Costa Rica Travel Guide

This guide would be useful if you are coming to Costa Rica, no matter if you come for conservation, adventure or any other kind of travel.

Travel information

Visa requirements

When traveling with a passport, citizens of the U.S., Canada and most Latin American and European countries may stay in Costa Rica for up to 90 days (this is determined by immigration officers upon arrival, but usually is the full 90 days).

No visa is necessary for travelers from the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.

Citizens of some Latin American, Asian, African, and Eastern European countries need visas, which can be obtained in Costa Rican Consulates.


Costa Rica is one of the safest destinations in the developing world, from a general health point of view. This is largely due to high health standards in our country.

There are no required immunizations for entering Costa Rica. However, it is always wise to keep up your basic shots such as tetanus and diphtheria. Risk of contracting malaria is minimal, but for itineraries that include the Caribbean lowlands, travelers might wish to take the extra precaution of a prophylactic medicine such as chloroquine.

Decisions about immunizations and anti-malarial medications should be made on a personal basis after consultation with your personal physician.

If you take prescription medication, have your doctor give you a spare prescription with a note suggesting an alternative medication if your first choice isn’t available.

Private and public hospitals in Costa Rica treat foreigners. Many Costa Rican doctors speak English. You are required to pay all doctor and hospital bills when you are treated. Private hospitals take credit cards but public (Caja) hospitals do not.

Public safety and personal security concerns

San José is a big city, and North American and European visitors bring expensive cameras and other things that are tempting to petty thieves. Here are a few tips for avoiding petty theft:

  • Make a photocopy of your passport and leave the original, your airline ticket and the bulk of your money in your suitcase, do not carry originals with you.
  • Change money in a local bank and ask for part of it in small bills.
  • Gentlemen, carry your cash, credit card and passport copy in your front pocket. Ladies, grip your purse tightly against your side. Never let a purse dangle from your shoulder.
  • Carry backpacks on your front.
  • Never change money in the street or flash big wads of bills.
  • Avoid seedy areas of town—ask your local contact. If you find yourself in one—leave!
  • Don’t wear anything other than costume jewelry. Men, get a cheap watch for the trip.
  • If you are going out at night, take a taxi. They are easily identifiable because they are color red with a yellow triangle on the door. The number inside the triangle is the license number so it is always a good idea to remember that number.
  • Don’t leave money or valuables lying around your room.

Pedestrian safety

Cars do not give pedestrians the right of way. Walk defensively and be very careful when crossing streets.

Rent-a Car Security

  • Your rental car license plate makes you a prime target for breaking and entry. Follow these tips to avoid being a victim.
  • Always lock your car and roll up the windows.
  • Never leave valuables in the car, even locked in the trunk.
  • Always park in a lot and pay the guard a little tip to watch your car.
  • If you are leaving non-valuable items in the car, put them in the trunk or under seats.
  • Obey all posted speed limits. If stopped by transit police, show your rental contract, passport and driver’s license. Pay your ticket at your rental car agency when you return the car.

Money and Banking

The best place to change money is the local banks. Never change money on the street. Banking can be frustrating due to long lines. Your passport is required to cash traveler checks or make other transactions.

Credit cards are widely accepted in San Jose but not in rural areas. Visa is the most common, followed by Master Card and then American Express. Some hotels and other businesses charge a service charge if you pay by credit card. Traveler checks are widely accepted in hotels but not by other businesses. ATMs are widespread in San José but not in rural areas.

Use the currency calculator below to calculate how many colones you should receive when you change money. In November 2018, the exchange rate was ¢620 colones for $1 US.


Costa Rica’s electrical system is compatible with that of North America, 110 volts. Three hole grounded plugs are very uncommon, so if you have equipment that needs this type of plug, be sure to bring an adapter or buy one at a hardware store.

Postal system

Expect your postcards to arrive home after you do—especially in December. Never send cash or anything else of value by regular mail from Costa Rica. Federal Express, DHL and other courier services are available in major cities.


All phone booths are connected to the international system, and you can connect directly to operators in the U.S. and Canada to call collect or use your credit card. The numbers are listed in the telephone directory. If you plan to stay 90 days, you can purchase a very unexpensive cell phone or you can purchase a sim card for your own cell phone. The local state telephone company is called ICE-KOLBI but also Moviestar is a good service provider.

What to Bring

On almost any trip to Costa Rica, you will visit mountains, the beach, and the temperate Central Valley. You need to be prepared for temperatures from the low 50s to the low 90s, and everything in between.

Rapid and numerous changes in temperature and the probability of rain mean you should bring prepared with appropriate clothing. Come prepared to dress in layers, and try to bring light weight, fast drying clothing. We hope the following list helps you pack.

If possible try to fit everything into one carry-on and one checked bag.

Remember that domestic flights, charters and water taxis within Costa Rica have luggage weight limits usually 25 pounds per person.

Travel clothes

Common wildlife of Costa Rica

Visitors to our country often arrive expecting to see jaguars jumping out from behind skyscrapers in San José.

Costa Rica protects nearly 25 percent of its national territories in national parks and wildlife preserves, and these protected areas are home to many mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

However, television documentaries, magazines articles and the tourism industry can create unrealistic expectations in travelers. Loss of habitat due to deforestation, poaching by hunters, and urban sprawl mean sighting large mammals in Costa Rica is extremely rare.

It is better to come to with the expectation you will be enjoying and learning about tropical ecosystems—plants, climate, topography, insects, and birds. That way, the animals you do see are pleasant surprises, not necessities for a successful tour.

That said, here are some of the wildlife visitors to Costa Rica commonly see.

Howler monkeys

Howler monkeys live in groups in Costa Rica's lowland forests. Each troop has its own territory which it defends and where it feeds. They defend their territory by using their loud voices. Howler monkeys eat flowers, fruits and seeds. Females have one infant at a time, which can often be seen clinging to its mother.

Howler monkey


Strictly neotropical, these slow moving mammals live high in the canopy, eat leaves and only come down to defecate (once a week). Two and three-toed sloths live in Costa Rica. Three-toed sloths can appear grey-greenish because of algae that grow on their fur.



Five kinds of toucans live in Costa Rica, but the Keel Billed, above, is one of the most common. They use their large bills to hunt lizards, small snakes, frogs, as well as seeds and fruits. The bills are also useful to chase other birds away from their nests. They are social birds and can be found in groups of six or more. They nest in hollow tree trunks.


Green iguana

Costa Rica has two kinds of large lizard-like reptiles: green iguanas and “black iguanas” (which are not technically an iguana). These ground nesting reptiles can be found high in the treetops, feeding on leaves and basking in the sun. Juvenile iguanas eat grubs and other invertebrates, while adults are mostly plant eaters but will occasionally eat small mammals and nesting birds.

Green iguana

White nosed Coati

A relative of the raccoon, these medium—sized mammals are diurnal live in large groups, but some adult males live on their own. These omnivores are active feeders that look for food on the ground as well as in the trees. They feed by poking their long noses in holes and crevices, and use their long claws to tear apart rotten tree trunks.

White nosed Coati

Leaf cutter ants

Leaf cutter ants carry vegetation that can weigh more than 10 times their own weight for a distance up to 150 meters, back to their nest. They chew the leaf and mix it with saliva to create a substrate that feeds a fungus culture—their main food. Found in dry and wet forest. Queens, workers, soldiers and hitchhikers—ants who ride on leaves transported by other ants and clean the leaves—make up a colony.

Leaf cutter ants

History of Costa Rica

A Brief History of Costa Rica

Peaceful, democratic Costa Rica is one of the world’s more prosperous developing countries and is currently the focus of international attention for its incredible biodiversity.

Historically, Costa Rica has avoided arm conflicts that have engulfed neighboring nations, and has concentrated on improving life for its citizens. The development of a modern welfare state has resulted in Costa Rica's having high health indicators, a good standard of living, and high literacy rates.

Woman working, 1923

Colonial times

Many of today’s “Ticos”, as Costa Ricans call themselves; can trace their roots back to Spanish colonizing families and their indigenous companions. The conquistadors found a country with extremely rugged topography and sparse populations of indigenous people.

Costa Rica was the poorest colony in the Spanish Empire. This in the long run was a blessing for the country, since the absence of precious metals and Indian labor force prevented the Spaniards from introducing semi-feudal institutions from the Iberian Peninsula into the province.

Most of the natives escaped enslavement by fleeing into the Talamanca mountains, where they perished from wars of resistance, epidemics and wars among rival tribes. Other indigenous people were assimilated into colonial society. Still others maintained their cultural identity because they lived—and still live—in isolated mountain regions.

The extermination and assimilation of the Indians yielded a more homogeneous society. A society of small farmers developed, which formed the basis for today’s large middle class. The pronounced class divisions that still exist in other Latin American countries never developed here.

San Jose, Avenida Central Photo

Coffee and Bananas

Without fanfare, Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The Spaniards in Costa Rica were shocked by the letter announcing the country’s liberation which took a month to arrive from Guatemala.

Coffee started to be produced in Costa Rica at the end of the colonial period and was first exported in 1820. The first Chief of State —governor of the independent state of Costa Rica—wanted to find a cash crop to export since Costa Rican economy had been a subsistence economy up to this point. He promoted coffee by offering free land and seeds to all peasants willing to grow it. This policy of homesteading transformed Costa Rican society into a nation of small farmers and landowners.

In the 1830s, Costa Ricans began to grow coffee in the highlands for sale to Europe. Small farmer sold their crop to central processing plants called beneficios, and the wealthy owners of the beneficios then exported the beans. This is a process that continues today.

In the 1870s the Costa Rican government wanted to build a railroad to the Atlantic coast to increase the volume of its coffee exports to Europe, and contracted U.S builders in exchange for a land grant on both sides of the route.

While building the railroad, the Americans started growing and exporting bananas. By the time the national railroad (currently not functioning) was completed, bananas had become one of the leading exports of the country.

The banana industry—mega-farms owned by U.S. giant Dole and other companies, and Costa Rican-owned small farms that sell to the giants—continue today.

Coffee and Bananas

The Political System

The two-party democratic system and the system of free, obligatory public education Costa Ricans know today was largely in place the 1890s.

During the great depression of 1929, Costa Rica had no way to face the economic crisis. President Calderon Guardia tried to offer dissatisfied workers a “New Deal” by passing a series of social reforms intended to avoid a social revolution.

The reforms calmed the working class but antagonized the wealthy. In 1948, an electoral fraud served as a pretext for the disgruntled opposition to stage a civil war, which lasted one month. The leader of insurgency movement and of the National Liberation Army was Jose Figueres Ferrer, a farmer known as “Don Pepe”.

At the end of the civil war rather than undoing the social reforms implemented by Calderon Guardia, Don Pepe continued reforming the country’s institutions into what he denominated “The Second Republic.”

Among many of the reforms implemented by Don Pepe was the courageous decision to abolish the country’s army. This was especially significant considering that Costa Rica bordered to the North with Somoza's Nicaragua and to the South with Panama, two heavily armed nations.

The decision to abolish the army meant that more of the government's budget could be spent on providing education, medical care and other services to tax payers. It also thrust Costa Rica into the international spotlight as a neutral power in a war torn region. The U.S. has historically been Costa Rica's main allay and provider of foreign aid. In order to guarantee the country’s integrity and security, Costa Rican governments increased their links with the U.S. and became an important moral ally for this world power.

Modern Costa Rica

The Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 which ousted one of the oldest dictatorships in the hemisphere, stimulated revolutionary movements all over Central America. Not having a revolutionary climate within its borders, Costa Rica remained neutral during the violent decade of the 1980s. President Oscar Arias (1986-90) brought Costa Rica international recognition through his role as peacemaker in the Contra-Sandinista conflict in Nicaragua. His efforts to broker a negotiated solution earned him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.

Currently, over the half of Costa Rica's population lives in urban areas and peasants in search of economic prosperity continue to migrate to the Central Valley from rural areas.

Despite austerity programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the government and state owned industries including the National Insurance Institute and the Costa Rican Electricity Institute continue to employ almost 30 percent of the population. Women make up 50 percent of the work force.

The Costa Rican government struggles to service a staggering foreign debt and control inflation and provide adequate social services for the population. One of the areas slighted by the national budget is the national park system, where more than half the expropriated properties (today parks and wildlife reserves) have not been paid for.

AIn 1997, U.S. computer company INTEL opened a microprocessor assembly plant in the Central Valley, and other U.S. firms have located customer service call centers here. Tourism is now the country’s most important industry, and 1,100,000 tourists are expected in 2001.

Modern Costa Rica


We are sure you will enjoy many of our country’s typical dishes, which take advantage of the fruits, vegetables and grains abundant here. Costa Rican cooking is mild rather than spicy, and is based around our love affair with rice and beans.

To whet your appetite, here’s a list of local favorites you shouldn’t miss during a trip to Costa Rica:

Frescos -natural fruit drinks made from fruit, water or milk, and sugar. In water, try tamarindo (tamarind), maracuya (passion fruit), carambola (star fruit), or cas (sour guava). In milk, papaya, mora (blackberry) and guanabana (soursop) are delicious.


Tamales -traditional Christmas food but also available year round. Costa Rican tamales are made from ground corn, seasoned with small pieces of pork, olive, cooked rice and other stuffings. They are cooked and often served wrapped in banana leaves.


Picadillos -A uniquely Costa Rican way to prepare vegetables. Water squash, potatoes, carrots or other veggies are chopped into small cubes and combined with onions, garlic and a small bit of ground beef for seasoning.

Homemade tortillas accompany every traditional Costa Rican meal, and if you’re lucky enough to be offered thick, warm corn tortillas made by hand, don’t pass them up.


Casado -a typical, inexpensive lunch or dinner plate (“casado” means married). Rice, beans, picadillo, salad and your choice of chicken, beef or fish are served with tortillas and a fresco. A casado will fill you up.


Gallo Pinto

Somehow the ‘Tico’ appetite isn’t satisfied unless rice and beans are on the menu-at least once a day. Breakfast time gallo pinto is one of the tastiest ways to combine arroz y frijoles, and you’ll have a chance to try it at any restaurant in the country.


  1. 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening (many recipes use“manteca” which is made from palm oil).
  2. 1 1/2 cups day-old cooked rice.
  3. 1 cup day-old cooked beans.
  4. 1 medium onion, diced.
  5. 1 small sweet red pepper, diced.
  6. Tablespoons fresh chopped ‘cilantro’.
  7. 2 tablespoons SALSA INGLESA LIZANO (You have to come to Costa Rica to buy this one).


  1. Preheat a cast iron frying pan over medium-high.
  2. Melt shortening.
  3. Add diced vegetables and saute until onion is clear.
  4. Add beans and Salsa Inglesa and stir.
  5. Finally, add rice and heat thoroughly, stirring constantly.

Mixture should be moist but not wet.

Yield: 2.5 cups.

Servings:3 persons.


For other Costa Rican recipes and cooking tips (in Spanish), visit Costa Rican chef Tia Florita’s websitel. She is has her own television show “Cooking with Tia Florita” and has been whipping up traditional Tico dishes for decades.

Gallo Pinto

National Parks

Costa Rica protects approximately 25 percent of its national territory in national parks, wildlife reserves, forest preserves and private reserves. The map below shows areas protected by the National Parks System.

  1. Isla Bolaños.
  2. Santa Rosa y Guanacaste.
  3. Rincon de la Vieja
  4. Cano Negro
  5. Barra del Colorado y Tortuguero
  6. Las Baulas
  7. Lomas Barbudal Reserve
  8. Palo Verde
  9. Barra Honda
  10. Penas Blancas Refuge
  11. Volcan Poas
  12. Braulio Carrillo
  13. Ostional Refuge
  14. Isla del Coco
  15. Cabo Blanco Reserve
  16. Curu Refuge
  17. Islas Guayabo, Negritos y de los Pajaros Reserve
  18. Carara Reserve
  19. Volcan Irazu
  20. Guayabo
  21. Manuel Antonio
  22. Ballena Marine Park
  23. La Amistad International Park
  24. Cahuita
  25. Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge
  26. Isla del Cano Reserve
  27. Corcovado
  28. Golfito Reserve
  29. Juan Castro Blanco
  30. Arenal
Costa Rica National Parks

Fast Facts

Name: Costa Rica.

Location: Central America, south of Nicaragua and North of Panama.

Capital: San Jose.

Area: 51,100 km sq. (about the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia).


Infant mortality rate: 11.6 per 1,000 live births.

Life expectancy: 77.49 years male, 79.52 years female.

Total fertility rate: 3.11 children per woman (1993 estimate).

Ethnic divisions: White (including mestizo) 96 percent, Black 2 percent, Indian 1 percent, Chinese 1 percent.

Religions: Roman Catholic (official state religion) 95 percent. Protestant faiths are practiced, and there is a small Jewish community.

Language: Spanish (official), English spoken around Puerto Limon, in the tourism industry, and by many professionals in the Central Valley.

Administrative division: Provinces Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limon, Puntarenas, San Jose

Legal system: Based on Spanish civil law system, judicial review of legislative acts in the Supreme Court.

Direct election: Democratic republic with two similar centrist dominant parties National Liberation Party (PLN) and Christian Unity Party (PUSC). Elections held every four years.

Education: Free and compulsory through the end of the 9th year.

Principal industries: Tourism, coffee, bananas.



  1. Guatuso Indian Reserve (Malekus)
  2. Matambu Indian Reserve
  3. Quitirrisí Indian Reserve
  4. Zapatón Indian Reserve
  5. Nairi-Awari (Barbilla)
  6. Chirripó Indian Reserve
  7. Bajo Chirripo Indian Reserve
  8. Guaymi / Osa Peninsula
  9. Guaymi / Conte Burica
  10. Guaymi / Coto Brus
  11. Guaymi / Abrojos Montezuma
  12. Curré Indian Reserve
  13. Boruca Indian Reserve
  14. Térraba Indian Reserve
  15. Ujarrás Indian Reserve
  16. Salitre Indian Reserve
  17. Cabagra Indian Reserve
  18. Tayní Indian Reserve
  19. Telire Indian Reserve
  20. Cabecar -Talamanca
  21. Bribri Talamanca
  22. Kekoldi Indian Reserve (Cocles)
Costa Rica's Indigenous Reserves

Costa Rica's Indigenous Cultures

Although only 1% of the country's population—about 35,000 people— is considered aboriginal, most Costa Ricans are a mixture of European, Indian and Black ancestry.

Early indigenous civilizations

The Bribri/Cabecar have been able to preserve many aspects of their culture, especially their religion, despite influences from non-Indians. Their supreme god is called "Sibú,” creator of their universe.

Malekus (Guatusos), who live near the Arenal Volcano, are actively trying to conserve their language, as are several other indigenous groups. About 300 people now speak Maleku. Members of the Maleku tribe explain their culture to tourists who visit Lake Coter Eco Lodge. The Guaymí, who live near the border with Panama and move freely between the two countries, are easily identifiable by the colorful dresses worn by the women. Other indigenous groups wear Western clothing and are not easy for visitors to identify. Today, indigenous people mix freely with non-Indians, eat the same foods as other Costa Ricans, and enjoy the same TV programs. The Chorotega Indians, who had an advanced civilization in the Northern part of the country, were pretty much assimilated racially and culturally; this also means that certain traits of their way of live also influenced the mainstream culture.

Modern Indigenous cultures

Modern the Bribri jìcaras (carved gourds used as canteens and decorations), the Guaymi textiles and Guatuso stonework still tell us stories. Today's replicas show beliefs, relate myths, and describe the sacred. Clay, paints, materials, methods of production are in many cases identical to those used a thousand years ago. Other groups, like the Chorotega who live and sell their pottery in Guanacaste, have incorporated modern techniques into their art.

On December, 1977, the government passed a law which established the Indian reserves. It gave indigenous groups the right to stay in self-governed communities, but at the same time the government withheld the land titles.

Modern Indigenous cultures

Guayabo National Monument

On the slopes of the Turriabla Volcano, Guayabo is the largest and most important archeological site discovered to date in Costa Rica. Archeologists believe that 10,000 people once lived in the ruins. The excavation includes paved sidewalks, aqueducts, and circular mounds that served as the floors of large buildings. There is also a large stone carved with a Jaguar and a Crocodile, gods of the forest and river, respectively. It is difficult to determine which cultures influenced it the most.

Some of the buildings point to a South American influence, but Mesoamerican evidence is also present. Human occupation of the site dates back to 1.000 B.C. Recent studies reveal that Guayabo reached its peak from 300 to 700 A.D. It is not known why the inhabitants left Guayabo, just before Columbus arrived.

The map and majority of the text on this page was generously provided by Canatur, Costa Rica's Tourism Chamber. Visit their website at

Guayabo National Monument

Responsible Volunteering

How I can be a Responsible Volunteer

As a volunteer, your primary task is to support all activities of the project you have chosen. A volunteer must have great disposition to help and to serve!

You are expected to listen carefully to the rules of each site and to obey them. Your duties will be explained to you by the local coordinator and you will be expected to fully cooperate with the tasks requested.

It is of the outmost importance that you respect the rules of each complex, they exist for a reason and mostly to protect you, we take them very seriously and to break the rules might lead to the immediate termination of the volunteering program.

What else must you keep in mind?

  1. Respect the local environment: Do not litter, pick wild flowers or plants; try to reuse water bottles and recycle when you can.
  2. Preserve local resources when possible: Remember to turn off lights and or air conditioning/fan when you leave your room. Try not to waste water when you are not using it. Try to use biodegradable soaps and organic bug repellent and sun block.
  3. Respect local culture and traditions: Be aware and sensitive to cultural differences in language, custom and dress. Ask permission before taking someone’s picture.
  4. Learn a few words in the local language: And be open to learning about the local culture throughout the trip.
  5. Help ensure your money stays in the local community. Try local brands for food and drink. Buy hand crafted goods produced by local artisans.
  6. Protect national treasures: Never buy authentic archeological artifacts or souvenirs made from endangered plants animals, such as turtle shell, coral and non-plantation precious wood.
  7. Make donations count: The best way to give back to the country is through donations to organizations, not to individuals.

When you get back home:

Take some time to reflect on how the culture and wildlife of your trip destination may have benefited in the long and short term from your visit. If you have found a particular cause that interests you, find out how you can contribute by making a donation, volunteering your time, or recommending your Costa Rica trip to friends and family.

We require a short report on your experiences not longer than 1 month after leaving Costa Rica. Please submit your report with at least 5 pictures that represent the best experiences you’ve had to [email protected] in order to receive the certificate of participation. We are also open to receive recommendations to improve our programs and our service.

Thank you again for choosing Planet Conservation as your sustainable travel partner in Costa Rica.

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