Last updated on February 22, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, following extensive travelling in Costa Rica

BEST Costa Rica Travel guide for first-timers – All you need to know

Finally, I have been able to organize this Costa Rica Travel Guide with all of my notes from my recent experiences in the country.

Forget the maybe’s and the might-be’s. I am going to dive straight into the heart of Costa Rica’s unmissable adventures, flavors, and hidden gems. This isn’t just another Costa Rica Travel Blog.

You will find here a map, a list of must-experience destinations, a possible itinerary, living costs to organize your budget, how to get around the country, and … open up the index to see all the points. I have organized this guide with first-timers in mind, however, you will find so many tips that it can be useful also on a second or third trip.

Costa Rica Travel Guide - Playa Hermosa minutes away from Uvita
Playa Hermosa minutes away from Uvita

Ultimate Costa Rica Travel Guide | All You Need to Know

Below is a quick table with the key points in this guide. Click on the key point for more detailed information or just read through the entire Costa Rica Travel Guide.

Key PointsDetailed Description
Time to visitCosta Rica’s climate is a tale of two seasons: dry (December-April) and rainy (May-November). Guanacaste is hot and arid, while the Central Valley is more temperate. Your wardrobe will depend on your destination!
International AirportsJuan Santamaría in San José and Daniel Oduber Quirós in Liberia are the 2 main entry points. Both are well-connected globally, making your Costa Rican adventure easily accessible. Liberia Airport works better if planning to visit Guanacaste in the northwest of the country. San Jose is ideal if visit the remaining part of Costa Rica.
TransportationPublic buses are wallet-friendly but can be slow. Rental cars offer freedom but come with challenges (this is my favorite way to explore Costa Rica). Vans, taxis, and ride-sharing are convenient but can add up.
AccommodationFrom $30 hostels to $300+ luxury resorts, there’s something for every budget. Mid-range hotels often offer the best bang for your buck, including amenities like free Wi-Fi and breakfast.
Living CostsLocal “Sodas” offer meals for $10-$15, while upscale dining can soar to $100. Local beers are $3-$5, and imported ones hover around $10. Groceries are similarly priced to the U.S.
ConnectivityWi-Fi is common in tourist spots but can be unreliable in remote areas. Local SIM cards are affordable and offer good coverage, ideal for explorers.
ActivitiesWhether it’s a $50 zip-lining adventure or a $30 guided national park tour, Costa Rica is an adventure lover’s paradise. Surfing is popular but can get pricey with rentals ($15-20/day) and lessons (up to $80 for a private 2 hours).
BeachesWith 300 beaches along an 800-mile coastline, whether you’re a surfer or a sunbather, you’re spoiled for choice. The Pacific Coast is more upscale, while the Caribbean offers a chill vibe.
Popular DestinationsSan José’s hustle to Tamarindo’s surf culture, there’s a spot for every traveler. Each has its unique offerings and best times to visit. In this Costa Rica Travel Guide, I have organized the top 15 destinations with the main reasons to experience them
Family-FriendlyCosta Rica is a hit with families, offering kid-friendly beaches and educational wildlife tours. It’s an outdoor classroom and playground rolled into one.
HealthcareThe healthcare system is robust, and pharmacies are well-stocked. However, travel insurance that covers medical emergencies is highly recommended.
ATV or Quad RentalsAvailable mainly in touristy areas like Jaco or Santa Teresa, ATVs cost around $80-$100 per day plus VAT. A thrilling way to explore the less-traveled paths.
Costa Rican CuisineFrom local “sodas” to international restaurants, the culinary scene is diverse. Meals at local sodas are around $10-$15, while fancier places can charge upwards of $40.
Safety and CriminalityGenerally safe, but petty crimes like pickpocketing exist. Comprehensive insurance on rental cars and vigilance in crowded places are advised.
Local CultureCosta Ricans are warm and friendly. Understanding local customs, like greeting shop owners, enhances your experience. Spanish is widely spoken, and a few phrases can go a long way.
Interacting with LocalsBasic Spanish is a plus. The phrase “Pura Vida” is a local mantra used in various contexts, encapsulating the Costa Rican outlook on life.

International Airports in Costa Rica

Let’s start this Costa Rica Travel Guide with the 2 International Airport in Costa Rica. The biggest one is located in San Jose (the capital) right in the center of the country. The other one, smaller, is in Liberia, in the Guanacaste region, northwest of Costa Rica.

There are more airlines flying to San Jose, making it usually a cheaper entry point. In saying that, more and more low-cost airlines, like Spirit Airlines, are opening up new routes to Liberia.

Here is a quick summary table of the pros and cons of both airports.

AirportProsCons
Liberia– Closer to northwest destinations like Tamarindo.
– Less crowded, quicker immigration process.
– Fewer international flights, potentially higher prices.
– Limited amenities and services.
San Jose– More flight options and generally cheaper fares.
– Better for exploring the east and southwest of Costa Rica.
– Busier, longer immigration lines.
– Further from popular northwest Guanacaste beaches.

Overall, if you plan to surf the waves in Tamarindo or explore Guanacaste Province in the northwest, Liberia is your go-to airport. But if you’re looking to discover the Caribbean Coast, the cloud forest, the volcanoes, and the southwest, then San Jose is your best bet.

Most rental agencies will pick you up from outside the airport - Right side as you exit the terminal
Leaving the San Jose Airport. Turn right at the terminal exit for the car rental agency’s pick-up point.

Mobile internet: SIM Cards in Costa Rica

Mobile internet in Costa Rica is very economical and overall the speed is actually quite good for Western standards, on par with many places in the USA, Europe, and Asia/Australia.

Here is a quick summary table of the 4 available providers in the country. Of course, conditions may change so I highly suggest checking out the OpenSignal website for the latest news.

OperatorCoverageCostData PackagesOverall Experience
KolbyExcellent$$5GB for $20Good for Availability
TuyoGood$3GB for $15Budget-friendly
LibertyVery Good$$$7GB for $25Best 4G Coverage
ClaroExcellent$$$10GB for $30Best Overall Experience

The handiest point to buy a SIM card is at the San Jose Airport, right in front of the area where you pick up your luggage.

There is a catch however, Claro is the only provider available. Liberty used to be at the airport but not anymore. This monopoly means that you end up disbursing a couple of dollars more than you should be, but overall, I think it’s a small price to pay if you want to be connected straight away.

On average, expect to pay around $20 for a SIM with 5GB-8GB of data.

The packages of the four providers are very similar. They usually differentiate on a few small things like free calls to the USA or extra data for apps like WhatsApp and Facebook.

I usually use Claro and I am very happy with the coverage. I was told that Liberty has stronger 4G coverage, but honestly, I never tried and Claro has always worked fine for me.

In saying that, I want to stress that in this Costa Rica Travel Guide, I do not endorse any provider, it’s more about my experience in the country.

The main beach gets very popular in Tamarindo on sunset time
The main beach gets very popular in Tamarindo at sunset time

How to get around in Costa Rica

You’ve got three main options: public transportation, private vans, and renting a car. Each choice has its own set of pros and cons which I have listed below.

My favorite way is by renting a car in Costa Rica. Having the freedom to drive whenever wherever is such a game changer. But let’s start with public buses

Pros and Cons of Public Transportation in Costa Rica

Pros

  • Super budget-friendly.
  • Eco-friendly option.
  • Covers most major towns.
  • No need to worry about parking.
  • Experience local culture.

Cons

  • Takes forever because it stops everywhere.
  • Limited off-the-beaten-path access.
  • Crowded during peak hours.
  • Limited late-night options.
  • May require multiple transfers.

Pros and Cons of Private Vans in Costa Rica

Pros

  • Quick and convenient.
  • Door-to-door service.
  • Air-conditioned comfort.
  • Fixed schedule.
  • Ideal for group travel.

Cons

  • More expensive than public buses.
  • Limited to certain popular routes.
  • Need to book in advance.
  • Less eco-friendly.
  • Less interaction with locals.
You can drive to some of the most amazing beaches in Costa Rica otherwise impossible by bus
You can drive to some of the most amazing beaches in Costa Rica otherwise impossible by bus

Pros and Cons of Renting a Car in Costa Rica

Pros

  • Ultimate freedom to explore.
  • Can venture into less accessible places.
  • Your schedule, your rules.
  • Can be more cost-effective for groups.
  • Comfort and privacy.

Cons

Technically, you do not need to hire a car to visit Costa Rica, but there are so many amazing beaches, unique waterfalls, amazing rainforests, and fantastic trekking off the beaten path that you will miss out. If you opt to rent a car, make sure to have an international driver’s license, as it may be required for driving in Costa Rica.

I usually hire my vehicles from DiscoverCars, a website that compares local and international rental companies giving the best price with transparent information. The $7/day full insurance is just the icing on the cake.

Summary Table of the Top Pros and Cons

Transportation optionTop 2 ProsTop 2 Cons
Public BusBudget-friendly, Covers major townsSlow, Limited off-the-beaten-path access
Private VansQuick and convenient, Door-to-door serviceMore expensive, Limited routes
Renting a CarUltimate freedom, Access to remote areasCan be costly, Safety concerns

Living Costs in Costa Rica

I have visited most of the Central American countries and I must say that this country has surprised me with the living costs. In this Costa Rica Travel Guide, you will find all the information and costs of food and activities, so that you can plan your budget

General Perception vs. Reality

  • Perception: Costa Rica is in Central America, so it must be cheap, right?
  • Reality: Unfortunately not. Far from Mexico or Guatemala costs, not to talk about a comparison between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Unfortunately, this is not a budget-friendly destination. In saying that you can still travel in an economical way.

Cost of Local and Imported Beer

  • Local Beer: Expect to pay around $3 to $5 for a pint.
  • Imported/Craft Beer: If you’ve got a taste for the finer brews, be prepared to shell out up to $10 a pint.

Cost of Eating at Local Sodas vs. Fancier Restaurants

  • Local Sodas (Costa Rican family-run restaurants): These are your go-to for affordable, authentic meals. Around $10-$15 will get you a hearty plate. Most do not have an alcohol license however they let you bring your own beers at no extra/corkage cost. A beer at a supermarket costs between $1 and $2.
  • Fancier Restaurants: If you’re craving some international cuisine or a fine-dining experience, prices start at $40 to $50 and easily go over $100. These restaurants usually use the American system in the price list and you will have to pay a 10% tax + tips on top of the advertised cost.
Costa Rica Travel Guide - Café Bohío is the must visit place for digital nomads and anyone wanted to have a great coffee and a reliable place to work
Café Bohío in JAco is the must-visit place for digital nomads and anyone who wants to have a great coffee and a reliable place to work

Public Transportation vs. Renting a Car

  • Public Transportation: It’s cheap but slow. Great for the budget-conscious traveler.
  • Renting a Car: More expensive but offers freedom and flexibility. Costs range from $40 to $100 per day. It becomes the cheapest option if traveling with a family or with a group of friends.

Accommodation Costs

  • Budget Options: For a basic room, you’re looking at $30 to $100 per night.
  • Luxury Options: If you’re after a bit more luxury, prices can easily go north of $200.

Surfing Costs

  • Renting a Board: Around $10 to $20 per day. My cheapest bargain so far was in Tamarindo in 2023 at $6 for half-day rent (4 hours), which was enough for the high tide time
  • Surfing Lessons: Group lessons start at $35 to $40, while one-on-one lessons can go up to $70 to $80. The lessons typically last between 2 and 3 hours
Expense TypeBudget-Friendly OptionLuxury Option
Beer$3 to $5 (Local)Up to $10 (Craft)
Food$10 (Local Sodas)$40 to $50 (Fine Dining)
Accommodation$30 to $100$200+
Surfing$10 to $20 (Board Rental)$70 to $80 (Private Lessons)
Bottle of Water$1$3 (Premium Brands)
Coffee$2 (Local Café)$5 (Specialty Coffee)
Taxi Ride (5km)$6$10 (Premium Service)
Adventure Tours$50 (Group Tours)$150+ (Private Tours)
Groceries (for a week)$50$100+ (Organic/Imported)
SIM Card$20 (Basic Package)$40 (Unlimited Data)
Movie Ticket$6$12 (VIP Experience)
Spa Day$50$150+ (Luxury Spa)
Summary Table: Living Costs in Costa Rica
Fire by the beach - The best way to finish a surfing day
Fire by the beach – The best way to finish a surfing day

Where to stay in Costa Rica: Accommodations

You can find all sorts of accommodations in Costa Rica, from hostels to luxury stays with a helipad in the backyard.

Price Ranges

  • Budget: Starting at $30 to $100 a night, you can rent a comfy room or even a small apartment. The lowest range is for a bed in a dorm accommodation
  • Mid-Range: For $110 to $300, you’re looking at places with a few more facilities and amenities, think pools, breakfast, and maybe even a sea view.
  • Luxury: If you’re going all out, $300+ will get you into Costa Rica’s best resorts and boutique hotels.

Best Platforms for Booking

  • Airbnb: If you’re after a condo, an apartment, or a villa, Airbnb is your best bet. You can find everything from cozy apartments to unique stays like treehouses.
  • Booking.com: Perfect for those who prefer hotels and hostels, although you can now find plenty of condos and villas as well. Plus, they often offer the possibility to “book now, pay later”, which is a lifesaver, a feature that makes Booking.com my favorite platform.

For an overall look at accommodations across Costa Rica, check out my Master Guide to Where to Stay in Costa Rica. I have also developed a few dedicated destination guides.

My Guides to Best Areas to Stay

Map of the 10 best areas to visit in Costa Rica
Map of the 10 best areas to visit and stay in Costa Rica

Activities

Costa Rica is like stepping into a real-life nature documentary. This is probably the best description of what you should expect once in the country.

Imagine walking through unique rainforests and cloud forests like nowhere else. Enjoying the many long beaches with some of the best waves in the world. Experiencing amazing wildlife like in Tortuguero, the “Amazon of Costa Rica“, incredibly rich in biodiversity and I could keep going.

Costa Rica is basically paradise for anyone who loves the great outdoors.

Of course, there are many things you can do, however, trekking/hiking and surfing, are certainly the two primary activities in Costa Rica

Uvita Waterfalls
Uvita Waterfalls

Trekking

If you’re into hiking, Costa Rica is a paradise. Think lush rainforests, hanging bridges, and even volcanoes. You can trek through places like Monteverde’s cloud forests or the Arenal Volcano area.

I have summarized in this table the top 10 trekking destinations in Costa Rica, all of them with their unique feature.

DestinationWhy It’s Great for TrekkingCons
Monteverde Cloud ForestExperience walking through clouds in a forest teeming with orchids, ferns, and exotic birds like the quetzal.Can be very busy, especially during peak season
Arenal Volcano National ParkHike on ancient lava flows and soak in natural hot springs while enjoying views of the iconic Arenal Volcano.Weather can be unpredictable; trails may close, busy in peak season
Corcovado National ParkA biodiversity hotspot, offering a chance to see rare species like tapirs and jaguars in their natural habitat.Requires a guide; expensive and remote
Manuel Antonio National ParkCoastal trails offer stunning ocean views and the chance to spot monkeys and sloths right next to the beach.Small park; can get very busy in peak season
Rincon de la Vieja National ParkGeothermal wonders like bubbling mud pots and fumaroles make this park a unique trekking experience.Some trails closed due to volcanic activity
Chirripó National ParkConquer Costa Rica’s highest peak on a challenging multi-day hike, surrounded by unique paramo ecosystems.Requires permits; physically demanding
Tortuguero National ParkExplore the “Amazon of Costa Rica” via water trails, offering a unique perspective of the rainforest.Accessible only by boat or plane; limited land trails
Santa Rosa National ParkHistorical trails lead to La Casona, a monument to Costa Rica’s independence, and offer beachside trekking.Limited public transport; best visited with a rented 4×4 vehicle
Tenorio Volcano National ParkThe Rio Celeste’s turquoise waters are the highlight, but diverse trails offer varying levels of difficulty.Popular spot; can get crowded
Braulio Carrillo National ParkA less-visited gem offering a mix of cloud forests and lowland jungles, perfect for solitude seekers.Poorly marked trails; not recommended for solo trekkers
Breathtaking view of hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest - Costa Rica
Breathtaking view of hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest – Costa Rica

Surfing

Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, the surfing here is top-notch. Tamarindo is great for beginners, while spots like Santa Teresa offer more challenging waves.

Are you contemplating giving this sport a try? Read my guide to Beginner Surfing In Costa Rica with the top 7 areas and all you need to know for renting a board and taking lessons, either private or in a group.

Here below are 20 of the best beaches for surfing in Costa Rica

Beach NameSurfing levelSeabedRegionNearby TownCharacter of the TownBest MonthsSurf Schools & RentalsAccessibility
Witch’s RockAdvancedRockGuanacastePlaya NaranjoRemote, adventurousDec – MarLimitedDifficult
Playa GrandeIntermediateSandGuanacastePlaya GrandeRelaxed, family-friendlyNov – AprSeveralModerate
Playa NegraAdvancedRockGuanacastePlaya NegraQuiet, localNov – AprSomeModerate
Playa AvellanasIntermediateSandGuanacasteTamarindoQuiet, naturalNov – AprSomeModerate
TamarindoBeginnerSandGuanacasteTamarindoTouristy, livelyNov – AprPlentyEasy
NosaraIntermediateSandNicoya PeninsulaNosaraBohemian, wellness-focusedDec – AprPlentyModerate
Playa GuionesAll LevelsSandNicoya PeninsulaNosaraWellness-focused, upscaleDec – AprPlentyModerate
OstionalIntermediateSandNicoya PeninsulaNosaraQuiet, naturalDec – AprLimitedDifficult
Mal PaisIntermediateRockNicoya PeninsulaSanta TeresaQuiet, secludedNov – AprSomeDifficult
Santa TeresaAll LevelsSandNicoya PeninsulaSanta TeresaHip, youthfulNov – AprPlentyDifficult
Boca BarrancaIntermediateSandCentral PacificPuntarenasLocal, less touristyMay – NovLimitedModerate
EsterillosIntermediateSandCentral PacificEsterillosQuiet, localMay – NovSomeModerate
JacoBeginnerSandCentral PacificJacoTouristy, party vibeMay – NovPlentyEasy
Playa HermosaAdvancedRockCentral PacificJacoLively, touristyMay – NovPlentyEasy
DominicalIntermediateRockSouth PacificDominicalRelaxed, surfer vibeMay – NovSeveralModerate
PavonesAdvancedRockSouth PacificPavonesRemote, laid-backApr – AugLimitedDifficult
Playa ZancudoBeginnerSandSouth PacificZancudoRemote, laid-backApr – AugLimitedDifficult
CahuitaBeginnerSandCaribbeanCahuitaRelaxed, CaribbeanDec – AprLimitedModerate
Playa CoclesIntermediateSandCaribbeanPuerto ViejoLively, youthfulDec – AprSeveralModerate
Salsa BravaAdvancedReefCaribbeanPuerto ViejoLively, Caribbean vibeDec – AprSeveralModerate

I always suggest double-checking the “Best months” for surfing before making any decision. Things change with time and with global warming too. What you see in the table is a general indication.

Other activities in Costa Rica

ActivityBest Location
(but there are many others)
RegionCharacter of the LocationAccessibilitySeason
ZipliningMonteverdeCentral HighlandsCloud forest, adventurousModerateYear-round
White-water RaftingPacuare RiverCaribbeanLush, thrillingModerateMay – Nov
SnorkelingCahuita National ParkCaribbeanRelaxed, CaribbeanEasyDec – Apr
Scuba DivingIsla del CañoSouth PacificRemote, marine lifeDifficultDec – Apr
Bird WatchingTortugueroCaribbeanBiodiverse, tranquilDifficultYear-round
Horseback RidingLa FortunaNorthern LowlandsVolcanic, scenicEasyYear-round
Hot SpringsArenal VolcanoNorthern LowlandsLuxurious, relaxingEasyYear-round
KayakingLake ArenalNorthern LowlandsScenic, peacefulEasyYear-round
FishingQueposCentral PacificSporty, oceanicModerateYear-round
Wildlife ToursCorcovado National ParkSouth PacificRemote, biodiverseDifficultDec – Apr
Coffee ToursCentral ValleyCentralCultural, scenicEasyYear-round
CanyoningLa FortunaNorthern LowlandsAdventurous, naturalModerateYear-round
ATV ToursJacoCentral PacificTouristy, adventurousEasyYear-round
SailingTamarindoGuanacasteTouristy, oceanicEasyNov – Apr
Cultural ToursSan JoseCentralUrban, culturalEasyYear-round
Horse riding in Playa Langosta
Horseback riding in Playa Langosta

Beaches

I have to give you some numbers about Costa Rica: 300 beaches over 800 miles (1,300km) of coastline. And honestly, these are somehow the official numbers I could find, however, many beaches are so long that may get two, three, or more unofficial names.

There are two coastlines, the one facing the Pacific Ocean and the other one facing the Caribbean Sea, so beautiful, however, so different.

The Pacific Coast has more of a dramatic landscape, with very long beaches, rock cliffs and a wide range of waves, from small to big. This side of Costa Rica is very famous for surfers, snorkeling, scuba diving, and deep-sea fishing.

You will find more organized resorts and towns, with a wide variety of accommodations, from backpackers to extra-luxury and boutiques.

On the other hand, the Caribbean coast offers a laid-back vibe with its white and black sand beaches framed by palm trees. The sea is much calmer and you will have a better time swimming, except in the north near Turtguero where the sea currents are too strong.

This side is also more multicultural, with more Afro-Caribbean and indigenous communities. The lifestyle is more Caribic and chilled-out.

Besides the surfing beaches I mentioned previously, here are another 10 beaches you should check out:

BeachRegionWhyWhoProsConsAccessibilityRestaurantsFamiliesNightlifeCharacter of the Area
Playa NaranjoGuanacasteKnown for its windsurfingAdventure SeekersWindsurfing, remoteLimited amenitiesPoorNoneNoNoAdventurous, Remote
Playa QueseraNicoya PeninsulaSecluded and pristineCouples, Nature LoversSecluded, clear waterHard to reachPoorNoneNoNoUntouched, Romantic
Playa BejucoCentral PacificLess busy, great for long walksFamilies, CouplesQuiet, long stretchLimited amenitiesModerateFewYesNoPeaceful, Family-friendly
Playa ManzanilloLimónCaribbean vibe and coral reefsSnorkelers, CouplesCoral reefs, Caribbean vibeLimited amenitiesModerateFewNoNoCaribbean, Natural
Playa BiesanzPuntarenasHidden gem, calm watersFamilies, CouplesCalm waters, secludedLimited amenitiesModerateFewYesNoSecluded, Calm
Playa ZancudoGolfitoOff-the-beaten-path, great for fishingSolo Travelers, Adventure SeekersQuiet, fishingVery remotePoorLimitedNoNoLaid-back, Local
Playa JunquillalGuanacasteTurtle nesting and tranquilityNature LoversTurtle nesting, quietLimited amenitiesModerateFewNoNoNatural, Peaceful
Playa GandocaLimónUnique wildlife and mangrovesNature LoversWildlife, mangrovesHard to reachPoorNoneNoNoWild, Untouched
Playa VentanasPuntarenasKnown for its sea cavesAdventure Seekers, FamiliesSea caves, scenicLimited amenitiesModerateFewYesNoAdventurous, Scenic
Playa PiñuelaSouth PuntarenasPart of a national park, great for snorkelingFamilies, Nature LoversSnorkeling, national parkLimited amenitiesModerateNoneYesNoNatural, Family-friendly
Whale Tale Beach in Uvita
Whale Tale Beach in Uvita

15 Popular Destinations and What They Offer

Costa Rica has so many destinations and places to experience. It’s so hard to pick just 15 of them because it really depends on the type of your holiday.

In this list below I have organized the most popular destinations with travelers, explaining what you should expect from the place.

  • San Jose: Often overlooked, San Jose is the bustling capital where most travelers land. While not a top destination, it serves as a convenient springboard to explore the rest of Costa Rica.
  • Tamarindo: This beach town is a surfer’s paradise with a chilled-out nightlife. It’s the perfect spot for those who want to ride waves by day and have fun by night.
  • Jaco: Known for its vibrant nightlife and excellent surfing conditions, Jaco is the go-to place for those who want a lively beach scene and party at night.
  • Uvita: A unique blend of beach and jungle, Uvita offers a tranquil setting for nature lovers and sun-seekers alike.
  • La Fortuna: Famous for the Arenal Volcano and hot springs, this area is a must-visit for adventure seekers and those looking for a spa-like experience in nature.
  • Monteverde: A paradise for nature enthusiasts, Monteverde is renowned for its cloud forests, offering unique trekking opportunities and a chance to spot exotic wildlife.
  • Santa Teresa & Carmen Beach: These twin beaches offer a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere. Ideal for travelers seeking a tranquil beach experience away from the crowds, and this is probably the biggest difference between Tamarindo and Santa Teresa.
  • Playa Conchal & Brasilito Beach: Known for luxury resorts and stunning beaches, these spots are ideal for travelers looking for a high-end beach vacation.
  • Dominical & Dominicalito: These beach towns offer a relaxed and quiet atmosphere, making them perfect for travelers wanting to escape the touristy areas.
  • Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: This area offers a unique Caribbean vibe and is less frequented by tourists, making it ideal for couples and budget travelers.
  • Tortuguero: Renowned for its unique ecosystems, this area is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, especially those interested in turtle watching.
  • Manuel Antonio: Home to a famous national park, this destination offers stunning beaches and a rich variety of wildlife, making it a nature lover’s dream.
  • Nosara: Known for its yoga retreats and surf spots, Nosara is the place to go for those looking for a wellness-focused vacation.
  • Playa Flamingo: This beach offers stunning white sands and is less crowded, making it ideal for families and couples looking for a more secluded beach experience.
  • Corcovado: Famous for its national park, Corcovado is a biodiversity hotspot and is perfect for adventurers and nature enthusiasts wanting to explore diverse ecosystems.

Most destinations in Costa Rica are best visited during the dry season, which typically runs from December to April. However, there are some exceptions:

  1. Tortuguero: Best visited between July and October for the turtle nesting season, even though it’s the wet season.
  2. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: On the Caribbean side, the weather is a bit more unpredictable, but February to April are generally good months.
  3. Monteverde: The cloud forests here are misty year-round, so while the dry season (December to May) is more comfortable, the wet season offers a different, lush experience.
  4. Corcovado: While the dry months are easier for travel, the wet season (May to November) offers a more lush landscape and is less busy.

So, while the dry season is a safe bet for most places, some destinations offer unique experiences during the wet season as well.

Where to stay in Tamarindo Costa Rica
Where to stay in Tamarindo Costa Rica

Is Costa Rica good for families?

Costa Rica is a playground for all ages, trust me! I’ve been exploring this tropical haven with my 9-year-old, and it’s been a breeze. Whether it’s the kid-friendly beaches or the educational wildlife tours, there’s something for every little adventurer in Costa Rica.

It may be a bit of cliche, however, I must mention here that the locals are so friendly with the children and so accommodating at the restaurants too.

One thing I always suggest to every traveler, even more so with families, is to organize travel insurance before getting to Costa Rica. It’s a bit of a safety net. You never know with kids, especially the little ones.

Quite often travel insurance is included in the credit card, so it’s well worth investigating it. Start with making sure it covers the entire family and not just the cardholder.

Healthcare is pretty accessible in Costa Rica. You’ll find two types of pharmacies in Costa Rica. One is more tourist-oriented, and yes, it looks fancier but can be pricier.

The other is local pharmacies, which offer the same medications but at a more budget-friendly price. So, if you need anything from sunscreen to children’s Tylenol, you’re covered.

Lastly, you will find plenty of family accommodations in Costa Rica. I have always been able to find 1BR or 2BR in any place I have visited. If traveling in peak time, make sure to book well in advance.

Just to give you an idea, we traveled last time in December before Christmas and I could find excellent accommodations booking just 1-2 days in advance.

Entering the Costa Rican forest
Entering the Costa Rican forest with my little kid

ATV or Quad Rentals

ATVs are like the Swiss Army knives of Costa Rican travel—versatile, fun, and a bit of a thrill. You’ll find ATV rentals pretty much everywhere you go, especially in touristy spots.

As for the cost, you’re looking at around $80 to $100 per day plus VAT. But hey, if you pay in cash, some places might just waive that VAT for you. 😉

I took an ATV for a spin in Santa Teresa, and let me tell you, it was epic! The freedom to explore hidden beaches and remote jungle paths was just exhilarating.

I even ventured down to Montezuma Beach, a spot that’s tricky to reach even with a 4WD. So, if you’re up for a bit of an adventure and want to see Costa Rica from a different angle, an ATV day is a must-do experience!

Exploring around Santa Teresa with an ATV - you would need a 4x4 otherwise
Exploring around Santa Teresa with an ATV – you would need a 4×4 otherwise

Costa Rica food

Costa Rica is a melting pot of flavors. You can find everything from local “sodas” serving up traditional Costa Rican dishes to international fare like Italian, Asian, and American. And let’s not forget the French bakeries and Danish pastries.

So, whether you’re up for a “casado” (a local dish with rice, beans, and meat) or some sushi, you will find it in Costa Rica.

I was personally surprised to see so many Middle Eastern and Israeli restaurants, in fact, falafels are so popular to become almost part of the local cuisine (I am exaggerating here but you get the point).

You’re looking at around $10-15 for a hearty meal in a local soda, doesn’t matter if lunch or dinner. Most of the dishes are based on 5 key ingredients: rice, beans (mainly black beans), plantains, yucca, and corn.

If you’re in the mood for something fancier, like an Italian or American restaurant, be prepared to pay at least $40 to $50. A local beer will cost you about $3 to $5, but if you’re into craft or imported beers, that could go up to $10 a pint.

These are 10 popular local dishes that you can find in the “Soda” restaurants

DishMeal TimeTypical CostIngredientsPopular with TouristsVegetar. or Vegan
Gallo PintoBreakfast$3-$5Rice, black beans, onions, bell peppers, Salsa LizanoVeryVegetarian
Desayuno TípicoBreakfast$4 – $8
Eggs, gallo pinto, fried plantains, tortillas
VeryVegetarian (based on the gallo pinto)
CasadoLunch$6-$10Rice, beans, meat, salad, plantainsVery
CevicheLunch$5-$8Fish, lime juice, cilantro, onionsVery
Arroz con PolloDinner$7-$12Rice, chicken, vegetablesVery
ChifrijoLunch$4-$7Rice, beans, chicharrones, pico de galloModerate
Olla de CarneDinner$8-$12Beef, tubers, corn, plantainsModerate
TamalesDinner$3-$5 eachCorn dough, meat, vegetablesHigh
Sopa NegraLunch$4-$7Black beans, eggs, cilantroLowVegetarian
PataconesSnack$3-$5Fried green plantains, dipsHighVegan
Tres LechesDessert$4-$6Cake, milk, condensed milk, evaporated milkHighVegetarian

Special Costa Rican Ingredients:

  • Gallo Pinto: a blend of cooked rice and black beans. The rice is usually cooked with a bit of chicken or vegetable broth for added flavor
  • Salsa Lizano: Tangy, slightly sweet sauce
  • Chicharrones: Fried pork belly or rinds
  • Pico de Gallo: Fresh tomato salsa
  • Plantains: Starchy banana-like fruit
There are many eateries and cafes along most roads in Costa Rica - Great places to stop and respite
There are many eateries and cafes along most roads in Costa Rica – Great places to stop and respite

Safety and Criminality

First off, Costa Rica is generally a safe country, but like any other place, it has its share of petty crimes. I am here talking about things like pickpocketing, especially in crowded tourist spots.

There is then the occasional car break-in. So, don’t leave any valuables in your car, especially visible from outside. I always suggest parking the car with one of the locals who for a bunch of dollars can look after it. Alternatively, leave it possibly close to you, especially when you drive to a beach.

Also, take full insurance on the car in Costa Rica because a broken window can potentially cost you more than the stolen item.

These are my biggest safety tips to be aware when visiting Costa Rica

  1. Be Alert in Crowded Places: Keep an eye on your belongings, especially in crowded markets or bus stations.
  2. Use Reputable Transportation: Stick to well-known taxi companies or use trusted ride-sharing apps.
  3. Avoid Flashy Displays of Wealth: Leave the bling at home. Seriously, you don’t need that Rolex while hiking in the rainforest.
  4. Secure Accommodations: Opt for places with good reviews on safety, and bonus points if they have 24/7 security.
  5. Local Emergency Numbers: Keep a list of local emergency numbers, just in case you need quick assistance.
Walking in and around San Pedro
Walking in and around San Jose, the capital city where you should pay more attention to pickpocketing

Interacting with Locals – Pura Vida

You don’t need to be fluent, but a few basic phrases in Spanish can help a lot. I tell you, the locals always appreciate it when you make an effort. Sometimes they have a big laugh on the pronunciation which is a great way to start the conversation.

Simple words like “Hola” (Hello), “Gracias” (Thank you), and “Por favor” (Please) can open doors—sometimes literally! Besides, it shows that at least you use these basic polite words, a factor that will be really appreciated when traveling.

One expression you have to learn for sure is “Pura Vida“, the quintessential Costa Rican phrase!

“Pura Vida” is like the Swiss Army knife of expressions. Its meaning is “pure life,” but you can use it for so many things. It can be translated to “Hi”, “Thanks”, or “Bye” and I could keep going. It encapsulates the Costa Rican philosophy of enjoying life and being happy.

So, when someone says “Pura Vida” to you, feel free to say it back.

These are a few words and expressions that can be useful when travelling in Costa Rica. I have also added some “Tico” ones, typical of Costa Rican Spanish.

Spanish ExpressionPhonetic SpellingEnglish EquivalentNotes
HolaOH-lahHello
Adiósah-DEE-ohsGoodbye
GraciasGRAH-see-ahsThank you
Por favorpohr fah-VOHRPlease
seeYes
NonohNo
¿Cómo estás?KOH-moh ehs-TAHSHow are you?
BienbyenGood
MalmahlBad
¿Cuánto cuesta?KWAHN-toh KWEHS-tahHow much does it cost?
BañoBAH-nyohBathroom
AguaAH-gwahWater
Comidakoh-MEE-dahFood
Cervezasehr-VEH-sahBeer
Pura VidaPOO-rah VEE-dahMANY(Tico)
Maemah-ehDude(Tico)
Tuanistwah-NEESCool(Tico)
SodaSOH-dahLocal Restaurant(Tico)
GuaroGWAH-rohLocal Liquor(Tico)
¿Dónde está…?DOHN-deh ehs-TAHWhere is…?
Costa Rica - Pura Vida which means all and none but mostly take it easy
Costa Rica – Pura Vida which means all and none but mostly take it easy

Conclusion

Hopefully, the Safety and Criminality section has not pulled you off from the trip to Costa Rica. Honestly, it’s not as bad, in fact, you should just take the same precautions that you would in any Western country.

To me, Costa Rica seems like the closest bridge to heaven, the connection between a busy world and paradise, with its amazing nature, incredible trekking, and outstanding surfing. Really unique, literally!

I am updating this Costa Rica Travel Guide with any trip I do in the country. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section, I usually reply in no time.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best month to go to Costa Rica?

The best month to visit Costa Rica is during the dry season, from December to April, for optimal weather and outdoor activities.

Is it safe to travel to Costa Rica right now?

Safety conditions can vary; it’s best to check current travel advisories and exercise caution, especially in unfamiliar areas.

Is Costa Rica cheap or expensive?

Costa Rica can be both; budget travelers can get by on less, but luxury options are also widely available.

What is the best way to see Costa Rica?

The best way to see Costa Rica is by renting a car. However, you can also organize a mix of guided tours for natural reserves and self-exploration for beaches and towns.

How many days do you need in Costa Rica?

A 10-14 day trip allows you to explore multiple regions, from beaches to rainforests, without feeling rushed.

What jabs do I need to visit Costa Rica?

Typically, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and routine vaccinations like MMR are recommended. Always consult a healthcare provider for personalized advice.

Is Costa Rica safer than Mexico?

Both have areas of concern, but Costa Rica generally has a lower crime rate and is often considered safer for tourists.

How much money do you need for 1 week in Costa Rica?

For a mid-range experience, expect to spend around $700-$1,000 per person for one week, excluding flights.

Is Costa Rica or Belize better?

The difference between Costa Rica and Belize is in the unique experiences that they offer. Costa Rica excels in biodiversity and adventure sports, while Belize offers stunning beaches and Mayan ruins.

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

2 thoughts on “BEST Costa Rica Travel guide for first-timers – All you need to know”

  1. Hello Stefano!

    Thank you smooch for all the great tips! You are amazing!
    I need an extra tip which seems foggy so far.
    I am trying to book a car from discover cars as you too have, and add as an option the full coverage that discover cars offers, but,
    I have checked every agency’s website (even the international ones like sixt) and they specifically mention that third party insurances are not accepted.
    What did you do? Did you buy the insurance straight from the agency or from disc. cars?
    Thank you very much in advance!

    Kind Regards
    Xanthippi from Greece

    Reply
    • Hi Xanthippi and thanks for contacting me. Third Party Insurance/TPI (also called Liability Insurance/LI) is mandatory, it covers third party damages and has to be done with the rental company and it is usually included in the quote (unless the company is trying to charge that at the counter, which means more expensive, but that should not be allowed and it’s a scam).
      Make sure that LI/TPI is included in the quote. Honestly, make sure that also CDW is included. This covers damages to your rented car, not covered by TPI. CDW has an excess before the coverage kicks in. Cover this excess with the full insurance offered by DiscoverCars in this way it will be a no worries experience. This is what I did on my last trip for example so even if I had a dent on the car I did not have to pay a cent. Luckily I dropped the car without any issue. I explain extensively how insurance works on this post Costa Rica Rental Car Insurance: What’s the Real Deal?
      Have a great trip in Costa Rica

      Reply

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