Are you going to Costa Rica for the first time? Congrats! 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 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 2019*
1. Costa Rica is not as cheap as their neighbors
This is one of the most important things to know about Costa Rica. Many people assume that Central America automatically equals cheap travel. Nope. That 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.
It’s no wonder tourists who didn’t research properly get a nasty surprised when they find out tours can easily cost $100, food is the same price as North America and gas is nearly twice as much as the US. 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.
- 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.
- 1 week Costa Rica budget: See how much 3 people spent in Costa Rica for 1 week.
2. It’s 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 the main roads are paved but they usually have only one lane. Unfortunately, all the big trailer trucks have to drive on the same roads causing a lot of traffic and congestion.
For example, Tamarindo to San Jose is 259 kilometers or 161 miles and it takes us 4-5 hours driving on average. 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 know a place?
This is one of the mistakes to avoid when traveling in Costa Rica. Don’t try to drive everywhere in a short trip. In Costa Rica, it’s best to take it slow and enjoy the scenery! For a one week trip it’s best to choose 2 destinations or pick a home base and do day trips. Make sure you do thorough research when planning your trip to Costa Rica.
3. Tap water is safe to drink
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.
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
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.
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. It 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, San Isidro de Perez Zeledon and San Gerardo de Dota. Temperatures in those areas can get down to the 60s Fahrenheit (15 C) at night. The coasts stay nice and hot, mostly in the 90s (32 C).
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
You will see that hotels and tour companies quote their prices in USD. This is because for many years, tourists to Costa Rica were mainly from the US. 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 US. You can use dollars in pretty much every touristic destination and they will give you your change back in colones. If you are Canadian however, it will be better for you to have colones due to the Canadian dollar and USD exchange rate. Ask the hotels or tour companies if you can pay in colones instead.
Make sure you check what the exchange rate is. Since the exchange rate is around 600 to 1, some places may try to stiff you by using a 500 to 1 rate and you will lose out a bit.
Read more about handling money in Costa Rica.
7. Rainy season doesn’t mean it’s bad to travel
Summer or dry season in Costa Rica is our high tourism season because everyone wants to escape the winter up north and soak in the sun. 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 even though 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. No crowds, more wildlife and it’s cheaper!
Costa Rica’s rainy season is around beginning of May to end of November. 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 ourCosta Rica rainy season packing listfor 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 very difficult to see without a guide or trained eye.
Sloths are found in almost all of Costa Rica but 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 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 very nice and there is a sector specifically for tourists. They hand out safety tips and maps to tourists and are happy to answer questions.
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 as a customer. I’ve found most places are OK with giving it out.
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.
11. Tip is not mandatory
Tipping is not 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. The standard amount is 10%.
You can tip in Costa Rican colones or USD.
Read more about tipping in Costa Rica in this post.
12. Despite the laid back attitude of Ticos, they can drive very crazy
One of my friends was so taken aback that she asked me why the driving is so crazy if Ticos are so pura vida? I told her that it’s probably because they are always late to everything (aka Tico Time) so they have to drive super fast! It is a bit shocking when Costa Ricans (mostly in the city) drive a bit crazy.
Simply stated, if you’re not used to this kind of driving, be very careful and always drive defensively. You might get cut off and tailgated. There’s a good chance you’ll see cars jump the line, not heed to 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 (no sidewalks).
13. San Jose’s not as bad as people make it out to be…
…for a few days. I’ll be honest, we don’t love San Jose. It’s kind of dirty, crowded and not that aesthetically pleasing. However, the capital city 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.
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).
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. These are mostly the Ticos that live in the city or work in tourism since English is required for jobs.
The bottom line is don’t assume that you can speak English to everyone. 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.
So make sure to practie your Spanish! It’s one of our recommended must do’s in Costa Rica.
15. Locals LOVE to talk to foreigners
And I mean, they’ll stop you on the street to talk to you. They’re very gregarious people with a curious nature and since tourism in Costa Rica is on the rise, they enjoy meeting people from all walks of life.
A word of caution to solo female travelers. Many Tico men are very forward and quite assertive when they see a single female walking by herself. They have no reservations to ask you if you have a boyfriend or who you’re in Costa Rica with and it might take a bit of effort to get them to go away. My advice is to smile politely and move on if you don’t want to talk to them.
Advice for families with babies: Costa Ricans love babies. They will stop you on the street, pick them up, hold and kiss them without asking. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, politely say No tocar por favor.
16. Costa Rica doesn’t have much in common with Mexico
Costa Rica receives most of their tourists from the United States and for some reason, many North Americans 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 completely different. In Costa Rica, they don’t say andale or anything like that. Think about it, even the locations are different. Costa Rica is in Central America and Mexico is in North America. They are two very different countries.
So when you visit Costa Rica, try not crack any jokes about Mexico or Mexicans. It’s one of the points about being a responsible traveler so as guests in a country, we can be respectful.
17. Costa Rica is very safe and theft is the most common crime
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 (swat). Costa Rica is a very 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. Many times it is because tourists left their belongings on the beach and went swimming. They come back to find their belongings gone. Or they don’t lock the car door or leave the windows open.
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.
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