Language of Costa Rica
Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica and, needless to say, knowing a little will make traveling around the country a lot easier. In any of the heavily touristed areas, travel agents, tourist agencies and car rental offices will generally have an English speaking worker facing customers. Throughout the country, many people – particular younger folks – will know some English as a second language.
If you’re traveling to Costa Rica and don’t speak Spanish, it’s a very good idea to invest in a
If you’re traveling to Costa Rica and don’t speak Spanish, it’s a very good idea to invest in a Spanish phrasebook. I recommend you to buy Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish Phrasebook which you can purchase at Amazon for under ten bucks. It’s small enough to easily fit in a breast pocket, durable and has all the phrases you’d need to get by in a Spanish-speaking country.
Getting Around Costa Rica
Airlines with domestic flights within Costa Rica include NatureAir and Sansa. These airlines fly small propeller planes with a maximum baggage allowance of 25 lbs. While you can pay extra for excess weight, there is no guarantee they’ll have room for it.
All flights within Costa Rica have a connection in San José. Some of the destinations you can reach from San José by air include Liberia, Sámara, Tamarindo, Puerto Jiménez and Tortuguero. Delays due to weather (among other things) are very common and you shouldn’t count on a flight being on time if you’re on a tight schedule.
Short of having your own vehicle, buses are the best way of getting around Costa Rica. You can get to just about anywhere in the country, they are very cheap (the longest routes cost less and 10 USD) and they depart frequently.
The transportation hub for the country is San José. From there you can get a bus just about anywhere. The domestic buses can be cramped, but fortunately, it’s a small country so you’ll never have too far to go. Most buses don’t have washrooms and will make a rest stop if the trip is longer than four hours.
When buying your ticket, check if you have the option of traveling directo or colectivo. The former costs a little bit more, but will not make stops to pick people up along the way and thus be much faster.
While traveling by bus, keep an eye on your belongings. It’s not uncommon to nod off and wake to realize someone has sneakily taken something out of your bag.
There are plenty of car rental agencies in San José and Liberia (near the airports) as well as in the popular Pacific coast destinations; Tamarindo, Jacó, Puerto Jiménez, among others. Given the conditions of the roads in Costa Rica, it’s a good idea to pay a bit more and get a 4WD (especially in the rainy season). Without a 4WD, a lot of places are going to be off limits to you.
To rent a car, you’ll need to be at least 21 years old, have a driver’s license from your home country, a credit card and a passport. A 4WD vehicle cost around 400 USD per week and insurance is required (costing around 15 USD per day). Rates can vary dramatically between different agencies, so do shop around before settling on anything.
Vehicles, particular those driven by tourists, are regularly broken into in Costa Rica. Never leave anything in your car, even for a short period of time.
Money & Costs
Costa Rica’s currency is the colón (plural colones). Bills come in denominations of 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 colones while coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 500. You can also use US dollars throughout the country, though cheaper items should usually be paid in colones.
As of March 2017, one US dollar is equal to around 550 colones.
ATMs, or cajeros automáticos, are very common throughout all of Costa Rica. Most of the machines accept cards on the Visa Plus or Cirrus networks (the latter accepts most foreign ATM cards). ATMs almost always provide English as well as Spanish instructions. In addition to colones, many ATMs also dispense US dollars.
Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted throughout Costa Rica. Often there is a surcharge of between 5% and 10% applied to your purchase when paying with credit card.
Traveler’s checks can be exchanged at exchange bureaus and most banks with the commission usually between 1% and 3%. It can be very difficult to exchange traveler’s checks in currencies other than US dollars.
Tipping in Costa Rica
It’s customary to tip a bellhop around 1 USD per service and maids around 2 USD per day in higher-end hotels. Guides and drivers are usually tipped around 10 USD for a day’s service (and proportionately for less than a day’s service). Usually, taxi drivers aren’t tipped, though you can do so to show your appreciation for exceptional service. Some restaurants, particularly high-end ones, will add a service charge of around 10% to your bill. Usually tipping in restaurants is not expected, but doing so will be much appreciated as restaurant staff is generally very poorly paid in Costa Rica.
Compared to almost every other destination in Latin America, Costa Rica is very expensive. That said, it’s still quite a bit cheaper than either the US or Europe. If you’re really pinching your colones, you can get by on a budget of between 30 and 40 USD per day. A bed in a hostel dormitory will usually cost between 9 and 15 USD per night. A cheap restaurant meal will be around 6 USD. In the heavily touristed areas (e.g., Tamarindo), things are more expensive.
For mid-range travelers, you should expect to pay around 50 USD for a private room in a decent hotel. A good meal in a restaurant will cost around 12 USD. At the high-end, rooms in a luxurious resort can cost in excess of 200 USD per night while meals in a world class restaurant will cost around 25 USD per person.
Alcohol, particularly beer, is noticeably expensive relative to other things in Costa Rica. A 6-pack of domestic beer costs around 10 USD (and more for imports).
Passport & Visa Requirements
Most visitors to Costa Rica will require nothing more than a passport valid for 90 days past the day of their arrival to enter the country.
Passport carrying citizens of the USA, Canada, the UK, Japan, Israel, Panama and Argentina and most western European countries are allowed to stay for 90 days without a visa.
Passport carrying citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, Mexico, South Africa, Russia, and Venezuela are granted a 30 day stay without a visa.
If you’re from any of the countries listed above, but wish to stay longer than 90 (or 30) days, the simplest way to do this is to take a bus trip to either Panama or Nicaragua before your time expires and re-enter Costa Rica, at which time you’ll be granted a new stay of 90 (or 30) days. You can do this indefinitely; a Canadian friend of mine has been living in Costa Rica for 12 years while making trips to Nicaragua every 3 months retain his status as a tourist.
Citizens of other countries wishing to visit Costa Rica should consult the Costa Rican Tourism Board for information on obtaining a tourist visa.
Safety in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is by far the safest country in Latin America. Nevertheless, sneaky, opportunistic thefts are regularly committed against tourists. You can drastically lower your risk of falling victim to this by using common sense and remaining vigilant at all times. Never leave valuables unattended and make use of safes or lockers in your accommodations.
Costa Rica is right on the fault line of three tectonic plates, so there’s an ever-present earthquake risk. The many active volcanoes are situated far enough from population centers that they’re unlikely to pose a danger to anyone. If you’re hiking in an area where volcanoes are present, consult with a park ranger beforehand to make sure your planned route is safe.
Hiking in Costa Rica can be very hot and dehydration is always a risk. Whenever you go hiking, plan your route beforehand and carry plenty of water. If you’re not an experienced hiker, consider hiring a guide before venturing off into the rain forests of any of the country’s national parks.
The jungles of Costa Rica are also home to many potentially dangerous animals. The biggest threat to hikers is snakes. They are unlikely to target a human, but often times someone will inadvertently startle a snake by stepping into it while hiking through rugged terrain. Many of the country’s rivers are home to crocodiles and not safe to swim in. The rivers in Corcovado National Park are well known to be frequented by Bull Sharks and you should absolutely not swim in.
Water Hazards – how to fight riptides?
By far the biggest danger visitors to Costa Rica face is drowning. Most of these deaths are caused by riptides – strong currents dragging swimmers out to sea. Riptides needn’t be lethal; most people drown after they exhaust themselves fighting against the current. If you are caught in a riptide, don’t fight it. Instead, swim parallel to shore. Eventually, you’ll either swim out of it the riptide or it will subsist after passing the break at which point you should continue to swim parallel to shore until the surf begins to drag you back towards the shore.
What to visit in Costa Rica
Central Valley Travel Guide
Costa Rica’s Central Valley is a plateau surrounded by mountains and volcanoes in the center of the country. The region is made up of the provinces of Alajuela, Heredia, San José, and Cartago. Almost three-quarters of Costa Rica’s population lives in the Central Valley, which includes San José, the country’s capital, and largest city.
While tourists generally just pass through the region en route to some of Costa Rica’s more popular destinations, the Central Valley does possess some sights worth seeing, such as the volcanoes at Alajuela as well as San José, the economic engine of Costa Rica.
There are four main volcanoes north of the Central Valley, Poás, Barva, Irazú, and Turrialba. To the south, is the Talamanca mountain range. A slightly smaller range, the Carpintería, runs north to south between the provinces of San José and Cartago, splitting the valley in two. The climate of the area of the valley west of the Carpintería tends to be influenced by the weather patterns of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast while the eastern portion of the valley is more heavily influenced by the weather on the Caribbean Coast.
Because of the high elevation of the Central Valley, the weather is surprisingly mild for somewhere so close to the equator. Year round, temperatures have daily highs and lows hovering around 18°C and 25°C (64°F and 77°F), respectively. There’s slightly more rain from June through December, with light showers often in the afternoon, but all in all, there’s quite a bit of sun year round throughout the Central Valley.
San José, Costa Rica’s capital, lies in the heart of the Central Valley. While most visitors to Costa Rica will arrive in San José’s airport and immediately leave the city, it’s not a bad place to spend a day or two. The downtown is quite compact and easy to walk around. It’s centered around the aptly named Parque Central, which is about a 20-minute drive in from the airport. Around here, there’s a variety of parks, museums, markets and restaurants that make it a nice area to walk around for a few hours.
Northwest of San José, in the province of Alajuela, lies the Arenal Volcano, the most active of Costa Rica’s many volcanoes and often cited as one of the top ten most active in the world. During the evening, lava can often be seen erupting out of the top of the volcano, which can make for a spectacular sight against the night sky.
The Arenal Volcano is just outside the town of La Fortuna, a nice enough place to visit in its own right. Besides the volcano, La Fortuna is home to the waterfall La Catarata de la Fortuna. This beautiful waterfall falls from a height of nearly 80 meters and is set inside a lush rain forest. The crystal clear blue water is perfect for swimming in and around the waterfall. The waterfall and surrounding rain forest are located inside a protected area and admission is around 10 USD.
Northern Lowlands Travel Guide
If you want to get away from the throngs of tourists found throughout much of Costa Rica, then the Northern Lowlands are your best bet. The lush jungles of this region are excellent places to catch glimpses of Costa Rica’s many exotic birds, including the Scarlet Macaw. The network of rivers traversing the Northern Lowlands make it easy to explore this remote area by boat.
In the northernmost reaches of the region, near the Nicaraguan border, the climate is hot and dry year round. As you head south, conditions become more moist, giving way to the region’s many marshes, rivers, and lagoons. A thick rainforest covers most of the flat region, whose elevation doesn’t exceed 500 meters (1500 feet) above sea level. Several major rivers, the Río Frío and the Río Sarapiquí, cross the region and provide act as trading arteries for many of the nearby villages.
Throughout the year, temperatures throughout the region remain fairly stable, usually between 25°C and 30°C (77°F and 86°F). In the northern part of the region, there is a rainy season which typically lasts from April to November, while it rains more or less year round in the rain forests around the Río Sarapiquí.
Sights and Attractions
The main attraction in this region is the opportunity to see some serious nature without having to endure the crowds found elsewhere in the country. The town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí (not to be confused with the town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean Coast) is an important port along the Sarapiquí River and located right beside the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. The national park houses a large rain forest where you can hike in relative peace. It rains here year round, so make sure you come prepared for that.
The lagoons of Caño Negro, near the Nicaraguan border, attract an incredible variety of exotic birds year round (especially from January to July, when many birds flock here from drier jungles in Nicaragua). Caño Negro is quite remote, so while there’s plenty of places to stay they are all relatively basic (though quite cheap). The restaurant scene is similar: simple and cheap.
Osa Peninsula/Golfo Dulce Travel Guide
This remote area in the southernmost corner of Costa Rica is widely regarded as having the most stunning natural beauty in all of Costa Rica (or the world, for that matter). As with most of the Pacific coast, the best way to explore this area is by having your own vehicle. But you’ll need an extra tire (or two), the roads here are in rough shape, rarely paved and full of huge potholes.
Geography and Climate
Filled with picturesque rainforest, this area is widely considered to be Costa Rica’s greatest natural treasure. Famous for Corcovado National Park, the Osa Peninsula is home to some of the world’s most intriguing wildlife, including the scarlet macaw, the giant anteater, squirrel monkeys and harpy eagles, the world’s largest bird of prey.
The climate of the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce is, in a nutshell, hot and humid. During the rainy season, from April to December, it rains heavily nearly every day. Even in the so-called dry season rain is frequent, especially in and around Corcovado. Being located so close to the equator, temperatures in the region stay high all year-round, generally between 25°C and 35°C (77°F and 95°F), though the high humidity often makes it feel hotter.
Sights & Attractions
Corcovado National Park is by far the greatest attraction in the area. This national park contains one of the last remaining large tropical rain forests in Central America. Overflowing with wildlife, Corcovado is home to Costa Rica’s largest concentration of scarlet macaws and many other endangered species. The 430 square kilometer (166 square miles) park is home to at least eight distinct habitats, including cloud forests, mangrove swamps and, of course, tropical rain forest. The park’s 50 kilometers of coastline is composed of white sandy beaches, river inlets, and sharp cliffs. The rivers and lagoons within the park are noted for their concentration of bull sharks (making swimming a very bad idea).
Corcovado National Park is open to the public for day trips as well as for overnight visits. Admission is around 15 USD per day; overnight visits requiring making a reservation in nearby Puerto Jiménez (you’ll rarely need to book more than a few days in advance). There are several ranger stations throughout the park with simple dormitory style lodging, costing around 15 USD per night. Most overnight visitors to the park opt to camp, which is allowed only in designated areas.
Since 2011 all visitors of Corcovado must hire a guide. Guided tours can enrich your journey through the park as well as provide peace of mind – the park is a huge wild place and not somewhere you want to get lost. Typically guides are booked at the park office in Puerto Jiménez.
While not as well known as the Osa Península, Golfo Dulce is home to much of the same stunning biodiversity. The main attraction of the region is the Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas. This beautiful tract of rainforest is very similar to Corcovado, though receives a fraction of the number of visitors (owing to its very remote location). This area is also home to much of Costa Rica’s indigenous population, who are concentrated around the town of Pavones.