Backpacking Costa Rica: Top experiences
- Jungle trekking and wildlife watching in Corcovado National Park
- Whale watching on the southern Pacific coast
- Chasing waterfalls and impossibly blue rivers in Bijagua
- Waking up to the sounds of howler monkeys at the world’s most affordable jungle lodge in Uvita
- Trekking through dense cloud forest in the Monteverde area
Jump to the list of posts from Costa Rica, or read on for my comprehensive Costa Rica backpacking guide.
Costa Rica itinerary ideas
Costa Rica is a small country that packs a big punch. You can experience a little of everything on a trip as short as one week.
The biggest question when planning your Costa Rica itinerary is whether you want to see the most popular places — which are popular for a reason — or focus on getting off the beaten path.
A typical one-week first time itinerary would involve flying into San Jose and immediately heading to La Fortuna. Spend two days ziplining, hiking and soaking in hot springs before taking the Jeep-boat-Jeep across Laguna Arenal to Monteverde. Take another day or two to hike in the cloud forests and visit chocolate and coffee farms.
Next, head to the coast — Manuel Antonio National Park is a beautiful option, but you’ll have better luck escaping the crowds further south or on the Nicoya Peninsula. Spend a few days wildlife watching in the coastal jungles and lounging on white-sand beaches, and be sure to stop at one of the many waterfall swimming holes. You could split this part of your trip into a couple different beaches, like party-centric Jacó and Tamarindo, surfer-oriented Santa Teresa, or super-chill Uvita and Domenical.
Finally, head back to San Jose or Alajuela (where the airport is) for a day of urban exploration before your flight home.
With two or more weeks, you could stay in the central Pacific region and simply spend longer at each place, or you could head to more far-flung regions. The Osa Peninsula is well worth the long journey to reach it, and is worth 3-4 nights. Alternatively, you could go to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, which is most worthwhile during sea turtle nesting season in Tortuguero National Park. Rough roads, reliance on infrequent boat transport, and distance mean it’ll take you at least a day of travel in each direction to reach these more remote areas.
Costa Rica weather and when to visit Costa Rica
Like most of the tropics, Costa Rica experiences a dry season and a rainy season. However, the “dry” season isn’t really dry, and the “rainy” season includes a break from the rain.
Dry season in Costa Rica runs from mid-December through April. Visit during this period for mostly-sunny days, warm-but-not-too-hot temperatures, and reliable road conditions. This is also the most crowded (and expensive) time to visit, and you’ll need to book accommodations and popular tours in advance.
In tropical, humid destinations like Manuel Antonio National Park, and in high-elevation cloud forests, dry season simply means “less rainy.” Expect daily showers in these areas, and consistent rain in the Monteverde cloud forest. Dry season is also the worst time to see the iconic Arenal volcano in La Fortuna — it’s frequently covered in clouds.
Rainy season runs from May-November in Costa Rica. It usually rains for a couple hours in the afternoons, but most of the day is dry and sunny. (The same exceptions apply to higher-precipitation areas like Manuel Antonio.) The landscape is incredibly green, crowds are fewer, and prices are lower. However, road and sea conditions can be prohibitive to reaching more remote areas — a 4×4 high-clearance vehicle is essential if you plan to drive, and you need to be comfortable crossing rivers.
Some parts of Costa Rica also experience a “false” dry season for a few weeks during June and July. This is an ideal time to visit for good weather without the crowds. Just keep in mind the roads will still be muddy and waterlogged, so it’s still a good idea to rent a 4×4.
Language in Costa Rica
The main language spoken in Costa Rica is Spanish. Many people who work with tourists also speak English, and it’s easy to find guides who speak French, German, Italian, and other European languages.
Costa Rican Spanish incorporates a lot of local slang. For example, say “birria” instead of “cerveza” to order a beer. Locals are “Ticos,” not “Costa Ricans,” and you’ll hear people use “pura vida” to mean hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome, that’s how it goes, and pretty much anything else in context.
One thing I loved about backpacking around Costa Rica is I could always switch to English if I had to, but most locals were enthusiastic to let me practice Spanish. Unlike in touristy areas in Mexico, where locals automatically switch to English for tourists, many of the Ticos I interacted with asked me if I preferred to try Spanish or speak in English. My Spanish is certainly not great, but I found it easy to understand Tico Spanish when I asked folks to speak slowly.
Bus drivers, folks who work in small shops, and others who don’t routinely interact with tourists are less likely to speak English. You could probably manage in Costa Rica with no Spanish, but a little bit of Spanish comprehension — even if you don’t speak well — goes a long way.
Budget for Backpacking Costa Rica
Let’s get one thing very clear: travel in Costa Rica is not cheap. If you’re backpacking Central America you’ll experience severe sticker shock when crossing the border with Nicaragua.
If you travel in green season, use local transport, stay in hostel dorms, spend most of your time hanging out at the beach and eat exclusively at “sodas” (set-menu restaurants), you could keep your Costa Rica budget under $30 a day. However, you’d miss out on many of the country’s top experiences.
A more realistic travel budget for Costa Rica is around $100 a day. This would allow a couple big-ticket activities like ziplining or guided hikes, you wouldn’t have to stress about national park fees, and you could use tourist shuttles instead of local buses to get around. If you’re traveling in a group of two or more, car rental would also be a possibility at this price point.
If you visit Costa Rica in dry season, want your own room and the flexibility of a rental car, have lots of activities planned and want to occasionally eat at a restaurant with a more varied menu, a budget of around $150 a day will cover it. $200 a day will get you a much higher standard of accommodation.
At the high end, you could plan a true luxury holiday in Costa Rica, spending upwards of $500 a night on world-class jungle lodges and beachfront resorts.
Touristy places such as La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio are radically more expensive and poorer-value than low-key places like Bijagua and Drake Bay.
Costa Rican businesses accept dollars or local colones. The general rule of thumb is to pay in the currency the price is quoted in. So, pay for hotels and tours in dollars, but restaurants, shops and buses in colones. All ATMs dispense colones, and most dispense dollars as well.
You can pay by credit card virtually everywhere (with a transaction fee ranging from 1-15%), but on the Osa Peninsula you need a stash of cash. There are no ATM’s in Drake Bay.
Private room in a hostel: $20 (remote destination in low season) – $50 (popular destination in high season)
Casado (set meal) at a soda: 3-5,000 colones
Cup of coffee at a high-end cafe: 1,500 colones
National park admission: $15, usually only payable by credit card
Bus from San Jose to La Fortuna (four hours): $4-5
Car rental per day in dry season: $50-75
Two-day trek in Corcovado National Park: $300
Costa Rica visa requirements
For most North Americans and Europeans, Costa Rica is a super-easy country to visit. You don’t need a visa. When you go through immigration, you’ll get a stamp allowing a stay for up to 90 days, although some travelers have reported needing to show proof of onward travel and only getting stamped in for the window before that onward travel. Be sure to verify the departure date on your stamp before leaving immigration.
It’s difficult to extend your stamp, but easy to get a new one — simply leave the country for 72 hours and come back. In practice, at most land border crossings, you can leave for a few hours and come back. Tour agencies in areas near the Nicaraguan and Panamanian borders sell visa-run trips that take care of all the logistics.
Currently Costa Rica does not require a pre-travel COVID test to enter. You need to fill out a health questionnaire within 72 hours of your trip, and if you’re unvaccinated you’ll have to show proof of government-approved health insurance covering the cost of quarantine if you test positive while in Costa Rica. Not all travel insurance sold in the U.S. meets the government requirements — expect this to be quite pricey insurance.
There is a departure tax when you leave Costa Rica — it’s $29 if you exit by air or $8 if you exit by land. Most airlines include it in flight tickets. If you cross a land border, pay at immigration, in dollars or colones.
Accommodation in Costa Rica
Accommodation at the budget end of the spectrum tends to be poor value in Costa Rica, especially when compared with neighboring countries. Brace yourself for frustrations — you’ll pay way too much for really mediocre hostels and guesthouses.
That being said, Costa Rica has some of the most beautiful boutique hotels in the world. If you can swing it financially, being willing to splurge for a couple of nights in the $100-200 range will get you much better money than living that hostel life.
Additionally, there are very good-value hostels in more remote destinations. Uvita and Drake Bay have incredible options for just $20 a night for a private room. Even Monteverde has a great little family-run place for about $25/night.
Costa Rica hostels have free WiFi, well-equipped kitchens, outdoor common areas, laundry service, book exchanges and tour desks. Some have amenities like swimming pools or restaurants as well. Free tea and coffee is common, and a typical breakfast of beans and rice is often included in the room or available for $5 or so.
If you want luxuries like air-con and hot showers, expect to pay big bucks for them.
In addition to the usual online booking platforms, check blogs and guidebooks for recommendations, since some great-value places aren’t on booking platforms. For instance, the lovely Pension Santa Elena in Monteverde only takes direct bookings. (Not an affiliate link — I’m recommending them because they’re great, not because I make money if you book with them.) Booking directly also helps these small businesses recover from the huge drop in tourism the past few years, since they don’t have to pay commissions to the bigger platforms.
Food in Costa Rica
Food is not a great reason to travel to Costa Rica. While you’ll find fresh ingredients everywhere, menu options are repetitive and often lacking in flavor.
If you backpack Costa Rica on a budget, you’ll mostly eat at “sodas” — the Tico term for restaurants serving typical food. These are good-value and friendly dining options, but they have limited menus.
The traditional breakfast in Costa Rica is gallo pinto — a mix of black beans and rice. It’s healthy and filling, but you’ll want to add the local lizano sauce to give it some flavor. The sauce is more sweet/tangy than spicy. Gallo pinto is typically served with eggs, but you can usually ask for avocado instead. It typically includes coffee and sometimes juice, and costs 2,000-4,000 colones.
For lunch and dinner, there’s the ubiquitous casado. The “married man’s meal” earned its name because this is what local wives feed their husbands at the end of a long day. These set meals consist of rice, beans, a salad, some veggies, and a meat of your choice. Expect to pay around 3,500-5,000 colones for a casado at a local soda.
You can always ask for vegetarian casados, even if they’re not on the menu. Pescatarians will appreciate ample fish options. Shrimp and mahi mahi are common on the coasts, but inland it’s usually farmed tilapia. The meat/fish is usually grilled.
The third national dish of Costa Rica is pizza. Quality is high, making this a good option when you can’t stomach another casado. Pizzas feed two people for around 6,000 colones. Taquerias are also ubiquitous, although don’t expect Mexican-level flavor.
In touristic places, you’ll find the usual assortment of international cafes and high-end restaurants. They serve everything from sushi to steak to acai bowls to fancy organic salads.
Raw veggies are safe to eat, even if they were washed with tap water. You won’t get sick from the salad that comes with your casado.
Restaurants and sodas add a 10% service charge and 13% tax to your bill, which is typically not included in menu prices. So you don’t need to tip, but your bill will be 23% higher than expected. Delivery and takeaway is usually available for a small additional fee.
Drinks in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has all the beverages you typically associate with a tropical paradise.
During your backpacking trip, I highly recommend drinking as many batidos as possible. These fruit smoothies can be made with water or milk. You can choose one fruit or a mix. Typical options include soursop, passionfruit, blackberry, watermelon, pineapple and mango. They’re super refreshing on a hot day.
Costa Rica is a major coffee producer. You’ll find the good stuff in the hills around Monteverde and La Fortuna. You can take a tour to learn how it’s grown and harvested — Don Juan Tours is popular. There’s plenty of lower-quality coffee at sodas and cafes, but it’s a lot more affordable. “Lower quality” is still substantially better than you get in much of the world — you won’t find Nescafe here.
Most coffee farms also produce chocolate, making hot cocoa widely available. It’s made with very-near-pure chocolate, and you add the sugar yourself. You can also order “chocolate frio,” or iced chocolate, on the coasts.
You’ll have no trouble finding beer and wine in Costa Rica. The local beers, such as Imperial and Pilsen, are cheap and light. But you can also find craft beer in many shops and sodas. The variety is as you’d expect anywhere — IPA’s, lagers, and sours abound. Wine is pricier than beer and usually imported from South America.
The local moonshine is rum, often produced with coconut. You’ll find high-end craft cocktails at most tourist-oriented restaurants and bars. Prices range from 4,000 colones for a simple pina colada to 6,000+ for a fancy custom cocktail at a swanky beach club.
Activities you can do while backpacking Costa Rica
Costa Rica has been well-branded as an adventure travel destination. And deservedly so. The country is well-set-up for jungle trips for all types of adrenaline seekers — from a slow stroll through the forest to a 50-meter-high Tarzan swing.
The biggest barrier to activities in Costa Rica is cost. Everything is expensive. You want to visit a waterfall for a quick dip? Pay the admission fee. Walk 3 km of trails in a reserve? Pay the admission fee. Zip-lining? Pay the exorbitant admission fee. If you want to keep yourself occupied for long days full of adventure, it’s hard to avoid spending at least $100 a day. And aside from laying on the beach, there isn’t a lot you can do for free.
Less touristic places can be cheaper, but aren’t always. Adventures in Corcovado National Park are well worth the cost, but they aren’t exactly budget-friendly. On the other hand, I skipped the hanging bridges in the tourist centers and did them in Bijagua instead, where I paid just $12 for a three-hour trip — less than half the cost in La Fortuna. And the little-visited Santa Elena Reserve, right next to Monteverde, is about half the cost for twice as many trails that were 90% emptier.
A few of the must-do activities in Costa Rica include:
- A guided walk to spot wildlife — you’ll see much more with a guide than on your own.
- A night hike in the jungle.
- Any option that allows you to see the forest from the canopy: hanging bridges, ziplining, the “Sky Trams” on offer in La Fortuna and Monteverde, etc.
- Visiting and swimming in waterfalls.
- White-water rafting (or flat-water floating).
- Hanging out on the beach — which, unless you’re in a national park, is the rare thing you can do for free.
Transportation in Costa Rica
Getting around is another aspect of the Costa Rica experience where your budget makes a big difference.
If you have more time than money, local buses will (usually) get you (close to) where you want to go. Unlike elsewhere in Central America, chicken buses are no longer common — most routes are served by comfortable, air-con coaches. They only cost about $1 per hour.
The problem with the bus network is that all routes go through major urban centers. And you’re probably not backpacking in Costa Rica for its cities. So you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for bus connections, often getting stuck overnight at transit points.
The next step up in the transit network is tourist shuttles. These offer direct transport between popular destinations, for a much higher price than local buses. For example, it’s about $50 for the three-hour trip from San Jose to Monteverde, or $90 for the six-hour drive from San Jose to Sierpe. The shuttles are convenient — they’ll usually pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation — but they add up quickly.
There are some corners of Costa Rica that you can only reach by boat, and others where taking a boat will save you a ton of time. Boats and ferries aren’t particularly cheap, especially if you want to bring your vehicle. But they’ll save you long days on rough roads. The Nicoya peninsula ferry is one of the most commonly used by tourists.
Car rental in Costa Rica
If you can afford it, the best transport option in Costa Rica is renting a car. This gives you total flexibility for prices not much higher than shuttles.
In dry season, car rental runs $50-75 a day for a high-clearance vehicle (often 2×4). Rainy season is cheaper, but you 100% need a 4×4.
When you look on booking sites, you’ll see quotes as low as $10 a day. But these are before you add the government-mandated insurance. Even if you have insurance through your credit card, or even if you buy it when you book your rental car, you’ll still have to buy this specific insurance at the car rental desk. It’s a government-operated monopoly with fixed costs, typically around $30 per day.
There is no way around this expense, but rental companies aren’t transparent about it. So many people come away thinking Costa Rican rental cars are scams. It doesn’t help that the car companies will try to talk you into the non-mandatory collision damage waiver, which is usually covered by your credit card. Know exactly what you can and can’t say no to, and make sure your credit card covers what you think it does, but there’s no world in which you’ll pay less than $40 a day for a sedan/$50 for an SUV in dry season.
If you rent a car, you’ll also need to budget for gas. It’s not cheap. If you fill up in bigger towns you might pay as little as $4.50 per gallon, but in rural areas it’s more like $5. It’s not unusual to drive a couple hundred kilometers without seeing a gas station — keep your tank at least half full.
Safety when backpacking Costa Rica
Central America has a horrible safety reputation. So it’s no surprise that many travelers wonder, is Costa Rica safe?
The truth is, Costa Rica is one of the safest travel destinations in the Americas when it comes to crime. Travelers have little to worry about beyond pickpockets on crowded buses.
Big cities like San Jose and Alajuela have their dodgy corners, and port towns on the Caribbean coast can be sketch. But these aren’t places you’re likely to find yourself on vacation anyway. If you spend a night in a major urban area before/after your flight out, take a taxi after dark and ask your hostel about safe neighborhoods.
The biggest safety risks in Costa Rica come from the natural world. Riptides sweep swimmers and surfers out to sea. It seems like everything in the jungle can kill you — frogs, vipers, scorpions, insects, trees. Rivers swell to dangerous levels after storms. Volcanoes occasionally erupt.
This is where a little common sense goes a long way. Take a guide if you want to venture into the jungle after dark — and stay behind them. Keep your distance from wildlife, especially peccaries. Heed warnings about dangerous conditions on the coasts. Don’t take your car through a river if you’re not absolutely certain you can cross.
Following basic precautions makes backpacking Costa Rica alone a very safe experience.
Costa Rica travel advice for women alone
Costa Rica is one of the world’s easiest destinations for solo female travelers. In fact, if you’re planning your first solo trip, it would be a great place to dip your toes in to this style of travel.
No one bats an eye at a woman eating alone at a restaurant or having a beer at a beach bar — solo female travel is very common here, including among locals, so you’ll blend right in.
Costa Rican men are highly respectful of women. You might get the occasional flirtation, but people tend to back off if you say you’re not interested.
It’s really easy to form groups to do activities with. You’ll meet friends at hostels and on tours everywhere you go. If you don’t have a group assembled, you can still show up for an activity like a guided walk or ziplining and you’ll be placed with a group to share costs. The backpacking culture trends younger (like early 20’s), but you can always find friends who match your travel style.
The one downside of solo female travel in Costa Rica is the expense of car rental. I still thought it was worth it to have the flexibility (and to reduce my exposure to others during COVID), but financially, a combination of shuttles and tours make more sense.
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