Backpacking Costa Rica
Looking for important travel information while backpacking in Costa Rica? Here you will find information on working in Costa Rica, entry visas, Costa Rica hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Facts About Costa Rica
- Top Things to Do
- How to Travel Around
- Hostels & Budget Accommodation
- Know before you go: Entry Visas, Health, & Safety
- Volunteering & Backpacker Jobs
Facts About Costa Rica
Costa Rica often conjures up images of paradise, and even for the intrepid traveller, the reality does not often disappoint. It is a tiny nation, with great topographical and cultural variety. You can be in the volcanic mountainous selva in the morning and sunning yourself on golden sandy beaches by the afternoon. There are few places in the world that provide such a compact playground for the budding backpacker.
In recent times, Costa Rica has drawn over one million visitors each year, from tourists wanting to explore the historic capital San Jose, to surf enthusiasts looking for that perfect, once in a lifetime Pacific wave. Nestling between the beautiful central American states of Nicaragua (to the North) and Panama (to the South), with the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Caribbean Sea to the East, Costa Rica is well worth a lengthy stop-over if you are en-route to Central America. It also merits a trip in its own right.
- Currency: Costa Rican Colon (₡), American Dollars accepted for many transactions
- Time: GMT/UTC -6 ()
- Language: Spanish (official), English is widely spoken.
- Telephone Service: Dialling code +506
- Emergency Numbers: All services 911
Climate in Costa Rica and the best time to go
When deciding the best time to visit Costa Rica, the weather certainly plays a big role. Being close to the equator, Costa Rica experiences a tropical climate. Typically for an equatorial country, the climate is divided into a dry and wet season. During the wet season (May – Nov/Dec) conditions are hot and wet.
The hottest average temperatures are felt from March to May and the coolest from November to January. Average annual temperatures for most of the country lie between 21.7°C (71°F) and 27°C (81°F).
Rainfall patterns vary greatly across geographical areas and are not solely dependent on the seasons. Some areas receive an amazing 6 metres (18 ft) of precipitation per year, while others get under 1.5 metres (4 ft). Most of the rainfall typically falls over a two week period, often as successive days of unabating, torrential rain.
Costa Rica is a relatively mountainous country and for this reason you can find much cooler temperatures at altitude. San Jose, the capital, stands at approximately 1170 meters above sea level and has a mean annual temperature of 20.6°C (69°F). Costa Rica’s mountain range, which forms an upland belt through the centre of the country, affects climatic conditions both on the Pacific and the Caribbean slope.
The early months of the rainy season (May to July), when temperatures are at their most pleasant, is one of the best times to visit Costa Rica. This is the time of year when the spectacular rains begin, but you avoid the extreme precipitation experienced in the later wet season.
If you are a surf enthusiast, the wetter the season the better. Swells increase on both coastlines during the peak of the wet season. This is from September to October on the Pacific side, November to May on the Caribbean side.
Temperatures are more or less stable throughout the year in Costa Rica and therefore there is not really a bad time to visit. At the height of the rainy season, some roads can become flooded and cut off, and venturing far off the beaten track can prove tricky.
Things to do in Costa Rica
Starting off in the capital can be a good way to find your feet when embarking on a trip, and also give you an insight into the character of a nation. San Jose (Chepe) affords you both. During daylight hours, the city markets are a great place to sample the vibrancy of Costa Rican culture – something of an assault on the senses! By night, the capital has much to offer in terms of eateries, and all forms of entertainment; nightclubs and bars are plentiful, many staying open until the early hours.
Cordillera de Talamanca
Don’t spend all your time in San Jose, though – with so many spectacular sights on offer throughout the country, exploration outside the capital is compulsory. The highest peak in Costa Rica is Cerro Chirripo, which reaches 3820m (12,533ft) into the clouds.
The mountain is found in the stunningly rugged national park of Cordillera de Talamanca, unmissable for its high alpine lakes and cloud forest. Conveniently, there is also a mountain hostel on the ascent that is ideal for weary trekkers.
One of the most exciting features to see when visiting Costa Rica is the looming, volcanic landscape. Perhaps the most spectacular of all volcanoes is ‘Arenal’, located in the Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal. It has not officially erupted since a devastating explosion in 1968, but the volcano continues to rumble – lava outflows, streamers of molten rock and clouds of ash are part of daily life here. The best views of the volcano are from the Arenal Observatory on its northern side. A night tour shows the volcano at its most impressive.
Unique Activities in Costa Rica
Since popular places in Costa Rica can get crowded during tourist season, it is wise to reserve tickets and activities ahead of time. GetYourGuide sells entrance tickets to museums and landmarks at face value so you can avoid the lines and save that precious time for more exploring.
Viator is another popular travel website that helps you book things to do in Costa Rica. They work directly with local tour operators in Costa Rica, so you won’t have to scour the internet or roam around town trying to find the best deal.
If you know your schedule ahead of time, a great insider tip is to buy tickets for major tourist attractions ahead of time. Tiqets has entrance tickets and skip-the-line passes for major attractions in Costa Rica, which can be a worthwhile cost during peak tourist season.
How to Get Cheap Flights to Costa Rica
In order to find the best flights to Costa Rica we recommend using a few well-known flight comparison search engines. These websites offer powerful search options, like entering flexible dates and airports in order to find the cheapest flight to Costa Rica.
Our go-to flight search engine is Skyscanner, which we love for its extremely flexible search options. Our favourite way to get travel inspiration is their “Everywhere” feature. Simply enter “Everywhere” as a destination, and it will then list all available flights from your departure city in order of price. This also works when entering the entire country of Costa Rica as your destination. Skyscanner will search all possible airports in the country in order to find the cheapest option.
Kiwi is another new favourite flight search engine among savvy travelers. Kiwi works by combining flights from different carriers in order to get the best deal. Also, if there is a better ground or ferry option for the route you’re searching, Kiwi will include that in the search results. On average, we have found the cheapest flights to Costa Rica with them compared to the other websites out there.
How to Travel Around Costa Rica on a Budget
Bus travel is the main way of getting around the country. There are two different types, directo and colectivo. The colectivo buses make lots of stops along the way and are very slow. Directo usually travels longer distances and only makes a few stops.
Backpacking Tours in Costa Rica
Though part of the fun of backpacking Costa Rica is exploring on your own, there are situations, especially when venturing off the tourist trail, when it does make sense to go with a guide or a small group.
The most popular option for social travel in Costa Rica is Contiki tours. Contiki trips offer more than just transportation, they are organized social group travel for travelers aged 18-35. Whether you’re traveling by yourself or going with a group of friends, Contiki tours are perfect for people looking to have a blast, meet new friends, and form lifelong memories. They offer tours that travel primarily in Costa Rica or longer tours that cover other nearby places.
G Adventures is another great option for organized travel, but with a smaller group. It’s a great choice for anyone backpacking Costa Rica alone who would like to meet up with like-minded travellers. It’s also a practical option for exploring places where you need an experienced guide, like a long hiking adventure or visiting a place well off the beaten path. You can choose from different styles of small group tours like active, wellness, hiking trips, 18-30somethings, and more. Their most popular trips in Costa Rica are their 9-day Costa Rica Quest, or their 14-day National Geographic Journeys.
Costa Rica Hostels and Budget Accommodation
In the capital San Jose, the traveller can take advantage of all manner of accommodation, including hotels, hostels and private lodgings. Hence, prices can range from extremely cheap (usually in hostels) $5-25, to very expensive (luxury hotels) $100+.
Outside the capital, along the backpacker trail, it is easy to find cheap accommodation in one of the numerous travellers’ hostels. These are much cheaper than hotels at around $20 a night.
We have had good experiences finding hostels in Costa Rica on HostelWorld. They have the largest inventory of hostels worldwide, and with over 10 million reviews and ratings from other travellers, you know exactly what to expect.
Another good way to find accommodation in Costa Rica is by checking booking.com. You’ll find hotels, homestays, hostels, and other unique accommodations. They have the most reviews and advanced filtering of any accommodation-booking site, so you’ll be sure to find a great place in your budget. Many of the places on booking.com also offer free cancellation, which takes the pressure off the planning phase of your trip to Costa Rica.
If you are backpacking with another travel companion, we highly recommend booking a rental via VRBO. With a vacation rental in Costa Rica, you’ll have more space, your own kitchen, and you’ll get a better feel for how the locals live. Plus, the cost of a vacation rental can be split among your group, oftentimes making it cheaper than doing individual hotel rooms.
If you’re looking to save even more money while backpacking in Costa Rica, there are plenty of creative ways to get free accommodation in exchange for work. For example, one of our favorite ways to stay in amazing locations for free is by signing up as a petsitter with Trusted Housesitters. The site connects responsible animal lovers with petsitting opportunities in Costa Rica and all over the world. It’s a win-win for both sides – travellers can stay in amazing locations for free, and homeowners can rest easy knowing that someone is watching over their place.
And lastly, CouchSurfing is a great community that connects travellers with local hosts in Costa Rica. You can stay for free with verified hosts, who will usually take some time to show you around the local spots.
In more remote locations it can be more difficult to find cheap accommodation. Venturing into the national reserve forest areas, and bedding down in a jungle lodge for the night is worth splashing out on – though if you are on a budget this will have to be an occasional luxury!
Entry Visa Requirements for Costa Rica
Luckily, citizens of most countries (including UK and US) do not need to apply for a visa to enter Costa Rica and can enjoy a 90 day period of travel without such legal administrative hassles. At the end of the 90 day period most travellers must apply for a visa extension. The procedure and costs are outlined below:
You will need:
- Completed application form.
- 2 passport-size photos.
- Passport valid for 6 months at time of entry.
- Proof of sufficient funds to cover duration of stay.
- Return or onward ticket.
It usually takes between 1 day and 2 weeks to issue the visa, depending on the nationality of the applicant. Tourist and business visas cost $15 and are usually valid for between 1 month and 90 days.
All travellers (perhaps with the exception of US and Canadian citizens) require a passport with at least 6 months remaining until the expiry date to be able to enter Costa Rica.
Visa requirements for Costa Rica can vary widely depending on your country of origin and can change over time. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, be sure to check the latest visa requirements while you’re still planning your trip.
Health and Safety in Costa Rica
As with travel to all other countries abroad, it is vital that you get travel insurance before you leave for Costa Rica. Even for short trips, our go-to travel insurance provider is World Nomads, which is also recommended by Lonely Planet, HostelWorld, and other major travel companies.
A good standard of medical care is available in San Jose, but when venturing outside the capital, it can be limited. In San Jose travellers usually go to one of the private hospitals; Hospital Clinica Biblica or Hospital Cima San Jose (addresses below). They are small hospitals, but have excellent facilities: a 24-hour emergency room, an intensive care unit, surgical and maternity services, CAT scan and MRI, and a 24-hour pharmacy.
Before travel, be sure you are up to date on all routine immunisations. Aim to see your GP at least 4-6 weeks before your trip, often this period of time is needed for vaccines to take effect. If you are due to depart in less than 4 weeks, you should still make an appointment with your doctor. It might not be too late to obtain vaccinations or medications, as well as other information about how to protect yourself from illness and injury while travelling.
Hepatitis A Hepatitis B For those travellers who expect to stay for a prolonged period (6 months+) and who will have intimate contact with local people. Typhoid
Malaria prophylaxis with chloroquine or proguanil is also recommended for the provinces of Alajuela, Limon (except for Limon City), Guanacaste, and Heredia.
Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs in Costa Rica
To be able to work in Costa Rica, it is necessary to apply for a working visa. Tourist visas do not permit legal work, but of course, volunteering is an option.
Working in tourism
The thriving tourist trade obviously provides a great deal of work in Costa Rica for most months of the year. As a traveller, you may be in a position to find work in the most touristy areas. Seasonal bar work is a possibility.
Teaching English in Costa Rica
Alternatively, if you plan to stay for a longer period and manage to get a working visa, a solid work option is teaching English. Even better if you arrive in possession of a TEFL qualification as you will be in a stronger position to negotiate decent working conditions. English teachers are in such high demand, though, that even without the TEFL qualification, it should not be a problem to find work. Positions are readily available in private language institutions, public schools and also within companies.
Volunteering in Costa Rica
Voluntary work is a great thing to do if you really want to spend some time backpacking Costa Rica and also want to access areas and situations that are not common to the regular tourist route. Many volunteer projects require you to raise a large sum of money in sponsorship. For this reason, it is worth carrying out some detailed research well in advance if you are considering voluntary work as a serious option.
Useful Links for Backpacking in Costa Rica
- GAdventures – guided small group tours in Costa Rica, great for solo travellers or for those interested in a more adventurous trip which would require a guide
- DiscoverCars – The world’s leading rental car search engine to rent a car in Costa Rica
- Kiwi and Skyscanner – Flight comparison search engines to find the cheapest flights to Costa Rica and within the country
- GetYourGuide and Viator – a collection of local tours and activities in Costa Rica. Also offers Skip the Line tickets for crowded attractions
- Tiqets – Website selling entrance tickets and skip the line tickets for major tourist attractions in Costa Rica
- HostelWorld – #1 hostel search website to find accommodation while backpacking Costa Rica. Thousands of hostels and millions of reviews from fellow travellers
- Booking.com – commonly used booking site for accommodation in Costa Rica. Find hostels, hotels, and other unique accommodations in Costa Rica with advanced filtering and millions of reviews
- World Nomads Travel Insurance – Comprehensive travel insurance for long and short trips when backpacking Costa Rica
There you have it, the ultimate Costa Rica backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around Costa Rica.
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