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Costa Rica: The Ultimate Travel Guide

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I love Costa Rica. It was the first place that inspired me to travel, travel paradise. Pristine beaches, lush mountains, cool cloud forests, active volcanoes, world-class coffee plantations & stunning wildlife. There’s no shortage of things to do on vacation.

Costa Rica is a tiny country with big attributes: the most peaceful country in Central America, the most democratic country in Latin America, and one of the most biodiverse places on earth.

But, because it’s not as cheap to visit as its neighbors, many budget travelers skip over Costa Rica, there’s the language barrier, the cultural differences —even just figuring out the best places to go.

Fortunately, Costa Rica travel planning can be easy. You just need the right advice! Scroll down below and let dive deeper!

Costa Rica: The Ultimate Guide

Best time to visit Costa Rica  What to prepare before the trip
Best beaches to visit in Costa Rica Costa Rica’s Best National Parks

 

Best time to visit Costa Rica

 Costa Rica has two distinct seasons:

-Dry season: that runs from December through April

-The rainy season: that runs from May through November.

The peak travel season when most people visit coincides with the dry season, and conveniently, North America’s and Europe’s winters.

Dry Season: The Safest Time to Visit

 We’ll explain why the rainy season really isn’t that bad below, but if you’re one of those people who are very worried about rain ruining your vacation, plan your visit during the dry season.

Most areas of the country see little to no rain between mid-December and April, so you don’t have to worry about having to change your plans based on the weather.

The dry season is also the best time to visit certain attractions in Costa Rica. Poas Volcano, for example, tends to get fogged in during the rainy months and might be that way during your entire stay. But during the dry season, you’re very likely to get to see it with clear skies

Poás Volcano, Alajuela Province, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Poas Volcano on a cloudy day in the rainy season

Certain hikes are also better in the dry season. If you’re trekking Mt. Chirripo, you’ll have the best chance of seeing both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean from the top during the dry months. Similarly, the Rio Celeste Waterfall gets muddled with sediment during rainstorms, skewing its characteristic bright blue hue. And the trails at parks and reserves in the wet Southern Zone, like Corcovado National Park, tend to get very muddy during the rainy season. Visibility for snorkeling is also better when there are less rain and runoff to cloud the water

Chirripo, San José, Pérez Zeledón, Costa Rica on a dry season

Rio Celeste waterfall in the dry season

Rainy Season: A Good Time to Visit if You’re Flexible

 If you are somewhat flexible with your plans, consider visiting Costa Rica during the so-called hedge months in-between seasons. November to early December and May through August are great times of year to travel. Not only will temperatures be a bit more enjoyable and the rainforest nice and green, but you’ll also avoid the big crowds and get better prices. Hotels and rental cars are cheaper, and tour prices are easier to negotiate

 Keep in mind too that you’re not giving up a fantastic vacation by traveling during the rainy season. It seldom rains all day every day during the majority of the season, so as long as you build some flexibility into your itinerary, you should still be able to do everything you want.

TIP: If you’re planning a visit to Costa Rica during the rainy months, take the time to carefully select your destinations. Some regions of the country are wetter than others and best avoided altogether during the low season. Here’s a post all about the weather in Costa Rica, which includes information about how much rain the different regions get over the course of a year.

 Extra tips: The rainiest months, in general, are September and October, During this time, you might have several days in a row with prolonged periods of rain, which can make it difficult to get out and explore. For this reason, we recommend avoiding travel to Costa Rica during this time for all but the most adventurous travelers

What to prepare before the trip to Costa Rica

Whether you’re a beach bum or a rugged eco-traveler, there are some important things to know when packing for Costa Rica. Located at 10 degrees latitude, the sun shines brighter and the rain falls harder here. Many gringos arrive expecting Margaritaville — and leave with bug bites, blisters, and a nasty sunburn.

By packing a few simple items, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Pack everything I recommend here, and you’ll be ready for anything in Costa Rica.

-Spanish Phrasebook

 English is common in Costa Rica, especially in well-traveled areas. But knowing a few key Spanish phrases will really set you apart from the majority of tourists. Take the time to memorize the basics: hola (“hello”), hasta luego (“goodbye”), la cuenta, por favor (“the bill, please”), gracias (“thank you”). Even better, sprinkle in some Costa Rican sayings like pura vida, mae!

It doesn’t matter if your pronunciation is terrible, or if you mess up the words entirely. Just trying to communicate with others in Spanish conveys empathy and respect. Locals will love it. They’ll warm up to you immediately.

-Rain Jacket

 Buy a high-quality rain jacket. Rain jackets, like many things in life, follow a simple rule: you get what you pay for. A cheap plastic rain jacket won’t last long. A good Gore-Tex rain jacket will likely last for years. I’ve been using my North Face Gore-Tex rain jacket for almost a decade, and it still works great. Stuff it in the bottom of your day pack and bring it everywhere you go.

-Headlamp/Flashlight

 You should always carry a headlamp or flashlight in Costa Rica. You never know when the electricity might go out, or when you’ll end up in a small town with no street lamps. In addition, many ecolodges pride themselves on limited electricity, preferring candles, and oil lamps. Trust me, when the sun goes down between 5:20 pm and 6 pm (as it does throughout the year when you’re this close to the equator), you’ll be glad you’re carrying a flashlight or headlamp.

-Sunscreen (Choose the best one)

 It seems obvious, but many people forget to pack good sunscreen or decide they’ll pick some up when they arrive in Costa Rica. That’s fine, but imported goods like sunscreen can be up to four times more expensive in Costa Rica. You also might not find your favorite brands. It’s far more economical to bring sunscreen to Costa Rica. Buy 30 SPF or higher, and when packing sunscreen put it in a ziplock bag. That way if it pops open in your suitcase it won’t get all over your clothes.

-Hat (Your favorite)

 The easiest way to protect your head from the sun. The wider the brim, the better

-Mesh Bag

 A mesh bag, which weighs practically nothing, is great for temporarily storing swimsuits and wet clothes. Plastic bags trap moisture, which is a terrific way to cultivate some of the fascinating molds and fungi found in Costa Rica.

-Packing Cubes

 I never go anywhere without packing cubes. There’s no better way to keep your clothes organized – or to keep dirty clothes separate from clean clothes. Packing cubes are cheap, light and super useful. What’s not to love?

-Sport Sandals/Water Shoes

 sport sandals/water shoes fall in the “optional” category. If you’re thinking about rafting, canyoneering, or hiking through wet areas, you should definitely pack a pair of sport sandals/water shoes like those made by Keen. Nothing is worse than boots filled with water and sand, which quickly grind down your flesh.

-Mosquito Repellant

Costa Rica is home to tens of thousands of insect species. Most are completely harmless — and actually quite beautiful. But mosquitoes are annoying, and in some cases, they can transmit dengue, zika, and other illnesses. The solution is simple: wear strong repellent when visiting mosquito-prone areas (Caribbean Coast, South Pacific, and Central Pacific).

Best beaches to visit in Costa Rica

First off, surfing in Costa Rica is an excellent way to socialize with all kinds of people. Locals, expatriates, and holiday-makers all congregate on the beaches for an entire day of surfing! The Pacific Ocean on its west and the Caribbean Sea to its east, Costa Rica is a renowned surfing and water sports destination

1. Playa Cocolito

Located a short hike from Drake Bay, Playa Cocalito is the perfect place to escape the crowds and play castaway. The trail to Cocalito, which crosses a suspension bridge and passes through lush jungle, is a great place to see white-faced monkeys and scarlet macaws.

2. Playa Matapalo

Despite being situated between the popular beach towns of Manuel Antonio and Dominical, Playa Matapalo has managed to stay under the tourist radar. If you’re looking for peace, quiet and spectacular sunsets, you’ll definitely find them here. There are even a handful of small, reasonably-priced hotels along the beach where you can fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves.

3. Playa Esterillos

Although located halfway between Jacó and Manuel Antonio — two of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica — Playa Esterillos is a big, beautiful beach with virtually no development

4. Playa Ventanas

Locals know that Playa Grande offers a far more relaxed experience than its famous neighbor Tamarindo (aka “Tama-gringo”). But venture beyond the northern tip of Playa Grande and you’ll discover rarely-visited Playa Ventanas, a magnificent crescent of golden sand.

Costa Rica’s Best National Parks

 There are 26 national parks in Costa Rica. Discover the very best, including national parks with stunning beaches, mountains, rainforest, cloud forest and more.

I only list the best of 5 National Parks in Costa Rica

1. Manuel Antonio National Park

It might be Costa Rica’s most visited reserve, but Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast turned out to be a highlight for us and well worth the visit.

Which was a surprise. Given the crowds, we thought we’d hate it.

What we found was that most visitors were in such a rush to get to the park’s legendary beaches that we had much of the wildlife viewing to ourselves.

Not even a howler monkey hanging out on a branch right over the main trail was enough to slow the beachgoers. Our guide simply set up a scope in the middle of the path and we settled in to watch the lazy simian holler at the trees.

At just 20 square kilometres, Manuel Antonio is the smallest of the national parks in Costa Rica, and it’s easily explored on foot. The longest trail is a little over 2 kilometres.

Then, when the heat finally takes its toll, and it will, you can head to the beach and wade into that beautiful azure water to cool down.

Just watch out for the innocent-looking capuchin monkeys and raccoons: Manuel Antonio’s cheeky ‘beach cartel’ is known to patrol the sands waiting for snatch and grab opportunities around unattended bags.

2. Corcovado National Park

Sunset in Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park is home to five of Central America’s six feline species. Jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays and jaguarundis are all found in the park. Although jaguars are rarely spotted, they are the undisputed kings of Corcovado.

Other mammals include tamanduas, an anteater with a 16-inch tongue, and coatis, a raccoon-like animal that scavenges everything from crabs to bird eggs. Both two-toed and three-toed sloths dangle from the trees. And Corcovado is the only place in Costa Rica home to all four of the country’s monkey species: howler, spider, white-faced capuchin, squirrel.

Above all else, Corcovado National Park is famous for wildlife. There are 140 mammal species, 370 bird species and over 10,000 insect species on the Osa Peninsula.

Even more impressive, many species that have disappeared from much of Central America have healthy populations in Corcovado. Baird’s tapir is the most famous example. Because tapirs require large tracts of undisturbed forest, they have disappeared from much of their former range. But tapirs are common in Corcovado National Park.

3. Tapanti National Park (Central Valley)

A short and easy drive from San Jose, Tapanti National Park is 48 square kilometers (18 sq/miles) of pristine cloud forest. The park offers visitors hiking trails, swimming holes, and scenic picnic areas. Over 400 species of birds call this park their home, along with 45 species of mammals including the elusive ocelot, the social white-faced capuchin monkey, and the endangered jaguarondi.

Tapanti National Park is an excellent choice for a day trip, especially when staying near and around the San Jose area. The exquisite beauty of this dense cloud forest is sure to leave an indelible mark on each visitor’s memory.

 

4. Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

Mistico is a compact park with excellent infrastructure, including a well-marked, well-maintained walking trail, and – the main reason for our visit – a series of awesome hanging bridges: six high bridges in the canopy, and a further ten smaller fixed bridges.

Exploring the jungle 40 meters above the ground, Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, Alajuela, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

The wildlife spotting is excellent. You’ll see and hear a great variety of bird and insect life and, if you’re lucky, howler monkeys, sloths, and snakes might make an appearance.

"I see you"

Like many of the top-notch parks in Costa Rica, Mistico is hugely popular. While it’s easy to find space away from others along the walking trail, we did encounter queues at a couple of the hanging bridges, where there are limits on the number of people aboard at any one time. It’s a small price to pay though for an unforgettable walk through the treetops.

5. Tortuguero National Park

Our final pick for our 5 best parks in Costa Rica is Tortuguero National Park, a Caribbean delight, and completely different nature experience to the parks of the Pacific coast and the continental divide.

Sunrise at Tortuguero beach, Costa Rica

Tortuguero, with its many lagoons and creeks, has been called ‘Costa Rica’s Amazon’. So naturally, a highlight of a visit to the park is a dawn canoe trip along its freshwater canals.

Not only is this the coolest time of day in the tropical reserve, but it’s also when the 400-odd bird species that call Tortuguero home are at their most active.

 Tortuguero, Costa Rica

The beauty of a canoe is that there’s no noisy outboard motor ruining the ambiance and frightening away the jungle life.

Canoes can also access narrower waterways, meaning more opportunities to spot the park’s more elusive residents, like quirky Jesus Christ lizards, spider monkeys, sloths, and if you’re truly lucky, an endangered West Indian manatee.



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