Costa Rican Travel Tips

First line of advice: Choose your travel companions very carefully.

First line of advice: Choose your travel companions very carefully.

Length of your stay

By this I mean length of your stay per location. In 1991, Mary and I stayed 5 days at each hotel. We both felt that was too long. During our 2019 visit, we stayed four days at each location and that seemed about right. This was plenty of time to do day trips from the hotel and then use the 4th day as a travel day to our next location. You might have guessed that the type of travel that we like is to keep moving. If you have a week and just want a resort to relax in without worrying about anything else, there are plenty of places in Costa Rica to suit your needs. We did a different thing every day with most of our day trips being about an hour to an hour and a half drive from the hotel. We did spend the first day at each location pretty close to the hotel. Each of our hotels were about three hours from each other which allowed us to see a broad swath of the northern half of the country. Also, aside from knowing which hotels we were staying in, we did not have a set itinerary. We had a general idea of what we wanted to see and do, but we pretty much figured things out the night before or the morning of our day out and about depending on our energy level. Weather was a concern as we were there during the rainy season. It did rain, but not that much. Definitely you could expect it once a day. Let’s just say we carried our raincoats more than we wore them, and we were only rained on once. On the other hand, it was pretty cloudy. The temperature was comfortable and nice and cool in the mountains.

Rental Cars

Of course, in order to employ an itinerary like ours you will need to have a rental car. Rental car companies in Coast Rica have a reputation of putting the screws to people for the smallest of things via the fine print in the rental agreement. There are some good recommendations on the internet, the best of which was ( I followed their advice and used Alamo. Knowing that the car was likely to come back pretty dirty and muddy, I took the plunge and got the full insurance coverage for the vehicle. This worked out well. When we returned the car, the person at Alamo looked and saw that we had full coverage. He made sure we left the keys and that was the end of it. He didn’t bother to look the car over. Within ten minutes we were on our way (five of those minutes was me looking over the car to make sure we didn’t leave anything in it).

Four-wheel drive vs. ground clearance

When we first visited Costa Rica in 1991, we read that if you visit any of the parks or places like Monteverde, a four-wheel drive vehicle is a must. Well, being a southern hick, I gave that idea the finger and proceeded to rent a small economy car. In the end, I was right, the small economy car worked out just fine and we saw everything we wanted including Monteverde. With our 2019 trip, we now had five people including luggage do deal with. So, in order to get something that fit, we went with a Toyota Forerunner type car that was four-wheel drive by default. In the end, I used the four-wheel drive once, on a road we went down by choice, knowing that we had four-wheel drive. If we didn’t have a four-wheel drive, we would not have gone down that particular road and still gotten to where we wanted to go.

We do strongly recommend a car with shocks because there are a lot of bumpy roads down there. Probably more important than four-wheel drive would be ground clearance in general. The difference in the roads between 1991 and 2019 is significant. In 1991 the trip from San Jose to Quepos on the Pacific Coast took the better part of a day, and (if I remember correctly) involved a lot of dirt roads. Today about half of the trip can be taken on a divided toll road and the rest on a paved, well developed, two lane highway with a total driving time of under three hours. That said there are still some fairly major roadways that are all dirt road. For instance, Route 917 that connects Guanacaste to the Caribbean lowlands in the northern end of the country is almost all dirt road with big pot holes. It connects to Route 4 which is unpaved, but pretty smooth, until reaches the town of Upala (if I remember correctly).

Along the dirt roads in rural areas I did see some small sedans, but they all were going pretty slow over the bumpy areas. In our SUV we could cruise along at a pretty good clip. We did not see a single Ferrari or Lamborghini on any road in Costa Rica. So, my ultimate recommendation is that the average tourist in Costa Rica traveling to the various and sundry national parks and beaches, does need to have a four-wheel drive vehicle, but something with a better than average ground clearance would work quite well.

My last thought on driving the roads in Costa Rica is that if Costa Ricans have a collective fault it would be their driving habits. They are relaxed and laid back in every way…except when they are behind the wheel of a car. You will get passed in every unsafe situation that you can think of while driving there. I recommend getting as far to the right as you can and just let them go.

Google Maps

Google maps did a pretty good job with getting us from one place to the other with one exception. When we were going to the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, it sent us up the wrong side of the valley that we needed to be on, then guided us to an unpassable bridge. In this case we used our better judgement and backtracked to the correct route. That said, the quest to get to the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest was one of our most enjoyable days of discovery of our whole trip.

Our Personal Safety

A lot of people that I have spoken to before and after our trip asked us how safe we felt being in a Central American country where we did not speak the language. I can honestly say that we did not ever feel unsafe at any point in our trip. Back in 1991, there were a few spots (Braulio Carrillo National Park in particular) that were pretty remote that were popular with birdwatchers who carried very expensive optical equipment. These places had a reputation for robbery, sometimes at gun point. I have trained myself to be on guard at all times when I am out in remote areas birding. On a scale from 1 to 10, with a 10 being “I wouldn’t go there if you paid me,” I would put my level of concern in the remote areas that I visited between 2-4. In contrast, I would put many of my regular birding and beetle collecting spots close to home between 7 and 9, and yes, there are a few places at home that are at a 10 where I just don’t go.

Dollars vs. Colones and cash vs. credit card

For our 2019 trip, we took about $1000 in cash. I kept half and Mary kept half. We exchanged about $400 into Costa Rican Colones. In the end would could have come home with about $990 of that cash untouched, and $400 in Colones was way too much local currency. Costa Ricans will readily accept dollars. The only place that we used Colones that I can remember were toll roads. Even there, I think we could have used dollars. Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere for everything. The entrance fees to parks, gas, the smallest of roadside sodas, all accepted my credit card. I would recommend taking cash as a backup in case of emergency or if you lose your card, and I would recommend get only a small amount in Colones ($50 to $100).


Food and Water

The resorts and hotels will have food options that are safe and generally expensive. I recommend that you go out and seek the local sodas where the Costa Ricans eat. They are good and very inexpensive. We kept a bag of snacks and PB&J in the car or hotel room. We could generally get by having the hotel breakfast and a later meal at a soda or restaurant. If we had lunch at a soda, we could skip dinner by just having a PB&J, if you wanted it. Usually, no one did. Also, the water is safe to drink in all areas of the country that I know of. If you just are uncomfortable drinking tap water in a foiregn country, bottled water is available everywhere.

Phone Service

We used the ATT international plan. When Emily and I went to Croatia in 2016 we used that plan which cost $30 per phone at that time. It worked great. This time it was $60 per phone with only one gig of data, and $0.35 per minute for phone calls with unlimited texting. Well the texting didn’t work well at all (some text arriving hours after it was sent) and the one gig went pretty fast. After the one gig of data it was gone it was $50 per gig which they are happy to add on without telling you. In short, it sucked and was very expensive (about $450). The reason I wanted it is because I would be able to use the find my phone app (or “find my family” app). This did function enough at times. We used it once to find Emily’s phone which fell out of her pocket when she was taking pictures of macaws. We were able to locate the phone in tall grass.

I don’t know what other options are there for international phone use, but I would have to think that they would all be cheaper than ATT. I asked ATT customer service why it was so expensive and the person told me it was because the “technology has gotten better.” What? The other plan that ATT really wanted me to have as their best deal ever was $10 a day per phone charged only if the phone was turned on. So, if I wanted to text or use GPS, which we all did daily, it would have cost $750 for our family to use their phone for the trip. I told them that this sucked. Their response was “just don’t turn on the phone.” I asked them how would I communicate with my kids. Their answer “well then it would be $10 a day.” I told them again that their plans sucked…a lot.

Lastly, behave yourself at the airport or they will put you in a time out.

Lastly, behave yourself at the airport or they will put you in a time out.