Costa Rica reopened its border on 1 August, one of the first countries to do so during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Given its natural beauty and abundance of outdoor activities, it’s high on the list of many wanderlust-struck travelers.
Initially, Costa Rica only allowed visitors from select countries and a handful of US states with low COVID-19 infection rates, and required a negative test to visit the country. As of 26 October 2020, however, the negative test requirement was eliminated, and as of 1 November 2020, not only can residents from all 50 US states visit, but visitors from all countries are welcome.
Though negative COVID-19 test results are no longer part of Costa Rica’s entry requirements, getting a test before your visit is still the right thing to do. Not only will it help prevent the spread of the virus, but also save you the headache of having to convert your vacation into a two-week quarantine should you begin exhibiting symptoms after you arrive.
During the pandemic, Costa Rica has enacted some of the strongest safety and sanitation requirements I’ve heard of anywhere, which they’re implementing consistently across the country. As such, I felt extremely safe there, particularly when I saw dozens of sinks that had been installed at restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions to enable hand washing before entering a building.
Masks are required everywhere, and Costa Ricans happily wear them even when outdoors and in uncrowded places. Many of my guides wore masks outdoors even when there was little risk of infection, including when I was the only guest on a 30-person wildlife-watching boat tour. Costa Ricans understand that masks protect both themselves and others from the virus and will also help to rebuild the tourism industry that the country relies on so heavily.
In addition to masks, most hotel and restaurant workers wear gloves and face shields. Most of these businesses also have foot-sanitizing floor mats at their entrances and hand sanitizer all over the place. Temperatures are taken before entering most hotels (and some outdoor attractions), shoes are often sprayed with disinfectant before you enter a tour van, crowd sizes have been dramatically limited, and social distancing is strongly enforced.
All of the five hotels I stayed in were operating well under capacity (about 10-30% each), and most beaches, restaurants, parks, and attractions were empty. Several of my guides shared that they’re only receiving a fraction of the visitors they normally receive (think dozens, versus hundreds). Many of the luxury resorts are currently offering discounted rates.
One guide told me that tours are quickly filling up from April 2021, so if you’re comfortable traveling, between January and March would be a great time to visit. Conveniently, the warm, dry weather associated with these months also makes it the best time to visit.
Costa Rica is known for outdoor activities, which tend to be the safest ways to enjoy travel right now. Note that if you plan on doing any hiking (even moderate hikes in the forest), you’ll want to bring actual hiking boots. Even if hiking sandals have sufficient grip for the terrain, they won’t protect you from snakes or fire ants.
Mountain biking, road cycling, rafting, paddle boarding, kayaking, zip lining, canyoneering, scuba diving, and many other activities are available all over Costa Rica. I’m including my itinerary here, but know you can find most of these options all over the country.
The Monteverde district, in the north-central part of the country, is situated in a cloud forest 4,662 ft (1,440 m) above sea level, so it’s a bit cooler and more humid than other regions. Be sure to bring a light rain jacket and waterproof hiking boots.
In Monteverde, I visited some wildlife reserves and went on an epic zip lining and hanging bridge walk with Sky Adventures. But my highlight of the region was El Tigre Waterfalls, a collection of several falls connected by a series of hanging bridges and rugged mountain trails. Note that this is a semi-strenuous hike, but if you’re up for the challenge, you’re in for a treat – and a swim.
Also in north-central Costa Rica, and located near the famous Arenal volcano, the town of La Fortuna is a popular destination that’s known for road cycling, mountain biking, zip lining. and rafting.
The La Fortuna waterfall is the most popular attraction in this region, and with good reason. I visited late on a Saturday afternoon, making my way down (and then back up) 600 steps to the 230ft (70m) waterfall, and there was only one other couple swimming with me. Half a dozen other visitors swam in the calmer stream off to the side of the waterfall.
My favorite activity in Costa Rica was river tubing with Go Adventure. I had hoped to go rafting, but since there weren’t enough people to make the tour, I joined a Costa Rican couple and floated through mild rapids and along dense forest dotted with howler monkeys and sloth. I spent both of my evenings at Paradise Hot Springs, soaking in outdoor thermal water pools that overlooked the Arenal Volcano.
Along Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast is the jungle-meets-beach Manuel Antonio National Park. Luxury hotels surrounding the park get you closest to the beach, forest, and animals, but less-expensive accommodation can be found a 15-minute taxi ride away in the town of Quepos.
Several prominent trails and beaches are closed to prevent crowding on walkways, but I was still able to hike several miles along wooden boardwalks, where I spotted various types of monkeys, countless birds, and (with the help of my guide), venomous snakes! Bring boots, not hiking sandals.
I had hoped to go scuba diving, but a hurricane heading toward nearby Nicaragua had left the waters tumultuous and cloudy, so I took a surfing lesson instead. My instructor insisted that the “small” waves were good for beginners, but after falling about 20 times and swallowing two liters of the Pacific Ocean, I began to think he was leading me on. I did eventually stand up for about two seconds, then abandoned the activity for an afternoon nap. Should you wish to take a surfing lesson, just look for an instructor hanging around the shady area of the beach.
I've since learned that there are great surfing opportunities for beginners all over the country. The appropriateness of the waves depends mostly on the weather each day, rather than the location.
The capital city, San Jose, has the widest variety of museums, dining options, and art galleries, but if you’re looking for nature options, it’s best to just overnight here, then head elsewhere.
I joined a thrilling mountain bike tour with Marin Bike Tours that journeyed along an old, abandoned rail line outside of San Jose. Though some of the route was along paved roads that twisted and turned through spectacularly lush and beautiful scenery, much of the route consisted of riding over very muddy, rocky terrain and, in some cases, along steep drop-offs. There were also two spots where I had to walk my bicycle along very high rails that overlooked the river several hundred feet below. I enjoyed the ride, but if I were to do it again, I’d ask the guides to eliminate the most difficult parts. If you’re not experienced with mountain biking or you’re afraid of heights, I strongly suggest booking a different route.
Uber is available (and is often cheaper than taxis), as are affordable public buses that can transport you between cities. Most travelers, however, rent their own vehicle or hire a local tour operator to arrange transportation. Wi-Fi is widely available, so should you rent your own vehicle, you could download driving directions before leaving your hotel.
Many restaurants and businesses remain closed and most tour companies have reduced the number of activities they offer each day and/or require a minimum number of participants to go out. Since the majority of tourism in the country now comes from Costa Ricans, many businesses only operate on the weekends, when locals are most likely to travel. It’s absolutely possible to find food and fun mid-week, you’ll just have fewer options (and smaller crowds).
COVID-19 test: Should you need to get a test to return to your home country, expect to pay between USD $60-$300 (CRC 35,400-177,000) and wait 1-6 days. My test with Laboratories San Jose cost about USD $90 (CRC 53,100) and came back the same day, but I heard widely varying reports on pricing and turnaround time. If you absolutely need results back within 24-48 hours, you may have to pay for the more expensive rapid test.
What precautions can travelers take to lower the risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus? Check out our tips for safe travel during the pandemic.
Is it safe to go on a multi-day whitewater rafting trip with strangers? Nomad Ellen shares her experience.
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