There are many Costa Rica travel tips that can make all the difference between a great travel experience and a negative one.
We want you to always have the best experience as possible in this little country. For that reason, we’ve compiled what we’ve learned into fifty Costa Rica travel tips.
These are the things we wish someone had told us before we visited this little slice of paradise for the first time.
Things to Do in Costa Rica
Zip lining is always a fun activity that can be done by people of all ages. This activity can be done throughout the country. Check out our zip lining guide for more info.
We definitely suggest going to at least one national park while visiting. This is a great way to see wildlife such as sloths and monkeys. Our top choices are Cahuita National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park, and Corcovado National Park.
Surfing is one of the most popular activities in the country. There are beaches for all skill levels on both coasts. Find out all the best spots with our surfing guide.
If you like coffee, definitely take a coffee farm tour while here. It is a great way to learn all about coffee production and usually the tours include all you can drink coffee.
All beaches in Costa Rica need to have public access. That means you are allowed to visit any beach you want in the country.
Recently we have been booking a lot of activities through the Viator website. We have been doing this because they typically have great transportation policies (but check each listing). We feel it is a good way to support local companies but with the security of a big company like Viator.
Transportation Tips for Visiting Costa Rica
Uber is Illegal in Costa Rica
In the past, Uber lived in some legal gray zone in Costa Rica. However, the government has now made it clear that Uber is not allowed.
We always suggest taking an official Costa Rican taxi. These are the orange taxis with a green triangle on the door at the airport and red taxis with a yellow triangle everywhere else.
This is super important because the police are now stopping people they suspect of being an Uber driver. If you are in the car as a passenger you could be left stranded on the side of the road without transportation.
Also, illegal taxi drivers (random people with a car pretending to be a taxi driver) have been known to seriously overcharge customers.
In other words, legal taxis all the way!
Public buses are decent
The public buses in Costa Rica are ridiculously cheap and convenient. Unlike most other things in the country, they actually generally run on time. Granted they are not always the most comfortable, but they are OK.
If you want to travel to several destinations, buses are not the best because you will often have to go back to San Jose to connect to your next destination. It’s too much of a pain.
Renting a car is the best way to get around
We almost always suggest renting a car to get around. It is the best way to have flexibility in what you see.
However, be warned that there are several companies that will list a rental car price on their website and won’t warn you that there are mandatory car insurance fees in Costa Rica. You will then be hit with way higher rates once you actually arrive in Costa Rica. You can read about our nightmare experiences.
Instead, we suggest booking your car through our favorite local company, Adobe. The price they quote is the final price plus they are just an all-around amazing company.
We partnered with our favorite rental car company in Costa Rica, Adobe, to bring our readers a 10% discount. Find out more here!
Drivers are a bit crazy
Get ready for people ignoring traffic signals and motorcycles speeding by you on either side of your lane. It always makes me laugh because people in Costa Rica are so relaxed about everything else, but they are always in a rush when it comes to driving.
Although drivers are nuts, you should be fine driving here. Just don’t drive in San Jose (that’s where the real crazies are).
Avoid San Jose like the plague during rush hour
First of all, I suggest avoiding driving in downtown San Jose always. It is a bit insane. If you do need to drive on the outskirts of the city (aka near the airport) avoid doing so during rush hour if possible.
Just as an example, from where we live it can take two hours to drive to the airport during rush hour. On a day without traffic, it takes about 15 minutes.
Waze works here and is your best bet for getting around
Don’t attempt to depend on maps. Roads in Costa Rica are crazy and constantly changing. I solely depend on the free app Waze to get around.
You can find out more about this in our guide to directions in Costa Rica.
Distances may seem close but can take forever to drive
Between traffic, curvy roads, unpaved roads etc it can take a lot longer to drive to a place than it looks. While planning your travels, definitely look up the driving times of everything beforehand and then add at least 30 minutes to an hour to whatever it says.
There are tolls in Costa Rica
There are tolls on the major highway in the country heading from San Jose to the Pacific coast. They do accept dollars though, so if you are heading from the airport to the beaches, don’t stress if you haven’t switched to colones yet.
I like to pay with a $10 bill at the first toll and they will give you change in colones. This will be enough colones to pay the rest of the tolls on your drive.
There are no addresses here
I’ve told my family a million times that we do not have addresses here, but they cannot seem to wrap their head around it. If you need to input a destination into your GPS, look for a nearby park ahead of time and input that as your destination.
Seasonal Tips for Costa Rica
The rainy season is opposite on each coast
The dry season on the Pacific and in the central part of the country runs from late December until the end of April. On the Caribbean coast this is the rainy season. So, if you experience bad weather, just drive a few hours to the other coast.
The dry season is the most expensive time to visit
Most hotels and activity companies have different prices depending on the time of year. During the dry season everything is at peak high price. If you would like to save money, travel in July or August for lower prices, less tourists, and mostly OK weather.
July is our favorite month in Costa Rica
We love Costa Rica in July because everything is green again, prices are lower, and usually there are about two weeks in the middle of July when the rain will stop temporarily.
Even when it is raining, you can expect about a two-hour rainstorm every afternoon and then the weather turns nice again.
The sun rises and sets at almost the same time year round
The sun rises and sets around the same time every day of the year. In total there is about a thirty-minute difference in sunrise and sunset time throughout the entire year.
You can expect the sun to rise between 5:15am and 5:45am every day and the sun sets between 5:15am and 5:45pm every night.
Yeap, we have about exactly 12 hours of daylight every day. It gets a bit like groundhog day after awhile, but I’m definitely not complaining.
VRBO is a great option
We love using VRBO in Costa Rica. Usually, the rates are cheaper than on hotel booking sites and we like to have the option of getting our own place. It can be nice to have your own little house instead of staying in a hotel with tons of other guests.
Booking.com usually has free cancelations
If you do opt to book a hotel, we suggest doing so over Booking.com. We love Booking.com for Costa Rica travel because most places have free cancellations up to a certain date. That means you can secure your accommodations and always adjust your travel plans later if you find a better place to stay.
Stay in a place with a kitchen
Restaurants can be expensive in Costa Rica. We love to try and stay at a hotel or a VRBO with a kitchen. You probably want to try out some of the great restaurants in the area, but it can be helpful to at least be able to make your own breakfast or store any leftovers in a fridge.
Read reviews in detail
Always check the reviews on VRBO and on Booking.com. We only stay at places with at least five reviews and we read these reviews in detail. You don’t want to end up at a horrible place on your Costa Rica vacation.
You can get more tips with our complete guide to accommodations in Costa Rica.
Tips For Eating and Drinking in Costa Rica
Eat at the small local “sodas” to save money
There are small local restaurants called “sodas” in every town. These restaurants will give you a basic plate of food which usually has rice, beans, salad, and a meat of the day for about $5. Usually, they are incredibly tasty (and cheap).
So far we haven’t gotten sick from eating at sodas so, I’m going to go ahead and say you should be safe.
You can get more tips with our full guide to eating in Costa Rica on a budget.
You need to try the local fruits
I guarantee that there are fruits in Costa Rica that you have never even seen before. We love to go to our local farmers market and try some new unusual fruit.
You can find out all about the crazy fruits in Costa Rica with our complete guide.
You can usually drink the water
In Costa Rica, the tap water is drinkable in most bigger towns.
However, if you would like to be a bit cautious, we suggest buying a big gallon jug of water and refilling smaller bottles. I am a big fan of the LifeStraw water bottle for some added filtration (especially when drinking tap water).
Also, ask at your hotel before filling up your water bottle from the bathroom sink. This water is not always potable.
You don’t have to leave a tip at restaurants, but at more touristy places it is somewhat expected
If you go to any local restaurant or soda you do not need to leave a tip.
If you go to a fancier restaurant that caters more to tourists it is somewhat expected that you will leave a tip. We typically leave between 10% and 15%.
Definitely try the local specialties
Have you ever eaten Gallo Pinto? What about a casado? Ceviche?
The items listed above are just a few of our favorite foods in Costa Rica that we strongly suggest you try. Check out our guide to Costa Rican foods for more fun ideas.
Tips for Sticking to a Budget in Costa Rica
Buy souvenirs at the grocery store
This may sound totally strange, but the best and cheapest souvenirs are at the grocery store.
What do people really want you to bring back for them from your Costa Rican travels? Most likely they’ll love some coffee or chocolate.
The coffee and chocolate here are on point. Instead of buying coffee or chocolate from a fancy souvenir shop you can buy the same products at the grocery store for usually about half the price.
For coffee we highly suggest the brand Britt mostly because their bags are designed to look very Costa Rican.
Skip the Costa Rica travel guides
At all national parks, there will be locals standing at the entrance offering to be your guide for the day for a negotiated rate.
These guides are usually extremely knowledgeable and helpful in finding wildlife, plus most carry telescopes so you can get an up-close view of the animals.
Although the guides are great, they can be expensive. At most national parks you can have a great experience and still see a ton of wildlife on your own, if you are trying to stick to a budget
Do as the locals do
There are tons of great activities you can do in Costa Rica that are not too expensive. We like to visit beaches (all beaches are free and need to have public access by law), go hiking, and visit national parks. All of these activities are cheap or free and are seriously fun!
For more info check out our guide to the best free activities in Costa Rica.
It is possible to get a prepaid SIM card at the airport
Just go to the Kolbi store at the airport and buy a prepaid SIM card. It will cost $4 and that money will be applied towards your account. It will take you about 5 minutes.
If you need to add money to your account you can purchase a Kolbi card at any supermarket or mini market throughout the country.
Just make sure your phone is unlocked for using an international SIM card.
For more info check out our complete guide to using your cell phone in Costa Rica.
Travel Advice for Entering and Exiting Costa Rica
The San Jose airport is not actually in San Jose
The airport is actually located in Alajuela and when looking for a place to stay near the airport you should search in Alajuela province. It is best to be as close to the airport as possible if you have an early flight because traffic around that area gets really crazy during rush hour.
There are two international airports in Costa Rica
The San Jose Airport is the most visited airport in Costa Rica, however Liberia International Airport in the north west corner of the country is also a great option to fly in to.
We suggest the Liberia Airport if you plan to explore the Guanacaste region of the country.
We suggest the San Jose Airport if you plan to visit the Caribbean coast or south/ central Pacific coast.
Make sure you book your flight to San Jose, Costa Rica and not San Jose, California
Yea, it’s confusing and we have actually heard of people booking flights to the wrong airport. The airport code for San Jose Costa Rica is SJO. So, just make sure you are booking your flight to SJO and not SJC.
We usually have the best luck finding flights on Skyscanner
Skyscanner is great for finding a wide variety of flights at affordable price points. You can search for flights below.
Run to customs when you get off the plane
Sometimes the customs line moves fast and other times it can take foreverrrrrr. While everyone else is hitting up the bathrooms when they get off the plane, run (or at least walk quickly so you don’t look crazy) to the customs line.
For more info check out our complete guide to flying into the San Jose airport.
You need a Yellow Fever shot if entering from South America
If you are visiting a South American country or even just have a stopover in a South American country before coming to Costa Rica you will need to show proof of having a Yellow Fever vaccine. If you do not have this vaccine they will not let you on the plane to Costa Rica.
I recently learned this the hard way after getting stranded in Ecuador and not being allowed on my flight into Costa Rica. Don’t make my (expensive) mistakes!
If you do not have a stopover in a Yellow Fever country before entering Costa Rica you do not need the shot.
You may be asked to show proof of departure when entering the country
This is much more common at the borders rather than at the airport, but it’s still best to have a copy of your return ticket with you just in case. Make sure your ticket of departure is scheduled 90 days or less from your arrival.
If you are planning on backpacking through Central America you can also show proof of a bus ticket to the next country you are going to.
The Panama border is a disaster show
I have nightmares about the Panama border crossing madness. Not really, but it is pretty bad. Entering Costa Rica is generally pretty fast, but entering Panama can be a miserable experience. Last time we were there we waited for over three hours (no joke) in the sun to get our passports stamped to enter Panama.
For more info check out our complete guide to the Costa Rica / Panama border crossing.
The Nicaragua border is smooth sailing
When entering Nicaragua they actually have people whose job is to help guide you through the entry process. It’s amazing! At first, I thought the guys there were just trying to get money out of us, but then I realized they genuinely were just super helpful and doing their job.
The last time we crossed the border from Costa Rica the whole process took less than an hour. Woot!
For more info check out our guide to the Costa Rica / Nicaragua border.
Keep up with current COVID restrictions
The COVID restrictiosn are constantly changing as new information emerges and case numbers fluctuate. We have a COVID restriction post that we update about once a week. You can find all the info you need here.
Travel Tips for Staying Safe in Costa Rica
The wildlife shouldn’t bother you
The keyword here is “shouldn’t,” but you just never know.
Yes, this is a country which has tons of poisonous or dangerous animals. Yes, you will probably see some of these animals in your travels. However, typically you will be fine unless you bother them.
Wear lots of bug spray
Zika and dengue can both be an issue in Costa Rica. Make sure to wear bug spray and you will be OK.
For more info check out our guide to mosquitos in Costa Rica.
Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance
We strongly suggest you purchase travel insurance for a wide variety of reasons.
Travel insurance doesn’t just cover you for medical issues and accidents during adventures it is also there to help if your flight gets cancelled, if your luggage gets lost, if something gets stolen, or if you get sick and need to extend your stay in Costa Rica.
We always use WorldNomads for our travel insurance and highly suggest them to you.
You can get a quote and secure your insurance below. ↓
The sun here is crazy strong
Don’t forget that Costa Rica is not too far from the Equator. If possible, we suggest bringing sunscreen with you from your home country. You can most definitely buy it here but it is typically more expensive.
For more info check out our guide to the sun in Costa Rica.
Petty crime can be an issue
Violent crimes are unusual, but petty crimes do happen. It is always best to be on guard.
For more info check out our guide to crime in Costa Rica and how to protect yourself.
Be careful in the water
The two things that freak me out sometimes in the ocean here are rip currents and crocodiles. Yes, there are crocodiles in the rivers that sometimes make there way into the ocean. This typically only happens at spots where large rivers make their way directly into the ocean.
Always ask at your hotel where it is safe to swim. Also, pay attention to signs on the beach and see where other people are swimming.
Yes, there are earthquakes
Earthquakes are quite common in Costa Rica. In fact, there are typically several small earthquakes every day in the country.
Fortunately, most are so minor that you won’t even feel them.
Packing Tips for Costa Rica
Leave the nice stuff at home
Costa Rica is safe, but it is best not to stand out too much. By leaving nice jewelry and fancy clothes at home you will make yourself much less of a target for petty theft.
Bring that rain jacket you are debating about
Every area of the country has a different climate and you never know when a torrential downpour will start. Even if you are traveling during the dry season, certain parts of the country (Monteverde, Rio Celeste, San Gerardo de Dota) can have rain. We like to pack a lightweight jacket which won’t get too sweaty while wearing.
Pack a dry shirt
No, I don’t mean a shirt that is dry. I mean one of those shirts that dry really quickly which is meant to be worn in the water. See the sun is so strong here that you can get burned really easily. I like to swim with a dry shirt on to protect myself.
Pack gallon size ziplock bags or keep your plastic shopping bags
Because of the humidity sometimes it is impossible to get your clothes to dry once they get wet. We always carry a few plastic shopping bags or large ziplock bags for when we move to our next location while traveling when we still have wet clothing.
Check Out Our Packing Lists
We recently spent a good chunk of time creating curated packing lists for every area of the country, packing lists by season, packing lists by activity etc. You can check them all out here.
Costa Rican Culture
Ticos & Ticas
Costa Ricans refer to themselves as “Ticos” ( for males) and “Ticas” (for females). Collectively they are known as “Ticos”.
The life expectancy in the country is almost 77 years old. This is one of the highest life expectancies in the world.
Costa Rica is categorized as one of the happiest countries in the world. You will see it when you are here. Ticos are almost always smiling and enjoying life to the fullest.
The official motto of Ticos is “Pura Vida.” This directly translates to “Pure Life.” Costa Ricans take this motto very seriously and generally stay very relaxed about most things in life.
The official language is Spanish in Costa Rica. However, a large percentage of citizens speak at least some English due to the high percentage of tourists.
Costa Rica has a 96% literacy rate. This is the highest of any Central America country.
Costa Rica does not have a standing army. In fact, the army was abolished in 1953
Banana’s and coffee have historically been the biggest exports from Costa Rica. In fact, Costa Rica is the second-largest exporter of bananas in the world.
Costa Rica generates more than 99% of its electricity by renewable energy. If you visit the northern part of the country near Rio Celeste you will see all of the windmills used for wind energy.
Ticos are generally the nicest people
Costa Ricans are also called “ticos”. Typically they are some of the nicest and happiest people you will ever meet. Seriously, whenever I’m stressed and need to cheer up I like to go to our local farmers market because it is the perfect spot for seeing a genuinely nice and cheerful community in action.
However, sometimes they are so nice that they don’t want to let you down. For example, if you ask for directions it is not unusual for someone to give you incorrect directions instead of just saying that they don’t know where you need to go.
Tourism is Super Important
Tourism is the leading industry in Costa Rica with approximately 9% of the country’s citizens being employed in the industry. That means 600,000 jobs.
Over three million tourists typically visit the country annually with about 40% coming from the US and 6% from Canada.
Be warned that you may fall in love with the country
Thomas and I planned to move to Costa Rica for one year…maybe two at most. Five years later we are still here. This country sucks you in and makes you fall in love with it.
A big part of it is the people, but it is also the diversity. For such a small country there is so much to do! When we get tired of the beaches we head to the mountains. When we get tired of the heat we head to the cloud forest.
Costa Rica Geography
– Costa Rica is home to more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity. This is very impressive because its landmass only takes up .03% of the planet’s surface.
– Approximately 25% of the country is made up of protected forests, reserves, and wildlife refuges. The most popular national park is Manuel Antonio National Park.
– There are 800 miles of coastline in Costa Rica between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Also, keep in mind that all beaches are open to the public for free. That means 800 miles of coastline that you are welcome to explore.
– There are over 120 volcanic formations in Costa Rica, but only seven active volcanos. You can find out more and plan your volcano visit with our guide to Costa Rican volcanoes.
– Despite what some people seem to think, Costa Rica is not an island. It is sandwiched betweeen Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south.
The Most Important Costa Rica Travel Tip is…..
You are going to need to relax
And we have come to the most important thing to know when traveling to Costa Rica!
Costa Rica is the most chill place we’ve ever been to. The mantra for life in Costa Rica is “Pura Vida” which directly translates to “pure life.” People here use this phrase as a greeting, but also as a way of saying, “All is good.”
You will need to adopt this attitude while visiting Costa Rica.
>You may deal with traffic delays, electricity problems, canceled buses etc. Instead of getting frustrated, just take it in stride and think of it as part of the experience.
You’re on vacation! Chill out! 🙂
By adopting this Costa Rica travel advice you’re guaranteed to have a great travel experience!
Let us know if you have any questions about any of these Costa Rica travel tips in the comment section below. We are always happy to help you out! Also, do you have anything you’d add to this list things to know when traveling to Costa Rica? Leave them in the comments section below to help out other travelers!