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You’ve decided to travel to Costa Rica. Congratulations! Here are the top 15 Costa Rica travel tips, especially as COVID-19 restrictions keep changing.
Costa Rica Travel Tips
1. Entry Requirements
Travelers from the U.S. and Canada do not need a visa if they are planning to stay for less than 90 days. Upon arrival, travelers will need to show their passport and plane ticket showing a return date. Check the Costa Rica travel website for the most up-to-date information. A special Health Pass must be completed online within 72 hours before departure. Costa Rica requires special health insurance if you contract COVID while in the country. These may be purchased through international travel insurance companies or Costa Rican companies. You’ll need to provide a copy of the letter with your coverage upon arrival.
While there is no COVID test required to enter Costa Rica, keep in mind that you may need one to re-enter your home country. These tests are available throughout the country, and many hotels can arrange one for you.
2. COVID Precautions
Costa Rica takes COVID prevention seriously. Masks must be worn in all public areas, except when eating or drinking. Before entering any building (stores, hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc.), guests must wash their hands at sinks set up at entrances to establishments. The number of guests allowed to enter or go to a service desk is limited. For example, only one guest may go to the car rental counter or purchase tickets for an attraction. Groups have been limited in number. Keep in mind that some restaurants (especially the local sodas) and activities may not have re-opened.
Spanish is the dominant and official language in Costa Rica. While some tourist areas and the Caribbean have more English speakers, you should learn a few basic phrases in Spanish. Consider using a translation app if you’re not confident in your Spanish. Google Translate works on both written and spoken words, but it does not work well with handwritten signs (or menus) and translates literally, making for odd expressions. However, it works in a pinch.
The official currency is the colon (plural colones), but merchants accept the U.S. dollars in much of the country, especially in touristy areas. Colones are helpful for small purchases since stores may not have US change and for tips. Locals often call their currency “harina” (flour). You don’t need to exchange colones ahead of time, but you’ll get some colones in change if you pay with US dollars – this was my preferred way of obtaining colones.
5. Costa Rica is expensive!
Compared to other Central American and Caribbean countries, almost everything in Costa Rica costs more than other places. Local cigarettes and alcohol are cheaper than in the U.S., but just about everything else costs more. If you plan to stay in less touristy areas, you’ll find the prices much better (no “tourist” tax!).
6. Apps to use in Costa Rica
Before traveling to Costa Rica, fill your phone with helpful apps. Many of the apps that are useful when visiting other countries are incredibly useful in Costa Rica. Some of the best are:
- Google Translate
- VPN Express
Check out the ten best free apps to use in Costa Rica.
7. How to get around (transportation)
Decide whether you wish to drive or leave the task to others. In non-COVID times, many people use the country’s buses to get from one place to another inexpensively. We don’t recommend that at this time. Many hotels, even those located far away, can arrange shuttle transportation from the airport to their location. Once there, tour operators usually pick up guests at their hotel or lodging.
Taxis are a good alternative for visitors. The government licenses red taxis. Look for one of those when traveling small distances; just check that their meter is running! Or use Uber if you’re in a populated area.
If your itinerary includes several destinations or you prefer the freedom to explore independently, a rental car is your best option. Keep in mind that while the cost of the car rental is low, the cost of the insurance will almost triple the actual price. Since usual rental protections provided by your vehicle insurance or offered by a credit card do not cover Costa Rica, obtain comprehensive car insurance from the rental agency. We found this to be the best option for us. As with anywhere else, don’t leave valuables in rental cars in Costa Rica.
8. Travel from place to place takes longer than expected.
Travel times on Google maps are not accurate! Between the unpaved roads, winding paths, and lack of street names, travel from one place to another takes longer than expected. Do rely on a GPS (like Waze, which we found to be accurate) and avoid driving at night or when it is raining hard. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
9. Drivers (and roads!) are crazy!
Drivers can drink while driving (but not be intoxicated). If you’re planning on going to off-the-beaten-path destinations, a 4×4 is recommended, especially if traveling during the rainy season (May to November). While most of the major roads are asphalted, some of the more minor roads are not. Streets can be narrow, and there is often no railing on dangerous hilly curves. Take your time!
10. Tipping is not necessary.
Many prices include a service charge, negating mandatory tipping. Restaurants feature this service charge prominently on their receipts. However, if you’ve had excellent service, a 10% tip payable in US dollars or colones is appreciated. You should also consider giving a few dollars to any guard in parking lots to get extra attention on your vehicle.
11. The sun is up from 6 am to 6 pm.
Due to its location close to the equator, sunrise and sunset stay pretty even throughout the year. The sun rises at 6 am and sets at 6 pm. There is no Daylight Savings Time. The good news is that it makes it easier to plan your activities, no matter what time of year you plan on visiting.
12. Special laws that get tourists in trouble
This is by no means an all-inclusive list of prohibited actions but these actions, tolerated or condoned in other countries, are not the norm in Costa Rica. Be mindful of these laws, so you don’t get in trouble during your vacation:
- The drinking age is 18, so though not strictly enforced, it isn’t worth trying it for anyone in your group younger than 18.
- Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, but many activities surrounding it are illegal. For example, possession of pornography is prohibited.
- The punishment for marijuana is the same as all other illicit drugs. Don’t be tempted!
- Do not smoke in public spaces (restaurants, bars, offices, parks, and bus stops, for example).
- There is no nude bathing on any of the beaches.
- Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Let cars pass!
- Bribery of police officers is common.
13. Customs particular to the region
Things to know before you travel to Costa Rica include customs. Costa Rica has some particularities each visitor should know before traveling here. Some of the more common are:
- Like many other countries, toilet paper goes in the trash since the pipes get easily stopped up.
- When doing cheers with a local, you must look them in the eye or suffer seven years of bad sex.
- Don’t wear sunglasses or hats inside a bank (or they’ll think you’re robbing them!).
- Most roads (outside of San Jose) don’t have a name.
- Sodas are small restaurants.
- Shorts are considered disrespectful and should not be worn in government buildings (though they’re the norm in touristy areas).
14. Healthy living is the norm
Costa Ricans have one of the longest life expectancies in the world (79!). The Nicoya Peninsula is one of the world’s five “blue zones” where healthy centenarians show us a better way of life. It isn’t just about fresh food either, although the focus on fruits and fresh catches is essential. Instead, Costa Ricans prioritize relationships, leading to a happier and more content existence. It isn’t unusual to have several generations living under one roof. People walk everywhere or bike, so there’s always physical activity too.
15. Pura Vida is not just a saying; it’s a way of life.
Literally, “Pura Vida” means “simple life” or “pure life.” But as used in Costa Rica, it can be a greeting, goodbye, or even “everything’s good.” The slogan embodies the spirit of Costa Ricans (Ticos). It’s a reminder to enjoy life and to take it easy. Costa Rica represents a healthy approach to life, consisting of protecting the environment and people. It is one of the countries where people live to a ripe old age due to their relaxed nature.
This attitude is evident in many ways, including a more leisurely restaurant experience. Avoid going to eat if you’re short on time, or you’ll get frustrated with the slower service. Use the occasion to enjoy a relaxing meal instead!
Go! Enjoy! And feel a bit better now that you’re armed with this basic information to have your best experience!
Check out our additional Costa Rica content:
Annick, The Common Traveler