I look out at a cloud forest typical of Costa Rica nervously. A hefty tug satisfied the local attendant I was safely secured in my harness. “Stand up on the box” he said monotonously. “He does this 1000 times a day” I reassure myself. “Costa Rica is safe, this is totally going to be fine”. My turning stomach disagrees with me. Once clipped onto the wire by two sliders fastened with karabiners, I lie flat. Face down, legs behind me. Harness takes my total weight. In front of me, the wire continues through small opening in the jungle.
“Arms out, don’t touch the wire or you lose a finger,”
I’m told as a simultaneous shove sends me whizzing down the zip line. Trees rush past in a blur of green. The wind races across my face, immediately drying my eyeballs. I speed along the wire bursting through the opening in the jungle. As I do, the tree canopy drops away beneath me. Sawing across the sky like a native bird. The view would have taken my breath away if I had any left to take. For 1.6km I was superman, flying 200m high on Central America’s highest and longest zip line. The adrenaline surged through my body and a grin would not be erased from my face the rest of the day.
Costa Rica is a place some backpackers like to skip. It is more expensive than other Central American countries due to Americanisation. That is a huge shame because it is a country with so much to offer. Wildlife thrives in Central America with sloths, monkeys and native birds regularly spotted roaming wild in treetops. Reserves across the country serve as sanctuaries for thousands of incredible animals and critters. Purely for that alone Costa Rica must not be missed!
Crossing the border to Monte Verde, Costa Rica – Total ₡6000 ($11USD) each
Once at the border you will need to pay a total of $4USD to exit, make sure you check the stamp and it is clear on your passport. The walk to the Costa Rican border is less than 1km long so it is easily done with your backpacks on. Check out our useful notes below that will save you money!
The entry is free into Costa Rica but make sure you organise your evidence to leave the country before otherwise they may sting you.
- Do not pay for the immigration slips from the people outside! Once you get to the Costa Rican border you can get them there for free.
- When entering Costa Rica you need an outbound flight or bus. This shows proof you are leaving the country. Costa Rica is so awesome customs think we won’t ever leave. We showed our tickets on the laptop as we didn’t have time to print them off and this worked fine. (There are websites to generate fake flight tickets without actually booking or paying anything.)
Costa Rica Border to Monte Verde/Santa Elena
At the border you can buy “Chicken” bus tickets at the stalls. These are the cheapest buses in Costa Rica and they are the nicest! It was like travelling in luxury for us. We bought a ticket from the border to La Irma for ₡2200 (Costa Rican Colon) $4USD. This journey is 3 hours and the bus stops on the side of the road. Once you get off walk across the road to the intersection and there will be a bus stop shelter and a road sign a little down the road that says Monte Verde. The last bus is around 3pm and costs ₡1500 (Costa Rican Colon) $3USD. This is why you start your journey early in the morning, as you never know how long it can take at the Costa Rican border.
Monte Verde/Santa Elena to San Jose – Total ₡2866 ($5.25USD) each
As we didn’t plan to have a lot of time in Costa Rica due to money constraints, we only spent a week in this beautiful country and only choose to do a few highlights. One of the highlights we had to miss out on was Manuel Antonio national park. Instead we decided to go to a unique national park, Cahuita on the Caribbean side and close to Puerto Viejo to save time and money.
There are two buses that leave from Santa Elena to San Jose everyday, 6.30am and 2.30pm. In order to get to Cahuita in one day we caught the 6.30am bus that took around 4 hours and cost ₡2866 ($5.25USD) each
San Jose to Cahuita – Total ₡4800 ($8.80USD) each
We arrived in San Jose at around 10.30am; this meant we could catch the 12pm bus to Cahuita (buses leave every 2 hours) from the Terminal Atlantico Norte. This journey took around another 4 hours.
Cahuita to Puerto Viejo – Total ₡850 ($1.55USD) each
There are regular buses from the bus station that go half past every hour and this journey only takes half an hour. Puerto Viejo is the last stop.
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to Bocas Del Toros, Panama – Total ₡7712 ($14USD) each
From Puerto Viejo you can take 2 local buses and a ferry to reach the beautiful Bocas Del Toros in Panama. There are direct shuttles from Puerto Viejo for $25USD but you can save half the price if you take the local transportation.
See below our breakdown guide on how we reached Bocas from Puerto Viejo.
Puerto Viejo to Sixaola – ₡1630 ($3USD) each
Catch the bus from the bus stop in Puerto Viejo to the border (Sixaola). These buses leave as early as 6.30am in the morning then every hour after that.
Crossing the border to Panama – ₡6518 ($12USD) each
When leaving Costa Rica you will need to pay an exit tax, depending where you go to pay the tax varies in price. We purchased our exit tax down the hill from the immigration office and paid $8 in cash. We later found out you can pay $7 in the immigration office with your debit/credit card, saves you $1.
Once you are finished on the Costa Rican side, you need to walk over the bridge and to the right you will then enter one of the Panama immigration offices. Here you pay an entry tax of $4 and get given an important entry ticket to keep, do not lose this. We then had to walk down the hill and to the left to a next immigration office where you wait in line to get your passport stamped, photo taken and fingers scanned. You will need to show proof of exiting the country as well, so make sure you have a ticket confirmation handy to show the officials, this can be printed or on an electronic device.
Panama border to Bocas Del Toro town – $15USD each total (including a return ticket from Isla Colon, Bocas Del Toros to the mainland)
As we were in a group of 6 we decided to take a direct shuttle from the border to the ferry terminal, it took an hour and cost us $5USD (As the Panama dollar is fixed to the U.S dollar, we only used USD in Panama). Once we arrived at the ferry terminal we bought a return ferry ticket to the main island, Isla Colon for $10USD. The ferry took 30mins.
Santa Elena/Monte Verde, Mi Casa Tica – ₡3822 pp/pn ($7USD each) quad/twin room
Always remember it can be cheaper when travelling in a group. As soon as we hopped off the bus in Santa Elena three different hostel owners approached us. We went for the best deal and facilities. Mi Casa Tica is owned by a young family who was always there to help out with any questions we had. We also booked our 100% Adventura tour with them as they also gave us a good deal here. Close to the town, clean bedrooms/bathrooms and a good kitchen available to use, we highly recommend staying here.
Puerto Viejo, Hotel Puerto Viejo – ₡10,920 pp/pn ($20USD each) private room
If you enjoy a bargain, you can haggle a private room for $20USD per night. This hotel is spacious, clean and has the Caribbean feel like most of the town. It has a great location and a kitchen to use. In the mornings try spot out a beautiful hummingbird buzzing around the flowers. We enjoyed our stay here and have recommended it to a number of travellers we have past on the road.
If you are looking for a cheap dorm room, head to The Lionfish for $8USD a night.
- Casado is a typical dish in Costa Rica. It is a choice of sautéed or grilled meat served with rice, beans, plantain and coleslaw.
- Ceviche – In Costa Rica the best ceviche is made with local sea bass, cilantro, garlic, hot pepper, onion and celery.
- Olla de carne – hearty and healthy stew made with huge pieces of beef, potato, carrots, plantains, and sweet potatoes.
- Arroz con camarones – rice mixed with shrimp. Perfect to order in seaside towns
- Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s largest exports so if you are a coffee lover you will go crazy!
- Wash down a hard day of sight seeing with an Imperial or Pilsen cerveza
As Costa Rica is slightly more expensive than other countries we have visited. We saved a lot of money by cooking dinner and breakfast at our accommodation and making packed lunches where we could.
Must see & do
- Famous for its bio diverse forest high up in the clouds, also known as cloud forest. There are many volcanoes in the area, beautiful national parks and diverse wildlife makes it a stop on your trip you cannot miss, not even for us.
- There are many tours offered in the main town, Santa Elena. We opted for the zip-lining tour with 100% Adventura. The cost for this tour was $45 and we booked it through our hostel (Mi Casa Tica). It included transfers; 3x ziplines (the longest zip line in Latin America. 1590m long and 200m high), rappelling and the big Tarzan swing. It was an awesome day and well worth the money.
- Cahuita national park is one of Costa Rica’s most unique parks. It situated on the Caribbean side and only an hour north from Puerto Viejo. The entrance to the park is by donation and it is open 7am – 5pm everyday. I really enjoyed this park as it was less touristy and we got to spot all the wildlife we wanted to see in only one day. Just to name a few; sloths, howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, 2 types of Toucans, Iguanas, Chameleons, snakes and array of insects and butterflies. We highly recommend going to this national park if you are restricted on time and money.
- When in season this place is great for surfing. Unfortunately we arrived at a wrong time and there were no swells. Best time to surf in the Caribbean is November to April.
- Take a 20 min bus ride to a nearby beach – Playa Punta Uva. Where jungle meets beach with Crystal clear waters it is a great place to relax and go swimming.
- Walk around the Afro-Caribbean town and look into the quirky little clothing shops. I wanted to buy up a storm!
- Café Rico is a cool quirky place to grab a coffee and breakfast. Great with book exchanges and you might get to spot red frogs in the garden!
- Jaguar rescue centre in Playa Chiquita. Wildlife rehabilitation centre that helps out injured animals in the area. You learn how they are cared for and their plans of release.
- Sloth Sanctuary, primarily based on seeing 2 and 3 toed sloths in their natural habitats. You may even get to see baby sloths getting nursed back to health
Tips & Advice
- Currency is Costa Rican Colon
- You can drink the tap water anywhere in Costa Rica so start refilling your water bottles
- Best weather to travel in is November to April
- Dry season is December to January
- Rainy Season is Late April to November
- When you take the buses in Costa Rica you will be given a seat number. Everyone abides by these rules unless the seats have no numbers.
- If travelling on a budget note that Costa Rica is more expensive than its neighbouring countries. Make sure when deciding on your hostel it has a kitchen so you can cook your own meals to save money.
- Like most places be careful with your belongings at the beach, do not leave them unattended as petty theft sometimes occur.
- Everyone says “Pura Vida” which means “take it easy” or “all good” in English.
- Haggling is expected in market stalls
Helpful words and phrases
The main language is Spanish in Costa Rica
Please Por Favor
Thank you Gracias
You’re welcome De Nada
Pardon me Perdone
English? Habla Ingles?