Solo Travel Guide to Costa Rica
Costa Rica is an incredible country to experience as a solo traveler. Welcoming people, incredible beaches, impressive volcanoes, and biodiversity that will blow your mind, so it’s no wonder that Costa Rica is the adventure capital of Central America!
After my first trip to Costa Rica in 2012, my perspective on life completely changed. I ditched my stressful lifestyle in New York City and decided to live the life of my dreams in my twenties and early thirties. I moved to Costa Rica and started traveling the world. Learning to surf, becoming fluent in Spanish, and living in paradise is something I’ll never regret.
In this guide to solo travel in Costa Rica, I’ll lay out where to visit, what adventure activities to do, how to save money while traveling, and even point out a few places to skip on your itinerary. Specifically, I’ll cover the main areas solo travelers enjoy including:
- San José & Alajuela
- La Fortuna & Arenal
- Monteverde and the cloud forest
- Tamarindo, Guanacaste, & the Nicoya Peninsula
- The Caribbean including Limón, Puerto Viejo, and Tortuguero
- The Central Pacific including Quepos, Manuel Antonio, Dominical, & Uvita
- The Osa Peninsula & Corcovado National Park
Best time to visit Costa Rica: November 15-April 15 is considered the dry season, however, it can rain in November and April. Avoid the week before Easter, as “Semana Santa” is a big holiday for Costa Ricans. Prices will be higher and beaches will be packed.
Here is why you should consider visiting Costa Rica in the off-season.
Currency: The Costa Rican Colon, but all places do accept dollars at a worse exchange rate. Credit cards are accepted in most places except rural areas. Bring unripped bills from the United States. Many ATMs do not dispense more than $100 US.
Safety: Costa Rica is pretty safe overall, but petty crime is an issue. Be careful at night, especially at bars, or walking alone. Be extremely careful in the water, as rip currents can be strong. Sadly, I lost a good friend in the Caribbean Ocean.
TLDR Itinerary: Skip San José and head for La Fortuna. Explore the rainforest around Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano. Then head to the beach near Manuel Antonio or in Guanacaste.
San José and Alajuela
I usually say that seeing a country’s capital is a great way to see what a place is really like, but San José really sells Costa Rica short in my opinion. If you came to Costa Rica, you probably have high expectations and San José isn’t the best representation of the country. Traffic is bad, and there isn’t much beautiful architecture, but there are still some gems to be found in the Central Valley region. You are still always surrounded by lush green mountains!
The urban center of San José
“El Centro” of San José features Plaza de la Cultura, or the cultural plaza, where you will find the Mercado Central, National Theater, including several museums like the Jade Museum and National Museum of Costa Rica. The botanical gardens and Spirogyra Butterfly Garden aren’t far from the center of San José. There are some pedestrian streets, but don’t venture off the beaten path, as some areas of the capital city are dangerous. Barrio California is a party district, but be especially careful at night.
When I’m visiting San José, I like to stay in Escazu at Aparthotel & Suites Villas del Rio. Raw Co. Juicery & Food is one of my favorite little places to work from my computer. I have Maricruz, our Costa Rican team member, to thank for taking me to Madfish, another excellent restaurant in the area. Escazu has a much more suburban feel to it than the center of San José. It is a very safe, high-end district. And if, for some reason, you needed to go to a high-end shopping mall or the US Embassy in Costa Rica, you can find them here too.
Day trips & places around San José
All around San José you will see beautiful mountains so in some of the more suburban areas you will have access to nature. The weather can get cooler quickly as you head higher in elevation so always have a waterproof jacket with you.
Alajuela is the town nearest Juan Santamaría International Airport. Again, traffic can be bad in this area, so leave yourself plenty of time if you decide to visit Alajuela before your flight. That being said, it’s nice to see a typical “Tico” (Costa Rican) town. Go to the main plaza, check out the Juan Santamaría Museum to learn some Costa Rican history, and walk by the Catedral de Alajuela. This area is very safe. The best outdoor adventure in this area is Poas Volcano. Keep in mind that it is an active volcano, so at times it is not open.
In the mountain towns like Heredia, there are several coffee plantations that are well worth checking out. Starbucks owns one in this area, but I’d really prefer if you visited something locally owned like Dota Coffee.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park is one of the most beautiful areas near the airport. The waterfalls are beautiful but don’t expect rugged hiking trails. Most of the walking paths are paved, which is great for accessibility. La Paz is the largest nature sanctuary in Costa Rica with over 100 types of animals, including jaguars, pumas, sloths, monkeys, hummingbirds, snakes, and frogs. These animals were mainly illegal pets now under the care of the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry and can not be released back into the wild.
For more check out our Guide to San José, Costa Rica.
La Fortuna & Arenal
The first thing I’d do on a trip to Costa Rica is head for the rainforest. If you’ll be visiting the beach on your trip, I’d save that for the end of your trip. You are visiting the rainforest, so after a few days of getting wet, it’s nice to relax and dry out at the beach. The best place to access the rainforest in Costa Rica is the town of La Fortuna. This region of Costa Rica changed my life and many of our travelers' lives!
La Fortuna is a small town, once known for agriculture, but now a hub for adventure travel. There are plenty of hostels, backpacker bars, and local tour operators based here. Any type of white water rafting, canyoning, trekking, zip-lining, horseback riding, ATVing, etc. can all be done in this area. Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano are the two big attractions near La Fortuna.
Until 2010 the Arenal Volcano frequently erupted hot molten ash and hotels were built all around the base of the volcano to take advantage of the thermal hot springs. While the volcano is no longer erupting, there are plenty of hotels with naturally heated pools to relax in. However, if you want one of the best eco-lodge experiences in the world, I highly recommend staying at Rancho Margot.
Arenal National Park is always a fun stop, but in my opinion, it’s not a “must-do” in the region. Don’t get me wrong, I like the park--it’s a good place for light hikes without much elevation change, nice views of the volcano and lake, and an amazing ceiba tree. But do keep in mind, you can’t climb the volcano.
I actually prefer Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park over Arenal National Park. Mistico is privately owned and has fantastic hanging bridges like the name implies. I’ve also seen spider monkeys at Mistico, but never at Arenal National Park.
The top activity in the region, in my opinion, is Sky Adventures’ Sky Trek Zip-line. I’ve been on many canopy tour ziplines in the country, and Sky Trek is by far the best. Instead of a zip-line strung from tree to tree, imagine zipping through the jungle from mountain to mountain. Skytrek has the level of infrastructure that you’d find at a major ski resort. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the top of the Arenal Volcano and have an impressive view of the lake where a large percentage of Costa Rica’s renewable energy comes from.
Like I mentioned before, there is no shortage of adventure activities to do based in La Fortuna. I’d recommend whitewater rafting with Flow Trips on the Rio Sarapiquí. If you stay at Rancho Margot, there are plenty of hikes, horseback riding, and kayaking to do in and around the ranch.
Looking for a local spot to eat? Check out Soda La Hormiga in La Fortuna where you should be able to get a full Costa Rican “casado” with rice, beans, your choice of protein, a tortilla, “natilla” (a sweet Tico sour cream), and a small salad or plantains for just $4-$5 USD!
If you want to check out La Fortuna Waterfall, you are more than welcome. It’s not the most adventurous waterfall hike in Costa Rica, and it’s overpriced at $18, but if you don’t plan to visit the waterfalls I recommend below in the Central Pacific, then go for it!
Check out these 6 Tips and Travel Hacks for Costa Rica.
Monteverde and the Costa Rican Cloud Forest
If you liked the rainforest, you’ll certainly enjoy the cloud forest… imagine similar biodiversity, but you guessed it, less rain and more clouds! Monteverde isn’t nearly as visited as La Fortuna, but if you are looking for something a little more off the beaten path than Arenal, then this is your spot. You won’t have a view of the volcano or the lake, but the cloud forest experience is an excellent one.
The town of Monteverde was originally settled by a group of draft-dodging Quakers who fled the United States during World War II and became dairy farmers deep in the Costa Rican jungle. You can still see Quaker culture in this area today.
There are several options for activities in Monteverde including low-cost options for hiking like Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, Curi-Cancha Reserve, Selvatura Adventure Park with hanging bridges, and finally Sky Adventures Monteverde where you can take the tram to the top, hike, visit the reptile exhibition, and zip-line down.
Tamarindo, Guanacaste, & the Nicoya Peninsula
From Monteverde or La Fortuna, I’d recommend driving up to the northern province of Guanacaste and basing yourself near Tamarindo. There is also an international airport in Liberia that is just an hour from the beach that is a lot less hassle than San José.
Tamarindo is a world-famous surf town, popularized by the “Endless Summer II” surf documentary. Here you’ll find a half dozen surf breaks, plenty of good food, and robust nightlife during peak season. I spent my first winter in Costa Rica here learning to surf before I decided it was time to try somewhere a little quieter. My favorite day trip was walking up to Playa Grande north along the beach to the estuary, paying a guy operating a tiny ferry less than a dollar to bring me to the other side, and walking along this untouched beach. Playa Grande is part of Las Baulas National Marine Park where the leatherback turtles seasonally nest. Just don’t return past sunset, or your ferry driver might have gone home for the evening. I did this and had to swim back across with crocodiles.
Two of my favorite places to hang out are Witch’s Rock Surf Camp where they offer nachos “as big as yo ass” and the Volcano Brewing Company, each featuring Costa Rican craft beer.
Noguis is a great spot for coffee and desserts and Chiringuito is great for seafood, owned by locals.
Heading south on the Nicoya Peninsula, there are a few great towns that you may want to consider as a solo traveler. Nosara is a dusty town with several yoga retreat centers and good surf at Playa Guiones. I wish I had more recommendations for Samara, but the road between Nosara and Samara was flooded when I tried to go! Santa Teresa is another sleepy beach town near Malpais and Montezuma. All these towns are slices of paradise!
The Caribbean including Limón, Puerto Viejo, and Tortuguero
If you want to round out your trip to Costa Rica, I suggest visiting the Caribbean side of the country. Far fewer people visit the Caribbean, but it’s worth the drive if you have the time. You can also fly around the country using Sansa, the domestic airline of Costa Rica.
Some of the best whitewater rafting in Costa Rica is on the Caribbean side of the country on the Pacuare River. I’d recommend staying at the remote Pacuare Lodge where we run our Costa Rica Adventure trip and raft through class II, III, and IV rapids. This riverside eco-lodge is an incredible place to spend a night during your rafting trip. This area also has excellent coffee plantations near the mountain town of Turrialba.
In Limon, ride the tram at Veragua Rainforest Park, and then head to the beach. Cahuita National Park is well known for its waterfall and protected coral reefs close to shore. You should also consider visiting the Jaguar Rescue Center, a home for sick, injured, and orphaned animals.
Puerto Viejo is one of the cuter towns in Costa Rica, where you’ll see the influence of people who’ve been settling from Jamaica over the last 100 years. Amidst the colorful homes, you’ll notice many of the locals speak either English or an Afro-Caribbean dialect referred to as “patois”. Consider extending your trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama as I recommend in my Guide to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
One of the most remote regions of Costa Rica you can explore is Tortuguero National Park, accessible only by boat or plane. The flight into Tortuguero is stunning if you don’t mind flying in a puddle jumper. Otherwise, the bus can only get within 20 miles (32 kilometers) of Tortuguero, and you’ll need to take an hour boat ride through the jungle.
Tortuguero is where the leatherback turtles lay their eggs and one of the most biodiverse areas of the country. There is a small village in Tortuguero and very few cars, which is an excellent feature in my opinion!
The Central Pacific including Quepos, Manuel Antonio, Dominical, & Uvita
If you are driving from San José, Guanacaste, or Monteverde on your way to the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica, I’d suggest skipping the town of Jacó and continuing to Playa Hermosa. Stop for lunch in Jacó if you must, but I think you’ll enjoy Playa Hermosa a lot more. Over the last fifteen years, Jacó has become an overdeveloped party town, and you can still see remnants of abandoned high-rise condos that went bust.
Playa Hermosa is normally my first stop on my way back home to Manuel Antonio where I lived for 6+ years. Costa Rica is a small place, but there are three “Playa Hermosas” in the country, and one just north in Nicaragua. But what can I say… these beaches are beautiful (“hermosa” translates to ‘beautiful’ in Spanish)! The black sand beach here in the province of Puntarenas has big waves and a dangerous current, so if you are going to swim or surf, use extreme caution. Say hello to Roger, the Tico owner of the oceanfront Bowie’s Point Restaurant… but more than likely he’ll be in the water surfing.
Just an hour south you’ll find Quepos, a sleepy fishing village that is now home to a world-class marina. Here you’ll find some of the best sportfishing in the world, but not much else until you go up the hill to Manuel Antonio. There is a local bus to ride from Quepos to Manuel Antonio that stops anywhere you’d ever want to go in town. Be sure to visit the farmer’s market on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. Quepos is fairly safe to walk around during the day, so it’s a good opportunity to check out small-town life in Costa Rica. Catch the sunset on the Malecon seawall. For cheap, authentic eats, visit my favorite hole in the wall, Soda La Tiquicia, for gallo pinto, the traditional rice and beans breakfast dish.
Manuel Antonio is a tourist town that sits on the hill above Quepos. You will not be disappointed going to Café Milagro, rated the best cup of coffee in Costa Rica. I ate several meals per week here for years. Across the street, you’ll find Emilio’s Café which has good food and an even better view. If you rented a 4x4 vehicle, continue down the road past Emilio’s to Playitas, the best surf beach in town.
If you are looking to splurge on accommodations, consider staying inside a Boeing 727 at Hotel Costa Verde. For a cheaper place to stay, consider Selina’s Hostel. Selina’s has a co-working space, yoga studio, and fun nightlife around the pool.
My favorite activities in Manuel Antonio are Quepo Canyoning where you get to rappel down a waterfall. A few years ago, we decided to stop going to Manuel Antonio National Park because of its issues with sustainability. The situation is improving, so we may reconsider, but regardless if you go to the park or not, there is a high chance you’ll see sloths and monkeys in this area outside the park. Whatever you do, please don’t feed the monkeys in Costa Rica.
Heading 45 minutes south of Quepos you’ll find the hippy town of Dominical. They have an outdoor market, a fantastic natural food store, and great surfing. If you like yoga, consider staying at Danyasa. Another one of my favorite places is Café Mono Congo, where they have fantastic coffee and vegetarian food. Don’t leave without trying their “monkey balls.” Tortilla Flats is another fun spot to have a beer and crush some tacos at sunset.
Finally, continue south to Uvita to see the “whale’s tail” landmass that appears at low tide at Marino Ballena National Park. This region is even more sleepy than Quepos and Dominical. There are tons of waterfalls along this stretch of the Central Pacific. I’d suggest Los Campesinos, Eco Chontales, La Ceiba, Nauyaca, Uvita, Pavon, and Ojochal… these waterfalls can be difficult to access as a tourist, so consider going with our friends at Paddle9 on a day tour.
The Osa Peninsula & Corcovado National Park
On the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, we have the “crown jewel” of Costa Rica: Corcovado National Park. The Nicoya Peninsula is a long way from the airport in San José, so you may want to consider flying on Sansa Airline into Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez. It might seem far, but Corcovado’s remoteness is what makes it so special. It is one of the world’s most biodiverse places and the only place I’ve ever been with signs instructing you what to do if a jaguar attacks you. No worries, I couldn’t find a record of a single incident in my research for this article.
Corcovado can only be accessed with an official Costa Rican tour guide, who you can hire in any of the local towns, and can help you get your park permit. The ultimate Corcovado National Park adventure is to hike 6-9 hours to the Sirena Ranger station or arrive by boat from Drake Bay. The best nightlife comes out at night, so spending a night in the rustic ranger station is an amazing experience.
There are a few other ways to enter the Corcovado National Park, including a shorter hike to get to La Leona Ranger Station. This is how I entered the park for my day trip, and it ended up being about a 4 mile (6+ kilometer) hike round trip just to get to the entrance. I was really blown away by the wildlife I saw on my trip and really enjoyed the hike along this tropical fjord. Here is a great guide to Corcovado National Park.
If you are still looking for adventure, consider extending your stay to Panama and head to the mountain town of Boquete. More on this in my Solo Travel Guide to Central America.
For more information on solo travel check out my book, The Millennial Travel Guidebook: Escape More, Spend Less, and Make Travel a Priority in Your Life.