You will find here most of the practical information you need to prepare your trip :
Air : Juan Santamaria
International Airport, 17km northwest of San Jose and 3km southeast of Alajuela
would be an excellent entry or exit point to the area. It boosts all the
necessary facilities and good public connections to the two above towns from
just outside. Arriving by night, Alajuela would be a safer (and nicer) place to
look for an hotel but the Capital remains the safest of all Central America's
Land : Most
travelers visit Costa Rica on their way to somewhere else and will use one of
the two borders with Nicaragua (usually Penas
Blancas) and Panama (usually Sixaola).
The administrative procedures are fairly efficient and reasonably fast. In
theory, there is no government tax to enter or exit. In practice, there may be a
municipal tax and a need to buy a stamp : it was US$3 to enter at Penas Blancas
and less than US$1 to exit at Sixaola for example. It was however free to enter
at Sixaola... Some travelers reported a "vaccination scam" : locals
and tourists are requested to buy a shot. Play the dumb tourist or show your
Visitors from most developed countries will get a free 90 days visa on arrival.
From the weather point of view, most of Costa Rica can basically be visited year-round. Due to the state of some roads, the rainy season (winter) from May to mid-November (with peaks of rain in September or October), often makes traveling the most remote places (like the Nicoya Peninsula) impossible without a strong 4WD. There are no public transports anyway...
From the touristy point of view, things should however be prepared very carefully as Costa Rica is very popular with American tourists. The worst time to visit is during the peak season from December to after Eastern : prices increase and you usually need to book your hotel and bus seat in advance. Summer is also busy. I would not recommend visiting Costa Rica during those times. The months of April (after Eastern), May, June and September to November are the best months to avoid the crowd's and budget's annoyances.
Showing up during the peak season with a budget to follow, you may wish to escape as soon as possible. Using the service of Ticabus would be a way to skip the country altogether but it would be a pity : not all the localities are that touristy and traveling with public bus is certainly more colorful...
During the low season (also called "green season"), allow at least two weeks to "explore" the country, three being better.
Costa Rica's currency, the colon, floats freely against the American dollar and was worth C326 at the time of my visit. Prices are however often quoted in dollars, in the souvenirs shops or guesthouses. See the banknotes
As for all the countries in the area, currencies other than US$ are very difficult to change and neighboring currencies should be changed at the borders.
Changing Travelers Cheques is fairly easy but the costs vary greatly between banks, money changers and localities. In addition to a different rate, most will indeed have a commission ranging from 0.75% to 1.5%. But not all: Banco Credit, by the border with Nicaragua (and only there), was free of commission for American Express TC (and only those) for example. In remote places, rates are fairly poor and planning ahead is a good idea.
Plastic (Visa, Mastercard or Cirrus) is well accepted and convenient to use in Costa Rica for payment or cash advance. A commission may however be charged by some businesses and most ATM machine still do not accept foreign cards. There is also the cost with your bank back home...
Costa Rica is, with Belize and Panama, one of the most expensive country to visit in the area during the low season and probably the most expensive country during the high season. During the low season, you could survive with less than US$15 per day. Expect around US$20 during the high season. Plus the entrance fees...
During the low season, you can usually find a basic room without shower for US$5 per person. Add a few dollars and you will get a comfortable room with shower. During the high season, expect at least a 20% increase, if you can get a room !
The food is more expensive than in the other countries, although you may find some excellent deals. Expect to pay between US$2-3 for a basic meal in a small restaurant. Remember that most restaurants do not include the government tax (around 13%) nor the service charge (10%).
Tap water is drinkable in most places but not everywhere. Where needed, the gallon of water would cost between US$1.5 and $2 and the 1.5L bottle around US$0.75.
Transport is reasonably priced, with a three hours trip on local bus usually costing US$2. On some routes, only "luxury" buses are however available or recommendable, for twice as much.
The entrance fees are the real budget killers : most national parks cost US$6 but some go as high as US$10. As for tours, excursions or adventures, expect between US$20 and $35. You nearly need a separate budget !
See Passplanet's Cost Table for more details.
Costa Rica is a fairly healthy country to visit and common sense is the only requirement.
As the tap water is safe to drink in quite a few places, there is less need to be cautious with vegetables and local ice creams. Just ask around to be sure.
It is recommended to follow a Malaria prophylaxis treatment (usually Nivaquine) for the whole country. The risk is maximum in the remote areas during the rainy season. Avoiding the bites is always the best idea.
Being up to date with your inoculations (polio, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria) is of course essential and adding hepatitis A and B is recommended.
The safety issues in some areas : Although Costa Rica is the safest country to visit in the area, horror stories have been heard as well. The Capital and the North Coast are basically the two black spots and extreme care must be taken there at night.
Visiting during the high season, from November/December to Santa Semana : prices increases as rooms become scarce. It is recommended to book in advance and buy your onward bus ticket as early as possible. That's a lot of annoyances just to share the place with thousands of Americans !
The higher cost ? Costa Rica has the reputation of being the most expensive country in the area. Actually, it is probably Belize. Visiting during the low season, I noticed only a slight difference (of a couple of dollars a day) with the other neighboring countries. Accomodation is a bit more pricey but you will usually get a room with a shower. The food is much more expensive at equal quality but you can still manage to find the tipico meal for a couple of dollars. Transports are bad but quite cheap. No, the only problem with Costa Rica is the following...
The entrance fees and tour costs : Costa Rica is a rather cheap place to visit, as long as you do not visit its attractions ! Most national parks indeed cost $6 and some up to $10. What is worse, some of them have no public transport : you will need to rent a car or take a taxi. Indulging in any touristy activity will also shaken your budget : a canopy tour is $35, an horse ride $20. Waterfalls cost from $3 to $5 on average. Even the bike cost $10 per day !
The government taxes : During your trip, you should hear complains about the government taxes at least a dozen of times from guesthouses owners. They are very fast at showing you the very little money they put into their pocket if they follow the rules. From this point of view, what they charge you indeed appears very reasonable... With restaurants, beware ! You could get a 13% government tax and a 10% service charge extra !
The state of the roads and public transports ? Costa Rica is the most touristy place in the area but it still boosts some of the worst road. A good method to keep the crowd away (like in Monteverde area). That would not be too bad actually, if you had frequent buses. This is not the case and Costa Rica is the only country where you regularly have to wait a couple of hours at the bus stations. On some routes, do not show up late : there is only one bus a day ! And beware : those buses may be crowded even during the low season ...
The tourist crowd : even in low season, you are likely to see as many foreigners as local people. On the tourist path, few places offers authenticity.
The country for sale : Costa Rica sometimes seems to be the property of Americans and you will see signs "Land for sale" at every corner ! This of course drives the prices up and local people are having an hard time to keep up with the costs...
The lack of culture : Costa Rica is certainly not a place to visit for its cultural
attractions : there aren't any ! Even its cities lack the colonial atmosphere of the other countries. And because of the tourist crowd, the way of life of the locals is fairly westernized.
Notwithstanding the above, let's remind you that 98% of the backpackers we asked said they liked Costa Rica, that 78% would happily come back and that 91% would recommend it around ! See Why Go for more details...
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