A Complete Costa Rica Travel Guide

Costa Rica Travel Guide

Are you getting ready for an incredible trip to Costa Rica? Here are some travel tips that I’ve picked up over the many years I have been traveling back and forth to this beautiful country!

This is a pretty lengthy and robust article as I wanted to be thorough with what I’ve learned over the years and be able to share it with everyone. I have the tips organized by categories, so feel free find the category the most important for you in case there’s anything in particular that you’re looking for.

Border Crossing / Customs

Lets start here because if you can’t get into Costa Rica, well the rest just won’t matter!

Limit the amount of electronics that you bring.

Currently the maximum dollar amount of $500.00 is what you are allowed to bring into Costa Rica every 6 months and they will stamp your passport accordingly. I have brought down electronics for friends ( Cell Phone, iPad, A laptop) in carry-on luggage with no questions or hassles at customs.

Almost everyone I know brings in more than that, and it’s pretty rare that you’ll be hassled about it.

But just be advised that there is a possibility that you could end up paying import taxes on electronics that you might be planning on using, so I would tell you, just to be on the safe side is: Don’t bring more than you need.

The general process is that when you get to customs they will just x ray your bag and then send you on your way. Depending on who is in front of the machine will decide how strict they are that day.

Bring receipts, if you still have them.

If you still have the reciepts you may want to bring them along in the off chance you do get asked. I would highly recommend you doing this especially if you are taking say a drone for photography or something similar. But in the end, like I mentioned above, I would not be overly concerned as a tourist.

Your passport has to be valid for at least 6 months after your arrival into Costa Rica.

You really need to pay attention on this one. Before booking your ticket or vacation, make sure you have at least 6 months before your passport expires when you plan on going to Costa Rica.

They will be checking at both the airline counter and customs and if you don’t have it they will not let you either on the plane or enter the country.

Why 6 months you may be wondering? The reason is that is usually the maximum amount of time you will be allowed to stay in Costa Rica as a tourist. They will give you 3 months the first time and they you can extend it another 3 months with generally no problems.

Renewing your passport can take some time so if you don’t want to pay for expedited services make sure you plan accordingly.

You may need to show Proof of Onward Travel

I go over this in more details in another post but in brief, if you don’t buy a round trip ticket, you might need to show you have a ticket out of the country to either the airline, Costa Rica Customs, or both

Money Tips

Costa Rica Colones | Tico Travel

Costa Rica Uses Colones

However the US Dollar is widely accepted and you may have the choice of paying in dollars or Colones

Traveler’s checks are not practical in Costa Rica

I am not sure at this point who even gets them anymore but on the chance that you do, I would tell don’t even bring them because you would have a very hard time trying to get them cashed

Use ATMs to withdraw money

I’ve used ATM’s in Ecuador to pull money from both the US and Canada. They work great. However, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • In Costa Rica, its not uncommon for the ATM to run out of money. This is most likely to happen on the weekends and so try to take out money durinf mid week – a Tuesday – Thursday. I would not be overly concerned about this but just something to keep in mind.
  • More and more banks in the USA are charging what they call “transfer feee” and in Costa Rica as well. So be aware of this before you and check with your credit card company about what fees they may charge for a ATM withdrawl. The place in Costa Rica that you are getting the money from may also charge a fee be aware of that well. Obviously, try to use machines that don’t charge anything just ask either at the hotel or elsewhere where those type of machines are.
  • Don’t withdraw more than you need. This is where avoiding fees is really nice. Petty theft can be an issue in Costa Rica, so keeping less on you means the less you have the chance to lose. I’ve never been mugged or pick-pocketed in Costa Rica, but it can happen just like anywhere else in the world.
  • Usually the local bank’s max withdrawal is anywhere between $300-500 US dollars. Keep this in mind when your getting money out. If you need more then this you may be able to go to 2 different ATM’s but check with your bank at home to see how much they will allow you to take out each day.

Safety Tips

Costa Rica Safety Tips on Buses

Don’t get in overloaded buses on trips between cities.

If you are traveling by bus they try to stay away from the more crowded ones as they have a higher incident of accidents and when you are going through the mountains of Costa Rica, this could be an issue. They don’t call a section “Cerro de la Muerte” (the hill of death) for nothing.!

Keep your stuff with you, especially on public transportation.

Buses especially are famous for theft. The most common one is that of teh unwary travelers that stow their bags, fall asleep, and then wonder where their bags went when they woke up.

Even if you have your bags on your lap, sneaky fingers have a way of wandering. Especially if you don’t have secure zippers. To be clear: this isn’t really a problem with Costa Rica in particular.

Any travel destination will attract sketchy people looking for an opportunity. As an old friend of mine used to say “there are no degrees in careful”

Use common sense when choosing guides and adventure sports.

If doesn’t feel right.. don’t do it. You may get offers from so called independent guides for a trip or excursion that is less expensive then the standard tour company.

I would tell you, in general, its always best stay clear of them. Although some of them may be just fine there is no sense in taking a chance just to save a few bucks.

There have been some really bad accidents in the past because equipment wasn’t kept up to code, or a “guide” didn’t really know what he was doing.

Bottom line: If there is even the slightest bit of concern, don’t do it!

Getting Around

Taxis are cheap within cities and small towns

If your just going around a town then a taxi is going to be cheap. Every taxi has a meter called a “maria” and it should be started everytime you get into a taxi. If for some reason, their isn’t a meter. will need to ask how much it will be BEFORE you go anywhere so there are no “surprises” when you get there.

If you are in a larger town, you can always use a bus but the schedules and pick and drop off times might be confusing and so I find it easier to take a taxi.

Buses are cheap for getting between cities

If you are going between cities, for example say San Jose to Jaco Beach, the bus is going to be your least expensive option.

There are different types of buses, some that make more stops (local) and some that go direct, normally called Ejecutivo Bus.

These are slightly more expensive but are much quicker but worth the extra few bucks in my opinion.

Buses aren’t the most comfortable

By this I mean for long trips and by that I am talking about 4 plus hours. Reason being is the stops are intermittent and at the discretion of the driver so if you have to say, go the bathroom, you’ll have to wait until they stop.

Plus trying to sleep on a bus in almost impossible! The shorter bus trips, however are a great option as they are inexpensive and with a minimum number of stops.

You can take a plane within the country

I think it goes without saying that this certainly is not the cheapest way to get around Costa Rica but if time is short or you “just want to get there” the airlines are a great choice.

The cost varies depending on where you are going but for an example, a flight from San Jose to Quepos is about 40 minutes and costs about $100.00.

There are few domestic carriers and they all go to pretty much the same places so check with them on rates. The domestic airlines are Sansa, NatureAir and Skyway

Bring your own toilet paper

There are some things you just can’t put a price tag on. At most gas stations and smaller local places toilet paper will not be provided and well… you never know how grateful you will be to have this should the situation arrive..

Things to See

Mountains

A complete guide to Arenal Costa Rica

Go to Arenal Volcano

Although the Arenal Area is one of the most popular places to visit in Costa Rica, its a must see on any vacation to Costa Rica. Its just about 4 hours from the capital of San Jose/ You will want to spend at least 2 or 3 nights here as it has a little bit for everyone from seeing an active volcano up close, and incredible waterfalls to the must visit of Tabacon Springs

Check out the Monteverde Rain Forest

About 4 hours northwest of San Jose and about the same distance from the Liberia Airport, you can see over 400 species of birds from hummingbirds to the resplendent Quetzal.

There also various hiking trails through rainforest so whether you want to trek for 2 hours, 4 hours or more, there is a trail for you. Its also home to one of the best and longest zip lining adventures.

I would recommend that you spend at least 2 days here although some tour companies try to cover it in a day even with the 4 hour drive! You’ll enjoy the area alot and what it has to offer if you spend at least 2 days.

Climbing Cerro Chirrpo

This is one of those “not on the usual tour” places to go if you are really into climbing and want to do something unusual. Its not a technically difficult climb but it is the highest mountain in Costa Rica.

You will want to start from the town of San Gerardo de Rivas which is about 3 1/2 hours from San Jose. Its generally a 2 day climb but if you feel up to it – Go ahead and give it a try

Coast

Quepos/ Manuel Antonio

Its hard to do better then a town that has a world class beach, a fantastic national park and world class Sport Fishing.

In addition it has a range of places to stay for both the budget minded traveler as well as for those looking for more ameneties.

The old fishing village of Quepos is quaint town with great shops and restaurants and Manuel Antonio National Park has stunning beaches and incredible wildlife.

No matter which way you travel – this place is pretty cool

Nosara has some great surfing

Questions about surfing in Costa RIca

This place may seem a bit out of the way but if you like to surf then you cannot go to Costa Rica without visiting Nosara. It offers a great beach break in a laid back setting.

The town itself has some great restaurants with beautiful ocean views. Even you don’t surf its a great way to spend a day or two.

Osa Peninsula

Try out an Eco-Lodge

Eco lodges are extremely popular in Costa Rica as one might imagine and the ones in the Osa Peninsula are some of the best. You should stay at least a few days so you can do things like hiking trails, snorkeling, watch dolphins, kayaking, zip line and of course see a huge amount of wildlife.

Bring bug spray

This should come as no surprise.. You are in the middle of what National Geographic called the most biologically diverse place on earth!

Eat the Seafood

Most of the eco lodges are all inclusive due to their remote location and fish will almost certainly be on the menu so make sure try all the different types of fish and of course the fresh fruit and coffee!

Food and Eating Out

Safety Precautions

Don’t drink the water

You may want to read my post on not getting sick in Central America but if you are in the smaller towns and even in alot of the larger ones you should play it safe and drink bottled water and have drinks with no ice.

Bottled water is pretty cheap in Costa Rica and worth getting as the alternative is having to spend part of your trip in the bathroom!

You can also bring a water filter bottle with you to be extra safe. You can find one like the Sawyer S1 at Amazon or whichever one you prefer at a store near you.

Be Cautious Of uncooked foods.

With many hotels and restaurants in Costa Rica this is not an issue but if you are in more rural areas or in places that don’t typically see alot of tourists you should be careful about how they prepare produce or other uncooked foods.

You should look out for items such as salads and vegetables or another words things that have not been exposed to heat. If your not careful, in these type of settings, you could accidentely expose yourself to unfriendly parasites, pesticides or bacteria.

As the old saying goes: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

For more health tips check out my post on staying healthy in Central America

How to Save Money in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Fresh Fruit

Almuerzos are where you fill up

In Costa Rica the big meal of the day is lunch or “almuerzo” . Most smaller and local places will have what they call a “casado” which basically consists of rice, beans, platains with either chicken, meat or fish (depending on the day and place) .

They are usually cheap and filling and can also include a fruit drink of locally grown products like Cas or Tamarind. You just need to be mindful of the water they use to make it.

Buy fresh food at open markets

Small local markets are becoming harder to find in Costa Rica but if when you do , its a fantastic experience where your able to see things you probably never have. I really enjoy finding these markets and make a point to stop at them whenever I do.

You get a chance to see how the more rural communities live and what type of food they enjoy. And the food and fruit you will see are definitely on the organic side as most often there dirt is still on them as if they were just pulled or picked that morning.

If you do buy any of the fruit or vegetables and if its something that is not going to be cooked, make sure its of the variety that has to be peeled or soaked!

How to Find a Good Restaurant

If you’re eating local, go where the locals go

This is probably something you are doing whether you are in Costa Rica or visiting someplace else but the same rules would apply. If you see alot of locals eating at a particular place, the odds are that its a good restaurant with good (not tourist) prices.

If you’re eating foreign (for Costa Rica)first check out the reviews

Even though I would try to eat as much local food as I can, I understand the urge to have something more familiar like a pizza or a hamburger. Since oit can be hit or miss if your trying to find a place, I would check out the reviews first.

When reading the reviews, I would not be overly concerned if the place your looking at has 1 or 2 bad reviews out of say 100. If the vast majority are positive then chance are its going to be decent if not great place have that North American meal.

Things to Try

Costa Rica Coffee with a French Press

Coffee – What Else?

You just can’t come to Costa Rica without trying the coffee. Its as good as advertised and comes in different roast levels and from a variety of farms.

You can take a coffee tour or have it at almost every restaurant but if you get a chance ask them to make the more traditional way in what is called a Chorreador (read more under my souvenir post) Its a simple and typical way taste this wonderful beverage.

Gallo Pinto is the national dish.

And delicious. It is by far my favorite breakfast of all time. It generally consists of white rice, black beans and either a fried or scrambled egg. You can also add some Lizano Sauce (good souvenir idea).

You can find it in almost every place that serves breakfast whether its the beaches of Tamarindo and Quepos or the luxury hotels like the Ritz Carlton.

Deciphering a menu can be tricky

If your at a more local place and your spanish isn’t what it used to be when you were taking it in high school then it can be a bit challenging to decipher the menus especially when something says “a la plancha” and when you put into your translator you don’t get the answer you expect.

So before you leave on your Costa Rica Odessey brush up on your “restaurant spanish” so actually get what you think you ordered and not something that you have no idea what it is (personal experience)!

Customs / Culture Tips

Costa Rica is not run like a Swiss clock

Even though Costa Rica nickname is the Switzerland of Central America, this does not extend to time. This may or may not come as a surprise but needless to say if you are meeting with someone don’t expect them to show at the agreed upon time or even 5 or 10 minutes later.

Lesson to be learned is Don’t cut close when when planning your days activities.

Machismo

This ones for the ladies out there because its alive and well in Costa Rica. When walking around the streets or towns of Costa Rica, especially if you are alone or with another female friend, don’t be surprised or shocked to hear a cat call or two.

You don’t have to be overly alarmed but if this type of thing makes you uncomfortable then choose your travel partner carefully.

Tipping

In smaller places like mom and pop type restaurants tipping is not expected but in regular restaurants (and bars) when they give you the bill you will see that they have added a service charge to your bill automatically. No more tips are needed or expected at this point. However if you feel the service warrants it, you can leave a few extra colones.

For other types of services such as a tour guide or transfer service its a little more ambiguous but people do leave a little something for each one of these. Its difficult for me to say how much as it depends from person to person.

For a taxi, they normally do not expect a tip but again if you feel the service warrants it you can give them some additional colones.

For someone at the airport who helps you with your bags, then a tip is expected and that generally is about a dollar or two.

Lodging Tips

Costa Rica Hotel Guide

Hostels are great for budget-friendly travel

The cost of average hostel in Costa Rica is generally about $20 – $30 per person, per night as usually prices are given by the person and not by the room. These type of places are generally used by the younger crowd and those backpacking through the country.

As you probably assume the amenities are basically non – existent and what are getting is just a bed and a roof over your head. The bathrooms can be shared or if your lucky you’ll have your own. It just depends on where you are at in Costa Rica.

AirBnB is very popular in Costa Rica

As I think it in a large part of the world. Most of the AirBnB’s are worth giving a try and I even did a post comparing them with hotels .

You can find some incredible deals on some really nice homes and apartments (especially in low season) and whether you have used AirBnB before or not its worth checking out as you can sometimes save alot of money especially for large groups .

Final Thoughts

Well thats all I got for you and if you read everything up to this point you are almost a Tico. If you have anything to add or if I missed something just let me know or help your fellow travelers with whatever you think might!