Tips for Friends Planning to Visit Costa Rica
In several occasions various friends, or friends of friends, have asked me for advice regarding what to do, where to stay, and several other logistics issues when traveling to my home country, Costa Rica. Some years ago I would go back to look for old emails I had written to other friends, made some adaptations, and resent the old messages. Of course, this involved quite some time. In the sake of efficiency, I decided to write this short and practical guide, hoping it covers most of the usual questions. I hope you find it useful, and please let me know if there’s anything you think I should add to it. These are my tips for friends planning to visit the happiest country in the world (more here), which is also a top overachiever in the global Social Progress Index.
The Must Sees
The typical first question is what should we see? Well, there’s lots of that, and it’ll all depend on how many nights you plan to stay. Everything has to do with rain forests; that’s a given.
Arenal Volcano. Plan to spend 2 to 3 nights near it. It is very famous because it used to be active and you could see lava flowing day or night. Sadly, it became inactive a few years ago. However, not seeing lava does not affect its beauty when seen with daylight. Moreover, there is lots of stuff to be done near the volcano in the town called La Fortuna: canopy tours, hot water springs, caving (done it, exciting, not good for claustrophobics though), white water rafting (but not as cool as Pacuare, see below), trails, ATV tours, horseback riding… and so forth. Visit www.arenal.net for more info.
Either Poás or Irazú volcanoes. Both are impressive. Not active, but in both you actually reach the crater and look inside it. They’re located in National Parks near San José, so there’s abundant nature and even some nice lakes around them. They’ll take about 50% or 75% of a day to visit each.
At least one Beach. We have lots of National Parks located at the beaches. If you want green pristine beaches go to Manuel Antonio National Park (south pacific), if you want afro-caribbean style go to Puerto Viejo (Atlantic coast), if you wanna go surfing try Mal País (north pacific), and if you just want to party go to Tamarindo (north pacific). It takes about half-day getting to any of them from San José, so plan accordingly. Plan to stay 2 or more nights at any.
Pacuare River white water rafting. This is done from San José. It is a one day trip. It’s one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. You actually are whitewater rafting in the middle of a tropical rain forest, through tall and stretch canyons… just awesome. This is a very cool sport, no previous training required, no age limit… just fun.
Canopy tours. There are lots of canopy tours throughout the different touristic regions in the country. Where ever you go, you’ll find one near. Be sure to ride one. I do recommend those located in the inner part of the country (as opposite to the beaches), since here it rains a lot more and everything you see is green. There are awesome canopy tours at Arenal (where the volcano is) or at Monteverde. There is also a nice one near the Poás volcano, yet the formerly mentioned are cooler.
Choosing What to See
Some friends have actually done some research on their own before asking, and they want somewhat more educated answers regarding what to see. I´ve gotten three common questions: (1) Should I visit Arenal or Monteverde? (2) Should I visit Guanacaste or Manuel Antonio? And finally, (3) should I visit the capital? I address these 3 here.
1. Arenal vs. Monteverde
Arenal and Monteverde both have a vast amount of activities available. I enumerate a few, and state if they can be done at Arenal Volcano (A), Monteverde (M), and if they are suitable for kids (K).
- Hiking in a rain forest and bird watching, plus frogs, plants… you name it (AMK)
- Walking on hanging bridges (AMK)
- Canopy tours (AM, ask if K somehow)
- Hot water spring pools (AK)
- Horse riding (A, maybe M)
- ATV tours (AK, maybe M)
- Tour in boat in lake (Laguna Arenal), (AK)
- Learning about sustainable development stuff (MK)
- Visiting a sustainable cheese factory (MK)
In general, they’re both rain forest settings, so whatever you do in one place, you might not want to do it in the other. There’s a lot of info at http://www.arenal.net/ and at http://www.monteverdeinfo.com/.
2. Guanacaste vs. Manuel Antonio
They are both tropical beaches. Manuel Antonio, is a National Park, and is perhaps more pristine, in the sense that it is a National Park where you can do some hiking to get to the most pristine beaches (4h hike I guess, something to think about for kids), but besides the natural beauty there isn’t much more.
Guanacaste on contraire is a whole province… you would have to choose to what beach-area within the province you want to go to. There is much more social stuff going on here. I actually lived in Guanacaste before moving to Atlanta, so I can talk a while about it. It has its national parks, nice beaches, and much more hotels to choose from. If your interest is surfing, Guanacaste is the region to go to. Particularly good swells are at Mal País and Playa Grande areas.
3. The Capital: Not worth if short on time
Costa Rica’s capital, San José, is not really a touristic place. You might have the idea of visiting colonial buildings from the XVI and XVII centuries as in Mexico’s capital… but those buildings pretty much don’t exist in San José. There is very little to be seen in San José. In half-day day you see all there is to see: Cathedral, National Theater, and Jade Museum (right by the Theater). Rather than visiting downtown, if in San José, I would try to visit the nearby volcanoes such as the Irazú or Poás. I would not plan to spend too much time in the city, but instead go from one place to another, like going from the beaches to a mountain with rain forests.
Nights per Destination
In one occasion, a couple of friends had to decide how to best invest their few nights. I took the different places they were considering, and estimated how many nights were worth investing at each of those places. These were the results.
- Arenal, 2-4 nights (depending on how early you arrive the first day and how late you leave the last day)
- 1 day canopy and hiking
- 1/2 day caving and 1/2 day in boat tour on the lake
- 1 day Caño Negro Wildlife reserve
- Go to hot water springs every single night (there are hotels with their own springs, look for those).
- Either on your way from Arenal to San Jose, or the other way around, pass by this town.
- It is known for its high quality wood products and Ox Cart paintings.
- San José & Surroundings, 4 nights
- 1/2 day San Jose down town: Plaza de la Cultura, National Theater, Cathedral.
- 1 day Pacuare river white water rafting
- 3/4 day Poás Volcano (walk around the park, don´t limit the visit to the crater, stop by a typical restaurant nearby)
- 1/4 waterfalls near Poas volcano (Catarata de La Paz)
- 3/4 day Irazú Volcano (walk around the park, don´t limit the visit to the crater, stop by a typical restaurant nearby). There’s also a cool museum with the history of the volcano nearby.
- Monteverde, 2 nights
- This is a tropical forest thing again, very much like Arenal. Nevertheless, there is much going on here about sustainable development.
- 1/2 day some tour to the milk farm or some other sustainable development project
- 1/2 hiking
- 1/2 day canopy tour or horseback riding… lots of stuff here.
- Malpaís (Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa) (Playa is beach in Spanish). 4 nights. Northwest part of the country.
- Learn to surf. Check out the tides and do your best every day.
- Visit nearby beaches like Montezuma.
- Relax! Don´t try to rush every day to see something, you’ll get exhausted really quick. Take your time to just enjoy the sun.
- Party! Good beach for this.
- Tamarindo, Langosta, Flamingo, Conchal, Grande beaches. All there are very close to one another, it is another beach area. 4 nights.
- It is about 1:20h away from Liberia international airport.
- Good for relaxing and social activities.
- Great swell at Playa Grande, and many surf schools in Tamarindo.
- Other beaches are in the Papagayo Golf area. Ocotal, Hermosa, Panama, Iguanita… very nice beaches to visit, about 45min away from Tamarindo, but not as nice to sleep in as the other ones.
- Puerto Viejo, 3-4 nights.
- This is the Atlantic Ocean, so you drive from San Jose to Puerto Viejo and back to San Jose.
- Puerto Viejo is a very well-known partying beach.
- 1 day Punta Cahuita
- Relax and enjoy the sun.
Dates & Weather: Any time is good
In Costa Rica we have only two seasons (rather than the four in the North): rainy season and less rainy season. Well, they’re supposed to be rainy and dry, or winter and summer, but the truth is it always rains every now and then during the summer and every single afternoon during the winter. The hottest and less rainy days go from November to March, and the rainy days and cooler days go from May to September.
Oh, and in the winter, it’s not 24×7 rain. You´ll have very sunny mornings, a flood pouring down from 2pm to 5pm, and clear skies by night – I´m not kidding. Plan accordingly. Exceptions to this are now more often given all the climate change things, but it’s still generally like this.
In the capital region, the Central Valley, hot is 30C (86F) and cold is 15C (60F). In fact, if we hit anything 14C (57F) or below, we’re freezing off and it is going to appear in the newspaper. At the beaches, hot is 37C (99F) and cold is 19C (66F). That’s year round, tending to warm in the summer and to cool in the winter months.
For tourism, almost all year long is high season. There are peaks driven by local vacations from late November to early March, and during July. These time periods are schools’ vacations, so beaches tend to have a lot more nationals during these days. Easter Week (Holly Week) is also a popular date to visit the beaches for locals. The fact that locals are around does not mean you can’t go, it just means you should book more in advance. They are not good times to go backpacking with the “I’ll see where I sleep” philosophy.
Travel Agencies: If on tight budget, do it yourself
I really don’t know a particular tourism agency to recommend. Nevertheless, Costa Rica lives by tourism… so you can easily try out 5 or more agencies and pick the one you like the most. Buying The Lonely Planet is a good idea. You can also visit www.visitcostarica.com; I’m actually proud of that site. None of the friends I’ve advised have actually hired a travel agency.
Transportation: Rent a small SUV with GPS
Between renting a car or using public transportation, rent a car, and preferably an SUV with GPS included.
Public Transportation vs. Rental
Public transportation in Costa Rica is not good at all. For tourism purposes, please go for a rental, so you make the most of your time. Unless you are going to stay stationary for a long time somewhere, it’s best to have the freedom of your own car.
Now, if you do need to take a cab, don’t worry, it’s totally safe. The only thing to bear in mind is to always take “official” taxi cabs and not any other random vehicle offering transport. All “official” cabs are red and have a yellow triangle on the front doors. The exceptions are the cabs that move tourists from and to the airports, which are orange. These are also official. Just don’t trust any random car with a light on its roof; it might even be red, but won’t have the yellow triangles.
Taxi rides are much cheaper in Costa Rica than in the US or Europe. All official cabs have a taximeter that will show the appropriate rate for your ride. It is not common to tip the taxi driver, though it is of course always welcome. The only guys used to receive tips are the taxi drivers who move tourists out of the airports; they’re used to move foreign people who tip instead of nationals who don’t.
Uber? We have it back home, yet only since recently. Don’t count on Uber cars being available except while in the populated cities in the Central Valley.
What to Rent?
Should I rent an SUV or a sedan? You definitely want a small SUV. No need for a big SUV though. To go around the city a regular economic car would be fine, but to move around the touristic areas you need an SUV. You could go to most places in a sedan, but you don’t want to regret not being able to do something because of the car. For example: you might get to a beach in a sedan, but not be able to go to the near-by waterfall in the sedan.
Do you recommend any rental company? All rentals are the same. You can find the usual suspects: Budget, Economy, AVIS… Compare prices, book car early, get full insurance.
Driving Experience & GPS
How is it to drive in Costa Rica? Driving in Costa Rica might seem even adventurous for tourists. This is neither American-style nor European-style driving. Especially when in the city, be patient in the roads, keep alert, and expect the unexpected. Traffic is particularly awful within the Central Valley: we’re the 10th worst country to drive in as per Waze[. Outside of San José, most driving will be on open roads and the trip should be fairly relaxed.
Should I get a GPS with the rental? Yes, definitely. You might have heard by now that driving in Costa Rica is an exciting adventure… it’s driving “where the streets have no name” (like the U2 song). It is only recently that we got our first street signs! Nevertheless, the main roads that you would use are well signaled. In the city driving is complex, but at the rural side it’s actually fairly simple. I would suggest renting a car with a GPS – which work great! – If you don’t want to invest on hiring a driver. The GPS would actually avoid plenty complications trying to get anywhere. Google Maps and Waze work great in Costa Rica, yet for that you need a data plan and you have the risk of finding yourself in areas with no cellular coverage.
Currency and Payments
The exchange rate is usually around 530 colones per 1 USD; For up-to-date exchange rate see here and look for “TIPOS DE CAMBIO.” You can survive with US dollars, but having some colones in your pocket won’t hurt. There might be small establishments, but very few, where they might not receive USD. You’ll never need more than $100 in colones for any purchase you couldn’t do in USD. On the other hand, I myself don’t tend to carry cash while in Costa Rica… you can pay most stuff with credit cards. The only place you would want to use cash is in bars and pubs.
What do Costa Ricans eat?
I once gave advice to a Swiss couple on what to order at Costa Rican restaurants. They surprised the waiter by ordering something very Costa Rican, that they could for sure prepare in the kitchen, but that was not on the menu. They loved it! I comment on this and other details here.
Most of Costa Rican food has to do with rice and beans, kinda like Mexican. This starts with our breakfast. You MUST, at least once, have gallo pinto for breakfast. It translates to something like “spotted rooster”. This is – as you might guess – rice and beans, with a random set of ingredients including onions, cilantro, red peppers, and perhaps others. We love to put Salsa Lizano on it. This is a sauce Costa Ricans crave for. Salsa Lizano is so Costa Rican, that when Unilever bought the company that produces it they didn’t even dare to change the name, label, bottle shape or color. All they did was add a small Unilever logo to it, so it remained exactly the same. We put it especially on our gallo pinto or on steak. I bring took a bottle of Salsa Lizano to Atlanta each time I could. Breakfast MUST also include bread or tortillas with natilla, which is similar to sour cream, but much much better. So, at any restaurant, order “gallo pinto con huevo revuelto, pan y natilla”, which is “rice and beans with scrambled eggs, bread and natilla”.
For lunch or dinner, the dish to order is called casado. This actually translates to married guy, but I have no idea why we call it like that. This is a very very traditional meal in the camp side where you eat whatever you find. In line with this, casado is piece of meat, be it steak, chicken breast or fish fillet, accompanied by – yes, again you guessed it – rice and beans, a green salad and fried plantains. Those are the basics, though additionally it might include picadillo (chopped potatoes with something else), a fried egg, some other kind of salad, and I even once got spaghetti with sausage in the same plate. Oh, and remember to ask for Salsa Lizano on your steak.
If you’re just in for snacks, as in bar appetizers (what is called appetizers in the US and tapas in Spain, we call bocas), there are two top picks. First one is chifrijo. This is what that Swiss couple ordered. It is served in a bowl, and from the bottom up you’ll find layers of – and again! – Rice, beans, chopped pork, and tomato. Many of us enjoy it with some hot sauce and you have chips on the side. I crave for one as a write this! The second pick is ceviche. This is similar to the Peruvian and others you find across Latin America, but better (yet, I’m biased). It is chopped fish cooked with lots of lemon, onions, red pepper, cilantro, and served with crackers or chips. Some people add ketchup, mayonnaise, and/or hot sauce. I personally stay with just a little mayonnaise and hot sauce. Both of these are excellent bar appetizers, so they actually taste a lot better with a cold beer accompanying them. Beers are next.
Beer & Alcohol
Important stuff! The most popular one is Imperial, but I prefer Pilsen, which is the second most popular. Any of these is better than any regular US beer; sorry if you are American, but I really don’t dig the Budweiser, Coors, Miller, or Michelob… they’re just not “beer” for me. The logo of Imperial is an eagle, which you will recognize in most souvenir shops. Beer prices will range from 1000 colones ($2) at a cheap bar to 2000 ($4) at a fancy club. This is a 355ml serving.
Departing from the popular brands, craft beer has picking up momentum over the past couple of years. Be sure to try those out. Thanks to those, I’m no longer missing the variety found in breweries in the US or Europe.
The national liquor is called Guaro, and the traditional (and only) brand is called Cacique. It has a transparent color with a very dry taste. The closest thing to it is Vodka or Gin, though Guaro will hit you stronger. Most common cocktail with guaro is a Guaro Sour (guaro, soda, lime, and a pinch of grenadine). Despite being the national liquor, Costa Ricans drink much more of the traditional hard liquors (whiskey, rum, vodka) than guaro.