"In broad terms, the best time to visit Costa Rica is from December to the first half of September. However, within that large window are some sweet spots for great weather, fewer crowds and increased wildlife activity."
It’s probably easiest to start with when not to visit Costa Rica – we advise against any travel from late September through to late November. Things on the Pacific side are too wet and wild to enable safe and enjoyable travel.
Other than that, the best time to visit Costa Rica is from December all the way through to the first half of September. But let’s see if we can be a bit more helpful than that...
Costa Rica packs an unbelievable amount of weather into a small area. Essentially, the country has a tall spine of mountains running down the middle, so there is near total separation of the Caribbean from the Pacific sides.
When it's good weather on the Caribbean side, it's often less good on the Pacific, and vice versa.
Any trip to the country is really a balancing act between the two sides, with the weighting adjusted depending on the time of year. Do keep in mind though that the rainfall has a habit of coming down in one go in the form of afternoon downpours. As long as we plan sensibly, these do little to interrupt your vacation.
With that in mind, if you want to know the absolute best times to visit Costa Rica, we’d recommend the following sweet spots:
- February and early March for reliable sunshine and great wildlife activity on the Pacific coast, with drier weather on the Caribbean and fewer visitors in the more popular places.
It's also the last couple of months of the coffee harvest season, which begins towards the end of the year and ends in March.
- July and early August for the best of the ‘green season’ weather, with hot sunny days cooled later by evening showers – perfect for active summer vacations.
- the first week or two of September is an excellent month for wildlife, particularly down on the Osa Peninsula on the southern Pacific coast.
- December’s new moon brings the best turtle ‘arribada’ of the year up in Ostional on the Pacific and this can be a lovely time to travel as Costa Rica transitions into the dry season.
What’s the best way of getting off the beaten track in Costa Rica?
"Some of the best places to get off the beaten track in Costa Rica are: Cahuita on the Caribbean, Chirripó and San Gerardo in the Central Valley and the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific."
The short answer to this question is to give us a call. Getting off the tourist trail is what we do best and nowhere more so than in Costa Rica.
The long answer is this...
It continues to amaze us just how easy it is to get off the beaten track in a country so compact and visited as Costa Rica. Whilst just about everyone else goes to the same handful of places, promoted and developed up to their eyeballs, we’re off in the wilds spending all day exploring, with only the wildlife, the locals and our guides for company.
The strength of Costa Rica’s tourism industry has been largely built on a tried and tested route across the country, bringing together a slice of everything that so vividly captures the imagination of travellers – jungle-fringed beaches, smouldering volcanoes, exotic birds, high octane activities and fancy ecolodges nestled in lush forest. Hence the vast majority of visitors plough an anything but lonely furrow through the same usual suspects:
Tortuguero – Arenal – Monteverde – Manuel Antonio – Tamarindo.
Pick up any brochure featuring Costa Rica, or browse the website of any operator promoting the country, and play bingo with the above list. It won’t take long to call house.
For those of us who like our travels to come with a sense of discovery and exploration, whose idea of Costa Rica conjures up visions of virgin rainforest, empty beaches and chance encounters with monkeys and quetzals, the usual suspects very often simply don’t fit any longer. Some have become victims of their own sucess and it's high time to move on.
Arenal’s billboards jar with our rural ideal and the volcano hasn't been as active as the photos suggest for years. Monteverde’s quad bikes punch a hole in the peace and quiet of the cloud forest, and Manuel Antonio’s monkeys appear not by chance, but with the chance to nick a bit of food off the stream of visitors which pack out the park each day.
Away from these, there’s a Costa Rica where you can experience the forests, the volcanoes, the birds, the activities and the ecolodges at their finest, all without the sideshow. We’re talking about places where Spanish is still the lingua franca, where your hosts happily take you down to the local village help you spread your tourist money around the community, and where locals still go out at low tide to collect clams to sell.
The Osa Peninsula – the most biodiverse place on earth according to National Geographic – gets a fraction of the visitors because of its relative remoteness. The cloud forests of San Gerardo are categorically the best place to see the Resplendent quetzal in Costa Rica, and yet few are ever told about it. Nearby Chirripó is a great place to walk and taste coffee in the highlands. Cahuita offers everything Manuel Antonio does – beautiful beaches, thick jungle, lots of wildlife – but has never had to be closed because it has reached capacity. The very idea of that is so utterly inconceivable.
So, part of the planning is putting you in the right place, at the right time. But sometimes, the best experiences and the most vivid memories happen by chance.
We can’t schedule them, nor do we want to.
It might be that beautiful waterfall you were tipped off about, the one that’s never made it into a guidebook because only the locals know it’s there. Or the night you spent down on the Caribbean coast, swaying along to instrumental Bob Marley covers, with freestyled lyrics in English and Spanish. Or the time you pulled over at a roadside shack and fell into conversation about Tico life with the family on the other side of the counter, helping their daughter to say a few words of English in exchange, leaving everyone in lighter spirits than had you just drove on past.
Those are some of our Costa Rica memories. None planned, all absolutely treasured and only possible with the freedom of your own vehicle, the support of true experts and a sense of exploration that gets you right under the skin of this rich and diverse country, a country that is as blessed with local character as it is with natural beauty. Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If that’s the Costa Rica you want to meet, let’s please talk.
What are Costa Rica’s best wildlife experiences?
"Taking you away from the crowded areas, some of the best places to see wildlife in Costa Rica are the Osa Peninsula and Ostional on the Pacific coast, San Gerardo cloud forest in the central hills and Cahuita and Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast."
Costa Rica is one great wildlife experience. In fact, outside the cities, you’d be hard pushed to avoid it. Even when driving up to the drier plains of the north-west, you literally be stopped in your 4x4 tracks by a young puma crossing the road, as Leesa in our office can personally attest to.
So wildlife is all around, thanks in large part to concerted efforts to protect so much of the country from development, with over 25% of its land protected. Even so, there are a few hotspots we love, most of which are thankfully missed by the vast majority of visitors (see getting off the beaten track). Here are five of Costa Rica’s best wildlife experiences:
- Osa Peninsula, Pacific: one of Latin America’s great wildlife destinations. Snorkel off tropical islands, kayak past crocodiles, get close to endangered Scarlet macaws and all four species of monkeys, follow dolphins and whales and, for the definitive experience, sleep in a rainforest ranger station, cocooned by the sights and sounds of a flourishing jungle. Put this right at the top of your list.
- Ostional, Pacific: definitively the best place to see Olive Ridley turtles. Normally, there are a few turtles on shore at night laying eggs. Occasionally, often a few days before the new moon, there is a mass arrival, the arribada. We’ve built trips around this special event in the past, and whilst you need luck on your side, it’s an unforgettable experience.
- San Gerardo, Central Valley: statistically the best place to see a Resplendent quetzal in the wild. This is cloud forest in its most exotic, wild and undisturbed form. An absolute must for dedicated birders.
- Tortuguero, Caribbean: a vast network of narrow creeks, vast beaches and freshwater lagoons, best explored by boat. The experience is far more structured, and busy, than elsewhere, but the access it gives and the creatures you’ll see make it worth it. It’s best to start here, then enjoy a bit more freedom and seclusion with your own vehicle and private guides for the rest of your trip.
- Cahuita, Caribbean: this little-known strip of coastal rainforest is probably the best place in Costa Rica to see sloths in their natural environment. Another snorkelling hotspot and, like Tortuguero, a great place to see leatherback turtles on the beaches.
Is Costa Rica a good place for a family vacation?
"Costa Rica remains one of the world's great family vacation destinations, if you get the planning right. Immersive activities, vast landscapes, exotic wildlife all around and an infectious thirst for life are the hallmarks of a memorable family adventure."
Costa Rica might even be the very best place for a family vacation.
Amazing activities you can all enjoy together, exotic wildlife and unchecked nature all around, miles and miles of unspoilt beaches and some truly memorable places to stay and soak it all in. If you were to invent an ideal destination for active families, it would look an awful lot like Costa Rica...
Costa Rica family vacations are therefore ubiquitous and the vast majority on offer may look remarkably similar. So we’d like to give you a bit of a flavor of how approach them, based on our own experiences with our children, happy and privileged guinea pigs, to judge if we’re right for you.
Pura Vida – the joy of life – is a big thing here, you no doubt already know. It’s also not a bad philosophy for any Costa Rica vacation, not least when there are active children and teenagers involved. It sets a course for your trip, encouraging you to go with the flow, with the weather, with your energy levels and with how you're all feeling. Anything too rigid and regimented would be a bit incongruous in Costa Rica.
So, our approach is to add structure where it adds value, but also know when to back off so that you can be independent. Sometimes you just want to fill up the fridge and be self-contained for a few days, with the space to slow down and the flexibility to change plans or book things on the day.
The structure we do add comes in many forms, from the regions you visit and the places you stay, to the activities you want and the local support you need. That’s all part of the planning process – getting the vacation right for you all, individually and as a family.
Activities also come in many forms and, for us, the sweet spots are always the ones you enjoy together, laughing and giggling and getting wet and sharing the moment, no compromises or negotiations.
For the high-octane moments, that could be rafting, rappelling, zip lining and mountain biking. For the gentler moments its kayaking through mangroves, snorkelling off a tropical island, horse riding along the beach or hiking up through the forest.
Then there’s the wildlife. No matter what anyone says, toucans, sloths and monkeys are cool at any age. Coming across them in their natural habitat, wild and free, is just going to make you all smile.
Better yet, there’s nothing quite like a troop of monkeys barrelling through the canopy in the morning to get a teenager out of bed. Add in the empty 7km stretch of sand that’s a short stroll away from your beach house and there’ll be no problems getting the day kick started. Likewise, phone screens are not quite so interesting when someone has seen a sloth in your lodge’s garden, or when you come across a young puma stalking a group of deer by the roadside.
That’s the Costa Rica we love – the bits you go out to find with your guides, and the unexpected moments that come to you, when you’re not looking for them. Our experience, direct connections and knowledge enable us to share lesser-known corners, at the right times and with the right people. So if you only take the kids to Costa Rica once, let’s make it count - Costa Rica’s Best Family Adventure.
Where are the best places for hiking in Costa Rica?
"The foothills of Chirripó and the rainforests of Osa Peninsula offer a couple of truly great and challenging hikingroutes in a country more known for its toucans than its trails."
Costa Rica is not generally a hiking destination because of the heat and the density of its forests. However, there are a couple of opportunities to get your boots muddy and give you a good stretch of your legs, if you’re up for a challenge.
Up in the central hills, you could spend the day walking around Cerro Chirripó - Costa Rica's tallest mountain - exploring the rolling hills and the peaceful cloud forests that remain blissfully off the tourist trail. Our guide here, Blaine, is a keen walker and can help design a trail that fits your energy levels and gets you to the best viewpoints.
On the Osa Peninsula, there’s also a challenging 23km walk up over the hills and down to the La Sirena Ranger Station in the heart of Corcovado National Park - the most biodiverse pocket of our planet according to National Geographic. It’s a long hike, but there’s good shade in forest and utterly amazing wildlife en route.
On a bigger scale, Costa Rica are also in process of creating a version of the Camino - perhaps a kind of pilgrimage for nature lovers - from the Caribbean all the way to the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific. It’s not all joined up yet, but there are some good walks we could fold into your trip if you’re interested.
What is ‘Pura Vida’ and how can I experience it?
There's a general and infectious sense of joie de vivre, Pura Vida, in Costa Rica.
Too many trips to Costa Rica focus entirely on the wildlife with a bit of beach and activity thrown in. That's totally unfair to the people who live here and give it all color - and who take such pride in their environment. It's not always obvious given the ramshackle appearance of many towns and villages but the environmental education and messaging here is remarkable and people are generally very proud of the lead their country takes in matters ecological.
But really, it's the day to day people watching that too many people miss. Lunch at a roadside 'soda' is an opportunity to see all of society eating side by side, doctors to farm labourers. Eating ceviche whilst watching the fishermen haul in their catch. Tucking into a huge plate of plantains, rice and beans as a pickup truck with a huge speaker strapped in the back goes up and down the street, blaring out the latest special offer at 'MEESTER CHICKEN!!!' It's a fun, and funny, place.
Which countries combine best with Costa Rica?
With apologies to Panama, Nicaragua is the best place to combine with Costa Rica. Their similarities lend your trip a sense of cohesion and journey, whilst the differences bring great contrasts, with new experiences, people and culture.
There’s a temptation to assign Costa Rica the ‘wildlife’ part of the trip, and look to Nicaragua to bring the culture and local flavor to the table to complete the picture. That’s a bit unfair on both counts. Costa Rica’s people give the country its color and personality, whilst Nicaragua has more than its fair share of natural wonders to experience.
You just need someone to put you in the right place, with the right people.
But it is fair to say that each has its own strengths to play to and so there’s a degree of truth in the thinking. There’s nowhere in Nicaragua where you can experience nature on quite the epic scale that you can in the Osa Peninsula. Equally, there’s nowhere in Costa Rica where you can hear such vivid tales of buccaneering pirates and revolution as you can in Granada and León respectively, nor see islanders painting their colorful lives like you can on the Solentiname archipelago.
Added together, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are excellent bedfellows, weaving a tapestry of natural treasures, vivid history, local flavors and characterful people that will, we’ve no doubt, utterly beguile you. Please take a look at our Nicaragua to Costa Rica Wildlife & Culture Vacation for inspiration. The trip can be extended, shortened and adapted to suit you.
How long do I need for a vacation to Costa Rica?
We’d recommend you spend at least two weeks in Costa Rica, but please do dedicate more time to if you can. You won’t regret it.
Give us time to do a three week itinerary to Costa Rica and you’ll really have time to get to know a few different places, with the chance to slow down a little and absorb it all without rushing. For every highlight moment - the troops of monkeys, the sound of the dawn chorus or the thrill of the rapids - we guarantee there’s an unexpected memory to be made in your downtime that’s just as treasured, even if it’s just a spot of people watching, Tico-style, or being able to sit back and enjoy watching an afternoon storm rage, without worrying that it’s robbing you of your only chance to get out and explore.
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