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Costa Rica Travel Guide for a Stress-free Vacation
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Knowing a little about a country before you travel there can mean the difference between having a fun or a frustrating trip. Use our Costa Rica Travel Guide to ensure a stress-free vacation to this spectacular destination.
Whether you're looking to relax on beautiful beaches, hike through the rainforest, see a volcano, or just enjoy being in a sunny cheerful place, Costa Rica is your dream destination.
Read on for all of the essentials you need to know about Costa Rica travel.
Where is Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is located in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. A little larger than Denmark, it is blessed with more than 800 miles (1,290 km) of coastline along the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Caribbean Sea in the east. The terrain of Costa Rica can be summed up as beaches and plains separated down the middle from north to south by towering, rainforested mountains and volcanoes. The Pacific Coast has hilly peninsulas, two large gulfs, and many small coves and bays.
There are two international airports in Costa Rica: the Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in the San Jose capital area, and the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) in Liberia in the northwest province of Guanacaste.
Why should you vacation in Costa Rica? What is there to see?
Costa Rica is a natural paradise full of amazing animals, beautiful nature, fun adventures and friendly people.
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiversity rich places in the world. It also is one of the world's top ecotourism destinations and around 26% of the country is protected in national parks and reserves. The country gets over 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources like hydroelectric, wind and geothermal, and aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2021.
There’s something for everyone in Costa Rica. Here you have rainforest, misty cloud forest, central highlands with dairy farms and coffee plantations, vibrant cities, dry tropical forest, volcanoes making natural hot springs, lowland marshes and mangrove estuaries, rushing rivers providing world-class whitewater rafting, and marvelous beaches in a rainbow of colors. You can get Costa Rica travel packages that hit the highlights, or longer programs that visit all the best Costa Rica destinations.
What is there to do in Costa Rica?
In Costa Rica there is literally something different to do every day.
For the adventurers, there are plenty of Costa Rica tours to spike your adrenaline: zip lining, mountain biking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, kayaking, sailing, surfing, paddle boarding, snorkeling, scuba diving, and waterfall rappelling.
Nature lovers will enjoy hiking, bird watching, wildlife tours, waterfall swimming, volcano tours, hot springs, chocolate and coffee tours, visits to indigenous communities, and rural tourism experiences. Costa Rica travel is excellent for families, and there also is an abundance of wellness activities like yoga and exquisite spas.
What are the people like in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is a peace-loving, stable, democratic country that abolished its military almost 70 years ago and cares about education and the well-being of its society.
Ticos and Ticas (as Costa Ricans call themselves) are an incredibly warm and welcoming people, and are generally happy to receive visitors in their country. Tourism is one of the principal industries and Costa Ricans are friendly and helpful hosts and guides.
Spanish is the official language in Costa Rica; however English is commonly spoken in tourist areas. On the Caribbean Coast, many residents descend from Jamaican origin and speak a kind of Creole-English dialect. Costa Ricans will wholeheartedly appreciate your efforts if you try to speak a little Spanish. Go for the basics: “Hola” is hello; “Buenos días” is good morning/good day; “Buenas tardes” is good afternoon; “por favor” is please; and “gracias” is thank you.
Costa Ricans love to talk and enjoy life. There's a reason that the national expression is “pura vida”. Literally translated as “pure life”, pura vida is used as a greeting, a goodbye, to mean “ok”, “thank you” or “no worries”. Above all, it means “Life is good!”
How do I get around Costa Rica?
You have several options for getting around Costa Rica on vacation: renting a car, private transfers, shared shuttle transfers, and domestic flights.
Costa Rica may be a small country and while distances might look short on a map, you have to remember that it is mountainous and roads tend to be narrow and winding. Additionally, most roads outside of the San Jose metropolitan area have only two lanes, and road signage is not very developed. For these reasons, short hop domestic flights within the country or private and shared transfers are very popular.
An expert travel company like Horizontes Nature Tours can easily plan your whole vacation and take the stress out of your Costa Rica travel.
What is the weather like in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica lies in the tropics about 8 degrees north of the equator. The country is bisected north to south by mountain ranges, which create distinct weather patterns on the Caribbean and Pacific sides.
The Pacific side of the country generally experiences dry season from December through April, and green (rainy) season from May through November. The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is rainy most of the year, with its driest period from mid-August to the end of October.
Each season has its own beauty and unique characteristics. Rainy season creates lush green landscapes, and dry season is perfect for orchids, bougainvilleas and colorful flowering trees. Though there are relatively defined seasons, it can rain anywhere at any time – this is the rainforest after all. Still, even in the rainy season it doesn’t usually rain all day, every day.
Temperatures in Costa Rica fluctuate greatly based on elevation and microclimate. Beaches and lower elevations are significantly hotter, whereas the higher elevation Central Valley and mountain areas are cooler.
What is the currency in Costa Rica?
The Colon (¢1.00) is the national currency of Costa Rica, although US dollars are commonly accepted in tourist areas. In fact, most tourism businesses list their rates in US dollars. The exchange rate against the US dollar and Euro can vary day by day, however it has hovered between 500 and 600 Colones to $1 US dollar for some time.
Change money in a bank rather than at the airport for a better exchange rate. Note that $100 and $50 bills will not be accepted anywhere other than at a bank; and small stores or rural places might not accept US dollars. Nearly all banks have ATMs where you can get cash Colones with your ATM or debit card.
Most international credit cards – especially Visa and MasterCard – are accepted throughout Costa Rica. Be sure to alert your bank in advance of your travel plans so your account is not frozen due to suspected theft. Traveler’s checks are hardly ever accepted; don’t bring them.
What to pack for Costa Rica travel?
What would a Costa Rica travel guide be without a packing list? Get our recommendations for what to bring to Costa Rica on vacation here. Lightweight, quick-dry clothing is best.
Most essentially, you must have a passport that is valid for at least six months after your trip finishes. And depending on what country you are from you might need a visa (find out more here). When out on tours, leave your original passport in your hotel safe and carry a copy. (Tip: keep a photo of your passport information page on your phone.) For vehicle rentals, you’ll need a valid driver’s license.
Wi-Fi internet is common in tourist areas, so feel free to bring your cell phone or tablet; don’t forget the chargers and cables. Electricity in Costa Rica is 110 volts, just like in the USA. To use your cell phone in Costa Rica, check these details (question #30).
What is Costa Rican cuisine like?
Costa Rican cuisine is based on the Latin American staples of rice and beans, and features fresh vegetables and fruits. It is not spicy, unlike Guatemala and Mexico to the north.
Traditional breakfast is “gallo pinto,” which is white rice and black beans mixed together with diced white onion, red bell pepper, garlic and cilantro, and usually served with eggs, fried plantains, corn tortillas, and maybe white farmer’s cheese. A typical lunch or dinner is called a “casado” and consists of white rice, black or red beans, fried plantains, a small salad, corn tortillas, and some sort of meat (chicken, pork, beef or fish).
Given that Costa Rica is a coffee-producing country, strong coffee is the nation’s delicacy. Besides morning coffee, daily life stops around 3:00 p.m. for a “cafecito” (coffee break). Coffee here is always taken with a small snack, be it salty or sweet. Fresh fruit drinks, called “batidos”, are very popular, and Costa Rica’s two main national beers – Imperial and Pilsen – are great when ice cold.
What cultural tips should I know for visiting Costa Rica?
Greetings: When greeting someone for the first time in Costa Rica, a handshake is acceptable, or more commonly a light “air kiss” to the person’s right cheek (not kissing the cheek!). Costa Ricans generally don’t hug anyone who is not family or a very close friend.
Polite pleasantries: When entering a store, restaurant, hotel, tour company, business, etc., it is customary in Costa Rica to politely greet the person attending you with “Buenos días” (Good day) or “Buenas tardes” (Good afternoon) or “Buenas noches” (Good evening), and even “Cómo está usted?” (How are you?) before you ask for anything.
Patience: Costa Ricans tend to be in less of a hurry than most Europeans or North Americans – perhaps this is why their quality of life is so high. Be patient if things take longer to be done than in your home country. However, the complete opposite is true of Costa Rican drivers, who are chronically impatient. Be positive and patient with the unexpected – remember the magic of traveling is discovering the world’s differences.
Relax: Costa Ricans are a very fun-loving, friendly people. They love to joke, tease and have a good time. Be friendly back. Remember, smiles are free and you’re on vacation!
What is the easiest way to make my Costa Rica travel plans?
Planning a vacation is exciting; but let’s face it, it can be overwhelming with so much information out there. It’s hard to know what to trust and what is up-to-date. That’s where Horizontes Nature Tours can help. With over 30 years of Costa Rica travel expertise, Horizontes custom designs Costa Rica vacation packages just for you. Leave the planning and details to Horizontes Nature Tours for a stress-free vacation.
“We inspire the enjoyment, fulfillment, and personal discovery of our guests through responsibly designed and operated travel programs that provide meaningful experiences with the nature and people of Costa Rica