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  • Writer's pictureDeborah

10 things I wish I’d known before visiting Costa Rica

Updated: Jan 24

A sloth in Costa Rican sanctuary - what we came here to see!

1/ Hire a 4WD

If you are planning on visiting a few different places around the country, road-tripping is a great way of getting around. However, make sure that you hire a sturdy car, and if possible, a 4WD.

There are a few reasons for this.

The first one is because the roads, while in relative good shape (for the most part), are not built to the same standard as we are used to at home in Australia or in parts of Europe. They can be quite narrow, and it is not unusual to find the old pot-hole on a “good” road, ready to blow out your tyre. Speed bumps are also found on many roads, so look out for these as you drive, they can come up quite unexpectedly (signage is quite poor)! Other roads are just plain dangerous, half-tarmac half-gravel, full of holes and sharp rocks; This is the case for the road leading you to the lush forests of Monteverde from the popular town of La Fortuna. I would hate to negociate these steep and narrow roads on a rainy day in a small car…

The second reason is for security purposes. Locals here are used to driving these roads and do so at greater speed than visitors (usually) which can be initimidating. They can sometimes drive a bit more agressively too, tailgating and taking over without much warning (like in most countries though!). I personnaly feel safer on a higher, sturdier car in that case.

Finally, if you are keen to explore lessser-known areas of Costa Rica, then you will most likely have to navigate dirt roads/ muddy trails which are definitely inaccessible to small cars. I think it would be a shame to be limited by your vehicle once on your dream holiday.

2/ Plan your road-trip ahead of time

Distances in Costa Rica can be quite deceiving. Due to the condition of the roads, and depending if you are in a hotspot, it can take a while to get from point A to point B. when we drove from La Fortuna to Monteverde, our GPS estimated a driving time of 3 hours, but it took us 4 hours to get there.

Actually, there is an app called Waze which provides more accurate information for Central American roads than Google Maps - we only found out about this at the end of our trip but would have used this had we known!

On the theme of navigation, be prepared to find out that addresses in Costa Rica don’t really exist as we know them. During our road-trip, our hosts would communicate ahead of time with us on Whatsapp (make sure you download Whatsapp if you haven’t yet!) to provide us with information on how to get to the Airbnb or Hotel - they’d often send us a pin on a map.

Another reason for planning your trip ahead of time is because Costa Rica is a very popular Central American destination to visit (not hard to understand why!). As tourists flock to this beautiful country, many top attractions book out, especially in high season (December through to April). The last thing you’d want is to miss out on an activity you’d been looking forward to! If you are visiting La Fortuna, Monteverde or Manuel Antonio National Park, then be sure to organise as much as possible as far in advance as you can. Also note that some national parks only offer entrance tickets online and do book out! This is the case for Manuel Antonio National Park and we can attest to this as we saw fellow travellers get refused entry into the park because they had not purchased their ticket online and there were no more entries available on the day...a real bummer.

The dreamy Manuel Antonio Beach

3/ Make sure your wallet is full

We had heard that Costa Rica is an expensive destination, but we had not realised to what extent this was true. As foreign travellers, we were expecting that nice hotels and activities would be expensive, but in reality, this extends to absolutely everything, from eating out in local restaurants to shopping for basic groceries. Prices can reach astronomical heights, like paying $15 for a basic packet of cereal and a bottle of milk…(true story)

Our host in San José told us one of his guests once went to La Fortuna and bought a banana for $3USD…which was clearly a trap - I promise bananas are not normally this price but this illustrates how locals can take advantage of tourists. So beware of where you shop and do not buy anything that does not have a price tag!

A tip we were given on our trip was to watch out where you shop. As a rule of thumb, it is best to avoid shopping in remote areas as you’ll pay double or triple for the convenience. Going grocery shopping in the towns where the locals live is definitely better. Similarly for restaurants, beware of the tourist traps where a cocktail could cost you up to $30USD. I usually find reliable information on TripAdvisor or, better yet, ask my host for local recommendations.

For tours, expect to pay from $50AUD for a nature walk, up to $250-$300AUD for a full day tour. For us, this was definitely expected as these are the price ranges we’d been accustomed to on our overlanding trip in Africa, and even back home in Australia. The standards of the tours we did were excellent, with knowledgeable guides, many of whom went above and beyond to ensure we had the best experience. We always found we got good value for money.

4/ Pack for all seasons

All of our local guides and hosts told us the same thing: “in Costa Rica, there are no real seasons, there is just a little rain, or a lot of rain”.  Many travellers expect bright sunny skies when they go on vacation, but be ready for some rainy days in Costa Rica. I mean, such lush surroundings cannot thrive without a lot of rain. And this is part of the country’s charm and appeal. So, be warned, and make sure you pack your waterproof gear. Depending on when you visit, you might want to pack more or less heavy duty gear, but at the very least, your suitcase should comprise a rainjacket.

If you are visiting Monteverde or La Fortuna, make sure you also pack a waterproof cover for your backpack as downpours can start unexpectedly, and in very little time the rain will soak through all of your layers!

In Monteverde, because you are in altitude, it can get a little cool, especially after sunset. Bringing a warm jacket is also a good idea.

For the adventurers, packing sturdy hiking boots is a must and make sure they are waterproof (thank me later). Waterproof pants can be useful - there were moments when I wish I had some…

Of course, Costa Rican beaches are on everyone’s bucket-list. So make sure to pack togs, a hat, sunnies and bring a lot of sunscreen for the heavy tropical sun.

Oh, and be prepared to be quite hot…If you are staying a while, I recommend booking somewhere with washing facilities as you will cycle through your clothes quite quickly.

5/ Tipping is expected, but not always mandatory

Tipping 10% of the total price is expected, especially for guided activities. Make sure you have some local currency (Colones) or American dollars on you to do so. Having a bit of cash on you is recommended anyways, as you never know when you might need it in Costa Rica. Just be careful where you withdraw your cash from as some ATM’s charge ludicrous fees (BNC is the best option for most places). The first ATM we went to tried to charge a third of the amount we were withdrawing, so we cancelled the operation and looked for another ATM with more reasonable fees.

For restaurants, be aware that tipping is usually included in the bill, so you don’t need to tip again on top of that.

Tipping can also be expected for many other services, such as taxi rides, parking guards, or housekeeping. Obviously, it is up to you to decide when to tip and how much.

6/ Book a night tour

Many mammals and insects in Costa Rica are active at night. This includes some exciting encounters such as the two-toed sloth, poisonous (and colourful!) frogs, armadillos, pumas, kinkajus, owls…etc.

If you want to increase your chances of incredible sightings, then I absolutely recommend booking a night tour whilst in Costa Rica. Some stand-outs include a night walking tour at “El Refugio” in Monteverde - this tour exceeded our expectations! - and a night mangrove kayak ride in Quepos (in the surrounds of Manuel Antonio National Park).

7/ Watch your belongings

We felt very safe during our trip to Costa Rica, but as with everywhere else in the world, sadly, travellers must be extra vigilant with their belongings. My recommendation is to always ensure you don’t wear anything that really stands out (especially jewelry), pack as light as possible when going out and watch your pockets! But even then, make sure that you still remain extra vigilant. In Costa Rica, we’ve heard that theft does happen, especially into parked cars. It can be worrying when road-tripping, but the best thing to do in this case is to park in areas that are watched by guards. They are easily recognisable, usually wearing a yellow or orange vest and helping you get into your parking spot. For a small coin in return, the guard will watch the street/ parking lot where you parked and ensure your car is in the same condition as you left it. I think that is worth it for peace of mind!

On another note, be extra careful when in natural areas, especially in national parks that are home to monkeys. These cheeky little creatures are very nifty and creative when it comes to stealing from visitors, so make sure nothing is stored in the outside pockets of your backpack and that your bag is zipped shut. We witnessed a monkey jumping onto someone’s back and stealing an empty packet of chips from the outside mesh pocket of their backpack…they are really not afraid of getting close! Similarly when at the beach, make sure someone is always watching your belongings. We saw a group of monkeys getting into people’s bags, opening them and grabbing stuff; And they are not afraid of fighting for their newfound treasures! In fact, they can be quite aggressive! At the Manuel Antonio Beach, we used our backpacks as pillows while lying on the sand and a monkey really quietly walked up to us and started fiddling with our bags! We did not hear or see it until someone saw this happenning and told us. Thankfully he did not have time to steal anything…They really are super sneaky!

Don't be fooled by their cuteness...they are fierce animals!

8/ Be smart about what time you book your tour

Most tours are offered with different start times that you can choose from. For day tours, my advice is to pick the earliest time available in the morning. This is because you’ll have more chances of seeing active wildlife. Sunrise in Costa Rica is quite early, between 5am-6am which means that animals are most likely to be out and about, foraging and looking for food in the early, cooler hours of the day. We always chose to start at the earliest time which is usually 7am, and were never disappointed!

In contrast, I would recommend booking the later start time for night tours, as the nocturnal wildlife is more likely to be active once it’s properly dark. I know it can mean having a really long day, especially if you combine an early day tour and a late night tour on the same day, but it is totally worth it. On our night walk, we picked the 8pm start and had some amazing encounters! Even our guide told us we were super lucky, as we saw an eyelash viper eat a bat (gross I know, but also fascinating…!) and we also saw a kinkaju in the treetops!

Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed as wildlife is unpredictable, but for the best chances, definitely follow this and you should not be disappointed!

9/ Tap water is clean and drinkable

Costa Rica has excellent, filtered tap water. Everybody drinks it, and we did so too. This means that you won’t need to buy overpriced bottled water - better for your wallet and for the environment!

The main reason for bringing this up is because many national parks have banned plastic from their grounds.

Bringing a reusable, non-plastic water bottle in Costa Rica is highly recommended.

10/ Always walk on the trails

This may seem like common sense, but unfortunately common sense is not so common…It is easy to get distracted and excited about the local wildlife you will see in the parks, and step out of the trail for a better view. We saw this everywhere we went. And while this may seem trivial, it really isn’t. Our guides repeatedly told us to ensure we walk on the trails as the snakes here have a "Masters degree in camouflage and deception". We’ve heard all sorts of stories about snake bites, and it’s certainly the last thing you would want on your holiday! Especially since Costa Rica has got some of the most venomous snakes in the world.

Another reason to stay on the trail is because many national parks have insurance and will take care (there’s probably an asterisk on this of course) of injuries happening on it; But as soon as you step out, you won’t be of their concern.

This should not worry you though. We went to many national parks in our time in Costa Rica and never had an issue. Many thousands of people also do so on a daily basis, it’s just important to be aware of your surroundings at all times!

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