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Your guide to the paradise that is Costa Rica
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September 14, 2022 | View OnlineSign Up

Even if Belinda Carlisle was wrong and heaven isn’t really a place on Earth, Costa Rica still comes pretty damn close.


After almost single-handedly transforming Central America’s reputation as a tourist no-go zone, the West Virginia-sized lump of joy is now setting the standard for tourism around the world. As other countries scramble to present some semblance of sustainability, Costa Rica’s decades-old eco-blueprint allows it to enjoy 92% renewable energy and protected status for over a quarter of its land.


More than half of the country is blanketed by lush rainforests home to five hundred thousand species, while the unadulterated paradise of its coast is kissed by some of the finest surf on the planet. And although nature is at the heart of everything, Costa Ricans know how to party — with one of the highest life expectancies on the planet, they’ve got every reason to celebrate.


Pura Vida!


Welcome to Costa Rica.

| FUN FACTS

Pura Vida isn’t just a phrase

You’re likely to hear the phrase, Pura Vida, on a regular basis in Costa Rica. If you know any Spanish, you’ll know its direct translation is “pure life” or “simple life.”  


Out of context, it might seem a strange thing for someone to casually say, yet Ticos and Ticas (Costa Rican men and women) will use it to say hello, goodbye, that everything is cool, and an array of other reasons. At its core, it encapsulates Costa Rica’s way of life. It’s an emotion as much as anything else and something you can’t fully understand until you experience “Pura Vida.”


Although it’s not definite, most people believe it originated in a movie from the fifties, wherein the central character remained upbeat and positive despite a series of unfortunate events. His catchphrase in those moments? Pura Vida!

| KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

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Be careful with your budget

Bring up Central America and most travelers immediately think 'super-affordable.' Unfortunately, Costa Rica is the exception to that perception (unintentional rhyme).


While it might not break the bank, it’s important to be intentional about your finances if you’re trying to keep within your budget. If you’ve saved a bucketload and are happy to blow it, go crazy. But if you’re counting pennies, opt for some cheaper accommodation and splash on some of the amazing experiences on offer. Booze and food can add up, too, so do what you can to eat local and utilize happy hours.

Keep your currency (but check your rates)

US dollars are accepted in Costa Rica, which means you can knock at least one task off your to-do list before you leave. But it’s important to consider some factors before you leave.


First, make sure you take smaller bills. While having a fifty of hundred or two might be okay, a lot of places won’t be able to split a bill that big. Keep it small for your own ease. Second, choose where you use dollars carefully. Most of the tourist restaurants will have their prices marked in USD, so it’s fine there. But if it’s not in USD, double-check what rate is being used to ensure you’re not short-changing yourself.


In smaller places and on public transport, always keep with the local currency, called colones.

Plan your travel realistically

You might look at the size of Costa Rica and assume a week-long road trip will be enough to see the whole country. As it’s only the size of West Virginia, that seems like a fair assumption. But for all of its development, roads and other transport infrastructure are still lagging.


What might take a couple of hours in the US could be a four or five-hour winding journey along single-lane roads. Even if Google maps is optimistic, anticipate an extra hour to ETA. For the best trip, stick to an area and do day trips, or pick a couple of locations to avoid wasting time driving.

| TOGETHER WITH

Language lessons for the real world 

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And right now is the best time to start. Because for a limited time, you’ll get up to 55% off your Babbel subscription!

| THINGS TO DO

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Put your head in the cloud (forest)

Costa Rica is best known for its abundance of rainforest, the most iconic area of which is the Monteverde Cloud Forest. A glance at the stunning ecosystem is worth the three-hour trip from San Jose alone, but there are a number of other adventurous ways to enjoy the forest.


The simplest, and maybe most immersive way, is to hike through the reserve. Designated paths have been created, including some dramatically placed hangings bridges and lookout points, which can be explored alone or with a guide. Grabbing someone to explain the rich diversity surrounding you can elevate the experience. Early morning trips are recommended.


On the other hand, night exploration opens a completely new avenue to the cloud forest. Again, a guide is likely to find you an array of nocturnal creatures — think two-toed sloths, armadillos, or even tarantulas. It may not be for the faint hearted, but it’ll be a night to remember.


For those seeking a little more adrenaline, strap into one of the many zipline courses on offer and fly through the canopy to see the forest from a completely different angle.

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Grab some surf

Costa Rica is a world renowned surf spot, famed for its consistent, predictable wave patterns. This makes it the perfect place for a beginner to dip their toes in the water, although there are some things to know before you try getting tubular.


If you’re all an out beginner, grab some classes. Some of the beaches in Costa Rica are suited for new surfers thanks to their gentler waves, like Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Avellanas. Finding a local surf coach won’t be tough in these areas, but do some research and ask around to see what you should be paying. You won’t need to bring your own board. Some coaches will have rental included in their rates, and there are plenty of stores offering surf rentals at any beach known for the sport. There are even some surf coaching resorts.


The Pacific coast as a whole is better for surf, but there are still some areas on the Caribbean side where it’s possible. December through March is the best time for beginners thanks to the relatively sedate waves, but it will be busier. The rest of the year, weather can be temperamental, but good coaches or guides can help find sheltered places to learn, so don’t fret

Embrace your adventurous side

Narrowing Costa Rica down to three individual activities seems criminal. Any trip to this spectacular country should be viewed as a chance to push your adventurous side to the limits.


Get down and dirty, face your claustrophobic fears, and explore the Venado Caves, a six million year old formation consisting of almost 2700m of underground tunnels, waterfalls, and ravines. You’re going to get wet and dirty, so dress appropriately.


Once you emerge, hike around the lava flows of Arenal National Park. While you can’t hike to the top of the volcano itself, several hikes in the park allow stunning views of conical wonder. Once you’re done, have a soak in the hot springs, or try your hand at white water rafting down the Balsa River.

| WHERE TO STAY

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Everything all under one canopy

Costa Rica’s growth from hidden to gem to tourism powerhouse means accommodations have diversified in every way. Want to wander out onto the sand, no problem. Volcano views? Easy. Jungle treehouse? It’s their specialty.


As we said earlier, true budget accommodation isn’t easy to come by, so accept that you’re going to pay a bit of money for your digs. But if you’re happy to splurge, some of the world’s greatest hotels grace Costa Rica’s tourist landscape.

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image: Hotel Banana Azul

Our Top Pick: Hotel Banana Azul

Limon, Costa Rica
$$$ | See inside

Azul bridges the gap between value and luxury gloriously. With rates barely scraping $150 a night, guests can enjoy ocean views, a jungle atmosphere, and an excellent array of rooms to choose from. The treehouse suite, originally designed for the property owner is a highlight, but you’ll need to book that way in advance. It’s pretty spectacular


Its other rooms range from beachy-modern to full-on rustic, with price points to match each. For a wonderful stay inb Costa Rica without breaking the bank, you can’t go wrong.

Book Your Stay

Other Top Picks

| WHERE TO EAT

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Easy to miss staples

As with accommodations, Costa Rica’s restaurant scene has diversified to cater for its differing visitors. But what of its local cuisine? Sadly, many don’t even touch real Costa Rican food. Some tourists are simply misguided, assuming the local cuisine to be a similar style to Mexican fare, but they’d be dead wrong.


In fact, eating at local “sodas” (small mom and pop restaurants) is the best way to keep costs down and eat wonderful fresh food. Here, you'll be treated to Costa Rica's famous casado, a traditional dish that marries rice, beans, protein, and vegetables all on one plate. For reliable savings, you can typically find sodas that serve a casado of the day (or a plato ejecutivo).


The meat in your casando will range from pork to chicken to beef in different areas of the country, while seafood will dominate the coastal areas. No matter how yours is served, it'll almost surely never be spicy, so bring your sriracha if you need some heat.

Our Top Pick: HiR Fine Dining

San Jose, Costa Rica
$$$$$ Menu

One of the most unique dining experiences you’ll ever experience. HiR Fine Dining is set in Chef Noam’s own home. A limit of twelve guests are treated to an intimate dinner on the back porch of the house, where howler monkeys regularly make appearances.


Noam crafts high end interpretations of Costa Rican and Central American food, allowing guests to watch her cook, ask questions, and find out how she chose the local ingredients for the ever-changing menu. She has no staff, so everything from cooking to serving to cleaning is all covered by Noam.

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The Best of the Rest

| WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN COSTA RICA

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