Due to Costa Rica's topography and historical development, most economical growth has been concentrated in the Central Valley of the country which includes 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:
- - The capital.
- - location of Juan Santamaría International Airport
- - Costa Rica's first capital
- - the Central Pacific coast's largest city, among incredibly biodiversity and natural beauty, famous surf spot
- - Coffee plantations
- - Location of Daniel Oduber International Airport and gateway to the beaches of Guanacaste, such as Samara, Nosara, Carillo
- - Main city on the Caribbean side
- - the largest city by far in the country's North, surrounded by hot springs popular with Costa Rican vacationers; known locally as "San Carlos"
- - active volcano
By the early 1990s, Costa Rica became known as a world leader of ecotourism. According to the Costa Rican Tourism Board, 46% of international tourists visiting the country in 2009 engaged in activities related to ecotourism, including trekking, flora, fauna, and bird watching, and visits to rural communities. However, most visitors look for adventure activities, which Costa Rica offers as well. Costa Rica was included by Ethical Traveler magazine in the 2011 and the 2012 list of The Developing World's 10 Best Ethical Destinations.
Costa Rica has managed to avoid the political turmoil and violence from which neighbouring nations still suffer. The nation constitutionally abolished its army permanently in the 1940s. It is the only Latin American country included in the list of the world's 22 oldest democracies, and is a peaceful and politically stable nation. Costa Rica has consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index, and is cited by the UN Development Program as one of the countries that has attained much higher human development than other countries at the same income levels.
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. As such, don't be surprised to meet locals with English names (such as football (soccer) players Joel Campbell and Kendall Watson) despite Costa Rica being a Spanish-speaking country.
The name Costa Rica means 'Rich Coast' in Spanish.
HistoryWhile Costa Rica shares much of its history well into the 19th century with the other central American states (and in fact 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. While the political climate until the short civil war of 1948 (won by José Figueres Ferer, who would later be president for three separate times and was one of Costa Rica's most influential politicians) was not all that different from the rest of Central America (think coups and rigged elections) it has since bettered 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. However Nicaragua-Costa Rica relations have deteriorated in recent years and dominated the political agenda of Arias Sanchez' second term in the 2000s. Rio San Juan, which belongs to Nicaragua but is situated at the border, became a hot button issue. One point of contention were Nicaraguan drainage operations on the river which Nicaragua claims was 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 whole 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 whole 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 now crosses the Rio San Juan near San Carlos (Nicaragua) enabling overland transport towards Los Chiles and both countries do see each other as "pueblos hermanos" (brother peoples) if sometimes bothersome and annoying brothers.
GeographyCosta 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 kilometers (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 square kilometers (19,700 sq mi) plus 589 square kilometers (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 faunaCosta 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.
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, and during this time it rains constantly in some regions.
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 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)
- 19 March - St. Joseph (Dia de San José)
- Maundy Thursday / Good Friday - (Jueves y Viernes Santo)
- 11 April – Day of Juan Santamaria (commemoration of the Battle of Rivas 1856)
- 1 May – Labour Day (Dia del Trabajo)
- 25 July – Guanacaste Day (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 (Dia de la Madre)
- 15 September – Independence Day (Dia de la Independencia)
- 12 October - Columbus Day (Dia de la Raza)
- 25 December - Christmas (Navidad)
PeopleMost 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.
Before travelling, verify the entry requirements in effect with TimaticWeb or with a Costa Rican consulate. If you have an unusual passport/visa combination, make sure to 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 one 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.
Another way to get to Costa Rica is travelling by car and driving the Pan-American highway that stretches from Alaska all the way to the southern tip of South America (with a gap in the Darien Gap, in Panama/Colombia). It is 27,197 miles long and passes right through Costa Rica.
Juan Santamaría AirportSJO 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 and bookshops, but has an inadequate selection of restaurants (Church's Chicken, Burger King, Poás Deli Cafe and Papa John's pizza). SJO is served daily by Air Transat (seasonal) American Airlines, Canjet (Seasonal), Condor, Delta, Frontier Airlines, Iberia, Interjet, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, United, Air Canada, Avianca, Copa Airlines and AirPanama. Connecting the airport with cities such as: 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 a US$32 exit fee at the Juan Santamaría Airport. 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 Crédito Agrícola de Cártago and Banco de Costa Rica).
The exit fee is included in the ticket fee by many airlines, such as American Airlines, Avianca, Copa, Delta, Jet Blue, United, Air Panamá, Aeroméxico, and Air Canada. Ask your airline if it is included in the price.
Daniel Oduber Quirós International AirportThis airport is closest to the Pacific Northwest coast. Liberia receives flights from Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Air Canada, CanJet (charter), Sun Wing (charter), and First Choice (charter). Connecting the airport with Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Newark, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, London, etc.
Tobías Bolaños International AirportThis 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.
Departure taxFlights from Europe (and return) do always include the departure tax in the air ticket—there is a law or so in the EU. This is probably true for flights from the US as well. Otherwise single flights out of the country especially with local airline or into neighbouring countries will not include the departure tax, which can be between US$20-40.
The highway speed is 80 km/h, but since the Interamericana (a.k.a. Highway #1) 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 0.8 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.
The Autopista Del Sol (Highway of the Sun) stretches from the beaches around Orotina 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 are bus services from the neighboring countries of Panamá, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala.
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.
The boat that used to run between Los Chiles (Costa Rica) and San Carlos (Nicaragua) hasn't been running since a new bridge across the Rio San Juan opened.
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 7-10 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.
CopeAlthough 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.
Navigation and GPS
- For reliable (offline) maps and comprehensive trails and map information, consult OpenStreetMap, which is also used by this travel guide, and by many mobile Apps like OsmAnd (complex with many add-ons) and MAPS.ME (easy but limited). 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, but it doesn't offer turn-by-turn routable directions in the area yet.
Road conditionsFor 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.
By busMost major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are served by at least two daily buses from and to San José. The advantages of public transportation in Costa Rica are that tickets are cheap (rarely more than US$7 per person) and they cover most towns around the country. However, nearly the entire bus system is based on routes in and out of San José and this can add significant travel time. The buses are also not booked with a reservation system so it is possible to not have a seat on popular routes. However, many do have assigned seats once you buy a ticket at the station and so get there early to be sure you get your bus.
In San José there is no single central bus station, but several different ones, with each station roughly serving 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.
Note, buses can be infrequent and unreliable. Instead of waiting for hours for the bus at the highway, you are better off trying to hitch-hike, which is often faster, more economical and more successful. If the bus does come eventually, you can always still take them.
Unfortunately, many bus drivers will try to rip off innocent tourists. Always pretend like you are waiting for change after having given the money. Often they will give you parts of the change searching for the rest. The unsuspected tourist will assume that's it. But often just waiting does the trick, and you will get the rest. Note, prices between the most important places are always put up above the driver where you can verify them. Rounded ticket prices like ₡1,000 or ₡2,000 should always raise your suspicions. Do not let them fool you, that just worsens the situation for other tourists and the locals. If you simply do not want to put up with that, then just hitch-hike.
By rental carOne great advantage of renting a car is that you can visit many of the secluded beaches and mountain areas. And with the power of the internet, you can now rent just about any vehicle online and have it waiting for you when you arrive.
For US$350-700 a week you can rent an econocar/mid size four-wheel drive. Insurance is the majority of this cost and it is not optional. Four-wheel-drive is 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 motorcycleFor 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.
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. If you are alone, especially. If you are female, ride in the back seat, as riding in the front with the driver can be seen as suggestive. Caution should be exercised when using this service, extra caution. It's not recommended to ride non-red cabs.
By thumbHitch-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—otherwise be suspicious and talk your way out of the situation.
By planeThere are two main internal airlines that connect the major tourist towns, Aerobell Airlines and Sansa. You are limited to 11-14 kg (25-30 pounds) of carry-on luggage per person, depending on the airline. Nature Air allows more luggage per person, as their planes are larger and are also twin-engine.
In 2017 Nature Air had a serious accident with all aboard the aircraft dying as a consequence and the loss of the airplane meaning a reduction of their fleet size by 50%. Nature Air has subsequently had all their flights canceled in 2018 and while they claim to be planning to get permission from regulatory authorities, it remains doubtful whether they'll ever be airborne again. The crash, which also killed American citizens, has led the US to issue a warning against privately chartered airplanes in the region, but as many airlines - including both Nature Air and Sansa - fly broadly similar single engine propeller aircraft seating a dozen or so, the safety concerns seem to apply more broadly, if they apply.
Neither of them will carry a longboard and both limit the number of short surboards they will carry. Be sure to check with airline for current limits on length of boards allowed.
By trainWhile 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
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", literrally "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".
Limonense Creole (Mekatelyu)
There is also an English-based Creole language spoken in Limón Province on the Caribbean Sea coast of Costa Rica. It is called Limonese Creole or Mekatelyu. 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".
WildlifeCosta 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.
Costa Rica's list of birds includes:
- 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.
The coastal list of birds includes:
- 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.
Good bird-watching spots include:
- Monteverde Cloud Forest has more than 400 species of birds, including resplendent quetzals.
- Tortuguero National Park has 300 species of birds.
- Santa Rosa National Park has more than 250 species of birds.
- Cahuita National Park has toucans, parrots, rufous kingfishers; the park is on the beach.
- La Selva Biological Station in the northern lowlands has 420 species of birds.
- Helconia Island has 228 species of birds.
- Corcovado National Park has 400 species of birds and 1,200 scarlet macaws.
- Huedal Nacional Terraba-Sierpe has a myriad of birds along the coast and swamps.
- Carara National Park has 400 species of birds.
- Tárcoles has 400 species of birds and great river tours highlighting crocodiles.
- Whale Marine National Park has frigate birds, boobies, ibises and pelicans.
- La Amistad National Park has 500 species of birds including resplendent quetzals.
- Manuel Antonio National Park has 350 species of birds and three lovely beaches.
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.
- Arenal, (Spanish: Volcán Arenal): an active stratovolcano with lava domes and daily eruptions near La Fortuna. Note: it has been dormant since 2010.
- 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 central Costa Rica close to Alajuela. It has erupted 39 times since 1828. The last eruption was in 2012.
Costa Rica is a country with an extraordinary wealth of things to do, but regardless of your travel interests, you're going to want to spend time at one of the country's many great beaches. 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.
The Pacific coast, particularly in the Central Pacific and Guanacaste, has some of the best surfing in Central America.
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.
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.
HikingAround 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.
Courses are located in three major areas of Costa Rica: Guanacaste, San José and Mid Pacific. Due to road conditions, you should check the driving times between courses.
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.
MoneyThe 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 ₵.
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. U.S. dollars are commonly used; in the tourist setting, 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 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.
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.
It is also very common to pay even small amounts by Visa or MasterCard, but much less common with 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. Also, it is not really necessary to get colones at the airport because you can pay everywhere in U.S. dollars and receive colones as change. Most places, except the smallest restaurants, take credit cards and many places including the gas stations take American Express.
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.
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 may cost as much as ordering on the internet.
On a shoestringCosta Rica certainly is not the cheapest country in the world to travel light and budget-oriented. Most national parks and other tourist destinations demand entrance fees, and tours to see the nature and wonders of Costa Rica can easily 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 bus or hitch-hiking. Buses can be caught into every corner of Costa Rica. Even though, they are not more convenient or faster, they are a good way to experience the authentic local side of Costa Rica. Furthermore, using your thumb on the other hand can be very economical and fast, Costa Ricans and even other tourists are happy taking hitch-hikers along the way—see above. This saves you the expensive car rental that many tourists rely on.
Relying heavily on hitch-hiking, bringing a tent along is a good idea. Otherwise accommodation can be very cheap, especially hostel can be between US$10-15 per bed, the more remote the cheaper. And remote can be good, because you get away from the touristy side of Costa Rica. Also, checkout local accommodation found on GoogleMaps and AirBnB, they are 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. Else, you can easily rely on sodas (local restaurants) and cooking in the hostels, which are often equipped properly.
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 (complex with many add-ons) and MAPS.ME (easy but limited).
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.
Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans with a little cilantro (fresh coriander) 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.
Good, fresh fruit is abundant in variety and low in 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 mango found in store in North America are much more fibrous and less sweet than the mangos found in Costa Rica. The fingerling bananas are much more creamy and less tart than the ones found in North America.
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.
Vegetarians will find it surprisingly easy to eat well in Costa Rica.
Don't forget to tip tour guides, drivers, bellboys and maids. Restaurant bills include a 10% gratuity but leave an extra tip for good service. North Americans often get better service because they are used to tipping separately, but it's not necessary.
The beef cattle are raised on grass; the meat will taste differently from corn-fed cattle. 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.
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 is similar to vodka, and is usually drunk with water and lemon. It's not a very "clean" liquor, so exercise caution.
There are around eight national beers available (and most international), which are sold in cans, bottles and even kegs. The most common beers in the country 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.
Ready-to-drink coffee is excellent and considered to be among the best in the world.
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." In Costa Rica as well as much of Latin America this term tends to refer to places more associated with short term stays by couples looking for privacy. The rooms are often rented by the hour.
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.
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 and the proximity to good surf.
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.
Costa Rica is an open business country and investors are always welcome, so if you or your company is interested in founding a new business, or buying a business, it is best to contact a local lawyer.
VolunteeringThere are several opportunities to engage in volunteer work in Costa Rica. Projects include turtle conservation, building houses, teaching English, and community development work.
Generally, no shots 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. There have been outbreaks of dengue fever in some areas of the country and an outbreak of malaria was reported in November 2006 in Limón Province, but just a few cases. 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 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 travellers 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, such as cabbage or mangoes, should be thoroughly washed.
- 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.
- Like any other tourist destination, 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 your favorite 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 and practical. If you find yourself needing to use the services of a person who is a money changer (Sunday morning at the border, for instance) make sure to have your own calculator. 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 has 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.
ProstitutionProstitution 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 - not just someone you met last night at the hostel, but he or she 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 any bus ride (1st, 2nd, 3rd class) try to sit above the luggage compartment so that you can watch that your bag isn't stolen when others get off the bus. 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.
- Buses are cheap but their quality is very basic, old, ripped, and dirty seats, with no toilets, and no air conditioning so windows are usually open unless it rains.
Beaches, weather and wildlife
- 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 kill. Costa Rica has excellent medical care, so anti-venom is readily available at all of the major hospitals.
Gay and lesbian travellers
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 travel. 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.
Medical tourismAccording 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.
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.
Call pricingDomestic 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
- 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.
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 900Mhz, 2100Mhz
4G LTE: 1800Mhz
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 850Mhz, 2100Mhz
- 4G LTE: 1800Mhz
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 the airport upon arrival.
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 and social media.