First-Time Visit to Costa Rica: Why You Should Go, What to Expect & Tips to Plan

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.

Visiting Costa Rica First Time

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.

Trail through Rainforest Costa Rica
Mix of rainforest and cloud forest at Catarata del Toro, a waterfall in the mountains

Wildlife

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.

Howler Monkey Costa Rica
A howler, one of Costa Rica’s 4 types of monkeys

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.     

Friendly Locals

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.

Exotic Fruits Costa Rica
Learning about passionfruit on a coffee/farm tour

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.

Safety

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.

Beach Vendors Manuel Antonio
Old pic from one of our first trips to Manuel Antonio around 2008

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.

Surfing Samara Beach Costa Rica

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.

Picking Destinations

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.

Major Destinations

Here are some of the more well-known travel destinations that might be good if you are a first-time visitor to Costa Rica.

Central Pacific

Manuel Antonio

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.

Sloth Manuel Antonio National Park
Seeing a three-toed sloth in Manuel Antonio

Jaco

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.

Guanacaste (Northwest)

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.

Playa Penca Guanacaste
Playa Penca, a gorgeous beach in Guanacaste

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

Monteverde

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.

La Fortuna

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.

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, one of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes

Caribbean Coast

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

Getting Around

Rental Cars

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.

Modern Road Costa Rica
A road in the Northern Highlands

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 Hazards

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.

Shuttle Vans

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.

Shuttle Van Costa Rica
Taking a shuttle is a great way to get around if you don’t want to rent a car

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.

Tours

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.   

Tour Guide Costa Rica
A knowledgeable guide can add a lot of value on national park tours

Packing

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.

Conclusion

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.

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