Costa Rica’s tourism is booming and though North Americans are still the main demographic, travelers from all over the world are choosing Costa Rica for their vacation due to cheap airplane tickets. We recently met some Germans in the Osa Peninsula and had a very interesting chat with them.
Though they loved their Costa Rica trip and were having a great time, they were quite disappointed with the way Costa Rica was marketed in Germany. They were told that Costa Rica is cheap, clean and has good infrastructure, making it the ideal country to visit in Latin America. Unfortunately, they were in for a big shock when they arrived as it turned out to be a bit of the opposite of what they were told.
This made me realize that there is still so much misinformation out there about Costa Rica (this is one of the reasons why we started the blog). Of course you can never know everything about a country but it’s well worth your time to do some research.
In order to help clear up some of the confusion and mumbo-jumbo that’s out there on the web, here are 15 things to know about Costa Rica before you visit.
15 Things to Know About Costa Rica Before You Go
1. Not as cheap as their neighbors
Most important thing first – Costa Rica is not cheap and this is one of the most important things to know about Costa Rica. Many people assume that since it’s in Central America that it automatically equals cheap travel. Nope. That is a huge common misconception, probably the biggest. Yes, its northern neighbor, Nicaragua is dirt cheap but it’s is also one of the poorest countries in the world so you can stretch your money very far there.
Many people don’t realize that and clump Costa Rica in that group, so it’s a bit of a nasty shock 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, if not a thousand dollars fairly quickly.
We broke down the complete cost of traveling in Costa Rica from food, transportation, tours, hotels, souvenirs and more. To save money while traveling, check out Yeison’s local insider tips. You can also read about 10 cheap things to do in Costa Rica.
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 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 and with only one lane in many of the routes, traffic and congestion from slow trucks is very common.
From San Jose to where we live in Tamarindo is 259 kilometers or 161 miles and it takes us 4-5 hours driving. From my hometown in Washington state to the Canadian border is roughly 170 miles and takes about 3 hours driving. When you drive in Costa Rica, you can’t compare driving times to your home. Even though it looks like two destinations are close to each other on the map, there usually isn’t a straight road between the two.
This is one of the mistakes to avoid when traveling in Costa Rica to make sure your trip is stress free. Don’t try to drive everywhere in a short trip, don’t book a noon flight if you have to drive from Guanacaste to San Jose that morning because you never know what will happen on the road!
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. Yeison grew up drinking tap water in Heredia, however I have had a few problems adjusting to it since I never drank tap water in the US.
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 like me. To reduce plastic bottle waste, I also recommend getting an insulated water bottle so you can have cold water under the 100 degree heat.
4. Dengue is the main disease from mosquitoes
Mosquitoes sure know how to grab the spotlight when it comes to health news. There are several tropical diseases from mosquitoes and Costa Rica has reported cases of Malaria, Dengue, Zika and Chikungunya. However, before you start eliminating Costa Rica as a country to visit because of mosquitoes, do some research.
The mosquito borne disease travelers should concern themselves with in Costa Rica is Dengue Fever. Costa Rica has been leading Central America with the most reported cases of dengue, with more than 17,000 cases in 2015 and nearly 8,000 so far in 2016.
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 and there were only 8 reported cases in 2012. As for Zika, there have been only a couple reported cases of tourists falling ill with Zika after returning home from Costa Rica but the disease is not spreading like wildlife as the news makes it out to be.
Do note that mosquitoes generally do not live above elevations of 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), so the worse areas are at the beach and the jungle.
5. It gets cold!
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. Even though it’s a tropical country, it gets chilly when you’re up 3,000 meters in the clouds!
Some of the colder areas are Monteverde, Poas and San Gerardo de Dota where temperatures can get down to the 50’s Fahrenheit. You’ll definitely need a jacket for those places and bring even warmer clothes for rainy season. When we were in Monteverde in August, I was freezing when it rained and needed a sweatshirt. We used to live in the hills outside of Heredia and I would use a thick Korean blanket at night!
Make sure to research the area you are visiting so you come prepared. For packing tips, check out our ultimate Costa Rica packing list.
6. US dollars are readily accepted
Tour companies in general prefer US dollars and quote tours in dollars since majority of their tourists are US citizens. Many businesses in Costa Rica are owned by Americans and Costa Ricans can have bank accounts in USD so companies are used to dealing with dollars which have become the standard currency in tourism. Yeison’s had a US and colones account his entire life.
So when you’re trying to get your money together, don’t stress about exchanging it all beforehand. People have asked us if they should exchange to colones before they go to Costa Rica, but it isn’t really necessary. You can use dollars in pretty much every touristic destination and they will give you your change back in colones.
Just make sure you check what the exchange rate is, because most places will give you your change back using the 500 to 1 rate instead of the exact rate. The current exchange rate is 570 colones to 1 USD but make sure to check during your trip since it changes daily.
7. Rainy season doesn’t mean it’s bad to travel
When rainy season comes around, I’m receiving a lot of emails from frightened travelers who are scared of the rain in Costa Rica. I’ve talked to many people who have been widely misinformed about the rainy season and they were led to believe that traveling in the green season is an absolute no-no.
However, if you talk to people who have traveled to Costa Rica during rainy season before, the general consensus is that they loved it. The weather is usually sunny in the morning with rain in the late afternoon, so you’ll still have plenty of time to do all the fun activities.
We personally love traveling in rainy season since everything is so green, it’s usually cheaper and there are less tourists. Additionally, we need a break from the intense heat in Guanacaste where it is in the 100’s for months on end!
If you’re not sure about traveling to Costa Rica in rainy season, here are 6 reasons why you should.
October is the rainiest month (except for the Caribbean) so if you do visit then, be well prepared for heavy rains nearly every day. Get our rainy season packing tips here!
8. Sloths aren’t everywhere
As much as I hate to break it to you, sloths aren’t everywhere. I know Costa Rica markets their cuddly sloths to the max, 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 are more easily seen in certain places. For example, it is incredibly difficult to see one in Guanacaste due to the climate of the province (extremely dry). Head down to the South Pacific or the Caribbean where it is very humid and sloth spotting is more common.
One of the main “complaints” I’ve heard from visitors is that they didn’t see a sloth which they thought were everywhere. I asked them where they were in Costa Rica and many of them were at the beaches. It’s best to do your research if you really want to see a sloth, you can find out where are the best places to see sloths in Costa Rica in our guide.
I also recommend getting a guide. Even when we were in Osa Peninsula, we didn’t see a sloth until the last day when a local guide pointed one out to us!
9. Police can stop and ask for your papers at any time
It’s normal to see police checks on the road so always carry a color copy of your passport and a photo of your entry stamp. Police in Costa Rica are allowed to stop anyone and ask them for their papers, they do this for immigration and drug trafficking purposes. It’s more common near the Nicaragua and Panamanian borders and touristic areas.
Yeison and I have been stopped a few times and the officer asks for passport and drivers license to the driver. They record that information, ask you where you’re going and then send you on your way. Most of the time if you’re not looking sketchy or if you have something hide, they don’t ask anything.
Though we have seen police stop rental cars on the way to the RIU, they don’t usually stop tourists. Don’t worry if a police officer checks you though, it’s routine. Many of them speak a degree of English and remember to always have your passport if you’re driving. Sometimes they’ll give you helpful maps and security tips during high season.
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 Wi-Fi in public places. It’s not like NYC where you can find a Starbucks and use the free Wi-Fi. I’ve found free Wi-Fi in very few public places and many of them require you to check in on Facebook.
If you see a restaurant has 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 you can in this article.
11. Not every town has an ATM
If you’re planning a very off the beaten path trip to Costa Rica, do note that some places don’t have an ATM. All touristic destinations such as Arenal, Monteverde, Puerto Viejo and Tamarindo do, but towns like Drake Bay do not. Make sure you bring enough cash (colones just in case) or that the places you’re going to take card.
12. Despite the laid back attitude of Ticos, they drive very crazy
People are always surprised by the driving culture in Costa Rica and it’s something I warn people about when they ask about renting a car. I was completely thrown off by the driving here as I’m used to staying in my lane, using a blinker and yielding.
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, who are supposed to be very relax, happy go lucky people (generally they are) completely change when they get behind the wheel.
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 really like San Jose. It’s dirty, crowded, sketchy and not aesthetically pleasing. However, the capital city does have some hidden gems and we don’t mind spending a day or two to find them. You can find some of the best restaurants in Costa Rica in San Jose such as Argentinian grill, dim sum and Korean barbecue. Micro-breweries are popping up in San Jose as well.
Then there are the cultural gems – 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. Have a few days in San Jose? Check out our San Jose travel guide for best things to do.
14. Prostitution is legal
Don’t be shocked if you see hookers at the beach front bar, prostitution is 100% legal in Costa Rica. We’ve seen them in Jaco (most popular for them), Playa Tamarindo and the family-friendly Playas del Coco. There are also some spots in San Jose that are crawling with prostitutes, such as Hotel del Rey.
Sex tourism is fairly big in Costa Rica and though it’s normal for us to see “escorts”, it may surprise other tourists. To be fair, Costa Rica’s tourism isn’t purely nature and adventure, it caters to other types as well.
15. Ticos 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: 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. A buenos dias or pura vida helps too.
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Something else to keep in mind that not all Costa Ricans speak English. Many of them do, especially in the city and touristic areas but please don’t expect all Costa Ricans to speak English.
I hope this post helps you prepare more for your trip to Costa Rica and don’t forget to check out these other travel tips including our Costa Rica survival guide.
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