Moon Costa Rica
By Nikki Solano
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- Flexible, strategic itineraries designed for backpackers, beach-lovers, adventure travelers, honeymooners, and more, including the best beaches for swimming, sunsets, and seclusion
- The best spots for eco-friendly outdoor adventures like kayaking, hiking, and scuba-diving: Swim under a waterfall, raft over rapids, explore mysterious caves, and cliff-dive into river pools. Hike to the summit of Mount Chirripó, the highest point in Costa Rica, snorkel with sea turtles in warm turquoise water, or soak in a volcanic mineral pool
- Unique and authentic experiences: Admire the forest floor from the middle of a hanging bridge, or take an aerial tram to lake, volcano, and ocean views. Relax on a pristine beach and watch the sunrise with a cup of flavorful local coffee. Fill up on fried plantains at a traditional soda, and shop at a neighborhood mercado
- Insight from Cartago local Nikki Solano on how to experience Costa Rica like an insider, support local and sustainable businesses, avoid crowds, and respectfully engage with the culture
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Helpful resources on COVID-19 and traveling to Costa Rica
- Background information on Costa Rica's landscape, history, and cultural customs, as well as volunteer opportunities
- Handy tools including a Spanish phrasebook, packing suggestions, and travel tips for disability access, solo travelers, seniors, and LGBTQ travelers
Exploring more of Central America? Check out Moon Belize.
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DISCOVER Costa Rica
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR…
Choose Your Adventure
A TASTE OF THE CARIBBEAN
ADRENALINE RUSH IN LA FORTUNA AND MONTEVERDE
SOAK UP THE SUN ON THE PACIFIC COAST
CENTRAL PACIFIC ROAD TRIP
BACKPACKING ON A BUDGET
ESCAPE TO THE OSA PENINSULA
A DAY IN SAN JOSÉ
ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?
Pura Vida Adventures
THE BEST BEACHES FOR YOU
Get Back to Nature
COFFEE, CUISINE, AND CULTURE
One day early on in my career in Costa Rica, I was typing on a laptop while lounging in a hammock when a three-toed sloth appeared within a few feet of me. For nearly two hours, I watched the creature crawl around the rainforest canopy. From that day forward, I knew that Costa Rica is a place where magic is real—and within arm’s reach.
Costa Rica will amaze you. Opportunities for immersion in nature, wildlife-spotting, and fantastic photography are everywhere, so seize them. Boat safaris wind through monkey-lined rivers, mangroves, and canals. Treetop excursions provide panoramic forest, volcano, lake, and ocean views. Exhibits and nature trails showcase reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants. Parks, reserves, and refuges, spanning more than a quarter of the country’s landmass, protect the immense biodiversity that makes Costa Rica unique.
Prefer to be thrilled? Imagine yourself zip-lining through the cloud forest, rafting over raging rapids, rappelling down waterfalls, exploring mysterious caves, or summiting Costa Rica’s highest peak. Although diminutive in size, Costa Rica is vast in opportunities for rip-roaring adventure.
To relax or reenergize, pamper yourself in paradise with hot springs, mud baths, yoga, and wellness retreats. Several beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts are known for their remoteness, tranquil sunrises, or rainbow-colored sunsets.
Costa Rica’s laid-back pura vida attitude will change you. Costa Ricans are a friendly, inviting group who are proud of their country and welcome you to explore it.
Travel mindfully and you’ll reap bountiful rewards from this tiny corner of the world where people greet one another with a smile. A truly magical experience is yours for the taking.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Encounter Wildlife: Wildlife can be seen and heard everywhere in Costa Rica. Catch a glimpse of sloths snoozing in treetops, sea turtles laying their eggs on the beach, or toucans flying around cloud forests.
2 Fly on a Zip Line: Glide through the treetops to see Costa Rica from above. For the best thrills, zip among the clouds in Monteverde or cruise alongside Volcán Arenal in La Fortuna.
3 Ride the Waves at a Surf Town: Costa Rica is a surf mecca. Dreamy beach destinations like bustling Tamarindo, quiet Nosara, remote Santa Teresa, and laid-back Puerto Viejo de Talamanca offer stupendous waves and vibrant surf culture.
4 Hike in Rainforests and Cloud Forests: Explore the misty Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde or the humid and remote Parque Nacional Corcovado. Stroll through Parque Nacional Carara or take a thrilling trek in Parque Nacional Chirripó.
5 Soak in Hot Springs: Relax and rejuvenate at the volcanic mineral hot springs around Volcán Arenal near La Fortuna. Both luxury resorts and budget-friendly options are abundant.
6 Beach-Hopping: Boasting coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica offers plenty of pristine beaches to choose from. Many are located close to each other, so you can sample them before you pick your favorite one.
7 Take a Floating Safari: Float through canals in Tortuguero, mangrove forests at Isla Damas, or down the Río Peñas Blancas, Río Tenorio, or Río Sarapiquí.
8 Taste Coffee and Chocolate at their Source: Tour a working coffee plantation or roastery in the Central Valley and Highlands or a chocolate farm on the Caribbean coast.
9 Go White-Water Rafting: Home to the country’s wildest white-water rapids, Río Pacuare is an unmissable attraction for adrenaline junkies—but beginners can join in the fun too.
10 Swim Beneath a Waterfall: Take a dip in a refreshing waterfall pool, like the one at the gentle and family-friendly Catarata Llanos del Cortés or below the three cascades that form the Cataratas Montezuma. Swims at the peaceful Cataratas Nauyaca are free from distractions.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Thanks to the proximity of Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría, many travelers experience San José briefly as a vacation start or end point. But there is much to see and do in the nation’s capital city, a vibrant metropolis steeped in culture, character, and charm. Consider visiting the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica, touring the Museo del Oro Precolombino or the Museo del Jade, and shopping among locals at Mercado Central. To top off a perfect day, enjoy a night on the town with dinner, drinks, music, or dance.
Central Valley and Highlands
In the Central Valley and on the slopes of its picturesque highlands, life operates at a slower pace than in San José. Cities and small rural communities share the land, which is home to a trio of popular volcanoes: Volcán Poás, Volcán Irazú, and Volcán Turrialba. Beloved tourist attractions like the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, the artisan town of Sarchí, and coffee plantations offer a nice balance of nature exploration and authentic cultural experiences.
La Fortuna and Monteverde
Welcome to the epicenter of adventure! Volcán Arenal is the backdrop to adventure parks in La Fortuna that feature hiking trails, zip lines, hanging bridges, and other thrills. The area’s hot springs and Catarata Río Fortuna, a rushing waterfall, should not be missed.
In Monteverde, similar adventures take place in the cloud forest. Take your pick from early morning bird-watching tours, day hikes, or night tours through the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde and other local reserves.
Guanacaste and the Northern Pacific
Guanacaste is Costa Rica’s driest province, but what it lacks in green landscape it makes up for in heart. Cowboy culture is the thing here: Rodeos and fiestas cívicas (civic festivals) are common and rustic ranches and resorts around Volcán Rincón de la Vieja feature farm tours and horseback riding.
Along the northern Pacific coast, Bahía Murciélago and Islas Catalina are two of the country’s best dive sites. The surfing is notorious at Ollie’s Point and Witch’s Rock. Bird enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the inland Parque Nacional Palo Verde.
When people long for sun, sand, and solitude, they come to the Nicoya Peninsula. Travelers who make the trek are rewarded with quiet towns, beautiful and empty beaches, and little distraction. Fittingly, yoga, surf, and health retreats are draws here, luring those in search of relaxation and beach time.
The region also boasts the undeveloped paradise of Isla Tortuga, the exciting falls at Cataratas Montezuma, and the chance to watch sea turtles nesting at the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional.
If you want to combine beach time with adventure and nature tours, this is the region for you. Beaches line the central Pacific coast from end to end, yet the area is also mountainous and rich in wildlife, including crocodiles in Tárcoles, birds in Parque Nacional Carara, sloths in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, monkeys at the Isla Damas mangroves, and marine life in the waters of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. From backpackers in friendly hostels to couples in romantic resorts, this region welcomes all travelers.
Osa Peninsula and the Southern Pacific
Much of the Osa Peninsula and the southern Pacific region has yet to be explored by visitors. In areas where development exists, establishments are low-key, environmentally conscious, and sometimes off the grid. While traveling to and through the region requires patience and time, hikes in the renowned Parque Nacional Corcovado and underwater exploration within the Reserva Biológica Isla del Caño make the trip worthwhile. Those who visit reap bountiful rewards, including immersion in nearly virgin forest and wildlife-watching opportunities of the highest caliber.
With pretty beaches, coral reefs, and decent surf, the palm-backed southern Caribbean coast is loved for its laid-back vibe. It’s also the home of Afro-Costa Rican culture, which delights visitors with delicious cuisine and reggae music.
To the north, the canals and beaches of Parque Nacional Tortuguero beckon wildlife watchers, as does the rainforest around the inland Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí. This is also where you can take part in one of the country’s greatest adventures, white-water rafting on the Río Pacuare.
Tourism in the southern inland region is scarce. Much of the region is made up of indigenous reserves and protected land. The region appeals most to fit and fearless hikers who wish to stand atop Costa Rica’s highest point, Cerro Chirripó, in Parque Nacional Chirripó. A secondary draw is bird-watching, either at the Refugio de Aves Los Cusingos or around the San Gerardo de Dota area, where resplendent quetzals and other bird species are frequently seen.
When to Go
Costa Rica is a year-round destination. Experiences vary greatly between the high season, mid-December through April and the low season, May through mid-December. High season aligns with summer and is also known as the dry season. The low season aligns with the green season, colloquially referred to as the wet season, which is considered Costa Rica’s winter.
The shoulder season, which spans the end of June to mid-August, sees a surge in visitors. Some accommodations increase their rates during this period.
The Caribbean’s weather patterns differ from those of the rest of the country. September and October, two of the wettest months in most areas of the country, are notoriously dry and sunny on the Caribbean coast, especially in the southern part of the region.
Generally, the high season runs from mid-December to the end of April. It begins no later than January 1 and ends no sooner than Easter. During the season, reservations for hotels, tours, and transportation can be tight, prices are high (notably for accommodations), and crowds are common at popular attractions.
The biggest draw is favorable weather, including sunny skies, warm temperatures of 75-85°F, and little rain; this translates to optimal driving conditions. The most expensive time to travel to Costa Rica is during brief peak periods around Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter, when accommodation prices are hugely inflated.
The low season runs from the beginning of May to mid-December. Sometimes, it can begin immediately after Easter and last until December 31. The low season offers quiet trails, smaller tour groups, and cheaper prices. Since most tour operators require a minimum of two people to run tours, solo travelers can find it a challenge to travel at this time of year. Some businesses close or undergo renovations between September and November.
Unfavorable weather, marked by heavy rain, whipping winds at high elevations, and occasional thunderstorms can cause landslides, traffic delays, flooding, road closures (typically only in back-road areas), and last-minute tour cancellations.
Before You Go
Passports and Visas
All visitors must have a valid passport to enter Costa Rica. Proof of exit intent, in the form of a ticket to travel to another country, is required to receive a passport entry stamp. Most stamps expire within 90 days of issuance.
Costa Rica does not require North American travelers to provide proof of vaccination. Nationals of some countries (namely African and South American countries) are required to show proof of yellow fever vaccination. Recent travelers to countries in those areas of the world may be asked to show the same.
Near the center of Costa Rica and the capital city, the Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (Juan Santamaría International Airport, SJO) is a great jumping-off point to destinations all around the country.
If you plan to explore Guanacaste or the northern Nicoya Peninsula, fly into the Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quirós (Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, LIR) in Costa Rica’s northwest corner. If your itinerary takes you across the country, consider flying into one airport and out of the other to avoid backtracking.
Getting around is easy. The public bus system is well-coordinated and reliable, as are tourist-geared shared shuttle services and private transfer services. Some tour outfitters provide post-tour onward transportation, allowing you to travel between destinations while experiencing an adventure along the way.
Renting a car provides endless opportunities to explore, though a 4x4 vehicle is required in many areas and recommended in most others.
Domestic flights, water taxis, and ferries connect several destinations and help save travel time.
Reserve tours, accommodations, and transportation services in advance. Last-minute requests and drop-ins are accepted in some cases, but most tour operators and attractions require prior notice. Secure reservations before you travel so you can take advantage of early-booking discounts and handle payment from home. Most businesses have flexible cancellation policies.
SIGHTS AND EXPERIENCES
It can be tempting to delay booking your tours until you have a better sense of what weather to expect. But doing so means that the tours you want may not have openings; delaying can also create a rush of last-minute arrangements. Most tours run rain or shine.
During the high season, when spaces fill up quickly, book early to get your preferred date, time slot, and guide. In many cases, advance reservations are required. This includes the trek to Cerro Chirripó, overnight stays in Parque Nacional Corcovado, visits to Volcán Poás, and activities run by small organizations or indigenous groups, as well as most bird-watching and night tours.
During the low season, most accommodations have rooms to spare, and advance reservations are not required. Availability tightens around the shoulder season, when you should book a few months prior to your travel dates.
During the mid-December through April high season, the best accommodations sell out well in advance, typically by September. Other options fill up soon after. Stays during peak periods are the most sought-after; some accommodations receive requests for rooms up to a year in advance.
Most transportation services, including shared shuttle services, private transfer services, organized tour transportation services, domestic flights, and water taxis, will not take passengers who don’t have an advance reservation. Many can be booked up to the day before departure (year-round), availability permitting, but it’s best to make reservations as soon as your itinerary is finalized.
During the high season, rental agencies either sell out of vehicles or have only non-4x4 vehicles or expensive high-end vehicles to loan. Agency lots are typically stocked with all vehicle types during the low season.
Most public bus companies do not accept reservations.
Choose Your Adventure
The six mini-itineraries here are a selective sampling of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations and not-to-miss experiences. Combine them to form one comprehensive trip that merges adventure, nature, culture, and relaxation for an unforgettable, fast-paced, two-week travel experience. Or mix and match the itineraries to create the trip that best suits your interests.
You can drive yourself to many destinations in a rental vehicle, or rely on Costa Rica’s extensive, tourist-oriented transportation system to get around. Private transfer services, shared shuttle services, and outfitters that offer transportation with organized tours provide several ways to travel between cities, beach towns, and mountainous inland areas, making it easy to connect the dots and maximize your time.
A Taste of the Caribbean
A quick visit to the Caribbean coast provides an opportunity to experience the Jamaican-inspired side of Costa Rica, as well as a mix of downtime at the beach and wild, white-water adventure.
Fly into the Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría on the outskirts of San José as early in the day as possible. Take a bus, a shared shuttle service, or a private transfer service to the laid-back beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
- On Sale
- Nov 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 568 pages
- Moon Travel