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The complete Costa Rica Travel Guide: the best things to do, see, and eat

Oct 29, 2020 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

With incredible scenery and wildlife, warm and welcoming people, and adventures for all ages, Costa Rica is a can’t-miss destination. The country’s name translates as “Rich Coast”—and it’s no surprise, considering it’s home to more than 500,000 species of plants and animals! Continue reading our travel guide for expert suggestions on the best things to do in Costa Rica, tips for traveling, and more.

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What to do

What to pack

When to go

What to see

What to eat and drink

What to buy

Currency: Costa Rica uses the colón (though the U.S. dollar is widely accepted).

Language: Spanish and indigenous languages are the most prevelant, though many locals in cities and popular tourist destinations speak English.

Getting around: With so much beautiful scenery to explore and places to visit in Costa Rica, you’ll be glad to have a private deluxe motor coach to take you on all of our Costa Rica tours, and from coast to coast on our new Grand Tour of Costa Rica!  

Phrases to know:

  • Pura Vida. Costa Rica’s homegrown philosophy means “pure life." It captures the welcoming spirit of the country and the locals’ laid-back approach to life. You can use it as a greeting, a way of saying thanks, or just to express how great your trip to Costa Rica is going.
  • Tico/Tica. This means “Costa Rican”—and it’s how locals refer to themselves! “Tico” is masculine, while “tica” is feminine.
  • Mae. Pronounced as “my,” this is Costa Rican slang for “dude” or “bro.” It’s informal and best used as a term of affection between friends.
  • ¡Qué tuanis! This exclamation, said “kay-TWAH-neece,” translates to “how cool!” You can also say “¡Qué mae!”

What to do in Costa Rica

Tour a coffee farm. Get up close and personal with one of Costa Rica’s finest exports—coffee. (Coffee accounts for nearly 8% of the country’s gross domestic product.) Take a farm tour to learn about the region’s perfect coffee-growing conditions, how coffee fruit becomes beans, and how those beans become the liquid gold in your morning cup. Later, reward yourself for all the knowledge you gained by sampling some coffee right from the source. Visit a coffee farm on our Costa Rica for Solo Travelers: Volcanoes, Jungles & Beaches tour.

Make your own chocolate. Costa Rica’s fertile soil produces more than just coffee. Cacao trees thrive here too, providing the raw goods for making indulgent chocolate. Tour a cacao farm to see the yellow-and-green, gourd-like pods hanging from the trees encasing the pulpy seeds. Learn about the history of cacao (some Indigenous groups used it as currency in the pre-Columbian era), and experience firsthand how it’s transformed into chocolate. The ultimate reward comes when you get to taste the literal fruits of your labor.

Visit a wildlife refuge. One of the best things to do in Costa Rica is spot animals in their natural habitat. This should come as no surprise, since the country contains more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Costa Rica is also one of the top destinations for responsible wildlife experiences. Pack your binoculars and head to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a bird lover’s paradise where your guide will point out some of the 200 species of birds that call it home. You can also expect to see marine life and wetland reptiles, like caimans and emerald basilisks.

Kayak around Lake Arenal. One of the best views of the iconic Arenal Volcano is from the lake directly beneath it. Enjoy a leisurely paddle in Central America’s largest lake while taking in an incredible close-up view. Look for wildlife in the coves, lagoons, and outlets of the lake, while keeping an ear out for the distinct cry of howler monkeys hiding in the trees. To finish off the day, soak in one of the nearby geothermal hot springs. Experience this adventure and more on our A Week in Costa Rica: San José, Arenal & Guanacaste tour.

Catch some rays. With nearly 800 miles of coastline, Costa Rica is aptly named. There are plenty of incredible beaches perfect for surfing, snorkeling, and sailing (or sunning yourself if you’re looking for a relaxing beach day). The Guanacaste Region along the Pacific coast is home to some of the most stunning shell beaches, as well as marine life like sea turtles, dolphins, stingrays, and humpback whales. If you prefer to be on the water rather than in it, a scenic sailboat cruise is a perfect way to see the sea. You can embark on a snorkeling and sailing excursion on our new Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific.

Learn more about Costa Rica on tour

What to pack for Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a study in contrasts. Visiting Monteverde in the north, you’ll experience lush rainforest, cooler temperatures, and near-constant mist (like on our Costa Rica: Rainforests, Volcanoes & Wildlife tour).

Along the Pacific coast, you’ll encounter arid beaches and palm trees, while on the Caribbean side, you might visit more rainforests, mangrove hammocks, sandy beaches, and swamps. Travel both on our new Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific.

When thinking about what to pack for a trip to Costa Rica, remember that it can be very humid and sunny. Here are some of our best tips.

  • Rain gear. Staying comfortable on tour starts with staying dry, so be sure to pack a quality rain jacket and waterproof shoes.
  • Layers. One of our best packing tips for Costa Rica is to bring lightweight clothing that’s easy to layer and wicks moisture. Costa Rica may be a tropical country, but temperatures fall at higher elevations, so pack a light jacket, too.
  • Sun protection. This close to the equator, the sun is very strong. So, take this tip for traveling to Costa Rica to heart: Come prepared with a sun hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
  • Binoculars. Since one of the best parts about visiting Costa Rica is seeing its incredible biodiversity, one of our can’t-miss Costa Rica travel tips is to pack a pair of binoculars.
  • Health sundries. Pack hand sanitizer, a small first aid kit, and medication if you’re prone to sea sickness, as you may travel by boat to some of the places you visit. Plus, some of Costa Rica’s dirt roads can get pretty bumpy.
Discover Costa Rica

When to travel to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a relatively small country, about the size of West Virginia. Despite its size, it has amazingly diverse scenery, altitudes, and weather conditions. Located just north of the equator, Costa Rica enjoys moderate temperatures year-round. But, if you’re wondering when the best time to travel there is, we’ve got the answer: summertime!

Instead of four seasons, it has just two: a dry summer from January–April and a rainy winter from May–December. And when we say “rainy,” we mean rainy. Some areas of Costa Rica can get over 260 inches (that’s 21 feet!) of rain a year. The best time to travel to Costa Rica is during the drier months to take full advantage of all the country has to offer.

Since the weather can vary widely between the rainforests and the beaches found just hours away, you’ll want to make sure you pack for all conditions when you travel to Costa Rica.

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Things to see in Costa Rica

Driving just a few hours in Costa Rica will take you through a variety of microclimates and landscapes. The country’s volcanic soil and access to both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean combine to create some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. Here are our top picks for places to visit in Costa Rica (with your camera in hand, of course).

Arenal Volcano. Costa Rica lies along the Ring of Fire, an area of volcanic and seismic activity caused by shifting tectonic plates along the Pacific Ocean. About 100 volcanic formations dot the country, but only six are currently considered active—including Costa Rica’s most famous volcano, Arenal. It’s a perfect cone and is bordered by beautiful Lake Arenal, making it one of the top things to see in Costa Rica.

Monteverde. Home to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, this district in the northwest part of Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity and near-constant mist. There are more than 3,000 plant species found here, including 755 different species of trees! What’s there to do, you ask? You can zipline, hike, or meander along the bridges in the cloud forest canopy. We highly recommend taking a guided nature walk—the local guides can spot animals and plants you’re sure to miss on your own, including the rare (and colorful) resplendent quetzal.

Manuel Antonio. It may be the smallest of Costa Rica’s national parks, but Manuel Antonio packs a big punch, and deserves a place in every Costa Rica travel guide. The park features gorgeous beaches on the Pacific coast, beautiful weather, and access to hiking trails. One of our best travel tips for this park is to keep an eye out—you might see monkeys, iguanas, or some of its numerous species of birds. Visit Manuel Antonio on our Highlights of Central America: Costa Rica & Panama tour.

Tortuguero. Another one of Costa Rica's national parks, Tortuguero, is located on the Caribbean coast. The park is famous for being a habitat for sea turtles (“tortugas” in Spanish), and you might even spot some on the beach. Tortuguero is also unique for being accessible only by plane or boat—no cars here! Search for sea turtles in Tortuguero on our Costa Rica: Rainforests, Volcanoes & Wildlife tour.

Experience Costa Rica on tour

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What to eat and drink in Costa Rica

No Costa Rica travel guide is complete without a mention of the food! In short: It’s hearty, fresh, nutritious, and delicious.

Thanks to its climate, the country boasts an impressive array of locally grown fruits and vegetables. You’ll find rice and beans offered with most meals, along with pork, beef, chicken, and fresh fish from the coastal regions. Here are some of our favorite dishes to try while on tour in Costa Rica.

Casado. Think of this typical Costa Rican meal like a blue-plate special, with hearty portions of rice, beans, salad, fried plantains, and your choice of meat or fish. The name translates to “married,” and the dish reflects that with a union of flavors. Want to eat like a true tico? Head to a soda: a lunch counter or diner serving traditional Costa Rican cuisine, often at a very reasonable price.

Gallo pinto. This simple and delicious combination of rice and beans is often served for breakfast. Its name means “spotted rooster,” and refers to the contrasting colors of the beans and rice.

Patacones. Green plantains are sliced, smashed, and fried, and served up as a crispy snack with lime and salt or salsa.

Café. Costa Rica’s mountainous terrain, volcanic soil, and mild temperatures combine to create the perfect climate for growing coffee. Some of the best coffee in the world is grown here, and one of the best things to do in Costa Rica is try a perfectly brewed cup.

Refrescos. These fresh fruit smoothies are made with a myriad of Costa Rica’s tropical fruits. They make a great post-beach day treat or a delicious way to cool down after a beautiful walk through the rainforest.

Guaro. This clear spirit, the national liquor of Costa Rica, is distilled from sugar cane juice. With a flavor similar to vodka, guaro is slightly sweeter and is found in many delicious cocktails, like the ubiquitous guaro sour.

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Best souvenirs to buy in Costa Rica

While you’ll take home wonderful memories and beautiful photos from your trip to Costa Rica, you’ll also find a number of souvenirs to help you remember the magic. Here are some of our favorites to pick up.

Costa Rican coffee. Nothing will transport you back to Costa Rica like a cup of coffee. Ticos are known for producing some of the most delicious coffee in the world, and you’ll find a variety of roasts and blends to choose from. Look for “grano entero” on the label for whole beans or “molido” for ground coffee.

A chorreador de café, or drip coffee maker. With a wooden frame and cloth filter, these coffee makers are simple to use and clean, and produce rich, full-bodied coffee. Bring one home for a true tico experience every morning.

Locally sourced chocolate. Chocolate was once Costa Rica’s leading export and cacao producers are still found all over the country. On our Costa Rica: Rainforests, Volcanoes & Wildlife tour, you’ll even have the chance to learn how it’s made before you sample some!

Explore Costa Rica with us

Have you ever visited Costa Rica on tour? Share your favorite things to do in Costa Rica on our Facebook page!


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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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