Planning a trip to Costa Rica: 10 tips

Costa Rica has been on our list of places to visit for so long, especially after having to cancel planned trips several times in the past few years. We finally made it to this country known for “Pura Vida!”! During our trip, we spent time touring Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula. In this post, we share some general tips and information to help you plan your trip to Costa Rica.

1.    When to visit:

Weather in Costa Rica is generally categorized by two seasons: rainy season and dry season. Rainy season usually lasts between May to mid-November and dry season is from mid-November to April. There are some variations depending on where you are. Depending on why you are visiting and what you want to do, a visit during the rainy season might be better; for example, river tubing was not available when we visited because the river was too low. Check out Natural World Safaris for more information about the “Best Times to go to Costa Rica if you want to experience…”.  

2.    Traveling to Costa Rica:

International flights arriving into Costa Rica are serviced either at LIR – Daniel Oduber Liberia International Airport in Guanacaste or SJO – Juan Santamaría San Jose International. It was more convenient for us to fly into LIR as most of our trip was in Guanacaste; flying into SJO would have added hours more driving for us and for our trip. Sadly, we decided to skip visiting San Jose, Costa Rica’s largest city on this trip.

Departing from Liberia

3.    Planning your itinerary:

We love the beach and coastal areas and so our trip has us spending most of our time in those areas but we did spend time in the jungle and highly recommend adding a few days in the mountains for a different experience. On our first stop, we stayed at the W Reserva Conchal and explored the areas around the hotel and made our way to Tamarindo and Las Catalinas. On our second stop, we stayed at Mint Santa Teresa and spent time exploring Santa Teresa and its beaches as well as Montezuma. We highly recommend renting an ATV to get around in this area. On our drive, we got to see the stunning landscapes of the Nicoya Peninsula. On our third stop, we stayed at the Andaz Papagayo and checked out Playa Coco (not a fan as we felt that the town center was super touristy in a bad way). For our last stop, we stayed at Rio Perdido in Bagaces to experience the hot springs and jungle. We chose Rio Perdido because of it’s proximity to Liberia, and it was small and low-key. You can stay in one spot as a home base during your trip to Costa Rica but we recommend spending time in more than one area.

4.    Getting around:

We rented a car through Adobe in Costa Rica. Driving in Costa Rica was generally easier than other places we’ve visited and we feel it gave us the opportunity to see/do way more than had we not rented a car. We paid for the mandatory insurance with our rental but used the coverage with our American Express Platinum card for the remaining insurance (we had to call American Express to request a proof of coverage letter).


Some general tips:

  • A 4X4 might be preferable if you plan to visit spots like Montezuma and Santa Teresa. The dirt roads and steep hills can otherwise be challenging. 
  • Always be alert for potholes (even on nice roads), they’ll show up when you least expect it).
  • Try to stick to major roads. Be aware that Ggoogle Maps may try to send you down smaller roads (some of which aren’t even what you might consider a “real” road; many have uncrossable rivers and some are dirt trails.
  • It is suggested to have your passport with you when driving,  as the police may pull you over and ask to see it to make sure you haven’t overstayed your visa.
  • Be patient! It often took us 30-45 minutes longer than expected to get to our destination. So pack lots of water.
  • Enjoy the journey and scenery! The colors are beautiful and awe-inducing in Costa Rica!

5.    Currency and Budgeting:

The Costa Rican Colon is the official currency in Costa Rica but many places charge in and accept US dollars. $1 Canadian is worth about 500 Costa Rican Colones. Prior to our departure, we exchanged Canadian Dollars for Costa Rican Colones to have on hand before we could withdraw money from an ATM. In Costa Rica, we took out colones from BCR (Banco de Costa Rica) as the exchange rate was decent and we didn’t have to pay any additional fees with a Scotiabank ATM card.

Some places will bring the bill in US dollars but we always find it a better deal to pay in local currency and ask for the bill in Colones. Also, when you pay cash in US dollars, they bring back the change in local currency with no standard exchange rate and often you end up with lots of coins.

Credit cards are also accepted widely but often they do not let you add the “propina” (tip) to the card and so you need to have cash for that. Also, many places charge a 10% service fee which can be considered when figuring out how much to tip.

Costa Rica is not as inexpensive as some might expect, but it’s still very affordable when compared to other destinations. We found things to be more expensive than Mexico but cheaper than Hawaii. We found the prices to be comparable to cheaper places we have been to in the states. A meal for 2 with drinks at higher-end hotels like the W Reserva Conchal or Andaz Papagayo will likely easily reach $100CAD but an average-priced meal off-resort was generally about $30-$50CAD.

6.    Safety and Health:

Overall, we felt safe in Costa Rica. When we researched crime, we were surprised to see that average crime rates were very low, even when compared to our home, Vancouver. In Costa Rica, we took similar precautions and focused on preventing crimes of opportunity: we didn’t keep huge amounts of cash on hand or leave personal belongings in the car unattended. We also left valuables in the safe when using the beach, and minimized driving at night.

Costa Rica has invested in public infrastructure for its citizens and you can see that. Another bonus is that you can drink the tap water here!

7.    Bugs and wildlife:

Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity and wildlife, and therefore there are lots of creatures to contend with and some are cuter than others! There are lots of geckos around to eat the bugs thankfully! We also just happened to be in an area where it was langosta season (giant grasshoppers/locusts) that made being outside after dark difficult. The langostas didn’t target humans but they are spatially challenged and grip to whatever they land on, including people. It sounded like a horror movie at night as people walked around the resort and had encounters with the langostas!

We also saw monkeys, deer, coatimundi, raccoons, various birds, lots of fish, and a scorpion. Most of the things you encounter in Costa Rica will not harm you but you need to be aware and refrain from feeding the wildlife. If you are bitten by something, there are lots of medical clinics and hospitals around and they have the antivenom on hand to treat you. It’s advisable to always watch where you step when walking on trails, and consider shaking your shoes and clothing before putting them on.

8.    What to pack:

Overall, we found it easy to pack for this trip and found most of what we needed at local stores, like AutoMercado. Keep in mind that certain items, such as sunscreen, are very expensive in Costa Rica and we regretted not bringing more to avoid spending $20 on a bottle (although this also helped us avoid checking a bag!). We made sure to bring bug spray, but we didn’t use it as there were few mosquitoes at the time of our visit.

9.    Language:

Spanish and English are primarily spoken in Costa Rica. You can get by without speaking Spanish but it is recommended to know a few basic phrases (our preferred app to learn is Mosalingua). We found it similar to the Spanish spoken in Mexico as opposed to that spoken in South America based on our limited knowledge and experience. Like many places, Costa Rica has its own sayings and slang. Most people we encountered were more than happy to help us practice our Spanish and teach us some new words and phrases. And yes, you’ll encounter many people saying “pura vida” often which means “pure life”. Also, local people are known as “Ticos”.

“How cool, man” a Tico slang saying

10.  The food:

Most people say the food in Costa Rica isn’t very exciting, as the traditional cuisine often consists of rice and beans. Much like Greece, where family neighbourhood tavernas are common, Costa Rica has neighbourhood “sodas” where local staples are served in a casual environment.  These include “Gallo pinto”, which is rice and beans, and is available all day (including a variation with eggs for breakfast). Lunch is “casado”, which features rice and beans with a protein, plantains, and other accompaniments. We really enjoyed “patacones”, fried and smashed plantains usually served with black beans, pico de gallo and/or guacamole. 

Fresh fruit and vegetables were definitely a highlight. We also really enjoyed some of the local seafood (especially ceviche) along with many other Latin American & South American specialties such tacos and empanadas. Santa Teresa in particular had an incredibly diverse and unique food scene for a small town.

We recommend doing some research in advance to places to eat and always have a backup as the operating hours and information posted online can be unreliable.

Summary:

Overall, we loved our trip to Costa Rica! We were not quite sure what to expect but we were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to explore. Costa Rica is not a very large country but it can take time to get around due to traffic and road conditions. Costa Rica is a place where adventurers and nature lovers will feel at peace and fall into the “pura vida” lifestyle easily. We definitely left with unfinished business, as there seems to be so much more to see and explore! Costa Rica, nos vemos pronto!

Have you been to Costa Rica? Do you have any tips to add?

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