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Costa Rica: when to go, what to see

Thanks in part to TV shows like Planet Earth II and Escape to Costa Rica, the tiny country bordered by Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the south has grown in popularity over recent years. A world champion of ecotourism, blessed with stunning good looks and teeming with wildlife, it’s unsurprising that Costa Rica is one of the most exciting places to visit. Our Americas Product Manager, Carmel Hendry, is here to answer your most popular questions about travel to Costa Rica.

When is the best time to visit Costa Rica?

Typically the most popular time to visit Costa Rica is during the dry season, from December to April. However, there are lots of different ecosystems within the small country, so even just moving from the coast to the forest you can experience different seasons. The accepted time for the ‘wet’ (also known as green) season is May to November, but the rainfall is often a short downpour with the rest of the day being clear. The benefit of visiting during the rainy season is that tourist numbers are often lower, particularly in May through to August. In terms of temperature, this is usually related to the altitude, with highland areas (for example in San Jose) feeling cooler, particularly at night.

Does it rain every day during the wet season?

Not necessarily. Showers can be minimal - usually short, sharp thunderstorms that last one or two hours. But in exchange for the rain you might get more variety in wildlife in the forest.

What animals will I be able to see?

Commonly sighted animals include Howler monkey, white-faced capuchin, spider monkey, sloth, caiman and a multitude of different bird, frog (including the poison dart frog) and insect species (night walks are a must to spot the evening creepy crawlies!). It’s an amazing place for birdwatching, with keel-billed toucan, egret, anhinga, hummingbird and different varieties of macaw just some of the species that you’ll see. Top of everyone’s list is a quetzal, but these are much rarer and more difficult to see; some groups have been lucky at Monteverde or Carara National Parks. At Tortuguero National Park you can also spot turtles.

Is zip-wiring scary?

Think of it more of an adrenaline rush than a horror film! Costa Rica is the home of zip-lining, so it’s a great place to try it for the first time. The wires can reach around 130m high, with some stretching over 700m in length. But this is high up in the canopy, so it’s not exposed as such, as you’re always surrounded by trees. The guides teach you the proper techniques, including how to hold onto the cable, how to brake and how to position your body. Up in the canopy I’ve seen toucans and howler monkeys, so much closer than if you were looking at them from the ground. And if you really don’t fancy it, there are ‘hanging bridges’ to walk along – not as high up, but still giving you a bit of an adrenaline rush and time to walk through the forest canopy.

What are the hotels like?

Costa Rican hotels are pretty comparable to standard hotels around the rest of the world. The tourism industry there is so developed that the staff are lovely and well-trained, and they try and look after their hotels as much as possible. One of the hotels we use in Manuel Antonio is really characterful – a set of shipping containers converted into rooms, with amazing views of the sunset over the Pacific.

Is the water safe to drink in Costa Rica?

Water is safe to drink in most places, aside from where you see warning signs of ‘Agua no potable’. However, usually we think it’s better to be safe than sorry, and we recommend taking a reusable water bottle and purchasing big bottles of water to decant into it each day.

Will my mobile phone work in Costa Rica?

That will depend on your provider, but usually, yes mobile phones work fine with usual roaming and call charges applicable. Wi-Fi is prevalent everywhere, although we suggest having a break from the connection and getting away from it all!

What’s the difference between a rainforest and a cloud forest?

Often mistaken for one and the same, there are actually important differences between rainforests and cloud forests. Rainforests are usually characterised by high rainfall, situated at lower altitudes and with a large diversity of species. The forest houses enormous evergreen trees with some over 50m in height. On the other hand, a cloud forest can usually be found on the low slopes of a mountain, and is so called due to the moisture build up caused by low-lying clouds. The forest here is often much smaller in height, with trees becoming smaller and less verdant the higher up into the clouds they go.

What is typical Costa Rican food like?

Costa Rica often has a bad rep for food, but I think this is because people don’t know what they’re looking for. Although it’s simple, with black beans and rice a staple, it has a lot of taste. Gallo pinto (literally spotted rooster) is the national dish and consists of rice and beans stir-fried together. It’s usually served for breakfast along with eggs and sour cream or cheese. They also eat a lot of plantain, corn tortillas and white cheese, small tacos or cassava chips, and lots of fresh fruit. One particularly memorable dish was grilled cheese with a fresh strawberry sauce. Interesting, and delicious!

Should I pack anything special?

Binoculars will always be useful for spotting animals in the high trees of the forest. Otherwise a poncho or waterproof coat is a must at any time of year, and some good shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy!

Feeling inspired to book your adventure to Costa Rica?

View all Costa Rica tours

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