Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America. Just about everything – from ice-cream cones and groceries to hotel rooms, meals and car rental – costs more than you might expect. Some prices, especially for upper-range accommodation, are comparable with those in the US, which never fails to astonish American travellers and those coming from the cheaper neighbouring countries. That said, you can, with a little foresight, travel fairly cheaply throughout the country.
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The high cost of living is due in part to the taxes, which are levied in hotels (13%) and restaurants (23%), and also, more recently, to the International Monetary Fund, whose restructuring policies of balancing the country’s payments deficit have raised prices. Even on a rock-bottom budget, you’re looking at spending at least $50 a day for lodging, three meals and the odd bus ticket. Staying in mid-range accommodation, eating in nice restaurants and taking part in the odd activity could push you over $130 a day, while the sky’s the limit at the upper end, where one night in a swanky hotel can cost over $500 in some places.
The good news is that bus travel, geared towards locals, is always cheap – about $1.50 for local buses, and around $5-7.50 for long-distance buses (3 hours or more).
Costa Ricans love to dance, and it’s common to see children who have barely learned to stand up grooving and bopping, much encouraged by their parents. Consequently, there are many good discos, mainly in San José. Your popularity at discos or house parties will have something to do with how well you can dance; if you’re really keen, you might want to take salsa and merengue lessons before you come. Fitting in at a disco is easier for women, who simply wait to be asked to dance. Men, however, are not only expected to go out and hunt down female dance partners, but also to lead, which means they actually have to know what they’re doing.
The electrical current in Costa Rica is 110 volts – the same as Canada and the US – although plugs are two-pronged, without the round grounding prong.
The national emergency number is 911.
Citizens of the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and most Western European countries can obtain a ninety-day entry stamp for Costa Rica without needing a visa. Whatever your nationality, you must in theory show your passport (with more than six months remaining), a valid onward (or return) air or bus ticket, a visa for your next country (if applicable) and proof of “sufficient funds”, though if you arrive by air the last is rarely asked for. Most other nationalities need a visa (at a fee); always check first with a Costa Rican consulate concerning current regulations. The website of the ICT gives up-to-date requirements.
Your entrance stamp is very important: no matter where you arrive, make sure you get it. You have to carry your passport (or a photocopy) with you at all times in Costa Rica. If you are asked for it and cannot produce it, you may well be detained and fined.
The easiest way to extend your entry permit is to leave Costa Rica for 72 hours – to Panama or Nicaragua, say – and then re-enter, fulfilling the same requirements as on your original trip. You should then be given another ninety-day (or thirty-day) stamp, although it is at the discretion of the immigration officer. If you prefer not to leave the country, you can apply for a permit or visa extension at the immigración near San José, a time-consuming and often costly business. You’ll need to bring all relevant documents – passport and four photographs, personal letter, onward air or bus ticket – as well as proof of funds; note that requirements change, so check in advance. If you do not have a ticket out of Costa Rica, you may have to buy one in order to get your extension.
LGBT Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a good reputation among gay and lesbian travellers, and continues to be generally hassle-free for gay and lesbian visitors. The country has a large gay community by Central American standards, and to a smaller extent a sizeable lesbian one, too; it’s pretty much confined to San José (which holds a Gay Pride Festival every June), though there is also a burgeoning scene in Manuel Antonio.
Although there have been some incidents of police harassing gays in bars, in general you will be met with respect, and there’s no need to assume, as some do, that everyone is a raving hetero-Catholic poised to discriminate against homosexuals. Part of this tolerance is due to the subtle tradition in Costa Rican life and politics summed up in the Spanish expression “quedar bien”, which translates roughly as “don’t rock the boat” or “leave well alone”. People don’t ask you about your sexual orientation or make assumptions, but they don’t necessarily expect you to talk about it unprompted, either.
Where once it was difficult to find an entrée into gay life (especially for women) without knowing local gays and lesbians, there are now several points of contact in Costa Rica for gay and lesbian travellers. On the web, try Purple Roofs Gay and Lesbian Travel directory, which provides information about gay-friendly accommodation and nightlife or Costa Rica Gay Vacation, travel agents that specialize in gay and lesbian holidays to Costa Rica. For a more informal introduction to the scene in the country itself, head to Déjà Vu, a mainly gay disco in San José.
The best source of information about Costa Rica is the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT); you can email them for information before your trip, though you’ll probably only receive pretty but not particularly informative glossy pamphlets and brochures.
You’re better off going in person to the ICT office, located in the unprepossessing bunker beneath the Plaza de la Cultura in central San José, where the friendly, bilingual staff will do their best to answer your queries. On request, they’ll give you a free city map plus a very useful comprehensive bus timetable (also available online) with recent additions and changes corrected on the spot. The office can also provide a list of museums and their opening hours, details of many San José restaurants and bars as well as a brochure produced by the Costa Rican Hotel Association with contact details for many of the country’s hotels. The small ICT booths at the three main entry points to the country – in the Juan Santamaría International Airport, Peñas Blancas on the Nicaraguan border and Paso Canoas on the Panamanian border – can provide the map and hotel brochure but not the timetables. Outside the capital, there are eight regional ICT tourist offices offering information and advice; otherwise, you’ll have to rely on locally run initiatives, often set up by a small business association or the chamber of commerce, or hotels and tourist agencies.
A number of Costa Rican tour operators, based in San José, can offer information and guidance when planning a trip around the country, though bear in mind that they may not be as objective as they could be.
It’s always a good idea to take out insurance before travelling. A typical policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. It’s particularly important to have one that includes health cover, too, since while private medical treatment in Costa Rica is likely to be cheaper than in your home country, it can still be expensive.
You can buy a policy from a specialist travel insurance company, or consider the deal we offer. When choosing a policy, always check whether medical benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after you return home, and if there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Costa Rica, this can mean scuba-diving, white-water rafting, surfing and windsurfing and trekking.
If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police: tell them “He sido robado” (“I’ve been robbed”) and they’ll provide you with the necessary paperwork.
Most hostels and hotels provide free internet access to their guests, and many places offer wi-fi. Should you need to get online while out and about, however, the majority of Costa Rican towns have at least one internet café, while popular tourist places usually have many more; charges are low, around $1 per hour in major towns and around $3 in more remote areas where they rely on (rather slow) satellite link-up.
The language of Costa Rica is Spanish. Although tourists who stay in top-end hotels will find that “everyone speaks English” (a common myth perpetrated about Costa Rica), your time here will be far more meaningful if you arm yourself with at least a one-hundred-word Spanish vocabulary, or better still by enrolling in a language course at the start of your trip (see Volunteer work and research projects). Communicating with guardaparques and people at bus stops, asking directions and ordering bocas – not to mention finding salsa partners – is greatly facilitated by speaking the language.
There are very few launderettes in Costa Rica, and they’re practically all in San José; in the main tourist towns, though, you’ll usually be able to find someone running a small laundry service, charging by the kilo. Most hotels can do your laundry, although charges are generally outrageously high.
Even the smallest Costa Rican town has a post office (correo), but the most reliable place to mail overseas is from San José’s Correo Central (main post office). Airmail letters to the US and Canada take one to two weeks to arrive; letters to Europe take two weeks or more; letters to Australasia and South Africa take three or four weeks.
Most post offices have a poste restante (lista de correos) – an efficient and safe way to receive letter mail. They will hold letters for up to four weeks for a small fee (though in smaller post offices you may not be charged at all). Bring a photocopy of your passport when picking up mail, and make sure that correspondents address letters to you under your name exactly as it appears on your passport.
One thing you can’t fail to notice is the paucity of mailboxes in Costa Rica. In the capital, unless your hotel has regular mail pick-up, the only resort is to hike down to the Correo Central. In outlying or isolated areas of the country, you will have to rely on hotels or local businesses’ private mailboxes. In most cases, especially in Limón Province, where mail is very slow, it’s probably quicker to wait until you return to San José and mail correspondence from there.
Although letters are handled fairly efficiently, packages are another thing altogether – the parcels service both coming and going gets snarled in paperwork and labyrinthine customs regulations, besides being very expensive and very slow. If you must send parcels, take them unsealed to the post office for inspection.
The maps dished out by Costa Rican embassies and the ICT are basic and somewhat out of date, so arm yourself with some general maps before you go. The best road map, clearly showing all the major routes and national parks, is the annually updated Costa Rica Waterproof Travel Map (1:470,000; Toucan Maps), which also has a very useful, highly detailed section of the Valle Central and San José, plus area maps of Monteverde, Volcán Arenal, Tamarindo and Manuel Antonio. Other maps with clearly marked contour details, petrol stations, national parks and roads include the waterpoof, rip-proof Rough Guide Map Costa Rica and Panama (1:550,000; Rough Guides) and Costa Rica (1:650,000; Borch). Road and park markings are less distinct on Nelles Verlag’s large Central America Map (1:900,000; Nelles Verlag), but it’s handy if you are travelling throughout the isthmus.
In Costa Rica, it’s a good idea to go to one of San José’s two big downtown bookstores, Librería Lehmann or Librería Universal and look through their stock of maps, which are contoured and show major topographical features such as river crossings and high-tide marks; you can buy them in individual sections. You can also go to the government maps bureau, the Instituto Geográfico Nacional, which sells more lavishly detailed colour maps of specific areas of the country; whilst out of date, the smaller-scale series (available in 133 sheets) is useful for serious hiking trips.
Considering it’s such a popular hiking destination, there are surprisingly few good maps of Costa Rica’s national parks. Those given out at ranger stations are very general; your best bet is to get hold of the book National Parks of Costa Rica, published by SINAC and usually available in the major San José bookshops. Although rather cramped, not too detailed and of little practical use for walking the trails, these maps (of all the parks currently in existence) do at least show contours and give a general idea of the terrain, the animals you might see and the annual rainfall.
The official currency of Costa Rica is the colón (plural colones); you’ll often hear them colloquially referred to as “pesos”. There are two types of coins in circulation: the old silver ones, which come in denominations of 5, 10 and 20, and newer gold coins, which come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 500. The silver and gold coins are completely interchangeable, with the exception of public payphones, which don’t accept gold coins. Notes are available in 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10,000 (sometimes called the “rojo”– red); 20,000 and 50,000. The colón floats freely against the US dollar, which in practice has meant that it devalues by some ten percent per year. Obtaining colones outside Costa Rica is virtually impossible: wait until you arrive and get some at the airport or border posts. While the US dollar has long been the second currency of Costa Rica and is accepted almost everywhere, the vast majority of Costa Ricans get paid in colones, and buy and sell in colones, so it’s still a good idea to get the hang of the currency.
Outside San José and Juan Santamaría International Airport, there are effectively no official bureaux de change. In general, legitimate money-changing entails going to a bank, a hotel (usually upper-range) or, in outlying areas of the country, to whoever will do it – a tour agency, the friend of the owner of your hotel who has a Chinese restaurant… That said, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to change US dollars into colones, but if you do, or if you are changing other currencies such as sterling or euros, you’ll find that the efficient and air-conditioned private banks (such as Banco Popular and the Banco de San José) are much faster but charge scandalous commissions; the state banks such as the Banco Nacional don’t charge such high commissions but are slow and bureaucratic.
When heading for the more remote areas, try to carry sufficient colones with you, especially in small denominations – you may have trouble changing a 5,000 note in the middle of the Nicoya Peninsula, for example. Going around with stacks of mouldy-smelling colones may not seem safe, but you should be all right if you keep them in a money belt, and it will save hours of time waiting in line. Some banks may not accept bent, smudged or torn dollars. It’s also worth noting that, due to an influx of counterfeit $100 notes a few years ago, some shops, and even banks, are unwilling to accept them; if you bring any into the country, make sure that they are in mint condition.
Banks are generally open Monday to Friday 8 or 9am to 3 or 4pm; post offices Monday to Friday 8am to 4.30 or 5.30pm (sometimes with an hour’s break between noon and 1pm), and Saturdays 8am to noon; government offices, Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm; and shops Monday to Friday 9am to 6 or 7pm, and often on Saturday mornings, as are a few banks. In rural areas, shops generally close for lunch. Practically the only places open on Sundays are supermarkets, which are generally open daily from 7 or 8am to 8pm, though sometimes they don’t close until 9 or 10pm.
The country code for all of Costa Rica is 506. There are no area codes, and all phone numbers have eight digits: in March 2008, a “2” was added to the beginning of landline numbers, and an “8” to mobile numbers, though not all signs, brochures and business cards have been updated. Calls within Costa Rica are inexpensive and calling long-distance can work out very reasonably if you ring directly through a public telephone network, and avoid calling from your hotel or other private business.
With the proliferation of free wi-fi, Skype is the best way to make international calls. Alternatively, purchase a phonecard (tarjeta telefónica), available from most grocery stores, street kiosks and pharmacies. You’ll need card number 199 (card number 197 is for domestic calls only), which comes in varying denominations. You can also call collect to virtually any foreign country from any phone or payphone in Costa Rica; simply dial 09 (or 116 to get an English-speaking operator, a more expensive option), then tell them the country code, area code and number; note that this method costs twice as much as dialling direct.
Another way of making calls is by purchasing a prepaid SIM card for your mobile phone at the ICE counter in the arrivals area at Juan Santamaría International Airport or from telecommunications offices around the country. Your phone will need to work on the 1800mhz range (any quad band and most tri-band phones; there’s an approved list on the ICE website and must be unlocked (check with your provider).
Film is extremely expensive in Costa Rica, so if you’ve got a conventional camera bring lots from home. Although the incredibly bright equatorial light means that 100 ISO will do for most situations, remember that rainforest cover can be very dark, and if you want to take photographs at dusk you’ll need 400 ISO or even higher. San José is the main place in the country where you can process film.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, and is particularly prevalent in San José and Jacó. While there is streetwalking (largely confined to the streets of the capital, especially those in the red-light district immediately west and south of the Parque Central), many prostitutes work out of bars. In recent years, Costa Rica has gained a reputation as a destination for sex tourism, and even more disturbingly, foreign paedophiles. The government is trying to combat this with a public information campaign and strict prison sentences for anyone caught having sex with a minor.
Compared with many Latin American countries, Costa Rica does not have an impressive crafts or artisan tradition. However, there are some interesting souvenirs, such as carved wooden salad bowls, plates and trays. Wherever you go, you’ll see hand-painted wooden replica ox-carts, originating from Sarchí in the Valle Central – perennial favourites, especially when made into drinks trolleys.
Reproductions of the pre-Columbian pendants and earrings displayed in San José’s Museo Nacional, the Museo de Oro and the Museo de Jade are sold both on the street and in shops. Much of it isn’t real gold, however, but gold-plated, which chips and peels: check before you buy.
Costa Rican coffee is one of the best gifts to take home. Make sure you buy export brands Café Britt or Café Rey – or better yet, home-grown roasts straight from the coffee plantation itself – and not the lower-grade sweetened coffee sold locally. It’s often cheaper to buy bags in the supermarket rather than in souvenir shops, and cheaper still to buy beans at San José’s Mercado Central.
Indigenous crafts are available at places such as the Reserva Indígena Maleku and the Reserva Indígena Kéköldi, but in the general absence of a real home-grown crafts or textile tradition, generic Indonesian dresses and clothing – batiked and colourful printed cloth – are widely sold in the beach communities of Montezuma, Cahuita, Tamarindo and Quepos. In some cases, this craze for all things Indo extends to slippers, silver and bamboo jewellery – and prices are reasonable.
If you have qualms about buying goods made from tropical hardwoods, ask the salesperson what kind of wood the object is made from, and avoid mahogany, laurel, purple heart and almond (which is illegal anyway). Other goods to avoid are coral, anything made from tortoise shells, and furs such as ocelot or jaguar.
Costa Rica is in North America’s Central Standard time zone (the same as Winnipeg, New Orleans and Mexico City) and six hours behind GMT; daylight saving time is not observed.
Unless service has been exceptional, you do not need to leave a tip in restaurants, where a ten percent service charge is automatically levied. Taxi drivers are not usually tipped, either. When it comes to nature guides, however, the rules become blurred. Many people – especially North Americans, who are more accustomed to tipping – routinely tip guides up to $10 per day. If you are utterly delighted with a guide, it seems fair to offer a tip, although be warned that some guides may be made uncomfortable by your offer – as far as many of them are concerned, it’s their job.
The only place you’ll find so-called “public” conveniences – they’re really reserved for customers – is in fast-food outlets in San José, petrol stations and roadside restaurants. When travelling in the outlying areas of the country, you may want to take a roll of toilet paper with you. Note that except in the poshest hotels – which have their own sewage system/septic tank – you should not put toilet paper down the toilet. Sewage systems are not built to deal with paper, and you’ll only cause a blockage. There’s always a receptacle provided for toilet paper.
Travellers with disabilities
While public transport isn’t wheelchair-accessible, an increasing number of hotels are – we’ve noted where this is the case in our accommodation reviews. Travellers with disabilities will also find short but accessible trails at Poás and Carara national parks, and the Reserva Santa Elena, while the main-crater viewpoint at Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú is also accessible to wheelchair users.
Educated urban women play an active role in Costa Rica’s public life and the workforce – indeed, in 2010, the country voted in its first female president – while women in more traditional positions are generally accorded the respect due to their role as mothers and heads of families. Despite this, however, women may be subjected to a certain amount of machismo.
In general, people are friendly and helpful to solo women travellers, who get the pobrecita (poor little thing) vote, because they’re solita (all alone), without family or man. Nonetheless, Costa Rican men may throw out unsolicited comments at women in the street: “mi amor”, “guapa”, “machita” (“blondie”) and so on. If they don’t feel like articulating a whole word, they may stare or hiss – there’s a saying used by local women: “Costa Rica’s full of snakes, and they’re all men”.
Blonde, fair-skinned women are in for quite a bit of this, whereas if you look remotely Latin you’ll get less attention. This is not to say you’ll be exempt from these so-called compliments, and even in groups, women are targets. Walk with a man, however, and the whole street theatre disappears as if by magic.
None of this is necessarily an expression of sexual interest: it has more to do with a man displaying his masculinity to his buddies than any desire to get to know you. Sexual assault figures in Costa Rica are low, you don’t get groped and you rarely hear piropos outside of towns. But for some women, the machismo attitude can be endlessly tiring, and may even mar their stay in the country.
In recent years, there has been a spate of incidents allegedly involving Rohypnol, the so-called date-rape drug (legal and available over the counter in Costa Rica), whereby women have been invited for a drink by a man, or sent a drink from a man in a bar, which turns out to be spiked with the drug (often by the bartender, who’s in on the game). In the worst cases, the women have woken up hours later having no recollection of the missing time, and believe they were raped. This is not to encourage paranoia, but the obvious thing to do is not accept opened drinks from men and be careful about accepting invitations to go to bars with unknown men. If you do, order a beer and ask to open the bottle yourself.