VACATIONS TO COSTA RICA – ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

Are you dreaming of vacations in Costa Rica? You are not alone. This small Central American country is famous for its stunning beaches, lush jungles, and a laid-back way of life – Pura Vida! What should you see there? Just to mention a few, how about Manuel Antonio Costa Rica with its beaches, watersports, and a national park full of wild animals? Or La Fortuna Costa Rica with its Arenal volcano, hot springs, and action-adventure activities. But there is more. The whole country is equally fascinating. Read on to learn all you need to know about planning your holidays to Costa Rica.

Vacations to Costa Rica. Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna.
 Arenal Volcano awaits your arrival at La Fortuna Costa Rica. 

VACATIONS TO COSTA RICA – ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

With my trip to Costa Rica, I crossed another destination off my bucket list. I had an entire itinerary in my head for at least five years and was waiting for a good deal to come around. When finally happened, I jumped on it. Travel dates were not perfect, departure on New Year’s Eve, but I was OK with it.

I was able to secure two round trip tickets with my American Airlines credit card opening bonus. The lucky winner to join me was my 22 year old son, Daniel, who could easily fit this vacation into his college Christmas break. Costa Rica sounded so attractive to him, he did not mind to go there with his mother!

Travel to Costa Rica – know before you go

No English, no problem

Do not be afraid of the language barrier while considering your holidays to Costa Rica. English is widely spoken there since the country’s economy is largely based on tourism. The United States is by far the largest single market for tourists to Costa Rica, totaling around 40 percent of all visitors. Even in off the beaten path areas, many people speak good English.

La Fortuna Costa Rica. City park.
La Fortuna Costa Rica

Health Risks and Vaccinations for Costa Rica

Travelers from the United States with a United States passport are not required to have any vaccinations to enter Costa Rica. Check the vaccines and medicines list and visit your doctor at least a month before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. All travelers should be up to date on routine vaccinations while traveling to any destination.

Be aware that mosquito-borne diseases exist in Costa Rica. To reduce your risk of insect bites, wear long sleeves and pants to cover more skin, especially during the rainy season when there are more mosquitoes. Stay in air-conditioned or screened rooms and use bed nets if your sleeping arrangements are exposed to the outdoors.

Vacations to Costa Rica. Infinity pool in Manuel Antonio.Manuel Antonio Costa Rica – El Faro Hotel

Level of healthcare in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican healthcare system is rated highly on an international scale, and the country’s citizens enjoy the health and life expectancy equal to that of more developed nations. This is due to universal health insurance and excellent public and private hospitals. Costa Rica is a popular destination for medical tourism because of the low costs of services, bilingual medical personnel, and high medical reputation.

With minor problems, the best place to start is a local pharmacy. Pharmacists in Costa Rica receive a high level of medical training, which enables them to prescribe medicines for the most common symptoms and ailments. Still, make sure to purchase travel insurance for your trip. Luckily I did, and unlucky, I had to use it. If you are asking yourself is travel insurance is worth it, read my story here.

La Fortuna in Costa Rica invites visitors with a charming town, Arenal Volcano, and adventure activities.
La Fortuna Costa Rica invites visitors with its colorful charm.

Emergency Numbers in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a 911 service, just like the United States, that should be used in the event of an emergency. The English-speaking operator should be available. For an ambulance dial 128, and call 118 to report a fire.

Safety in Costa Rica

While petty crime is the predominant threat for tourists in Costa Rica, violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide, and sexual assault occur in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican government provides additional security resources in areas frequented by tourists. Learn more here.

Best time to go to Costa Rica

The best time for vacations to Costa Rica is from late November through April when you are almost guaranteed sunny skies and rain-free days. However, this is also the high tourism season, so plan on paying more for your hotel room. September and October are Costa Rica’s rainiest months, with rainfall that could last a whole day. Learn more details about Costa Rica weather here.

Marriott San Jose Costa Rica.
Marriott San Jose is an excellent place for the New Year’s celebration.

Flying to Costa Rica 

When planning your vacations to Costa Rica, you will have plenty of choices to get there. The following American airlines fly to Costa Rica: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, and Spirit. There are many flights from multiple locations across the USA to the country’s capital San Jose. International airways include Copa, Air Canada, Mexicana, Avianca, and more.

Costa Rica Airports

Costa Rica has two international airports – Liberia (Daniel Oduber, LIR) and San José (Juan Santamaría, SJO). Both are relatively modern but operating well over their designed capacity. Expect long lines.

Beautiful sunset at Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.
Stay on the beach for the beautiful sunset in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica.

Currency in Costa Rica 

The Costa Rican unit of currency is the colón. Named after Christopher Columbus, the colón has a value that fluctuates between 500-550 colónes per 1 US dollar. The US dollar is also widely accepted. Bank or debit cards in ATMs are the recommended way to access your funds while traveling in Costa Rica.

Credit cards in Costa Rica 

Wondering how to get the best currency exchange rates when traveling abroad? Use credit cards during your vacations to Costa Rica for the best rates. They are accepted almost everywhere, even by taxi drivers. Some tours may require cash payment, but it could be easily avoided. Make your reservations online or through your hotel to use credit.

La Fortuna, local craft.
The colorful local craft can easily be purchased with credit cards.

Getting Around in Costa Rica

Van service 

Many travelers use the van transportation during their vacations to Costa Rica. We used it too between San Jose and La Fortuna, and then La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio. The vans were air-conditioned and in good shape, but with many passengers and multiple stops, the ride was long.

My son did not like the idea of not having a car, so he was observing the roads just to prove to me that renting a car was a better solution. In the end, I had to agree with him and in Manuel Antonio, I rented a car.

Car rental 

We rented a car to drive around the Manuel Antonio area and eventually to drive back to San Jose. The process was very smooth. I made a reservation online, and the car was delivered to my hotel. In my opinion, renting a car in Costa Rica is cheaper and more convenient than using a van service (on average, $50 per person one way).

My son drove from Manuel Antonio back to San Jose. The roads were in good condition, and the ride was smooth. In less touristy areas, this may not be the case.

Manuel Antonio National Park. An empty beach.
Arrive at an opening hour to Manuel Antonio National Park to have beaches to yourself.

Driving in Costa Rica

The roads in Costa Rica are mostly paved and form an extensive system that provides access to most parts of the country. The main routes from San Jose to Arenal Volcano, Tamarindo, and Jaco Beach (some of the most popular destinations in the country) are in excellent condition.

Although local road conditions are generally good, do not be surprised to find large potholes. During the rainy season, flash floods could deteriorate and even wash out roads and bridges. Night driving should be avoided, as it makes it more difficult to see.  Many Costa Rican roads are two lanes curving through mountains.

Keep in mind that Costa Rica uses the metric system.  All road signs show distances in kilometers (1.6 kilometers = 1 mile).

Manuel Antonio Costa Rica. Large rock on the beach.
Manuel Antonio beach looks the best at sunset.

Buses 

Public buses offer the cheapest mode of transportation in Costa Rica. On the main routes, they are modern and comfortable but typically not air-conditioned. San Jose is the transportation center for the country, though there is no central terminal.

Bus offices are scattered around the city. Some large bus companies have big terminals that sell tickets in advance, while others have little more than a stop – sometimes unmarked. Space is limited onboard, so if you have to check luggage, be careful. Theft from overhead racks is rampant, though it’s much less common than in other Central American countries.

Trains

Trains are inexpensive and a good option for more adventurous tourists. The whole Costa Rican train network was damaged during an earthquake in 1991. Since then, the operator Incofer (Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles) has been working on building it up again.

The network has been shut down for many years, but now there are some routes back in service. Trains in Costa Rica are not as reliable as the other means of transportation.

Manuel Antonio beach. Small waves rolling.
Manuel Antonio is a perfect location for beach and adventure vacation.

Domestic flights

Flying is another way to move around during your vacations to Costa Rica. Local airlines offer domestic flights to several Costa Rica destinations, as well as to neighboring countries like Panama and Nicaragua. The four regularly operating airlines are Skyway, Sansa, Aerobell, and Air Caribe.

Between these four airlines, you’ll be able to travel to at least 14 different destinations across the country, all linked from the major hubs, San Jose & Liberia.

Food in Costa Rica 

I did not do any research on Costa Rican food before visiting but for some reason, I thought it would be spicy. It was not. Chicken and rice seem to be a base of Costa Rican dinner and come with a variety of sauces made of local fruit – delicate and tasty! Find out here what food to try in Costa Rica.

Marriott San Jose Costa Rica. Delicious deserts.
You will find a wide variety of desserts in Marriott San Jose.

Things to do in Costa Rica

Costa Rica got it right! About 25% of the country is designated as national parks and protected areas. This system, combined with a tropical climate, supports a wide variety of flora and fauna for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.

Visitors seeking action-adventure will find numerous thrilling activities like white water rafting, zip-lining above cloud forest, cliff jumping, and more. But if you prefer to simply relax on the beach or watch a spectacular sunset from an infinity pool, it is all there for you too.

Enjoy the beaches in Costa Rica

 
Beach in Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica.
You will find many kinds of beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica itinerary

I knew I could not see it all, so I put a lot of work into creating the best possible Cost Rica itinerary. I decided on only three locations to see the best of what the country has to offer – beaches, jungle, and the famous Arenal Volcano.

San Jose Costa Rica – 2 days

San Jose serves as an entry point for the majority of visitors to the country. Most of them quickly depart for their main destinations but in many cases, it makes sense to stay there overnight. For those travelers, hotels are located close to the airport and offer a comfortable place to sleep and airport shuttles.

Since we arrived on New Year’s Eve, we decided to stay two nights for the celebrations. We chose Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen for its attractive architecture and outstanding facilities. I used all my valuable Marriott points for these two nights, but it was worth to welcome New Year in style.

Welcoming entrance at Marriott San Jose Costa Rica.
Marriott San Jose Costa Rica can easily serve a long term winter escape. Many visitors from the USA were doing just that. 

The hotel offers a free shuttle from the airport. It features beautiful grounds with two pools, a golf driving range, a tennis court, and a full-service spa. Five on-site restaurants will satisfy your appetite with local and international cuisine. We truly enjoyed our stay there. If you decide to venture out beyond your hotel, here are things to do in San Jose.

Spectacular sunset at Manuel Antonio Costa Rica.

La Fortuna Costa Rica – 2 days

La Fortuna is located in the Northern Highlands of Costa Rica, about 2.5 hours from both international airports. The main attraction, Arenal Volcano, can be seen from almost every vantage point of the town.

The area is a well-known destination for adventure seekers. Hiking, kayaking, zip-lining, canyoning, and white water rafting are very popular. Here is what to do in La Fortuna.

Hike Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna Costa Rica 

The volcano can be seen for miles around, but it’s worth the effort to get a closer look. Two of the best options for hiking are Arenal Volcano National Park and the nearby Arenal 1968 Trail.

Arenal Volcano - La Fortuna, Costa Rica Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna Costa Rica. 

Soak in one of many hot springs

Make sure to visit La Fortuna’s hot springs after a day of adventure. They are naturally heated by the volcano’s thermal energy. You will find plenty of choices for every taste and budget.

Try zip-lining in the rainforest

For more action, I try zip-lining in the jungle. We both did it and loved it.

Zip-lining in La Fortuna Costa Rica.
For young and young at heart try zip-lining available in many locations in Costa Rica.

Where to stay in La Fortuna

I noticed that plenty of American college students visit La Fortuna during their break. They stay in the center of town for the bar scene and lower hotel prices. Families stay outside of town in resort-like accommodation.  Here are the 10 best hotels in La Fortuna.

Related: How to find Hotels and Family-Friendly Destinations in Costa Rica

Hotel La Fortuna

We stayed in Hotel La Fortuna, located in the center of town but close to tourist attractions. We could clearly see the Arenal Volcano from our room with the balcony. The rooms were simple but clean. The price was right too, with good breakfast included. If you looking for good value, this hotel certainly delivers.

We truly enjoyed good breakfast food at Hotel La Fortuna Costa Rica. 

Manuel Antonio – 5 days 

Manuel Antonio area impressed me the most during our vacations to Costa Rica. It offers outstanding scenery, an abundance of wildlife, gorgeous beaches, and a wide variety of accommodation. Here is what to do in Manual Antonio.

Visit Manuel Antonio National Park

The park opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. Be there early to avoid crowds and the heat. We took a private tour to explore the park. It was well worth it. Our guide knew where and how to spot wildlife. We saw monkeys, sloths, and a variety of birds.

The beaches in the park are gorgeous. Later in the day, they get crowded with people and monkeys! Watch your belongings, monkeys are thieves!

Manuel Antonio National Park. We arrived early to beat the crowd.
We arrived at Manuel Antonio National Park early in the morning to beat the crowds.
Enjoy the sand and watersports at Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Playa Espadilla stretches along the coast for more than a mile across the Manuel Antonio coastline. It is the most popular beach and the closest one to the town.  This is where you will find vacationers lounging in deck chairs under beach umbrellas. The beach is perfect for sun tanning, swimming, and water sports. Make sure to stay for the sunset!

Sunset in Manuel Costa Rica can certainly impress.

Protect yourself from the sun!

Although the temperature in Costa Rica may be comparable to the temperatures of some warm destinations in the US, the sun is much stronger. Even on cloudy days, you need to wear sun protection while outside. Bring a lot of sunblock for your vacations to Costa Rica.

Jet skiing in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica.
That started as fun but ended up with a severe sunburn.
Take a Mangrove Tours in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Mangrove tours allow travelers to explore these complex waterways from the security of a kayak or covered boat, often with the company of a naturalist guide. These guides educate passengers on the important biological relationships at work in the mangrove, as well as help spot critters along the way.

A great variety of animals reside within this habitat including caimans, snakes, monkeys, iguanas, and many species of birds.

Mangrove tour in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica. White face monkey.
We saw plenty of monkeys on our mangrove tour, but they did not pose for pictures!
Take a night tour of the rainforest in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Manual Antonio Costa Rica offers rainforest tours at night and I encourage you to take one. We both enjoyed it. We saw a lot of night creatures and enjoyed the sounds and smells of the forest magnified by the darkness. I do not recommend this tour for small children.

Nigth tour of the jungle in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Creature of the night in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica 

Lodging in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica – El Faro Beach Hotel

The area offers a variety of lodging from hostels to upscale hotels. It also provides a diverse rental market from small studios to large houses for groups. Here are the best hotels in the area.

We stayed at El Faro Beach Hotel at the foot of the national park and the beach. I strongly recommend it for a killer view and the stunning outdoor area. It is Costa Rica’s first and only hotel, which is made entirely of reused shipping containers.

For this reason, rooms are on the small side but have everything you need for a comfortable stay. Most rooms come with balconies and views. The price is right and includes breakfast.

El Faro Beach Hotel in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica.
El Faro Beach Hotel offers a great location, stunning views, and a reasonable price.

You may also like these beach destinations:

Zakynthos, Greece 

Croatia,  two-week itinerary 

Holidays to Nerja, Spain 

Where to stay in Santorini, Greece 

Cassis in France – a Picture Perfect coastal village 

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