An emerald jewel wedged between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica is a playground for outdoor adventure seekers. Pristine beaches, ancient volcanoes and a bevy of plant and animal life—both on land and water—make this Central American country a treasure trove of delights for the senses. Divers love Costa Rica where underwater volcanic rock formations create habitats for vibrant marine life. Ecotourists zip above the Costa Rican canopy for a bird’s eye view of the lush rain forest. And when you’re ready to relax, there’s a tropical beach waiting nearby. Discover what makes this country such a magical place to visit with our insider guide to Costa Rica.
Located north of Panama and south of Nicaragua, Costa Rica is slightly smaller than West Virginia. The country’s status as the eco-tourism capital of Central America is well earned. Costa Rica boasts more biodiversity than the U.S. and Europe combined, and the government has taken significant steps to protect its treasures. More than a quarter of the country’s land is subject to environmental protections of some sort. The country boasts a dizzying assortment of outdoor adventures: misty rainforests, volcanoes, white-water rapids, high-altitude trails, waterfalls, surfing, geothermal hot springs, crater lakes, 800 miles of coastline and 500,000 species of plant and animal life. Fortunately, the country’s small size, cheap domestic flights and good public bus system make it possible to pack a lot of activities into a trip.
Climate and Weather
It rains a lot in Costa Rica. The exact amount fluctuates with the seasons and the coast you’re on. The “dry” season runs from December to April and is therefore the busiest and most expensive time to visit. The shoulder seasons, May to July and November, see more rain. The rivers begin to rise, and “off-the-beaten track” exploration may be unsafe. The low season runs from August through October. Rainfall is at its peak, rural roads are impassable and storms make waves in the Pacific swell, which can be problematic for sunbathers but great for surfers. Also, you should note that the Christmas and New Year’s holidays as well as the week leading up to Easter (called Semana Santa) are extremely busy times. If you choose to go during these peak periods, you’ll need to book accommodations well in advance.
Money and Tipping
Costa Rica’s unit of currency is the colon. Although credit cards might be accepted in most places it’s always good to have some cash, especially in the off the beaten track places.
Many restaurants include a service charge on the bill. If so, there’s no need to tip; if not, leave 10 percent. It’s good to tip maids, bellhops and tour guides for good service. Taxi drivers typically aren’t tipped unless they provide a special service.
Language and Culture
Spanish is the official language of Costa Ricans who called themselves Ticos. In the tourists zones, you will have no difficulty communicating. In more rural areas, you’ll need to know some conversational Spanish, and you may encounter slight differences in regional dialects.
Costa Rica is a peaceful country and hasn’t had a standing military force since 1948. Money that would have paid for armed forces goes for infrastructure, education, healthcare and conservation efforts. The country has a high literacy rate and long life expectancy. After bananas, tourism is Costa Rica’s largest source of income, so visitors are welcomed and treated graciously.
Costa Rica by Region
Located in the Northwestern part of the country, the Guanacaste province offers near-perfect beaches and the driest climate in the country. Expensive beach resorts draw people to the stay on the beautiful waters of the Papagayo Gulf. Condos, residential development and golf courses have sprung up in recent years, but there are still stretches of basically deserted beaches. Many international visitors chose to fly into Liberia, the province’s capital city, rather than San Jose further to the south. You’ll also find semi-active volcanoes and one of the last tropical dry forests left in Central America.
Alajuela & Heredia
If you’re looking for cloud forests or active volcanoes, head to these provinces located in the northern central portion of Costa Rica. The active Arenal volcano is found in Alajeula. In the same park, you can also see Chato volcano, a dormant volcano whose cone has collapsed, creating a brilliant green lagoon. These provinces are landlocked, and therefore have no beaches. Instead, visitors come here to stay in remote lodges, hike in Monteverde Cloud Forest, ride along mountain bike trails or go windsurfing on Lake Arenal. Also not to be missed are the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Barva, a colonial city that’s perfect for history buffs.
North and South Caribbean
The northeast corner of the Caribbean coast isn’t accessible by land. You’ll need a boat or small plane to reach this area that’s crisscrossed by rivers and rain forests. Head further south for better accessibility. You’ll find remote beaches, excellent sport fishing, diving and snorkeling, river cruises at Tortuguero National Park and Afro-Caribbean culture in the province of Limon.
North Puntarenas & South Puntarenas
Surfers flock to this area of the Pacific coast. You’ll also find Manuel Antonio National Park and Corcovado National Park, both touted as the most ecologically diverse areas in the world. Mount Chirripó, the highest peak in Costa Rica, is located in the southern portion of the province, too. Accommodations in the northern part of the province are more conventional; the south is more suited to adventure travelers who seek solitude and are willing to risk difficult travel to find it.
San Jose & Cartago
These two provinces encompass Costa Rica’s central valley and are home to most Ticos. The sprawling capital city of San Jose—and its 2 million inhabitants—is located here. Historical sites, excellent restaurants, museums, shopping centers and parks abound in San Jose. San Gerardo de Dota is a quiet spot for birdwatching. Outside the metro area, the fertile lands are packed with “fincas” or farms. The valley is surrounded by high mountains, including four active volcanic peaks. The central valley offers history too. Built in 1734, the Iglesia de San Jose Orosi is the oldest church still in operation, and the town of Cartago is one of the first places inhabited in Costa Rica in 1563. It was the capital until 1823, but much of the town has been destroyed by earthquake and volcanic activity.
Though small, Costa Rica has a lot to offer travelers who want to commune with nature. If you’re looking for a remote area where you can briefly escape from society, a bustling beach town packed with restaurants and shopping or maybe a bit of both, Costa Rica is the answer. Our insider guide to Costa Rica will help you find the places you’d like to explore and get the facts you need to ensure your trip is memorable and fun.