Home The Ultimate Crash Course Guide to Surviving in Costa Rica

The Ultimate Crash Course Guide to Surviving in Costa Rica

2016-01-03 22_56_43-The Ultimate Crash Course Guide to Surviving in Costa Rica _ CostaRecon

If you don’t know what you’re getting into, traveling to a foreign country can be an intimidating experience. With that in mind, we’ve created this quick resource guide to give you an overview of the country and help you prepare for your Costa Rica trip.


Costa Rica is a tropical country, but features a surprisingly diverse array of microclimates, influenced primarily by the altitude of each particular zone. Due to its proximity to the equator, the country does not experience major temperature fluctuations throughout the year, but is instead characterized by a dry season (summer) and a rainy season (winter).

Key Regions

  • San José (Central Valley) – Summer (December – March) brings near-perfect weather to the Central Valley. Skies are clear, rain is rare and temperatures hover between 70° and 81°F. In winter (April – November), downpours are a daily occurrence and can be ferocious. Mornings, however, are usually dry with clear skies.
  • Guanacaste (North Pacific coast) – Home to Conchal, Flamingo and Tamarindo beaches, Guanacaste has a hot and dry climate, with average temperatures ranging from 87° to 96°F.
  • Limón (Caribbean coast) – Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast includes spots like Puerto Limon, Tortuguero National Park and Cahuita National Park, and produces a hot and wet climate year round due to the warm moist air coming off the Gulf Stream.


The official currency in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican colón, but $5, $10, and $20 American dollar bills are widely accepted, especially in tourist areas. The easiest way to acquire colones is by withdrawing them from one of the country’s many ATMs using your debit card. You can also exchange dollars, along with other currencies in any of the local banks, but lines can be long. Skip the exchange counter in the airports to avoid bad conversion rates.

Local bills come in denominations of 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, and 50,000.

Exchange rate

At the time of this writing, $1 = ₡537 (check current rate). An easy way to do a rough colones to dollars conversion in your head is by doubling the amount of colones, then subtracting three zeros.

Credit cards

MasterCard, Visa and American Express credit cards are widely accepted. Check to see if your card charges a “conversion fee” for purchases in colones.

Getting around

You have several options for getting around the country, depending on your budget and goals.

  • Public bus – public buses are an inexpensive way to travel around the city and cost around 200 colones (40 cents) per person/ride. You can even take these bare-bones buses out of town to the beach, for example, but the ride can be a long and uncomfortable one and the terminals are sometimes located in dicey areas. You can use this Android app to estimate bus fares. Find bus route maps with this iOS/Android app. Completely accurate info on CR bus schedules is hard to come by, however.
  • Private shuttle/bus – more expensive than the public bus, but still affordable and offers way more comfort and convenience. Here is a long list of options.
  • Taxis – Taxis are inexpensive and ubiquitous in Costa Rica and are our preferred way to travel around the city. See estimates of popular routes here. Download and launch this iPhone app during your trip to see if you are being charged fairly.
  • Rent a car – If you prefer to skip the bus for your out of town trip, you can rent a car at several mainstream car-rental agencies. Be warned though: Costa Rican roads are notorious for their massive potholes, and driving in the country can be an intimidating experience. Taxis are preferred over rental cars if you just plan to stay in San José.


While the thought of Costa Rican food might conjure up images of spicy, Mexican-style dishes, in reality it is actually quite mild and simple. Costa Rican cuisine features plenty of fruit and vegetables and is usually prepared from scratch. The Casado is a typical traditional dish which includes rice, beans, chicken or beef, fried plantains and salad. Gallo Pinto is a breakfast favorite and features eggs, rice and beans, fried plantains and orange juice.

American fast food options are popular and plentiful in Costa Rica and include McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway and many others. You can also choose between traditional restaurants offering food of all types.


Spanish is the official language in Costa Rica, but English is spoken by many. Costa Rican Spanish is not heavily accented and is usually spoken clearly. Yes, it’s possible to live in the country for years without knowing the language, but it will certainly limit your social opportunities.

10 useful phrases

  • Good morning/good afternoon/good evening/goodbye (Buenos días/buenas tardes/buenas noches/hasta luego)
  • Hi, how are you? (Hola, como está usted?)
  • I’m fine, thanks. (Estoy bien, gracias)
  • What’s your name? (Como se llama usted?)
  • My name is Josh, nice to meet you. (Yo soy Josh, mucho gusto.)
  • I don’t understand. (No entiendo)
  • I don’t know (No sé)
  • Do you speak English? (Habla inglés?)
  • Excuse me! (Perdón!)
  • Where is the hotel? (Dónde está el hotel?)

Costa Rican slang

Like all languages, Costa Rican Spanish includes quirks and slang terms specific to the region. Here are several local terms and rules to keep in mind:

  • Ticos often use the verb regalar (to gift) in the place of dar (to give). Ex. Regáleme dos hamburguesas, por favor. (Give me two hamburgers please.)
  • Pura Vida: this is an expression you’ll hear all day every day, and conveys a sentiment of good feeling. Ex. Como estás? (How are you?) Pura vida! (I’m great)
  • Costa Ricans use usted or vos and rarely use . Using is fine for foreigners, however.
  • Mae is a heavily used Tico slang word translated at man/guy/girl/dude. Ex. Quién es ese mae? (Who’s that guy?)
  • Tuanis is translated as “cool.”

Learn more about Costa Rican Spanish here.


Costa Rica is a Democratic Republic with a president, two vice presidents and a multiparty system. The government is divided into executive, judicial and legislative branches, each providing checks and balances on the others. The two most important political parties are the Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN) and the Unidad Social Cristiana (USC). National elections are held every four years in February and are a cause of celebration for a people proud of the fairness of its electoral system.

Mobile phones/internet

In 2011, the government monopoly on telecommunications (ICE) was lifted, allowing several private carriers to enter the market. You have several options for communicating in Costa Rica:

  • Bring your own mobile – your mobile phone will work in Costa Rica as long as it’s an unlocked quad-band device. You can purchase a compatible prepaid SIM card at the airport or elsewhere in the country which will allow you to make calls and access the Internet. Claro and Movistar stand out as two of the better options.
  • Buy a prepaid phone – you also have the option of buying a cheap prepaid phone which includes a local SIM card, available in kiosks at the airport and throughout the country.
  • Mobile Internet via 3G USB modem – purchase a 3G USB stick and SIM from one of the country’s several carriers to access the Internet from your laptop where Wi-Fi is unavailable.
  • Cable Internet – get high-speed Internet at home with cable Internet from RACSA, Kölbi, Tigo, Claro, Telecable or Cabletica,
  • Internet cafes/wifi hotspots – Internet cafés are easily found in Costa Rica and are inexpensive. Alternatively, a large number of businesses offer free Wi-Fi for customers.

Emergency numbers

If you have an emergency, dial 911 (English-speaking operators should be on hand). To call Costa Rica from the US, you must dial 011-506 before the eight digit phone number. From Costa Rica, dial 001, then the area code and number.

  • Police: 2586-4000
  • Transit Police: 2255-3562
  • Organismo de investigación Judicial (Costa Rica’s FBI): 800-8000-645


US Embassy
Phone: 2519-2000  (from the US 011-506-2519-2000)
Address: Calle 98 Vía 104, Pavas, San José, Costa Rica

Canadian Embassy
: 2242-4400
Address: Behind the “Contraloría” in the Oficentro Ejecutivo La Sabana Building 5, Third floor

British Embassy
Phone: 2258-2025
Address: Edificio Centro Colón, Paseo Colón and Streets 38 and 40

Private hospitals

  • CIMA Hospital: 2208-1000
  • Clínica Bíblica: 2522-1000
  • Clínica Católica: 2246-3000