In 2005, I began to wanderlust a little. I was 28, just began my career, and I was feeling like it was time to experience a new place since I was finally able to save a little bit of money. I didn’t even have a passport yet because my previous travel consisted of many cruise ports and domestic locations. I wasn’t sure I was even thinking I wanted to internationally travel at the time.
My then boyfriend loved to surf and he had suggested Costa Rica. My initial thought was No.Way. In retrospect, I’m not even sure why I felt this way. I clearly didn’t know a thing about this destination so perhaps just the mere title of “3rd world country” was scary to me? I’m not exactly sure but my boyfriend really wanted to go so I began my research. And I am the research queen so this took months.
What I expected prior to departure was a regular vacation full of surf and sun. I expected an experience different from what I was used to but what I didn’t expect was to literally fall in love with this country. The 6 night adventure ended up being life-changing for me. That’s how much passion I have for it.
Why? There’s just so many reasons: the culture, the food, the people, the scenery, the pace. Just, everything. I need for you to go there yourself to define it because you won’t know until you experience it.
So, you want to plan a trip to Costa Rica? Here’s part 1 of my “Why I Won’t Stop Talking About Costa Rica” series. In this post, I’m going to stick with the basics: when to travel, how to get there, a first-timer itinerary, what to bring, and things you should know.
I’m a good place to start but certainly don’t stop here. Gather many opinions, do a ton of your own research…or don’t. Just book your tickets and show up. Wander. It’s a perfect place to do that.
But, if you’re like me and that’s too far out of your comfort zone, I’m here to make recommendations.
We initially chose Costa Rica because of the surf but along with that and all it’s beauty, Costa Rica is a restful country, free of a military, they embrace tourism, and there’s so many places to explore even though it’s a relatively small country. So, here goes.
When To Travel
Costa Rica has a “High Season” which is from mid-November through the end of April. This is when it rarely rains, it’s extremely hot, and many tourists visit. I don’t travel there during those months. I choose June, August, or September but really, any of the lower season months are great. Mid-season is considered July and August so it’s a bit busy then, too.
The entire off season is labeled as “rainy season” and what that means is yes, it does rain a bit more but we have yet to be there when it’s rained all day. These rains are more like afternoon, evening, or night rains that tend not to last long. If you’re a Florida resident, you’ll be familiar with this weather pattern. I prefer this weather. It’s a nice break from the heat.
And speaking of heat, yes, it’s hot but these off season months are considered their winter so although the sun is intense, the air is so nice. In the Central Valley, it even gets cool at night.
I know most only take a one-week vacation but if you can take more time, do it. There’s just so much to see in Costa Rica. One week just isn’t enough. You’ll be planning your next trip on the flight home no matter how much time you spend.
How To Get There
From Florida, I take Jet Blue from Orlando or Fort Lauderdale to San Jose because I prefer direct flights. And, I love Jet Blue’s comfort. We have flown Taca out of Miami as well which is also recommended. Flights vary in prices but I think a fair average is around $290 roundtrip. Spirit will get you there cheaper but I haven’t tried them as of yet. American and Southwest also fly direct.
There is a second larger airport in Costa Rica in the town of Liberia. It’s more expensive to fly into but it’s suggested if you plan on seeing some of the northwestern beach towns.
A popular question I get is “Should I rent a car?”. My answer is yes. It’s part of the adventure but know that:
-Street signs are limited. There’s no “Go up to 4th street and make a left on Main” type of directions. It’s more like, “Make a left at the 3rd church you see and then turn right after the gravel road”. Again, adventure.
-They drive assertively in Costa Rica. Some say “crazy”, I say assertive. But they’re polite and patient drivers.
-Car rental companies can be tricky. Daily insurance is expensive and many rental companies aren’t honest with their prices until you get there. Online quotes can be deceiving. Expect to spend about $400-$500 per week on a good rental. I now use Alamo consistently. They’ve been honest and easy to deal with.
-We always get a 4×4 because we like mountain driving but you can get away with a regular car with most destinations.
If you don’t rent a car, you can certainly depend on tourist buses, public transportation if you’re on a budget, or private transfers. They also have a domestic airline called Nature Air that has flights to and from popular destinations. If you choose this option, you can always taxi when you arrive.
Where To Go: First-timer Itinerary
A popular first-timer trip would be to see the amazing Arenal volcano for 3 nights and then a beach location, such as Playa Hermosa (Jaco area), for 4 nights.
Arenal is a must see for any tourist. The volcano is active but currently in a resting phase since 2010. It’s a gives such majestic views and the area boasts so many activities. It’s located approximately 3 hours from San Jose and the sweet little town of La Fortuna is adjacent to the volcano area. This town caters to tourists so there’s plenty of shopping and dining. We have stayed at Hotel Silencio del Campo for each visit but there are numerous, gorgeous options. Almost every hotel or cabinas has views of the volcano.
(My best friend when planning hotel stays is TripAdvisor. I’ve never been completely misled by the reviews.)
While in Arenal, you’ll want to:
–Relax in the hot springs.
–Hike the Hanging Bridges.
–Hike to La Fortuna Waterfall.
And that’s just a few suggestions.
There are hidden gems along the way to visit on your way to and from Arenal, such as Poas Volcano (about 45 minutes north of San Jose airport, 2 hours south of La Fortuna), Rio Celeste (about 2 hours north of La Fortuna), and La Paz Waterfall Gardens (close to Poas, still south of La Fortuna). And when I say “on your way”, I mean within the general driving vicinity but expect to take most of the day to explore these locations.
When you’re finished exploring this whole area, (trust me, you’ll be sad to leave) and need some beach time to rest, I suggest making the 3 hour drive southwest to Playa Hermosa, Jaco, and staying at Hermosa Beach Bungalows. This has been our home away from home since 2007. These are all 2 bedroom bungalows directly on the black sand beach of Hermosa, one of the most famous surfing destinations in the world.
We fell in love with this location. You’re 1.5 hours from San Jose on the new-ish highway (so, easy driving), you’re 10 minutes from Jaco for shopping, dining and nightlife, you’re 1 hour north of iconic Manuel Antonio National Park, and there are all sorts of hidden gems all over this area. You can do absolutely nothing and lounge at the pool and beach all day, everyday, or, you can:
-Check out RainMaker Park, 45 minutes south of the bungalows. This was a new find for us on our 2016 trip and I can’t wait to go back. For $20, you have AMAZING trails to hike where you’ll find numerous waterfalls, wildlife, and some of the highest hanging bridges with gorgeous vistas. For $5 extra, you’ll get a homemade typical lunch of arroz con pollo and gallo pinto. So worth it.
-Hike to Tres Piscinis Waterfalls and jump into the pools. This is about a 35 minutes drive south of the bungalows, hidden just north of the town of Parrita. For a $5 parking fee, you hike to the waterfalls, about a 20 minute easy hike, and can climb all the way up to the top to jump in each of the 3 pools.
-Explore Neo Fauna Wildlife Park. This is about a 20 minute drive north of the bungalows up a mountain road and only costs $10. There’s a rescue monkey to hold, snakes, frogs, butterflies to learn about. It’s a short guided tour and super interesting.
-Take a crocodile tour on the Tarcoles River. On Jose’s tour, they feed these monsters and it’s unbelievable. This is about a 30 minute drive north of the bungalows.
I could go on and on about all of the activities and tours in the Jaco area. There’s just so much.
In Hermosa proper, all within walking distance to the bungalows, you have all of the dining you need: The Backyard for arroz con pollo, Pizza Bocha (who delivers!), Shaka’s for pancakes, BlueGrass Bakery for cinnamon rolls. And down by Hotel Terrazas are these amazing rock formations where at a low tide you can explore the tidal pools and climb to watch the sunset.
The property manager on site at the bungalows even has cars, bikes and surfboards to rent. This location truly has everything.
What To Bring
I’m going to try to make this simple since I overpack for every.single.trip. You don’t need much but here’s my essentials list:
-Bathing Suits. (plural!!)
-Tennis shoes to hike, preferably that you aren’t overly attached to because of the red clay.
-Lightweight shorts, tank tops, t-shirts, that dry fast.
-Sunscreen. Lots of it.
-Light jacket for evenings in Arenal.
-Waterproof case for your phone or camera.
Other Pro Tips
-Eat at the local joints called Sodas. They’re inexpensive and delicious. Casados is a typical Costa Rican meal that usually consists of chicken, rice, beans, fried plantains, and corn tortillas. Try it.
-You must have the coffee everyday. Cafe con leche. They don’t use cream in their coffee, just warmed milk. It’s amazing. To make your own, buy Britt Tres Rios or 1820 Reserva.
-Buy from local markets if you’re going to stock your bungalow’s kitchen. The local fruit and meats are so good.
-Local grocery stores Mas x Menos and Maxi Pali are owned by WalMart so you will find American food items here. They’re be expensive, but they’re here.
-Find local bakeries (panaderias) and try their breads.
-Everywhere we’ve been accepts American money but you will receive change in their local currency, Colones. 500 colones=$1 so if something is 4,000 colones, it’s $8.00. You just double the figure.
-They have a local sauce called Lizano. Put that shit on everything.
-The water is safe to drink in certain areas and resorts but I don’t risk it even after 11 years. Bottled water is a must for me.
-Your cell phone will probably work there, especially if it’s an iPhone 6 or newer. Make sure you call your carrier to add international calling and features. Be sure to ask about roaming settings so you don’t get slammed with charges. I have Verizon and they have a minute/text/data package option for either $40 or $80. Or, better yet, turn that thing off and just use it for the camera.
-There’s wifi almost everywhere.
-Gas is expensive and gas stations are not on every corner like here in the States. Plan for this if you rent a car.
-Costa Rica is a GREAT place to bring kids. My daughter has been going since she was 14 months old. She ziplined for the first time last year when she was 6. She loves this place.
I know I’m forgetting so many fine details so please ask if you have a question. Hopefully this will give you a basis to plan your trip. I promise, you won’t regret one single second.
Next post: more destination options.
**All images belong to me. These were taken over various trips to Costa Rica. Please don’t steal them from me without permission. 🙂