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15 Essential Travel Tips for Visiting Costa Rica

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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 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 and most sustainable countries on Earth, 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 visit 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

Stack of United States Dollars
RomanR / Shutterstock

One of the biggest challenges of traveling internationally is figuring out the local currency. However, when you visit Costa Rica, you can use the United States Dollar throughout the country.

For the most part, USD is accepted throughout the country. This makes traveling easier (for Americans, at least), and it’s also a great way to save money by avoiding exchange fees.

For the most part, taxi drivers, hotels, and restaurants throughout most 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

Colorful Costa Rican colones with receipt on wooden table
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

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 more than 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 everything 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 because it makes their paperwork much easier.

3. Choose your seasons carefully before booking your trip

Cloudy Arenal Volcano from The Springs Resort
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Costa Rica is truly a beautiful nation, and there’s no bad time of year to take a trip down there. However, Costa Rica has some wild weather, and knowing your seasons will help you have a great time.

Costa Rica has two seasons: the dry one from January to the end of April and the wet one from May through December. Knowing these seasons in Costa Rica will 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 find the best discounts on everything from hotels to transit.

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

Sign in Spanish
Juan Roballo / Shutterstock

The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. This means that street signs, government information, and most major media outlets will offer all their information in Spanish. Knowing some Spanish will come in handy with that in mind, 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 speak their native language. Learning some basic Spanish will 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 your efforts. 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 try the local language.

You’ll get much more from your trip to this tropical country if you learn some basic Spanish. My formerly fluent, currently rusty Spanish skills helped me make friends I still speak to.

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

Driving towards Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica
Sara Valenti / Shutterstock

No Costa Rica tips might be 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. So, take it easy when driving down streets until you get used to this new traffic flow. Generally, the country is safe for drivers, and paved roads can take you through all major cities.

See Related: Top Car Rental Search Engines

6. Get ready for rain

Rain in Costa Rica
riekephotos / Shutterstock

No matter the season, Costa Rica has a tropical climate, so you can expect 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 prefer ponchos and rain jackets for their flexibility.

You should bring at least a lightweight poncho, even if you’re visiting during the dry months. Sudden downpours are common, and extra preparation can spare you from getting drenched.

We also recommend having a dry bag with you. This lets you stash your smartphone and other electronics in a waterproof bag to keep them safe.

7. Yes, you can drink tap water in Costa Rica

A woman drinking water
fizkes / Shutterstock

It’s old news that tap water in some Latin American countries is unsafe for tourists. 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 Europe or North America.

These organisms can easily get you sick and spoil your vacation. The body can take a long time to get used to these new organisms, so 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.

But have no fear, and 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 bottled water with you if you’re heading into the more rural areas of Costa Rica. Rural areas tend to have less modern infrastructure and sometimes rely on more rudimentary water sources.

See Related: Things to Do in Liberia, Costa Rica

8. Costa Rica is (regionally) expensive

View of Tamarindo Beach from El Capitan Suizo Resort
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

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? But you’re getting more bang for that buck. Look at how far a dollar will get you in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has become slightly more expensive over the last several years as taxes on Imports have increased. This means that a few goods will cost about the same as 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, will be way lower in Latin America than elsewhere. Even though Costa Rican hotels cost more than neighboring countries, they are still incredibly affordable by American standards.

Compared to vacation destinations with similar climates, weather, landscapes, activities, and accommodations, Costa Rica is an incredibly affordable vacation destination, even if you plan on sticking to popular tourist hot spots.

9. Stay one step ahead of mosquitos

A mosquito In a net
GrooveZ / Shutterstock

Being a tropical country, mosquitoes reside all year 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 ensure 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 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 can dodge the worst of these pesky bugs.

See Related: Most Stunning, Unique Costa Rica Animals

10. Be ready for restaurant service charges and taxes

Person paying a restaurant bill
Totsapon Phattaratharnwan / Shutterstock

One overlooked tip 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.

You must also pay additional taxes when visiting a restaurant or a bar in Costa Rica. A 13% added tax is common across most restaurants and bars nationwide.

Tipping is also a 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, Costa Rica considers the service charge and tips separate. Service charges are taxable income, whereas a tip can go straight into the worker’s pocket.

11. Visit national parks and trails

Rope bridge in a Costa Rican rainforest
Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock

Apart from its balmy climate, friendly locals, amazing food, and massive biodiversity, Costa Rica is known worldwide for its beaches, but did you know that many beaches are also national parks?

The biggest draws of Costa Rica are the national parks, beaches, and trails. Costa Rica has 28 national parks, three of which 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, a national park in Costa Rica can make an ideal vacation destination.

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 has 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 and Caribbean coasts.

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

Sloth Sleeping in a Tree, Costa Rica
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

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. However, locals can point you toward 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. 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

A roadside soda in Costa Rica
phortun / Shutterstock

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 use them.

But these spots can have some of the best local food, especially Costa Rica’s national dish – Casado. You will fall deeply in love with this dish if you’re anything like me.

Casado translates to “married” in English, 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 will a soda meal 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

Safetywing Homepage
SafetyWing / SafetyWing

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 enjoy your trip more without worrying about what could go wrong. If your flights get canceled, you get hurt, 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

A pura vida sign in Costa Rica
Marcus Grip / Shutterstock

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, 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

Packing Travel Essentials
Kittiphan / Adobe Stock

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.

Insect repellents

Trail Guard Essential Oil Roll On Blend- Keeps Mosquitoes, Bugs & Insects Away
Trail Guard Essential Oil Roll On Blend / Amazon

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 bugs and sun.

Hiking shoes

Merrell Men's Hiking Shoe
Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe / Amazon

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

YETI Rambler 36 oz Bottle
YETI Rambler Bottle / Amazon

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.

Period products

Pixie Cup Store Menstrual Cups Kit
Menstrual Cups Kit / Amazon

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.

The foldable sterilizers 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 removes any smell, so your luggage won’t smell).

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