Responsible travel in Costa Rica: guide to explore this natural paradise
Costa Rica was one of my biggest dreams and it’s still hard to believe it actually happened. A unique country, so warm and respectful, so close to its rich natural heritage and incredible wildlife.
This is going to be a guide to travel responsibly in Costa Rica while discovering this incredible country, but first of all let's understand it better!
Why Costa Rica is considered a responsible travel destination ?
For its incredibly rich biodiversity (6% of the world's biodiversity) and immense ecosystems whose preservation is at the heart of responsible tourism niches as ecotourism ;
Entry fees to national parks are paying (around 15 dollars) with a sharing system of the revenues that allows smaller parks to benefit from the network. National parks represent 25% of the country. Reservations must be done online on the SINAC website ;
Costa Rica abolished the national army in 1948, after the civil war, which means that a great amount of money is allocated to health, education, culture and environmental preservation ;
The Tourism Ministry put in place a Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) based on various criteria (water management, waste system, local employment...) for the tourism professionals ;
An immense respect for the land and the natural species immediately perceived while talking to local people.
At the same time, its reputation as an ecotourism destination has increased the number of tourists making it a victim of its success. But don't worry, as usual it's important to select the right service providers and to be ready to discover out-of-the-beaten tracks spots!
Practical information: how to travel in Costa Rica?
It's not easy to choose what to visit in Costa Rica, but I would suggest to create an itinerary based on the length of your staying and your personal interests. We decided to focus on the North of the country, also considering the weather conditions for the season (August-September). The steps of our itinerary:
Arrival in San José
Tortuguero National Park (2 nights)
La Fortuna (2 nights)
Rio Celeste hike inTenorio Nacional Park
Rincon de la Vieja volcano
Monteverde (2 nights)
Manuel Antonio National Park (2 nights)
San José for our flight back
For a road trip in Costa Rica it is necessary to have a 4x4 car, because roads are quite difficult and dangerous when it rains a lot. We decided to rent a car with ToutCostaRica, a solidarity network to connect travellers directly to locals avoiding agency fees. We also bought their Premium ToutCostaRica card that offers many discounts for partner hotels and service providers. The cost is about 65 dollars and one card can be used for more people.
Bad roads make distances between cities quite long and with speed limits it is impossible to move fast, so it's better to prepare your itinerary in advance and organise the various stops!
I would suggest to add a GPS because sometimes mobile apps indicate harder paths. Mapsme works well, but always pay attention and ask locals for the right direction, they will be happy to help you!
Safety in Costa Rica
A current question is: is it safe to travel to Costa Rica? Costa Rica is basically a safe country: its economy is one of the richest in South America and the destination is perfect for backpacking, this is the reason why there are so many solo travellers. Of course, as always this doesn't mean you should let your guard down!
Best period to travel to Costa Rica
The best time to travel in Costa Rica depends on the area that you'd like to visit and on what activities you like. Generally, rainy season lasts from May to mid-November whereas dry season is from mid-November to April. Dry season is generally the best time to visit Costa Rica, but it also means more people and higher prices!
Travel costs in Costa Rica
You should know that the costs of travelling in Costa Rica are quite high compared to other countries in Central and South America. To give you an idea, we spent 450euro for the car rental (10 days), from 20 to 65euro/night to sleep, about 10-20euro/person for a meal, 20 to 50euro for activities and tours, 13euro for the entry fees in the parks.
Travel in Costa Rica during Covid-19
Travelling to Costa Rica is now possible for vaccinated people without any quarantine or negative test upon arrival. From 18 years old, those who are not vaccinated need to be covered by a travel insurance for the total length of the staying. Also, a sanitary passport, Pase de salud, needs to be completed online within 72h before departure.
Travel itinerary in Costa Rica: step by step
Now that you know all this, get ready for an incredible journey.
As Ticos (Costa Ricans) say all the time : Pura Vida! Pura Vida represents their philosophy, it means enjoying what life has to offer, being in love with the simple things and always remember to be grateful.
Tortuguero National Park
Let me introduce you to Tortuguero, a natural paradise on the Eastern cost of Costa Rica made of a truly relaxed atmosphere, pastel coloured houses on stilts and friendly ticos.
Be ready for some special encounters: iguanas, slots, perrots, toucans, chisto iguanas, turtles (if you’re lucky) and much more! Tortuguero can be reached by plane or by boat. For us, the easiest way was to arrive in Guapiles, leave the car in the official parking and take a taxi boat to reach the natural park (around 1h30).
After strolling in the vibrant village, we got ready for a truly amazing experience. With Tortuguero Eco Experiences, a local responsible tour provider, we had a night tour to admire sea turtles while laying their eggs. Before going on the beach, our guide explained to us the various steps of the process and the increasing dangers that sea turtles have to face: higher temperatures that limit the presence of male turtles, plastic in the oceans, illegal hunting, natural predators... Of course we were aware that there was the chance not to see any turtles that night, because that's how nature works and we can't control it. But just before going back, we assisted to this special phenomenon as curious spectators, admiring the eggs falling into the nest was definitely a magic feeling that explains the power of nature.
Can you believe that female turtles always go back to the same beach were they were born for this special ritual?
The following day, we had an early morning canoe tour in the national park to catch other animals hiding in the dense tropical forest: iguanas, parrots, sloths, Christo iguana, bats, tropical birds and even caimans! We were a small group of only 8 people on a canoe without motor, which made it much more special, ecologic and authentic.
Before enjoying the beach, don't miss the Jaguar Trail, an easy 4km walk in the national park parallel to the ocean where to observe the local fauna and flora (it's about 3hours back and forth). Do it on the same day of the canoe tour to take advantage of the entrance fee to the park which is valable for the entire day!
Accommodation suggestion: Aracari Lodge, an amazing hostel with a colourful garden and a restaurant serving local cuisine. (Double room: 26euro par night/ Bunk beds in a dormitory: 13euro par night. There are special packages including the tours with Tortuguero Eco Experiences).
Bars and restaurants suggestion: El Patio serving delicious local dishes with a modern touch and a special guest that sometimes visits the area, an iguana! To dance on Caribbean music: La Taberna!
La Fortuna, Rio Celeste & Night animal tour
Time to move to La Fortuna, a small village characterised by the majestic presence of Arenal Volcanoe in the background, a rich vegetation, stunning waterfalls and the unique colour of Rio Celeste national park.
Here, we visited la Fortuna Waterfall which is 70m high and can be reached on foot following the main stairs in about 30 minutes. It's impressive to be right on the feet of the fall while listening to the strong sound of water! I have to say that there where many people in the afternoon, my recommendation is always to prefer the earliest hours of the day to enjoy daylight. Keep in mind that the sun goes down around 6:00 pm!
The area is also known for the Rio Celeste hike (about 5,5km) in Tenorio Volcano National Park. Here, it is possible to admire a special phenomenon that occurs when Rio Buena Vista meets Quebrada Agria river: the water appears opaque and florescent neon blue. This colour is basically due to the presence of aluminosilicate and the optical illusion created by the scattering of sunlight. Worderful!
One of my favorite activities was what we did in the evening: an incredible night animal tour organised by Arenal Oasis ecolodge with a very competent guide, Mikael. With the help of our torches, we walked in the forest to spot frogs (Costa Rica counts 140 species!), bats, snakes and other insects: an extremely exciting experience!
Accommodation suggestion: Apartment Colibri (about 60euro/night) & Casa Torre Ecolodge (Double room from 20euro/night)
Bars and restaurants suggestion: Ristorante El Mirador & Antojitos Isa, very authentic!
Rincon de la Vieja volcano
Road to another volcano, less known but absolutely impressive: Rincon de la Vieja. We started with a hike in the forest (about 3h back and forth) to reach La Cangreja Fall while spotting monkeys and kinkajous on the trees.
It's also possible to admire the volcanic activity along the Pailas Trail, a walking path of about 1h where to observe foamy waters, mud pods, sulphuric fumaroles.
It really seems like being in the movie Jurassic Park!
Bars and restaurants suggestion: we stopped along the road at Cafe & Macadamia for a Gallo Pinto, the typical salty breakfast here in Costa Rica made of rice, beans, fried bananas, eggs and cheese. Absolutely delicious!
Other specialities you can't miss: asado (meat or fish with vegetables, fried bananas, beans and rice), cheviche, patacones, arroz con leche, many tropical fruits as mamones and the delicious fresh fruit juices!
Monteverde: canopies and suspended bridges
Looking for a bit of adventure? Get ready for an amazing experience in the Cloud Forest
(Bosque Nuboso) of Monteverde at 1600m high. Cloud Forest is a rare ecosystem that covers some 1% of global woodlands and it's characterised by dense clouds and fog.
With Selvatura, we had a canopy experience and the suspended bridges tour, definitely the best way to enjoy this unique tropical jungle!
Another interesting activity is the visit of Bosque Eterno de los Niños, the biggest private reserves Costa Rica (about 55 000 hectares) created from a children's dream to save this forest in the 80's. It is now managed by a Costa Rican non-profit organization called the Monteverde Conservation League and it provides water and electricity (through hydroelectric projects) to the surrounding community.
Accommodation suggestion: Cabinas Eddy's Bnb, warm welcoming and an excellent breakfast!
Bars and restaurants suggestion: Taco Taco for a taste of Mexican savours.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Let's move to the Pacific Coast for some tropical beach vibes!
The city of Quepos is usually the starting point to visit Manuel Antonio National Park. From here, there are easy pathways to Playa la Vaca and Playa la Macha: true heavens with a few people, perfect spots to relax!
We dedicated an entire day to discover Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most incredible parks in Costa Rica characterised by dense tropical forest, unspoiled beaches and the funny sound of hawler monkeys! The park was created in 1972 to avoid the area to become a seaside resort zone. There are various pathways across the park with viewpoints overlooking the sea.
Here, we even managed to spot a sloth while slowly moving on a tree, it's so rare to see them!
Little detail: it rained almost the entire day. And yes, I forgot to tell you that we chose the rainy season!
Accommodation suggestion: Teva Hostel for really good vibes in a charming hostel
Bars and restaurants suggestion: Marisqueria Jiuberths, definitely the most typical place where we've eaten in Costa Rica! Ronny's Place and El Avion to enjoy a drink next to a true plane overlooking the beach.
Our journey ends in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. Despite a few highlights, the city has nothing special or unique probably because of the numerous earthquakes that have destroyed much of the city's classic and colonial architecture over the years.
Museo del Banco Central
The National Theatre (modelled after the Paris Opera)
The street graffiti and parks
Not far from the city, there's Poas Volcano, the most visited volcano in Costa Rica. Due to its eruptions in the past years, the various hikes around the area are closed. It's only possible to reach the main crater to enjoy this natural beauty. If you don't want to visit the park, just reach the area by car and enjoy a spectacular view on San Jose! Something that many Ticos do as a weekend escapade.
Costa Rica gifted us with breathtaking landscapes, an incredible wildlife, unlimited kindness and all the values that I share about sustainable tourism and environmental protection. We also met amazing people along the road sharing with them a part of our journey.
Definitely one of the best journeys ever, and I'm sure I'll come back to discover more about this incredible country and all it has to offer!