We just got back home from a fantastic two week trip to Costa Rica. Its my second time in the country (spent a month there several years back) and my husband’s third time visiting. Now that we have kids our travel is different (no more hostels, or riding in the bed of pick up trucks!). A lot of people have started asking me questions about our trip and I thought it would be helpful to pull together some things that you should know before you visit Costa Rica.
So here it goes. Here are 13 things to know before you go!
1) Make sure you have cash when you leave the airport with your rental car — Toll roads abound
Don’t be like us and forget to get cash (Colones is Costa Rica’s currency, but US Dollars are also acceptable) on your way out of town. I am SOO glad I had a 20$ bill in my backpack because there are a lot of toll crossing going out of San Jose to the coast. The airport is an expensive place to exchange money so at the least make sure you have some US dollars to ensure you can get through the tolls.
2) There is a mandatory insurance you have to buy for rental cars, and its expensive
Even if your credit card covers collisions etc., in Costa Rica you HAVE to buy mandatory liability insurance. Which for us exceeded the cost of the daily car fee (the price went from $300 – to over $600). You can waive SOME of the additional insurance they ask you to purchase if you can show that your card will cover some liability. Still, it can be shocking to see the cost of the car rental double in price. Here’s a site I found that explains the nuances of car insurance in Costa Rica.
3) Costa Rica does NOT have half and half – it does NOT EXIST
Do you love drinking your coffee with half and half? Does coffee not taste like coffee unless it has half and half? Then you may be in for a disappointment when drinking your delicious Costa Rican coffee. Costa Ricans drink their coffee with 2% milk. I searched high and low in every market we went into. Nada. I even tried mixing 2 percent milk with a shelf stable heavy cream I found (it was pretty gross). I kind of sound pathetic now that I write about this 🙂
4) Unless you visit a local “Soda” – Restaurants in Costa Rica are pretty pricey
Food prices in Costa Rica have risen dramatically over the last several years. We found that eating out at anything other than a standard “Soda” and eating a “Tico Plate” (standard Costa Rican food consisting of rice, beans, fish or chicken) was nearly as expensive as San Diego. That said, we had some really amazing meals. The seafood and fish were so fresh and delicious. To counter costs we tried to make breakfast and some lunches and splurge on dinner.
5) Cooking in Costa Rica — a few recommendations
If you book a VRBO or AirBnB, chances are you’ll have a kitchen. We took full advantage of our kitchens over the two weeks we were in Costa Rica and made most breakfasts, lunches and two dinners. I believe we saved quite a bit of money by cooking. However, we could have saved more, and perhaps eaten better if I had brought a few things with me from the US. Things like nut butters, jelly, spices like taco seasoning, cereals, wine and beer, are all imported and thus very expensive. I noticed that spice mixes in Costa Rica tended to have MSG which I try to avoid.
For the best produce and prices look into local farmers markets. They tend to be much, much cheaper than the supermarkets and fresh.
Another tip is to stop at a “BM Market” – which is a supermarket that locals use. Most of the towns have smaller more tourist-focused markets that are easily double the price.
If we do an extended trip to Costa Rica again, these are the things I will pack: Wine (cans from Trader Joes are great), taco seasoning packets, a few Annies Organic Mac & Cheeses for easy lunches, Peanut Butter and Jelly for lunches on the go, Granola/cereal for easy breakfasts, hot sauce (I know that sounds weird, but its hard to find anything other than Lizano – the sauce that CR’s love but I am not crazy about), a small bottle of olive oil, and perhaps a rice packet from Trader Joes that has seasoning I can cook with some chicken and veggies for an easy dinner. I will also bring protein powder and a few almond milks for smoothies as every place we stayed had a blender and the fruit in Costa Rica is amazing.
6) A lot of the country is still unpaved
Prepare for a bumpy ride. The most touristy areas like Manuel Antonio are well paved with good roads. If you venture into less populated areas however, chances are you’re going to travel on a dirt road. We were so glad we had an SUV with four wheel drive. We didn’t need it often, but when we did we were sure glad we had it. In the rainy season you can also expect to drive through lots of rivers and streams. You might even encounter a herd of cows!
7) Rainy season is different on the Pacific side vs. Caribbean side
October is the wettest month on the Pacific Coast, but its one of the drier months in Costa Rica on the Caribbean side. Its definitely something to consider when booking your trip. We had two weeks to travel so the days of intense rain when we were in Dominical were not as bothersome. But if our trip was shorter, I would have been disappointed in the lack of sun. Luckily we got some great weather at the end of the trip.
8) Waze is apparently the best mapping system in the region
Our Home Exchange host shared that Waze is the best form of mapping in Costa Rica. We used Waze most of the time we were in Costa Rica and it worked well.
9) Costa Rica is very kid and family friendly
Costa Rica is safe and very family friendly. From the zip line tour to the beaches, I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Costa Rica as an ideal family vacation location. The only caveat is that if your children are not great in the car, you should select a destination fairly close to the airports. It takes a LONG time to get places (see number 11 for more on that).
10) Imperial is the national beer brand, but craft beer is growing
When you step off the plane, you will start seeing Imperial signs. The local and beloved lager is a Costa Rican staple. Squeeze a lime in it and you are instantly on vacation. My husband is a huge craft beer aficionado, and he loves his Hoppy California style beers. When we noticed a lot of new Costa Rican craft beer bottles in the markets he was excited to try them. Overall his feedback is that they have a ways to go, but they are headed in the right direction. We did hear that its hard and expensive for them to get the hops, which is probably why its expensive (around 3$ for a 12 oz bottle). Still, my husband really loved supporting the local craft brewers. One place we went to in the town of Dominical has an awesome brewery and restaurant called Fuego. The beer was great. We had a session IPA that could rival any from the US. The view from the open restaurant was great as well.
11) Speed limits are low and slow — that is the tempo
The top speed limit we encountered on the highways in Costa Rica was 80 km an hour which is 50 miles an hour. Most roads and freeways only have two lanes, so chances are you will be stuck behind a slow truck at some point. In Costa Rica, its a good thing to live like the locals, just slow down and enjoy the ride. You’re not going to get anywhere fast. The bonus is that the views are amazing, and some bridges you can stop at and get a peek at sleeping crocodiles in the rivers below.
12) Costa Rica has a 12 hour day pretty much all year round
If you visit the country in the summer from the US, or other northern countries you might be surprised to see the sun set by 5:00 pm every night, even in the middle of the summer. The sun tends to rise early, around 5:30. Our strategy to maximize the day was to get up every day at 5 am and go to bed earlier. That way we were at the beach, or exploring and making the most of our time. The one bummer about the early sunset is just not having a lot of time with evening light. We tended to go out to dinner early, around 4:30 to enjoy the sunsets.
13) Tap water is OK (for the most part)
As if Costa Rica wasn’t amazing already, you can actually safely drink the tap water in most places. After a nasty bout with salmonella on my honeymoon in Mexico, I am pretty strict about drinking filtered/bottled water when I’m out of the States. It was great to find out that most places have great, good tasting and safe tap water to drink. I would just make sure you check before you indulge, but I saw lots of signs saying it was safe to drink.
Well, that’s it! 13 things to think about and know before you visit wonderful Costa Rica. In the next few days I will post more on our trip and some of the highlights.