Guide to Costa Rica: Travel Tips
Pura Aventura's brief guide to the practicalities of travelling to and around Costa Rica. We've included practical tips on money, health and vaccinations, safety, language, and airports to help you plan your holiday to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is GMT -6 (ie the same zone as US Central Standard Time), although it does not observe daylight saving time, so for some of the year it is seven hours behind GMT.
There is little seasonal variation in dawn (approximately 6.00am) and dusk (6.00pm).
Spanish is the official language except on the Caribbean coast, where residents speak Creole.
English is widespread in tourist areas, although showing willing with a simple por favor (please) and gracias (thank you) will get you a long way.
120V, 60-cycle current. American Style two-pin plugs.
Some remote lodges may generate their own power. It's worth bringing a small torch with you.
Costa Rica has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America, but connection and mobile coverage can still be hit and miss in rural and more remote areas.
Costa Rican mobile networks use GSM 1800 networks and there is good coverage in San José and the larger towns.
The international access code for Costa Rica is +506. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City codes are not required.
The cheapest way to phone internationally is a direct call using a phone card.
International calls are usually expensive when you call from a hotel room. Sometimes a call starts being charged after the third ring even if it is not completed. Check at the front desk before making an international call.
The internet is alive and well in Costa Rica and you can find internet access everywhere. Most internet cafes also offer cheap international calls. Phone cards can also be bought and used for international calls.
Note:'Alt' '6' '4' on the number keypad will produce the'@' sign for emails.
If you have a hire car for any part of your holiday you will be supplied with a mobile phone for the duration of the hire period. A rep will go through the instructions with you and give you important contact numbers.
Police Emergency - 911
Ambulance: 911 or 128
Fire Service: 911 or 118
Police Investigative Service: 911 or 2221-5337
Drivers are supposed to use computerised meters, called ""marias"" in the San José metropolitan area, for trips of 12 kilometers or less.
As soon as you get in the cab, they should press a button and meter should say ø210 for the 1st km. Ask at your hotel how much should they charge you and ask the driver how much he is going to charge you beforehand.
After 10:00pm there is a 20% increase.
Passports must be valid for at least six months beyond the date of completion of your visit and you should have at least one blank page.
UK and US passport holders currently do not need visas for Costa Rica.
Consult the UK FCO's Know Before You Go page for latest advice.
Before departure from home, please obtain two photocopies of the information pages of your passport and other travel documents, keeping one set in a different place from that of the originals.
A good idea is to scan a copy of your passport into your computer, should you lose your passport you have a copy which can be emailed to you. Although an emailed copy is not a legal document it may aid your application to get a new passport and visas quicker.
Your passport is your most valuable and important document when travelling, it should always be carried with you under your clothing in a small cotton pouch or money belt. NEVER store your passport in any part of your luggage! You may need to show your passport when checking into hotels, changing money.
We suggest that you deposit your passport in the hotel safe while in cities and carry a photocopy of it around as identification.
Costa Rica is a tropical country, so with the exception of the cloudforest temperatures range from 25°c - 35°c all year round.
Costa Rica has two seasons: rainy and dry. The dry season runs from December to May. The rainy season is heaviest in September and October so we advise against travel in these months.
The general rule is the further north you are, the drier it will be so Rincon de la Vieja is the driest and hottest part of the country.
The rainy season is a good time to travel to avoid the crowds. Rains usually last only a couple of hours and do not cause any problems for visitors.
Having said this, you can expect some showers throughout the year in the Caribbean wetlands of Tortuguero and the rainforests of Pacuare and the Osa Peninsula.
The cloudforest regions of Monteverde, Bosque de Paz and San Gerardo are at fairly high altitude, so can feel chilly throughout the year, especially at night. It is also wet in the cloudforest so prepare for cool and damp conditions when packing.
The Pacific coast generally is warm and pleasant. In the rainy season you can expect a short downpour late each afternoon so conditions are still pleasant.
Again, in September and October rains are generally much more sustained in the Central and Pacific regions.
Just to confuse things, the South Caribbean coast around Puerto Viejo experiences the opposite seasonal rainfall to the rest of the country. Here, August to October are generally the driest months.
What to Pack
What you take on this trip really does depend on how active you are going to be and which parts of the country you will be visiting.
Costa Rica is a tropical country, so it can get hot during the day, with mild evenings.
In the east and south-west of the country (Pacuare River, Tortuguero, Osa Peninsula) you are likely to experience hot, humid days with some tropical downpours.
In the Central Valley (including San José) and Arenal the weather is warm and pleasant.
In the cloudforest (Monteverde, San Gerardo de Dota) it can get quite chilly, especially at night, and the air will feel damp.
On the Pacific coast (Nosara, Samara, Manuel Antonio) days will generally be clear, sunny and hot.
The northwest (Rincon de la Vieja) is very hot and dry.
The best advice is therefore to bring light, cotton-clothing that will help keep you cool and bring a waterproof with you for the jungle and the cloudforest.
A fleece for cooler evenings in the cloudforest is also a good idea.
For jungle walks your feet should be well protected with good ankle support and effective waterproofing.
The best policy is to bring equipment you already own and are comfortable with.
The colón(es) is the local currency, although the US dollar is widely used, especially in hotels and restaurants.
The colón is divided into 100 céntimos. Notes come in denominations of 50, 100, 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000; coins in 5, 10, 25, 50 and 100.
We would advise you to bring currency in US dollars. Check with your travel insurance provider on how much you are covered for (it is usually in the region of £200-£250) and only carry as much US dollars cash as you feel comfortable with.
Most hotels have safes.
It is a good idea to change a small amount of dollars into colónes on arrival at the airport in San José for lunch, snacks and souvenirs.
Credit cards and debit cards are widely accepted in the main tourist areas, with Visa and MasterCard being the easiest to use. All car rental agencies accept cards.
ATMs are becoming increasingly more widespread and can be found in most tourist areas.
The Visa Plus network is the standard, but machines on the Cirrus network, which accept most foreign ATM cards, can be found in San José and in larger towns. Some ATMs will dispense US dollars. Note that some machines (eg at Banco Nacional) will only accept cards held by their own customers.
Some hotels might charge a 7% fee for using credit cards, in addition to government and service taxes. Check their policies and prices carefully.
Although credit/debit cards are the best means of accessing money, you should also have some US cash as a backup in case card authorization is denied, poor computer connections or other problems.
We recommend that you advise your bank/credit card company of your trip as most companies have security stop measures that are automatically triggered by foreign withdrawals.
Most banks and bureaux de change will cash travellers' cheques for between 1%-3% commission. Travellers' cheques in US dollars are preferred, with Amex being the easiest to replace if lost or stolen.
Try not to leave the country with many excess colónes; it's difficult to buy back more than US$50 at the border or airport.
Costa Rica's tourism industry has really been defined by visitors from the US so tipping is now a common fact of life when on holiday in Costa Rica.
If you are happy with the work your guide has done you might like to tip, somewhere in the region of $3-5 per person per day gives an idea but is of course at your discretion.
Service is sometimes included in the bill in restaurants, otherwise add 10%.
A normal tip for a cloakroom attendant is US$1.
Baggage porters will expect in the region of US$0.50-$1 per service. Taxis do not expect tips.
The international flight departure tax is US$26.
Sales tax is included in the advertised price of goods.
You will find a large range of souvenir and gift shops around the country, specially in San José, Sarchí (a town with hundreds of traditional woodcraft shops) and in larger hotels.
Costa Rican artisans have a strong tradition of woodworking. The most attractive arts and crafts you will find in the country are made out of precious woods: bowls, boxes, jewelry, masks and mobiles.
You will also find nice jewelry, ceramics, handmade banana and coffee paper, leather goods, seed crafts, basketry and more.
Many of the souvenirs are made in other Central American countries, particularly neighbouring Nicaragua. This is particularly true of ceramic and textile crafts.
Coffee is also a good souvenir, and you can find high-quality Costa Rican brands in most supermarkets, with no need to pay inflated costs for export brands marketed at souvenir shops.
For up to date, journey specific health advice, consult your GP or NHS Direct. You might also like to visit the NHS Fit for Travel.
Most health problems are minor stomach complaints. Wash hands regularly. Exercise reasonable caution when eating: avoid undercooked or reheated meats and fish, drink bottled water and make sure that ice is made from purified water.
Other things to guard against are sunburn and de-hydration.
Insects can be a nuisance in some areas - a DEET based repellent is worth taking.
Most medicines are widely available in pharmacies without prescription.
Costa Rica has one of the best standards of living for residents of any country in Latin America and therefore has a relatively low crime rate.
However, some parts are still poor and, as a result, opportunistic robbery is a potential problem. Use your common sense to make yourself less of a target.
You must exercise caution by spreading money and credit cards across several pockets and don't wear jewellery or expensive watches or sunglasses.
When traveling in taxis, lock the doors and keep bags on the floor, at your feet rather than on your lap.
Theft from Cars
Theft from hire cars is a growing issue. Don't leave valuables in the car and avoid leaving any belongings on display. Try to park in paid car parks which have an attendant watching the vehicles. Otherwise park on busy, well-lit main streets.
You may find in some areas that a local lad will offer to watch vehicle for you. It is best to agree and then tip them a few hundred colónes.
You should take care when swimming anywhere in Costa Rica, but especially on the Caribbean coast where riptides are common.
Currents are particularly strong between December ' April here, with big rollers. Extra caution should also be taken after heavy rainfall.
Most beaches outside the main resorts do not have lifeguards. Listen to reliable local advice.
Arriving by Air
Direct flights to Costa Rica from the UK do not currently exist.
Iberia airlines fly non-stop from Madrid daily. Otherwise all other carriers route via the United States - usually Miami, New York, Atlanta or Houston.
There are many flights a day from the US down to Costa Rica, particularly from Miami.
International flight allowances vary between 23kg (European carriers) and 64kg (US carriers).
Passengers are responsible for their own excess baggage on international flights. Hand luggage is limited to 5kgs, not much more than a small day-pack.
On domestic flights baggage is strictly limited to 12kg per person.
For domestic flights 2 hours in advance; for international 3 hours.
You must pay a departure tax of US$26 locally at the airport when leaving Costa Rica. This can be paid in cash or by card.
Remember to pack any pocket-knives and sharp objects in your check-in luggage as security is tight in the airports. The 100ml maximum liquid container rule will probably be enforced on international departures.
Flying via the United States
If you are flying via the USA you must have a machine-readable passport otherwise you will need a full visa. If you have a line of chevrons and numbers on the photo page of your passport then it is machine-readable.
If you have not entered the USA within the last couple of years you will be asked to provide a scan of all 10 fingers (light scan, so at least no mess). Those who have previously entered the USA will only be asked to scan one finger.
Before you travel you must fill out a copy of the Visa Waiver Form.
Follow links for ESTA (electronic system for travel authorisation).
You MUST fill out the form at least 3 days ahead of travel, regardless of whether you have a machine-readable passport.
Currently (as at late 2009) despite being obliged to complete the ESTA process, you will also be asked to fill in the paper visa waiver form.
It doesn't make any sense but there are currently two identical systems, one paper, one electronic, running to capture the exact same information.
Don't complain, don't ask why, just take a deep breath and follow the rules.