|Currency||Costa Rican colón (CRC)|
|Population||4.8 million (2013)|
|Electricity||120±0 volt / 60±0 hertz (Type A, Type B)|
|Emergencies||911, 112 (emergency medical services, fire department, police)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The center of Costa Rica; mostly urban. It holds the nation's most populated cities, including San José. Many museums and a few volcanoes are of note in this area.
Home to well-known Costa Rican beaches and national parks. Perhaps one of the most tourist-oriented parts of Costa Rica, along with Guanacaste.
The "dry region" of Costa Rica, with little rain any time of year, fabulous beaches and surfing, and some large volcanic and dry forest parks in the North by the Nicaraguan border
The least visited region of the country, owing to its relative isolation. Nevertheless, there are great opportunities for whitewater rafting and sea turtle spotting. There are many beautiful beaches as well. It is also considered to be an outpost of Jamaican culture in Costa Rica due to its large proportion of residents of Jamaican descent.
|North Costa Rica
A sparsely populated, but beautiful and mountainous region, most famous for its active volcano, Arenal, and the surrounding hot springs, volcanic lakes, and cloud forests.
|South Pacific Costa Rica
One of the most bio-diverse environments on the planet, full of exotic endemic flora and fauna, and some of the planet's most beautiful and remote tropical beaches.
Due to Costa Rica's topography and historical development, most economical growth has been concentrated in the Central Valley of the country which includes four cities: San José (capital), Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia. Provincial capitals (Liberia, Puntarenas and Limón) and other towns with strategic locations have regional importance, especially for tourism. Some of Costa Rica's most important cities for travelers are:
- San José - The capital.
- Alajuela - location of Juan Santamaría International Airport
- Cartago - Costa Rica's first capital
- Jacó - the Central Pacific coast's largest city, among incredibly biodiversity and natural beauty, famous surf spot
- Heredia - Coffee plantations
- Liberia - Location of Daniel Oduber International Airport and gateway to the beaches of Guanacaste, such as Samara, Nosara, Carillo
- Puerto Limón - Main city on the Caribbean side
- Puerto Jiménez - Small city and the hub for the South Pacific corner of Costa Rica
- Quesada - the largest city by far in the country's North, surrounded by hot springs popular with Costa Rican vacationers; known locally as "San Carlos"
- Arenal Volcano - active volcano
- Cahuita National Park
- Chirripo National Park
- Cocos Island National Park
- Corcovado National Park
- Manuel Antonio National Park
- Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves
- Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park
- Tortuguero National Park
Since the late 1980s Costa Rica has been a popular nature travel destination, and its main competitive advantage is its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, covering around 23.4% of the country's land area, the largest in the world as a percentage of the country's territory, and home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, in a country that has only 0.03% of the world's landmass, but that is estimated to contain 5% of the world's biodiversity. The country also has plenty of world renowned beaches, in the Pacific Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea, within short travel distances between the coasts by air and land, and also several active volcanoes that can be visited with safety.
By the early 1990s, Costa Rica became known as the poster child of ecotourism. According to the Costa Rican Tourism Board, 46% of international tourists visiting the country in 2009 engaged in activities related to ecotourism, including trekking, flora, fauna, and bird watching, and visits to rural communities. However, most visitors look for adventure activities, which Costa Rica offers as well. Costa Rica was included by Ethical Traveler magazine in the 2011 and the 2012 list of The Developing World's 10 Best Ethical Destinations.
Costa Rica has managed to stay away from the political turmoil and violence that neighbouring nations still suffer from. The nation constitutionally abolished its army permanently in the 1940s. It is the only Latin American country included in the list of the world's 22 oldest democracies, and is a peaceful and politically stable nation. Costa Rica has consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index, and is cited by the UN Development Program as one of the countries that has attained much higher human development than other countries at the same income levels.
Costa Rica is ranked third in the world and first among the Americas in terms of the 2010 Environmental Performance Index. And the New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranked Costa Rica as the happiest nation in the world in 2009 and in 2012. NEF ranked Costa Rica as the "greenest" country in the world.
This nation has bewilderingly diverse culture, climates, flora, fauna, and landscapes. From rain forests, to dry tropical and temperate forests, to volcanoes, to Caribbean and Pacific beaches, to high mountains, and marshy lowlands.
The name Costa Rica means 'Rich Coast' in Spanish.
While Costa Rica shares much of its history well into the 19th century with the other central American states (and in fact gained independence on the same day as Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) which is still visible in the blue white blue basic flag of all these countries (Costa Rica simply added a red stripe in the middle of the white one), there are some notable differences. The most visible today is that in Costa Rica European settlement mostly occurred in the Central Valley, which led to it becoming the economic and political heart of the country and the ancestry decidedly European. While the political climate until the short civil war of 1948 (won by José Figueres Ferer, who would later be president for three separate times and is one of Costa Rica's most influential politicians) was not all that different from the rest of Central America (think coups and rigged elections) it has since bettered a lot and all elections since 1949 were peaceful and up to international democratic standards. One reason for this is that Figueres upon taking over abolished the military and Costa Rica is still one of only a handful of countries without one, leading to fewer coups and more money for education and social programs. This however has led to Costa Rica being hugely influenced by the USA and being one of America's closest allies in the region.
In the 1980s almost all of Central America was embroiled in civil wars and shaky unpopular governments. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez made a peace proposal that got almost all sides in war-torn Nicaragua to sit together and talk and achieved a lasting peaceful solution and democratic elections in 1990. However Nicaragua-Costa Rica relations have deteriorated in recent years and dominated the political agenda of Arias Sanchez' second term in the 2000s. Rio San Juan, which belongs to Nicaragua but is situated at the border, became a hot button issue. One point of contention were Nicaraguan drainage operations on the river which Nicaragua claims was to ensure safe shipping, but Costa Rica claims illegally entered their territory (Nicaragua pointed to google maps in their defense). Another point of contention is whether Costa Rica has to pay a fee for tourist excursions on the river - Costa Rica claims an old treaty guarantees both countries free navigation of the river, whereas Nicaragua maintains the only thing the treaty says is that Costa Rican ships may transport "goods" without paying a fee and people are not, in fact, goods. The whole situation was made worse by Arias Sanchez' successor Laura Chinchilla who insisted on building a controversial highway right next to the river over Nicaraguan protests, which Nicaragua claims not only harms Costa Rican nature reserves but might also overload the river with sediment. The whole issue is further complicated by a number anywhere from several hundred thousand to a million Nicaraguans living in various states of legality in Costa Rica. They are not always treated all that well. However, signs of reconciliation are also made from both sides and a new bridge now crosses the Rio San Juan near San Carlos (Nicaragua) enabling overland transport towards Los Chiles and both countries do see each other as "pueblos hermanos" (brother peoples) if sometimes bothersome and annoying brothers.
Costa Rica is located on the Central American isthmus, lying between latitudes 8° and 12°N, and longitudes 82° and 86°W. It has a total of 1,290 kilometers (800 mi) of coastline, 212 km (132 mi) on the Caribbean coast and 1,016 km (631 mi) on the Pacific.
Costa Rica borders Nicaragua to the north (309 km or 192 mi of border) and Panama to the south-southeast (639 km or 397 mi of border). In total, Costa Rica comprises 51,100 square kilometers (19,700 sq mi) plus 589 square kilometers (227 sq mi) of territorial waters.
The highest point in the country is Cerro Chirripó, at 3,819 metres (12,530 ft); it is the fifth highest peak in Central America. The highest volcano in the country is the Irazú Volcano (3,431 m or 11,257 ft). The largest lake in Costa Rica is Lake Arenal.
Costa Rica also comprises several islands. Cocos Island (24 square kilometers/9.3 square miles) stands out because of its distance from the continental landmass, 300 mi (480 km) from Puntarenas, but Calero Island is the largest island of the country (151.6 square kilometers/58.5 square miles).
Near 25% of Costa Rica's national territory is protected by SINAC (the National System of Conservation Areas), which oversees all of the country's protected areas.
Flora and fauna
Costa Rica is one of the world's most popular destinations for eco-tourists because of its biodiversity. Costa Rica has the greatest density of species in the world, and around 25% of its national territory is protected by a system of conservation areas and national parks. It has been stated in various places that Costa Rica may contain as much as 6% of the world's plant and animal species in an area the combined size of the U.S. states of Vermont and New Hampshire. Tropical plant and animal species abound in Costa Rica. Some of the more impressive plants range from huge ficus trees with epiphytes abounding on their limbs to approximately 1500 different orchids. The animals are equally as impressive, whether it's a jaguar (the largest cat in the New World), the ever-elusive Margay, or the wonderful birds like the green or scarlet macaws (lapas in Costa Rican Spanish). The amphibians are also quite impressive; the poison dart frogs with their bright colors are bound to catch your attention, or the giant cane toads.
|Daily highs (°C)||27||27||28||28||27||27||27||27||26||26||26||26|
|Nightly lows (°C)||17||18||18||18||18||18||18||18||17||18||18||18|
Costa Rica Weather Averages
Because Costa Rica is located between 8 and 12 degrees north of the Equator, the climate is tropical year round. However, the country has many microclimates depending on elevation, rainfall, topography, and by the geography of each particular region.
Costa Rica's seasons are defined by how much rain falls during a particular period and not to the four seasons to which the residents of the temperate latitudes are accustomed. The year can be split into two periods, the dry season known to the residents as summer, and the rainy season, known locally as winter. The "summer" or dry season goes from December to April, and "winter" or rainy season goes from May to November, which almost coincides with the List of Atlantic hurricane seasons, and during this time, it rains constantly in some regions.
The location receiving the most rain is the Caribbean slopes of the Central Cordillera mountains, with an annual rainfall of over 5000 mm. Humidity is also higher on the Caribbean side than on the Pacific side. The mean annual temperature on the coastal lowlands is around 27°C, 20°C in the main populated areas of the Central Cordillera, and below 10°C on the summits of the highest mountains.
- 1 January - New Year's Day (Año Nuevo)
- 19 March - St. Joseph (Dia de San José)
- Maundy Thursday / Good Friday - (Jueves y Viernes Santo)
- 11 April – Day of Juan Santamaria (commemoration of the Battle of Rivas 1856)
- 1 May – Labour Day (Dia del Trabajo)
- 25 July – Guanacaste Day (Anexión de Guanacaste)
- 2 August – Day of the patron of Costa Rica Our Lady of the Angels (Virgen de los Ángeles)
- 15 August - Mother's Day (Dia de la Madre)
- 15 September – Independence Day (Dia de la Independencia)
- 12 October - Columbus Day (Dia de la Raza)
- 25 December - Christmas (Navidad)
|January||Fiesta de Palmares. In the first two weeks of January in Palmares music, carnival, rodeo and fireworks.
Fiesta Patronal de Santo Cristo. Two days of rodeos, dances, street parties and a parade with bullock carts (Carretas) in Santa Cruz.
|February||Expo Perez Zeledón. Livestock market and orchid show in San Isidro de El General. At the same time an agricultural exhibition.
Good Neighbours Jazz Festival. Jazz in Manuel Antonio.
|March||Dia del Boyero. On the second Sunday of March in San Antonio de Escazú a parade of decorated bullock carts with music and dance.
Festival Internacional de Arte. Theater and dance performances, concerts and conferences in San José.
|April||Dia de Juan Santamaria on April 11 in Alajuela. The fight against William Walker is commemorated with horse shows and drum bands. There is also a beauty contest.
Feria del Ganada. Mid-April in Ciudad Quesada the largest livestock market in the country takes place. Also horse parade and bullfighting.
|May||Dia de los Trabajadores. On 1 May in large cities the Labor Day is celebrated.
Fiesta Civica. In early May, there are bullfights and horse shows in Cañas.
|June||Dia de San Pedro y San Pablo. Feast in honor of Peter and Paul in San José. June 29.
Compañia de Lirica Nacional. A two-month festival opera at the Teatro Melico of San José. From mid June.
|July||Festival de la Virgen del Mar. Party in Puntarenas in honor of Carmen, Virgin of the Sea, including a regatta. Mid July.
Dia de la Anexión de Guanacaste. July 25 is celebrated throughout the country that in 1824 Guanacaste was annexed with music and folk dance.
|August||Dia de Nuestra Señora de la Virgen de los Ángeles. On August 2 in Cartago religious processions in honor of La Negrita, the patron lady of Cartago.
Liberia Blanca. A week long local traditional celebrations in Liberia. Early August.
|September||Correo de la Candela de Independencia. September 14. From Guatemala a freedom torch is carried by runners to Cartago. Children go across the streets with lanterns.
Dia de la Independencia. September 15. Independence Day with street parties across the country.
|October||Carnival. In the 2nd week of October the Caribbean Carnival takes place in Puerto Limón with floats, reggae and calypso music.
Dia de las Culturas. On 12 October, the discovery of America by Columbus is commemorated with cultural events throughout the country.
|November||Dias de todos Santos. November 2. All Souls Day is celebrated across the country with processions and laying flowers on graves.
La Ruta de los Conquistadores. Mid November a mountain bike race takes place from coast to coast driven on the route of the conquistadores.
|December||Fiesta de los Negritos. On December 8, dancings in Boruca accompanied by traditional drums and flutes.
Fiesta de la Yegüita. On 12 December, in Nicoya is a procession in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Bullfights, concerts and fireworks.
Most of the people of Costa Rica are called "Ticos". Compared to many other Latin American countries, the indigenous population and their culture is small and less visible. Other notable minorities are the Afro-Costa Ricans on the Caribbean side of the country and many first or second generation Nicaraguan immigrants.
Most visitors can get into Costa Rica without a visa and can stay in the country for 90 days. Costa Rica requires Indian citizens to have a valid visa when they arrive. However, people of any nationality holding valid US, Canada, Japan, South Korea or Schengen visa do not need a prior visa. The only conditions being that the visa must be valid for 3 months and should be stamped in your passport.
Before traveling, verify the entry requirements in effect with TimaticWeb or with a Costa Rican consulate. If you have a somewhat unusual passport/visa combination, make sure to allow extra time for check-in (especially if flying with a minor airline, like InterJet, which may not have a TimaticWeb subscription, or whose staff may not know how to use it).
The entry requirements include having a return ticket. If you are doing a multi-country trip, and the return air ticket to your home country is from an adjacent country, such as Panama or Nicaragua, that would usually satisfy the immigration authorities and the airline check-in staff; nonetheless, if traveling on an itinerary like this (especially with an "unusual" passport), it may be safer to purchase a fully refundable ticket directly from Costa Rica, and cancel it once no longer needed.
Word of caution to Nicaraguan citizens traveling through the airport of San José: the thirty day tourist visa for Nicaraguans permits only one single entry. if you have a flight from San José going elsewhere make sure to double check with the embassy otherwise they will make you buy an extra flight and not let you in.
Costa Rica requires valid Yellow fever certificate if arriving from countries where that disease is prevalent (such as Panama and most South American countries). If such is not presented you would not be allowed to enter/board the flight. At Bogota airport - if you have certificate you can have it emailed to the airline and then proceed to the local vaccination authority for duplicate certificate to be issued free of charge. The critical part is to get the printed version on time. If you don't have certificate or cannot get it on time you will probably be approached by friendly police officers to arrange such for a fee. Keep in mind that the date of the vaccination should be at least 10 days prior entering the country from which you are flying.
Another way to get to Costa Rica that many people are unaware of is traveling by car and driving the Pan-American highway that stretches from Alaska all the way to the southern tip of South America (with a gap in the Darien Gap, in Panama/Columbia) - it is credited with being 27,197 miles long and passes right through Costa Rica.
SJO is being remodelled, and in July 2009 its operation was taken over by the same organization that runs the airports in Houston, Texas. An otherwise pleasant airport features the normal assortment of duty-free shops, interesting souvenir and bookshops, but an inadequate selection of restaurants (Church's Chicken, Burger King, Poás Deli Cafe and Papa John's pizza). SJO is served daily by Air Transat (seasonal) American Airlines, Canjet (Seasonal), Condor, Delta, Frontier Airlines, Iberia, Interjet, JetBlue Airways, Thomas Cook, Spirit Airlines, United, Air Canada, Avianca, Copa Airlines and AirPanama. Connecting the airport with cities such as: Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Chicago, Newark, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Bogotá, Medellín, Caracas, Lima, Guayaquil, Quito and all Central American capitals.
There is a US$32 exit fee at the Juan Santamaría Airport. This must be paid in cash, or by Visa (in which case it will be processed as a cash advance). The fee can also be paid in advance at some hotels or banks (Banco Crédito Agrícola de Cártago and Banco de Costa Rica).
The exit fee is being progressively added to the ticket fee by many airlines, using the following schedule, the fee is already included if tickets purchased after:
- June 2015: American Airlines, Avianca, Copa, Delta, Jet Blue, United.
- November 1, 2015: Air Panamá
- December 1, 2015: Aeroméxico
- December 15, 2015: Air Canada
- No date given: Air Alaska, Air Costa Rica, Condor, Cubana, Iberia, Southwest, Spirit, Veca, Volaris
Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR IATA) is near Liberia in the Guanacaste province. This airport is closest to the Pacific Northwest coast. Liberia receives flights from Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Air Canada, CanJet (charter), Sun Wing (charter), and First Choice (charter). Connecting the airport with Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Newark, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, London, etc. The new terminal is open and is a wonderful addition to this airport.
Tobías Bolaños International Airport (Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional Tobías Bolaños) (SYQ IATA) is in the Pavas district of San José about a 10-15 minute drive from the city center. This airport primarily serves as the gateway linking to local Costa Rican domestic flights or nearby international destinations of Nicaragua and Panama. This airport is the hub for Nature Air. The terminal is neat, and clean though small. There is reasonably priced cafeteria style food service on the second floor of the terminal. The terminal is not open 24 hours a day so if you have an early flight verify what time the building opens before you take the taxi. There is no comfortable place to wait near the terminal if you arrive too early.
The Interamericana (Pan-American Highway) runs through Costa Rica and is the main entry point by car. The border post in the north (to Nicaragua) is called Peñas Blancas and in the south (to Panamá) Paso Canoas (closes at 10PM, Costa Rica time or 11PM, Panamá time). Virtually all travel out of the capital (except to the Caribbean side) will involve traveling this road. The locals call the highway "Via Muerta", and after you have been on it a while you understand why — near San José and other major cities, the road is paved and has excellent signage; outside of the major cities, however, the road is gravel in places with fairly tight turns and substantial changes in elevation. You will see more large truck traffic on this road than in any part of Costa Rica. There are many speed traps along this major artery, as well as some random police checks for seat belts and, especially near the borders, for valid travel documents.
The highway speed is 80 km/h, but since the Interamericana (a.k.a. Highway #1) passes through innumerable small towns, the speed frequently drops to 50 or even 30 km/h as you suddenly find yourself in a school zone. Most of the highway is not divided. A common indicator that a police checkpoint is ahead is that oncoming cars flick their lights at you. New laws that went into effect in 2010 have greatly increased the fines; it used to be a maximum of about US$20; there are now tickets that exceed $400 for attempting to bribe an officer, and other big-ticket tickets for drunken driving, speeding, and other illegal actions including talking on a cell phone and not using seat belts. Be nice to the police if you are pulled over because, as a result of the new laws, it is possible for them to "throw the book" at you, although they generally do not. This could mean citing you for minor offenses that the new laws have instituted, such as the requirement that every car carry an emergency kit. New laws have also now enforced a 3-year prison sentence for driving with a 0.8 blood alcohol level and a $480 fine. Driving over 20 km/h over the speed limit is a $310 and losing 20 points. Police now tend to target tourists because they think that Costa Ricans don't have the money to pay the big tickets, and they're right. The police themselves earn about $500 per month, which is the average monthly wage in Costa Rica.
The good news is that there is a new highway known as Autopista Del Sol (Highway of the Sun) that stretches from the beaches around Orotina all the way into San Jose. This highway is smooth as U.S. or European highways. It was constructed by a company that is based in Spain. There are tolls along this highway but if you travel the entire stretch it will still only come out to be a few dollars in total. In 2011, problems were found with this highway and parts of it are sometimes closed for repairs.
Many Costa Rican roads are in terrible shape, and short distances can take a very long time. Even the only road in and out of popular tourist destinations are riddled with major potholes. To avoid potholes, drivers will often snake through the left and right lanes, usually returning to the right when oncoming traffic approaches. While this may seem erratic, you can become quickly accustomed to it. If you see a tree branch or pole poking out of the middle of a road, that is a "sign" that there is a deep sinkhole, pothole or manhole without a cover. Stay away from it.
Driving at night is highly inadvisable, due to the unpredictability of road conditions and lack of safety features such as guard rails on the many hairpin turns in the hills. To put safety in perspective, Costa Rica's per capita traffic death rate is comparable to that of the United States, but there are undeniably many hazards, and they are likely to be unfamiliar ones.
Many roads are unpaved, and even the paved roads have lots of unpaved sections and washed out or unfinished bridges. Bridges are often only wide enough for one vehicle; one direction usually has priority. Do not expect to get anywhere quickly; supposed three-hour journeys can turn into five or more hours easily: there are always slow cars/buses/trucks on the road. This causes a lot of crazy driving, which you begin to emulate if you are in-country for more than a day. The government does not seem to be fixing the infrastructure well (or at all!); 50 km/h is good over unpaved roads. Some hotels located in the mountains require a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the destination. Call ahead. This is more for the ground clearance than the quality of the road. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are widely available at the car rentals near the airport, but call ahead.
Navigation can prove challenging. Road signs are relatively few, and those that do exist can be inaccurate. It is recommended that you have a good road map with the small towns listed, since road signs will often only indicate the next town, not the direction of the next major city. Towns generally do not have town-limit signs; it is best to look at the names on the roadside food stores and restaurants to determine the place you are passing. Stop and ask, practice your Spanish. The center of town is usually a public park with a Catholic church across from it.
There are no formal street addresses in Costa Rica, but two informal systems exist. The first (often used in tourist information) indicates the road on which the establishment is located (e.g., "6th Avenue"), together with the crossroad interval (e.g., "between 21st and 23rd Streets"). In practice, street signs are virtually non-existent, and locals do not even know the name of the street they are on. The second system, which is much more reliable and understood by locals, is known as the "Tico address", usually involving an oriented distance (e.g., "100 meters south, 50 meters east") from a landmark (e.g., "the cathedral").
It is worth noting the particular road naming system in San Jose. Avenues run east-west and streets run north-south. The numbering is less straighforward. Starting at Central Avenue going south are 2nd, 4th, 6th Avenue, etc. while going north are 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc. Streets use even numbers going west, and odd numbers going east. This means that if you are at 7th Avenue and 4th Street, and looking for 6th Avenue and 5th Street, you are on the wrong side of town.
Gas stations are full-service and the guys there are very cool about taking dollars or colónes. The interesting thing is that Costa Rica is small so you do not burn a lot of gas getting places, even though it seems like forever. Costa Rica is also a land of traffic circles, so people from Europe should have no problem, but North Americans should make sure they know how they work. The gas stations really are full-service, and you can have your oil checked, water filled, and tire pressure topped off. The state owns a gasoline company and the private companies raise their prices to the level of the state-set price. It is recommended to always use super gas and not regular; the regular gas is soiled. If you use the "regular" gas, you will have to change the gas filter and clean the injectors after 5000 miles.
There is an extensive network of bus routes within the country with reasonable fares. Departures are very punctual, though routes often take longer than expected. Stop by the Tourist Office downtown (underneath the Gold Museum in the Plaza—ask anyone and they'll be able to help you out). The bus system is a safe and even fun way to see a lot of the country cheaply and not have to worry about car rentals. Getting around without Spanish is no problem.
San José has a remarkably large number of bus stations for a town of that size; bus departure points occasionally change. Make sure to double check the location of the terminal for the bus you want to take.
There is twice daily boat service from Los Chiles (in NE Costa Rica), former home of the Contras, to San Carlos, Nicaragua. The cost is about US$9 (payable in dollars, colones or Nicaraguan cordobas), plus a $1 fee. The boats usually leave San Carlos at 10:30AM and 4PM.
Small ship cruises carrying fewer than 100 passengers begin in Panama and end in Costa Rica or reverse. These cruises visit popular National Parks such as Manuel Antonio but also visit remote beaches and coastline not accessible by road. Prices range from US$2000–$6000 per person for 7-10 day tours.
Larger cruise ships occasionally dock or anchor at Puerto Caldera and Puntarenas for a day or so, usually to begin, end or continue cruises with itineraries through the Panama Canal to or from Caribbean or U.S. ports.
Keep in mind that Costa Rica, although it has established official street names in most cities for governmental purposes, most of the population is unaware of these names and if they are known, most streets will lack proper signs stating said names. Asking for directions from a local could result in a tedious and difficult conversation as said directions are given out based on a common or well known building, store, office or other landmark in order to find what you are looking for. As such, you would need to know important landmarks and their locations well enough to be able to get around more easily.
Keep in mind that "cien metros," or 100 meters are commonly used to refer to a city "block," which are usually 100 meters, but in some cases could be more or less. However, despite what the exact distance is, many locals tend to use 100 meters or a city block when giving out directions.
- OpenStreetMap contributors produce Garmin compatible maps that are open source and constantly updated, if possible, contribute back the tracks of your trip to the project.
- Free GPS maps from the Cenrut project. The Cenrut maps can be loaded on Garmin devices, iPhones and Android phones.
- Waze, the smartphone application is a favorite among Costa Ricans as a GPS with real time updates on traffic.
- Google Maps on a cell phone or tablet can be a useful tool to locate Points of Interest (POIs) or devise a route to a destination, but it doesn't offer turn-by-turn routable directions in the area yet.
For the most part, Costa Rica's roads are paved but have minimal upkeep. Also, there are many narrow bridges scattered around the country. Exercise caution when traveling during the rainy season as some roads can be washed out or flooded in low-lying areas. If you plan on traveling into the mountainous regions like Monteverde, 4WD or AWD vehicles are strongly recommended. These roads are NOT paved and can be slick due to the consistent rainfall. Rockfalls and landslides are common and guardrails are sparse. Also, visibility can be low around the cloud forest areas so use caution.
Most major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are served by at least two daily buses from and to San José. The advantages of public transportation in Costa Rica are that tickets are cheap (rarely more than US$7 US per person) and they cover most towns around the country. However, nearly the entire bus system is based on routes in and out of San José and this can add significant travel time. The buses are also not booked with a reservation system so it is possible to not have a seat on popular routes. However, many do have assigned seats once you buy a ticket at the station and so get there early to be sure you get your bus.
In San José there is not one central bus station, but rather several different ones, with each station roughly serving a different area of the country, with some exceptions. For example, most of the service to the Caribbean side of the country leaves from the Terminal Gran Caribe. Direct service to the far south Caribbean coast is provided from the Puntarenas bus station, which mostly serves the west side of the country. Still, you can still get to the Caribe side by taking a bus (on the Autotransportes Caribeños line) from the Terminal Gran Caribe to Limón, and then transferring there to another bus south (the Mepe line). In short, do some research beforehand so you don't get lost looking for your bus. Often you can just call or email your final destination (e.g. your hotel) and they will tell you what bus to take, where to catch it and how often it runs.
One great advantage of renting a car is that you can visit many of the secluded beaches and mountain areas. And with the power of the Internet, you can now rent just about any vehicle online and have it waiting for you when you arrive.
For US$350-700 a week you can rent an econocar/mid size 4WD. Insurance is the majority of this cost and it is not optional. Four-wheel-drive is good for extensive traveling outside the Central Valley, especially in the wet season. In the dry season going from La Fortuna to Monteverde via a direct route was over a boulder strewn 15-30 mph road. Four-wheel-drive was also useful on the Nicoya coast. (Above based on 2001 roads.) It's often possible to rent a car with a local driver from the various tour companies, if driving yourself seems a bit daunting.
Due to the condition of most roads outside San Jose, car insurance, even with a zero-deductible option, generally does not cover tires and rims. Car rental companies require a guaranty deposit from US$750 during the rental period and a credit card is necessary for this process. Using an insurance program provided by some types of gold or platinum credit cards is a good advantage, since these credit cards would cover small scratches, small dents as well as the entire rented vehicle in case of collision or theft.
You have to exercise caution when renting a car in Costa Rica; where it is not uncommon for rental companies to claim "damage" they insist you inflicted on the vehicle. It is by far the best policy to rent a car through a Costa Rican travel agent. If you are traveling on a package, your agent will sort this out. Otherwise, go into an ICT-accredited travel agent in San Jose and ask them to arrange rental for you. This should be no more expensive than renting on your own and will help guard against false claims of damage and other accusations; rental companies will be less willing to make trouble with an agent who regularly sends them clients than with individual customers who they may not see again.
Make sure to check the car carefully before you sign off on the damage sheet. Check the oil, brake fluid, fuel gauge (to make sure it's full) and that there is a spare tire with a good air pressure and a jack. Look up the Spanish word for "scratches" (rayas) and other relevant terminology first, so you can at least scrutinize the rental company's assessment. Ask them to write down all the minor damages, not just check on the drawing, and keep a copy of this document with you.
Take the maximum insurance (around US$15–20 per day); because of the country's high accident rate, you need to be covered for damage to the vehicle, yourself, any third party and public property.
For about US$420 a week, depending on the bike and the season, you can rent a dual sport bike or a chopper. A motorcycle rental company requires a guaranty deposit from US$600 during the rental period.
Another easy way to get around Costa Rica is to use the services of mini-vans. At most of the hotels, the receptionist is able to assist travelers who want to travel across the country by arranging for the services of a driver. Rates are reasonable (US$29 per person, for example, to get from San José to Tamarindo in April 2007) The drivers know the roads well; the vans are clean and comfortable; and they take you from door to door.
Taxis are available in most large cities. They are usually inexpensive, charging only a few dollars to get most anywhere within the city. The meter is called "la maria"; ask the driver to turn it on immediately upon getting in the car, or he may leave it off and make up his own, more expensive, price when you get to your destination. Also try checking it wasn't running before you got in, the initial fare shouldn't be higher than ₡600. Most drivers know familiar routes such as San Jose to Santa Ana and you can find the rate by asking "Cuanto para ir a _____" and he will tell you the flat rate. This can keep you from paying too much because the driver will not make unnecessary detours. Official taxis are red with a yellow triangle on the side. They also have yellow triangles on the side of the car which will have a number in it. If the number matches the number listed on the license plate, it is an official taxi. Do not get in if the numbers do not match. "Pirate Taxis", though sometimes cheaper, are not safe. Do not risk it. If you are alone, especially. If you are female, ride in the back seat, as riding in the front with the driver can be seen as suggestive. Caution should be exercised when using this service, extra caution. It's not recommended to ride non-red cabs.
Hitchhiking is far more common in rural areas than in urban areas. If you choose to hitchhike, Costa Ricans are generally very friendly and helpful, particularly in more rural areas where traffic on the dirt roads can be light. As always, be gracious and offer a bit of money, which will probably be declined due to the kindness.
There are two main internal airlines that connect the major tourist towns, NatureAir and Sansa. You are limited to 25 or 30 pounds of carry-on luggage per person, depending on the airline. Nature Air allows more luggage per person, as their planes are larger and are also twin-engine. Neither of them will carry a longboard and both limit the number of short surboards they will carry. Be sure to check with airline for current limits on length of boards allowed.
While the train service was closed in 1995, the Incofer (Costarrican Railway Institute) remained operational and is putting the abandoned rails to use again in the San José metropolitan area. Train service still suffers from decades of neglect and only rarely is a train faster or cheaper than a bus, but new lines and improvements to existing lines (mostly for commuters in and around San José) are planned for the near future.
There are two services, the fee is around ₡500
- Heredia - San Jose Service
- Pavas - San Jose Service
Spanish is the official and most spoken language in Costa Rica. All major newspapers and official business are conducted in Spanish. English is used widely in most areas, especially those frequented by tourists, and information for visitors is often bilingual or even exclusively in English. A number of businesses operated by European proprietors can accommodate guests in Spanish, English and their native languages.
Some Costa Rican colloquial expressions:
- Mae or sometimes "Maje" is used akin to the American English word 'dude'. Generally spoken among the male population, or among friends. It is as informal as the word 'dude'. Mae is mostly used by the younger population and Maje by the older population. It is pronounced 'maheh'.
- Pura vida, literally translated as "pure life," is an expression common to Costa Rica. It can be used in several contexts, as an expression of enthusiasm, agreement, or salutation. It's pronounced 'poora veeda'.
- Tuanis, means "OK" or "cool." Was believed to be taken from English phrase "too nice", but it is actually a word borrowed from the Código Malespín, a code developed for communication during the various Central American civil wars in the XIX century.
A prevalent version of slang in Costa Rica, and other regions of Latin America, is called "pachuco", "pachuquismo" or "costarriqueñismo" and is used by all social classes (to some degree), however, it can be at times vulgar and is considered an informal way of speaking.
For the word "you", (singular informal form), Instead of "tú", most people of the Central Valley use "vos" (as in "vos sos" - you are) which is also common to other Latin nations (Argentina, Uruguay), but the word "usted" is prominent in south Pacific Costa Rica and preferred over "vos". Either way, formal Spanish is understood and you may use any form of the word "you" you consider proper.
Costa Ricans tend to use the term Regálame, literally "gift me", instead of "get me". An example is when a Costa Rican says: "regálame la cuenta", literrally "gift me the bill", which is unusual to other Spanish speaking countries, however, it is a very common Costa Rican term. Another such case might be when Costa Ricans go out to buy something, in which case they might use the term this way: "Regáleme un confite y una Coca", literally, "Gift me a piece of candy and a Coke", but it is understood that the person asking is going to buy said things and is not expecting the other to gift him or her those things. A more precise phrase in standard Spanish would be: "Me vende un confite y una Coca", meaning: "Sell me a piece of candy and a Coke".
Limonense Creole (Mekatelyu)
As well as Costa Rican Spanish, there is also an English-based Creole language spoken in Limón Province on the Caribbean Sea coast of Costa Rica. It is called Limonese Creole or Mekatelyu. This Creole language is essentially a localized form of Jamaican Patois, and is similar to varieties such as Colón Creole, Miskito Coastal Creole, Belizean Kriol language, and San Andrés and Providencia Creole. The name Mekatelyu is a transliteration of the phrase "make I tell you", or in standard English "let me tell you".
Costa Rica is world famous for having an incredibly high level of biodiversity throughout its tropical forests (this covers what you may hear referred to as rain forests, cloud forests, and dry forests). There are tropical mammals such as monkeys, sloths, tapirs, and wild cats as well as an amazing assortment of insects and other animals. There are many many birds (both migratory and resident) - more on that below. With 25% of the country being national parks and protected areas, there are still many places you can go to see the abundant wildlife and lush vegetation of the country. Just like anywhere, the farther you get off the beaten path, the more likely you are to see a wide variety of flora and fauna.
There is such biodiversity in Costa Rica not only because it's a land bridge between North and South America, but also because the terrain is so varied and there are weather patterns moving in from both the Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean. There are impressive volcanoes, mountain areas, rivers, lakes, and beaches all throughout the country. There are many beautiful beaches - most of the popular ones are on the Pacific side but the Caribbean has many excellent beaches as well.
One of the most wonderful activities for people who love nature is bird-watching. You can enjoy bird-watching in many areas of Costa Rica. Due to the great diversity of climates, temperatures and forest types in Costa Rica, there is a wonderful variety of birds, with over 800 species. Some helpful books available on bird-watching are Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch (Cornell University Press) or An Illustrated Field Guide to Birds of Costa Rica, illustrated by Victor Esquivel Soto. These books can be found at certain bookstores in San José or before coming to Costa Rica. They are both heavy books; many people tear out the plates of the Stiles & Skutch book to carry into the field and leave the rest of the book in their car or room. Plastic cards with the most common birds are available for many areas and are sold at gift shops.
Costa Rica's list of birds includes:
- 16 species of parrots including the fabulous scarlet macaw.
- 50 species of hummingbirds.
- 10 species of trogons with the resplendent quetzal as the jewel.
- 6 species of toucans, including the keel-billed and chestnut-mandibled.
- Half the bird species in Costa Rica are passerines including warblers, sparrows and finches.
- 16 species of ducks, including the fulvous whistling, white-faced ruddy and American wigeon.
- 13 species of falcons, including the peregrine falcon, merlin and American kestrel.
- 36 species of prey, including the gray hawk, swallow-tailed kite, solitary eagle and northern harrier.
- 6 species of cracidae which look like turkeys.
- 8 species of new world quails.
- 15 species of rallideas including the rufous-necked wood-rail, American coot and ruddy crake.
- 19 species of owls including the black-and-white, Costa Rican pygmy, Central American pygmy and striped.
- 3 species of potoos including the great, northern and common.
- 16 species of woodpeckers, including cinnamon, chestnut-colored and pale-billed.
The coastal list of birds includes:
- 19 species of herons & wading birds such as the great blue heron, great egret, boat-billed heron, reddish egret and yellow-crowned night-heron.
- 2 species of recurvirostraide which are waders and include the black-necked stilt and American avocet.
- 2 species of jacans including the northern and wattled.
- 34 species of scolopacidae including the short-billed dowitcher, spotted sandpiper, wandering tattler, surfbird, and red phalarope.
- 9 species of gulls including the gray, Heermann's and ring-billed.
- 14 species of sternidae (terns) including the gull-billed tern, Forster's tern, least tern and white tern.
- 4 species of vultures including the king vulture.
- 24 species of doves and pigeons.
- 11 species of swifts including the black, spot-fronted and Costa Rican.
- 6 species of kingfishers including the green, Amazon and American pygmy.
- 5 species of threskiornithidaes including the roseate spoonbill and white-faced ibis.
- 2 species of ciconiidae including the wood stork and jabiru.
Good bird-watching spots include:
- Monteverde Cloud Forest has more than 400 species of birds, including resplendent quetzals.
- Tortuguero National Park has 300 species of birds.
- Santa Rosa National Park has more than 250 species of birds.
- Cahuita National Park has toucans, parrots, rufous kingfishers; the park is on the beach.
- La Selva Biological Station in the northern lowlands has 420 species of birds.
- Helconia Island has 228 species of birds.
- Corcovado National Park has 400 species of birds and 1,200 scarlet macaws.
- Huedal Nacional Terraba-Sierpe has a myriad of birds along the coast and swamps.
- Carara National Park has 400 species of birds.
- Tárcoles has 400 species of birds and great river tours highlighting crocodiles.
- Whale Marine National Park has frigate birds, boobies, ibises and pelicans.
- La Amistad National Park has 500 species of birds including resplendent quetzals.
- Manuel Antonio National Park has 350 species of birds and three lovely beaches.
Most hotels and tourist information centers will provide bird-watching guides, maps and other essentials for bird watching. Unless you are an experienced neotropical birder, it can be a lot more productive to go out with an experienced birding guide. Do not forget to bring a hat, rain gear, boots, binoculars and camera. In hot areas, an umbrella can be more useful than a poncho or jacket. Southern Costa Rica is generally considered the better option for bird-watching.
Costa Rica is a geologically active nation. Most notable volcanoes are:
- Arenal, (Spanish: Volcán Arenal): an active stratovolcano with lava domes and daily eruptions near La Fortuna.
- Irazú, (Spanish: Volcán Irazú): an active complex stratovolcano situated in the Cordillera Central close to the city of Cartago. The last eruption was in 1994.
- Poás, (Spanish: Volcán Poás): an active stratovolcano in central Costa Rica close to Alajuela. It has erupted 39 times since 1828. The last eruption was in 2012.
Costa Rica is a country with an extraordinary wealth of things to do, but regardless of your travel interests, you're going to want to spend time at one of the country's many great beaches. The Pacific coast's main beaches are located in the Central Pacific region, the Nicoya Peninsula, and in Guanacaste. Less visited but no less beautiful beaches are located in the tropical rainforest of the southern Pacific coast near Corcovado National Park, or on the exotic eco-tourism paradise of the Caribbean side in Limón Province.
In an overview, the Caribbean region of Costa Rica stands out for its variety of aquatic ecosystems and its beautiful white and black sand beaches, providing an ideal setting for activities such as sport fishing, snorkeling, and sun bathing. The Pacific coast concentrates big tourist centers and its beaches are very popular for surfing; for example Esterillos, Jaco, Hermosa, Boca Barranca. In the Golfito region, surfing fans can find the famous "long lefthander wave" of Pavones.
Here is a quick list of the country's biggest and most popular beach destinations, ask the locals to find tiny quiet beaches off the beaten path nearby:
- Manuel Antonio — one of the best well know destinations in Central America, its main feature is a beautiful and tiny National Park with clear water beaches and lots of wildlife
- Jacó — the "city of surf" of Costa Rica, holds national and international tournaments and it is conveniently located with beautiful wildlife spots such as Carara National Park to the North and Manuel Antonio to the South. Also known for its nightlife and restaurant scene.
- Corcovado — one of the most diverse and nature dense spots in Costa Rica, the main attraction in Osa Peninsula, with black sand beaches fronted by the thick Costa Rican tropical rain forest
- Dominical — surfing destination with a small town and good nightlife scene in the North end of the South Pacific
- Montezuma — the bohemian option, on the Nicoya Peninsula, full of dreadlocks, surfers, and what you would expect would come along with them (known as "monte fuma" by the locals)
- Playa Grande — this tranquil white sand beach is home to the largest nesting site for the leatherback sea turtle on the Pacific coast, as well as, one of the best surfing waves in the Guanacaste Province
- Tamarindo — the upscale option, with beautiful beaches complemented by boutique shopping and high class dining
- Tortuguero — caters to eco-tourists looking to explore the rainforest and spot some manatees, monkeys and birds. Tortuguero is both a small town only accessible by boat, but also the name of the National Park, dubbed "the Amazon of Central America"
- Puerto Viejo — the main hub of Costa Rica's South Caribbean, has a nice laid-back vibe with small hotels and beautiful light sand beaches. Close by you can find Cahuita National Park and Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, attractive coastal protected areas
Costa Rica is one of the countries with more rivers per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. Nearly anywhere you go you will find some kind of river trip to enjoy nature from a very unique point of view.
There is a wide variety of exciting rafting trips offered in Costa Rica. For many years, the rafting Mecca of Costa Rica was Turrialba, a large town embedded in the mountains near the Reventazon and Pacuare Rivers, on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica.
However, the Arenal Volcano area is now an increasingly-popular whitewater rafting destination with close access to the Sarapiqui and Toro Rivers, as well as the Class II-III Río Balsa which delight rafting enthusiasts in the Northern slopes of the country.
On the Pacific slope, the river with the largest volume, El General, is famous for multi-day adventures and for being an incredible playground for kayakers. The Coto Brus River is also part of this watershed. Further north, on the central Pacific coast, are the Savegre and Naranjo Rivers. In this area you have the opportunity to enjoy both half-day trips on the Naranjo River and 1-to-2-day trips on the Savegre River.
The Class III-IV Tenorio River near Canas, Guanacaste is a favorite among day-trippers from the beaches of Guanacaste, as well as part of shuttle-tour-shuttle services from the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde to the Guanacaste area. The lower section of the Tenorio River is widely-known for being an excellent nature float trip.
The Pacuare River (Class III-IV) is at the top of the list for 2- or 3-day adventures. If you are interested in similar trips, the Savegre River (Class III-IV) is an excellent alternative for an overnight rafting excursions.
If you want more adrenaline, the Chorro Section (Class IV+) of the Naranjo River, near Manuel Antonio, Quepos is one of the most exhilarating rafting trip of the country. This section is run from December to May.
As for nature-oriented trips, the Peñas Blancas River near the Arenal Volcano provides a great look at the tremendous biodiversity of the country.
Most likely, any of these rafting trips will be the highlight of your active vacations, so don’t miss your chance to paddle one.
Costa Rica has some of the best Sport Fishing in the world and is the first country to practice catch and release fishing. The Pacific side has incredible fishing for Sailfish, Marlin, Dorado, Tuna, Wahoo, Roosterfish, Snapper, and more. The Caribbean side and Northern regions of Costa Rica are famous for big Tarpon and big Snook. Over sixty-four world records have been caught in Costa Rica. Half day, Full day and Multi-Day Trips are available. They love to eat turtles.
Costa Rica has many surfing hotspots. The best time of year to surf is from November - August.
In the Guanacaste region, there are several beaches to choose from if you intend to go surfing. Among them, Playa Negra and Playa Grande are two stand out breaks. Playa Negra breaks over a shallow lava reef producing fast hollow waves for advanced surfers only. Playa Grande is the most consistent break in the area with surfable conditions most days of the year. It breaks over a sandy bottom and is good for beginner and experienced surfers. Playa Nosara is another option for beginning to intermediate surfers. It's waves could be a little overwhelming for a complete novice, but for someone who has a beginning grasp on the technique, it is a nice place with a good local scene.
Tamarindo is a good beach to learn how to surf, whilst Playa del Coco offers advanced surfers the chance to surf at Witches Rock and Ollie´s Point. On the Caribbean side there are beautiful beaches, but limited surfing prospects.
The southern Costa Rica area has two very good spots for surf: Dominical and Pavones Beach. Pavones Beach has thick, heavy waves which consistently barrel and can get really big. It's little known, but picturesque and untamed; Definitely not for the light hearted.
In the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma has one of the most beautiful beach breaks in the area, called Playa Grande. It's a short eastward walk from Montezuma village. The break is great for all surfers.
Costa Rica has great mountain biking routes, particularly near Irazu, Turrialba and Arenal Volcanoes. There is popular dirt road that connects Irazu Volcano and the foothills of Turrialba Volcano that is perfect for mountain biking, as it traverses the mountain and presents great views of the Cartago Valley (weather permitting, of course).
The area around Lake Arenal is also a great spot to bike. You can circle the lake in one long day, or break up the ride in two sleeping in Tilarán or Nuevo Arenal. The use of mountain bikes is a must, since the southern shore of the lake is unpaved.
The Nicoya Peninsula also has great riding, particularly the stretch between Sámara, Puerto Coyote and Malpais. There is a coastal road that connects these three beachtowns.
Costa Rica is also known as a haven for some of the most lush, tropical golfing environments in the world. At any course, you can expect to an ensemble of exotic, indigenous animals; jungle; mountainous terrain; and a surreal, blue ocean painting a brilliant, seclusive experience.
There are many tournaments during the year that any traveler can participate in. Most courses offer shoe and club rentals.
Other active and extreme sports
Wind surfing in the Tilarán area is some of the best in the world.
"Canopy tours" or ziplines are very popular tourist activities and are found all over Costa Rica. These typically cost between US$30–$50 depending on the company and use a series of zip-lines to travel between platforms attached to the trees, through and over the forest canopy and over rivers. The person is secured with harnesses to the metal cords, as some go very high off the ground. Be sure to ask about the zipline certification before booking and be sure to take part in the safety briefing before participating.
Another form of canopy tour is via an aerial tram which are ski lifts modified for the rainforest. These trams are slower allowing the visitor to view wildlife in the canopy. Each tram has a guide who will explain the flora and fauna. The trams exist at adventure parks near Jaco Beach and just outside Braulio Carrillo National Park and are appropriate for all ages. The trams may be combined with ziplining and often have other attractions such as medicine gardens or serpentaria so guests may learn more about Costa Rica.
The local currency is the Costa Rican colón (plural, colones) CRC named after Christopher Columbus (whose name was Cristobal Colón in Spanish) sometimes shown locally as ₡ and sometimes shown using the more commonly available US cent symbol '¢' or ₵.
Exchange rates for Costa Rican colones (₡)
As of April 2017:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
Money exchange is provided at most banks, however it is recommended to do so at the state banks, especially the Banco Nacional, since they have lower rates. There is also a money exchange service at the airport, but it is outrageously expensive. But note that the use of US dollars is quite common; in the tourist setting, almost everything is priced in US dollars (but sometimes prices are cheaper in colones). When a price is quoted in "dollars", the speaker may be thinking of a dollar as 500 colones; so it is always worth checking whether this is what is meant. When paying with US dollars, you may receive change in local currency; thus, if you are about to leave the country and don't need colones any more, make sure to have small-denomination US dollar bills.
You can find ATMs in most places. They normally dispense US dollars and colones. With Visa you get money at almost all ATMs. If you have a MasterCard try the ATMs in the AM/PM supermarkets, they give you up to ₡250,000 (~US$500). Another option are the ATH-ATMs but they just give you up to ₡100,000 (~US$200) each transaction. EC-Cards (European) are accepted at all ATMs. The limit is usually set only by the card. In addition, drawing money with your EC-Card will almost always give you a better exchange rate than changing cash in a bank. Around payday, the 15th of the month, ATMs can be emptied of cash, especially in small towns like La Fortuna or Quepos, and some cards may not work.
It is also very common to pay even small amounts by Visa or MasterCard with Amex much less common.
You might get a discount (such as between 5% and 10%) when paying in cash, but it is not common enough to be expected. Also, it is not really necessary to get colones at the airport because you can pay everywhere in US dollars and receive colones as change. Most places except the smallest restaurants take credit cards and many places including the gas stations take American Express.
Traveler's checks are rarely used. When paying with traveler's checks, unless for hotel nights, change them first at a bank. Expect long delays with traveler's checks at the bank, lots of stamping, the higher up the official at the bank the more stamps they have. Dollars are easier.
The most common souvenirs are made from wood. Unless it's marked as responsible (plantation grown wood), it is most likely not and may be contributing to the deforestation of Costa Rica — or even Nicaragua or Panama!
Most visitors returning home are not allowed to bring back any raw foods or plants. Accordingly, the single most desirable commodity for visitors to take home may be roasted (not green) coffee, considered by many as some of the world's best. Numerous web sites explain the fine qualities of various growing regions, types of beans, types of roasting and sources for purchase. Best prices come by purchasing several (sealed) bags of 12 ounces or so. Experts recommend buying whole beans (entero) in any kind of storage; whole beans last longer, and Costa Rican ground coffee often contains sugar, as it is preferred by locals. The stores in San Jose airport will sell you excellent coffee, but other good quality blends can be found in local supermarkets and direct from the roasters. It can be an expensive but delicious habit. If you're serious about your coffee, bring at least a partially-empty suitcase and fill it with perhaps a year's supply (web sites explain how to store it that long). Take care with tourist outlets where small quantities may cost as much as ordering on the Internet.
Costa Rican cuisine can be described as simple but wholesome. The spiciness often associated with Latin America has typically originated in Mexico, most Costa Rican foods are not spicy, but, as they simmer in a large pot, the flavors are blended.
Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans with a little cilantro or onion thrown in. While more common at breakfast, it can also be served at lunch or dinner.
Casado, which means married, is the typical lunch in Costa Rica, containing rice and beans with meat, chicken or fish, always served with salad and fried plantain.
Plato del dia, is the 'Plate of the Day' and is often a Casado, but has the meat or fish selection of the day. Usually around 5.00 USD and includes a natural juice.
Good, fresh fruit is abundant in variety and low in cost. Mercados provide an excellent place to sample fruit and other Costa Rican fare, with many including sit-down snack bars. You are encouraged to experiment because some of the local fruits do not "travel well" as they are bruised easily and or have a short shelf life. The mango found in store in North America are much more fibrous and less sweet than the mangos found in Costa Rica. The fingerling bananas are much more creamy and less tart than the ones found in North America.
Be sure to stop off at a rest stop along any of the roads: a casado and beer will cost ~$3.
Don't forget to try the Salsa Lizano that you will surely find at any restaurant. It is a mild vegetable sauce that has a hint of curry and is slightly sweet. It's often referred to as Costa Rican ketchup. It is something of an acquired taste but Ticos eat it with almost anything. Bring some home with you! You can find smaller sized bottles at any market.
Also, as per usual in Central America, standard breakfast fare is rice and beans.
Vegetarians will find it surprisingly easy to eat well in Costa Rica.
Don't forget to tip tour guides, drivers, bellboys and maids. Restaurant bills include a 10% gratuity but leave an extra tip for good service. North Americans often get better service because they are used to tipping separately, but it's not necessary.
The beef cattle are raised on grass; the meat will taste differently from corn fed cattle. The cuts of meat at the local restaurants are also different. The taste of chicken is not discernibly distinct.
Most places have potable water, so don't worry about drinking tap water. Bottled water is also available at low prices.
Refrescos are beverages made from fresh fruit (cas, guanabana, sandia/watermelon, mora/blackberry, fresa/strawberry, granadilla/passion fruit), sugar and either water or milk. All sodas (mom and pop diners) serve these. You can also easily buy the standard international soda pops. 'Fresca', 'Canada Dry' and the local 'Fanta Kolita' (fruit punch) are recommended.
The national drink is called guaro, which is made from fermented sugar cane. It is similar to vodka, and is usually drunk with water and lemon. Note that it's not a very "clean" liquor, so exercise caution.
There are approximately 8 different national beers available (and most international), which are sold in cans, bottles and even kegs. The most common beers in the country are Pilsen and Imperial: all bars and restaurants serve both. Bavaria, "Bavaria Negra" (dark) and Bavaria Light are considered higher quality but more expensive, Rock Ice and Rock Ice Limón (lemon flavor) has a higher alcohol percentage and is less common in rural areas. Heineken is locally made under license and is more expensive as well.
Ready-to-drink coffee is excellent and considered (again) to be among the best in the world.
You can find many places to stay all over Costa Rica, including hotels, aparthotels, condos, vacation rentals, and cabinas. Vacation Homes, Cabinas, and Condos can be less expensive than hotels and provide more flexibility in your adventure to Costa Rica. Costa Rica is known as a world leader for eco and sustainable travel and accommodations are often listed as 'eco-lodges'. They do tend to be more expensive though the government does have a well functioning certification program. Be careful of so called "motels." In Costa Rica as well as much of Latin America this term tends to refer to places more associated with short term stays by couples looking for a little privacy. The rooms are often rented by the hour.
You can learn Spanish in Costa Rica. Reflecting the higher living standard, it's a little more expensive than other countries such as Guatemala, but then again, the education level of your teachers will be much higher.
Costa Rica is a great place to learn Spanish as the "ticos" have a dialect that is easy to understand and digest for someone just starting to learn the language. There are many language schools that provide intensive instruction with group classes lasting 4 hours per day, Monday to Friday. Almost all Spanish schools will also offer host family accommodations and possibly some alternative such as a student residence or discounted hotel rates.
The key factor when going to study Spanish in Costa Rica is to decide what is the right location for you. The beach locations tend to be on the touristy side so they do not necessarily give the greatest immersion experience, however there are many Spanish schools near the beach as students like to split their time between studying Spanish in the classroom combined with activities on the beach or just relaxing on their time away from work. There is a growing trend of these Spanish schools at the beach also offering Surfing or Photography classes due to the environment around the school and the proximity to good surf.
Studying in the San Jose area has many benefits. There is the luxury aspect of city life since it tends to be much more modern than the rustic beach locations. Host families and Spanish schools tend to have nicer facilities. The school Academia Tica  offers good courses and personal service and is located not only in San José but also in Jacó Beach. San Jose also has fewer tourists so it is great from an immersion point of view as you can practice your Spanish in a setting where people are not automatically switching to English to accommodate your native language. It is much better that you struggle with your Spanish and force your brain to think in a different language so your communication becomes much smoother.
There are also a number of language schools that can be found throughout the Central Valley, particularly in Heredia and its surrounding cantons. These language schools typically offer only Spanish to foreign students from the United States and Europe but some, including the Instituto Norte Americano in Heredia, offer Spanish to foreign students, and English and Mandarin to local ones. Many of these language schools are also instrumental in helping the surrounding community, either through monetary donations or educational opportunities that otherwise may not have existed for the local Costa Rican population. Schools such as IAC (Instituto de Apredizaje de Costa Rica) in Manuel Antonio, La Escuela Armonia in Guanacaste, as well as the Instituto Norte Americano in Heredia have frequently acted as educational hubs for their surrounding communities, giving free English classes to teachers of nearby schools and helping to raise money for worthy causes.
Some hostels offer packages that include Spanish lessons and daily home-stays with the locals (in addition to your room and board).
Costa Rica is also a good place to become proficient in ocean sports like surfing and scuba diving. There are numerous surf shops, that provide surfing lessons and surf camps throughout the coastal areas.
The local newspaper, La Nación, has an extensive jobs listing every Sunday and Monday. You must be a resident or be sponsored by a company to work legally in Costa Rica. ESL teachers can find work in Costa Rica with Bachelor`s Degree and a TESOL certification. ESL teachers can expect to earn CRC226,700-566,750 (monthly) and will usually teach 8–15 hours in a week. Contracts will usually not include accommodations (the employer may help), airfare, and health-care.
Costa Rica is an open business country and investors are always welcome, so if you or your company is interested in founding a new or buying a business in Costa Rica, it is best to contact a Costa Rican lawyer about your interest in investing.
There are several opportunities to engage in volunteer work in Costa Rica. Volunteer projects range from turtle conservation, building houses, teaching English and community development work.
Costa Rica has one of the highest levels of social care in the world. Its doctors are known worldwide as some of the best. Many people from U.S, Canada and Europe go there to be treated, not only because the quality of the service but for the cost. First class Hospitals can be found in the capital. There is a public/private hospital system. There is excellent care in each. The public system has much longer waits, while the private system has shorter waits. If you are unfortunate enough to have a very sick child requiring hospitalization, the child will be transferred to the only children's hospital in CR, located in the capital. This children's hospital is public.
There have been outbreaks of dengue fever in some areas of the country and an outbreak of malaria was reported in November 2006 from the province of Limon but just a few cases. Protection against mosquito bites is very important, wearing lightweight long pants, long sleeved shirts and using insect repellents with high concentrations of DEET is recommended by the CDC. If you are going to be in very rural areas known to be malaria-infested areas, you might want to consider an anti-malarial med. However, most travelers to Costa Rica do just fine with updated childhood immunizations and taking preventative measures against mosquito bites (rather than take anti-malarial medication).
Tap water in urban areas of the country is almost always safe to drink. However, being cautious may be in order in rural areas with questionable water sources.
Travel in Costa Rica is common with 1.9 million travelers visiting annually, more than any Latin American country. Still, travelers to Costa Rica should exercise caution. The emergency number in Costa Rica is 911.
- Traffic in Costa Rica is dangerous, so be careful. Pedestrians in general do not have the right of way. Roads in rural areas may also tend to have many potholes. Driving at night is not recommended.
- Use common sense. Do not leave valuables in plain view in a car or leave your wallet on the beach when going into the water. Close the car windows and lock the car or other things that you might not do in your own country.
- In the cities, robbery at knife point is not altogether uncommon.
- Buses and bus stops - especially those destined for San Jose - are frequent locations for robbery. Any bus rider who falls asleep has a good chance of waking up and finding his baggage missing. Don't trust anyone on the buses to watch your things, especially near San Jose.
- Like any other tourist destination, watch out for pickpockets.
- Purse snatchings, armed robberies and car-jackings have been on the rise lately. Stay alert and protect your valuables at all times, especially in the San Jose area.
- "Smash and grabs" of car windows are very common all over the country so do not leave valuables in your vehicle.
- Another common robbery scheme includes slashing your tires, then when you stop to fix the flat, one or two "friendly" people stop to help and instead grab what valuables they can.
- If you are motioned to pull over by anyone, do not do so until you are at a well-lit and safe place.
- Make use of hostel or hotel lock boxes if they are really secure – this is great when you want to swim or kick back and really not worry.
- On a long trip, it's advised that you make back-up CDs (or DVDs) of your digital photos and send a copy back home. In the event that you are robbed, you will thank yourself!
- When encountering a new currency, learn the exchange rate from a reliable source (online ahead of time or a local bank, preferably) and create a little cheat sheet converting it to US dollars or the other Central American currency you are comfortable with. Travel with small denominations of US dollars (crisp 1s, 5s, 10s) as back-up... usually you'll be able to use them if you run out of local currency.
- Go to a bank to change money when possible and practical. If you find yourself needing to use the services of a person who is a money changer (Sunday morning at the border, for instance) make sure to have your own calculator. Do not trust money changers and their doctored calculators, change the least amount of money possible and take a hard look at the bills – there's lots of false ones out there. Always insist that your change be in small bills – you'll lose more at one time if a large bill is false, plus large bills are hard to change (even the equivalent of $20 USD in Costa Rica or $5 USD in Nicaragua can be difficult in some small towns, believe it or not!) Money changers do not use the official exchange rate - you are better off going to a state owned bank to exchange your currency at no fee. Also, it's impossible to change Brazilian reals, although there are a lot of Brazilian tourists in Costa Rica.
- Do not exchange money when arriving at the San Jose airport. The exchange rate used there is not the official rate and you will get a lot fewer colones. However, the departure hall upstairs has a BCR bank with normal exchange rates. It is right next to the departure tax payment area, buy when you arrive to avoid the queue on departure.
- Traveling alone is fine and generally safe in Costa Rica, but carefully consider what kind of risks (if any) you are willing to take. Always hike with other people and try to explore a new city with other people. On solo forays, if you feel uncomfortable seek out a group of other people (both women and men). A well lighted place with people you can trust is always a plus. A busy restaurant or hostel is a great source of local info as well as a great place to relax and recharge.
Marijuana traffic, distribution and commerce is illegal in Costa Rica. There is no penalty when you carry marijuana for personal use quantities only (up to 3 joints) and police could try to get money from you or keep you in the local commissary for up to 12 hours. The US Drug Enforcement Agency is also present in Costa Rica and has been known to pretend to be a tourist. There is a Costa Rican equivalent of the DEA as well. It is not advised to do illegal drugs in Costa Rica. It is also not advised to bribe a police officer. Do so at your own risk.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and can be a destination for those looking for more than sun and surf on their vacation. San Jose and Jaco are hot spots for this activity. Prostitution with minors (less than 18 years old) is a crime in Costa Rica. The majority of sex tourists in Costa Rica are from the United States, and, if they engage in prostitution with a minor, are prosecutable by the Protect Act of 2003. This act gives the US government the power to prosecute US citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex tourism with children under the age of 18. Several other countries including France, Canada, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, and Australia have similar laws. Arrests, warrants and prosecutions are being made under these laws.
Bus travel tips
Below is a list of suggestions for traveling by bus in Costa Rica and neighboring countries. These are overcautious tips, but the bottom line is that they can help prevent being ripped off. Nearly all thefts on the bus are preventable thefts!
- Travel with someone else when possible. A trusted friend is best, of course - not just someone you met last night at the hostel, but he or she will do in a pinch. (Trust your gut feeling with new friends – most are great, but some may be con artists!) Traveling with a friend makes the journey more entertaining and more fun... you can talk and share travel stories and each of you can take turns sleeping on long bus rides. Also, there is the fact that "two heads are better than one" and it's always good to be able to brainstorm if you aren't sure what the answer to your travel question or concern is.
- Make sure to wear a money belt with your passport, cash, credit/debit cards and ticket (bus or plane). Even if all your other belongings are stolen, you would still be able to get to your next destination. The waist belts are best; a neck pouch can be lifted while you are asleep. A thief would really have to disturb you and your personal space to get a waist belt.
- On any bus ride (1st, 2nd, 3rd class, whatever!) try to sit above the luggage compartment so that you can watch that your bag doesn't "walk away" when others get off the bus. Costa Rican buses usually have one compartment for those heading to the main destination, and a separate one for people getting off along the way to avoid problems. Be aware if the "destination" compartment is opened en route!
- On routes ending in San Jose, for example from Quepos, the bus driver will ask if you are going to the airport if he sees you have big luggage with you. Say no because they are asking this so they can call their taxi friends to pick you up at a stop before San Jose and drive you to the airport. Firstly, you cannot trust this friend of his is a official taxi driver and secondly they will charge an amount a few times more than normal to cover the bus driver's share. If you are going to the airport, plan your trip ahead so you know exactly how to get from San Jose to the airport, don't leave it to chance.
- Try not to fall asleep or take turns with a travel partner (when you are lucky enough to have one.) Best way to snooze alone is with your bag on your lap and your hands crossed over it. Don't leave valuables in outside compartments.
- Make conversation with locals on the bus so that they can see that you are competent in Spanish and comfortable in the Spanish speaking environment. (You'll enjoy yourself plus this may make them feel friendly towards you and more willing to alert you if someone is snooping in your stuff. Or it might warn them that if they steal from you, you will talk to the bus driver and police and make a full report.) Even some Spanish is better than none – use what you have! It's great practice and the more you improve the safer you'll be!
- Don't bring anything that you are not willing to lose. Keep your day pack attached to you at all times when traveling – the straps get wrapped around your leg and the bag squeezed between your knees or feet. You don't want to lose your travel notes, camera, etc.
- Never leave anything in the overhead bins. Almost 100% of all thefts on buses are from the overhead bins. Keep it on your lap.
- Buses are cheap but their quality is very basic, old ripped and dirty chairs, no toilets, nor AC so windows are usually open unless it rains.
Beaches, weather and wildlife
The coasts of Costa Rica are known for strong currents and rip-tides in some areas but most of them are great to be with the family. Costa Rica has some of the best beaches in the world. Atlantic coast is just five hours away from the Pacific one and both offer different views and landscapes. There are no signs indicating an unsafe beach due to riptides, so take precautions and listen to the locals on where it is safe to swim. The public beaches do not have life guards. A traveler should learn how to swim out of a rip tide and not swim alone. There are some active volcanoes in Costa Rica and they are dangerous, so follow the warning signs posted. The slopes of the Arenal volcano invite visitors to climb closer to the summit, but there have been fatalities in the past with unseen gas chambers. Also be wary of the climate of Costa Rica. It is very hot in the daytime, but in the morning and evening it becomes very cool, so you should bring a light weight jacket.
- Crocodiles are quite common in certain parts of Costa Rica and, although not as dangerous as the Nile or saltwater species, are still considered occasional man-eaters and can grow to lengths of up to 20 feet. The biggest spot for them is the Tarcoles river bridge in the central pacific as posted in the Jaco wiki. It is recommended to stop the vehicle nearby and walk across it. Some locals throw chicken meat and watch them eat. Great care should be taken when swimming or snorkeling, especially near areas where fishing is common or near river mouths.
When you go to the Guanacaste beaches on the Pacific you can see some crocodiles over the Tempisque river. The bridge across this river was donated by the Taiwanese government. (Subsequently, China gave away a 35000-seat stadium after Costa Rica ended diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.)
- While large, the beautiful jaguar is extremely rare and even most locals have never seen the very large predatory cat. They appear to be very shy and elusive; there is very little risk of attack.
- Bull sharks share much of the same territory as the crocodiles and probably account for more shark related attacks in the world than any other species.
- Dogs are trained to be protective of property and people (perro bravo) and there are also many strays. Dog bites are not uncommon. Do not approach an unknown dog.
- Snakes are common in many parts of Costa Rica and it is believed that there are 139 different species. The vast majority are not dangerous to people, but as is true in most countries, there are exceptions. The venomous ones generally fall into two groups, the first being coral snakes and the second pit vipers. Coral snakes are easily recognized by their colorful banding. They have small mouths with fangs that are ill placed for biting people. Pit vipers almost always have triangular heads but may otherwise come in different sizes and colors. Most snakes including the venomous ones are shy and retiring and will go to extreme lengths to avoid people, but may strike if frightened or deliberately provoked. Snake bites are rare in Costa Rica, but even so they do happen from time to time. As usual the best course is prevention. If you are walking in the countryside or in the jungle watch your step and do not walk barefoot anywhere other than at the beach. If you happen to see a snake, remember the cardinal rule when dealing with wildlife... look but don't touch while maintaining a safe distance. In the extremely unlikely event that you are bitten by a snake, you should treat it as a potential medical emergency and seek immediate care, especially if you think it might be venomous. A few of the snakes in Costa Rica such as the notorious Fer-de-Lance and Bushmaster have extremely potent venom which if untreated could be life threatening. The good news is that, as noted above, Costa Rica has probably the best medical infrastructure in Central America. Anti-venom for all known indigenous snakes is readily available at all of the major hospitals.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Costa Rica is a very conservative and traditionalist nation. The state's official religion is Roman Catholicism and its population is quite religious. Nevertheless, Costa Rica caters to the gay and lesbian traveller and his or her needs. There is a thriving gay scene in San Jose with many gay and lesbian options for night-life (La Avispa, Club Oh!, Bochinche among others). The Manuel Antonio, Jacó, and Quepos area is also a favorite spot with several gay hotels and bars.
There are a good number of gay/lesbian or gay-friendly accommodations in Costa Rica. Accommodations seem to be of the higher quality offering a variety of services and of course, discretion. Many hotels, travel agencies, and resorts are run by gays and/or are gay-friendly.
According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, about 200 medical procedures are performed every month at the nation's hospitals for medical tourists. Among the procedures done are cosmetic surgery, knee and hip replacement, cataract removal and other eye treatments, weight loss surgery and dental care. Health care in Costa Rica is attractive for international patients because of the low prices, high care standards, and access to tourist attractions. For example, a hip replacement costs around US$12,000 and a tummy tuck costs around US$4,400.
The main medical tourism centers are CIMA Hospital, Hospital Clinica Biblica and Hospital Hotel La Catolica. In turn, these hospitals use medical tourism facilitators who can arrange every aspect of your trip from beginning to end.
The international calling code/country code for Costa Rica is +506.
A postage stamp to Europe is ₡125 (US$0.20).
The primary means of outside contact are through email, SIM cards for unlocked phones or public pay telephones.
Internet cafes are fairly easy to find in tourist areas, with prices all over the place. Some of these offer long distance calls over the Internet.
Domestic calls are quite cheap and the price is the same wherever you call. Calls to cellular phones are charged significantly more though.
International calls are fairly expensive. The cheapest way to make them is over the internet using a service such as Skype at an Internet café. But making short calls using the domestic calling cards (you can make international calls using these but the denominations of the calling cards are quite small so your call will be short!) or the international calling cards available within Costa Rica (all from the government phone monopoly ICE) is the next best deal. Certainly better than credit card calls or using a US calling card generally.
Public phones are accessed with calling cards (tarjetas telefonicas) which can be purchased at most shops, even in outlying areas.
There are four different types of pay-phones:
- Coin phones. Note that these only accept the older silver-colored coins.
- Chip phones. These phones allow you to insert a chip-type calling card into them and make your calls.
- Colibri phones. These phones have a small swipe bar for a scratch off type calling card referred to as a Colibri calling card which are available from ₡500 and up. The swipes often don't work—you always have to enter the calling card access code on the keypad. Despite this, the Colibri calling card is the recommended one to buy as you can use it any of the types of phones whereas with a chip card you must search for a chip phone.
- Multipago (multi-pay) phones. These phones accept coins, chip cards and colibri cards. Most public phones around the country have been changed for this type of phones. They also allow you to send SMS messages and emails as well.
Both types of calling cards are typically available in pharmacies and other locations where you see the sticker on the door.
SIM cards and frequencies
Bring an unlocked quad or multi band cell phone that works on the proper frequencies and just get a SIM card, which can be easily purchased in almost any corner. Costaricans refer to mobile phones as celulares (cell phones).
Costa Rica cell phone frequencies and carriers:
- Kölbi: (Part of Grupo ICE, the state run and owned public corporation which provides electricity and telecommunications services.) Kölbi has great coverage but a lot of users, which means that you will have connection all around the country but not the best Internet speed.
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 850Mhz
- 4G LTE: 2600Mhz
- Extra configuration:
- Internet: APN:kolbi3g, or you can send an SMS with the word "internet" to phone number 3001.
- Multimedia SMS: Send an SMS with the word "multimedia" to phone number 3001.
- Claro: Second best coverage in the country, on a not so saturated network. Signal can be difficult to get in some remote areas, but not in the Central Valley.
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 900Mhz, 2100Mhz
- 4G LTE: 1800Mhz
- GSM/2G: 1800Mhz
- UMTS/HSDPA/3G: 850Mhz, 2100Mhz
- 4G LTE: 1800Mhz
There are a few other second tier carriers which are just resellers or re-branders of the previous three.
There are many plans to choose from, but on a short visit your best chance is to get a pre-paid plan, or prepago which is contract-free and you paid in advance what you will use. All of the carriers have such plans in a lot of possible combinations on minutes, SMS text messages, Internet speed and son on, even you can build your own with some carriers. Prices start at around ₡2,500 (US$5).
To add value you buy a recarga (recharge card), scratch off the card to get a PIN, and text the PIN from your phone to a special number. To keep the card active, it must be recharged at least once in a 120 day period. If it is not charged within a 120 days, you have a 30 day grace period before your SIM chip is deactivated and you lose your phone number. Also keep in mind that you may have trouble getting your SIM activated on Sunday, because like many things in Costa Rica, the SIM activation system may be shut down that day. Also not all shops sell SIMs—many just sell the recharge cards. Get your SIM at the airport if you can.
Grupo ICE through Kölbi is the major network on which roaming will occur if using a mobile plan from abroad. Using roaming plans depends on the contract acquired abroad and beyond the scope of this guide.
Most tourist areas (hotels, coffee shops, bars, restaurants) have Wi-fi access for free. Just ask someone for the password. You can bring your smart phone loaded with Skype or Google Phone and make calls to your home country. It is an easy way to stay connected with email and social media.