Common Costa Rica Tourist Scams
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 10 years.
You can also read our Costa Rica safety tips for more advice.
- 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 meters. 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 and 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.
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.
Incorrect Currency Exchange
The current exchange rate of Costa Rican colones to United States Dollar is 560 (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.
500 colones is 1 USD and 10,000 colones is $20 right? Wrong. Now that the exchange rate has been going up lately, you can only use that method to get an estimate but some places will keep using that 500 to 1 which means you’ll be losing a little bit each time.
Big supermarkets, gas stations, banks and hotels will use the current exchange rate but small restaurants 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 and they keep it, you’re losing a good chunk of money because that actually comes out to around $87, not $100!
Buses Aren’t Operating
If you’re at SJO Airport and need to get to the 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.
Do NOT accept their offer, always go into the bus station and check for yourself.
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. They will add them on when you arrive to pick up the car so your total car rental amount turns out to be significantly much higher than you thought. Your $200 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) 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.
It is also good to read about renting a car and driving in Costa Rica so here are some helpful links.
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 Penas Blancas border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica my first time with friends.
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.
- 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 rips. Then the officer in Nicaragua told him he couldn’t cross unless he paid $100.
- One of my other friends accepted this and the guy would not leave us alone and ended up taking him to the completely wrong offices, charging him money for taxes that don’t exist to fake officers and then charging him money 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.
Children with Palm Leaves
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 border, 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.
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.
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. That guy 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 such as Jacamar Naturalist Tours in La Fortuna.
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, 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.
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 la 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.
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 prefer to use Airbnb. 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.
Another thing you need to be aware of are is your credit card. You can use credit cards 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. They should have portable credit card machines so ask them to run the card in front of you. If they don’t, I would stick your head out of the window or get out of the car to where they charge your card just so you can keep an eye on 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.
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