When is the best time to visit Costa Rica? Here’s how to decide
When travelers dream up a visit to Central America, most of the time, Costa Rica is the first country on their mind. This is because, despite its small size, Costa Rica is home to variety of towns, climates, wildlife species and activities, both in the ocean and on land. The country is also home to cultural and historical attractions, luxury resorts, eco-minded hotels and surprisingly, cuisine from around the world. When planning your visit however, you’ll not only want to take into account what to do and see, but when and where to visit. This nation is home to both a strong high and off season, as well as a few major holidays that affect hotel rates and room availability.
When looking into the climate differences around the country, you’ll notice that the Pacific coast tends to be less humid than the Caribbean coast and that the interior of Costa Rica ranges from dry cattle and farming land to misty mountain jungles. For most, these differences offer the chance to experience a lot in one vacation while being able to truly customize your trip to your wants and needs. For example: If you’re visiting the country for a week and would like to spend a few days in the mountains as well as a few days on the Pacific coast so that you can book a deep sea fishing excursion, you can easily do that by first flying into San Jose, then taking a private van (or domestic flight) to the coast for a few days before taking a private van to the Northern Costa Rican mountains and then heading back to San Jose for your flight back home. This is possible because Costa Rica is well versed when it comes to public and private transportation options.
A quick note: Sometimes confusing, what we would consider winter in the Northern Hemisphere is actually referred to as summer in Costa Rica and what we consider summer is referred to as winter. This means that in Costa Rica, January is a summer month and July is a winter month. This is particularly perplexing as Costa Rica itself is situated in the Northern Hemisphere. There doesn’t seem to be much of an explanation as to why the seasons are opposite of each other aside from it being a geographical quirk.
Off-season Costa Rica: May, June, July, August, September, October, and November
With various titles including green season, wet season and low season in addition to off-season, this portion of the year is when the winter rains grace the entire country with a force not to be reckoned with. Because of the large amount of rain that falls each month, including in the drier regions, you’ll find that the crowds are nearly non-existent and the prices of activities and hotels are nearly halved. Some trails that were heavily frequented during the summer months are now inaccessible.
However, it needs to be noted that a trip during this time of the year doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck inside your room the entire duration of your visit. In fact, most of the rain comes in quick, yet heavy, showers. Generally they occur during the mid afternoon, making it so that you can work around Mother Nature. If you do happen to be out and about when a rain shower hits, all you have to do is find cover and wait it out. Most travelers opt to pack a rain coat in their luggage for such an event or to buy one from a local gift shop.
Unfortunately, if you’re thinking of visiting the beautiful Osa Peninsula during this time of year, you’ll want to cross it off your list and instead plan your peninsula adventure for next year’s summer visit. This area receives an exceptionally large amount of rainfall, thus causing many of the lodges to close for the season.
High-season Costa Rica: December, January, February, March, and April
Easily the most popular time to visit Costa Rica, the winter months in central America offer those visiting from the northern portions of Europe and the United States as well as those from Canada a break from bitter cold temperatures and blankets of snow. But because so many travelers arrive at once, you’ll find that hotel rates, some dining rates, and activity rates sky rocket. Interestingly enough, you may notice that the breakfast options are not only better during this portion of the year, but more varied as well. This is because when the hotels are fully booked, the kitchen cooks more food and generally offers a buffet style breakfast. During the off-season, when a large percentage of rooms are empty, many hotels will lessen the amount of fruits, veggies, bread and eggs that they keep in stock with the fear that the food will go bad.
Activity rates are noticeably higher during the high-season, but that doesn’t seem to deter visitors from booking their long awaited fishing trip or zip lining adventure. One thing to keep in mind is that when visiting during the high-season, also referred to as the dry season, you’re much more likely to be able to transverse some of the more serious jungle hikes. This is because a lack of rain (or at least as strong decrease) allows the pathways to dry up, creating a more stable foot path. The rivers in Costa Rica tend to have a lower water line during this time of year as well, though none of them should be crossed without a guide and boat as there are hidden wildlife dangers in each one. Because fresh water is more concentrated during this portion of the year, those searching for wildlife will have an easier time finding it.
Group tour season in Costa Rica: January, February, and March
Running in line with the high-season, the group tour season runs from January through March. This isn’t to say that there aren’t group tours running during the other months, but these three months tend to attract the highest amount of participants. Most of the tour members are from the United States, though you will find that these adventure tours attract visitors from around the globe. This is particularly good for travelers who love to interact with other travelers. Resorts and high end hotels are often booked for tour members, so don’t be surprised if you find limited rooms available if you try to book right before or during your visit.
Christmas and New Years in Costa Rica also tends to be busy
If you’re planning to spend your holiday weeks in Costa Rica, you’re not alone. Many United States families choose this time of year because of the two weeks off from school that their children receive. If you do decide to visit, you’ll find large crowds, both locals and visitors on the beach, the park trails and out to eat. Because of the crowds, you’ll want to book your hotel or resort room a few months in advance. Luckily, you’ll find that everything stays open during the holidays and most restaurants will offer longer hours.
San Jose Climate
Annual events in Costa Rica to be aware of
Costa Rica plays hosts to several different festivals and events throughout the entire year. We’ve gone ahead and detailed the events that are most likely to affect your travel and booking plans, below. You’ll also note that many of these festivals are religious in nature.
Public Festival of Palmares (Last two weeks of January)
Also known as the Palmares fiestas, the Public Festival of Palmares is located in the small town of Palmares during the last two weeks of January each and every year. During this time the town plays hosts to a number of concerts, sporting activities, firework shows, bullfighting (bloodless) and a horse parade. You’ll also find lots of different tents offering food and alcohol. Be prepared for fully booked hotels and crowded streets.
The International Festival of Arts (Last two weeks of March)
Occurring every other year during the last two weeks of March, the International Festival of Arts attracts artists from around the world to San Jose and other towns throughout the country. Prepare for fully booked hotels in each location, especially San Jose.
Independence Day (September 15)
This holiday is not only celebrated in Costa Rica, but the rest of Central America as well. At 6:15pm exactly, Costa Ricans across the country will stop what they are doing and sing the national anthem. In addition, a torch is brought down from Nicaragua to Cartago by relay runners. Parades and festivals can also been found around the country.
Carnival of Limon (October 12)
This event is hosted by Limon, a coastal town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Here you’ll witness parades, dances and a few concerts. This festival won’t really affect your Costa Rican vacation unless you are staying in Puerto Limon that day and the day before and after.
San Jose-Zapote Fair (December 25-31)
Located in San Jose, this fair takes place at the Zapote marketplace. Here you’ll find snack stalls, fireworks, various rides for all ages and bloodless bullfights. If you’re traveling with your children during this time of year, you’ll find a few hours here is worth your time before you move on to your next Costa Rican destination.
Light Festival- Festival de la Luz (Second Saturday in December)
Held on the second Saturday in December every year, this festival is characterized by a Christmas parade. But this isn’t just any parade. Unlike other more traditional holiday parades, this one features thousands of cars that have been decorated with lights. You’ll find this festival runs along Paseo Colon and Avenida 2 in San Jose. Because this festival is very popular, you’ll find locals from around the country flocking to San Jose. This means fewer hotel rooms to choose from.
Where to go in Costa Rica
Considering the small size of Costa Rica, you might assume that they are only a few places to visit. Luckily, this isn’t the case and instead there are lots of great choices ranging from the Pacific coast all the way over to the Caribbean Sea.
Santa Elena and the Monteverde Cloud Forest
If when you think of Costa Rica you imagine misty mountain tops, lush forests draped in clouds and quaint and rustic little hotels a short walk away from the local restaurants, then Santa Elena is the perfect town for you. But because this town is so popular, you’ll find that lots of rooms are booked before you get there, meaning that it’s best to book your room prior to your arrival. Though there is a fairly good amount of things to do right in town, including dining at a local restaurant and shopping the various local and tourist shops, the main area attraction is the Monteverde Cloud Forest. This forest is a short bus ride away and offers hummingbird viewing and several suspension bridges of varying heights that transverse through the forest canopy. This park is commonly visited by professional nature and adventure photographers and you may run into a few on the trails. Because there is so much to do here, you could spend an entire week here without getting bored.
Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park
A very small town located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Quepos serves at your entry point into Manuel Antonio National Park. This seaside park is home to various wildlife species including monkeys, deer, ant eaters, snakes and iguanas. Within the park you’ll also notice that you can choose between the beach, a rocky coastline and trails that weave through the jungle. If you want, you can explore the park on your own, though most decide to use a guided tour. This is because the tour guides are trained to see wildlife that can be easily missed. Back in Quepos you’ll find a large selection of hotels and restaurants. If you don’t want to stay directly in town, but rather closer to the park, then you’ll want to book a room at one of the many hotels and resorts that line the main road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. This section of the highway is commonly referred to as Hotel Row.
La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano National Park
Even though you’ll find hoards of tourists here, La Fortuna is a must visit for many traveling to the county. This is because, even though the town itself doesn’t have much going on, it’s the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park. Here you’ll find lots of hiking trails and viewpoints. If one of the reasons you’re visiting Costa Rica is so that you can capture some beautiful landscape images, then you’ll find plenty of angles to play with here. You’ll also find a waterfall and hot springs to relax in. If you’re a foodie on the hunt, you might be surprised to find that La Fortuna actually boasts a wide selection of dining options as well. This means that if you’re tired of eating pizza or rice and beans, you’ll be able to sample other dishes easily. Because there are so many adventure options right outside of town, most who visit plan three to four days here.
Tortuguero and Tortuguero National Park
Found on the northern Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is a fishing village only accessible by boat or small plane. Here you’ll find a large amount of tours, both on land and in the water. Primarily an adventure town, most visitors visit in order to witness sea turtles laying their eggs at night or to view various species of monkeys playing in the trees during their river tour. The accommodation options range from beach side hostels to luxury condo inspired hotels. Because this town is located directly on the Caribbean coast and surrounded by dense jungle, the humidity and heat can be miserable at times, meaning that you may find yourself spending the afternoons inside your hotel. Two to three days here will allow you time to relax on the beach and venture out on a few tours.
Tamarindo and the Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge
Located in the Guanacaste Region, Tamarindo is a popular town to visit. Here you’ll find lots of great activities to choose from including sport fishing, horseback riding, scuba diving, swimming and snorkeling. Nearby you’ll also find surfing (and many surfing competitions) and the Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge. If visiting the refuge is something you’re interested in doing, you’ll find plenty of tours to choose from. A few days in town should give you lots of time to see everything before exploring another region.
>>>Tamarindo and Guanacaste prices and advice
The Capital of Costa Rica: San Jose
Though you don’t have to fly into San Jose to visit the country, the capital is generally where you’ll find yourself as the airport offers a large range of flights in and out of the United States. With that said, San Jose is not a particularly pretty city and there are some parts of it that are susceptible to heavy crime. Ideally, you’ll want to fly into the city and then quickly take a ride or domestic flight to another town. If you do decide to stay in San Jose for a day or two, you’ll find lots of accommodation options varying from hostels to large resorts.
>>>San Jose prices and advice