Costa Rica Tours & Holidays
Jungle jaunts and coastal escapades in a tropical paradise - introducing your new amigo, Costa Rica.
An adventure hotspot for some, and a cultural haven for others, Central America's Costa Rica definitely lives up to its translation as the ‘rich coast’. And as you journey under lush jungle canopies, along the golden coastline and laidback surf towns, you’ll soon be rich with memorable experiences. You could become a pro at spotting toucans in Monteverde’s steamy cloud forests or listen out for the distant whoop of white-faced capuchins in Corcovado, but really, it’s the pace of life here that gets you. The phrase ‘hustle and bustle’ isn’t in Costa Rica’s vocabulary; as you’d expect from a country whose unofficial motto is ‘pura vida’ – the pure life.
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Costa Rica at a glance
San Jose (population approximately 340,000)
Approximately 5.1 million
(GMT-06:00) Central America
Type A (North American/Japanese 2-pin) Type B (American 3-pin)
Learn more about Costa Rica
Culture and Customs
Costa Rican culture is summed up in two words – ‘pura vida’, or the pure life. It’s often said as a greeting, farewell or to show appreciation. Just like any good life motto, pura vida is better experienced than explained; it’s both an attitude and a feeling. It means being friendly and polite, taking it easy, relaxing, and being thankful for what you have.
This unofficial motto helps explain many other facets of Costa Rican culture. Costa Ricans (or Ticos and Ticas) are known for their relaxed demeanour, happy outlook and conflict-averse nature. In fact, peace is so highly valued here that they have no standing army. It was abolished in 1949 with all funds reallocated to create an ‘army’ of teachers instead. It follows that education is also highly valued here. Primary and secondary school is mandatory and free for all, resulting in a 97% literacy rate.
You’ll find that people in Costa Rica are generally in less of a hurry than most North Americans or Europeans. This is particularly true on the east coast where a laidback Caribbean attitude has been adopted thanks to a large population of migrant workers from Jamaica. Following what is affectionately known as ‘Tico time’, people will often be fashionably late, except for things with schedules – Tico time does not apply at work, the movies or the train station.
The Caribbean coast has other differences from the rest of Costa Rica as well – the cuisine, the music and the language are all influenced by the Caribbean. You might hear a dialect of Jamaican Creole called Limonese Creole (also known as Mekatelyu or Patua) being spoken alongside Spanish.
Costa Ricans’ carefree way of life coupled with living in one of the most progressive and prosperous nations in Central America makes locals some of the happiest in the world.
History and Government
Like most Central American countries, before Spanish colonisation, indigenous communities thrived for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. Costa Rica was a transiting region between Mesoamerican and Andean cultures, with some notable periods of Aztec, Maya and Inca influence. It is thought that humans have lived in Costa Rica’s jungles and rainforest for as many as 10,000 years, however with no urbanised civilisation like the Aztecs or Mayas, and little to no cultural preservation during the time of Spanish colonisation, there is not much known about Costa Rica’s true indigenous populations.
Colonisation, independence and trade
At the time of Spanish colonisation, around 1502, it’s estimated that 400,000 people lived in what is now known as Costa Rica. Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus came across this region, and while exploring and interacting with local tribal groups he saw a great amount of gold, hence the name ‘la costa rica’ or the rich coast. It was, however, not as much as he once thought, so later settlement here was agriculture-focused. During the next century, different Spanish colonies were established on the coast to varying degrees of success. As settlements grew larger, indigenous populations dwindled due to disease and other factors. After around a century, the population had fallen to 20,000, and to 8000 a century later.
It wasn’t until 1821 that the Americas broke free of Spanish control, following the Mexican War of Independence. Costa Rica then became part of the Federal Republic of Central America in 1823, before gaining full independence in 1838. It was also in the 19th century that Costa Rica found its feet in the global coffee trade. Costa Rican coffee producers would originally export their crop to larger South American neighbours, who would, in turn, re-export to Europe. After catching on, they started to export the beans themselves and by the end of the century, coffee crops accounted for nearly 90% of Costa Rica’s exports and 80% of its foreign income. Not only was coffee production an indicator of wealth in Costa Rica, it was also a powerful political tool and prompted the emergence of other industries, including the banana trade, which surpassed coffee exports in the early 20th century.
After 1869, Costa Rica established a democratic government and has largely remained an effective social democracy without radical tendencies for many decades. One notable exception was a Civil War in 1948, prompted by business and military groups clashing with a movement by President Rafael Calderon to protect the rights of the working class and the poor. Peace was restored after only a couple of months, but not without casualties. In the aftermath, the Costa Rican government drafted a new constitution, in which one major move was to abolish the military forces of the country – an edict that remains to this day.
Costa Rica’s economy relies on eco-tourism, and the country has championed the idea that ‘rich coast’ refers not to resources dug from the ground, but rather to the natural wonders above ground! Economic struggles still exist, with underemployment, poverty, foreign trade and debt ongoing issues for the government. However, the easygoing attitude of Ticans comes from a love of their country and history, and pride that their democracy has endured in a conflict-ridden region.
Eating and Drinking
Costa Rican cuisine is, unsurprisingly, influenced by Spanish, South American, Caribbean and other Central American culinary traditions. The food, generally speaking, is wholesome and fresh, and on the Caribbean coast there’s an Afro-Caribbean flair, with specialities featuring coconut milk, more meat and more spices.
As well as establishing itself as the craft beer hub of Costa Rica, the capital – San Jose – also has an up-and-coming food scene; head to Barrio Escalante for the best gastropubs and hip restaurants.
Look out for these favourite dishes and drinks across Costa Rica:
What to eat in Costa Rica
- Gallo pinto
Gallo pinto, the most common side dish in Costa Rica and across the Americas is served alongside meals morning, noon and night. It’s made of rice, beans, onions, peppers and spices, and the name translates to ‘speckled rooster’ because of the pops of colour studding the rice.
If you eat at a ‘soda’ – traditional Costa Rican restaurant – when travelling, chances are a casado will be on the menu. Although there are multiple variations of this tasting plate, you’ll likely get served up some gallo pinto, fried plantains and salad with either chicken, beef or fish, and a freshly squeezed juice. Covering off all your food groups in one!
Chifrijo is one of the most common bar snacks in Costa Rica. The word is a combination of its two main ingredients – chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and frijoles (beans). The chicharrones and beans are layered together and topped with guacamole and pico de gallo, and served with fresh tortilla or plantain chips for dipping.
While ceviche is probably more often associated with Peru, the Tico version is a delicious variation. Made with raw fish cured in citrus juice, onions, coriander and peppers and served with tortilla chips or fried plantains, this dish is light, refreshing and a great start to a meal.
Another common element that pops up on a lot of Central American menus, these deep-fried green plantains are ideal for a snack or as a dipping device for chifrijo, guacamole or pico de gallo. Or just by themselves!
- Sopa negra
You might think that all of Costa Rica is hot and sunny year-round, but some parts of the country do get quite cool, especially in the evenings. That’s nothing a bowl of soup can’t fix. Sopa negra is a Costa Rican black bean soup, often flavoured with tomatoes and spices, and served with egg and coriander.
Imagine a Caribbean seafood chowder, and you’ve got rondon. This soup is traditionally Jamaican, but other Caribbean countries who’ve adopted the recipe have put their own spin on it with their choice of seafood – fish, crab, small lobster – as well as the coconut milk broth and spices. A hearty pick-me-up after a day of exploring.
- Arroz con leche
Sweet tooths can rejoice with this Central and South American dessert staple of arroz con leche – a spiced, sweet rice pudding made with cinnamon, cloves and raisins. Try it as a warming snack or a special dessert.
You probably haven’t heard of this one before! This unusual fruit comes from a type of palm known as the peach palm – the same tree that heart of palm comes from. After boiling for a few hours and discarding the inner seed and outer skin, the fruit is finished with a squeeze of lime or a dollop of mayonnaise to eat the local way. The taste has been likened to a mix between a squash, potato and cashew.
What to drink in Costa Rica
Costa Rica produces some of the best coffee in the world, so you’re set for your caffeine fix during your time in Costa Rica. It has both the ideal soil composition and the perfect elevation to grow the perfect coffee crop, so be sure to sample as many fresh local brews as you can.
If you’re looking for drinks of the alcoholic variety, try guaro – a liquor made from sugar cane, best enjoyed in a guaro sour (with lime, simple syrup and soda). The craft beer scene is growing quickly here as well, so look for microbrews from a multitude of small local breweries. And if you’re wondering how to say cheers, just say ‘pura vida’ again!
Naturales – sometimes also called refrescos or batidos – are delicious fresh fruit juices blended with either milk or water. You can find them all over the country at small kiosks or booths, in a variety of flavours like mango, pineapple, guanabana and more.
Geography and Environment
Costa Rica is known for its incredible beaches and magical rainforests. But the beauty is not limited to golden beaches – the backbone of this coastal nation is truly stunning mountain ranges, many of which contain active and dormant volcanoes. You’ll also find heaps of waterfalls, lakes and rivers throughout the country. For this reason, adventure sports such as zip-lining, whitewater rafting and cycling are popular in inland destinations such as La Fortuna and Montverde, and adventures packed full of activities are a popular way to experience the country.
Costa Rica’s diverse topography also gives rise to many microclimates. The temperature and weather can vary dramatically depending on elevation and how close you are to the coast, so environments from rainforests to cloud forests, jungles to mountains exist side by side. The varied land and climate foster a huge amount of biodiversity – over 5% of the world’s total biodiversity, in fact.
Costa Rica is home to over 500,000 species of plants and animals. Those seeking to spot local wildlife will be enthralled by Costa Rica’s unique flora and fauna. And the spectacular variety of wildlife isn’t limited to the land – scuba diving is another popular activity, with Costa Rica boasting some of the most beautiful bays, beaches and reefs in the world.
4 of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica
- Tortuguero National Park
One of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets, this national park is the unspoilt paradise you’ve been searching for. Will you take a dip into Tortuguero’s warm turquoise waters or just relax on the idyllic shores?
- Manuel Antonio
Leave the hassles of modern life behind and discover an eco-playground surrounded by coastal delights. Spend a day exploring misty rainforests before cooling off on one of the delightful beaches, or head into Manuel Antonio or Quepos town for some good food and fiery nightlife.
Once a sleepy beach town, Jaco’s proximity to San Jose has made it a one-stop shop for those seeking big waves and even bigger parties. The gateway to national parks and active adventures, there’s no denying Jaco’s uber-cool surf-town vibe.
Well off the tourist trail, Corcovado isn’t your average beach experience. Boasting diversity of colour, landscape and wildlife, Corcovado is perfect for those seeking beaches with character and charm. Oh, and it’s got the largest primary forest in the American Pacific, if you needed another reason to visit.
Whether you’re buying souvenirs or groceries, your best bet in Costa Rica is to shop at local markets. Although there are large, American-style grocery stores, they can be a little pricey. The best deals on fresh produce can be found at a feria, or farmers market. Most towns have a weekly feria where you can buy tropical fruits and vegetables. And if you happen to miss the weekly market, you’ll often see street vendors selling select items like avocados and mangoes every day.
Head to the Mercado Calle Nacional de Artesania y Pintura (National Craft Market) in San Jose for the best selection of handmade goods and souvenirs. Here you can stroll through dozens of stalls selling handmade hammocks and painted oxcarts as well as t-shirts and shot glasses that say ‘pura vida’. Also in San Jose, the Mercado Central is a great place to grocery shop and pick up souvenirs. Vendors offer everything from fresh produce to coffee to leather goods.
You’ll often see carved wooden masks for sale but, while all of them are beautiful, for a truly authentic mask you can buy directly from indigenous communities who make them.
As in any destination, check that any souvenirs made from natural materials have been ethically sourced. Avoid buying products made from rainforest woods that were not sustainably harvested, sea turtle shells and other animal products. Before heading home, check with your local customs officials to ensure that you are able to bring certain items back into your home country. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have strict quarantine laws regarding some materials, such as food and wooden objects.
Festivals and Events
Costa Ricans definitely know how to throw a party, and place a lot of importance on food, family and community. Many Costa Rican festivals celebrate the country’s farming and ranch heritage, and a lot have a Catholic element. No matter which festival you’re celebrating, you’re pretty much guaranteed a deep dive into Tico culture. Here are a few of the biggest festivals in Costa Rica:
Las Fiestas de Zapote
This festival, celebrated from Christmas until New Year’s Eve every year in the town of Zapote, is a week-long fiesta. It’s home to the biggest rodeo in Costa Rica, many carnival games, as well as rides and food stalls.
After the festivities of Christmas, New Year’s and the Zapote festival have wound down, it’s time for the Palmares festival. In mid-January, more than one million Ticos and tourists head to the town of Palmares for one of the largest festivals in Costa Rica. Revellers drink beer, enjoy food, listen to international acts and watch traditional bullfighting and the ‘tope’ – a horse parade through the streets.
Fiesta de los Diablitos
The ‘Festival of the Little Devils’ is celebrated twice each year (in December and February) in the indigenous communities of Boruca and Rey Curre. The festival celebrates the triumph of the original inhabitants over the Spanish conquistadors, with dancing and performances featuring costumes and painted masks.
If you’re travelling to Costa Rica in October, you’ll probably find yourself in the festive spirit as you touch down, as this is the month of Carnival. Notably, it’s when the Caribbean town of Puerto Limon celebrates this annual festival, with elaborate costumes, floats, parades and food stalls aplenty, spread across two weekends.
For inspiring stories to prepare you for your Costa Rica adventure, check out these books:
- Green Phoenix: Restoring the Tropical Forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica – William Allen
- The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica – Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz
- Off the Map – Dorien Kelly
- The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics – Steven Palmer and Ivan Molina
- Mamita Yunai – Carlos Luis Fallas
- Unica Looking at the Sea – Fernando Contreras Castro
- Monkeys are made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica – Jack Ewing
Costa Rica travel FAQs
Trips from 1 January 2023 onwards
From 1 January 2023, Intrepid will no longer require travellers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 (excluding all Polar trips and select adventure cruises).
However, we continue to strongly recommend that all Intrepid travellers and leaders get vaccinated to protect themselves and others.
Specific proof of testing or vaccination may still be required by your destination or airline. Please ensure you check travel and entry requirements carefully.
Year-round tropical warmth means there really isn’t a bad time to visit Costa Rica. December to April are normally the driest months; however, Costa Rica’s diverse topography and blanket of rainforests suggest that you should be prepared for at least some rain any time of the year – a very small price to pay for such lush surrounds.
The good news is that even during the rainiest of seasons, the rainfall tends to be limited to a couple of hours a day – just enough time for you to enjoy a cup of Costa Rica's acclaimed coffee in one of its many cafes.
The most popular time to visit Costa Rica is between December and March – the driest and hottest months along the Pacific Coast. May to October brings the most rainfall across the country, but this is dependent on region, as the wetter seasons are extended on the Osa Peninsula and northern sections of the Caribbean Coast.
Generally, Costa Rica grants visas to most countries’ passport holders for a period of 90 days, providing travellers have a valid passport, a return or onward ticket and their trip is for leisure. Some countries’ citizens must apply for a visa before leaving their home country, but most do not.
Visas are the responsibility of the individual traveller. Entry requirements can change at any time, so it's important that you check for the latest information. Please visit the relevant consular website of the country or countries you’re visiting for detailed and up-to-date visa information specific to your nationality. Check the Essential Trip Information section of your tour itinerary for more information.
While tipping isn't mandatory in Costa Rica, rounding up the bill and leaving spare change at restaurants and cafes is standard practice. Many restaurants do add a service charge to the final bill which is usually a 10% gratuity; however, 500 colones (or around USD 1) of local currency is an appropriate extra amount.
Costa Rica's cities and tourist centres have wi-fi and internet access available in hotel lobbies and internet cafes. Internet access is less available in rural and remote areas.
Mobile phone coverage is generally good in Costa Rica's cities and metropolitan areas, although expect limited coverage in remote or mountainous areas. Ensure you have global roaming activated with your carrier if you wish to use your phone while in Costa Rica, but, be sure to check with your service provider first to find out about any fees you may incur, as sometimes this can be expensive.
Costa Rica has one state-owned phone provider – Kolbi – as well as a selection of private companies, should you wish to purchase a SIM while abroad. Depending on what connection and coverage you need during your stay in Costa Rica, a prepaid option with one of these providers may be the cheapest way to go.
Costa Rica's toilets are a mixture of flushable and squat toilets, so be prepared to encounter both. Carry your own supply of toilet paper and soap or hand sanitiser, as these aren't always provided.
Costa Rica's unit of currency is the colón. Prices here are approximate and shown in US dollars for ease of comparison.
- Cup of coffee = USD 1
- Naturales (fresh fruit drink) = USD 3
- Bottle of beer = USD 2
- Lunch at a soda (local restaurant) = USD 5.50
- Dinner in a restaurant = USD 10-17
Although tap water is considered safe to drink in Costa Rica's cities, it's probably a good idea to avoid drinking tap water in Costa Rica. For environmental reasons, try to avoid buying small bottles of water. Ask your leader where filtered water can be found as some hotels provide this, so you’re able to use a reusable bottle. It's also advisable to avoid ice in drinks and to peel fruit and vegetables rather than eating washed or unwashed produce.
Major credit cards are accepted by most large shops, hotels and restaurants, although smaller vendors and market stalls often only accept cash, so be sure to have a combination of both when travelling.
ATMs are easily found in the large cities and airports, although are less common in rural and remote areas. When travelling out of the city, come prepared by having enough cash, as ATMs aren't always an option.
- 1 January New Year’s Day
- 11 April Juan Santamaria Day
- April Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday)*
- April Good Friday (the Friday before Easter)*
- April Easter Sunday*
- 1 May Labour Day
- 25 July Guanacaste Day
- 2 August Our Lady of Los Angeles Feast Day
- 15 August Mother’s Day
- 15 September Independence Day
- 16 October Natural Cultures Day
- 25 December Christmas Day
*Please note these dates may vary. For a current list of public holidays in Costa Rica, including the movable dates noted above, go to World Travel Guide's website.
Generally speaking, Costa Rica is a safe destination for LGBTQIA+ travellers. Same-sex relationships are legal and, in 2015 Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to recognise gay relationships; however, recognition of same-sex marriage is currently pending government approval. In many places in Costa Rica, public displays of affection might attract unwanted attention, but there are a few places in Costa Rica with a thriving LBGTQI scene. Quepos has long been known as the LGBTQIA+ capital of Costa Rica, and the actual capital, San Jose, has a good number of gay bars and clubs.
For more detailed and up-to-date advice, we recommend visiting Equaldex or ILGA before you travel.
If you are travelling solo on an Intrepid group tour, you will share accommodation with a passenger of the same gender as per your passport information. If you don’t identify with the gender assigned on your passport, please let us know at time of booking and we’ll arrange the rooming configuration accordingly. A single supplement is available on some tours for travellers who do not wish to share a room.
Being in the deep centre of Central America, Costa Rica gets hot and oh so humid. However, there’s a whole number of microclimates inside its borders – that’s a fancy way of saying that the terrain is pretty hilly – so depending where you are in the country, the temperature may fluctuate. Generally speaking, Costa Rica enjoys a tropical climate year-round with temperatures averaging at 18°C minimum and 27°C maximum.
Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast has tropical heat almost all year round. March is the driest and hottest month, and May to October brings the wet season to the region. The Western Central Valley, including cities like San Jose, indirectly follow the Pacific Coast’s weather trends.
The Caribbean Coast has pretty steady rainfall all year round with no distinct dry season. September to October and February to March are considered the best months to travel to this side of the country as they are drier than most, but still experience rainfall. The Eastern Central Valley usually follows a similar weather pattern.
Intrepid is committed to making travel widely accessible, regardless of ability or disability. That’s why we do our best to help as many people see the world as possible, regardless of any physical or mental limitations they might have. We’re always happy to talk to travellers with disabilities and see if we can help guide them towards the most suitable itinerary for their needs and, where possible, make reasonable adjustments to our itineraries.
Much of Costa Rica’s travel highlights are based around the coast and in nature, so depending on travellers’ level of mobility, this may present obstacles. Many national parks are difficult to visit for travellers using a wheelchair, as jungle paths are mostly remote and not stable. Manuel Antonio does have wider paths and more accessible routes to venture into the rainforest, and the wide boardwalks and beaches are wheelchair friendly. The capital, San Jose, is a bit tricky to get around, with rough sidewalks and a lack of ramps. There are, however, taxi companies in the capital that offer wheelchair-accessible vans.
If you do live with a visual, hearing or other impairment, let your booking agent or group leader know early on so they’re aware and suitable arrangements can be made. As a general rule, knowing some common words in the local language, carrying a written itinerary with you and taking to the streets in a group, rather than solo, can help make your travel experience the best it can be.
Packing for a trip to Costa Rica doesn't have to be difficult as long as you take into account the weather conditions you're likely to experience while you're over there. This means packing lightweight, comfortable clothing, walking shoes for exploring, appropriate sun protection items like sunscreen and hats, and a backpack so you can carry your camera and a reusable drink bottle.
Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica, however, there are five indigenous languages that are still spoken throughout the country, as well as a mixture of English, Portuguese, German, and French spoken by a percentage of the population.
Intrepid takes the health and safety of its travellers seriously, and takes every measure to ensure that trips are safe, fun and enjoyable for everyone. We recommend that all travellers check with their government or national travel advisory organisation for the latest information before departure:
Go to: http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/
Go to: https://travel.gc.ca/
From the UK?
Go to: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/
From New Zealand?
Go to: http://www.safetravel.govt.nz/
From the US?
Go to: http://travel.state.gov/
The World Health Organisation also provides useful health information.
Absolutely. All passengers travelling with Intrepid are required to purchase travel insurance before the start of their trip. Your travel insurance details will be recorded by your leader on the first day of the trip. Due to the varying nature, availability and cost of health care around the world, travel insurance is very much an essential and necessary part of every journey.
For more information on insurance, please go to: Travel Insurance