Since we arrived in Costa Rica a few months ago, we’ve been hearing more and more stories of friends, acquaintances, and even some of our readers planning their upcoming trips to Costa Rica. Perhaps, we are just more in tune with the topic now that we are temporarily based here, or perhaps tourism in Costa Rica is simply continuing to rise. The statistics prove the latter.
Earlier this year, Costa Rica announced that it set a new visitor record this past year: 2.66 million tourists from around the world traveled to Costa Rica in 2015. It’s a huge number and one that’s likely going to increase in 2016. Some expats in Costa Rica grunt and complain about the crowds, but we are thrilled to hear that more people are traveling to experience this beautiful country!
If you are one of the lucky 2+ million that are planning to visit Costa Rica in 2016, we’ve got some helpful Costa Rica travel tips for you. Having now spent almost 4 months living here and with Max having grown up here, we know a thing or two about Costa Rica. And after helping 40 of our friends and family make their way to Costa Rica for our wedding in December, we know exactly the questions on first-time travelers’ minds.
Dry Season Isn’t Necessarily the Best Time to Visit
Costa Rica has two well defined seasons: dry season which runs from December to April and rainy season, also known as green season from May to November. But don’t be fooled by the generic weather forecasts, the weather here really depends on what part of Costa Rica you are visiting. In the Central Valley surrounding San Jose, in Monteverde, Arenal and other mountainous regions across the country the weather is always much cooler and rainier. So if you itinerary includes a stop in any of those regions, pack layers and rain gear no matter what time of the year you are visiting.
December and January are the most popular months for tourism. The surroundings are still lush after the rainy season, but the weather along the coast is fantastic, 25-30°C during the day and 20-25°C at night. But as you can imagine this is also the busiest time in Costa Rica and the most expensive time to visit the country. All hotels and even some tours will add a “high season” premium to their prices.
Our advice: don’t be afraid to visit Costa Rica in the rainy season. The prices are lower, the crowds are almost non-existent. This time of the year, travellers simply jam pack their mornings and enjoy lazy afternoons reading a book in a hammock to avoid the rain!
One Week in Costa Rica in Not Enough
Costa Rica may look small, but it’s chock full of amazing activities. There are hundreds of beaches to explore, two dozen national parks, half a dozen of volcanoes and an immense number of activities to take part it during your visit. Many travelers ask whether it is possible to see Costa Rica in a week and our answer is, it really isn’t.
You can’t base yourself on the beach in Guanacaste and take day trips to check out Arenal Volcano, Manuel Antonio National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest, and other main sights in Costa Rica. The distances between them may not look too far, but trust us that it will take a long time. We think that each destination warrants at least 2-3 days to appreciate. If a week is all you have, come to terms with the fact that you won’t see it all and treat it like a little sneak preview.
Stay Safe: Avoid Exploring San Jose at Night
Costa Rica is a fairly safe country when using common sense and basic safety precautions. However, some parts of San Jose can be quite dangerous, especially at night. So if you must spend a few days in the capital, opt to explore the city during the day.
The biggest safety risk in other parts of the country is petty theft, like pick-pocketing or bag snatching, so keep your valuable in a safe place and don’t flaunt your expensive possessions.
When travelling around the country, don’t carry your passport with you at all times. Instead, take a photo of your passport picture page and your entry stamp page on your phone and be able to present it in the case of random inspection.
Tap Water in Costa Rica is Safe to Drink
Water in most parts of the country is perfectly safe to drink out of a tap, so save the environment and don’t drink bottled water.
Our advice: bring a good insulated reusable water bottle with you and refill it straight out of a tap. We recommend HydroFlask, it’ll keep your water cold for up to 12 hours even in the hot sun on the beach. We love ours!
Don’t Waste Your Money on a Mobile Roaming Plan
Staying connected while in Costa Rica is really easy without paying $30-50 for a roaming plan. WiFi is fairly easy to find in touristy areas in Costa Rica. Most hotels and restaurants that cater to foreigners will have free wifi for you to use during your stay. You can call and message your family/friends back home for free on your phone over the internet using Whatsapp, Facebook, Viber, Facetime, or Skype.
You can also save on roaming fees by unlocking your phone before you leave home and buying a local sim card upon arrival in Costa Rica. When in doubt, go with Kolbi. You can get a $5 SIM Card and another $5 in phone credit will get you 3G coverage in most parts of the country.
Currency Exchanges in Airports Don’t Always Offer Great Rates
Surprisingly, currency exchange rates at the airports in Costa Rica can be hit or miss. More often than not we have found these rates to be daylight robbery, so we would recommend the following alternatives.
- Bring US cash and exchange into local currency (Colones) as you go. Any local business big or small will offer you a minimum rate of 500 Colones to USD $1 (At the time of writing the exchange was 534 Colones to USD $1).
- Pay with US dollars at large grocery stores and get Colones back, as they have computerised rates that are very favourable and some of the best in Costa Rica.
- Withdraw cash from an ATM, we recommend Scotia Bank or BNCR. Withdrawn the maximum possible amount ($500, if you can) to avoid paying the $5 foreign transaction fee on every $100 you withdraw. If you can manage to take out over $500 in one go, then you are likely only paying around 1% for the transaction and getting a great exchange rate in the process.
Both USD and Colones are interchangeable across the country, but if you are going to use USD, keep the bills small (under $20). If you are buying souvenirs or bargaining with someone, paying in Colones will often land you a better price since most places exchange at a lower rate.
Banks Aren’t Always Easy to Find
If you run out of cash, you can always withdraw more using your Debit/Credit Card from any ATM. Some machines will even give you the option to withdraw both USD and colones. But, keep in mind that there are NO ATMs in smaller towns, so make sure you withdraw cash in big cities.
Don’t Forget to Add Insurance to Your Car Rental Price
Insurance on car rentals is mandatory in Costa Rica, but be aware that it’s not included in the price listed on many car rental websites online. Typically the additional cost is around $10/15 a day for mandatory third party insurance and unfortunately in 9 cases out of 10 it’s not something that can be covered by your travel insurance or your credit card insurance, so budget accordingly.
Driving in Costa Rica Can Be Tricky
Driving in Costa Rica should be left to confident experienced drivers. Drivers here can be aggressive, and if you want to get anywhere, especially in places like San Jose you’ll have to keep up with the locals.
A lot of the roads are dirt roads and are in really bad condition. Drive slowly, watch out for potholes and for other cars driving on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes the potholes are so bad that driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid a huge pothole is the only option.
There are no road/street names or house numbers in Costa Rica. With the exception of San Jose, street names and house numbers do not exist in other parts of the country. Instead, directions are given using landmarks and sights as references. For example, “300 meters north of the blue church, 80 meters west, house before the barking dog with one eye.” Yes. We are not joking! If you can, use Google Maps on your phone, or download Maps.me an app that you can use offline to get step by step navigation without wifi. (It’s one of our favourite travel apps!)
Driving at night presents its own set of challenges. The roads are rarely well lit and are always shared with people, cattle, stray dogs, iguanas, and so on. Exercise an extra level of caution and don’t be afraid to use your high beams.
If you come to a river crossing, don’t stress. Cars cross it on a daily basis and you can too.Test the depth of the river by walking across it on foot first. If it the level is below your exhaust pipe, it’s safe to cross. Drive SLOWLY, or you will flood your car’s engine!
If you are driving on the beach, avoid soft sand and always use 4WD and go fast or you are bound to get bogged down.
Always fill up at gas stations in big cities to get the best price. Gas may be hard to find and will likely be a lot more expensive in smaller towns.
Buses in Costa Rica are Reliable and a Great Alternative to Getting Around by Car
There is a well-developed bus system in Costa Rica that you can use to get absolutely everywhere in the country. The busses are not chicken busses, but comfortable, often air-conditioned coaches. The ride may be a bit longer (depending on the number of stops along the way) than driving the distance in a car, but it can be quite comfortable.
You can plan your journey ahead of time by using The Bus Schedule or get advice on the best route from your hotel/hostel. Keep in mind that most of the time bus tickets can’t be purchased ahead of time, you simply pay the driver (in colones) when you get on at the bus station.
Costa Rica is Expensive
We hate to disappoint, but Costa Rica is not a cheap. In fact, it’s the most expensive country in Central America! Budget at least $50/day/person for the most budget travel experience, and anywhere between $100-200 for a nice hotel, organized activities and daily meals at high rated restaurants.
Read our post “What to Budget for Your Trip to Costa Rica” for a detailed overview of prices in Costa Rica and out tips for how to save during your stay.
Don’t Dress to Impress
Costa Rica isn’t really a place for fancy dresses and nice clothes. Simplicity and comfort rules the local dress code across the country. And trust us when we say, the ocean and the jungle don’t care for your jewelry and perfectly done hair. In Costa Rica, less is more. Your clothes will get dirty, you hair will be frizzy, your nail polish will peel off, and being constantly dirty from dust, sand, or mud will become the norm. Don’t stress about it. Embrace it!
Breathable, quick-drying fabrics will be your best friend in Costa Rica. In the beach towns, you’ll live in a bathing suit. Flip Flops will be your go-to choice of footwear 90% of the time, but do bring a pair of closed toe shoes for zip-lining and hikes.
Expect the Unexpected
In Costa Rica, nothing ever goes according to plan. If you think you have your Costa Rican trip planned out to the tee and that nothing can shake up your perfect holiday plan, we promise you are wrong. Travel is unpredictable no matter where in the world you go. There is always a risk of getting hurt, getting sick, losing your luggage, getting lost, hating your hotel, etc., but for some reason in Costa Rica the unexpected seems to creep up a lot more often. And if you are not prepared for it (mentally more so than anything else), it will undoubtedly hit you over the head and threatened to ruin your Costa Rican holiday.
We witness it on a daily basis here. It’s not that Costa Rica is an unsafe country, or that there is more corruption here, or that things are less organized. It’s just that the country is run on the Pura Vida outlook, a feeling of optimism and positivity. The locals swear by their stress-free laid back attitude and aren’t about to ruffle their feathers when something doesn’t go according to plan.
“Pura Vida”, they say, as they sit down and crack open a can of Imperial. Everything will be ok in the end.
So follow their advice and embrace their attitude. When shit goes wrong, shrug it off and roll with the punches.
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