We recently went on a week long trip to Costa Rica, spending the majority of our time in the San Jose area. And we’re not going to lie, this definitely wasn’t a “see all the things” kind of trip. It was a “relax by the pool, escape the cold and de-stress” kind of trip. So we don’t have a list of the top things you need to see or do in Costa Rica. But if you are planning to visit Costa Rica, we do have some great tips for packing and building your itinerary.
1. When to Visit Costa Rica
Since it’s so close to the equator, CostaRica doesn’t have the traditional four seasons that most other places have. Instead, they have a “wet season” from May to November, and “dry season” from mid-December to April. For obvious reasons, dry season is the preferred time to visit. But peak tourist season really starts to kick off in late February through March (think spring break time).
We visited at the end of January and found that it was a great time in terms of both weather (70s to mid-80s and sunny every day) and crowdedness. Don’t get us wrong — Costa Rica is a pretty touristy place in general, as tourism is their number one economic driver. That being said, visiting at the tail end of the wet season or the start of the dry season is a great way to enjoy the perfect weather without enduring the typical crowds of peak season.
2. What to Pack
In some ways, you can pack for Costa Rica like you would a typical beach vacation. Light, loose clothing and cover-up options are ideal. If you plan to visit any areas in the jungle, then make sure to pack hiking pants and a breathable long-sleeve shirt, as well as plenty of bug spray (the mosquitoes in certain parts of Costa Rica are notoriously bad and carry some pretty nasty diseases).
One thing that we can’t stress enough is sunscreen. Again, Costa Rica is right next to the equator, so the sun is a lot stronger and closer than most people are used to. We find that brands that use zinc oxide typically work better (and are better for you) than the chemical-laden brands. This is the brand we usually use.
When it comes to clothes, you can pretty much wear whatever you want if you’re staying on the resort. Downtown San Jose tends to be a little more formal, so if you’re planning to go out to dinner or do anything in the city, pack a pair of long pants. In general, the only people you’ll see walking around in shorts will be tourists.
Some other items we recommend packing:
- Baseball cap or wide-brimmed hat
- Bug spray
- Bathing suit (or two)
- Cover-up or sarong
- Loose fitting tops and bottoms
- Hiking pants and long sleeve shirt (if needed)
- Long pants (if going into the city)
- A tote bag for visiting the beach or hanging by the pool
- Raincoat (if you’re visiting during rainy season)
3. How to Pay
Technically, most places in Costa Rica will accept US Dollars. But we don’t recommend paying with USD, for two main reasons. First, you’re not always going to get the best price that way. The conversion rate they give you might be accurate, but we’ve found instances where it’s inflated by a few dollars. That might not matter to you much for one bill, but if it happens every time you’re going to end up overspending by a lot by the end of the trip. Secondly, if you pay or tip someone in USD, they’re going to have to convert that money to Costa Rican colónes eventually. So, save them the step and convert your currency.
Most hotels will convert your currency for you at the front or concierge desk. We found that our hotel had a much better conversion rate than we would have gotten at our bank or currency center in the US (by about 50 colónes per USD).
4. What to Do
As we mentioned at the start, this wasn’t the most activity-filled vacation we’ve ever taken. But if there’s one thing we absolutely recommend you do when in Costa Rica, it’s visiting the Arenal Volcano and surrounding hot springs. Arenal is an active volcano in the northern lowlands that erupted in 1968. Since 2010, the volcano is in a resting phase where it emits sulfur gas. If you have time, you can hike to a certain point up the volcano for a better view. Or, if you’re like us and have time constraints, there is a viewpoint that requires a short five minute walk. Either way, the views are fantastic.
As you make your way back down from the volcano, there are a number of hot springs that are made possible by the activity from the volcano. We visited Tabacón Thermal Resort and highly recommend it. There is a regular pool with water from the hot springs and a swim up bar — but the best part of the hot springs are the small pools formed from the river that runs down the length of the resort. There are over a dozen small pools where you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view. The setup makes most of the areas pretty private, and we were lucky enough to find a few areas with no other guests.
We hope this post was helpful for planning your getaway to Costa Rica. If you’ve visited — please tell us your favorite experience!