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Brooke and I spent a long weekend in Costa Rica. This beautiful country has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, exotic wildlife, and the Pura Vida lifestyle. With only three days to spend here, we planned carefully to maximize our time. We also learned some important lessons during our visit. Check out our nine Costa Rica travel tips.
Tip #1 – Southwest Flies to Costa Rica – Use Your Companion Pass
Southwest offers daily flights into both of Costa Rica’s major airports – San Jose (SJO) and Liberia (LIR). This means that you can use your Southwest Companion Pass to fly two people from the USA to Costa Rica, for just the price of taxes & fees! To earn the Companion Pass, you can apply for two Southwest credit cards (Premier Card Link and Plus Card Link) to earn the necessary points. See our Southwest Companion Pass Guide for more details.
We recommend flying into Liberia (LIR). San Jose is the more well-known airport, but Liberia offers easier access to the west coast, which will come into play with Tip #9. The LIR airport was very efficient, and we even picked up some locally roasted coffee at the gift shop for a delicious souvenir.
Tip #2 – The Rental Car Process in Costa Rica is Frustrating
If you really want to see the country, you will likely need to rent a car. Unfortunately, the rental car process in Costa Rica is the most frustrating we have ever encountered. We reserved what appeared to be an excellent deal on a rental car through Alamo – $25 total for 3 days. When we arrived at the rental counter, the agent asked us to pay $150…?! I requested an itemized bill, which had charges for full coverage insurance, required local insurance, and a myriad of miscellaneous fees. When I showed him our booking confirmation for $25, he said that was “just an estimate.” Seems like the “estimate” missed pretty badly, since they wanted 600% more!
After about 45 minutes of discussion, he dropped the price from $150 to $100, and then finally to $80. We learned that Costa Rica requires local insurance, which costs $12 per day, and there is no way around this, even if your credit card offers coverage. They also tacked on airport fees, convenience fees, etc, etc. I eventually agreed to pay so we could leave. To emphasize – The price you reserve WILL NOT be the price you pay!
Tip #3 – Drive During the Day – Roads Can Be Rough
By the time we finally wrapped up our rental car situation, the sun had set. We needed to drive from Liberia to La Fortuna, which Google Maps estimated as a 3.5hr drive. The drive started fine, mostly on major highways, but about 1.5hrs in, the roads suddenly became awful.
We took a turn onto a smaller road, which literally had potholes as large as our rental car!! In the darkness, these potholes were very hard to see in the distance. I had to drive very slowly to avoid destroying the wheels/tires/bumper by slamming into a pothole. Google Maps also struggled to keep us on the route, so we had to guess as we drove. In these conditions, the total drive took nearly 5 hours. Drive during the day if you can, and save yourself the stress!
Tip #4 – Book an AirBNB in La Fortuna
We stayed at a nice little AirBNB, owned by a dude named Roy, in La Fortuna for only $49. ($34 after the Amazon gift card deal.) La Fortuna is a great “jumping off point” for many of the attractions around the Arenal Volcano area.
Roy’s Place had everything we needed, and it was very well maintained. I definitely recommend booking this one if you’re planning to stay in the area. If you’ve never use AirBNB before, you can sign up using our link for a discount on your first stay!
Tip #5 – Visit Proyeto Asis Wildlife Rescue Center
Proyeto Asis is the #1 activity in the La Fortuna region, according to TripAdvisor. We 100% agree! This wildlife rescue center, located approximately 45 minutes from La Fortuna, offers an incredible opportunity to learn about and interact with Costa Rican wildlife. Our guide, Carlos, gave a fantastic tour and explained the mission of Proyeto Asis. You can really see how much he loves the animals, and how much they love him! If you want to visit, they offer a variety of experiences, including a full interactive day with the animals.
If you are limited on time, book the 1.5 hour tour as early as possible. Brooke and I took the 8:30am tour, which concluded around 10am, so we had the rest of the day to explore the Arenal area.
Tip #6 – Swim at the La Fortuna Waterfall
You can visit the La Fortuna Waterfall and even swim in a pool near the bottom. To access the falls, you will need to pay a $15 entry fee and then walk down a few hundred steps to the base. Views from the steps and at the bottom are beautiful, and (weather permitting), you can swim at the base of the falls. We stood on the rocks beneath the waterfall and let the mist wash over us.
You can also grab lunch at the welcome center café. I recommend the quesadilla, it’s huuuuge!
Tip #7 – Soak in the FREE Hot Springs
Underground lava, beneath the Arenal Volcano, heats the surrounding water sources, creating hot springs. You will see many resorts near the volcano offering hot spring experiences. For a day pass to one of these resorts/spas, you can expect to pay $50-$100. However, there is a free option if you know where to look!
Along the road, about 20 minutes outside of La Fortuna, you will see a yellow gate. Unless you arrive very early in the morning, you will likely see cars parked along the roadside, and even some vendors selling food. Park here and walk past the gate, and down the path. After a short walk, you will find water flowing under a graffiti covered bridge. Step down into the warm water, and walk carefully under the bridge. Here you will find pools filled with hot spring water, perfect for soaking and relaxing!
Tip #8 – Walk the Mistico Hanging Bridges with a Guide
Leaving La Fortuna, and driving past the free hot springs, you will find the Mistico Hanging Bridges (formerly known as the Arenal Hanging Bridges). Here you can hike through the Arenal Rainforest, along 22 bridges (6 suspension). We chose to hire a guide here, which was a great decision. With the help of our guide, we saw howler monkeys, a sloth, snakes, spiders, lots of birds, and a glass-winged butterfly! If we had not hired a guide, we would have missed nearly all of the wildlife along the trail.
Tip #9 – Visit the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort
Along the west coast of Costa Rica, about 40 minutes from the Liberia Airport, you will find the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort. Brooke and I spent two nights here, and it was one of the best resorts we have ever visited! This Hyatt property is an absolute steal at only 15,000 Hyatt Points per night!
You can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards to book rooms here. Sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card to earn 50,000 points + 5,000 points for adding an authorized user. After hitting the spending bonus, you will have nearly enough points for four nights at this luxury resort!
If you have a very limited time for your visit, these nine Costa Rica travel tips will really help maximize your time there. Of course, if you do have the time, we definitely recommend a longer visit! The activities around La Fortuna can be done in a single day or spread over the course of a few days. Our itinerary looked like this:
- Arrive at LIR in the evening
- Rent car & drive to La Fortuna
- Stay at AirBNB
- Proyeto Asis – 8:30am – 10am
- La Fortuna Waterfall – 10:45am – 12pm
- Free Hot Springs – 1pm – 1:45pm
- Mistico Hanging Bridges – 2pm – 4pm
- Drive to Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort
- Chill at the Andaz Resort – Beach/Pool/Mixology Class
- Spa treatment at the resort
- Depart LIR Airport
We had an absolute blast exploring Costa Rica. I hope our Costa Rica travel tips help you create a great itinerary for your visit. Cheers!