Best Guidebook for Costa Rica

Don’t have time to read all the insightful reviews below? Just click to Page 2 for the executive summary.
Top Ten Costa Rica Guidebooks

Selecting the best guidebook

We’ve been traveling in Costa Rica mapping the country for over two decades and have used a LOT of guidebooks along the way.  Since it’s a business expense we usually buy every edition of every title then pick the best one or two to use on the road for our biannual cartographic research trips.  This puts us in a rather unique position to review, compare and contrast them hopefully to your benefit.

An introductory note on publication dates – don’t pay too much attention to them.  In the old days all of the guidebooks were on a triennial cycle with the authors doing extensive research every three years and all of the new and fairly extensively updated editions coming out every third October before the start of the high season.  Now most of the publishers slap a new date on every year whether its been revised or not and release the following year’s guide the preceding June or July (eg a guidebook proclaiming “2015” in the title was available in July 2014, printed in April or May of 2014 and obviously written and edited prior to that) to try to give the impression of fresh information and compete with the internet.

Things don’t change that fast in the land of Pura Vida and the high quality places are usually around for a long time.  If you’re really concerned with up to the minute status and reviews you should probably look on TripAdvisor or contact a travel professional in Costa Rica in addition to buying a guidebook.  Personally we’ve found TripAdvisor significantly less reliable and useful than professional opinions (authors, lodge owners or travel planners) so we use guidebooks and local recommendations.

Kindle and e-Books Warning

Another general consideration is whether to get a real book or a Kindle or other electronic edition (when available).  E-books are relatively new and the publishers are just beginning to learn how to best organize, index and present maps, images and tables of content.  They are very convenient to have but still have a LONG way to go before they are as convenient to use as flipping through a printed book.  Because we carry so much GPS equipment and other crap on our research trips we’ve been suffering through withdrawals from paper and using Kindle editions.

I read all of the one star reviews for the latest Lonely Planet and they all have something in common…they have NOTHING to do with the book.  The complaints are all about the Kindle edition not having a Table of Contents, no zoomable maps, or other navigation issues that actually also have nothing to do with the version that Lonely Planet published electronically.  It does in fact have a TOC and zoomable maps it’s just that some Kindle hardware and software doesn’t support Kindle’s own publishing standards.

Guidebooks are exceedingly difficult to present well electronically and there is no consensus platform so if you choose digital you should expect a lack of performance, missing features and some serious growing pains for another few years.

Hope this list helps you find the perfect guidebook for planning and implementing your Costa Rica vacation.

Costa Rica Top Ten Guidebooks List

  1. Lonely Planet 5 stars number one travel guidebookLonely Planet Costa Rica Travel Guide – ISBN-978-1742208893 – The best all around guidebook.  Lonely Planet Costa Rica has had its ups and downs over the years with some of the editions (starting around the 7th) suffering from some stale information and some strong opinions about the over-commercialization of Costa Rican tourism that came across as preachy to many readers. Fortunately they’re on a strong up with the 11th edition. They’ve done a great job converting to full color using it to make things clearer and to give a better picture (literally) of what to expect and look for. The maps especially have benefited immensely from the addition of color. The specialty blurb sections (What’s New, Itineraries, Eat and Drink Like a Local, Activities Guide, Travel with Children etc) that in previous editions seemed to be tacked on as a sort of lame attempt to appeal to the internet generation’s expectations of brightly colored graphic heavy splashes of information have matured into useful and informative short chapters. They’ve freshened up a lot of descriptions, removed outdated information and brought new things up to the minute (well, as up to the minute as you can be in a print publication with a months long production cycle).  SUMMARY – Highly recommended the most complete, current and useable guide.  Good maps, great images, with fun, educational and interesting sidebars and we agree with most of the reviews.

  2. Fodor's Costa Rica Travel GuidebookFodor’s Costa Rica Full-color Travel Guide – ISBN-978-0804142687 – Fodor’s is a reliable favorite and close second to Lonely Planet.  In the past the series had focused a bit too much on luxury travelers and the all-inclusive resorts which meant they were a bit thin on what makes Costa Rica an exceptional and unique destination.  In recent editions Fodor’s has done an excellent job expanding their horizons to investigate and review the smaller, eclectic, unusual, and even downright funky lodges, restaurants and adventures that draw even the most conservative visitors out to explore the “real Costa Rica” beyond the walls of the Guanacaste beach resort compounds. SUMMARY – If you’re a fan of Fodor’s in general then you’ll love this guide and there’s no reason not to choose it over the Lonely Planet.  Good maps, reviews and recommendations.  Lots of color photos and interesting factoids and informational asides.

  3. The Complete Guide: eco Adventures in ParadiseCosta Rica: The Complete Guide, Eco-Adventures in Paradise – ISBN-978-0967890487 – The only real complaint I have about this guide is the title.  While this is an excellent guide it’s anything but “complete.”  James Kaiser previously authored a series of Complete guides to U.S. National Parks which are excellent and quite exhaustive – the use of the same title for the Costa Rica book is simply for marketing and consistency and ends up being a bit misleading.  That said this is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an intentionally incomplete guide.  It dismisses some of the most popular destinations with little more than a mention on a page entitled “Old Highlights” and goes on to focus mainly on the “New Highlights” many of which are my personal favorites as well.  Similarly for lodging, restaurants and activities only the author’s favorites are mentioned (again very good choices) leading to about 1/4 as many listings as one of the truly complete guides (Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Moon, Frommer’s).  SUMMARY – Highly recommended if you’re looking for a little off the beaten path and would rather only know about the best options rather than all the options.

  4. DK Eyewitness Guide to Costa RicaDK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Costa Rica – ISBN-978-1465412157 – This series has always been a favorite and we buy the DK guide for any new country we’re planning to visit.  They’re the only guides that use illustrations instead of photographs and while pictures are very pretty the DK illustrations are both beautiful and informative.  They pack a lot of information into an easy to digest and comprehend package that informs an overview of the regions and what they offer much more quickly than any other format.  This is not the best (at least if you’re only buying one book) choice if you’re planning on backpacking around for a month winging it on accommodations based on your guidebook’s recommendations.  It focuses more on the feel of the country and the best options in an area.  It does not include the extensive listings of lodging and other amenities necessary to roll into town and figure out what to do next.  SUMMARY – Excellent introduction to read ahead of time or to get a better feel for where you are or where you’re headed while on the right road.  Beautiful watercolor illustrations and loaded with insight.

  5. Frommers Complete Costa RicaFrommer’s Costa Rica Color Complete Guide – ISBN-978-1628871425 – Another perennial favorite that’s suffered a bit in the past five years or so from a run in with Google.  In a bid to enhance their travel presence he search giant purchased the entire Frommer’s franchise a few years ago and announce the discontinuation of the printed guides which didn’t sit well with the founders.  After a tussle with the Frommer’s lawyers spanning several months the online user database and presence was retained by Google and the book division was returned to the family.  They hurriedly tried to rehire all the authors, photographers, editors, cartographers and others essential to publishing a good comprehensive guidebook.  Eliot Greenspan (the longtime author and the only one on this list that is a full time Costa Rican resident) is back on board and has done an exceptional job of getting fresh information into the latest edition. SUMMARY – All three of the big publisher’s  general guides are quite similar and all three are good but Frommer’s lags just a bit behind Lonely Planet and Fodor’s in modernizing its look.  Again if you’re generally a fan of Frommer’s by all means buy this guide instead of Lonely Planet.  The differences are minor.

  6. Moon Handbook Costa RicaMoon Handbook’s Costa Rica – ISBN-978-1612386201 – Chris Baker is the undisputed guru of Costa Rica and authors what was once the undisputed king of the guidebooks among veteran travelers.  While the listings have been continually updated there hasn’t been much new sidebar and insight type information added in Baker’s inimitable style.  He’s doubtlessly the best writer penning info on Costa Rica and if this is your first trip we can heartily recommend you pick this guide and read his entertaining and still pertinent observations for the first time.  Like Frommer’s the Moon Guide also suffered from publishing turmoil starting a few years ago when as a marketing strategy they attempted to split the book into five mini-guides to individual regions.  It didn’t seem like a bad idea to us since most week to ten day trips could easily be covered by one of the regional titles but in practice it was a miserable failure (based on observations of sales rank on Amazon),  Maybe this guide really still belongs closer to the top of the list and we’re simply punishing it because damnit we want more of that great writing.  SUMMARY – Recommended especially for backpackers and visitors looking to get off the beaten path but also complete and accurate for the most popular and well known destinations.

  7. National Geographic Traveler Costa RicaNational Geographic Traveler: Costa Rica – ISBN-978-1426211638 – Chris Baker again, this time teamed up with the photographers and graphic artists of National Geographic.  This pictorial journey was once unique but the top three on this list have all caught up putting out full color books loaded with fantastic photography and integrated graphics.  It’s still easy to recommend if you want to browse Costa Rica in your easy chair to figure out where you might want to go and what’s worth including in your vacation.  There’s no denying the National Geographic iconic quality touches and this is a beautiful book making it hard to choose between it and the distinctive style of the DK guides in the same category of general introduction.  SUMMARY – A visually engaging introduction recommended for travelers who might want to know something about Costa Rica before tuning over the nitty-grity of booking hotels and planning a route to travel professionals.  Not useful as a primary guide for backpackers.

  8. Toucan Waterproof Travel Map of Costa RicaToucan Waterproof Travel Map of Costa Rica – ISBN-978-0976373360 – This is not a guidebook.  It is the map that we publish and since we put it way down at number eight we’re obviously not including it in the list to try to get any unearned publicity.  We are including it because Amazon categorizes it under Books > Travel > Central America > Costa Rica along with all the other guides where it’s received the highest average star rating and been the number one bestseller for years.  The map does include our recommendations for places to stay and eat and things to do on both the roadmap of the entire country and the eight detail maps of the top tourist destinations.  Although there are rave reviews on Amazon that state things like “we bought the map and used it to find everywhere we stayed, ate and did activities without any other guide and had the best trip ever,” as the cartographers and authors we encourage you to pick up a guidebook too.  SUMMARY – It’s a map that includes lodging, eating establishments and adventure activities NOT a guidebook that includes maps.  That said it’s far and away the best map available and you should definitely buy it 🙂

  9. Rough Guide to Costa RicaThe Rough Guide to Costa Rica – ISBN-978-1409347880 – Okay, I have to admit that the Rough Guide was included mainly to round out the top ten list (who’s ever heard of a top nine…) as the best of the rest beating out the Footprint guide only by virtue of having an amazing cover photo.  It’s a good basic guidebook although it just falls a bit short in every category.  The photos aren’t as vibrant and there aren’t as many, the outdated info is just a bit more frequent, the writing has a bit of schizophrenic feel and it just doesn’t stand out in any category that might push it closer to the top of the list.  SUMMARY – If you’re on a really tight budget and can pick up a copy of the Rough Guide for $0.99 used instead of shelling out twenty bucks for one of the top guides go ahead.  It won’t lead you too far wrong but if you have a choice look further up the list.

  10. Globetrotter Costa RIca Travel GuideCosta Rica Travel Guide: The Top 10 Highlights in Costa Rica (Globetrotter Guide Books) – The ONLY reason this guide is in the top ten list is so we can warn you that it’s essentially useless.  Five or six paragraphs of description for ten of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica. The book description promises help “planning your once-in-a-lifetime trip” but there is zero information on hotels, resorts, lodges or restaurants and only a few specific activities. Much of it sounds like it was written by someone who’s never visited Costa Rica. It would be difficult to forget the name of the number one tourist destination if you’d been there – the title of chapter 2 is “Adrenal Volcano” [sic] which could be a typo of the correct name, Arenal, except that it’s repeated several times in the text. As an activity in the area the guide suggests “on top tourists get to admire a 140 meters wide crater.” Climbing to the crater of Arenal Volcano is way too demanding for most tourists, very dangerous and illegal. SUMMARY – Unless you’re just interested in the briefest introduction (and perhaps an authentic cultural tour of the inside of a Costa Rican jail if you follow the book’s activity suggestions) you can pass on this one. I’m just glad I checked it out for free from the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library instead of wasting $2.99.
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