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Costa Rica was the first country I visited in Latin America and the reason I fell in love with that part of the world. The people are kind, the scenery is gorgeous, and the wildlife is abundant. Although pricier than its neighboring countries, Costa Rica is a great introduction to this region of the world as it’s safe and has a well-established tourism industry. If you’re looking for ideas to plan a perfect itinerary through Costa Rica, this post has you covered!
If you go backpacking overland through Central America, you will have to pass Costa Rica while traveling between Nicaragua and Panama. Many backpackers choose to pass over Costa Rica quickly because of the higher prices, but I never understood this. Costa Rica was one of my favorite countries in all of Central America. It’s a shame to skip through it!
This post will go over the best spots to visit in Costa Rica, things to do, places to stay, and tips for getting around. Stick around to plan your perfect Costa Rica itinerary!
Arrival in Costa Rica
If you’re arriving into Costa Rica by air from another country you will either fly into San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, or Liberia, a city further North. I haven’t found much in either sticking around for, so I’d opt to hit the road as soon as you can. There are many more beautiful places to explore!
Coming from Nicaragua, you will likely cross into Costa Rica at the border near the town of San Juan Del Sur. The border is about half an hour from San Juan and can be reached by bus or private transfer. Most transportation will drop you off at the border, and then you cross over by foot. This was an easy border crossing and took me less then half an hour.
Once you are in Costa Rica, there are a number of buses to take you onward. Liberia is not far from the border, but there isn’t that much to do there. I spent a night and then moved on to Tamarindo. Another logical stop from the border is the cloud forest of Monteverde. Coming from Panama, you will likely cross at the border near Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica which is well worth a visit.
Getting around Costa Rica
Rent a car
Driving through Costa Rica was hands down the most scenic road trip I’ve been on. I enjoyed the drives between places as much as the destinations themselves. While car rentals can be pricey in Costa Rica, can you really put a price on the freedom of a road trip? You can reserve your rental car online beforehand and pick it up at the airport.
I recommend renting a 4×4 car as some of the roads in Costa Rica are not well maintained. Having a 4×4 will make your life so much easier and allow you to get off the beaten path. The car rental companies offer GPS rentals at an additional cost but purchasing this was a complete waste of money, as we ended up using our phones more for directions. Download the area of Costa Rica on google offline maps or maps.me before your trip – it’s free and more accurate.
Buses are the cheapest way to get around the country and popular with backpackers. Shorter bus trips under 3 hours will cost you about $3 and longer trips will cost you closer to $10. The Costa Rica tourism board have a detailed schedule and guide online.
Search on Busbud to find the cheapest bus fares.
Private mini-buses are another way to get around the country between places and can be more convenient than taking public buses, as they usually pick you up at your accommodation and are quicker. Ask your hostel/hotel about transfers onwards between cities or book online beforehand.
Top Activities to do in Costa Rica
Best Places to Visit on your Costa Rica Itinerary
From San Jose, start to make your way towards La Fortuna. I loved this drive, you leave the loud city behind and ascend into the natural beauty of Costa Rica. This road is curvy, but nothing unmanageable. La Fortuna is a great place to start your Costa Rica trip, especially for nature-lovers and adventure-seekers.
The biggest attraction of La Fortuna is the Arenal Volcano National Park, which is a forest surrounding a volcano that has a great assortment of wildlife and exotic plants. There are many adventure tours you can do in this area including white-water rafting, hanging bridges, rainforest walks, and waterfall repelling excursions. I’d recommend staying at least two full days here as there is so much to do!
Favorite activity: Hiking around Arenal Volcano
Recommended Hostel: Arenal Hostel Resort. This hostel is in a great location just 150m away from the bus station. They offer both dorms and private rooms, with AC. It has a great atmosphere and the dreamiest hammock lounging area to relax in.
Recommended Hotel: Volcano Lodge Hotel & Thermal Experience, if you’re looking for a bit more luxury in La Fortuna, this hotel has it all. The outdoor thermal pool overlooking Arenal Volcano is the perfect place to relax after a day of exploring.
La Fortuna is also near Rio Celeste – one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Costa Rica!
After an adventure-filled trip to La Fortuna, head to the mystical and relaxing cloud-forest reserve of Monteverde. This was the worst drive we had in terms of road conditions as parts of it aren’t paved, but nothing the 4X4 couldn’t handle. Once you arrive in Monteverde you will feel the magic of this place.
There are moments where you are actually in the clouds as they pass through the forests. There are a number of activities to do in this area, ranging from gentle hikes through the cloud forest to horseback riding at sunset. For those that crave more adventure, there are zip lines, canopy tours, and suspension bridges all in the beautiful setting of the cloud forest.
Favorite activity: Zip-lining through the cloud forest
Suggested Hostel: Camino Verde Hostel and B&B, just a short walk from the main town, this charming home has an amazing outdoor patio overlooking the surrounding landscape that’s perfect for socializing with other guests.
Suggested Hotel: Chira Glamping looks like such a unique accommodation option, perfect for the setting of Costa Rica. These gorgeous high-end dome tents overlook the surrounding beauty and have all the amenities of a hotel inside. Some even come with their own hot tub!
Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is an absolute paradise. Endless white sand beaches, surf towns at every turn, picture-perfect sunsets, and some of the countries most spectacular national parks. The Nicoya Peninsula is a beautiful part of the country to explore and has some of the most popular surfing and yogi towns, including Tamarindo, Santa Teresa, and Montezuma.
Tamarindo is a lively surf town on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. There you can find restaurants and bars, shopping, gorgeous sunsets, and endless yoga and surf schools. This is a great place to start your journey onto the Pacific coast as it is just a couple hours drive from the cloud forest of Monteverde.
Tamarindo is a busy town and great if you’re looking for nightlife and shopping. Tamarindo is also a great place to learn to surf as the waves are beginner friendly and the water is warm. You can book lessons in town which cost around $50 for a two-hour private lesson, or $25 with another person.
Tamarindo is also home to the BPM music festival which happens in January. This 5-day electronic music festival is an amazing addition to your Costa Rica itinerary if you love festivals! Dancing in the jungle for five nights straight was an incredible experience.
Favorite activity: Learning to surf
Suggested Hostel: Blue Trailz Hostel & Surf Camp, located on the main street of Tamarindo, this hostel has a great atmosphere for meeting other guests and is well-kept. Plus, they have a surf school next-door and guests get a discount!
Suggested Hotel: The Coast Beachfront Hotel, this hotel is right on the beach, so you don’t have to go far from your room to be in the ocean. The staff are friendly, and there’s an outdoor pool on the property to cool off.
Further down the Nicoya Peninsula is the sleepy town of Santa Teresa. Much more laid back then Tamarindo but has a great bohemian vibe that’s perfect for surf, yoga, and watching sunsets on the beach. The main beach in Santa Teresa goes on for miles and is full of gorgeous white sand to relax on, soak up and the sun, and watch the surfers. The beach goes on for some miles, so a sunset horseback riding exertion is a great activity to explore this area.
Favorite Activity: Horseback Riding at sunset on the beach
Suggested Hostel: Casa Zen Hostel & Yoga Center – This laid-back boutique hostel is perfect for yogis to come and practice. Just a short walk from the beach, it’s also a great place to stay if you want to surf.
Suggested Hotel: Casa Marbella is set higher up in the mountains, and offers an outdoor pool that overlooks the surrounding beauty. Along with clean rooms and friendly service, this is a great place to stay in Santa Teresa.
Jaco is another surfing town on the Pacific coast, located between the Nicoya Peninsula and Manuel Antonio. During the day you can find surf lessons and schools readily available in town. At night, it becomes a haven of beach parties and night clubs. There are also a number of casinos here which attracts a certain kind of crowd. Jaco wasn’t my favorite town in Costa Rica, but many people go here. If you like to surf and party, it’s a good place to be.
From Santa Teresa or Montezuma, head towards Manuel Antonio, home to one of Costa Rica’s most famous national parks, Manuel Antonio National Park.
At the park, you can find a wide variety of flora, fauna, and wildlife. Guided wildlife tours run from the park’s entrance where you will have the opportunity to see the diverse wildlife of Costa Rica including the most famous animal, the sloth. At the end of the tour the guide will leave you at a gorgeous beach with turquoise water where you can swim or relax.
Favorite Activity: Wildlife Watching in Manuel Antonio National Park
Suggested Hostel: Hostel Vista Serena, this hostel is set on a mountain surrounded by jungle, and as such boasts amazing views from the outdoor seating area. It also has a wonderful atmosphere, I met a lot of great people here.
Suggested Hotel: Shana by the Beach Hotel. As the name suggests, this hotel is located close to the beach, and also to Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s surrounded by lush vegetation, so you might even spot monkeys from the premises!
After Manuel Antonio, you can either return to San Jose if you need to catch a flight. Alternatively, if you have more time you can drive/catch a bus down to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
Puerto Viejo is a small town in the southeast of Costa Rica with its own unique vibe from anywhere else in the country due to the influence of its Caribbean roots. Surfing is available but the conditions are favorable for advanced surfers as the waves can be much rougher than the west coast.
The nightlife in Puerto Viejo is lively, check out reggae bar for entertainment on the weekends. Puerto Viejo is also home to The Jaguar rescue center which is a great place to see Costa Rica wildlife up close and support an organization that helps with wildlife conservation.
Favorite Activity: Visiting the Jaguar Rescue Center
Suggested Hostel: Sel & Sucre. I had shown up in Puerto Viejo with no accommodation booked and ran into the owner of this hostel who happily hosted us. This hostel has a good social atmosphere, the rooms are clean, showers are hot, and the location is great. It’s right next to the ATM, bus station, and supermarket. Plus, the restaurant underneath sells delicious food!
Suggested Hotel: Umami Hotel. This adult-only hotel has such a dreamy ambiance to it. And that outdoor pool is perfect for escaping the heat!
From Puerto Viejo, you can get back to San Jose in just a couple of hours, but there is only one road between the two cities so I recommend going back to San Jose the night before or with plenty of leeway time just to ensure you make your flight.
If you have one week, you can easily fit in La Fortuna, Monteverde, Jaco, and Manuel Antonio, with an in/out flight from San Jose. If you have two weeks, you can add on either the Nicoya Peninsula (Tamarindo/Santa Teresa), or the Caribbean Coast (Puerto Viejo). You could do all of this in two weeks, but it would be a lot of moving around. Costa Rica is the perfect place to kick back and relax on the beach, so it’s nice to have some extra time in each town.
Life in Costa Rica – Pura Vida
The locals in Costa Rica are some of the friendliest and laid back people you will meet. The main greeting in Costa Rica is “Pura Vida”. This translates to pure life in English, but its meaning is more than just a phrase. Pura Vida represents the Costa Ricans culture and a way of life. Simply, it means that people need to be grateful for what they have in life and not dwell on the negative. Locals strive to live a stress-free, laid-back life and their motto exemplifies how they live. A vacation to Costa Rica is the perfect way to relax and recharge from the daily stress of western life, and a road trip is a fantastic way to explore this country at your own pace.
Costa Rica Travel Costs
All prices in USD
The first time I visited Costa Rica for one week I spent a total of $900 (excluding flights). This trip was much more expensive than the second time I visited because we rented a car, slept in private rooms, and did tours almost every day.
The second time I visited Costa Rica for 12 days I spent a total of $600, or $50 on average per day. This was so much cheaper than the first time because I slept in dorms, taking local transport, and only doing tours every couple of days. Here is a breakdown of my main costs during those 12 days:
- Accommodation = I spent an average of $15 per night on accommodation, which was mostly in dorm rooms.
- Transport = $115 for 12 days of traveling via local buses between locations, one private transfer, and some taxis within the cities.
- Food = $240 for 12 days, eating out in both local and Western restaurants. Eating out in local restaurants is significantly cheaper and you can expect to pay around $5/meal. If you eat out in a tourist area/Western restaurant you can expect to pay on average $15/meal. For the cheapest food, eat from the street vendors where snacks and light meals cost less than $1. Use your judgment, but I never got sick from eating street food. I also spent an additional $75 on alcohol during the two weeks. A beer costs between $2-3.
- Tours = $160 USD. This was mostly for entrance into national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and surf lessons. Entrance into most national parks is around $10. Surf lessons range from $25-50.
If you go backpacking through Costa Rica, a budget of $50/per day should be sufficient. I know people who got by on even less.
When to visit Costa Rica
Most people visit Costa Rica during the dry season, which runs from mid-December to April. The benefit of going during this time is that it’s non-stop sunshine to enjoy the countries amazing beaches and rainforests, but on the other hand, it’s the most expensive time to visit. If you visit during May-November, prices will be cheaper and they’ll be fewer crowds. Even during the rainy season it isn’t always raining, and the temperatures are still warm.
Safety while backpacking Costa Rica
Costa Rica is one of the safest countries to go backpacking in Central America. I never felt in danger here, and the locals are extremely kind and welcoming. Petty theft, such as bag snatching and pickpocketing, is one of the most common forms of crime in Central America. I always recommend traveling with travel insurance, not just to protect yourself in case of medical injuries, but also to protect yourself in case your belongings get stolen.
I recommend buying insurance with World Nomads, as some of their packages include up to $3,000 worth of protection for valuables. Traveling with World Nomad’s always makes me feel better knowing even in the worst-case scenario, I have protection. Plus, they cover a wide range of adventure activities which is perfect for a country like Costa Rica.
Resources for backpacking Costa Rica
Flights: Skyscanner is my go-to for booking flights. It searches many low-cost airlines that larger sites can miss. It’s a great site for comparing prices if you fly into Costa Rica.
Airbnb is a great alternative for accommodations. It allows you to connect with locals who rent out their homes or apartment. It can be cheaper than a hotel, and often unique accommodation! If it’s your first time using Airbnb, you can get $45 in travel credit by using this link!
Hostelworld: This is the best place to look if you strictly want a hostel. They have a huge inventory with reliable reviews, and the site allows you to filter by what’s most important to you.
Hotels.com: If you want to stay in a hotel, this is a great website to book though because as a member (it’s free to join) for every 10 nights you book, you get one free. This can add up if you’re traveling for a long time! Plus, they offer secret pricing to members which has gotten me significant discounts.
Rome 2 Rio: The best website for figuring out how to get from point A to B. You enter where you are and where you want to go, and the site tells you all the available transportation options. It also provides the cost and time of each so you can compare.
G Adventures: If you want to do a group tour around Central America, G adventures is a great company to go with. They offer fun small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. The company is a great example of responsible tourism, and I always have a blast on their tours.
I hope this post gave you some inspiration and ideas on where to go backpacking Costa Rica. If you have any questions about traveling through the country, just let me know in the comments below and I’ll be happy to answer them! Costa Rica is a beautiful country, I can’t recommend it enough.
Traveling through Central America? Check out these posts!
- Why Utila, Honduras is the best place to learn to dive
- 9 Epic Adventures to have in Guatemala
- Surviving Sunday Funday in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua