When my best friend told me about her trip to Costa Rica, I honestly couldn’t even find the country on a globe, but the way she talked about the food and the people made me curious enough to start looking.
Not only did I find the small Central American jewel, but I also found pictures that transported me somewhere lush, green, and enchanting. As she described perfect sandy beaches and sunsets that seemed to last for hours, I knew I was going to end up booking a trip.
Having spent most of my life securely landlocked in America’s Midwest, the thought of traveling somewhere tropical holds a dream-like promise. Surely, there are secrets to be discovered in the foothills of volcanoes. Or maybe the keys to life are hidden in places with names like the cloud forest or Tamarindo Beach, but traveling beyond US borders seems intimidating.
Whatever it is that had Costa Rica calling your name, don’t let planning overwhelm you and keep you from the experience of a lifetime. Take it one step at a time, and you’ll be flying to paradise before you know it.
When to Go and What to See
With rainforests, resorts, beaches, and a tourist-friendly atmosphere, it’s not surprising that Costa Rica is known as the happiest country on earth. Nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, the small, Spanish-speaking country offers seven biodiverse provinces where breathtaking natural resources provide stunning and unique experiences for travelers.
When there are no wrong destination choices, though, how do you decide what to see?
The most important thing to consider is something you won’t find on a fact sheet or internet search. It’s something only you can answer: What do you want most from your time away? Are you looking for a quiet retreat immersed in tropical beauty? Or is adventuring through hiking trails to volcanoes and waterfalls higher on your list of priorities? What if what you’re desiring most includes luxury spas, guided tours, and a taste of Central America’s city life?
All of these options are open to you in Costa Rica, and with a little knowledge and planning, you can find the perfect province to visit, but don’t forget about the rainy season. Like all tropical countries, winter comes by way of rain. Lots of rain. When you plan your trip to Costa Rica, make sure you choose the right time to go for the particular places you want to see.
Costa Rica’s rainy season is typically from May to November. Naturally, peak tourist time then covers late November through April, making it the perfect escape from winter weather here in the northern hemisphere. Keep in mind that Costa Rica is not a uniform climate, though. Some regions are rainy all year while others are arid and dry.
Use the quick checklist below to see which region might be best suited for you, and then you can narrow down the best travel window for your destination.
Settled between the Pacific Ocean and impressive volcanoes, Guanacaste is a bustling tourist destination. With the driest climate in Costa Rica and a variety of landscapes and activities to explore, Guanacaste is designed to keep tourists relaxed, happy, and amazed.
- Beaches, snorkeling, white-water rafting
- All-inclusive resorts, Nosara
- Hostels and remote stay locations
- Rodeos, horseback riding, zip lining
- Sea turtles
*Schedule your night viewing during the New Moon to see these amazing creatures make their way to the ocean.
- National Parks, hanging bridges, hikes
Stretching from Guanacaste’s border all the way to Costa Rica’s southern border, Puntarenas offers the unique and unusual history of Quaker settlements alongside rainforest habitats. If your curiosity is piqued, read on to see if this is the destination for you.
- Rainforests – cloud forests, Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Santa Elena Reserve, Monteverde Reserve
- *Sky night tours offer the adventure of a lifetime with a chance to see the rainforest from the tops of the trees.
- Animal sightings from endangered ocelots and jaguars to tapirs, sloths, and a multitude of other species.
- San Lucas Island
- Quaker historical sites
San Jose (January–July)
The capital city of Costa Rica, San Jose offers breathtaking metropolitan attractions that tell the story of Costa Rica’s development and growth over the centuries.
- Metropolitan atmosphere
- Cultural sites, museums, parks, theaters
- Architectural sites
- Day-trips into nature
Located along Costa Rica’s northern border, Alajuela offers everything from relaxed, city destinations to active volcanoes and craters.
- Mango Season festivals
- Poas Volcano
- Arenal Volcano
- Coffee Plantations
- Metropolitan Sites
- Architectural Attractions
Lush forests and some of Costa Rica’s most undisturbed landscapes are on display here. If you’re looking for a nature-focused escape, Heredia just might be the province for you.
- Untouched forests
- Relaxed, semi-metropolitan area
- The City of Flowers, Ciudad de las Flores
- Spanish architecture
- Coffee plantations
With its deep cultural history, Cartago province features ruins and remnants from the Spaniards’ conquest of Costa Rica as well as rich displays of their religious influences on the country. Like most other places in Costa Rica, the scenery is full of stunning tropical views.
- Cooler nights
- Pre-Spanish archaeological sites
Now that you have your sights set on a province (or provinces) to experience, you are ready to take the next steps toward taking off. When traveling outside the United States, though, there’s more to do than simply packing a bag and booking a flight.
What You Need to Know About the Happiest Place on Earth
When you plan a trip to Costa Rica, you need to know more than just what there is to see. If you’re new to international travel, this can be overwhelming with multiple sites to check and sources to evaluate.
Surprisingly the CIA provides the easiest, most reliable starting place. The agency best known for spy work also compiles handy one-to-two page documents called Travel Facts which are specifically designed for US travelers going abroad.
Costa Rica’s Travel Facts information sheet provides a link to Travel Advisories for the US Department of State where you can check for any advisories regarding safety as your trip draws near.
Also listed are passport requirements, climate information, and even the types of electrical outlets Costa Rica offers so you can be sure to get the right charger for your cell phone. Luckily, you won’t need an adapter for this trip since your Costa Rican destination offers 120v/60v options just like we have here at home, but bottled water is advised.
Other than staying connected and hydrated, your Travel Facts for Costa Rica lets you know you’ll need an inter-American driver’s license if you plan on driving during your stay. It also tells you where to get the license (AAA) and that you’ll be driving on the right side of the road.
Beyond these crucial basics, the CIA even gives US travelers an inside look at the dominant religions in the area as well as important local customs that can cause confusion. Under the heading “Cultural Practices” you’ll find what you need to know for your trip. The Costa Rican custom of saying “maybe” instead of “no” is an important detail.
US travelers could take this as an attempt to trick tourists when the Costa Rican population simply avoids the word “no” as a cultural practice.
It’s important to keep small differences like these in mind as you travel beyond the borders of home.
Not only will it make your experience less stressful as you communicate with confidence and clarity, but the consideration you show to those you meet will grant you greater access to the people. You will get to experience the culture, which is just as vital to your adventure as sightseeing and surfing.
Health Information and Precautions
Contact with people beyond our own country brings more than just cultural differences, though. Our immune systems are also accustomed to different things. As such, vaccinations and health precautions are something you must consider when traveling outside of the United States.
While the CIA fact sheets link to the World Health Organization (WHO) for information about immunizations required for entry into Costa Rica, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is going to be your source for any Travel Health Notices. These are the daily alerts for any urgent health concerns.
Don’t let this information scare you. Not only will the CDC tell you if there are any advisories at the time of your trip, but it will also provide easy-to-understand Watch Levels along with exactly what precautions you will need to take if there are any.
For example, there is currently a Travel Health Notice for Dengue fever in Costa Rica. While that might sound alarming, the CDC has assigned this a Watch Level 1, Practice Usual Precautions. The warning goes on to explain that Dengue fever is spread by mosquitoes and that normal precautions against mosquito bites are enough to protect travelers.
Bottom line: Bring your bug spray and bed nets, and put your mind at ease.
By checking the travel advisories and health notices as your trip draws near, you’ll be well-equipped to leave these worries behind you and simply focus on relaxation and renewal, but before you get lost imagining sandy beaches and fruity cocktails, there are a few practical steps still left to tend to.
Be Prepared for Paperwork
The US Department of State lists processing times for passport applications at 6-8 weeks, though delays do occur. At times, additional documents are required or world events beyond our borders can impact the time it takes to get your paperwork through the system, so getting your application in should be step one in booking your trip.
Don’t worry about your passport expiring. For those over 16 years old, your passport will be valid for ten years from the date it was issued. You also don’t need to worry about applying for a visa unless you plan to stay in Costa Rica for more than 90 days.
If you already have a passport, you will need to make sure the expiration date is at least six months after your arrival in Costa Rica. You will also need a minimum of one blank page for your entry stamp according to the CIA Travel Facts.
To submit your application, you will need to bring your completed Application for a US Passport (DS-11), a current 2×2 photo, an original birth certificate, a photo ID as well as a photocopy of your photo ID, along with $175 to your local Acceptance Facility which can be found here.
For even more information including acceptable alternatives to the required documents and rules for those under 16, check with the Department of State Citizenship Evidence page.
Time to Start Saving
By compiling data from several sources, budgetyourtrip.com lists the average cost for Costa Rica at $73 per person, per day or $511 for a single week. This covers things like food and local transportation costs, but not hotel stay or your flights.
Of course, hotel prices will vary greatly depending on where you decide to stay and the type of experience you want to have. Smaller cottages and hostels outside major tourist areas can start at just a couple hundred dollars for a week versus the all-inclusive hotels which can reach into the thousands.
The easiest way to start saving is to mock up your ideal getaway like the example below and use it as a guideline.
Duration: 2 weeks. Monday-Monday
Accommodations: Remote. Hostel. Rental car.
Extras: 4 guided tours, souvenirs, 1 spa day
- Pre-trip expenses: passport – $175; packing – $100
- Don’t forget to include the money you will be spending stateside before your vacation as part of the budget for your trip.
- Flight: $600–$800 round trip
- Airline costs vary wildly depending on the day you buy, the day you leave and the day you plan on returning and more. For budgeting purposes, you should check flights that mirror the time you want to leave and depart, how many stops you’re willing to make, with the time of year being the most important factor.
Also, unlike other areas where you might be able to take an average and get a good idea of what your cost will be, I strongly suggest you plan to the highest end. This way the unexpected cost bumps, baggage fees, and last-minute charges won’t destroy your plans. Worst-case scenario, you will end up with a little extra money in your pocket.
- Hotel: $80/night
- Hostels are a much cheaper way to stay. Still, budgeting above what your online research shows will give you the freedom to move locations if you’re dissatisfied with your distance from what you want to visit or just have an annoying roommate.
- Food, etc: $73/day
- Tours: $100/person/tour
- Souvenirs: $200
- Day Spa: $250
- Car Rental: $400/week
- Buffer: 20%
Whenever you create a budget, whether it’s for your home, a project or a vacation, adding in a buffer will give you peace of mind by accounting for those little forgotten things like tipping, unexpected admission fees, or outdated information.
This two-week dream vacation totals $5176.80. By setting your sights on what you want most from your experience, and customizing your budget to your wants and needs, you will get the most from your budget. The tentative total will also give you a guide for how long you will need to save.
Fortunately, even though the local currency is the Colon, the US Dollar is commonly accepted so there is little need to worry about exchange and conversion rates when planning.
If you can comfortably set aside $863 a month, you could take this trip in as little as six months, but if $288 a month is more realistic, you know you’re looking at leaving in a year-and-a-half. Regardless, having a plan is the only way to take your trip from your imagination to your reality.
When planning a trip anywhere, safety is always a priority, but for some members of the population, there are even more precautions that need to be taken. This is especially true when traveling abroad.
For women, children, and members of the LGBT+ community, it’s important to know the laws and reputation of the country you are visiting in regards to safety for homosexuals.
For the LGBT Community, The International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA) is an invaluable resource. Specifically created to educate LGBT+ travelers about safety and cultural concerns for nearly any destination, iglta.org is easy to navigate and goes beyond telling adventurers “go” or “don’t go”.
Costa Rica is described as being LGBT+ friendly and safe, but also reminds tourists of the dominant Catholic influence in the area “…visitors might experience some hostility towards outward displays of affection between same-sex partners or clothing choices that don’t match the gender some people may perceive you to be, regardless of your actual gender identity.
While any negative attitudes are likely to be confined to looks, rather than words or actions, LGBTQ+ travelers may wish to assimilate outside of the LGBTQ+ areas in order to feel more comfortable. This is entirely up to you as an individual and you may feel the need in some areas more than others.”
Going in with as much information as possible is always best, and while the advice for Costa Rica may not seem all that different from what might be given in certain parts of the United States, it can be lifesaving for other destinations.
More generalized safety information can be found at the Department of State including how to prepare for emergencies and natural disasters, what information to carry with you at all times, embassy locations, and much more. Again, checking with the Department of State for Travel Advisories as your trip draws nearer is a vital part of preparing for your vacation.
Time to Pack
You’ve done your research, set your budget, booked flights and found the perfect place to stay. Now it’s time to pack. Most of your packing will come down to the basics: clothing for the weather, comfortable shoes, a good beach book, sunscreen, and bug spray. International travel, however, comes with its own set of quirky needs particular to each destination.
First things first, Costa Rica is tourist-centric and friendly, but that doesn’t mean the tropical paradise will afford you all the comforts you are used to at home. Medical care is adequate and available in the more populated areas, but as a tourist, your trips to the hospital are going to be reserved for injury or serious illness.
Everyday illnesses and discomforts will be something you’ll treat on your own. The local Costa Rican Farmacia will likely not have your preferred brand of antacids, so according to the CDC’s packing list for Costa Rica, it’s best to bring the things you rely on.
To make sure you have all the things you need, start at home the month or week before your trip by making a list on your phone or refrigerator. Throughout the days and weeks leading up to your departure, make a note of any over-the-counter medicines you take.
Be sure to include boring things like pain relievers, saline nose sprays, antihistamines, and decongestants. Also add to the list the medications that are helpful when traveling such as antidiarrheals, motion sickness pills, sleep aids, and other stomach aids that will help you avoid discomfort.
Once you have your list, it will be easy to make sure you have what you need in your suitcase. Remember: whether you’re bringing full bottles or travel-sized containers, everything will need to be in its original packaging to pass through security.
Just like the over-the-counter meds you rely on, doctors in Costa Rica will probably not be able to provide your regular prescription medications. You must make sure to plan ahead in this area. You do not want to be 3,000 miles from home without your inhaler or insulin.
Talk with your provider to make sure you will have an adequate supply of what you need, plus a little extra just in case you are delayed in your return for any reason.
It is extremely important that prescriptions are kept in their original container with the proper prescription affixed to the front. Wait until you are snuggled in your hotel room before you sort your daily doses into convenient pill sorters or you risk major issues at the airport.
Other essentials that will need to be on your packing list include things like prescription glasses and contacts. If you are planning to stay out of the country longer than a week, it would probably also be a good idea to get a cheap backup pair of glasses just in case something happens to your primary pair.
You don’t want to miss your once-in-a-lifetime chance to see leatherback turtles make their way from nest to sea because you dropped your glasses off the edge of a rope bridge or left them in the airport bathroom.
With mosquito-transmitted illnesses being a concern, when you plan a trip to Costa Rica, be sure bug spray and bed nets are in your luggage. You can take things one step further by including Permethrin as well. Permethrin is an insect repellant designed for clothing and offers an additional layer of protection.
Sunglasses, hats, sunscreen, and condoms will likely be available wherever you’re headed, but probably not in name brands you recognize, so you may wish to pack those as well.
Water-purification tablets are a good idea to have on-hand as part of a first-aid kit, however, the majority of your drinking water should probably come from bottles, as the CIA suggests, with purification tablets reserved for those times carrying water bottles is impractical or unavailable.
That’s it! You’re ready to go.
One Last Note: Enjoy Being a Tourist
When you travel the world, it’s easy to get caught up in the stress and hustle. You want to see as much as possible, experience as much as you can in the moments you have. After all, you worked for this time away, but it’s important to remember that you’re a guest in the countries you land in.
As a guest, doors will be opened to you with smiling faces and touches of luxury to keep you coming back for more. You will experience beauty and see things beyond your wildest imaginings, but you will miss so much if you are only opening your eyes to the sites and scenery.
Open yourself to the people, experience the culture, and view Costa Rica with a grateful heart as the people show you their most valuable treasures: the land, the ruins, and themselves.
Take the opportunity to learn a kind phrase or two in Spanish so you can show your appreciation, and your time away will be more than a break from the office. It will become a transformative experience that will impact the rest of your life.
Soak it in as your skin soaks in the sun, and return stateside refreshed, relaxed, and rejuvenated in ways you couldn’t have even hoped for when those first stories and photos took your breath away.