Looking for tips on things to do in Costa Rica?
As part of our “Travel Tips” series we interviewed Bohemian Mom who lived in Costa Rica for 5 years and had a home base in Atenas, which is a tranquil coffee town in the mountains said to have the ‘Best Climate in the World”.
She took every opportunity from this central location to explore Costa Rica and its neighboring countries. Bohemian Mom share’s with us her insider travel tips and knowledge on things to do in Costa Rica for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore…
Why Visit Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful and peaceful countries in the world. Few countries offer the same level of biodiversity that you will find there.
Rich in nature and with two coastlines, this small country nestled between Nicaragua and Panama has something for everyone. From relaxing beaches, zip lining in the rainforest, hiking up a volcano, to cheap dental work, there is no end to the list of possible activities.
It is also a country of some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever encountered. They adore children and welcome them into every situation. This makes Costa Rica a great destination for families as well as singles and couples.
Best Things to Do in Costa Rica?
Wow this is a tough one as there are so many amazing things to do. I wrote an article on the best places to go with kids, which offers ideas with kids that you may not find in every tour book.
I also wrote one about the best beaches in Costa Rica, which is in actuality quite a long list. But, I think it depends on how long you are there. If you can do a month that is ideal, at least 2 weeks is best in my opinion.
Arenal Volcano and the rain forests of Monteverde are some of my favorite spots on earth, but most people come to enjoy its beautiful beaches.
Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean coast, particularly Punta Uva beach are a definite on any trip’s itinerary.
Where to Eat?
Costa Rica is not really known for its food.
With that being said, five months out of the country and we find ourselves missing some of the food the most. I cannot really recommend a specific place in particular but I can offer some tips.
- For a budget option any local “soda” is a good choice.
- Gallo Pinto, a dish of rice and beans with seasonings, is served with most breakfasts.
- Arroz con pollo (rice and chicken)
- Ceviche (cold fish in lime juice and cilantro)
- and casados (choice of grilled meat with rice, beans, and salad), are all great choices of typical fare.
As is true with most eateries, where ever you find tables packed with locals, you can bet it is a great spot.
For more upscale food or American fare you can find many choices in the more touristy areas. There are many American chains throughout the Central Valley, but they all come with a large cost factor.
You will find loads of inexpensive vegetables and fruits growing in practically every yard or at one of many fruit stands along the road. The true beauty of the Costa Rican food is the freshness!
Finally, the coffee. Oh, how we miss the exquisite Costa Rican coffee.
When traveling back to visit the United States, we’d bring twenty ½ kilo bags of Atenas coffee with us as gifts and to drink during our short stay in the States. At $3 for a half-a-kilo (1.1 lbs), it’s well worth grabbing a few bags to take home with you when you leave Costa Rica.
But my advice is to find the more town local favorites such as La Villa in Atenas. Café Brit, while the most commercialized brand, is not as pleasing or fresh as a local town brands.
Where to Drink?
Costa Ricans surely enjoy to party and every town, big and small, will offer a few options for a drink right in the town center. Imperial is the local beer and most commonly compared to a Budweiser. They are starting some small local breweries and some imports are available as well, but at a cost.
Most weekends there is some type of celebration going on complete with fireworks, drinks, and loud music. If at all possible try to get to one, it is a sight to see, whether it is a “tope” (horse parade), or the celebration of a saint, you will enjoy!
Best Places for a Night on the Town?
There are not really any nightly shows or things to that effect to do in Costa Rica unless you are there during a performance at the new national stadium or can speak Spanish and your trip coincides with a national theatre performance.
But Costa Ricans love to party and you can be assured that any town, large or small will have a fair assortment of bars and karaoke joints to suit your needs just fine.
There are also modern movie theaters, art galleries, bowling alleys, miniature golf, and other entertainment choices especially in the Central Valley areas of Escazu and Santa Ana, suburbs of the capital San Jose.
Where to Stay?
There are too many options to name specific hotels without a referenced area. As a family, we usually chose to find a good short-to-mid term rental home via vrbo.com, but you can also enjoy many all-inclusive resorts ranging from local pricing up to the Four Seasons.
You will be able to find accommodation anywhere from a budget hostel, a B&B, to a 5 star hotel in nearly every desirable location.
*Remember though during high holidays like Semana Santa or Christmas week to book well in advance!*
Any Markets or Shopping Districts Worth a Visit?
Each town will have their own local farmers markets. These are most definitely worth a visit as they offer the best value and a nice introduction to the local culture, not to mention incredibly fresh and delicious fruits vegetables, cheeses, yogurts, herbs, etc.
There is also a lovely walking street in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city, where you can find trinkets, clothing, locally made art, and bootleg DVD movies. It is located just behind the National Theatre, another great spot to see if strolling around the city.
Major Events and Festivals?
Independence day is probably the biggest holiday in Costa Rica, celebrated on September 15th. There is a night parade in each town with local children carrying “faroles” (handmade lanterns) and also a huge parade during the day. It is celebrated with much pride in nearly every town in Costa Rica.
Semana Santa is the week leading up to Easter. Being a Catholic country this is also taken very seriously. It is considered the highest of the high seasons, so accommodations and food will be the most expensive.
These things should be booked well in advance as hotels tend to fill up quickly especially on the beach. Also of note, many things shut down during this week and on Good Friday you are not even supposed to drive a car, although many do anyway.
Alcohol is also difficult to purchase on Good Friday and throughout Easter weekend.
Christmas is also celebrated for the entire month of December. Kids are out of school and you can enjoy fireworks on every single evening. Again this is the highest season so expect costs to reflect that.
If it is at all possible to spend New Years eve on a mountain top overlooking the Central Valley, I would do it every time! It is the best show I think I have ever seen and was so sad to miss it this year.
Words cannot really describe the amazing sight of countless fireworks exploding at midnight over the city and everywhere around you. So do yourself a favor and get down there for at least one New Years.
Best Way to Get Around?
Public transport is a great way to see the country. Buses are available for short and longer distances and even for travel between neighboring countries.
There are no trains except a few tourist scenic types but there is an airline, Nature Air that runs daily flights throughout the country.
You can also rent a car but it is expensive and driving the windy and foggy roads can be a challenge and usually somewhat time consuming.
Each town also has multiple taxi services. Red taxis are the insured ones but are a bit more expensive. There are also smaller companies that we used for a fraction of a cost but they offer no insurance.
Orange taxis are the official transport from the airport and it is recommended that you use those for safety and best value. You could hire a taxi for a full day for around $100.
Is Costa Rica WiFi friendly?
Access to WIFI is readily available throughout most of the country. The more remote you go the harder that access will be to find. Particularly difficult is the Osa peninsula, a pristine beautiful spot, but if you need internet or even electricity it may be difficult. .
Most towns have numerous internet cafes, free access in the town parks, and many restaurants also offer it for free. Since CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) passed the availability is even better with more companies offering different plans.
3G is also available and can be purchased as you step off your plane from the ICE (the government run telecommunications company) booth right in the airport. Bring your UNLOCKED smart phone and buy a SIM card at the airport!
Best Time of Year to Visit?
This one will depend on some of your needs. Most of the country experiences a dry and rainy season.
Dry season is from November to April and consists of very little rain, leaving much of the countryside dry and brown, and with very warm temperatures. Rainy season goes from April to November and progressively gets rainier, climaxing in October.
The benefit in the rainy season is that the travel costs are all down and the temps can be quite a bit cooler. Typically, it will rain for an hour or 2 in the late afternoon so really it doesn’t effect your day very much at all, until October that is.
One of the most interesting things about Costa Rica is its microclimates though so check in more detail for your exact location(s). Even in the same town, elevation variations can make temps and rain levels quite a bit different.
High season is the dry season and it’s quite beautiful, but I’m partial to the “green” (rainy) season. I recommend going anytime, save for October.
Getting There and Away?
There are no trains in the area but buses (Ticabus and Nicabus) are always an option. More affordable than any flights but certainly take a considerable amount of time.
Within the country, Nature Air often offers deals to save on in country travel times. Driving is also an option but it can become increasingly difficult if taking a car over any borders.
*also remember that a tourist visa is free to enter (most passports will get 90 days upon entry) but there is an exit tax of $26 per person when leaving the country by plane*
Best “insiders” tip for travellers?
The best advice I can give is to talk to the locals to get the best ideas. Where ever there is a tourist trap, like the Baldi hot springs in Arenal for example, there is often a more local place like Las Lagos or Eco Termales that will charge you FAR less without losing the amazing experience.
I love Costa Rica because ______?
It was my home for 5 years. I moved to this small country sight unseen and was welcomed by everyone I came across. I had my youngest son there and it was the best birth experience by far.
Some of our fondest moments as a family came while learning to surf together, climbing a volcano, horseback riding to hot springs, and enjoying the perfect climate that graced our small mountain town.
I could not have asked for a better expat experience and I will always be grateful to Costa Rica, its amazing people, and beautiful landscape.
BIO: We are the Bohemian Family of 5 adventurers. Mom, Dad and 3 amazing boys. We started on our quest to escape the rat race five years ago in Costa Rica and haven’t stopped. Come visit us on Facebook and follow along on Twitter.