Costa Rica towns: Choosing the best destinations for you
Noted as the famed crown jewel of Central America, Costa Rica is home to lush jungles, postcard picture beaches and an impressive amount of biodiversity. Due to this, Costa Rica serves as a sought out destination that keeps people coming back time and time again in search of culture, history and adventure.
But before you start packing your bags, let's take a look at the main tourist towns. These towns, though in the same small country, are vastly different from the next with different climates, locations, activities and prices. Below you'll find details that will help you compare one town to the next, helping to create your perfect Costa Rican vacation.
Costa Rica currency, the Costa Rica Colon (₡), is measured with both coins and bills, though much different from US currency. It's important to study not only the currency exchange rate but also the currency itself so that you can make sure you're getting the proper change back.
For this article, prices are in USD.
When to visit
Costa Rica is a beautiful country that is visited year round by tourists from around the world as well as those from neighboring countries. In fact, Costa Rica sees about 2 million visitors a year, some of which are return visitors who choose this lush paradise as their home away from home. When planning your own trip however, it's important to take into consideration what time of year is best time for you to visit.
Weather is one factor as there are two main seasons in Costa Rica – rainy and dry. The dry season, also referred to as the peak season, runs from the middle of December and into April. During this time of year you'll find bountiful amounts of sunshine coupled with mostly cloudless skies. This is a great time to explore the inner depths of the rainforests as well as a prime time to visit and lounge around on the beaches. But as we all know, great weather prompts higher prices. During these months, not only will you be enjoying the best that Costa Rica has to offer, but its locals will be enjoying the larger amounts of cash you're throwing their way. On top on higher prices found throughout the country, you'll also find yourself fighting for a good spot, or a spot at all, on your dream tour or activity. Due to high demand, it's best to reserve not only your resort room early, but your tour seats as well.
If you're fine with giving up a little nice weather in exchange for some more money in your pocket, then the rainy season, May through November will suit you just fine. Most visitors stay away during this time of year for fear of rained out days that keep them in their hotel the duration of their stay. This is not always the case. Sure you'll experience the sudden afternoon rain showers that seem to come out of nowhere, but once the skies clear you'll find yourself surrounded by lush jungle teaming with life. In fact, this is when the jungles are most alive. Kiss your imagination away as you listen to the chipping, clicking, and other lively sounds of the rainforests as you witness first hand a Pixar movie come to life and realize that reality, in this moment, is much better than any daydream.
This city, located in the heart of the country and infamously well known, is not a pretty city, nor is it the safest. Most visitors who venture into San Jose do it only to fly in or out of the country or to collect a few supplies before moving on with their vacation. However, if you do wish to stay in the city for a few nights, there are some nice hotels to stay in as well as city activities to partake in.
Here you'll find a large range of hotels from budget to 4 and 5 star. You'll also find a large amount of hostels, something that Costa Rica is well known for. Most of the high star hotels are either right in the heart of the city near museums, farmer markets and shopping or located on the edge of the city in a more ‘country' setting. Generally prices range from US$130 a night up to $200 and include breakfast, a pool and bar. Some of these hotels also offer a free airport shuttle that caters to your flight schedule. Just don't be surprised if you end up sharing the shuttle with other visitors during high season.
If you're more of the backpacker type, then you'll be happy to find a large selection of hostels available in both dormitory style and private room setting starting out at around $11 to $15 a night. These are a great way to meet other like minded individuals who are most likely traveling to the same parts of the country as you. Just keep in mind that this is San Jose, a city filled with petty crime so it's best to always keep your belongings close and your wits about you.
As far as adventure is concerned, you won't find it here. Instead you'll find numerous cultural and historical activities in the form of old houses, galleries and a plethora of museums each catering to different interests. One of the more popular museums is the Museo de Oro Pre-colombino y Numismatica. Here you'll find an extensive collection of pre-Columbian gold alongside other valuable artifacts. Admission is only $11 per person and well worth it as you'll find yourself admiring the collection for hours
Compared to the rest of the country, San Jose serves as a melting pot of culture that is most prevlent in its wide selection of restaurants serving international dishes as well as local cuisine. Here you'll find it hard to make up your mind with choices ranging from South American, European, Caribbean, Asian Fusion, American and various plates of differently styled rice and beans, a Costa Rican classic. Prices also vary as much depending on what part of the city you are in and how well you know Spanish. It is quite common for locals to jack up the price in order to fool foreigners into paying more than the rest. With that said, it's important to lean a bit of Spanish before visiting in order to avoid this. Just trying can go a long way. Prices range from only a $1 for a coffee or treat to $20 a plate for more expensive restaurants in the town center.
Completely different from San Jose, Turrialba, found in the Cartago province of the Central Valley is a charming little town built in the countryside. Don't be surprised if as you're walking down the street you run across local cowboys riding their horses from farm to farm. For the best representation of what old Costa Rica was like, it's hard to find a better spot.
You won't find any resorts out here but what you will find are hotels, bed and breakfasts and hostels. These range in price and do change between seasons. Generally you'll find a hotel alongside a farm of some sort (most likely coffee) for a nightly rate of $90 t0 $150. The towns' hostels come in at only $10 a night.
With a great combination of both adventure and culture, you'll find yourself having trouble picking one activity over the next. From white water rafting to visiting a volcano to exploring the regions local coffee farms, Turrialba will keep you busy. Rafting prices vary a bit due to the number of tours and guides available, but generally you'll run into prices ranging from $82 to $100. Tours also range from half day to full day with some including lunch. Coffee tours are also widely available with prices ranging from $20 to $50. Also, some hotels will offer lower priced tours to paying guests so don't be shy when inquiring about local activities.
Here, out in the country, you'll find lots of restaurants catering to barbecue lovers. If you're a vegetarian, you won't find much selection outside of typical salads. A local favorite are Gallos, open-faced tacos served on corn tortillas and filled with beef, chicken, sausage or pork. These plates are great on the budget with prices never really going over $2. There are also lots of little eateries and bakeries serving fresh donuts, breads and pastries daily. These also won't make much of a dent in your budget.
Located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is one of the most known attractions as it is not only home to a bustling eco-tourist town, but also home to one of the country's most popular parks, Manuel Antonio National Park.
Here you'll find higher priced hotels year round, even during the rainy season, though there is a considerable drop in price. Most of the hotels are higher end with many either on the beach, right across from the beach or on a cliff side overlooking the beach. Most hotels cater to foreigners with a swimming pool, bar and restaurant serving American food. Most of the area resorts also offer a spa of some type. Prices range from $120 for a small room near the beach to over $500 a night during peak season. There are also hostels available with rates averaging at $12 a night for a shared room.
Beach? Check. Hiking? Check. If you love a little seaside adventure, you're in the perfect place. Here you'll find surfing, beach combing, tanning, trekking, wildlife viewing and more. Most of the activities can be enjoyed in Manuel Antonio National Park whose entrance fee is $16 per adult and $5 for children 6 to 12. Guides can also be hired for 2 to 3 hours with rates varying between $25 and $50 per person. This is a great place to view many different species of local wildlife including numerous species of monkeys. Surfing lessons average out at $65 per person. If you already know how to surf, rentals are available from many different vendors along the beach.
Unfortunately, if you're looking for a plate of something local, you won't find it here. Over the last few years, Manuel Antonio has become increasingly Americanized. Now you'll find restaurant after restaurant offering pizza and burgers. You will be able to find some local chips and the like at the little convince stores around town but be prepared to pay higher prices as prices haven risen since foreigners have taken over.
Located slightly north of Manuel Antonio lies Quepos, a small yet busy town, that is great for those still wishing to be close to Manuel Antonio park but want to stay out of the Manuel Antonio Village. Here you'll find that authentic Tico feeling you've been looking for along with lower prices.
With the mountains to one side and the ocean to the other, it's hard to go wrong with your hotel choice. But it's important to keep in mind that this bustling little town gets pretty busy during peak season, Easter, Christmas and New Year's Eve making it imperative that you make reservations before your stay. Luckily though, you'll find that that prices are much cheaper than those found in Manuel Antonio, though it's good to remember that you will have to pay for a taxi to and from the park, which could end up costing a bit. Hotels range in price from $75 to $100 a night with lower rates in summer. Hostels come in at around $10 per night.
Besides the park, there are a few activities that cater to the adventure seekers. Be prepared though, some of the prices can be a bit high. Sportfishing is a big deal in the area as Quepos is a big offshore fishing town. Prices varying depending on guide but most end up around $250 per person per trip. If seeking a full day charter, expect to pay twice as much.
Here you'll find a variety of different restaurants, offering lots of different dishes from general local Costa Rican rice and beans to Caribbean, Japanese and Italian. Prices are also pretty reasonable with plates ranging from $3 to $10 depending on what you're getting and also the time of day.
Home of the popular Monteverde Cloud Forest, this small tourist town still holds true to its roots. Here you'll find adventure mixed in with culture along with delicious food at every corner. This town is also perfect for traveling families with many kid friendly activities available.
Due to the large amount of accommodation options in town, you'll have plenty of opportunity to look around and find the perfect one for you. Prices range from $30 a night to $200 for hotels in the heart of town. Lower end hotels include breakfast and are generally pretty nice. The only big concern is outside noise as the walls tend to be on the thinner side. The town itself isn't large, allowing you to chose a hotel a little further out without being too far away from shops and restaurants.
Downtown Elena is home to a row of shops on either side carrying everything you could imagine from regular tourist tokens to clothes, locally made items and wood carvings. There are also many different night hiking tours available in town that take you into the forests in search of nocturnal species you wouldn't otherwise see. The main attraction, however, is a trip into Monteverde Cloud Forest. Here you'll find yourself walking among the clouds as you venture from suspension bridge to suspension bridge taking pictures of the different levels of canopy. Entrance fee into the park is $18 per person. There are also various tours available in both English and Spanish.
If you're looking for authentic road side little eateries and stalls, you'll find plenty of them here. Local food reigns king with various varieties of rice, beans, salads, hot sauce, pastries and more. You'll also be pleasantly surprised by the reasonable prices in this tourist friendly town. Local meals, served in HUGE portions, range from $4 to $7. You'll also find a nice selection of international dishes such as whole fried chickens, French crepes and different flavors of ice cream. Crepe prices range from $2 to $6.
Located at the base of Volcan Arenal, this once sleepy town is a great stop for those who wish to see the beauty of the mountains and don't mind sharing with other tourists. La Fortuna is also a popular destination before or after Monteverde where most travelers travel via a jeep-boat-jeep transfer, which coincidentally has no jeep.
Compared to Santa Elena, you'll find that hotel prices are a bit more expensive here with an average of $100 a night. You can however, find some nice hotels with great mountain views for only $60 a night. The key is to reserve early if you can. If you're fine with sharing a room with others, you'll find money saving opportunities at one of the many hostels in town, starting at $9 a night.
Looking for relaxation? Then this is the wrong town for you. Here you'll find activity after activity specializing in getting your adrenaline going. If you like heights then make sure to try your hand at bungee jumping for $50 a jump. If that's not your thing, maybe a 4 hour rappelling trip with lunch at $98 per person will be better.
Catering to visitors, you'll find many restaurants serving international dishes of all kinds starting out at $5 a plate. You'll also find pastries and such for only $1.50 to $4 each at various cafes. However, there are some restaurants that charge more per meal, but usually those are still pretty reasonable with prices starting at $8 to $12 for large plates.
Located in the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, this charming fishing village, only reachable via boat or small plane, offers a slice of the Caribbean mixed in with Central America and Afro roots. Here you'll find yourself on a thin slice of land within Parque Nacional Tortuguero and bordered on all sides by the ocean and a freshwater river. Just remember that you're in the Caribbean now and summer brings rain and humidity.
Hotels range drastically from high priced inclusive resorts with their own private landing dock to beach side hostels. If you're looking for a private escape further from town, you'll find prices ranging from $200 a night to $400 a night. Mid range hotels vary in price with most starting at $100 a night with breakfast included. Hostels are also abundant with prices starting out at $15 a night.
You won't find any museums or galleries here, however you'll find tons of adventure, both on land and over the water. River tours are available early every morning where you'll get the chance to venture down the freshwater river in search of monkeys, birds, sloths and caiman. Just remember to bring a bag to protect your camera as you'll be traveling in a small boat close to the waters surface. Tours range from $10 to $20 per person. Depending on time of year, you may be able to haggle the price down. If you visit between April and October you'll have the chance to partake in a night sea turtle tour. These tours take you down the beach in search of nesting green sea turtles. Each tour is about $25 per person.
Along the main road, you'll find numerous little restaurants all offering Caribbean styled food mixed in with Central American flavors. You'll also find coconut carts and ice cream stands. A standard meal will cost you about $4 to $10.
The bottom line
As you can see from above, prices change from town to town. When you put all the numbers together, Manuel Antonio leads the pack with the highest prices while Tortuguero offers the lowest prices if you stay away from the all inclusive resorts. Santa Elena and La Fortuna prices are pretty similar except for when it comes to activities, as the prices are higher in La Fortuna. Quepos, Turrialba and San Jose all even out nicely but remember, San Jose is best for passing through, not staying for a vacation.
Pictures provided by Rachel Campbell.