Quick Tips: Costa Rica
Here are some bite-sized tips about life in Costa Rica that I learned whilst backpacking there for 2 months.
Note: This post comes across as negative towards Costa Rica, but I had an absolutely amazing time there. These are simply things that one might want to be prepared about if travelling or moving there.
Paradise is expensive
Even for westeners, the country can prove to be quite expensive, and even more so for backpackers. Of course, we were mostly travelling to touristy destinations, which are expected to be pricier than usual.
- Carribean Coast and the central valley are cheaper than the Pacific Coast.
- Car rental is extortionate and prices vary a lot between companies; prices are cheaper on websites, not in store!
- Even small hostels can charge a lot for a shared room ($20 per night, per person!)
- AirBnb can prove cheaper and nicer for couples or group travellers.
- “Cabinas” (a basic hotel/hostel hybrid) are common; not always the cheapest.
- Natural parks charge anywhere from $15 to $25 to enter. On top of that if you fully want to enjoy them you’d want to get a guide (another $25 per person + tips).
- Food is expensive, both in restaurants and supermarkets (more detail in Food and Drink Section)
- Banks are common in most towns but check before you go! In some places, even touristy ones, there are no banks or ATMs!
- VISA is the preferred network. Our Mastercards did not work in ATMs despite the logo being shown (only exception was BAC ATMs and even those were finicky). Paying in shops/restaurants with it worked fine.
- Some remote places will have a low signal to the banking network, meaning their card readers only work half of the time.
Food and Drink
The food in Costa Rica varies from place to place, both in terms of choice, quality and price.
- Surprisingly, Costa Rican dishes are a bit bland (I’m sorry!). They aren’t bad per se, just not very interesting.
- Enjoy the fruit! Costa Rica has access to some exotic fruits that you won’t be able to find elsewhere easily! My top picks are: guanabana, granadilla, pineapple.
- In restaurants, I’d say you are overpaying for the quality of the meal, but the portion size makes up for it.
- Local cafeterias/restaurants, known as “sodas”, are a cheaper alternative but you’ll still be spending more than you should
- Going to the supermarket? You can say goodbye to western (especially european) foods – availability of cheeses, yoghurts, olive oil, cured meats is low – and when you do find something it will be extortionately priced. For instance, a 300g bag of granola cost around £4 in Tamarindo; here in London I can get a 1kg bag for £2.
- Wine is expensive! That was a bit surprising really, given Costa Rica’s relative proximity to Chile and Argentina.
Despite being the wealthiest in Central America, Costa Rica is still a developing country. This is reflected in its civil infrastructure.
- Towns adhere to American style grid system.
- Watch your step! Even in San Jose, there are deep drainage ditches between the pavement and the road, usually with no pedestrian ramp (i.e. you have to hop over).
- Some of the road junctions we saw are mind-boggling (5-lane high-speed road connecting to a 2-lane entrance of a busy roundabout?!)
- Most beach towns are simply a single stretch of paved road; beach on one side, shops on the other. Behind the shops it’s a jungle!
- Dirt/gravel roads are the norm; they connect to the main paved road in each town.
- Depending on how remote you go, don’t be surprised to have to cross a small river. Bridges are currently being built in some areas.
- You’ll get away without a 4x4 in most areas but a larger car (with more clearance) is recommended to avoid potholes and stones.
- Driving on the highway? Expect to get stuck behind a series of trucks. You’ll need to get comfortable overtaking long vehicles.
- Be watchful of roadsigns: a lot of the times there are unmarked roadhumps that are othewise hard to see.
- Ask if you can drink the water! In a lot of places on the Pacific Coast the tap water isn’t drinkable
- No hot water is the norm in most places (though you rarely need it, given the temperatures).
- Toilet paper is not be flushed in the toilet – not sure why – I assume it’s due to a poor drainage system.
- Power outages are common, especially in remote areas, sometimes lasting days.
- Bus stops are often unmarked with no way of knowing which bus stops there or when. Your best bet is to find the central terminal or ask a local.
- The driving culture is terrible: everyone wants to be first, drivers can’t seem to stay in their lane and everyone is using their phone. My advice is to drive defensively.