Are you going to Costa Rica for the first time? Yay! Now it’s planning time to make sure your trip is as amazing as you’ve hoped for. (You can check out our Costa Rica trip planning timeline to help you get organized).
Although there is a lot of information about Costa Rica on the web, there is there is still so much misinformation out there. This is one of the reasons why we started the blog. Yeison, my other half and the other brain behind this blog is Costa Rican so we wanted to give our tips with his local flair to help as many people have a fun and stress free time in Costa Rica.
In order to help clear up some of the confusion and mumbo-jumbo that’s out there on the web, here are 17 things to know about Costa Rica before you visit.
*This post was updated April 2020* **Please check out Costa Rica COVID-19 for latest information.**
1. Costa Rica is not as cheap people think
This is one of the most important things to know about Costa Rica. Many people assume that Central America automatically equals cheap travel. Nope.This is the biggest common misconception about Costa Rica. Yes, its northern neighbor, Nicaragua is dirt cheap but it’s is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America so you can stretch your money very far there.
So it’s no wonder that tourists who didn’t research properly get a nasty surprised when they find out tours can easily cost $100 USD, food can be the same price as Canada/USA/Europe and gas is nearly twice as much as the USA. Without careful planning and budgeting, you can blow through hundreds of dollars fairly quickly.
But we can help! Read about the cost of Costa Rica in these posts to help you stay within your budget because it IS possible to travel in Costa Rica on a budget.
- Cost of traveling in Costa Rica: See how much food, transportation, tours, hotels and souvenirs cost.
- Save money in Costa Rica: Our local insider tips for saving money traveling in Costa Rica.
- Cheap things to do in Costa Rica: Activities under $20 USD.
- 1 week Costa Rica budget: See how much 3 people spent in Costa Rica for 1 week.
2. Costa Rica is a small country but it takes longer than it seems to get around
Costa Rica is a little smaller than West Virginia and Denmark so it’s easy to think you can road trip the whole country in a week. Technically you can, but trust me, that wouldn’t be very fun!
This is because the roads in Costa Rica are never as the crows fly. They do have highways and paved roads but they usually have only one lane. Unfortunately, all the big trailer trucks drive on the same roads causing a lot of traffic and congestion. Additionally, there isn’t one main highway with a nicely paved road that goes all along the coast of the country.
For example, Tamarindo to San Jose is 259 kilometers or 161 miles and it takes us 4 hours driving on a good day with no traffic. But there have been times when it has taken us much more! The longest was 10 hours due to an accident that blocked both lanes since there was only one lane per direction. Many people when planning their itinerary try to stuff as many places as possible but think about it. Do you really want to be driving 3-5 hours every 2 days and not have enough time to truly get to relax and enjoy? You’ll be more tired from driving than anything!
This is one of the mistakes to avoid when traveling in Costa Rica. Don’t try to drive everywhere in a short trip. Don’t try to go everywhere! In Costa Rica, it’s best to take it slow and enjoy the scenery. Don’t need a vacation from your vacation. For a one week trip it’s best to choose 2 destinations or pick a home base and do day trips. Plan smart, travel easy.
3. Tap water is safe to drink in Costa Rica
In the cities and most touristic destinations, you can indeed drink the tap water. Hotels will indicate whether the water is safe and tour guides will let you know which faucets to use. We love the tap water in Monteverde, that mountain water is delicious!
Though tap water is generally safe to drink (avoid in rural areas and always ask your hotel), I still recommend bringing a filter if you’re sensitive. You can also help the environment by bringing an insulated water bottle and filters instead of buying bottled water.
Read more about drinking tap water in Costa Rica.
4. Dengue, not malaria is the main disease from mosquitoes in Costa Rica
The mosquito borne disease travelers should concern themselves with in Costa Rica is dengue fever, not malaria. As it turns out, Costa Rica has been leading Central America with the most reported cases of dengue. There were over 22,000 reported cases in 2016 but the lowest number of cases (5561) in 2017 and 2735 cases in 2018.
It’s a huge misconception that Costa Rica is rampant with Malaria and Zika. In fact, Costa Rica has had a 90% reduction in Malaria cases between 2000 and 2010. As for Zika, there have been 2,000 cases in 2017 nearly all from local citizens, not tourists. In 2018, there were 431 cases of Zika, mostly in remote jungle areas. Mosquitoes are in Costa Rica year round and are worse in rainy season (they breed in stagnant water) so protect yourself!
Read our tips for protecting yourself against mosquitoes in Costa Rica.
Extra travel safety tip: Make sure to purchase travel insurance just in case you do catch something! You can read more about Costa Rica travel insurance in this post.
5. Costa Rica gets cold but it doesn’t snow
Costa Rica experiences typical tropical weather but it has many micro-climates. It doesn’t snow but it does get quite cold in some areas due to the elevation and the ecosystems. It gets chilly when you’re up 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) in the clouds! You can read more about Costa Rica weather in this post.
Some of the colder areas are Monteverde, Poas, Vara Blanca, San Isidro de Perez Zeledon, Chirripo and San Gerardo de Dota. Temperatures in those areas can get down to a windy and chilly 60s Fahrenheit (15 C) at night. The coasts stay nice and hot, mostly in the 80s and 90s (27 – 32 C) and high humidity.
Make sure to research the area you are visiting so you come prepared. For packing tips, check out our Costa Rica packing list to see what you need to bring for different activities and destinations.
6. US dollars are readily accepted and are the standard currency in tourism
Hotels and tour companies quote their prices in USD in Costa Rica. This is because for many years, tourists to Costa Rica were mainly from the USA. Additionally, Costa Ricans can have bank accounts in USD as mortgages and car payments are quoted in USD. US dollars have become the standard currency in tourism.
So when you’re trying to get your money together, don’t stress too much about exchanging it all beforehand as it’s not 100% necessary if you live in the USA. USD is accepted in pretty much every touristic destination.The best place to exchange currency is at the bank, not at the airport exchange rate booth.
If you are Canadian however, it will be better for you to have Costa Rican currency due to the Canadian dollar and USD exchange rate. Ask the hotels or tour companies if you can pay in colones instead and how much the exchange would be. Canadian dollars and other currencies are not accepted in Costa Rica, only USD.
Also make sure you check what the exchange rate is. Since the exchange rate is around 565 CRC to 1 USD, some places may try to stiff you by using a 500 to 1 rate and you will lose out a bit. The exchange rate changes daily so always ask if you are paying in USD.
Read more about handling money in Costa Rica.
Tip for exchanging currency: supermarkets accept USD and if you pay in USD, they will give you your change back in Costa Rican colones. Easy way to exchange money without having to go to the bank. The supermarket should have a sign of the exchange rate for the day near the front or by the cashier.
7. You can still visit Costa Rica in rainy season and have a great time!
Summer or dry season in Costa Rica has the best weather. Thanks to the sunny days, it is also our high tourism season because everyone wants to escape the winter up north and soak in the sun. From January to April, it’s hot, sunny, dry and beautiful. On the other hand, rainy season is equally as wonderful but many people are scared to visit Costa Rica during this time because they want to avoid the rain. However, it’s really not that bad!
Here are some other things to know about why it’s actually awesome to visit Costa Rica in rainy season.
- Rainy season is also Costa Rica’s low season. This means less tourists!
- Prices for hotels and tours go down quite a bit. It’s the best time to travel cheap in Costa Rica.
- A typical rainy season day is sunny and hot in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon and rainy in the evening/night.
- Rainy season is the best time to see certain wildlife like whales and turtles.
If you’re not sure, here are 6 more reasons why you should visit Costa Rica in rainy season. In my experience, I love rainy season in Costa Rica. Less crowds, not as hot, more wildlife and it’s cheaper!
Costa Rica’s rainy season is around beginning of May to end of Nov/beginning of December. The rainiest months for most of Costa Rica is September and October and November and June for the Caribbean. You do need to pack and research more for rainy season though. Check out our Costa Rica rainy season packing list for tips.
8. Sloths aren’t everywhere (sorry)
As much as I hate to break it to you, sloths aren’t everywhere. I know Costa Rica markets their cuddly sloths so much it seems that the roads are crawling with them but it’s not true. Sloths, being the masters of camouflage, are normally very difficult to see without a guide or trained eye.
Sloths are found in almost all of Costa Rica but are very hard to see in some places than others. For example, it is incredibly difficult to see one in Guanacaste due to the extremely dry climate. Head down to the humid South Pacific or the Caribbean and sloths are much more common.
One of the main “complaints” I’ve heard from visitors is that they didn’t see a sloth. I asked them where they were in Costa Rica and many of them were at the Pacific coast or in the city where sloths don’t live. If you really want to see a sloth, then you need to go to where they live! Find out where are the best places to see sloths in Costa Rica in our guide.
To make sure you see a sloth, hire a guide. They have trained eyes and normally have binoculars or telescopes to find them!
9. Police can stop and ask for your papers at any time
In Costa Rica, police are legally allowed to stop any car and ask for papers. Always have a color copy of your passport and photo of your tourist stamp with you. Remember that to legally drive in Costa Rica as a tourist, you need to have your original passport (not a color copy), your original driver’s license and a valid tourist stamp with you.
If a police stops you, they’ll ask you for your passport, ask you where you’re going and then send you on your way. Most of the time they don’t ask anything else and many of them speak a degree of English.
Also something else to note is that the police in Costa Rica are generally very nice. They don’t have a “shoot first ask later” mentality here.
10. Wi-Fi is readily available…
…at hotels. It is common for hotels to offer free Wi-Fi and many of them have it available throughout the whole property. Some hotels may only have it in reception but it is free.
However, it’s hard to find open Wi-Fi in public places. It’s not like NYC where you can find a Starbucks and use the free Wi-Fi. If you see a restaurant with a secure Wi-Fi connection, you can ask them for the password. I’ve found most places are OK with giving it out as long as you are a customer.
If you always want Internet during your time in Costa Rica, we highly recommend getting a prepaid SIM card for your phone. Find out how to get a prepaid SIM card in Costa Rica. Car rentals also have Wi-Fi hot spots for rent so you can always stay connected.
Travel tip: The way SIM cards work is you will take out the existing SIM card in your smartphone you use at home and put in the Costa Rican one. Now your phone will be on the Costa Rican network so you can make local calls and texts in Costa Rica and be able to go on the Internet. Your phone number from home will NOT work anymore. A prepaid sim card will subtract the credit used (from calls/texts/internet) from your balance accordingly. When your balance is low, you can add more credit to it.
11. Tip is not absolutely mandatory in Costa Rica
This is something important to know about Costa Rica. Tipping is not absolutely mandatory in Costa Rica. This is because tip, or service tax, is already included so Costa Ricans don’t tip extra. However, if you would like to tip your guide, driver, hotel maid, etc. you may do so and it is well appreciated, especially for those who work in tourism.
The standard amount to tip in Costa Rica is 10% and you can tip in Costa Rican colones or USD.
Read more about tipping in Costa Rica in this post.
12. Drive defensively in Costa Rica!
One of my friends was so taken aback that she asked me why the driving is so crazy if it’s supposed to be pura vida? She was shocked and she lives in Seattle. And it is true, the driving in Costa Rica can be a bit messy!
Simply stated, if you’re not used to this kind of driving, be very careful and always drive defensively, especially in San Jose. You will probably get cut off and tailgated. There’s a good chance you’ll see cars jump the line, not heed stop signs or traffic lights and not use blinkers. Of course not all Costa Ricans drive this way but generally, their driving culture is not very organized and the infrastructure is not the best. Once you get out to the rural areas, it’s much more relaxed since there are less cars but you still need to drive defensively because there are always people, dogs, chickens, cows and other things in the middle of the road due to lack of sidewalks and street lights.
13. San Jose’s not as bad as people make it out to be…
…for a couple days. I’ll be honest, we don’t loooove San Jose. For a capital city, it’s not that aesthetically pleasing. However, it does have some hidden gems and all it takes is a day or two to get to know San Jose. You can find some of the best restaurants and craft beer in San Jose!
Then there are the cultural treasures: the National Theater and museums. Any history lover will want to stop by the city as there are few museums of this quality anywhere else in the country.
So when it comes down to it, San Jose really isn’t as bad as people make it out to be for 1 or 2 days. And honestly, it is the best place to experience Costa Rican life since over 1 million Ticos live and work in the capital city (out of a population of nearly 5 million). Although we don’t highly recommend it, we know many visitors who use San Jose as their home base and take day trips from there. San Jose is centrally located so you can see many beautiful places on a day excursion.
14. English is widely spoken but not all Costa Ricans speak English
People assume that because Costa Rica is a touristic country and that there are so many North Americans here, that all the locals know English. Though many Costa Ricans know a degree of English, not all of them do. The Costa Ricans with higher education and who work in tourism or call centers are fluent in English.
The bottom line is don’t assume that all Costa Ricans know English. As foreigner tourists, it’ll be helpful to learn a bit of Spanish, at least the basic words. You can download our handy Costa Rica Spanish cheat sheet and learn some important words and phrases. We always learn how to say the basics like hello and thank you in the language of the country we’re visiting to be polite and not be *that* tourist.
So make sure to practice and brush up on your Spanish! It’s one of the “do’s of Costa Rica”.
15. It gets dark by 6 PM everyday in Costa Rica
As Costa Rica is only 8-12 degrees from the equator being a tropical country, it doesn’t do Daylight Savings Time nor have big changes in sunset/sunrise.
The sun rises at 6 AM and sets by 6 PM everyday throughout the year and country. It changes only about 15 minutes throughout the year.
So make sure when you are planning your trip to know that it gets dark by 6 PM everyday! (Our personal tips: we don’t recommend to drive long distances after dark or to walk on the beach or streets at sunrise or after sunset).
16. Costa Rica doesn’t have much in common with Mexico
For some reason, many foreigners think Costa Rica is like Mexico. But Costa Rica and Mexico are completely different!
Costa Rican food isn’t like Mexican food at all and even the Spanish is different. In Costa Rica, they don’t say andale andale or anything like that. They are two completely different countries with their own cultures, traditions and customs.
So when you visit Costa Rica, don’t crack any jokes about Costa Rica being Mexico or Costa Ricans as Mexicans. It’s one of the points about being a responsible traveler and as guests in a country, we can be respectful.
PS. Costa Rica is not Puerto Rico either. For some reason lots of people get these two mixed up!
17. Costa Rica doesn’t have a military and theft is the most common crime against tourists
Did you know that Costa Rica is one of 23 countries in the world with no military? There is only the police force, the OIJ and GAO (like a swat). Costa Rica is a safe country in Latin America for traveling, especially families.
The most common crime in Costa Rica is theft: car/house break ins and pick pockets. To prevent this, a lot of it is common sense for tourists. Don’t hang your purse on the back of your chair, don’t put your backpack in the overhead compartment of the bus, don’t leave your wallet on the dashboard of your car.
So when you’re traveling in Costa Rica, make sure to always lock the door, roll up the windows, have one person stay with your stuff at all times and don’t leave any valuables visible in the car. Don’t park in remote, dark areas. Use your common sense and be more alert and aware.
Read more Costa Rica travel tips below!
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