Travel Tips for Your Trip to Costa Rica
Costa Rica is as close to paradise as it gets: the weather is perfect and the diversity of flora and fauna is astounding. No wonder it’s becoming the top destination in the world for eco-tourism.
Please take into consideration some of the advice given below and you will have the time of your life. Enjoy your trip!
Avoid staying in San Jose. Especially avoid driving there. It’s a very busy, noisy and not the most attractive city to visit. Most tourists do not know that the San Jose International Airport (SJO) is not located in San Jose, but in Alajuela. San Jose center is a 30-minutes drive away from the airport. A taxi to San Jose will cost you the same as to Grecia. Note: official airport taxis are fairly expensive. It can be as much as $50. If you decide to go this way, make sure that the quoted price is per trip, not per person.
There are few very nice museums in San Jose, so you may want to visit it for one day. If you want to visit San Jose center (the only part of San Jose that might be worth visiting), go by bus (buses to San Jose from Grecia center leave every 30 minutes). Stay in the center (around the “pedestrian-only” street). Take only a small sum of money and a camera (umbrella during rain season is a must). There are many policemen in the center, so it’s safe during the daytime.
As you get further from San Jose, crime rates drop dramatically. Even at the touristy beach towns the crime rate is not as bad. In our area violent crime is virtually non-existent.
Driving from the airport
Unless you have some experience driving in Central America, driving from the airport, especially when it’s dark or raining, can be a tricky business. Better get a taxi, airport pick-up and ask your rental car to be delivered at the hotel.
Staying in the center of town: If your hotel is in the city center, bring your earplugs. Costa Ricans have a much higher tolerance for noise. What that means is that if you are staying in the city center there is a good chance that the nearest bar will have loud music all night long or that heavy trucks and loud motorcycles will be passing by your windows till dawn. If noise is a big concern for you, email the hotel and ask before you book.
Paying in cash: Some hotels and shops will give you a discount if you pay cash and don’t ask for a receipt. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Tours and sightseeing
You can buy some tours (Poas volcano, zip-line, waterfalls, coffee plantation, sugar factory, etc) OR you can rent a car and drive there yourself. You can save lots of money if you have a group of 4, for example.
We’ll provide you with driving directions and entry prices to the surrounding attractions. Driving around our area is not difficult, especially once you get away from the center of town. The drive is very picturesque and you can stop any time youwant to take a picture.
Buying a tour has its advantages, too. You can relax and not think about driving. You can get some very interesting insights from your tour guide. You will definitely feel more relaxed and learn more if you buy a tour.
Ultimately the choice is yours!
Driving at night
Be careful when driving at night. Some roads are very narrow and are poorly marked. In the rainy season there is apossibility of a landslides, fallen rocks or trees.
Colones vs. dollars
If you plan to drive around a lot and eat in small cafes (called “sodas”), you should have some local cash (colones). Although most places will accept dollars, it will save you time and energy trying to convert local currency prices to dollars. Please note: some hotels may prefer dollars, so don’t exchange all the money you brought. Check with your hotel beforehand what they accept. Most small hotels (and B&Bs) have a “cash-only” policy.
ATMs are a very convenient way to withdraw smaller sums of money, and they are quite abundant in Costa Rica. Look for the “Plus” logo at the back of your card. If you have it, you should be able to use your card in virtually any ATM.
Notify your card issuer that you’re going to travel to Costa Rica, so that they don’t block your card at the worst time possible.
If you are going to use ATMs, remember that if you enter your password incorrectly 3 times, the machine will “eat” the card. You should be able to recover it, but it will take some time (2-4 days). You might nothave that time. Be careful, especially if this is the only card you brought.
If, for some reason, your card does not work when paying in the stores or when trying to withdraw cash from an ATM, you can get a “cash advance” in most bank branches (this will, however, cost you an extra commission).
Although violent crime is practically non-existent outside of San Jose (and some beach areas), petty theft is widespread. Just take the same precautions as you would if you were visiting Seattle or Los Angeles: don’t leave anything in your car that someone might consider valuable; don’t waive $100 bills, keep an eye on your belongings, and so on. If you’re at the beach, don’t leave your camera/clothes/hand bag unattended when you decide to go swimming: you wouldn’t do that in San Diego, for example, would you?
Don’t bring $100 bills. No one accepts them. You might even have troubles changing those in a bank. 20s are widely accepted. Note: the change will be in colones.
If you’re going to stay in the Central Valley, bring some warm clothing as well, especially if you’re coming in Dec-Feb. It gets cool at night (for a week or two the thermometer deeps to as low as 60F/16ºC around 4-5 am).
Although most hotels will provide laundry service, you will have difficulties finding a laundry place in towns.
The local cuisine is rather simple. In the Central Valley or on the Pacific coast your typical food will be a “casado”. It’s a dish that has a little of everything: rice, beans, one type of meat (beef, chicken, pork chop) or fish, salad and fried plantains. A typical breakfast includesgallo pinto (rice with beans), eggs, tortilla bread, and maybe some meat (like bacon or sausage) and coffee. This will cost you $4-6 (2,000-3,000 colones). A typical lunch (casado with a soft drink) should cost $5-9 (2,500-4,500 colones). If you are on a budget, always ask beforehand what it’s going to cost. There are lots of sodas around, so you should find the right one in no time. If you see a soda packed with locals, go for it. It’s probably cheap and good.
Please note: the prices above are for Central Valley and Central Pacific for November of 2011). The prices in the touristy towns (like Jaco, Manuel Antonio, etc.) will be higher, especially during the high season. If you’re driving and you’re on a budget, stop to eat an hour/half-hour before you arrive. The food will be cheaper, and might be better at the same time.
If you’re not on a budget, there are some very good restaurants in both Jaco and Manuel Antonio. Seafood is probably the best choice.
Do not exceed the speed limit and follow the traffic signs. It’s dangerous, first, and second, the fines for traffic violations have been increased drastically: e.g. if you take over a car on a double line, it will cost you around 460 USD (!!!) if caught by police. Although the speed cameras have now been suspended (due to a court case in the constitutional court, they might be re-started soon). For more driving tips, see Driving in Costa Rica.
You might not be able to see/photograph volcanoes or waterfalls if there is a fog. It’s not that uncommon. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t, it’s nature, unpredictable by definition.
You get a better shot at seeing Poas volcano if you arrive early, when the park opens (8 am). The good thing is that from our hotel you can see if the volcano is in a fog/cloud, so you can pick your timing and not waste your time and money.
The best chance to see Arenal volcano not covered with clouds is during the rain season. Strange, but true.
If you plan to drive to some lesser-known spots (like Laguna Hule), bring your GPS. In general, your car trip around Costa Rica will be much more pleasant with a GPS. It’s best if you buy/find a map of Costa Rica beforehand.
If you plan to swim in the ocean or surf, read about rip tides. People die only because they don’t know what to do. If you know what to do, you’ll be just fine. Actually the chances that you’ll get pulled into one of those are slim to none, but better safe than sorry.
You don’t need any vaccination to enter Costa Rica.
Make sure your passport is valid at least 3 month when you enter Costa Rica. If your passport will expire in less than 3 month, the passport control official will not let you enter the country.
Tap water is safe to drink. The only exceptions are big cities (like San Jose) and villages close to huge pineapple or banana plantations or big cities. The easiest is simply to ask locals or hotel staff if they drink the local tap water.
If you’re going to Guanacaste in March-May, expect it to be extremely dusty and dried-out. It’s not going to be lush and green like on the pictures taken during the rainy season.
Carefully choose your timing when traveling to the Caribbean coast. That area is beautiful and worth visiting, but it was seriously flooded 3 times last year.
Try to schedule your trip in such a way that you avoid going to the beaches during the major holidays such as Christmas, New Year and Easter week. The beaches are literally packed with the locals (and garbage). Away from the beaches, everything is closed, including grocery stores and restaurants.
If you’ve been to Central /Latin America and hated to be constantly annoyed by locals trying to sell you everything under the sun, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Costa Rica. Costa Ricans (or Ticos) are very proud people. It’s rare to see a beggar or a bum outside of San Jose area.
• If it’s your first trip to Latin/Central America, it’s advisable to avoid driving to your hotel when you first arrive, especially after a late flight or during the rainy season. Let the hotel meet and greet you, or let them arrange your taxi from the airport. If you decided to rent a car, ask the company to deliver the vehicle to your hotel the next day. Like this, your Costa Rican holiday will start in a smooth and relaxed way.
• It’s a good idea to choose a hotel away from San Jose, so that you can start your trip the next day without the torture of driving through the capital (you can be stuck in traffic for hours). For example, if you are headed for Poas Volcano/Arenal/Monte Verde/Central Pacific beaches you can stay in Grecia, Sarchi, Alajuela or Atenas.
• We highly recommend renting a GPS with your car. In Costa Rica, the roads are poorly marked (or not marked at all), and addresses arebased on local places of interest. Its best to rent a GPS where you can enter geographical location of the place. Some GPS maps of Costa Rica are made half in English, half in Spanish, so if one place of interest you entered in English does not exist in GPS, try the same place in Spanish.
• If you have to drive through San Jose, keep your bags (especially your hand and belly bags) away from open windows or they might be snatched when you stop at an intersection. Do not keep your bag on the front passenger seat either. It is safer to place your bag on the floor behind the driver’s seat. You should always lock the doors and roll up windows leaving the car.
• If your credit card limit is low, find out what the hold is before booking your rental car. Some companies put a hold of over $1000.
Be very careful when driving at night. Some roads are very narrow and are poorly marked. There are more drunk drivers on the road at night. In the rainy season there is a possibility of a landslides, fallen rocks or trees.
• Don’t speed. It’s dangerous and the new fines are horrendous. Follow the speed limit and traffic rules. Your rent-a-car company will charge your speeding fine on your credit card.
• When driving through a town center, be very careful at the intersections. If you think you have the right of way, make sure you see the “stop” sign or “yield” for other directions. Sometimes all that’s left of the “stop” sign is the post where it used to be. Sometimes even the post is gone. I suggest you stop at each intersection or at least slow down. Surely, you might get honked at, but you’ll avoid an accident.
• Don’t worry if you are stopped by police. Be calm, nice and patient. If you don’t speak Spanish, show them your passport (or a copy) and the papers for your car. Typically they will let you go right away. If you showed them the papers and they still won’t let you go, call your rental company or your hotel. They should be able to help you out. If nothing works, call 911. This is the only emergency number that guarantees you that the person on the other end is speaking English. If you’re fluent in Spanish, call Transit Police at 2222-9245 (near San Jose), 2643-1654 (around Jaco). You might also try calling Tourism board at 800-868-7476 or 800-887-4766 (dial as you see on the screen). They should be able to help or at least give you more numbers to call for help.
• Do not try to bribe policemen. It’s a criminal offense here. If they give you a ticket, your rental company will charge you this amount.Then they will pay the ticket themselves. Please re-check this info with your rental company.
• If you get into an accident, do not move your car, no matter what. Moving your car after an accident in Costa Rica might invalidate yourinsurance coverage. It might also be interpreted as admission of fault. Don’t worry creating a traffic jam. People here are used to that and they understand that you can’t move your car until the Transit Police and the insurance company arrives. Call transit police or 911 right away.
• Costa Ricans are very humble people, but they turn into maniacs the moment they get behind the wheel.” Costa Rican drivers, especially the young ones, are very impatient and driving culture is still lacking. Ifthere is an impatient driver behind you, be calm, relaxed, and let him overtake you. If you drive defensively and anticipate the behavior of fellow drivers, you will be just fine. The convenience of driving and exploring on your own far outweighs any potential problems.
• What concerns the road conditions, in general, all big roads and highways in Costa Rica are in decent shape (more or less). That doesn’t mean that you don’t bump into a pothole from time to time. The roads are being constantly repaired, but it’s a mountainous country and it’s hard to keep up with pouring rain. Another thing: many roads are still dirt roads. If you’re driving to some Southern parts of Costa Rica during rain season, call the hotel beforehand to make sure that the road to that “dream eco-lodge” is passable.
• Honking is a common language of the road here. If you see a friend, honk. If you’re upset with another driver, honk. Truck drivers honk ALL other truck drivers. Same goes for bus drivers. Important thing: when someone passes you, they honk (a couple of short quiet honks typically), saying, “I’m passing you, be careful”. I suggest you quickly develop the same habit. Sometimes people turn left without checking or turning on the turn light. So, do honk when you’re passing another car, it makes it safer for everyone.
• Headlights. Sometimes drivers flash headlights for greeting friends (or other truck or bus drivers). Flashing headlights is also used to notify other drivers that there is police ahead.
• When you park your car on the streets of any town, usually there will be a person helping you to park. He will also take a look at your car while you are gone. When you leave, he will help you to get out of the parking safely. It is a nice custom to tip him a small amount. Five hundredcolones will be greatly appreciated.
HOW TO READ ROAD SIGNS IN COSTA RICA
If you plan to drive and you don’t speak Spanish, print this article and bring it with you!
Sign in Spanish
ceda/ceda el paso............................
desprendimiento de terreno..................
encienda los faros/las luces...................
limite de velocidad............................
no estacionar/se prohibe estacionar........
no hay paso.......................................
reduzca la velocidad.............................
Sign in English
yield the right of way (note, that if you’re on the side of the bridge that has the "ceda" sign, you must yield to oncoming traffic until the bridge is clear)
turn on the lights
men at work
reduce the speed
DRIVING TIMES TO LOCAL ATTRACTIONS
Use the driving times below as a guideline. The actual driving time will greatly depend on weather and road conditions. All the big roads (called "la pista") are typically in decent condition.
|Sarchi||10-15 min||Beautiful countryside town of Sarchi is famous for its exuberantly painted oxcarts, handcrafts and furniture. It's also known for it's "birthday cake" shaped church.|
|Doka Coffee Plantation||50 min||A very educational coffee tour, a must for coffee-lovers.|
|Los Chorros Waterfalls||30 min||3 waterfalls, one with a swimming hole, easy hiking.|
|The World of Snakes||15 min||A guided hands-on tour, if you are into snakes, don't miss this experience.|
|Else Kientzler Botanical Gardens||20-25 min||7 hectares of manicured paths with more than 2000 plants from all over the world.|
|La Paz Waterfall Gardens||50 min||5 waterfalls, beautiful gardens with butterflies and humming birds, nice trails, very easy hiking.|
|Poas Volcano National Park||45-50 min||You can see Poas volcano mountains right from the hotel. The views of the whole valley on the way up are so beautiful that you'll want to stop and take some pictures.|
|Poas Canopy Zipline||40 min||14 cables and 24 platforms (one is 600 meters long). It is the only one to offer a safe zipline experience for children aged 5 and up to ride with the parents.|
|Carara National Park||1.5 hours||World class birding, the best place to see scarlet macaws and ant-eaters.|
|Playa Blanca beach
(Central Pacific, near Punta Leona)
|1 hour 45 minutes||Excellent swimming, body-boarding, can do snorkeling. Turtles visit this beach from time to time. Scarlet macaws, green parrots, pelicans and magnificent frigates can often be seen.|
|2 hours||Excellent surfing/ body-boarding beach, lots of good restaurants. Also try Herradura beach for surfing or Agujas for fishing.|
|2.5 - 3 hours||The drive is very easy. There are lots of hot springs in the area. If your budget allows, try Tabacon springs (day entrance), if not, try any of the less expensive options. Many hotels have thermal pools.|
|Manuel Antonio National Park
|3 – 3.5 hours||The best place to see all 3 types of monkeys as well as sloths. The park itself is tiny, so hiking is very easy. The best beaches are inside the park, but you can have great time at the beaches in front of some hotels. You can do swimming, surfing (beginners) and great body-boarding.|
|Caribbean side||3.5 – 4.5 hours|
(Cloud forest reserve)
|4 – 5.5 hours||Beautiful drive. Try zip line for adrenaline rush or do some hiking (day and night tours are widely available).||Liberia and Guanacaste beaches||4 – 5.5 hours|
If you plan to drive to a location not mentioned above, feel free to email us at email@example.com.