We decided to take a longer holiday this December and Costa Rica, “the Switzerland of Latin America” seemed like the perfect choice from stories we heard from friends and some online research. Some key words to describe our 3+ weeks experience there: surfing, rafting, zipline, animal spotting, national parks, cloud forests, tropical fruits, beaches, mountains and in one word: ADVENTURE and a diverse range of activities, for all tastes.
Costa Rica is considered one of the most expensive countries in Latin America, but we still found it quite affordable. As our vacation was long, we set up a 50$ budget per person per day which included accommodation, food and transport. It is easier to control for these things rather than for activities/attractions, which can really suck up all your budget, depending on what you do.
Which time of the year is best to visit?
Costa Rica has two season: wet May to mid-November) and dry (mid November to April). The weeks in between and around Christmas and New Years are packed with tourists, as in most similar places. There are also 2 coasts in Costa Rica: the Pacific (the west) generally dryer and the Caribbean (the east), generally more wet.
There are 2 international airports in Costa Rica (San Jose, the main one) and Liberia (the smaller one). We did rent a car, although we also met folks travelling around by bus. Car rentals are expensive, the cheapest one we found was 16$/day without insurance (apexcarrental.cr). Insurance is super expensive, the one we got offered at the car rental was 20$ per day and they won’t let you go without insurance. Luckily we researched about this in advance and emailed them to make an agreement that we have our own personal liability insurance with car hire included (axa.ch) and they said that as long as we showed up in Costa Rica with the written letter from our insurance company it is ok (the letter confirms we are covered for Costa Rica). They also said that when we arrive, we need to leave a deposit of 3000$ which will be returned if everything was ok with the car. We got a Toyota Yaris with 65 000km on 🙂
We booked accommodation for the first few days and said we will move around the country based on weather. It was the first time we did not have everything booked in advance and we only booked a couple days before we actually went to a place. We used booking.com and airnbnb.com to research options. We also called/whatsapped hotels directly and sometimes got better deals.
Top places to visit + food & drinks:
If you only have a limited time in Costa Rica, I would prioritise Manuel Antonio/Quepos area and also Arenal La Fortuna. My third choice would be Corcovado National park. I will also add below the accommodations & food places we enjoyed.
1. Surfing, beaches, some restaurants & bars
Tamarindo (+scuba diving)
A 4h drive from the capital/ San Jose airport we arrived in a quite touristic place with loads of surfers, horseback riding and places to eat & drink (a lot a bit too touristy for me). Here we did a Mangrove 2h boat ride for about 25$ per person during which we saw crocodiles, birds, etc. (I am not sure it was worth it though). I also did a yoga class at Ser Om Shantiyoga studio and my partner scuba dived in Tamarindo. We then took a 2h surfing course with Eric who was amazing (email@example.com, +506 8823 6434).
- Beaches (strong currents, good for surfers): Tamarindo beach, Playa Conchal (expensive parking, 5$), Playa Flamingo, Playa Avellana, Playa Grande
- Food: Soda las Palmas in Villa Real, Tamarindo Farmer’s Market
- Accommodation: Villas Macondo
A very touristy place and town we passed by for 1h on our way to the mountain. I would’t really recommend it unless you like the kind of places that are full of tourists stores, buildings and makes you feel like in any other place on this planet.
Santa Teresa & Montezuma
A 5h drive from San Jose, you will find these 2 villages (half an hour apart) which are less touristy than Tamarindo and a good destination for surfers. I liked Montezuma a bit more, mainly because of the calmer smaller beach and less dusty/circulated main road. This makes a huge difference and you will understand if you do a day trip to Santa Teresa. Don’t miss Montezuma waterfall in which you can swim and which is free. We did a nice 1h walk from Playa Carmen in Santa Teresa to Mal Pais Playa, on the beach.
- Beaches (strong currents, good for surfers): Playa de los Artistas in Montezuma, Montezuma beach; (not so strong currents) Playa Mar Azul near Santa Teresa, Playa near Camping Mal Pais Elimar, Playa Carmen (okish, our hotel was there)
- Food: Soda tipica Las Palmeras in Montezuma (best place we ate in Costa Rica); Soda la Amistad in Santa Teresa (2nd, not great for sitting due to dust, but delicious authentic local cheap food, so you can takeaway), Taco corner in Santa Teresa
Uvita was a great place to stay in, as it had the beach with the most amazing sunset I saw in this trip, in the Marina Ballena National Park Uvita beach (6$ entrance, unless you come after 4pm which is when it is free). We also did a day trip from Uvita to Corcovado national park (drove to Sierpe for 1h, took a 1.5h speed boat, hiked for 4h for animal spotting). We also enjoyed Catarata uvita (waterfall) in which you can swim and which has a 1.5$ entrance fee (unsure if legally, or as decided by some locals).
- Beaches (strong currents, good for surfers): Playa Ventanas, Uvita beach
- Accommodation: Osa de Rio
- Food: Soda Ranchito Dona Maria (3rd best place we ate in)
We really liked this place although it was super touristy. The highlight was the Manuel Antonio National park (16$ entrance), where we enjoyed some beach time on the most beautiful calm beach during our trip (not so strong currents, not for surfers). We also spotted: racoons, monkeys, sloths, etc. Tip 1: you can stay either in Quepos or Manuel Antonio, as they are 15min drive for each other. Tip 2: Be at 7am at the Manual Antonio park for your visit as they have a limited nr. of people they allow per day and take a sandwhich & fruit & water, no hammocks allowed), flip flops are ok.
- Beaches: Biesanz beach (the 2nd best calm beach we have been to, parking is tips based), the private beach in the Manuel Antonio national park included in the 16$ entrance ticket; Espadilla beach.
- Food: Manuel Antonio Falafel bar, Soda la Cocina in Quepos
2. Ziplines, cloud forest national parks, animal spotting
Out of the 2 mountain destinations we went to, Monteverde was less touristy. Also some portions of the road to get there are a bit tricky, but we still enjoyed our stay! This is zipline and cloud forest paradise! It was hard to pick a zipline center with 5-6 excellent options but we went with Monteverde Extremo (50$, 12 or so ziplines) and enjoyed it. We also visited 2 cloud forests, out of which only Santa Teresa was worth it (16$), the Monteverde one not so much (25$) based on the place itself and the animals we spotted.
- Accommodation: Belcruz B&B
- Food: Soda Tiquicia
3. Rafting, natural geo thermal water baths
La Fortuna Arenal
We started the trip with a spa day at the geo thermal waters Ecotermales (44$), but be sure to book about 7 days in advance unless you want to risk it (ecotermalesfortuna.cr). The 2nd day we went rafting with Wave Rafting (75$ with lunch & fruit included) for Level 2-3, which was the standard price based on calls to other companies.
- Food: hot chocolate at Estukuru (they had 51%, 85% and 91%), coffee at Red Frog Coffee Roasters, Arenal Vida Campesina (local food 80% grown on their farm)
- Other activities we didn’t have time to do, but have been recommended: El Salto (Rope Swing) – free, Free Natural hot springs river Tabacon – free, Arenal Volcano National park (not free), La Fortuna waterfall
4. Animal spotting in national parks & scuba diving
Corcovado National Park (Sierpe or Puerto Jimenez)
We also spotted animals in national parks of Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, but Corcovado was the best. While doing our online research, this was highlighted as the best park of Costa Rica. The day trip from Sierpe costed us 130$ per person and it included 1.5h each way speed boat, a guide (mandatory for this park), lunch & fruit and a 4h hike (we got thr tour from here laperladelsur.cr but there are 3 other top companies, with similar prices as they share the boats). Sirena Ranger Station is the visitor center in Corcovado park we took the boat too and is considered better than San Pedrillo (for animal spotting), as it is more in the primary rather than secondary forest. Alternatively, travellers stay a couple of nights in Drake Bay (where you get by speed boat in ~30min) or at the Sirena Ranger Station itself (for best animal spotting chances, both are a bit expensive options though).
Besides Sierpe, another way to get to Corcovado park is to drive to Puerto Jimenez, then to Playa Carate (bad roads) and do a 7-9h hike to Sirena Ranger Station during which you can potentially spot animals (in this case, you have to make sure you have accommodation at the Sirena Ranger Station).
One can also scuba dive in Cayo island with a trip from Sierpe, but it was a bit too much hassle & costly as it required a 1-1.5h speed boat to get there.
5. San Jose (the capital) & surroundings
I am not sure it is worth spending time in the capital, but we had a day, so we did a free walking tour (San Jose free walking tour) and had some nice food (Arbol de Seda was a great vegetarian place!). National Theater of Costa Rica was the main highlight of the tour.
We also had some time on our last day, so we went to Zoo Ave animal rescue center where we saw loads of local animals we didn’t spot in their natural environment (25$ but totally worth it!).
- GUIDES or no guides in the national parks: we did take a guide twice (once because we had by law in Corcovado park) and once voluntary, but overall I would say you don’t need a guide; you can take it in one of the parks and not in the others like we did as the difference in terms of what the guide pointed out was not huge for me
- NATIONAL PARKS: Visit national parks early in the morning as soon as they open as you will have more chances to spot animals and avoid most tourists; in most of them you can only bring water, but do check as it varies (e.g. in Manuel Antonio you can bring a sandwich or fruit but no packaged snacks)
- ACTIVITIES you can do in most places in Costa Rica: horseback riding
- Other ATTRACTIONS: Crocodile bridge where you can spot tons of crocodiles for free
- WEATHER: don’t believe the weather forecast, although generally the Pacific coast is dryer than the Caribbean one (which made us avoid the Caribbean) we later learnt that Costa Rica has micro-climates and the weather app is not going to be accurate. For instance towards the end of the trip we found ourselves in places where it said thunderstorms for days all day long and it only rained for 1h during the night. Tamarindo (west) is supposed to be the driest spot.
- SAFETY: we felt generally very safe and Costa Rica has a reputation for this; however, don’t leave stuff in your car or on the beach as you might not find them (but I think this is applicable to many countries)
- MEDICINE: we did not get sick so did not need anything, but electrolytes & charcoal and pain killers are always good to have.
- PARKING: in most beaches/places you have to pay someone to watch your car, it varies between 1-5$. I don’t believe these folks have a legal contract or anything, but it does help them have a job. At times, I did feel scammed esp. when they demanded a certain amount like in Conchal beach (5$) which seemed outrageous, unlike other times which was more of a tips based situation and you gave them the amount according to the time you stayed there (1h vs a whole day is a difference).
- LOCAL FOOD to try: gallo pinto (rice with beans), pico de gallo (tomatoes with onion), guacamole, paatacones (fried green plantains, saulty), platanos maduros (ripe plantains, sweet), choreads (corn tortilla can be salty or sweet, I prefer the salty one), casado (traditional meal with rice beans, salad, plantains and a meat/fish/veggies of choice.
Where can I get souvenirs?
- All places we went to had shops, but the biggest were in San Jose – the capital (Mercado Municipal de Artesanias), Jaco and Arenal (Original Grand Gallery and shops nearby)
- My favourite kind of souvenirs are the ones you can eat/drink (I got some Moringa tea, 85% hot chocolate cubes & cocoa and my partner got coffee)
What I didn’t manage to do and is still on my list:
- Puerto Viejo and villages nearby (Caribbean)
- Puerto Jimenez (the other side of Corcovado national park)
How to be a more eco-friendly/ responsible traveller
- Bring a refillable water bottle, a reusable spork/plate/container from home so you don’t have to take plastic ones, we have this one; get a metal or bamboo reusable straw
- Don’t accept plastic bags regardless of what you purchase; bring on your trip a couple of reusable cotton bags instead or a backpack
- Buy locally produced items (food included)
- If you can, take trains or buses instead of planes; take public transport instead of car rentals if you can
- Take shorter showers & reuse the same towel as much as possible
- Eat less meat, especially beef
Things we do for every trip
- We make sure we have travel insurance
- We pack the following medicines: pain killers, anti allergies, activated charcoal, electrolytes, etc.