Security has been getting a lot tighter since the September 11th terrorist attacks in the US. For Canadian and US citizens, it is no longer possible to travel in Costa Rica with a birth certificate, photo ID and tourist card, you now need a Passport valid for 90 days or more after your arrival date. Entry rules change frequently. Get the latest from the WEB sites below and other sources.
Before leaving home take a number of photo copies of your passport’s picture pages. Place one in each piece of luggage and one in your wallet or purse. After arrival in Costa Rica, if possible, photo copy the picture pages and the entry stamp page. Keep this photo copy with you for ID and keep the passport in a secure place. Police checkpoints are common in some areas. These checkpoints are no problem assuming the proper paperwork is on hand.
Also lists entry requirements for most nationalities.
I suggest carrying 20 US Dollar bills with no marks, rips or tears. These seem to be accepted in all but the most rural areas. Don’t stress about getting large amounts of money exchanged upon arrival. The Costa Rican airport exchange booths gave a terrible exchange rate last I looked, your hotel might be much better. Pay in US dollars and accept your change in Colónes, the Costa Rican monetary standard. Save this to be used where US Dollars are not accepted. The Colón gets devalued relative to the US Dollars regularly so US Dollars hold their value better. The 10,000 Colón bank note shown is worth a bit less than $20 U.S.D. depending on the current exchange rate. US Dollars are widely accepted at reasonable exchange rates in the Playa Junquillal, Santa Cruz and Liberia areas. A small calculator is handy to calculate exchange rates. Because of common forgeries, Money Orders are of limited use. VISA credit and debit cards are accepted in the larger, more metropolitan establishments. Keep in mind that SOME businesses will add a surcharge of about 6% to cover their cost of accepting credit cards, some will give a cash discount and the rest make no adjustments. In any case your credit card company will add a surcharge and/or give a poor exchange rate on your statement. Depending on the card terms this extra cost might total one to four percent so choose your cards wisely. My one VISA card thanks to a Bank One merger just changed to 3% from 1%. I voted with my feet and got a new credit card that still charges 1%. Also, cash withdrawals often have a fee associated, with credit cards usually being more expensive to use that debit cards. But using these cards for cash withdrawals and major purchases, such as lodging and car rental, will reduce the amount of cash you need to carry. Call your credit card company before you travel and inform them that you WILL be in Costa Rica, to avoid rejected charges. And finally, credit card fraud is not unheard of so be selective about where you use your card.
Banco Central de Costa Rica exchange rate pages:
XE.com Quick Currency Converter for the latest exchange rates:
I often am asked, “What is the price of fuel in Costa Rica?” Most likely you will be driving a vehicle that takes Gasolina Super or Diesel. For the answer see the RECOPE current products prices:
Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica and literacy is 94.8% of those older than 10. Education is free through the 12th grade and is mandatory through the 9th grade. English study has also become mandatory. As a result, most younger people speak some English. Most Ticos seem eager to improve their English and to help visitors with Spanish. An English/Spanish dictionary and phrase book is worth having. Knowing Spanish is helpful but not essential to travel in Costa Rica.
I guess I should explain that Costa Rica is unlike many other vacation destinations, where leaving the resort compound will be unpleasant or even life threatening. Approached properly, the best parts of Costa Rica to me are the Costa Ricans (Ticos) and the Expatriates that have embraced the Costa Rican lifestyle. Behave as a respectful guest and you be well received. Serious personnel injury type crimes statistics are lower for Costa Rica than the US. Petty theft is more of a problem. However, as in any country there is trouble if you go looking for it, so use your common traveling sense. On my stays in Costa Rica, if someone was acting badly, that person was most times a non-Tico. Be especially wary of the foreigner with no visible means of support even if they are from your home country. Leave the expensive jewelry and other expensive possessions at home. They are of no use in Costa Rica other than to mark someone as a good petty theft target. Don’t leave valuables unattended, especially in a locked rental car or in plain sight. Or, in other words, don’t provide the temptation and opportunity.
Stupid and inept thieves are forced to find other means of support in Costa Rica so only the clever survive. A spilled drink or dropped change could be a distraction for a pick pocket. Suitcases and other valuables CAN disappear from unlocked cars even with the driver only feet away for a very short time. Never leave car or building doors unlocked. As with any travel keep your wits about you. Be especially vigilant in crowded areas frequented by tourists such as the “circle” in Tamarindo.
Thankfully I have not even come close to being robbed in Costa Rica. Never the less, I like to break up my valuables. I carry only what I need for a few days on my person. I then would not be tempted to risk personal injury to protect these assets. The original Passport, backup VISA card and the rest of the valuables I keep in a secure location. Protect supplied room and car keys(s) from loss or theft. I suggest the same or more vigilance that you have for your wallet or purse. A missing key could result in theft so keep and carry them in a very safe place separate from information such as directions or reservations that could lead a thief to the proper door for the key’s use. Also, don’t label the key(s) with any information.
Las Brisas del Mar is a gated community with a live on site caretaker, a gardener and a night watchman. Playa Junquillal is in the countryside and is a small community were neighbors watch out for each other. As a result it is one of the safer areas in Costa Rica.
Costa Rican local time is the same as U.S. Central standard time (GMT –6) normally but because the sun-up and sun-down times do not vary much during the year they don’t observe daylight savings time adjustments. So during daylight savings time hours in the U.S. they are 1 hour behind those in the U.S. Central standard time observing daylight savings time hours.
It seems like every time I come to Costa Rica I’m bagging my limit. Most agree that the Taxi Drivers and Skycaps on the Costa Rica end are not a problem, as they are very helpful and affordable. It’s on the US end and away from the airport in Costa Rica where you sometimes cannot find help.
I have two very large wheeled suitcases each with a strap to hold a carry on. In a pinch I connect one suitcase strap to the second suitcase’s pull handle and use the second strap to hold the carry-ons. Nothing to carry… can you say wagon train.?
I limit what luggage I travel with to that I can personally manage with some difficulty and gratefully accept assistance where it is available. I always plan for the possibility that my checked baggage might get lost and delayed on any trip. I pack a few days worth of all essentials in a carry on bag I keep close in hand. I learned this the hard way on one trip to California many years ago. Also, be sure to check your Airline’s WEB page for their luggage rules & restrictions.
I learned this tip the hard way by loosing all my photography from one 14 day, 2004 trip to Costa Rica. Do not carry unprocessed film in airline checked baggage. The new higher power X-ray inspection will fog your film. Remove all of your film from your cameras and place all rolls of film out of the “can” in a clear plastic zip lock type plastic bag and request hand inspection. Empty cameras can then be X-rayed safely. Cameras with film loaded can be hand inspected but this is a time consuming task for the security screeners and may be denied. If hand searching film or loaded cameras are denied, place the film or loaded cameras in your carry on luggage as these X-ray machines are less powerful and do less fogging damage. See also for more information:
Costa Rican coffee is among the highest quality in the world and makes a great, inexpensive and practical gift. The best place to buy this is in local grocery stores. My second favorite purchase is small hand made items and artwork fabricated from exotic tropical hard woods. Other popular items are T-shirts, local cook books, hot sauces, Lizano sauce essential for making Gallo Pinto, Panamanian dark rum, hand made pottery & art, leather rocking chairs, hammocks and jewelry. The artisan town of Guaitil, is a stop where pottery and art objects can be purchased direct from the craftsmen. There are also plenty of tourist shops in Tamarindo, downtown San Jose or the El Pueblo shopping complex just north of San Jose. Liberia & Santa Cruz are places to shop for authentic items that are also often purchased by local residents.
When planning trips keep in mind that Costa Rica has yet to discover the “24/7” open all the time business model. Places of business are often closed on Sunday, early on or all day Saturday, for a period of time around lunch and for many national holidays.
The suns rays are very strong in Costa Rica. Don’t try to get a tan, as you will get one even if you try to avoid the sun. Besides, to a Costa Rican white, not tan, is beautiful. White suggests that you don’t labor in the sun for a living. I suggest SPF 30 or greater sun screen and a hat. My favorites are the non-greasy SPF 30 Coppertone Shade gel and Banana Boat Hair & scalp SPF 15 sunscreen spray. Frozen water bottles are a good way to keep hydrated.
If you’re a good swimmer, the ocean in Costa Rica can make you feel the thrills you felt as a child, but be careful. The ocean conditions at Playa Junquillal, like most beaches in Costa Rica, are changeable, as the area experiences a 15ft tide. It varies from very calm and suitable for swimming, to big surf with rip currents. Rock out-croppings and sand bars also cause the conditions to change with position on the beach. You can always get refreshed in the ocean but take the time to evaluate the conditions before venturing in. Once in, take time to evaluate the rip currents while you still have ocean bottom footing. At times large waves break directly on the beach with little water in front of them. This surf break is not a good spot for small children or surfers. If conditions are not right try a different area, time or the pool. I suggest researching rip currents and ocean swimming tactics before traveling to Costa Rican beaches or any beach for that matter. Respect the power of Ocean and don’t try to fight it! I speak from experience.
Tip only if you receive service above and beyond what is expected. Wages are government regulated and not adjusted artificially downward assuming tips will be a substantial source of income as in the U.S. In the U.S. what started to be a token of gratitude for good service is now so expected the IRS demands a reporting percentage from everyone for income tax purposes, even from bad service staff.
Taxi drivers, Bell Hops, Maids and Tour Guides are not tipped unless they provide some extraordinary service for you. A little extra is appreciated but not normally expected. For reference keep in mind $2.00 per hour is a very fair labor wage in Costa Rica considering the cost of living.
Be careful of over tipping the waiters or waitresses in restaurants, because often both a 10% service charge to be split between all the service personnel and a 13% sales tax are added on to the bill. Don’t make the common tourist mistake of leaving 20% of the total. Take a close look at the bill; if the 10% is included your basic tip is covered. In the case of great service I leave up to ½ of this 10% service charge for a total of 15%.
Kids insisting on pushing your grocery cart 20 feet to your car while all the while showing you examples of the dollar bills he is expecting to get from you should get nothing but a bad look. This is recent tourist induced abnormal behavior and should be discouraged. Normally help of this kind would be provided out of kindness and respect for those who really need it. If you really enjoy being hassled and hustled by locals go to Jamaica rather than encourage it in Costa Rica.
In conclusion, the best guideline is that if you appreciate the service you are provided and feel it is extraordinary, then go ahead a tip a little, but please do not redirect Costa Rican culture by insisting on tipping everyone no matter how they perform in their profession.
A future Costa Rica traveler asked me about the safety of tap water around the country. I found these two tips on the Internet:
“Tap water is safe to drink almost everywhere in the country, but bottled beverages are recommended in rural areas.”
“Although tab water is drinkable except on the Caribbean coast and Puntarenas city, we recommend drinking bottled water for being on the safe side.”
The Moon travel book adds Escazú and Santa Ana to the “watch” list
I personally have had no problems with drinking tap water in ten trips even in rural areas, but then again I have not been everywhere in Costa Rica. Visitors with much more experience than I have concured with this experience. Las Brisas gets its water from the public Paraíso water system. A fellow Las Brisas owner is a civil engineer and periodically takes a water sample home to be analyzed. So far, we have had only good test results. Bottled water is available for sale everywhere. We often refill these with trusted water. When in a questionable area, play it safe and drink bottled water, soft drinks or cerveza. Remember that ice cubes and washed uncooked food can also be a source of trouble.
Worldwide, formally rural areas that have experienced explosive growth are suffering from some river and even ocean pollution. In Costa Rica I have heard reports that Jaco, Tamarindo and Puntarenas city are having problems. Check with a local about areas not to swim in. Fortunately Playa Junquillal is still rural with only one small beachfront hotel (The rest are inland). The Blue flag award for beach and water quality still “flies” at Playa Junquillal and the surrounding beaches.
Coastal areas of Costa Rica share the same insect pests as coastal areas elsewhere. Mosquitoes can carry the risk of transmitted disease and no-see-ums and biting flies are mostly just annoying, even in Delaware, USA. The best defense is to wear repellant and/or long clothes as necessary (See APPAREL below).
For No-see-ums the worst time is sundown near a beach without wind at the end of rainy season, mid November. At other times of the day and year or during wind (Brisas) they are less of a problem. You can barely see them and you will not feel them bite till the next day’s itchy red spot. They seem to only bite from the knees down and don't fly very high. Your are mostly safe on a second floor balcony. Avon Skin So Soft seems to be an effective repellant. Being not a big fan of beauty "Spoo" I just take my Cerveza (beer) into the pool when they come out. They don't swim or dive well!
Not a big problem around Las Brisas but when venturing near wet areas such as rainforests, estuaries and mangrove swamps mosquitoes bite probabilities increase. Any repellant with a high percentage of DEET is effective for all but young children.
The biting flies are rare and of the big, green, slow and dumb variety. Let them land and settle, then just whack them to get them off just before they bite. They are tough, if you believe in corporal fly punishment whack them again while stunned to kill them.
Yes, Costa Rica has may varieties both poison and non-poisonous. I have only seen live snakes three times at a distance, except in zoos, but never the less I always stay wary of my surroundings. Fortunately the province of Guanacaste, where tropical dry forest predominates and Bothrops asper (terciopelo), the most important poisonous snake in the country, is not abundant. Nature has evolved non-poisonous snakes that mimic the appearance of poisonous ones for protection so I give all snakes a very respectful distance in the wild to avoid possible problems.
In Costa Rica, Medical care is not always just across the street, so be extra careful. CIMA and Clinica Biblica are two private hospitals that rival many U.S. hospitals in quality of care. In fact many of the doctors there are in part U.S. educated. In the event of trouble I would head towards San Jose. Below I have listed some facilities along the way. The closer one gets to San Jose, the larger and more comprehensive the facilities. I have had a positive personal outcome from emergency surgery at Clinica Biblica but have not as yet been treated at the others listed. My U.S. health insurance even covered all expenses except a $250 deductible which was charged to my VISA card. A very critical medical condition might suggest a return to your home country for final treatment. The doctors at CIMA or Clinica Biblica can help decide how much stabilizing treatment to get in Costa Rica before travel.
Centro Médico Santa Cruz
(Closed on weekends)
Large gated building at the extreme South end of town
Santa Cruz, Costa Rica • Tel.: (506) 680-0681
Red Cross, Santa Cruz
(Very little English spoken)
On the west side of the Plaza near the old church Ruins
Santa Cruz, Costa Rica
Hospital La Anexión
North end of town
Nicoya, Costa Rica • Tel.: (506) 685-5066
Escazú (Near San José), Costa Rica • Tel.: (506) 231-2781
Hospital Clinica Biblica
Calle central y primera, Avenidas 14 16
San José, Costa Rica • Tel.: (506) 257-5252
This Emergency Numbers and other information list is maintained by my neighbor Emer in Playa Junquillal and I post it here as a public service. Although mostly targeted to our community it would be of some value to anybody in Costa Rica.
If you want the full case of the worries consult: http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/destinationCostaRica.aspx I try to keep my tetanus shot current and avoid getting bit by mosquitoes especially in higher risk areas. I don’t remember ever getting a mosquito bite in Playa Junquillal. What you actually do is between you and your doctor. Costa Rica has no entry requirements.
It’s handy to keep a backpack or large shoulder-slung purse with you containing a passport photo copy, water bottle, sunscreen, insect repellant, plenty of tissues (Not all Public restrooms are stocked), camera, calculator, maps, English/Spanish dictionary and a travel book. Unfortunately, backpacks and purses are a target of thieves and pickpockets, so don’t carry items of extreme value in them and don’t leave them unattended.
Costa Ricans don't very often wear shorts, tank tops or other causal wear in San Jose or the Central Valley. At the beach during the day causal attire is typical. It’s nice to have long pants and a nice shirt for doing business, nicer restaurants and etc.
My favorite solution to the “to wear shorts” or “not to wear shorts” dilemma:
L.L.Bean Tropicwear Zip-Pants. Tropical weight and they convert from long pants to shorts with two zips. The Tropicwear long sleeve shirt makes a nice match together giving optional protection from sun and biting insects.
http://www.llbean.com/ Search for “Tropicwear Zip-Pants”. (And I could always use another pair of pants or a shirt if anybody from L.L.Bean is listening)
As for shoes, if you are doing any hiking in the interior parks, I recommend bringing a pair of lightweight, water resistant, low cut, sneaker style hiking shoes. They WILL get muddy so bring a small brush to return these to dress shoe cleanliness so that they can do double duty. If you are sure you will not be hiking you may want a good pair of sneakers instead. Also bring waterproof hiking/ running sandals with good treads and sturdy straps. These are good for general wear and light hiking, as well as climbing over volcanic rock formations on beach walks. If you are beach bound and have the room, don’t forget the flip-flops.
In Costa Rica the electrical power for small appliances is the same nominal 120 Volts at 60Hz AC and uses the same outlets and plugs as in the US. Voltage fluctuations, voltage spikes and power outages are more common in Costa Rica than the US. Las Brisas del Mar and most modern building in Costa Rica have the newer three-prong grounded and polarized outlets type 5-15R as shown on the left-most diagram. Many other parts of Costa Rica have the older un-grounded, polarized 2 contact outlets type 1-15R, center diagram, with the neutral contact larger. The rest are the very old un-polarized and un-grounded (2 smaller contacts of the same size) outlets as shown on the right-most diagram.
Electric plugs also come in the three “flavors”. Three pin plugs obviously only fit into three contact outlets. Polarized plugs, with unequal sized contacts, will fit either types 1-15R or 5-15R. And finally, plugs with two equal sized prongs will fit any of the three outlet types. The plug -outlet scheme is a safety mechanism, assuring the plug connected appliance will work safely with the branch circuit receptacle as wired. Use of an outlet adaptor device without verifying the neutral polarization, neutral bonding and outlet grounding is an unsafe practice. If you don’t know what the prior sentence means, you probably should not install one.
Modern appliances with two equal sized pronged plugs are often double insulated to operate safely on any of the three types of outlets and are obviously are the most universally useful. Otherwise if the plug doesn’t fit, don’t use it. Safety First!
See Also: Electric Current Abroad, 2002 edition
1998 Edition Reprinted 2002 US Department of Commerce International Trade Administration
If you really need a cell phone while in Costa Rica, the current best advise is to buy, rent or borrow a Costa Rican phone. Be aware that phones for sale there are NOT locked but very expensive. In Costa Rica there is only one real choice of carrier, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE). Two other companies are installing cell towers so this may change with time.
The GSM and 3G network has been vastly improved. Roaming is supported but do your homework before leaving your home country. Calls and especially data can be wildly expensive on standard plans. I have been using USA Verizon for my DROID3 which is Internationally ready. Get them to enable the unlimited data (smart phone only, no tethering) plan for the duration of your stay. I have been very happy with the cost and speed of the data, but phone calls are still $2.95/ minute. Screw up and you may face bills of thousands rather than hundreds of dollars.
Below is information that needs to be updated to be current (by me), perhaps excepting the avoid AT&T wireless advice!
In theory, some other carrier's phones should be able to roam to ICE if you select the proper phone and carrier. From the U.S., Cingular Wireless and/or AT&T Wireless may now work. According to a Cingular customer service representative, “the Costa Rica roaming rate would be $1.99 for the flat rate, but would have to add the $3.99 monthly charge”. The ICE WEB site also lists Cingular as roaming. Our personal experience in March 2004, “After walking over hot coals with customer service and making a large deposit to get Cingular wireless to open International roaming, I found that my wife's Cingular phone indeed did not work in Costa Rica. It had good signal strength and did connect to the towers, but all attempts to make a phone call failed from a number of locations in Costa Rica.” As of August 2004 two US WEB sites (below) now list Costa Rica as having roaming which has given me renewed hope of this actually working. If anybody has currently tried this in practice I would love to hear the outcome. Update December 2004; after a dozen more customer support phone calls I have a brand new access PIN number and a phone that I still cannot get to roam in Costa Rica. Update February 2005; 3 more calls to Cingular and another trip with an ICE message in Spanish indicating I am not authorization to make calls the results. So far I have heard from no one who else that has had success. Cingular has acquired AT&T wireless. My current advice is to save time and money avoid Cingular and AT&T wireless!
ICE Costa Rica has an interesting mix of Network System-Frequencies installed. These are from old to new:
AMPS -800 MHZ
TDMA -800 or 1900MHz – Soon to be discontinued
GSM 3G – the new third generation will be operating in the 850 megahertz range
The GSM network is still being rolled out. In fact, ICE has fined Alcatel, the French contractor for GSM, because of sub-standard performance. GSM Coverage Map:
For reference the U.S. uses AMPS -800MHz (the original analog), CDMA -800 or 1900MHz (Sprint & Verizon), or TDMA -800 or 1900MHz (Cingular & AT&T), GSM -1900MHz (Cingular, AT&T & T‑Mobile) and iDEN (Nextel). While Europe & Asia uses GSM -900 or 1800MHz.
Some imported phones may be able to be (re)programmed to work with ICE:
Some roaming is in theory now supported:
Still have more questions, try:
My wife needed to make some emergency calls to the US. No problem, pull out the U.S. based Qwest international calling card I maintain for just such an emergency and the 800 access number does not work. Guess they discontinued or changed the number and forgot to tell their customers? (A check of their WEB site now reveals two active 800 numbers for Costa Rica, but on the same page is two PDF links that list none available!)
So, at the risk of getting overcharged, she makes a call through Hotel Villa Tournon in San Jose. She gets personalized service from the front desk. (At check out the bill reflects a very reasonable $3.32 long distance charge.)
Not knowing what the hotel bill will be, she remembers the "free" AT&T CR map she picked up with the 800 access number to make calls to the US via AT&T and Visa. Hey, the latest, famous CR guide book has an insert with the same procedure. There is no mention of costs anywhere on these materials, but certainly our good old AT&T will be competitive. If you see it in a travel book, it's good advice. Right? (Why, when you pay for a book do you get advertising bound in?)
Well, my credit card now has 4 calls listed at about $35 each and they were not long (time) calls relative to the $3.32 Tico Hotel call! A call to VISA and then AT&T confirms that this is no mistake. It's an unbelievable $11.75 for the 1st minute and $2.40 for each additional minute with 9.1% US tax added. That sure was an expensive free map and good travel advice! Ask the price before you dial.
International information (PHONE: 124).
International operator (PHONE: 175). (To make an international collect call dial 175 first.)
To call “800” numbers: Try and dial 0800 first. Many 800 numbers do not work from Costa Rica as a toll free call. If that fails try an alternate provided number or 001-800-XXX-XXXX. When you dial the number as shown you will normally be told that the call will be charged by automated message and then asked if you want to continue. The call will no longer be free but by using a phone card you can often dial these numbers.
Buying one of these cards in the 3,000 colones denomination from the Mini Super Junquillal, the KION in Santa Cruz or similar store allows Local and International calls to be made from public phones and International calls from standard private phones at a reasonable rate. If you “borrow” a private phone to make a local call you can also use this card to avoid a connect time charge to the private phone number.
· Scratch off the back bottom of the card to reveal the card #
· Pick up the receiver and at the dial tone dial 1199
· At the verbal prompt dial 2 for English instructions
· At the verbal prompt dial the card number
· At the verbal prompt dial XXX-XXXX for local Costa Rica calls, then end with the # key (where XXX-XXXX represents the actual phone number)
· At the verbal prompt dial 001+ XXX-XXX-XXXX for Canada or the USA , then end with #
· At the verbal prompt dial 00 + country code + phone number for other international calls, then end with #
If you hear the number of remaining minutes on your card you have won the “ICE phone line lottery” and the dialed phone number will ring. Often International circuits are busy and you will have to try again a number of times.
The Guacamaya Lodge in Playa Junquillal and other Larger Hotels and Internet cafes around Costa Rica can rent you time on Internet connected computers. Some can also supply a connection for your laptop. Also, much like a phone card, you can purchase an “Internet PREPAGO” card (prepaid for 5, 10 or 15 hours online) at the RACSA headquarters in San Jose, Fischel and Catedral drugstores, in the Banco Nacional de Costa Rica office in San José, in the Automercados, IFSA-Kodak and the Perimercados. Locally, I have found the cards at the Kion grocery store service desk in Santa Cruz and the Mini Super Junquillal. Using this card’s temporary account and password, you can dial up using 1134 or racsa local dial in numbers with nearly any phone line in the country. If a new card’s account does not work, first double check your data entry. That being correct, you might have to call the phone number on the card to have the card reactivated. If an old card’s account gives an incorrect password error you might have just run out of time.
Las Brisas del Mar beachfront vacation condo in Playa Junquillal, Guanacaste, Costa Rica !
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