10 Best Costa Rica Travel Tips
Updated: Sep 14
Here are 10 best Costa Rica travel tips to make your vacation the best ever! When visiting a new country, it’s always best to familiarize yourself with local customs, basic safety, and logistical advice.
Is Costa Rica expensive? In a word, yes. Most goods are imported and that makes the cost of things equal to or more expensive than say in the United States. One tip, if you are looking to cut food expenses, is to eat some of your meals at local restaurants, called sodas, which serve delicious traditional Costa Rican fare, and to shop at fruit and vegetable stands if you are preparing some meals at your lodgings. There are grocery stores that cater to tourists, and those can be pricey. Seek out stores frequented by locals, such as Maxi Pali.
Is it safe to drink the water? In general the answer is yes. If you are staying in well established areas, the hotels and restaurants are generally safe places to drink the water. If you are in more rural areas, or just don’t want to take any chances, you might want to filter your water. There are good water bottle options that include a built-in filter, such as Life Straw. We had visitors a few years back who got sick, most likely from something in the water, and it made them miserable for a few days of their vacation. So our advice for first timers, who don’t want to risk missing any of their vacation, is to come prepared with a filtered water bottle, or a regular reusable water bottle and refill it from a trusted source before you head out on adventures.
Do I need to know Spanish? Costa Rica is a spanish-speaking country. But English (to varying degrees) is also widely spoken, especially in areas frequented by tourists. It is always helpful to understand a little of the language spoken in any country that you visit. At a minimum we recommend learning a few key phrases so that you can greet people and ask for help should you need it. Check out this handy cheat sheet of Spanish travel phrases.
What currency is accepted? The currency of the country is the Costa Rican Colon (CRC). US Dollars are accepted almost everywhere, however. Credit cards are also widely accepted, but sometimes not at smaller stores or restaurants, especially if you are not in tourist areas. Note that when paying with US dollars, you will be given change in colones. There are ATMs in most towns. Check with your bank ahead of time about fees and daily withdrawal limits for using ATMs in foreign countries.
Is it easy and safe to drive in Costa Rica? Costa Rica is small, roughly the size of West Virginia. However, it is a mountainous country with, at times, very rudimentary infrastructure. Roads are mostly two lanes, and the conditions can vary. Depending on where you are going some routes are perilous and not for the faint of heart. And even on good roads, it is not recommended to drive at night. There are rarely painted lines, oftentimes no shoulders, and in rainy or foggy conditions it can be impossible to see well enough to drive safely at night. Also, road work is unpredictable and can result in traffic delays. Our advice is to always allow more time than Google Maps or Waze (the app preferred by locals) predicts. And before driving a long distance, ask a local (hotel staff, etc.) if the route your app is suggesting is a good one. Sometimes the shortest distance option will take you on roads that are better suited for mountain goats than cars. And you may want to explore both rental cars and private transportation. Private transport options are plentiful, and can make a big difference if you are not up for the adventure of renting a car here. That being said, many people report that driving themselves was a part of the adventure that they really enjoyed. To explore private transport options, visit our Transport page. Here are a couple of blog posts that compare the pros and cons of renting a car vs. hiring private transport, and also some tips for renting a car. Rental Car vs. Private Transport in Costa Rica 12 Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Can I use Uber to get around? Uber operates in a legal gray area in Costa Rica, with the government turning a blind eye at the moment. It is also only widely available in the San Jose metropolitan area (with spotty coverage in a few other areas such as Quepos, Manuel Antonio, Liberia, and Tamarindo). It is technically available at the airport (SJO), but there is historical conflict between taxi drivers and Uber drivers. Uber drivers may ask one of your party to sit in the front seat to avoid drawing attention as a ride share vehicle. Because of this still contentious issue, and because taxi drivers can be very aggressive and are known to overcharge, we really don't feel comfortable recommending either option, at least to and from the airport. Also note that Uber doesn't operate out of the airport in Liberia (LIR) at all. We recommend shared or private shuttles, car rentals, and hotel shuttle services. If you are staying in the San Jose area for a day or two, once you are not at the airport, Uber may be a decent option for getting around the city.
Can I visit tourist locations without paying for a guide or a tour? Yes, and some people do this. However, we have to put in a plug here for the amazing tour guides who work throughout the country, offering their expertise, honed from many years of guiding, and from the extensive training and education they have received. We recommend guides who have been certified by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo, or ICT. They have completed a minimum of 1,000 hours of training, studying Costa Rica’s geography, natural and cultural history, wildlife, and more. They must demonstrate proficiency in English, and have learned basic first aid and safety protocols. When exploring Costa Rica with a certified guide, you will see things you could never spot on your own. They are skilled at knowing where to look for wildlife – one of the main reasons people come to Costa Rica! Also note that some locations, including many National Parks, require a guide. Even though we are a bit biased, we can honestly say that a quality guided tour is the best way to experience the adventures that Costa Rica is famous for. Some of our clients report that after spending a day with their guide, they almost feel like family. We work with ICT certified guides on all of our tours. For information about 12 different private tours that we operate, visit our tours page here. If you are interested in seeing the requirements for becoming a tour guide, you can read more here.
Who do I need to tip in Costa Rica and how much? Tipping is not as common here as it is in the US and many other countries. However, it is always appreciated, and many people in the hospitality and service industries rely on tips to supplement their hourly wage. Wages in Costa Rica are very low, Unskilled workers can make as little as $2.50 an hour. If you receive good service, tipping is a great way to say thank you and can really make a difference. 10% is the typical tipping amount. Workers you should consider tipping include: hotel cleaning staff and other helpful hotel and property management staff; shuttle drivers; tour guides; boat crews; and restaurant staff (if you want to tip beyond the 10% that is added to your bill automatically). Here is an article from the travel experts at Frommer’s for more detailed tipping guidelines.
What about the people who say they will watch your car for a fee? Are they legit? Yes and no. There are people at many tourist locations, often wearing some kind of reflective vest, who look official, who will offer to watch your car, usually for a few thousand colones (a few dollars). If your choices are finding a “free” spot that is not patrolled, and paying a few dollars, we recommend paying. While parking at many of these locations, including public beaches, is technically free, we wouldn’t risk the ire of the attendants. It’s a small price to pay for a bit more security.
How safe is Costa Rica for tourists? Costa Rica is touted as the safest country in Central America. However, as when traveling anywhere, it is smart to stay alert and use common sense. Most crime involving tourists is petty crime. The most common occurrences are items stolen from rental cars and items left unattended at the beach, especially in tourist locations. We can’t stress how important it is to never leave luggage or valuables in your car, even for a few minutes. When you think about how quickly your vacation could be ruined, it just isn’t worth it to take chances. If you need to pop into a grocery store with valuables and luggage in the car, have someone from your party stay with the car. And never leave your belongings on the beach while you swim. Even if you can see them while you are in the water. It takes just a few seconds for someone who has been watching to quickly walk away with your belongings before you can even get out of the water. Invest in a waterproof fanny pack or dry bag, or take turns going in the water. We also recommend not drawing attention to yourself with expensive jewelry - it’s best to leave it at home (a good recommendation when traveling in any foreign country). If your lodgings provide a safe, use it to lock up any valuables when you are out, including your passport if you are not carrying it with you. If you follow these suggestions, you will drastically reduce your chances of becoming a victim of theft.
We hope that these tips will be helpful as you plan your Costa Rican vacation. While we would love to just tell you about the spectacular wildlife, the gorgeous beaches, the magnificent waterfalls, and the warm and friendly Costa Rican people, we think that helping you to take practical steps to safeguard your vacation serves all of us well in the end. Our blog contains many additional articles that may help you in your vacation planning.
The Costa Group specializes in luxury vacation planning through our custom itinerary service. We also offer stand-alone tours, popular vacation packages, boat charters, and a whole host of concierge services. We invite you to learn more by visiting us at www.costagroupcr.com. ¡Pura Vida!