I love writing posts about things you must know before you travel to a country. Firstly, because it brings back so many good memories of my trip and secondly, because I now have wisdom I can impart to fellow travellers! So you’re off to visit Costa Rica soon? Here are 23 things you should know before going there.

1. Costa Rica is expensive!

Costa Rica may appear to be a backpacker’s paradise from the outset but once you are in the country, you’ll realise that the costs really start to add up. Entrance fees, restaurants, hotels, groceries… they’re all priced similar to other developed countries. This was a shocking discovery as I’d always expected Costa Rica to be a budget friendly destination! That being said, it does allow for a shoe string budget but nowhere compared to the likes of South East Asia.

Cars allow for flexible navigating between the various national parks. Pictured above is the Marino Ballena National Park.

2. The best way to get around is by car

You may be considering various options and while public transportation is an option and definitely do-able, it’s much more complex to plan and, rather inflexible. The easiest way to explore the country is by driving. Attractions and sites are in remote locations, that are not usually accessible by public transportation unless you book a tour. I recommend renting a car (if possible, a 4×4, see next point) to get around- this way you can plan the trip according to your needs.

3. You do not necessarily need a 4×4

While renting a 4×4 is the best option, it does cost a lot more than a normal car. We rented a normal car and did not have any issues. That being said, the roads in Costa Rica are full of potholes and can be quite stressful to drive on with a normal car. Additionally, some roads are very muddy, especially in the rainy season and can only be accessed with a 4X4. It’s important to consider which parts you really want to visit before renting a normal car. For the most part, it’s easy to get around with a normal car but there may be instances where you can’t access a road without a 4×4.

4. Driving in Costa Rica can be stress inducing

Driving can be very stressful in Costa Rica. It’s very common to be overtaken on the wrong side, overtaken at curves, drivers not following the speed limits, drivers distracted while driving etc. Also, there are some roads (Ruta 32, I’m looking at you), that are notorious for closures due to bad weather, accidents and landslides. But not to worry, it isn’t all that bad and very manageable if you follow the rules.

Here are a few rules you should follow when driving in CR:

  1. Do not drive after dark – aim to arrive at your destination latest by 6pm
  2. Keep a good distance from other vehicles and definitely do not overtake at curves even if you may be tempted or if others are doing it.
  3. Also have your diving license and passport on you as there can be random police checks
We found several lovely beaches and hotspots on our drive with the help of Waze

5. Waze is going to be your best friend

While driving might seem like a stressful task, do not be discouraged. You will soon befriend the locals’ and travellers’ favourite app – Waze! Waze is a lifesaver for anyone navigating the wild, pristine land of Costa Rica. My only advice with the app is that always assume a little longer than the app estimates for driving to a place – this is because traffic jams are quite common in CR and the app is not always accurate in that regard.

6. The Caribbean side of the country is a hidden gem

The Caribbean side of CR is often skipped by most travellers as it’s away from most of the other main sites. I would highly recommend including Puerto Viejo into your itinerary if you can, as it’s a very distinct from the rest of CR. It’s laidback and relaxing and offers a different perspective of CR.

Puerto Viejo is a hidden gem

7. Costa Rica is not an island!

There’s a common misconception that Costa Rica is an island, when in reality it is landlocked along both its northern and southern borders. Of course, this can easily be dismissed with a map but I got asked, by numerous people when I came back from my holiday, how the island is – which it is not!

8. Water is potable in most parts of the country

Tap water in Costa Rica is safe for consumption – for most of the trip, we drank a mix of tap water and store bought bottled water. We did not find the tap water bad at all, however, we were advised to drink bottled water on the Caribbean side so we stocked up there. It is also advised that you drink bottled water in the more rural and non touristic parts of the country.

9. Weather can change dramatically depending on where you are

Costa Rica is known for its relatively dry season from December to April and then its green, rainy season from May to November. While this is the thumb rule, the weather can change dramatically during the day and also it can change quite dramatically between the Pacific and Caribbean side. The driest part is along the Nicoya Peninsula but the same day can experience heavy showers in the Monteverde cloud forests and torrential rains in the Caribbean side.

Monteverde, we found, is possibly the more cooler parts of the country as it is up in the mountains. There can be quite a temperature drop between Monteverde and the coastal regions, while La Fortuna was hot and humid.

10. Pack a variety of garments

Costa Rica’s weather is very unpredictable and varies from region to region. There are areas like the cloud forests where temperatures can dip down to the teens and torrential rains along the Caribbean and dry heat along the Pacific coast. I recommend carrying light cottons and linens, hiking boots, a raincoat, as well as a light jacket.

Carry a rain jacket and closed shoes for costa Rica- there’s plenty of hiking opportunities!

11. You can pay in either USD or Colones but try to have both currencies

Both USD and the local currency, Colones are widely accepted. I carried USD for most of the trip but I also recommend having some loose change in Colones for parking fees, tips, etc, as you may not always have enough change in USD.

12. Spotting wildlife isn’t as easy as everyone makes it seem

Most travellers (including myself) think that visiting a national park or rainforest guarantees spotting wildlife. This is often not true, as wildlife tend to move into the more denser, unmanned parts of the forests and jungles. However, if you’ve got the eyes of a hawk and sensitive ears, you may be able to spot them. I recommend hiring a guide who will be able to spot wildlife much more easily as they know where most animals and birds perch.

13. The cheapest place to get a meal is at a “Soda”

If you’re looking to try authentic and cheap meals in CR, I recommend visiting a local soda. These are open air, family owned restaurants serving up hot meals that most Ticos (Costa Rican locals) would enjoy on a day to day basis. You’ll be able to find a meal consisting of rice with beans, plantain, various vegetables, meat and salsas for $10-$15, which is a steal in CR. Some popular dishes include gallo pinto and Casado.

Costa Rican local meals in sodas are the cheapest

14. Costa Rica is safe for the most part

For the most part, CR is really safe. You can walk around at night, its relatively safe for women. However, petty theft and robbery are quite common, especially incidents with tourists being robbed. If your car is unattended, I advise taking all your valuables with you and ensuring the car windows and doors are locked.

15. Buy a local SIM card for your trip

Whether you’re planning to drive, hitchhike or travel by public transport, it is highly recommended to get a local SIM card, especially to access apps such as Waze. The best place to buy SIM cards are from supermarkets. Claro and Liberty are two popular telecom companies in the country and they have good deals that include unlimited data for apps like Waze and Whatsapp.

16. The power socket is the same as the one in the US

Power sockets in CR are the same as the US – the ones with the two or three thin prongs. In most places you’ll find the three pronged socket.

I found CR quite safe and saw a lot of solo female travellers

17. You do not have to book tours or activities in advance

You can book tours or activities the day before or sometimes even on the day. This provides so much flexibility to your trip as you can always make last minute changes. However, I do recommend booking at least the day of, so you don’t have to queue at ticket booths. Certain activities like a day at the hot springs in La Fortuna would need to be booked a few days before.

18. There are bugs everywhere!

As a tropical destination, do not be alarmed if you find a scorpion or a huge spider in your hotel room – while not an everyday sight, there are still instances of being greeted by the various creepy crawlies that inhabit this island.

19. There are two main international airports in Costa Rica

The main airport is near San Jose, Juan Santamaria International Airport, which is the one most people are aware of. But there is also another international airport near Liberia, to the north of Costa Rica which is a great alternative if you’re looking to explore the northerly part.

20. The locals aka Ticos are the friendliest and always willing to help

The Costa Ricans, fondly nicknamed Ticos, are some of the loveliest people you will meet. They live and breathe the motto “Pura Vida” which means pure life. Everywhere we went, we were always welcomed with positive energy, vibrant smiles and pleasant demeanours. Their love for their country is evident in the pride they share for the culture, gastronomy, and landscape. I encourage you to strike up a conversation with a Tico to experience the essence of Pura Vida.   

Volcan Tenorio National Park is quite popular but we managed to book the day before

21. Think twice before petting a sloth

Did you know that touching a sloth may cause trauma and it may eventually die from that trauma? Sloths are known to enjoy their own peace and solace. As such, they are not the most sociable, even with their own species. With a human, sloths can get quite stressed leading them to have high blood pressure and increased heart rates for prolonged periods, which could eventually kill them. Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time you touch a sloth but it’s something to be mindful of, when you do see a sloth as there are many in CR.

Here’s a useful article to know more about petting sloths – Can You Touch Sloths? The Petting Protocol! – Animal Hype

On a similar note, Costa Rica is quite opposed to humans taking selfies with animals.

22. You will need to use the SINAC website to buy entrance tickets

While there are many privatised national parks, there are also several government owned and operated national parks. SINAC is a government agency that manages these national parks. To visit these, you would need to sign up for an account and buy tickets only via the website. Some national parks may have physical ticket booths but often they expect you to buy the tickets online.

A sloth enjoying a siesta

23. Carry a reusable water bottle

Costa Rica is an eco conscious country and many national parks stipulate bringing only reusable water bottles into their parks.

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