4 Tips for Visiting Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a wonderful country full of diverse cultures, weather, geography, and activities. In planning our family’s trip we received many insightful tips for visiting Costa Rica from our travel agent, travel guides, and blogs. Bring rain gear and an umbrella. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray. Restaurants automatically add service charges, e.g. tips, to your bill.

Anytime you visit a new destination, however, you take away a few learnings from your experience. These could be tips that you received and either ignored or underestimated. Or, something new that you learned that didn’t appear in preliminary research.

Here are four tips for visiting Costa Rica that will help safeguard your health, save you money, and prepare for some long road trips.

Pamper Your Digestive System With Probiotics

Probiotics. The little pills with 10-20 billion friendly bacteria in them. Buy them. Pack them. Have everyone in your family use them even if they are feeling fine. Of course, you should always check with your doctor ahead of time (I’m a blogger; not a medical professional).

Out of four people on our trip; two of them ended up with stomach issues (yours truly being one of them). I forgot about the recommendation against eating raw vegetables, especially lettuce, and I’m pretty sure that’s what did me in.

Fortunately, my stomach had no problems with tasty cocktails during our trip

There are many probiotics brands available; I am most familiar with Culturelle. They are available for adults as well as kids of all ages. After coming home from our trip I started taking probiotics and within two days I was feeling great again.

Probiotics has found a home on our essential items list for our future travels.

Pay the Man…In Colones

During part of our trip, we stayed at the Hotel Arenal Manoa near the base of Arenal Volcano. The hotel itself is about a 10-minute drive from a lovely little town named La Fortuna.

To save money on meals and to spend time in town we took a cab to/from town on two evenings.

Kids eating ice cream cones
These happy kids brought to you courtesy of paying our cab driver in colones vs. dollars

Business people in Costa Rica must be used to Americans paying with the US Dollar since each time our fare was initially quoted in dollars. When the driver saw me pull out Costa Rican Colones he quoted me the fare in the local currency.

For reference, at the time of our trip, the exchange rate was approximately 600 colones to 1 dollar.

  • Fare quoted to me in dollars = $12
  • Same fare quoted to me in colones = 6,000 colones (or $10)
  • Discount by paying in colones = $2 (or 17%)

Over our four cab rides, we saved $8 by paying in colones vs. dollars. Which was promptly spent on our son’s ice cream cones at the local Pops ice cream shop each night.

The Fastest Route Between Two Points Is Never a Straight Line

The next two tips for visiting Costa Rica deal with travel by car within the country. During our week-long trip, we traveled in a loop from San Jose up through San Ramon to Arenal Volcano over to Manuel Antonio National Park and back to San Jose. As we made our way around the loop we learned some things including:

  • There are a lot of mountains in Costa Rica. Not rolling hills. Mountains.
  • They like to build the roads following the contours of the mountains so you’re constantly going up, down, and around. Finding a straight, flat road in Costa Rica gets you as excited as receiving a full-size candy bar during trick-or-treating
  • The max speed limit is 80km/h (~50mph) even on their new toll road

Combine all of that with a large number of slow-moving trucks and almost all roads being one lane in each direction and you end up with longer than expected travel times.

View of dirt road with mountains in the distance
Breathtaking scenery but nary a straight road to be found

For example, one of our transfers was between Hotel Arenal Manoa near Arenal Volcano and Si Como No next to Manuel Antonio National Park. The route we took: 250km (155 miles). In the US, that’s typically 2.5 to 3 hours. In Costa Rica, when the driver showed up he said, “Normally, this is a six-hour drive. Today, given holiday traffic it will probably be closer to 7.” We pulled into Si Como No 7.5 hours later (including one 45 minute stop for lunch).

FI Road Tip: Note that Google Maps estimated our time on that route to only be 4.5 hours without traffic. So be cautious about trusting mapping software when planning drive times in Costa Rica

If you go to Costa Rica, plan for some longer than expected travel times. Fortunately, the scenery out your window is amazing throughout the country so sit back and soak it all in as it slowly goes by.

Jeeves, Get My Car

There are plenty of tourists in Costa Rica that rent cars and drive around the country. We were not them and after our trip, I am OK with that.

We booked our travel through a travel agency and they arranged all of the transfers to/from the airport, between hotels, and to/from our daily excursions. Other than that we either walked or took a cab.

I am a huge fan of road trips and love being behind the wheel. So why did I enjoy being a passenger in Costa Rica?

  • Road conditions – Potholes littered some of the roads we traveled. An experienced driver provided us with a bit less rocking and rolling
  • Road rules – The drivers in Costa Rica pass other cars whenever they can. I liked that part since there are plenty of times in the US when I would love to pass a slow driver except for that darn solid double yellow line in the middle of the road. There is an in-country etiquette to passing in Costa Rica that comes naturally to natives
  • Road topology – The geography of the country means that you are almost always going uphill or downhill, around a big curve, facing off with another car on a one-lane bridge, dealing with deep rain gutters on the side of the road, etc. Driving in Costa Rica is not just opening the windows and letting the wind blow through your hair as you cruise down the coast
Traveling in a Costa Rica transfer van
The smiles of people not having to navigate Costa Rica roads on their own

For example, we knew that our first hotel, Villa Blanca, was in a cloud forest at the end of a 9km (~5mi) road. What we didn’t know is that the road was a one lane, unpaved, dirt road with potholes the size of basketballs. I was more than happy to have a Costa Rican at the wheel as he took over 30 minutes just to navigate those last 5 miles to the hotel.

While it was a bit stressful just being a passenger on some of the roads, my wife and I arrived at our destination more relaxed than if we had driven ourselves.

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