Costa Rica: The pros and cons of a guided tour vs a self-organised trip

Costa Rica has so many beautiful spots to chose from.
Costa Rica has so many beautiful spots to chose from.   -   Copyright  Intrepid Travel
By Ruth Wright

Costa Rica is one of the most talked about destinations for 2022. This might be because it reopened its borders in mid 2020 and has stayed open since. So, compared to lots of other countries, you can be fairly sure your trip will go ahead.

Once you’re in Costa Rica, Covid doesn’t have much impact on travel. Masks are required indoors, but restrictions aren’t policed like they are in Europe and the USA. So you can get on with living the ‘pura vida.’

You’ll hear this phrase everywhere you go in Costa Rica. But ‘pura vida’ is more than a greeting. Taking it easy and making the most of life are the national mindset. Given how we’ve all had to live for the last two years, it’s no wonder we’re craving this relaxed way of life.

But what’s the best way to get the most out of Costa Rica? With rainforests, volcanoes, party towns, beaches, extreme adventure, retreats and incredible wildlife, there’s a lot to choose from.

This means it can be difficult to know where to start when planning a trip. This leads many to opt for a guided tour, especially if it’s your first time in Costa Rica. But for those who have the time to research and plan, and aren’t limited on holiday length, meandering at your own pace might be a better option.

Here we explore what you can expect from a guided tour or going it alone.

Costa Rica’s travel restrictions

Travellers from all over the world are welcome in Costa Rica, provided they are fully-vaccinated. There’s no time limit on being boosted yet; you simply have to have been double-jabbed with an approved vaccine 14 days prior to your trip. Children under 18 do not have to be vaccinated.

In fact, unvaccinated adults can travel to Costa Rica too, but you’ll have to buy travel insurance to cover Covid expenses and accommodation costs for the duration of your stay.

All travellers must also complete an epidemiological information form to get a Health Pass - you’ll need the QR code from this to get through the airport and begin your adventure.

What to expect on a guided tour of Costa Rica

Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel
A traveller finds her way across Arenal bridge.Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel

Costa Rica has so many beautiful spots that it can be overwhelming to narrow it down. Do you head to the Pacific or the Caribbean coast? How will you get around? What if you drive all morning only to find the hike you had planned is rained off? Joining a guided tour means someone else worries about all of this for you. Granted, they can’t control the weather. But they’ll have the experience and contacts to make sure you still have a great day.

Who is a guided tour suited to and how can you choose the right one?

Guided tours might conjure up images of pensioners dawdling around an overrun tourist attraction. But trust me, tours have moved on from bus trips of the 1980s. They now cater to lots of different demographics and you can choose from action-packed or slower paced itineraries.

Do some research, be clear on what type of holiday you want and you’ll find a trip with like-minded people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and address any doubts with tour companies - most have online chats so it’s quick and easy to get answers. Read on for a few recommended tours to get you started.

Joining a tour is ideal if you have limited time off work or other responsibilities to get home for. Trips are carefully planned to make the most of every day and ensure easy journeys between stops. For instance, travelling early or late in the day so you can make the most of the sunshine and daylight.

What are the roads like in Costa Rica?

Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel
The roads get bumpier outside of San Jose.Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel

Costa Rica’s roads are one of the best reasons to take a guided tour. Considering tourism is the country’s second biggest source of income, the roads aren’t brilliant. Around San Jose, the capital, it’s paved highways. But further afield many roads are unpaved and very dusty. If you’re not used to a bumpy ride, journeys can feel very long.

Tours have drivers who know the best routes to take and, maybe most importantly, you’ll be in a safe vehicle that’s designed for these roads - you need a 4x4 to make sure you don’t feel every bump and pothole.

Get off the beaten track to discover the real Costa Rica

Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel
A guided tour can give you the chance to experience delicious local cooking too.Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel

As Costa Rica has had a developed tourism industry for decades, it can sometimes feel like its culture and uniqueness have been lost amongst the resorts and restaurants.

So a tour is a good way to get beneath the surface and visit lesser-known parts. Established tour companies will have connections with local communities that you might not be able to visit by yourself.

You’re also more likely to be a responsible tourist, as your tour leader can brief you on local customs and rules that it’s respectful to observe.

Travelling solo to Costa Rica? Find your tribe on a group tour

Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel
A tour group at the base of Arenal Volcano.Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel

A tour is perfect if you’re a solo traveller. You’re given a readymade set of travel companions and guaranteed company for meals, an aspect of solo travel that many dread. But don’t worry, there’ll be free time in the itinerary so you can have your own space when you need it.

Ready to book? We’ve picked Costa Rica’s best guided tours

All prices exclude flights

Budget

Ruth Wright
You can definitely live the Pura Vida on a budget.Ruth Wright

G Adventures’ Ocean Waves & Sunsets is a small group tour designed for ‘young, budget-minded travellers.’ It costs €467 which includes all accommodation (staying in basic hotels or hostels) and transport, with lots of optional extras.

Mid-range

Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel
Intrepid Travel can accommodate all your adventurous desires - including ziplining in Monteverde.Pedro Paulo Ferreira/Intrepid Travel

Intrepid’s brand new Premium Costa Rica trip (9 days, from £2,550/€3,065) includes everything the country is known for. You’ll take in wildlife as you explore the Cano Negro Wetlands and Manuel Antonio National Park with guides. You’ll visit a farm project focused on promoting sustainable agricultural practices while preserving ancient traditions. Plus, the chance to get beneath the surface of San Jose on a city tour with the tour leader.

High end

Edwin Castillo Blanco
Higher end tours can get you up close with some of Costa Rica's amazing wildlife.Edwin Castillo Blanco

Black Tomato’s Pacuare to Papagayo: A Luxury Conservation Adventure in Costa Rica (£6,750/€8,112) takes you from the Pacuare River to Arenal to the Miravalles Volcano Region to Papagayo, with a focus on adventure, sustainability, conservation, and uncompromising luxury. Experiences include hiking to the Nairi Awari Indigenous Territory high in the Talamanca Mountains to learn about the Cabécar culture and hear cosmovision and visiting Proyecto Asis, an important animal rescue centre that specialises in sloth conservation.

How to organise the best trip to Costa Rica

Intrepid Travel
A Costa Rica tree frog.Intrepid Travel

Plan when to go carefully

Lots of travellers land in San Jose, hire a car and hit the open road for destinations unknown. This is a great plan - except in high season.

From early December to late January, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Costa Rica, especially from the US where the most visitors hail from. Consequently, accommodation, car hire and restaurants get booked up months in advance. This will vary depending on where in the country you go, of course. But if you want to visit the popular beach towns and areas around the national parks, make your bookings at least two months in advance.

If you want to drive yourself but have the itinerary planned for you, consider a self-guided holiday like this 17-night trip with award-winning operator Pura Aventura.

Intrepid Travel
A boat trip by Arenal.Intrepid Travel

Relax and enjoy the ride by hiring a driver

As most of us drive ourselves around at home, hiring a driver when on holiday feels like a real luxury. As mentioned above, Costa Rica’s roads aren’t always easy to drive on. So being driven by a local also means you won’t have to be jolted out of holiday mode by tricky interchanges or an unreliable sat nav.

A driver in Costa Rica will be cheaper than in Europe or the US. Additionally, most drivers will give you a discount if you do more than one journey with them. So work out which stops you’ll need to travel between and work out a deal with them.

Good drivers stay in business because clients recommend them to friends. We found our driver, Jimmy Leiton, through word-of-mouth and we weren’t disappointed. He arrived to pick us up on time, explained what we were seeing along the way and his prices were reasonable. He can be contacted via Whatsapp on (506) 8540 1780.

Ruth Wright
A driver will be able to take your off the beaten-track to some incredible sights, like this gigantic tree.Ruth Wright

Spend your holiday budget as you like

Going it alone is suited to any budget. You can splash the cash or stick to cheaper guesthouses. Locally-run accommodation is the best bet for keeping it cheap, though check if the room has air conditioning and a private bathroom as these don’t always come as standard.

Easy come, easy go

One of the big pluses of not being with a group is that you don’t have to compromise on your route. If you love a beach you’ve stopped at for lunch, you can book a room nearby and soak it up for a few days. Equally, if you find somewhere you’ve landed isn’t quite what you were hoping for, you can easily move on.

Ruth Wright
Sunsets on the Pacific Coast are particularly special.Ruth Wright

Get friendly with the locals

Costa Rica has a lot of gems that you’ll want to visit on your trip. The most well-known national parks and other attractions are well signposted so easy to reach by car, or ATV quad bike in some cases. But less-visited spots aren’t always easy to find. Replace the need for a tour guide by chatting to locals. Most will be happy to help with directions and flattered that you want to explore their area.

A little Spanish goes a long way

If you’re planning to rely on locals for directions or recommendations, it’s only fair that you try and communicate in their language. So learn the phrases you’re likely to need in advance of your trip. This can also save you money - you’ll find it easier to negotiate if you can do it in Spanish.