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What to expect in Costa Rica
One of the world’s most eco-friendly countries, Costa Rica is all about diverse wildlife, spectacular landscapes and miles of ruggedly beautiful coastline bordering both the Pacific and the Caribbean. With giant volcanoes, misty cloud forests, dense jungles and oceans full of life, this really is nature’s playground.
We’ve put together this Costa Rica travel guide to help you prepare and make the most of your trip, whilst making sure you look after the environment and learn a little about the country’s culture as you go along.
Costa Rica’s great for:
- Pura Vida: Translating to “pure life”, you’ll hear this phrase wherever you go in Costa Rica, not only as a greeting but in all kinds of other ways too. Pura vida represents Costa Rica’s way of living and is very important to the people here. This is a country which prides itself on its passion, dedication to its conservation efforts and maintaining ecosystem biodiversity.
- Going fast: For those action sports and adventure junkies, you’ll find some of the best surfing in the world along with zip lines in cloud forests, kayak trips through mangroves, volcano hikes and rock climbs (read our trekking guide for more!). Basically, if you’re after a thrill whilst exploring the outdoors, you’re going to be in for a serious treat.
- Going slow: Kicking back and relaxing has never been easier. Drift the afternoon away on a dreamy beachside hammock, or listen to bird calls as you read a book in your rainforest canopy treehouse. Find your inner peace here surrounded by nature and feed off the heartwarming energy of the Costa Rican people.
What's meaningful about Costa Rica?
Despite only taking up a tiny slice of the planet’s landmass percentage, (roughly around 0.03%) Costa Rica actually contains around 5% of the world’s biodiversity and has numerous microclimates. Conservation is taken very seriously here with 25% of the country being protected.
Being eco-friendly is truly the name of the game here, and by visiting the country you’ll also be bringing valuable income and crucial benefits to Costa Rica’s growing economy, which is now on the up thanks to the rise of eco-tourism.
It’s also not hard to locate and find truly meaningful projects where you can give back and contribute to conservation efforts, the community, or assist in improving local infrastructure.
Our top 4 Costa Rica highlights
- Rincón de Vieja – This stunning volcano and surrounding area really is one to chalk up on your list as a must-see. Your accommodation is a working horse and cattle farm, and you’ll be living alongside locals and venturing out into the bio-diverse landscape on horseback. Enjoy flora and fauna aplenty, as well as some spectacular geothermal activity!
- *Special stay* at Arenal Volcano – How does staying in an observatory at the foothills of an ancient volcano within a vibrant national park sound to you? Whether you’re interested in nature photography, hiking, or just fancy relaxing in a natural hot spring, La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano should be high on your list.
- Monteverde – The thrill-seeker within you won’t be able to resist zip-lining through a cloud forest on your Costa Rica travels. Combine this with a ride on a sky gondola and a canopy walk to soak up the incredible views of the lush Monteverde jungle below.
- Early morning canoe trip in Tortuguero – The rainforests of Tortuguero are truly magnificent. Navigate this incredible landscape in the early hours of the morning via its meandering rivers for an unforgettable adventure. This way, you’ll get out before the wildlife has been disturbed and witness these creatures in their natural habitat.
Costa Rica essential information
Best time to go
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Broadly speaking the dry season runs from December to May, when the official rainy season begins. The temperature during the day swings between 24 and 29°C across both the dry and wet season.
Many people speak English in Costa Rica, but having a few key phrases in Spanish to hand could help you out.
For good service
Tipping for good service is custom in Costa Rica. Service is generally added to the bill in many restaurants and hotels, but it is expected that you tip your guide or driver if you are happy to do so.
You can fly direct to San Jose three times a week from London Gatwick. Indirect flights tend to stopover in the US.
Costa Rican Currency
Costa Rican Colón
The currency of Costa Rica is the Colón, but US Dollars are accepted almost everywhere. We recommend having a mixture of both currencies in cash but credit/debit cards are accepted in most places.
Good to know
- Costa Rica is one of Central America’s safest countries and generally you won’t find any problems. That said, it always pays to be vigilant when visiting any destination. It’s unlikely that you’ll fall victim to anything nasty, but it’s a good idea to be aware of petty crime as it can be an issue. Try to avoid travelling with anything of a very high value, but if you do, don’t leave it unattended. Make use of your hotel safe whenever you can.
- If you are hiring a car, don’t leave any valuables in the car when it’s parked up as car crime can be an issue in certain areas. Try to park your car in official car parks as much as possible and make use of parking attendants in some areas who will watch your car for a small fee. This is the norm in Costa Rica in some places, so don’t be alarmed!
- When travelling at night, make use of official taxis – you can always ask restaurants to call one for you.
Language & culture in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica the spoken language is Spanish. The majority of people you come across will have a good grasp of English, particularly in hotels, restaurants and tourist spots. Knowing a bit of Spanish will certainly help you from time to time, though. Locals are known as Ticos, and they are naturally very warm and welcoming people.
The main roads are in excellent condition and are generally a dream to drive on, however some of the quieter/older roads tend to be a little rugged. For this reason we advise that you plan yourself a little more time than you’ve been instructed, or informed by Google Maps. Our recommendation would be to allow an extra hour than you need when driving, especially a little bit more if you’re trying to make a specific time.
Expect to hear howler monkeys every morning as you wake up, have pelicans fly over the waves while you surf, see hummingbirds and enormous blue Morpho butterflies flapping around you as you find a spot to relax. And, as it’s a consistent place for waves on the Pacific Coast, expect a big surf and watersports culture here.
Costa Ricans work 5 hours a day on average so certain businesses may close earlier than you might expect. If you’re looking for temples or ancient architecture, Costa Rica probably isn’t the place to be. A lot of historical buildings and cultural sites were wiped out when Spain conquered the country. However, what it lacks in cultural spots and ancient buildings, it massively makes up for in waves, weather and wildlife!
A catch-all for thanking someone, you’re doing well, and more. If all else fails, you know what to say.
Basic Spanish phrases, easily found in phrasebooks and via apps such as Google Translate, will get you through. It’s a great idea to screenshot them on your smartphone or jot a few down in a notebook so you can practice saying them and have them to hand in times of need. In the meantime, here are some Costa Rican colloquial words that will have you feeling like a local in no time.
“Pura Vida” meaning “pure life”, will be spoken frequently as a part of the greeting and also in return when someone performs a nice gesture for you and you want to thank them.
Friend: “Let me take your bags and pour you a drink, sit down and relax.”
You: “Pura Vida!”
You’ll also hear the term “tuanis” which means “cool”.
Friend: “How was your surf?”
And our favourite, “media naranja”, which literally translates to “half orange” and is said as a term of endearment to a partner or close loved one by the Ticos. One for travellers heading off on honeymoon trips to Costa Rica.
Another good one to know is “Buena nota”. This translates to a ‘cool/nice person’. Hopefully, this one will serve you well when you’re interacting with friendly locals.
Take a peek at our favourite Costa Rica itineraries
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Costa Rican food & drink
Enjoy traditional dishes like casados and tacos in the local sodas. It will usually be meat, fish or vegetables with a staple of white rice and black beans, accompanied by a little salad with platanos or papas fritos.
The black beans are most commonly cooked up with onion, celery and red pepper in a sauce called ‘lizano sauce/salsa’, it’s delicious!
Another national favourite is ceviche, which is made from finely chopped raw fresh white fish, cured in lime juice, and mixed with onions and peppers to be scooped up on little soda crackers.
You’re guaranteed to find a favourite dish here. There is also plenty of international cuisine on offer depending on where you, including Italian, Mexican and even Japanese.
A meal is around $4-7 per person, beers between $2-5 and cocktails $7+.
Bottled water is usually sold for a couple of dollars. However, we recommend taking a reusable bottle with you which you can refill from one large bottle kept in your hotel fridge. Great for the planet, great for your wallet.
The cost of food in Costa Rica really depends on where you are and what’s available. If you want to eat like a Costa Rican, chow down on gallo pinto at a local soda, a national dish comprising of tortillas, fried plantains, fresh fruit and eggs. This costs around $4-7 per person. In larger towns there is a great deal of choice for restaurants, from the more casual eatery, to high end dining, so prices will vary greatly. Coffee costs anything from less than a dollar to around $3, depending on where you are.
Beers are between $2-5 dollars, wine will set you back around $4-12, cocktails or spirit-based long drinks are normally in the region of $7 and up.
Shopping in Costa Rica
Although Costa Rica isn’t famous for its shopping districts, you’ll find malls and plenty of places to splash the cash in San Jose. There’s also an emerging contemporary art scene offering beautiful, handmade luxury items, furniture and art for sale in most towns. San Jose is also the ideal place to stock up on any essentials you need if you arrive there first.
Sustainable and environmentally friendly production is really popular in Costa Rica so you’ll be able to buy some recycled fashion and gifts made with natural materials which haven’t caused a negative impact. There is also a growing market for beauty products that are fully natural, vegan and sustainably produced with a low carbon footprint, so be sure to treat yourself to some guilt-free, locally made lotions and potions to help give you that holiday glow.
Brief history of Costa Rica
Costa Rica has seen a mix of changing colonisations, slavery laws and brutal reigns in its history. However, it presently lives in a state of reasonable peace, with many recent democratic elections passing without civil fighting or conflict. It’s a safe place to travel compared to some of its more politically strained Central and South American neighbours, and there’s no reason to avoid travelling over election times.
Christopher Columbus was said to have named Costa Rica ‘The Rich Coast’ when he landed in the sixteenth century, but there’s still speculation around whether this is actually true. Unfortunately, many years that followed, Costa Rica remained a Spanish colony that was ruled from overseas. Many of the native population sadly died from diseases brought over by European armies and settlers of which they had no immunity to. Costa Rica finally became independent from Spain in 1821.
In more recent years, the country has seen a 44-day long civil war in which José Figueres Ferrer headed up an armed rebellion following an election where the results were supposedly disputed. He won, was elected in the subsequent elections, became a national hero and drafted a constitution which abolished the military. The country now is one of the few in the world not to have a standing army and continues in its democracy until this day.
Costa Rica saw a large economic downfall in the 1970s with export prices in bananas, coffee and oil dropping. However, it is currently growing its GDP exponentially, largely due to a rise in ecotourism and its recent participation in the tech industry. With large corporations now having offices in San Jose and its improved digital infrastructure, Costa Rica is on the up.