Costa Rica Travel Guide
Costa Rica Summary
- Beautiful rainforests and active volcanoes
- Dozens of national parks with a rich diversity of flora and fauna
- Long sandy beaches
- Great windsurfing and hiking
- Peaceful, almost untouched retreats in the south and on the Caribbean Coast
- Sustainable tourism is widespread in most parts of the country
- Accommodation options for every budget
- Friendly locals
- More expensive than other Central American destinations
- Local culture is sometimes lost to growth and development
- Slow public buses
- Uneven and winding roads make driving a challenge
- The country lacks traditional addresses
- Petty theft is common
- San Jose: The capital city is somewhat unattractive, but has some interesting museums and historic buildings
- Manuel Antonio: Popular tourist destination with beautiful, tranquil beaches and a wild-life rich national park
- La Fortuna and Arenal: Home to numerous hot springs and one of the country's most active volcanoes, Arenal
- Jaco: The most popular beach destination in the northern Central Pacific Coast region, with a party-friendly atmosphere
- Herradura: Good for golf and fishing. It's a more relaxed alternative to neighboring Jaco.
- Puntarenas: It's one of the main commercial ports in the country, with a steady flow of cruise ship passengers and several large chain hotels, but it's not very attractive.
- Monteverde: Stunning cloud forests and small villages
- Caribbean Coast: More laid-back, remote and authentic than the Pacific Coast
- Guanacaste: Costa Rica's driest region, famous for its sunny days and beautiful, remote beaches
What It's Like
Costa Rica can be anything from a peaceful oasis to crowded and touristy depending on the time of the year and the region visited. But it's still far less developed than most popular beach destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, and there are so many options for where to go that it's always possible to find a remote retreat.
This small Central American country is home to hundreds of diverse habitats, making it easy to enjoy beach days, eco-tourism, and outdoor adventures in the same trip and without having to travel long distances. The geography is infinitely varied, ranging from rugged coastlines and bustling towns to misty cloud forests and active volcanoes.
While most tourists head to the Pacific coast, the Caribbean side of the country is flat and laid-back, and has a completely different vibe to it.
To get from one area of the country to another, many tourists use convenient and affordable shuttle services like Interbus, Gray Line, or EasyRide. Public buses are clean, but tend to be terribly slow. To get around within a destination, most travelers use taxis, which are safe, affordable, and widely available. If you're considering renting a car, note that the crooked and rough roads can be a challenge for many drivers, especially during the rainy season (starting in May), and that Costa Rica lacks street signs or traditional addresses.
Where to Stay
Many travelers stay in San Jose either the first or the last night of their trip to Costa Rica, simply to crash after a flight gets in or before it departs. The capital city is not very attractive, but there are some nice hotels, especially in Escazu, an affluent suburban area located six miles from downtown San Jose. Accommodations range from cozy boutique hotels to big international chain properties.
Small towns like Alajuela and Heredia are also good options for those who need to stay close to the airport. B&B-style properties are typical here, but there are also medium-sized chain hotels and resorts.
La Fortuna is a haven for eco-tourists looking for high-quality hotels with excellent service and amenities. Expect to find small properties with beautiful grounds and impressive views of the Arenal Volcano, such as the Arenal Nayara and Arenal Kioro hotels.
Southwest of La Fortuna are Monteverde and Santa Elena, gateways to the country's awe-inspiring cloud forests. Despite their tiny size, they are popular with tourists. Hotels here are on the small side and hidden away amidst the thick local flora.
The biggest destination in the Guanacaste region is Tamarindo, which is home to several large chain hotels and ongoing development. But Guanacaste is large, and there are a handful of secluded luxury resorts elsewhere along its coast, including the JW Marriott and the Four Seasons.
For those who don't have the time or budget to explore the remote and expensive Nicoya Peninsula, Puntarenas might sound like the best alternative -- ferries taking tourists and locals to the south of the peninsula dock here. However, few tourists choose to stay overnight. Instead, they head south to more attractive areas, like Jaco or Manuel Antonio. Hard partiers will love it in Jaco, which has numerous small backpacking hostels and inns. But the town is also a good base for exploring the Carara Biological Reserve and Playa Hermosa, both still fairly off the beaten track. Just to the north is the less developed Herradura, where the Marriott Los Suenos megaresort is located.
Manuel Antonio is the main draw of the Central Pacific region. The wildlife-rich national park and the beautiful beaches are the top attractions here. Hotels in the area generally have sprawling grounds atop steep hills overlooking the rainforest and the ocean. La Mariposa, Gaia Hotel & Reserve, Arenas Del Mar and Buena Vista Luxury Villas have some of the most impressive views in the area.
For a completely different vibe, head out to the Caribbean Coast, where the jungle meets the sea and the long stretches of sand still attract few tourists. Laid-back Cahuita and Puerto Viejo, near the border with Panama, are the most tourist-friendly places in the area and feature mostly small, bungalow-style hotels.