Category: Readers’ Questions

Advice for first-time travelers to Costa Rica

capuchin monkey in Costa Rica

A 19-year-old user of my Costa Rica Trip Ideas iPhone app wrote me for trip planning advice. The app only lets me respond briefly, and I wanted to give Ashley a longer answer.

Hi, I will be taking a trip to Costa Rica with a friend in June. We are only 19 so we can’t rent a car. We would like to stay for 7-10 days. I was looking at all the wonderful parks and locations you wrote about but hope to narrow down to a few places we can visit. It’s to hard and overwhelming. I was hoping you had a small list of recommendations of locations. We aren’t very experienced travelers yet so we are hoping to come up with an organized planned trip.

First, congratulations! You and your friend are going to have a total blast.

Plan early and often
Enjoy the planning part of the trip —  researchers into what makes us happy (they all seem to live and work in Holland, where apparently happiness is not only an art but a profession) say that “vacation anticipation” can elevate your mood for 8 weeks prior to departure, whereas the post-travel glow usually lasts no more than 2 weeks.

Not to be your mom or anything
And since you’re only 19 I have to tell you, please be careful. Don’t put your life in the hands of some dude you meet at a bar at 3 am. Keep an eye on each other and try not to get too drunk in strange places and at odd hours. Keep an eye on your stuff — petty crime is common in touristy areas.

Narrowing it down

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

I’m glad my trip-planning app got your head spinning — there ARE an amazing array of things to do and see in Costa Rica. That’s one of the reasons I created the app — to give you more than a dozen ways to slice and dice it, from hot springs and volcanoes to scouting out medical tourism options. But for first timers who love nature and just want to have fun, I’d make this short list:

  • 2-3 days somewhere on the mid-Pacific coast, like Quepos/Manual Antonio National Park or Dominical (see my descriptions of these places in my app)
  • 2-3 days on a Nicoya Peninsula beach, either up north (Tamarindo, Playas del Coco) or down south (Montezuma, Playa Carmen, Mal Pais). Check out Tamarindo if you want a spring-break surf-and-party atmosphere; check out the places down south if you’re more of an alternative type–lots of surfing, yoga, old and young hippies.
  • A couple of days in the Arenal area, with its hot springs, volcanoes, river rafting, hanging bridges, rapelling down waterfalls, and a big lake to windsurf on.
  • If you still have time, take a small plane to Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s north eastern coast. No cars, lots of wildlife and water.

Getting help: tour companies
Taking a trip to an unfamiliar place, especially as an inexperienced traveler, can be daunting. There are plenty of very good tour companies that can help you book lodgings and adventures. To name just a few:

  • Desafio in the Arenal area (rafting, canyoneering, biking, kayaking, birdwatching),
  • Exploradores Outdoors for great river trips (and transportation from one hot spot to another, i.e. you could start in San Jose, take a river trip, and end up in Arenal, all for the price of the day-long rafting adventure).
  • Costa Rica Expeditions for luxury lodging and if you want everything taken care of
  • Coast to Coast Adventures for no-car tours utilizing rafts, bikes and your own two feet.

You’ll probably be put with a larger group, and could end up paddling the Pacuare or galloping along the beach at sunset with a group of Brits or Swiss or fellow Americans. People are in a good mood (they’re having the time of theirs lives in Costa Rica!) and if you get lucky you could make fast friends.

Hotels can also help
Even if you don’t want to use a tour company (and there are scores of them — just do an internet search), a lot of the hotels or hostels have their their own quite satisfactory tour desks (or less formally, tell them what you want to do and they’ll find people who will help you do it). Just a few (very reasonably priced) options to consider (all are described at greater length in my app):

  • Tucan Hotel in Domincal (a cheap hostel that can arrange everything from whalewatching to horseback rides)
  • Hotel Aranjuez in San Jose (budget lodging in the capital that can arrange trips to Irazu Volcano, coffee fields, etc.)
  • Casa Marbella in Tortuguero (waterfront B&B with a line on excellent canal boat trips/nature tours, turtle tours in season).

It’s fun NOT to drive
It may be a blessing in disguise that you can’t rent a car. Costa Rica’s highways can be challenging, and it’s easy to get around by public bus, private shuttle companies, small plane, or even taxis. With how expensive rental cars can be, you’ll no doubt save money too.

Buen viaje, and let me know how things turn out!


P.S. If you found my app useful, could you do me the favor of reviewing it? Go now. Thanks!