Costa Rica has been the top 'eco-adventure' destination of Central America for the past two decades, attracting over 1,5 million visitors a year. The lure of the tropics and the wide range of exciting activities, from hiking, to mountain biking, to bird and wildlife watching, volcano climbing, white water rafting, surfing, diving, canoeing and what-not, and a fairly well organized tourist infrastructure combine to create a very appealing destination, especially for young and adventurous travelers, but also for the young at heart. And while undoubtedly many of these visitors fell in love with this country and are coming back for more again and again, there are still more for whom it will be the very first experience of an 'exotic' destination.
So here are some Costa Rica basics for first time visitors:
The international airport is usually chaotic. But the real chaos rages just outside the front doors where innumerable taxi drivers compete for attention from new arrivals. If you are going to take a taxi to your hotel, make sure you only use a registered cab, agree on the fare before you get in. Better still, ask for a pick up service. Some hotels provide this as a complimentary service, or it can be arranged at an extra charge. It maybe a little more expensive than the taxis (depending on what you agree), but it is very hassle free and will take you exactly where you want to go without detours.
But before you get to the taxi-driver battleground in front of the airport, you will have to go through passport control and customs. Make sure you do not bring anything illegal into the country - offenders can and will get arrested and have to endure less than pleasant prison conditions while awaiting trial. Bonds are usually not accepted.
Make sure your passport is in good condition and remains valid for 6 months after your visa will expire. Costa Rica issues visas for 90 days or 30 days, depending on your country of origin. For more detailed information of current entry requirements, please check here:
Costa Rica levies a departure tax of approximately $30 per person, which must be paid before you can check in and board you plane. There are special desks inside the airport where this tax is to be paid. Make sure you get back to the airport for check in at least 3 hours prior to your scheduled departure time. Check in can take forever and luggage may be checked meticulously, especially on US bound planes.
Costa Rica has a pretty well organized tourist shuttle bus service which connects most popular tourist destinations with each other and with the capital. There are also two domestic airlines, which service just about every part of the country. However, beware that there is a strict weight limit of 25lb on domestic flights, which includes everything - no extra hand luggage allowed. So, pack light.
Another option is to rent a car. However, this option is recommended only for intrepid and well experienced drivers. Road conditions are not the best - many roads are bumpy, have large potholes, are not paved and may not be clearly marked. A GPS system is highly advisable. Also, always be prepared for the unexpected - animals crossing the road, roads ending rather abruptly, bridges that look as the they could not be crossed by a donkey, fords the size of small rivers appear out of nowhere after a hefty rain and other wonders of nature...
Now, these challenges can be dealt with while you can see them (during day light hours), but at night roads are usually not lit and such hazards can be seriously dangerous. So, best avoid driving at night.
Costa Rica is generally a fairly safe country but many tourists forget basic cautions when they are in their dream vacation spot. You still need to keep your wits about you and do not make yourself a target of opportunistic crime. Pick-pocketing and snatch and grab type of crimes are common, while violent crime is still quite rare, although it does occasionally occur in the form of armed robberies. However, so far, luckily, people have not been hurt.
The best way to avoid attracting this kind of unwanted attention is to leave your valuables at home and to dress down. Don't flash wads of cash around either. Make photocopies of your passport and leave the original (along with any money or credit cards you won't need) in your hotel safety deposit box. Always make use of these boxes, no matter how safe a hotel may appear to be. Sometimes hotels charge extra for this service - don't argue. It is better to know your belongings are safe than to find that they have been taken from you room. However, make sure the boxes are secure and cannot simply be removed from your room.
At night, only use official taxis to get around. It is not worth taking the risk to do otherwise.
If you have a rental car, be aware of car theft. Rental cars are fairly easily to spot and they are prime targets for car thieves. Always make sure you park in a guarded parking lot and NEVER leave the car unlocked. Also, you will most likely be carrying most of your treasured possessions in the car - don't leave them in plain view.
Cost Rica has a very high standard of public health and there are few health risks of concern to travelers. Contrary to popular belief, it is safe to drink the water, at least in most areas. In very remote locations you may want to bring bottled water, or better still a reusable water purification bottle. In San Jose the water quality is potable, but not exactly gourmet standard due to the high concentration of chlorine that gets pumped into the water supply.
The worst of the tropical woes are the smallest critters - mosquitoes, sand flies and the like. On the Caribbean coast and lowland forest they can be a true bane - and may also carry malaria and/or dengue fever. Malaria transmitting mosquitoes are out at dawn and dusk, while dengue fever transmitting mosquitoes only strike during daylight hours. While Malaria has received more press as a worldwide problem, Dengue Fever is actually more dangerous and can be fatal if left untreated. Your best protection is to prevent getting bitten: Use insect repellent and cover up.
Other wildlife you may encounter can also make for an unpleasant surprise, but most of the time animals try to get out of your way before you have discovered them. Scorpions, tarantulas, snakes, vampire bats, sting rays, fire ants are all native to Costa Rica and may bite or sting when their 'comfort zone' has been breached. Be mindful of where you put your feet and hands.
Another, often underestimated health concern is the tropical sun. Costa Rica is only a few degrees of latitude north of the Equator - the sun is STRONG and will fry you if you do not take adequate measures to protect yourself. Ever wondered why Latino cultures revere their siesta so much? It's because it can be downright dangerous to be out working in the midday sun. Use a high UV factor sun screen, stay in the shade during the hottest hours of the day, wear sunglasses and a hat. And, most importantly, stay hydrated.
Costa Rica has a surprising range of climate zones, so unless you are planning to spend your entire time on the beach, be prepared for almost any weather. The highlands can be cool while the cloud forest regions are cool and moist. Think layers and invest in the types of clothing made with fast drying materials. Bring some warm layers too, as well as wind protection and raingear. Cotton becomes heavy once it is damp and takes ages to dry. Leather, once it has soaked up moisture becomes heavy and turns stiff upon drying. Not a good material for shoes or bags in humid/wet environments. For anything that you want to keep dry bring zip lock bags.
In general, Costa Rica weather is divided into 2 seasons - dry season, which approximately lasts from December to May and rainy season (also known as green season) that runs from June to December. However, there are many microclimates, especially on the Caribbean Coast which defy the general weather patterns. Also, climate change is happening now - weather patterns have become less and less predictable over the last decade or so. Rains seem to be coming later and later, but when they finally arrive they can manifest as deluges, washing away roads and bridges.
Costa Rica is a geologically active country. There are several active volcanoes here which do occasionally go off. For the most part though they simply slumber, or provide a dramatic backdrop of as they smolder and occasionally spew lava like natural fireworks. Volcanic eruptions are relatively rare and can be predicted fairly accurately thanks to modern technology and the fact that volcanoes usually visibly increase in activity before a major outbreak.
Costa Rica also lies on a major fault line, making it prone to earthquakes, which can occur anywhere at any time. The entire pacific edge of North, Central and South America is a giant earthquake zones.
Costa Rica uses standard 110V outlets that are compatible with US appliances. If your home country uses a different sort of voltage or plug you will need to bring an adaptor. Adaptors may be difficult to find once you are in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica's currency is known as 'Colones'. At the time of writing US$1 is worth about 565CRC. Many shops, restaurants and hotels will accept dollars, but don't count on it. One problem commonly encountered is that people (even banks) refuse to accept anything but the crispest looking bills and will refuse to take coins in US currency. It is a good idea to prepay your hotel bills and tour costs so you do not need to worry about carrying large amounts of cash with you. Credit cards are accepted at the larger hotels, but not as a standard, everywhere. There are ATM machines in most tourist areas, but ATM machines can be tampered with...
Have a stash of small coins or bills handy and easily accessible for tips without having to pull out a wad of money.
Instead of using your regular credit card ask your bank for a cash card which you can charge with a set amount of travel money. This limits the amount of possible damage you may incur if you fall prey to petty theft.
Tipping is always a hot topic. In Costa Rica a service charge of 10% is usually included in restaurant bills. You can, if you wish, leave a little extra, but this is not expected. Taxi drivers, bell boys and maids all expect a little tip, but for luggage the standard rate is 50c per bag and chamber maids generally get US$1 per day. For tour guides the rate is more flexible - use your discretion and reward excellence. On average 10% of the tour cost is fine.
Haggling is a fairly normal part of Latin American culture. It is often expected, even in places where prices are clearly marked. However, don't drive too hard of a bargain - for the satisfaction of having saved a few pennies or a dollar imagine what difference a dollar can make in the life of someone who earns perhaps a quarter of what you take home.
However cheesy it sounds, Costa Rica truly is a paradise for nature and adventure lovers. Don't get me wrong - neighboring countries have just as much to offer in terms of habitats and may boast more species per square meter. However, what makes Costa Rica so attractive is the fact that the infrastructure is very good and the special places are relatively easy to access. This also means that there will be more tourists, but there will also be more and better facilities - hotels of decent standards in remote areas, and a plethora of activities on offer.
As in most countries these days, there is a wide range of standards and services available. It is possible to visit Costa Rica on a small budget and still have a nice time. However, the cheapest types of accommodations can usually not be booked on-line or through a travel agent, so you have to take a chance. They may or may not be clean or green.
Likewise, it is possible to spend several hundred dollars on a hotel room and the standard will be as excellent as you could expect anywhere. Some types of trips, lodges or excursions may seem expensive considering their standard. This is usually the case when the destination is very remote. Consider the difficulty and expense of getting materials and supplies to such remote areas. It's the logistics that make such places expensive - yet the experience may be unique. How do you put a price on that?
Costa Rica is the most environmentally aware country in Central America, which is not to say that they have solved all their environmental problems. Far from it. However, Costa Rica has a vision and is working on making it a reality. They also know that the green label attracts tourists, tourists of the kind that care. Environmental awareness of travelers is just as important as that of the service providers. Together they make a strong force for positive change and for keeping Costa Rica clean and green.
Costa Rica was the first Latin American country to implement a graded certification program for green tourism services. The rating ranges from 1 - 5 'leaves' depending on the commitment of individual operators. This label has become quite prestigious and everybody is now scrambling to get certified. There is a long queue of applicants which can only be processed so fast. Thus, don't assume that just because a lodge or operator is not certified they do not care or implement environmentally friendly or socially responsible measures in their operations. Likewise, some of the hotels that are certified may not be as green as the label suggests. Use your own discretion and don't be afraid to ask questions or make suggestions.
Bring a flashlight (preferably a hand powered LED).
BE an eco-tourist - take things like spent batteries back home with you where they can be properly recycled, avoid plastic bags and unnecessary waste, be conscious of your water use etc.