As we work in the Costa Rican tourism industry, we love talking to other travelers to hear about their experiences and thoughts. Our goal is to get as much feedback so whenever we have a chance, we ask them what they think of the country, where their favorite place is and if they would come back.
Majority of the feedback is extremely positive and most of the not so good were attributed to a mistake they made traveling in Costa Rica. Most of the time they didn’t research a destination properly, forgot to bring an essential item or ignored an important factor for their trip. It either cost them time or money and it is always something they wished they knew before they visited.
So when planning your Costa Rica trip or traveling in Costa Rica, make sure to avoid these 13 mistakes for a stress free vacation. We’ve made some of these ourselves so we know first hand the consequences! Here are our mistakes to avoid traveling in Costa Rica.
Believing Google Maps
When it comes to driving times and distances, never believe Google Maps. The distances are accurate, but not the times. We always tell people to add at least 30 minutes to 1 hour to the estimated Google Maps driving time because driving in Costa Rica is not that straightforward or easy!
Roads in Costa Rica are notorious for being in bad condition and it is very much true. Then you have those big and very slow trucks that cause congestion because most roads have only one lane making it impossible to pass. So if you get stuck behind these trucks, that will prolong your driving time greatly.
In addition, many routes are not as the crows fly. Many of them have very windy roads, adding even more driving time since you need to go slow. So on a map, the destinations may not look far apart but the road is not straightforward. Check our detailed guide to road conditions in Costa Rica so you know what to expect.
We highly recommend using a GPS for driving in Costa Rica. The Waze app is particularly good and more accurate than Google Maps. Waze is generated by user data and information, so you can get real time info about traffic, accidents, police and more and all the locals use it. Since it knows where the traffic jams are, Waze can take you on an alternative route to avoid the jams.
Assuming Costa Rica is cheap
Sorry to burst your bubble but Costa Rica isn’t a very cheap country to visit. We have had some people complain how expensive it is compared to Southeast Asia and I’m a little confused as to how they can make this comparison since both places are so different!
Just because Costa Rica is in Central Ameria doesn’t mean it’s super cheap. Costa Rica’s prices are similar to North America for many things but there is a range of prices here. You can find tours that cost from $50-200 a person and hotels that cost from $10 a bed to $700 a night!
Not asking about tides
Some beaches can only be reached during low tides because the path gets covered by high tide. We made this mistake ourselves when we tried to visit Playa Arco by Playa Dominical and just missed low tide. If you want to go to a hidden beach, make sure you ask a local or someone who has been there if tide is a factor. Another beach is Playa Blanca in the Central Pacific, you have to walk through Playa Mantas in low tide to get there.
This also applies to Marino Ballena National Park. You don’t need to visit in low tide, but if you want to see the famous Whale’s Tail then you absolutely have to. We were able to get some great shots with our drone because we went at the lowest point of the tide.
You should also ask about rip tides when swimming in the ocean. Tourists have drowned getting caught in rip tides, so make sure you ask a local or watch for signs before you take a dip, especially in the Central Pacific like Jaco.
Not looking up bus schedules
Especially if you’re on a tight schedule. The bus is cheap but it takes much longer so you’ll have to sacrifice either time or money. If you want to make the most of a short trip to Costa Rica, then taking the bus is not the best idea.
It is pertinent to look up the bus schedule to get a general idea of how your day will go. Many destinations have limited routes so you need to plan accordingly so you don’t miss the bus and have to wait until the next day. We’ve met travelers who didn’t bother to look up the schedule, assuming there would be plenty of routes to a certain destination, only to find out there was just one bus a day and had to change their whole schedule.
Read our tips for taking public transportation and take note of the routes on the Instituto de Turismo’s bus itinerary. Don’t forget to join the Costa Rica by Bus Facebook group. We recommend arriving at least 30 minutes before the scheduled time for long routes. A few times our bus arrived 20 minutes early and we would’ve have missed it!
Not booking hotels during peak season/Not booking car rentals during high season
This one is a very common mistake. Some travelers come thinking they can find a place when they get here, which does generally work but not during peak season. During Christmas, New Years and Semana Santa (and don’t forget mid winter break, the 2-3rd week of July), hotels book up fast since locals are also on vacation. Hotels also hike up the prices during these times so it’s not smart to think you can just find one when you get here for cheap.
This also goes for car rentals. If you want to rent a car, do it before your trip. Although there are a handful of car rental companies, most of the fleets are small and it is never guaranteed that you will get a car if you don’t reserve one, especially in high season. We have met many travelers who found out that the public transportation isn’t quite as efficient as they thought it was (mistake 3) and want to rent a car in January. Unfortunately, no cars are available (or only the luxury very $$ cars were) because well, it is high season and they have to re-think their plan.
Trying to go to too many places
Costa Rica is a small country so when you look at it on a map, you think, “Wow I can go everywhere!” Unfortunately, things aren’t what they always appear to be and this is a huge mistake people make.
Though small in size, Costa Rica packs a punch when it comes to adventure activities and diversity of landscapes. There are a ton of great destinations in Costa Rica and you can visit several in one trip, but give yourself ample time to really explore an area since destinations are far apart. It’s not fun cramming in 10 places in a 2 week trip. You will burn yourself out!
Take a look at this 2 week itinerary we made for my brother and friends. We visited 4 destinations over a span of 14 days, allowing us to experience the rain forest, cloud forest, volcano and two different beach towns. Sure, I could have cut it down to only 2 days in each place and added more destinations, but we would have felt really rushed and wouldn’t have been able to get a well-rounded experience.
If you need ideas for the best places to visit, here is our list of the top destinations for first time visitors to Costa Rica.
Not telling your credit card company you’re traveling overseas
Definitely do not make this mistake! I went on a tour to Nicaragua and was delayed for an hour because one couple forgot to tell their credit card company they were traveling overseas and couldn’t withdraw cash from the ATM. They ended up not being able to go to the tour.
If you get blocked out of credit card, that will be a big hassle until you can contact your company or unless you brought a ton of cash. Costa Rica accepts USD so you don’t need to exchange your money into colones before hand, but make the necessary arrangements to use your credit or debit card if you plan to.
Learn more about how to handle money in Costa Rica in this post.
Leaving your valuables visible in your car
This is one of the first things we tell visitors when it comes to safety in Costa Rica. It is pretty easy to tell who is a tourist, so thieves can easily pinpoint their next target especially if they see them leaving all their valuables in the car. Unfortunately Costa Rica isn’t a country where you can leave your backpack or purse in plain sight so you should never ever leave valuables visible in your car.
Yeison and I always take our belongings or most prized possessions with us. If we absolutely have to leave things in the car when we go to the market or eat at a restaurant, we park it where we can see it all the time or have one person stay in the car.
We’ve met travelers who left their backpacks and suitcases in their car, went to the national park and came back only to find out their car had been burglarized. It has also happened to us. We stopped at the Limonal plaza to use the bathroom, Yeison was only a few feet away from the car and he caught a guy trying to break our window! It only takes a minute for thieves to get in and out so please take this seriously and do not make this mistake.
This is also why we recommend getting travel insurance, just in case your items do get stolen or damaged. You can read our post on Costa Rica travel insurance to find out more.
Taking out all your money of your wallet
Nothing attracts thieves more than when tourists are paying for something and they take out all the cash in their wallet to count their money. Take out only what you need.
By flashing 100 dollar bills or a wad of 20,000 colones, you’re letting everyone around you know that you got a lot of cash on you. And unfortunately, it could make you the next target.
Read about some common scams in Costa Rica and how to avoid them.
Only traveling to Costa Rica in the dry season
Costa Rica, as a tropical country has incredible weather which is why many retirees and snowbirds are down here. From December to beginning of May, you can have hot sunny weather for weeks on end. Due to the great weather, this is the busiest time of year to visit Costa Rica.
However, it can be very crowded and it is expensive. Popular destinations like Manuel Antonio can feel a bit like Disneyland, with tourists waiting up to 3 hours just to get into the national park! Hotels are at their most expensive and for some people, it can be a turn off.
This is why it’s a huge mistake to ONLY travel to Costa Rica in the dry season. Yes, rainy season does mean you need to plan a bit more carefully and there are may be cloudy or rainy days, but you will be rewarded with less crowded beaches, cheaper prices and a very jungley experience.
You can read more about Costa Rica rainy season here and this also brings me to my next point.
Only staying in the touristic destinations / Only staying in the resort
I understand that the more touristic destinations are touristic for a reason. They have good infrastructure and services for tourists and are very beautiful. However, there are just as many incredible places in Costa Rica that aren’t as commercial and it’s worth checking them out, especially if you’re the “off the beaten path” traveler or someone who would prefer a more local experience.
Keep in mind that the best and really only way to experience these lesser known destinations is with a car and a 4×4 at that. You’ll also need to plan and research a bit more but it’ll be 100% worth it!
Likewise, if you’re staying at a resort or nice hotel, definitely spend a two or day outside the resort. Book a day trip or two, check out the local town, try the local food and see what’s around. Costa Rica is too beautiful to stay inside the resort the whole time and that’s not really experiencing the country.
Not putting on sunscreen
It sounds like common sense but you won’t believe how many tourists get extremely burned here on their first day! Nothing is worse than getting a horrible sun burn your first day in Costa Rica and being uncomfortable and in pain for the rest of your trip. The sun is very strong here so make sure you put on ample sunscreen to protect yourself. I know most people want to get a tan, but trust me you will even with sunscreen on. It’s about protecting your skin and not getting 2nd degree burns on vacation!
Fun fact: locals like to call the gumbo-limbo tree in Costa Rica the “tourist tree” because the bark is bright red and peels, like the skin of sun burnt tourists. It’s not a good look, so make sure you use lots of sunscreen!
Costa Rica is only 8-12 degrees above the equator so even if you grew up in Southern California or Florida, it is pertinent to put on sunscreen.
Not bringing appropriate gear for rainy season
We’re sadly guilty of this one. We put our brand new camera in a not-so-waterproof backpack, went hiking to Cerro Chato in a thunderstorm and our camera didn’t survive (surprise surprise). If we had used an actual waterproof backpack that we ended up getting later, we would have saved our camera and an extra $500. Thank goodness it wasn’t a very expensive camera, can you imagine if it was your high end DSLR? Not good at all!
Visitors underestimate Costa Rica’s rainy season because it’s a tropical country so they assume it’s sunny all day all year long. Wrong. Read up about the weather in Costa Rica before you plan your trip so you pack accordingly. Need some tips? Check out our packing for rainy season post.
Visitors also assume that it’s really hot everywhere in the country which isn’t true either. Monteverde, the Central Valley and certain parts in the mountains can get chilly, especially in rainy season. You will actually need long pants and shirts for those places!
These are some of the best travel tips for Costa Rica you’ll need so avoid these 10 mistakes when traveling in Costa Rica and you’ll have a fun, hassle free vacation. As you can see, many of these mistakes can cost you lots of time or money, so do your research and make the appropriate travel arrangements!