Welcome to the ultimate survival guide to traveling in Costa Rica!
In this guide, we share with you detailed and up to date information about the biggest concerns travelers have about visiting Costa Rica. Worried about driving? We got you covered. Visiting for a short period of time? We’ll help you make the most of your trip. Have food allergies? We’ll make sure you stay safe!
Yeison is a Costa Rican and has worked in tourism for over 10 years and I moved to Costa Rica 5 years ago. Since then, we have been traveling to every corner of the country so it’s safe to say we have a lot of knowledge! We’re excited to share with your our insider tips from Yeison, a local and from me, to provide a foreigner perspective.
Alright so let’s get into it! You can click on the section you want to skip to in our Costa Rica travel guide or keep on reading.
Mytanfeet Survival Travel Guide to Costa Rica
- Road Conditions
- Sim Cards
- Visiting in Rainy Season
- Mosquitoes and Creepy Crawleys
- Getting Around in a Short Period of Time
- Handling Money
- Food Allergies
- Safety Tips
- Cultural Differences
Many would argue, including us, that driving is the best way to explore Costa Rica. Costa Rica’s public transportation system is getting better every year but you will never have the same freedom and flexibility as you would with a car.
Many visitors want that convenience of renting a car, but there is one thing preventing them from doing so: the driving.
If you’ve never driven in a foreign country or are not used to the type of driving where there are no lines or lights, driving in Costa Rican can be intimidating. You have probably heard that the roads are bad, drivers are crazy, etc. etc. and despite that being mostly true, many foreigners drive in Costa Rica without a problem.
There are some things you need to know before getting behind the wheel however.
Costa Rica drives on the same side of the road as the United States and they use kilometers. Signs are in Spanish so it’s good to know the common ones.
Costa Rica road signs
- Alto – stop
- Velocidad maxima – maximum speed
- Ceda el paso – yield
- Puente angosto – narrow bridge
- Desvio – detour
- Despacio – slow
- Una via – one way
- Carretera en mal estado – road in bad condition
- Puente en mal estado – bridge in bad condition
- Curvas peligrosas adelante – dangerous curves ahead
- No hay paso – don’t enter
- No estacionar – no parking
- Calle sin salida – dead end
- Zona escolar – school zone
Tips for the city (San Jose, Heredia, SJO airport in Alajuela, etc.)
- Traffic in San Jose is one of the worst (if not the worst) in Latin America. This is because more than a million Costa Ricans go into the city for work every day. Combine that with bad roads and the traffic is very bad. Try to avoid driving in rush hour, 6-8 AM and 4 – 6 PM but do expect to run into traffic no matter what time of day you are driving.
- Costa Rican drivers are aggressive so drive defensively. Do not get mad at people cutting you off, tailgating, not using their blinker, not yielding, not giving space or honking at you. That is their driving culture. They pass even when there is a solid line, they honk the second the light turns green and they do not give space.
- It is very common for pedestrians to be in the middle of the street trying to cross, motorcycles zipping by and running red lights and buses squeezing in. You need to drive with caution – when you change lanes, make sure to check twice as some cars will pass 2-4 cars at a time and a motorcycle can come out of nowhere. Don’t be frightened if you see people walking what looks like into your car, pedestrians are used to cars not stopping for them.
- Use Waze. It’s the best GPS app and will take you to alternative routes to avoid traffic.
- Always roll up your windows, lock the doors when driving and put your belongings on the floor. It’s not super common but there are some sections of San Jose where they will rob people when they’re at a traffic light.
- If you’re driving in front of a taxi driver, let him pass. Taxi drivers are crazy in Costa Rica and it’s best to give them plenty of space and drive away from them.
Tips for rural driving (Guanacaste, South Pacific, Osa Peninsula, Caribbean)
Driving in non-city areas is more relaxed. There aren’t as many cars, you won’t run into traffic jams but there are other things to watch out for.
- It is very common for roads not to have painted lines if it’s not a major highway. It is also common for some sections of a road not to have street lights either. But for major roads, they do have painted lines.
- Be very careful when driving at night. Since sidewalks are not common at all, locals walk and bike on the side of the road and many of them don’t use reflectors so be very aware of that.
- Many locals use scooters and you will see 1-6 people on a scooter at once, usually not wearing a helmet so be very careful when passing or driving by them. They may also be carrying chickens!
- In farming areas, it is common to see cows, horses, chickens, dogs, goats, pigs and other animals on the road, even sloths! Cows and horses usually move when you get close but you may need to wait for the smaller ones like goats and pigs.
- If you’re driving on a major road like the Interamericana 1 or Route 27, you will run into those big trailer trucks that are very slow. Pass only if you’re comfortable and 100% sure it is clear, never pass on a curve and before you pass, make sure no cars behind you are going as well.
- Many roads are very windy and curvy so drive slow. It’s not a race, it’s better to go slow than get in an accident in a foreign country just because you were trying to get to your destination a few minutes earlier.
- Some cars in rural areas do not have both brake lights. I’ve run into this many times where the car only has 1 brake light so give plenty of space between you and that car.
You may not experience this too much if you’re driving a rental car but here are some of the Costa Rican lights vocabulary. If you see a car in the opposite direction flash their lights at you, it means one of these things:
- There is a police ahead. Since driving tickets are super expensive, Costa Ricans tell each other when a cop is around so they slow down.
- There is an obstruction ahead. Detour, cows, power line down, fire, etc.
And if you see one of the big trucks slowing down and flash their lights, it means pass me. I don’t like this one a lot but since it’s really difficult to see past a huge truck, the driver will let you know. Usually they also stick their arm out. It is also Costa Rican driving culture to honk once when passing or to turn on the emergency lights for a few seconds to say thanks.
Planning on renting a car? Get our car rental discount!
And now the next big concern. Road conditions. Roads in Costa Rica are not famous for being in great shape, the infrastructure in the country is lacking quite a bit. But it is getting a lot better and you will find that many roads in the non-city areas are well paved with brightly painted lines and raised pavement markers.
However, there are some still some areas where roads are unpaved, bumpy and require a 4×4. Here are some popular destinations and their road conditions.
Costa Rica Road Conditions
- Arenal: Arenal has good roads, not many unpaved spots except for the road to the national park and some hotels. 4×4 not required.
- Monteverde: The routes to Monteverde have a large unpaved section, so we highly recommend a 4×4. Roads around Monteverde are unpaved, roads in Santa Elena downtown are paved.
- Puerto Viejo: 4×4 not absolutely necessary if you’re staying around town and the beaches.
- Costa Ballena (Dominical, Uvita, Ojochal): 4×4 highly recommended, many hotels and restaurants up in the mountains are on steep, unpaved roads requiring a 4×4.
- Central Valley (Alajuela, San Jose, Cartago including Grecia, San Ramon and Zarcero): 4×4 not required, roads in the small cities are paved.
- Manuel Antonio: Road is in good condition, not necessary for a 4×4.
- Jaco: Roads to and around Jaco are in good shape, well paved.
- Playas del Coco: 4×4 not required, road to Coco and nearby beaches are on well paved roads.
- Osa Peninsula: A 4×4 is absolutely necessary. The main road to Puerto Jimenez is very nicely paved but it ends once you get to town. The road to Carate/Matapalo is extremely bumpy and has a ton of holes. Drake Bay is even worse and it is recommended not to drive in rainy season since you have to cross some rivers and you could get rained in.
- Tamarindo: 4×4 not necesary. Road to Tamarindo is well paved. There are some nearby beaches that have bumpy roads but you don’t need a 4×4, just go slow.
- Ostional: We recommend getting a SUV to go to Ostional as that road is extremely bumpy and there is a river right before you enter the town. We saw many compact cars stuck there because their car was not high enough to cross.
- Samara: Road to Samara by way of Nicoya Peninsula doesn’t require a 4×4.
- Santa Teresa/Mal Pais/Montezuma: Recommended to get a 4×4 if you want to explore the area. The route around Nicoya Peninsula is paved for some sections and bumpy for others.
- Turrialba: You can get by without a 4×4. The road up to the volcano national park is well paved. It gets unpaved around Guayabo monument but it is nothing horrible.
Even though Wi-Fi is readily available at most hotels, it is still good to get a prepaid sim card when traveling in Costa Rica. You will have a local phone number to call in case of emergencies, you can use Waze and you can stay connected.
Getting a sim card in Costa Rica is easy and cheap. You just need a phone that is unlocked, uses a sim card and is quad band. Having a pre-paid sim card means you load a certain amount of credit on it and the credit is deducted according to your usage.
Where to get a sim card
At both SJO and LIR airport there is a kiosk after you clear customs. Then you can purchase a pre-paid sim card in any computer store or phone store in town.
How much it costs
The card itself is around $2 and you can put as much credit as you want on it. It is best to pay in colones.
Which carrier to get
There are 4 main carriers in Costa Rica: Kolbi, Claro, Movistar and Tuyo Movil. Kolbi is the most common and provides the most coverage since it is the original telecommunications company and was the only one since a few years ago. Movistar is used all throughout Central America so if you plan to visit other countries like Nicaragua, you might consider getting Movistar so you don’t need to change out your sim card every time you go to another C.A. country.
How to recharge
You can recharge the sim card at a supermarket, phone store, pharmacy, anywhere that has a sign of the phone carrier company in the window. Just tell them Me puedo recargar X (Kolbi/Movistar/etc).
You will usually get a notification when your balance is 0 and for Kolbi members, type *1150# to check your balance.
How much credit should you put
It depends. If you want to use your phone for GPS, watching videos, etc., then I’d put at least 5,000 colones your first time and then you can recharge as necessary. If you just want it to check Facebook and email, you don’t need to put that much. Rates change depending on the company. You can also purchase packages.
Read this post for more information about sim cards in Costa Rica.
Visiting in Rainy Season
A lot of people don’t want to visit Costa Rica during rainy season but it’s not that bad. I swear! The key is to coming prepared and packing appropriately. Even if you run into rain on your vacation, you will still have a great time. You can still do all the fun things like ziplining but you need to be prepared in case of rain. Not sure if you should visit? Read our post 6 reasons why you should visit Costa Rica in rainy season!
When is rainy season
Rainy season for most of the country is from beginning of May to beginning of December roughly. Remember, tropical weather is fickle and is never a guarantee! The rainiest months are generally September – November and there sometimes is something called “little summer” in July where it stays dry for a couple weeks but like I said, tropical weather is not predictable.
Guanacaste has a shorter rainy season and it may start really raining there until about August and the months from May – July, you may see a few sprinkles here and there or cloudy days.
The Caribbean side however follows a different pattern. It can rain all year there and October is generally the driest month. November and June are usually the wettest.
Read more about Costa Rica weather here.
Never believe the weather forecast on your phone or even weather.com. It will say it is thundering and lightning every single day, which is not true. If you want to see what the weather has been like for the destinations you’re visiting in Costa Rica, I recommend looking up the geotag on social media so you can see what people post in real time.
What to bring
A rain jacket, waterproof backpack or rain cover and waterproof equipment if you’re bringing cameras or other electronics. Plenty of plastic bags to wrap wet clothes, a extra battery pack or two since the electricity may go out and a good pair of hiking shoes or sandals (read about the best shoes for Costa Rica) as well as fast drying clothes if you plan to do activities. One of my favorite items I always bring with me for rainy season is a microfiber towel.
You can check our ultimate rainy season packing list for more tips.
The places that rain the most
Anywhere high up in the mountains rains a lot. This includes Monteverde, Poas, Bijagua and Nuevo Arenal, anywhere in high elevation. We visited Monteverde and Poas in November and it poured for a whole day. We’ve also visited in August where it didn’t rain but was really cloudy. The Central Valley rains quite a bit during August – December and it can flood in some areas.
The South Pacific is also much more humid and it can rain even in the dry season. We visited Dominical in February where it poured for a week!
Oh those dreaded mosquitoes! We always see tourists counting the number of mosquito bites on their legs and see them rifling through their armory of mosquito repellent every time they go outside.
Mosquitoes are indeed bad in Costa Rica and it is important to bring repellent. Though malaria is not a big problem in Costa Rica, dengue fever and Chikungunya are. Zika is not a big deal in Costa Rica either.
You must bring mosquito repellent. Whether you prefer natural or are OK with DEET, mosquito repellent is necessary and you need to re-apply throughout the day. You can see a list of our favorite mosquito repellent as well as some other methods like shirts, washes and candles.
The worst areas for mosquitoes
The coasts. Since it’s at sea level, very hot and humid, mosquitoes are very bad on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. You will also need it if you’re going into the forest or on a night walk. Mosquitoes are worse in rainy season since they breed in stagnant water and the ill-designed infrastructure of the street drains always get clogged so mosquitoes have the perfect place to multiply.
Areas you don’t really need to worry about mosquitoes is anywhere above around 2000 meters. Mosquitoes are not that big of a problem in Monteverde but you will still need repellent in the Central Valley which is only about 1000 meters.
Here are some other tips for bugs and critters people worry about when visiting Costa Rica.
Yes, there are poisonous snakes in Costa Rica. But it is not common to see them. The only times you may run into one is if you’re hiking deep in the jungle off any paths and even that is very slim. We have seen a fer-de-lance in Braulio Carrillo National Park and in Bijagua. We have also run into vipers in Arenal, Osa Peninsula and Monteverde and regular garter snakes in Guanacaste and Turrialba.
Never stray off the path if you’re hiking in the rain forest and if you’re with a guide, always follow the guide and his instructions. Also don’t go around hugging trees or touching plants, you never know what is living in them!
Always shake out your shoes before putting them on to check for spiders, scorpions and cockroaches (those suckers love dark dank places). Be very wary if you see a scorpion as their sting can hurt very bad (I speak from experience) and you probably don’t know if you’re allergic. These bugs are present year round but come out more during rainy season.
Getting Around Costa Rica in a Short Period of Time
Are you only in Costa Rica for several days? Getting around will be your biggest headache, sorry to say. Due to Costa Rica’s minimal public transportation system, road conditions and expensive transportation methods, you will need to sacrifice one or the other: time or money.
If you are here for a short period of time, I highly recommend renting a car or booking shuttles. Yes, you can get around Costa Rica by bus as there are buses to every major destination but you will be losing a lot of time waiting around for them and trying to schedule it out if you’re going to very far destinations.
For that, you will need to spend a bit more money. I’m sorry, I wish there was a better way! But if you want to maximize the time you have in Costa Rica, you need to spend $$ (unless you are only visiting 1 or 2 destinations that are easy to get to). For example, a bus from Tamarindo to San Jose takes about 6 hours and costs about $10. A shared shuttle costs around $50 per person, takes about 4 hours and they can drop you off directly at your hotel instead of the bus station.
I have a detailed post about the different ways to get around Costa Rica but I will break it down to the best options for those on a short period of time.
You can take a private or shared shuttle. Shared shuttles are cheaper but have limitations: can only pick up at hotels, have a set schedule, limit to luggage. Private can pick you up at the airport, drop you off wherever, stop wherever, don’t need to wait for other people, more room. A shared shuttle is on average around $50 per person depending on your destinations and a private can be anywhere from $75-100.
Obviously with renting your own car, you can leave whenever you want, drive as fast as you want and go directly to your hotel/vacation rental/hostel. Car rentals cost anywhere from $20-90 a day depending on the type of car you rent and insurance but this is the most flexible option.
For those whose budget is not a problem, take a local flight to your destinations. You will save SO much time. For example, the drive from San Jose to Liberia is about 3.5 hours, on a local flight is is about 25 minutes! Local flights are expensive though, anywhere from $50-250 one way one person but the time you save can be totally worth it.
Make an Easy Itinerary
If you’re here only for several days, I highly recommend putting together an itinerary that has destinations close together and easy to get to. Don’t try to do San Jose –> Drake Bay –> Playa Samara –> Turrialba in a week. It just won’t work or be any fun!
Most important thing to know about handling money in Costa Rica: USD are readily taken. Some companies actually prefer USD and only take USD. Some may take colones but it is super normal to see prices quoted in dollars for hotels, food and tours.
Costa Rican currency is called colones and the current exchange rate is 562 but it changes every day. Most people use 500 to 1 since it is easiest to remember but you will lose some colones if you do that since the actual rate is a little bit higher.
You don’t have to exchange currency before your trip or even at the airport.
Because USD are readily accepted, you don’t need to exchange your currency before your trip. You can exchange at the bank which gives you the best rate but if you use dollars at a restaurant or supermarket, they will give you your change back in colones. However, not every establishment will use the correct daily exchange rate so if you don’t want to lose out (it does add up), then exchange at the bank.
For Canadian dollars, Euros, etc. it is best to bring dollars
Since only banks can exchange these types of currencies (and not all do and just Euros/Canadian dollars), it is best to exchange your foreign currency into USD before going to Costa Rica. You can also use your bank card at the ATM to take out dollars or colones but make sure what the fee is at your bank.
Credit cards are also readily accepted.
You can perfectly use your credit card if your bank doesn’t have international fees. Many places also accept American Express but just in case, have a Visa or Mastercard handy.
If you have Canadian dollars or Euros, it’s best to get dollars before. You can only exchange those currencies at banks.
Make sure your bills are in good shape, not bent or ripped.
They are very strict on accepting bills only in good shape. We had a $20 USD bill that we got from a Costa Rican ATM that had a misprint and we couldn’t get it accepted anywhere!
Allergic to shellfish or something else? No worries! Yeison is highly allergic to shrimp, crab and anything with a shell so we know how to deal with it.
The most important thing is that you need to know how to say “I’m allergic to X” in Spanish. Most restaurants in touristic areas have waiters that speak English but in case you are going to a less touristic area or to a local restaurant, you will need to learn how to say it. Soy alergico a X.
Here are some other things to know:
Many local restaurants, called sodas, use the same pan and oil to cook fish/chicken/beef/etc.
So if you are very allergic to seafood, then I don’t recommend eating at a soda. I would eat at a more high end place so that you can tell the waiter and they will make sure the chefs know. Sometimes local restaurants forget or don’t really think about allergies unfortunately and you don’t want to take any chances.
Costa Rican food is great for those who can’t have gluten.
One of my friends who can’t have gluten (medically cannot, not just one of those who doesn’t want to eat it), had a blast eating in Costa Rica since she was able to eat a lot of the food. Traditional Costa Rican food is mostly rice, beans, salad, plantains and a meat. You can learn more about Costa Rican food here.
If you’re allergic to peanuts, know that peanuts are not commonly used here.
In fact, many Costa Ricans don’t like peanut butter and peanut oil is not commonly used at all. But just in case, it is good to know how to say I’m allergic to peanuts (Estoy alergico al mani, nueces y todo tipo de semillas) and ask at any local restaurant if they use peanut oil.
Bring your epi-pen.
This is a big concern for travelers. Since Costa Rica is in Central America which gets a bad rap on the news, you will hear crazy stories or travel warnings about how dangerous Costa Rica is.
Well I’m here to say that it’s not true.
It’s one of the biggest misconceptions about Costa Rica. In fact, Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in the Americas. Did you know that Costa Rica doesn’t have an army? They abolished it back in the 1940’s and rely on their police force, OIJ (Organismo de Investigación Judicial) and GOA (Grupos de Apoyo Operacional).
But like any other country in the world, crime happens. Here are some tips to stay safe:
- Always have a color copy of your passport and keep your original in a safe place at all times. Do not ever leave your passport hanging out of your backpack or in a place that’s easily reachable.
- Always keep your belongings close to you. At a restaurant, never leave your purse on the ground or hanging behind you on a chair. Make sure you are able to see it at all times.
- Never leave your belongings unattended. This goes for swimming at the beach too.
- Never leave belongings in plain sight in your car. Never leave anything in your car to tempt thieves.
- Don’t carry around a huge wad of cash and take it out every time you’re paying for something.
- Don’t walk to unfamiliar areas. Don’t walk to the beach by yourself early in the morning and in the dark.
- If you’re driving and at a rest stop, always have one person at the car to watch your things.
- Don’t leave your camera hanging out if you’re not using it. Only take it out when you need it.
Theft is the biggest crime in Costa Rica against tourists and it’s pertinent to use your common sense of locking your car, rolling up windows and never leaving belongings unattended or in plain sight. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen purses, wallets and backpacks just sitting in the back seat of a car parked at the beach with the windows halfway rolled down.
Truthfully, Costa Rica has been highly Westernized, at least in the cities and the popular beach towns. Due to their immense amount of American tourists, ever growing numbers of US/Canadians relocating to the country and many big American companies opening offices in San Jose, the US has greatly influenced Costa Rican culture, especially on the youth and millennials.
But there are still aspects of the culture that are still to the core, very traditional Costa Rican. There aren’t huge factors that foreigners need to be aware of like a strict dress code since Costa Rica is a very welcoming, laid back country (thanks to the pura vida attitude) but there are a few things to know.
- Costa Rica is a Catholic country so you will hear phrases like Gracias a Dios, si Dios permite or Dios te bendiga a lot (Thank God, if God allows, God bless you). It’s very normal for Costa Ricans to say this.
- For women traveling alone or with friends, don’t be alarmed if men try to talk to you. Constantly. Though Costa Ricans are very talkative people, the men have this idea that they have to talk to every foreign women they see (especially if you’re blonde). This happens in the touristic areas, mostly beach towns. Usually they aren’t trying to be creepy but it can be annoying because they are persistent. You can just smile, tell them no thanks, not interested.
- Costa Rican society loves babies. So if you’re traveling with babies, don’t be surprised if locals come up to you, pick up your baby and try to kiss them without permission. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, just say politely No los toques por favor.
- When in San Jose, it’s best to dress in more city attire. Long pants, closed toed shoes, a shirt that covers your shoulders for women. This isn’t because showing shoulders is bad, it’s just so you don’t stand out.
- Costa Ricans kiss one cheek for greetings and men don’t kiss men.
- Despite being mostly Catholic, gay and LBGQ awareness is growing a lot in the country. Though gay marriage isn’t legal, there are gay pride parades every year and since Costa Ricans are generally welcoming people, you don’t hear about hate crimes or anything like that.
- The best way to get to know locals is to buy them a beer. Costa Rica has a very big drinking culture and beer is their main thing. So if you want to get into the local culture and get to know the Ticos, take them to happy hour! Zarpe anyone? Or if it’s a bit too early for beer, go for a coffee.
- If you ever get the chance to visit a Costa Rican home, they will offer you fruit juice, coffee or beer before water. Offering water is not common when they have guests but you can ask for it, it’s not rude.
The most important thing to know is pura vida. All Costa Ricans say this as a way of expressing anything good. You can say Gracias, pura vida. Or use it as a greeting. Hola pura vida! Or just as a way of expressing how happy you are, how great life is, etc. It’s what foreigners take away the most from Costa Rica – how to live a little bit more pura vida.
If you found this survival guide to traveling in Costa Rica useful, please share with anyone else you think will find helpful as well. Our goal is to make sure everyone has a safe and fun time in Costa Rica!
Read other Costa Rica travel tips below.
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