Costa Rica travel guide

Costa Rica travel guide

2 minute summary

This little country is an adventure playground on an enormous scale. Adventurers can negotiate its rain and cloud forests on foot, horseback, mountain bike, hanging bridge or 200m-high zip line, for a true bird’s eye view of the monkey-and-macaw-filled canopy. Water babies can surf, snorkel and scuba off the coast, or kayak, rappel and raft along the inland rivers – past soaring volcanoes, bubbling geothermal pools and postcard-perfect waterfalls.
But Costa Rica’s biggest selling point is not just that it has plenty to offer – it’s that it’s all been done right. From its comfortable, carbon neutral ecolodges and long-standing conservation areas covering almost a third of the country, to the excellent tourist infrastructure and focus on safety and wellbeing, Costa Rica is a perfect taste of Latin America without the need to speak Spanish, journey for days to remote jungle lodges or sacrifice comfort for glimpses of wildlife. It’s all good, clean fun, and your biggest travel trauma will be realising you can’t discover all of its attractions in a single trip.
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What we rate & what we don't

Our best & worst of Costa Rica


Ostional Pacuare Tico culture Caribbean coast


Tortuguero is the buzzword for sea turtles… but lesser known Ostional is where it’s really at. While Tortuguero’s nesting season is short, in Ostional, olive ridley turtles arrive ashore year round on the nights leading up to the full moon, culminating in hundreds of thousands each month from August to December. The sight itself is stunning – and the setting is remote and undeveloped.


The primary rainforest of this nature reserve was once something of a hidden gem, but travellers are wising up to its true value. Pacuare River has grade II-V rafting, while rapelling and zip lining reveal different perspectives of the jungle. The superb lodge works closely with local communities, and eco-friendly bungalows offer a carbon neutral stay. The fun begins before you even arrive, as the only way in is by raft.

Tico culture

With little evidence of its pre-Colombian inhabitants and tourism focusing heavily on wildlife, you could be forgiven for forgetting that there are humans here at all. But this country has been so beautifully preserved thanks to its people, and from the Creole-speaking Afro-Costa Ricans of the Caribbean, to the Bribri of the Talamanca Mountains and the rural coffee farmers, they’re all well worth getting to know.

Caribbean coast

It’s hard to get away from it all in a country this compact and popular, but the largely undeveloped Caribbean coast may just be the answer. It lacks the beach resorts of the Pacific, but if rustic bungalows, reggae and a laid-back vibe are your thing, you’ll be right at home. The Afro-Caribbean culture extends into the music, dance and coconut infused cuisine, and the unspoiled beaches are backed by rainforest.


Tortuguero Wonderful wildlife Arenal Volcano Family travel


Begin your adventure by boat – the only way into this remote region, famed for its wildlife and particularly the green turtles that gave it its name. Peak nesting season falls from July-Oct, but you can hike and canoe through the verdant Caribbean forests most of the year, looking out for otters, howler monkeys, manatees and sloths around the rivers and lagoons. Tortuguero is also well set up for families.

Wonderful wildlife

Plenty of countries have astounding wildlife, but rarely have they preserved it so carefully for decades – and few offer so many ecosystems in such a tiny space as Costa Rica. Sightings are so superb here as there is simply nowhere for the creatures to run. Turtles, quetzals, howler monkeys, sloths, caiman, otters, dolphins… take your pick of iconic species, and don’t forget your binoculars.

Arenal Volcano

Of Costa Rica’s 16 volcanoes, Arenal is the most famous, and it was once its most active. Lava flows have ceased in recent years, but the national park still has much to offer. Cross suspended walkways and traverse nature trails through the forest to discover birds, howler monkeys, cascades and barren lava fields, then revive your achey legs in the thermal baths. The little town of La Fortuna is a convenient base.

Family travel

With the possible exception of the Galapagos, which is both costly and remote, you could argue that Costa Rica is the most enticing destination for family travel in Latin America. Safe, tiny, with superb facilities and widely spoken English, this is ideal for even the youngest of travellers, while the mind blowing menu of adventure activities will keep older children busy for weeks.


Manuel Antonio Tamarindo Active Arenal Self defence

Manuel Antonio

We recommend stopping by this beach – just so that you really appreciate the fact you’re staying elsewhere. Although the surrounding national park is incredible, Manuel Antonio’s fame and proximity to San José mean that more people head here for the beach than the wildlife, and you’ll have to endure the noise that comes with that. Numbers are capped; but at 600-800 per day, you’ll barely have space for your beach towel.


This former fishing village is now one of the country’s most hyped hotspots, thanks to its reliable surf, direct airport access and abundance of hotels, restaurants and all night parties. Pebbly Playa Grande is unlikely to inspire anyone other than surfers, and the town is bordering on overdevelopment – Westerners dominate and the lack of Tico culture appears to be a big selling point. Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge, however, is worth a visit.

Active Arenal

Costa Rica’s most restless volcano spewed lava for over four decades, but since 2010 its been taking a well earned break. Visitors won’t see the lava or ash rising from its peak, and as its peaks is often shrouded in low cloud, it can be a bit of a disappointment. So don’t come for the volcanic views – or photographs – but for the still-superb activities, including hiking, zip lining, rafting and canopy tours.

Self defence

In 1948, Costa Rica decided that the military was overrated and abolished the army, navy and air force. The country has local police forces only, and no heavy weapons, tanks or warships. This is a country where peace comes first, and rather than being greeted by military officials, foreign dignitaries arriving in Costa Rica are greeted by schoolchildren. A bold move for a tiny nation in a volatile region.

Food, shopping & people

Travel like a local with our Costa Rica travel guide

Eating & drinking in Costa Rica

The national dish is gallo pinto, the staple of black beans and rice.
The humble plantain multitasks like few other fruits. Thinly sliced and deep fried, it makes a tasty, salty-sweet snack called chifles. Mashed, refried plantains, called patacones are filling and delicious.
Casado refers to a set lunch in local restaurants, usually consisting of gallo pinto, plantains and salad – plus beef, fish or pork.
The tropical climate makes this paradise for fruit lovers. Fresh juices are ubiquitous and cheap; we recommend creamy guanábana, also known as soursop.

Costa Rica is home to 5 percent of the planet’s diversity – despite covering just 0.03 percent of its surface. This includes 1 in 10 of the world’s butterfly species.

People & language

Costa Rican people are known as Ticos. Most are a blend of European and native roots, but indigenous communities number around 60,000; the Bribri, Kekioldi and Cabecar live in the southern Caribbean region, growing cacao trees and making roofs from palm fronds. Ranches along the dry north Pacific are the cowboy culture hub, while the Caribbean coast is testimony to the wave of Jamaican immigration.
Afro-Costa Rican creole is known as "Maketelyu" from the phrase “make I tell you”.

"Soda" is not a drink – it’s a basic café selling economical set meals.
"Pura vida" is not just a greeting – it also means "good". So if asked “¿como estas?” You can reply “¡pura vida, gracias!”

Gifts & shopping

You’re sure to sample Salsa Lizano, a savoury condiment present on every Tico table. It’s slightly sweet, slightly spicy – and tastes great with everything. Be sure to pick up a bottle before you leave.
An hour away from San José, the little town of Sarchi is an artisan-filled shopper’s paradise. You can pick up wood and leather rocking chairs that fold down into a box, traditional ceramics from the region of Guanacaste, and colourful masks and jewellery.
Oxcarts – known as carretas – were used to carry coffee across the mountains. These were brightly painted, reflecting the region their owner came from – and have now been recognised by UNESCO as heritage symbols. Miniature painted oxcarts are a truly Tico souvenir.

Fast facts

25 percent of Costa Rica’s land is protected and it aims to be the first carbon neutral country. It’s also been ranked top in the Happy Planet index. We’re sure this is not a coincidence…

How much does it cost?

Fruit juice from a streetside stall: 74p

Drop-in yoga session: £6.60

Casado (set lunch) at a soda cafe: £2.45

Bottle of Imperial beer in a bar: £1.60

Coffee tour in Alajuela: £10.50

Entry to San José National Museum: £4.70, half price for students

A brief history of Costa Rica

The Spanish governor in 1719 described Costa Rica as the “poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America”. Today, few would recognise this country – one of the wealthiest in the region – from his description. As if further proof as needed, “Costa Rica” in fact means “rich coast” – a far more accurate name for this tiny gem of a nation.
Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Tree frog: Barb Ignatius] [Ostional: froderamone] [Tico culture: Erica Ashleson] [Caribbean coast: amanderson2] [Tortuguero: bertconcepts] [Wonderful wildlife: Frank Vassen] [Arenal Volcano: Steve Jurvestson] [Family travel: Michiel Van Balen] [Manuel Antonio: Bruce Thomson] [Pacuare river: Manal Khan] [Tamarindo: Alquiler de Coches] [Active Arenal: sam Beebe] [Self defence: Steven Depolo] [Eating and drinking - guanábana: Malcolm Manners] [Gifts and shopping - masks: C C] [How much - San Jose national Museum: Steven Depolo]
Written by Vicki Brown
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