With 1.9 million travelers visiting Costa Rica annually, travel is quite popular and common. Still, travelers to Costa Rica should exercise caution. The emergency number in Costa Rica is 911.
Traffic in Costa Rica is dangerous, so be careful. Pedestrians in general do not have the right of way. Roads in rural areas may also tend to have many potholes. Driving at night is not recommended.
Use common sense. Do not leave valuables in plain view in a car or leave your wallet on the beach when going into the water. Close the car windows and lock the car or other things that you might not do in your own country.
In the cities, robbery at knife point is not altogether uncommon.
The capital of San Jose is usually packed with foot traffic during any part of the day. However the streets rapidly become deserted shortly after dark when the public buses stop running. It is extremely dangerous to be walking in San Jose after dark when there is no foot traffic, and if you find yourself in this situation, it is recommended you find a taxi to go to wherever you need to go.
Buses and bus stops - especially those destined for San Jose - are frequent locations for robbery. Any bus rider who falls asleep has a good chance of waking up and finding his baggage missing. Don't trust anyone on the buses to watch your things, especially near San Jose.
Like any other tourist destination, watch out for pickpockets.
Purse snatching, armed robberies and car-jacking have been on the rise lately. Stay alert and protect your valuables at all times, especially in the San Jose area.
"Smash and grabs" of car windows do happen, so do not leave valuables in your vehicle, or if you must, make sure they are not visible.
Another common robbery scheme includes slashing your tires, then when you stop to fix the flat, one or two "friendly" people stop to help and instead grab what valuables they can.
If you are motioned to pull over by anyone, do not do so until you are at a well-lit and safe place.
Make use of hostel or hotel lock boxes if they are really secure – this is great when you want to swim or kick back and really not worry.
On a long trip, it's advised that you make back-up CDs or DVDs of your digital photos and send a copy back home. In the event that you are robbed, you will thank yourself!
When encountering a new currency, learn the exchange rate from a reliable source online ahead of time or a local bank, preferably and create a little cheat sheet converting it to US dollars or the other Central American currency you are comfortable with. Travel with small denominations of US dollars crisp 1s, 5s, 10s as back-up... usually you'll be able to use them if you run out of local currency.
Go to a bank to change money when possible and practical. If you find yourself needing to use the services of a person who is a money changer Sunday morning at the border, for instance make sure to have your own calculator. Do not trust money changers and their doctored calculators, change the least amount of money possible and take a hard look at the bills – there's lots of false ones out there. Always insist that your change be in small bills – you'll lose more at one time if a large bill is false, plus large bills are hard to change even the equivalent of USD20 in Costa Rica or USD5 in Nicaragua can be difficult in some small towns, believe it or not! Money changers do not use the official exchange rate - you are better off going to a state owned bank to exchange your currency at no fee.
Do not exchange money at the San Jose airport in the luggage area. The exchange rate used there is not the official rate and you will get a lot fewer colones. However there is a bank upstairs that has fair rates, it is next to where you pay your departure tax.
Traveling alone is fine and generally safe in Costa Rica, but carefully consider what kind of risks if any you are willing to take. Always hike with other people and try to explore a new city with other people. On solo forays, if you feel uncomfortable seek out a group of other people both women and men. A well lit place with people you can trust is always a plus. A busy restaurant or hostel is a great source of local info as well as a great place to relax and recharge.
Costa Rica has one of the highest levels of social care in the world. Its doctors are known worldwide as some of the best. Many people from U.S, Canada and Europe go there to be treated, not only because the quality of the service but for the cost. First class Hospitals can be found in the capital. There is a public/private hospital system. There is excellent care in each. The public system has much longer waits, while the private system has shorter waits. If you are unfortunate enough to have a very sick child requiring hospitalization, the child will be transferred to the only children's hospital in CR, located in the capital. This children's hospital is public.
There have been outbreaks of dengue fever in some areas of the country and an outbreak of malaria was reported in November 2006 from the province of Limon but just a few cases. Protection against mosquito bites is very important, wearing lightweight long pants, long sleeved shirts and using insect repellents with high concentrations of DEET is recommended by the CDC. If you are going to be in very rural areas known to be malaria-infested areas, you might want to consider an anti-malarial med. However, most travelers to Costa Rica do just fine with updated childhood immunizations and taking preventative measures against mosquito bites rather than take anti-malarial medication. The CDC has a complete list of recommended vaccines when traveling to Costa Rica.
Tap water in urban areas of the country is almost always safe to drink. However, being cautious may be in order in rural areas with questionable water sources.
The international calling code/country code for Costa Rica is 506.A postage stamp to Europe is 125 Colones around 21 US cents.
The primary means of outside contact are through email and public pay telephones.
Internet cafes are fairly easy to find in tourist areas, with prices all over the place. Some of these offer long distance calls over the internet.
Public phones are accessed with calling cards tarjetas telefonicas which can be purchased at most shops, even in outlying areas.
There are four different types of pay-phones:
Coin phones very rare. Note that these only accept the older silver-colored coins.
Chip phones. These phones allow you to insert a chip-type calling card into them and make your calls.
Colibri phones. These phones have a small swipe bar for a scratch off type calling card referred to as a Colibri calling card which are available from 500 colones and up. The swipes often don't work--you always have to enter the calling card access code on the keypad. Despite this, the Colibri calling card is the recommended one to buy as you can use it any of the types of phones whereas with a chip card you must search for a chip phone.
Multipago multi-pay phones. These phones accept coins, chip cards and colibri cards. Most public phones around the country have been changed for this type of phones. They also allow you to send SMS messages and emails as well.
Both types of calling cards are typically available in pharmacies and other locations where you see the sticker on the door.
Domestic calls are quite cheap and the price is the same wherever you call. Calls to cellular phones are charged significantly more though.
International calls are fairly expensive. The cheapest way to make them is over the internet using a service such as Skype at an Internet café. But making short calls using the domestic calling cards you can make international calls using these but the denominations of the calling cards are quite small so your call will be short! or the international calling cards available within Costa Rica is the next best deal. Certainly better than credit card calls or using a US calling card generally.
Cell service in Costa Rica is provided using GSM technology at 1800 MHz and 3G data operating at 850MHz. Note that the GSM phone systems in the United States and Canada use different frequencies and that travelers from there will need a "world" handset, such as a tri-band or quad-band phone, if you want to use your existing cell phone. Most of the country has very good GSM coverage including most of the capital. Roaming is possible with a GSM handset i.e. using your regular cell number that you use in your home country but can be extremely expensive.
If you want to use a local Costa Rica number, you can rent cell phone service, and of course anyone can buy a cell phone. You used to have to be a documented resident of the Costa Rica to own your own cell phone number, and even then you only got one if there are numbers available. You still have to be a resident if you want monthly billed service to an address such as in the U.S.. But since the passage of the CAFTA treaty in 2009, the government cell phone monopoly has been broken and service is now provided by many operators, including Grupo ICE (http://www.grupoice.com) under the Kölbi brand, TuYo Movil reselling the ICE service, Movistar and Claro the latter two also providing service throughout Latin America. Currently coverage on Kölbi is best because the network is the oldest and most built out e.g. there is no Movistar service in Monteverde. Update: 2014-11-2 There is now HSPA+ Movistar service in Monteverde.
If you have an unlocked cell phone either one from home or bought in Costa Rica -- all cell phones sold in Costa Rica must be unlocked, prepaid prepago SIM cards can provide a local number and service can be purchased throughout the country by anyone with a passport from any country, or a cedula Costa Rican ID card. At the baggage claim at the San José airport is a Kölbi kiosk, and you will also see signs Kölbi, Movistar, Claro, and others throughout the country where service is for sale. Rates are set by the government and you can get a SIM for as little as USD2 Movistart 2014-11-1 and 3G or sometimes just EDGE data service is also available by the day, week, or month for ¢300 or less a day. To add value you buy a recarga recharge card, scratch off the card to get a PIN, and text the PIN from your phone to a special number. To keep the card active, it must be recharged at least once in a 120 day period. If it is not charged within a 120 days, you have a 30 day grace period before your SIM chip is deactivated and you lose your phone number. Also keep in mind that you may have trouble getting your SIM activated on Sunday, because like many things in Costa Rica, the SIM activation system may be shut down on Sundays. Also not all shops sell SIMs -- many just sell the recharge cards. Get your SIM at the airport if you can.
Most tourist areas hotels, coffee shops, bars, restaurants have Wi-Fi access for free. Just ask someone for the password. You can bring your smart phone loaded with skype or google phone and make calls to your home country. It is an easy way to stay connected with email and social media.
Spanish is the official and most spoken language in Costa Rica. All major newspapers and official business are conducted in Spanish. English is used widely in most areas, especially those frequented by tourists, and information for visitors is often bilingual or even exclusively in English. A number of businesses operated by European proprietors can accommodate guests in Spanish, English and their native languages.
Some Costa Rican colloquial expressions:
Mae or sometimes "Maje" is used akin to the American English word 'dude'. Generally spoken among the male population, or among friends. It is as informal as the word 'dude'. Mae is mostly used by the younger population and Maje by the older population. It is pronounced 'maheh'.
Pura vida, literally translated as "pure life," is an expression common to Costa Rica. It can be used in several contexts, as an expression of enthusiasm, agreement, or salutation. It's pronounced 'poora veeda'.
Tuanis, means "OK" or "cool." Was believed to be taken from English phrase "too nice", but it is actually a word borrowed from the Código Malespín, a code developed for communication during the various Central American civil wars in the XIX century.
A prevalent version of slang in Costa Rica, and other regions of Latin America, is called "pachuco", "pachuquismo" or "costarriqueñismo" and is used by all social classes to some degree, however, it can be at times vulgar and is considered an informal way of speaking.
For the word "you" singular informal form, instead of "tú", most people of the Central Valley use "vos" as in "vos sos" - you are which is also common to other American dialects of Spanish Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala..., but the word "usted" is prominent in south Pacific Costa Rica and preferred over "vos". Either way, formal Spanish is understood and you may use any form of the word "you" you consider proper.
Costa Ricans tend to use the term Regaláme, literally "gift me", instead of "get me". An example is when a Costa Rican says: "regáleme la cuenta", literrally "gift me the bill", which is unusual to other Spanish speaking countries, however, it is a very common Costa Rican term. Another such case might be when Costa Ricans go out to buy something, in which case they might use the term this way: "Regáleme un confite y una Coca", literally, "Gift me a piece of candy and a Coke", but it is understood that the person asking is going to buy said things and is not expecting the other to gift him or her those things. A more precise phrase in standard Spanish would be: "Me vende un confite y una Coca", meaning: "Sell me a piece of candy and a Coke".
Limonense Creole Mekatelyu
As well as Costa Rican Spanish, there is also an English-based Creole language spoken in Limón Province on the Caribbean Sea coast of Costa Rica. It is called Limonese Creole or Mekatelyu. This Creole language is similar to varieties such as Colón Creole, Miskito Coastal Creole, Belizean Kriol language, and San Andrés and Providencia Creole since all originated from English seafarers and settlers. The name Mekatelyu is a transliteration of the phrase "make I tell you", or in standard English "let me tell you". It is basically English language however it has a very distinctive pronunciation and vocabulary very similar to Jamaican English.
Marijuana traffic, distribution and commerce is illegal in Costa Rica, despite recreational marijuana use being quite popular among locals, as there is absence of law when you carry marijuana for personal use quantities only a few joints although police could try to get money from you or keep you in the local commissary for up to 12 hours. The United States DEA is also present in Costa Rica and they have been known to disguise themselves as tourists. There is a Costa Rican equivalent of the DEA as well. It is not advised to do illegal drugs in Costa Rica. It is also not advised to bribe a police officer. Do so at your own risk.
According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, about 200 medical procedures are performed every month at the nation's hospitals for medical tourists. Among the procedures done are cosmetic surgery, knee and hip replacement, cataract removal and other eye treatments, weight loss surgery and dental care. Health care in Costa Rica is attractive for international patients because of the low prices, high care standards, and access to tourist attractions. For example, a hip replacement costs around USD12,000 and a tummy tuck costs around USD4,400.
The main medical tourism centers are CIMA Hospital, Hospital Clinica Biblica and Hospital Hotel La Catolica. In turn, these hospitals use medical tourism facilitators who can arrange every aspect of your trip from beginning to end.
beaches, weather and wildlife
The coasts of Costa Rica are known for strong currents and rip-tides in some areas but most of them are great to be with the family. Costa Rica has some of the best beaches in the world. The Atlantic coast is just five hours away from the Pacific one and both offer completely different views and landscapes. There are no signs indicating an unsafe beach due to riptides, so take precautions and listen to the locals on where it is safe to swim. The public beaches do not have life guards. A traveler should learn how to swim out of a rip tide and not swim alone. There are some active volcanoes in Costa Rica and they are dangerous, so follow the warning signs posted. The slopes of the Arenal volcano invite visitors to climb closer to the summit, but there have been fatalities in the past with unseen gas chambers. Also be wary of the climate of Costa Rica. It is very hot in the daytime, but in the morning and evening it becomes very cool, so you should bring a light weight jacket.
Crocodilesare quite common in certain parts of Costa Rica and, although not as dangerous as the Nile or saltwater species, are still considered occasional man-eaters and can grow to lengths of up to 20 feet/6 meters. The biggest spot for them is the Tarcoles river bridge in the central pacific as posted in the Jaco wiki. It is recommended to stop the vehicle nearby and walk across it. Some locals throw chicken meat and watch them eat. Great care should be taken when swimming or snorkeling, especially near areas where fishing is common or near river mouths.
When you go to the Guanacaste beaches on the Pacific you can see some crocodiles over the Tempisque river. The bridge across this river was donated by the Taiwanese government. Subsequently, China gave away a 35000-seat stadium after Costa Rica ended diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
While large, the beautiful jaguar is extremely rare and even most locals have never seen the very large predatory cat. They appear to be very shy and elusive; there is very little risk of attack.
Bull sharksshare much of the same territory as the crocodiles and probably account for more shark related attacks in the world than any other species.
Dogsare trained to be protective of property and people perro bravo and there are also many strays. Dog bites are not uncommon. Do not approach an unknown dog. Get a rabies shot if biten.
bus travel tips
Below is a list of suggestions for traveling by bus in Costa Rica and neighboring countries. These are overcautious tips, but the bottom line is that they can help prevent being ripped off. Nearly all thefts on the bus are preventable thefts!
Travel with someone else when possible. A trusted friend is best, of course - not just someone you met last night at the hostel, but he or she will do in a pinch. Trust your gut feeling with new friends – most are great, but some may be con artists! Traveling with a friend makes the journey more entertaining and more fun: you can talk and share travel stories and each of you can take turns sleeping on long bus rides. Also, there is the fact that "two heads are better than one" and it's always good to be able to brainstorm if you aren't sure what the answer to your travel question or concern is.
A money belt with your passport, cash, credit/debit cards and ticket bus or plane is a good way to carry your travel documents. Even if all your other belongings are stolen, you would still be able to get to your next destination. The waist belts are best; a neck pouch can be lifted while you are asleep. A thief would really have to disturb you and your personal space to get a waist belt.
On any bus ride 1st, 2nd, 3rd class, whatever! try to sit above the luggage compartment so that you can watch that your bag doesn't "walk away" when others get off the bus. Costa Rican buses usually have one compartment for those heading to the main destination, and a separate one for people getting off along the way to avoid problems. Be aware if the "destination" compartment is opened en route!
Try not to fall asleep or take turns with a travel partner when you are lucky enough to have one. Best way to snooze alone is with your bag on your lap and your hands crossed over it. Don't leave valuables in outside compartments.
Make conversation with locals on the bus so that they can see that you are competent in Spanish and comfortable in the Spanish speaking environment. You'll enjoy yourself plus this may make them feel friendly towards you and more willing to alert you if someone is snooping in your stuff. Or it might warn them that if they steal from you, you will talk to the bus driver and police and make a full report. Even some Spanish is better than none – use what you have! It's great practice and the more you improve the safer you'll be!
Don't bring anything that you are not willing to lose. Keep your day pack attached to you at all times when traveling – the straps get wrapped around your leg and the bag squeezed between your knees or feet. You don't want to lose your travel notes, camera, etc.
Be cautious about leaving anything in the overhead bins. Almost 100% of all thefts on buses are from the overhead bins. Keep it on your lap if possible.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and can be a destination for those looking for more than sun and surf on their vacation. San Jose and Jaco are hot spots for this activity. As with any other sex destination, there are some tourists that hire minors. Prostitution with minors less than 18 years old is considered a crime in Costa Rica. The majority of sex tourists in Costa Rica are from the United States, and, if they engage in prostitution with a minor, are prosecutable by the Protect Act of 2003. This act gives the US government the power to prosecute US citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex tourism with children under the age of 18. Several other countries including France, Canada, the UK, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, and Australia have similar laws. Arrests, warrants and prosecutions are being made under these laws.
gay and lesbian
Costa Rica is a very conservative and traditionalist nation. The state's official religion is Roman Catholicism and its population is quite religious. Nevertheless, Costa Rica caters to the gay and lesbian traveller and his or her needs. There is a thriving gay scene in San Jose with many gay and lesbian options for night-life La Avispa, Club Oh!, Bochinche among others. The Manuel Antonio, Jacó, and Quepos area is also a favorite spot with several gay hotels and bars.
There are a good number of Gay/lesbian or Gay-Friendly accommodations in Costa Rica. Accommodations seem to be of the higher quality offering a variety of services and of course, discretion. Many hotels, travel agencies, and resorts are run by gays and/or are gay-friendly.