Costa Rica is the sizzling soul of Central America. Tropical, adventure-rich, and alive – it’s a perfect destination for backpackers.
While the country has only about 0.1% of the world’s landmass, it is home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Naturally, adventure seekers flock to its many waterfalls, jungles, rivers and beaches.
But just as much as its natural resources, Costa Rica is known for its culture — which is best summed up with the phrase “Pura Vida.” What does it mean?
“Pura Vida” profoundly translates to “Pure Life.”
In recent years, the expression has come to represent many different things, from well wishes to a cheer of excitement. It’s arguably an acceptable response to any and everything – including ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)
But really, this phrase speaks to the eternal optimism and authentic, laidback nature of the Costa Rican people, or Ticos as they’re called.
In this comprehensive travel guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know before heading to Costa Rica.
Let’s dive in.
What to Budget for Your Trip to Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a reputation for being one of the most expensive travel destinations in Central America, due to its popularity with tourists and rising cost of living. Transportation, food, accommodation and sightseeing costs can add up quickly if you’re not conscious and strategic about your expenses.
The good news? Budget travel is possible.
For about $35-45 USD a day, you can have a fairly comfortable experience that includes decent meals and accommodation and leaves room for activities.
Here are some of the best tips for budget travelers in Costa Rica:
Dine at local restaurants
Choose small local restaurants and snack bars over places catering to Western tourists. You can get a good-sized meal for about $6-8 USD at local mom and pop restaurants called sodas. Also, look out for a bakery chain called Musmanni, which serves very good snacks and pastries at reasonable prices. Try the ‘pan con queso crema’ and your stomach (and wallet) can thank us later!
Consider traveling between May and October
May through October is Costa Rica’s rainy season. These chillier months usually see a drop in tourist activity, which means accommodation is much cheaper and easier to find. Likewise, avoid traveling during holidays like Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, as housing and transportation costs will be much higher! (Note: This doesn’t apply to volunteers as program fees and accommodation costs stay the same all year.)
Use public transportation
Skip the taxis and tourist buses when possible, as these will quickly eat up your budget. While they’re not always the most convenient or fastest option, traveling via local buses can cut your costs in half.
Visit the Caribbean coast
The Caribbean coast is just as scenic as the rest of Costa Rica but less expensive. Since it’s not as highly-travelled as the Pacific areas, your experience will be a little more peaceful as well!
Skip the tour guides
Want to see the sights, but don’t want to splurge on guided tours? No worries. You can explore many of the parks and natural attractions on your own with a decent guide book like Moon. Also look out smaller attractions close to the tourist ones that locals use for free.
Don’t buy bottled water
The tap water in most popular towns in Costa Rica is actually safe to drink, so no need to spend money buying bottled water every day. Instead, take along a reusable bottle and fill it up daily. If you’re still concerned about safety, you can bring water purification tablets.
Use local money in Costa Rica
The local currency is the Costa Rican colon (₡). One US dollar is equal to about 550 colones. Most hotels and tourist attractions will accept US dollars in small bills ($20 or less), but you’ll need to use local currency in most other places.
Tip: Think of the local currency as double US dollars, so 1,000 colones equals $2.
You can exchange money at a local bank or get cash from the many ATMs once you arrive in Costa Rica. Avoid exchanging money at the airport, as the exchange rates are usually not great!
Weather in Costa Rica
While Costa Rica can be cheaper in the off-season, the truth is there’s never a bad time to visit Costa Rica — particularly if you’re volunteering and not concerned about the cost of accommodation.
Costa Rica has two seasons: the dry season, which runs from late November to April and the rainy season, which runs from May through mid-November.
Just like it sounds, it rains more often during the rainy season. But don’t worry: except for October which is the wettest month, the mornings often start off with a lot of sun and the rain doesn’t usually last more than 2-3 hours. So if you’re flexible and willing to get an early start, you can still see and do a lot.
It also depends on where in the country you are, as the weather and temperatures vary with elevation. Mountain towns like Monteverde are usually cooler and wet most of the year, while beach towns on the Pacific Coast are typically hot and dry year-round. The Caribbean Coast is generally hot and humid and with more rain than the Pacific.
Rain or shine – the average temperature in Costa Rica is usually 70 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 27 degrees Celsius), so pack lots of sunscreen and light clothing that dries quickly. You should also pack layers like a light fleece or waterproof jacket that you can reach for on cooler nights.
As one of the safest and most tourist-friendly destinations in the world, accommodation is easy to find in Costa Rica. There is a range of options that vary in style, comfort, and price. But we’ve rounded up the best options for budget travelers below:
For those with a little more to spend, budget hotels are a slightly more costly option at about $50 – 75 per night. You’re paying for convenience, though, as the cost usually includes a private bathroom, AC and hot water.
If you’re really tight on funds and don’t mind roughing it, consider sleeping at one of the many campsites located near hotels and beach resorts. You can set up your own sleeping bag for about $5 a night. Most ticos go camping when they want to go to the beach so it’s an ideal way to meet the locals. Here are some tips for safe camping in Costa Rica.
Homestay or Couchsurfing
More and more Costa Ricans are opening up their homes to travelers in order to make some extra money. You can search for homes on Airbnb or try finding hosts that will let you stay for free on Couchsurfing.
Flights from the United States to Costa Rica typically cost between $500 and $700, depending on what city you’re leaving from. Airfares from Canada are slightly more expensive at around $700. From Europe, flights may run anywhere from $600-900.
To get the best airfare to Costa Rica, we recommend booking well in advance of your trip and using sites like Skyscanner and CheapAir.
If you’re a citizen or permanent resident of the United States, Canada or EU countries, you don’t need a visa to travel to Costa Rica for less than 90 days. Australian, Ireland and New Zealand citizens can stay for 30 days, although they can apply for an extension once in Costa Rica.
Tip: You can extend your stay for another 90 days by going to a neighboring country like Panama or Nicaragua for 3 days and then returning to Costa Rica.
All visitors need to pay a $29 departure tax when leaving the country by air. You can make your payment with cash or credit card at the airport before checking in for your flight. Some airfares may already include this tax (usually as an obscure fee), so check the breakdown of your ticket carefully to make sure you don’t end up paying twice!
Getting around in Costa Rica
With plenty of options for transportation, getting around in Costa Rica is relatively easy. Of course, the types of transportation you choose will depend on your budget and where in the country you’re going.
Private minivans and buses, such as Interbus or Gray Line, are a quick and convenient way to travel to the most popular tourist spots. However, they’re better for large groups than solo budget travelers. Fares start at around $40 and go up with the distance.
With fares from $2-10 USD, buses are often the cheapest mode of transportation in Costa Rica. They’re a good option for getting around town and meeting locals. Admittedly, they’re not always the most convenient option for getting to less-traveled parts of the country and they may not be so comfortable, but they run regularly and on time like clockwork. Most bus routes will have a stop for services and food if the journey time is more than 3 hours.
Tip: If you’ve decided that buses will be your main mode of getting around Costa Rica, be prepared for an early rise so you can get to your destination painlessly and on time. More buses run in the morning than afternoon and evenings.
Taxis are usually easy to find in Costa Rica. If you’re in a remote area, you may have to call for one, which you can do by going into the nearest restaurant or bar and asking them to call the taxi for you. While taxi fares add up quickly, they are often a convenient option for getting around town quickly.
Tip: Taxis all have meters, although some drivers will try not to use them for tourists. If your driver doesn’t start the meter, remind them before you begin your ride by saying “Ponga la maria,porfa” — they are required to by law.
You’ll find most of the major car rental companies like Alamo, AVIS, and Budget in Costa Rica. While it’s certainly an option, we wouldn’t recommend renting a car for anyone trying to save money. The cost of rental, insurance and gas can run anywhere from $300 – $700 a week.
Even though the rental process may seem straightforward and cheap initially, somehow you always end up paying more than you planned to. If use this option, take the time read the small print, ask a lot of questions and thoroughly inspect your care for damages before driving off!
If you don’t have a lot of time to travel and need to get from the capital San Jose to places like Limon, Tortuguero, Carrillo, Liberia and Quepos, then a domestic flight might be worth it. It takes only about an hour to fly anywhere in the country.
Fares can cost anywhere between $50 and $125, though you may be able to get cheaper flights by booking well in advance. Nature Air and Sansa are the two main domestic carriers.
What to Eat in Costa Rica
Costa Rican food is known for being fairly mild (nowhere near spicy Mexican food!), with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Rice and black beans are a staple of most meals and are often served three times a day with each meal. Actually, most traditional dishes include a combination of meat and rice and beans and vegetables.
When in Costa Rica, our advice is to skip the touristy restaurants and eat what the locals eat.
Must-try Costa Rican dishes
This lunch and dinnertime staple typically includes one main meat (usually chicken, fish, beefsteak or pork chops), rice and beans, salad, diced bell peppers and fried plantains. This is the country’s staple dish and you can find it in almost every soda (a local restaurant serving traditional Costa Rican food).
Casados and other dishes are often served with a side of picadillo, which is essentially diced seasonal vegetables mixed with onions, carrots and garlic and sometimes ground meat.
One of the most common Costa Rican dishes, this includes fried rice and beans and sometimes served with scrambled or fried eggs, chopped beef, sausages or plantains. Locals know this dish is not complete without a healthy dash of Salsa Lizano. This dish is often served for breakfast, which may seem strange to Westerners, but will make sense once you try it!
The perfect snack, empanadas are not only filling but affordable. They are traditionally made with corn flour and can be filled with pretty much anything, including cabbage, ground beef, chicken and cheese.
Another popular Costa Rican offering, This spicy coconut soup often includes fish and hearty foods like yuca and potatoes.
As with other Central American cuisines, ceviche is a popular seafood option in Costa Rica. It’s made with fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices, local herbs, and diced vegetables, though the variations are endless.
Popular Costa Rican drinks
No write-up of Costa Rica’s distinctive cuisine would be complete without coffee. This is one of the country’s most cultivated crops and agricultural exports. Costa Rica boasts some of the world’s best coffee beans and exports to several countries internationally. In Costa Rica, every other tree is a coffee tree!
Refrescos or “frescos”
These are delicious fruit-based smoothies typically made with milk or water. If you aren’t sure about the water, then milk is a safe bet as a base. You’ll usually get one free fresco with a casado.
The name literally translates to “sweet water” and that’s exactly what this tastes like. It’s made from boiled sugar cane juice and often served warm in the morning with milk or lemon.
Most Costa Ricans drink Imperial, which is the country’s national beer. Pilsen is another option for lovers of darker, more full-bodied brews. For something stronger, Cacique Guaro is Costa Rica’s answer to vodka. The spirit, which is made from sugar cane and has a slightly sweet taste, is often used as a mixer for cocktails.
Should you tip?
Tipping is usually not expected in local restaurants, and your bill often already includes a 10% service charge. Locals generally don’t tip, but it’s also not out of place to do leave a tip if you feel the service was exceptional.
What to Do and See in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a small paradise with plenty of outdoor natural wonders and diverse animal life. You can hike through lush mountain forests, relax on the beach, or visit the country’s 50+ parks and natural reserves to spot rare wildlife like the squirrel monkey, the scarlet macaw, the three-toed sloth, toucans, jaguars, leatherback turtles, and more.
Here are some of the best places to visit:
Manuel Antonio National Park
This is Costa Rica’s most popular national park and beach destination. The park is home to monkeys, iguanas, sloths, and hundreds of different bird species. You’ll also find three beaches inside the park as well as lush rainforests.
For a quick day trip, you can also take a 30-minute boat ride from Quepos to Dama, where you can tour the mangrove swamps for about $50-75.
Visit Arenal National Park in La Fortuna to see an active volcano! Although it’s no longer spewing lava (thank goodness!), you can hike the trails for great views of the town. Visitors can also go rafting or walk along hanging bridges for an additional cost.
Don’t forget to leave yourself some time to visit the waterfall in nearby La Fortuna for Instagram-worthy views. It’ll take a steep 15-minute hike to get to the falls, which are about 230 feet high.
Another must-do activity in La Fortuna is the hot springs. For $60-120 for the day, you can opt to visit resort-owned hot springs like Tabacon or Baldi. Or you can do like our volunteers and visit the free hot springs located next to Tabacon. Just take the side road beside the hotel or ask a local for direction. While the free option is a good money-saver, here a few tips you should know before you visit:
Don’t take valuables with you as there aren’t any lockers to store them.
Wear water shoes if you can to navigate the bigger rocks, especially if you want to walk upstream away from the crowds.
Bring a few beers!
Monteverde Cloud Forest
This is one of Costa Rica’s best-known natural parks, and for good reason, as there’s something for everyone. It’s ideal for both adrenaline junkies and more relaxed travelers. You can hike, spot wildlife, go for a coffee tour ($25) or zip line through the forest (though the latter will cost between $50 and 90 USD).
Monteverde is a smart next stop after you have visited Arenal. Since there’s no direct route between the two town, your best option is what’s called a Jeep Boat Jeep. Essentially, you’d take a jeep from your hotel to Lake Arenal, then a boat to the other side, and then get on another jeep to Monteverde — although now the jeeps have been replaced by taxis and minibuses.
It may sound like a lot, but it’s actually a fun and scenic trip over Lake Arenal and through the mountains of Monteverde.
Tip: You can book a service like Casabatsu at any hotel in Arenal.
If you’re looking for a laidback vibe, complete with yogis, vegans and bohemian characters, then this is the place for you. Montezuma has numerous beaches, including Playa Montezuma (which is the most popular) and Playa Grande (good for surfing), as well as lots of beach-side restaurants and bars.
You can also take a boat trip to Isla Tortuga, where you can spot dolphins, manta rays and other sea creatures and go snorkeling or scuba diving. These tours typically include lunch on the beach.
If you’re looking for something a little more active, consider hiking at the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve or visiting the Montezuma Waterfalls.
Mal Pais and Santa Teresa
While it’s not super easy to get to, Mal Pais and Santa Teresa are popular beach towns that attract lots of surfers and younger crowds. Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa are favorites because of their huge waves, but beginners or people who just want to swim can also try Playa Hermosa.
Santa Teresa also has great nightlife and is home to many nightclubs and bars, which is where all the action happens after the sun sets. Party-lovers and night owls will have a great time indulging in live salsa and reggae music and great food from all the many restaurants.
For those who want to go off-the-beaten path, head over to Costa Rica’s Caribbean side. While it’s harder to get to you’ll be rewarded by good food, warm people, and a quieter, more laid-back atmosphere than you’ll find in the more touristy areas on the Pacific coast.
The most popular attraction is Tortuguero National Park, which is home to a massive rainforest and a series of swamps and canals that you can tour by boat. You can also go for a jungle hike, watch endangered green turtles hatch on the beach or spot other wildlife like crocodiles, manatees, sloths, monkeys and more than 300 species of birds. Tortuguero itself is small, remote village where you won’t find a ton of cars or paved roads or a lot of people (only about 500 people live there!) Be prepared for humid and often wet weather!
This beach town is located in the southern part of Costa Rica, near the border of Panama. Take your pick from a number of secluded beaches (where you can go snorkeling or surfing) or indulge in some Caribbean food and culture. Puerto Viejo is a haven for backpackers and is quickly gaining a reputation as a party town, thanks to an abundance of live music and happy hours. So if you’re more of a quiet type, you may want to travel further south to nearby towns like Gandoca or Manzanillo on the Panamanian border.
If you’re a surfer, chances are you’ve heard of Salsa Brava, famous for being the largest wave in Costa Rica (although we wouldn’t recommend it for beginners!)
For a quick day trip, you can also visit the Cahuita National Park (located an hour north of Puerto Viejo) for an afternoon of wildlife-spotting.
Tamarindo is a surfer’s paradise, which makes it one of Costa Rica’s most popular beaches. It became well-known after being featured in the famous (among surfers, at least) documentary film, “The Endless Summer II.” Before you go, read these safety tips for surfing in Costa Rica. Outside the beach area, there are plenty of shops and restaurants on the main road.
Have more time to travel?
Take advantage of the size of Costa Rica, and plan 3-day weekend trips to Granada in Nicaragua and Bocas del Toro in Panama.
And if you want some authentic cultural exploration that doesn’t break the bank, here are some ideas:
Indulge in the local culture
Sometimes you can’t go wrong with just walking around and people-watching. Take a break from the excursions and visit a Tico town, browse a local farmer’s market or join a fútbol match or relax and people-watch at of the country’s many central parks.
Learn the language
What’s a trip to Costa Rica without picking up a bit of Spanish? There’s no better way to learn a new language than to immerse yourself in all that the country has to offer. You can learn the language from locals or take formal language classes.
Volunteers work with wildlife conservation projects and live in national parks, rural villages or on beaches. You may assist with daily maintenance tasks, rehabilitation of injured animals or protecting newborn turtle eggs safe from predators. These projects are perfect for the animal or environmental lover who is passionate about protecting endangered species and environments, and don’t mind roughing it a bit!
Childcare volunteers help lead daily activities and serve as positive role models for kids in local orphanages, day care centers or community centers. Volunteers often help children improve their language skills, encourage and supervise play time and engage in conversation to develop children’s social and emotional skills.
As a building and construction volunteer in Costa Rica, you’ll provide additional labor resources for disadvantaged families building their own homes.You’ll do hands-on tasks like clearing land, digging foundations, plastering and laying bricks and roof tiles, as well as maintaining community buildings and schools already in existence.
Our community volunteer projects include building and constructing homes for disadvantaged families, assisting in local orphanages, and teaching English to adult community members, to name a few. Our projects help provide local residents with the skills and resources they need to improve their lives.
Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Latin America, but as with any other country, you should stay alert and do what you can to avoid attracting unwanted attention as a tourist. Here are some tips for staying safe:
Be aware of the environmental hazards.
All countries have hazards that are specific to their landscape and climate. Mosquitoes, animal bites, heavy rainfall, increased sun exposure, and hiking hazards are among the most common in Costa Rica. While we encourage you to enjoy all the outdoor adventures that Costa Rica has to offer, be careful not to overexert yourself while swimming, hiking and enjoying the landscape.
Always take red taxis
Official taxis in Costa Rica are red with a yellow triangle on the side. The exception to this rule are airport taxis, which are orange (and cost more!) Don’t get it into any other taxis as they are unlicensed. Always make sure the driver starts the meter before your trip, and carry small bills for paying your fare.
Leave expensive items at home
Don’t wear expensive jewellery and sunglasses or display electronics like iPhones, cameras, etc. Pickpockets are prevalent in crowded cities like San Jose and may target tourists who unknowing flaunt their possessions.
Use common sense
Just as you would at home, avoid risky behaviours like walking alone at night or accepting open drinks from strangers.
Ready to go?
As you can see, Costa Rica’s rich culture, warm people and unique beauty make it a paradise for travellers — one that you’ll want to keep visiting over and over again. When you volunteer in Costa Rica, you can make your trip even more meaningful by contributing to a sustainable local project.
To learn more, download our free Costa Rica brochure to see what kinds of projects we offer and what the program fees are like. We’re also happy to answer any questions you have about volunteering!
Costa Rica Information Brochure
If you are interested in joining the program in Costa Rica, you should download and read our destination guide.