Places to see when backpacking in Costa Rica
The Nicoya peninsula | Beaches & Surfing
Many of Costa Rica’s most relaxing beaches are located along the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific coast. Here you can find the best conditions for surfing with wild waves and laid-back towns. Around the towns, there’s much more to explore, as you can go snorkeling, visit waterfalls and hang out by the beach.
A small surfer’s village with a few streets, nice cafés, food courts, and a huge beach. What else do you need? Surfing here is perfect for beginners, as the waves are not too high. And the vibe is a bit more laid-back than at some of the other beach towns. Less party, more relaxing, and travelers of all ages.
For us, Samara was the perfect first stop to calm down after an exhausting trip down from Nicaragua.
Besides, a hidden gem with gentle waves nearby is the beach of Playa Carillo. It’s just a short bus ride.
Vegan friends, you’ll love Samara! Check out the bowls at Green Lovers
in the gardens of the Aldea food lab and Healthy Shack
in the food court at Arriba Pathway.
While it may be the most expensive place in Costa Rica and it’s become quite touristy during the last few years, Santa Teresa still has a very special vibe. Known as a hub for surfers and digital nomads
, you can find lots of nice cafes, restaurants, and yoga studios along its main road. You can easily spend some days in Santa Teresa during your Costa Rica backpacking trip, taking surf lessons or yoga classes and hanging out in their many vegan cafes
, such as Ani’s
, Earth Cafe
, or Eat Street
. And you will realize, that the surfers lifestyle will capture you easily.
For a day trip, you can visit the national park Cabo Blanco at the very southern tip of the Nicoya peninsula.
Just a few kilometers down from Santa Teresa, there’s another popular town made up of basically a single road full of restaurants, tour operators, and hotels. In comparison to Santa Teresa, it’s a more budget destination with a laid-back vibe.
When you’re here you should check out Montezuma Waterfall, do a day trip to Santa Teresa, go snorkeling, or also head to Cabo Blanco national park.
Other beaches along the Nicoya peninsula
Besides the three beach towns mentioned above, you can also check out the following interesting places in the Nicoya peninsula:
Nosara beaches – a rather expensive beach town with lots of healthy cafés and three surrounding beaches: Playa Garza, Playa Guiones, and Playa Pelada
Playa Tamarindo – also referred to as “Tamagringo” as it’s a quite touristy party town but with an incredible beach
Playa San Juanillo
Costa Rica’s Pacific beaches
National Parks | Incredible nature
The number one reason why you should visit Costa Rica (besides its eco-tourism) is the national parks. The country has done a great job in establishing more and more protected areas where wildlife, flora, and fauna can recover and flourish.
Honestly, you haven’t really been to Costa Rica, if you haven’t visited at least one of its amazing national parks. They’re definitely worth it and to make the most of it, you should book a guide for at least one of them!
So you may wonder, which of the national parks is the best in Costa Rica? The search can be quite overwhelming with so many national parks in such a small country. When I first researched the national parks of Costa Rica, I felt swamped with information and all the possibilities.
So the smartest thing is to pick those that sound the most tempting to you and stick to visiting a few. They’re all unique in their own way, yet similar in other ways. And after seeing a few national parks you may not enjoy another green, lush jungle as much as you did when seeing the first or the second one. No matter how beautiful it is and how many animals you can spot.
And yes, most national parks have high entry fees but I have some good news: Even though you wouldn’t expect it in such an expensive country, there are options for every budget. That’s because you can also find some donation-based parks!
Monteverde National Park
Arriving in Monteverde I can’t help but breathe deeply. The air is so fresh and clean up here. The mountains crisp and green. We enter a completely different climate than just one hour earlier when we were still sitting next to the Panamericana, waiting for the bus in the heat. Being at an altitude of around 1500 meters, temperatures are only around 25 degrees Celsius up here. With the humidity and wind, this can feel quite cool, especially when you’ve just gotten used to the heat on the Pacific coast.
But this climate is what makes the area special. In the afternoon you’re often surrounded by clouds and everything gets foggy. And this leads to unique flora and fauna that you can explore when hiking through Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Yet, this wasn’t always like it. I couldn’t believe it when I was told that just over 40 years ago this area was farmland with almost no vegetation. So the restoration of the rainforest in the reserve is a perfect example of Costa Rican efforts in eco-tourism.
The entrance is 25 US$ and normally includes a huge hanging bridge, which unfortunately was closed when we were there.
In the area, you can also enjoy some adventure, such as ziplining
– in my opinion, one of the most fun things to do when backpacking in Costa Rica.
As one of Costa Rica’s most popular cloud forests, the small town of Santa Elena feels quite touristy and crowded. But you can also do some hiking starting directly in town, for example to an impressive ficus tree with its roots building a natural bridge above a small stream.
Also, it’s a great coffee region. So if you’re a coffee-lover, you can join a coffee tour to visit coffee plantations and get a tour through the local production process.
Rainforests, wild animals and ziplining in Monteverde
La Fortuna National Park
Home to picturesque Volcan Arenal, La Fortuna National Park is an adventure destination. Of course, the spotlight is on its many volcano activities and hikes.
In the park, there’s also the huge Arenal lake which is popular for kitesurfing and kayaking, and La Fortuna Waterfall with its pool to swim in.
If you feel like some relaxation after your outdoor adventures, there are so many hot springs
and hotels offering thermal spas around. For those who are backpacking Costa Rica on a budget, here’s a tip for something free: There are some free hot springs
where you don’t have to pay any entrance fee (just around 2000 Colones / 3 US$ for parking).
The town of La Fortuna itself is very touristy and can get quite crowded. But there’s always a great view of Arenal Volcano and it’s a great base to head to other sights in Costa Rica, such as Río Celeste
Tenorio National Park & Río Celeste
With its milky, turquoise-shining water, it may be the most unnatural-looking river that you come across. Río Celeste is the reason why most people head to Tenorio National Park. But hiking through the beautiful park is a highlight itself. You don’t really need a guide, just grad yourself enough water and some snacks and hike for a few hours along the trail towards the river and the impressive waterfall.
By rental car, you can easily reach it from Monteverde or from La Fortuna. In case, you don’t have a rental car, La Fortuna is the best starting point to get to Tenorio National Park. The most hassle-free option is to do a day trip
from La Fortuna.
Amazing nature in Costa Rica’s national parks
Tortuguero National Park
Famous for its beaches that are nesting grounds for several kinds of sea turtles, that’s where the park got its name from. Thus, it’s a great place to see wildlife. Turtles come to nest here between July and October, which is the best time to visit the park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side. Besides, you can spot lazy sloths hanging in the trees and many other animals roaming around if you’re attentive.
The best way to explore the park is by boat, which is why visiting Tortuguero can be quite expensive. Its location is quite remote and everything has to be brought by boat.
Especially during nesting seasons, many tour guides offer night tours in order to spot female turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. But keep in mind that you should never disturb these animals, keep your distance and don’t use any lights or cameras with flash!
Besides, you can also rent a kayak to paddle through the river and hike through the jungle.
Be aware that with quite a different climate from the rest of Costa Rica, you may experience the rainy season over here while the rest of the country bathes in blue skies and sunshine.
Corcovado national park
Quite secluded from the other national parks and places to see when backpacking in Costa Rica, Corcovado National Park allures with remote beaches, awesome hiking trails,
and lush rainforests. Located on the Osa Peninsula, this park is quite popular among locals
as well as international travelers. It has been called the most biodiverse area in the world
with so many species that it’s like a paradise for nature-lovers
To get to Corcovado National Park you can either stay in Uvita and book a day tour from there. But in case you want to spend several days in the park, the best base close to Corcovado would be Drake Bay.
Be aware that it’s mandatory to book a guide. Otherwise, you won’t be able to enter the national park.
Wildlife & nature in Costa Rica’s national parks
Manuel Antonio National Park
One of Costa Rica’s most popular national parks is Manuel Antonio on the country’s south coast. Another gem full of wildlife, flora and fauna, as well as hiking paths to remote beaches. But you probably won’t find them completely remote. Not due to the sloths hanging around, but because Manuel Antonio is a really popular spot when backpacking in Costa Rica, and can get quite busy. So you better come really early.
You can either explore the park by yourself, spotting sloths and iguanas while hiking to the beaches, or you can book a guide. A guide is always really helpful if you want to see some wildlife, as they have such well-trained eyes and know the area and animals’ habits very well.
The Caribbean | relaxed beach vibes
Exhausted from the bus trip, we drop our stuff at our Airbnb, grab our swimsuits and head directly to the beach. It’s our first stroll over here and as we walk along a jungly trail, I spot it. Gazing down on me. Slowly blinking while elegantly moving. A sloth!
Ever since we entered Costa Rica, I told myself “I’m not gonna leave this country without seeing a sloth”. And here we are, randomly walking to a beach and finding ourselves surrounded by a group of sleepy sloths hanging in the almond trees.
Aww, Puerto Viejo! I had mixed feelings before coming here, as this beach town is quite popular. In touristy Costa Rica, I feared an overcrowded town full of souvenir stores, loud bars, and a full beach. And well, it has some of them and is definitely a backpacker party town in some places. But it also has a very chilled vibe and amazing beaches. You can easily be at an almost empty beach if you walk a bit. Or rent an e-scooter to cruise around and visit some of the surrounding beaches.
Speaking of beaches, you should definitely check out the following:
Playa Cocles – After just a 15-minute walk from Puerto Viejo along a beach path (tip: watch the treetops for some furry friends) you reach beautiful Playa Cocles. It’s popular among surfers and backpackers and spreads a really laid-back vibe.
Playa Negra – A really long beach with black volcanic sand that spreads from Puerto Viejo almost all the way to Cahuita. Come here to watch the sunset.
Playa Punta Uva – Made up out of three bays, each is similarly beautiful but has its own vibe. On a calm day, it’s probably the clearest water in the area and great for snorkeling.
Cahuita national park – Of course, this can’t be missing among the best beaches around Puerto Viejo. Walk along the jungly, sandy trails to secluded, natural beaches where you can easily spend a whole day.
With the Caribbean influences, there’s another vibe in Puerto Viejo, as opposed to the rest of Costa Rica. A place to unwind, surf, hang out by the beach, and have some good food and cold “pipas” (as coconuts are called in Costa Rica).
If you’re there on a Saturday morning, check out the artisan & farmers market where you can buy organic spices, treats,and fresh fruit.
Oh and, well every backpacker needs to wash their clothes every now and then. If you need to wash in Puerto Viejo, do it at Green Clean Laundry
! It’s not only the best price in Puerto Viejo but also an eco-friendly laundry store
(no plastic bags and eco-friendly detergent)!
For yummy food
, I can recommend Madre Tierra
(for amazing vegan options), Soulsurfer
(for an amazing choice of veggie burgers), Port Vell
(for the best bagels – try the Jalapeno-cheese-bagel!), and Berry Matcha
for amazing breakfast bowls and smoothies.
Cruising with an e-scooter to beaches around Puerto Viejo
Cahuita National Park
While the small town of Cahuita itself is not really spectacular, you should come here for the national park. It’s a rather small park where you can come for a day trip from Puerto Viejo in order to do an easy, flat 8 km hike (or 16 km if you go back and forth).
And the best part of it: The park’s entrance fee is donation-based. So you can give whatever you consider appropriate to support the conservation of the park.
You can wander along the beautiful, shaded paths while spotting sloths (apparently one of the best places to see them), monkeys, raccoons, and other wild animals that happily roam around the jungle. And eventually, you’ll end up at great, natural beaches where you can swim after your easy hike and spend an afternoon.
When we went to Cahuita it started raining heavily, but the jungle spread a very special vibe and we had some great fun, even though it wasn’t a beach day as we had initially hoped.
Sustainable travel in Costa Rica
For travelers interested in sustainability, Costa Rica is a dream!
The country has not only been a leader in eco-friendly measures for decades and has become one of the most biodiverse areas in the world but has also set several milestones where ecotourism, conservation, and renewable energy is concerned.
In the 1970s Costa Rica started converting huge parts of its land destroyed by agriculture and logging into national parks
. Thus, they managed to rebuild huge, biodiverse rainforests, and today over 25% of Costa Rica is protected territory
. That’s as much as in no other country anywhere in the world and makes it one of the greenest countries
in the world.
Even as a traveler, you realize that sustainable awareness
is anchored within society. While it may seem insignificant to mention that buses switch off their engines during breaks, that’s something we’ve rarely seen in other Central American
countries. In Panama
for example, even for a 30-minute break, the bus driver wouldn’t turn off the engine, even after we asked him to do so.
With laws such as banning single-use plastics in 2021
, each year the country moves closer to its goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral country
in the world. So yep, you won’t get a drink with a plastic straw anywhere in the country. Makes my zero-waste heart skip a beat!
Also, it’s forbidden to bring any single-use plastics
into their national parks. So be aware of that when planning your trip and better pack your reusable containers
and filter bottle
Besides, you can join a beach clean-up, for example with Operation Rich Coast
. They arrange beach clean-ups all over Costa Rica on a regular basis. This way, you can not only prevent waste, but also help with removing existing trash.
Filtering water & a Costa Rican sign encouraging to recycle
Eco-lodges in Costa Rica
When backpacking in Costa Rica, many travelers dream of staying in an eco-lodge. But be aware, that there are no official requirements that accommodations have to meet in order to be allowed to call themselves “eco-lodge”. With some hotels, I had the feeling that they call themselves “eco-hotels” just because they’re built out of wood. Thus, you have to keep your eyes peeled and research properly to find truly sustainable accommodation.
Always check their websites closely for factors such as if they support sustainable projects in the community, do they follow sustainable practices in their daily routines (waste separation, recycling, saving water and power, etc), offer food of organic origin, use local or recycled building materials. While it doesn’t have to fulfill all of these factors, if they endeavor to meet some of them is always a good sign.
Costa Rica itinerary
How many days do you need to travel around Costa Rica?
In order to experience the variety that Costa Rica’s nature has to offer, I’d suggest spending at least 10 days backpacking in Costa Rica. During this time you’re able to see two national parks, a beach on the Pacific coast (Nicoya peninsula) as well as Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side.
Even though distances may seem short, you’ll spend a lot of time driving. Especially if you’re traveling by bus, you may spend some days completely on the road, as you have to change buses or head through San Jose.
How to get around Costa Rica?
By rental car
Traveling around Costa Rica by rental car is very popular, as it makes it so much easier to reach many of the amazing places in this country. However, you need to book a few months in advance to get a decent price. It’s definitely not a budget-friendly option, but well worth it, as taking the bus can be a ridiculously long journey for a ride that would only take 2 hours by rental car.
If I’d go to Costa Rica again, I’d probably rent a car, to be honest!
By public buses
Well, it’s possible to go backpacking in Costa Rica by bus and it’s definitely the cheapest option. However, traveling between places can be quite complicated, long, and often requires many stops where you may have to wait for hours until the next connecting bus (a waiting time that we never had in any other Central American country).
As it turned out for us, many places were not as easily accessible
as we had expected. For example, we found no bus option going from Monteverde to Río Celeste, which is only a 2,5-hour ride by car. In the end, we saw some great places in Costa Rica, but it was the first country in Central America
where I honestly regretted not having a rental car.
Still, I have to admit that public buses are quite comfortable and quite organized. It will make you feel like you’re in Europe (there are even proper bus stops instead of just hopping on and off chicken buses somewhere along the street – something we had gotten quite used to in other Central American countries).
By tourist shuttle
The main tourist attractions are well connected by shuttle bus. This way of traveling is way faster than public buses but extremely expensive in Costa Rica. If you’re short on time, a shuttle bus may be a good option for certain routes but it will likely cost you 5x as much as taking public buses. For example, Monteverde and La Fortuna look very close on the map but it’s a crazy ride by public bus. In this case, you may be better off taking a shuttle (there’s a super easy taxi-boat-taxi connection between those two national parks that you can book anywhere).
Backpacking in Costa Rica
Backpacking Costa Rica itinerary by bus
Traveling around Costa Rica may include some zig-zagging (depending on how much of the country you want to cover in your Costa Rica itinerary). When you travel by bus, you may have to go through San José several times.
I’d suggest picking the highlights you want to see and checking Centro Casting
for the best bus connections. You should definitely pick at least two national parks, a surf town along the Pacific coast, and also see Puerto Viejo in order to experience the Caribbean vibes.
There are so many options, so it’s really hard to recommend a certain Costa Rica itinerary. From our own experience in Costa Rica, I can suggest the following public bus itinerary coming from Nicaragua (for 10 days – 2 weeks):
- A beach town in the Nicoya peninsula
- ⇨ Monteverde national park
- ⇨ La Fortuna national park (including a day trip to Rio Celeste from La Fortuna)
- ⇨ (heading through San Jose with maybe a night stopover to) Puerto Viejo (with a day trip to Cahuita national park)
Costa Rica itinerary by rental car
If you have a rental car you’ll be much more flexible and won’t have as many days that you only spend traveling from one destination to the next.
Here are two suggestions for itineraries by rental car, also coming from Nicaragua:
10 days by rental car:
- A beach town in the Nicoya peninsula
- ⇨ Manuel Antonio national park
- ⇨ Monteverde OR La Fortuna national park
- ⇨ Rio Celeste
- ⇨ Puerto Viejo (including a day trip to Cahuita national park)
2 weeks by rental car:
- Rio Celeste
- ⇨ La Fortuna national park
- ⇨ A beach town in the Nicoya peninsula
- ⇨ Manuel Antonio national park
- ⇨ Corcovado national park
- ⇨ Puerto Viejo (including a day trip to Cahuita national park)
Moving on to other countries from Costa Rica:
From Puerto Viejo or from San Jose you can easily get to Panama
(Bocas del Toro):
Take a 45-minute bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola (for 2010 colones) or a 5h bus from San Jose
⇨ Pay 8$ at the Sixaola border to exit Costa Rica (can be paid online through a barcode)
⇨ Be aware that there are no money changers at the border (the only border in Central America
where we couldn’t exchange money). So take some dollars with you for the onward trip!
⇨ To Bocas Del Toro: Take either a shuttle for 10 US$ or take the easy trip yourself: Take a 30-minute bus to Changuinola (1$), change to another 30 minutes bus to Almirante, and take a ferry to Bocas (6$ one way or 10$ return).
To get to Nicaragua
the best starting point is San Jose or Liberia. From there, either book a Tica Bus or Nica Bus that takes you straight to Rivas in the south of Nicaragua or to the capital Managua. Besides, you can take a bus to the Peñas Blancas border. From there take a bus straight to Rivas which is a huge bus station. From there you can get buses to many destinations in Nicaragua
Good to know for backpacking in Costa Rica
Pura vida lifestyle
As we’re entering Costa Rica, passing through the first villages by local bus, we get stuck in traffic. Finely-dressed caballeros ride on horses while loud music dominates the background. We can spot what seems like the whole village on the streets and assume there’s a festival. And then we realize that it’s a funeral.
Celebrating the life of a loved village member with a colorful procession is only the first sign of Pura Vida as Costa Ricans love to call it. The pure life they love to celebrate.
The slogan “Pura Vida” seems to be something like the national slogan is used for everything. It stands for “hi”, “thanks”, “you’re welcome”, “goodbye”. So many things can be expressed by the slogan. And while it may seem like a cliché phrase, it’s actually used by everyone in the country. So here’s one first tip for backpacking Costa Rica: Whenever you’re not sure what to say or your broken Spanish doesn’t offer anything to say, just pop in a “Pura Vida” and for sure you’ll get a smile.
Costa Rican food
Like everything, eating out is quite expensive in Costa Rica. The best chance to find great, affordable food is at a “Soda” – these are small local, usually family-run restaurants.
That said, you should definitely try typical Costa Rican food, even though you’ll come across many fancy international restaurants in the country. While extraordinary vegan dishes may be easier found in international restaurants, there are also great local options such as
Casado – THE typical dish you’ll find in most restaurants with rice, beans, fried vegetables, and sometimes potatoes, plantains, or coleslaw.
– Just like in Nicaragua
, this mix of rice and beans can be found all over the country as breakfast or a side for lunch and dinner.
Patacones – You can have these crunchy, fried plantains as s snack or appetizer, often accompanied by guacamole or mashed beans
Pipas frías – in order to refresh yourself, in Costa Rica you have to watch out for “pipas frías” to get a cold coconut (instead of the term “cocos fríos”)
Typical Costa Rican Casado & slurping a pipa fría
What’s the best time to go backpacking in Costa Rica?
You probably want to see Costa Rica during the dry season which lasts from December to April. During this time, you can enjoy sunny beach days and head on amazing hikes through the national parks and rainforests. But well, it’s the high season and therefore also more crowded and the more expensive time for a visit. And in the end, you’ll probably end up experiencing some rain in the country no matter what time of the year.
In many countries, I’ve already made the experience, that it’s not always raining during the rainy season. Costa Rican rainy season runs from May to November. The great thing about Costa Rica in the rainy season is that it’s not as crowded and still warm. But be ready for some days during which it rains so much that you won’t be able to leave your hotel. On the other hand, it’s the best time to see turtles in Tortuguero national park.
Is Costa Rica safe to travel?
Indeed Costa Rica is among the safest countries
in Central America
. I haven’t had any bad experiences and have heard of none from fellow travelers in Costa Rica.
As always, be cautious, listen to your instincts, and don’t walk home alone at night (especially in cities). And even in the safest countries, pickpocketing can happen everywhere, so always keep an eye on your belongings.
Is Backpacking in Costa Rica expensive?
Its reputation as the most expensive country
in Central America
precedes Costa Rica. And it’s true, it’s like the Switzerland of the continent. Coming from Nicaragua, the prices for accommodation and food in Costa Rica made us gulp on several occasions.
Meals when eating out will easily cost you 6000-7000 Colones (10 US$) and a basic double room starts at around 60 US$ per night along the Pacific side and can easily cost way more. We had the feeling that the Caribbean side is a bit cheaper.
So if you’re traveling on a budget, follow a few tips to smartly save some money:
Eat at local Sodas where you can get a Casado for around 5 US$.
Take local buses instead of the tourist shuttles.
Look out for accommodation with a kitchen where you can cook for yourself.
Visit places on your own whenever possible instead of sticking to expensive tours everywhere
Spend time at places that you visit for free, such as Cahuita National Park, the ficus tree near Monteverde, or the free hot springs in La Fortuna
Do you need to speak Spanish for backpacking in Costa Rica?
Since Costa Rica is probably the most touristy country in Central America, it’s also one of the places where you will be okay with English in most areas. Yet, speaking some Spanish is always helpful, especially when you’re traveling around more rural areas and trying to take more local buses.
And even if it’s only some basic Spanish words, you will have the possibility of interacting with locals which will give you a deeper experience.
Backpacking in Costa Rica – a wrap-up
Costa Rica in three words: Pura Vida | sloths | national parks
Did you know? In Costa Rica coconuts are called “pipas” instead of “cocos”
Favorite photo spot: The ficus tree near Monteverde National Park (Santa Elena)
Favorite food: The Vegan bowl at Green Lovers in Sámara
Can’t miss: Visiting a cloud forest
Did you ever go backpacking in Costa Rica? How was your experience? Feel free to share any tips in the comments below!