Plan for the high season
With so many North Americans flying south for the winter – not to mention locals travelling home – it’s pivotal to book in advance if you want to visit Costa Rica during high season. Christmas and New Year period are especially busy.
Hotel rooms and buses can sell out weeks ahead, but by being savvy and using several transport links (such as a private shuttle), it’s possible to make things work. Alternatively, you can hire a car for greater flexibility.
The week leading up to Easter is another pressure point, though the parades and processions that take place during this time are quite unique and well worth seeing.
Heed caution when it comes to the weather
Even in dry season (between December and April) visitors to the central highlands and the Atlantic coastal plain should prepare for frequent downpours. The rainy season starts in earnest in May.
In late September and October, many Pacific coast hotels and restaurants are closed for a break before gearing up again for high season. You might find a few more options on the Caribbean coast at this time of year.
No matter how clear the skies look at daybreak, make sure you pack waterproof clothing and dry bags for valuables on any trips into the rainforest. And if the showers are dampening your spirits you can always head west to the sun-scorched plains of the Pacific slope.
Rent a 4x4
If you're planning to self-drive in Costa Rica, you need to consider a 4x4. While some major roads are paved, many others are still little more than dirt tracks. Add in heavy rainfall and you've got a muddy mess to navigate. Even if the weather is dry, keep your eyes peeled for potholes which can cause car trouble. Keep water and snacks in the car in case you break down, and try to carry a mobile with you so you can contact the car rental company if needed. If the idea of driving sounds intimidating you can opt for a guided trip that includes transport.
Be prepared to spend
Costa Rica is among the most expensive countries to visit in Latin America – and it’s not just pricey when compared to its neighbors. For certain supermarket items, such as bottled water and sunscreen, the country can even rival the UK and USA.
To save money, eat plates of gallo pinto at small family-run sodas, pay for groceries and other small purchases with local currency colónes instead of dollars and travel during the low season (aka the rainy season) for reduced room rates. If you're eating out, be aware that 10% service charge and 13% tax is added to most restaurant bills and budget accordingly.
Additionally many nature sites, from waterfalls to national parks, charge an entry fee so you'll need to factor than in too.
Learn the language
You won’t struggle to find locals with good English in Costa Rica, but picking up some Spanish can not only earn you kudos and a warm welcome – it can really boost your bargaining power.
Those with a good chunk of time on their hands can go one step further and enroll in one of the many local language schools that are scattered across the country, putting their tico accent straight to the test.
Respect the sustainability credentials
Costa Rica has set its sights on becoming the world’s second carbon-neutral country (after Bhutan) by 2021. To help support its green goals, opt for locally owned ecolodges and operators that practice sustainable tourism wherever possible.
To help distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly, the Costa Rica Tourism Institute has developed the CST (Certificate of Sustainable Tourism). Businesses are ranked from levels one to five based on their commitment to the cause.
Choose between the adventure gateways
Monteverde and La Fortuna are two of northern Costa Rica’s backpacker favorites and both are excellent for outdoor activities. However, getting between the two can prove a lengthy process and much of the adventure offering is similar.
If you don’t have time for both, our top travel tip is to pick Monteverde, as it boasts the trump card thanks to its drier climate and bohemian hilltop charm.
Swap the Pacific coast for the Caribbean
One quick fix for escaping Costa Rica’s crowds is to head east instead of west. With the international airport of Liberia so close to the Pacific coastline, it’s an easily accessible beach destination. Samara and southern Guanacaste is still not as developed as other beach towns, but the rest of the Pacific coast can be crowded. The beaches of the Caribbean coast are much harder to reach, meaning the region is also much less developed. If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience you'll enjoy exploring the Caribbean coast.
Consider an organized tour
Veteran independent travelers might sniff at the idea of taking an escorted tour. Doubly so as Costa Rica is a country where hostels and hotels are plentiful and English is quite widely spoken.
Despite this, we recommend you don't rule out a tour entirely. Many activities have both high demand and surprisingly high prices, and there are few regular public bus services around the country. Joining a group tour is a top Costa Rica travel tip as it means you can pack a lot of experiences into one 10-day visit without fretting about availability or logistics.
Watch your belongings
While Costa Rica is a very safe country, pickpockets and petty theft can be a problem. Applying basic common sense will mean you avoid the hassle of lost belongings. Firstly, never leave items on show in your parked car. If you're heading to the beach try and park in a car park (some are guarded by enterprising locals) or near other cars.
Next, be aware that pickpockets operate at bus stations and other crowded places like markets. Don't leave your bags unattended, and if you are unlucky, report the theft at the local police station.
Tie in a neighbor
Although they’re tightly packed into the waist of the Americas, each Central American nation boasts its own character, attractions and heritage. Next-door neighbors Nicaragua and Panama make the easiest and most obvious add-ons to a sojourn in Costa Rica.
Nicaragua is a more rugged destination that’s best suited to intrepid, budget-conscious travelers. Panama offers a cosmopolitan capital as well as lashings of more rural adventure activities.