Tips for First Time Costa Rica Travelers

Tips for First Time Costa Rica Travelers

If you mention Costa Rica to friends or acquaintances that have never been there, visions of sandy beaches that stretch forever, volcanoes and exotic wildlife would come to mind. Yes, they would be right. “Is the country in South America?” A friend asked. “No, but it’s close.” I replied. “It’s in Central America. Panama, the most southern Central American country, borders Costa Rica to the south and is adjacent to the South American country of Colombia.”

Like most Central American countries, Costa Rica has a coastline on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Our family visited Playa Bejuco on the Pacific Ocean side, which is the longer coastline and the beaches there have that lovely black volcanic sand.

Travelers who want to escape the cold northern winters usually fly into San Jose, the capital city, located in the central part of the country. Liberia, a much smaller and more remote city to the north, is the alternate city that visitors fly into. Should you decide to book your flight to land in Liberia, many of the roads in this area are not paved and a four-wheel drive vehicle is the recommended mode of travel.

The best time of year to visit Costa Rica is January through March. The locals will tell you that it never rains in Costa Rica during these months, but we experienced several showers during our stay here. The nice thing however is that it rained during the night offering us a reprieve from the 85 percent humidity and freshening the air when we arose the next morning. For those of you who cannot tolerate high humidity combined with 85 to 95 degree F (30 to 37 degree C) temperatures, then you may want to spend your vacation at the higher elevations, near San Jose in the country’s interior, rather than at the resorts and beaches at sea level. Most visitors usually want to stay near the ocean and enjoy the beautiful beaches, right?

The unit of currency here is the Colone. There are approximately 500 Colones to the US dollar. American money is accepted in most resort towns, at shops, restaurants, hotels, and for taxi and bus services. Be prepared, if you pay in American dollars that businesses will round up the amounts you owe, in their favour.

My advice is to keep some US dollars handy, but when
you happen to pass a bank in the community you’re in, exchange the US dollars you plan to spend during your stay in Costa Rica, to Colones. Please note that a number of shops and restaurants will not accept credit cards; cash only. In those establishments signs will be posted that state ‘cash only.’

A large number of Canadians and Americans own houses, land and are involved in condominium developments in Costa Rica, so English is widely spoken. You will encounter the odd shopkeeper, bus driver or taxi driver in the resort towns, who speak only Spanish, so it is a wise precaution to learn a few pertinent phrases to help you get by. I recommend either purchasing a pocket size Spanish phrase book or dictionary or download an application program for you cellular phone from the Internet.

For getting around in Costa Rica, decide whether you plan to explore the country by vehicle or if you will be spending your vacation at one resort and taking day trips from there. If your group will be doing some extensive travel to various parts of the country, then it is recommended that you rent an S.U.V. that suits your needs. As mentioned earlier, many of the roads are unpaved and some are quite rough. It is common that during the rainy season here, a number of the roads and highways get washed out and repair work can take months to complete. There are good roads here, one of them from San Jose to the west coast, is navigable by car. Should you decide to rent a vehicle, be prepared to pay a premium price. There are taxes and other charges tacked on after you return the vehicle, so make sure you ask for the total charges, and get it in writing, before you leave the parking lot.

If you decide to stay in a destination while you are in the country and plan to take day trips to various nearby sights, then I’d recommend utilizing a shuttle service. We found these transportation services a hassle free way to get around. The drivers were friendly, made extra stops for us, such as a roadside fruit vendor to pick up papayas and pineapples, or stopping at a grocery store to pick up some groceries, etc.

Taking these shuttles are much less stressful than renting your own vehicle as you don’t have to worry about getting lost, having your rental car get damaged or broken in to and paying those exorbitant costs. They also cost less that taking similar taxi services. Our group utilized Costa Rica Shuttle Services to drive our party from San Jose to our destination on the Pacific coast and back to the airport.

While we were staying at our destination in Playa Bejuco, we utilized a one-man shuttle service operated by owner Fernan Valverde, who spoke English well. He provided exemplary service, often above and beyond the call of duty. Shuttle and Taxi drivers, we were informed, are the only people you need to tip in Costa Rica. Tips are automatically added to restaurant bills and other services.

Visitors to Costa Rica need to be aware that petty thievery is a common occurrence here. Ladies, keep your purses on your lap and gentlemen put your wallets in your front pocket while you are taking public transportation, eating in restaurants and relaxing at the local beaches. It is sad and traumatic when your valuables, money or passport is stolen while you are on your vacation and may prematurely end your vacation. It is just common sense to ensure that you protect your valuables. A wise precaution, wherever possible, would be to keep your money, other than what you will spend on that day, along with your passport and other valuables in the hotel or house safe.

Costa Rica has an abundance of exotic wildlife and there are a number of interesting tours available. Boat tours can take you to the habitat of white-faced monkeys that will eat out of your hand, or see first hand where hundreds of crocodiles reside along with blue and white herons, falcons, Ibis, lizards and other interesting wildlife. Before you book a tour, check the comments the tour company has received on the Internet through trip advisor. This is a valuable tool to help you decide which tour companies to book with.

If you like to surf or want to learn how to surf, the Pacific Ocean beaches from Jaco south to Dominico that offer some of the best surfing on the continent. Although, the waters are relatively safe, compared to other places in the world, first time surfers should exercise caution when entering the ocean. Riptides, especially strong during the changing of the tides, can prevent surfers from swimming into shore, especially if they are quite a distance from shore. Seasoned surfers and swimmers will advise you not to swim against the current, but instead to swim parallel to the shore and angle slightly towards the beach. Eventually, you will make it back to the beach, perhaps a little fatigued, but safe.

Families with small children should keep vigilant watch to ensure their kids do not go into the water above their knees. For adults who are not especially strong swimmers should not go in to water over their waists. Following these simple rules will result in an enjoyable and safe time at the beach for you and your family members.

Upon departure from Costa Rica, as you enter the airport terminal you will be ushered to line up at a counter to pay the exit tax of $26.00 US per person and an additional inspection tax of $2.00, for a total of $28.00. Again it is best to pay this fee in cash. If you decide to pay the tax through your credit card then an additional fee will be charged to your credit card.

One last note of importance, after you have cleared customs and the security check at the airport and you decide to purchase, let’s say a bottle of wine from the duty free shop to take on the plane with you. We encountered another carry on baggage checkpoint, just before we walked onto our plane. Several passengers had their wine confiscated by the inspectors. We were perplexed and shocked by this, what we considered to be an unorthodox procedure.

Consequently, my advice to the traveler is not to purchase, especially wine or spirits, at the airport duty free shops here. It would be better to purchase your wine or spirits and pack them in your checked in baggage, then have them taken away from you as you board your flight for home.

These are some tips for you, the first time visitor, to help make your visit to lovely Costa Rica an enjoyable and memorable experience, as it was for our family. Pura Vida!