Getaway Guide To Costa Rica

April 6, 2016 7:00 AM

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

It’s no longer a secret that Costa Rica is one of the hottest destinations for American travelers. With miles of pristine beaches and a wealth of lush tropical rainforests, the beautiful Central American country is an enchanting destination whose inhabitants routinely enjoy the “pura vida” or the pure life. But what makes this small country bordering the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea so special, particularly to first-time visitors and American expatriates? To answer a few questions and to help prospective visitors get started on travel plans, here’s a quick getaway guide to the some of the best there is to see and do in Costa Rica.

Entry Requirements

U.S. travelers must present a valid U.S. passport upon arrival in Costa Rica. The passport must be valid the entire length of stay and must have at least one blank page. Tourist visas are not required for U.S. residents visiting Costa Rica for less than 90 days. Additional information can be found on the U.S. Passports and Travel website.

Costa Rican Currency (credit: Randy Yagi

Costa Rican Currency (credit: Randy Yagi

Currency 

The official currency of Costa Rica is the colón. One U.S. dollar (USD) currently averages about 534 colón (CRC). Conversely, one Costa Rican colón is equal to about .0019 dollar. Costa Rican currency is available in coins or paper banknotes. Costa Rica is slightly more expensive for Americans in comparison to other Central American countries.

Related: Top 5 Must-Go-To Beaches In The Bahamas

Language

The official and predominant language spoken in Costa Rica is Spanish, or rather a Costa Rican form of the Latin-based language. However, many residents are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English. Additionally, there are five indigenous languages spoken.

Rental Car (credit: Randy Yagi)

Rental Car (credit: Randy Yagi)

How To Get Around

Car Rental

The easiest way to get around Costa Rica is with a car rental. However, those who prefer to drive instead of utilizing other forms of transportation should know rentals are not necessarily low cost, and purchasing supplemental insurance is strongly advised. Additionally, travelers should review the country’s driving laws and road conditions as well have a basic understanding of road signs written in Spanish, how to convert posted speed limits from kilometers into miles, how to adjust to local road hazards and the locations/prices of gas stations.

While car rentals can be booked directly at the two major international airports, the capital city of San Jose and other locales, it’s advisable to make reservations well in advance of the trip. Travelers should also bring along road maps and add a GPS system to the car rental or use their smartphone’s GPS to navigate unfamiliar roads. In many circumstances, particularly in rainy conditions or for a particular destination, car rental agencies may require the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Anyone driving in Costa Rica must be at least 21 years old (or 25 at some car rental agencies), have a credit and a valid U.S. driver’s license or an International Driver Permit.

Local Buses

The most affordable way to get around Costa Rica is by public bus. True, some travelers may have difficulty communicating with a bus driver or interpreting bus schedules. But if it’s necessary to keep expenses relatively low, the bus system is the way to go.

Costa Rica has a large network of buses that enable travelers to visit many of the best attractions. Several examples of fare information, bus schedules and destinations served can be found online on sites like CostaRica or VisitCostaRica, and tour operators provide comprehensive Costa Rican travel information for English-speaking people.

By Plane 

For travelers who need to reach far away destinations, domestic air travel is the way to go. Flight itineraries may be arranged through a tour operator, online booking or at the airport. The two recommended domestic airline carriers are Sansa and Nature Air.

Tour Operators

With a local economy that depends heavily on tourism, it’s easy to book a trip or an activity with a tour operator. The official tourism site for Costa Rica, VistaCostaRica, provides a sizable list of tour operators. However, travelers will have an easier time comparing reviews on leading travel sites like TripAdvisor for the best tour groups or booking through a reputable online business like Viator, which provides a list of quality tours and providers.

Where To Stay

Travelers have a wide spectrum of lodging options to choose, from low cost hostels to luxury resorts. The majority of travelers will opt to stay in San Jose, with prices typically ranging between $25 to over $300 per night. Among the top ranked hotels in the capital city are Adventure Inn, Apartotel La Sabana, Hotel Casa Cambranes, Real Intercontinental Hotel and Club Tower and Hotel Grano de Oro San Jose. Other suggestions include U.S.-based chain hotels in San Jose that are known for favorable reviews and consistent quality like Hilton Garden Inn, Courtyard by Marriott and Wyndham Garden.

Other sections of Costa Rica provide hundreds of other overnight accommodations and in a similar range of prices. Among the popular destinations outside of San Jose are La Fortuna, Monteverde, Tamarindo, Jaco and Puerto Viejo. The La Fortuna area is particularly notable for hosting several outstanding resort hotels such as Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, Arenal Manoa Hotel and Spa and the Royal Corin Thermal Water Spa and Resort. Travelers who prefer a beachside setting might want to opt for phenomenal lodging choices like Villa Caletas in Jaco, Hotel Capitan Suizo in Tamarindo and Hotel Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo.

Where To Dine

The capital city offers hundreds of dining options, particularly in and around the city center. Among the best local restaurants specializing in Central or South American cuisine are Restaurante Grano de Oro, La Esquina de Buenos Aires, Restaurante El Patio del Balmoral, Restaurante Ram Luna and Aqui Es. Although other types of cuisine are offered in San Jose and across the country, travelers should sample popular local dishes including arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), tortas (sandwiches), gallos (meat and beans with tortilla), casado (beans, rice and peppers), ceviche (seafood dish) and gallo pinto (spotted chicken), the national dish of Costa Rica.

Much like Costa Rican hotels, many outstanding restaurants can be found throughout the country. Among the recommended spots are La Bodega and Pangas Beach Club in Tamarindo, Chifa La Familia Feliz in La Fortuna, Cafe Rico in Puerto Viejo and Soda Jaco Rustico in Jaco.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Popular Attractions

Costa Rican Beaches

 

With more than 800 miles of sun-kissed and largely protected shoreline, Costa Rica is filled with several world-class beaches. For visitors staying in or near San Jose, the most practical spot to visit is 60 miles away in the resort city of Jaco, known as a surfer’s mecca along the country’s west coast. Further south is Playa Manuel Antonio, arguably the best beach in Costa Rica and part of the similarly named national park once listed among the 12 most beautiful national parks in the world. Other notable beaches worth considering as part of a getaway to Costa Rica include Nosara Beach, Playa Hermosa, Playa Santa Teresa, Puerto Viejo and Tamarindo. In all, most any Costa Rican beach can provide unparalleled memories with sweeping views, tropical water temperatures, water activities and plenty of places to relax under the sun.

Arenal Volcano National Park/La Fortuna

Although Poas Volcano is a very convenient attraction since it’s much closer to San Jose, Arenal Volcano, with its classical conical shape, is far more distinctive in appearance and well worth the extra trek. Located within Arenal National Park about 90 miles northwest of the capital city, the impressive stratovolcano stands 5,437 feet high, surrounded by a tropical forest, and remains one of the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica. Contributing to the widespread popularity of this nearly 30,000-acre national park is its breathtaking natural beauty at amazing places like La Fortuna Waterfall and Lake Arenal as well as the many natural hot springs, some of which reside on local luxury resorts. Other popular outdoor activities in Arena National Park include hiking, river rafting, kayaking, nature tours and bike tours. No trip to Arenal National Park would be complete without a visit to the village of La Fortuna, with its grand views of the volcano just four miles away.

Monteverde

One of Costa Rica’s dominant features is its rainforests, often described as the “jewels of the earth.” Among the most popular rainforests for ecotourists is in the country’s central highlands at Monteverde. Clearly living up to its name (Green Mountain), Monteverde is the setting for one of the country’s most important cloud forest reserves, otherwise known as a fog forest. At 4,662 feet above sea level, Monteverde is rich in biodiversity, with more than 2,500 plant species and hundreds animal species. Despite being one of the most famous attractions in Costa Rica, Monteverde reportedly draws less than 100,000 annual visitors. However, those who do make the journey are treated to one of the most fascinating places on Earth.

San Jose

The capital city itself is a definite must-see attraction, even for visitors who are continuing their journey to other parts of the country. As Costa Rica’s primary economic, artistic and cultural center, San Jose offers travelers many things to see and do, from historic structures and landmarks to modernized shopping facilities and a lively nightlife. For first-time visitors, the list of places to see include the Precolumbian Gold Museum, National Museum (Museo Nacional), National Theatre of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica), the El Pueblo entertainment district and the lively central market (Mercado Central).

Poas Volcano National Park

Located about 30 miles north of San Jose, Poas Volcano National Park is a convenient alternative for those who can’t make the trek to the more distant Arenal. The home of one of the country’s most active volcanoes, this popular national park covers approximately 16,000 sweeping acres of cloud and tropical rainforests and features two noteworthy crater lakes near the 8,885-foot summit. Both of the crater lakes are among the world’s most acidic lakes and the Poás crater can be viewed (on a clear day) from an observation platform near the visitor center.

Related: Travel Guide To Peru’s Machu Picchu

Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com

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