I find it utterly unhelpful when I search for travel tips to destinations in which I’ve never been before, and the number one tip, the tip the author has deemed most important is, “bring sunscreen.” Even though it is a must pack essential, I think we can agree that it isn’t exactly groundbreaking. And while I’m a huge proponent of sunscreen, there are so many other useful pieces of information to discuss, especially when visiting somewhere as extraordinarily diverse as the country of Costa Rica. So in lieu of stating what you probably already know, I’m sharing my top ten tips for visiting this captivating country, because travel should always be a priority.
1. Book your driver before you book your flight.
Getting from the airport to your destination is not something you want to overlook. Many of the shuttles only visit the airport two times a day and you’ll want to figure out what times those are, or you’ll spend a ton of unnecessary time waiting around at the airport. Who wants to do that when you could be laying on the beach or ATVing through the jungle? Costa Rica Sun Tours is super easy to book, has an extremely friendly staff and can work around a variety of budgets. Just know that most of the drivers do not speak English so coordinate accordingly before you arrive. Private drivers are available but are also more expensive. And while you can rent a car (which I wouldn’t recommend), you should know that the terrain can be rough and difficult to navigate, and you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle…and a map (remember those?!) – do not rely on the GPS on your phone.
If for some reason you do have to hang out at the airport for a bit, I recommend going to the airport mini mart, buying a Cuba Libre (canned rum and coke) and stepping outside to enjoy it. It’s unbelievably refreshing after a long flight. Also, take note that the airport in San Jose is not the only airport in Costa Rica (many people overlook this).
2. Decide what type of vacation you want to have.
While I’m all for relaxation when I go on vacation, I like to have a steady mix of tranquility and adventure. There’s nothing I love more than exploring every inch of where I’m visiting and really immersing myself in the culture. If you’re the same way and are looking to really embrace the city in which you are staying, I recommend renting a house. It allows you to live as the locals do and get to know areas that you might not visit otherwise. The stunning and secluded Art House is located atop a cliff just outside the sleepy beach town of Montezuma and is absolutely breathtaking. It has an astonishing ocean view, a relaxing pool and artistic touches throughout, that give it an extra special touch. This extremely private space is set in a very natural area and is just a short ride from town.
If you’re looking to be a little more pampered and want to stay somewhere with all the amenities of home and beyond, I recommend the charming Hotel Florablanca in Santa Teresa (one of my absolute favorite cities in the country). Santa Teresa is a top surfing destination and home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. So much so that Leonardo DiCaprio and Mel Gibson have homes nearby. Hotel Florablanca is simply serene and boasts open-air living rooms, waterfall-fed pools, soaking tubs and a two-person hammock in each villa. If you call ahead, the hotel will also arrange a shuttle for you from the Tambor Airport.
Another favorite, Villa Caletas in Jaco, sits one thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean. This contemporary French luxury hotel has stunning views and is just a short walk to the beach. Staying here is not for the faint of heart, be prepared to walk, as there are no elevators at this hillside hotel, but I promise the climb is worth it. With a variety of landscapes, Costa Rica has the greatest biodiversity in the world and no matter where you stay, it will be breathtaking.
3. Pack light….and bring a sarong.
Easier said than done, right? But seriously, if there’s one thing I learned in Costa Rica it’s that a lot of stuff is unnecessary. Fully embracing the Costa Rican philosophy of “Pura Vida,” (“Simple Life”), I basically lived in a rotation of bathing suits and cover-ups. Simply put, this is a casual country — so unless you know you’re going somewhere dressy, leave your favorite designer clothing, vintage finds, expensive jewelry, impractical footwear and treasured items at home. A sarong will become your new best friend. It can cover you from the sun, serve as a beach towel and for me, it’s most useful purpose was using it as a dust mask when ATVing through the jungle, which I did every single day. It was the best item I had in my arsenal.
4. Don’t plan too much.
If you have an alpha personality it’s time for you to let go of control and immerse yourself in the relaxing tempo of Costa Rican culture. If there is something you know you want to do then do it, but don’t restrict each day with plans. Wake up in the morning (early) and see where the day takes you – leave yourself free to explore. Speaking of which…
5. Explore the country.
Don’t just hang out in the city you’re staying in. Whether that means riding on a bus, taking a boat or ATVing through the jungle (DO THIS ONE!), explore as much as you can. This is where Costa Rica Sun Tours comes back into play. From booking your ATV to scheduling snorkeling, horseback riding on the beach, ziplining and beyond, they will help you with everything you need. While there, I went to so many different cities that I lost count. Riding on an ATV from city to city was one of my favorite parts about visiting this country. It was the perfect way to explore the lush and diverse landscape, and exactly why that previously mentioned sarong came in so handy.
6. Eat everything in sight.
Hands down, Costa Rica has some of the best food in the world. Try everything you are offered at least once. I could go on and on about all of the things you should try while there (Ceviche! Plantain chips! Rum! Fresh bread! Watermelon juice! Fruit! Rum! Fish! Fried Rice! Rum!), but to save you the trouble of reading a very long list, just trust me that you should go out of your comfort zone when dining. I didn’t eat a thing I didn’t like and I dream about the food in this magnificent country on a regular basis.
If you find yourself in Montezuma you must visit Restaurante La Naranja. This hidden gem is tucked away on a small side street and has out-of-this-world ceviche, it’s so fresh and has just the right amount of acid, and I wish I could eat it every day. Another fantastic restaurant that is sure to satisfy the most epicurean of tastes is Habaneros in Santa Teresa. Set right on the beach, it has a romantic atmosphere and the most delectable fresh fish and yummy margaritas. What’s not to love? Villa Caletas in Jaco (which I mentioned earlier) is also home to El Mirador, an artful restaurant that offers a variety of international cuisines, with the option to sit on the ocean view terrace.
7. Embrace nature.
Costa Rica contains almost 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity and is home to many species. Don’t be afraid of the animals, but be respectful. If you have the opportunity, take a hike to a waterfall. From howler monkeys to collared peccaries, to Hercules beetles to macaws, you’re sure to see animals you’ve never seen before. On that same note, Costa Rica is home to several deadly and poisonous creatures so before you go, look up what species are native to the area you are visiting.
8. Go without fear.
Every country has its dangers, but don’t get caught up in being scared of people, animals or new situations. Be open to the people and new experiences so that you can create your own adventure. Go waterfall jumping, hike through the jungle, snorkel in the middle of the ocean and eat food with your bare hands. In that same regard, don’t throw all caution to the wind – use common sense.
9. Get to know the locals.
Most of the locals in Costa Rica speak some English (though I recommend brushing up on your Spanish) and are extremely friendly. Ask them questions about their day to day, where do they eat, what beaches do they go to, where do they take day trips, etc. This is where they live, they know the best spots and they are the experts.
10. Have fun.
No explanation required.