Playa Carrillo Costa Rica

Where to Stay in Costa Rica: A Guide to Choosing Location and Accommodation for Your Trip

posted in: Costa Rica, Destinations | 0

Are you wondering where to stay in Costa Rica? I get it! This is one of the most frequent questions I get from friends and readers. Planning a family vacation to Costa Rica for the first time can feel overwhelming.

There are awesome accommodations to be found all over Costa Rica, including air-conditioned hotels, spectacular house rentals, and fun, fully sustainable ecolodges. Costa Rica can be divided into the regions most commonly frequented by travelers, and, depending on the length of your vacation, you’ll want to choose one or two from the regions below to visit on your trip. 

Sit back and relax. We’re here to help. Planning a fantastic Costa Rica family vacation all on your own is totally possible. In fact, it’s way easier than challenges you’ve probably already overcome, like potty-training a defiant toddler. There are plenty of travel planners out there happy to help you if you want to go that route, but if you are a self-starter, keep reading.

Guanacaste/Northern Nicoya Peninsula

This is the most heavily developed region of the country, with lots of hotels around Tamarindo and the Gulf of Papagayo. There are good reasons for this: stunning white-sand beaches, dry weather, and now an international airport in Liberia that can deliver you to a beachfront hotel in a few minutes instead of the several hours that it can take from San Jose.

The downside is, of course, that you’ll be in a touristy area, with less jungle, more people and higher prices. If you choose to stay up here but want to get away from the crowds, look south of Tamarindo to the small towns of Samara and Nosara. South of Samara you’ll find Playa Carrillo, a gorgeous crescent beach bay that’s one of our favorite beaches in Costa Rica

Visitors commonly combine a beach vacation in Guanacaste with a few days around La Fortuna/Arenal to get a taste of the jungle, too.

Best For: Families short on time and looking for a low-stress beach vacation. Also best for those who enjoy travel with amenities.

Montezuma Costa Rica
Montezuma is a colorful artsy little town on the southern Nicoya Peninsula.

Southern Nicoya Peninsula: Santa Teresa/Mal Pais/Montezuma

It’s not an easy drive from the northern Nicoya Peninsula to the southern Nicoya Peninsula…but that’s what keeps it so protected and unique. The laid-back beach towns down here are home to surfers, dreamers, hippies, and artists, with a few celebrities thrown in the mix (and posting on social media to prove it — Tom Brady posted a video of himself on Facebook jumping off a waterfall in Montezuma, and if you don’t believe me, Google it!)

If you are bound and determined to see these little towns (as I was last year), you’ll either drive down the interior roads of the Nicoya Peninsula or take a ferry from the mainland. The payoff is an area of Costa Rica that’s still full of dusty, unpaved roads, Tico cowboys, and quirky expats. It’s a great place to watch surfers — Santa Teresa and Mal Pais are famous surf towns — but Montezuma is also a fun little artist enclave with an alternative vibe.

There are several hostels in this area, including one I loved with a loud sign telling kids to “CALL YOUR MOTHER.” The only big, high-rise hotels are on pretty, peaceful Tambor Bay, a few miles from Montezuma.

Best For: People who don’t mind going the distance to get away from everyone else and serious surfers.

Arenal Volcano
You can see how playing in hot springs and having jungle adventures with Arenal Volcano towering over you could make for an okay vacation.

La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano hasn’t erupted since 2010, but the area around Arenal and the town of La Fortuna is still a popular tourist area. There are great hot springs around here, including some fantastic luxury hot spring resorts, and plenty of hiking to do in Arenal Volcano National Park. Look for rainforest tours in this area, rivers to raft, and waterfalls to explore. If you looking for adventure tours (think rappelling and zip lining), you’re sure to find those too.

La Fortuna is about a 3-4 hour drive from San Jose or from Libera (depending on traffic). It’s also about 3 hours from Monteverde Cloud Forest, a popular wildlife-spotting location in Guanacaste. This central location makes it an easy place to mark the beginning or end of your Costa Rica itinerary.

Best For: Hot spring lovers and budding volcanologists.

Domincal Costa Rica
The busiest spot in the small town of Dominical is the beachfront. It’s also my kids’ favorite place for souvenir shopping on the entire west coast.

Central Pacific Coast/ Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park is the most popular national park in Costa Rica for tourists, and for good reason. If you want guaranteed wildlife sightings, this is the place to go. Want to see sloths, monkeys, toucans, and all sorts of other exotic wildlife in their natural habitat? You will not be disappointed.

Manuel Antonio National Park is located in Quepos on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. On this coast, the jungle mountain interior comes down to meet the ocean, meaning you can get the best of both worlds: jungle and beach. If you stay anywhere up and down this coast, you’ll have easy access to Manuel Antonio National Park, as well the excellent surfing beaches — plus some little swimming coves — that dot the coast.

Along the central Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, you’ll find plenty of the typical adventure tours available to tourists elsewhere, from whitewater rafting to ziplines to waterfall hikes to snorkeling and fishing adventures. 

Jaco is the most developed town on this coast, but I wouldn’t recommend staying there. There are some lovely places in Quepos, if you like the idea of being in a town with lots of restaurants and things to do. 

Dominical was traditionally a tiny surfing village, but it’s growing up and is a fun little place to stay. Up and down the coast you’ll find plenty of vacation homes for rent as well as small inns, some on the beach, and some in the jungle.

Best For: Wildlife-lovers who don’t want to go all the way to the Osa Peninsula, people willing to trade some humidity for a little more lush jungle than you would find up north.

Costa Rica Beaches
Honestly, you can find stunning beaches up and down both coasts in Costa Rica.

Caribbean Coast

The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is a less-frequented tourist spot, and the caveat is that I haven’t personally visited this area. The one place I for sure want to see here is Tortuguero National Park, a remote park accessible only by boat and a nesting spot for three different species of sea turtle.

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is known for being less developed and less touristy than the Pacific coast and for having a different, more Afro-Caribbean culture. Lush jungle and stunning beaches can be found here around Puerto Viejo and Cahuita.

Best For: Families looking for a less-touristy, off-the-beaten-track experience, and serious sea turtle seekers.

Gulfo Dulce
If you do drive from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez, don’t miss the peekaboo views of the Gulfo Dulce as you drive down the Osa Peninsula.

Osa Peninsula

Once upon a time, the Osa Peninsula was one of the most inaccessible regions of Costa Rica. Then they finished paving the road all the way from San Jose, making it possible to drive all the way to Puerto Jimenez in one day if you get an early start. You still may want to take a domestic flight to Puerto Jimenez from San Jose or Liberia — although that can be pricey if you have a family.

The Osa Peninsula has three major draws: the Golfo Dulce (a rich water nursery, where whales, dolphins, manta rays, and many other sea creatures birth and nourish their young); Corcovado National Park (the largest, most difficult to access and most biodiverse national park in Costa Rica, and probably anywhere on earth), and Drake Bay, with its access to Cano Island Biological Reserve (a famous snorkeling and diving reef).

The Osa Peninsula is our favorite place to go in Costa Rica, but don’t let that sway you. Getting here (for us at least) requires renting a car in San Jose, spending the first night somewhere on the Pacific coast, and then reaching Puerto Jimenez the second day. 

The Osa Peninsula doesn’t have high-rise hotels (thank goodness), but it does have something for every budget. See our guide to accommodation on the Osa Peninsula.

Best For: Adventurous families who aren’t afraid of bugs and humidity, enjoy animals more than people, and like to find frogs in their bathroom, bats in their bedroom, scarlet macaws overhead, and monkeys and iguanas in their front yard every day.

Nicoya Peninsula
Our Airbnb house rental near Cobano on the southern Nicoya Peninsula featured this perfect little pool.

Tips for Choosing Your Accommodation

Choosing accommodation in Costa Rica can be challenging, because you can spend $80/night on a hotel room or $800/night on a luxury villa. However, for the average family visiting for the first time, I recommend the following:

  • Check Airbnb and VRBO for house rentals if you are willing to rent a car. There are spectacular house rentals available, and some of them will help you arrange a chef and/or provide a housekeeper.
  • Airbnb is a good place to look if you want rooms in small inns. Costa Rica has many small inn owners (B&Bs with 10 to 20 rooms) that mostly rent out on Airbnb now. 
  • If you have really little kids, check out the pool situation at your potential house/hotel. I have stayed at several places with gorgeous, non-fenced pools. I had to watch my kids like a hawk. At one place I basically I had to put my toddler in a lifejacket every time we walked out of the room. It was fun, but stressful.
  • Make sure wherever you stay is surrounded by some good jungle. Our favorite part of visiting Costa Rica is being able to hunt for wildlife on a daily basis — to wake up to howler monkeys and to look for frogs at night.
  • If you rent a house, and especially if you end up cooking some of your own meals, consider spending a couple of nights at the end of your trip at an amazing ecolodge for a luxurious end to your vacation. These can be spendy, as they are usually out in the middle of nowhere and have meals included. However, I feel like they are one of those really unique jungle experiences…and isn’t that why you booked a flight to Costa Rica? Outdoor showers, screened windows, the cacophony of insects in your ears at night?
  • To find more accommodations in Costa Rica, from ecolodges to hotels to house rentals, check out Booking.com. (Disclaimer: Travel with Monsters is a booking.com affiliate, so if you book accommodation through our links, we receive a small commission at no cost to you — thank you for your support!)

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Where to Stay in Costa Rica