Planning a trip to Costa Rica, the tiny Central American nation between Nicaragua to the north and Panama in the south?
Here are 20 things to know about Costa Rica before your holiday, whether you’re going surfing, mountain biking, exploring the national parks, visiting volcanos, hoping to meet some of the local wildlife or just chill out, pura vida style.
We did all those things and had a bundle of fun interacting with locals and learning about Costa Rican lifestyle and culture.
1: Costa Rica is one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world
Mention Costa Rica to people and they imagine an exotic country that’s green and lush, with thick rainforest and beautiful surfing beaches. The words ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘biodiversity’ may get a mention.
Costa Rica is certainly famous for its waves. It’s also developed a strong reputation as one of the most environmentally friendly nations in the world.
It now relies almost exclusively on renewable energy sources for power (about 95 percent) using hydro, geothermal, wind, and solar power. In 2017 it ran solely on green power for 300 days, an impressive feat for any nation. In addition, it’s aiming to ban single-use plastics and be carbon neutral by 2021.
Respect and support their efforts and be a green traveller, take your own reusable bag(s) and water bottle to avoid single-use plastics.
Costa Rica: green by nature and green by design.
2: Costa Rica is a wildlife lover’s paradise but beware the crocodiles
Costa Rica is also famous for its biodiversity, the incredible variety of animal and plant life packed into such a small country.
The wildlife is one of the main highlights of visiting Costa Rica, from toucans, turtles, sloths, monkeys, and macaws, to agouti, frogs, crocodiles and racoons. We were lucky to see toucans up close but seriously struggled with our sloth searching (see #3).
Apart from sloths, you don’t have to look too hard to see many of these animals; we saw a lot in the national parks we visited (Cahuita and Manuel Antonio) plus we found plenty of wildlife in our hotel grounds in Manuel Antonio.
One thing I didn’t really appreciate before visiting Costa Rica is that the country appears to be crawling with crocodiles. In Tamarindo, on the north west Pacific coast, there was a resident croc about 20 metres from where people sunbaked on the beach. Rumour had it that the croc had devoured a local dog the previous week.
Crocs are also found further along the beach at Tamarindo where the river meets the ocean.
Towards the capital San Jose, there’s a bridge over the river Tarcoles which overlooks a large community of crocs. It’s become a popular tourist attraction and our guide told us people throw chickens over the bridge to feed the crocodiles. Police are now stationed there to keep an eye on what’s happening.
3: Sloths are extremely hard to spot
In the same way Australia promotes its cute, cuddly koala bears, Costa Rica lures travellers in with images of its cute, furry sloths. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’re everywhere. But just like koalas, sloths are extremely hard to find in the wild.
We spent ages searching for sloths all over the country. They are so well camouflaged with their nondescript brown fur, they sit high up in trees and barely move a muscle all day. Even if you’re standing right underneath them, your chances of spotting them are slim.
My advice: go to one of the sloth sanctuaries and get a guide to show you. Even then, you’ll need binoculars or a really good zoom lens.
4: Travelling around Costa Rica is slow going and the roads are poor
Costa Rica is a small country with a population of five million. At its narrowest point it’s only 120 kilometres wide and 464 kilometres long. So, you’d think getting around would be relatively quick and easy.
You’d be wrong. In fact, the opposite is true.
Because Costa Rica is very mountainous, split down the middle by the continental divide, roads tend to be narrow, steep and wind their way around the mountains rather than take a direct route. It can take four to five hours to drive around 200 kilometres.
Before our trip I read numerous stories of travellers who’d hired a car, followed Google Maps for the shortest route, and ended up on dangerous roads suitable only for serious four-wheel-driving. And I certainly wouldn’t drive in the dark on Costa Rican roads.
The main road through the country, the Pan American highway, is mostly single lane each way, and large trucks and buses pound this route day and night.
On our drive from Tamarindo back to San Jose, we saw a loose car wheel careening down the highway on the opposite side of the road, followed by a frantic driver running for his life to catch the wheel that had fallen off his car. Crazy, dangerous stuff.
We used the Interbus service to travel around the country, a semi private shuttle bus that drops you door to door from hotel to hotel. It was a good, reliable service.
5: Always be prepared for rain, even in the dry season in Costa Rica
It’s easy to get a bit confused by the seasons in Central America. Costa Rica lies in the northern hemisphere, just north of the equator.
The dry season actually falls in what is technically winter, December through April, however in Costa Rica this is actually considered summer. On the coast during these months, it’s very hot and humid both day and night. In more rural regions, the days in the mountains are steamy but the temperature plummets at night.
When we crossed the continental divide at an altitude of 2,300 metres in the middle of the day in ‘summer’, it was wet, cloudy, misty, and freezing. As we made our way back down the mountain on our bikes, we rode into a torrential downpour.
At La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano, a very popular tourist destination, it rained every day of our three day visit in January.
Even in the dry season, if you’re travelling inland, you’ll need a rain jacket.
For the record, the rainy season is June through October and is considered winter in Costa Rica.
6. With all that humidity are mosquitoes a problem in Costa Rica?
We couldn’t get a straight answer from the locals on whether mosquitoes posed a genuine health risk in Costa Rica. The general impression we got was that mosquitoes weren’t a major problem.
The US Centers for Disease Control states there’s a low risk of malaria in Costa Rica and you don’t need to take malaria medication.
However, there is a risk of dengue fever and the Zika virus in urban areas in Costa Rica, which are both caused by mosquito bites. These disease-transmitting mosquitoes are generally active during the day, between dawn and dusk.
I applied mosquito repellent throughout our trip, both in coastal areas and inland. Better to be safe than sorry. I also favoured wearing long pants and long-sleeved tops where possible to protect against mosquito bites.
The only time I didn’t worry was up in the mountains, where it gets cold at night so there’s less chance of mozzies. Plus we were covered up with warm clothing anyway.
7: Costa Rica isn’t as cheap as you might expect
Just because Cost Rica is in Central America doesn’t mean it’s dirt cheap. Quite the contrary.
While it’s not like eating out in New York, in popular tourist locations going to a restaurant is similar to what you’d pay for a restaurant in Australia.
What we really disliked was the mandatory 10 percent service charge included in restaurant bills, which is very American. This means tipping is not optional and you’re paying for service whether it’s good or not. There was also a 13 percent tax added to restaurant bills.
We avoided organised tours (apart from our coast to coast mountain bike ride) which were expensive and found that entry into popular tourist attractions was also pricey. For example:
- Entry to the Manuel Antonio National Park is $USD16 per person (close to $50AUD for two adults).
- Entry to the Sloth Walking Trail in La Fortuna is $USD35 per person (more than $AUD100 for two people on current 2019 exchange rates).
- It costs $USD15 per person to get into the Arenal Volcano National Park yet the walking trail is not very long.
- A self-guided tour of the popular Mistico Hanging Bridges Park near Lake Arenal costs $USD24 per person. A guided tour is $USD36pp.
8: The main coastal areas in Costa Rica are very touristy
Costa Rica is a mid-winter mecca for lots of North Americans eager to escape the big freeze in Canada and the Mid West USA.
They congregate in coastal towns like Tamarindo and Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast to literally chill out and soak up the sun in beautiful tropical surroundings. While these areas are very westernised and touristy, they do offer a cultural alternative to sunny Florida.
In Tamarindo, there are large supermarkets where you can get fresh fruit, veggies, meat, bread, cheese, etc and enjoy a typical western diet. There’s also a huge variety of ethnic cuisines with Japanese, Mexican, Argentinian, French, Italian restaurants and cafes.
9: Costa Rican food: Ticos LOVE beans and rice
We spent five days mountain biking across Costa Rica with a guide and driver. Our guide ate gallo pinto, Costa Rica’s national dish, three times a day. Beans and rice with eggs, beans and rice with chicken (pollo), beans and rice with fish (pescado). Gallo pinto with pork and beef is popular too.
This is the sort of food we ate in the rural regions we rode through. Not tacos, burritos, enchiladas, what you might think of as typical Costa Rican fare.
One of our most memorable meals was an authentic Costa Rican buffet lunch at a busy roadside café, Cafeteria Los Chespiritos, at the top of the mountains along the main highway. We were the only gringos there the day we visited.
The Cafeteria was a very basic affair – grab a tray, line up for generous servings of empanadas, gallo pinto, rice, soup, chicken, as much as your stomach desires, find a table then eat yourself into a tico food coma (locals describe themselves as ticos).
The fresh fruit in Costa Rica was amazing. We had the most delicious, sweet, juicy pineapple. Fruit smoothies and juices were standard drinks for lunch and dinner with fruits such as papaya, pineapple, watermelon, strawberry, banana and cas (like guava).
Our two favourite local discoveries were sweet cajeta biscuits (like shortbread with dulce de leche) and prestinos, a thin piece of dough, deep fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sugar, like a sweet round crispbread. Delicioso!
10: Costa Rica grows a lot of coffee but finding a great cup of coffee is harder than you’d think
On our mountain biking trip, we cycled past acres and acres of coffee plantations in the rural heart of the country. The coffee trees grow on steep hills, with banana trees sprinkled throughout to provide shade. Apparently, it makes the coffee taste better. A lot of the coffee grown in Costa Rica is exported, like the home-grown bananas, pineapples, sugar and rice.
The irony is, that in the areas where the coffee is grown, it’s actually hard to find a good cup of coffee. In more built-up tourist areas like Tamarindo beach on the Pacific coast, we tried several cafes before we found something decent. It surprised us that a cup of coffee cost close to $AUD5, more than we pay at home.
11. What about the tap water – is it safe to drink?
Yes and No. We were advised not to drink the tap water on the Caribbean side of the island (specifically we stayed in Cahuita).
Inland and up in the mountains when travelling through smaller rural villages, our guides provided filtered bottled water so we didn’t need to drink the tap water.
On the Pacific Coast, in areas that are most popular with tourists, drinking the tap water was not a problem. To be safe, we always checked with the hotel staff first.
12: Costa Rica is a great place to learn to surf
Interested in learning to surf? Costa Rica is ideal for beginners, during the months of January through April when the wind is offshore in the mornings along the Pacific Coast.
We spent a week surfing around the beaches near Tamarindo in January, which is the dry season. The waves are generally not too big at Tamarindo, and the water is beautiful and warm.
There are a lot of different surf schools and surf retreats to choose from along the Pacific coast. There are women-only surf retreats, yoga and surfing trips and multi-day learn to surf packages with all lessons, equipment and accommodation included.
It’ll be the most fun you’ve had in a long time. Catching a wave is such a buzz and while you’ll be totally exhausted from the exertion, you’ll be in the perfect spot to unwind over a happy hour cocktail as you watch the sun go down and relive your surfing triumphs.
13: Renting a scooter – a few rules
We had a blast renting a scooter in La Fortuna, (way more fun than we’d have had in a car), even though it rained most of our three days there.
Costa Ricans drive on the right-hand side of the road (the opposite to Australia), and as mentioned above, the roads are narrow, windy and not in the best condition. When riding a scooter or motorbike it’s compulsory to wear a high visi sash around your body – we had fluoro yellow and fluoro pink. It’s a $600 fine if you’re caught without it.
Make sure you have proper travel insurance to cover you for riding a motor bike. Often you’ll have to pay an additional fee to get cover and you’ll need to have a similar level bike license back home (certainly in Australia).
14: Don’t leave home without your thongs or binoculars
By thongs I mean flip flops and they’re not just to wear to the beach. They’re for wearing on the freezing cold tiled floors in your hotel. It may be hot and humid on the outside but inside, the floors are very cold.
The other thing worth taking is a pair of binoculars given Costa Rica’s diverse wildlife. They’ll come in handy for spotting sloths, toucans and monkeys in the national parks. We took a pair with us, but somehow always managed to leave them behind in the hotel room. Oops.
15. Slip, slop slap: pack loads of sunscreen and a sunhat
It is extremely hot and humid in Costa Rica in the dry season. Without proper protection from the sun, you will fry and burn to a crisp. Not much fun on your holiday and extremely bad for your health.
When we were cycling there were a few times when I thought my face was going to explode it was so hot. I really did look like a beetroot.
You’ll need SPF50+ sunscreen, a broad brimmed hat and something to protect the back of your neck. A bandana works well.
16: Hotel wifi is very unreliable
Every hotel we stayed at offered wifi. But that doesn’t mean it was working wifi.
In most places we stayed, on the coast and inland, the hotel wifi was incredibly unreliable.
Sometimes it worked in the reception, sometimes in the breakfast room, and sometimes it worked if you stepped out onto the balcony and leaned to the left. Mostly, it didn’t work in our hotel room.
Internet access has become so central to our lives that it’s very frustrating not to have it. If fast, reliable wifi is critical for you when you travel, then you’ll need to investigate other options to connect in Costa Rica.
17. Don’t flush toilet paper down the toilet
Costa Rica isn’t the first country I’ve been to where you can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. You have to use the bin provided next to the toilet which is usually lined with a plastic bag.
If you come from a Western country, it’s a really hard habit to get into and feels really weird.
18. Local colones or $USD?
In many places in Costa Rica you can pay with USD and the local currency colones. Coming from Australia, we withdrew colones from local ATMs or used a credit card.
On our first day in Costa Rica in San Jose we went into one of the major banks to get some money and were shocked at the huge queues of people lining up for a teller. We had planned to exchange some AUD at the bank but it was way too hard. There was a massive queue for the ATM as well but it was straightforward.
19. Learn some Spanish
Learning Spanish has been on my list of things to do for years, and I’m embarrassed to say that having visited numerous Spanish speaking countries I still haven’t done it. Shame on me! It’s one of the most widely spoken language in the world.
Obviously, in the more touristy areas such as Tamarindo, La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio, English is pretty widely spoken. In San Jose though we found English was quite limited (we did go to the local sodas to eat, not to Trip Advisor recommended restaurants) and certainly in the less-visited rural regions, English was not understood.
The guides on our mountain biking trip seemed disappointed by our lack of Spanish – they had excellent English – and made it their mission to teach us a few words and phrases. No y problema.
20: Pura Vida is a way of life in Costa Rica: don’t stress!
Pura Vida. It’s what Costa Ricans say to one another all the time. Hello. Goodbye. G’day. Cheers. Be chilled. Be happy. No worries. No stress.
Directly translated it means pure life or simple life. But it really conveys a way of life. Relaxed. Positive. Happy. Our guides on our cycling trip and our week of surfing all embodied the spirit of pura vida. Nothing was a problem, they were super relaxed and no-one was ever in a rush.
So enjoy your holiday in Costa Rica.