Pura Vida Travels - A Guide To Travel In Latin America

Costa Rica Travel Tips

US Passport - If you are travelling to Costa Rica and you are a US citizen your passport must not expire for at least 30 days from the date of entry into Costa Rica. Even if you are only going to Costa Rica for a few days your passport must still be valid for 30 days. If it isn't you won't even be getting on the plane if you are flying on Delta. Even worse, if you do manage to get to Costa Rica they will not let you into the country. They are NOT flexible on this requirement so don't think it doesn't apply to you and you can talk your way out of it. Note: As of 9/17/06 this has been extended from 30 days to 6 months.

Passport Safety - You are NOT required to carry your actual passport with you at all times while you are in Costa Rica. You MUST, however, carry a copy of the information page AND a copy of your entry stamp into Costa Rica. The easiest way to handle this is to make a copy of your passport before you leave home and have the immigration officer stamp both your passport and the copy you have made. This allows you to carry the copy with you at all times and leave your actual passport locked in your room safe. If you forget to make a copy before you leave have it done at your hotel. Don't ruin your trip by losing your passport.

Departure Tax - When you exit Costa Rica you must pay a departure tax of $26 US. You must pay this tax before you check in with your airline to get your boarding passes. You can pay by credit card but it is charged as a cash advance rather than a charge so be aware of any fees your CC company charges for cash advances. Once you pay the tax you are given a form that you have to fill out and give to the gate agents at your airline. The best way to handle paying the departure tax is to simply pay it when you arrive at the airport rather than waiting until you leave. When your flight arrives you will have to wait in line to go through immigration and get your passport stamped. At the rear of the room where immigration is located is a desk where you can pay the departure tax. There is usually no line and this saves the hassle of having to do this when you leave. Here's what you get for your $26:

Taxis - Taxis are everywhere in San Jose and are generally safe and cheap. NEVER use a "pirate" cab. Use the red cabs with the orange/yellow triangle logo on the door. These cabs are licensed while the others are not. If you are taking a cab from the airport into San Jose you will pay a flat fee at the cab stand at the airport exit. The fee is usually $12 to $14. Cab drivers generally do not speak English so knowing some Spanish helps greatly. Another thing to know is that nothing in Costa Rica has an address in the way Americans think of them. If you tell a cabbie to take you to 222 Calle 9 you will get a blank stare. Addresses are expressed in terms of landmarks as in it's across the street from this park, 200 meters north of the pipe factory, etc. Most of them know where the major hotels are but if you are staying somewhere off the beaten path you are going to have to direct them there by landmarks. For this reason alone if it's your first visit to San Jose and you don't know your way around it's probably best to stick to one of the major hotels. Another thing to know is that having a map won't help you much. Most cabbies don't have a clue how to read one. They look at it like they are reading a blueprint for the space shuttle. The 2 most common scams that taxi drivers try are taking you to the wrong place on purpose and not using the meter (la maria). The first scam works like this. I tell the cabbie I want to go to Tin Jo restaurant and he takes me to some other restaurant and tells me it's better. Chances are the only reason it's better is he's getting a couple of bucks from the restaurant every time he brings someone there. Be firm and make them take you where you want to go. The second scam is easily avoided. Either negotiate the fare upfront or make them use the meter. For long trips negotiate, for short trips use the meter. If you let them use the meter to take you from San Jose to the airport it will cost you over $20. You can usually negotiate a flat rate of $12 to $15, however, and save some money. On short trips they will generally try to not use the meter and ask for 2000 Colones ($4). Most taxi rides around San Jose are typically between 500 to 1000 Colones ($1 - $2) so make them use the meter. If they don't start the meter just say "La maria, por favor" and they generally will start it. If they don't tell them to stop and get another cab.

Water - We've all heard the famous saying "Don't drink the water" before leaving for a trip overseas. The good news is that it doesn't apply to San Jose. I was told before my first trip that the water was perfectly safe to drink and didn't believe it. Without thinking one day I drank a huge glass of tap water and was immediately panicked after realizing what I did. The good news is nothing happened and I've been drinking the water ever since without incident.

Hotels - I only have 4 requirements for a hotel room. It has to have high speed internet access, it has to be clean, it has to have hot water, and it needs to be in a safe area. I prefer the smaller non-chain hotels because you can negotiate with them. Many will give you a better rate if you pay cash and an even better rate if you stay a week or longer. If you call them or email them you can usually get a better rate than they have posted on the Internet. A lot of hotels don't have air conditioning. Do not let this dissuade you from staying at a hotel in San Jose. The climate is perfect as it's not extremely hot during the day and it's cool at night. Another tip is that if you need laundry done ask the maids if they would be willing to do it. Many will wash and iron your clothes for less than $5.

Apartments - Apartments can be rented around San Jose on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. They are generally roomier and more comfortable for longer stays. If you want to live like a local renting an apartment is the way to go. I stayed at the Vista Linda Apartments on one of my stays and it was a great place. There are numerous similar places that advertise in the local papers.

Local Papers - The 2 main papers in San Jose are The Tico Times (English) and La Nacion. (Spanish)

Restaurants - There are a ton of great restaurants in San Jose. In Costa Rica all restaurants automatically add 10% to your bill for a gratuity. Keep that in mind when leaving anything extra as you have already left a tip by paying your bill. Going out to eat is not the thing to do when you're in a hurry in Costa Rica. You're going to be there for a while so enjoy the experience as that's just the way it is here. When you are done eating you will almost always have to ask for the check. It is considered rude for them to bring you the check without asking for it as it would be like asking you to leave. On my first trip to Costa Rica I found that extremely frustrating as I thought it was just poor service that no one would bring a check until I asked for it. It's not poor service, it's a cultural thing and actually a compliment that they're not asking you to leave. Below is the check from my favorite restaurant in San Jose, La Esquina de Buenos Aires. A carpaccio appetizer, lomito de pimiento (3 beef filets in a black corn pepper sauce), and 2 diet cokes was around $21.

Safety - As with any country in the world there is crime in Costa Rica. I walk a lot when I'm in San Jose (sometimes up to 8 miles in a day) and I have never once had a problem. I usually have a camera, a copy of my passport, my cell phone, and less than $100 in cash. I only carry what I absolutely need and everything else is locked in the safe in my room. I do not wear jewelry of any kind as things like necklaces are easy targets for thieves. I don't carry a wallet as that's another easy target. I only carry a single CC when I know I will need it. The purpose of this is that if I ever do get robbed I'm not going to lose everything. I can't imagine anything worse than being in a foreign country and losing ALL of your credit cards, your passport, and all of your money. By not carrying it all the odds of losing it all decrease dramatically. When the sun starts to set around 6 PM (no daylight savings time in CR) my walking for the day ends. After dark I take cabs wherever I need to go. The reason for this is that when the sun goes down the police seem to disappear and the bad guys start to appear. DO NOT WALK THROUGH ANY OF THE PARKS IN SAN JOSE AT NIGHT. The parks are havens for thieves, drug addicts, and transvestites after dark. Even if you are with a group you are not safe in a park at night so don't go there. It's much better to spend the $2 for a cab than be the victim of an armed robbery. Be especially wary of the transvestites as they generally work in teams looking for unsuspecting (and usually drunk) gringos to rob. When you see them from a distance you will swear they are beautiful women. Once they lure you in several of their friends will appear to relieve you of your valuables.

Cigars - I love good cigars and Cuban Romeo y Julietta's are my all-time favorites. Unfortunately for me it's illegal for me to bring them to the USA so I can only have them when I'm overseas. Believe it or not it's even illegal for an American to smoke a Cuban cigar outside the US. (Click here for the US government position on Cuban cigars) Costa Rica is not a good place to get Cuban cigars. There are dozens of street vendors peddling "Cuban" cigars. Don't waste your money as they are cheap fakes. There are a few cigar stores where you can get real Cuban cigars but they are very expensive. There is a great cigar made in Costa Rica called Don Benigno. You can go the factory and have them roll a box for you any way you want them. Great cigars made the way you want them while you wait. It's hard to beat that. If you are thinking about bringing back Cuban cigars to the US here are some things to consider. First, it's illegal and you can be hit with hefty fines if caught with Cuban cigars. Second, and probably worse if you travel a lot is that you get put on the homeland security watchlist meaning you are going to get an anal exam EVERY time you fly from now until the foreseeable future. It doesn't matter that you were just trying to bring home a few Cohibas, you are now classified as a smuggler. Is all that really worth it for a few cigars?

Phone Service - Phone service is controlled in Costa Rica by a monopoly called ICE. As a result your choices are limited when it comes to phone service. In most countries if you have an unlocked GSM phone you can just buy a prepaid SIMM card, pop it into your phone, and you have a local phone. This is not the case in Costa Rica since ICE will only give Costa Rica residents a SIMM card. Cingular service works in Costa Rica through ICE at the rediculous rate of $2.29/minute. My Cingular phone works fine and is fine for short calls. A second option that I use is Skype. This is far and away the cheapest option as it only costs 2.3 cents a minute. The limitation is that you have to have a computer with you to use it. Another option are prepaid calling cards. AT & T has one you can buy in the states that works in Costa Rica. You can also buy one from ICE in Costa Rica. There are also services that will rent you a cell phone in Costa Rica for $10/day plus any long distance charges. I rented a phone on one of my trips from CellularTelephoneRentals.Com and they deliver the phone to your hotel and pick it up when you're leaving. The bottom line is that if you have to have phone service in Costa Rica it's a pain and expensive.

Dress Code - What kind of clothes you should pack when going to Costa Rica? This is a difficult question and depends on where you are going. If you are going on a volcano trip pack some warm clothes because it's quite chilly at 11,000 feet especially in the morning. The locals (Ticos) never wear shorts. I don't know why, they just don't. (I had one Tico tell me that shorts were "beachware".) The surest way to stick out as a tourist is to wear shorts and flip-flops. Jeans, however, are perfectly acceptable anywhere from the opera to the local sodas. For me jeans and a polo shirt is my standard attire and that has been acceptable everywhere.

Shoes - This may seem like a silly travel tip but I always wear shoes without laces when I fly. The reason being when you go through security at the airport they make you take your shoes off. Slip them off, put them through the x-ray machine, and slip them back on on the other side. No muss, no fuss, and it saves time at the airport.

Driving - You couldn't pay me to drive in Costa Rica. The hazards are everywhere. Missing manhole covers, trees in the middle of the road, lanes that end without warning, crazy drivers, cavernous potholes, no street signs, bridges without guardrails, etc. All of these are enough for me to leave the driving to the locals. Renting a car is expensive and you are liable for any damage to the car. When I checked into renting a car they wanted a $2000 damage deposit. No thanks, I'll take a bus or a cab.

Busses - Costa Rica has an amazing bus system. It takes a bit of work to figure out the system but once you do it's the best way to get around. Local busses generally cost from 20 to 50 cents. A trip from San Jose to Jaco Beach (100 KM) is $2.11 on the bus. A taxi for the same trip would be $50 or more. Just be aware that when you get on the bus and pay your fare the bus is on it's way. There's no waiting for you to sit down before they take off and sometimes they start to go while still giving you your change. Click here for a list of bus schedules.

Hiring A Driver -There are a lot of tour companies that you can use in Costa Rica. Personally, I don't like regimented tours and prefer to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Unfortuanately, the roads in Costa Rica are very poorly marked outside the cities which makes driving on your own difficult at best and downright deadly at worst. One lane bridges, unmarked one way streets, etc. are very common and if you don't know your way around these can be very dangerous. A better alternative is to hire a driver. This provides the freedom to do what you want but allows you to just sit back and enjoy the ride. If you need a driver give Gerardo a call. (see card below) He speaks English very well and will take you anywhere you want to go at a reasonable price. His number in Costa Rica is (506) 398-2727.

Beggars - As with any major city San Jose has it's fair share of beggars and hustlers. Most of them I have found to not be very aggresive and a simple no tengo dinero (I don't have money) will send them on to the next pigeon. There are some that have much more elaborate schemes. One guy walks around with a plastic bag with a US passport in it saying he's an American and lost his money and he just needs bus fare to get home. I've run into the guy at least 10 times and it's always the same pitch. I finally confronted him and said, "You seem to lose your money a lot." I talked to him a bit and he used to be a college professer but now he's a full-time drug addict. He uses whatever money people give him to buy whatever drugs he can get his hands on. I wouldn't advise confronting street people on a regular basis but just be aware that the reason they are usually there is that they are either addicts or alcoholics. I told the guy I wasn't giving him any money but I would be happy to take him somewhere where he could get some help with his addiction. He thanked me for the offer but passed and was on his way. Giving street people money just keeps them from getting the help they really need a little longer.


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