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Family-friendly Costa Rica offers a blend of active adventure experiences and beach downtime, with multiple ecosystems: rainforests, cloud forests, jungles, mangroves and beaches. Geographically, it combines mountainous regions interspersed along the interior with hills leading down to the waterfront. Popular regions to visit include Arenal Volcano National Park; Guanacaste with its narrow golden shorelines; Monteverde for the cloud forest; Manuel Antonio National Park for beaches and jungle; and the Osa Peninsula for its remote and wild location and ecology. Take note of these 25 Costa Rica travel tips to enjoy this beautiful country at its best.
Costa Rica Travel Tips: 25 Things to Know Before You Go
There are two international airports within the country, one in San Jose (not to be confused with San Jose, California) and a smaller one in Liberia in the province of Guanacaste. Depending on your Costa Rica itinerary, make sure you book the right airport; it’s a few hours drive between them.
While roads have improved greatly in recent years with the extension of highways, there are narrow roads in some spots that see lots of truck traffic. Typical of driving in Latin America, you may experience passing in no passing zone, so rely on defensive driving. More remote areas may require a 4×4 vehicle.
It takes longer to drive anywhere than it looks on a map. If you need help with gas pumps, payment or directions, be aware that many gas station attendants don’t speak English. Prearranged transfers make traveling a lot less stressful, with clean rest stops and roadside diners for lunch.
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Weather and When to Go
Rainy season, also called the green season, is from May through November. It may pour continuously or rain only in the afternoons or evenings during these months.
December through April is the dry season, referred to as the gold season. Plant life generally loses some of its bright green as the winter progresses, offset by consistently sunny days.
Sunset is about 6pm all year round. The country is very close to the equator, and so there is very little seasonal change in the length of daylight hours, unlike in the U.S.
Arenal National Park and the Osa Peninsula are each located in one of the many tropical rainforests in Costa Rica, so it can rain even in the dry season. The cloud forests are often rainier and cooler than the coasts.
Eating and Drinking
The fruit is wonderful in Costa Rica, and starting your day with fresh fruit juice or a smoothie is refreshing. My son’s favorite was pineapple and watermelon. Just be careful with bananas — monkeys will sneak down to your table, steal them and throw the peels back at you!
Gallo pinto, or seasoned beans and rice, is the national dish, popular at breakfast but available at most meals. It is usually served with eggs or sausage for the first meal of the day. It’s also a kid favorite.
If you’re a coffee drinker, visiting Costa Rica is heaven. Roasts are generally on the light to medium side, but rich and full-bodied.
Best Land Adventures
Zip lining is an amazing way to view the jungle. In Arenal, some zip line tours are above the tree canopy, while others swing amid the trees. There are minimum ages and sizes depending on which option you choose and in which part of the country.
Whitewater rafting and float trips are a great way to experience the scenery from a unique vantage point. The rapids vary in terms of level of challenge and activity, while the float trips are in calmer waters and don’t require paddling to cut around rocks through rapids. This makes them better suited to the younger set or those who want to relax.
Hiking and hanging bridges abound. While hiking is a great way to get up close with the mountainous terrain, hanging bridges allow for a distinctive vantage point amid the trees and wildlife without the same degree of exertion.
Canyoning — rappelling down waterfalls through the jungle — is a fun adventure that my 13-year-old loved. For less strenuous waterfall viewing, you can visit falls in many parts of the rainforest and cloud forest, such as La Paz Waterfalls, although these tend to have more crowds.
Horseback riding through jungle paths grants insight into the landscape and the animals in the trees from the back of a horse. Many of these are gentle walks due to the nature of the terrain.
Soaking in natural hot springs is a great way to spend an afternoon following an active morning, and fun for all ages in any weather. Some of these pools are on hotel property while others are accessible to the public for a fee.
Visit a coffee plantation and take a tour to see how the beans are grown, collected, washed and roasted. Try the hard work of picking beans, see the stages of coffee processing and top it off with a finished cup of the brew. It’s a long way from ordering a latte at Starbucks.
Best Water Sports
Paddleboarding is casual and fun, especially in the calm waters around the Nicoya peninsula off Guanacaste. It’s a popular sport along the coastal areas.
Surfing is big in Costa Rica, and some of the beaches near Manuel Antonio National Park and on the Caribbean side are great places to learn the sport under supervision.
Deep-sea fishing requires a license, which may be included in your boat charter (be sure to ask). Sailfish, marlin, dorado, tuna, roosterfish, grouper and snapper can all be caught off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
Take a boat or catamaran excursion out to remote beaches to view the shoreline from the water. Many private boat tours include a chance to snorkel.
Kayaking is available either by the ocean or on water passages through the mangrove forests, two contrasting experiences.
Wildlife viewing is one of the main draws of the country. You will see monkeys everywhere, and they can be little thieves, slipping into rooms to steal sugar bowls and fruit. While you can see some of the animals in the surroundings of your hotel, a jungle tour will give you the best access to observe them in their natural habitat.
Animal rescue centers are the best places to see wild cats and elusive sloths (although you may get lucky and see them on a jungle tour or high up in a tree if you have a telescope). Or join an after-dark tour to spot nocturnal tropical frogs. Many of the creatures have been rescued from poachers or are injured and can’t be set free.
Tropical bird sighting around Monteverde is phenomenal, thanks to its biodiverse ecosystem. You can also interact with multicolored toucans and swift hummingbirds in some of the animal rescue centers, and sometimes offer them food.
And One More Tip …
Embrace the Costa Rican motto, pura vida, and enjoy the relaxed, simple life. It’s the embodiment of greeting each person with a smile each day. You will hear it throughout your stay in the country to say hello or goodbye.
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This is a challenging time for our clients given the uncertainty around the spread of coronavirus, particularly for those with near-term travel plans in impacted areas. We’re working with our suppliers on being flexible with their booking conditions, and enabling families to postpone travel to a later date without a penalty, when possible. Likewise, given the unpredictability around destinations that may be impacted in the future, we’re helping clients planning new trips and understand ways that they can protect themselves until the situation improves. We are ready to help our clients work through questions and concerns.