We hear this question frequently from first-time travelers to Costa Rica. Everyone wants their trip to be the best possible experience and bad weather or other seasonal considerations can put a damper on your travel experience.
There is no one best time of the year to travel to Costa Rica. It depends on what you’re wanting to get out of your travel experience and your specific destination.
If you’re wanting a sunny and luxurious leisure vacation, then you’ll probably want to set your travel dates in January or February, the driest months, and stay in the Northern Pacific Zone of Guanacaste, which is one of the dryest geographic locations in the country.
If you’re really into wildlife spotting, then a rainier environment might serve you better.
There are other factors to consider, too. There are a few times during the year, like the week leading up to Easter when domestic tourism drives demand and prices on lodging and crowding popular tourist destinations.
Dry season, rainy season, or shoulder season?
Costa Rica’s variety of climates
Depending on who you believe, there are somewhere between twelve and thirty-two unique microclimates in Costa Rica. We’ll leave the quibbling to the climate scientists.
For our purpose, the main thing to understand is that the country’s climate is far from the same everywhere. Tamarindo, Playa Flamingo, and Playa Coco in the northern Guanacaste area tend to be the driest beach towns. On the south end of the Pacific coast, you’ll find Drake Bay and Golfito, some of the country’s rainiest places.
The weather in a place as small as the Central Valley can vary from place to place. The average temperatures on the east side of San José are often cooler than the affluent southwestern suburbs of Escazu and Santa Ana, just a few minutes away.
As a tropical country, Costa Rica’s temperatures don’t vary significantly throughout the year. The seasons are more distinguished by the amount of rain that falls. Some people call these seasons dry season and wet season; or high season and low season. Some bright marketing mind decided that rainy season should be called the green season because all of that rain makes for healthy greenery. Ticos themselves refer to the two seasons as summer and winter.
Most of the country considers mid-December to April to be dry season and the high season for tourism. Costa Ricans often refer to dry season as summer or verano. However, the Caribbean side of the country can be rainy and humid throughout the entire year.
Rainy season, generally considered to be May through mid-December is sometimes called Green Season, by tourism marketers, emphasizing the lush and verdant Costa Rican landscape. Costa Ricans call this season winter or invierno.
Dry season or High Tourist Season
Costa Rican summer, mid-December through April is the most popular time of year to visit Costa Rica for international vacation-makers.
Advantages of traveling during the dry season
The obvious advantage of traveling during dry season is that it doesn’t normally rain as much. For example, in La Fortuna, near Arenal volcano:
- On January 24th, on average, there is a 3% chance that it will rain.
- On September 29th, on average there is a 47% chance that it will rain. [source]
If the centerpiece of your trip is a visit to Poas volcano or hiking up the country’s highest peak, Chirripo, then you’ll want to plan on doing it during dry season. Not only does it rain more during green season, but it also tends to cloudier. You’re more likely to get a glimpse of the steaming Poas crater. On clear and sunny days, which are more abundant during dry season, at the peak of Chirripo, a climber can see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea from the same place.
More reliable ground transportation
Costa Rica’s highway system cuts through the country’s mountainous terrain. Many of the main highways have two lanes and speed limits are normally around 80 kilometers per hour (or about 50 miles per hour) or slower.
During rainy season there are more mudslides and rockslides which can impede overland travel. You’re more likely to be detoured while traveling overland during rainy season.
Disadvantages of traveling during the dry season
Pricier, Hotter & More Crowded
Dry season is more popular with travelers, tourists, and part-time residents. This means that prices are higher and heavily trafficked tourist destinations, such as Manuel Antonio and Monteverde Cloud Forest, are more crowded.
Winter temperatures in the northern western hemisphere drive many US Americans, Canadians, and northern Europeans to spend the cold winter months in Costa Rica. Additionally, US spring breakers drive crowds and higher prices in March and April.
If you are a budget traveler, you might find prices to be prohibitive during the height of high tourism season, January through mid-April.
The week leading up to Easter, known as Holy Week, or La Semana Santa in Spanish, is the most important holiday of the year. Businesses close and it seems like the entire country goes to the beach. If you’re planning a trip during this week, be prepared for large crowds and high prices, even in more remote places such as Cahuita and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast.
For travelers that are sensitive to high temperatures, the lack of cooling afternoon rain means that the early evening can feel hotter.
Rainy Season or Green Season
Rainy season in Costa Rica is generally accepted to run from May until the middle of December. In most parts of the country, this means that there is a greater likelihood that it will rain heavily for most of the day; however, it’s much more likely to just rain moderately for less than an hour in the late afternoon.
Advantages of traveling during the rainy season
While the dry season is more popular for travelers and tourists, there are certainly some advantages to traveling during green season.
I personally like rainy season. It’s not as if it rains every day and constantly during this season. On many days, it doesn’t rain. And on days in which is does, it’s normally just afternoon showers that cool the air and leave behind a pleasant calm.
Green season brings with it cooling afternoon rains. As I mentioned above, it can rain quite heavily in Costa Rica. These gullywashers, or aguaceros, can be dramatic. Fortunately, they are also infrequent.
It’s more likely to experience light-to-moderate cooling showers in the late afternoon, at the height of the day’s heat.
Green season is the ideal time to visit for someone who loathes being in a crowd, especially if you plan on visiting the most popular tourist destinations, like Manuel Antonio National Park and Poas Volcano.
With lower international tourism traffic during green season, the demand on tourism-related services is lower, which often translates into lower prices on hotels, flights, and tour packages.
Rainy season means wildlife
Sea turtles nesting season in July and August. Hatching normally happens in September and October.
If you want to see colorful tropical frogs, then you might consider visiting during rainy season. After a steady rain in the forest, the moist cool air makes it comfortable for frogs to come out from their normal hiding places.
Disadvantages of traveling during the rainy season
The main disadvantage of traveling to Costa Rica during rainy season is that, well, it rains more. There are more storms and it tends to be cloudier.
More remote areas of Costa Rica, such as the Caribbean coast, parts of the Nicoya Peninsula, and parts of the Osa Peninsula can be difficult to traverse during rainy season.
What is the cheapest time to go to Costa Rica?
On average, the cheapest months to travel to Costa Rica are September and October. They are also the two rainiest months in many parts of the country, including the Pacific coast. More remote areas of the country, such as those in the southern zone and the Nicoya Peninsula, can be more difficult to traverse due to the rains.
This third unofficial season consists of the months on the fringe of rainy season, late November to mid-December as well as May, June, July, and August. Sometimes called hedge months or shoulder season, these travel dates can be a nice compromise between dry season and rainy season.
While it’s more likely to rain during these months than in January through March, there is still plenty of dry weather to enjoy outdoor activities.
Weather Month by Month
January is among the driest months in Costa Rica, especially on the Nicoya Peninsula and northern Guanacaste. Popular destinations in this area include Tamarindo, Nosara, Playa Guiones, Playa Sámara, and Manzanillo. All-inclusive resorts such as the Riu properties and Dreams Las Mareas are in this area.
February, much like January tends to be dry in most parts of the country. You might consider exploring parts of the country that can be more difficult during the rainy season, such as the southern zone’s Drake Bay and Golfito. If you like to climb and hike, February is a good month to visit the Cerro Chirripo National Park, which is one of the rainier parts of the country during green season.
There is often a surge of activity around the third week of February, due to US Presidents’ Day.
March is the busiest tourism month and the height of peak season, especially when Holy Week, leading up to Easter, falls in this month.
Holy week is the most important holiday of the year for Costa Ricans and the peak of domestic tourism.
Spring break in North America often falls in March, sending vacationers to the warm Costa Rican beaches for a week.
April is a transition month. It marks the end of the purely dry season and it also marks the beginning of prime surfing season, when waves are purportedly at their best.
May is shoulder season. Rains are slowly beginning to increase but haven’t yet reached their peak. International arrivals begin to slow and traditionally busy tourist destinations such as Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, and Puerto de Viejo become less crowded. May is a great month to visit these more trafficked destinations with smaller crowds are lower prices.
Like May, June is still shoulder season. It offers a nice balance between dry season and green season.
July is deeper into green season. It’s also a great month to see the green sea turtles nesting season at Tortuguero National Park, on the northern Caribbean coast.
If you want to see a whale, this is also a good month to visit Dominical.
The peak of rainy season in most of the country begins in September and lasts ten to twelve weeks. Be prepared for heavy rains and the potential for overland travel complications.
September is the warmest and driest month in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. However, the highway from the Central Valley to the Caribbean coast can be under threat of mudslides during September.
October is the last month of the year to see loggerhead turtles at Tortuguero National Park.
The rainy season is coming to an end.
By the middle of December, dry season has begun. The weeks of Christmas and New Year’s tend to be heavy domestic travel weeks as Costa Ricans in the city take to the road to spend the holidays on the beach with family.
The Best Times to Visit Costa Rica for Birding
While visitors can see native birds throughout the year, dry season is better for birding. Birds are more easily viewable when it’s not raining because they’re more visible and there is less humidity obscuring the view.
The months of September, October, and November are best for spotting migratory birds on their journeys.
The Best Times to Visit Costa Rica for Surfing
The best months for novice surfers are March and April, when waves tend to be smaller and more manageable. For the more experienced surfer, who enjoys larger waves, September and October are excellent months to visit.
The Best Times to Visit Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is markedly humid, especially as you move away from the beach and into the rain forest. Dry season tends to be relatively less humid than rainy season; however, on this side of the country, the definitions of dry and rainy season can be more blurry than the rest of the country.