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.
Most Common Costa Rica Travel Mistakes
Take a look at this list of tips we created that will save you time, money and hassle caused by lack of knowledge and planning:
This is #1 because it’s the most common, and understandably so. Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America because of its popularity with tourists, quality of life for the locals and overall safety. But these things come with a high sticker price. Visitors also forget to include things like food, transport, tours and unforeseen costs such as park entrance fees. When decided your budget make sure to leave some wiggle room for extra expenses, especially if you don’t plan on staying in hostels with cold showers. Like they say, you get what you pay for!
Your documents are the single most important things not to forget. Without a passport and credit/debit card you won’t be going anywhere. Make sure that your passport doesn’t expire within 3 months of the dates you are traveling. We also recommend printing airline ticket and hotel confirmations because WiFi in the country is not always reliable and roaming/overage charges by cell phone providers can be very costly. Make sure to have your return ticket handy as you will not be able to enter the country without it. Before you leave your country make sure to notify your bank of your travel dates so they don’t block your cards for suspicious activity. Also, be sure to bring your driver’s license if you plan on operating a vehicle. **Tip** You can scan all your documents and/or take photos of them with you phone and save them (the cloud, your email or Google Drive) just in case you lose something you will have it available.
If you’ve traveled much you will know that the possibility of an airline losing your bag is real. Be sure you have the essentials in your carry-on so you are prepared just in case this happens to you. We recommend you pack your documents and important papers, a change of clothes, prescription medicines, valuables and eyewear if applicable.
How many times have you returned from a vacation with items you didn’t use the entire time you were gone? Many people (myself included) tend to overpack for holidays. This will only slow you down and leave you with too much stuff to keep track of. Remember you are coming to a tropical climate. No matter where you go, you are not likely to be cold and could do without that oversized jacket.
Many people overextend by jamming more into their itinerary than is realistic. Even though Costa Rica is a small country, the terrain and traffic make travel times much longer than one would imagine by looking at a map. Also, plan to be at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Traveling to San José from another destination can take longer than you might imagine. There are more cars than there are people in the city and therefore traffic can be horrible (a 10-mile drive can take more than an hour with traffic). Never cut your arrival time to less than 2 hours from your flight time. We recommend staying in San José the night before your flight unless it is late in the day or evening. Also, be aware that while day trips from San José to places like Manuel Antonio, Arenal Volcano and Monteverde are possible, they are not recommended. You’ll end up with a full day of traveling and not much time to enjoy the destinations. Consult with travel agents to get a realistic idea of what is possible and help with planning.
Even in the land of “tranquilo” and “pura vida” one must keep their eyes open and be aware of their surroundings. Violent crime is uncommon in Costa Rica, but petty theft is commonplace, as is in almost all tourist destinations. Never leave your valuables unattended in restaurants, beaches, your rental car or anywhere else. You should even lock them in the safe of your hotel room. Also, by preventing these incidents you are actually reducing the likelihood for future crime in an area. It’s always a good idea to check in with your accommodation to ask if there are any known security issues that you should be aware of. We know you are excited about being on vacation, but remember that you are not at home. Always practice good judgment whether it be swimming in ocean, where riptides are a real concern, on a high-adrenaline rafting tour or interacting with wildlife. By simply following the instructions of your guides and heeding warnings you can save you and your loved ones a lot of heartache.
Nowadays many travelers like the idea of not being tied down to reservations and not committing to a set itinerary. This is fine if you’re under no time or budget constraints, but otherwise you may want to think ahead. Many hotels and transportation services in high season will not have availability and you may be forced to stay somewhere you don’t like. A little research will help save you time and make sure you stay at the right place for you. Besides, who wants to spend their vacation worrying about that kind of thing??
It can be tempting to book hotel rooms with these internet giants. They are easy to use and tout things like “best price guarantee” and “free cancellations”. The truth is that you are not really getting the whole picture. These travel sites are only concerned about selling rooms, not which hotel is the best fit for you. They often omit details of properties in order to make them look more appealing. Often time guests arrive not knowing that the room they booked didn’t have air conditioning or even a window! We recommend booking directly with hotel, which will always match the best price, for the most accurate descriptions and best service. Trust us, hotels give preference to their direct customers.
The San José airport is where the majority of visitors enter Costa Rica. Although it doesn’t happen often, some people have gotten mixed up and booked tickets to San José, California or even San Juan, Puerto Rico. If you use the airport code SJO you’ll be good to go!
In this age of technology, we’d like to suggest you try to disconnect a little while you’re on vacation. Memories are even more special than photos, and it’ll be one less thing for you to worry about while you’re getting your tan on.
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?
Wildlife spotting tips while in Costa Rica
The chance to see wildlife is a major draw for many visitors in Costa Rica.
But, how does one maximize the chances of seeing wildlife (apart from going to areas where they’ve been semi-domesticated due to feeding)?
Here are my suggestions, feel free to add your own.
Go where the wildlife you want to see is. Seems obvious, but certain destinations inside the country have much better wildlife (Osa, Sarapiqui, Tortuguero) than others. If you want to see a specific species (e.g. a quetzal or scarlet macaw or squirrel monkey) go where those are.
Choose smaller-scale lodging set in wildlife habitat. Big resorts with large swimming pools surrounded by concrete patios certainly have their appeal, but they’re not the places you’re going to see wildlife. Places that are low impact, set in a forest as opposed to strictly landscaped grounds, etc This will often involve a trade-off of convenience–a good lodging choice for wildlife will often be more remote and located far from town, restaurants, etc. But the reward is that unexpected sighting on the way to the parking lot, or the the lobby, etc.
Get out early. That’s when wildlife is most active in most places (exception being monkeys, which are generally active all day long). As daylight is breaking (5:30-6:30 am) is when you can see nocturnal animals making their way back ‘home.’ But,
Nature is unpredictable, and you should always be looking for branches moving in an odd direction, or the sound of something moving through the underbrush. Even when eating, keep your eyes on the trees and branches around you.
Talking scares away wildlife by alerting them to your presence (it also scares the wildlife off for others on the trail with you). Ditto with stomping on branches, twigs, and leaves. Also, often times you can detect wildlife through sound before you can see it–tropical vegetation is typically dense, and you’re not likely to see more than 20 yards in any direction without really concentrating on a specific area. In contrast you can hear movement and bird sounds from a wide radius around you.
Move deliberately, not quickly. Give your senses a chance to soak in the sights and sounds around you.