Costa Rica is probably Central America’s most popular tourist destination, and for good reason. Although the country is quite small geographically, it’s absolutely packed full of biodiversity, things to do, and places to visit. San Jose, the capital city, is a good starting point if you’re flying in and is well worth a day, but we highly recommend you get out into the country as soon as you can. Whether you’re looking for hiking, surfing, volcanoes, biological reserves, or incredible beaches, there’s something for everyone.
Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination not only due to its attractions, but also because of its safety. It’s a stable democracy with a diversified economy, and is quite accessible to English speakers. Consequently, it’s also significantly more expensive than other countries in Central America, but still affordable if you’re coming from the US or Europe on a short vacation.
- Economy: Costa Rica is a prosperous Central American country with a relatively high standard of living compared to neighboring countries. Unlike in Nicaragua, the tap water is potable. 75% of the economy is driven by the service industry.
- Money: The Costa Rican Colon (CRC) trades at $575.75 to $1 USD (as of 8/15/17). See here for the current exchange rate.
- Roughly 40% of the restaurants and 60% of the grocery stores we went to accepted credit card. None of the hostels we visited accepted credit card.
- People:There are about 5 million Costa Ricans (Ticos), although about 10-15% of the population is of Nicaraguan origin due to extensive work-related migration. The capital of San Jose has over 330,000 people.
- Language: Spanish is the main language, although English is widely spoken, especially anywhere tourists go.
- Things To Do:
- Beaches:Highly recommended. Costa Rica offers a wide variety on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. We visited:
- Playa Tamarindo: Although satirically known as Tama-Gringo by some due to the high foreigner presence, the beach is gorgeous and has tons of bars, restaurants, and shops for those who need a break from the sun and surf.
- Uvita: A slightly less-visited beach further down the Pacific coast, we stayed in the town for several weeks while working and really enjoyed getting to know these beaches. The Whale’s Tail (Marino Ballena) is a must-see.
- Puerto Viejo: A fun Caribbean town with several good beaches for tanning, swimming, and hiking. We spent a full day walking on an awesome free hiking trail.
- Cahuita: We visited Cahuita National Park, which is close to Puerto Viejo and the only free national park in all of Costa Rica. We had a blast walking along the almost empty beaches and looking for wildlife on the path.
- Cities/Towns: We didn’t visit many big cities, but we did hit the following:
- Liberia: Good stopover if you’re coming from Nicaragua and going to Tamarindo or another Pacific beach. There are a couple of hostels and a food market, but too much else. Some of our cheapest meals in Costa Rica were in Liberia. .
- San Jose is the capital city. You can’t miss it if you’re flying in or crossing the country as most major roads go through it. We spent a couple of days getting to know the city, but we recommend you don’t stay for too much longer.
- Monteverde is a mountain paradise about 5 hours away from San Jose by bus. We visited Reserva Santa Elena for some hiking, but there’s tons more to do, including zip lining and night jungle hikes.
- Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is known as a foreigner and rasta hotspot and is definitely worth a visit. The area has a very strong Caribbean influence and has lots of descendants of Jamaican immigrants. The food reflects the area and we highly recommend the rice and beans, along with any kind of chicken.
- Orosi: Famous for coffee, great for hiking, beautiful scenery, on the cheaper side. It’s good for getting away from the beaten path and there aren’t a lot of tourists. People are super friendly and we spent part of Semana Santa there to avoid the crowds at the beach.
- Tourist Friendliness: We felt very welcome in Costa Rica and we definitely weren’t the only tourists. The country has been very open to tourism for decades and as a result, things are pretty easy. Lots of people speak English, there are many online resources, and we had no problems getting around.
Planning a Visit
We enjoyed the ease of travel and variety of things to do in Costa Rica. The country is very open to tourists.
On average, we spent about $27/person/day while traveling (not working) and had a great experience. We stayed with friends and in hostels, took mostly buses, opted for free hikes instead of tours, and cooked most of our own meals. We paid an average of $10.73/night/person in hostels and $4.59/person/meal at restaurants.
All that being said, we were definitely on the cheap end of the spectrum. Even locals will tell you that Costa Rica is an expensive country and you’ll have to look around for deals to keep below $30 USD/day. This can be a bit challenging for budget backpackers, but it can be done.
Costa Rica is best by bus. We traveled all over the country by bus with no problems. The network is very well developed and there are multiple companies that go most places. That said, the bus system can be a bit confusing. Unlike most countries, bus stations in Costa Rica are company specific and the schedule can be unclear at times. We highly recommend you use the Rome2Rio app to figure out your route and also ask around to double check ALL THE TIME. It’s important to note that if you’re trying to go coast to coast, you’ll likely have to pass through San Jose, and it will take the better part of a day.
Our average long distance bus cost was $4.20 USD/person and the buses were comfortable. Our average Uber/taxi within cities was $3.82 USD.
Like the rest of Central America, get ready for lots of rice, beans, and meat if you’re sticking to a tight budget. Most restaurants serve very similar food, although the price varies depending on the place. We mostly stuck to sodas, which are small-family run restaurants with more affordable food. You can order from the menu or the daily casado, which is usually around $3.90 USD for a meal.
If you’re looking to splurge a bit, there are lots of good options, especially in San Jose and some of the bigger tourist towns like Puerto Viejo, including sushi, Korean, steak, Italian, Chinese, and more. We even found vegemite in one grocery store in a nice part of San Jose! We went to a few nicer restaurants, where we paid an average of $9.90 USD for a meal.
Local specialties include rice and beans and mondongo soup on the Caribbean coast, gallo pinto everywhere else, and patacones. Lizano sauce is a great source of national pride and worth a try as you’ll find it everywhere. It’s like a Worcestershire sauce, but a bit more tangy. Andrea loved it!
We stayed with several friends in Costa Rica, but also spent time in hostels. There are plenty in all the big towns. We paid an average of $10.73 USD/person/night and were happy with the selection. Most places had clean dorm beds with decent WiFi and a kitchen. Cold water showers are the standard, which is actually quite refreshing in the heat. I’d recommend booking something for your first night in the country, and then playing it by ear as there are so many options.
We’re certainly not experts, but Passport Health USA recommends you get vaccinations for:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
When we cross from Nicaragua, they didn’t ask for our vaccination records, but it may be different in you fly in.
Get Out There!
We enjoyed our time in Costa Rica and recommend it to backpackers for a short trip, or as part of a longer Central American journey. It’s an especially good destination if you’ve not traveled in Latin America before as it’s well developed, English is widely spoken, and easy to get around. It is an expensive place to visit by Central American standards, but a great introduction to the region. We enjoyed visiting some of the more popular destinations like Monteverde and Puerto Viejo and wish we could have seen more, but also loved our out-of-the-way places like Orosi and Uvita.