Costa Rica is a small country in Central America. This nation has bewilderingly diverse culture, climates, flora, and fauna, and landscapes range from rainforests, to dry tropical and temperate forests, to volcanoes, to Caribbean and Pacific beaches, to high mountains, and marshy lowlands. Costa Rica is an exceptionally stable and peaceful country compared to the volatile region it's in, and is one of the world's top destinations for nature and ecotourism. Owing in part to its comparative wealth, it can be a bit more expensive than its northern neighbors.
|Central Valley |
The mostly urban center of Costa Rica, holding the most populated cities, including the capital, San José, many museums and several volcanoes.
|Central Pacific |
Home to well-known beaches and national parks, and one of the most tourist-oriented parts of Costa Rica, along with Guanacaste.
The "dry region" of Costa Rica, with little rain any time of year, fabulous beaches and surfing, and large volcanic and dry forest parks in the north by the Nicaraguan border
The least visited, more isolated region, with great whitewater rafting, sea turtle spotting and many beautiful beaches. It's an outpost of Jamaican culture, with many residents of Jamaican descent.
|North Costa Rica |
A beautiful, sparsely populated, and mountainous region, most famous for its active volcano, Arenal, and the surrounding hot springs, volcanic lakes, and cloud forests.
|South Pacific Costa Rica |
One of the most bio-diverse environments on the planet, full of exotic endemic flora and fauna, and some of the planet's most beautiful and remote tropical beaches.
Due to Costa Rica's topography and historical development, most economic growth has been concentrated in the Central Valley, which has four cities: San José (capital), Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia. Provincial capitals (Liberia, Puntarenas and Limón) and other towns with strategic locations have regional importance, especially for tourism. Some of Costa Rica's most important cities for travellers are:
- 1 San José – the capital
- 2 Alajuela – location of Juan Santamaría International Airport
- 3 Cartago – Costa Rica's first capital
- 4 Heredia – coffee plantations
- 5 Jacó – the Central Pacific coast's largest city, among incredibly biodiversity and natural beauty, famous surf spot
- 6 Liberia – location of Guanacaste Airport and gateway to the beaches of Guanacaste, such as Samara, Nosara, Carillo
- 7 Puerto Limón – main city on the Caribbean side
- 8 Quesada – the largest city by far in the north, surrounded by hot springs popular with Costa Rican vacationers; known locally as "San Carlos"
- 1 Arenal Volcano - active volcano
- 2 Cahuita National Park
- 3 Chirripo National Park
- 4 Cocos Island National Park
- 5 Corcovado National Park
- 6 Manuel Antonio National Park
- 7 Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves
- 8 Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park
- 9 Tortuguero National Park
|Currency||Costa Rican colón (CRC)|
|Population||5.2 million (2022)|
|Electricity||120 volt / 60 hertz (NEMA 1-15, NEMA 5-15)|
|Time zone||UTC−06:00, America/Costa_Rica|
|Emergencies||911, 112 (emergency medical services, fire department, police)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Since the late 1980s, Costa Rica has been a popular nature travel destination, and its main competitive advantage is its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, covering almost 28% of the country's land area, the largest in the world as a percentage of the country's territory, and home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, in a country covering only 0.03% of the world's landmass, but containing about 5% of the world's biodiversity. The country also has plenty of world renowned beaches, in the Pacific Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea, within short travel distances between the coasts, and also several active volcanoes that can be visited safely.
Costa Rica has managed to avoid the political turmoil and violence plaguing the region. President Figueres constitutionally abolished the Costa Rican army permanently in 1948 after winning the 44-day civil war, the last significant political violence in the country. Costa Rica is Latin America's oldest democracy (since the Chilean coup d'etat in 1973) and one of only a handful of presidential republics in the world to last more than five decades. Costa Rica placed 5th among 21 Latin American countries (68th overall) in the 2018 Human Development Index. It frequently performs better than countries with higher GDP per capita in this measure and while still plagued with stark income and wealth inequality, it has these problems to a lesser extent than many other Latin American countries.
Costa Rica is ranked third in the world and first among the Americas in terms of the 2010 Environmental Performance Index. And the New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranked Costa Rica as the happiest nation in the world in 2009 and in 2012. NEF ranked Costa Rica as the "greenest" country in the world.
Costa Rica has been home to a large Jamaican diaspora community in Limón Province since the 19th century, and an English-based creole similar to Jamaican patois continues to be spoken there. So don't be surprised to meet locals with English names (such as football [soccer] players Joel Campbell, Ian Lawrence, and Kendall Watson) despite Costa Rica being a Spanish-speaking country. A more recent phenomenon is Nicaraguan immigration to Costa Rica which happens both for political and economic reasons and occasionally causes tensions. Due to financial reasons few Costa Ricans are left to pick the coffee that has gained Costa Rica accolades. So many undocumented Nicaraguans as well as native tribes people from Costa Rica are being paid less money to pick the coffee in some plantations.
The name Costa Rica means 'Rich Coast' in Spanish.
While Costa Rica shares much of its history well into the 19th century with the other central American states (and gained independence on the same day as Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), which is still visible in the blue white blue basic flag of all these countries (Costa Rica simply added a red stripe in the middle of the white one), there are some notable differences. The most visible today is that in Costa Rica, European settlement mostly occurred in the Central Valley, which led to it becoming the economic and political heart of the country and the ancestry decidedly European. The historical myth many Ticos (as Costa Ricans like to call themselves) hold onto about the early years of the republic is one of "coffee democracy" where everyone lived in the Central Valley and peacefully shared power unlike the decidedly messier history of other Latin American countries. Of course this simplistic view excludes virtually everyone who wasn't white, male, upper class and connected to central valley elites and even then there were violent power struggles, including Costa Rica's part in defeating the American would-be dictator of Central America William Walker in the 1850s. While the political climate until the short civil war of 1948 (won by José Figueres Ferer, who would later be president three separate times and was one of Costa Rica's most influential politicians) was thus not all that different from the rest of Central America (think coups and rigged elections), it has since improved a lot and all elections since 1949 were peaceful and up to international democratic standards. One reason for this is that Figueres upon taking over abolished the military and Costa Rica is still one of only a handful of countries without one, leading to fewer coups and more money for education and social programs. This however has led to Costa Rica being hugely influenced by the USA and being one of America's closest allies in the region.
In the 1980s almost all of Central America was embroiled in civil wars and shaky unpopular governments. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez made a peace proposal that got almost all sides in war-torn Nicaragua to sit together and talk and achieved a lasting peaceful solution and democratic elections in 1990. He got a Nobel Peace Prize for his troubles although the hardest part may have been to convince the U.S. to sign on to his peace proposal. However Nicaragua-Costa Rica relations deteriorated and dominated the political agenda of Arias Sanchez' second term in the 2000s. The Ortega government once more ruling Nicaragua since 2006 has given subsequent Costa Rican presidents headaches, which seem to be used on both sides of the border as convenient distraction from domestic issues.
Rio San Juan, which belongs to Nicaragua but runs along the border, became a hot button issue. One point of contention was Nicaraguan drainage operations on the river which Nicaragua claims were to ensure safe shipping, but Costa Rica claims illegally entered their territory (Nicaragua pointed to Google Maps in their defense). Another point of contention is whether Costa Rica has to pay a fee for tourist excursions on the river. Costa Rica claims an old treaty guarantees both countries free navigation of the river, whereas Nicaragua maintains the only thing the treaty says is that Costa Rican ships may transport "goods" without paying a fee and people are not, in fact, goods. The situation was made worse by Arias Sanchez' successor Laura Chinchilla who insisted on building a controversial highway right next to the river over Nicaraguan protests, which Nicaragua claims not only harms Costa Rican nature reserves but might also overload the river with sediment.
The issue is further complicated by a number anywhere from several hundred thousand to a million Nicaraguans living in various states of legality in Costa Rica. They are not always treated all that well. However, signs of reconciliation are also made from both sides and a new bridge was opened in 2015, which crosses the Rio San Juan near San Carlos (Nicaragua), enabling overland transport towards Los Chiles. The countries see each other as pueblos hermanos (brother peoples), if sometimes bothersome and annoying brothers.
Costa Rica is located on the Central American isthmus, lying between latitudes 8° and 12°N, and longitudes 82° and 86°W. It has a total of 1,290 km (800 mi) of coastline, 212 km (132 mi) on the Caribbean coast and 1,016 km (631 mi) on the Pacific.
Costa Rica borders Nicaragua to the north (309 km or 192 mi of border) and Panama to the south-southeast (639 km or 397 mi of border). In total, Costa Rica comprises 51,100 km² (19,700 sq mi) plus 589 km² (227 sq mi) of territorial waters.
The highest point in the country is Cerro Chirripó, at 3,819 metres (12,530 ft); it is the fifth highest peak in Central America. The highest volcano in the country is the Irazú Volcano (3,431 m or 11,257 ft). The largest lake in Costa Rica is Lake Arenal.
Costa Rica also comprises several islands. Cocos Island (24 km²/9.3 sq miles) stands out because of its distance from the continental landmass, 480 km (300 mi) from Puntarenas, but Calero Island is the largest island of the country (151.6 km²/58.5 sq mi).
Nearly 25% of Costa Rica's national territory is protected by SINAC (the National System of Conservation Areas), which oversees all of the country's protected areas.
Flora and fauna
Costa Rica is such a popular destination for ecotourists because of its biodiversity. Costa Rica has the greatest density of species in the world, and around 25% of its national territory is protected by a system of conservation areas and national parks. The country may contain as much as 6% of the world's plant and animal species. Tropical plant and animal species are abound in Costa Rica. Some of the more impressive plants range from huge ficus trees with epiphytes abounding on their limbs to approximately 1500 different orchids. The animals are just as majestic, whether it's a jaguar (the largest cat in the New World), the ever-elusive Margay, or the wonderful birds like the green or scarlet macaws (lapas in Costa Rican Spanish). Among the amphibians the poison dart frogs with their bright colors are bound to catch your attention, as will the giant cane toads.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
Because Costa Rica is located between 8 and 12 degrees north of the Equator, the climate is tropical, year-round. However, the country has many microclimates depending on elevation, rainfall, topography, and by the geography of each particular region.
Costa Rica's seasons are defined by how much rain falls during a particular period and not to the four seasons to which the residents of the temperate latitudes are accustomed. The year can be split into two periods, the dry season known to the residents as summer, and the rainy season, known locally as winter. The summer, or dry season, lasts from December to April, and winter, or rainy season, lasts from May to November. During this time it rains daily in some regions – almost every afternoon at the start of the season, and much more during the peak rainfall months. September and October have the most rain and the fewest tourists. The tourist industry markets those two months as the "Green Season", because the constant rain results in lush growth in the rainforests.
The winter, or rainy season, coincides closely with the eastern Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean hurricane seasons. Despite being at tropical latitudes, Costa Rica is rarely struck by hurricanes, with the three most recent notable occurrences being Hurricane Nate, Hurricane Otto, and Hurricane Cesar–Douglas in 2017, 2016, and 1996, respectively.
The location receiving the most rain is the Caribbean slopes of the Central Cordillera mountains, with an annual rainfall of over 5000 mm. Humidity is also higher on the Caribbean side than on the Pacific side. The mean annual temperature on the coastal lowlands is around 27°C, 20°C in the main populated areas of the Central Cordillera, and below 10°C on the summits of the highest mountains.
- 1 January - New Year's Day (Año Nuevo)
- Maundy Thursday / Good Friday - (Jueves y Viernes Santo)
- 11 April – Day of Juan Santamaría (commemoration of the Battle of Rivas in 1856)
- 1 May – Labour Day (Día del Trabajo)
- 25 July – Annexation of Nicoya (Anexión de Guanacaste)
- 2 August – Day of the patron of Costa Rica; Our Lady of the Angels (Virgen de los Ángeles)
- 15 August - Mother's Day (Día de la Madre)
- 15 September – Independence Day (Día de la Independencia)
- 1 December - Army Abolition Day (Día de la Abolición del Ejercito)
- 25 December - Christmas (Navidad)
Travel is busiest in the week before Easter (Semana Santa), at mid year school holidays in July, and at the end of December.
Most of the people of Costa Rica are called "Ticos". Compared to many other Latin American countries, the indigenous population and their culture is small and less visible. Other notable minorities are the Afro-Costa Ricans on the Caribbean side of the country and many first or second generation Nicaraguan immigrants.
Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica, and is spoken by virtually all locals. There are also indigenous languages spoken by some of the indigenous ethnic groups, though speakers of these languages are usually able to speak Spanish as well.
An English-based Creole language known as Limonese Creole or Mekatelyu is spoken in Limón Province on the Caribbean Sea coast. This Creole language is essentially a localized form of Jamaican Patois, and is similar to varieties such as Colón Creole, Miskito Coastal Creole, Belizean Kriol language, and San Andrés and Providencia Creole. The name Mekatelyu is a transliteration of the phrase "make I tell you", or in standard English "let me tell you". Virtually all speakers of Limonese Creole are also able to speak Spanish, as well as standard English (or can at least approximate it).
English is spoken by staff at most tourist establishments, and information for visitors is often bilingual. Many businesses operated by European proprietors can accommodate guests in Spanish, English and their native languages. Generally speaking, younger Costa Ricans (i.e. aged under 30) and those from more affluent backgrounds have at least a basic grasp of English. Outside of that, English proficiency among locals - particularly among older people - tends to be rudimentary at best. You will likely encounter situations where nobody speaks English, so it is worth investing time and effort in learning at least the basics of Spanish before you go.
Some Costa Rican colloquial expressions:
- Mae or sometimes "Maje" is used akin to the American English word 'dude'. Generally spoken among the male population, or among friends. It is as informal as the word 'dude'. Mae is mostly used by the younger population and Maje by the older population. It is pronounced 'maheh'.
- Pura vida, literally translated as "pure life," is an expression common to Costa Rica. It can be used in several contexts, as an expression of enthusiasm, agreement, or salutation. It's pronounced 'poora veeda'.
- Tuanis, means "OK" or "cool." Was believed to be taken from English phrase "too nice", but it is actually a word borrowed from the Código Malespín, a code developed for communication during the various Central American civil wars in the 19th century.
A prevalent version of slang in Costa Rica, and other regions of Latin America, is called "pachuco", "pachuquismo" or "costarriqueñismo" and is used by all social classes (to some degree), however, it can be at times vulgar and is considered an informal way of speaking.
For the word "you", (singular informal form), instead of "tú", most people of the Central Valley use "vos" (as in "vos sos" - you are) which is also common to other Latin nations (Argentina, Uruguay), but the word "usted" is prominent in south Pacific Costa Rica and preferred over "vos". Either way, formal Spanish is understood and you may use any form of the word "you" you consider proper.
Costa Ricans tend to use the term Regálame, literally "gift me", instead of "get me". An example is when a Costa Rican says: "regálame la cuenta", literally "gift me the bill", which is unusual to other Spanish speaking countries, however, it is a very common Costa Rican term. Another such case might be when Costa Ricans go out to buy something, in which case they might use the term this way: "Regáleme un confite y una Coca", literally, "Gift me a piece of candy and a Coke", but it is understood that the person asking is going to buy said things and is not expecting the other to gift him or her those things. A more precise phrase in standard Spanish would be: "Me vende un confite y una Coca", meaning: "Sell me a piece of candy and a Coke".
Visitors from most developed countries can enter Costa Rica without a visa and can stay for 90 days, although sometimes a US passport will only get 30 days. Check with Immigration[dead link] for more details. However, people of any nationality holding valid U.S., Canada, Japan, South Korea or Schengen visas do not need a prior visa. The only conditions being that the visa must be valid for three months and should be stamped in your passport.
Before travelling, verify the entry requirements in effect with TimaticWeb or with a Costa Rican consulate. If you have an unusual passport/visa combination, allow extra time for check-in, especially if flying with a minor airline, like InterJet, which may not have a TimaticWeb subscription, or whose staff may not know how to use it.
The entry requirements include having a return ticket. If you are doing a multi-country trip, and the return air ticket to your home country is from an adjacent country, such as Panama or Nicaragua, that would usually satisfy the immigration authorities and the airline check-in staff; nonetheless, if travelling on an itinerary like this (especially with an unusual passport), it may be safer to purchase a fully refundable ticket directly from Costa Rica, and cancel it once no longer needed.
A word of caution to Nicaraguan citizens traveling through the San José airport: the 30-day tourist visa for Nicaraguans permits only a single entry. if you have a flight from San José going elsewhere make sure to double check with the embassy, otherwise they will make you buy an extra flight and not let you in.
Costa Rica requires a valid yellow fever certificate if arriving from countries where that disease is prevalent (such as Panama and most South American countries). If such is not presented you would not be allowed to enter/board the flight. At Bogota airport, if you have a certificate you can have it e-mailed to the airline and then proceed to the local vaccination authority for duplicate certificate to be issued free of charge. The critical part is to get the printed version on time. If you don't have a certificate or cannot get it on time you will probably be approached by friendly police officers to arrange it for a fee. Keep in mind that the date of the vaccination should be at least 10 days prior to entering the country from which you are flying.
- 1 Juan Santamaría Airport (SJO IATA) (close to the cities Alajuela (3 km (1.9 mi)), Heredia and the capital San José (25 km (16 mi)).). SJO is run by the same organization that runs the airports in Houston, Texas. The pleasant airport features the normal assortment of duty-free shops, interesting souvenir shops and bookshops, but has a poor selection of restaurants (Church's Chicken, Burger King, Poás Deli Cafe and Papa John's pizza). It is served daily by Air Transat (seasonal), American Airlines, Condor, Delta, Frontier Airlines, Iberia, Interjet, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, United, Air Canada, Avianca, Copa Airlines and AirPanama. The airport receives flights from Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Chicago, Newark, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Bogotá, Medellín, Caracas, Lima, Guayaquil, Quito and all Central American capitals. There is also a domestic terminal for internal flights operated by Skyway Airlines, offering flights to Drake Bay, Puerto Jimenez, Manuel Antonio, Santa Teresa, Tamarindo, Liberia.
- 2 Guanacaste Airport (LIR IATA) (near Liberia in the Guanacaste province). This airport is closest to the Pacific Northwest coast. Guanacaste Airport receives flights from Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Air Canada, Sun Wing (charter), and First Choice (charter). Connecting the airport with Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Newark, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, London, etc.
- 3 Tobías Bolaños International Airport (SYQ IATA) (in the Pavas district of San José about a 10-15 minute drive from the city center.). This airport primarily serves as the gateway linking to local Costa Rican domestic flights or nearby international destinations of Nicaragua and Panama. This airport is the hub for Aerobell. The terminal is neat, and clean though small. There is reasonably priced cafeteria food service on the second floor of the terminal. The terminal is not open 24 hr a day so if you have an early flight verify what time the building opens before you take the taxi. There is no comfortable place to wait near the terminal if you arrive too early.
There is a US$29 exit fee for outbound international flights. This must be paid in cash, or by Visa (in which case it will be processed as a cash advance). The fee can also be paid in advance at some hotels or banks (Banco de Costa Rica).
Due to legal requirements (EU) the exit fee is included in the ticket price since 2015 for many airlines (Aeroméxico, Air Canadá, Air France, Air Panamá, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Grupo Avianca, British Airways, Condor, Copa Airlines, Delta Airlines, Edelweiss, Iberia, Interjet, JetBlue Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, United Airlines, Volaris Costa Rica, Volaris México). Ask your airline if it is included.
The Interamericana (Pan-American Highway) runs through Costa Rica and is the main entry point by car. It is labeled as "Ruta 1" North of San José and "Ruta 2" south of it. The border post in the north (to Nicaragua) is called Peñas Blancas and in the south (to Panamá) Paso Canoas (closes at 22:00 Costa Rican time, or 23:00 Panamá time). Virtually all travel out of the capital (except to the Caribbean side) will involve traveling this road. The locals call the highway Via Muerta, and after you have been on it a while you understand why — near San José and other major cities, the road is paved and has excellent signage; outside of the major cities, however, the road is gravel in places with fairly tight turns and substantial changes in elevation. You will see more large truck traffic on this road than in any part of Costa Rica. There are many speed traps along this major artery, as well as some random police checks for seat belts and, especially near the borders, for valid travel documents.
The highway speed is 80 km/h, but since the Interamericana passes through innumerable small towns, the speed frequently drops to 50 or even 30 km/h as you suddenly find yourself in a school zone. Most of the highway is not divided. A common indicator that a police checkpoint is ahead is that oncoming cars flick their lights at you. There are tickets that exceed US$400 for attempting to bribe an officer, and other big-ticket tickets for drunken driving, speeding, and other illegal actions including talking on a cell phone and not using seat belts. Be nice to the police if you are pulled over because they can "throw the book" at you, although they generally do not. This could mean citing you for minor offenses such as the requirement that every car carry an emergency kit. There is a 3-year prison sentence for driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level and a US$480 fine. Driving over 20 km/h over the speed limit is a US$310 and losing 20 points. Police tend to target tourists because they think that Costa Ricans don't have the money to pay the big tickets, and they're right. The police themselves earn about US$500 per month, which is the average monthly wage in Costa Rica.
Ruta 27 stretches from the Pacific Port at Caldera all the way into San José. This highway is smooth as U.S. or European highways. There are tolls along this highway but if you travel the entire stretch it will still only cost a few dollars in total.
Many Costa Rican roads are in terrible shape, and short distances can take a very long time. Even the only road in and out of popular tourist destinations are riddled with major potholes. To avoid potholes, drivers will often snake through the left and right lanes, usually returning to the right when oncoming traffic approaches. While this may seem erratic, you can become quickly accustomed to it. If you see a tree branch or pole poking out of the middle of a road, that is a "sign" that there is a deep sinkhole, pothole or manhole without a cover. Stay away from it.
Driving at night is a bad idea because of the unpredictability of road conditions and lack of safety features such as guard rails on the many hairpin turns in the hills. Costa Rica's per capita traffic death rate is comparable to that of the United States, but there are undeniably many hazards, and they are likely to be unfamiliar ones.
Many roads are unpaved, and even the paved roads have lots of unpaved sections and washed out or unfinished bridges. Bridges are often only wide enough for one vehicle; one direction usually has priority. Do not expect to get anywhere quickly; supposed three-hour journeys can easily turn into five or more hours: there are always slow cars/buses/trucks on the road. This causes a lot of crazy driving, which you begin to emulate if you are in-country for more than a day. The government does not seem to be fixing the infrastructure well (or at all); 50 km/h is good over unpaved roads. Some hotels in the mountains require a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the destination. Call ahead. This is more for the ground clearance than the quality of the road. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are widely available at the car rentals near the airport, but call ahead.
Navigation can be difficult. Road signs are relatively few, and those that do exist can be inaccurate. It is recommended that you have a good road map with the small towns listed, since road signs will often only indicate the next town, not the direction of the next major city. Towns generally do not have town-limit signs; it is best to look at the names on the roadside food stores and restaurants to determine the place you are passing. Stop and ask, practice your Spanish. The center of town is usually a public park with a Catholic church across from it.
There are no formal street addresses in Costa Rica, but two informal systems exist. The first (often used in tourist information) indicates the road on which the establishment is located (e.g., "6th Avenue"), together with the crossroad interval (e.g., "between 21st and 23rd Streets"). In practice, street signs are virtually non-existent, and locals do not even know the name of the street they are on. The second system, which is much more reliable and understood by locals, is known as the "Tico address", usually involving an oriented distance (e.g., "100 m south, 50 m east") from a landmark (e.g., "the cathedral").
In the road naming system of San José, avenues run east-west and streets run north-south. The numbering is less straighforward. Starting at Central Avenue going south are 2nd, 4th, 6th Avenue, etc. while going north are 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc. Streets use even numbers going west, and odd numbers going east. This means that if you are at 7th Avenue and 4th Street, and looking for 6th Avenue and 5th Street, you are on the wrong side of town.
Gas stations are full-service and staff usually accept U.S. dollars, and colones, of course. Costa Rica is small so you do not use much gas getting places, even though it can take longer than planned. Costa Rica also has roundabouts, so people from Europe should have no problem, but North Americans should make sure they know how they work. The gas stations really are full-service, and you can have your oil checked, water filled, and tire pressure topped off. The state owns a gasoline company and the private companies raise their prices to the level of the state-set price. It is recommended to always use super gas and not regular; the regular gas is soiled. If you use the "regular" gas, you will have to change the gas filter and clean the injectors after 8000 km (5000 miles).
There is an extensive network of bus routes within the country with reasonable fares. Departures are very punctual, though routes often take longer than expected. Stop by the Tourist Office in downtown San José (underneath the Gold Museum in the Plaza—ask anyone and they'll be able to help you out). The bus system is a safe and even fun way to see a lot of the country cheaply and not have to worry about car rentals. Getting around without Spanish is no problem.
San José has a remarkably large number of bus stations for a town of its size; bus departure points occasionally change. Make sure to double check the location of the terminal for the bus you want to take.
Small ship cruises carrying fewer than 100 passengers begin in Panama and end in Costa Rica or reverse. These cruises visit popular national parks such as Manuel Antonio but also visit remote beaches and coastline not accessible by road. Prices range from US$2000–6000 per person for 7- to 10-day tours.
Larger cruise ships occasionally dock or anchor at Puerto Caldera and Puntarenas for a day or so, usually to begin, end or continue cruises with itineraries through the Panama Canal to or from Caribbean or U.S. ports.
Although Costa Rica has established official street names in most cities for governmental purposes, most of the population is unaware of these names and if they are known, most streets will lack proper signs stating said names. Asking for directions from a local could result in a tedious and difficult conversation as said directions are given out based on a common or well known building, store, office or other landmark in order to find what you are looking for. As such, you would need to know important landmarks and their locations well enough to be able to get around more easily.
Cien metros or 100 meters, is commonly used to refer to a city "block," which are usually 100 m, but in some cases could be more or less. However, despite what the exact distance is, many locals tend to use 100 m or a city block when giving out directions.
- For reliable (offline) maps and navigation, consult OpenStreetMap-based apps, such like OsmAnd or Mapy.cz. Or just download the according GPX or KML files through Waymarked Trails for such trails on OpenStreetMap. (Note, you just need to change the OpenStreetMap relation ID to download the GPX or KML files through the same link.) OpenStreetMap contributors also produce Garmin compatible maps that are open source and constantly updated. If possible, contribute back the tracks of your trip to the project.
- Free GPS maps from the Cenrut project. The Cenrut maps can be loaded on Garmin devices, iPhones and Android phones.
- Waze, the smartphone application is a favorite among Costa Ricans as a GPS with real time updates on traffic.
- Google Maps on a cell phone or tablet can be a useful tool to locate Points of Interest (POIs) or devise a route to a destination, it offers turn-by-turn routable directions, but is not very used by locals, so fixes and routing might be more accurate in Waze.
For the most part, Costa Rica's roads are paved but have minimal upkeep. Also, there are many narrow bridges scattered around the country. Exercise caution when traveling during the rainy season as some roads can be washed out or flooded in low-lying areas. If you plan on traveling into the mountainous regions like Monteverde, four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicles are strongly recommended. These roads are not paved and can be slick due to the consistent rainfall. Rockfalls and landslides are common and guardrails are sparse. Also, visibility can be low around the cloud forest areas, so use caution.
- Centrocoasting is a free and invaluable resource for navigating the country (and rest of Central America) by bus, and offers bus schedules and prices for most of the major routes in the region.
Most major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are served by at least two daily buses from and to San José. Public transportation in Costa Rica is cheap (tickets rarely cost over US$7 each) and most towns are well served with buses. San José serves as a national hub, and there are smaller regional hubs in the terminal de autobuses of larger cities in each province. The buses are usually not booked with an early reservation system so you may not get a seat on popular routes, however there is usually standing room. Many intercity buses have assigned seats. Depending on the company and stop, you will either buy a ticket at the bus terminal or pay the driver directly.
Buses are cheap but of variable comfort and cleanliness, with no toilets, and no air conditioning so windows are usually open unless it rains. They are however better than the buses in Nicaragua. For example, decades-old school buses from the USA are rare in Costa Rica.
In San José there is no central bus station, but several different ones, each of which roughly serves a different area of the country, with some exceptions. For example, most of the service to the Caribbean side of the country leaves from the Terminal Gran Caribe. Direct service to the far south Caribbean coast is provided from the Puntarenas bus station, which mostly serves the west side of the country. Still, you can still get to the Caribe side by taking a bus (on the Autotransportes Caribeños line) from the Terminal Gran Caribe to Limón, and then transferring there to another bus south (the Mepe line). In short, do some research beforehand so you don't get lost looking for your bus. Often you can just call or e-mail your final destination (e.g. your hotel) and they will tell you what bus to take, where to catch it and how often it runs.
Buses can be infrequent and unreliable. Instead of waiting for hours for the bus at the highway, you may be better off trying to hitch-hike. Travellers report great success getting picked up in Costa Rica, particularly by truck drivers, but this is only recommended if travelling in a group.
Bus drivers sometimes try short-changing tourists. Always ensure you have received the correct change. Prices between the most important places are always displayed above the driver for your reference. Rounded ticket prices like ₡1,000 or ₡2,000 should raise your suspicions. Do not let them fool you, that just worsens the situation for locals.
By rental car
One advantage of renting a car is that you can visit many of the secluded beaches and mountain areas. For US$350-700 a week you can rent an econocar/mid size four-wheel drive. Mandatory insurance is the majority of this cost. Four-wheel-drives are good for extensive traveling outside the Central Valley, especially in the wet season. In the dry season going from La Fortuna to Monteverde via a direct route was over a boulder-strewn 25-50 km/h (15-30 mph) road. Four-wheel-drive was also useful on the Nicoya coast. (Above based on 2001 roads.) It's often possible to rent a car with a local driver from the various tour companies, if driving yourself seems a bit daunting.
Due to the condition of most roads outside San José, car insurance, even with a zero-deductible option, generally does not cover tires and rims. Car rental companies require a guaranty deposit from US$750 during the rental period and a credit card is necessary for this process. Using an insurance program provided by some types of gold or platinum credit cards is a good advantage, since these credit cards would cover small scratches, small dents as well as the entire rented vehicle in case of collision or theft.
You have to exercise caution when renting a car in Costa Rica; where it is not uncommon for rental companies to claim "damage" they insist you inflicted on the vehicle. It is by far the best policy to rent a car through a Costa Rican travel agent. If you are traveling on a package, your agent will sort this out. Otherwise, go into an ICT-accredited travel agent in San José and ask them to arrange rental for you. This should be no more expensive than renting on your own and will help guard against false claims of damage and other accusations; rental companies will be less willing to make trouble with an agent who regularly sends them clients than with individual customers who they may not see again.
Make sure to check the car carefully before you sign off on the damage sheet. Check the oil, brake fluid, fuel gauge (to make sure it's full) and that there is a spare tire with a good air pressure and a jack. Look up the Spanish word for "scratches" (rayas) and other relevant terminology first, so you can at least scrutinize the rental company's assessment. Ask them to write down all the minor damages, not just check on the drawing, and keep a copy of this document with you.
Take the maximum insurance (around US$15–20 per day); because of the country's high accident rate, you need to be covered for damage to the vehicle, yourself, any third party and public property.
By rental motorcycle
For about US$420 a week, depending on the bike and the season, you can rent a dual sport bike or a chopper. A motorcycle rental company requires a guaranty deposit from US$600 during the rental period.
Another easy way to get around Costa Rica is to use the services of mini-vans. At most of the hotels, the receptionist is able to assist travelers who want to travel across the country by arranging for the services of a driver. Rates are reasonable (US$29 per person, for example, to get from San José to Tamarindo in 2007) The drivers know the roads well; the vans are clean and comfortable; and they take you from door to door.
Taxis are available in most large cities. They are usually inexpensive, charging only a few dollars to get most anywhere within the city. The meter is called "la maria"; ask the driver to turn it on immediately upon getting in the car, or he may leave it off and make up his own, more expensive, price when you get to your destination. Also try checking it wasn't running before you got in, the initial fare shouldn't be higher than ₡600. Most drivers know familiar routes such as San José to Santa Ana and you can find the rate by asking "Cuanto para ir a _____" and he will tell you the flat rate. This can keep you from paying too much because the driver will not make unnecessary detours. Official taxis are red with a yellow triangle on the side. They also have yellow triangles on the side of the car which will have a number in it. If the number matches the number listed on the license plate, it is an official taxi. Do not get in if the numbers do not match. "Pirate Taxis", though sometimes cheaper, are not safe. Do not risk it, especially if you're alone. Females should ride in the back, as riding in the front seat can be seen as suggestive.
Hitch-hiking is far more common in rural areas than in urban areas. In general, it is very easy for tourists, contrary to local people. If you choose to hitch-hike, Costa Ricans are generally very friendly and helpful, particularly in more rural areas where traffic on the dirt roads can be light. It's customary to offer to pay for the ride, but most Ticos will decline but appreciate the kindness in offering. Don't worry if they accept, the ride shouldn't cost more than the bus.
None of them will carry a longboard and they limit the number of short surfboards they will carry. Be sure to check with airline for current limits on length of boards allowed.
While the train service was closed in 1995, the Incofer (Costa Rican Railway Institute) remained operational and is putting the abandoned rails to use again in the San José metropolitan area. Train service still suffers from decades of neglect and only rarely is a train faster or cheaper than a bus, but new lines and improvements to existing lines (mostly for commuters in and around San José) are planned for the near future. Schedules still mostly show a commuter layout with trains being plentiful in the morning and evening and scant or missing in the middle of the day or at night.
Tickets cost around ₡500 one way with discounts for the elderly
- Alajuela - Heredia - San José Service
- Belén - Pavas - San José - Curridabat Service
- Cartago (Costa Rica) - San José service
Costa Rica is world famous for having an incredibly high level of biodiversity throughout its tropical forests (this covers what you may hear referred to as rain forests, cloud forests, and dry forests). There are tropical mammals such as monkeys, sloths, tapirs, and wild cats as well as an amazing assortment of insects and other animals. There are many many birds (both migratory and resident) - more on that below. With 25% of the country being national parks and protected areas, there are still many places you can go to see the abundant wildlife and lush vegetation of the country. Just like anywhere, the farther you get off the beaten path, the more likely you are to see a wide variety of flora and fauna.
There is such biodiversity in Costa Rica not only because it's a land bridge between North and South America, but also because the terrain is so varied and there are weather patterns moving in from both the Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean. There are impressive volcanoes, mountain areas, rivers, lakes, and beaches all throughout the country. There are many beautiful beaches - most of the popular ones are on the Pacific side but the Caribbean has many excellent beaches as well.
One of the most wonderful activities for people who love nature is bird-watching. You can enjoy bird-watching in many areas of Costa Rica. Due to the great diversity of climates, temperatures and forest types in Costa Rica, there is a wonderful variety of birds, with over 800 species. Some helpful books available on bird-watching are Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch (Cornell University Press) or An Illustrated Field Guide to Birds of Costa Rica, illustrated by Victor Esquivel Soto. These books can be found at certain bookstores in San José or before coming to Costa Rica. They are both heavy books; many people tear out the plates of the Stiles & Skutch book to carry into the field and leave the rest of the book in their car or room. Plastic cards with the most common birds are available for many areas and are sold at gift shops.
List of birds
- 16 species of parrots including the fabulous scarlet macaw.
- 50 species of hummingbirds.
- 10 species of trogons with the resplendent quetzal as the jewel.
- 6 species of toucans, including the keel-billed and chestnut-mandibled.
- Half the bird species in Costa Rica are passerines including warblers, sparrows and finches.
- 16 species of ducks, including the fulvous whistling, white-faced ruddy and American wigeon.
- 13 species of falcons, including the peregrine falcon, merlin and American kestrel.
- 36 species of prey, including the gray hawk, swallow-tailed kite, solitary eagle and northern harrier.
- 6 species of cracidae which look like turkeys.
- 8 species of new world quails.
- 15 species of rallideas including the rufous-necked wood-rail, American coot and ruddy crake.
- 19 species of owls including the black-and-white, Costa Rican pygmy, Central American pygmy and striped.
- 3 species of potoos including the great, northern and common.
- 16 species of woodpeckers, including cinnamon, chestnut-colored and pale-billed.
Coastal list of birds
- 19 species of herons & wading birds such as the great blue heron, great egret, boat-billed heron, reddish egret and yellow-crowned night-heron.
- 2 species of recurvirostraide which are waders and include the black-necked stilt and American avocet.
- 2 species of jacans including the northern and wattled.
- 34 species of scolopacidae including the short-billed dowitcher, spotted sandpiper, wandering tattler, surfbird, and red phalarope.
- 9 species of gulls including the gray, Heermann's and ring-billed.
- 14 species of sternidae (terns) including the gull-billed tern, Forster's tern, least tern and white tern.
- 4 species of vultures including the king vulture.
- 24 species of doves and pigeons.
- 11 species of swifts including the black, spot-fronted and Costa Rican.
- 6 species of kingfishers including the green, Amazon and American pygmy.
- 5 species of threskiornithidaes including the roseate spoonbill and white-faced ibis.
- 2 species of ciconiidae including the wood stork and jabiru.
- Ballena Marine National Park has frigate birds, boobies, ibises and pelicans
- Cahuita National Park has toucans, parrots, rufous kingfishers; the park is on the beach.
- Carara National Park has 400 species of birds.
- Corcovado National Park has 400 species of birds and 1,200 scarlet macaws.
- Heliconia Island has 228 species of birds.
- Térraba-Sierpe National Wetland has a myriad of birds along the coast and swamps.
- La Amistad International Park has 500 species of birds including resplendent quetzals.
- La Selva Biological Station in the northern lowlands has 420 species of birds.
- Los Quetzales National Park has around 200 species of birds, and particularly the eponymous resplendent Quetzal.
- Manuel Antonio National Park has 350 species of birds and three lovely beaches.
- Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has more than 400 species of birds, including resplendent quetzals.
- Palo Verde National Park attracts many migratory birds.
- Santa Rosa National Park has more than 250 species of birds.
- Tárcoles River basin has 400 species of birds and great river tours highlighting crocodiles.
- Tortuguero National Park has 300 species of birds.
Most hotels and tourist information centers will provide bird-watching guides, maps and other essentials for bird watching. Unless you are an experienced neotropical birder, it can be a lot more productive to go out with an experienced birding guide. Do not forget to bring a hat, rain gear, boots, binoculars and camera. In hot areas, an umbrella can be more useful than a poncho or jacket. Southern Costa Rica is generally considered the better option for bird-watching.
Costa Rica is a geologically active nation. The most notable volcanoes are:
- Arenal, (Spanish: Volcán Arenal): an active stratovolcano with lava domes, near La Fortuna. It was Costa Rica's most active volcano until 2010, with daily eruptions, but has since become dormant.
- Irazú, (Spanish: Volcán Irazú): an active complex stratovolcano situated in the Cordillera Central close to the city of Cartago. The last eruption was in 1994.
- Poás, (Spanish: Volcán Poás): an active stratovolcano in Poás Volcano National Park in central Costa Rica, 40 km from Alajuela. It has erupted 40 times since 1828. The last eruption was in 2019.
Football (soccer) is Costa Rica's national sport, and local passion for the game is very high. The Costa Rican national team (known as Los Ticos) has emerged as a powerhouse in North America since the turn of the millennium, and is increasingly posing a challenge to traditional rivals the United States and Mexico for North American supremacy. It has only missed one World Cup since 2002. Its best ever finish was the quarter-finals in 2014 where it lost in penalties to the Netherlands.
Domestically, the top division in the Costa Rican league system is the Liga FPD, for which there is no shortage of enthusiasm from local fans. The "big three" teams in Costa Rican football are San José-based Deportivo Saprissa, Alajuela-based Alajuense and Heredia-based Herediano.
The Pacific coast's main beaches are located in the Central Pacific region, the Nicoya Peninsula, and in Guanacaste. Less-visited but no less beautiful beaches are located in the tropical rainforest of the southern Pacific coast near Corcovado National Park, or on the exotic eco-tourism paradise of the Caribbean side in Limón Province.
In an overview, the Caribbean region of Costa Rica stands out for its variety of aquatic ecosystems and its beautiful white and black sand beaches, providing an ideal setting for activities such as sport fishing, snorkeling, and sun bathing. The Pacific coast concentrates big tourist centers and its beaches are very popular for surfing; for example Esterillos, Jaco, Hermosa, Boca Barranca. In the Golfito region, surfers can find the famous "long lefthander wave" of Pavones.
Here is a quick list of the country's biggest and most popular beach destinations, ask the locals to find tiny quiet beaches off the beaten path nearby:
- Manuel Antonio — one of the best known destinations in Central America, its main feature is a beautiful and tiny National Park with clear water beaches and lots of wildlife
- Jacó — the "city of surf" of Costa Rica, holds national and international tournaments and it is conveniently located with beautiful wildlife spots such as Carara National Park to the North and Manuel Antonio to the South. Also known for its nightlife and restaurant scene.
- Corcovado — one of the most diverse and nature dense spots in Costa Rica, the main attraction in the Osa Peninsula, with black sand beaches fronted by the thick Costa Rican tropical rain forest
- Dominical — surfing destination with a small town and good nightlife scene in the North end of the South Pacific
- Montezuma — the bohemian option, on the Nicoya Peninsula, full of dreadlocks, surfers, and what you would expect would come along with them (known as "monte fuma" by the locals)
- Playa Grande — this tranquil white sand beach is home to the largest nesting site for the leatherback sea turtle on the Pacific coast, as well as, one of the best surfing waves in the Guanacaste Province
- Tamarindo — the upscale option, with beautiful beaches complemented by boutique shopping and high class dining
- Tortuguero — caters to eco-tourists looking to explore the rainforest and spot some manatees, monkeys and birds. Tortuguero is both a small town only accessible by boat, but also the name of the National Park, dubbed "the Amazon of Central America"
- Puerto Viejo — the main hub of Costa Rica's South Caribbean, has a nice laid-back vibe with small hotels and beautiful light sand beaches. Close by you can find Cahuita National Park and Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, attractive coastal protected areas
There is a wide variety of exciting rafting trips offered in Costa Rica. For many years, the rafting Mecca of Costa Rica was Turrialba, a large town embedded in the mountains near the Reventazon and Pacuare Rivers, on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica.
However, the Arenal Volcano area is now an increasingly-popular whitewater rafting destination with close access to the Sarapiqui and Toro Rivers, as well as the Class II-III Río Balsa which delight rafting enthusiasts in the Northern slopes of the country.
On the Pacific slope, the river with the largest volume, El General, is famous for multi-day adventures and for being an incredible playground for kayakers. The Coto Brus River is also part of this watershed. Further north, on the central Pacific coast, are the Savegre and Naranjo Rivers. In this area you have the opportunity to enjoy both half-day trips on the Naranjo River and 1-to-2-day trips on the Savegre River.
The Class III-IV Tenorio River near Canas, Guanacaste is a favorite among day-trippers from the beaches of Guanacaste, as well as part of shuttle-tour-shuttle services from the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde to the Guanacaste area. The lower section of the Tenorio River is widely-known for being an excellent nature float trip.
The Pacuare River (Class III-IV) is at the top of the list for 2- or 3-day adventures. If you are interested in similar trips, the Savegre River (Class III-IV) is an excellent alternative for an overnight rafting excursions.
If you want more adrenaline, the Chorro Section (Class IV+) of the Naranjo River, near Manuel Antonio, Quepos is one of the most exhilarating rafting trip of the country. This section is run from December to May.
As for nature-oriented trips, the Peñas Blancas River near the Arenal Volcano provides a great look at the tremendous biodiversity of the country.
Most likely, any of these rafting trips will be the highlight of your active vacations, so don’t miss your chance to paddle one.
Costa Rica has some of the best sport fishing in the world and is the first country to practice catch and release fishing. The Pacific side has incredible fishing for Sailfish, Marlin, Dorado, Tuna, Wahoo, Roosterfish, Snapper, and more. The Caribbean side and Northern regions of Costa Rica are famous for big Tarpon and big Snook. Over 64 world-record fish have been caught in Costa Rica. Half-day, full-day and multi-day trips are available. They love to eat turtles.
Costa Rica has many surfing hotspots. The best time of year to surf is from November to August.
In the Guanacaste region, there are several beaches to choose from if you intend to go surfing. Among them, Playa Negra and Playa Grande are two stand out breaks. Playa Negra breaks over a shallow lava reef producing fast hollow waves, for advanced surfers. Playa Grande is the most consistent break in the area with surfable conditions most days of the year. It breaks over a sandy bottom and is good for beginner and experienced surfers. Playa Nosara is another option for beginning to intermediate surfers. Its waves may be a little overwhelming for a complete novice, but for someone who has a beginning grasp on the technique, it is a nice place with a good local scene.
Tamarindo is a good beach to learn how to surf, whilst Playa del Coco offers advanced surfers the chance to surf at Witches Rock and Ollie's Point. On the Caribbean side there are beautiful beaches, but limited surfing prospects.
The southern Costa Rica area has two very good spots for surf: Dominical and Pavones Beach. Pavones Beach has thick, heavy waves which consistently barrel and can get really big. It's little known, but picturesque and untamed; definitely not for the light hearted.
In the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma has one of the most beautiful beach breaks in the area, called Playa Grande. It's a short eastward walk from Montezuma village. The break is great for all surfers.
Costa Rica has great mountain biking routes, particularly near Irazu, Turrialba and Arenal Volcanoes. There is popular dirt road that connects Irazu Volcano and the foothills of Turrialba Volcano that is perfect for mountain biking, as it traverses the mountain and presents great views of the Cartago Valley (weather permitting, of course).
The area around Lake Arenal is also a great spot to bike. You can circle the lake in one long day, or break up the ride in two sleeping in Tilarán or Nuevo Arenal. The use of mountain bikes is a must, since the southern shore of the lake is unpaved.
The Nicoya Peninsula also has great riding, particularly the stretch between Sámara, Puerto Coyote and Malpais. There is a coastal road that connects these three beachtowns.
Around most volcanos there can be found a decent amount of half to one-day hiking trails.
For proper mountain hiking head to the mountains near San Isidro de General, which are probably the most alpine mountains all over Costa Rica. If you are a keen hiker interested in a Nepal-like feel, head here for some serious adventure. Check out Chirripo National Park.
Costa Rica is a haven for some of the most lush, tropical golfing environments in the world. At any course, you can expect an ensemble of exotic, indigenous animals, jungle, mountainous terrain, and a surreal, blue ocean painting a brilliant, seclusive experience.
There are many tournaments during the year in which any traveller can participate. Most courses offer shoe and club rentals.
Other active and extreme sports
Wind surfing in the Tilarán area is some of the best in the world.
"Canopy tours" or ziplines are very popular tourist activities and are found all over Costa Rica. These typically cost between US$30–50 depending on the company and use a series of zip-lines to travel between platforms attached to the trees, through and over the forest canopy and over rivers. The person is secured with harnesses to the metal cords, as some go very high off the ground. Be sure to ask about the zipline certification before booking and be sure to take part in the safety briefing before participating.
Another form of canopy tour is via an aerial tram which are ski lifts modified for the rainforest. These trams are slower allowing the visitor to view wildlife in the canopy. Each tram has a guide who will explain the flora and fauna. The trams exist at adventure parks near Jaco Beach and just outside Braulio Carrillo National Park and are appropriate for all ages. The trams may be combined with ziplining and often have other attractions such as medicine gardens or serpentaria so guests may learn more about Costa Rica.
Exchange rates for Costa Rican colones
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The local currency is the Costa Rican colón (plural: colones) CRC named after Christopher Columbus (whose name was Cristobal Colón in Spanish) sometimes shown locally as ₡ and sometimes shown using the more commonly available U.S. cent symbol '¢' or ₵. Banknotes come in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 colones. Coins come in denominations of 10, 25, 50, 100 and 500 colones.
Use of U.S. dollars
U.S. dollars are commonly used; in tourist establishments, almost everything is priced in U.S. dollars (but sometimes prices are cheaper in colones). When a price is quoted in "dollars", the speaker may be thinking of a dollar as 500 colones; so it is always worth checking whether this is what is meant. When patronizing shops, restaurants and markets that primarily cater to locals, you will be expected to pay in colones. When paying with U.S. dollars, you may receive change in local currency; thus, if you are about to leave the country and don't need colones any more, make sure to have small-denomination U.S. dollar bills in order to get little or no change in colones.
Acceptance of credit cards
It is very common to pay even small amounts by Visa or MasterCard, but much less common with American Express. Most places, except the smallest restaurants, take credit cards and many places including the gas stations take American Express.
You might get a discount (such as between 5% and 10%) when paying in cash, but it is not common enough to be expected.
You can find ATMs in most places. They normally dispense U.S. dollars and colones. With a Visa credit card, you can get money at almost all ATMs. If you have a MasterCard try the ATMs in the AM/PM supermarkets; they give you up to ₡250,000 (about US$500). Another option are the ATH-ATMs but they just give you up to ₡100,000 (about US$200) each transaction. EC-Cards (European) are accepted at all ATMs. The limit is usually set only by the card. In addition, drawing money with your EC-Card will almost always give you a better exchange rate than changing cash in a bank. Around payday, the 15th of the month, ATMs can be emptied of cash, especially in small towns like La Fortuna or Quepos, and some cards may not work.
Exchange to colones
Money exchange is provided at most banks, however it is recommended to do so at the state banks, especially the Banco Nacional, since they have lower rates. There is also a money exchange service at the airport, but it is outrageously expensive.
Traveller's checks are rarely used. When using them, unless for hotel nights, change them first at a bank. Expect long delays with traveller's checks at the bank, lots of stamping, the higher up the official at the bank the more stamps they have.
Tipping is not customary in Costa Rica. Some higher-end establishments add an additional 10% service charge to the bill at the end, but otherwise, you are not expected to pay anything on top of the amount stated on the bill.
What does it cost?
The most common souvenirs are made from wood. Unless it's marked as responsible (plantation grown wood), it is most likely not, and may be contributing to the deforestation of Costa Rica – or even Nicaragua or Panama.
Most visitors returning home are not allowed to bring back any raw foods or plants. Accordingly, the single most desirable commodity for visitors to take home may be roasted (not green) coffee, considered by many as some of the world's best. Numerous web sites explain the fine qualities of various growing regions, types of beans, types of roasting and sources for purchase. Best prices come by purchasing several (sealed) bags of 12 ounces or so. Experts recommend buying whole beans (entero) in any kind of storage; whole beans last longer, and Costa Rican ground coffee often contains sugar, as it is preferred by locals. The stores in San José airport will sell you excellent coffee, but other good quality blends can be found in local supermarkets and direct from the roasters. It can be an expensive but delicious habit. If you're serious about your coffee, bring at least a partially-empty suitcase and fill it with perhaps a year's supply (web sites explain how to store it that long). Take care with tourist outlets where small quantities cost as much as ordering online from your home country.
On a shoestring
Costa Rica certainly is not the cheapest country in the world. Most national parks and other tourist destinations require entrance fees, and tours can easily cost up to US$100 per day. If you are still keen to travel this country and remain on a low budget, start by solely using buses or hitch-hiking. They are not more convenient or faster, but they are a good way to experience the authentic local side of Costa Rica. Using your thumb, on the other hand, can be very economical and fast, Costa Ricans and even other tourists are happy to take hitch-hikers along the way—see above. This saves you the expensive car rental that many tourists rely on.
If you will be relying heavily on hitch-hiking, bringing a tent along is a good idea. Otherwise accommodation can be very cheap, especially hostels can be between US$8-16 (April 2022) per bed, the more remote the cheaper. And remote can be good, because you get away from the touristy side of Costa Rica. Also, search for local accommodation on Google Maps and AirBnB, which is often cheaper than commercial guesthouses and hotels. The same is true for food. Costa Rica is a fruit paradise where you can get you daily dose of vitamins for US$1-2. Otherwise, you can easily rely on sodas (local restaurants) and cooking in the hostels, which are usually well-equipped.
Unfortunately, if you want to see and do something in Costa Rica, everything is demanded quite a lot of money for—except for maybe Cahuita National Park. Nevertheless, many sights can have a tourist entrance on one side and a completely free access from another side, using the trails and routes of local people. Or, you might just find a great and free sight right next to that thing that charges US$15, like at Río Celeste. Or, you find an interesting destination off the beaten track that is equally interesting just not (yet) commercialised. Just try finding them, and you will be rewarded. Thus, having a good map like OpenStreetMap with you is essential. OpenStreetMap has comprehensive map details and trails, and is used by this travel guide, and by many mobile Apps like OsmAnd or Mapy.cz.
For inexpensive hiking checkout the mountains around Orosi and Chirripo National Park. The latter has many local trails that lead into the national park, but it is for experienced hikers. In addition, there many snorkelling and surfing spots along the coasts, which can be for free if your bring your own equipment.
Costa Rican cuisine can be described as simple but wholesome. The spiciness often associated with Latin America has typically originated in Mexico; Costa Rican food is generally subtle, but, as the ingredients simmer in a large pot, the flavors are blended. If you don't like cilantro (coriander), learn to ask for it to be left out. The locals are unaware that it is a divisive issue to some foreigners!
Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans with a little cilantro or onion thrown in. While more common at breakfast, it can also be served at lunch or dinner.
Casado, which means married, is the typical lunch in Costa Rica, containing rice and beans with meat, chicken or fish, always served with salad and fried plantain.
Plato del dia, is the 'Plate of the Day' and is often a casado, but has the meat or fish selection of the day. Usually around US$5 and includes a natural juice.
Sopa negra, literally "black soup", is a type of soup made with black beans, thus giving it its color, and often paired with some rice.
Tres leches, literally "three milks", is a cake that serves as the quintessential Costa Rican dessert. The "three milks" refer to condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream, all of which are used to make the dish. As the name suggests, it is rather rich, so beware if you are lactose intolerant.
Chicharrones refers to fried pork rinds. Unlike its better-known Mexican counterpart, which largely uses only the skin, Costa Rican chicharrones make use of the meat as well.
Salchichón is a type of pork sausage that often features in traditional Costa Rican dishes such as gallo pinto or casado.
Good, fresh fruit is abundant in variety and low cost. Mercados (markets) provide an excellent place to sample fruit and other Costa Rican fare, with many including sit-down snack bars. You are encouraged to experiment because some of the local fruits do not travel well as they are bruised easily and or have a short shelf life. The mangoes found in stores in North America are much more fibrous and less sweet than the mangoes found in Costa Rica. The fingerling bananas are much more creamy and less tart than the ones found in the U.S. or Canada. Costa Rica is by far the world's leading producer of pineapple; you can sample ripe pineapple nearly everywhere in Costa Rica. Pineapple juice is likewise a frequent accompaniment to a meal for just a few coins extra.
A quintessentially Costa Rican place to have a meal is called a soda, which typically sells Costa Rican staples such as gallo pinto and casado, as well as fruit juices, milkshakes and other drinks.
Be sure to stop off at a rest stop along any of the roads: a casado and beer will cost about US$3.
Don't forget to try the Salsa Lizano that you will surely find at any restaurant. It is a mild vegetable sauce that has a hint of curry and is slightly sweet. It's often referred to as Costa Rican ketchup, though many recipes suggest substituting Worcestershire sauce outside Costa Rica. Ticos eat it with almost anything. Bring some home with you. You can find smaller-sized bottles at any market.
Standard breakfast fare is rice and beans, in common with the rest of Central America. Unlike in Nicaragua, you will often find Ticos adding cilantro leaves to it.
Vegetarians will find it surprisingly easy to eat well in Costa Rica, even though people in rural areas may sometimes be a bit puzzled by vegetarianism. If you don't speak Spanish, bear in mind that "pollo" is chicken and it is usually not understood to form part of the category of "carne" ("meat").
Don't forget to tip tour guides, drivers, bellboys and maids. Restaurant bills in mid-range places include a "voluntary" 10% gratuity. North Americans often get better service because they are used to tipping separately, but it's not necessary.
Beef cattle are raised on grass, so be prepared for the meat to taste different if you're from the United States, where cattle are fed on corn. The cuts of meat at the local restaurants are also different. The taste of chicken is not discernibly distinct.
Most places have potable water, so don't worry about drinking tap water. Bottled water is also available at low prices.
Ready-to-drink coffee is excellent and considered to be among the best in the world.
Refrescos are beverages made from fresh fruit (cas, guanabana, sandia/watermelon, mora/blackberry, fresa/strawberry, granadilla/passion fruit), sugar, and either water or milk. All small, cheap diners – known locally as sodas – serve these. You can also easily buy the standard international soft drinks. Fresca, Canada Dry, and the local Fanta Kolita (fruit punch) are recommended.
The national drink is called guaro, which is made from fermented sugar cane. It tastes similar to vodka, and is usually drunk with water and lemon. The state-owned brand is called Cacique and is the national drink. As in other places, do not drink home-distilled spirits, which may contain poisonous methanol.
There are around eight national beers available (and most international), which are sold in cans, bottles and even kegs. The most common beers are Pilsen and Imperial: all bars and restaurants serve both. Bavaria, "Bavaria Negra" (dark) and Bavaria Light are considered higher quality but more expensive, Rock Ice and Rock Ice Limón (lemon flavor) has a higher alcohol percentage and is less common in rural areas. Heineken is locally made under license and is more expensive as well.
Selling and serving alcoholic beverages is illegal in some parts of Costa Rica on the Thursday and Friday before Easter.
You can find many places to stay all over Costa Rica, including hotels, aparthotels, condos, vacation rentals, and cabinas. Vacation homes, cabinas, and condos can be less expensive than hotels and provide more flexibility in your adventure to Costa Rica. Costa Rica is known as a world leader for eco and sustainable travel and accommodations are often listed as 'eco-lodges'. They do tend to be more expensive though the government does have a well functioning certification program. Be careful of so-called "motels", see below.
Apart from the big reservation websites, also checkout GoogleMaps, which has many home stays, guesthouses and such including location, rating and phone number (for WhatsApp). This is generally cheaper than booking online, but always compare.
The share of local oriented businesses without a website and where the owner only speaks Spanish is notably lower than in Nicaragua, but those also exist, especially off the beaten tourist path. They can be cheaper sometimes, but unless you know their phone number it can be difficult to book ahead.
There are backpackers' hostels are all over Costa Rica with dorm beds from as low as US$8 a night (March 2022).
Motels vs hotels
In Costa Rica a "motel" is not the same as what one normally finds in the United States. The term motel in Latin America usually refers to a place of accommodation where the rooms are rented on a short term basis, typically for romantic assignations. Hotels, by contrast, are places of accommodation for travelers and are typically family friendly. Many hotels will not permit persons who are not registered as guests to go beyond the reception area. This is for the safety of both the guests and hotel staff and also to protect the hotel's reputation in what is still a culturally conservative and Catholic country. So tourists looking for a place to enjoy the physical company of another will often use motels. Also privacy is something of a premium in Costa Rica, with children often living at home until they are married. For this and other practical reasons, couples, even married couples desiring a little intimacy, sometimes rent a room at a motel. These motels are common in major cities in Costa Rica and do not carry the social stigma that used to be associated with so-called "no tell motels" in the United States or Canada. The quality of motel accommodations varies, sometimes drastically, with most being clean and well kept. Rooms are engaged anonymously, with the tariff and any associated charges usually being paid on a cash only basis.
You can learn Spanish in Costa Rica. Reflecting the higher living standard, it's a little more expensive than other countries such as Guatemala, but the education level of your teachers will be much higher.
Costa Rica is a great place to learn Spanish as the "ticos" have a dialect that is easy to understand and digest for someone just starting to learn the language. There are many language schools that provide intensive instruction with group classes lasting four hours per day, Monday to Friday. Almost all Spanish schools will also offer host family accommodations and possibly some alternative such as a student residence or discounted hotel rates.
The key factor is to decide what is the right location for you. Beach locations tend to be on the touristy side so they do not necessarily give the greatest immersion experience; however, there are many Spanish schools near the beach as students like to split their time between studying and activities on the beach, or just relaxing on their time away from work. There is a growing trend of these beach schools also offering surfing or photography classes due to the environment around the school.
Studying in the San José area has many benefits. There is the luxury aspect of city life since it tends to be much more modern than the rustic beach locations. Host families and Spanish schools tend to have nicer facilities.
San José also has fewer tourists so it is great from an immersion point of view as you can practice your Spanish in a setting where people are not automatically switching to English to accommodate foreigners. It is much better that you struggle with your Spanish and force yourself to think in a different language to improve your learning.
Language schools can be found throughout the Central Valley, particularly in Heredia and its surrounding cantons. These typically offer only Spanish to foreign students from the United States and Europe but some, including the Instituto Norte Americano in Heredia, offer Spanish to foreign students, and English and Mandarin to local ones. Many of these language schools are also instrumental in helping the surrounding community, either through monetary donations or educational opportunities that otherwise may not have existed for the local Costa Rican population. Schools such as IAC (Instituto de Apredizaje de Costa Rica) in Manuel Antonio, La Escuela Armonia in Guanacaste, and the Instituto Norte Americano in Heredia have frequently acted as educational hubs for their surrounding communities, giving free English classes to teachers of nearby schools and helping to raise money for worthy causes.
Some hostels offer packages that include Spanish lessons and daily home-stays with the locals (in addition to your room and board).
Costa Rica is also a good place to become proficient in ocean sports like surfing and scuba diving. There are numerous surf shops, that provide surfing lessons and surf camps throughout the coastal areas.
The Costa Rican university landscape is quite diverse for such a small country and it churns out well trained doctors, lawyers, engineers, social scientists and the likes. The University of Costa Rica (Universidad de Costa Rica or UCR for short) is the oldest and most prestigious and much like the French "Grandes Écoles" anybody who is anything in Costa Rica - including most presidents the country has had - has attended it.
The local newspaper, La Nación, has an extensive jobs listing every Sunday and Monday. You must be a resident or be sponsored by a company to work legally in Costa Rica. ESL teachers can find work in Costa Rica with Bachelor's Degree and a TESOL certification. ESL teachers can expect to earn ₡226,700-566,750 (monthly) and will usually teach 8–15 hours in a week. Contracts will usually not include accommodations (the employer may help), airfare, and health-care.
Costa Rica is business-friendly country and investors are welcome, so if you are interested in founding or buying a business, contact a local lawyer.
There are several opportunities to engage in volunteer work in Costa Rica. Projects include turtle conservation, building houses, teaching English, and community development work.
Costa Rica has one of the highest levels of social care in the world. Its doctors are known worldwide as some of the best. Many people from the U.S., Canada, and Europe go there to be treated, not only because of quality but also cost. First class hospitals can be found in the capital. There are public and private hospital systems that provide excellent care. The public system has much longer waits, while the private system has shorter waits. If you have a very sick child requiring hospitalization, the child will be transferred to the only children's hospital in Costa Rica, in San José. This children's hospital is public.
For information on the current COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica, see Costa Rica's COVID-19 webpage.
Generally, no vaccinations are needed to get into Costa Rica, but you should bring bug-repellent to keep away mosquitoes and other biting insects and prevent malaria and other similar diseases. In 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported local transmission of malaria in the Distritos of Cutris and Pocosol in San Carlos Canton of Alajuela Province, and rare local cases in other parts of Alajuela, Heredia, Limón, and Puntarenas Provinces. Protection against mosquito bites is very important, wearing lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts, a hat and using insect repellents with high concentrations of DEET is recommended by the CSC. If you are going to be in very rural areas known to be malaria-infested, you might want to consider an anti-malarial medication. However, most travelers to Costa Rica do just fine with updated childhood immunizations and taking preventative measures against mosquito bites (rather than take anti-malarial medication).
Tap water in urban areas of the country is almost always safe to drink. However, being cautious may be in order in rural areas with questionable water sources. Most restaurants have reliable food and water, but stay on the safe side with well-established restaurants and bottled water. Be sure to drink lots, either way.
All fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed.
Travel to Costa Rica is common, with 1.9 million people visiting annually, more than any other Latin American country. Costa Rica is generally regarded to be one of the less crime-ridden and more politically stable countries in Latin America. Still, travellers to Costa Rica should exercise caution. The emergency number in Costa Rica is 911.
- Traffic in Costa Rica is dangerous. Pedestrians in general do not have the right of way. Roads in rural areas may also tend to have many potholes. Driving at night is not recommended.
- Use common sense. Do not leave valuables in plain view in a car or leave your wallet on the beach when going into the water. Close the car windows and lock the car or other things that you might not do in your own country.
- In the cities, robbery at knife point is not uncommon.
- Buses and bus stops - especially those destined for San José - are frequent locations for robbery. Any bus rider who falls asleep has a good chance of waking up and finding his baggage missing. Don't trust anyone on the buses to watch your things, especially near San José.
- Watch out for pickpockets.
- Purse snatchings, armed robberies, and car-jackings have been on the rise lately. Stay alert and protect your valuables at all times, especially in the San José area.
- "Smash and grabs" of car windows are very common all over the country so do not leave valuables in your vehicle.
- Another robbery scheme involves slashing your tires; when you stop to fix the flat, one or two "friendly" people stop to help and instead grab what valuables they can.
- If you are motioned to pull over by anyone, do not do so until you are at a well-lit and safe place.
- Make use of hostel or hotel lock boxes if they are really secure – this is great when you want to swim or relax and really not worry.
- On a long trip, make back-up CDs (or DVDs) of your digital photos and send a copy back home. In the event that you are robbed, you will thank yourself. Or upload them to a cloud storage service.
- Travel with small denominations of U.S. dollars (crisp ones, fives, tens) as back-up. Usually, you'll be able to use them if you run out of local currency.
- Go to a bank to change money when possible. If you find yourself needing to use the services of a private money changer (Sunday morning at the border, for instance) use your phone to do the calculations. Do not trust money changers and their doctored calculators, change the least amount of money possible and take a hard look at the bills – there are lots of false ones. Always insist that your change be in small bills – you'll lose more at one time if a large bill is false, and large bills are hard to change (even the equivalent of US$20 in Costa Rica or US$5 in Nicaragua can be difficult in some small towns) Money changers do not use the official exchange rate - you are better off going to a state-owned bank to exchange your currency at no fee. Also, it's impossible to change Brazilian reals, although there are a lot of Brazilian tourists in Costa Rica.
- Do not exchange money when arriving at the San José airport. The exchange rate used there is not the official rate and you will get a lot fewer colones. However, the departure hall upstairs has a BCR bank with normal exchange rates. It is right next to the departure tax payment area, buy when you arrive to avoid the queue on departure.
- Travelling alone is fine and generally safe in Costa Rica, but carefully consider what kind of risks (if any) you are willing to take. Always hike with other people and try to explore a new city with other people. On solo forays, if you feel uncomfortable seek out a group of other people (both women and men). A well lighted place with people you can trust is always a plus. A busy restaurant or hostel is a great source of local info as well as a great place to relax and recharge.
Cannabis traffic, distribution, and commerce is illegal in Costa Rica. There is no penalty when you carry small cannabis quantities for personal use only (up to three joints) and police could try to get money from you or keep you in the local commissary for up to 12 hours. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration personnel are present in Costa Rica and have been known to pretend to be tourists. There is a Costa Rican equivalent of the DEA as well. Do not use illegal drugs in Costa Rica, nor should you try to bribe a police officer.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and can be a destination for those looking for sex on their vacation.
Prostitution with minors (less than 18 years old) is a crime. The majority of sex tourists are from the United States, and if they engage in prostitution with a minor, are prosecutable by the U.S. Protect Act of 2003. This act gives the U.S. government the power to prosecute its citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex tourism with children under the age of 18. Several other countries including France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, and Australia have similar laws. Arrests, warrants, and prosecutions are performed under these laws.
Bus travel tips
Below is a list of suggestions for travelling by bus in Costa Rica and neighboring countries. These are overcautious tips, but they can help prevent problems. Nearly all thefts on the bus are preventable.
- Travel with someone else when possible. A trusted friend is best, but someone you met last night at the hostel will do in a pinch. Trust your gut feeling with new friends – most are great, but some may be con artists.
- Wear a money belt with your passport, cash, credit/debit cards, and ticket (bus or plane). Even if all your other belongings are stolen, you would still be able to get to your next destination. The waist belts are best; a neck pouch can be lifted while you are asleep. A thief would really have to disturb you to steal from a waist belt.
- On the bus, try to sit above the luggage compartment so that you can watch that your bag isn't stolen when others disembark. Buses usually have one compartment for those heading to the main destination, and a separate one for people getting off along the way, to avoid problems. Watch out for the "destination" compartment being opened en route.
- On routes ending in San José, for example from Quepos, the bus driver will ask if you are going to the airport if he sees you have big luggage with you. Say no because they are asking this so they can call their taxi friends to pick you up at a stop before San José and drive you to the airport. Firstly, you cannot trust that this friend of his is an official taxi driver and, secondly, that they will not charge more than normal to cover the bus driver's share. If you are going to the airport, plan your trip ahead so you know exactly how to get there.
- Try not to fall asleep, or take turns sleeping with a travel partner (when you have one). The best way to snooze alone is with your bag on your lap and your hands crossed over it. Don't leave valuables in outside compartments.
- Make conversation with locals on the bus so that they can see that you are competent in Spanish and comfortable in the Spanish speaking environment. You will enjoy yourself, and this may make them feel friendly towards you and more willing to alert you if someone is eyeing your belongings. Or it might warn them that if they steal from you, you will talk to the bus driver and police and make a full report. Even some Spanish is better than none – use what you have. It's great practice and the more you improve the safer you'll be.
- Don't bring anything that you are not willing to lose. Keep your day pack attached to you always when travelling – wrap the straps around your leg and keep the bag squeezed between your knees or feet.
- Almost all thefts on buses are from the overhead bins so it is better to keep things on your lap.
Beaches, weather and wildlife
The coasts of Costa Rica are known for strong currents and rip-tides in some areas but most of them are great to be with the family. Costa Rica has some of the best beaches in the world. The Atlantic coast is just five hours from the Pacific coast and both offer different views and landscapes. There are no signs indicating an unsafe beach due to riptides, so take precautions and listen to the locals on where it is safe to swim. The public beaches do not have life guards. A traveller should learn how to swim out of a rip tide and not swim alone. There are some active volcanoes in Costa Rica and they are dangerous, so follow the warning signs posted. The slopes of the Arenal volcano invite visitors to climb closer to the summit, but there have been fatalities in the past with unseen gas chambers. Also be wary of the climate of Costa Rica. It is very hot in the daytime, but in the morning and evening it becomes very cool, so you should bring a light weight jacket.
- Crocodiles are quite common in certain areas and, although not as dangerous as the Nile or saltwater species, are still considered occasional man-eaters and can grow to lengths of up to 20 feet. The biggest spot for them is the Tarcoles river bridge in the central Pacific, as posted in the Jaco wiki. It is recommended to stop the vehicle nearby and walk across it. Some locals throw chicken meat and watch them eat. Great care should be taken when swimming or snorkelling, especially near areas where fishing is common, or near river mouths.
When you go to the Pacific beaches in Guanacaste, you can see crocodiles over the Tempisque river. The bridge across this river was donated by the Taiwanese government. (Subsequently, China donated a 35,000-seat stadium after Costa Rica ended its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.)
- While large, the beautiful jaguar is extremely rare and even most locals have never seen the very large predatory cat. They appear to be very shy and elusive; there is very little risk of attack.
- Sharks are a part of ocean marine life but most pose little danger to people. However, bull sharks and tiger sharks are known to inhabit local waters. Both are known to attack people. Bull sharks can swim in brackish and freshwater, sharing much of the same territory as crocodiles. Actual attacks however are extremely rare. Between 1900 and 2017 there have only been 11 unprovoked attacks on people in Costa Rica, with about half being fatal.
- Dogs are trained to be protective of property and people (perro bravo), and there are also many strays. Dog bites are not uncommon. Do not approach an unknown dog.
- Snakes are common in many parts of Costa Rica and it is believed that there are 139 different species. Most are not dangerous, but there are exceptions. The venomous ones generally fall into two groups, the first being coral snakes and the second pit vipers. Coral snakes are easily recognized by their colorful banding. They have small mouths with fangs that are ill placed for biting people. Pit vipers almost always have triangular heads but may otherwise come in different sizes and colors. Most snakes are shy and will avoid people, but may strike if frightened or provoked. Snake bites are rare in Costa Rica but do happen. The best course is prevention. If you are walking in the countryside or in the jungle watch your step and do not walk barefoot anywhere other than at the beach. If you see a snake, remember the cardinal rule when dealing with wildlife: look but don't touch, while maintaining a safe distance. If you are bitten, treat it as a medical emergency and seek immediate care, especially if you think it might be venomous. A few snakes, such as the fer-de-lance and bushmaster have extremely potent venom which can be life threatening. Costa Rica has excellent medical care, so anti-venom is readily available at all of the major hospitals.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Costa Rica is quite a conservative and traditionalist nation. The state's official religion is Roman Catholicism and its population is quite religious. Nevertheless, it caters to the needs of gay and lesbian travelers. There is a thriving gay scene in San José with many gay and lesbian options for night-life. The Manuel Antonio, Jacó, and Quepos area is also a favorite spot with several gay hotels and bars.
There are a good number of gay/lesbian or gay-friendly accommodations in Costa Rica. They seem to be of the higher quality offering a variety of services and of course, discretion. Many hotels, travel agencies, and resorts are run by gays or are gay-friendly.
According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, about 200 medical procedures are performed for medical tourists every month. Among these are cosmetic surgery, knee and hip replacement, cataract removal and other eye treatments, weight loss surgery and dental care. Health care in Costa Rica is attractive for international patients because of the low prices, high care standards, and access to tourist attractions. For example, a hip replacement costs around US$12,000 and a tummy tuck costs around US$4,400.
The main medical tourism centers are CIMA Hospital, Hospital Clinica Biblica, and Hospital Hotel La Catolica. In turn, these hospitals use medical tourism facilitators who can arrange every aspect of your trip from beginning to end.
In general, Ticos are very hospitable and laidback people, happy to assist visitors in any manner necessary. Being bien educado (well-mannered) is emphasised heavily in Costa Rica. You will typically be greeted with “buenos días”, “buenas” or other iterations upon entering stores and other establishments, and it is polite to reciprocate this gesture. Other niceties go a long way, such as saying “disculpe” (pardon me) when bumping into another person or prefacing a question. Avoid using straight-out “give me…” commands and instead be gentle when asking for something, saying “¿me podria dar…, por favor?” (could you give me…, please?) or “quisiera…” (I would like…). Even though many people can speak some English, learning at least a few basic greetings in Spanish goes a long way.
As in other Latin American countries, Costa Ricans have a relaxed sense of time compared to North Americans and Europeans. Don’t fight it, simply go along with it and embrace the slower pace of life and pura vida philosophy. Becoming frustrated is likely to generate amusement and will seldom achieve results for you. However, arriving late in professional settings (i.e. work) is ill-advised, as it would be anywhere else in the world.
Always respect nature. Costa Ricans are (rightfully) proud of their country’s amazing natural environment and do not take kindly to those who seek to harm it in any way. Avoid littering, refrain from feeding wild animals, and don’t remove or damage vegetation. In other words, simply exercise common sense and be a responsible tourist.
Smoking is not common in Costa Rica, especially among women, and the rates have been declining. In 2012, Costa Rica banned smoking in all businesses, public buildings, public transportation, and outdoor recreational and educational places, such as parks and outdoor sports arenas. This ban includes all hotel rooms, and even the area outside your hotel. If you smoke tobacco in the wrong place, both you and the business can get fined, so if you can't get by with a nicotine patch or nicotine gum during your stay in Costa Rica, be sure to ask where the nearest legal place is before lighting up, and don't litter your butts.
Nicaragua-Costa Rica relations
Costa Rica and Nicaragua have difficult relations over a variety of issues, including border conflicts and the political ideology of the governments. The biggest issue is the huge Nicaraguan diaspora in Costa Rica, many of them having come for economic reasons, and some having fled violence and political persecution. Racism against Nicaraguans is sadly not rare, but there are also groups that emphasize commonalities and wish to improve relations on a personal level. As a foreigner, your safest bet is to avoid the topic altogether.
The international calling code/country code for Costa Rica is +506.
Sending a postcard to US, Europe or Asia is ₡385, ₡435, or ₡545, respectively. Other mail is becomes more expensive the more it weights.
The primary means of outside contact are through e-mail, SIM cards for unlocked phones, or public pay telephones.
Internet cafes are fairly easy to find in tourist areas, with variation in prices. Some of these offer long distance calls over the internet.
Domestic calls are quite cheap and the price is the same wherever you call, but calls to cellular phones cost significantly more.
International calls are fairly expensive. The cheapest way to make them is over the internet using a service such as Skype at an internet café. But making short international calls using the domestic calling cards (your international call will be short because local calling card denominations are small) or the international calling cards available within Costa Rica (all from the government phone monopoly ICE) is the next best deal, certainly better than credit card calls or using a U.S. calling card.
Public phones are accessed with calling cards (tarjetas telefonicas) which can be purchased at most shops, even in outlying areas.
There are four different types of pay-phones:
- Coin phones. These only accept the older silver-colored coins.
- Chip phones. These allow you to insert a chip-type calling card and make your calls.
- Colibri phones. These have a small swipe bar for a scratch-off type calling card referred to as a Colibri calling card which are available from ₡500 and up. The swipes often don't work — you have to enter the calling card access code on the keypad. Despite this, the Colibri card is the recommended one as you can use it at any of the types of phones, whereas you must find a chip phone when using a chip card.
- Multipago (multi-pay) phones. These phones accept coins, chip cards, and colibri cards. Most public phones around the country have been changed to multipago. They also allow you to send SMS messages and e-mails.
Both types of calling cards are typically available in pharmacies and other locations where you see the sticker on the door.
SIM cards and frequencies
Bring an unlocked quad or multi band cell phone that works on the proper frequencies and get a SIM card, which can be bought on almost any corner. Costaricans refer to mobile phones as celulares (cell phones).
Costa Rica cell phone frequencies and carriers:
- Kölbi: (Part of Grupo ICE, the state run and owned public corporation which provides electricity and telecommunications services.) Kölbi has great coverage but a lot of users, which means that you will have connection all around the country but not the best internet speed.
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 850Mhz
- 4G LTE: 2600Mhz (band 7) and 1800 Mhz (band 3)
- Extra configuration:
- Internet: APN:kolbi3g, or you can send an SMS with the word "internet" to phone number 3001.
- Multimedia SMS: Send an SMS with the word "multimedia" to phone number 3001.
- Claro: Second best coverage in the country, on a not-so-saturated network. Signal can be difficult to get in some remote areas, but not in the Central Valley.
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 900Mhz, 2100Mhz
- 4G LTE: 1800Mhz (band 3)
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 850Mhz, 2100Mhz
- 4G LTE: 1800Mhz (band 3)
There are a few other second-tier carriers which are just re-sellers or re-branders of the previous three.
There are many plans to choose from, but on a short visit your best chance is to get a pre-paid plan, or prepago which is contract-free and you pay in advance what you will use. All of the carriers have such plans in a lot of possible combinations on minutes, SMS text messages, internet speed and so on. You can even you can build your own plan with some carriers. Prices start at around ₡2,500 (US$5).
To add value you buy a recarga (recharge card), scratch off the card to get a PIN, and text the PIN from your phone to a special number. To keep the card active, it must be recharged at least once in a 120 day period. If it is not charged within a 120 days, you have a 30-day grace period before your SIM chip is deactivated and you lose your phone number. Also keep in mind that you may have trouble getting your SIM activated on Sunday, because like many things in Costa Rica, the SIM activation system may be shut down that day. Not all shops sell SIMs — many just sell the recharge cards. You can buy a SIM at some airports upon arrival. As of Feb 4, 2022 LIR airport was not selling sim cards.
If your phone supports it, you could also look into esim options. To setup an esim you only need to download the app, you don't need a physical sim card. However, they are more expensive then local sim cards.
Grupo ICE through Kölbi is the major network on which roaming will occur if using a mobile plan from abroad. Using roaming plans depends on the contract acquired abroad and beyond the scope of this guide.
Most tourist areas (hotels, coffee shops, bars, restaurants) have free Wi-fi access. Just ask for the password. You can bring your smart phone loaded with Skype or WhatsApp and make calls to your home country. It is an easy way to stay connected with e-mail, news and social media.