15 Things You Should Know Before Travelling To Costa Rica
February 7, 2020
No matter how well-prepared you think you are, there’s always going to be surprises whenever you travel somewhere new. Although I definitely did my research before I decided to live in Costa Rica for 6 months, it’s simply impossible to know and be prepared for everything. It’s inevitable that you’ll learn some things along the way! Besides, isn’t that part of the excitement that comes with travelling? Nevertheless, after months of living and backpacking through Costa Rica, I do have some very useful tips to share! I’ve divided them into 4 sections: costs, health & safety, weather and food. Here are 15 things you should know before travelling to Costa Rica!
What You Should Know Before Visiting Costa Rica – My Top 15 Tips!
1. Costa Rica is expensive
If you come from Europe, the US or any other region with Western prices, you may assume that any country in Central-America is a lot cheaper than what you’re used to. Well, I regret to inform you that you’re wrong. I found out the hard way! Over the years, Costa Rica has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, especially for retired americans. Consequently, Costa Rica isn’t only catered to tourists, it’s catered to tourists with money. Sucks for us broke backpackers! I’m not saying it’s impossible to find cheaper dining options or accommodations, but in general, prices are higher than you would expect. To give you an idea: You easily pay $50/night for a mid-range hotel or Airbnb.
2. Avoid small supermarkets
Unfortunately, supermarkets are not an exception when it comes to the high prices in Costa Rica. However, there are some bigger ones – such as Pali & Super Compro – that are A LOT cheaper than the many small ones that can be found in most Costa Rican towns. Sometimes they’re a bit outside of the centre, but I would definitely suggest walking the extra mile if you’re looking to save money.
3. Service costs are a thing
At first glance a restaurant might seem affordable, until you get the check at the end of your meal. Prices add up quickly when you have to pay an extra 10% service costs + 15% taxes. It depends on the place how much they charge extra, so make sure to check the menu beforehand to avoid surprises!
4. Bring your own sunscreen, medication & anti-mosquito sprays
I strongly suggest to bring your own sunscreen, anti-mosquito sprays and any medication you might need. Apparently, locals don’t really use these things often, so it’s only there for tourists at ridiculously high prices.
5. They’re not afraid to rip off tourists
Another thing you should know before visiting Costa Rica is that you might get ripped off. This happens in many countries and Costa Rica is no different. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, pharmacies, etc.: some locals know there’s a big chance you have no idea whether it’s reasonable to pay c500 more or less and they do take advantage of it. I’ve had a taxi driver who’d agreed to a certain price, only to raise it by c2000 when we’d arrived at the destination. So ask around & be vigilant!
Bonus tip: Use Uber instead of regular taxis whenever you can (there’s plenty in San José but I’ve also seen some in Jacó & Tamarindo). They’re SO much cheaper and there’s no arguing about the price!
6. Pay in colones instead of US dollars
Colon is the local currency in Costa Rica, but you can also pay in US dollars everywhere you go. However, it’s more profitable for you to pay in colones than in US dollars, as many restaurants or stores will choose a high exchange rate. For example: for my allergy pills I got the option to pay c11000 or $22, which comes down to roughly €17 vs €20. Crazy, right?? Following the same principle: don’t exchange money at the airport, but pin it at a local ATM with a credit card.
HEALTH & SAFETY
7. Some roads are in bad condition
If you’re planning on renting a car, you need to be aware that although some roads are decent, others definitely are not. Depending on the season, roads can be flooded with water or if you go higher up, sudden fog can cloud your vision. On top of that, there’s still a lot of dirt roads that are bumpy as hell. That’s why anyone who knows Costa Rica will advise you to drive with caution and avoid driving at night. You should also be aware that because of the bad roads, dense jungle and many hills & volcanoes, certain beaches and small towns are hard to reach. What appears to be nearby on a map could easily be a 4-5h drive!
8. Be cautious of thieves
When I read online that someone was threatened with a machete for their money, I could hardly believe it. That was until it happened to me. I got lucky, but I’ve heard some concerning stories, so give your stuff immediately & DON’T put up a fight. Several people also had their stuff stolen when they left it unguarded at the beach. Conclusion: thieves could be hiding anywhere and some of them are not afraid to use violence (if you resist). However, the situation is nowhere near bad enough to avoid Costa Rica altogether. Just avoid being alone outside early in the morning or at night (esp. at the beach!), consider leaving really expensive or fancy equipment at home and you should be fine!
9. It’s not unusual to have an allergic reaction
Oh, how I wish I had thought of this! Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity and chances are you’re allergic to one of the millions of plants or trees that can be found in this country. It’s a common problem and one that hadn’t crossed my mind for a second. Nothing more annoying than sneezing and having red & swollen eyes during a lovely vacation. As I said, pills are crazy expensive, so bring your own just in case!
10. Don’t be afraid of (wild) animals
I don’t know about you but this was probably my main concern when I thought about living in the tropics. Before I left, I looked up all of the info on sharks, crocodiles, snakes, poisonous frogs, mosquitos (+ all of the diseases they carry) and so on. Luckily, the horror stories you read online make things seem so much worse than they are in reality. I haven’t had any issues so far (of course in most cases you only have to meet a crocodile once) and I’ve been to some seriously off the beaten path places. You’ll most likely see lots of harmless and cute animals, like below!
11. Be aware of rip currents
Do be afraid of rip currents! According to the Tico Times, rip currents are responsible for 80% of the 150-200 annual deaths by drowning in Costa Rica. So don’t be a macho (wo)man and go too far into the ocean! Also, there are warning signs everywhere, so it’s pretty hard to ignore.
12. Check the climate per month
You NEED to check the weather per month if you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica… unless you want to risk being stuck inside for your entire stay because of endless rainfall. I can already tell you that September & October are the best months for a visit to the Caribbean side, while the dry season lasts from December until May on the Pacific side. Keep in mind, though, that the dry season is REALLY dry (hardly any clouds & maybe 1 day of rain) and windy (lots of dust), so you must be able to stand the heat!
13. Weather apps are useless
Another thing you should know when visiting Costa Rica is that weather apps are completely useless. I quickly gave up on them once I realised they were never right (there are NO daily thunderstorms from morning to evening). The weather is just too unpredictable!
14. The food isn’t too great
I don’t know how spoiled you are when it comes to food, but for those of you who appreciate fine dining and a variety of tastes and ingredients, I wouldn’t get my expectations up too high. I’m not saying the food is bad: you can get a really tasty rice with chicken & fries for a decent price. However, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the national dish (red beans with rice and plantains) and in general, the options were quite limited.
15. Eat at the local sodas
Sodas are small, family-run restaurants that serve typical Costa Rican dishes. They’re your best bet when it comes to fresh, local food for an affordable price! In fact, you can’t find anything cheaper than a soda in Costa Rica that still serves quality food.
These are my best tips and all the things I could think off that you may want to know before travelling to Costa Rica. Now, don’t get me wrong, Costa Rica is still an amazing destination in spite of everything I just mentioned! I simply wanted to give all of the info I could think of, so you will be able to limit unpleasant surprises and arrive extremely well-prepared! Don’t hesitate to ask me anything in the comments if you happen to have any more questions 🙂