It is nearly impossible to blame the two million tourists who choose Costa Rica as their vacation spot. A complete wonderland, submerged in Central America, bestows fantastic beaches, abundant forests and tropical wildlife and a cultural richness that enamors anyone who sets foot in the country.
Despite common beliefs or random stories, Costa Rica is peaceful, politically stable and since it relies considerably on tourism, well-equipped to treat visitors. With that being said, Costa Rica does suffer, like many of its peers from Latin America, the negative common denominator: poverty, and economic struggles.
As to any vacation spot, knowing a few tricks and hacks will make your stay at Costa Rica more pleasant and memorable. Here are 9 useful tips for traveling in Costa Rica.
1. Is it safe to go to Costa Rica? While natural attractions and budget are two of the things most tourists consider before heading to a vacation spot, safety is also a common concern. Costa Rica, while for the most part, is deemed to be safe for tourists; security in certain areas is still developing. When you ride on public transport, or while visiting touristic regions, be aware that petty theft or pick-pocketing is somewhat common. Petty-theft usually happens when bags are left unattended or when people carry their belongings in their backs –like in a backpack. Keep your eyes in your belongings at all times!
2. What about mugging and drug-related crime? Unfortunately, mugging, especially at night, is not that uncommon either. Gang-related violent acts also take place; in both cases, they mostly occur around San Jose. What can you do? Stick to touristic areas, do not venture into unfamiliar places by your own and the main thing: stay in a good, high-quality hostel or hotel.
3. What is the safest/best way to travel to Costa Rica? Here you have two options: Rent a car or rely on taxis/public transportation. Admiring the country by car is a fantastic experience; tourists prefer mainly hiring a driver –with a driving service that includes a vehicle- or in case of large groups, renting a minivan. Staying in a group is always the best choice. Before jumping to explain other options for transportation, let us explain a bit the differences between renting a car in Costa Rica and renting one in the States. The first thing you need to know is that you are obliged to purchase insurance –basic coverage at least- it doesn’t matter if your credit card already has one. The other thing is that rentals are comparatively more expensive, this includes the insurance fee, which is higher than the car rental itself!
4. What is it like to drive in Costa Rica? Is it safe? You need to take into consideration that Costa Rican streets and avenues are not always in optimal condition –especially during the rainy season, where you can encounter dangerous potholes- thus visibility when driving can be reduced. Authorities strongly recommend tourists to avoid driving outside San Jose at night. When searching for an address, be aware that you will not find street signs for the most part. While traffic laws are not always enforced, in case you get a ticket for infringing one, do not be surprised if the Policeman –called Transito- ask you for a “mordida” (which is basically cash on letting you off the hook). However, that is less and less now, and offering a
5. Does Costa Rica have public transport? Should I use it? Yes to both. You can travel around the city using public buses (remember! Keep your belongings always with you). If you prefer to take a taxi, only use licensed ones which you can recognize by numbered yellow triangles on their sides.
6. What preparations do I need before going to Costa Rica? Regarding Health, it is recommended that you go for a routine checkup with your general health care provider before traveling to a foreign country. If you’re going to Costa Rica, it is advisable that you make sure you are vaccinated against hepatitis A and typhoid. Costa Rican government is spending the right amount on its budget on improving medical services; if you are having an emergency you may dial 911 –English-speaking operators are available. Keep in mind that you must pay cash in case of treatment. Stay away from overly spicy foods if you are not used to them and do not drink water from faucets.
7. Which documents do I need to take to Costa Rica? Far and most, a valid passport (to make your entry free of hassle, make sure the document is valid for over 30 days after your trip has begun). For many people staying for more than 3 months, they need to apply for an extension with the country’s Department of Immigration. If you’re coming from Brazil, Peru, and other South American Countries, you may be required to present a yellow fever vaccination document when you arrive.
8. What about when I arrive? What should I concern about? Two things will make your visit safer, happier, and more comfortable: sunscreen and a good bug spray. Any country close to Ecuador is prone to have stronger sunlight than, let’s say most of America; you need to wear sunscreen –not sun tanning lotion- all day long. The other issue is bugs, which are unavoidable when traveling to tropical countries. Bug Sprays will protect you and your family from dangerous mosquito species like Zika or Dengue; but also to any other annoying insect. Extra tip: bring your own sunscreens and bug sprays as these are quite expensive there!
9. What about the budget? Is it expensive for tourists to go to Costa Rica? It all depends. Yes, Costa Rica represents a more expensive destination than Haiti, for instance, but compared to most prices in the USA, you will find it affordable. Moreover, if you are the adventurous type and not afraid to sacrifice a bit of luxury in things like food and lodging. Hostels and small eco guests houses are two of the most popular low-cost options. In general, travelers with tight budgets can survive decently with $35-$50 per day. Prices for accommodation and lodging differ depending on the area you are staying; San Jose, Arenal and Tamarindo are usually the busiest and therefore pricey compared to other towns. Just so you have an idea, resorts and beautiful hotels in the mentioned cities can range from $100 to $200 per night, whereas backpacker hostels and guesthouses start at $10 to $40 per night.
When it comes to food, you won’t find a Starbucks or a McDonalds on every single corner; therefore, it will be easier to get a taste or authentic Costa Rican cuisine. Every fast food joint will have “sodas” and “Gallo Pinto,” two of the more popular dishes. Trust your gut on this one, if the place does not look clean enough, keep walking. For a bit more formal restaurants, you can get a beef plate, Gallo Pinto and garnish for about $3. If you’re looking for something fancier, for $20 you will receive a hearty meal in any restaurant; there’s no need to add tip since it is already added up.
The other factor that will affect your budget is the time of your visit. Rainy season –mostly avoided by tourists- is between May and November. But traveling during those months give you two advantages: first, enjoy the attractions, and natural reserves without the crowds and second, prince tend to decrease during those months. The busiest time to travel to Costa Rica is during Christmas Break, where many people flew the harsh winters to take shelter under the paradisiacal country. Lodging prices rise during it, as well as the week before Easter.
When it comes to attractions and things to do, Costa Rica offers its visitors plenty of parks, beaches, and wilderness activities that can be matched with a tight budget.
Lastly, credit and debit cards are mostly accepted throughout the country, and you will find ATM’s everywhere. A few considerations upon taking your plastics to Costa Rica: make sure you let your bank know you are traveling abroad –you do not want to have your card declined there!- and be aware that small shops, fast food joints and such will only take cash. And speaking about money, do not expect local commerce to have change for USD 100 bills! That is why the ATM only has $20 bills. If you are traveling from Canada, they will not take your dollars either!
All of the above can be summarized into two short but important words: common sense. Yes, there are cultural differences and barriers, but with a bit of precaution and knowledge, there is no need for anyone not to feel safe and happy at Costa Rica.
To conclude, Costa Rica is a clean, safe, fun place to visit, alone or with a group of friends. You can expect a relaxing stay with no major weather events (hurricanes or earthquakes) and provided you follow these safety tips, you will fall in love with its people, traditions, and fantastic landscape.