Here are a few tips on how to save time, and how to make the most of your time, while in Costa Rica. These are based upon personal experience, and some apply more broadly than others, and are more things to keep in mind when planning rather than rules to follow. Of course, this is incomplete and hopefully other seasoned travelers will provide their 10 colones to reflect their experience and insight.
Tips on Traveling inside Costa Rica
How to make the most of your short time in Costa Rica
* Schedule an early arrival flight, even if it means paying a little extra for airfare.
The difference between arriving at 9:00 AM and arriving at 2:00 PM could mean the difference between hitting the road/catching a domestic flight and spending the day at the beach or rainforest, vs spending the first night at an airport hotel. A few hours difference can add almost an entire day to your trip–or take it away. Immigration control tends to go quicker in the early morning when there are fewer passengers. Ditto rental car pick up, etc.
* Connect via cities with good weather and smaller airports, and where you don’t need to go through immigration.
Obviously direct flights are the best, but if you’re flying in January and your choices are connecting through Houston or Charlotte vs San Salvador or Panama City, choose the closer, warmer connection points. Weather causes all kinds of flight delays in the US–as many/most of us know–much less common in Central American countries. San Salvador and Panama City don’t require passengers do go through immigration, which means you can have a tighter connection schedule (whereas Mexico does require you to go through immigration and customers). Also, where would you rather be forced to spend a night on your tropical vacation in January-Charlotte or Panama City?
* Book transportation and lodging ahead of time.
This gets somewhat into personal traveling style, but the time you spend scoping out places to stay and trying to track down transportation is time you’re not surfing or looking at birds. Plus it allows you to plan your time so it’s spent wisely.
* Pay very, very close attention to the location/setting of lodging.
You can dramatically increase your exposure to nature and wildlife by staying in a lodge that is in nature already. Many places have their own private reserves, or abut reserves or national parks. Some of our best wildlife sightings–both wild cats, tayra, night monkeys (Panama), ornate hawk-eagle–have happened on the grounds of the lodge where we were staying. This also applies to people seeking to enjoy the beach, or mountain views, etc. Part of the Costa Rica experience is to be immersed in this kind of experience–nature, ocean, whatever, not to see it merely on day trips. If the location is good enough, you can just stay where you are rather than doing the day trip.
Also, some hotels are listed/market themselves as being in an area when really they’re quite a bit away. This can be especially a problem if you’re relying on public transportation or taxis.
* If you’re relying on ground transportation and are covering some distance, organize your trip around the concept of a loop.
In other words, avoid backtracking–try to put together an itinerary that takes you in a loop where you wind up circling back to somewhere close to the airport for your final nights. This can also help you pick between excellent but similar destinations (for example–deciding between San Gerardo de Dota and Monteverde). This won’t work for every trip–trips to the Osa peninsula or Caribbean, but even then you can hit different midway points coming back than you hit going out. This should save you time, and stress as you think about catching that flight back–if you wind up 2 hours away rather than 5 hours away from the airport, that makes a big difference. Many people recommend that you spend the last night near in Alajuela near the airport, but if your final destination within Costa Rica is two hours away from the airport and you have an afternoon flight, you should be in very good shape.
* Rent a car instead of relying upon buses/shuttles etc.
Due to cost/other reasons this won’t be an option for everyone. But, if you’re on the fence between driving and taking the bus, driving not only saves you road time, it also means you travel on your own schedule, without waiting in line for tickets and to board, etc. It also gives you flexibility as to where to stop, and it makes staying in more remote nature lodges a lot more plausible.
* If you’re renting a car, try to keep destinations around 4 hours or less apart, and travel between 9:30 am – 3:30 pm.
There’s often an temptation to get an early start when traveling, but we’ve found it works better to travel during the mid-day since this is generally the least comfortable/productive time of day. During mid-day, it gets HOT fast especially in lower elevations, and all the birds and animals take a siesta. Perfect time to get that traveling out of the way. You can even plan a morning and/or afternoon activities depending on logistics. So, as long as you keep the time between destinations around 4 hours or less, you can have a very full day despite the time spent in the car.
* Be open to stopping along the way.
On your first day, last day, or between destinations within Costa Rica, there’s a good chance you’ll pass by something very much worth seeing–e.g. the Tarcoles river between Manuel Antonio and SJO airport. If it works with your schedule, and you’re driving or having someone drive you, why not?