Costa Rica is a wonderful country with friendly people. But like traveling anywhere, having a little information ahead of time can help you avoid problems and make sure you have a great time on your vacation. Here are some basic travel tips for Costa Rica:
What to Bring
Costa Rica is warm and humid, and often wet. I recommend lightweight, quick-drying clothes made of synthetic fabrics. Outdoor apparel companies like Columbia, Patagonia, etc., make these things. Leave the cotton fabrics and jeans at home — they absorb more humidity from the air every day and will not dry. If you’re planning to wash clothes by hand and hang them to dry, it probably won’t work unless you are at the beach on the Guanacaste side. Even trying to dry things inside your hotel room doesn’t work in the rainforest. You can dress casually almost anywhere. Here’s a short list:
- Lightweight, quick-dry hiking pants or zip-offs (best to wear long pants in the rainforest and while horseback riding or zip-lining.)
- Lightweight, quick-dry tops for layering. Maybe a couple of tanks and a long-sleeve hiking shirt you can add to protect yourself from bugs and sun, or to add a layer of warmth at night.
- A sundress for women or a nicer top for when you’re sick of wearing your hiking clothes.
- Bathing suit for pools and hot springs. Costa Ricans are modest and aren’t fans of public nudity.
- Sweater for cool nights.
- Waterproof hiking boots. You’ll be glad you have these if you’re hiking in muddy rainforests, riding horses, zip-lining, etc. At the very least you need a pair of closed-toed shoes with grips on the bottom. (I’ve seen a lady in new white tennis shoes sink all the way to her ankles in mud.) Do not go in the rainforest or grass in open-toed shoes. You need to protect your feet and ankles from snakes and bugs. This is not a joke.
- I like to bring a pair of Keens or Teva-type shoes for times when I’ll be on slippery, wet rocks. You can walk right into the water with these, so they’re good for water-fall rappelling, hot springs (some have rough or slick rocky floors), rafting, etc.
- Lightweight rain jacket or poncho.
- Small backpack for day trips, so you can keep your rain jacket, water bottle, snack, sunscreen, etc., in it.
- Bandana. You can tie it around your neck to keep sun off your chest, use as a sweat band, or to mop sweat off your face.
- Mosquito repellant. I haven’t found mosquitoes to be very bad in the central pacific or Guanacaste, but be prepared. On the lower Caribbean side in Puerto Viejo, they are terrible. I never stopped getting bit for three days. I don’t like to put chemicals on my body, but I’ve learned over time that mosquitos and some other bugs like sandflies can do a lot more damage than those chemicals. I have personally seen people with botflies under their skin, and you don’t want that. I try to use a natural repellant, but I bring a small amount of deet in case they’re really biting. I prefer wearing long pants and sleeves if I’m in the rain forest, and if I need repellant I try to put it on top of my clothes.
- Binoculars — the birds and monkeys are often very high up. You’ll want to see them.
- Camera. There are lots of amazing sites and sounds to capture.
- Pack light so it’s easier to get around. I bring a few empty compression bags so dirty clothes don’t take up too much space. If you’re taking a domestic flight, you will have a weight limit of 25-30 pounds of luggage plus a small backpack that can weigh 10 pounds, so pack smart and prepare to wear your clothes more than once.
Money & Tipping
It is not necessary to exchange money if you are coming from the U.S. You can use U.S. dollars anywhere, but will likely get change back in colones. (Only U.S. bills are accepted. U.S. coins are not accepted anywhere, so do not tip with U.S. coins.) Check here for the exchange rate before you leave. There are ATMs in most towns, so if you’re going to be in a remote area, you might want to stop in a town along the way to get cash. Travel Tip: Do not bring Traveler’s Checks. They are looked upon with horror in this country.
A 10% tip is automatically added to all restaurant bills. Most Costa Ricans do not add to that tip, but they’ve become used to tourists leaving a bit more. If you feel like it, you can add 5 – 10%. It’s appreciated but not required.
Tipping guides, drivers, and people that carry your luggage is expected. A basic guideline:
- luggage: $1 – $2 per bag
- private driver: $10 for half day, $15 – 20 for whole day
- tour bus driver: $5 – $10 for an all-day tour
- tour guide: $3 – $10 per person, depending on service, length of tour, etc. For a tour guide who accompanies you throughout your entire your trip, $10 – $15 per person per day.
- hotel maid: $1 – $2 per day
Driving in Costa Rica
OK. We like adventure, but we like to be comfortable, right? So my best travel tip for Costa Rica is DON’T DRIVE. In general, the roads are terrible. The roads have lots of twists and turns and are full of potholes, some big enough to swallow a car. As you turn a corner, there’s often another car head-on in front of you, dodging a pothole on his side of the road. There are bridges made of two boards thrown across a river. Or a fancy bridge made of lots of boards, but they are full of big holes. (These are called “Oh My God Bridges,” because that’s what so many people scream as they drive across.) Add to this the fact that many roads are not paved, get washed out in rainy season (sometimes complete with landslides), have pedestrians and animals alike walking in the road, and it gets pitch black dark by 6:00 every night, all year round, making it hard to see those people, animals, and potholes. GPS doesn’t work well because there’s so much cloud cover, and the signage in Costa Rica is terrible and almost non-existent. It’s exciting enough being a passenger, so leave the driving to a professional. By the time you rent a car and get strong-armed into mandatory insurance, you really aren’t saving money over the cost of being driven around. Gasoline is much more expensive there than in the U.S. also. A tour operator can arrange transfers all along your itinerary, or you can have a driver go with you the whole time if you want more flexibility (this option will cost a bit more). Trust me, it is worth it. Professional drivers know the roads, they speak to each other about which ones are washed out or clogged with traffic, and will save you a lot of headaches. You can just sit back and enjoy the scenery. Plus, if the car breaks down, they have resources to get another one quickly.
I drove once on a 10-day trip in the Manuel Antonio area during rainy season. I had a jeep, which I needed, as roads were narrow and winding, and I often found myself having to park on piles of dirt, rocks, etc., not to mention going around gigantic potholes. The main road there is not bad, but the secondary roads are a problem. My scariest moment was driving up a steep dirt hill to go to my Spanish class, and then sliding all the way down backwards. I did not drive in the dark at all.
I’ve had a lot of excitement being a passenger too. A Costa Rican friend was driving me to an off-the-beaten-path hotel, and we had to drive on roads made of huge rocks, then into water, and on things that looked more like hiking trails than roads. We laughed hysterically the whole way because we were so scared. I’ve been on roads completely covered with large crabs… gone to hotels that required us to drive through a grove of trees to get to the “parking lot,” which of course ruined the car. We’ve had a driver get out and shine his flashlight on the water to see if it was shallow enough to drive through. Going to Monteverde is fun — a winding mountain road covered with huge rocks so you bounce all over the place. The driver had to keep a strong grip on the wheel at all times to keep the car on the road. You see crosses on the edge of the road where people went off the cliff. I was so glad I wasn’t driving.
Then there’s the policia. I was pulled over once as a driver and another time while a passenger, and I was amazed at how friendly the transactions were in both cases. There was no intimidation/fear factor, and I was told that it’s normal for Costa Ricans to have friendly relations with the police, even if you get a ticket. (I got a ticket for not having the proper papers in my car, and my friend got a speeding ticket.) I have heard that some policemen try to extract bribes from tourists, and that you should NOT pay a bribe if this happens to you. If you have a driver, you won’t have to worry about it.
Yes, people rent cars and drive all the time, but I’m saying you’ll have a better time and be much more relaxed if you don’t.
Safety in the Selva
If you’re vacationing in Costa Rica, surely you will spend some time in the rain forest, and if not, it is almost impossible not to come into some contact with plants, animals, and insects. The best tip for your personal safety as well as the safety of the plants and animals: Stay on the path, and don’t touch anything! There’s no reason to be afraid in the forest — there’s much to see and learn there. I love being in a rain forest and find it absolutely fascinating. But you should respect the forest. You are just visiting, and the plants and creatures who live there have a whole symbiotic system, and you can get hurt if you aren’t careful, and you can harm delicate species as well.
Watch where you step. Stay on the path and look ahead of you. Watch for vines and tree branches in your way. Pay attention. For one thing, there are 139 different species of snakes in Costa Rica, with 22 of them being poisonous. (I was very disappointed when I first heard that.) They don’t want you to see them, but they are out there. Even if you are walking on a path to your hotel room, keep your eyes peeled, and use a flashlight in the dark. Take heavy steps so anything on the path ahead of you will slither away. The first few times I went to Costa Rica, I was terrified of seeing a snake. I didn’t know what I’d do. I didn’t see any until a couple of trips in, but I’ve seen several snakes, including the venomous fer-de-lance, bushmaster, and eyelash palm pit viper, not to mention several non-poisonous snakes. I saw all of the poisonous snakes while hiking in the rainforest. The fer-de-lance was right next to the trail, blending in with the leaves. I almost walked under a tree branch when a fellow hiker grabbed me because he saw an eyelash palm pit viper curled up on that branch. He blended in well enough that I didn’t notice him. The bushmaster was sunning himself on a rock, and a few people ahead of me walked right by him without noticing. They don’t usually bother people unless they feel threatened, so if you see one, stay clear and out of striking distance. Don’t hike alone, and go with an official guide because they are experts at spotting creatures that you’d miss, and they know what to do if something goes wrong. They’ll make sure you see all the good stuff from a safe standpoint.
Because snakes hide so well, don’t grab onto trees for support, or hold onto branches. You could get a nasty surprise. Spiders and other biting insects also hide in plants. The eyelash palm pit viper likes to hide in the beautiful heliconia plant so he can make a surprise attack on hummingbirds. So admire the plants and take photos, but don’t touch. Some trees and plants have very thin, barely noticeable needles for protection from animals that hurt like heck if you touch them. Some have sharp spines or thorns. Tiny little poisonous frogs hide under leaves and in plants. They are adorable, but don’t touch them. They are especially dangerous if you have an open cut or sore. Most national parks and hotels with rainforest paths have people sweep the leaves off of the trails each morning, as snakes and other creatures can hide under leaves, and stepping on one would not be good. For this reason, stay on the paths. In the unlikely event that you get bit by a snake, the best thing to do is get to a hospital immediately. Don’t use a tourniquet, don’t try to suck out the venom, and don’t try to catch the snake so the doctor can see what bit you. These are all myths that can make matters worse. Click here for safety tips in case of a snake bite.
You will likely see birds, monkeys, and other mammals in the forest. Enjoy watching them through your binoculars, and take all the photos you want. But don’t mess with them, and don’t try to feed them. No matter how cute an animal might be, they are wild animals. Feeding an animal is actually dangerous for the animal. They may not be able to safely digest what you feed them, or they may become too trusting of people, like these coatis who are endangering themselves by coming close to the road in hopes of getting fed. Or they may become pests, like the white-faced monkeys in Manuel Antonio, who are notorious for stealing food from picnickers in the park. In the case of crocodiles, feeding them endangers humans. Crocs don’t associate people with food, but once people start feeding them, they do, and will start to come toward people with the expectation of eating. Again, this information is not to instill fear, it’s here for educational purposes. We can all enjoy the flora and fauna safely if we practice common sense and pay attention to our surroundings.
Safety in the Water
Costa Rica has numerous beaches, rivers, and waterfalls to play in. Many of the beaches are known for rough currents and riptides, and there are times when it’s just not safe to swim. In Tortuguero, there is no swimming allowed in the ocean at any time. Between the sharks and riptides, it’s not safe for humans. Unfortunately, many people drown in Costa Rica’s waters every year. If you are told that conditions are too dangerous to swim, believe it, and stay out of the water. If you find that the ocean is too rough, get out. Once I was simply walking on a beach, and the surf that came up to splash my ankles was incredibly rough and I had to fight not to be dragged into the ocean. Other times the ocean has been like bathwater. Be smart, and don’t swim alone. When boating or rafting, wear a life preserver.
People love to swim in a waterfall pool, and for most small waterfalls, this is fine. But be careful when the falls are large and powerful. The force can pull you under the water and keep you there, so don’t get close to the fall. This is true of the waterfall in La Fortuna. That fall creates a very large pool of water on the other side that is safe to swim in.
Be aware of slippery rocks. Natural waterfall pools and hot springs often require walking on slick, wet rocks. I like to wear Keens, which are water shoes with a thick hiking sole, to get better grip. (Click here for women’s Keens, or here for men’s.) There are other brands as well. One of the travelers in my group once slipped on a rock and landed on his chin. We were in the middle of nowhere, but we were hiking with naturalist guides who had first-aid kits and were able to contact the nearest hospital and take him there so he could get stitches. It was a tiny but clean place, and they did a fantastic job on him. This brings me to my next point …
Use a reputable tour operators and guides. Costa Rica is safe, but when traveling in a foreign country, it’s really great to know that someone has your back. If a reputable tour operator made your arrangements, they can fix things fast if there’s a problem. And if you have an official local guide with you, you’ll learn more and you’ll be safe. Being a guide in Costa Rica is a college-level program that is taken very seriously. Not only are guides incredibly educated about wildlife and plants, they know history, safety and first-aid. Guides are bilingual and sometimes trilingual. Some guides are better than others, and that reputable tour operator can make sure you get a good one. (I know good people over there, so you can always ask me for a recommendation!)
A Word about Drinking Water
I recommend sticking with bottled water even though most water in Costa Rica is technically clean and safe to drink. I have been all over Costa Rica many times, with many people. It is my experience that the people who get diarrhea are the people drinking the tap water. The guides always tell you that the water is perfectly safe, but we are not used to the microbes in the water. If Costa Ricans came to the U.S., they could get sick from drinking our water for the same reason. In all of my trips, the only times I got sick were when I was drinking the water, so I gave it up. I’ve been to upscale places in the Osa peninsula that have their own filtered and treated water that has been fine. I’ve also stayed in some rural areas where people told me that the local kids have parasites from the drinking water, so it is certainly not safe all over the country. Better safe than sorry in my opinion, and who wants to spend a lot of their vacation time in the bathroom? (Especially if you have plans to hike, zip-line, etc., and will be driving down a lot of bumpy roads!) I usually stop at a grocery store and buy a few large bottles of water to keep in my room, and I fill my re-usable bottle with it. (I’ve never had a problem eating fruits and vegetables in Costa Rica, and I eat a lot of both.) While we’re on the subject, more tips for not getting traveler’s diarrhea: never eat fruit that you find laying on the ground, and never drink coconut water from coconuts laying on the ground. Fruit from a tree is fine after you wash it off. Also, don’t buy non-bottled drinks or homemade food from street vendors. Sticking to reputable stores, restaurants, and hotels is safer.
As is the case anywhere, be smart and notice your surroundings. Leave flashy jewelry at home, and don’t walk around with money hanging out of your pockets. Leave your passport in the hotel safe and carry a copy with you. Make sure someone knows where you are. Check the State Department travel warnings before you go anywhere. Ask around about which places are safe for tourists to hang out at night. Some of the beaches attract a rough crowd late at night and there have been incidents of tourists being attacked. Women: Costa Rican men are very charming and flirtatious, and most are very nice, but use your street smarts. One of the nice things about traveling with a local guide and/or driver is that they can advise you on where to go and what to stay away from. You’re not likely to have any trouble in the nicer hotels.
Arriving is pretty easy — just follow the signs for immigration, pick up your luggage, and put it through the scanner on your way out. Upon leaving, you are required to pay a departure tax ($29 per person at this time), but new rules make it a bit confusing. Some airlines started adding the departure tax to the airfare, but some do not. If you paid the departure tax with your ticket, go straight to check-in. If you did not, you have to go to the counter that collects the tax before you can check in for your flight. It is best to pay this tax in cash, as credit card transactions are treated as cash advances, and you will be charged extra fees and interest from your credit card company.
Note that you cannot bring fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, meats, cheeses, etc., into the country or out.
Neither the airport at San Jose or Liberia are considered secure by TSA, and you will not be able to board a U.S.-bound flight with any liquids purchased from shops or restaurants in those airports, unless it fits in your quart-size baggie of 3-oz. liquids. Do not buy bottled water for your flight. The vendors are happy to sell it to you, but it will be confiscated before you board. This stinks, as I’m always extra thirsty on flights and it often takes the flight crew over an hour to finally get around with the water, and then they give you just a tiny little cup…
As I mentioned in another post, I’ve been to Costa Rica more than 20 times. On many of those trips I was acting as a tour leader and was responsible for the safety of others, so I took safety seriously. Obviously, I love it and I feel safe there, and I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to minimize risk and have a great time. I hope these basic travel tips are helpful. If you have any questions, please ask.