Essential Costa Rica Travel Tips

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Before you embark on your journey to Costa Rica, please make sure to read the following for a survival guide in the country.

Visa Situation

If you are not a citizen of countries exempt from a CR tourist visa, please make sure to have your visa stamped in the passport. For an Indian living/working in the US with a valid US visa, you do not need a Costa Rican visa if you intend to stay for less than 60 days. Make sure you have more than 3 months of visa validity. This applies to B1, F1, H1, L1, J1, and other common visa categories.

Language

Spanish is the main language (sometimes only language spoken in many areas), but English is well understood in touristy places like national parks, etc. In Arenal, Manuel Antonio, San Jose, due to the large number of American visitors, English is spoken and understood relatively well. In offbeat rural areas, however, you will find it easier to navigate and taste the local culture better if you have at least some level of comfort with Spanish. Definitely use Google Translate app on your smartphone if needed.

Currency 

Most parts of the country would happily accept USD albeit at a higher conversion rate (often arbitrary). International credit cards are widely accepted. Carrying Costa Rican Colon (CRC) is far better though if you intend to have an immersive experience. We always order foreign currency beforehand from our bank (Bank of America), and found that is by far the most efficient way of reducing hassle. Many banks (e.g. Banco Santander) have affiliation with US banks and may waive the ATM fee, but we have seen banks charge a foreign transaction fee of ~$5 per transaction if you withdraw cash from ATMs outside US. Colon to USD conversion rates vary widely too, and we have seen it go from 500 to 550 within 2 years (2014-16). Also try to avoid airport currency exchanges as they offer extremely low rates.

Local Guides

Offline apps with travel guides and maps are useful in foreign lands since data roaming is expensive. We have had great experiences with the Tripadvisor iPhone app where you can download several cities in CR (San Jose, Manuel Antonio, Monteverde). Else, try the app called “Costa Rica – Travel Guide & Offline Maps” by Tripwolf.
Definitely take guides in the rainforest or national park tours. In the dense rain forests, even with a sharp eye, casual tourists will hardly spot any wildlife. Never go into the forests in the night without a guide, EVER. Read reviews in TRIB or our posts for the parks for Guide suggestions. Spending the money on guides is really worth here.

Getting Around

We always prefer to rent cars because of the flexibility and impulsive journeys we frequently partake. Driving in CR though has its drawbacks. Rental cars are cheap, but always try to stick to well known American brands like Hertz, Budget, Enterprise, etc. Always buy the liability insurance unless your credit card covers loss and damage protection. Get a GPS from the rental car company. Try learning some of the spanish road signs in the internet as the roads are often blocked or detoured, volcanoes criss-cross the country after all making it a very unstable surfaces.
Often first time tourists find it easier and hassle free to arrange transportation service. A number of transport companies operate between the cities with frequent and reliable services. Here are some we used – Anywhere Costa Rica, EasyRide, etc. If your Spanish is conversational, public transport is not bad either, though might take longer.

Food and Nightlife

We love trying out local restaurants and bars everywhere we go, and have had a ton of fun finding local joints, street food, even food from roadside huts in the trip. Tripadvisor works well in most parts of the country making it easy to find options. Local sodas serve the tipica comida (typical food for Ticos) comprising of mainly rice, beans, some kind of meat, and salsa. For breakfast, Gallo Pinto can be found almost everywhere. Named the national food of Costa Rica, it has a mix of red and white beans, with rice and huevos rancheros (scrambled eggs) accompanied by verde or rojo salsa. On your trips, you will encounter fresh fruits, coffee, and seafood cevice. But we found the Costa Rican comida tipica to be fairly boring after having it for a week or so, until we hit the Caribbean coast where the variety gets in with the Creole influenced cooking.

Eating out is fairly expensive unless you are armed with a little bit of Spanish and can venture into the ubiquitous Sodas. Typically they don’t add service charges and taxes, so you need to pay cash. Tipping is also not required but you won’t get charming service either. Food and cerveza is cheap though in Sodas. We will reference some upscale dining places and bars in the related posts.

Costs
Barring Panama, Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries in Central America. Tourists often find the costs comparable to as in an American second tier city. For example, a 1L bottle of water in the local convenience store will cost $2 compared to about $1 in the local Walmart. Food is cheap in the sodas but upscale restaurants are plentiful where the dinner bill can rack up into hundreds of USD. This is primarily because of the taxes (15%-25%) in the diners and hotels. But with some foresight and planning, with local food and public transportation, you can save a lot of money that can be splurged on expensive boutique hotel experiences and national parks.

Tipping

Tipping in restaurants or cabs are not required especially since a service charge is levied often. As per the tour guides, it is not required either, but since most guides are used to North American tourists, it might not be a bad idea to offer $10 per day.

Shopping

Last but not the least, shopping for gifts and memorabilia is an inseparable part of the adventures. Although Costa Rica does not have a rich artsy culture to speak of, there are items related to coffee, woodwork, and rainforest galore. Replica ox carts, Coffee (beans and liquor), items made with indigenous woodwork are great gifts and mementos to bring home. If possible, buy from the marketplace in San Jose downtown where we found the prices to be cheapest (albeit with heavy bargaining).

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