12 things to know about Costa Rica before you visit
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Costa Rica is packed left, right and centre with natural wonders, it’s full to the brim with adventure and has an abundance of wildlife that seems rivalled only by the Amazon Rainforest and the Galapagos Islands, but my oh my can it be frustrating to travel around. The country has the reputation for being the perfect place for a vacation, which to be honest I’m not entirely sure I agree with, but for first-timers to the Latin American region who don’t mind spending more for some home comforts here and there, I definitely see the appeal.
I’ve put together this list of 12 important things to know about Costa Rica before you travel there so that you can smooth out some of the hurdles and go in prepared for the best trip you can have.
After reading these 12 things to know about Costa Rica, you won’t want to miss:
For more luxury, Hotel Riu Guanacaste is absolutely insane; I stayed 2 weeks there in all-inclusive paradise. However, I beg you not to just stay in an all-inclusive resort throughout your whole visit. The list of the amount of things there are to experience in Costa Rica is overwhelmingly long, and you’re barely going to see any of it at the swim-up bar.
So arm yourself with my below list of things to know about Costa Rica before you travel, and get out there to explore all it has to offer!
12 important things to know about Costa Rica
1. Wildlife is everywhere
You can barely go 10 minutes in any direction without coming across some kind of wildlife in Costa Rica (outside of the cities, that is). It’s not unusual to see a sloth trying to cross the road, a toucan chilling in your hostel garden or monkeys sitting above your heads when you’re in a restaurant. When I was working at a hostel in Puerto Viejo, one girl had a possum fall through the roof onto her bed (in hindsight, it wasn’t the greatest quality hostel in Costa Rica).
You just have to have an open eye for the wildlife, and try your best to leave it alone when you do come across it. Most animals are quite used to humans going about their day, but there’s no need to poke them, eh.
2. USD and Colones are used interchangeably
Wherever you go, you can pay in US Dollars or Costa Rican Colones. However, there are 2 things to know about Costa Rica’s interchangeable currencies. Firstly, shops’ prices in USD will be rounded up to the nearest dollar, so you lose out on the exchange rate there. Secondly, if there is any change, you will always get it back in Colones, in which the exchange rate again will not be in your favour.
I would recommend carrying Colones instead of USD wherever possible. ATMs in Costa Rica will ask you which currency you prefer to withdraw in.
3. Take shuttles wherever possible
Straight up, many of the frustrating things to know about Costa Rica are going to be transport related. When it comes to getting from town to town, shuttle buses are definitely the more expensive option for road travel, but compared to public buses they’re far easier and more likely to get you to your destination on time.
Public transport is pretty awful outside the capital in terms of the routes they can take (a combination of poor quality roads and a lack of infrastructure links), so some journeys between towns can take a whole day, or even more than a day if they need to cross the peninsula and back on the ferries to join the right road (yes, that really happens).
If you’re looking for your next cliche travel tattoo, this is it! ‘Pura Vida’ (poo-rah bee-dah) is the catchphrase you’ll hear alllllll the time across the country. It’s taken from the Mexican film of the same name released in 1956 which somehow got adopted by the entirety of Costa Rica. It translates to ‘pure life’, but its usage in Costa Rica is more like ‘chill out, everything will work out, don’t stress’. It’s even used as a greeting sometimes.
Pura vida is really cool in the sense that it reminds you not to sweat it, and it really does create connections between strangers across cultures. However, it can get frustrating when it starts being used as an excuse or dismissal of an issue. For example, ‘Waiter, can you check on our food please as we’ve been waiting for 45 minutes?’ – ‘Pura vida’; or ‘Why did our bus drive straight past us without stopping?’ – ‘Pura vida’. Like…. Nuhhhhh.
Definitely join in with using the catchphrase – Ticos love it – but also make sure you’re not getting dismissed with it if you run into problems.
5. English is widely spoken
Perhaps one of the most relieving things to know about Costa Rica for English-speakers is that English is spoken across a lot of the country. Costa Rica has long been an absolute powerhouse for American tourism, and in the last 5 or so years their tourism board has been putting efforts into attracting British tourists, too, so there is good proficiency in our language.
There are only a handful of really large cities in Costa Rica, but your best bet is to mostly steer clear of them. In particular, San José and Limón are known as not being too safe, and they don’t really have enough to do for you to stay longer than a transfer day. Liberia is just a big, dusty town with not much for tourists in the centre itself, but it’s a connection hub for the rest of Guanacaste.
The best thing you can do in Costa Rica is to get straight out to the countryside and smaller towns to explore the real beauty.
7. You need travel insurance to enter Costa Rica
While it’s always always a very good idea to have travel insurance when you go abroad, the Costa Rican government actually states that you to have travel insurance to enter.
Like, really big fees. We booked a car with Economy Rent-a-Car in Guanacaste for 2 weeks of exploration, and it was working out at a few dollars a day, which compared to other Latin American countries didn’t feel too out of place. We paid the total ahead of time, thinking that was it. We didn’t see anything untoward in the T&Cs.
However, when we went to pick it up, they’d added $860 (EIGHT HUNDRED AND SIXTY GODDAMN DOLLARS) to the overall price for 3rd party insurance. Comprehensive insurance would have been $1100 more.
We ended up arguing with the incredibly rude rental company staff alongside 4 other groups of tourists all faced with the same hidden fees, but in the end lost our deposit and left without a car.
We were lucky that we could be flexible enough to change our plans around not having a car, but some people there were on tight holidays on limited annual leave and forced to pay up (especially since as I already mentioned, the bus routes aren’t fantastic).
Always go with a reputable company like Avis, and ring up or email to confirm the absolute total price.
9. Certain roads require a 4×4
Especially on the Nicoya Peninsula, there are many roads that just aren’t suitable for normal cars. There are rivers to drive through, and very steep, dusty roads with large potholes to climb, so a lot of rental insurers won’t cover a non-4×4 for these roads.
Always plan your journeys ahead. Looking at a map isn’t enough, you need to ask locals all you can about what they think are the things to know about Costa Rica’s roads in their vicinity.
We also found that an ATV was a good option for some of these routes (and great fun!).
10. American tourism = expectation of large tips
This is one of the things to know about Costa Rica that non-Americans in particular need to be prepared for – heavy tourism from the US has meant that tipping is a concrete expectation from tourists for almost any kind of service, no matter how small.
Not tipping might get you grumbles and a sub-par level of service from some people (which annoys me the most since tipping is meant to be about rewarding exceptionalism, not getting people to do their actual job), so it’s just something you have to get on board with.
Even in 5* all-inclusive hotels, tipping can be the difference between having to ask 3 times for your orange juice at breakfast served with a grimace vs having a table set out for you before you even enter the breakfast room.
I was shocked to meet an American who didn’t portray himself as in any way wealthy, but brought $1000 in cash just for tips during a 3-nightstay in an all-inclusive hotel – a holiday he’s already technically paid for in full, at a place that pays their staff well compared to other local employers. He obviously found this very normal, but for non-Americans, it is really quite baffling. It probably wouldn’t even cross our minds, so it’s one of the important cultural things to know about Costa Rica before going.
If you join in with the tipping tourism culture, 10% is a good guide. A lot of restaurants will automatically add this amount to your bill, anyway.
11. Bug bites in Costa Rica are no joke
At some point, you’ll just have to accept your place in the food chain.
Bites in the more foresty parts of Costa Rica can get pretty gnarly, so make sure you’ve got yourself covered with things like US-military-worthy mosquito repellant, a repellant bracelet, a mosquito net if you’re planning on camping (and always make sure your hotel or hostel provides these) and some light clothes with good skin coverage for the night-time.
12. Listen to locals about safety
Though Costa Rica currently holds the top spot for safety in Latin America in terms of the GPI 2020, there’s still plenty of crime to be aware of. People will warn you about the dangers of the capital, San José, but you should be on your guard out in the sticks, too.
Most hostels will have a list of things to know about Costa Rica safety that they’ll want to tell their patrons (some even have chalk boards with important advice) so take heed of this, and ask them which areas you should be more wary of, especially at night.
For the most part though, Costa Rica does feel like a safe place to explore.
So those are my top 12 things to know about Costa Rica before travelling there! My hope is that being aware of these things will help you plan a smoother trip so that you can focus on enjoying every little wonder that this country can provide. Have a fantastic time in Central America!
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