So you made the decision to come to Costa Rica? Nice! Here’s some info to help you on your journey.
I will try to cover as many details of a trip experience as I can think of, all in one place, so you don’t have to search and read through hundreds of threads. YOU SHOULD STILL READ SOME MORE. The more you read, the more you’ll learn from others’ experiences (both good and bad). You’ll learn to avoid the scams and how to make the most of your time there.
Before the trip
This part is totally optional, they are not mandatory, but doesn’t hurt to have them, especially since you are travelling to a “2nd” world country. About 6 months (or as soon as possible) before your trip, you may want to look into vaccines for Hepatitis A & B. Don’t panic, they are not required.
HAV (Hep A) is found in the feces of people with hepatitis A and is usually spread by close personal contact (including sex or sharing a household). It can also be spread by eating food or drinking water contaminated with HAV.
HBV (Hep B) is found in blood and certain body fluids. The virus is spreadwhen blood or body fluid from an infected person enters the body
of a person who is not immune. HBV is spread through having unprotected sex with an infected person, sharing needles when shooting drugs, exposure to needlesticks or sharps on the job, or from an infected mother to her baby during birth. Exposure to infected blood in ANY situation can be a risk for transmission.
Read CDC website for more info: www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/hepatitis
The risk is relatively low if you use a little caution. Hep B is a 2-dose and Hep A is a 3-dose vaccine. Hep A vaccine is administered at time 0, then the second dose 6-12 months later. Hep B is given at time 0, 1 month, and 6 months. Ideally, thet should be started at least 6 months before travel so you can build up enough resistance, but getting one dose is still better than none. There is also a Hep A-B combo vaccine which you can get, it’s 3 doses (0,1,6). It’s called Twinrix.
When scheduling your trip you want to AVOID Christmas week and Easter week. San Jose is a ghost town during those 2 times of year. Everyone interesting goes home to be with family and some days liquor sales are prohibited. So you may end up drinking iced tea with a bunch of guys from Cleveland.
Not necessary. Many of the people you will deal with speak English well and the others will usually understand enough to get by.
I assume you have your ticket booked or know how to do that, so I’ll just suggest a few websites:
You may not need a VISA, depending on where you are from, but you must have a passport, valid for at least 30 days from the date you enter Costa Rica. That is the only document you will need. My suggestion is that if your passport is expiring within the next 6 months, renew it before your trip so there’s no chance of any problems. YOU NEED TO CARRY A COPY OF YOUR PASSPORT AT ALL TIMES. (And lock up your original in the hotel safe, along with the exit tax if you purchased it coming in or in town.) They can make you a copy of a passport at your hotel or any copy shop downtown for about $1-2. You need a copy of the picture page and also the page with the entry stamp to show the date you entered the country, in case you are asked to produce it. Non-residents are only allowed to remain in CR for 90 days at a time.
US passport info can be found here: http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html
CR entry passport requirements: http://costaricaticas.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=16959
Before going to CR, you should reserve a hotel room. While you may be able to get a room at many places just walking up, you will be locked out of the more popular hotels. Some of them fill up months in advance.
Unless you have somewhere specific to do or are interested in touring the country, I do NOT recommend a rental car in San Jose. The roads suck, the drivers are dangerous, and parking in San Jose is a pain in the ass. Plus, you pay high insurance deductibles if you have an accident or damage. Taxis are cheap and ubiquitous. A taxi ride anywhere in downtown should be under 1,500¢ ($3). Always ask the cabbie to use the meter (pronounced “maria”). If they don’t use a meter ask the fare up front, and only proceed if you agree to pay it. Some cabbies may ask for as much as $10 or more, if they think you are a newbie sucker and will pay it. DO NOT TAKE HOTEL TAXIS and those parked in front of bars, massage parlors, and hotels. They don’t use the meter and will charge you triple or quadruple the fare. Step into the street or to the corner and you can flag down a passing taxi and pay the metered fare. It may not seem like a big deal, but saving a couple of bucks each trip (x 20 trips a week) will be enough for some extra fun. Only use licensed red taxis, take gypsy cabs at your own risk.
COLONES x DOLLARS
It’s usually better to pay in colones since restaurants and bars will give you a poor exchange rate if you pay in dollars. Either way, you will usually get change in colones. Some of the Tico places (stores, restauarants) won’t even accept dollars. It’s a good idea to change at least some dollars into colones for bars, restaurants, and shopping. Personally, I don’t carry any dollars while in town, colones only.
I always bring cash with me. As soon as I check-in, I try to exchange most of it at a good rate, to save me trips and time in exchanging. I then lock it up in the hotel safe, and only carry what I’ll need for the day’s activities on me. Don’t carry more than you need for that particular day. I try to avoid using my ATM card, if possible. There’s nothing wrong with using your card at banks and casinos, but I wouldn’t use the ATM’s a just any place. Traveller’s checks… I haven’t used them, but I heard that they can be a pain in the ass in CR.
Bring your own condoms (and lube), the stuff they have in CR is low quality. You can buy Durex condoms in CR pharmacies but I wouldn’t buy that brand even in the USA.
There is none. You should wear whatever you want to wear. Most guys wear jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. A lot wear shorts and sandals. Some guys say that shorts will make you stand out as a tourist. Not true. Your gringo-ness will make you stand out as a tourist much more than the clothes you choose to wear. There is no dress code in any hotels or bars for the guys. While there is no dress code, it would be appropriate to wear a shirt and shoes when dining at an more upscale restaurant, just like at home.
Get a good luggage lock. You will need it to lock up your stuff at all hostels.
They are the same voltage as the US. You don’t need any converters. Some older outlets in CR are 2-prong, so your 3-prong cords (ex. laptop) won’t work, but the hotel will usually have a small plug-in converter for you to use. Most of the new outlets are already 3-prong.
Unlike many other countries, they are not needed in CR. Although NOT necessary, some people still rent them. There are now pre-paid SIM cards available at the airport and ICE offices. (see below). You can also rent a phone (with SIM card), or just a SIM, if you already have a GSM phone. The cost is usually about $10/day for unlimited calls within CR and incoming int’l calls. Making calls to US costs $1.25/min. This is a company some use: http://www.cellulartelephonerentals.com Many rent-a-car companies also rent cell phones, some for as little as $5/day. You may also be able to use your own phone service, if it’s GSM (has SIM card in back) with 1800 Mhz frequency, and your wireless provider turns on international roaming. It’s pricey, about $2+/min. T-Mobile and AT&T are two companies that you can use. Verizon’s network does NOT work in CR.
Pre-paid SIM cards are now available for purchase at the ICE booth on the customs level near baggage carousel #1. They are available in denominations of ¢2,500, ¢5,000, and ¢10,000. The ¢2,500 sim will give you about 60 minutes of talk and text time. They can be re-charged.
You will need a unlocked GSM cell phone that works on the 1800Mhz band. Many dual and tri-band phones will work, and all quad-band phones will work in CR.
You should print out a copy of your itinerary from the airline’s website to have in case immigration asks to see it. They have never done this, but people have reported recently that they have been asked to produce a return ticket. It is an official requirement to enter CR, but until now, they had never requested to see it. They will allow you to go to your airline’s rep and print it but it will waste a lot of time.
Arriving in Costa Rica
You will be given some forms to fill out on the plane. Bring a pen on the plane and have those filled before you land. Have them ready when you get to immigration to avoid a delay.
Once you land, proceed to immigration as quickly as possible because the other 149 passengers on your plane are right behind you. Immigration can get very busy at times (often 2-3 flights get in at the same time), so the quicker you get there, the faster you’ll be out the airport getting into your ride. There are 2 immigration lines: tourist (visitor) and Costa Rican citizens. You’ll want to enter the tourist line to the left. There is usually a mad dash to immigration on every incoming flight. If you want to pick up some duty-free items on the way in, do it downstairs after you get through immigration. Don’t stop upstairs, there is another one downstairs in customs.
Once you clear immigration, head down the escalator and wait for your luggage. You can use the ATM (near carousel #1) and visit the Duty-Free before your luggage arrives (see next 3 bullet points).
DO NOT EXCHANGE MONEY IN BAGGAGE CLAIM/CUSTOMS
That area exchange window (their exchange rate sucks, you will lose 10-15% on each dollar). You will not need any colones until after you check-in to the hotel and are ready to go party. You can exchange money at any casino, bank, or even your hotel (not really recommended either). I would suggest a bank or a casino. You may need to show your passport when exchanging at a bank and the banks in CR are painfully slow.
You can also exchange money at the airport upstairs in the check-in/departure area (NOT IN THE BAGGAGE CLAIM AREA). The rate you get there is the bank rate. (thanks PL). You have to walk out of arrivals, go across the street to the parking garage, take the escalator upstairs, and go into the departure area, and it’s all the way on the right side. A small square red booth with BAC (Bank of San Jose) on it. Also, most hotels will exchange money for their guests. You are giving up about 2-3% from what you’d get in banks, chalk it up to a convenience charge. For every $100 you change, you lose about $2. No biggie.
To check the current official exchange rates, check the National Bank website: http://www.bncr.fi.cr COMPRA is the “buy rate” meaning you will get xxx colones for 1 USD. VENTA is the “sell rate” meaning that you will have to pay xxx colones for 1 USD. It costs more to exchange colones back to dollars, so don’t exchange a lot more than you will need.
If you want to have money before getting into the city, there is an ATM near carousel#1 in the baggage claim area. (thanks Wit) If you use an ATM, take out colones, not dollars. Otherwise, you’ll be doing a double exchange, once to get dollars out instead of colones and then when you have to exchange the dollars anyway. Why bother, just take out colones. In CR, use BCR (Banco de Costa Rica) ATM’s, they won’t cheat you. DO NOT USE “ATH” ATM’s (Long story… so just trust me on this one.)
You should carry a mix of smaller bills (1k and 2k) for taxis and beer/water and larger (5k and 10k) for incidentals and souvenirs, etc. You don’t want a wallet full of 1k bills. Many places have trouble breaking a 10k (or even a 5k bill) so it’s a good idea to carry some smaller bills too.
Americans are so trained to tip everybody that they have tip jars everywhere now, including non-service businesses. In CR, it’s different. Nobody in CR expects a tip. At restaurants, prices already include a 10% service tax, locals don’t tip beyond that. Taxis don’t expect a tip, and locals never tip them. But “rich” gringos need to prove something (mostly to themselves, they’re not impressing anybody), so many tip excessively.
There is a Duty-Free shop in the baggage claim area. You can buy up to 8 liters of alcohol to bring into Costa Rica. (This is rare, as usually you are only allowed to take things out.) I have bought Bailey’s ($15), Moet champagne ($45), Malibu Rum ($14). Prices are almost half off the retail prices. I know that a lot of guys buy booze and smokes on their way in (and more on the way out). (thanks ID)
Grab your luggage and head through customs. You will be asked to put all your luggage through the x-ray machine. They don’t usually ask you anything.
Once you clear customs, walk straight ahead outside. As soon as you get through the automatic doors, you’ll see a bunch of cab drivers, most have ID badges around their necks. They will usually ask you where you want to go. Many speak English, but it’s a good idea to have a printout of the name, address, and phone number of your hotel. Airport taxis went back to using flat rates to downtown hotels. It will cost about $20+/- to downtown. You can share a cab with as many people as can fit for one fare. It takes anywhere from 30-90 minutes to get to your hotel. Mid-day traffic in the city can be really bad. The guys who stand behind the barriers are gypsy cabbies (in private cars). Not recommended. Take them at your own risk.
Another airport-hotel transfer option is Interbus. This is a shuttle service company that charges only $10 each way per person from/to the airport. They also provide shuttle service to all of Costa Rica at reasonable prices. They use large vans that seat about 8-10 people. They are late model vans, have A/C, makes rest stops (on longer routes), and have extremely friendly drivers. You have to book it online (at least 4 days before your trip): http://www.interbusonline.com
Note: you must pre-pay your Interbus transfer using a credit card, so if you book online, you must book it at least 4 days in advance. I think you can also book over the phone if you call with a credit card, call them at 011-506-283-5573.
If you are planning to go to Santa Teresa or any other place west and will travel by bus, you don’t need to go to San Jose. You can take the bus right there near the airport. That will save you a lot of aggravation.
Once you check-in to your hotel you have to decide what to do next. This will depend on many factors: the time of day, your preferences, your budget, etc. Read on…
CR strip clubs are nothing like US strip clubs. I recommend visiting one just for comparison if no other reason. If you do visit one, you will probably never step foot inside club at home again. In CR, you can mess around on the couch, then take her to a back room and bang her, unlike most US clubs. Here’s the way it works. Some clubs have lap dances, but most don’t. First, you buy them a drink (5,000¢, about $9.00) and they will “dance” for you. By “dance”, I mean they will grind on you, let you touch just about every inch of their body, some may even be down to make-out, even discretely play with your wee wee. Then you can take them to a back room and do them. Prices for sex onsite can be as low as $30-35 in Pantera and Le Grillon. Of course I know that from someone else, I never been there… LOL
Most hotels and hostels offer free internet, usually wireless. You can bring your laptop. (Make sure you lock it up in the safe, if it fits, when you leave your room. Other options include: locking it up in your suitcase or buying a special laptop lock that attaches your laptop to a piece of furniture. Let them try to walk out with your laptop connected to a drawer or a chair) Most hotels also have a couple of computers in the lobby for guests’ use.
CALLING HOME (US)
I love Skype and have it on my iPhone, so making and receiving calls is easy as long as there is WiFi available at the location.
Another easy way to call the US is to buy a pre-paid calling card. They are sold at pharmacies, newspaper stands, even street vendors sell them. There are two types, ones that have 197 and 199 printed on the card. (You will want the 199 card, 197 only allows domestic calls). A 3,000¢ card will give you 18 minutes to the US (~$0.35/min). You can buy cards in 1k, 3k, or 5k denoms.
Most hotels charge high int’l rates, but a few offer discounted calls to the US. Check with your hotel. DO NOT USE THE PHONES IN HOTEL LOBBIES THAT ASK FOR CREDIT CARDS. THEY CHARGE ABOUT $40-60/FOR A FEW MINUTES CALL.
THINGS TO DO IN CR
There are many things you can enjoy. There are a couple museums in the city for the cultural buffs. Each hotel has brochures for various day trips from San Jose. You can see the rain forest, a volcano, coffee plantation, do a canopy tour (zip lines thru the forest), ATV riding in the mountains, a trip to the beach, among other things.
RIDE TO THE AIRPORT
The taxi fare to the airport is very night negotiable, or you can use a red taxi with a meter. The meter usually runs only about $19-20, unless there’s heavy traffic. You can get your hotel to arrange a taxi for you (but you’ll probably pay more) or just get a phone number from a taxi you used during your stay and negotiate a good fare. I always do that a day or two before I’m about to leave. Recently, I have gotten a couple of rides using meter, it was under ¢10,000.
Before you check-in at the airport you’ll have to have paid your exit tax. The cost is $26 and you can buy it at the airport or many BCR (Bank of Costa Rica) branches. As you walk in to the departure terminal, there is a long counter (on the right as you walk in) where they sell the exit tax, you’ll see signs. You’ll need your passport (or copy) to buy it. The bank on the 2nd floor of the INS building also sells it, as does Banco Nacional downtown. A few hotels sell it, but charge a $5-10 fee. There is no upcharge a BCR.
ALWAYS CARRY WITH YOU A COPY OF YOUR PASSPORT BIO PAGE & ENTRY STAMP PAGE.
If you get asked to provide this by the police and don’t have either, you will be paying a bribe to the cops to avoid being detained/arrested
-Like everywhere else, use common sense
-Don’t act like an “Asshole American”, we don’t need that image
-It’s relatively safe to walk around town during the day, be careful of pickpockets (keep your wallet in the front pocket) and watch out for scam artists on the streets who will try to separate you from your $. There have been armed robberies during the day, even in “safe” areas like Barrio Amon, so the safe option is taxis day and night. If you want to walk around during the day, better do it with someone.
TAKE A TAXI EVERYWHERE AT NIGHT — NO EXCEPTIONS!
- Do not walk around the streets drunk-it’s an invitation to get robbed and possibly hurt
- I would not recommend going to a chica’s house, if invited. You never know what may be waiting for you there. You could be robbed or killed and dumped in a ditch.
- In case you are getting robbed: give up your stuff, do not resist, you can replace money or a watch (if you’re wearing a inch-thick gold chain and you get robbed, I have no sympathy for you). They usually only want your money, they won’t hurt you if you comply. Don’t try to be a hero.
- Safety in numbers (if you are with somebody, they are less likely to Phuck with you). The bigger the group, the better.
- Do not wear ANY jewelry or flashy watches (YOU DON’T HAVE TO IMPRESS ANYBODY!!!) – use a cheap watch.
- Only carry a small amount of cash on you (what you will need for that day)-try to avoid starting a tab using a credit card
- Good idea to carry a travel wallet (I carry some cash, 1 atm/debit card, credit card, and my passport copy) and leave your real wallet and passport in the hotel safe
- Lock up all your valuables in the hotel safe. This includes camera, laptop (if fits), mp3, wallet, all documents, watch/jewelry… anything that you don’t want stolen or anything that contains personal/private information. You can also lock up other things in your suitcase, see “Before the trip” section for websites that sell luggage locks.
Enjoy your trip. You’re in for a wild time!!!