With the “high” or tourist season just around the corner, many are considering, planning or getting ready to visit Costa Rica.
With that in mind, we’ve created a list of things you should know before visiting and hopefully with comments by other readers, the element of surprise and or the unexpected will not ruin your visit.
Also, in our experience, forget about the perfectly planned-out trip, rather focus on creating experiences and memories.
This list is not about the “perfect” visit, rather some basic knowledge of what you to expect and travel tips to consider before your visit to Costa Rica.
Bring bug spray. You are traveling to a tropical climate and that means bugs. Bugs everywhere. Aside from the more serious Zika, if you are out in the remote areas of the country, there is also Dengue Fever.
You can protect yourself and your family using bug spray and avoid breeding areas of the carriers of the Zika and Dengue by asking your hotel staff or local guide.
Also, bug spray in Costa Rica is expensive. I mean really expensive. A 6 oz (170 ml) can of OFF can be US$8 dollars or more.
Costa Rica is close to the equator. If you are coming from a northern climate, ie the United States, Canada or Europe, you will quickly notice the sun is a lot stronger. Wear sunscreen.
Important that sun tanning lotion is not sunscreen. And like bug spray, lotion and screen are very expensive is Pura Vida land.
Renting A Car
Seeing the country by car is a great experience. Although it is recommended to hire a drive service (ie car and driver) or collective transport such as minivans for groups and for the adventurer in you, by bus, renting a car is a common option by many.
Renting a car in Costa Rica is NOT like renting up north. For one, it is alot more expensive and two, you are required to purchase basic coverage, doesn’t matter if your credit card offers insurance, it is a must and the cost is typically higher than the car rental.
For example, at one large car rental company, a compact car like a Toyota Yaris or Corolla rents for US$22 and US$23 a day, respectively. The basic insurance is US$25 a day. Full coverage is US$45.
What’s the difference between basic and full coverage? Let’s say you get a scratch on the car, with basic that could cost you a couple of hundred dollars. And there is always a deductible. Remember, they have your credit card on file. With Full or Maximum coverage, you can crumple the front end and it will cost you nothing. Zilch. Zero.
But there is a caveat, in either case. If you read the fine print, coverage is nulled if you are speeding, driving under the influence (alcohol or drugs), doing things you should be doing with the car, like driving offroad, the beach maybe, etc, etc, etc. Drive the car as would your own (or maybe not) and you will be fine. Especially if you have full coverage. It beats having to pay out thousands of dollars to the car rental agency and the hours spent on the phone with your credit card company insurance.
Driving in Costa Rica
Driving in the land of paradise is probably a whole lot different from what you’re used to. Traffic rules (laws) in Costa Rica are often looked on more as guidelines until a Transito (traffic cop) stops you.
There are no street signs or North American type street addresses for the most part. There has been an attempt to organize the major city of San Jose and some of the urban centers around the greater metropolitan area. I say attempt, because for us here ruta 39 does not mean anything, we know it as the Circunvalacion. Our address system is by landmarks, “the hotel is across from, one block north, on the right, by the…” is a typical address.
You can use Waze or Google, they usually give you the “legal” way of getting from one place to another, but sometimes are wrong. The last time I used Waze it told me to turn left, because I was in the left turn lane, knowing that I needed to turn right. I followed it, took me way out of the way to bring me back to the road I would have been on if I had turned right.
Traffic laws are not always enforced and when they are, as a foreigner, with a rental car, good chance you will get a ticket where I or other locals may not. Then there are Transitos with their hands out for ‘mordida’ (contribution to their financial situation). However, that is less and less now, and offering a ‘contribution’s is not recommended.
You are on vacation, keep to the speed limit, don’t drive at night if you don’t have to, you are not in a rush. Enjoy your visit.
Although fast food franchises are all around us, there isn’t a subway, Mc Donalds or Starbucks at every corner Well, ok, yes in urban San Jose, and towns like Liberia, Playa Jaco or Tamarindo. But in small towns and remote areas, the local fare will have to do.
Sodas are the typical fast food Costa Rica joints and a “pinto” (Gallo Pinto) is always on the menu. If you aren’t sure of the health and cleanliness, eat at “tourist” restaurants, but be prepared to pay more.
On Plastic and Cash
Plastic (debit and credit cards) is widely accepted in Costa Rica. ATM’s are everywhere (and nowhere when you need one), but there are few considerations to bear in mind.
One, some card issuers up north want you to let them know you are traveling. Take a minute to contact your card issuer, online or by phone, to let them know you will be traveling. Nothing more frustrating than, after a great meal, your card is declined.
Although, as I said earlier cards are widely accepted, there are exceptions. A small soda or gift shop may not accept plastic and you will need cash. Consider the exchange rate when using plastic, not the exchange rate in Costa Rica, but the rate your bank uses to convert the colones to dollars. If there is a choice, ask if the charge can be made in US dollars, instead of colones.
Cash is king, but be prepared to be disappointed when trying to pay with a US$100 or US$50 bill. Even it is a large purchase. There is a reason why local ATM’s only dispense US$20 bills and nothing larger.
Canadian dollars, forget about it. The money looks funny. Sorry to offend fellow Canucks, but that is the reality of Costa Rica. Even at Scotiabank, the looney not acceptable.
A sign at a local hardware store in Santa Ana says it all, “we do not accept $100, $50, $10 and $5 bills”.
Travel Smart – Travel Safely
I could write an entire book on being smart and being safe in Costa Rica and still not cover everything that has to be said.
But to make it short, I recommend using your common sense.
Crime is part of life, everywhere and Costa Rica is no exception. It’s unlikely you will experience any violent crime unless you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but more is you are into something you shouldn’t be. I’ll leave that up to you.
Costa Rica is a third world country and most people are poor. Don’t let your common sense go, listen to that gut feeling, if something feels wrong…don’t expose yourself to be being a victim of petty theft. Leave valuables in the trunk of your car and not on the seat, in plain sight, for example.
The chances of being victimized by a petty thief or pickpocket is lessened by not wearing expensive (or what appears to be expensive) jewelry, carry small amounts of cash, place your valuables (credit cards, passports, etc) in the hotel safe and always be aware of your surroundings.
The Airport (Exit) Tax
There was a time that everyone had to pay the airport or exit tax. We still do, but, not at the airport or hotel or bank as once before.
The airport or exit tax is not included in your airline ticket. However, there are still some airlines that have not come into code with the mandate, usually discount airlines, but you will be told as such when you purchase your ticket. Or worse, when you are at the airport.
In the event you have to pay it separately, the airport or exit tax is US$29 for each person. Take that into account if you are traveling with a big family since each person pays.
The airport or exit tax is not to be confused with the exit tax at the land border crossings, in the north at the Peñas Blancas border with Nicaragua and in the south, at the Paso Canoas border with Panama.
The tax is US$8 per person. It can be paid at stores like Masxmenos and Walmart (at the Servimas counter) or at the border crossing, either at the storefront located near the border (usually outside the official immigration area) or at the ATM inside the immigration office. Everyone pays.
Costa Rica is an experience, a “Pura Vida” experience. Some say it is a magical place ot visit. With a bit of planning and lots of knowledge, it can be, it can be a dream made possible.
However, don’t overdo the planning, it is highly overrated. Your best memories and experiences will be the ones you never planned for, never thought could be. Let the Pura Vida take you on its journey (go with the flow), and remember to have fun!