Top Travel Tips in Two Minutes Video:
Why do about 70,000 Americans expatriates call Costa Rica home and so many vacation there?
Maybe it’s because you can buy a nice home there for $50,000.
Possibly it’s because Costa Rice is a stable democracy that values freedom, has no army, has more teachers and professors than police and is dedicated to carbon neutrality by 2021.
Adding to its allure is that English is a required second language in Costa Rican schools and most tourism-related people speak it fluently.
Perhaps it is because many Americans work for Intel, Microsoft or other American companies there.
It could be because this uncrowded country of 4.7 million people is renowned for its ecotourism, beautiful seacoasts, abundant rain forests, active and accessible volcanoes, national parks and other environmental preserves that constitute 25% of the nation.
The answer depends on who’s asking, but for most of us it is summed up in Costa Rica’s ubiquitous slogan, pure vida: “pure life” in Spanish. Visitors and residents use it to mean: “the good life.”
We visited in February 2014 and loved it.
Self-Guided or Organized Tour
Your first decision is whether to opt for a self-guided trip or an organized tour.
Either can work well for the smart traveler but we suggest booking a tour for your first trip to this lovely Central American nation.
Our four reasons are simple:
- the roads are not great or well-marked;
- most tour operators have satisfactory arrangements with tourism buses;
- hotels and local guides that will make your trip easier and more comprehensive; &
- chances are pretty good that you’ll get a knowledgeable bi-lingual group guide.
We traveled with an eight-day Manatee Chamber of Commerce tour handled by Mayflower Tours in Chicago and found it to be well-organized, comprehensive and reasonably priced. Our local guide was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the country’s politics, economy, geography, flora and fauna.
There are more than 200 tour operators recognized by the Costa Rican tourist board (ICT), most based in San José, and many tour operators in North America and Europe also run Costa Rican tours.
There are also many customized-itinerary tours including wildlife expeditions and the increasingly-popular medical tourism.
Before booking a tour that is right for you, do your homework by researching operators on the web and/or consulting a good travel agent. Once you’ve visited Costa Rice on a tour and want to return to see more, you should know enough to take your next trip on your own.
Best Times to Visit Costa Rica
The best visiting time is December through April—the dry season.
February is the most popular time for the gorgeous weather.
When we went, temperatures were in the 90’s along the Pacific coast and in the 70’s in the mountains. Nighttime temperatures dipped into the 50’s in the mountains.
We didn’t experience rain but that is unusual. They don’t call it the rainforest for nothing!
Be aware that Costa Rican schools close from December to February for the coffee harvest, and beach towns and national parks are busy then, especially on weekends.
May, when the rain season begins, is a good shoulder season for Costa Rican travel since prices are a bit cheaper and tourist sites are a bit less crowded, though rivers start to rise and some roads get muddy.
Wildlife enthusiasts may wish to plan their trip around the seasons of the critters they want to see, of course.
Monkeys, crocodiles, abundant birds, sloths, agouties (large rodents), frogs and iguanas are not hard to find if you know where and when to look.
Smart travelers research online before going.
A tour makes this decision for you, but if you’re going it alone and have a week or so, we recommend flying into San Jose. Then visit these four places:
- Visit the Poas Volcano National Park;
- Tour a coffee plantation (the Doka Estate Plantation has an excellent tour and lunch);
- Visit La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano (The Royal Corin Resort at the foot of the volcano offers luxury with a view);
- Plan at least a day or two on either the Pacific or Caribbean coasts—or both.
We stayed at the DoubleTree all-inclusive resort in Puntarenas on the Pacific and the view was magnificent and accommodations were fine for couples or family (Using our referral “affiliate” links helps support our journalism; thank you).
From there, side trips can be arranged to the Manuel Antonio National Park and the Jungle Crocodile Safari on the Tarcoles River to see the birds, monkeys and crocodiles.
If you have more time, the Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge near Los Chiles (close to Nicaragua in the northern lowlands) is a must-see and has a fabulous boat tour that offers great wildlife spotting at every bend in the river.
You’ll also enjoy Monteverde in the central highlands, Tamarindo in Guanacaste and Puerto Viejo and Tortuguero on the Caribbean and touring San Jose and the central valley region.
There are lots of small towns worth visiting and great vistas await you all along the way.
If you fly, the country has two international airports. The largest is Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) at Alajuela, on the outskirts of the capital city San Jose and the other is Daniel Oduber Airport (LIR) at Liberia, in Guanacaste in the northwest. Both are served by major airlines from the U.S. and elsewhere.
The other poplar way to go is by cruise ship. It’s an easy way to travel and shore excursions are plentiful but your short onshore stay usually provides you only with a tantalizing appetizer.
There is no significant rail system in the country so getting around is restricted to domestic flights (NatureAir and Sansa), rental cars, shuttles, private vans, some ferries and public buses.
Taxis can be hired by the hour, half or full day. Meters aren’t used for long trips and taxi quality varies widely so caveat emptor and agree on a fare before you climb in.
Since hiring a car and driver can cost the same or less than a daily car rental, we recommend it because someone who knows the roads will do the driving and you can enjoy the scenery you came to see.
Don’t rent a car unless you are familiar with the country. Roads are not good, signposts are scarce and the omnipresent semis and buses can be intimidating on narrow, steep and winding roads.
While you should check the weather before you leave to see what temperatures are expected during your stay, generally you should pack casual leisure clothes and some rain gear.
Forget the ties or high heels—even at nice restaurants or luxury hotels.
Definitely pack a good digital camera with a telephoto capability and lots of photo storage, since Costa Rica offers an almost infinite supply of photo opportunities.
The local electrical current is the same as in the U.S., so no converters are needed.
A good Spanish-English dictionary will also help if you get off the beaten path.
Costa Rica is not known for shopping and the country has no major indigenous products other than agriculture. Frankly, the only thing we recommend bringing back is some coffee purchased at a planation.
Older travelers should have little trouble touring the country, although some of the national parks require a mile or two of walking (at a leisurely pace) through moderately uneven paths to see the choicest sights.
We hope you get to experience Costa Rica soon.
You’ll love it!
What did you do on your visit to Costa Rica? Independent Travel or Organized Tour?
Share your favorite tips and tricks in the comment section below!
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