Costa Rica is a tropical paradise that is very firmly on the established tourist trail, especially for North Americans, but that doesn’t mean that independent travellers can’t go there and have a great time too.
The established tourist infrastructure and myriad of things to do, including some stunning surfing, diving and trekking, mean that travel here is pretty easy, but there are still places you can go to get away from the tourists and ex pats too.
Costa Rica is a mainland country with a laid back, island feel to it. There is a cultural tradition of ‘quedar bien’, which technically translates into ‘stay good’ or something along those lines, but actually means ‘leave well alone’ or ‘anything for an easy life’.
Costa Rica is often seen as an island of tranquility amongst it’s often volatile neighbours. A complete lack of any standing army, high rates of literacy, education and health care as well as a strong, stable economy, make Costa Rica a haven for travellers and ex pats in the region. Saying that, the reality is a far cry from the middle class, gentrified image the country portrays. There is still vast ammounts of poverty within Costa Rica, and it is home to a society that is in significant social flux. Tourism is one of the countries largest economic pillars, with the outstanding natural beauty and eco driven attractions, and whilst this has undoubtedly helped Costa Rica grow and prosper, it has also changed it to the extent that some places now seemingly exist just for tourists, with vast swathes of the country being brought up by foreign developers for high end resorts and hotels. Only time will tell how much this will change the country.
Citizens of the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and most Western European countries can stay for up to 90 days on a visa waiver. Most other nationalities will need one. If you are from a country not on the above list, check with the Costa Rica embassy.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Hepatitis A is also strongly recommended if you have not got it already.
Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, Rabies and yellow fever are recommended for at risk groups. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
Proof of a Yellow Fever Vaccination will be required if you are travelling from a country where the disease is present.
The majority of Costa Rica is low to no risk of malaria and so antimalarials are not advised for the majority of travellers.
Anti mosquito measures are advised at all times due to other mosquito borne diseases such as dengue and zika.
Crime and Safety.
In general Costa Rica is very safe for travellers, and requires no more safety precautions than you would reasonably take for yourself at home. Common sense with personal safety and valuables is often more than enough to keep you safe.
Costs and money.
The currency of Costa Rica is the Colon, or Colones, although you may hear them commonly referred to as pesos. There are older silver coins in lower denominations and newer gold ones in all denominations. Notes are available in 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10,000 denominations. The US dollar is widely accepted, but it is always better (and cheaper) to use local currency.
Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries in the region thanks to a combination of mass package tourists and high taxes.
These high costs for the little things – from a bottle of water to a street side snack – really do add up quickly, so make sure you budget well for them.
At an extreme budget, you can probably get by on £20 – 30 GBP a day, by staying in cheap hostels and eating at sodas (cheap food vendors) and small, local owned restaurants. This will put a severe limit on your activities and treks. A mid range private room, meals in a touristy area and some private transport will double that daily amount, whilst the sky is the limit at high end resorts.
As is often the case, it is the breadth of activities on offer that will eat up most of your budget, so be prepared to have funds ready for it if you want to indulge in any activities.
When to go.
It is generally accepted that the ‘winter’ months (November to April) are the best time to go as this is considered the dry season, but these months also bring a surge in tourists with them and places get crowded. To be honest the rainy season (May to November) is just as good a time to visit, and the benefits far outweigh the occasional short downpour in the afternoon.
Tortuguero National Park.
This national park is difficult to get to, but is considered an eco haven for the endangered green turtle, manatees and many other land animals. If you do go here, respect the natural habitat of the wildlife and remember tourism needs to find a balance with the natural ecosystem without endangering it.
Pavones is legendary among surfers and is worth the off the beaten path trek to get here. Unfortunately development is starting to touch even this little corner of paradise but seems to be happening sustainably – so far. Visit here before it is changed forever!
Corcovado National Park.
This national park is the last, largest original tract of prime tropical rainforest in Pacific Central America and has been named by National Geographic as the most biologically intense place on earth. Enough said.
Ignore the name since it has been hijacked by a medical condition that will leave you on the toilet for a day or two, this beach town will quite literally enchant you into staying far longer than you planned to. Great beaches with a wild jungle backdrop, great swimming and surfing and an artsy, laid back vibe help you ignore the typical package tourist fare.
This backpacker haven has everything independent travellers need, from cheap backpacker accomodation, to great beaches, great surf and a good party atmosphere – if you are in the mood for that sort of thing.
Costa Ricas capital gets a bit of a bad reputation as being uninteresting, functional and more than a little dirty, but I think it is more than worth spending a few days here beyond just using it as an extremely convenient transport hub. If you are travelling through Costa Rica, you will end up here more than once, so why not enjoy it? There are some great opportunities for people and culture watching, some great national museums and some interesting architecture.
Go Jungle Trekking.
Costa Rica has some amazing hiking opportunities through some stunning jungle landscapes. Make sure you shop around and find a guide or operation that respects the rainforest and offers responsible and sustainable tours.
Educate yourself at Tirimbina Rainforest Centre.
For anyone interested in the environment or the rainforest, or if you just want to know a little about the natural environment, this amazing – and working – environmental research and education centre is a must visit. There are also plenty of trails and guided tours to keep you occupied.
Go volcano trekking.
Trekking up a volcano is one of the big tourist draws of Costa Rica, but don’t let that stop you. Trust me, nothing is as beautiful, awesome or just downright cool as a volcano! There are plenty of options and national parks to choose from.
Take a Coffee plantation tour.
Costa Rican coffee is famous all over the world, and for good reason. It’s an interesting half day tour to see where the beans come from and have a taste of the coffee direct at it’s source.