Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel

Welcome to the “Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel!”  Costa Rica is officially the “Land of Pura Vida.”  What is Pura Vida?  Directly translated, it means “Pure Life,” or “Simple Life.”  Put another way: it means that pleasure is derived from small, everyday things.  Costa Ricans use the term to say both hello & goodbye ~ similar to Hawaii’s “Aloha.”  They respond with it when you ask how they’re doing.  “Pura Vida” is a state of mind.  A way of looking at the world.  And you’ll discover exactly what that means when you travel to Costa Rica….because it’s embedded so deeply within their culture.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Playa Cocles, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the “Land of Pura Vida,” & we’ll try to discover exactly what that means in this “Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel.”

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel

Costa Rica may be a tiny country: yet it’s home to more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity.  Which means you may hear monkey’s careening across the rooftop of your hotel.  It means you may wake up to the sound of birds singing, dogs barking, or coyotes howling.  In Costa Rica, nature is all around: you’re surrounded by it.  You’re thick in the jungle here, so don’t be surprised if you find bugs in your room!  That’s just part of life in Costa Rica…

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A monkey intruder climbing onto my hotel balcony in Manuel Antonio!! Be prepared for monkeys, bugs, & animals of all kinds in Costa Rica…

Costa Rica is the most popular destination in Central America for gringos ~ which can be both good & bad, depending what you’re looking for.  But you can still get off-the-beaten path…head to smaller towns vs. tourist hot spots.

Map of Costa Rica Highlights

In this guide, I’ll give you a brief overview of Costa Rica’s highlights, including: adventuring at Arenal Volcano, surfing at popular beaches like Tamarindo & Santa Teresa, watching sea turtles at Parque Nacional Tortuguero, or taking in the country’s #1 National Park in Manuel Antonio….

Manuel Antonio

San Jose International Airport

Tamarindo

Arenal Volcano

Playa Santa Teresa (Popular Surf Town)

Parque Nacional Tortuguero (Major Sea Turtle Nesting Grounds)

Cerro Chirripo (Highest Peak in Costa Rica + Where I Volunteered on Coffee Farm!)

Costa Rica Travel Overview!

  • Safety = Safer than the U.S. 90% 90%
  • Cost = Touristy areas can be pricey; but get off-the-beaten path & it’s cheaper! 60% 60%
  • Adventures = Abundant!!! Learn how to surf, chase monkeys, zip-line, jungle trek ~ you can do it all in Costa Rica! 100% 100%
  • How Safe I Felt as a Female Traveler = Very Safe 95% 95%
  • Costa Rican People = Very friendly & a little bit shy at first; they believe in “Pura Vida” 95% 95%

Costa Rica Travel Facts!

  • Costa Rica in Two Words = Pura Vida (“Pure Life”).
  • Costa Rica in One More Word = Jungle. 
  • Wi-Fi = In major tourist areas such as San Jose, Tamarindo, & Manuel Antonio ~ you’ll easily be able to find Wi-Fi.  In smaller cities, the jungle, & more off-the-grid places: don’t expect your Wi-Fi to work.
  • Global Peace Ranking = #34 out of 163 countries (U.S. is #103) = Statistically far safer than the U.S.  Also, as an interesting side note: Costa Rica is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t have a national army.  They brokered a deal with the United States wherein the U.S. army is actually Costa Rica’s army as well.
  • Hotels = Generally cheaper than the U.S. ~ but quite expensive in popular tourist destinations like Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio, etc.  To find cheaper prices, stay in hostels.
  • Must-Do’s = Go surfing at hang-ten heaven Santa Teresa.  Stay in Tamarindo’s world-class resorts.  Hike a volcano, like Arenal ~ then dip in the hot springs after!  Go zip-lining….everywhere!  Try some of the world’s best coffee in Monteverde.  Volunteer at a sea turtle nesting site in Parque Nacional Tortuguero.  Figure out first-hand what “Pura Vida” means.  
  • Is Costa Rica Good for Solo Travelers = Yes, but exercise caution: particularly when walking at night.  I’ve traveled to Costa Rica solo twice ~ & loved both trips; on one, I joined the Pura Vida Surf Camp, & the other I volunteered on a coffee farm, which you can read about here.  In Santa Teresa, we were told to avoid walking on the beach at night, as there were often robberies.  Similarly, the Caribbean Coast is notoriously less safe than the west coast.
  • What to Expect as a Female Traveler = Expect some catcalls, especially from groups of men.  Be cautious in San Jose: avoid walking by yourself at night, & no matter which city you’re in ~ ask your hotel what neighborhoods to avoid.  Avoid walking on any beaches alone at night, & leave valuables behind.
  • Great Neighboring Countries: Panama & Nicaragua.  Just north of Tamarindo is the uber-popular, ex-pat Nicaraguan haven of San Juan del Sur.  Party it up with locals there, or for more tranquility, head to Nicaragua’s gorgeous Isla de Ometepe ~ an island created by two volcanoes.  Or you can head south to Panama, with its gorgeous islands like Bocas del Toro & San Blas….or sample the nightlife in Panama City.
  • Would I Go Back = Yes!!!  I still need to hike Arenal Volcano!

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel

Most visitors fly into one of two International Airports in the capital, San Jose.  Be aware that both are quite far from San Jose, & the ride can take 45 minutes or more (I’ve missed flights here)!  I didn’t love San Jose, & personally, I wouldn’t stay longer than a day or two here….unless you’re coming for medical or dental tourism.  Many people fly here for extensive dental work, usually costing 1/3 of what it does in the States.  Many people I met had flown down for this purpose ~ & raved about their Costa Rican dentists! 

So, food for thought….

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World

San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica, & it’s most likely where you’ll fly into ~ but to be honest, it’s not my favorite city. Though there’s cool street art, I found it more utilitarian than attractive, & I was also warned not to walk at night ~ which was a bit off-putting. The main beauty of Costa Rica is definitely NOT in San Jose…

Photos of Arenal Volcano 

Arenal is one of the top attractions in Costa Rica ~ & with good reason: you can hike here, horseback ride, walk across hanging bridges, relax in volcanic hot springs, rappel, raft…you name it!  If it’s outdoorsy & adventurous: chances are, you can do it.  Towns to stay in by Arenal are La Fortuna & Tabacon.  An amazing hotel here is the Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa, which has hot springs that look like cascading waterfalls… 

Arenal = Adventure!

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Arenal Volcano

A place that is beautiful: Arenal Volcano, which is also one of the most popular destinations in the country. You can hike, zip-line, & take a dip in hot springs here…

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Arenal Volcano

The Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa, at the Arenal Volcano.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Tabacon Hot Springs

Tabacon Hot Springs!! Click on the photo to check rates at this gorgeous resort.

Photos of Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica

I stayed at the hilltop Hotel California in Manuel Antonio, & the seeing the view for the first time was a W-O-W moment!  This is one place where I really think you should splurge on accommodations: you’ve got a wide range of hotels here, & you could be in a dingy place in Quepos vs. a hilltop jungle-dream of a resort.  I’d go with the latter! 

The layout of Manuel Antonio can be difficult to understand at first: Quepos is a grittier town on the northernmost end of the area, & is the transport hub (aka where the bus station is).  Manuel Antonio National Park & lovely Espadilla Beach are at the southern-most end ~ & this is where the nice resorts are, like the Hotel San Bada Resort & Spa, which borders the National Park.  Don’t stay in Quepos: stay down here.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Manuel Antonio

The view from my hotel in Manuel Antonio: Hotel California, which sits on top of a hill, looking towards the northern beaches.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Manuel Antonio

Stunning Manuel Antonio is a popular resort town with a gorgeous, crescent-shaped beach & the #1 National Park in the country.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Manuel Antonio

Spend your money on nicer accommdations here: it’s worth it.

Photos of Tamarindo & Santa Teresa

If you’re coming to Costa Rica to surf: go to Tamarindo, Santa Teresa, or Malpais.  Tamarindo’s got a more upscale, resort-filled vibe (the Four Seasons is near here), while Santa Teresa & Malpais are more laid-back: with dirt roads, thatched roofs, to-die-for fresh food, & plenty of “Pura Vida.”  And you can still find beautiful, beachfront resorts here ~ like the Hotel Tropico Latino, that hosted our surf retreat.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Tamarindo

If you want to stay in a world-class resort in Costa Rica: head to the popular surf town of Tamarindo & the upscale Papagayo Peninsula.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Santa Teresa

Sunsets at Playa Santa Teresa (pictured here), were across-the-board PHEnomenal. Santa Teresa isn’t as upscale as Tamarindo ~ you’ve got dirt roads here, but the food, surf, & people are all amazing.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World, Santa Teresa

If you want to visit Costa Rica, but don’t have anyone to go with ~ consider joining the Pura Vida Surf Camp, based in Santa Teresa. Here, I made lifelong friends & learned how to surf in one of the most beautiful spots in the world…

Ultimate Guide for Costa Rica Travel, Girl Who Travels the World

I captured this photo of a wild horse running on the beach RIGHT in front of my beach bungalow at the Hotel Tropico Latino, in Santa Teresa.

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel

Volunteering is a great way to see Costa Rica, get involved with the local culture, make new friendships, & keep your trip within a reasonable budget.  You can teach English, work with the elderly, rescue sea turtles, or do as I did & work on a coffee farm….which was to this day, one of my most favorite travel experiences.  Maximo Nivel is a great local volunteer organization, & IVHQ is an international group with several great programs in Costa Rica.

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If you’re looking for more peace & quiet, or have always wanted to volunteer with sea turtles: head to Tortuguero National Park in the northeastern part of Costa Rica.

Ultimate Guide to Costa RIca Travel, Girl Who Travels the World

Volunteering on a coffee farm in southern Costa Rica was one of my FAVORITE travel experiences ever!! I fell in love with my host family, made great connections with fellow volunteers, & most of all: enjoyed being out in the fresh air ALL day long, picking coffee beans. Loved, loved, loved!!

Ultimate Guide to Costa RIca Travel, Girl Who Travels the World

This is the trail we hiked up every morning to reach the coffee fields. Click on the photo to learn more about this experience.

Watch Costa Rica Travel Videos!

Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel

Thanks for reading this “Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Travel.”  If these photos haven’t wet your appetite for a trip to Costa Rica….I don’t know what will!  This is a country built for adventure & nature lovers, so if that’s your calling, then BOOK THAT TICKET!!

xoxox Noelia

Read Next: Why Surf Camp is Perfect for Solo Travel!