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Planning a Trip to Costa Rica

Updated on August 25, 2011

Costa Rica: A Lot Wrapped into a Small Package

I lived in Costa Rica for one year.  When people find out about this, their eyes often light up and they breathlessly tell me that they want to plan a trip to Costa Rica.  They have been seduced by all of the stories about endless white sand beaches and zip lines through the rain forest and all sorts of crazy animal sightings.  They grab my arm, look into my eyes and ask me, "Is it true?"  And, in many ways it is.  Costa Rica is an amazingly country that has a lot of pretty spectacular sights and experiences packed into a small package.  What you see and do really just depends where you go.  When I explain this to would-be traveler, their eyes widen further and their grip on my arm tightens.  "Tell me!  Where should I go?! What are the best places to visit in Costa Rica?"  As I slowly extricate myself from the desperate grip of the person who has a serious FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), I calmly ask them to think about a few things before we begin the trip planning process....  

How Much Time Do You Have?

This is a key question.  If you have unlimited time, or even a month or two to explore Costa Rica, then you are in good shape.  You don't have as many choices to make.  But, if you are like most people in the US and have only been able to accrue one week of vacation (curse all you sorority sisters getting married in a span of four months!), you're going to have to plan a bit more carefully.  You may want to see and do everything in Costa Rica, but you're going to have to be realistic about what is possible to see in five days.  But there are seven days in a week, you say!  Remember, you'll need one day to fly in and one day to fly out.  Thus leaving five days of vacation fun.  But have no fear, you will still have an amazing time.  You just won't get to see everything.  

How Much Money Can You Spend?

Oh, the money question! How utterly boring to have to talk about! And yet, how vital to planning a vacation. And here's why:

1. Some Costa Rican destinations are way more budget friendly than others. For instance, most of the Caribbean Coast is less touristy and less expensive than most of the Nicoya Peninsula. If you are on a tight budget, it is important to focus on visiting places that are within your price range. That said, you can usually find some sort of budget accommodation in even the most touristy of places.

2. Which brings us to reason number three. Your budget will also determine the types of accommodation that you can book. Costa Rica generally gives you more bang for your buck than, say, the United States, but it is still pretty pricey for Central America. Your budget will determine whether you will be sleeping on a bunk bed in a hostel or in your own private suite with an ocean view and breakfast included.

3. All of those adventure activities can add up. If you're looking for some adrenaline-pumping action, you'll need to decide how many or which ones are possible given your budget.

4. Perhaps most important in the early trip planning stage is the issue of transportation. Costa Rica may be a geographically small country, but its terrible roads and oftentimes frustrating public transportation system can make it seem as large as China. If money is more important than time, expect to spend a lot of time on public buses. They aren't nearly as bad as those in other developing countries, but they aren't great either. If time is more of an issue, you can also take private buses, rent a car, rent taxis or fly to get from place to place. Be aware, though, that these get increasingly expensive. Decide early on how much you want to spend on transportation costs and that will play a major role in planning the rest of your trip.

A broken down bus on the way to Corcovado.  It added four hours of travel to my day.
A broken down bus on the way to Corcovado. It added four hours of travel to my day.

How Much Time Do You Want To Spend Traveling?

So, you want to see everything that Costa Rica has to offer. Now ask yourself, do you just want to see it, or do you want to experience it? If you just want to go to Costa Rica so you can check a couple things off your bucket list ( line...check...sipping cocktail on beach...check), well then you won't mind being on a bus/taxi/car/plane/boat for half of your vacation. Pack in as many destinations as you can! But just think about it for a moment.  Is that what you really want? Or do you want to actually spend more than a day or a couple hours in a given place? If so, then limit the quantity of places and focus on the quality of time spent there. Spend at least two days in each place and leave room for a day of traveling in between.  A good rule of thumb is to aim for your vacation time to exceed your travel time.

When Are You Planning On Taking Your Trip?

There are two weather-related seasons in Costa Rica - the dry and the rainy.  However, it is not quite that simple, because different parts of the country experience these two seasons at different times.  And some parts of Costa Rica are just rainier than others.  I mean, if you're going to the rain  forest, bring an umbrella at any time of year.  The times of year that have the best weather tend to be the most touristy and expensive, while there are fewer people and better deals during the rainy season.  Check out Costa Rica's Seasons for some specific information on the country's weather patterns.  If you have some flexibility in the timing of your trip, I always suggest hitting up shoulder seasons.  That way there aren't as many people and the prices aren't as high, but the weather isn't that bad. 

Rainy weather doesn't have to ruin your trip!
Rainy weather doesn't have to ruin your trip!

What Type of Vacation Are You Looking For?

Now here's the fun part! It's time to think about what you want from your vacation. Are you an adrenaline junky looking for some thrills? Perhaps you'll want to spend some time on the zip lines at Monteverde, surfing the breaks at Mal Pais or on the Sarapiqui River doing some white water rafting. Stoked to do some serious hiking? Challenge yourself with a hike up Chirripo, the second tallest mountain in Central America. Or are you more interested in a vacation where your only exertion is turning over on a lounge chair? The Nicoya Peninsula is renowned for its white sand beaches, resorts and fruity drinks. The more rugged, but equally beautiful, beaches on the Caribbean Coast are the definition of blissed out nothingness. Interested in the cultural experience? Spend some time in the San Jose museums, join the pilgrimage to the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles in Cartago or check out the indigenous settlements in Bri Bri. Or are animals your thing? The Corcavado and Tortuguero National Parks can't be beat!

Whitewater rafting on the Sarapiqui River
Whitewater rafting on the Sarapiqui River
At the summit of Cerro Chirripo
At the summit of Cerro Chirripo
Enjoying a cocktail on the beach at Tamarindo
Enjoying a cocktail on the beach at Tamarindo
Blissed out nothingness in Cahuita
Blissed out nothingness in Cahuita
Outside the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles during the pilgrimage
Outside the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles during the pilgrimage
One of the many monkeys spotted in the Corcovado National Park
One of the many monkeys spotted in the Corcovado National Park
A fish caught in Tortuguero National Park
A fish caught in Tortuguero National Park

Map Out Your Own Dream Vacation

One person's heaven can be another's hell. Before asking for advice on where to go in Costa Rica, decide what your dream vacation would look like. Then think about the practicalities. And then grab my arm to ask me for advice. Or, if I'm not around, check out Lonely Planet's Costa Rica.

And most importantly, don't stress! Planning a vacation is half the fun!


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    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      This was great. Very useful advice for planning a trip to Costa Rica. It's been on my radar for a few years now, just haven't got there yet. Hopefully soon. Loved the beautiful photos.

    • happyexplorer profile image


      7 years ago from Mostly USA, sometimes elsewhere

      Awesome photos - I've been to Costa Rica several times and it's such a lovely place! Great hub!

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 

      7 years ago from Iowa

      I want to bliss out on that sandy white beach! Great hub!


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