I’ll start this post by being extremely honest and sharing an unpopular opinion… I didn’t love Costa Rica…. I know, I know! Certainly not an opinion shared by many people. That being said, I would have enjoyed my trip much more had I been a little more prepared. This is why I have compiled a list of Costa Rica travel tips to help you have the most fabulous time possible in this gorgeous tropical paradise.
You won’t be alone. Not even close.
If your travel style is similar to mine, you prefer off-the-beaten-path things and like to dive deep into a locale. I love immersing myself in the local culture and learning about the lives and experiences of the locals.
This is becoming increasingly difficult in Costa Rica. According to the Costa Rica Embassy, over 1.7 million tourists visit each year! And can you blame them!? There are many perfectly good reasons so many tourists flock here! It’s gorgeous. Truly, nothing short of breathtaking. It’s a beautiful country with an unmatched biologically diverse ecosystem.
Many of the locals are also kind people that love tourists because of what they’ve done for the economy and the jobs they create. While I wanted to practice my Spanish down there, many locals want to practice their English. Later, I’ll touch on the specific dialect of Spanish in Costa Rica.
So keep this in mind when going out in Costa Rica. The parks, the beaches, volcanoes, tours, etc… You won’t be alone there. So when visiting, try to remind yourself that there’s a good reason so many people are there, be respectful to others, and just try to take in the beauty around you.
Ask yourself what kind of travel experience you want
I could not believe just how many tourists there were. Everywhere. All the time. It’s hard to comprehend until you see it in person.
If you’re a traveler that prefers off-the-beaten-path destinations, forging your own path, and discovering hidden gems, Costa Rica may be a place to put on hold for a while.
However, if you’re new to solo travel–or travel in general–and want a place to dip your toe in before taking on bigger challenges, Costa Rica is an excellent candidate for your next trip!
Related: 10 Days in Costa Rica Itinerary
“Habla despacio, por favor.”
I’ll only briefly touch on this since I’m certainly not an expert in the Spanish language. I thought I was much better at Spanish before visiting Costa Rica! Many people I know who speak Spanish agree that Central American–and Costa Rican–Spanish in particular can be very difficult to understand.
Costa Rican Spanish is spoken quickly and ‘slurred,’ for lack of a better word. For me, it was much harder to understand what people were saying because I couldn’t separate the words I was hearing. It is hard to explain but just make sure you know how to say “Repita, por favor.” (Repeat, please). “Habla despacio, por favor.” (Speak slowly, please). And finally; “Estoy apprendiendo espanol.” (I’m learning Spanish).
Brush up on your Spanish before you leave
Even if you’ve learned Spanish in Central America, Costa Rican Spanish can still be a bit tricky to understand. That’s not to say any way is wrong, better, or worse! While this isn’t the most essential of all my Costa Rica travel tips, it’s certainly something I wish I’d known beforehand. If so, I would have brushed up on my Spanish a little more hardcore than I did.
Plan your itinerary ahead of time
I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more… I love planning. I’m a typical Type-A person. While I love spontaneity, having a firm plan and itinerary before a trip is a great way to manage anxiety when traveling.
However, I thought I’d try to be spontaneous for my trip to Costa Rica!
I booked my accommodations but nothing else–no tours or anything. I thought with such a vast tourism industry I wouldn’t have any problems finding companies for the tours and I activities I wanted to do.
This was true in some instances and not in others.
There is no shortage of companies offering the obvious things; Zip lining, horse back riding, ATV’s, safaris, boat tours, etc. However, this actually turned out to be detrimental to my time there. With SO many companies offering the same experiences, I didn’t have the opportunity to read reviews and do thorough research before booking.
If fifty companies are offering the same—or similar—tours with comparable prices, how do you pick the right one? Thorough research and reading reviews. Since I didn’t take the opportunity to do that before my trip, it meant a less than stellar experience in some instances.
On top of this, before leaving the States, I had managed to find a few lesser known activities I wanted to do but once there found it nearly impossible to book day of during shoulder season.
Do your research
If I could go back and do it again, I would have taken the time to research and pre-book my tours and excursions ahead of time.
Yes, all of them. I read so many blogs that said to book while there because the weather can be so unpredictable. However, many tours even continue in the rain.
Furthermore, in the shoulder season, it usually doesn’t rain all day. If a tour booked cancels due to weather, most refund or reschedule. (Just read their policies beforehand.)
Then if that is the case, and your pre-booked tour does cancel, then you have a chance to be spontaneous.
If you don’t listen to any of my other Costa Rica travel tips, please listen to this one to avoid the headaches and hassle I experienced. If I had planned more, I think I would have had a much more fun experience.
Unfortunately since I didn’t, I missed out on the things I looked forward to the most… One being a day trip to Tortuga Island.
Lesson learned: Spontaneity is for the birds.
Don’t get ripped off
No one likes getting ripped off. It makes you feel violated and stupid.
While I don’t want to sound harsh, I have to be honest with my readers… If there’s a country this is likely to happen to you, it’s Costa Rica. Price gouging is a real problem, as is pick-pocketing and mugging in some other areas like Uvita. You can read more about that in my Costa Rica Itinerary post.
I like to think I’m a pretty savvy traveler and a no-bullshit kind of person… But even I had a few experiences in Costa Rica where I was later told I paid more than I should have.
For instance: At Playa Biesanz, I paid $10 for a beach chair, after bartering down from $20. I was informed later I shouldn’t have paid more than $5.
Always be polite but firm and barter everywhere you go. If you have a suspicion what you’re trying to buy is overpriced and they won’t budge, be prepared to move on.
If I had been more prepared that day at the beach, I would have just walked away and found a free spot of my own.
This also ties in with my third Costa Rica travel tip. Book tours ahead of time, read the reviews, and do your research and you’re much less likely to get ripped off on the value of your experience.
I booked a ‘catamaran’ snorkeling tour through my hostel in Manuel Antonio. When we got there, the boat was not a catamaran… Just a regular sail boat and the snorkeling was probably the worst I’ve done in my life.
After the tour off the coast, we were dumped with 10 other boats full of people splashing in the water so there were no fish to be seen.
Don’t be a victim & protect your money
Even the savviest of travelers can fall victim to a swindle.
Unfortunately, it happened to me more than once while traveling in Costa Rica, even with how much I read about it beforehand. I blame my lack of preparedness for many of these instances. IE; Forgetting my towel one day and having to pay twice what I should have for a chair so I wouldn’t be laying directly on the sand.
So please, learn from my mistakes and protect your hard-earned money.
Be savvy to common scams and price-gouging. You should also have a secure bag for your belongings and a lock for your suitcase at your hostel.
Don’t forget to have a photo copy of all your ID’s and itinerary in your email in case your devices or wallet are stolen. Always have a back up form of currency.
Understand that it’s expensive
It’s certainly no secret that Costa Rica is a bit more expensive than it’s Central American neighbors. While I have no qualms paying more for better quality, I don’t feel that’s the experience I had in Costa Rica.
Budget Your Trip puts Costa Rica at a cost of $68.23 per day for the average backpacker. To put that in context, that’s about the same as Banff National Park in Canada.
This information is certainly plentiful on the internet but what is scarce is first-hand, in-context experience.
If you aren’t careful, you’re going to pay about the same for meals and drinks as you would in the United States for probably worse quality food or accommodations.
For example: I booked an ATV tour which included lunch. Thinking I was getting a good deal since the tour wasn’t outrageously priced to begin with.
Imagine my disappointment coming down ravished from a volcano to a worse-than-Taco-Bell-quality, burnt-to-a-crisp quesadilla. What’s more, this lunch was at a beautiful, expensive resort that I definitely can’t afford. I certainly hope they aren’t serving that crap to their paying guests.
I want to be positive but….
It isn’t my goal to paint Costa Rica in a poor light but this certainly put a tinge of disappointment in my overall experience.
I don’t mind paying more when visiting an expensive destination but the quality should match the price tag and unfortunately, it often did not while I was there. I found many of my purchases–food, lodging, goods, tours, etc.–to be lackluster for their hefty price tag.
Stay in Jaco
One of my biggest regrets of my Costa Rica Itinerary was not including at least 1 day and night in Jaco. I purposefully avoided this spot because I heard it’s a party town full of tourists… Not my cup of tea.
However, after speaking with lots of other travelers who had been, they said the information on the internet makes it seem way more crazy than it is.
Everyone agreed that it was beautiful and super fun and a great place to meet people! It’s also a prime spot for day tips to islands. If you aren’t staying there, you will probably have a harder time booking.
I ran in to this exact problem when staying in Manuel Antonio. I was looking forward to a day trip to Tortuga Island more than anything else.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get any of the companies I wanted to respond to my emails while I was stateside.
I figured I could book while there. Unfortunately all the tours book from either San Jose or Jaco so I was unable to go.
Final thoughts on Costa Rica
Costa Rica was a bittersweet trip for me and if I’m being entirely honest, it’s not a destination I’m dying to return to, unlike Belize.
Truly, I chalk a lot of it up to just plain bad luck. Sometimes the planet, stars, or whatever just aren’t lined up when you’re traveling to a certain place.
So while it’s a destination I likely won’t be returning to any time soon, I absolutely wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting themselves.
If you’re not so interested in getting ‘off-the-beaten-path’ and just want to go somewhere beautiful, and you have some extra cash, Costa Rica is a great fit for you.
It’s also widely recommended to solo female travelers and I 100% agree.
I look back on the trip fondly and know this was an excellent period of growth in my life and want that for you as well. Solo travel is something absolutely everyone should do. Especially if you have an anxiety disorder, like myself.
If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, don’t forget to pin & save for later!