A vibrant destination home to lush jungles and rich biodiversity, Costa Rica is a dream destination. For us, it was a place we had dreamed of visiting for many years but when it finally came time to go, we were completely unsure what to expect! Our visit to Costa Rica was unlike anywhere else we had ever visited and we learned a lot along the way. To help you plan and prepare for your own adventure here are 23 things you really need to know before you travel to Costa Rica.
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1. The currency is the Costa Rican Colón
The local currency is the Costa Rican colón (colones for plural) and we found US dollars were also widely accepted. When we went to pay for things, the staff would always ask if we’d like to pay in US dollars or colones so it was great to have options. You may like to have a small number of colones or US dollars on you for arrival, so you can tip your driver.
2. Have a currency conversion app on your phone
It’s a good idea to have a currency conversion app on your phone so you can quickly and easily understand the conversion rate if you aren’t experienced with it. We always use XE Currency as it’s easy to use, free and works offline. Be sure to download the app and the local currency before you leave home so you’re ready to go as soon as you arrive.
3. You’ll need cash
Cards weren’t accepted everywhere we visited in Costa Rica and ATMs were more difficult to find than they are in Australia. Be sure to have enough cash to cover activities, meals and tips in-between ATM visits and don’t rely solely on your cards. Just be sure not to carry too much cash on you at any one time.
4. There’s a tipping culture
Costa Rica has a tipping culture, especially for tour operators and hospitality workers so make sure you have some spare colones or US dollars on you to tip at bars and restaurants. If you aren’t familiar with tipping, downloading a free app like Tip Calculator may be useful. Just be sure to have it downloaded before you set off on your trip.
5. It isn’t a cheap travel destination
I had imagined Costa Rica would be quite a cheap, budget-friendly destination similar to south-east Asia but discovered it was more expensive than I thought. There are loads of adventure activities to do and we found food/drink prices to be on-par with Australian prices. I would just say, budget more than you think you need!
6. You may not need a visa to enter Costa Rica
As Australians, we were not required to get a visa to enter Costa Rica at the time of our visit in November 2019. Australians should also be sure to check the Smart Traveller website here for up-to-date travel advice, including visa and safety information.
7. You will need an ESTA if transiting through the USA
We were, however, required to get an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) to transit through the United States while going through LAX. Be sure to look into all visa requirements for Costa Rica and the USA prior to your departure. Australians can find up-to-date visa information on the Smart Traveller website here.
8. You will need to collect your luggage if transiting through the USA
If you’re transiting through the USA on your way to Costa Rica, just keep in mind you will need to collect your luggage on arrival into the US. We transited through LAX where we had to go through Border Control/Passport Control then collect our luggage, go through customs and drop our luggage off again in a designated drop-off area for those transiting. If you’re unsure what to do, just ask the ground staff at the airport.
9. There’s more than one San Jose airport
There are a number of airports that can easily be confused for San José, Costa Rica! When booking flights, be absolutely certain your booking is correct by looking for the ‘SJO’ airport code. I’ve heard a few horror stories of people booking flights to the wrong San Jose and not realising until they were at the airport.
10. The local language is Spanish
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish and locals are all too happy to help you learn a little Spanish as you go. Be sure to learn a few key phrases in Spanish before you depart for your trip. Knowing how to say hello, goodbye and thank you goes a long way. While we didn’t run into any language issues, we did have Google Translate on our phones with the Spanish language downloaded and ready to go, just in case we needed to use it or wanted to learn a few words as we went. It was really helpful!
11. Use Uber to get around
Uber is an easy, affordable way to get around in Costa Rica, especially for travellers. Be sure to download and set-up the app before you leave home as you’ll need to verify your mobile number and won’t be able to do that if you don’t have international roaming on your phone. Be sure to set the payment type to be through the app, not cash. We forgot and had a driver over-charge us in San José.
12. Pack for tropical weather
Make sure you’re prepared for tropical rain! This means packing a reusable poncho or rain jacket, waterproof shoes or hiking boots and sufficient waterproof gear that you can protect your cameras and valuables from a sudden deluge if needed. We found the conditions to be similar to mountain weather, meaning it can change on a dime so you need to be prepared to experience four seasons in one day. Quick-dry clothing is a great option.
13. Don’t pack too fancy
When it comes to packing I recommend skipping the fancy outfits and going for activewear and outdoor/adventure gear instead. I wore a few maxi dresses here and there but found I was comfortably, mostly, in my activewear with sneakers and a jacket or two I could pull over the top when it got cold and rainy. Matt mostly wore boardshorts, sweat-wicking t-shirts and his hiking boots.
14. Pack bug spray!
Make sure you pack some really good quality bug spray with DEET. We found we really needed it, especially when doing some outdoor hikes and activities. Don’t worry, if you do forget to bring it with you, there’s an abundance of bug spray to be bought at corner stores throughout Costa Rica.
15. Take your zoom lens with you
You’re going to be spotting a lot of wildlife in Costa Rica! But, honestly, most of it is going to be pretty far away and difficult to view clearly with the naked eye, let alone capture in a photograph. If snapping incredible animal and nature shots is important to you, be sure to pack or purchase a lens with great zoom capabilities.
16. There are no street addresses in Costa Rica
There are no street addresses in Costa Rica! To help find your way around be sure to use a free, offline app like maps.me to favourite the places you want to visit so you can navigate to them easily or show your driver if needed. Make sure you download the app and Costa Rica map before you leave home so you’re ready to go as soon as you arrive.
17. Be mindful of your personal security
As our first trip to Central America, we were unsure of what to expect in terms of safety. San José is where we felt the most on edge, mostly because we had read so many things about safety and were nervous before we arrived. We did see pickpockets operating, picking out tourists with open bags or those with backpacks that weren’t really paying attention.
Matt and I kept our cameras wrapped tightly around our wrists, didn’t carry anything of great value and kept our bags to the front of our bodies at all times and we didn’t have any issues! Pickpockets are opportunists so do not give them the opportunity to target you! If you’re catching public transport in Costa Rica you need to keep a close eye on your belongings at all times. Outside of San José, we didn’t have any issues at all but we still applied the same level of care, just to be sure.
18. The locals are absolutely lovely
Just to round out the point above, I want to take the time to share just how lovely Costa Ricans (also referred to as Ticos!) are. Every single local we met was so very warm and welcoming, greeting us with huge smiles and a friendly vibe. We felt included in the local community everywhere we went and our homestay experience in Santa Rosa de Pocosol, via Intrepid Travel, showed us first-hand how loving, passionate, vibrant and inclusive Ticos are.
19. Costa Rica is a pioneer of eco-tourism
I completely underestimated Costa Rica’s approach to ecotourism and was blown away by the impact it has had on the country. The country regularly ranks among the best ecotourism destinations in the world, having dedicated most of its land to conservation. By limiting where humans can go and banning hunting, the local animal and plant life have flourished! That’s why, when you visit Costa Rica, you’ll get to enjoy an abundance of wildlife and you’ll find the locals are very passionate about ecotourism too.
20. San José is mostly a gateway city
Before our visit, I had pictured San José as a place I would want to visit and spend quite a bit of time exploring. On visiting, I found it was smaller than I had imagined and more of a hub for locals who work in the central business areas. For tourists, it’s really just your arrival and departure point as all those awesome nature spots you want to visit are found outside San José. If you’re putting together your itinerary, you don’t really need to allow more than a day in San José.
21. Be prepared for Montezuma’s Revenge!
Matt and I didn’t hesitate when it came to eating in Costa Rica, diving right into the local street food scene mouth first! While we didn’t experience any issues, it’s a good idea to be prepared for Montezuma’s Revenge a.k.a Hot Snakes a.k.a diarrhoea. If you do experience it, don’t automatically assume it’s from bad food. It can also just be a case of our bodies not being used to the local food (i.e. a lot of rice and beans!). Carry some Imodium or similar with you, just in case.
22. Get ready to live la Pura Vida!
You’re going to hear the phrase, ‘Pura Vida!’ a lot in Costa Rica and, trust me, you’re going to love it! Pura Vida means Pure Life but in Costa Rica, it takes on a bigger meaning. The phrase can be used as a greeting or to share how you are (i.e. I’m doing great! Life is awesome!). If you don’t speak any Spanish, just memorise the phrase Pura Vida and the locals will love you.
23. Costa Rican food is delicious and inclusive
I was a bit unsure what to expect from the local cuisine in Costa Rica as I’ve never visited Central America before! Turns out, the food is absolutely delicious and there are loads of options for anyone who is vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free. I found the staff everywhere we ate were more than happy to modify meals to remove animal products for me – everyone was so nice!
Expect to eat a lot of rice and beans (note: I don’t really like rice and I loved the rice and beans in CR!) as well as seasonal vegetables, plantains and meat. We especially enjoyed stuffing ourselves with patacones and empanadas. If I can give you one piece of advice in Costa Rica, it’s to try lots of different food. I ended up enjoying things I never would’ve expected to enjoy otherwise!
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