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Things you need to know before your trip to Costa Rica

Despite only being the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is the land of plenty. It literally translates to “rich coast.” Christopher Columbus reportedly discovered it in 1502. But the only person who deserves credit for its breathtaking natural wonders is Mother Nature. 

This peaceful Central American country  boasts extensive coastlines along both the Caribbean and Pacific. In addition to world-class beaches, Costa Rica has some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on earth. Scientists, who invented ziplines as a means of studying the many layers of the country’s cloud forests, say five percent of the world’s species are found here.

For anyone who hasn’t been to Africa yet, the wildlife watching is unparalleled. Think slumbering sloths, majestic scarlet macaws, tree frogs as pretty as they are poisonous, and thousands of nesting sea turtles (who leave behind hundreds of thousands of hatchlings). With dogged determination, they all thrive living in the shadow of some of the world’s most active volcanoes.

Time Zone

Central Standard Time

Best Time to Go

The best time to go to Costa Rica depends on what your goals are. If you’re looking for clear Caribbean waters to snorkel in, opt for a drier month like September. The central region, home to the volcanoes and cloud forests, are also best visited during the summer, or dry season. From November through April, roads are drivable and downpours don’t last all day. That said, to take advantage of low season rates and avoid crowds, you’ll want to visit during the wet season, usually May through October. 

For the best cultural events, visit during the first two weeks of January for Palmares (basically Carnival meets rodeo meets music festival) or Easter week. As a Catholic country, many of Costa Rica’s biggest holidays correspond with the Church’s. Regardless of when you visit, you can always watch sea turtles either nest or hatch (both happen year-round), go zip-lining (they do it rain or shine), and learn how to surf (waves are always good).  

Things to Know

When it comes to Latin America, Costa Rica is an entry level country. English is spoken and understood in most tourist areas, and the U.S. dollar is accepted virtually everywhere. Tipping isn’t greatly encouraged; however, it’s greatly appreciated. Before tipping, look to see if the establishment already included a tip or “service charge,” usually 10%, on your receipt.

While the unpaved roads can be quite treacherous, especially during the rainy season, rental car agencies are everywhere. It’s easy to find automatic rentals if you can’t drive manual. On the contrary, it’s hard to find an outlet that doesn’t work with a U.S. plug, so there’s no need to bring an adapter. The voltage is the same, too. Converters aren’t needed.

Currency: Colon (CRC)

($1 USD = 613 CRC; check the current exchange rate)

Language: Spanish

Learn more Spanish phrases

Calling Code: +506 

Capital City: San José

How to Get Around

Trains and Buses: Costa Rica is working on rebuilding its train infrastructure, damaged during the 1991 earthquake. For now, buses are the best form of public transportation. Most are privately owned, but since they’re subsidized by the government, fares are low. For example, a four-hour bus ride might only cost $8. For nonstop service opt for “directo” buses. For cheaper, more adventurous rides, opt for “colectivos.” They stop pretty much everywhere along the route, even if it’s not an official stop.

Taxis: Although not as cost-effective as buses, cabs can be a budget-friendly way of getting around. Costa Rica’s official taxis are red. You can tell they’re authorized and licensed by the yellow triangle on the car’s doors. If you’re taking a taxi from the airport, however, look for the orange cars. These taxis are the only cabs authorized and licensed for airport pickups. It’s also easy to pre-book private car services or shuttles online. Drivers who approach you on the street, and don’t have the yellow triangle, are most likely locals looking to make money using their personal cars.

Rideshare: Uber has been operating in Costa Rica for years; however, it’s mostly limited to major cities and tourist hotspots. Don’t rely on it in more remote destinations or during peak times as it can be hard to find a car.

Best Hotels

  • Tierra Magnifica

Perched at the top of a hill, this new luxury boutique property has panoramic views of Nosara’s world class beaches. Between the outdoor pool, open-air yoga shala, hiking trails, restaurant, spa, and ridiculously fast Wi-Fi, it’s the perfect jungleside retreat. Rates start at $400/night, including breakfast.

  • W Costa Rica – Reserva Conchal

With its audacious architecture and cheeky decor, W Costa Rica – Reserva Conchal stands out on a coast filled with cookie cutter beach resorts. Rooms run the gamut from traditional queens with balconies and ocean views to treehouse suites with private plunge pools. The property has a full-service spa, 18-hole golf course, beach club, adults’ and kids’ pools, and four restaurants. Rates start at $300/night. 

  • Nayara Tented Camp

Nayara Tented Camp, located in Arenal Volcano National Park, is Central America’s premier glamping resort. Each safari-style tent blends in seamlessly with the surrounding rainforest and is luxuriously outfitted with king-size beds, plunge pools (fed by nearby hot springs), AC, Wi-Fi, and unobstructed views of Costa Rica’s most photographed volcano. Rates start at $900/night.

Best Restaurants

  • Restaurante Celajes at Hotel Belmar (Organic)

With its organic gardens – complete with insect hotel and full-size working farm, including a coffee plantation, sugar cane fields, and livestock – Hotel Belmar takes farm-to-table to a whole new level. As a result, its pride and joy – Restaurant Celajes – is so well-respected diners drive from as far away as San José just for dinner (reservations are required). Book a private lunch in the terraced garden or sit on the outside deck with views of the Pacific.

  • El Mercadito (Italian, Seafood, Colombian, American)

El Mercadito is Tamarindo’s beloved upscale outdoor food court where diners can find everything from gourmet pizza to traditional arepas and make-your-own poke bowls. The bar at the center is made out of an old ship, and it’s one of the best places in town for people watching.

  • Sano Banano (Costa Rican, American)

Translating to the healthy banana, Sano Banano serves feel-good food – breakfast, lunch and dinner – in an open-air restaurant. There’s plenty of outdoor seating on the back patio and front porch overlooking Montezuma’s lively main street. Save room for the homemade artisan chocolates featured in the glass case at the front. 

  • Café Rico (Brunch)

Don’t judge Café Rico by the fact it doesn’t have a website; on TripAdvisor it’s the #1 restaurant, out of 94, in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. First timers become regulars thanks to its high quality coffee and memorable takes on classic comfort food like French fries and banana bread French toast.

Things to Do

  1. National Parks. Between its flora, fauna, and geothermal features, Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s paradise. With 28 diverse protected areas, you can national park hop for weeks here and still not see them all. Whether you’re looking for live volcanoes, turquoise waterfalls, white sand beaches, Olive Ridley sea turtles, or the elusive ocelot, you can find it in Costa Rica’s national parks.
  2. Tamarindo. Between Costa Rica’s 300 beaches there are plenty of waves suitable for diehard surfers, beginners, and everyone in between. One of the best places to learn or practice is in Tamarindo, where there’s always surf and it’s clear Iguana Surf’s English-speaking instructors are as passionate about teaching as they are pipelines.
  3. Vida Mía Healing Center & Spa. Wellness has always been a way of life in Costa Rica – it’s home to one of the world’s five blue zones – so it seems sacrilegious to not get at least one spa treatment while in the country.  Perhaps one of the best places to indulge is Vida Mía Healing Center & Spa, located at The Retreat just outside of San José. It sits atop a “high vibrational crystal mountain” and was named the “Best Spa in the Americas.”
  4. Selvatura Park. Often considered to be the birthplace of ziplining, Costa Rica has no shortage of high-adrenaline canopy tours where visitors can see the rainforest as the birds do. For those who are afraid of heights or harnesses, hanging bridges are usually an option. At Selvatura Park, located in the cloud forest in Monteverde, there are nearly two miles of treetop walkways people of all ages can explore. 

Weather

Costa Rica has seven distinct provinces but only two distinct seasons: summer and winter. Summer, or the dry season, is December through April. Winter, or the wet or green season, is May through November. (However, things are slightly less predictable on the Caribbean coast which gets more rain.) 

Costa Rica has pleasant temperatures year-round. February and March are the hottest months with temperatures reaching the mid-90s℉. The coolest months are usually September and October when temperatures can dip into the 60s℉, especially at higher elevations. 

Expect rainy days year-round, but during the dry season they’re few and far between. Showers are usually in the afternoon and short-lived. If you visit during the rainy season, expect serious downpours and washed out roads. However, there are usually a few hours of sunshine every day.