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Peru vs Costa Rica: How to Choose Your Ideal Destination

Peru vs Costa Rica, which one should you choose?  

I’ve been to multiple places in both countries, and absolutely love both.  The question of Peru or Costa Rica really comes down to what activities are most important to you. 

Bottom Line: choose Peru for multi-day hiking, cultural immersion, and cuisine, and choose Costa Rica for beautiful beaches, volcanos, and hanging bridges.

Keep reading to learn about differences in climate, specific activities, and the best times to visit.  We hope you come to love both of these countries as much as we have!

Peru vs Costa Rica: Geography and Climate

In contrast to the cold winters in Spokane, our current hometown, both Costa Rica and Peru have incredible weather.

However, the specific climate, temperatures, and rainy/dry seasons are distinct between these two countries.

Geography and Climate of Peru

Quick Facts

  • Climate: Very different climate zones due to the Andes mountain range and the Amazon rainforest.
  • Temperature: Depends on the region, with coastal, highland, and rainforest climates.
  • Rainfall: Coastal areas have less rainfall, while the Andean highlands have distinct wet and dry seasons.
  • Geography: Defined by the Andean mountain range, leading to varied climates and ecosystems.

Peru’s climate very much depends on where you stay.  On our 7-day Peru trip, we spent most of our time in Cusco, which has a cooler climate than the capital of Lima (one thing to keep in mind if you are trying to decide between Lima or Cusco). 

overview of the andes mountains
Our canyon view along the Inca Trail in Peru

We visited in May, the beginning of the dry season, and one of the best times to visit Machu Picchu.  Our temperatures ranged from the low 70s during the day to the upper 30s at night. 

Coastal areas like Lima tend to be a bit warmer (Lows in the mid-60s and highs in the mid-70s in May)

The Amazon Rainforest, which we didn’t visit when we went, has a tropical climate with high humidity and rainfall throughout the year.

Geography and Climate of Costa Rica

Quick Facts

  • Climate: Tropical climate with dry and rainy seasons.
  • Temperature: Average temperatures range from 69-80 or 90 F (21°C to 27°C), depending on where you are and the time of year.
  • Rainfall: The rainy season usually lasts from May to November, with the Caribbean coast having more rainfall.
  • Geography: Lots of microclimates due to varying elevations and being close to the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Costa Rica, like Peru, has a rainy and dry season.  However, Costa Rica’s rainy season lasts from May to November, while Peru’s rainy season lasts from December to March. 

Costa Rica tends to be a bit warmer and tropical in general (especially if compared to the Andes in Peru).

Costa Rica is known for its volcanic landscapes. Arenal Volcano National Park is one of these, which we loved visiting during our 3-day stay in La Fortuna.  

Two tourists in front of the Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano National Park

Costa Rica vs Peru: High and Low Seasons of Travel 

Especially for those wanting to avoid crowds, understanding the peak tourist seasons for Costa Rica vs Peru is important. Here’s a brief overview.

Peru

High Season: mid-May to August: fantastic temperatures, more crowds 

Low Season: December to March.  Lines up with the rainy season.  Cooler temperatures, but fewer crowds. 

Shoulder Season: March-mid May, September-early November: This is (in our opinion) the best time to visit Peru.  We went in May and had fantastic weather, moderate crowds, and little rainfall.

Costa Rica

High Season: December-April: This is the dry season.  Esther and I spent 14 days in Costa Rica in February, right in the middle of the high season. 

While we usually aim for shoulder seasons, we had a fantastic time.  While there were definitely crowds at places like Manuel Antonio National Park, and while ziplining in Monteverde, we had other places seemingly to ourselves, like our three days at Drake Bay, a more secluded spot that is a bit more difficult to get to. 

tourist on a boat from the town of Sierpe to Drake Bay
Our boat ride from Sierpe to Drake Bay

Low Season: August-November: more rainfall, fewer crowds. 

Shoulder Season: May-July:  some rainy days. 

Peru or Costa Rica: Top Tourist Destinations

One of the most important parts of planning an international trip is deciding which destinations you want to visit and which activities are most important to you. We’ve briefly broken down the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica and Peru. Here you have it!

Top Tourist Destinations in Peru

Machu Picchu

This famous archeological site is THE most iconic thing to do in Peru, and for good reason!  For those wondering if a visit to Machu Picchu is worth it, even with all the hype, we say yes!

We had an incredible experience doing the 4-day/3-night classic Inca Trail trek with Alpaca Expeditions.  As long as you choose one of the best Inca Trail tour companies and have the correct expectations, we think visiting Machu Picchu is a must-do. 

view of Machu Picchu as seen from above

Cusco

The city of Cusco is most often used as a home base for visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.  

However, the city in and of itself is incredible.  There are so many things to do in Cusco that we could have spent weeks here. 

From the incredible stone fortress of Sacsayhuaman to the awesome food scene, we highly recommend dedicating a few days to this fantastic city.

Tourist standing next to a shop entrance in the San Blas neighborhoods of Cusco
Shopping in the San Blas neighborhoods in Cusco

Besides, you’ll want to spend at least acclimating to the altitude in Cusco before doing any trekking in the Andes.  And Cusco is quite safe in comparison to other Peruvian cities. 

The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley is made up of a whole bunch of small towns (Ollantaytambo, Maras, Pisac, Chinchero, and Urubamba) and is a great way to step away from the crowds and enjoy the beauty of the Andes Mountains.

We did a zipline and via ferrata tour over the Urubamba River and LOVED it.  

tourist on a zipline in the Sacred Valley | Peru vs Costa Rica

You can find all kinds of tour options in the Sacred Valley at places like Viator or GetYourGuideThey offer everything from ATV tours, mountain biking, ancient ruins tours, and more. 

Lima

The capital city of Lima has a ton of things to do.  Lima is a hub for museums and parks, and the Miraflores neighborhoods are beautiful to explore. 

Other Top Destinations in Peru

  • Colca Canyon
  • The Amazon Rainforest
  • Lake Titicaca
  • The Nazca Lines

Top Tourist Destinations in Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna

If you are interested in volcanos, Costa Rica will win out over Peru.  Arenal Volcano National Park is a must-see for any Costa Rica itinerary.  This volcano was having active eruptions up until 2010!  We loved walking over the hardened lava trails and exploring the El Ceibo trail.

The opportunity to see Arenal Volcano was one factor in swaying us to decide to visit Costa Rica vs the Dominican Republic that year (another fantastic destination with beautiful beaches).

two tourists posing for a photo on the old lava trails at Arenal Volcano National Park

The town of La Fortuna is a great place to see sloths (the Bogarin Sloth trail) or join a coffee/chocolate tour.  

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

We spent three days in Monteverde and were blown away by the cloud forests.  There is nothing quite like walking along hanging bridges and ziplining through the clouds.  

tourist on a hanging bridge

Manuel Antonio National Park

If you want to see monkeys, head to Manuel Antonio National Park.  We saw so many white-faced and squirrel monkeys that we could hardly believe it.  This is one of Central America’s most popular national parks, so be prepared for crowds if traveling during the high season.  

squirrel monkey at Manuel Antonio National Park
One of the many squirrel monkeys we saw at Manuel Antonio National Park

Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park

Drake Bay is one of Costa Rica’s lesser-known gems.  This quiet town is most easily reached via a boat ride through the mangrove-surrounded Sierpe River.

We loved our three days here; it was a great way to escape the crowds before finishing our trip.

Drake Bay offers snorkeling tours at Cano Island (we highly recommend this), or you can hike to the beautiful and secluded Playa San Josesito. 

The town is also a great starting point for tours to the famous Corcovado National Park, where you’ll have the chance to see big mammals, like the Costa Rican Tapir. 

Other Top Destinations in Costa Rica

  • Tortuguero National Park
  • Guanacaste Beaches
  • Puerto Viejo and the Southern Caribbean Coast
  • Tamarindo
  • Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Cultural Attractions in Peru

Peru is very much known for its Incan ancestry.  If you’re looking to really immerse yourself in ancient culture, we think Peru wins out over Costa Rica.

tourist in front of La Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesus
In front of La Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesus

Top Cultural Attractions

  • Machu Picchu via the Inca trail (our trek included multiple stops along the way, explaining Incan traditions and learning about other archeological sites).
  • La Iglesia de La Compañia de Jesus: a beautiful church building next to the central Plaza de Armas.  We took a tour, learning all about the Jesuit influence on Incan society.
  • The Coca Museum: this is one of our favorite museums in Cusco.  Learn all about the ancient and modern uses of the coca plant. 
  • The Inti Raymi Festival (Festival of the Sun): a huge event in Cusco each June 

Cultural Attractions in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has its own unique museums and cultural experiences. 

Our Favorite Cultural Activities in Costa Rica

  • Coffee/chocolate tour: learn about the process of coffee and chocolate production in Costa Rica and get to taste samples along the way. 
  • The capital of San Jose: the city has a variety of museums, such as the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and the Museum of Jade and pre-Columbian Culture. 
coffee/chocolate tour with North Fields Coffee
Our coffee/chocolate tour with North Fields Coffee

Natural Attractions in Peru vs Costa Rica

Both Costa Rica and Peru have incredible natural wonders. Peru has more incredible hiking trails and mountainous terrain, while Costa Rica is more known for its hanging bridges and volcanoes.

Natural Attractions in Peru

Andes Mountain Treks

If you are a hiker like me, Peru will win over Costa Rica.  The Andes Mountains have some of the best multi-day treks in South America. Some of the top routes are the following:  

  • Inca Trail to Machu Picchu:  This trek passes through various microclimates and archeological sites. 
  • Salkantay Trek: Views of the Salkantay Mountain, also ends at Machu Picchu.
  • Lares Trek: this route is more known for its cultural immersion. The trek passes through traditional Andean villages and Quechua communities.
  • Choquequirao Trek: Leads to the lesser-known but (but equally incredibly) archaeological site of Choquequirao.
  • Ausangate Trek: Goes around the Ausangate Mountain, has high-altitude passes, lakes, and passes through Quechua communities.
row of green tents against the backdrop of the andes mountains

Peru Beaches

While Peru isn’t as renowned as Costa Rica for its beaches, there are still plenty of beautiful spots to explore.  Here are some of Peru’s top beaches: 

  • Punta Sal: Known as one of the most beautiful beaches in Peru, Punta Sal has white-ish sand and warm, calm waters.
  • Punta Negra, Punta Rocas, & Punta Hermosa: located to the south of Lima, is the best beach for beginner surfers
  • Playa Roja: a beach known for its unique red sand

Other Top Natural Attractions in Peru

  • The Amazon Rainforest
  • Colca Canyon
  • Lake Titicaca

Natural Attractions in Costa Rica

If you are more interested in beautiful beaches, hanging bridges, or volcanos, Costa Rica will win out over Peru.

Top Volcanoes in Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano

  • Description: Arenal Volcano is one of the most iconic and previously active volcanoes in Costa Rica, known for its iconic cone shape.
  • Activities: Arenal has hiking, hot springs, and tours (such as horseback riding and ATV tours).

Poás Volcano

  • Description: Poás Volcano has one of the largest volcanic craters in the world, with an acidic crater lake at the top.
  • Activities: Poás Volcano National Park has hiking trails and the opportunity to see the active crater.

Irazú Volcano

  • Description: Irazú Volcano is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica and has views of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the top.
  • Activities: Irazú Volcano National Park has hiking trails and the main crater with a green lake.

Both Peru and Costa Rica have beautiful beaches, although Costa Rica is more known for its beaches.

Best Costa Rica Beaches

overview of Drake Bay beach

Most Relaxing Beaches

  • Santa Teresa Beach on the Nicoya Peninsula
  • Samara Beach
  • San Juanillo Beach
  • Manzanillo Beach

Best Beaches for Snorkeling

  • Conchal Beach in Guanacaste
  • Nacascolo Beach on the Papagayo Peninsula
  • Punta Uva Beach off the Southern Caribbean Coast

Hanging Bridges in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is also known for its hanging bridges.  Here are our top recommendations:  

  • Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
  • Monteverde Cloud Forest Hanging Bridges
zipline tour in Costa Rica

Cuisine in Peru

If you are a foodie, go to Peru.  Peru is known as one of the world’s gastronomic capitals, and the cuisine is incredible.  Here are some of the top Peruvian dishes that we tried while in Cusco and during our Inca Trail trek:

Ceviche: made from fresh raw fish cooked in an acidic broth of lime juice. It is usually served with sweet potato, corn, and lettuce.

bowl of Peruvian cerviche

Lomo Saltado: is a stir-fry dish with marinated strips of beef with onions, tomatoes, and other spices. 

Aji de Gallina:  a creamy chicken dish with shredded chicken cooked in a sauce made from aji amarillo peppers, ground walnuts, bread, and cheese. It’s usually served with rice and boiled potatoes.

Anticuchos: are skewers of marinated and grilled beef heart, seasoned with aji panca (Peruvian red pepper) and served with boiled potatoes and a type of corn called choclo. 

plate of Anticuchos and potatoes

Cuy (Guinea Pig): is a traditional Andean dish. It is typically roasted whole and served with potatoes and aji-based sauces.

Cuisine in Costa Rica

While Costa Rica isn’t as renowned for their cuisine, we loved the food there and there are plenty of unique dishes to try.  Here are some of our favorite dishes:

Gallo Pinto: This is A classic Costa Rican dish made from rice and black beans, sautéed together with onions, bell peppers, and spices.

Casado: We ate SO much casado.  Casado is a plate with rice and beans, a portion of meat (such as chicken, beef, or fish), plantains, a cabbage salad, and often picadillo (chopped vegetables).

plate of Costa Rican Casado

Arroz con Pollo: a plate of rice and chicken cooked together with vegetables, herbs, and sometimes beer or other liquids.  We had this after our tour to Nuayaca Falls and it was amazing. 

Olla de Carne: is a beef soup or stew made with large chunks of beef, tubers, and a variety of vegetables, often including corn, plantains, and yuca. It is a popular comfort food in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica vs Peru Travel: Key Takeaways

  • For hanging bridges or volcanos: choose Costa Rica
  • For incredible hiking: choose Peru
  • For cuisine: choose Peru
  • For wildlife: choose Costa Rica
  • For cultural experiences: choose Peru
  • For beaches: choose Costa Rica

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