Mistakes to avoid when visiting Costa Rica

Yellow post it note with "Ooops" written on it.Those of us who have lived for years in Costa Rica would like to help those of you who are just arriving not to make some of the mistakes we made! Maybe I am being helpful; maybe humble; maybe I just do not wish my old “lack of local knowledge” on anyone. Whatever the reasons, here I go with basic mistakes to avoid!

Map of Costa Rica - Costa Rica is not an islandFirst of all, Costa Rica is not an island. If you are thinking of visiting or moving here, study a map of Central America first and familiarize yourself with the geographical locations of the region. Our Caribbean cousin Puerto Rico is an island, of course, and many get the names mixed up. Now you don’t have to.

Rainbow over the Pacific in Costa RicaCosta Rica is intoxicatingly beautiful. But just like other intoxicating substances, don’t let it dull your senses and lull you into a false sense of security. Petty theft happens here, and you can never think something will “be all right for just a little bit.” Never leave your car unlocked or valuables in sight (even if locked). Always have one of your group stay by your things on the beach. Mistakes like these can ruin your trip.

Night driving in Costa RicaAvoid driving at night unless you are really adventurous. Driving during daylight hours in Costa Rica is an adventure in itself depending where you are. but driving at night can be downright dangerous if you are not comfortable doing so. Poor road conditions in a lot of rural areas, unmarked roads (i.e. non-distinguishable lines or guard rails) and non-existent signage, at least the type that can assist you. Also, heavy rain and/or fog – depending on the season – makes it a smart decision to arrive at your destination before nightfall.

Don’t think that your phone plan from back home will provide you with cell coverage and data service here (even if you checked with them and they said they would). Some say the exception is T-Mobile, which they say offers a good international plan. AT&T network is good as well. That said, most visitors find that they end up paying a lot for extras when they get their bill. Instead, make sure your cellphone is unlocked to international service, and after you arrive in Costa Rica stop at any corner store, buy a local SIM card ($2), and insert it in your phone. Download both Waze (for directions) and WhatsApp (to communicate) on your device.

Exotic bug in Costa RicaI hope this doesn’t come as too much of a shock to you, but there are insects in paradise. Don’t come here expecting to have a bug-free experience. Most of Costa Rica is a rainforest. Even the most expensive hotels are going to have insects. In many areas of Costa Rica the nights are cool enough at night to not need AC, but that means you will likely want your windows or sliding doors open. It may surprise you to learn that screens are not a given like they are in north America. If bugs are a big thing to you, do not make the same mistakes I did 20 years ago. Do your due diligence before arriving. Those of us who have lived here for years have learned to coexist with the insects. Well, not some of the really strange ones but they are still cool to look at!

Don’t base travel times on distance and think that just because something is “close” you can cram it into a day trip. Travel time is measured in minutes and hours, not miles (or kilometers). Roads may be in poor condition or traffic could be heavy and it will often take you longer to travel to a destination than you anticipated. A map may indicate it is only 10 miles from point A to point B, but that trip can take an hour and you may need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. In place of a map, use the Waze app. In my opinion Waze is better than google maps in Costa Rica. It accurately reports traffic conditions and estimates travel times.

On a related note, do not try to see the whole country in 3 days! Driving here is not like driving on a freeway in the US with the cruise control on and one finger on the steering wheel. It can be a draining, white-knuckle experience; it may feel like you are dodging and weaving among obstacles like in a video game. So, take your time and do not overbook your schedule. This is one of the many mistakes I made the first time I visited Costa Rica.

Thunderstorm forming over Costa RicaDon’t believe that it won’t rain in the ‘dry’ season. There are varied weather patterns all over the country, this all depends on what part of the country you are in. That said, you’ll never suffer weeks on end of drizzly, gray skies. It rarely remains overcast for more than two days in a row. When it rains, it POURS here, and a tropical downpour complete with thunder and lightning is a wonderful experience itself. Enjoy it!

Don’t leave all your reservations until the last minute. Rooms fills up fast the same with rental cars. So, if you have your heart set on one particular place, book online but call to confirm your reservation. Ticos like to do business in person. The same goes for tour operators.

If you want to carry the local currency, which I recommend, go to any bank but you will need to show your passport to exchange money. You can pay in US dollars but the exchange rate is best at the banks.

So, I hope you find my friendly advice helpful, so when you visit Costa Rica for the first time you won’t make some of the same mistakes I made years ago. And make sure you say Hello to everyone you meet. You will be surprised at how nice and friendly the people of Costa Rica are.


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