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I constantly hear that planning a trip to Costa Rica is overwhelming. And I get it! Despite being a tiny country, there are a ton of options for accommodations, transportation, tours, excursions and activities, and more.
Add that to the fact that the internet is literally saturated with travel agents trying to sell you a tour to Costa Rica, it can take a lot of research just to find a reliable resource for planning your trip.
This post is meant to save you some time and headaches by laying out exactly how you can start to plan your Costa Rica vacation.
If you are looking to outsource some help, you can always give me a call and we will talk through your trip to customize it just for you. I love to help!
Planning a move to Costa Rica? Check out the best places to live in Costa Rica.
Where To Start When Planning A Trip To Costa Rica
Congrats! You’ve decided Costa Rica is your next international destination- or maybe it’s the first one you are doing as a family vacation. Let’s break down a few of your very first considerations when you start to plan.
Determine Your Time of Year
While the weather in Costa Rica can be pretty consistent, especially on the coasts, like the rest of Central America, there is a rainy season and a dry season.
The rainy season is characterized by bursts of strong rain- generally in the afternoon. It runs from late May to late November. October and November are generally the rainiest months.
The dry season is the rest of the year- December-April. You’ll still find rain in the dry season, but not nearly as often as you do in the dry season.
The high season, when prices tend to be more expensive, is December-February. this is because there is an influx of visitors to the country due to both the holidays and the lovely weather. Additionally, this is Costa Rican summer when Costa Ricans tend to travel within their own country.
The low season, or green season, is generally May-November. Prices tend to be lower as there are not as many Costa Ricans traveling, and because the weather can be unpredictable.
Note that in my book, the best time to visit Costa Rica is any time! If you have specific dates that you have to go, just book it! It will be great. You’ll have the trip of a lifetime.
Length Of Stay
The next thing you need to determine is how long you will want to be in Costa Rica. I personally don’t think less than 7 days is ideal if you want to see both rainforest and the beach.
If you want to do one or the other, four days in Costa Rica is enough.
For a first-time visit to Costa Rica, I think 10 days is perfect in order to take things at the pura vida pace and get a good introduction to the country. Trust me, once you have come to Costa Rica, you’ll definitely want to come back.
It is common for travelers to spend a long time in Costa Rica each year- a month or more. This is an ideal amount of time to explore the entire country. If you aren’t staying a long time, then I would say choose one or two main places and really dive deep into them.
Flights and Airports
You’ll want to do some research on flights. We tend to fly Southwest Airlines as we go to Costa Rica to visit family and the suitcases are free. However you do it, just make sure you check on the most important thing- which airport you need to fly into.
There are two main international airports in Costa Rica. The San Jose airport is near the capital, and you can access the southern and Caribbean side of the country from there.
The Liberia airport is in far northern Costa Rica, in the province of Guanacaste. If you are looking to do a quick in-and-out beach visit, then the Liberia airport is the right choice.
We often fly into one airport and out of the other so that we can see both the Central Valley and the beaches, and not have to backtrack at all. It costs a bit more to return the rental car at a different airport (I think $50) but it is worth it to us.
Don’t discount the option of domestic flights in and around Costa Rica- they can be a great option for those wanting to visit places far apart from each other on a shorter timetable.
Finally, just know that La Fortuna and Monteverde are equidistant from both airports, so if you are looking to do them and a beach, you can fly in and out of either airport. Your beach selection will just be a bit different.
While you don’t have to know exactly how much money you are going to spend on your trip, you do want to keep in mind a budget. I tend to direct clients to whether they want a budget/backpacker-friendly budget, a midrange budget, or a luxury trip. This can help you narrow down accommodations and transportation.
Costa Rica tends to be more expensive than other Central American countries- a large part of this has to do with workers being paid a strong living wage in hotels, infrastructure such as clean drinking water, and the fact that there are a lot of resources put into safety in Costa Rica.
Just think of a budget trip riding the bus around, staying in hostels or shared accommodations, eating in small local sodas, and doing free or low-cost tours. I don’t have many family travelers who pick this option, but if you are wanting to do a low-budget trip (especially with teens) I can definitely help.
A midrange budget means hotel rooms in the $100-$200 range per night, eating in a combination of sodas and restaurants, and renting a car. This is the most popular budget for families that I work with.
A luxury vacation doesn’t have to be super high-end, but it is easy to get expensive quickly in Costa Rica. Luxury travelers generally spend $300 or more dollars per night, hire a tour guide and driver, and opt for more expensive tours and activities.
Type of Transportation
There are lots of ways to get around Costa Rica, but the most common are the following:
- Public Buses
- Car Rental
- Shuttle Transfer
- Private Driver
Don’t shy away from driving in Costa Rica- during the day it’s great! There are several apps that can help you with directions and navigation too.
Costa Rica’s Most Popular Destinations
Costa Rica has a myriad of places to visit, but there are certain places more people visit. This can be due to the high number of popular excursions that leave from the area. It can also be because of the proximity to airports or the ease of travel between two places. Some of the places on the list have epic animal sightings too. As I look through Facebook travel groups on Costa Rica, the most popular places people visit in Costa Rica are the following:
Tamarindo Beach is located just about an hour from the Liberia International Airport and is known as much for its amazing surf breaks as it is for its lively nightlife.
There are a couple of all-inclusive resorts on this beach, and the town is hopping day and night. There are restaurants with international food, bars open all night, and great shopping along the main strip. Top it off with a weekly farmer’s market and a tight-knit ex-pat community, Tamarindo Beach seems to have it all – even a brewery!.
Ode to La Fortuna– my favorite place in all of Costa Rica- and a great place to visit with your kids. This tiny town resembles everything traditional Costa Rica- from the church situated at the town square to the souvenir shops and the amazing traditional food you can get at almost any restaurant. Our foodie’s guide to La Fortuna is one of the most popular articles on the site.
The views of the Arenal volcano are sweeping here, and you have close proximity to Arenal Volcano National Park, all the hot springs you can imagine, the best zip lines, and epic hanging suspension bridges. The natural beauty is second to none.
Arenal is my favorite place to send families because it is a slower pace, and very open to families of all shapes and sizes. I recommend a visit to Kalambu Hot Springs for littles, Baldi Hot Springs for bigs, and Eco Glide Zip Lines for the whole family. We almost always stay at the Volcano Lodge and Springs.
Monteverde is best known for its discovery of the golden frog, which is now extinct. The Santa Elena Cloud Forests and the Monteverde Cloud Forest are home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, and the bird-watching is epic. This is one of the best places in the world to see wildlife.
Monteverde is actually split into two towns with Monteverde and one end and the town of Santa Elena at the other. Between the two you will find some of the longest zip lines in the world, some of the longest hanging bridges in the world, and amazing accommodations for every type of budget.
Expect rain almost every afternoon here, and I highly recommend you hire a guide to go into the forest so you can experience absolutely everything the rainforest has to offer.
Wondering if you should see La Fortuna and Monteverde? The road is treacherous between the two, so if you are traveling with kids I say to pick one.
The laid-back vibe of the Caribbean is no more present than in Puerto Viejo. Here you’ll find crystal-clear waters and Bob Marley on repeat.
If you aren’t into just lazing on the beach all day, you can make sure to visit a chocolate farm, snorkel in the national park, and dine on international cuisine. If you visit Puerto Viejo, don’t miss trying the traditional rice and beans or the Caribbean chicken.
Looking for a more off-the-beaten-path version of Puerto Viejo? Try Cahuita next door.
Home of year-round turtle sightings, Tortuguero National Park is the most popular place to visit on the Northern Caribbean coast.
You’ll drive through banana fields and then take a boat through the mangroves before arriving at your accommodations. Take a quick nap, because sea turtles nest and the night tours are epic here and only happen at night.
There’s really no other place in Costa Rica like Tortuguero, but it can be pretty far off the beaten path for families with kids. Another option is a favorite Pacific Coast beach called Nosara.
Drake Bay is the northern gateway to Corcovado National Park and Caño Island, home to some of the best wildlife watching in the world. Here you can see tapirs, whales, turtles, sharks, pumas and of course some great insects and birds. It’s on the Osa Peninsula down south.
This is another place where I highly recommend you visit with a guide so you can maximize your time and money here. We love to stay at Aguila de Osa or Poor Man’s Paradise.
If you can’t make it all the way down here- don’t stress. Besides the big cats and year-round whales, you can see almost everything else elsewhere in Costa Rica. Corcovado isn’t for the faint of heart!
By far the most visited national park in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio National Park is home to three beautiful beaches with printing turquoise water and amazing animal sightings. I highly recommend you visit with a guide so you can see everything.
You’ll stay in Quepos, a fishing town that offers easy access you can charter a boat to fish for almost any species you can find under the sun. You’ll find great places to eat and party too.
Playa Espadilla is the public beach just north of the national park, and it promises excellent waves for surfing and boogie boarding and a traditional Costa Rican soda right on the beach.
We love to stay at Karahe Beach resort right on the beach when we come here.
If you want a similar experience but can’t stand the crowds of Manuel Antonio, I suggest heading a bit further south to Dominical or Uvita.
Off The Beaten Path
If these options feel overwhelming to you and you want to go a bit further off the beaten path- well that’s where I can help. Just give me a call and we can hammer out the perfect itinerary for you!
Drive Times Between Popular Places
The one caution I will give is that drive time between popular places can be really long. I see a lot of people going from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna, for example. That’s a 6 hours drive under the best conditions, not including stops and potential rush hour as you head through San Jose.
So the best best best advice I can give you is to do your research. Driving in Costa Rica means checking apps like Waze almost constantly, so it’s a good idea also to know how to use your cell phone in Costa Rica.
If you are wondering about the best itinerary with less driving, one trick is to purchase two one-way tickets- flying in of San Jose or Liberia and then flying out of the other airport. I can definitely help iron out details for drive times too, if that is helpful just let me know.
Things to Do In Costa Rica
There’s so much to do in Costa Rica that it can be hard to narrow down just what you want to do. For planning excursions, you can do it one of two ways.
You can plan everything in advance from the States. This is really helpful if you are traveling in the high season and don’t want anything to sell out. When I am planning excursions from the United States, I usually use my hotel accommodations to book the excursions at the same time.
However, unless there is a sort of niche tour that you really want to do, I think you can just book your tours on the ground for better prices. You will almost never come to the point where you can’t do the main activities on a certain day- with the exception of being in a very rural area.
Besides- pura vida living means playing things by ear- so the culture will support you if you are wanting to travel in that manner.
Otherwise, you can choose from the following- plus more!
- Hanging Bridges
- Zip Lines
- Waterfall chasing
- River Float
- Deep sea fishing
- Horseback riding
- White water rafting
- Hiking in the rainforest
- Turtle watching
- Wildlife viewing
- Visiting animal refuges
- Surfing/boogie boarding
- Visit a coffee farm
- Visit a chocolate farm
- Visit a volcano
- Visit the national parks
- Visit landmarks in San José
- Enjoy a local festival
- And more!
What To Pack
Once you get ready to go to Costa Rica, you’ll want to start thinking about what to pack. We have a complete Costa Rica packing guide here, but there are a few things you can know before you go.
You’ll need to buy sunscreen and bug repellent at home- those items are really a lot more expensive in Costa Rica.
Think about what you are going to do for shoes- shoes are always the hardest. I usually take sandals for the beach and going out, and tennis shoes for hiking.
Think too about rain gear- you can opt to purchase a nice raincoat or to take the ponchos from The Dollar Store, which is what we do.
20 years ago I fell head over heels in love with Costa Rica- and I am still completely enamored. I want everyone who is considering going to Costa Rica to fall as deeply in love with it as I am.
I offered low-cost consultations via phone or video chat- you can book here and we can go over what exactly you are looking for in a Costa Rica trip- and I’ll help-no sales!
Welcome! I’m Christa, a former high school teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. I love all things Spanish and bi-cultural, (especially travel and food!) and you’ll find my observations on life here. Thanks for stopping by