Tropical Travel: Visiting Costa Rica as a Solo Female Traveler
Craving the Pura Vida lifestyle? Costa Ricans are some of the nicest people I've met and will go out of their way to help someone in trouble. Pair this with lush rainforest, tropical beaches, adventure activities, and some of the freshest food in the world is what makes Costa Rica a fantastic destination for a #solofemaletraveler.
Weather and When to Visit:
Costa Rica does not have four seasons. Their seasons are divided into two: the Rainy Season (know as Verde) and the dry seasons also known as the High season. However, the country is made up of many different climate zones, which also creates a lot of microclimates within the country. Located between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica is classified as a tropical country because of how close it is to the equator. Many other locations can be simplified to tourist season and off season, however depending on your budget and desired activities deciding when to visit Costa Rica is way more complex. Click here for a month-by-month break down of Costa Rican weather.
Do I need a Rental Car?
The short answer is no, you definitely do not need a rental car to see the best of Costa Rica. Between buses and private drivers and Uber (in San Jose) there are many options to get around. In fact, if you are visiting Costa Rica during the high season (Dec-Feb) I would advise against renting a car as the prices are astronomical and would wind up costing more than a private taxi! Additionally many taxis drivers are very friendly and give you lots of good information when getting you where you need to go. If you do opt to rent a car you most likely will not need a 4x4, although helpful, for most destinations on the tourist trail.
*Be Aware: Car Rental Scams: There are many places that will try to scam tourists during the insurance portion of the car rental booking process- luckily the woman I was housesitting for set up my rental booking but even though everything was already prepaid they still tried to tac on extra fees and costs at the counter! Costa Rican Travel Blog has a great write up on how to avoid this.
What makes this country even more romantic is that there are no addresses! Yes, that's right Costa Rica does not have a standardized system of addresses, at least not ones that can be typed into Google Maps. Many streets are unnamed, and virtually none have signs. Many houses don’t have numbers. It's just another Tico quirk that will make you fall in love with this country.
Google maps is pretty much never used here (except rare occasions) and Waze is the number one GPS app and is very effective in getting you where you need to go.
Another thing to note is that locals swear up and down not to drive at night. So, naturally what did I do? On my way from Quepos to Monteverde late afternoon quickly darkened and I spent the last of the 3+ hour drive on a road akin to a spiral staircase set in the cloud forest with a lightning storm that looked like it would pierce my windshield at any moment. Don't be like me! Winding roads, huge pot holes, motorbikes, heavy rain, lack of guardrails and wildlife are some of the many reasons it's not safe to drive at night. So if you are planning on driving a long distance make sure to leave early to avoid driving at night.
Costa Rican Colones is the local currency but USD is widely accepted here. Note that its best to carry small bills as it is harder to get change for larger notes. As a tourist, most items that you’ll buy in Costa Rica are automatically priced in USD, if not priced in Costa Rican colones or both USD and Costa Rican colones. Though most travelers get by only ever using USD when spending money in Costa Rica, it’s a good idea to start your trip with a few thousand colones on you. There are some situations where it is better or required to pay in colones, i.e. paying highway tolls, when taking taxis, shopping at roadside stalls or eating at sodas, or traveling to remote or off the beaten path destinations.
I would advise not exchanging all of your US dollars to colones because as you spend money in Costa Rica (assuming you spend USD), you’ll collect colones in the process so you don’t lose money unnecessarily on currency exchange.
It is not wise to rely on ATMs for cash for the duration of your trip. Doing so while leave you hit with hefty fees from both the ATM in Costa Rica and from your home bank.
The easiest way to spend money in Costa Rica is to use a credit card. Credit cards are widely accepted in Costa Rica, make sure you have a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Sim Cards & Phone plans
Moviestar, Kolbi, and Claro are the main network providers in Costa Rica. I personally used Kolbi and didn't have any problems. The Set up is a little tricky. Make sure you have an unlocked phone, you can purchase a sim card in the airport or at some (not all!) convenience stores. Usually the phone stores at the airport will actually put in the new sim card and set up the service for you but you can easily do this on your own as well. Once you place the new sim card a few prompts will pop up on your phone instructing you what to do then you can go to a convenience store or grocery store and top up! Simply tell the cashier which phone service you have, give them your phone number, and how much you want and pay in cash. You must pay by cash (no credit) when topping up your account and this can be done at many small convenience stores and grocery stores. Look for a sign on the outside of the store.
Places of Interest
When visiting the park you will be bombarded with guys trying to get you to park at their lot. It’s quite the operation, they have makeshift “badges” and whistles and insist it’s impossible to go forward. Don’t believe it. This lot is at least a 20min walk from the park and there are much closer parking options. (My Airbnb host said don’t even be afraid to honk at them!) Jusg keep going and following your gps to the park and at the closest lot to the park, you will still need to pay around 5000 Colones or $8USD but they will watch your car for you, a bit better than parking on the street. Also if you want a guide don’t bother booking one online (unless you have an amazing recommendation) you can find a guide at the park entrance for $20 pp. Don’t pay more than this. A guide isn't 100% necessary but it is the best option if you don’t have a pair of binoculars with you. It’s only possible to see the sloths and some other animals with their telescope and they know where to look and how to position it. Make sure to visit the cafe area inside the park, there are monkeys running all around here!
San Jose is a bustling city! As with any big city, be vigilant and keep your belongings on you and in sight at all times. Also I would avoid walking in the city (alone or not) after sunset altogether. Make sure to visit the San Jose Central Market this is the best place in the city to buy souvenirs and also has great food options.
Uvita & Dominical:
There are amazing beaches, waterfalls, and dining options in both Uvita and Dominical. Uvita is known for having a lot of "spiritually minded" individuals and Dominical has a beachy/ touristy vibe (and the prices reflect this so be careful.) Make sure to check out Playa Hermosa at sunset and Parque Nacional Marino Ballena.
Rancho Cielo Alto offers an amazing 4 course meal hosted by Chef Jazmin in a wonderful balcony restaurant overlooking the ocean, it's truly the culinary experience of a lifetime! It fills up quick so make sure to call ahead for reservations.
Outside of someone’s home, Sodas are the place to eat traditional Costa Rican food. Marisquerías are similar to sodas, but they specialize in seafood. Mostly found along the coasts They serve up simple dishes like camarónes al ajillo (garlic shrimp), arroz con mariscos (rice with mixed seafood), grilled or fried fish, soups, and ceviches. On Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays, every region of Costa Rica holds its weekly feria, a farmer’s market featuring live music, food vendors, and seasonal produce. Finally, on highways and country roads throughout Costa Rica, open-air fruit stands are plentiful and offer an opportunity to find local and lesser known fruits and vegetables.
Examples of typical dishes:
Casado: the cheapest dish in Costa Rica consisting of rice with beans, salad, and some protein (either chicken, beef, pork, or fish). The name means "married".
Chifrijo: the name comes from the three main ingredients, being 'chicharrones' (fried pork belly), 'chimichurri' sauce and 'frijoles' (beans).
Vigorón: cabbage salad, boiled Yuca (a root) and chicharrón.
Gallo pinto: a typical Costa Rican breakfast with rice, beans, and scrambled eggs
Arroz con Leche: (literally “rice with milk”)
Patacones: Smashed fried plantain chips usually served with guacamole and pico de gallo (my favorite!)
Vocab & Helpful Phrases
Ticos: Someone who is from Costa Rica, a local.
Buen provecho!: Enjoy your meal, Bon appetit.
¿Cómo llego a ___? (How do I get to…?)
¿Dónde está el baño? (Where is the bathroom?)
¿Dónde está el hotel ___? (Where is the ___ hotel?)
¿Dónde está el restaurante ___? (Where is the ___ restaurant?)
¿A qué hora es el ___? (At what time is the ___?)
¿Cuánto tiempo se tarda en ___? (How long does it take to ___?)
Soy alérgico a ___ (I am allergic to ___)
¿Tiene esto ___? (Does this have ___?)
Me Siento mal (I feel sick)
Una mesa para dos por favor. (A table for two please.)
Health & Safety
Theft: If you have a rental car make sure you leave absolutely nothing visible on the inside when you park. Break-ins and petty theft are common for rental cars. If you have a compact car with a trunk you may feel like leaving your stuff in there would be fine but I wouldn't risk it. Basically, the saying is don't bring anything with you that you wouldn't mind losing. This also goes for when visiting the beach, unless you have someone with you to take turns watching each other's stuff but for solo travelers most of the time that isn't an option! You could bring a little waterproof bag with you but if you want to swim or snorkel it can be annoying. I would say it's best to leave everything at your accommodation and enjoy the moment! This also goes for travelers on foot, make sure to avoid wearing flashy clothes and jewelry.
Taxis: Only take the red taxis, these are the official taxis.
Covid-19: Many countries require a covid test for entry so if you are going back home or on to another destination you may need to get a covid test. The best place to get this is at Lab Enchandi. There are locations in San Jose city and at the airport! I got mine at a location in San Jose and it was about $65 USD with results in two hours. No appointment was needed and I was in and out in less than 30 minutes.
Bugs & other Creatures
While mosquitos are less of a problem up in the mountains, if you are in the jungle or at the beach you will find a lot of them. I recommend buying bug spray (a spray bottle, not aerosol can) before you come to Costa Rica – Mosquito repellant tends to be about double the cost it is in the US. You have to remember that things which are imported have a high tax, so in general bug spray and many other items will be a lot more expensive here. There are also plenty of spiders (Hello, Tarantulas), scorpions, and other critters that may find their way into your accommodation! They are pretty harmless so use the old jar and paper method to remove them and put them outside.
Remember: the prettier and brighter the colors, the more venomous as these creatures don't require camouflage!
Coffee & Chocolate
Costa Rica is known internationally for its coffee and chocolate so why not take a tour and see how each is made? Better yet you can stay on an authentic coffee farm and learn all about it first hand, read my post about Finca Lluvias de Gloria, a wonderful Bed and Breakfast on a coffee farm!
Fun Fact: a Chorreador
(sho-reah-door) is the "Costa Rican Coffee maker" and is essentially
a cloth that works like a pour-over coffee
and traps the acidic creme leaving only the oils to filter through giving you the
perfect cup of Costa Rican coffee- and it
makes for a great souvenir!
Give yourself extra time. Traffic, wildlife crossing, car accidents, there’s so much unexpected that can delay your travels. Also, island time is a real thing don’t expect to pop into a cafe for a quick coffee and rush off. Even a cortado takes a while. It’s just what it is. Remember to travel with a mindset of flexibility and appreciation and don’t rush or over plan and enjoy. Pura Vida!
Other things to note:
The parking in parking lots all faces the same way
Don’t bother looking at weather apps- they are usually incorrect and the weather changes by the minute!
A comma is used in place of the period in amounts here (i.e. $400,00 = $400.00)
Some places may have an interesting looking shower head- where the water heater is located in the shower head itself. For hot water you need to turn the water on just barely, as the lower the water flow the hotter the water will be.
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