what to watch out for in costa rica
Although there is a lot of information about Costa Rica on the web, there is still so much misinformation. Yeison, my other half behind this blog is Costa Rican so in this post, we give our local tips to help you have a fun and stress free time in Costa Rica.
1. Costa Rica is not as cheap people think
This is one of the most important things to know about Costa Rica. Many people assume that Central America automatically equals cheap travel. Nope.This is the biggest common misconception about Costa Rica. Yes, its neighbor, Nicaragua is dirt cheap but it’s is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America so you can stretch your money very far there.
Those who don’t know this about Costa Rica get a nasty surprise when they see prices here. Tours can easily cost $100 USD, food can be the same price as Canada/USA/Europe and gas is nearly twice as much as the USA. Without careful planning, you can blow through hundreds of dollars fairly quickly.
But we can help! Read about the cost of Costa Rica in these posts to help you stay within your budget.
Cost of traveling in Costa Rica: See how much food, transportation, tours, hotels and souvenirs cost.
Save money in Costa Rica: Our local insider tips for saving money traveling in Costa Rica.
Cheap things to do in Costa Rica:
Activities under $20 USD.
1 week Costa Rica budget: See how much 3 people spent in Costa Rica for 1 week.
2. Costa Rica is a small country but it takes longer than it seems to get around
Costa Rica is a little smaller than West Virginia and Denmark so it’s easy to think you can road trip the whole country in a week. Technically you can, but trust me, that wouldn’t be very fun!
This is because of the not so great infrastructure so the roads in Costa Rica are never as the crows fly. Many routes only have one lane which causes lots of congestion and traffic as all the trailer trucks use the same route. There is no one road that goes all around Costa Rica either.
So when planning out your driving routes, make sure you always add at least 1 hour to whatever Google Maps or what your GPS says.
For example, Tamarindo to San Jose is 259 kilometers or 161 miles. On a good day if we leave at like, midnight or 4 in the morning, it takes us 4 hours. However, due to lots of construction and more people on the road, the average drive time now is 5.5 hours. One time it took us 10 hours because an deadly accident occurred on the one lane roads. Unfortunately we were standstill for 2 hours and we ended up arriving in San Jose during rush hour.
This is one of the mistakes to avoid when traveling in Costa Rica. Don’t try to drive everywhere and always know that your drive will take longer than what the GPS says. For a one week trip it’s best to choose 2 destinations or pick a home base and do day trips. Plan smart, travel easy.
Tap water is safe to drink in Costa Rica
In the cities and mountains, you can indeed drink the tap water. Hotels will indicate whether the water is safe and tour guides will let you know which faucets to use. We love the tap water in Monteverde, that mountain water is delicious!
Though tap water is generally safe to drink, I still recommend bringing a filter if you’re sensitive. You can also help the environment by bringing an insulated water bottle and filters instead of buying bottled water.
The more remote and rural places generally don’t have drinkable tap water and will provide bottled water. These are places like Tortuguero, Osa Peninsula, Santa Teresa, Sarapiqui and Golfito.
Dengue, not malaria is the main disease from mosquitoes in Costa Rica
The mosquito borne disease travelers should concern themselves with in Costa Rica is dengue fever, not malaria. Costa Rica has many more cases of dengue than Malaria and Zika.
Remember, mosquitoes are in Costa Rica year round and are worse in rainy season. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water so bring plenty of repellent and cover up. Read our tips for protecting yourself against mosquitoes in Costa Rica.
Extra travel safety tip: Make sure to purchase travel insurance just in case you do catch something! You can read more about Costa Rica travel insurance in this post.
Costa Rica gets cold but it doesn’t snow
Costa Rica experiences typical tropical weather but it has many micro-climates. It doesn’t snow but it does get quite cold in some areas due to the high elevation.
Some of the colder areas are Monteverde, Poas, Vara Blanca, San Isidro de Perez Zeledon, Chirripo and San Gerardo de Dota. Temperatures in those areas can get down to a chilly 50s Fahrenheit (10 C) at night if the winds are strong. The coasts stay nice and hot, mostly in the 80s and 90s (27 – 32 C) during the day.
Make sure to research the area you are visiting so you come prepared. For packing tips, check out our Costa Rica packing list to see what you need to bring for different activities and destinations.
US dollars are readily accepted and are the standard currency in tourism
Hotels and tour companies quote their prices in USD in Costa Rica. This is because for many years, tourists to Costa Rica were mainly from the USA. Additionally, Costa Ricans can have bank accounts in USD as mortgages and car payments are quoted in USD. US dollars have become the standard currency in tourism.
So when you’re trying to get your money together, don’t stress too much about exchanging it all beforehand as it’s not 100% necessary if you are from the USA. USD is accepted in pretty much every touristic destination.
If you are Canadian however, it will be better for you to have Costa Rican currency due to the Canadian dollar and USD exchange rate. Ask the hotels or tour companies if you can pay in colones instead and how much the exchange would be. Canadian dollars and other currencies are not accepted in Costa Rica, only USD.
Also make sure you check what the exchange rate is. Since the exchange rate is around 620 CRC to 1 USD, some places may try to stiff you by using a 500 to 1 rate and you will lose out a bit. The exchange rate changes daily so always ask if you are paying in USD. The best place to exchange currency is at the bank, not at the airport exchange rate booth.
You can still visit Costa Rica in rainy season and have a great time!
Dry season in Costa Rica has the best weather. Thanks to the sunny days, it is also our high tourism season because everyone wants to escape the winter up north.
Costa Rica’s rainy season is around beginning of May to end of Nov/beginning of December. The rainiest months for most of Costa Rica is September and October and November and June for the Caribbean.
Yes it rains and you do need to pack and research more for rainy season. But you will still have a great time!
Here are some other things to know about why it’s actually awesome to visit Costa Rica in rainy season.
Rainy season is also Costa Rica’s low season.
This means less tourists!
Prices for hotels and tours decrease. It’s the best time to travel cheap in Costa Rica.
A typical rainy season day is sunny and hot in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon and rainy in the evening/night.
Rainy season is the best time to see certain wildlife like whales and turtles.
To read more about visiting Costa Rica in rainy season, click the link. Personally, we love rainy season in Costa Rica. Less crowds, not as hot, more wildlife and it’s cheaper!
Sloths aren’t everywhere (sorry)
As much as I hate to break it to you, sloths aren’t everywhere. I know Costa Rica markets their cuddly sloths so much it seems that the roads are crawling with them but it’s not true. Sloths, being the masters of camouflage, are normally very difficult to see without a guide or trained eye.
Additionally, there are some places where sloths aren’t found in Costa Rica which a lot of tourists don’t realize. For example, it is incredibly difficult to see one in Guanacaste due to the extremely dry climate. But if you visit the South Pacific or the Caribbean coast, sloths are much more common.
One of the main “complaints” I’ve heard from visitors is that they didn’t see a sloth. I asked them where they were in Costa Rica and many of them were at the Pacific coast or in the city where sloths don’t live. So if you want to see a sloth, then you need to go to where they live! Find out where are the best places to see sloths in Costa Rica in our guide.
To make sure you see a sloth, hire a guide. They have trained eyes and will have binoculars or telescopes to find them.
Police can stop and ask for your papers at any time
In Costa Rica, police are legally allowed to stop any car and ask for papers. Always have a color copy of your passport and photo of your tourist stamp with you. Remember that to legally drive in Costa Rica as a tourist, you need to have your original passport (not a color copy), your original driver’s license and a valid tourist stamp with you.
If a police stops you, they’ll ask you for your passport, ask you where you’re going and then send you on your way. Most of the time they don’t ask anything else and many of them speak a degree of English.
Also something else to note is that the police in Costa Rica are generally very nice. They don’t have a “shoot first ask later” mentality here and are willing to help tourists out.
Wi-Fi is readily available
…at hotels. It is common for hotels to offer free Wi-Fi and many of them have it available throughout the whole property. Some hotels may only have it in reception but it is free.
However, it’s hard to find open Wi-Fi in public places. It’s not like NYC where you can find a Starbucks and use the free Wi-Fi. If you see a restaurant with a secure Wi-Fi connection, you can ask them for the password. I’ve found most places are OK with giving it out as long as you are a customer.