Although Costa Rica is a fairly safe country, it would be irresponsible of me to say that there aren’t shady people who will try to take advantage of tourists. Since tourism is one of their main sources of income and the country is receiving over 2 million visitors a year, travel scams in Costa Rica do exist.
Luckily we haven’t fallen victim to any of them but that is because we live here and Yeison is a Costa Rican. In this post I’m going to share some of the most common Costa Rica travel scams so you know what to look out for to have a fun and safe trip. I also included Yeison’s tips so you have insider knowledge from a local who has worked in the tourism industry for over 20 years.
You can also read our Costa Rica safety tips for more advice. Please also check our Costa Rica coronavirus post for latest travel information.
Common Costa Rica Tourist Scams
- Broken taxi meter
- Incorrect currency exchange
- Buses are full
- Cheap car rentals
- Friendly border crossing agent
- Children with palm leaves
- Cheap tours
- Non certified guides
- Bottled water
- Online vacation rentals
- Credit cards
Broken Taxi Meter/Not Official Taxi
This is one of the most common scams in Costa Rica, the broken taxi meter. All official taxis in Costa Rica have a meter, which is called the Maria in Spanish. When you get into a taxi, the driver may not turn it on knowing that tourists may not notice or if they do ask, claim that it is broken.
So whenever you get into a taxi, make sure you ask the driver to turn it on right away. If he says it’s broken (no funciona in Spanish), then get out and find another one that will use it.
You also need to make sure the taxi you’re taking is an official taxi and is operating within his province. This is what an official taxi looks like:
You will see he has the official triangle emblem and code on the door.
Here are the main things to know about taking taxis in Costa Rica
- Red are official taxis. Orange are airport taxis.
- All official taxis have a meter and they must turn it on.
- They can only operate in the province they’re licensed in. Province codes work like this: TSJ stands for Taxi San Jose and the numbers tells you the taxi number. Taxis in Heredia will have plates TH, in Limon TL, in Guanacaste TG and so on.
- There are official taxi stands right outside both San Jose and Liberia International Airports.
Also make sure to use only small bills and Costa Rican colones. If you use USD, they may say they don’t have change or may not give you the right exchange rate which I’ll talk about in a second.
In some areas like Tamarindo, you will see that there aren’t any official taxis, only pirate taxis. Take these under your own caution as these guys do not have insurance and their cars are usually old and beat up. Negotiate a price before since they don’t use a meter.
Read more about taking taxis in Costa Rica in this post.
Incorrect Currency Exchange
The current exchange rate of Costa Rican colones to United States Dollar is 565 (ish) to 1 but the Costa Rican exchange rate changes every single day. Before, when the exchange rate was closer to 500, it was easy to calculate how much you’ll spend.
All you had to do was remember 500 colones is 1 USD, so 10,000 colones is $20 USD right? Wrong. Now that the exchange rate has been going up lately, you can only use that method to get an estimate but it is not correct. And some places will keep using that 500 to 1 which means you’ll be losing a little bit each time if you pay in USD and get your change back in local currency using the 500 to 1 ratio.
Big supermarkets, gas stations, banks and hotels will use the current exchange rate but small restaurants, taxis and souvenir stores usually do not so always calculate it yourself and know what the rate is for the day.
For example, if you buy 50,000 colones worth of souvenirs at the shop and you give them $100 USD and they keep it, you’re losing a good chunk of money because that actually comes out to around $87 USD, not $100 USD!
Read more about handling money in Costa Rica in this post.
Buses Aren’t Operating
If you’re at San Jose International Airport and need to get to a bus station in San Jose, the taxi driver may try to tell you that the buses aren’t operating or that all the seats are sold out and try to sell you a ride for something ridiculously expensive. This unfortunately is common around the 7-10 bus station in San Jose which is one of the main bus stations downtown.
Do NOT accept their offer, always go into the bus station and check for yourself.
They also may try to do this with hotels. They may tell you that your hotel is overbooked or have no vacancy and try to take you to another place where they have a deal with the owner.
“Cheap Car Rentals”
This is unfortunately a common scam in Costa Rica. Many of the big car rental companies (mostly international ones) will post super cheap car rental prices so you think “Wow it’s so cheap to rent a car in Costa Rica!” But what you don’t know is that they’re omitting many insurances, taxes and fees. The price you’re seeing is actually just the car rental price so they will add all the extras on when you arrive to pick up the car. That means your total car rental amount turns out to be significantly much higher than you thought. Your $200 USD car rental for 1 week turns out to be $900!
When you’re reserving a car online, here are some things you need to know
- There is a mandatory insurance in Costa Rica for car rentals. If you don’t see any insurance options on the site you’re booking, they will add it on at the last minute.
- Car rental companies will also have crazy high deposit amount ($3000-5000 USD) if you decide not to take any insurance but you wouldn’t know that until you get there or if you asked.
- Tourists can legally decline one type of insurance but you need a letter from your credit card company to do so. Companies won’t tell you and when you’ve arrived, it’s too late to get the letter and you will need to purchase that extra insurance.
- They may add last minute fees for airport transfers, online booking fees, etc.
To avoid these hidden taxes, insurances and fees, do extensive research about insurances and book with reputable companies. Since we want to make sure everyone has a good experience renting a car in Costa Rica, we have partnered with Adobe Rent a car, a Costa Rican car rental company that is 100% transparent about their prices, insurances and fees to give up to 20% off the car rental plus lots of extra benefits. We personally take care of every single reservation so you will be in good hands. Get our Costa Rica car rental discount here!
It is also good to read about renting a car and driving in Costa Rica so here are some helpful links.
Tips for renting a car in Costa Rica
Costa Rica car rental insurances breakdown
Friendly Border Crossing “Agent”
Land border crossings can be super intimating and there are definitely more people at the border who will try to take advantage of tourists. The most important thing to remember at the border is to only talk to official officers, not the random people hanging out at the border.
Although I have done a border crossing multiple times, I unfortunately fell victim to this at the Peñas Blancas border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica my first time with friends when I was a fresh faced traveler.
Here are some of the scams I saw and experienced at the border
- Charging money for the custom and immigration form. These forms are free.
- Offering to help you pay the Costa Rican exit tax but charging something completely ridiculous. (You can go to the office and pay this yourself, it’s super easy).
- A guy offering to do the immigration process for you or to help you. One of my friends accepted this and his passport was returned to him bent with little rips. Then the Nicaraguan immigration officer told him he couldn’t cross unless he paid him $100 USD because his passport was damaged.
- One of my other friends agreed for a guy to help us and the guy would not leave us alone. He ended up taking my friend to the completely wrong offices, charging him money for taxes that doesn’t exist to fake officers and then charging him again for his “services” at the end.
Never accept help from anyone at the border and if you have questions, ask an official officer or ask other tourists. If you’re a solo traveler, talk to other tourists and see if you can cross together.
Read our post on crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica for more tips.
Persistent and Pesky Hawkers
This one is more common in Guanacaste. You will see young boys walking around with an armful of palm leaves, and they’ll come up to you to try to give you a flower. If you accept, they’ll chase you down to give them money for it. This is a common practice in Nicaragua and since Guanacaste is right at the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican, it’s become a common tourist scam in that area.
They’re not violent but they will not leave you alone if you take the flower or cricket or whatever they made. I’ve had friends who gave them some colones just to make them go away but they kept following us down the street for more money. One time they even yelled at us that we didn’t give them enough for their “generous gift.”
I’ve also seen this in Jaco where a woman kept bothering these two girls who were eating at a restaurant outside. She kept trying to sell them postcards for about 20 minutes and finally the girl gave her 2000 colones just to make her go away. Right after, I saw the lady walk into the liquor store across the street.
Cheap Tours Off the Street
This is another common Costa Rica travel scam. In touristic destinations like La Fortuna, Manuel Antonio and Playas del Coco, you’ll get approached by people selling tours on the street. They’ll make it sound really good, charging you up to 50% less then the tour company next door and offering you all these special services.
But when you finally do the tour, they take you to a completely different place, don’t include everything they said they would and charge you more money at the end because of some lame excuse.
How to Prevent This Costa Rica Tourist Scam
We don’t recommend booking tours from these illegal tour operators, we recommend researching companies online and booking tours beforehand. Tours in Costa Rica are expensive so it may be tempting to book that super cheap tour but there is one big reason for it: insurances. Certified and licensed tour companies have to pay for a lot of insurances but that is good for the tourist. All the drivers are licensed drivers, all the guides are certified guides, they have insurance on their vehicles, their vehicles have passed the yearly inspection, etc.
There have been many incidents when tourists decide to book a cheap tour with an illegal tour operator in La Fortuna. He took them on a closed hiking path up the Arenal volcano, the tourists got injured because the path is in bad shape and they had to get airlifted to the hospital. The “guide” didn’t have any insurances so nothing’s covered. So please book with certified, reputable tour companies and you can find them on the Visit Costa Rica website.
If you need recommendations, please contact us as we only work with reputable companies and we also have partnerships with several tour companies in Costa Rica. We even have a discount for La Fortuna tours with one of the biggest tour companies in Costa Rica.
Hiring Non Certified Guides
This is very common street scam at national parks like Manuel Antonio, Ostional and Cahuita. When you get to the entrance of the park or about 1 mile from the entrance, you’ll be approached by a lot of guys asking if you want a guide. For people who don’t know, it doesn’t seem like a big deal but if you hire a non-certified guide, it is a big deal.
This is because certified guides have to go pay to go to guide school, take the test and pay insurances and for their certification. It’s a big process in Costa Rica to become a certified naturalist or tour guide (even to be a driver) and those people who are doing it illegally are harming the tourism industry in the country. First, you’re not even paying for a certified guide and then they may try to pull more tricks like making you go to a certain souvenir stand or telling you wrong information.
So when you’re looking for a guide, hire one from a reputable tour company or ask to see their certification in person. All guides have to be ICT (government institute of Costa Rican tourism) certified and have their badge with them. This is one of the ways you can be a sustainable and responsible traveler in Costa Rica as you will be helping the real guides who are doing things correctly and trying to make an honest living.
Bottled vs Glasses of Water
This is one of those little things that seem obvious but it’s not. In North America, it’s normal for customers to get a glass of water for free when dining out. In Costa Rica, it is not. Restaurants won’t give you glasses of water unless you ask for it but when you ask, always make sure to say “Yo quiero un vaso de agua, no quiero una botella” (I want a glass of water, not a bottle). because if you don’t specify, they will bring you a bottle of water and charge a lot of money for it.
I’ve fallen victim to this when I first moved here. I asked for agua por favor and got a 2 liter bottle that cost me $7!
Sketchy Online Vacation Rentals
We’ve seen this scam pulled by locals and foreigners as many foreigners who retire in Costa Rica become property managers or real estate agents (anyone can be one, there is no test or license needed). Their website looks legit and the pictures look good but you don’t see any reviews of them online anywhere else. When you arrive, the house doesn’t look the pictures at all, it’s dirty and none of the amenities described are there. You already sent the full amount and you can’t get a hold of the owner, just the local who lives on the property and doesn’t have access.
Those situations can be a bit hard to see if it’s a scam or not since the website looks legit but that is why I recommend going through platforms like Airbnb or VRBO so you can read reviews and you have the platform to help you file complaints. Reviews are the one thing I go off of when I book vacation rentals and I personally prefer to use Airbnb. I’ve never had any issues using Airbnb around the world for the past 8 years. If you want to book through the property management website, request a video call and see if they can show you the property through video.
Another tip is to join the Facebook groups like Costa Rica Expats or Gringos in Costa Rica since many of those members can give recommendations for legit property managers and vacation rentals. If you’re looking for long term rentals, look up the “real estate and rentals” Facebook group of the place you’re going to. For example, the Tamarindo Rentals and Real Estate or Atenas Costa Rica Classifieds.
Read our guide to using Airbnb in Costa Rica (and get $40 credit here).
Another thing you need to be aware of are is your credit card. You can use credit cards almost everywhere in Costa Rica but make sure you check your statement often because there may be people who will steal your credit card information.
Gas stations in Costa Rica all have attendants and you give your credit card to them for payment so it won’t be within viewing distance for a couple minutes. Always have an eye on your credit card so ask for the portable credit card machine or get out of the car and watch them charge it.
Always cover your pin number when at an ATM and watch out for lurkers. Use the ATM only during the day and don’t accept anyone’s offer to help you use the ATM. All ATM’s have an English option.
Check the Amount and Type of Currency Before You Hit Accept
If you pay with credit card, make sure you double check which currency it is charging you in. Check if it is in Costa Rican colones or USD because it is a HUGE difference and some vendors will try to sneak charge you in Costa Rican colones. For example, if you purchase something that is $20 USD, the vendor may try to scam you by putting in the credit card machine 20,000 Costa Rican colones which is about $35.50 USD. Always ask which currency you are being charged!
Read more Costa Rica travel tips below!
10 mistakes to avoid traveling in Costa Rica
10 best places for 1st time visitors
Hi, you say your preference in booking places to stay is to go through Airbnb…is the same true of booking tours through Airbnb? Are they safe from fraudulent guides? Thanks in advance
Hi Sandra, we have never used Airbnb experiences so I’m not sure exactly how they work but it seems like anyone can just post tours and operate them, I don’t know if Airbnb asks them for their tourism licenses or anything so I wouldn’t be able to say 100% if it’s safe from fraudulent guides – maybe you can check with the AIrbnb Experiences policies and ask them how they vet their listings
Hi there, my significant other and I are going to Costa Rica in about 3 weeks time and we are so excited! What are your thoughts / experiences with tours booked through Airbnb experiences? Also is it common for Airbnb hosts in Costa Rica to also sell activities such as ziplining, etc.? Thank you so much!
we have never used Airbnb experiences so I’m not sure exactly how they work but it seems like anyone can just post tours and operate them, I don’t know if Airbnb asks them for their tourism licenses or anything so I wouldn’t be able to say 100% if it’s safe from fraudulent guides – maybe you can check with the AIrbnb Experiences policies and ask them how they vet their listings
My daughter is in CR at the moment and has just had a very expensive £180 taxi ride when she was told the buses were full. SO wish I had seen your post before she went. She wasn’t harmed, just very shaken up. Such a shame her travels started off this way but at least now she will be on high alert!!
I’m sorry to hear that 🙁 But I hope she enjoys the rest of her travels!
World Nomads does NOT cover the COVID insurance required. I went with INS. To do over, I’d choose Savicor – easier.
Hi, I am a Canadian travelling to Costa Rica in February 2020. Do I need to keep my Passport with me as I will be renting a 4×4 to drive. I will be going from San Jose to Liberia. Will go to Arenal and Monteverde regions on the way.
Hi Pierre, all foreigners who are renting a car and driving must have their original passport with them whenever they are driving.
Susan Jackson says
We just had a new border experience.
When returning from Nica to CR at Penas Blancas, 2 men with some badges-?- made us get a “car ticket” with our car license on it and had us fill a customs form at the Aduana office.
I thought that was for car crossings.
I explained that the car DID NOT cross the border. We kept it at the Tico house/lot. He was persistent.
I had argued and even asked the immigration desk and he validated that I did NOT need a car stamp, but he added that we should go to aduana. At Aduana he demanded the car license and customs form. We complied. There was no charge.
We never went to Aduana, filled a customs form or needed a car stamp for leaving our at at the border.
The guys then wanted a tip for “helping” us. ( Said they helped stop the fee.)
I declined and shamed him for disgracing Ticos and CR, ha,ha.
Also- on the customs form it questions the 3 day out. So many do an over/back. We were out for 4 nights, but curious if a change is coming??
Appreciate any clarification. You guys rock!!!
Thank you so much! Is it safe for 20 somethings to go to bars in San Jose at night? My son and his girlfriend are planning a trip there. There are doing lots of day tours but at night will like be in the city? Please advise.
Hi Angela! It is and there is a nice bar scene in San Jose but we do recommend to taxi or Uber, don’t walk at night in San Jose after 9 PM and don’t walk down streets you don’t know.
Jean-Francois Garand says
Quick question, you wrote :
Tourists can legally decline one type of insurance but you need a letter from your credit card company to do so.
What should I ask my credit card company? My every car I rent using my credit card is fully insured will I need proof of that?
Thank you in advance
Hi Jean-Francois, the letter you need from your credit card company has to state that they will cover the insurance you are declining. It needs to have your full name, credit card details and the company letterhead. You’ll present the letter to the car rental company in order to decline that insurance. For every reservation, if you want to decline that insurance then you’ll have to present the letter.
Hi Jen, I’m glad you find the post useful! All gas stations in Costa Rica have attendants, none are self serve so you don’t need to get out of the car or anything. When they need the payment, you’ll hand your credit card to them from your seat and they usually have a portable credit card machine so ask them to slide it in front of you. If they don’t, I would get out and go to where the machine is so you can have an eye on your card at all times. Always keep the receipts so you can keep track of them.
Great, thanks for the reply!
Thank you! This was a really helpful post. So if paying at a gas station, should you ask the attendant to run the card right at the gas pump — or should you go with them inside to do the transaction? Do you always need to use an attendant, or can you fill up and pay yourself? I always find gassing up in other countries to be a bit confusing at first, so any information you can provide would be fantastic. Thanks!