General tips for traveling around Costa Rica

If you’re well accustomed to travel outside of the U.S., many of these tips will be old hat for you.  However, if you’re new to travel abroad—especially travel in Central and South America—you might find some interesting things to consider here.

Eating and drinking

  • Bring a sturdy refillable water bottle.  The water in pretty much any public area of Costa Rica can be ingested with no problems for U.S. folks.  In some places, the water didn’t taste all that great—lots of iron, usually.  But most lodges had water dispensers—often nicely chilled—that you could use to refill your water bottles.  Some spots (Ensenada, Savegre) also had hot water dispensers, so you could instantly have a hot cup of tea.
  • The fruit was just amazing and great arrays were offered at every meal—pineapple (piña  or ananá), cantaloupe (mélon), watermelon (sandía), mango (mango), papaya (papaya), etc..  My mouth is watering just writing about and remembering them all.  However, beware of eating too much papaya.  It is a beautiful, delicious, delectable fruit with juicy, succulent orange/red flesh.  However, it contains an enzyme—papain—that aids in digestion.  Sometimes, it can aid a bit too much, having a powerful laxative effect for some people.  First-hand experience here; your results may vary.  Proceed with caution, at least until you see how your body reacts!

Clothes

  • Weather is often a concern when figuring out how and what to pack.  Depending on where you’re going, you could have rather different weather all on one trip, too.  The wetter season in Costa Rico tends to be May – Nov. in most parts, but again—that varies by region.  For example, Arenal has a very different wet period than many of the other areas.  You can see a chart of the general patterns here.  Interestingly, a few weeks of dry weather—referred to as veranillo—can occur in July and August, in the midst of the rainy season.  You can check this Web site to see a more specific 15-day forecast for a number of different areas in Costa Rica.
  • I brought two pairs of shoes—a pair of water-proof sandals that would stay securely on my feet in water and sturdy low-cut hiking shoes (although not hiking boots).  Those 2 pairs were really all I needed.  I liked to use the sandals in the bus when we were traveling to the next site—easy on, easy off.  (I’m a barefoot kind of gal.)  The hiking shoes were perhaps overkill, since we weren’t ever on really rough paths.  But I like the extra support, especially with as much walking as we did.  NOTE:  If you’re going to La Selva, you’ll need a pair of close-toed shoes.  Open shoes or sandals are not permitted.

  • Bring as many quick-dry clothes as you can—shirts, shoes, socks.  Cotton stays wet and dries very slowly, especially in the warm, humid areas.  Even if you don’t plan to do any laundry, perspiration and rain will take long enough to leave your “quick-dry” clothes.  With cotton or other natural fibers, the wetness can seem to linger interminably.
  • If you’re going to the mountains (for us, that was Savegre), bring warm layers of clothes.  You might even consider a lightweight set of long underwear for sleeping.  Sleeping could be quite chilly.  (For example, the space heater in our room got the room heated only to 60 at 6 a.m. when it got down to 40 F outside.  Lots of comforters and blankets made sleeping just fine, but the first step into the room in the morning was quite, um, shall we say brisk?)  A morning walk could also be a bit nippy, so even a light pair of gloves can help if you’re trying to hold your binoculars.  However, the sun quickly warms up the thin air, so you want to be sure you can peel off layers as the air heats up.Staying clean
  • Not all of the sinks had drain plugs—or plugs that worked effectively.  Bring a flexible drain stopper for removing contacts safely and for doing laundry.  These thin, flat pieces of rubber conform to different sizes of drains and are very easy to pack.  Plus, if you have a stubborn jar lid to unscrew, you’ll be all set with this versatile accessory.  (In fact, if you can’t find such a drain stopper, the rubber jar lid gripper will work just fine too.)
  • Bring a small travel clothes line and small clothespins.  Only a few of the places that we stayed had lines readily available.  For example, Selva Verde had lines stretched along the the walkways between buildings (talk about displaying your dirty laundry in public…).  Savegre had a line in the shower.  At other places, folks just draped their laundry on the furniture that was outside their cabins or wherever else they could figure out.  Laundry drying hither and yon was not an unusual sight, although you would have to be on the lookout for surprise rainfall.
  • Clothes dried well in Ensenada (Guanacaste Province) and Savegre.  In all other areas that we visited, the air was very humid.  But with some planning and a stay of at least 2 nights during which to dry, non-cotton clothes would probably be dry enough to pack or wear again.
  • Many of the lodges had dispensers with biodegradable body wash and shampoo in the showers.  I always figured that if they supplied it, I should use it.  But bring biodegradable hair conditioner, if you use that.  That wasn’t provided in any of the lodges we visited.
  • If you see a small basket next to the toilet anywhere, put used toilet paper in that basket rather than in the toilet.  (We saw the baskets everywhere we went.  No exceptions.)  This practice is not uncommon throughout much of the world, but U.S. folks often find it hard to get used to.  Just get over yourself.  It works fine, once you break yourself of your normal habit.  So do it rather than risk causing some kind of plumbing problem or whatever else might happen in your room.
  • Bring travel-sized packages of Kleenex (or your favorite brand) for restaurant or other non-hotel bathroom stops.  I found that those facilities often had run out of toilet paper.  If you were going to flush it, tissues could be a problem.  But since it goes in a basket, no problem.

Language

  • Most of the buffets at the lodges have tons of food and servers to dish out at least the main dishes.  Learn “poco” (a little) and “bastante” or “sufficiente” (enough)—peppered with lots of “gracias” and “por favor” and a genuine smile—for dealing with  the huge portions the servers will offer you.  It seemed, at least to me, far ruder to take food and leave it on my plate than to let the staff know that I just wanted a small amount.  At least that’s how it is in my culture.
  • If you’re so inclined and easily amused, you can learn a surprising number of Spanish words by reading billboards, road signs, and store signs.  Put a Spanish-English (and English-Spanish) dictionary on your e-reader and bring a small notebook and pen.  You can look up the words later in the evening and amaze and amuse your friends the next day.  I found it was a great way to pass the time during bus transits.  (This hint is probably most useful for folks who have at least a kindergarten-level knowledge of Spanish already.)  (By the way, “alto” means—surprise!—“stop.”  Sometimes, all you need are some contextual clues.)

Conversions

  • The local currency is colones.  Here’s a Web site to check the current currency conversion.  In most places, you can pay in U.S. dollars.  If the price is listed in colones, though, you’re likely to get change in colones.
  • Sometimes the air conditioning is in Centigrade and you have to select the temperature that you want the room to be.  Roughly, 20 C= 68 F; 30 C = 85 F.  Other approximate conversions as you’re out and about:  1 km * 0.6 = miles; 1 m * 3 = feet; 1 kg * 2.2 = lbs.

Heading Home

  • We were on an organized tour that had the same guide and driver for the entire time.  If you want to tip these hard-working folks at end of the tour, get an envelope or 2 from the hotel desk or bring your own along.  We gave $10/day and $5/day (for guide and driver, respectively) for the 2 of us.  Many of our group of 14 appeared to offer tips but I don’t think everyone did.  The pre-trip material from Road Scholar/Elderhostel made it clear tipping wasn’t required.
  • You’ll need to pay a departure tax when you leave Costa Rica.  The departure tax is a flat fee you pay before you head to your flight home.  In 2012, it was $28/person from SJO (the San José airport).  It may differ if you leave from elsewhere in the country.  You can pay the departure tax with the rest of your colones; the folks there will tell you how many dollars you owe.  You can use a credit card, but note that it will be charged as a cash advance—and your card company may slap a large fee on that.
  • At SJO, look immediately for the departure tax station to pay the departure tax.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.  In 2011, it was to the right just after you entered the Departures door, along the wall.  It’s very easy to miss the tax station, since you’re focusing on getting to the gate and paying to leave is probably pretty far from your mind.  But you need to go there before heading to your airline.  At least when we were there, the security screening and the walk to the gate took very little time.

Miscellanea

  • Most lodges we visited had no television in the rooms—or anywhere, for that matter.  So get ready for a very refreshing holiday from perpetual news and mindless television.
  • If you like to read at night, bring a booklight that clips onto your book.  The bulbs in the lamps where we stayed weren’t strong and the lamps often weren’t well positioned for reading in bed.
  • Surprisingly few places that we visited had traditional postcards.  Selva Verde had some, but only one of a bird.  (Of course, this mostly matters for folks who are birders.)  Isn’t that interesting?  Savegre had a variety of postcards, though.
  • I brought a collapsible hiking stick for balance and support of a sometimes finicky back.  (If you bring one, be sure to pack it in your checked baggage.  It might not be allowed in carry-on luggage.)  I only used the hiking stick for the walk along the river at Villa Lapas.  If we’d walked up the mountain at Savegre, I probably would have used it there.  (Instead, we spent most of our time along the Savegre River, following a wide road and path.)  I had thought I might need it in the rainforest at La Selva, since I was picturing muddy paths, low-hanging vines, and other stereotypical features like that.  However, we were always on concrete paths, so footing was no problem at all.

7 Responses to General tips for traveling around Costa Rica

  1. Carol says:

    Very good suggestions since I have never been to Central America. One thing you did not mention was electric plugs. Can I plug in my camera to charge the battery?

  2. Dorothy Mull says:

    Tina, thank you so much for your wonderfully detailed blog posts. Really excellent.

    Our small family group will be in Costa Rica for 4-5 days at the end of January 2015. We’ve hired a guide who is an expert birder. We’ll stay in Jaco but go out from there to Carara and Manuel Antonio. I’m wondering whether insects such as no-see-ums and mosquitoes will be a problem. Should we take insect repellent, and if so, which type works best in your opinion? I notice in your photos that you and others are wearing long sleeves and long pants despite the heat. Was this related to protecting yourself from bites?

    Thanks for any advice.

    Dorothy

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Dorothy–

      I’m not particularly sensitive to bugs, so I may not be the best judge of this. But the only place I recall being irritated by biting insects was in the rainforest (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva). It doesn’t sound like you’re heading to that area, so bug repellant may not be important for you. But pack some if you’re worried about it–it won’t take up much room.

      As I recall, I didn’t wear long sleeves or long pants much at all on the trip, except in the mountains of San Gerardo de Dota. Others in our group wore them mostly to avoid sun exposure; I just used sun screen.

      Tina

  3. Dorothy Mull says:

    Thanks so much for your prompt reply, Tina. I found that Amazon sells 3 oz. airline-approved containers of Sawyer insect repellent that’s supposed to be effective so that’s what I’m buying. Another question:- you mention rain a few times. Do people take umbrellas or do they just sort of tough it out with maybe a poncho for protection? Are the rain showers usually brief at that time of year?

    Dorothy

    • Tina says:

      We were on a birding trip, so carrying umbrellas was out of the question. (You need to have your hands free to grab your binoculars at a moment’s notice.) Ponchos don’t work well for birding either, since you often have to have your hands up, causeing a poncho to expose too much. Folks in our group all had good rain gear (water-proof jackets with hoods, rain hats) and kept it all at the ready. Groups traveling for other purposes could have different habits, though.

      As I recall, some showers were brief but several were rather prolonged and we stayed on the van until the rain had lessened at least a bit.

      Tina

  4. Dorothy Mull says:

    OK, off to buy at least a little rain gear. We won’t be in CR nearly as long as your group was, so preparations are a bit more minimal. […] We very much appreciated your pictures of the major trees and also your including the common bird songs. It appears that you are detail-oriented enough to be a professor! Rara avis indeed, as one grateful person commented!

    Dorothy

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