Going to a new country for the first time can be scary. It can be difficult to find answers to the questions you have before you head out on your trip, or to even know the questions you need to be asking if you’ve never been. We had an amazing time on our last trip to Costa Rica, so I wanted to give you some Costa Rica travel tips so your adventure can be smooth and stress-free. We received a free hotel stay and meals from Pure Dream Life, but all opinions and advice here are my own.
I’m going to try and cover everything from shopping and food, to driving and things to do (and everything in between). If I don’t answer something you’re wondering about, be sure to leave your question in the comments for me to answer there.
Before you get to reading, understand the my frame of reference when writing this post is from the areas of San Jose, Liberia, and Tamarindo (North Pacific side). I also traveled with my family (a 2 yr old, an 8 yr old, and my husband), so anything I list can be done with or without a family in tow. That being said, let’s get on with the Costa Rica travel tips!
COSTA RICA TRAVEL TIPS
When booking a hotel, there’s some important things you need to keep in mind for Costa Rica travel tips. 1. Costa Rica is a second world country. Meaning, it’s not as developed as a first world country, but not as poor and impoverished as a third world country. Hotels, even nice Costa Rican hotels, are NOT going to be as nice, generally speaking, as nice American hotels. 2. Pictures can and are edited on a regular basis, so find real world reviews on Google etc before you book your stay. 3. Air-conditioning is considered an amenity, so if it’s not listed, the hotel doesn’t have it. Hotels are much cheaper there, so you can save money! We stayed in a legit medicinal spa with hand-carved wooden doors for $63/night in San Jose near the airport. It was beautiful, but there was no air conditioning, and lizards came in the restaurant, so prepare yourself for that.
Driving in Costa Rica is…an adventure! Renting a car can be expensive, but is absolutely worth the cost in my opinion. Driving isn’t really difficult, but the large majority of roads only have two lanes. Expect to be passed a LOT and often. Watch out for wildlife. Try and get ahead of semi trucks as much as possible, or you’ll regret it going up a mountain. If you struggle with being carsick AT ALL, take some meds before getting in the car. If you brought kids, have them chew gum to help with ear popping up and down the mountains. Peppermint essential oil was a life saver for us when it came to being carsick.
Remember that gas is measured in liters, and not in gallons. Also, the age that children need to be in a booster set is up to age 12. Tickets are expensive for violating this if you get pulled over, so try and reserve a booster and/or car seat from your rental company if you didn’t bring one with you.
This was something I was super concerned about before I went, but it ended up being a lot simpler than I anticipated. Bring some cash with you, and keep it on your person at all times, especially in big cities. US dollars are typically fine. They will give you change back in Costa Rican Colones, so keep that in mind. Credit cards are accepted at most businesses, BUT, when you haggle with local roadside stands (yes, haggle), it’s best to have and use cash. I had more than one deal canceled because when I went to pay I wasn’t paying in cash.
WIFI & ELECTRONICS
In the modern world, electronics and wi-fi are part of our daily lives, so I included them in my Costa Rica travel tips. Something we worried about, with kids in tow, was whether or not we would need adapters in order to charge our electronics. The answer to that is, “No.”
When it comes to wi-fi, most local businesses offer it while you’re there, but otherwise that will be the best service you get from your phone or smart device, depending on your carrier. I use Verizon and service there was fine, and you can pay $10 a day for a limited amount of data usage, which we did, but WOW it goes quickly. Your best bet is to limit your internet usage to areas with wi-fi, and use texting to communicate outside of that. All you have to do, with Verizon, to activate your service, is call in advance to make sure your plan supports it, and then it should automatically trigger it when you go to use your phone for the first time in Costa Rica.
Whether you plan on shopping for groceries, personal care items, or just souvenirs etc, you will want to know these Costa Rica travel tips for shopping. So as a general rule, buying food really isn’t that expensive in Costa Rica. It would do you well to learn some Spanish so you can read signs etc. Prices will also be listed in Costa Rican Colones, so you’ll need to convert priced to USD (download an easy money converter app before you travel to make this easy on yourself.)
Haggling with roadside vendors is welcome, but as I mentioned earlier, be ready to pay for those deals in cash (Colones or USD). Again, it would also help in these situations if you could speak a little Spanish.
When it comes to food, you can find just about anything you want and are used to buying in the US in Costa Rica. My kids are picky eaters and I was so worried I wouldn’t have easy access to foods they liked etc, but it was so easy. SO many fresh fruits and vegetables, cereals and packaged snacks you’re used to seeing, and all at great prices.
Things like personal care items, and beach items are more expensive as a general rule in Costa Rica.
This is my favorite thing to talk about when it comes to Costa Rica travel tips! My husband and I are self-proclaimed foodies. We really like good food, and we have even been known to plan our travels around good food. That being said, we didn’t have a single BAD meal the entire time we were in Costa Rica! Everything we ate was amazing, and cooked super well, and we researched ZERO restaurants before just picking them.
A soda is the name for a small restaurant with a limited daily menu in Costa Rica. You’ll see these everywhere. Gallo Pinto is the most common Costa Rican breakfast food and it’s incredible. It beans mixed with rice, served with a homemade corn tortilla, scrambled eggs, a side of sour cream and juice or coffee. I could eat it every single day.
While many restaurants speak English and Spanish, you will be best prepared knowing some basic menu Spanish. The only place we ate where the employees didn’t speak English was, believe it or not, McDonald’s.
THINGS TO DO
Depending on the focus of your trip, or how long you plan on staying, will change what you do while you’re in Costa Rica. If you’re staying in the Tamarindo area, I highly recommend using the awesome people from Pure Dream Life! They speak very clear English (Alexus is from the States), and are super kind and accommodating. They have tons of experiences to choose from like massages, secret beach tours, beach-side barbecues, surf lessons, and surf tours! We used them for multiple of these services and weren’t disappointed in a single one.
Coffee and Chocolate tours are really popular, but typically take several hours. If you have kids, make sure it’s safe for them to go on the tour you want them to. Chocolate tours are amazing and you get to eat a ton of chocolate – same with the coffee – it’s incredible!
Costa Rica is home to a ton of beautiful National Parks and waterfalls. Make a point to go to one or more. They’re beautiful and you won’t regret it. Wear shoes that you can hike in, as conditions can be slippery! Be sure to check sunset times so you don’t get stuck in the dark.
Beaches are obviously a huge draw of Costa Rica. The quality of the beach makes a big difference on how your experience in Costa Rica will be. Each beach will vary on what needs it will meet best for you too, as in, snorkeling, surfing, shell hunting etc.
You can’t have Costa Rica travel tips without talking about wildlife. Of course, there’s beautiful wildlife like sloths, howler monkeys, butterflies, tropical birds and more. If you’re staying in a heavily populated place, you will need to go somewhere a little more remote to see these things, so keep that in mind.
Something I feel wasn’t addressed in anything I read while researching for our trip, was the dangerous wildlife. Remember that when you are in National Parks etc, that you are in the animals’ territory, and to always keep your eyes and ears open. Dangerous spiders, snakes, and big wild cats like jaguars and ocelots are all present in Costa Rica and you need to watch out for them. Remember they won’t just be on the ground, but can be in the trees too. The water can also hold dangers like sting rays and jellyfish, but keep your eyes open, and you should be fine.
I hope these Costa Rica travel tips have helped you feel more confident about your trip to Costa Rica! Costa Ricans are typically very laid back and kind, so expect to have a relaxing, enjoyable time! Have more questions I didn’t cover in this list of Costa Rica travel tips? Ask below!