The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Costa Rica: Natalie Ewing of Costa Rica Expeditions.
Whatever version of Costa Rica you’re looking for—a thrilling whitewater rafting trip, romance and serenity on the beach, a foodie circuit visiting farms and chefs, or a wildlife-focused expedition—Natalie has most likely experienced it. She regularly travels the length and breadth of her adopted country, sometimes for business, other times on the back of her husband’s motorcycle or with their brood of kids, from teens to adults. Though born in the U.S., Natalie arrived in Costa Rica with her parents as a child; apart from completing high school in Colorado, she hasn’t left since. This background leaves Natalie perfectly situated to connect American travelers with the best Costa Rican places and fixers, and it’s what convinced the late eco-tourism pioneer Michael Kaye to hire Natalie soon after he met her 32 years ago. When Natalie arranges itineraries, no detail is overlooked (she usually knows exactly which room to book for you at your hotel), and sustainability and safety are always key (she refuses to book most ziplines in the country because they aren’t up to U.S. standards).
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your buck hotel
Tortuga Lodge & Gardens, on the edge of Tortuguero National Park. Full disclosure: We own this lodge, but we aren’t the only ones who consider it one of the best eco-lodges in Costa Rica. Besides, your only other nonbudget options in the area, one of the most iconic nature destinations in Costa Rica, are either much larger hotels, where 16 guests share a boat for nature tours (as opposed to 8 on our tours), or an expensive small lodge that air-conditions the rooms, blocking out the sounds of the forests. Tortuga Lodge’s guides are also exceptionally well trained, and the gardens are designed to attract wildlife (including howler monkeys). Of the property’s 27 rooms, the two Junior Suites are very spacious and especially good for families (they sleep up to five people each and connect to one another). The suites also have verandas, with hammocks, facing the river, and at $198 most of the year, they’re an excellent value. Tell us that Wendy sent you and we’ll give you top priority for upgrades.
Restaurants the locals love
Traditional: La Soda Tapia is the quintessential Soda (a small, casual restaurant, equivalent to a U.S. diner), located at the edge of La Sabana. La Tapia is famous for its fruit and ice cream sundae, and for its casados, a combination of rice, beans, French fries, fried plantains, and either fish, beef, pork, or chicken. It’s open 24/7, 365 day a year. There is no need to give an address, just tell your cab driver that you want to go to La Soda Tapia.
Vegetarian: At Mantras Veggie Café and Tea House in San Jose (right next to our offices, actually), owners Aldo and Pamela Wetta-Sanchez work diligently to find ingredients that are organic, gluten-free, and contain no preservatives or hormones. Aldo is Mexican-Greek and Pamela is U.S.-Costa Rican; their combined nationalities come through in their vegetarian, vegan, and raw food. Their sesame seed salad dressing, raw pizza, and pad thai with coconut curry peanut sauce are Natalie’s favorites.
Foodie: Casa Fuzion Restaurante (formerly known as C-Vichito y Mas) in Alajuela. Owner/chef Alvaro Porras raises his own cows and pigs, and feeds them his own corn, grain, and pineapple—“marinating them from the inside out,” he says. There is no menu; Alvaro or his wife, Anabelle, will ask you for your antojo (yen), then prepare your meal in their open kitchen.
Meal worth the splurge
Under the expertise of French chef Francis Canal, Restaurante Grano de Oro merges Costa Rican and European cuisine. Treat yourself to specialty cocktails, beautifully presented dishes using fresh ingredients, and delicious desserts in the charming ambiance of a magnificent period home with an elegant inner courtyard.
Gallo pinto: rice and beans, usually fried with onions and cilantro, but many other things can be added. Not too long ago, most locals ate some version of this at every meal, but these days Costa Ricans prefer a more varied diet, though many still eat pinto at least a few times a week. Natalie’s favorite place for gallo pinto is Posada de la Luna in Cervantes, on the road to Turrialba; it’s also famous for its cheese tortillas. Be sure to look for their collection of old Costa Rican photographs and artifacts (the restaurant has been open since 1963). Natalie’s favorite gallo pinto is at Soda Tala in San José’s Central Market. Still owned by founder Natalia “Tala” Cervantes, it has been in business for over 50 years. The signature breakfast dish is called Tala Pinto: a stacked plantain leaf, handmade corn tortilla, egg patty, and gallo pinto, all bathed in shredded beef and tomato sauce. Expect to wait for a table that you may end up sharing with someone else, but that’s a good way to get to know Costa Ricans.
What to See and Do
The often overlooked San Vito de Java region, in the southwest corner of Costa Rica, is home to three of the country’s highlights: La Amistad International Park, one of the country’s prime hiking and birding destinations (start your hike at either the Pittier or Alta Mira ranger station); the Wilson Botanical Gardens, with its thousand-plus plant species, part of the Talamanca-Amistad Biosphere Reserve (join a guided walk or use one of the self-guided trail booklets); and finally, Golfo Dulce, a superb place for ocean kayaking, fishing, and spotting dolphins and humpback whales.
San José is dirty, noisy, and has dicey air quality—but it’s the hub of Costa Rica’s cultural and political life. If you want to understand how this country is so different from its neighbors, tour the capital’s markets, National Theater, and National Museum with a knowledgeable guide.
The volcanic activity that made Arenal Volcano region so popular is no longer happening. It’s true that the perfect cone is a sight to see, but it is often obscured by clouds. Plus, many of the activities offered around the volcano—zip-lining, rafting, canopy walks—require that you join a big group.
Manuel Antonio National Park and Beach has a breathtaking seascape, and it’s one of two areas in Costa Rica where you can see the squirrel monkey, but it’s crowded, expensive, and tacky, and the local guides hustle the tourists, overcharging for parking and pestering them for work.
Golfo Dulce, on the south side of the Osa Peninsula. Golfo Dulce is a unique geographical accident of plate tectonics, which created a gulf with a depth of nearly 700 feet. It’s the only tropical fjord in the Americas, and its waters host a large number of marine creatures: It’s possible to observe dolphins and manta rays almost year round. From time to time, visitors can see one of the largest but most docile species of fish, the whale shark. Between August and October, you might spot a gigantic humpback whale in their annual migration to tropical waters. Golfo Dulce is protected by evergreen forests; one of Costa Rica’s newest national parks was created to guard and support the rich ecology of this area. Several species of mammal inhabit rain forest, including monkeys, elusive felines (jaguars and such), peccaries, and the largest animal you will find in tropical forests: the tapir (weighing in at up to 700 pounds). You can also hike among a staggering variety of trees, bushes, and plants that flourish here, and a vast number of colorful birds, such as parrots, macaws, and toucans. To get to the region, fly into the port town of Golfito, then boat 30 minutes to one of the remote lodges on the gulf.
Best for thrill-seekers
White-water rafting. Costa Rica is a narrow country with a spine of mountains down the middle. This makes for world-class rivers appropriate for all ages and abilities, with dramatic tropical scenery and warm water. The river with the best balance of scenery and level of difficulty (for courageous first-timers to experienced rafters) is the Pacuare. We can arrange one-day float trips and multi-day adventures.
Beach worth the trek
San Josecito Beach, on the western edge of the Osa Peninsula, is gorgeous, remote, and little-visited. Hike from Drake Bay for four miles on the beach, through secondary rain forest, and past a tiny town with a school and a soccer field. Cross the Rio Claro, where there is a great swimming hole. If you don’t want to get wet, there’s a guy named Clavito who will take you across in his boat. The approximately four-hour trip brings you to a beach that is protected from the waves by a rock shoal, making it ideal for swimming. (Temperatures are routinely in the low 90s here, and the humidity is seldom less than 90 percent, so bring two liters of water per person.) You can arrange a boat for the 30-minute return trip and also arrange for a boat to bring you a picnic. To ensure availability of boats, schedule this hike when you book your trip with Costa Rica Expeditions, or when you book a hotel in the area. (Don’t visit Drake Bay in September or October, when it rains even more than usual.)
Prime picnic spot
La Sabana, in what is now the outskirts of San Jose. When María del Milagro París returned to Costa Rica after becoming the first Costa Rican to make a World Swimming Championship final in 1975, President Daniel Oduber offered to grant her a wish. She asked to turn La Sabana—at the time an international airport—into a park with an Olympic swimming pool. Costa Ricans love La Sabana because it is green and has lots of sports facilities, but they also love it because of the story of how it came to be.
How to spend a Sunday
Costa Rica has two national religions: Catholicism and futbol (soccer). Do as the locals do and go to mass, then a soccer game. There are churches in every town, usually on the central square. In the smaller towns, the soccer field is often on the other side of the square. After mass, many people will stay in the plaza and socialize for an hour or more. Stake out a bench and people-watch. If you see a long line, it is probably for snow cones. In Guanacaste, Costa Rica’s cattle country in the northwest, the locals often go to a bullfight after mass. (The bull never gets killed, and neither do the bullfighters—for the most part.)
To a great extent, when to go depends on your interests—if your main reason to go is birding, the right time would be very different than if your main reason to go is whitewater rafting—and on the weather in the regions you plan to visit.
For the Pacific and Central Costa Rica, mid-April to mid-May is ideal. There are hardly any tourists. The mornings are usually crystal clear and the afternoon rains that signal the end of the dry season turn the brown forest to green in the Northern Pacific, and then cause many trees to come into fruit. This a time when many birds and some mammals give birth and begin to raise their young. If Easter falls late the year you are coming, wait until after Easter.
The Caribbean Coast has three :seasons very rainy, rainy and least rainy. September is not only the least rainy, it is the least crowded, and is the best month to see both turtle nesting and turtle hatching on the beaches of Tortuguero. September is also one of the best months for fishing with great number of tarpon, snook, shark, barracuda, king and Spanish mackerel coming on -shore to prey on the baby turtles. October is normally only a little rainier than September. It’s a great month for fishing, wildlife and turtle hatching, but there’s less of a chance to see nesting.)
Christmas and New Year’s are the most crowded and expensive time of the year, and Costa Ricans—who are usually quite open with visitors—are too busy to have much time for strangers. Easter is almost as bad.
Thinking that you can book a week at one of the high-end beach resorts in the northwest and take day-trips to see the rain forest. Costa Rica’s rain forests are farther down the Pacific coast and across the country on the Caribbean side. The beaches closest to them often have rough surf or steep approaches, and the resorts there tend to have fewer bells and whistles. Consider your priorities when choosing a beach resort, and keep in mind that covering even short distances in Costa Rica can be grueling (dirt roads) and expensive (internal flights aren’t cheap).
Share a meal with former president and Nobel laureate Oscar Arias. Learn how he brokered the peace agreement ending the Nicaraguan civil war, as well as his simple idea for reducing the civil wars taking place today. (Don Oscar travels frequently and unpredictably in his work; we refund clients’ money if he has to cancel at the last minute.)
Coffee. Café Britt is the best known of the many brands of premium beans available throughout the country. Britt is cheapest at its roasting facility in Mercedes Norte de Heredia, which has a restaurant where you can try different varieties and blends. A few tips: Don’t buy dark roast, which is used to disguise bean defects with a burned taste. To decide which variety or blend is best, let the cups cool to room temperature before tasting: Good coffee holds its flavor even when stale.
Rainbows are formed when sunlight shines through mist. The best places to see and photograph rainbows are near waterfalls, and in the Monteverde cloud forest area,.
Spend two hours looking for wildlife with at least a 300mm lens in either the Corcovado or Tortuguero rain forest, and you will almost surely get a good shot of a monkey in the wild.
Beware of “good Samaritans” offering to help you fix a flat tire. They hang out in places where rental cars are often parked and damage the tire so that it will go flat in a few kilometers. While one is helping fix the flat, an accomplice is emptying your trunk. Don’t let them scare you; simply insist on their leaving and they’ll go away.
Local Guides loitering around the entrances to Manuel Antonio and Carara national parks hustle the tourists and overcharge them. Either hike in these parks on your own or find a good guide in advance.
By law, a 10 percent tip is added to all restaurant bills. It used to be very rare for Costa Ricans to tip; now an additional 5 to 10 percent is more common.
At San José Airport, don’t get into just any taxi. Before exiting the terminal, hire one from the Taxis Unidos Company. These are the orange taxis; unlike the unlicensed cabs, they’re safe, reliable, and will charge you the right price.
Binoculars are essential for wildlife viewing, yet many people travel to Costa Rica without them. It’s best if each person in your group has their own, but sharing is better than not having them at all. The Nikon Monarch 8×42 is a decent starter option; get 7×32 magnification as a minimum.
A collapsible umbrella. If you use a poncho or rain jacket, you’ll be just as soaked from sweat as you would be from the rain.