Costa Rica Travel Guide
Despite only being the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is the land of plenty. It literally translates to "rich coast." Christopher Columbus reportedly discovered it in 1502. But the only person who deserves credit for its breathtaking natural wonders is Mother Nature.
This peaceful Central American country boasts extensive coastlines along both the Caribbean and Pacific. In addition to world-class beaches, Costa Rica has some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on earth. Scientists, who invented ziplines as a means of studying the many layers of the country's cloud forests, say five percent of the world's species are found here.
For anyone who hasn't been to Africa yet, the wildlife watching is unparalleled. Think slumbering sloths, majestic scarlet macaws, tree frogs as pretty as they are poisonous, and thousands of nesting sea turtles (who leave behind hundreds of thousands of hatchlings). With dogged determination, they all thrive living in the shadow of some of the world's most active volcanoes.
Central Standard Time
Best Time to Go
The best time to go to Costa Rica depends on what your goals are. If you're looking for clear Caribbean waters to snorkel in, opt for a drier month like September. The central region, home to the volcanoes and cloud forests, are also best visited during the summer, or dry season. From November through April, roads are drivable and downpours don't last all day. That said, to take advantage of low season rates and avoid crowds, you'll want to visit during the wet season, usually May through October.
For the best cultural events, visit during the first two weeks of January for Palmares (basically Carnival meets rodeo meets music festival) or Easter week. As a Catholic country, many of Costa Rica's biggest holidays correspond with the Church's. Regardless of when you visit, you can always watch sea turtles either nest or hatch (both happen year-round), go zip-lining (they do it rain or shine), and learn how to surf (waves are always good).
Things to Know
When it comes to Latin America, Costa Rica is an entry level country. English is spoken and understood in most tourist areas, and the U.S. dollar is accepted virtually everywhere. Tipping isn't greatly encouraged; however, it's greatly appreciated. Before tipping, look to see if the establishment already included a tip or "service charge," usually 10%, on your receipt.
While the unpaved roads can be quite treacherous, especially during the rainy season, rental car agencies are everywhere. It's easy to find automatic rentals if you can't drive manual. On the contrary, it's hard to find an outlet that doesn't work with a U.S. plug, so there's no need to bring an adapter. The voltage is the same, too. Converters aren't needed.
Currency: Colon (CRC)
($1 USD = 613 CRC; check the current exchange rate)
I don't speak Spanish: No hablo español
How much does it cost: Cuánto cuesta
I would like…: Yo quiero
Calling Code: +506
Capital City: San José
How to Get Around
Trains and Buses: Costa Rica is working on rebuilding its train infrastructure, damaged during the 1991 earthquake. For now, buses are the best form of public transportation. Most are privately owned, but since they're subsidized by the government, fares are low. For example, a four-hour bus ride might only cost $8. For nonstop service opt for "directo" buses. For cheaper, more adventurous rides, opt for "colectivos." They stop pretty much everywhere along the route, even if it's not an official stop.
Taxis: Although not as cost-effective as buses, cabs can be a budget-friendly way of getting around. Costa Rica's official taxis are red. You can tell they're authorized and licensed by the yellow triangle on the car's doors. If you're taking a taxi from the airport, however, look for the orange cars. These taxis are the only cabs authorized and licensed for airport pickups. It's also easy to pre-book private car services or shuttles online. Drivers who approach you on the street, and don't have the yellow triangle, are most likely locals looking to make money using their personal cars.
Rideshare: Uber has been operating in Costa Rica for years; however, it's mostly limited to major cities and tourist hotspots. Don't rely on it in more remote destinations or during peak times as it can be hard to find a car.
Things to Do
Neighborhoods to Know
There are seven administrative provinces in Costa Rica and each has its own distinct culture and attractions.
San José: San José is the capital of Costa Rica and where most of the action takes place. There's plenty of shopping, great restaurants, and loads of cultural institutions to explore — including the Museum of Costa Rican Art, The National Gallery of Contemporary Art and Design, and the Children's Museum.
Alajuela: Alajuela is best for adventurous travelers as the area is home to Arenal Volcano National Park, where travelers can take in spectacular views, enjoy hot springs, or sign up for a number of adventure tours. There's also Poas Volcano National Park, which has one of the largest volcano craters in the world.
Cartago: Cartago is where the first colonial city in Costa Rica was established and where the first capital was created. There are two historical monuments worth a visit: the Basilica de Cartago and the ancient ruins of Cartago.
Guanacaste: Found on the northwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Guanacaste is best known for its white sand beaches and incomparable surf. The area is also home to a handful of great national parks, including Rincon de la Vieja National Park and Las Baulas Marine National Park.
Heredia: The Heredia province stretches from the north of San José up to Costa Rica's border with Nicaragua and is home to the city by the same name, also called "the city of flowers".
Limon: Limon is located on the Caribbean side of the country and is known for its lush greenery and beautiful parks — including Tortuguero National Park, the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, and La Amistad National Parkand. The area is also home to the Afro-Costa Rican community and it's where the annual Festival of Black Culture takes place.
Puntarenas: Puntarenas runs down the coast of the country on the Pacific side, all the way down to the Panama border and is best known for its national parks. Manuel Antonio National Park and the Corcovado National Park are two of the area's most popular.
Costa Rica has seven distinct provinces but only two distinct seasons: summer and winter. Summer, or the dry season, is December through April. Winter, or the wet or green season, is May through November. (However, things are slightly less predictable on the Caribbean coast which gets more rain.)
Costa Rica has pleasant temperatures year-round. February and March are the hottest months with temperatures reaching the mid-90s℉. The coolest months are usually September and October when temperatures can dip into the 60s℉, especially at higher elevations.
Expect rainy days year-round, but during the dry season they're few and far between. Showers are usually in the afternoon and short-lived. If you visit during the rainy season, expect serious downpours and washed out roads. However, there are usually a few hours of sunshine every day.