it did rain a bit more than we liked, the lush jungle scenery was gorgeous, prices were lower, and it was indeed less busy than in the dry season.
A word of warning – We were told that October is the worst time to visit Costa Rica. Rainfall is high, and many businesses shut down. If you cannot avoid traveling in September or October, head to the Caribbean coast for the best chance of dry weather.
Credit Cards are Widely Accepted
Another Costa Rica travel tip to know is that credit cards are widely used. I was pleasantly surprised to pay with my credit card at most establishments in Costa Rica. Even little soda shops were accepting cards. We always try to pay with a card when we can while traveling to rack up airline points.
However, I would never suggest traveling around Costa Rica cashless. Always have some USD or Colons in your pocket just in case. Read more of our travel banking tips here.
Costa Rica is the Switzerland of Central America
Costa Rica has been dubbed the “Switzerland of Central America” for a few reasons. They have a stable democracy and no military. They prefer to remain neutral and not get involved in conflict and violence.
Costa Ricans typically live decent lives out of poverty, unlike much of the rest of Central America. There is good health care and education system in place as well. In general, Ticos are very happy and proud of their small nation.
The Real Rainforest Cafe
I wanted to travel to Costa Rica for the jungle and to feel like I was in Jurassic Park 5. Thankfully, I was not disappointed when visiting Costa Rica. It truly is a beautiful country with many primary and secondary forests, wildlife, and pure lushness.
It was hard for me to believe this stunning country was so close and accessible to the United States and even Europe. Seriously we traveled to Costa Rica cheaper than it would have cost us to fly back to North Carolina. There are plenty of direct flight options from the US that fly right into San Jose!
Enjoy the Wildlife
Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species, with 300,000 of those insects. This staggering number represents nearly 4% of the total species estimated worldwide. That’s a whole lotta wildlife in one little country.
Costa Rica is actually one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. No matter where you are in the country, many amazing animals and birds can be found.
If you’re searching for a sloth, you probably know to visit Costa Rica. Then there are the monkeys, coati, ocelots, toucans, macaws, and the quetzal. They even have jaguars, but good luck finding one of the most elusive animals in the world!
In our time in the country, we saw countless monkeys, toucans, macaws, birds, anteaters, and frogs. The highlights for us would have to be the scarlet macaw, sloth, fiery acari, coati, green and black poison dart frog, and squirrel monkeys.
You may have better luck than us and spot the famous Resplendent Quetzal in the cloud forests. To find the best place for wildlife in Costa Rica, you have to check out the Osa Peninsula. It’s been named the most biodiverse region on earth.
Costa Rica Saved Their Environment
So, where does all this wildlife live? Over 25% of Costa Rica’s land has been turned into protected parks and reserves to protect the beauty. According to Go Costa Rica, there are actually 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas/mangroves, 11 forest reserves, and 8 biological reserves, as well as 12 other conservation regions that protect the distinctive and diverse natural habitats found throughout the country. Wowza!
It’s Great for Families, Honeymooners, Friends, and Solo travelers
Costa Rica is an every man’s destination. While there, we found every walk of life, including solo backpackers, surfers chasing the waves, couples, honeymooners, groups of friends, and families. Seriously it’s got some kind of adventure or romantic activity for everyone!
The Married Man’s Meal
There are many typical Costa Rican dishes to try, but perhaps the one we found the most was the cascado. A cascado, or a “set meal of meat,” or a “married man’s meal” consists of basically rice, beans, meat -it could be fish, chicken or beef.
There are also vegetarian cascados that usually include plantains and avocado too. It’s one of the cheapest meals that can be had in Costa Rica, typically for under 5000 colons, and it’s delicious and plentiful.
These casados that I speak of and many other typical dishes can be found at sodas. Sodas are local family-run restaurants that serve typical Costa Rican food and drinks. Sodas are where the locals eat and where your best value for food can be had.
You cannot miss seeing a soda shop as they are everywhere in the country. Make sure to give one a try! Hint Look for the one with the most locals eating there at lunchtime. It’s likely the best one!
There is a Lot of Weather Going On
For a small country, there is a lot of weather and different environments. One of my top Costa Rica travel tips is to pay close attention to the weather. Around Monteverde and the cloud forest, temperatures drop, and it stays quite cool, especially at night.
San Jose and the surrounding area are known to have an “eternal spring,” Guanacaste is dry and hot, while the coastal areas are just miserably hot and humid all year round. The country generally sees a lot of sun and typically enjoys 12 hours of light every day. The sun usually rises before 6 am and sets just before 6 pm.
Tap Water is Generally Safe to Drink in Costa Rica
Another important Costa Rica travel guide is that the water is pretty safe. Yep, the tap water in Costa Rica is generally okay to drink. However, if you feel you could easily get an upset stomach, you should stick to a water filter, bottled water or boil your water before you drink it.
Whenever we arrived at a new place, we would ask if the water was okay to drink; for the most part, it was. Our friends at My Tan Feet do a great job of delving in-depth into the water situation in Costa Rica.
My last Costa Rica travel tip involves the saying Pura Vida. Pura Vida means Pure Life and is a way of life in Costa Rica. Ticos will use this term with each other and visitors to say hello, goodbye, and anything in between. It means don’t stress, enjoy life, don’t worry, and be thankful. Embrace it and enjoy the Pura Vida lifestyle!
Our Favorite Places to Stay in Costa Rica
MORE COSTA RICA TRAVEL
Hope these Costa Rica travel tips help you have the best trip ever! For more reading around Costa Rica, see below.
- Ultimate Costa Rica Packing List • What to Wear in Costa Rica
- 34 Fun & Interesting Costa Rica Facts!
- What’s it like to Travel in Costa Rica? All You Need to Know
- El Silencio Eco-Lodge • Reenergizing in the Costa Rican Cloud Forest
- When is the Best Time to Visit Costa Rica?