I visited Costa Rica for the first time in August of 2015. Since then I have been back 44 times. Here are a few things I have learned:
⦁ The people are warm, but it may not seem that way at first!
If you decide to go, your first stop in Costa Rica is likely to be the capital city of San José. The draw of Costa Rica is definitely the eco-tourism and not the city life, but it’s quite possible that you’ll spend some time either at the beginning of your trip, or at the end, in San José. San José is a gritty place, filled with people just trying to make it from day to day. If you spend any of your time in the city driving, or walking around, your initial impression might be that some people are aggressive, and sometimes rude, but if you take the time to get to know people, you will find the exact opposite. Don’t let first impressions cloud your opinion. Ticos that I have gotten to know personally, have invited me into their homes, made me feel like a part of the family, and are some of the kindest and warmest people I have ever known.
⦁ A little Spanish will go a long way!
In my experience, English is not very commonly spoken in Costa Rica…and my Spanish is terrible! I know enough to have a very basic conversation. I like to tell people that I know a lot of words, but I can’t string them together. The thing is though, that people appreciate it when you try. Some of my most memorable conversations have been with Uber drivers who couldn’t speak a word of English, but really wanted to have a conversation. When I get in the car, on the way to the airport or somewhere else, I’ll always immediately ask the driver, “Habla Ingles?” Most of the time they will say “no”, so I will tell them “Poquito Español”, and make the “little” sign with my fingers. This is a great icebreaker, and more often than not, we will have a very enjoyable conversation. Do yourself a favor and learn some basic words and phrases and you will be surprised at how much it enhances your Costa Rican experience.
⦁ Ticos are very proud people!
I’m from the United States. I love my country, and I also love to experience other countries. Sometimes when you travel it’s hard to get out of the mindset that you aren’t in your home country, and that other cultures are going to be different. Sometimes, depending on where you are, very different! This may seem like an obvious statement, but San José, Costa Rica is wildly different than Tampa, U.S.A! I say that because the reasons I may be proud of my country, will most likely not be the reasons citizens of another country are proud of their homeland. Ticos, for instance, take great pride in the fact that they haven’t had a military since it was dissolved in 1948. They will tell you that Costa Rica is a peaceful and safe country, and they will cite the lack of a military as the reason. You can even see a counter at the airport that will show you the number of days Costa Rica has been without a military. While it may be true that people around the world are proud of their countries, I have not been to a place outside of the U.S, where it is as evident as it is in Costa Rica.
⦁ You should let someone else do the driving!
You’ve probably heard that the roads and streets in Costa Rica are “famously” bad. I’m here to tell you that that is just one of the things you should be concerned about, if you are planning a road trip. I have rented many cars in Costa Rica and, other than having my brakes fail while driving down a mountain, the experiences have been ok. However, unless you are the adventurous type, I would not recommend that you do your own driving in Costa Rica! Besides the bad roads, other factors to consider if renting a car are the high cost of insurance, theft of valuables, narrow roads, and aggressive drivers. I’m not saying that nobody should do their own driving, because it can give you the most freedom to explore more places, but I’m just trying to make you aware that you should prepare for a possibly wild adventure! One tip though, if you do decide to go it alone, download the app “Waze”, if you don’t already use it, and it will be your best friend!
⦁ Colones and Credit Cards!
I spend a lot of time in the city of San José. When I do, I almost never carry colones. Colón is the local currency of Costa Rica. The reason I don’t carry colones in the city, is because most businesses will accept credit cards, and I prefer to get the cashback or miles, and its safer to not carry a lot of cash. Of course there are businesses that are exceptions, that will only take cash, but you will find wide acceptance of Visa and Mastercard, especially in restaurants and hotels. Discover and American Express do not seem to have the wide acceptance that Visa and Mastercard have, so keep that in mind. If you do need cash, and you will when you get to more remote areas of the country, my recommendation on that is to withdraw money from an ATM, using your bank debit card. The currency exchange booths at the airport and other locations are almost never a good idea, in any country. Check with your bank before your trip, so you are aware of any fees associated with foreign ATM withdrawals. A pro tip, if you travel a lot, is to get a debit card that will reimburse all of your ATM charges worldwide. This can save you a lot of money and headaches. I have mine from Schwab and Fidelity, but there may be others.
Different people will have different opinions of all of the things I’ve brought up here, but hopefully, if you are planning a trip to Costa Rica, some of this will help you. Feel free to leave a comment or a question below. Thanks for reading!