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Costa Rica Introduction
Costa Rica is consistently one of the hottest vacation and adventure-travel destinations in Latin America, with more than a million visitors each year. Despite the boom in vacationers, Costa Rica remains a place rich in natural wonders and biodiversity, where you can still feel far from the maddening crowds. The country boasts a wealth of unsullied beaches that stretch for miles, small lodgings that haven’t attracted hordes of tourists, jungle rivers for rafting and kayaking, and spectacular cloud and rainforests with ample opportunities for bird-watching and hiking. In addition to the country’s trademark eco- and adventure tourism offerings, a handful of large luxury resorts and golf courses have opened in recent years and more are on the way.
Costa Rica The Best Hikes
•Lankester Gardens: If you want a really pleasant but not overly challenging day hike, consider a walk among the hundreds of distinct species of flora on display here. Lankester Gardens (tel. 552-3247) is just 27km (17 miles) from San José and makes a wonderful day’s expedition. The trails meander from areas of well-tended open garden to shady natural forest.
•Rincón de la Vieja National Park: This park has a number of wonderful trails through a variety of ecosystems and natural wonders. My favorite hike is down to the Blue Lake and Cangrejo Falls. It’s 5.1km (3 1/4 miles) each way, and you’ll want to spend some time at the base of this amazing lake; plan on at least 5 hours for the outing, and bring along lunch and plenty of water. You can also hike up to two craters and a crater lake here, and the Las Pailas loop is ideal for those seeking a less strenuous hike. This remote volcanic national park is about an hour north of Liberia (it’s only 25km/16 miles, but the road is quite rough), or about 5 hours from San José.
•La Selva Biological Station: This combination research facility and rustic nature lodge has an extensive and well-marked network of trails. You’ll have to reserve in advance (tel. 766-6565) and take the guided tour if you aren’t a guest at the lodge. But the hikes are led by very informed naturalists, so you might not mind the company. The Biological Station is located north-northeast on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica’s central mountain range. It’ll take you about 1 1/2 hours to drive from San José via the Guápiles Highway.
•Arenal National Park and Environs: There’s great hiking all around this area. The national park itself has several excellent trails that visit a variety of ecosystems, including rainforest, secondary forest, savanna, and, my favorite, old lava flows. Most of them are on the relatively flat flanks of the volcano, so there’s not too much climbing involved. There’s also great hiking on the trails at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and the trail down to the base of the La Fortuna Waterfall is a fun scramble. It’s about a 3 1/2-hour drive from San José to La Fortuna and Arenal National Park.
•Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve: In the morning rush of high season, when groups and tours line up to enter the reserve, you’d think the sign said CROWD FOREST. Still, the guides here are some of the most professional and knowledgeable in the country. Take a tour in the morning to familiarize yourself with the forest, and then spend the late morning or afternoon (your entrance ticket is good for the entire day) exploring the reserve. Off the main thoroughfares, Monteverde reveals its rich mysteries with stunning regularity. Walk through the gray mist and look up at the dense tangle of epiphytes and vines. The only noises are the rustlings of birds or monkeys and the occasional distant rumble of Arenal Volcano. The trails are well marked and regularly tended. It’s about 3 1/2 hours by bus or car to Monteverde from San José.
•Corcovado National Park: This large swath of dense lowland rainforest is home to Costa Rica’s second-largest population of scarlet macaws. The park has a well-designed network of trails, ranger stations, and camping facilities. Most of the lodges in Drake Bay and Puerto Jiménez offer day hikes through the park, but if you really want to experience it, you should hike in and stay at one or more of the campgrounds. This is strenuous hiking, and you will have to pack in some gear and food, but the reward is some of Costa Rica’s most spectacular and unspoiled scenery. Because strict limits are placed on the number of visitors allowed into the park, you’ll always be far from the crowds.
•Cahuita National Park: The trails here are flat, well-maintained paths through thick lowland forest. Most of the way they parallel the beach, which is usually no more than 90m (295 ft.) away, so you can hike out on the trail and back along the beach, or vice versa. White-faced and howler monkeys are common, as are brightly colored land crabs.
Costa Rica The Best Views
•The Summit of Irazú Volcano (near San José): On a very clear day, you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea from this vantage point. Even if visibility is low and this experience eludes you, you can view the volcano’s spectacular landscape, the Meseta Central, and the Orosi Valley.
•Iguanazul Hotel (Playa Junquillal; tel. 658-8124; www.iguanazul.com): Located on a high bluff above Playa Junquillal, this hotel has a wonderful view of the Pacific and the windswept coastline in either direction. It gets best around sunset and is better yet if you can commandeer one of the hammocks set in a little palapa on the hillside itself.
•Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort (near Arenal Volcano; 877/277-8291 or 460-2020; www.tabacon.com): Arenal Volcano seems so close, you’ll swear you can reach out and touch it. Unlike Irazú Volcano , when this volcano rumbles and spews, you may feel the urge to seek cover. Most rooms have spectacular views from sheltered private patios or balconies.
•Villa Caletas (Playa Hermosa de Jacó; tel. 637-0505): You’ll have a view over the Golfo de Nicoya and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Sunsets at the hotel’s outdoor amphitheater are legendary, but it’s beautiful here during the day as well.
•Hotel La Mariposa (Quepos; tel. 800/549-0157 or 777-0355; www.lamariposa.com): This place has arguably the best view in Manuel Antonio, and that’s saying a lot. Come for breakfast or a sunset drink because, unfortunately, I’ve had bad luck with dinner here.
•The Summit of Mount Chirripó (near San Isidro): What more can one say? At 3,724m (12,215 ft.), this is the highest spot in Costa Rica. On a clear day, you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea from here. Even if it isn’t clear, you can catch some pretty amazing views and scenery.
Costa Rica The Best Natural Attractions
•Rincón de la Vieja National Park (northeast of Liberia, in Guanacaste): This is an area of rugged beauty and high volcanic activity. The Rincón de la Vieja Volcano rises to 1,848m (6,061 ft.), but the thermal activity is spread out along its flanks, where numerous geysers, vents, and fumaroles let off its heat and steam. This is a great place to hire a guide and a horse for a day of rugged exploration. There are waterfalls and mud baths, hot springs, and cool jungle swimming holes. You’ll pass through pastureland, scrub savanna, and moist secondary forest; the bird-watching is excellent.
•The Río Sarapiquí Region (north of San José between Guanacaste in the west and the Caribbean coast in the east): This region is a prime place for an ecolodge experience. Protected tropical forests climb from the Caribbean coastal lowlands up into the central mountains, affording you a glimpse of a plethora of life zones and ecosystems. Braulio Carrillo National Park borders several other private reserves here, and a variety of ecolodges will suit any budget.
•Arenal Volcano/Tabacón Hot Springs (near La Fortuna, northwest of San José): When the skies are clear and the lava is flowing, Arenal Volcano offers a thrilling light show accompanied by an earthshaking rumble that defies description. You can even see the show while soaking in a natural hot spring and having a drink at the swim-up bar at Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort (tel. 519-1900; www.tabacon.com). If the rushing torrent of volcano-heated spring water isn’t therapeutic enough, you can get an incredibly inexpensive massage here.
•Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve (in the mountains northwest of San José): There’s something both eerie and majestic about walking around in the early-morning mist surrounded by bird calls and towering trees hung heavy in broad bromeliads, flowering orchids, and hanging moss and vines. The reserve has a well-maintained network of trails, and the community is truly involved in conservation. Not only that, but in and around Monteverde and Santa Elena, you’ll find a whole slew of related activities and attractions, including canopy tours that allow you to swing from treetop to treetop while hanging from a skinny cable.
•Manuel Antonio (near Quepos on the central Pacific coast): There’s a reason this place is so popular and renowned: monkeys! The national park here is full of them, even the endangered squirrel monkeys. But you’ll also find plenty to see and do outside the park. The road into Manuel Antonio has many lookouts that consistently offer postcard-perfect snapshots of steep jungle hills meeting the sea. Uninhabited islands lie just off the coast, and the beaches here are perfect crescents of soft, white sand.
•Osa Peninsula (in southern Costa Rica): This is Costa Rica’s most remote and biologically rich region. Corcovado National Park, the largest remaining patch of virgin lowland tropical rainforest in Central America, takes up much of the Osa Peninsula. Jaguars, crocodiles, and scarlet macaws all call this place home. Whether you stay in a luxury nature lodge in Drake Bay or outside of Puerto Jiménez, or camp in the park itself, you will be surrounded by some of the most lush and most intense jungle this country has to offer.
•Tortuguero Village & Jungle Canals (on the Caribbean coast, north of Limón): Tortuguero Village is a small collection of rustic wooden shacks on a narrow spit of land between the Caribbean Sea and a dense maze of jungle canals. It’s been called Costa Rica’s Venice, but it actually has more in common with the South American Amazon. As you explore the narrow canals here, you’ll see a wide variety of herons and other water birds, three types of monkeys, three-toed sloths, and caiman. If you come between June and October, you might be treated to the awe-inspiring spectacle of a green turtle nesting — the small stretch of Tortuguero beach is the last remaining major nesting site of this endangered animal.
Costa Rica The Best Adventures
•Mountain-Biking the Back Roads of Costa Rica: The lack of infrastructure and paved roads that most folks bemoan is a huge boon for mountain bikers. There are endless back roads and cattle paths to explore. Tours of differing lengths and all difficulty levels are available. Contact Coast to Coast Adventures (tel. 280-8054; www.ctocadventures.com).
•Swinging Through the Treetops on a Canopy Tour: This unique adventure is becoming quite the rage. In most cases, after a strenuous climb using ascenders, you strap on a harness and zip from treetop to treetop while dangling from a cable. There are canopy tours all around Costa Rica. Check the various destination chapters to find a canopy tour operation near you.
•Rafting the Upper Reventazón River (near Turrialba): The Class V Guayabo section of this popular river is serious white water. Only experienced and gutsy river runners need apply. If you’re not quite up to that, try a 2-day Pacuare River trip which passes through primary and secondary forests and a beautiful steep gorge. Plans to build a dam here have thankfully been rejected for now. Ríos Tropicales (tel. 233-6455; www.riostropicales.com) can arrange these tours.
•Surfing and Four-Wheeling Guanacaste Province: This northwestern province has dozens of respectable beach and reef breaks, from Witch’s Rock at Playa Naranjo near the Nicaraguan border to Playa Nosara more than 100km (62 miles) away. In addition to these two prime spots, try a turn at Playa Grande, Punta Langosta, and playas Negra, Avellanas, and Junquillal. Or find your own secret spot. Rent a four-by-four with a roof rack, pile on the boards, and explore.
•Battling a Billfish off the Pacific Coast: Billfish are plentiful all along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, and boats operate from Playa del Coco to Playa Zancudo. Costa Rican anglers hold world records for both blue marlin and Pacific sailfish. Go to Quepos (just outside Manuel Antonio) for the best après-fish scene, or head down to Drake Bay, the Osa Peninsula, or Golfo Dulce if you want some isolation. Costa Rica Outdoors (tel. 800/308-3394 or 282-6743; www.costaricaoutdoors.com) can help you find a good charter skipper or specialized fishing lodge.
•Trying the New Adventure Sport of Canyoning: While far from standardized, canyoning usually involves hiking along and through the rivers and creeks of steep mountain canyons, with periodic breaks to rappel down the face of a waterfall, jump off a rock into a jungle pool, or float down a small rapid. Pure Trek Canyoning (tel. 866/569-5723 or 461-2110; www.puretrekcostarica.com) in La Fortuna, and Everyday Adventures (tel. 353-8619; www.everydaycostarica.com) near Puerto Jiménez, are two of the prime operators.
•Windsurfing Lake Arenal: With steady gale-force winds and stunning scenery, the northern end of Lake Arenal has become a major international windsurfing hot spot.
•Diving off the Shores of Isla del Coco (off the Pacific coast): Legendary among treasure seekers, pirate buffs, and scuba divers, this small island is consistently rated one of the 10 best dive sites in the world. A protected national park, Isla del Coco is surrounded by clear Pacific waters, and its reefs are teeming with life (divers regularly encounter large schools of hammerhead sharks, curious manta rays, and docile whale sharks). Because the island is so remote and has no overnight facilities for visitors, the most popular way to visit is on 10-day excursions on a live-aboard boat, where guests live, eat, and sleep onboard — with nights anchored in the harbor.
•Hiking Mount Chirripó (near San Isidro de El General on the central Pacific coast): The highest mountain in Costa Rica, Mount Chirripó is one of the few places in the world where (on a clear day) you can see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean at the same time. Hiking to Chirripó’s 3,724m (12,215-ft.) summit takes you through a number of distinct bioregions, ranging from lowland pastures and a cloud forest to a high-altitude páramo, a tundralike landscape with stunted trees and morning frosts.
•Kayaking around the Golfo Dulce: Slipping through the waters of the Golfo Dulce by kayak gets you intimately in touch with the raw beauty of this underdeveloped region. Spend several days poking around in mangrove swamps, fishing in estuaries, and watching dolphins frolic in the bay. Escondido Trex (tel. 735-5210; www.escondidotrex.com) provides multiday custom kayaking trips out of Puerto Jiménez on the Osa Peninsula.
•Surfing Pavones (on the southern Pacific coast): Just 13km (8 miles) from the Panamanian border at the southern reaches of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Pavones is reputed to have one of the longest rideable waves in the world. When this left-point break is working, surfers enjoy rides of almost a mile in length. Much more can be said about this experience, but if you’re a surfer, you’ve heard it all before. Contact Casa Siempre Domingo (tel. 820-4709; www.casa-domingo.com), the most comfortable hotel in town, for current wave reports and other local information.
Costa Rica The Best Ecolodges & Wilderness Resorts
The term “ecotourism” is now ubiquitous within the travel industry, particularly in Costa Rica. Ecolodge options in Costa Rica range from tent camps with no electricity, cold-water showers, and communal buffet-style meals to some of the most luxurious accommodations in the country. Generally, outstanding ecolodges and wilderness resorts are set apart by an ongoing commitment (financial or otherwise) to minimizing their effect on surrounding ecosystems and to supporting both conservation efforts and the residents of local communities. They should also be able to provide naturalist guides and plentiful information. All of the following do.
•La Selva Biological Station (south of Puerto Viejo; tel. 524-0628; www.ots.ac.cr): Sure, this place is geared more toward researchers than tourists, but that (along with the surrounding rainforest and extensive trail system) is what makes this one of the best ecotourism spots in the country.
•Arenal Observatory Lodge (near La Fortuna; tel. 290-7011; www.arenal-observatory.co.cr): Originally a research facility, this lodge has upgraded over the years and features comfortable rooms with impressive views of Arenal Volcano. There are excellent trails to nearby lava flows and a nice waterfall. Toucans frequent the trees near the lodge, and howler monkeys provide the wake-up calls.
•Monteverde Lodge (Playa Carate; tel. 257-0766; www.monteverdelodge.com): One of the original ecolodges in Monteverde, this place has only improved over the years, with great guides, updated rooms, and lush gardens. The operation is run by the very dependable and experienced Costa Rica Expeditions.
•La Paloma Lodge (Drake Bay; tel. 293-7502; www.lapalomalodge.com): If your idea of the perfect nature lodge is one where your front porch provides some prime-time viewing of flora and fauna, this place is for you. If you decide to leave the comfort of your porch, the Osa Peninsula’s lowland rainforests are just outside your door.
•Bosque del Cabo Rainforest Lodge (Osa Peninsula; tel./fax 735-5206; www.bosquedelcabo.com): Large, comfortable private cabins perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by lush rainforest make this one of my favorite spots in the country. There’s plenty to do, and there are always great guides here.
•Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge (Golfo Dulce; tel. 866/504-8116 or 258-8250; www.nicuesalodge.com): This new lodge is by far the best option on the Golfo Dulce. Set in deep forest, the individual bungalows here are a perfect blend of rusticity and luxury.
•Tortuga Lodge (Tortuguero; tel. 257-0766; www.tortugalodge.com): The canals of Tortuguero snake through a maze of lowland primary rainforest. The beaches here are major sea-turtle nesting sites. This is not only the most comfortable option in the area, but also another of the excellent ecolodges run by Costa Rica Expeditions.
•Selva Bananito Lodge (in the Talamanca Mountains south of Limón; tel. 253-8118; www.selvabananito.com): This is one of the few lodges providing direct access to the southern Caribbean lowland rainforests. There’s no electricity here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not plush. Hike along a riverbed, ride horses through the rainforest, climb 30m (100 ft.) up a ceiba tree, or rappel down a jungle waterfall. There’s fabulous bird-watching here, and the Caribbean beaches are nearby.
Costa Rica The Best After-Dark
•Night Tours (countrywide): Most Neotropical forest dwellers are nocturnal. Animal and insect calls fill the air, and the rustling on the ground all around takes on new meaning. Night tours are offered at most rain- and cloud-forest destinations throughout the country. Many use high-powered flashlights to catch glimpses of various animals. Some of the better spots for night tours are Monteverde, Tortuguero, and the Osa Peninsula. Volcano viewing in Arenal is another not-to-miss nighttime activity.
•El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte (San José; tel. 221-0327): From Wednesday to Saturday, San José’s young, restless, and beautiful pack it in here. Originally a gay and bohemian hangout, it is now decidedly mixed and leaning toward yuppie. There’s frequently live music here.
•San Pedro (San José): This is San José’s university district, and at night its streets are filled with students strolling among a variety of bars and cafes. If you’d like to join them, keep in mind that La Villa caters to artists and bohemians, Mosaikos is popular with young Tico rockers, Omar Khayyam is a great place to grab an outdoor table and watch the crowds walk by, and the Jazz Café, as its name indicates, is a hip live-music venue that often features local jazz and rock outfits.
•San Clemente Bar & Grill (Dominical; tel. 787-0055): This is a quintessential surfers’ joint, but whether you hang ten or not, this is where you’ll want to hang out in Dominical at night. The fresh seafood and Tex-Mex specialties are hearty, tasty, and inexpensive. And there are pool, Ping-Pong, and foosball tables, as well as televised sporting events and surf videos.
•Puerto Viejo: This small beach town on the southern end of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is one of the most active after-dark scenes in the country. Johnny’s Place and Stanford’s take turns as the major dance-and-party spot, but there are several other happening spots, as well as a few after-hours beach bonfires and jam sessions, to be found.
Costa Rica Best Dining Bets
•Tin Jo (San José; tel. 221-7605): In a city with hundreds of Chinese restaurants, this place stands head and shoulders above the competition. In addition to an extensive selection of Szechuan and Cantonese classics, there are Japanese, Thai, Indian, and Malaysian dishes on the menu. Tin Jo has the most adventurous Asian cuisine in Costa Rica.
•Grano de Oro Restaurant (San José; tel. 255-3322): This elegant little hotel has an elegant restaurant serving delicious continental dishes and decadent desserts. The open-air seating in the lushly planted central courtyard is delightful, especially for lunch.
•Bacchus (Santa Ana; tel. 282-5441): Set in a wonderfully restored and updated ancient adobe home, this restaurant serves up arguably the best Italian fare in the San José metropolitan area.
•Ginger (Playa Hermosa; tel. 672-0041): Serving an eclectic mix of traditional and Pan Asian-influenced tapas, this sophisticated little joint is taking this part of Guanacaste by storm. They’ve got a list of creative cocktails to match the inventive dishes.
•Mar Y Sol (Playa Flamingo; tel. 654-4151): In a beautiful room on a high hilltop with great views, the Catalan chef here serves top-notch international fare.
•Dragonfly Bar & Grill (Tamarindo; tel. 653-1506): Southwestern American and Pacific Rim fusion cuisines are the primary culinary influences at this popular restaurant. Portions are large, service excellent, and prices fair.
•Nectar (at Flor Blanca Resort, Santa Teresa; tel. 640-0232): Guanacaste’s best boutique resort also has one of its best restaurants. The menu changes nightly but always has a heavy Pan-Asian fusion flavor to it. The setting is romantic and subdued, in an open-air space just steps from the sand.
•Playa de los Artistas (Montezuma; tel. 642-0920): This place is the perfect blend of refined cuisine and beachside funkiness. There are only a few tables, so make sure you get here early. Fresh, grilled seafood is served in oversize ceramic bowls and on large wooden slabs lined with banana leaves.
•Sofia (Monteverde; tel. 645-7017): This restaurant serves excellent New Latin-fusion fare at a small space about halfway along the rough dirt road between Santa Elena and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve.
•Pacific Bistro (Jacó; tel. 643-3771): This place serves up a regularly changing menu of creative fusion fare with the freshest seafood and best beef available. Asian influences are prominent here.
•El Patio Bistro Latino (Quepos; tel. 777-4982): This casually elegant little place has made a name for itself in the Manuel Antonio area. The chef’s creative concoctions take full advantage of fresh local ingredients. Its intimate setting is a welcome little oasis in Quepos.
•La Pecora Nera (Puerto Viejo; tel. 750-0490): I’m not sure that a tiny surfer town on the remote Caribbean coast deserves such fine Italian food, but it’s got it. Your best bet here is to allow yourself to be taken on a culinary roller-coaster ride with a mixed feast of the chef’s nightly specials and suggestions.
Costa Rica The Best Beaches
With more than 1,200km (750 miles) of shoreline on its Pacific and Caribbean coasts, Costa Rica offers beachgoers an embarrassment of riches.
•Santa Rosa National Park: If you really want to get away from it all, the beaches here in the northwest corner of Costa Rica are a good bet. You’ll have to four-wheel-drive or hike 13km (8 miles) from the central ranger station to reach them. And once there, you’ll find only the most basic of camping facilities: outhouse latrines and cold-water showers. But you’ll probably have the place almost to yourself. In fact, the only time it gets crowded is in October, when thousands of olive ridley sea turtles nest in one of their yearly arribadas (arrivals).
•The Beaches around Playa Sámara: Playa Sámara itself is nice enough, but if you venture just slightly farther afield, you’ll find some of the nicest and least developed beaches along the entire Guanacaste coast. Playa Carrillo is a long, almost always deserted crescent of palm-backed white sand located just south of Sámara, while Playa Barrigona and Playa Buena Vista are two hidden gems tucked down a couple of dirt roads to the north.
•Playa Montezuma: This tiny beach town at the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula has weathered fame and infamy, but retains a funky sense of individuality. European backpackers, vegetarian yoga enthusiasts, and UFO seekers choose Montezuma’s beach over any other in Costa Rica. The waterfalls are what set it apart from the competition, but the beach stretches for miles, with plenty of isolated spots to plop down your towel or mat. Nearby are the Cabo Blanco and Curú wildlife preserves.
•Malpaís: While the secret is certainly out, there’s still some time to visit Costa Rica’s hot spot before the throngs arrive. With just a smattering of luxury lodges, surf camps, and simple cabinas, Malpaís is the place to come if you’re looking for miles of deserted beaches and great surf. If you find Malpaís is too crowded, head farther on down the road to Santa Teresa, Playa Hermosa, and Manzanillo.
•Manuel Antonio: The first beach destination to become popular in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio retains its charms despite burgeoning crowds and mushrooming hotels. The beaches inside the national park are idyllic, and the views from the hills approaching the park are enchanting. This is one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered squirrel monkey. Rooms with views tend to be a bit expensive, but many a satisfied guest will tell you they’re worth it.
•Punta Uva & Manzanillo: Below Puerto Viejo, the beaches of Costa Rica’s eastern coast take on true Caribbean splendor, with turquoise waters, coral reefs, and palm-lined stretches of nearly deserted white-sand beach. Punta Uva and Manzanillo are the two most sparkling gems of this coastline. Tall coconut palms line the shore, providing shady respite for those who like to spend a full day on the sand, and the water is usually quite calm and good for swimming.
Costa Rica Money
It’s always advisable to bring money in a variety of forms on a vacation: a mix of cash, credit cards, and traveler’s checks. In many international destinations, ATMs offer the best exchange rates. Avoid exchanging money at commercial exchange bureaus and hotels, which often have the highest transaction fees.
The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón. In May 2007, there were approximately 518 colones to the American dollar, but because the colón has typically been in a constant state of devaluation, you can expect this rate to change. Because of this devaluation and accompanying inflation, this book lists prices in U.S. dollars only. To check the very latest exchange rates before you leave home, point your browser to www.xe.com/ucc.
The colón is divided into 100 céntimos. Currently, two types of coins are in circulation. The older and larger nickel-alloy coins come in denominations of 10, 25, and 50 céntimos and 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 colones; however, because of their evaporating value, you will probably never see or have to handle céntimos, or anything lower than a 5-colón coin. In 1997 the government introduced gold-hued 5-, 10-, 25-, 50-, 100-, and 500-colón coins. They are smaller and heavier than the older coins, and while the plan was to have them eventually phase out the other currency, this hasn’t happened yet.
There are paper notes in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, and 10,000 colones. You might also encounter a special-issue 5-colón bill that is a popular gift and souvenir. It is valid currency, although it sells for much more than its face value. You might hear people refer to a rojo or tucán, which are slang terms for the 1,000- and 5,000-colón bills, respectively. One-hundred-colón denominations are called tejas, so cinco tejas is 500 colones. The 2,000 and 10,000 bills are relatively new, and I’ve yet to encounter a slang equivalent.
Forged bills are not entirely uncommon. When receiving change in colones, it’s a good idea to check the larger-denomination bills, which should have protective bands or hidden images that appear when held up to the light.
If your ATM card doesn’t work and you need cash in a hurry, Western Union (tel. 800/777-7777 in Costa Rica or 283-6336; www.westernunion.com) has numerous offices around San José and in several major towns and cities around the country. It offers a secure and rapid, although pricey, money-wire service. A $100 (£50) wire costs around $20 (£10), and a $1,000 (£500) wire costs around $80 (£40).
You can change money at all banks in Costa Rica. However, be forewarned service at state banks can be slow and tedious. The principal state banks are Banco Nacional and Banco de Costa Rica. You’re almost always better off finding a private bank. Luckily, there are hosts of private banks around San José, and in most major tourist destinations.
Since banks handle money exchanges, there are very, very few exchange houses in Costa Rica. One major exception to this is the Global Exchange office at the airport. However, be forewarned they exchange at more than 10% below the official exchange rate.
Hotels will often exchange money and cash traveler’s checks as well; there usually isn’t much of a line, but they might shave a few colones off the exchange rate. Be very careful about exchanging money on the streets; it’s extremely risky. In addition to forged bills and short counts, street money-changers frequently work in teams that can leave you holding neither colones nor dollars. Also be very careful when leaving a bank. Criminals are often looking for foreigners who have just withdrawn or exchanged cash.
The easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM (automated teller machine), sometimes referred to as a “cash machine,” or a “cashpoint.” The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe. Go to your bank card’s website to find ATM locations at your destination. Be sure you know your daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Note: Many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank’s ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5/£2.50 or more) than for domestic ones (where they’re rarely more than $2/£1). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.
Note: Banks that are members of the Global ATM Alliance charge no transaction fees for cash withdrawals at other Alliance member ATMs; these include Bank of America, Scotiabank (Canada, Caribbean, and Mexico), Barclays (U.K. and parts of Africa), Deutsche Bank (Germany, Poland, Spain, and Italy), and BNP Paribas (France). Scotiabank has branches in Costa Rica.
It’s probably a good idea to change your PIN number to a 4-digit PIN number. While many ATM machines in Costa Rica will accept 5- and 6-digit PIN numbers, some will only accept 4-digit PIN numbers.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can withdraw cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs but high fees make credit card cash advances a pricey way to get cash. Keep in mind that you’ll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time. Also, note that many banks now assess a 1% to 3% “transaction fee” on all charges you incur abroad (whether you’re using the local currency or your native currency).
MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted credit cards in Costa Rica, followed by American Express. Most hotels and restaurants accept all of these, especially in tourist destination areas. Discover and Diner’s Club are far less commonly accepted.
Given widespread acceptance of credit cards and growing prevalence of ATM machines, traveler’s checks are becoming almost anachronistic. Still, they do provide a level of built-in insurance, and are accepted by most major tourist hotels and restaurants around Costa Rica. You can buy traveler’s checks at most banks. They are offered in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you’ll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler’s checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233 or tel. 800/221-7282 for cardholders — this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts AmEx gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee.); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322) — AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee (for checks up to $1,500) at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378; and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
Be sure to keep a record of the traveler’s checks serial numbers separate from your checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You’ll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
American Express, Thomas Cook, Visa, and MasterCard offer foreign currency traveler’s checks, useful if you’re traveling to one country or to the Euro zone; they’re accepted at locations where dollar checks may not be.
Another option is the new prepaid traveler’s check cards, reloadable cards that work much like debit cards but aren’t linked to your checking account. The American Express Travelers Cheque Card, for example, requires a minimum deposit, sets a maximum balance, and has a one-time issuance fee of $14.95. You can withdraw money from an ATM (for a fee of $2.50 per transaction, not including bank fees), and the funds can be purchased in dollars, euros, or pounds. If you lose the card, your available funds will be refunded within 24 hours.
Costa Rica When to Go
Costa Rica’s high season for tourism runs from late November to late April, which coincides almost perfectly with the chill of winter in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. The high season is also the dry season. If you want some unadulterated time on a tropical beach and a little less rain during your rainforest experience, this is the time to come. During this period (and especially around the Christmas holiday), the tourism industry operates at full tilt — prices are higher, attractions are more crowded, and reservations need to be made in advance.
Local tourism operators often call the tropical rainy season (May through mid-Nov) the “green season.” The adjective is appropriate. At this time of year, even brown and barren Guanacaste province becomes lush and verdant. I personally love traveling around Costa Rica during the rainy season (but then again, I’m not trying to flee winter in Chicago). It’s easy to find or at least negotiate reduced rates, there are far fewer fellow travelers, and the rain is often limited to a few hours each afternoon (although you can occasionally get socked in for a week at a time). A drawback: Some of the country’s rugged roads become downright impassable without four-wheel-drive during the rainy season.
Costa Rica is a tropical country and has distinct wet and dry seasons. However, some regions are rainy all year, and others are very dry and sunny for most of the year. Temperatures vary primarily with elevations, not with seasons: On the coasts it’s hot all year; in the mountains it can be cool at night any time of year. Frost is common at the highest elevations (3,000-3,600m/9,840-11,808 ft.).
Generally, the rainy season (or “green season”) is from May to mid-November. Costa Ricans call this wet time of year their winter. The dry season, considered summer by Costa Ricans, is from mid-November to April. In Guanacaste, the dry northwestern province, the dry season lasts several weeks longer than in other places. Even in the rainy season, days often start sunny, with rain falling in the afternoon and evening. On the Caribbean coast, especially south of Limón, you can count on rain year-round, although this area gets less rain in September and October than the rest of the country.
In general, the best time of year to visit weather-wise is in December and January, when everything is still green from the rains, but the sky is clear.
Because Costa Rica is a Roman Catholic country, most of its holidays are church-related. The biggies are Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter, which are all celebrated for several days. Keep in mind that Holy Week (Easter week) is the biggest holiday time in Costa Rica, and many families head for the beach. (This is the last holiday before school starts.) Also, there is no public transportation on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. Government offices and banks are closed on official holidays, transportation services are reduced, and stores and markets might also close.
Official holidays in Costa Rica include January 1 (New Year’s Day), March 19 (St. Joseph’s Day), Thursday and Friday of Holy Week, April 11 (Juan Santamaría’s Day), May 1 (Labor Day), June 29 (St. Peter and St. Paul Day), July 25 (annexation of the province of Guanacaste), August 2 (Virgin of Los Angeles’s Day), August 15 (Mother’s Day), September 15 (Independence Day), October 12 (Discovery of America/Día de la Raza), December 8 (Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary), December 24 and 25 (Christmas), and December 31 (New Year’s Eve).
Costa Rica Entry Requirements & Customs
For an up-to-date country-by-country listing of passport requirements around the world, go to the “Foreign Entry Requirements” page of the U.S. State Department website (http://travel.state.gov).
Citizens of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and most European nations may visit Costa Rica for a maximum of 90 days. No visa is necessary, but you must have a valid passport, which you should carry with you at all times while you’re in Costa Rica. Citizens of Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand can enter the country without a visa and stay for 30 days, although once in the country, visitors can apply for an extension.
If you overstay your visa or entry stamp, you will have to pay around $45 for an exit visa. If you need to get an exit visa, a travel agent in San José can usually get one for you for a small fee and save you the hassle of dealing with Immigration. If you want to stay longer than the validity of your entry stamp or visa, the easiest thing to do is cross the border into Panama or Nicaragua for 72 hours and then re-enter Costa Rica on a new entry stamp or visa. However, be careful: Periodically the Costa Rican government has cracked down on “perpetual tourists”; if it notices a continued pattern of exits and entries designed simply to support an extended stay, it might deny you re-entry.
If you need a visa or have other questions about Costa Rica, you can contact any of the following Costa Rican embassies or consulates: in the United States, 2114 S St. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202/234-2945; www.costarica-embassy.org for consulate locations around the country); in Canada, 325 Dalhousie St., Suite 407, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 5TA (tel. 613/562-2855); and in Great Britain, 14 Lancaster Gate, London, England W2 3LH (tel. 020/7706-8844). There are no Costa Rican embassies in Australia or New Zealand, but you could try contacting the honorary consul in Sydney, Australia, at Level 11, De La Sala House, 30 Clarence St., Sydney NSW 2000 (tel. 02/9261-1177).
What You Can Bring to Costa Rica–Visitors entering Costa Rica are officially entitled to bring in 500 grams of tobacco, 5 liters of liquor, and US$500 in merchandise. Cameras, computers, and electronic equipment for personal use are permitted duty-free. Customs officials in Costa Rica seldom check tourists’ luggage.
What You Can Take Home–Returning U.S. citizens who have been away for at least 48 hours are allowed to bring back, once every 30 days, $800 worth of merchandise duty-free. You’ll be charged a flat rate of duty on the next $1,000 worth of purchases. Any dollar amount beyond that is dutiable at whatever rates apply. On mailed gifts, the duty-free limit is $200. Be sure to have your receipts or purchases handy to expedite the declaration process. Note: If you owe duty, you are required to pay on your arrival in the United States, either by cash, personal check, government or traveler’s check, or money order, and in some locations, a Visa or MasterCard.
To avoid having to pay duty on foreign-made personal items you owned before you left on your trip, bring along a bill of sale, insurance policy, jeweler’s appraisal, or receipts of purchase. Or you can register items that can be readily identified by a permanently affixed serial number or marking — think laptop computers, cameras, and CD players — with Customs before you leave. Take the items to the nearest Customs office or register them with Customs at the airport from which you’re departing. You’ll receive, at no cost, a Certificate of Registration, which allows duty-free entry for the life of the item.
With some exceptions, you cannot bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the United States. For specifics on what you can bring back, download the invaluable free pamphlet Know Before You Go online at www.cbp.gov. (Click on “Travel,” and then click on “Know Before You Go! Online Brochure.”) Or contact the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20229 (tel. 877/287-8667) and request the pamphlet.
For a clear summary of Canadian rules, write for the booklet I Declare, issued by the Canada Border Services Agency (tel. 800/461-9999 in Canada or 204/983-3500; www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca). Canada allows its citizens a C$750 exemption, and you’re allowed to bring back duty-free one carton of cigarettes, one can of tobacco, 40 imperial ounces of liquor, and 50 cigars. In addition, you’re allowed to mail gifts to Canada valued at less than C$60 a day, provided they’re unsolicited and don’t contain alcohol or tobacco (write on the package “Unsolicited gift, under $60 value”). All valuables should be declared on the Y-38 form before departure from Canada, including serial numbers of valuables you already own, such as expensive foreign cameras. Note: The $750 exemption can only be used once a year and only after an absence of 7 days.
U.K. citizens returning from a non-E.U. country have a Customs allowance of: 200 cigarettes; 50 cigars; 250 grams of smoking tobacco; 2 liters of still table wine; 1 liter of spirits or strong liqueurs (over 22% volume); 2 liters of fortified wine, sparkling wine or other liqueurs; 60 cubic centimeters (ml) of perfume; 250 cubic centimeters (ml) of toilet water; and £145 worth of all other goods, including gifts and souvenirs. People under 17 cannot have the tobacco or alcohol allowance. For more information, contact HM Customs & Excise at tel. 0845/010-9000 (020/8929-0152 from outside the U.K.), or consult their website at www.hmce.gov.uk.
The duty-free allowance in Australia is A$400 or, for those under 18, A$200. Citizens can bring in 250 cigarettes or 250 grams of loose tobacco, and 1,125 milliliters of alcohol. If you’re returning with valuables you already own, such as foreign-made cameras, you should file form B263. A helpful brochure available from Australian consulates or Customs offices is Know Before You Go. For more information, call the Australian Customs Service at tel. 1300/363-263, or log on to www.customs.gov.au.
The duty-free allowance for New Zealand is NZ$700. Citizens over 17 can bring in 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, or 250 grams of tobacco (or a mixture of all three if their combined weight doesn’t exceed 250g); plus 4.5 liters of wine and beer, or 1.125 liters of liquor. New Zealand currency does not carry import or export restrictions. Fill out a certificate of export, listing the valuables you are taking out of the country; that way, you can bring them back without paying duty. Most questions are answered in a free pamphlet available at New Zealand consulates and Customs offices: New Zealand Customs Guide for Travellers, Notice no. 4. For more information, contact New Zealand Customs, The Customhouse, 17-21 Whitmore St., Box 2218, Wellington (tel. 04/473-6099 or 0800/428-786; www.customs.govt.nz).
Costa Rica Tips on Dining
Simply put, Costa Rican cuisine is less than memorable. San José remains the unquestioned gastronomic capital of the country, and here you can find the cuisines of the world served with formal service at moderate prices. However, the major beach destinations of Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio, and the Papagayo Peninsula are starting to catch up. At even the more expensive restaurants, it’s hard to spend more than $50 (£25) per person unless you really splurge on drinks and wine. It gets even cheaper outside the city. You can find several excellent French, Italian and contemporary fusion restaurants around the San José area, as well as Peruvian, Japanese, Swiss, and Spanish establishments.
Costa Rica is a major producer and exporter of beef; consequently, San José has plenty of steakhouses. Unfortunately, quantity doesn’t mean quality. Unless you go to one of the better restaurants or steakhouses, you will probably be served rather tough steaks, cut rather thin. Still, all is not lost. With the increase in international tourism and the need to please a more sophisticated palate, local chefs have begun to create a “nouvelle Costa Rican cuisine,” updating timeworn recipes and using traditional ingredients in creative ways.
Outside the capital and major tourist destinations, your options get very limited very fast. In fact, many beach destinations are so remote that you have no choice but to eat in the hotel’s dining room. Even on the more accessible beaches, the only choices aside from the hotel dining rooms are often cheap local places or overpriced tourist traps serving indifferent meals. At remote jungle lodges, the food is usually served buffet- or family-style and can range from bland to inspired, depending on who’s doing the cooking, and turnover is high.
If you’re looking for cheap eats, you’ll find them in little restaurants known as sodas, which are the equivalent of diners in the United States. At a soda, you’ll have lots of choices: rice and beans with steak, rice and beans with fish, rice and beans with chicken, or, for vegetarians, rice and beans. You get the picture. Rice and beans are standard Tico fare and are served at all three daily meals. Also, although plenty of seafood is available throughout the country, at sodas, it’s all too often served fried.
If you see a restaurant billing itself as a mirador, it means it has a view. If you are driving around the country, don’t miss an opportunity to dine with a view at some little roadside restaurant. The food might not be fantastic, but the scenery will be.
I have separated restaurant listings throughout this book into three price categories, based on the average cost of a meal per person, including tax and service charge. The categories are Expensive, more than $25 (£13); Moderate, $10 to $25 (£5-£13); and Inexpensive, less than $10 (£5). (Note, however, that individual items in the listings — entrees, for instance — do not include the sales or service taxes.) Keep in mind that there is an additional 13% sales tax, as well as a 10% service charge. Ticos rarely tip, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. If the service was particularly good and attentive, you should probably leave a little extra.
Costa Rica Fast Facts
American Express — American Express Travel Services is represented in Costa Rica by ASV Olympia, Oficentro La Sabana, Sabana Sur, in San José (tel. 242-8585), which can issue traveler’s checks and replacement cards and provide other standard services. To report lost or stolen Amex traveler’s checks within Costa Rica, call the number above or tel. 257-0155, or call collect to 313/271-7887 in the United States.
Area Codes — There are no area codes in Costa Rica. All local phone numbers are seven-digit numbers. However, toll-free numbers are inconsistent. Some begin with 800, others with 0800. Moreover, some actually have eight digits following the 800 or 0800.
Business Hours — Banks are usually open Monday through Friday from 9am to 4pm, although many have begun to offer extended hours. Offices are open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm (many close for 1 hr. at lunch). Stores are generally open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 6pm (many close for 1 hr. at lunch). Stores in modern malls generally stay open until 8 or 9pm and don’t close for lunch. Most bars are open until 1 or 2am.
Drugstores — Called farmacias in Spanish, drugstores are quite common throughout the country. Those at hospitals and major clinics are often open 24 hours a day.
Electricity — The standard in Costa Rica is the same as in the United States: 110 volts AC (60 cycles). However, three-pronged outlets can be scarce, so it’s helpful to bring along an adapter.
Embassies & Consulates — The following are located in San José: United States Embassy, in front of Centro Commercial, on the road to Pavas (tel. 519-2000, or 220-3127 after hours in case of emergency); Canadian Consulate, Oficentro Ejecutivo La Sabana, Edificio 5 (tel. 242-4400); and British Embassy, Paseo Colón between calles 38 and 40 (tel. 258-2025). There are no Australian or New Zealand embassies in San José.
Emergencies — In case of any emergency, dial tel. 911 (which should have an English-speaking operator); for an ambulance, call tel. 128; and to report a fire, call tel. 118. If 911 doesn’t work, you can contact the police at tel. 222-1365 or 221-5337, and hopefully they can find someone who speaks English.
Hospitals — In San José try Clínica Bíblica (Avenida 14 between calles Central and 1), which offers emergency services to foreign visitors at reasonable prices (tel. 522-1000; www.clinicabiblica.com), or the Hospital CIMA (tel. 208-1000; www.hospitalsanjose.net), located in Escazú on the Próspero Fernández Highway, which connects San José and the western suburb of Santa Ana and has the most modern facilities in the country.
Language — Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica. Frommer’s Spanish PhraseFinder & Dictionary (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) is probably the best phrase book to bring with you. However, in most tourist areas, you’ll be surprised by how well Costa Ricans speak English.
Laundromats — Dry cleaners and laundromats — be they full-service or self-serve — are few and far between in Costa Rica. Hotel laundry services, which can sometimes be expensive, are far more common. For listings of laundromats, see individual city and town sections.
Legal Aid — If you need legal help, your best bet is to first contact your local embassy or consulate. Alternatively, you can pick up a copy of The Tico Times, which usually carries advertisements from local English-speaking lawyers.
Liquor Laws — Alcoholic beverages are sold every day of the week throughout the year, with the exception of the 2 days before Easter and the 2 days before and after a presidential election. The legal drinking age is 18, although it’s almost never enforced. Liquor — everything from beer to hard spirits — is sold in specific liquor stores, as well as at most supermarkets and even convenience stores.
Lost & Found — Be sure to tell your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen, and file a report at the nearest police precinct. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number or record of the loss. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen; they may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two. In Costa Rica, Visa’s emergency number is tel. 0800/011-0030. American Express cardholders and traveler’s check holders should call tel. 0800/012-3211. MasterCard holders should call tel. 0800/011-0184. For other credit cards, or for a local representative of the above companies, call Credomatic tel. 295-9898.
If you need emergency cash over the weekend when all banks and American Express offices are closed, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (tel. 800/777-7777 in Costa Rica; www.westernunion.com).
Mail — The main post office (correo) is on Calle 2 between avenidas 1 and 3 in San José (tel. 800/900-2000 toll-free in Costa Rica, or 202-2900), and is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5:30pm, and Saturday from 7:30am to noon. At press time, it cost 155 colones (30¢/15p) to mail a letter to the United States, and 180 colones (35¢/18p) to Europe. You can get stamps at a post office and at some gift shops in large hotels.
Given the Costa Rican postal service’s track record, I recommend paying an extra 500 colones (96¢/48p) to have anything of any value certified. Better yet, use an international courier service or wait until you get home to post it. DHL, on Paseo Colón between calles 30 and 32 (tel. 209-0000; www.dhl.com); EMS Courier, with desks at the principal metropolitan post offices (tel. 800/900-2000, or 202-2900); FedEx, which is based in Heredia but will arrange pickup anywhere in the San José metropolitan area (tel. 800/463-3339; www.fedex.com); and United Parcel Service, in Pavas (tel. 290-2828; www.ups.com), all operate in Costa Rica. Note: Despite what you may be told, packages sent overnight to U.S. addresses tend to take 3 to 4 days.
If you’re sending mail to Costa Rica, it generally takes between 10 and 14 days to reach San José, although it can take as much as a month to get to the more remote corners of the country. Plan ahead. Also note that many hotels and ecolodges have mailing addresses in the United States. Always use these addresses when writing from North America or Europe. Never send cash, checks, or valuables through the Costa Rican mail system.
Newspapers & Magazines — There are six Spanish-language dailies in Costa Rica and one English-language weekly, the Tico Times. In addition, you can get Time, Newsweek, and several U.S. newspapers at some hotel gift shops and a few of the bookstores in San José. If you understand Spanish, La Nación is the paper you’ll want. Its “Viva” and “Tiempo Libre” sections list what’s going on in the world of music, theater, dance, and more.
Police — In most cases, dial tel. 911 for the police, and you should be able to get someone who speaks English on the line. Other numbers for the Judicial Police are tel. 222-1365 and 221-5337. The numbers for the Traffic Police (Policía de Tránsito) are tel. 222-9330 and 222-9245.
Restrooms — These are known as sanitarios, servicios sanitarios, or baños. They are marked damas (women) and hombres or caballeros (men). Public restrooms are hard to come by. You will almost never find a public restroom in a city park or downtown area. There are usually public restrooms at most national-park entrances, and much less frequently inside the national park. (There are usually plenty of trees and bushes.) In the towns and cities, it gets much trickier. One must count on the generosity of some hotel or restaurant. Same goes for most beaches. However, most restaurants, and, to a lesser degree, hotels, will let you use their facilities, especially if you buy a soft drink or something. Bus and gas stations often have restrooms, but many of these are pretty grim.
Smoking — While not as bad as most of Europe, a large number of Costa Ricans smoke, and public smoking regulations and smoke-free zones have yet to take hold. Restaurants are required by law to have nonsmoking areas, but enforcement is often lax, air-circulation poor, and the separating almost nonexistent. Bars, as a whole, are often very smoke-filled in Costa Rica.
Taxes — All hotels charge 16.3% tax. Restaurants charge 13% tax and also add on a 10% service charge, for a total of 23% more on your bill.
There is a $26 departure tax for all visitors leaving by air. This tax must be purchased prior to check-in. There are desks at the main terminal of all international airports where you can pay this tax (colones, dollars, and Visa credit cards are accepted). Some local travel agencies and hotels offer to purchase the departure tax in advance, as a convenience for tourists. You must give them authorization, as well as your passport number, and pay a small service fee.
Time Zone — Costa Rica is on Central Standard Time (same as Chicago and St. Louis), 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. Costa Rica does not use daylight saving time, so the time difference is an additional hour April through October.
Tipping — Tipping is not necessary in restaurants, where a 10% service charge is always added to your bill (along with a 13% tax). If service was particularly good, you can leave a little at your own discretion, but it’s not mandatory. Porters and bellhops get around 75¢ per bag. You don’t need to tip a taxi driver unless the service has been superior; a tip is not usually expected.
Useful Phone Numbers — For directory assistance, call tel. 113; for international directory assistance, call tel. 124; and for the exact time (in Spanish), call tel. 112.
U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory: tel. 202/647-5225 (manned 24 hr.)
U.S. Passport Agency: tel. 202/647-0518
U.S. Centers for Disease Control International Traveler’s Hot Line: tel. 404/332-4559
Water — Although the water in San José is generally safe to drink, water quality varies outside the city. Because many travelers have tender digestive tracts, I recommend playing it safe and sticking to bottled drinks as much as possible. Also avoid ice.
Costa Rica Health & Safety
Staying healthy on a trip to Costa Rica is predominantly a matter of being a little cautious about what you eat and drink, and using common sense. Know your physical limits, and don’t overexert yourself in the ocean, on hikes, or in athletic activities. Respect the tropical sun and protect yourself from it. Limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, from 11am to 2pm. Use sunscreen with a high protection factor, and apply it liberally. Remember that children need more protection than adults. I recommend buying and drinking bottled water or soft drinks, but the water in San José and in most of the heavily visited spots is safe to drink. The sections below deal with specific health concerns in Costa Rica.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before leaving. For conditions such as epilepsy, diabetes, or heart problems, wear a MedicAlert identification tag (tel. 800/825-3785; www.medicalert.org), which will immediately alert doctors to your condition and give them access to your records through MedicAlert’s 24-hour hot line.
Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry prescription medications in their original containers. Also bring along copies of your prescriptions in case you lose your pills or run out, and carry the generic name of prescription medicines in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name. And don’t forget an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses.
Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) (tel. 716/754-4883 or, in Canada, 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in the countries you’re visiting, and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. Travel Health Online (www.tripprep.com), sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable medical clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).
General Availability of Health Care
Any local consulate in Costa Rica can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. The local English-language newspaper, the Tico Times, is another good resource. I’ve listed the best hospitals in San José in “Fast Facts: San José,” in chapter 5; these have the most modern facilities in the country. Most state-run hospitals and walk-in clinics around the country have emergency rooms that can treat most conditions, although I highly recommend the private hospitals in San José, if your condition is not life-threatening and can wait for treatment until you reach one of them.
Tropical Diseases — Your chance of contracting any serious tropical disease in Costa Rica is slim, especially if you stick to the beaches or traditional spots for visitors. However, malaria, dengue fever, and leptospirosis all exist in Costa Rica, so it’s a good idea to know what they are.
Malaria is found in the lowlands on both coasts and in the northern zone. Although it’s rarely found in urban areas, it’s still a problem in remote wooded regions and along the Caribbean coast. Malaria prophylaxes are available, but several have side effects, and others are of questionable effectiveness. Consult your doctor regarding what is currently considered the best preventive treatment for malaria. Be sure to ask whether a recommended drug will cause you to be hypersensitive to the sun; it would be a shame to come down here for the beaches and then have to hide under an umbrella the whole time. Because malaria-carrying mosquitoes usually come out at night, you should do as much as possible to avoid being bitten after dark. If you are in a malaria-prone area, wear long pants and long sleeves, use insect repellent, and either sleep under a mosquito net or burn mosquito coils (similar to incense, but with a pesticide).
Of greater concern is dengue fever, which has had periodic outbreaks in Latin America since the mid-1990s. Dengue fever is similar to malaria and is spread by an aggressive daytime mosquito. This mosquito seems to be most common in lowland urban areas, and Puntarenas, Liberia, and Limón have been the worst-hit cities in Costa Rica. Dengue is also known as “bone-break fever” because it is usually accompanied by severe body aches. The first infection with dengue fever will make you very sick but should cause no serious damage. However, a second infection with a different strain of the dengue virus can lead to internal hemorrhaging and could be life threatening.
Many people are convinced that taking B-complex vitamins daily will help prevent mosquitoes from biting you. I don’t think the American Medical Association has endorsed this idea yet, but I’ve run across it in enough places to think that there might be something to it.
One final tropical fever that I think you should know about (because I got it myself) is leptospirosis. There are more than 200 strains of leptospires, which are animal-borne bacteria transmitted to humans via contact with drinking, swimming, or bathing water. This bacterial infection is easily treated with antibiotics; however, it can quickly cause very high fever and chills, and should be treated promptly.
If you develop a high fever accompanied by severe body aches, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting during or shortly after a visit to Costa Rica, consult a physician as soon as possible.
Costa Rica has been relatively free of the cholera epidemic that has spread through much of Latin America in recent years. This is largely due to an extensive public-awareness campaign that has promoted good hygiene and increased sanitation. Your chances of contracting cholera while you’re here are very slight.
Amoebas, Parasites, Diarrhea & Other Intestinal Woes — Even though the water in San José and most popular destinations in Costa Rica is generally safe, and even though you’ve been careful to buy bottled water, order frescos en leche (fruit shakes made with milk rather than water), and drink your soft drink warm (without ice cubes — which are made from water, after all), you still might encounter some intestinal difficulties. Most of this is just due to tender northern stomachs coming into contact with slightly more aggressive Latin American intestinal flora. In extreme cases of diarrhea or intestinal discomfort, it’s worth taking a stool sample to a lab for analysis. The results will usually pinpoint the amoebic or parasitic culprit, which can then be readily treated with available over-the-counter medicines.
Except in the most established and hygienic of restaurants, it’s also advisable to avoid ceviche, a raw seafood salad, especially if it has any shellfish in it. It could be home to any number of bacterial critters.
Tropical Sun — Limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, from 11am to 2pm. Use a sunscreen with a high protection factor, and apply it liberally. Remember that children need more protection than adults.
Riptides — Many of Costa Rica’s beaches have riptides: strong currents that can drag swimmers out to sea. A riptide occurs when water that has been dumped on the shore by strong waves forms a channel back out to open water. These channels have strong currents. If you get caught in a riptide, you can’t escape the current by swimming toward shore; it’s like trying to swim upstream in a river. To break free of the current, swim parallel to shore and use the energy of the waves to help you get back to the beach.
Bees, Snakes & Bugs — Although Costa Rica has Africanized bees (the notorious “killer bees” of fact and fable) and several species of venomous snakes, your chances of being bitten are minimal, especially if you refrain from sticking your hands into hives or under rocks in the forest. If you know that you’re allergic to bee stings, consult your doctor before traveling.
Snake sightings, much less snakebites, are very rare. Moreover, the majority of snakes in Costa Rica are nonpoisonous. If you do encounter a snake, stay calm, don’t make any sudden movements, and do not try to handle it. As recommended above, avoid sticking your hands under rocks, branches, and fallen trees.
Scorpions, black widow spiders, tarantulas, bullet ants, and biting insects of many types can all be found in Costa Rica. In general, they are not nearly the danger or nuisance most visitors fear. Watch where you stick your hands; in addition, you might want to shake out your clothes and shoes before putting them on to avoid any unpleasant and painful surprises.
What To Do If You Get Sick Away From Home
For travel abroad, you may have to pay all medical costs up front and be reimbursed later. Medicare and Medicaid do not provide coverage for medical costs outside the U.S. Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.
Very few health insurance plans pay for medical evacuation back to the U.S. (which can cost $10,000 and up). A number of companies offer medical evacuation services anywhere in the world. If you’re ever hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice virtually anywhere in the world in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.
U.K. nationals will need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to receive free or reduced-costs health benefits during a visit to a European Economic Area (EEA) country (European Union countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) or Switzerland. The European Health Insurance Card replaces the E111 form, which is no longer valid. For advice, ask at your local post office or see www.dh.gov.uk/travellers.
Although most of Costa Rica is safe, petty crime and robberies committed against tourists are endemic. San José is known for its pickpockets, so never carry a wallet in your back pocket. A woman should keep a tight grip on her purse (keep it tucked under your arm). Thieves also target gold chains, cameras and video cameras, prominent jewelry, and nice sunglasses. Be sure not to leave valuables unsecured in your hotel room. Don’t park a car on the street in Costa Rica, especially in San José; plenty of public parking lots are around the city.
Rental cars generally stick out and are easily spotted by thieves. Don’t leave anything of value in a car parked on the street, not even for a moment. Be wary of solicitous strangers who stop to help you change a tire or take you to a service station. Although most are truly good Samaritans, there have been reports of thieves preying on roadside breakdowns. Public intercity buses are also frequent targets of stealthy thieves. Never check your bags into the hold of a bus. If this can’t be avoided, keep your eye on what leaves the hold. If you put your bags in an overhead rack, be sure you can see the bags at all times. Try not to fall asleep.
Costa Rica Telephones
Costa Rica has an excellent phone system, with a dial tone similar to that heard in the United States.
A phone call within Costa Rica costs around 10 colones (2¢/1p) per minute. Pay phones take either a calling card or 5-, 10-, or 20-colón coins. Calling cards are much more practical, and coin-operated phones are getting harder to find. You can purchase calling cards in a host of gift shops and pharmacies. However, there are several competing calling-card companies, and certain cards work only with certain phones. CHIP calling cards work with a computer chip and just slide into specific phones, although these phones aren’t widely available. Better bets are the 197 and 199 calling cards, which are sold in varying denominations. These have a scratch-off PIN and can be used from any phone in the country. Generally, the 197 cards are sold in smaller denominations and are used for local calling, while the 199 cards are deemed international and are easier to find in larger denominations. Either card can be used to make any call, however, provided that the card can cover the costs. Another perk of the 199 cards is the fact that you can get the instructions in English. For local calls, it is often easiest to call from your hotel, although you will likely be charged around 150 to 300 colones (30¢-60¢/15p-30p) per call.
To call Costa Rica:
1. Dial the international access code: 011 from the U.S.; 00 from the U.K., Ireland, or New Zealand; or 0011 from Australia.
2. Dial the country code 506.
3. Dial the number.
To make international calls: To make international calls from Costa Rica, first dial 00 and then the country code (U.S. or Canada 1, U.K. 44, Ireland 353, Australia 61, New Zealand 64). Next you dial the area code and number. For example, if you wanted to call the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., you would dial 00-1-202-588-7800.
For directory assistance: Dial 113 if you’re looking for a number inside Costa Rica, and dial 124 for numbers to all other countries.
For operator assistance: If you need operator assistance in making a call, dial 116 if you’re trying to make an international call and 0 if you want to call a number in Costa Rica.
Toll-free numbers: Numbers beginning with 0800 or 800 within Costa Rica are toll-free, but calling a 1-800 number in the States from Costa Rica is not toll-free. In fact, it costs the same as an overseas call.