Costa Rica is a natural marvel—a relatively small country boasting four UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and 28 national parks. Travelers heading to this biodiverse wonderland can read on to have all your questions answered—including how to get around, what to eat, how much to tip, and more.

How do I get to Costa Rica?

Aerial view of Costa Rica
Aerial view of Costa Rica

Air travel is the quickest and easiest way to arrive in Costa Rica, as you can find direct flights from many cities in the world. These include New York, Newark, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Minn./St. Paul, Chicago, Charlotte S.C., Los Angeles, Denver, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, London, Madrid, Zürich, and Toronto. Major airlines that offer direct flights include American, Alaska Airlines, US Airways, JetBlue, Delta, United, British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, Air Canada, Iberia, and SWISS.

There are two international airports in Costa Rica—Liberia and San José—with most non-stop flights arriving in the capital of San José. This is the major travel hub in the country and it makes for a good base of operations if you want to visit other regions during your stay. For example, you can take local flights from San José to either coast and all four corners of the country.

How do I get around Costa Rica?

A zip-line is one travel option in Costa Rica

By shuttle service/private transfer

One popular and efficient alternative to renting a car is to travel around via shuttle service and private transfers. Shuttles are smaller than typical buses and will pick you up from your hotel and take you to your chosen destination. You'll spend much less on a shuttle than you will with a vehicle rental, and, overall, this is the preferred method of travel for visitors to Costa Rica.

If you don't want to share a vehicle, then you can always opt for a private transfer. A driver will meet you at your location and transfer you wherever you'd like to go. Depending on distance, this can cost anywhere from $40 to over $200. Expensive, yes, but it's still less than you would pay to rent a car for a week straight. 

By plane

If you have limited time and you want to see as much of Costa Rica as possible, then you'll want to travel by plane. Costa Rica once had two main domestic air carriers, Sansa and Nature Air. However, Nature Air services have been suspended and it's unclear when they might resume. Therefore you'll need to book domestic tickets with Sansa. This airline serves most major destinations in Costa Rica, including Tamarindo, Tortuguero National Park, Bahía Drake, Puerto Jiménez, Limón, Manuel Antonio, and more. Depending on the location, you can expect to pay around $80-$100 for a one-way ticket.

By car

A great way to see Costa Rica is by driving from one corner of the country to the other—just rent a car in San José and hit the road. It's relatively easy to drive around the country (roads and highways are generally well-maintained), and the flexibility inherent to road tripping is priceless. 

A mid-sized SUV here will likely run you around $50 per day. You may also be charged an "airport" or "concourse" tax of about 13%—avoid this by skipping the airport shuttle to the car rental office and not providing your flight number to the rental rep. Some areas of the country may require 4x4 capabilities (check with your specialist), and these vehicles will cost a bit more—but the peace of mind and ease of getting around will be worth every penny.

Keep in mind that some rental agencies in Costa Rica still use manual card imprinters (those handheld contraptions that make physical paper copies of credit card numbers). Because the numbers on new chip cards aren't raised, those old imprinters can't read them—check the agency's payment system in advance and plan accordingly.

On a final note, know that if you do rent a car in this country that it's crucial to be a confident driver. While the main highways are well-maintained, there are backroads and side routes of dubious accessibility. Many roads here are still unpaved, hence the recommendation to book a 4x4. Ensure you have a working GPS system in your vehicle, and consult your travel specialist for up-to-date road conditions.

Are there restrictions where I can travel?

Because Arenal is an active volcano, you'll have to admire it from afar

The only restrictions on where you can travel within Costa Rica have to do with public safety. For example, it is prohibited for you to hike further than the base of the famous landmark Volcán Arenal, as it is still classified as an active volcano (the same hiking prohibitions apply in other active volcanoes throughout the country). Also, although the Osa Peninsula is open to the public, those planning on hiking into Corcovado National Park will need to go with a guide. Pre-booking a guided excursion into Corcovado has its benefits, including the arrangement of all required permits before embarking. 

What is the food like?

Gallo pinto, Costa Rica's national dish

Traditional Costa Rican food is humble, with much of it originating with the Afro-Caribbean culture that arose from the time of slavery. This is seen in the national dish of gallo pinto, a hearty mixture of black beans, rice, and eggs, often served for breakfast. Costa Rica also is famous for its delicious fresh fruits and juices, called batidos (also naturales or refrescos), which are the nation's equivalent of a smoothie. Because of the country's status as a tourist destination, you'll also find much international fare in the form of pizzerias, burger joints, Mexican restaurants, Asian cuisine, and (increasingly), vegetarian and vegan food. 

Locals will typically eat in smaller, family-run eateries called sodas. On top of the local food mentioned above, sodas typically offer a set meal called a casado, which is your choice of protein with a side of rice, beans, and salad. This is a truly local (and inexpensive) Costa Rican experience. 

How big is Costa Rica?

In a word: tiny. At least when compared to other Latin American countries like Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil. The country itself is less than 20,000 square miles, yet within this space, you'll find one of the most ecologically diverse nations in the world. Over 25% of this nation's total area is protected in the form of national parks and conservation regions. This allows the country's rainforests, cloud forests, tropical dry forests, and wetlands to thrive even despite the 1.7 million tourists that arrive here each year. 

Do I need a visa?

Citizens of the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most Latin American and European countries are entitled to stay in the country for up to 90 days with a valid passport. They must enter the country with at least US $300 and a departure ticket. Know that there is a departure tax of $29 upon leaving the airport.

Is Costa Rica a safe place for travelers?

Yes, especially when compared to many other Latin American countries. The U.S. State Department has Costa Rica listed as a Level 1, which is the lowest threat level. That said, tourism is the country's principal source of revenue. You're likely aware that wherever you find lots of tourists you'll also find your fair share of petty crime—it's best to always exercise caution when you're out and about. Refrain from overt displays of wealth, secure valuables in hotel safes, use common sense, and generally keep an eye on your personal belongings. 

Can I bring my children?

La Paz Waterfall Gardens is perfect for kids (and adults)

You can and you should. Not only are Costa Ricans family-oriented as a people, but your kids will also love the nature activities and excursions available in the country. Some activities tailor-made for children and adolescents include surf lessons, river rafting, nature hikes, and more. The Sky Adventures theme park in Monteverde is a great example of fun for the entire family. The activities on hand at this cloud-forest theme park include suspension bridge walks, riding in a "sky tram," and zip-lining.

Then there are all those beautiful waterfalls and wildlife-spotting experiences you can enjoy when in Costa Rica. If you want to take the kids to one ideal spot that encompasses all of it, then head to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, located just outside San José. In this private ecological attraction, you'll find five waterfalls, hiking trails, and wildlife exhibits featuring reptiles, wildcats, and even a butterfly observatory. It's both educational and fun. 

Read more about Costa Rica for families here. 

How many days should I spend in Costa Rica?

It depends on your overall goals and how you like to travel. If you're considering a two-week holiday, rest assured that you'll be able to travel the length and breadth of the country and see its most iconic sites while visiting its most beautiful national parks. With one week, you can still enjoy many of Costa Rica's most popular destinations, especially if you fly from place to place. If you only have a few days or are on a short honeymoon, then you'll want to pick one or two places and enjoy them for as much time as you have. National parks such as Manuel Antonio, Corcovado, and Monteverde are great examples of single destinations to visit within the country.

Here's more on how many days to spend in Costa Rica

I don't speak Spanish. Can I travel independently?

Of course. Because Costa Rica's main industry is tourism, you can expect English to be spoken at the major hotels and restaurants throughout the country, especially in the big cities. English is also common in many of the popular surf villages and coastal towns.

Having said that, we recommend brushing up on your Spanish a few weeks before arriving. Even learning some basic words and phrases will go a long way to helping you not only ingratiate yourself with the locals but make it easier for you to get around, too. And if you're planning an extended vacation in Costa Rica, you can always enroll in a course at a language school such as the Costa Rican Language Academy and the Nosara Spanish Institute. There's no more effective way to learn the local language than taking immersive Spanish courses within the country you're visiting. 

What currency is used?

Costa Rican colónes

Costa Rica uses the colón. At the time of this writing, the exchange rate is 607 colónes to the dollar.

Is Costa Rica expensive?

It's more expensive than many other Central American countries due to the fact that Costa Rica is a more popular tourist destination. For hotel rooms at mid-range accommodations, you can expect to pay up to $100 (and sometimes more) per night. To eat out in a mid-range restaurant you can expect to pay around $10-$20. Of course, you can always save money by eating like a local at roadside sodas and indulging in the fresh fruit that's in abundance at the markets in this country. It's all part of the fun! 

One other tip to save money on accommodations is to travel during Costa Rica's "green" season. This less crowded season lasts from May through November and during that time you'll find discounts of 10%, 20%, and occasionally even 50% on hotel rooms.

Are credit cards widely accepted?

In most major towns and cities major credit cards are accepted. An exception to this is in the more remote national parks, such as Tortuguero, Corcovado, and the Osa Peninsula. Many parts of Osa only recently got electricity, so you might want to manage your infrastructure expectations when visiting these areas.

Keep plenty of cash on hand no matter where you are in the country, just in case. Hotels usually have colones on hand to change for your dollars, but it may be a good idea to change enough for your first night's meals and activities before you leave the San José airport.

Is there a tipping culture in Costa Rica?

Many upscale restaurants will automatically add a 10% gratuity to the bill—be conscious of this when eating out and always ask beforehand if the tip is included. If not, you can tip at your discretion, and the same goes for most other services.

Regarding tour guides, it is customary to leave a tip based on the size of your tour. For example, on a group tour, you'll want to tip about $5 US per person, while $15-$20 total is more appropriate for a private tour. As for taxis, consider tipping $1 or so for longer distances, and letting the taxi driver keep the change for shorter rides. Consider tipping about $1 for any shuttle or bus driver who helps you with your luggage (otherwise, it's not necessary to tip shuttle and bus drivers).

What should I pack?

Plan on beach weather

A good rule of thumb is to always pack breathable clothing, sandals, and swimwear, as Costa Rica never really gets cold. This is a tropical country and temps typically fluctuate from 79-84°F throughout the year, depending on location. It can and often does top 90°F in the high season, so be sure to bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent as well.

If you're planning on visiting the highland cloud forests around Monteverde, you'll want to be prepared with rain gear and some heavier clothing, like windbreakers, to help stave off the elements and keep comfy in the slightly lower temperatures. Know that it rains quite a bit more during the seven months of the aforementioned green season—more on that here. And a Spanish / English dictionary or phrase book and a notebook or journal will also come in handy.

Do I need to bring an electrical adapter/converter? 

Costa Rica uses the same voltage as North America—110 volts, 60 cycle—and the plugs have two flat prongs. Take a look at your electronics and other plug-in devices to check for voltage compatability.

What inoculations do I need?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all travelers be up to date on routine vaccinations, as well as Hepatitis A and Typhoid. The latter is a notable risk, as it is possible to contract typhoid from contaminated food and water in Costa Rica.  Zika also exists in Costa Rica—follow CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines to lower your risk, especially if you're traveling while pregnant. Ask your specialist for more details, and ask the advice of a physician.