Tips, tricks and cheats for traveling in Costa Rica
Last updated: Mar 29, 2014
Currency and finances
- 500 colones (CRC) is $1 US. The easiest way to do the math in your head, is to double the cost of an item and take off the zeros. Ex. Lunch costs 2,000 colones. Multiply by 2 and take off the zeroes and you get $4.
- If the ATM says your card is invalid, try another ATM. Most likely it’s a problem with the ATM and not with your card. Also make sure to get your card back when you're finished, if you forget the machine will probably eat it and you will have to come back to the branch 24 hours after to pick it up.
- Tipping is not necessary and is often included in the bill at most tourist restaurants (though not on tours), but if you're feeling generous… go right ahead.
- Visa and Mastercard are the most commonly accepted credit cards. You'll be able to pay with credit and debit at most places throughout the country.
- It's possible to get a forged Costa Rican bill. Hold your larger denomination bills up to the light and check for the hidden bands and any irregularities.
- There are no addresses in Costa Rica so everything is done the old-fashioned way "Walk 200 meters (aka 2 blocks) past the church and turn right at the post office. It's the third house on the left with the green paint)."
- Costa Rica has many two-lane highways. Be careful while driving on them because those double lines mean nothing. Drivers will pass at any opportunity (even when there isn't one) so just give them room and let them pass.
- You will have to buy Costa Rican car insurance if you're renting a car. Don't bother buying insurance ahead of time because the rental agency is just going to charge you again when you pick-up your car.
- Local buses have these sensors that stick up vertically and are usually placed at the top of the steps. If you are just asking for directions, DO NOT CROSS the sensors or the driver will force you to pay the fare.
- If you're taking a bus to the Pacific, it's pretty safe to store your luggage underneath the bus while traveling, but make sure they tag your luggage and keep the ticket. If you're taking a bus to the Caribbean, we suggest you keep your luggage with you and store it overhead on the bus, luggage theft is more often on the Caribbean and the bus companies don't tag your luggage.
- Negotiate taxi fares ahead of time, even with the official red taxis. In general, whether or not taxi drivers will turn on their meters depends on where you are in the country. Unofficial taxis are known as piratas (pirates) but don't appreciate the title, so don't call them that. There is a third kind of taxi, called a collectivo (collective), you'll know them by the blue circle on the side of the car. Collective taxis are similar to buses, they'll pick you and anyone else up on the way as long as you're headed in the same direction, but they're cheap.
- A soda, is not a fizzy drink in Costa Rica. Well, it is, but more likely it's referring to a typical Costa Rican restaurant of the same name. These small family-owned restaurants are where you'll find the country's most authentic and affordable dishes.
- Empanadas (turnovers) are cheap, greasy and delicious. They are the best on-the-go food in the country. Keep an eye out for them at bus stations and corner stores.
- Bocas are small plates of food, similar to appetizers, you can order while sitting at a Costa Rican bar – ceviche, chifrijo and pretty much everything else are well worth a taste.
- A casado is a cheap ubiquitous dish that is the common throughout the country. It consists of a choice of meat, rice, beans, fried plantains, vegetables and a salad, or some combination therein. Never pay more than $6 for a casado, it's just not worth it.
- Salsa Lizano is like Costa Rica's ketchup. Costa Ricans put it on everything, but mostly on rice and beans. It's green, savory, a little bit tangy, not at all spicy and totally addicting.
- Costa Ricans like to add actual ketchup to their fried rice. You'll balk at first, but give it a try.
- If you ask for hot sauce you'll get one of three things: Chillero, a chili sauce that's kind of sweet; tabasco, Lizano's rip-off of the American Classic that's got a little more heft than the American counterpart; chile sauce, a homemade hot sauce made with vinegar, tamarind, chilies and a whole lot of heat. It's different everywhere you go, but it's always delicious.
- Gallo Pinto is a recipe made with mixed rice and beans, onions and bell peppers. It's the most common breakfast food in the country. This is different than Rice and Beans, which is a Caribbean dish made with mixed rice and beans infused with coconut.
- It's true, time moves slower in Costa Rica and so does everything else from food orders to buses. Don't be that guy. Just relax and let life happen.
- It's better to smile, say "not thanks" while looking someone in the eye than it is to be rude when someone is trying to sell something to you. These people are often in the same location and you're likely to run into them again. Plus Costa Ricans are mostly helpful and are glad to help you out even if you don't buy anything.
- Pura Vida, pronounced pooruh-veeduh, is the national phrase. It translates to "pure life", but carries a thousand different meanings from thank you, well-being to excitement or goodbye.
- Water is safe to drink in most of the country, except the Caribbean. Everyone has different reactions to drinking water in new countries so make sure to drink a glass and see the effects before drinking it regularly.
- Imperial, Pilsen and Bavaria are all brewed by the same brewery. Imperial and Pilsen are virtually identical (though everyone seems to have a favorite), but Pilsen has a slightly higher alcohol by volume.
- 18 is the legal drinking age in the country. Bars have no set time for closing, it just depends on their liquor license and where they are located in the country.
- It's hard to be a smoker in Costa Rica. Smoking is prohibited in all public places, even the national parks and the beaches. Keep that in mind the next time you light up. On the bright side, cigarettes are probably a lot cheaper than you're used to.