Dense rainforests, incredible wildlife, breathtaking views, and cultural cuisine — Costa Rica is a natural playground for endless adventure. At least, that’s what travel photographer, blogger, and content creator Jackie Krawiecki found on an epic road trip through one of the planet’s most biodiverse destinations. And she’s an expert on making the absolute most out of every location she visits.
“I’m a millennial who works a full-time job, yet I still find ways to travel frequently without breaking the bank, because traveling is what makes me feel most alive,” says the adventurer. “I help fellow travelers who are looking for ways to maximize their PTO by crafting unique, adventure-packed travel itineraries, so people can see a whole lot in a small amount of time.”
During her time in Costa Rica, Krawiecki ventured to thick jungle landscapes, indulged in local delicacies, chilled on pristine beaches, and observed a plethora of exotic fauna. So we asked her to break down all the essential highlights of her trip, from where to get a taste of the local fare to the one thing every first-time visitor should do. Read on for Krawiecki’s full adventure guide to Costa Rica.
WHY COSTA RICA?
Costa Rica is a must-visit destination because it has everything! Pristine beaches, rugged coastlines, vibrant culture, jungle, mountains, hot springs, and tons of wildlife. It appeals to all kinds of travelers, from adventure lovers and wildlife enthusiasts to anyone who wants to kick back and relax on the beach or soak in a natural hot spring.
What we loved the most about Costa Rica was the nature — specifically, the biodiversity and the resources they invest in protecting it. For example, over a quarter of the land in Costa Rica is protected by national parks, wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, and protected biological reserves. These protected areas are home to over half a million plant and animal species and unique ecosystems.
Two of the most spectacular and heavily protected areas we visited were the cloud forest in Monteverde and Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. Both places support an overwhelming amount of biodiversity. From the giant tropical foliage, exotic wildlife, and thick moss, there wasn’t an inch of space left unoccupied. There really is no place like them.
What’s one thing that every first-time visitor should see or do in Costa Rica?
Go ziplining! Costa Rica is the best place in the world for ziplining because it offers the unique experience of flying through the jungle canopy.
Monteverde and the Arenal area outside of La Fortuna are the most popular places for ziplining. Personally, I recommend Arenal for its spectacular views of the jungle, Arenal Volcano, and the surrounding Talamanca Mountains.
Other Costa Rica bucket list experiences are taking a surf lesson in Nosara, walking through the cloud forest in Monteverde, soaking in hot springs in La Fortuna, and hiking to the Insta-famous Rio Celeste Waterfall in Volcano Tenorio National Park.
Looking for something even more unique and adventurous? Visit Corcovado National Park and snorkel Caño Island, two of the most magnificent, biodiverse, and rugged places in all of Costa Rica. You can visit both places from Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula.
Top tips for a Costa Rican road trip?
My first tip is to book your car early! In the high season or around holidays, the price of rental cars in Costa Rica skyrockets the closer you get to your arrival date. Sometimes they even sell out. We booked our car with Adobe Rental Car in October for our trip at the end of December and managed to snag one of the last SUVs available for our travel dates.
My next tip is to budget more than you think you need. In my opinion, Costa Rica isn’t exactly a budget-friendly destination. We actually found that prices of international food, cars, and lodging are comparable to prices in the United States. A huge way to save money on your Costa Rica road trip is to check if you actually need a 4×4. Most people assume you need a 4×4 for a road trip in Costa Rica, but in most cases, you can actually get around just fine without one. Just make sure you have high clearance.
And my last essential tip is to download Whatsapp. It’s used for everything from tour reservations to communicating with your hotel or Airbnb hosts.
City or town in Costa Rica with the best food scene?
If you ask any local in Costa Rica where to find the best food, they’ll send you straight to the nearest soda. Sodas are small local restaurants that serve generous portions of typical Costa Rican food, such as casados, for very cheap (about $5 a plate). You can’t really go wrong with the sodas and you can find them all over Costa Rica.
For something a little more eclectic, head to Tamarindo, a small town on the Pacific Coast. Here you’ll find the most diverse food scene in the country. We loved the Italian fare at Antichi Sapori, the local seafood at Dragonfly Bar and Grill, and the huevos rancheros at Cafe Tico.
If you find yourself down in Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula, don’t miss Kalaluna Bistro. Situated right on the ocean, it’s the highest-rated restaurant in Drake Bay and often requires reservations at least 2 days in advance because it books out solid! The wait is worth it though because they serve the best Italian food you’ll find in all of Costa Rica, as well as local seafood and vegan options.
Best city or area for outdoor excursions and adventure activities?
La Fortuna (Arenal area) is the best area for outdoor excursions because it’s the adventure capital of Costa Rica! Any adventure you’re looking for is only a few kilometers from the town center. In fact, I wrote an entire guide on the best adventures to have around La Fortuna! You can find it here.
You can spend your time relaxing in volcanically heated hot springs, hiking through lava fields, rappelling down waterfalls, walking above the jungle canopy, and exploring ancient underground cave systems.
Where to get the absolute best view in Costa Rica?
This is a hard question because there are so many different views in Costa Rica! It really depends on what type of experience you want to have.
Hike the Arenal 1968 Trail near La Fortuna for a jaw-dropping view of Arenal Volcano. Visit the Sky Walk in Monteverde for the best view of the famous cloud forest canopy. And for the most majestic waterfall view, head to Boca del Toro or Nauyaca Waterfalls.
Coolest hotel or place to stay?
There are so many amazing hotels and places to stay in Costa Rica, but the most unique place we stumbled upon was Topos Treehouse, located in Limón on the lush Caribbean Coast. Topos Treehouse is a multi-floor jungle treehouse actually set inside of a massive ancient strangler fig. The roots of the tree run throughout the treehouse, creating a super unique experience. It’s also only a short walk to the popular surf beach, Playa Negra, and Cahuita National Park.
Best time of year to visit?
The best time of year to visit Costa Rica is in the dry season, which falls between mid-December and April. The dry season is also the busiest and most expensive time of year, so it’s extra important to book rental cars and accommodation well ahead of time!
The rainy season is May through November. Like the rest of Central America, it rains A LOT in the rainy season. However, while the weather can be a bit of a downer, the bright side is that everything is cheaper and there are far fewer crowds.
Try to avoid traveling to Costa Rica in September and October, as those are the wettest months and a lot of tour businesses shut down.
Anything else you’d like to add about Costa Rica?
So, this is a very unpopular opinion, but we actually didn’t care for Manuel Antonio! For context, Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular places in Costa Rica. It’s known for its pristine white sand beaches and picturesque coastline. However, we personally found the area to be extremely chaotic and even the lesser-known beaches were very crowded.
On the other hand, one of our favorite spots was Nauyaca Waterfalls! Located less than an hour south of Manuel Antonio, Nauyaca is the most magnificent waterfall in all of Costa Rica (and still somewhat of a hidden gem). We loved that there was room to spread out, swim, and take photos, even in high season. Don’t feel like making the hike? Simply book a truck ride from the Nauyaca Waterfalls Office! You can find all the details and essential tips in my Nauyaca Waterfalls guide.