Like most travelers, we had high expectations for Costa Rica which has been in the eco-tourism game for decades now. Many of the “usual suspect” destinations, including superstars Arenal and Monteverde, disappointed. However, we persisted, and here are our top Costa Rica travel tips for this Central American country. After nearly six months of traveling in Costa Rica, we managed to find some remarkable beaches, parks, bird watching, and more just off the beaten path. Don’t miss Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Rincon de la Vieja National Park area, the Southern Caribbean Coast, the San Gerardo de Dota cloud forest, and SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Cocos Island.
Costa Rica travel tips
The tap water is drinkable almost everywhere in Costa Rica but there’s also a growing craft brew industry, including Witch’s Rock Brews on tap in Tamarindo, that you won’t want to miss out on either so save up some thirst.
The Costa Rican government recently announced that it will close its national zoo and release as many animals as possible as part of a “no cages” policy, though animal experts have expressed doubts about the likelihood of release for many of the captive animals.
Eighty percent of Costa Rican hotels have 20 rooms or less.
The capital, San José, was one of the first five cities in the world to have electricity.
Supermarkets sell a cleaning liquid called Terror (left).
Pura vida (pure life) is the official slogan of Costa Rica and Ticos, as citizens call themselves, really do say it all day long–usually instead of goodbye. Somehow it’s charming, not hippie-dippie.
It’s illegal to plant Robusto coffee in Costa Rica because it’s considered inferior to Arabica and growers are afraid Robusto plants could cross-pollinate with existing Arabica plants and affect the quality of Costa Rican beans.
In January of 2013, the Costa Rican government also banned “sport hunting.” The country is not a major sport hunting destination nor is it full of recreational hunters (though they exist) and it’s unclear whether or not this new ban, which allows subsistence hunting by indigenous groups and culls to control overpopulation, will help reduce poaching in parks and other protected areas.
The official seal of the city of Escazu (a swanky suburb of the capital that is sometimes called the city of witches) features a black witch on a broomstick.
Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948.
Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) ATMs don’t charge a transaction fee.
US dollars are accepted throughout Costa Rica almost as commonly as Costa Rican colones and dollars are dispensed right from the ATMs at no additional charge.
Smoking is not common but we were surprised that in Costa Rica until May 2012 you could still light up on buses, at work, in restaurants, etc. though all neighboring Central American countries had long since banned all indoor smoking.
Costa Rica is not known for its cuisine (yet) but chifrijo (left) is a delicious stand-out. Created in San José, chifrijo is a bowl of white rice with red beans, a bit of tangy broth, chopped onion and tomato, cubed pork, a squeeze of lemon and, chicharron (fried pork skin) sprinkled on top. We had excellent chifrijo near Playa Jacó and in Cahuita.
Costa Rica has better radio stations than neighboring Central American countries. We heard LCD Soundsystem, Mumford & Sons, and classics like Nirvana and Pearl Jam on a regular basis.
Until 2014, the Costa Rican President was a woman. Her last name is Chinchila.
Foreigners pay US$10 per person to enter Costa Rican national parks. If you’re planning on visiting a few parks consider getting an Amigos de los Parques Nacionales pass which is good at 12 national parks including Poás National Park, Tortuguero National Park, and Corcovado National Park (check the list to make sure the parks you want to visit are covered). Choose from passes that are valid for up to 14 days (US$40) or for 14 days or more (US$100). Card holders also get 20-50% discounts at select hotels and attractions.
Adult prostitution is legal but that doesn’t mean the industry is without exploitation.
They call flaky puff pastry filled with potatoes or chicken or beef enchiladas. They’re delicious, but not even vaguely similar to Mexican enchiladas.
A comedor (a local cheap restaurant) is called a soda in Costa Rica.
They call pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes, onions, and spices) chimichuri in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is much more expensive than any other country in Central America. For example, you’ll pay around US$20 for a dorm bed in a hostel. Meals average US$6 in the cheapest sodas or market stalls. We paid nearly US$5 per gallon for diesel and gas is even pricier.
You can actually get a passable slice of pizza in San José.
There are at least 70 different zip lines in Costa Rica.
The whole country is the size of West Virginia.
Costa Rica has announced that it is aiming to be a carbon-neutral country by 2021. Nobody we talked to was really sure exactly what that means or how such a goal would be achieved but we think getting the belching buses off the streets would be a good start.
Start planning! Get your bearings in Costa Rica and see where some of the best surfing, whale and dolphin watching, and turtle nesting spots are located with these handy maps.
Here are our top tips for planning a Costa Rican Road Trip.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica