Tropical beaches, rugged rainforests, and endless adventure. Whether you want to party the night away or immerse yourself in some of Central America’s richest history—that’s what awaits you in Costa Rica.
Before you start planning your Costa Rica travel, there are some key things you’ll want to know. Known as one of the happiest countries on Earth and the most sustainable, Costa Rica is a magnificent place you’re sure to fall in love with.
Costa Rica travel tips – things you need to know
Anytime you’re visiting a place for the first time, you’re bound to learn a thing or two about your destination. No matter where in the country you’re headed from San José to Puntarenas, Jacó, or Liberia, the best things to do in Costa Rica range from wild zipline tours to breathtaking rainforest hikes, and just about everything in between. Be prepared for your trip with our tips!
1. You can use USD in most places
One of the biggest challenges that come with traveling internationally is figuring out the local currency. However, when you visit Costa Rica, you can use the United States Dollar throughout most of the country.
For the most part, USD is accepted throughout the country. Not only does this make traveling easier (for Americans at least), but it’s also a great way to save money by avoiding exchange fees.
For the most part, taxi drivers, hotels, and restaurants throughout most of the tourism hot spots are more than happy to accept payment in American dollars. If you plan on tipping though, which is highly encouraged, try to do so in the official currency, the Costa Rican Colón. It makes it easier for whoever you’re tipping to spend it.
Most if not all the metropolitan and touristy parts of Costa Rica have modern financial technologies that you have at home. This means that you can also use your credit and debit cards as well as technologies like Apple Pay in more populated areas. That said, be sure to always choose to pay in Colón if using cards because the exchange rate charged by your bank should be less.
See Related: Proven Ways to Save Money for Travel
2. Paying in cash gets you a cheaper price
One of the biggest insider Costa Rica travel tips is knowing that cash is king. That’s actually true in a lot of parts of the world, especially as card transaction fees grow and cost businesses money. In Costa Rica, fees are often 1% to 3% of the sale price but can be in excess of 5%.
You might be used to putting everything on your credit card at home, but you definitely want to bring cash when you come to Costa Rica. It’s common to get a better price on just about everything there if you’re paying in cash rather than using a credit card or an app like Apple Pay.
So paying in cash lets you pay the sticker price for goods and services in Costa Rica without getting hit with that extra markup. Some companies will even give you an additional discount when paying in cash just because it makes their paperwork that much easier.
3. Choose your seasons carefully before booking your trip
Costa Rica is truly a beautiful nation, and there’s really no bad time of year to take a trip down there. However, Costa Rica has some wild weather, and knowing your seasons is going to help you have a great time.
Broadly speaking, Costa Rica has two seasons; the dry one running from January to the end of April, and the wet one, running from May through December.
Knowing these seasons in Costa Rica is going to help you pick your vacation destination. September and October are said to be the worst times to visit the Pacific coast as it’s so rainy, and a lot of businesses shut down for the season.
Conversely, September and October are regarded by some as the best months to visit the Caribbean coast where warm weather and clear skies make for a relaxing seaside trip.
If you’re looking to save a lot of money on your Costa Rican vacation, April and May represent the shoulder season where you’ll be able to find the best discounts on everything from hotels to transit. And visiting in the dry season means getting more good days to explore the many beautiful beaches, see the stunning waterfalls, or have clear enough weather to see the Arenal Volcano. Just be wary of freak showers!
See Related: Most Beautiful Cities in the World to Visit
4. Learn some Spanish phrases
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. This means that street signs, government information, and most major media outlets are going to be offering all of their information in Spanish. With that in mind, knowing some Spanish is going to come in handy, but getting that official information isn’t the only reason to know a little Spanish when going to Costa Rica.
It’s commonly held tourism wisdom that knowing your way around a local language will do wonders for your experience. You’ll feel less like a tourist and the locals will be more inclined to cut you a better deal or do you a favor if you’re speaking their native language. Trust me, learning some basic Spanish is going to get you a lot when you visit Costa Rica.
Although English is widely spoken throughout the country (particularly in tourism hotspots) and many Costa Ricans, particularly in the capital city of San José, speak English, it’s always courteous to be able to speak in the local language. Even just a little effort goes a long way.
So don’t be an ignoramus, pick up a Spanish phrase book, use your favorite language learning app, chat with a Spanish-speaking friend, or take a few Spanish courses at a local community group to prepare for your trip to Costa Rica. The Ticos (a fun term for Costa Ricans), will appreciate that you tried. You don’t have to be fluent, but anytime you visit a place that speaks a different language than you it is always deeply appreciated when you give the local language a try.
You’ll get so much more out of your trip to this tropical country if you learn some basic Spanish. My formerly fluent, currently rusty Spanish skills helped me make friends that I still speak to today. Plus your language skills will improve as you are surrounded by it which gives you a valuable chance to practice, which means you are opening so many doors for future travels to Spanish-speaking countries!
5. Renting a car unlocks Costa Rica’s potential
There might be no Costa Rica tips more important than those that help you get around. And the best way to get around Costa Rica is by car.
Costa Rica offers much more affordable rental car prices than other places in Central America or the United States. For just a few dollars a day, you can rent a new car to enjoy on your drive through the Costa Rican countryside.
You’re definitely going to want to do some research on your driving routes ahead of time, particularly if you are going to visit during the rainy season when roads can get washed out. Costa Rica also has less road signage than you might be used to.
Costa Rican drivers also have a reputation for being very assertive on the road. So, take it easy when you’re driving down streets until you get used to this new flow of traffic. Generally, the country is safe for drivers and paved roads can take you through all of the major cities.
See Related: Best Car Rental Sites to Find Great Deals
6. Get ready for rain
No matter the season, Costa Rica has a tropical climate so you can expect some serious downpours. If you want to be ready for rain like a local, you’ll leave the umbrella at home. Even though umbrellas are common in Costa Rica, locals tend to prefer ponchos and rain jackets for their flexibility.
You should bring at least a lightweight poncho on you even if you’re visiting during the dry months. Sudden downpours are common and a little extra preparation can spare you from getting drenched.
We also recommend having a dry bag with you. This lets you stash your smartphone and any other electronics in a waterproof bag to keep them safe.
7. Yes, you can drink tap water in Costa Rica
It’s old news that tap water in some Latin American countries is not safe for tourists to drink. This is because the tap water in countries like Mexico contains microscopic organisms that don’t appear in other climates, and the water supplies don’t go through the same treatment processes as they do in say Europe or North America.
These organisms can easily get you really sick and spoil your vacation – or worse. It can take a long time for the body to get used to these new organisms, which is why the locals can drink the water but tourists can’t. This has led to a myth that you can’t drink tap water in any Latin American country whatsoever.
But have no fear, tap water is safe throughout all of Costa Rica. You won’t have to worry about any unpleasant stomach bugs ruining your trip due to the tap water. The country has a contemporary plumbing infrastructure and modern water treatment processes, meaning your tap water in your hotel room as well as in major cities and tourism zones is perfectly safe to drink.
You might want to bring some bottled water along with you if you’re heading into the more rural areas of Costa Rica. Rural areas throughout the country tend to have less modern infrastructure and sometimes rely on more rudimentary water sources.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Liberia, Costa Rica
8. Costa Rica is (regionally) expensive
Certain aspects of Costa Rica can be surprisingly expensive. This is especially true when comparing Costa Rica to its neighboring countries like Nicaragua.
Why is Costa Rica so much more expensive than its neighbors? Simply put, you’re getting more bang for that buck. Let’s take a look at how far a dollar will get you in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica has gotten a little more expensive over the last several years as taxes on Imports have increased. This means that there are a few goods that are going to cost about the same as they do at home – and sometimes more.
Another reason is that the tourism industry in Costa Rica has been incredibly successful and is still on the rise. That success has brought additional financial opportunities which means higher costs for tourists and popular areas. So, as a tourist, it’s kinda your fault too.
Some major costs however, like transportation and accommodations, are going to be way lower in Latin America than they would be elsewhere in the world. Even though Costa Rican hotels cost more than neighboring countries, they are still incredibly affordable by American standards.
All in all, compared to vacation destinations in possession of similar climates, weather, landscapes, activities, and accommodations, Costa Rica is an incredibly affordable vacation destination, even if you do plan on sticking to popular tourism hot spots.
9. Stay one step ahead of mosquitos
Being a tropical country, mosquitoes take up residence all year long in Costa Rica, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. That said, there are ways of mitigating these mini-menaces.
Mosquitoes can carry dangerous illnesses like dengue fever and malaria. You want to make sure that you have an effective mosquito repellent on you at all times, and if you’re camping make sure you’ve got some mosquito nets for your tent or hammock.
Mosquitos are at their worst during the rainy season in Costa Rica. The wet season creates plenty of stagnant pools of water which are ideal breeding grounds for clouds of mosquitoes. The dryer months have fewer mosquitoes, but they are still quite common throughout the country.
The only place you can really avoid mosquitoes in Costa Rica is at higher elevations, such as the area around the Arenal Volcano. If you plan on visiting more mountainous regions, you’ll be able to dodge the worst of these pesky bugs.
See Related: Most Stunning, Unique Costa Rica Animals
10. Be ready for restaurant service charges and taxes
One of the overlooked tips for Costa Rica is knowing to be ready for additional restaurant service charges and taxes. Restaurants will likely add a 10% service charge to your bill, which is common practice throughout the country, so don’t be surprised if you see a service charge on your receipt.
There are also additional taxes that you have to pay whenever visiting a restaurant or a bar in Costa Rica. A 13% added tax is common across most restaurants and bars across the country.
Tipping is also common practice throughout the country. A good tipper will leave a minimum tip of 20% at a restaurant or when utilizing any other traditionally tipped service.
Unlike in the United States, the service charge and tips are considered separate in Costa Rica. Service charges are taxable income whereas a tip can go straight into the worker’s pocket.
11. Visit national parks and trails
Apart from its balmy climate, friendly locals, amazing food, and massive biodiversity, Costa Rica is known the world over for its beaches, but did you know that many of those beaches are also national parks?
The biggest draws of Costa Rica are the national parks, beaches, and trails. Costa Rica has 28 national parks and three of those are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The national parks in Costa Rica include secluded beaches, volcanoes, and rugged rainforest jungles. No matter what you’re into, there’s a national park in Costa Rica that can make an ideal vacation destination just for you.
This is the perfect country to visit if you love the outdoors and you want to experience something truly untamed on a good walk. Costa Rica is home to beautiful hiking opportunities and various trails for all skill levels.
All of the national parks in Costa Rica have some trails. There are easy trails that are perfect for beginners as well as more challenging trails designed for experienced outdoor enthusiasts.
Costa Rica also has an impressive National Trail known as the Costa Rica El Camino. This trail is over 170 miles long and connects the Pacific coast to the Caribbean coast.
Whether you want to spend your entire trip in Costa Rica backpacking through the rainforest or you’re looking for a day trip to a volcano, the national parks and this country are an absolute must for any trip.
See Related: Things to Do in Las Catalinas
12. Get recommendations from people at places you stay
If you’re using a local guide, like my pal José from Passport Adventure, it’s easy to get recommendations. But for solo travelers, it can be even better to get advice from locals on where to stay like the incredible Arenal Springs Resort & Spa or Crocs Resort & Casino.
Costa Rica is a pretty safe country, so there is less to worry about on that front. However, locals can point you in the direction of hidden gems you might not otherwise find such as hanging out on the Sloth-Watching Trail or the unbelievable Superman Zipline over the rainforest. These can make trips even more special because you’ve uncovered something other travelers are less likely to find.
Getting advice from locals is much easier if you know some basic words in Spanish, which solidifies how important it is to know a little of the language before you visit.
A good Costa Rica travel guide or concierge service like José can help personalize your itinerary to what will best serve you. Plus their travel tips as locals are way better than anything a fellow traveler could give.
13. Eat at the small local “sodas” to save money
Doesn’t one drink a soda? Relax, it’s not that kind of soda. Sodas are roadside diners where locals eat and tourists don’t always make use of them.
But these spots can have some of the best local food, especially Costa Rica’s national dish – Casado. If you’re anything like me, you will fall deeply in love with this dish.
Casado translates in English to “married” which is the perfect name for this meal. The simplicity of beans, rice, vegetables, salad, plantains, and a protein choice (or whatever else the kitchen throws in) is so comforting, like a hug from a loved one.
Not only is a meal at a soda going to be cheaper, but you’ll also get a more authentic experience. They aren’t catering to tourists, they’re catering to the locals. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better plate of casado elsewhere.
14. Get insured
No matter what time of year you go to Costa Rica, travel insurance is always a good idea. With an insurer like SafetyWing you can rest easy knowing that your travels, self, and luggage are covered.
Travel insurance protects you from the unexpected so you can spend more time enjoying your trip and less time worrying about what could go wrong. If your flights get canceled, you get hurt, you lose your luggage, or need emergency care? You’re covered.
SafetyWing is made for nomads, so they know what travelers need. They are there when you need them and even little kiddos are covered no matter where in the world you are.
See Related: Best Travel Insurance for Costa Rica
15. Embrace Pura Vida
All the locals will quickly introduce you to the Pura Vida lifestyle of Costa Rica. Pura Vida translates to “pure life”, “simple life”, “the easy life”, whatever you want man, it’s Pura Vida. This simple term exemplifies the experience of being in Costa Rica. You’ll hear it everywhere you go.
It can mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “thanks,” or “how are you” among so many other meanings. Mostly it’s just a thing that people say. More than all of that, it’s just a feeling of familiarity that you’ll undoubtedly get by being in a small country like Costa Rica.
My biggest Costa Rica travel tip? Embrace the lifestyle. Allow the experiences in this incredible place to pour over you like a waterfall. You and your trip will both be better for it. Pura Vida, baby.
Costa Rica Packing List
No matter where your adventures may take you, from surf lessons on the coast, exploring Manuel Antonio, or horseback riding on the beach, there’s some gear you’ll need. Costa Rica is an amazing country with tons of nature to experience.
Generally, the dress codes are very laid back. Both men and women lounge around in athleisure or wear sporty clothing for long outdoor hikes. It’s not uncommon to see locals and tourists alike kicking back in restaurants wearing their beach clothes.
You absolutely need to bring mosquito repellent as these buzzing bugs are a problem all year long, and sunscreen is an absolute must too, but keep in mind that within the country’s protected parks you may be forbidden from using spray lotions or repellents.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s most heavily focused conservation regions to protect its unique biodiversity. Consider packing or purchasing a different kind, or trying a natural alternative like coconut oil, which should help with both bugs and sun.
If you’re an adventurous kind of traveler, invest in some good hiking shoes or boots as well as water shoes for those day trips to natural destinations. Good hiking shoes or boots will keep your feet dry and your ankles supported on all of your adventures in Costa Rica.
There are countless hiking trails around the country, many with rainforest environments. Keep that in mind when purchasing your shoes for the trip. Waterproof is going to be your best friend.
See Related: Essential Solo Travel Luggage & Accessories
Reusable water bottle
Consider packing practical daily-use items like a reusable water bottle (again, you can drink tap water in Costa Rica). Costa Rica is a very environmentally friendly country and having a reusable water bottle is an excellent way to help preserve nature. Plus there are plenty of places to fill your bottle instead of having to buy single-use bottles instead.
Personally, I like the Brita water bottles because the filter helps improve the taste of water wherever you go. They’re also lightweight and easy to clip onto a bag with a carabiner.
Those who use period products should also consider bringing them along if needed as these are often in high demand in Costa Rica. Tampons in particular are hard, or nearly impossible, to find – and worth their weight in myrrh.
If you want to save space in your luggage, menstrual cups are another great option. Some kits include cleaners and sterilizers that fold up and are easy to take along.
The foldable sterilizers just need to be filled with hot water, from an in-room kettle for example, and the cup needs to be soaked in the water. (Don’t worry, boiling them takes care of any smell, so your luggage won’t smell).
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