Costa Rica has it all: nowhere else can you gaze upon a volcano while soaking in a hot spring one day, hike deep into a rain forest the next, and end your trip learning to surf at a luxurious seaside resort. Miles of pristine beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, fabulous national parks with plentiful opportunities for wildlife viewing, and world-renowned eco-lodges have made this one of the hottest destinations around. The welcoming people of Costa Rica, and their mellow pura vida lifestyle, add warmth to every visit.
EXPLORE COSTA RICA
If you are visiting several regions of the country, flying into San José, in the center of Costa Rica, is your best option. Flying into Liberia, in northwest Costa Rica, makes more sense if you are planning to spend your vacation entirely in the North Pacific. Fares are usually lower to San José than to Liberia. San José also has many more flights each day, making it easier if you miss a flight or have some other unexpected mishap. Rarely does an international flight arrive in San José early enough to make a domestic connection, particularly in the rainy season, as the weather is typically unsuitable for flying in the afternoon. So you’ll likely end up spending your first night in San José, leaving for your domestic destination the next morning.
It’s rare, but afternoon and evening storms during the May-to-November rainy season occasionally cause flights coming into San José to be rerouted to Panama City, where you may be forced to spend the night. October, with its frequent evening fog, tends to be the worst month for reroutes. TIP In the rainy season, try to book a flight with the earliest arrival time available. Once you’re in Costa Rica, some airlines recommend that you call them about three days before your return flight to reconfirm. Others explicitly say it’s not necessary. It’s always a good idea to check the day before you are scheduled to depart to make sure your flight time hasn’t changed.
If you arrive in Costa Rica and your baggage doesn’t, the first thing you should do is go to the baggage claims counter and file an official report. Then contact your airline to let them know where you will be staying. Bags are usually located within two days and can be sent to you just about anywhere in the country. Don’t expect too much from local agents; try to get updates directly from your airline.
If your bag has been searched and contents are missing or damaged, file a claim with the Transportation Security Administration’s Consumer Response Center as soon as possible. If your bags arrive damaged or fail to arrive at all, file a written report with the airline before leaving the airport. Costa Rica levies an airport departure tax, payable in dollars or the equivalent in colones. If not already included in your ticket price, you pay the tax at the airport upon departure. Paying with a MasterCard or Visa credit card means the transaction will be processed as a cash advance and incur additional fees. A few hotels will collect the tax for you as well.
Costa Rica has two international airports. Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (SJO) is the country’s main airport, about 17 km (10 miles), northwest of downtown San José, just outside the city of Alajuela. The drive takes about 30 minutes. Domestic airlines SANSA and Nature Air—most of its routes—operate from here, SANSA in its own terminal and Nature Air inside the main building.
The country’s other international airport is Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quirós (LIR), a small airport near the city of Liberia in the North Pacific. It’s about 8 miles west of the city. The small Aeropuerto Tobías Bolaños, in the Pavas district on San Jose’s west side, serves a couple of Nature Air routes and several charter flights.
Other places where planes land in Costa Rica aren’t exactly airports. They’re more like carports with landing strips, and airline representatives arrive a few minutes before a plane is due to land or take off.
Most international flights arrive in the evening and depart early in the morning. Prepare yourself for long waits at immigration and customs. When you’re departing the country, prepare for security checkpoints at both airports. Liquids and gels of more than 3 ounces are not permitted. Carry-on bags are searched again at the gates for flights to the United States. Get to the airport three hours before your flight.
At Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría, you exit the terminal into a fume-filled parking area flanked by hordes of taxis and tour vans. If you’re with a tour, you need only look for a tour company representative with a sign that bears your name. If you need a taxi, a uniformed agent will escort you to one of the orange Taxis Unidos cabs (no other taxis are allowed in the arrivals area). Transportation at Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quirós is also a mix of taxis and tour vans. The big Pacific-coast resorts provide transportation but always check with your lodging for recommendations on the best way to arrive.
From New York or Los Angeles, nonstop flights to San José are 5½ hours. San José is 2½ hours from Miami, 3½ hours from Houston, and 4 hours from Charlotte and Dallas. In general, nonstop flights aren’t that much more expensive.
Given Costa Rica’s often-difficult driving conditions, domestic flights are a desirable and practical option. The informality of domestic air service —“airports” other than Liberia and San José usually consist of only an airstrip with no central building at which to buy tickets—means you might want to purchase your domestic airplane tickets in advance. You can also buy them at the international airports or at travel agencies once you’re in the country. We recommend grabbing a seat as soon as you know your itinerary.
Tica Bus has daily service to Panama and Nicaragua, with connections to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. Transnica serves Nicaragua and Honduras. We recommend Tica Bus, but Transnica is acceptable in a pinch. Both companies have comfortable, air-conditioned coaches with videos and onboard toilets, and help with border procedures. All Costa Rican towns are connected by regular bus service that’s reliable, comprehensive, and inexpensive. Buses between major cities are modern, but in rural areas, you may get a converted school bus without air-conditioning.
On longer routes, buses stop midway at modest restaurants. Near their destinations many buses turn into large taxis, dropping passengers off one by one along the way. To save time, take a directo (express) bus, which still might make a few stops. Be prepared for bus-company employees and bus drivers to speak only Spanish. The main inconvenience of long-distance buses is the time spent getting there. For example, a bus from San José to the Osa Peninsula is nine hours or more, whereas the flight is one hour. Shorter distances reduce the difference—the bus to Quepos is 3½ hours, while the flight is 30 minutes. There is no central bus station in San José; buses leave from a variety of departure points, depending on the region they serve. You frequently have to return to San José to travel between outlying regions.
The official tourism board, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT), provides bus schedules on its website, but the information is updated infrequently. Hotel employees can usually give you the information you need.
Buses usually depart and arrive on time; they may even leave a few minutes early if they are full. Tickets are sold at bus stations and on the buses themselves; reservations aren’t accepted, and you must pay in person with cash. Be sure to have loose change and small bills handy; employees won’t have change for a 10,000-colón bill. Buses to popular beach and mountain destinations often sell out on weekends and holidays. It’s difficult to get tickets to San José on Sunday afternoon. Some companies won’t sell you a round-trip ticket from the departure point; if that’s the case, make sure the first thing you do on arrival in your destination is to buy a return ticket. Sometimes tickets include seat numbers, which are usually printed on the tops of the seats or above the windows. Smoking is not permitted.
Two private bus companies, Gray Line and Interbus, travel to the most popular tourist destinations in modern, air-conditioned vans. Interbus vans usually seat 10 to 20 people, and coaches can also be reserved for large groups.
Hiring a car with a driver makes the most sense for sightseeing in and around San José. You can also usually hire a taxi driver to ferry you around; most will stick to the meter, which will tick at a rate of about $20 for each hour the driver spends waiting for you. At $100 to $130 per day plus the driver’s food, hiring a driver for areas outside the San José area costs almost the same as renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but is more expensive for multiday trips because you also have to pay for the driver’s lodging. Some drivers are also knowledgeable guides; others just drive. Unless they’re driving large passenger vans for established companies, it’s doubtful that drivers have any special training or licensing. Hotels can usually direct you to trusted drivers. Alamo provides professional car-and-driver services for a minimum of three days.
You’ll usually find 24-hour stations only in San José or along the Pan-American Highway. Most stations are open 7 to 7, although some are open until midnight. Regular unleaded gasoline is called regular, and high-octane unleaded, required in most modern vehicles, is called súper. Gas is sold by the liter. Try to fill your tank in cities—gas is more expensive (and more likely to be dirtier) at informal fill-up places in rural areas, where gas stations can be few and far between. Major credit cards are widely accepted. There are no self-service gas stations in Costa Rica. It is not customary to tip attendants. If you want a factura (receipt), ask for it.
On-street parking is scarce in downtown San José. Where you find a spot, you’ll also find guachimanes (“watchmen,” informal, usually self-appointed guards). They won’t actually get involved if someone tries something with your car, but it’s best to give them a couple of hundred colones per hour anyway. It’s illegal to park in zones marked by yellow curb paint, or in front of garage doors or driveways, usually marked no estacionar (no parking). Downtown parking laws are strictly enforced. Never leave anything inside the car.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you’re planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving beyond a specific distance). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request such extras as car seats and GPS devices when you book. Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency’s website. Book ahead during the busier times of the year and to ensure that you get a certain type of vehicle (a van, SUV, or sports car, for instance).
A standard vehicle is fine for most destinations, but a doble-tracción (four-wheel-drive vehicle) is often essential to reach the remote parts of the country, especially during the rainy season. Even in the dry season, a 4WD vehicle is necessary to reach Monteverde and some destinations in Guanacaste. The biggest 4WD vehicles can cost twice as much as an economy car, but compact 4WDs are more reasonable. Most cars in Costa Rica have manual transmissions.
Renting in or near San José is by far the easiest way to go. At least a dozen rental offices line San José’s Paseo Colón. It’s getting easier to rent outside San José, particularly on the Pacific coast. Several rental companies have set up branches in Liberia, Quepos, Manuel Antonio, Jacó, Tamarindo, and La Fortuna. In most other places across the country, it’s either impossible or very difficult and expensive to rent a car.
Many travelers shy away from renting a car in Costa Rica. Indeed, this is not an ideal place to drive. In San José, traffic is bad and car theft is rampant (look for guarded lots or hotels with parking). Roads in rural areas are often unpaved or potholed—and tires usually aren’t covered by the basic insurance. And Ticos are reckless drivers—with one of the highest accident rates in the world. But although driving can be a challenge, it’s a great way to explore certain regions, especially the North Pacific, the Northern Lowlands, and the Caribbean coast (apart from roadless Tortuguero). Keep in mind that winding roads and poor conditions make most trips longer than you’d normally expect.
The winding Pan-American Highway south of the capital is notorious for long snakes of traffic stuck behind slow-moving trucks. Look out for potholes, even in the smoothest sections of the best roads. Also watch for unmarked speed bumps where you’d least expect them, particularly on main thoroughfares in rural areas. During the rainy season, roads are in much worse shape. Check with your destination before setting out; roads, especially in Limón Province, are prone to washouts and landslides.
San José is terribly congested during weekday rush hours (7 to 9 am and 4 to 6 pm). Try to avoid returning to the city on Sunday evening, when traffic from the beaches can be backed up for miles. Frequent fender benders tie up traffic. Keep your windows rolled up in the center of the city, because thieves may reach into your car at stoplights and snatch purses, jewelry, and valuables.
Signage is notoriously bad but improving. Watch carefully for No Hay Paso (“Do Not Enter”) signs; one-way streets are common, and it’s not unusual for a two-way street to suddenly become one way. Single-lane bridges are common in rural areas. A Ceda El Paso (“Yield”) sign facing you means just that: let oncoming traffic proceed before you enter the bridge.
Highways are numbered on signs and maps, but few people use or even know the numbering system. Asking for directions to “Highway 27” will probably be met with a blank stare. Everyone calls it the “Carretera a Caldera” (highway to Caldera, on the Pacific coast) instead. Outside San José you’ll run into long stretches of unpaved road. Look out for potholes, landslides during the rainy season, and cattle on the roads. Drunk drivers are a hazard on weekend nights. Driving at night outside cities and towns is not recommended, because roads are poorly lighted and many don’t have painted center lines or shoulder lines. The sun sets here around 5:30 pm all year long. Try to arrive at your destination before then.
Costa Rica has no highway emergency service organization. In Costa Rica, 911 is the nationwide number for accidents. Traffic Police (tránsitos) are scattered around the country, but Costa Ricans are very good about stopping for people with car trouble. Whatever happens, don’t move the car after an accident, even if a monstrous traffic jam ensues. Call 911 first if the accident is serious (nearly everyone has a cell phone), then call the emergency number of your car rental agency.
Rules of the Road
Fines are frightfully high—a speeding ticket could set you back $600—and evidence exists that transit police target foreigners. Don’t get too complacent if you don’t see any police; cameras monitor traffic on the highways around San José. Your rental agency may charge you for a speeding ticket it receives after your return home.
Driving is on the right side of the road in Costa Rica. The highway speed limit is usually 54 mph, which drops to 36 mph in residential areas. In towns, limits range from 18 to 31 mph. Speed limits are enforced in all regions of the country. Alto means “stop” and Ceda el Paso means “yield.” Right turns on red are permitted except where signs indicate otherwise, but in San José, this is usually not possible because of one-way streets and pedestrian crossings.
Local drunk driving laws are strict. You’ll also get nailed with a $450 fine if you’re caught driving in a “predrunk” state (blood alcohol levels of 0.05% to 0.075%). If your level is higher than that, the car will be confiscated, your license will be taken away, and you risk jail time. Police officers who stop drivers for speeding and drunk driving are often looking for payment on the spot —essentially a bribe. Asking for a ticket instead of paying the bribe discourages corruption and does not compromise your safety. You can generally pay the ticket at your car rental company, which will pay it on your behalf.
Seat-belt use is mandatory. Car seats are required for children ages four and under. Children over 12 are allowed in the front seat. Drivers are prohibited from texting or using handheld cell phones.
Costa Rica is a popular cruise destination on many Panama Canal and Western Caribbean itineraries during a season that runs August-May. Most large cruises stop in the country only once. Smaller ships, including those of Windstar Cruises (capacity for 148), Paul Gauguin Cruises (88 guests), Variety Cruises (72 guests), and highly recommended, conservation-minded Lindblad Expeditions (62 guests) offer Costa Rica–focused cruises along the Pacific coast that may include calls in neighboring Panama or Nicaragua.
Taxis are cheap and your best bet for getting around San José. Just about every driver is friendly and eager to use a few English words to tell you about a cousin or sister in New Jersey; however, cabbies truly conversant in English are scarce. Tipping is not expected, but a good idea when you’ve had some extra help, especially with your bags.
Cabs are red, usually with a yellow light on top. To hail one, extend your hand and wave it at about hip height. If it’s available, the driver will often flick his headlights before pulling over. The city is dotted with paradas de taxi, taxi queues where you stand the best chance of grabbing one. Your hotel can usually call you a reputable taxi or private car service, and when you’re out to dinner or on the town, ask the manager to call you a cab—it’s much easier than hailing one on the street, and safer, too.
Taxi drivers are infamous for “not having change.” If it’s just a few hundred colones, you may as well round up. If it’s a lot, ask to go to a store or gas station where you can make change. To avoid this situation, never use a 10,000-colón bill in a taxi, and avoid paying with 5,000-colón bills unless you’ve run up almost that much in fares. Drivers will round the fare up to the nearest 100 colones.
Outside the capital area, drivers often use their odometers to creatively calculate fares. Manuel Antonio drivers are notorious for overcharging. It’s illegal, but taxis charge up to double for hotel pickups or fares that take them out of the province (such as San José to Alajuela). Ask the manager at your hotel about the going rate. Outside the capital, try to avoid taking an unofficial taxi (pirata), although it’s sometimes the only option. It’s better to ask your hotel for recommendations.
It’s always a good idea to make a note of the cab number (painted in a yellow triangle on the door), and sit in the back seat for safety.
Most major hotels have free wireless access or use of a wired computer. Denny’s, Bagelmen’s, and a number of upscale cafés have Wi-Fi, although a few travelers have been robbed of their laptops and tablets in restaurants. (Smartphones are generally safe.) Internet access via your smartphone should work in most cities of any size, but we recommend always looking for a Wi-Fi signal to avoid surprises on your bill after you return home. Data charges are high.
The good news is that you can now make a direct-dial telephone call from virtually any point on Earth. The bad news? You can’t always do so cheaply. Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive option; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. Calling cards usually keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase them locally.
Calling Within Costa Rica
All phone numbers have eight digits. Landline numbers begin with 2; cell numbers begin with 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8. There are no area codes in Costa Rica, so you only need dial the eight-digit number, without the 506 country code. Coin-operated phones are disappearing rapidly.
Calling Outside Costa Rica
The country code for the United States is 1.
Internet phone services such as Skype are by far the cheapest way to call home; it is a viable option in the Central Valley and major tourist hubs. For other regions or for more privacy, a payphone using an international phone card is the next step up; you can also call from a payphone using your own long-distance calling card. Dialing directly from a hotel room is very expensive, as is recruiting an international operator to connect you.
To call overseas directly, dial 00, then the country code (dial 1 for the United States and Canada), the area code, and the number. You can make international calls from almost any phone with an international calling card purchased in Costa Rica. First dial 1199, then the PIN on the back of your card (revealed after scratching off a protective coating), then dial the phone number as you would a direct long-distance call.
Phone cards can be used from any telephone in Costa Rica, including residential phones, cell phones, and hotel phones. It’s rare to be charged a per-minute rate for the mere use of the phone in a hotel. Phone cards are sold in any business displaying the gold-and-blue tarjetas telefónicas sign. International cards tend to be easier to find in downtown San José and in popular tourist areas.
If you have an unlocked phone (some countries use different frequencies than what’s used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, Cingular, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad.
If your cell-phone company has service to Costa Rica, theoretically you can use it here, but expect reception to be impossibly bad in many areas of this mountainous country. Costa Rica works on an 1,800 MHz system—a tri-or quad-band cell phone is your best bet. Note that roaming fees can be steep. Most car-rental agencies have good deals on cell phones, often better than the companies that specialize in cell-phone rental.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
You’re always allowed to bring goods of a certain value back home without having to pay any duty or import tax. But there’s a limit on the amount of tobacco and liquor you can bring back duty-free, and some countries have separate limits for perfumes; for exact figures, check with your customs department. The values of so-called duty-free goods are included in these amounts. When you shop abroad, save all your receipts, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased. If the total value of your goods is more than the duty-free limit, you’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit.
When shopping in Costa Rica, keep receipts for all purchases. Be ready to show customs (aduanas) officials what you’ve bought. Pack purchases together in an easily accessible place. The only orchids you can take home are packaged in a tube and come with an export permit.
If you think a duty is incorrect, appeal the assessment. If you object to the way your clearance was handled, note the inspector’s badge number. In either case, first ask to see a supervisor. If the problem isn’t resolved, write to the appropriate authorities, beginning with the port director at your point of entry.
Visitors entering Costa Rica may bring in 500 grams of tobacco, 5 liters of wine or spirits, 2 kilograms of sweets and chocolates, and the equivalent of $500 worth of merchandise. You can also bring one camera and one video camera, six rolls of film, binoculars, and electrical items for personal use only, including laptops and other electronics. Make sure you have personalized prescriptions for any medication you are taking. Customs officials at San José’s international airport rarely examine tourists’ luggage by hand, although all incoming bags are x-rayed. If you enter by land, they’ll probably look through your bags. Officers at the airport generally speak English and are generally your best (only, really) option for resolving any problem. It usually takes about 30 minutes to clear immigration and customs when arriving in Costa Rica.
Pets (cats or dogs only) with updated health and vaccination certificates are welcome in Costa Rica; no prior authorization is required if bringing a dog or cat that has up-to-date (within two weeks of departure) health and vaccination cards. The Servicio Nacional de Salud Animal can provide more info.
Dining options around Costa Rica run the spectrum from elegant and formal to beachy and casual. San José and popular tourist centers, especially Manuel Antonio, offer a wide variety of cuisine types. Further off the beaten track, expect hearty, filling local cuisine. Increasingly common as you move away from San José are the thatched conical roofs of the round, open rancho restaurants that serve a combination of traditional staples with simple international fare.
Every town has at least one soda—that’s Costa Rican Spanish for a small, family-run restaurant frequented by locals. Don’t expect anything as fancy as a menu. A board usually lists specials of the day. The lunchtime casado (literally, “married”)—a “marriage” of chicken, pork, or beef with rice, beans, cabbage salad, and natural fruit drink—sets you back about $3. No one will bring you a bill; just pay the cashier when you’re finished. Having a meal at your local soda always provides a good opportunity to practice your Spanish.
Meals And Mealtimes
In San José and surrounding cities, most sodas are open daily from 7 am to early evening, though some close Sunday. Other restaurants are usually open from 11 am to 9 pm, and in resort areas, some restaurants may stay open later. Normal dining hours in Costa Rica are noon to 3 and 6 to 9. Desayuno (breakfast) is served at most sodas and hotels. The traditional breakfast is Gallo Pinto, which includes eggs, plantains, and fried cheese; hotel breakfasts vary widely and generally offer lighter international options in addition to the local stick-to-your-ribs plate. Almuerzo (lunch) is the biggest meal of the day for Costa Ricans, and savvy travelers know that lunch specials are often a great bargain. Cena (dinner or supper) runs the gamut.
Except for those in hotels, many restaurants close between Christmas and New Year’s Day and during Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner. Credit cards are not accepted at many rural restaurants. Always ask before you order to find out if your credit card will be accepted. Visa and MasterCard are the most commonly accepted cards; American Express and Diners Club are less widely accepted. The Discover card is increasingly accepted.
Legally, menus are required to show after-tax, after-tip prices in colones; in practice, many tourist-oriented places do not. Because a gratuity (propina) is included, there’s no need to tip, but if your service is good, it’s nice to add a little money to the obligatory 10%.
Reservations And Dress
Costa Ricans generally dress more formally than North Americans. For dinner at an upscale restaurant, long pants and closed-toe shoes are standard for men except in beach locations, and women tend to wear high heels and dressy clothes that show off their figures. Shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops are not acceptable, except at inexpensive restaurants in beach towns.
Vegetarians sticking to lower-budget establishments won’t go hungry, but may develop a love-hate relationship with rice, beans, and fried cheese. A simple sin carne (no meat) request is often interpreted as “no beef,” so specify solo vegetales (only vegetables), and for good measure, nada de cerdo, pollo, o pescado (no pork, chicken, or fish). More cosmopolitan restaurants are more conscious of vegetarians—upscale Asian restaurants often offer vegetarian options.
Wines, Beer, And Spirits
The ubiquitous sodas generally don’t have liquor licenses, but getting a drink in any other eatery isn’t usually a problem. Don’t let Holy Thursday and Good Friday catch you off guard; both are legally dry days. In general, restaurant prices for imported alcohol—which includes just about everything except local beer, rum, and guaro, the local sugarcane firewater—may be more than what you’d like to pay.
North American appliances are compatible with Costa Rica’s electrical system (110 volts) and outlets (parallel two-prong). Australian and European appliances require a two-prong adapter and a 220-volt to 110-volt transformer. Never use an outlet that specifically warns against using higher-voltage appliances without a transformer. Dual-voltage appliances (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts) such as most laptops, phone chargers, and hair dryers, need only a two-prong adapter, but you should bring a surge protector for your computer.
Dial 911 for an ambulance, the fire department, or the police. Costa Ricans are usually quick to respond to emergencies. In a hotel or restaurant, the staff will usually offer immediate assistance, and in a public area, passersby can be counted on to stop and help.
Most travelers to Costa Rica do not get any vaccinations or take any special medications. However, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, travel to Costa Rica poses some risk of malaria, hepatitis A and B, dengue fever, typhoid fever, and rabies. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B and typhoid fever, especially if you are going to be in remote areas or plan to stay for more than six weeks. Children traveling to Costa Rica should be up to date on all routine immunizations.
Specific Issues In Costa Rica
Poisonous snakes, scorpions, and other pests pose a small threat in Costa Rica. Small pockets of malaria exist near the Nicaraguan border on the Caribbean coast. You probably won’t need to take malaria pills before your trip, but discuss the option with your doctor. The CDC marks Costa Rica as an area infested by the Aedes aegypti (dengue-carrier) mosquito, but not as an epidemic region. The highest-risk area is the Caribbean, especially in the rainy season. In areas with malaria and dengue, use mosquito nets, wear clothing that covers your whole body, and use repelente (insect repellent) and espirales (mosquito coils), sold in supermarkets, pharmacies, and, sometimes, small country stores. Repellents made with DEET or picaridin are most effective. Perfume and aftershave can actually attract mosquitoes.
It’s unlikely that you will contract malaria or dengue, but if you start suffering from high fever, the shakes, or joint pain, make sure you ask to be tested for these diseases at a local clinic. Your embassy can provide you with a list of recommended doctors and dentists. Such symptoms in the weeks following your return should also spark concern.
Water is generally safe to drink, especially around San José, but the quality can vary; to be safe, drink bottled water. In rural areas you run a mild risk of encountering drinking water, fresh fruit, and vegetables contaminated by fecal matter, which in most cases causes a bit of traveler’s diarrhea but can cause leptospirosis (which can be treated by antibiotics if detected early). Stay on the safe side by avoiding uncooked food, unpasteurized milk, and ice—ask for drinks sin hielo (without ice). Ceviche, raw fish cured in lemon juice—a favorite appetizer, especially at seaside resorts—is generally safe to eat.
Mild cases of diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol, both of which can be purchased over the counter. Drink plenty of purified water or tea; chamomile (manzanilla in Spanish) is a good folk remedy. In severe cases, rehydrate yourself with a salt-sugar solution (½ teaspoon salt and 4 tablespoons sugar per quart of water).
Heatstroke and dehydration are real dangers, especially for hikers, so drink lots of water. Take at least 1 liter per person for every hour you plan to be on the trail. Sunburn is the most common traveler’s health problem. Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Most pharmacies and supermarkets carry sunscreen in a wide range of SPFs, though it is relatively pricey.
The greatest danger to your person actually lies off Costa Rica’s popular beaches —riptides are common wherever there are waves, and tourists run into serious difficulties in them every year. If you see waves, ask the locals where it’s safe to swim; and if you’re uncertain, don’t go in deeper than your waist. If you get caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the beach until you’re free of it, and then swim back to shore. Avoid swimming where a town’s main river opens up to the sea. Septic tanks aren’t common. Do not fly within 24 hours of scuba diving.
Farmacia is Spanish for pharmacy, and the names for common drugs like aspirina, ibuprofen, and acetaminofina (Tylenol) are basically the same as they are in English. Many drugs for which you need a prescription back home are sold over the counter in Costa Rica. Pharmacies throughout the country are generally open from 8 to 8. Some pharmacies in San José stay open 24 hours.
Government facilities—the so-called Caja hospitals (short for Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, or Costa Rican Social Security System)—and clinics are of acceptable quality, but notoriously overburdened. Private hospitals are more accustomed to serving foreigners.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Like the rest of the world, Costa Rica’s business hours have been expanding. Megamalls are usually open seven days a week, opening around 10 am and closing around 9 pm. Some government offices and smaller businesses close for lunch, especially in rural areas, but jornada continúa (without the lunch break) is becoming more common in San José. Larger museums usually keep a Monday-to-Sunday schedule, and smaller ones are open weekdays. National parks often close one day a week; for example, Manuel Antonio is closed Monday. Eateries in beach towns and other tourist areas often stay open seven days a week, while those in the cities close Sunday and sometimes Monday. Bars and nightclubs are generally open until 1 or 2 am. Last calls vary from place to place.
Three public holidays (April 11, July 25, and October 12) are usually observed on the following Monday. Government offices and commercial establishments observe all the holidays. The only days the country truly shuts down are Holy Thursday and Good Friday; some buses still run, but no alcohol can be purchased, and most restaurants and all stores are closed.
January 1: New Year (Año Nuevo) April 11: Juan Santamaría Day (Día de Juan Santamaría) Easter Week: Holy Thursday and Good Friday, religious activities (Semana Santa) May 1: International Labor Day (Día del Trabajador) July 25: Annexation of Guanacaste Province (Anexión de Guanacaste) August 2: Day of the Virgin of Los Angeles (Virgen de los Ángeles), patron saint of Costa Rica August 15: Mother’s Day (Día de la Madre) September 15: Independence Day (Día de Independencia) October 12: Culture Day (Día de las Culturas) December 25: Christmas (Navidad)
In general, Costa Rica is cheaper than North America or Europe, but travelers looking for dirt-cheap developing-nation deals may find it’s more expensive than they bargained for—and prices are rising as more foreigners visit. Food in modest restaurants and public transportation are inexpensive.
ATMs and Banks
Costa Rica’s four state-owned banks (Banco Nacional, Banco de Costa Rica, Bancrédito, and Banco Popular) come complete with horrendous lines, although many branches have chairs for sitting while you wait for your number to be called. Private banks (BAC San José, Citi, and Scotiabank) are quicker options in larger cities. Better yet, get your spending money at a cajero automático (automatic teller machine). If you do use the bank, remember that Monday, Friday, and the first, last and 15th days of the month are the busiest days. For security reasons, all banks prohibit cell and smartphone use while inside.
Although they are springing up at a healthy rate, don’t count on using an ATM outside San José. Though not exhaustive, the A Toda Hora website lists locations of its ATH cash machines, and notes which ones offer colones (usually in increments of 10,000 colones), dollars (in increments of $20), or both; choose your region or city in the box on the homepage called Búsqueda de Cajeros.
For reasons of security, a growing number of ATMs shut down at 10 pm and begin working again at 6 am. In addition to banks, you’ll find them in major grocery stores, some hotels, gas-station convenience stores, and even a few McDonald’s. ATH, Red Total, and Scotiabank machines supposedly accept both Cirrus (a partner with MasterCard) and Plus (a partner with Visa) cards, but sometimes don’t. If you’ll be spending time away from major tourist centers, particularly in the Caribbean, get all the cash you need in San José and carry a few U.S. dollars in case you run out of colones. It’s helpful to have both a Visa and a MasterCard—even in San José—as some machines accept only one or the other. Both companies have sites with fairly comprehensive lists of accessible ATMs around the world.
The Credomatic office, housed in the BAC San José central offices on Calle Central between Avenidas 3 and 5, is the local representative for most major credit cards; get cash advances here, or at any bank (Banco Nacional and BAC San José are good for both MasterCard and Visa; Banco Popular and Banco de Costa Rica always accept Visa).
State banks have branches with slightly staggered hours; core times are weekdays 9 to 4, and very few are open Saturday morning. A few branches of Banco Nacional are open until 6, or occasionally 7. Private banks tend to keep longer hours and are usually the best places to change U.S. dollars and travelers’ checks; rates may be marginally better in state banks, but the long waits cancel out any benefit. Multinational banks like Citi and Scotiabank have branches here, but none has any link to your back-home account except via your ATM card. The BAC San José in the check-in area at Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría is open daily from 5 am to 10 pm.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is printed on your card.
Major credit cards are accepted at most hotels and restaurants in this book; Visa and MasterCard have the widest acceptance, with American Express, Discover, and Diners Club somewhat less so. As the phone system improves, many budget hotels, restaurants, and other businesses have begun to accept plastic; but plenty of places still require payment in cash. Carry enough cash, including smaller denominations, to patronize the many businesses without credit card capability. Note that some hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and other businesses add a surcharge (around 5%) to the bill if you pay with a credit card, or give you a 5% to 10% discount if you pay in cash. It’s always a good idea to pay for large purchases with a major credit card so you can cancel payment or get reimbursed if there’s a problem.
Currency And Exchange
Costa Rica’s currency is the colón. (The plural is colones.) Prices are shown with a “¢” sign in front of the number. Coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 colones. Be careful not to mix up the very similar 100-and 500- colón coins. Bills come in denominations of 1,000 (red), 2,000 (blue), 5,000 (yellow), 10,000 (green), 20,000 (orange), and 50,000 (purple) colones. Avoid using larger-denomination bills in taxis, on buses, or in small stores. Many tourist-oriented businesses accept U.S. dollars, although the exchange rate might not be favorable. Make sure the dollars are in good condition—no tears or writing—and don’t use anything larger than a $20.
Coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 colones. Be careful not to mix up the very similar 100-and 500- colón coins. Bills come in denominations of 1,000 (red), 2,000 (blue), 5,000 (yellow), 10,000 (green), 20,000 (orange), and 50,000 (purple) colones. Avoid using larger-denomination bills in taxis, on buses, or in small stores. Many tourist-oriented businesses accept U.S. dollars, although the exchange rate might not be favorable. Make sure the dollars are in good condition—no tears or writing—and don’t use anything larger than a $20.
Travel light, and make sure you can carry your luggage without assistance. Even if you’re planning to stay only in luxury resorts, odds are that at least once you’ll have to haul your stuff a distance from bus stops, the shuttle drop-off, or the airport. Another incentive to pack light: domestic airlines have tight weight restrictions—at this writing 11 to 13 kilograms, or 25 to 30 pounds—and not all buses have luggage compartments. Frameless backpacks and duffel bags can be squeezed into tight spaces and are less conspicuous than fancier luggage.
Bring comfortable, hand-washable clothing. T-shirts and shorts are acceptable near the beach and in tourist areas; long-sleeve shirts and pants protect your skin from the ferocious sun and, in coastal regions, mosquitoes. Leave your jeans behind —they take forever to dry. Pack a waterproof, lightweight jacket and a light sweater for cool nights, early mornings, and trips up volcanoes; you’ll need even warmer clothes for trips to Chirripó National Park or Cerro de la Muerte and overnight stays in San Gerardo de Dota or on the slopes of Poás Volcano. Bring at least one good (and wrinkle-free) outfit for going out at night.
It’s sometimes tough to find tampons, so bring your own and, since septic systems here generally cannot handle them, refrain from flushing down the toilet. For almost all toiletries, including contact lens supplies, a pharmacy is your best bet. Don’t forget sunblock, and expect to sweat it off and reapply regularly in the high humidity. Definitely bring batteries, because they’re expensive here.
Snorkelers staying at budget hotels should consider bringing their own equipment; otherwise, you can rent gear at most beach resorts.
You have to get down and dirty—well, more like wet and muddy—to see many of the country’s natural wonders. This following packing list is not comprehensive; it’s a guide to some of the things you might not think to bring. For your main piece of luggage, a sturdy internal-frame backpack is great, but a duffel bag works, too. You can get by with a rolling suitcase but then bring a smaller backpack as well.
U.S. citizens need only a passport to enter Costa Rica and a return plane ticket home or to another country for stays of up to 90 days. Make sure it’s up to date —you’ll be refused entry if the passport is due to expire in less than three months. To be on the safe side, make sure it is valid for at least six months. Spending 72 hours outside the country—Nicaragua or Panama are popular options—gets you another 90 days, but don’t expect to do that undetected more than a couple of times. Customs forms ask how many visits you’ve made to Costa Rica in the past year.
Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of U.S. passport theft in the world. Travelers in Costa Rica are not required to carry their original documents with them at all times, although you must have easy access to them. Photocopies of the data page and your entry stamp are sufficient; those, at least, must be with you at all times. Although there have been reports from around the world about security problems with in-room safes, if your hotel doesn’t have a safe in reception, locking a passport in a hotel-room safe is better than leaving it in an unlocked hiding place or carrying it with you.
For easy retrieval in the event of a lost or stolen passport, before you leave home scan your passport into a portable storage device (like an iPod) that you’re carrying with you or email the scanned image to yourself.
If your passport is lost or stolen, first call the police—having the police report can make replacement easier—and then call your embassy. You’ll get a temporary Emergency Travel Document that will need to be replaced once you return home. Fees vary according to how fast you need the passport; in some cases the fee covers your permanent replacement as well. The new document will not have your entry stamps; ask if your embassy takes care of this, or whether it’s your responsibility to get the necessary immigration authorization.
When nature calls, look for signs that say servicios sanitarios or simply sanitarios. In smaller venues, toilet paper is tossed into a trash bin rather than into the toilet. Septic systems are delicate and the paper will clog the toilet. At some public restrooms, you might have to pay 50¢ or so for a few sheets of toilet paper. At others, there may not be any toilet paper at all. It’s always a good idea to have some tissues at the ready. Gas stations generally have facilities, but you may decide not to be a slave to your bladder once you get a look at them. On car trips, watch for parked buses; generally, this indicates some sort of better-kept public facilities.
Violent crime is not a serious problem in Costa Rica, but thieves can easily prey on tourists, so be alert. The government has created a Tourism Police unit whose more than 250 officers can be seen on bikes or motorcycles patrolling areas in Guanacaste, San José, and the Arenal area.
Scams occur in San José. A distraction artist might squirt you with something, or spill something on you, then try to clean you off while his partner steals your backpack. Pickpockets and bag slashers work buses and crowds. Beware of anyone who seems overly friendly, aggressively helpful, or disrespectful of your personal space. Be particularly vigilant around San José’s Coca-Cola bus terminal, one of the dicier areas but a central transportation hub.
A few tourists have been hit with the slashed-tire scam: someone punctures the tires of your rental car (often right at the airport, when you arrive) and then comes to your “aid” when you pull off to the side of the road and robs you. Forget about the rims: always drive to the nearest open gas station or service center if you get a flat.
Lone women travelers will get a fair amount of attention from men; to minimize hassles, avoid wearing short shorts or skirts. On the bus, try to take a seat next to a woman. Women should not walk alone in San José at night. Ask at your hotel which neighborhoods to avoid. Ignore unwanted comments. If you are being harassed on a bus, at a restaurant, or in some other public place, tell the manager. In taxis, sit in the back seat. If you want to fend off an earnest but decent admirer in a bar, you can politely say, Por favor, necesito un tiempo a solas (I’d like some time on my own, please). Stronger is Por favor, no me moleste (Please, stop bothering me), and for real pests the simple Váyase! (Go away!) is usually effective.
The airport departure tax for tourists is $29, payable in cash (dollars or colones) or with Visa or MasterCard. At this writing, some airlines have begun including the tax in the ticket price. All Costa Rican businesses charge a 13% sales tax, called the IVA. It is included in the shelf price you see. Hotels charge a 16.4% fee covering service and tax, usually on top of their posted rates. Restaurants add the 13% IVA tax and 10% service fee to meals. By law, menu prices are supposed to reflect the final price you pay; many tourist-oriented dining spots ignore the requirement. Tourists are not refunded for taxes paid in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica doesn’t have a tipping culture, but positive reinforcement goes a long way to fostering a culture of good service; good intentions are usually there, but execution can be hit-and-miss. Tip only for good service. Tipping in colones is best. Never tip with U.S. coins, because there’s no way for locals to exchange them.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.