8 Things to Know About Traveling to Costa Rica for the First Time
I arrived in San José the hard way, my backpack feeling heavier with every boat, bus and new bruise en route from Panama’s capital to Costa Rica’s. While a sane traveler, worn and weary from the road, would have let a hot cup of coffee warmly welcome him into the country, I was scurrying the streets for the city’s hidden gems during my first time in Costa Rica.
With only a few days in Costa Rica, I wanted to make my first visit unforgettable. Such a task is effortless; this country will steal your heart and leave you captivated at every turn. And therein lies the problem: There are far too many amazing experiences to be had.
Your first time in Costa Rica can feel overwhelming, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the wondrous landscape. Here are a few things even well-traveled visitors should know before visiting Costa Rica for the first time.
1. One amazing country, two unique seasons
When is the best time to visit Costa Rica? This beautiful country can deliver an unforgettable holiday on any day! The year is divided into two parts: the dry season, which on the Pacific side of the country is December through April, and the green season, May through November. (The Caribbean side has very different weather patterns.) Both the rainy and the dry season have their tradeoffs — the dry season has more favorable weather but it’s also peak time for tourism. Visiting in the green season may net you lower prices and fewer crowds, though rain may interrupt your itinerary.
The best time to visit Costa Rica is whichever season will enhance your experience. Want to ride the best swells? Hang ten during the dry season. Dreaming of a hike through the rainforest with hardly another human soul in sight? The green season means go.
2. Getting around Costa Rica
You’ll have plenty of options to get around Costa Rica. You can rent a car and find your own road, or you can choose to ride on public buses or private shuttles. Price is naturally a factor, but perhaps a more important aspect to budget in is time. Getting around Costa Rica can be time-consuming, depending on your destination. Our best advice to maximize your time in the country is to plan your itinerary around your point of arrival/departure during your first time in Costa Rica.
There are two international airports in Costa Rica: one in San José and one in Liberia. If surfing the waves of the Pacific is high on your must-do list, Tamarindo and Jacó are prime surf havens. Liberia to Tamarindo is about a 75-minute drive; Jacó is three and a half hours. It’s the opposite for San José: You can reach Jaco in 90 minutes by car or drive over four hours to Tamarindo. The ambitious can surf both the Pacific and the Caribbean … if they don’t mind a six-plus-hour drive across the country.
If you’re only in Costa Rica for a short time, we recommend using your vacation rental as a base camp to explore the area. For example, staying in Flamingo or Coco keeps you close to Liberia and gives you an opportunity to take convenient guided tours to the rainforest, volcanoes and beyond.
3. Always have a backup plan
We’ll be the first to admit that Costa Rica doesn’t always cooperate with the best-laid plans. The green season’s rainstorms can cut short an afternoon at the beach. Earthquakes can leave visitors shaken, and volcanic activity can restrict access to a national park for an unspecified length of time. Plan an alternate activity for each day, for example, a cooking class in case a rainy day gets in the way of a fishing trip.
4. How much to budget for a trip to Costa Rica
Compared to other Central American countries, a vacation in Costa Rica requires a slightly larger budget. The national currency is the colón (CRC) and most visitors from North America, the UK and Europe will find that they can stretch their money quite a way without blowing their budget. How much should you budget for a trip to Costa Rica? It depends on what experiences you desire.
We’ve found that some of the best ways to maximize your money during your first time in Costa Rica involve strategic spending. For instance, consider renting a vacation home with a full kitchen so you can cook authentic Costa Rican dishes on a budget.
5. What to eat & drink in Costa Rica
When it comes to eating and drinking in Central America, Costa Rica is a haven for foodies, fine diners and everyone in between. We could go on and on about our favorite must-try dishes on your first trip to Costa Rica, as we did in the article linked here. Gallo pinto. Casado. Rondón. It’s all delicious, it’s all fresh and it’s all yours for the taking.
You won’t go thirsty, either. Rum and guaro are our boozy preferences when we’re not knocking back bottles of Imperial beer. Our morning cups runneth black with coffee and we don’t doubt yours will as well. Because the “best” coffee beans are often exported, we recommend finding small batch brews from independently owned farms. These coffees will give you a hyper-localized taste of the area, and a coffee tour on a sustainable farm will give you a new appreciation for the bean and the brew.
6. Don’t skip San José
We get it: The moment you touch down in Costa Rica, you’ll want to head to the nearest beach or rainforest to monkey around with the locals. And you should … but don’t high-tail it out of San José right away. The nation’s capital deserves at least a day spent museum hopping and eating your way through the gastronomical goodness that only the epicenter of a country can cultivate.
7. Think green
Costa Rica isn’t blowing smoke when it comes to its commitment to environmental protection and sustainability. The country is on the road to becoming carbon-neutral, and the private and public sectors are working together to protect and propagate its extraordinary biodiversity.
So, please, do your part to help while you’re visiting.
You can choose tour companies that actively support natural conservation and preservation efforts. You can also support small, independently owned businesses by purchasing your essentials like food, water, toiletries and souvenirs from them. Whether you opt for public transportation over a private car or choose to shop local markets and cook in your vacation home instead of dining out, you can do your part to keep Costa Rica tourism as sustainable as possible.
8. Plan for practicality, not perfection
You can spend years in Costa Rica and only scratch the surface of everything this spectacular country has to offer. Sadly, there’s no way that you can simply do it all during your first time in Costa Rica. You can, however, cross off a handful of bucket-list experiences with ease if you plan properly and practically.
Consider the experiences you want to have and how you can achieve them. Make a list of your top five and research ways that you can check them off near your vacation rental. For instance, you could stay at a casa in Playa Brasilito to be footsteps from the beach and arrange guided zip-line tours, volcano treks, or whitewater rafting adventures right from your rental.
We have a feeling that the moment you leave Costa Rica, you’ll be yearning to come back. Feel free to snag one of Special Places’ best vacation rentals in advance so you can enjoy another amazing visit to this beautiful country.