We will never forget our first visit to Costa Rica. We were nervous, excited, and didn’t quite know what to expect. After a week of new experiences, tropical landscapes, and friendly locals, we immediately started to plan another trip. Fast forward 15 years and we live here, raising our two boys, giving travel advise for a living, and getting to enjoy Costa Rica on a daily basis. In this post, we’ll give a broad overview of Costa Rica for first-time visitors that will erase your worries, give insight, and help you plan.
Why Does Everyone Love Costa Rica?
You’ve no doubt had friends or relatives tell you about the great time they had in Costa Rica. Maybe they’ve even urged you to visit. But what exactly is it that draws so many people? Here’s a short list.
A Spectacular Environment
The thing Costa Rica is most famous for is its environment.
Located in Central America, close to the equator, Costa Rica is a tropical oasis. There are lush jungles, misty cloud forests, coconut-tree-lined beaches, rocky coves, steaming volcanoes, and even dry savanna-like plains.
The temperatures in Costa Rica range from the 80s or sometimes low 90s °F at the beach (27-32 °C) to crisp 60s and 70s °F (16-22 °C) in the higher elevation mountains.
In Costa Rica, you literally can start your day in a bathing suit and flip-flops, drive a few hours, and be wrapped in rain jackets, using hiking boots on a mossy trail.
Discovering some of Costa Rica’s 12 different life zones is all part of the adventure. Costa Rica keeps over 20% of its land in protected zones and national parks, so you are sure to find some undeveloped gems too.
Along with the environment are all the amazing animals that inhabit it. It’s common to see monkeys, tropical birds like parrots, crocodiles, and beautiful butterflies like the blue morpho on a first-time visit.
Depending on what areas you visit there are also sloths, all sorts of frogs, sea turtles, and if you’re lucky, more elusive animals like anteaters and kinkajous.
For those scared of snakes and big spiders, it’s not very common to see them if you are staying at a hotel or well-maintained vacation home.
Along the same lines, mosquitoes and other bugs aren’t that big of a problem, if you are prepared with insect repellents and the right clothing.
One of the things we love most about Costa Rica are the friendly, warm-hearted locals. Now that we have lived here for almost a decade, we can see it even more clearly.
Ticos (the name for local Costa Ricans) are all about having a good attitude, getting things done in pace, and appreciating what they have around them.
They especially love to share their beautiful country with others. Whether it is offering you a taste of some fresh fruits or homemade tortillas, showing you their flower garden, or giving you the best possible experience on a tour.
Don’t worry if you don’t speak Spanish in Costa Rica. Many locals, especially in the tourism industry, speak basic English and some are fluent in French or German. If you do want to practice your Spanish, Ticos will be more than happy to help you work through a sentence or two.
A Comfortable Feeling
Although Costa Rica is a foreign country, there are a lot of comforts of home.
In Costa Rica, there is reliable electricity, good cell-phone coverage, mid-to-high speed internet, modern roadways (except in very rural places), accommodations with air conditioning and hot water, good food-safety practices, and professional medical facilities.
While crime happens everywhere in the world, Costa Rica is a fairly safe place to visit.
The most common type of crime against tourists is petty theft. If you’re careful with your valuables, lock up your hotel room, and stay aware of your surroundings, you shouldn’t have any problems. More serious crimes against tourists are not common in Costa Rica.
You can get more information and specific tips in our post, Safety Tips for Your Next Trip to Costa Rica.
Planning a First-Time Visit to Costa Rica
We hear from a lot of people who are overwhelmed with where to start when planning their first Costa Rica trip. Although Costa Rica is on the smaller side, it does have a lot of different places to go and experiences to be had.
Our advice – don’t overdo it on your first trip.
Most people who come to Costa Rica end up coming back again to see more. If you try to jump from place to place too much, you’ll miss out on sights and experiences.
On our first visit to Costa Rica, we spent time in only one beach town, Manuel Antonio. This was the perfect introduction for us. Manuel Antonio has a nice mixture of wildlife, adventure activities, and beach. We also felt that we got to know the culture a bit, but were still very comfortable as the town is well developed for tourism.
How Much Time to Spend?
One week is a good amount of time for one, and possibly a second, destination, but ten days will allow you to see a lot more. If you have Two Weeks in Costa Rica, that’s even better!
Tip: Don’t forget that depending on flight times, you may have a night near the airport on either or both ends of your trip. If you can arrive by early afternoon, you should have time to make it to your first destination by sunset. It gets dark in Costa Rica at around 6:00 p.m. all year-round.
When to Visit
In general, Costa Rica has two seasons.
Rainy season spans from May to early December, and dry season goes from mid-December to April. There are regional variations of course. You can read our Weather in Costa Rica post for much more information.
Don’t get scared off by the rainy season, though. This is our favorite time of year since everything is so lush and green. Wildlife also can be more active. See some other reasons to visit during the rainy season here.
The busiest times to visit Costa Rica are around the Christmas and New Year holidays and Semana Santa (Easter Week). These dates coincide with the most expensive hotel and vacation rental rates as well.
Picking an Airport
There are two international airports in Costa Rica.
The biggest is Juan Santamaria International (SJO) located just outside the capital city of San Jose.
The other, smaller international airport is Daniel Oduber Quirós International (LIR) in the northwest province called Guanacaste.
You can make an awesome itinerary from either airport.
In general, SJO Airport is better for those wanting to visit the central Pacific coast, southern Pacific coast, Central Valley mountains, or Caribbean side of the country.
LIR Airport is closer to destinations in Guanacaste Province and some spots on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Either airport works well for the major destinations of La Fortuna or the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
There is a long list of Costa Rica destinations, but they aren’t all for first-time travelers. We’d suggest visiting some of the more well-traveled destinations on your first trip, then branching out on your next visit.
Here are some of the more well-known travel destinations that might be good if you are a first-time visitor to Costa Rica.
Located about 2.5 hours from SJO Airport, Manuel Antonio is popular for its national park. Manuel Antonio National Park is filled with monkeys, sloths, deer, birds, and all kinds of other jungle creatures. Many hotels and vacation homes in Manuel Antonio are set right in the jungle.
Jaco is a more built-up town with a main strip a block away from the sand. There’s a great selection of hotels, restaurants, and adventure activities in the area. Surfing is also very popular. Jaco is only about 1.5 hours from SJO Airport.
Costa Rica’s northwestern region, called Guanacaste, doesn’t have the thick jungle of the central Pacific coast, but it does boast some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
There are many small and medium sized towns, each situated on different beaches. The biggest is Tamarindo, which is good for surfing and has a lot of restaurants and accommodations. Other popular spots are Playa Conchal and Flamingo. A little north are Playas del Coco and Playa Hermosa. A bit south is Samara, which also makes for a nice first-time beach destination. Nosara is just north of Samara and popular for surfing.
Guanacaste also has some all-inclusive resorts, but in our opinion, you are missing out on much of what Costa Rica is about if you just stay at a resort. If you are hitting up one, be sure to take some excursions to see other parts of the country as well.
Mountain & Volcano Destinations
If you are interested in seeing the cloud forest, Monteverde is the perfect spot for a first-time visit. In Monteverde, the trees are covered in moss, and you can trek across misty hanging bridges. Bring some layers, though, because it can be chilly!
A few days in Monteverde is all you need to explore this small town.
For more information about Monteverde, read our post, Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds.
Possibly Costa Rica’s most popular destination, many first-time visitors head to La Fortuna.
Here, you can find the impressive, cone-shaped volcano named Arenal. Besides hikes around the base, you also can enjoy thermal hot springs and a giant list of activities.
Read our post, La Fortuna: What to Expect from Costa Rica’s Most Popular Destination, for more.
The Caribbean coast isn’t as popular for first-time visitors, but it is beautiful. The southern Caribbean coast boasts some of the country’s most gorgeous beaches. The region is also culturally rich and less developed than the Pacific coast.
We’d recommend the Caribbean coast if you are coming in September or October. These are the driest months on this side of the country, but some of the wettest for the rest of Costa Rica.
For more on the Caribbean coast, including details on the three major destinations, read our post, Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast: Regional Snapshot.
Renting a car is a popular way to get around Costa Rica. There are paved roads and highways between major destinations. Driving is on the right side of the road (same as North America) in Costa Rica. And many of the street signs are the same too, only in Spanish.
Sedans are fine to rent, but if you are planning to explore some more remote spots, a small 4×4 SUV is the better choice. Many side roads remain rough dirt.
Tip: Get a 10% discount off the base price of your rental and free extras (car seats, surf racks) with our Rental Car Discount.
Driving in any foreign country is always different, and there are some Costa Rica-specific things to know.
A big one is that we don’t recommend driving at night (long distances). Road lines are often faded, there usually isn’t much lighting, it rains more at night, and locals ride bikes or walk along the narrow shoulders without reflectors.
Better to plan your travel during daylight hours and enjoy the scenery.
For more things to watch out for, read our post: Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before You Go.
If driving isn’t right for you, shuttles are readily available and a safe option.
Shared and private shuttles serve all the major destinations. For more information, read Shuttles in Costa Rica: How They Work and When to Use Them. We also offer shuttle booking services and are happy to help get you around.
Public Buses and Taxis
Costa Rica does have an extensive public bus system, though it can be slow and tedious going long distances.
Taxis are also available for shorter trips. Official taxis are red with a yellow medallion on the side. They have meters to track distance and calculate cost. Official airport taxis are orange.
One thing we love about Costa Rica compared to other countries we have visited is how organized the tours are. Tour operators are licensed and very professional. Guides do trainings and adventure sports have safety regulations.
Most tour operators also operate smaller group tours. So, if you’re taking a guided hike, for example, you will probably only be in a group of 6 to 12 people. Private tours also are available.
There are plenty of fun things to do without guides too of course, but we’d recommend doing a few guided experiences because you can learn so much from Costa Rica’s naturalist guides.
If you’ve made it this far in the post, you’re booking tickets and ready to pack your suitcase! Before you do, remember some essentials like sunscreen (which is way overpriced in Costa Rica), bug spray, a sun hat, and some good guidebooks. Check out our extensive packing list for some other things you won’t want to forget.
By the time you have your flights purchased and hotels locked in, you’ve probably invested quite a bit of money. We always recommend buying travel insurance. This covers you for cancellation and also gives peace of mind in case anyone needs medical attention during your visit.
If you need a recommendation, one reputable insurance company that we have used ourselves is Travelex. They have plans that cover trip cancellation, interruption, and delays as well as emergency medical, evacuation services, and Covid-19.
*Note: If you purchase a Travelex insurance policy through the link above, we earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. This helps support our site and allows us to keep this information up to date. Thank you!
Costa Rica has all the makings for an amazing vacation. Whether it is your first international trip abroad, your first time in Central America, or just your first trip to Costa Rica specifically, we are confident you can have a great time. From the warm-hearted locals to the warm weather and great wildlife, your first trip may very well turn into several more.
Have a question about visiting Costa Rica for the first time? Ask in the comments below.
Need more resources to help you plan? Check out these posts:
Vacation Rentals in Costa Rica: Safety and What to Look for – There are tons of vacation rental homes in Costa Rica. Learn what to look for to make your stay safe and enjoyable.
Planning a Family Vacation to Costa Rica: Essential Tips and Info – Costa Rica is so fun with the kids. Use this guide to plan the perfect family getaway.
Money Matters: Currency, Exchanging Money, and Tipping in Costa Rica – Learn about the local currency, how tipping works, and more.
The smartest thing I did in planning my daughter’s 17 day dental ‘vacation’ was having an hour long video chat with Matt. His experience in country was most helpful in planning what and where to visit during the ‘off days’ of the dental appointments. Along with where to go, he helped in deciding which parks you need a guide, and where you don’t. We wouldn’t have seen 10% of the wildlife in Manuel Antonio without our guide, and the pictures he was able to take using his telescope and my smartphone are incredible. Thanks again, Matt.
I absolutely LOVE all your posts that I have read so far. They’ve been extremely informative. I would love to come to Costa Rica for my 1st time with my adult daughter, where would you recommend going and staying? We are both not big on crowds of people, but we do love to eat.
Hi Rhonda, Thanks for kind words about our posts!
For a smaller destination that still has good restaurants and things to do, you could take a look at Samara. This is a smaller town in Guanacaste that has a main area centered along the beach. It has lots of great restaurants and a relaxed vibe. There are other places with good restaurants that aren’t too busy during the off-season too, like Manuel Antonio. It depends on the time of year you’re thinking of coming.
Hi guys, I’m so excited for our first trip to CR. We are planning 4 nights at Tabacon Springs and 4 nights at margaritaville in Playa Flamingo. We have a 4×4 rental car and I wanted to ask which of these is faster to monteverde. Also I see tons of tours in the parks in these 2 areas which should we get a guide for? We want to go canyoning, horse back, hanging bridges, 1 day at Sky Trek (do we need a full day here?) 1 day at Rincon de La vieja, 1 day Monteverde. Also want to see Rio Celeste waterfall, Tenorio Valcano? And thoughts on day pass to Diamante Eco Park Adventure. I’m
Wanting to zip line and horseback in areas that offer, less walking the better. Omg thanks for any advice you can offer to put these locations in some sort of order. Advise which sites can be combined into one day.
Hi Stacey, We don’t recommend doing Monteverde as a day trip since it takes a while to get there from both Tabacon and Playa Flamingo. Best to spend at least 2 nights.
For tours, we recommend doing at least one guided tour in La Fortuna towards the beginning of your visit. You could do Rio Celeste as a day trip from La Fortuna one day, and Rincon as a day trip from Playa Flamingo.
For the other tours, you should be able to fit them in your 8 days if you break down the time options into a schedule. Feel free to reach out through our Tour Booking Service page if you’d like more personalized help.
Your posts are simply superb. This refreshes fond memories from 2019.
We visited just once for three weeks and loved it. It got me wondering if it is possible/feasible to own a vacation property. Any thoughts in that regard.
We were most at home in the mountains away from the heat. I guess the biggest expense was the car rental but otherwise we did quite well avoiding excessive expenses while still being comfortable. Photographing wildlife was a blast.
Hi Jack, Glad you have been enjoying our posts. Thanks for the kind words!
Lots of people own vacation homes in Costa Rica. The main thing to be aware of is that it’s best to have the house occupied when you’re not there to prevent squatters and also to maintain the house since it’s in the tropics. Some people rent their house out as a vacation rental and have a property manager, while others use house sitters. Vacation rentals can be profitable if they are in the right location.
Hope that helps!
Thanks, in other words it’s a pretty significant undertaking – makes sense.
I am interested in travel to Costa Rica, but am paraplegic and use a wheelchair. Where are the best places to visit in a wheelchair?
Hi Frank, Some good places to visit for wheelchair users are:
Manuel Antonio National Park
La Peninsula Sector of Arenal Volcano National Park
Mistico Hanging Bridges
Bogarin Trail in La Fortuna (good wildlife viewing)
Sky Adventures has a wheelchair-friendly tram ride at their Arenal and Monteverde parks
Don Juan coffee tour in Monteverde is fully accessible
You could also take a look at Curb Free with Cory Lee’s website. He has been to Costa Rica a few times I think and has some good articles on his site.
Do you guys happen to know if Ocean friendly sunscreen is a requirement in Costa Rica, like Hawaii? While we usually use it anyway, we would hate to have run out and then have to pay a fortune for more there.
Hi Shannon, Ocean-friendly sunscreen is not a requirement in Costa Rica, no. But of course, it’s a great idea to use it 🙂
Could you please suggest a tour operator.
We would prefer to use a local company rather than the large international ones.
Hi Kathy, We don’t have a tour operator that we recommend for an entire package trip, but could refer you to a travel consultant/travel agent from another company if you are interested. She does custom itineraries. We also offer several trip-planning services. See our Services tab for more information.
We’ve just booked our first visit to Costa Rica. Being not young, we’re planning two locations. Flying into SJO and staying in the Alajuela area for two nights, then heading to Manuel Antonio for a week. My question is this: we’ll be renting a car to pick up at the airport. Our flight comes in around 8:30 PM. I’m hesitant to drive at night but wherever we stay will be probably less than five miles from the airport. Or, we could shuttle back the next day and get the car then. What is your advice?
Is the road well lighted leaving SJO?
Hi Katherine, The rental car company should be able to deliver the car to your hotel in Alajuela for no extra charge. The company that we recommend, Adobe Rent a Car, does this regularly for people. We would probably suggest not picking up the car until the afternoon before you go to Manuel Antonio. You shouldn’t need it for your short stay in Alajuela. Here’s a link to our rental car discount page in case you still need a car. Be sure to use your phones for Google Maps or WAZE or rent a GPS. Hope that helps!
Thanks so much! The hotel recommended we rent from SL1 Rental, which is also local. I compared them to Adobe and they have somewhat better rates.. Even with your discount, Adobe was quite a bit more. Both include their insurance charges.
You’re welcome! We’ve never heard of that rental car company before, but it should be okay. Have the hotel help if you have any problems. Hope you have a good trip!
My husband and I want to visit Costa Rica ( first time) and would like to stay 6 nights, seeing both beach and jungle. Which two places would you recommend. We love eating out and nice wine and beautiful beaches and photographing animals.
Hi Jeannine, La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio are two good destinations for a first-time visit. It will give you a taste of the beach and jungle, and both destinations have a lot of wildlife. Here’s a link to our One-Week Itinerary that will give you an idea of how to structure your visit.
Hi Jenn and Matt, We are planning on coming to Costa Rica for Jan Feb and March, I have been following you for quite sometime. I love all your great information. I know there is a 90 day Visa stay. We will be fine with Feb being a short month. Do we have to fill out any extra paperwork before coming. I have tried looking on line but all the forms show up in spanish. I thought I would ask you as you seem to know whatever I need. Thank you
Hi Linda, No, you don’t need to fill out any forms to enter Costa Rica anymore. They got rid of that a couple of years ago. Just have your return flight out of Costa Rica ready when you go to Immigration at the airport. There’s nothing special to fill out if you’re planning on a longer stay either.
Thank you so much….wish I was going to meet you while there.
Hi Jenn and Matt,
We are planning a first visit in Costa Rica in February. We have 9 days, love birding and snorkeling. There is a lot of focus on surf towns, but I don’t see a lot of info on snorkeling.
Hi Carol, Costa Rica isn’t known for snorkeling. There are a few places where it is good, though. One is Cano Island, off the coast of Drake Bay. Drake is very remotely located so harder to get to but also good for birding. If you did that, we would choose one destination on the central or southern Pacific coast to go along with it to avoid too much travel in 9 days. Manuel Antonio and Uvita/Dominical are both great for birding.
Northern Guanacaste has some good snorkeling but it’s not the best for birding.
Hello I am.planning my first trip to CR. We will be staying in Central Valley Atenas 5 days & Nayara Springs La Fortuna 4 days. I see Baldi hotel has beautiful pools. I am looking for beautiful waterfalls. Can you visit other area hotels for the day as guest & just walk in. Want to do attractions but not all day. Zipline water rafting. Any caves around. Want to see bridges
Hi Kesha, La Fortuna Waterfall is really nice. You just pay the entrance fee and then can go. Some hotels do let you buy a guest pass to use their hot springs and pools for the day. Tabacon and The Springs Resort are both great options for this.
There are lots of options for zip lining, whitewater rafting, and hanging bridges. Feel free to reach out through our Tour Booking Service page if you’d like us to help with the specifics of your planning. You also could check out our La Fortuna and Atenas posts for ideas on things to do.
Hi there, I am learning so much from your travel experience. Thank you. We are planning a 2 week adventure in the Osa Peninsula and are booked in Puerto Jimenez for most of our trip. We do have 4-5 nights before we need to be in Puerto Jimenez. Any suggestions? I thought about Drake Bay area but I noticed you do not recommend flying domestically?
Hi Kristina, We would stop somewhere on the central or southern Pacific coast on your way to Puerto Jimenez. Manuel Antonio is nice. It has really thick rainforest, easy to see wildlife, and a lot of restaurants and amenities. If you’d prefer something less touristy, Uvita/Dominical is a good option. It’s much more spread out and quiet. Hope that helps!
We are a senior couple that would love to visit Costa Rico in March 2023, on a limited budget. We would like a short term rental near the beach. My husband loves to Pickleball so courts nearby would be wonderful.
Please help us out.
Hi Colleen, You could look at Playa Bejuco or Esterillos. Those are smaller beach communities on the central Pacific coast that tend to have more reasonably priced rentals. I don’t know of any Pickleball around, but there are tennis courts in Quepos if that helps!
Hi Jenn and Matt. Many thanks for this super helpful and interesting resource. We are coming to Costa Rica from the UK in April for 15 nights. We are ending our trip in Manual Antonio where we are staying for 5 nights and we plan to do lots of trips. But, could you recommend where we could go for the first 9/10 nights. We want to go to La Fortuna, but we won’t have a car and we don’t want to be too ambitious and spend all the time on the road. Any help gratefully received (we love water, wildlife, soaking up the local culture and nature).
Thanks so much
Hi Alison, La Fortuna is a good option if you won’t have a car. Just stay near the downtown where restaurants are. Most tours will include transportation. It’s farther from Manuel Antonio, but you have a good amount of time for your trip so would be worth it. It’s a good place for wildlife viewing and nature, and you can do so many different activities there as well. A good loop would be SJO to La Fortuna to Monteverde to Manuel Antonio to SJO. There are affordable shuttle options for this itinerary too. Or for more off-the-beaten path, you could do La Fortuna to Bijagua/Rio Celeste to Manuel Antonio. Hope that helps!
Hello, we choose small hotels in the forest. We will be at the Santa Juana lodge arriving Monday, leaving Wednesday… to Monteverde
I just realized that the Manuel Antonio is closed on Tueasdays :-((
So we are planing to visit the park on the Wednesday. Do you know if there is a place where we could leave our suitcases while we visit, and have lunch before continuing our trip ?
Hi Emma, We don’t know of a place that could hold your bags, unfortunately. If you did a guided tour of the park, the company may be able to hold them for you, though.
Hi, Thanks so much for all your brilliant write ups…the details are helping us a great deal as we plan our first visit to Costa Rica. May I ask if this 10-day rough plan is feasible in your experience.
Depending on arrival time, either stay over close to the airport or drive straight to La Fortuna.
1 night SJO – 3 nights in La Fortuna – 2 nights Monteverde – 3 nights Santa Teresa – 1 night SJO
Would also recommend Arenal Observatory or a hotel closer to La Fortuna town? We are a family of 4 (two adults and grown up kids aged 18 and 20).
Huge thanks for your help on this…it all looks so wonderful, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed with the choices!
Hi Ceri, Your itinerary looks good. Santa Teresa is a bit far but you have older kids so the drive shouldn’t be an issue. If you’d like to go there, it will work. If you’d prefer less driving, a beach town on the central Pacific coast like Jaco or Manuel Antonio (or one of the smaller beach towns in between) would be a lot closer to Monteverde and then San Jose for the end of the trip.
Arenal Observatory is really nice since it’s so close to the volcano. It’s a great option as long as you’ll have a rental car.
Thanks so much for your thoughts on our travels…much appreciated. xx
There’s a lot of info on CR out there, but I keep coming back to your site! Super info, so thank you! My husband and I have been to CR before, but our kids (18, 14, 11) have not. We’re doing an eight day trip in late July for our daughter’s senior trip. She wants to do rainforest adventure and beach, with maybe a little more emphasis on beach. For the life of me, I cannot decide between flying into SJO and doing Arenal, then Jaco, Manuel Antonio, and that coastline OR Arenal, then Guanacaste beaches. Is one area drier in the rainy season the other? What itinerary do you suggest? Thanks a bunch in advance!
Hi Allie, Glad our site has been helpful with your planning!
Guanacaste is usually drier in late July so that second itinerary is probably the best option. Just keep in mind that Guanacaste doesn’t have that many options for activities so it’s usually good to dedicate more days of your itinerary to Arenal, which has a ton of activities (especially adventure tours). Guanacaste does have beautiful beaches so it’s definitely worth going, though, especially in July when the forest will be lush and green.
Any suggestions on where to stay and what to do if someone has mobility issues. Would love to visit but walking distance without a rollator is difficult.
Hi Karen, If you go to our Activities section, you can scroll through different options for people with limited mobility. We try to say in the posts if the activity is handicap accessible. Here’s a link to an old forum question from our site that has some ideas too. If you’d like more specific help, we’d be happy to set up a call through our video chat service. We could help with which destinations would be best to visit.