Over the last decade Costa Rica has established itself as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Latin America, and it’s easy to see why. This Central American paradise boasts beautiful beaches, dense tropical jungles and some of the friendliest and most welcoming locals you’ll ever meet. It’s also a stable democracy with a relatively low crime rate, which has given rise to a vibrant community of expatriates from the United States and other countries. This small nation is a mecca for surfers, hikers, nature fanatics and adventure lovers of all kinds.
Costa Rica received its name from the infamous Christopher Columbus, who called it “la costa rica,” the rich coast, when he arrived via the Atlantic to the country’s eastern coast during his final voyage in 1502. The name came, in part, thanks to the native populations draped in gold jewelry.
Before Spanish colonization, indigenous tribes only sparsely populated Costa Rica. Therefore, once Europeans arrived, they had no choice but to work the land on their own haciendas instead of utilizing forced labor like the colonizers in other Latin American regions. In 1719, one Spanish governor described the land as “the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America.”
Costa Rica never fought against Spain; instead, after the Spanish were defeated in the Mexican War of Independence, a peaceful declaration bestowed independence on Costa Rica, along with the rest of Central America.
During the 19th century, Costa Rica’s economy began to grow rapidly as the international community developed a taste for coffee, which had been grown in the nation since 1808. Coffee exports became a booming business, which allowed the country to quickly become one of the wealthiest in the region—even though most profits were directed to a small group of elite landowners.
In the 20th century, Costa Rica enjoyed relative peace while armed uprisings and military coups plagued much of the rest of Latin America. The only exception to this peaceful existence was the brief reign of military dictator General Federico Tinoco Granados. He ruled from 1917 to 1919 and was overthrown by a group of rebels whose first act after taking power was to abolish the military entirely.
Today, with an uninterrupted democracy dating back to 1948, Costa Rica is the region’s most stable country and one of the most sought-after tourist destinations.
Costa Rican culture is vibrant and laid back, and locals are known for being welcoming and friendly to tourists. Costa Ricans call themselves ticos, and the first expression you’ll likely hear upon touching down is pura vida. This literally means “pure life,” but it’s used as a sort of catchall greeting, good-bye and positive exclamation.
Ticos are fanatics for fútbol, or soccer. The national team is a countrywide obsession, and you’re likely to hear stories from locals about international players who came from their towns.
Almost three-quarters of ticos identify as Roman Catholics, but most locals aren’t especially religious. The population is well educated thanks to a robust program of publicly funded secondary schools, and though there’s still widespread poverty, Costa Ricans are the wealthiest, on average, of all Central American citizens.
Good to Know
When traveling in Costa Rica, keep some of the following in mind:
A 10 percent tip is standard, but many restaurants automatically calculate this into their prices on the menu. Make sure to check before you automatically add a tip. Tips above 10 percent are always appreciated for excellent service.
Costa Ricans are generally warm and welcoming, and most have a positive outlook on tourism in the country. North Americans may be surprised by the effusiveness of the ticos. To avoid being impolite, be open to lots of greeting, cheek-kissing and charlando, or “chatting.” If you’re in a hurry, just say so, but you might find it less frustrating to embrace tico time and accept that you’ll get there when you get there.
Costa Rica uses American-style plugs, and US visitors should have no problem using their electronics from home without converters.
There are not many public bathrooms in Costa Rica, except in public places, such as train or bus stations. Expect to pay a few coins to use the facilities in these areas. Plan to use the restroom in restaurants and hotels instead.
The water in Costa Rica is safe to drink, unlike in many of the neighboring countries. If you have a sensitive stomach, though, you might wish to avoid the tap water at locations near the beach.
Costa Rica’s currency is the colón. Travelers should have no trouble finding ATMs or doing cash exchanges at major hotels. Many places, however, don’t accept credit cards, so plan ahead for this.
When to Visit Costa Rica
The weather in Costa Rica is generally mild, and travelers should pick their time to visit based on their own priorities. If you want to miss the summer rains, visiting in December or January will allow you to enjoy the driest season in Costa Rica. However, the holiday season is the most popular time to visit, so travelers looking to avoid the crowds might choose to pack their rain gear and head south in July or August.
Backroads Pro Tip
The weather in Costa Rica varies widely from region to region. It can be difficult to understand the nuances of these microclimas (micro-climates) before you visit, so if your itinerary is taking you to various regions of the country, you’d do well to pack for all types of weather.
Read our when to visit costa rica article for more info.
● Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is thought to be based on Isla del Coco, a small island off the western coast of Costa Rica where many famous pirates, including Sir Francis Drake, stopped and allegedly hid their treasure. None has been found yet, but adventurous treasure-hunters are still looking.
● Costa Rica has an area of only 51,000 square kilometers, meaning that it is slightly smaller than Louisiana and about half the size of Iceland.
● Costa Rican women do not take their husbands’ last names when they marry, instead keeping their maiden names into marriage.
● Costa Rica contains 4% of the world’s total biodiversity—impressive considering that it accounts for only 0.03% of the world’s land area!
Regions and Cities
Costa Rica is a small country, but thanks to its tall mountains and thick jungles, coupled with the generally poor road quality, it can take a long time to pass from one area to another. Many travelers only see a few of the most popular Costa Rican sites, but nearly every region is unique and worth visiting.
San Jose: Costa Rica’s capital city and many visitors’ landing point, San Jose is a sprawling city with about 300,000 people. San Jose, located in the Central Valley, is notable for its parks, theaters and museums. Most travelers, however, choose to skip a lengthy stay here in favor of spending time in Costa Rica’s more rural areas.
Puntarenas: This province, encompassing the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula and the mainland’s southern Pacific coast, is home to a variety of stunning beaches, as well as some of the world’s most biologically diverse rainforests.
Jacó: Jacó (Tamarindo’s little sister) is located to the south on the Costa Rican mainland, and it’s known for its surf camps and stimulating nightlife, as well as its black-sand beaches.
Guanacaste: For surfers and beachgoers, this province in northwestern Costa Rica is a paradise. Boasting a drier climate than central Costa Rica, Guanacaste is known for its national parks, volcanoes and beaches.
Tamarindo: Costa Rica’s largest beach town, Tamarindo is a great surf spot and a party town. During the high season (late December and early January), it’s packed with travelers from all around the globe who come to enjoy the sunshine, sea breeze and consistent waves.
Arenal: Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s most stunning volcanoes. With a perfect cone shape and a height of over 5,000 feet, this active volcano makes an incredible backdrop for the many hiking and zip-lining adventures in the surrounding jungle. Also popular are the many natural hot springs around the volcano’s base, where visitors can enjoy a drink and relax in the geothermal mineral waters.
The Nicoya Peninsula: Located on the country’s western side, this peninsula is for all those adventurers seeking the less-traveled track and some time at a secluded beach. Poor roads make it difficult to traverse, but the ferry from Punta Arenas is a great opportunity to soak up the sun and to enjoy an Imperial (Costa Rica’s national beer) as you arrive at the peninsula.
Worth a Visit
Costa Rica’s famous “cloud forest” is a stunning, dense jungle with a variety of wildlife. Enjoy the cacophony of birdsong while you hike through the trees and find hidden waterfalls in this inland gem.
This national park is called the crown jewel of Costa Rica, and it’s easy to see why. In a 20-minute walk from the entrance to the beach, visitors can see lounging sloths, fluorescent tropical crabs, families of howler monkeys and a diverse array of other wildlife. The park can be crowded, and the animals can be elusive, so it’s best to hire a local guide!
This sleepy beach town located on the western coast is a popular vacation spot for travelers ranging from itinerant surfers to American families. Featuring an array of lodging from luxury rentals to hostels and a massive, beautiful beach, Nosara is a fantastic beach escape.
Things to See and Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Costa Rica
A US citizen doesn’t need a visa to enter Costa Rica for tourism purposes and can stay up to 90 days.
A US citizen will need a passport with at least six months of validity to enter Costa Rica.
Most travelers will arrive at San José’s international airport (SJO). From there, you can easily find a transfer to any of the popular tourist destinations around the country. Costa Rica’s other major airport is in Liberia (LIR), the largest city in the north of the country, and many visitors choose to purchase an open-jaw ticket that lands in San José and departs from Liberia.
Getting Around - Transportation
While Costa Rica is undoubtedly a small country, its varied terrain and poor road quality make traveling slow. There are many small operators who offer transfers between popular tourist destinations, and adventurous travelers might even choose to rent a car and do the driving themselves. (In that case, any Costa Rican travel guide would be remiss not to advise getting four-wheel drive!) Visitors on a tight schedule might prefer to schedule charter flights with local operator Sansa Airlines, which services most popular destinations in the country. For travelers on a budget, there are cheap buses that locals use to move around, but you might be in for some long trips without air conditioning.
Costa Ricans speak Spanish with an accent that’s generally easy to understand. Coupled with the people’s general friendliness, it’s a great place to dust off your high school Spanish and converse with the locals. “Como vas” is a common greeting, meaning “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” Entering a shop or a restaurant you’re likely to hear “a la orden,” literally meaning “at your order.” To say goodbye, ticos will say “chao” or the classic “pura vida.” Beyond these terms there’s a large lexicon of Costa Rican slang that’s sure to delight locals coming from a foreigner. Popular expressions include “Más tico que el gallo pinto” (“more Costa Rican than the spotted rooster”) and “mae” (“dude”). Adorably, Costa Ricans will refer to their significant others as “media naranja” or “the other half of the orange.”
Costa Ricans speak Spanish with an accent that’s generally easy to understand. Coupled with the people’s general friendliness, it’s a great place to dust off your high school Spanish and converse with the locals. “Como vas” is a common greeting, meaning “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” Entering a shop or a restaurant you’re likely to hear “a la orden,” literally meaning “at your order.” To say goodbye, ticos will say “chao” or the classic “pura vida.” Beyond these terms there’s a large lexicon of Costa Rican slang that’s sure to delight locals coming from a foreigner. Popular expressions include “Más tico que el gallo pinto” (“more Costa Rican than the spotted rooster”) and “mae” (“dude”). Adorably, Costa Ricans will refer to their significant others as “media naranja” or “the other half of the orange.
Food and Drink
Costa Rican food is a highlight of Costa Rica travel. It’s delicious, local and often very fresh. The seafood is exquisite, especially in the coastal areas, and the ceviche, a kind of salad made of peppers and lime-cured fish, is a must-try appetizer.
Gallo pinto is a famous Costa Rican breakfast dish. It consists of mixed rice and beans (unlike the separated rice and beans served for lunch or dinner) and is often paired with fried cheese and a spicy sauce.
Backroads Pro Tip
Though you won’t find it on the menu in many upscale restaurants, the classic tico lunchtime dish is the casado, a plate filled with beans, rice, fried plantains, vegetables and a choice of meat, fish or chicken. The dish gets its name, which literally means “married,” from its origins as the classic lunch prepared by Costa Rican wives for their working husbands. For an authentic Costa Rican experience, pop into a soda (lunch counter) and ask for a casado con pollo.
Lizano sauce is the national condiment; it tastes similar to English brown sauce and is good on everything.
Read our Food in Costa Rica - What to Know and Eat article for more info.
Costa Rica is generally a safe country, especially by Central American standards. There’s still widespread poverty, though, and petty theft does happen. Visitors would be wise to take care of their valuables, especially electronics, and if possible, keep them on their persons at all times. Car break-ins are common, so don’t leave your bags in the car. It might just help you avoid a broken window!
The most dangerous thing in Costa Rica tends to be the land itself. Adventurous tourists should take caution and read all posted warnings regarding riptides, snakes, mudslides and road closures.
The Costa Rican police are generally polite and helpful, but, of course, it’s best to take precautions so you never need to call them. In case something does happen, here are the Costa Rican emergency numbers:
● Police (Fuerza Publica): 911
● Firefighters (Bomberos): 1117
● Red Cross (Cruz Roja): 1128
The water in Costa Rica is safe to drink, but cautious travelers might choose to purchase bottled water near the beach.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Costa Rica adventure!