Costa Rica has been at the top of my bucket list for years. The country seemed to have the right amount of beach-meets-adventure vibe that I was searching for. I embarked on a one week, jam packed road trip and learned a few great lessons along the way. And so, I present to you:
“The ULTIMATE Q&A“ for making the most of your trip to Costa Rica during green season.
The Road Trip: San Jose – Arenal – Nuevo Arenal – Guanacaste – Manuel Antonio National Park – San Jose. 730 kms (453 miles) — 8 days — 2 tanks of gas — many monkeys and more smiles than could be counted.
Was it worth it to travel to Costa Rica during green season?
“Green Season” in Costa Rica is the low season for tourists and typically runs from May until November. Green season refers to the vibrant, lush landscape that the country takes on during the rainy season.
We loved green season because of…well, CHEAPER PRICES! Our flight cost us $375 return from Detroit to San Jose Airport, a far cry from the $750+ typical of high season. Tours and transportation prices can also be cheaper or negotiated. And, we were able to snag 4 star hotels for 2 star prices. We found that hotels costing upwards of $350 + in high season were about $150+ in Green Season.
What we loved most about green season was that no place was crowded, except the rental car kiosk. Most days we shared the beach or other attraction with only a handful of other people. Not to mention, everything comes alive! The countryside was green and lush, the rainforests are active with wildlife and the rivers are gushing with water (think rainforest adventure and white water rafting)! It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though. Green season can have frequent and heavy rainstorms. Roads can be washed out, blocked or flooded making driving tricky.
Did it rain for your entire stay in Costa Rica during “Green Season”?
Truth be told, I was worried it was going to rain all week and I checked the weather forecast obsessively for two weeks before and during our trip. I soon learned that, in Costa Rica, the weather forecast is useless and ultimately you are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
In the Guanacaste region we had sunny mornings and early afternoons – the sun was hot and glorious. We would often have a quick rain shower mid-afternoon, just around the time we wanted to retreat inside and have a drink. There was usually a rain shower in the evenings, but not always.
When staying inland in the Arenal region we had fairly constant rain. However, all the activities we enjoyed in this region were enhanced by the rain, so it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the Arenal volcano during our 3 day stay due to dense cloud cover. We were told this is pretty common.
My Tip: Book on the cusp of green and dry season to take advantage of lower prices but less rainy weather. We traveled the first week of November and enjoyed a lot of sunny days.
Should I rent a car?
This is a tough one to answer and depends mostly on your own comfort. We had been warned about the rough roads, the nutty driving and navigation issues in Costa Rica during green season, but felt confident we could manage driving (and we did). What renting a car did allow us was FREEDOM! We loved not having to rely on shuttles and taxis for transport. If we wanted to stop on the side of the road to watch a beautiful sunset, we did. It also allowed us to drive to whatever beach or activity we wanted to do and not have to pay the hefty tour and transport cost.
That being said, you must be able to drive manual and drive it well. Most rentals are manual transmission and we personally witnessed many people try and fail to rent an automatic at the rental kiosk. Thankfully, I had a travel partner who drives manual like a pro – Costa Rica during green season is neither the time or the place to learn how to drive a stick shift.
Also, beware of hidden costs with car rentals. Insurance (an absolute must) will cost you about 3 times as much as you paid to rent the car per day. Gas was also very expensive compared to American prices, approximately $5+ /gallon.
My Tip: We pre-purchased car insurance through our travel website and the rental agency claimed they did not honor it. Make sure you double check with the rental agency directly if you do this. I would also recommend an SUV or a 4WD vehicle if you plan on going to the Arenal/Monteverde region during green season.
What were the roads and driving conditions like?
We had very little trouble finding our way around Costa Rica. We rented a sat-nav with our car but using a map and reading signs was more than adequate for us. The road conditions were better than we expected on main highways (around San Jose, Guanacaste and Manuel Antonio area). In Arenal, the roads were narrow, winding and had several places where washouts had occurred and heavy rain caused fallen trees.
Our biggest pet peeve driving was traffic and road work. Road improvements were being made while we were there which caused major traffic backups. Some roads only have one lane each way, so any traffic accident (and there seemed to be many) would slow traffic down for hours on either side. But, it’s all part of the experience!
My tip: Leave with plenty of time to get to your destination. A 3 hour drive could take upwards of 6 hours. Driving on the roads around Arenal is difficult due to twists and low hanging fog on the roads, especially after dark.
What was your favorite beach or town?
Hands down our favorite place on the trip was in and around the Manuel Antonio (MA) National Park. Wildlife was abundant here, on the beach and in town. Monkeys would join us over lunch and scarlet macaws flew overhead. There is an abundance of beaches, all well kept and wildlife everywhere.
The beaches inside of MA include a bit of a walk and a park entrance fee but are definitely worth it. There are many restaurants, shops and bars to choose from in this area. This seems like a happening spot with lots of activities, tours and hot-spots. We wished we had had more time to spend here and would definitely want to go back. An added plus was the 3 glorious sunny days MA gave us while we stayed.
My tip: Keep your beach bags closed up. The beach wildlife (also known as the mafia) is very opportunistic and good with zippers. Our best beach finds came from asking the locals or hotel staff where to go. These finds usually involved walking down an unsuspecting path on the side of the road to an amazing beach. Playa Biesanz was our favorite hidden gem in the MA area.
What would you consider a Costa Rican “must try”?
Chili Guaro. This spicy drink is made with Costa Rica’s Cacique Guaro “sugar cane liquor” and consists of hot sauce, guaro and lime juice. This drink goes down all too smoothly and has a really unique flavor. I would recommend that you enjoy one on Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste at Aqua Sport. The service, food and chili guaro there were awesome and the location on the beach is perfect. I also recommend Costa Rican Lizano sauce, which we ate with rice (pinto gallo) and eggs every morning. We loved it so much we bought some to have at home.
Would you go back?
YES! YES! YES! Costa Rica is such a diverse country and has so much to offer. I think I could spend a year there and only scratch the surface. I loved the vibe of the country. Their slogan is “pura vida” meaning “all is good or enjoy life” – which suits Costa Rica perfectly. I can’t wait to start planning my next adventure back.
This guest post was penned by Glynis Malay the author of the hiking blog, Hiker at Heart. Glynis is originally from Canada and is currently working and living in Detroit, Michigan. She fell in love with the outdoors at a young age but only since finishing college has fell in love with travel and discovering other countries and cultures. Glynis is an avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast but has no problem switching out her hiking boots for high heels. Her wanderlust usually leads her to the mountains or the sea. Her most memorable trip experiences include backpacking through the Peruvian Andes, mountain biking the world’s deadliest road in Bolivia, dancing the night away on the beach in Ibiza, being in awe by the Sistine Chapel in Italy, sipping some of California’s best wines in Napa Valley, and hiking on the Appalachian Trail through New Hampshire with her parents.