1. Be wary of taxi drivers.
Overall, Costa Rica is a safe and friendly place for travelers, with the exception of taxi drivers. Many of them have rigged their meters so that even if they are using it you may still get ripped off. Travelers should be especially cautious when getting taxis from bus stops in downtown San Jose.
First ask the driver “Tienen un metro/una maría?” and make sure they plan to use it. The base charge is 640 colones and you will notice that this price doesn’t change on the meter for the first few kilometers. Then, the price should start going up by 10 colones every few seconds.
Don’t be alarmed if it looks like it’s increasing very fast (and remember that 10 colones is a fraction of a U.S. penny). Watch the meter carefully. Rigged meters will jump to higher prices, usually when you arrive at your destination, so you should know approximately what the cost was before you arrived. If you are sure that the meter jumped, only pay them the correct price and say you are taking down their car number (which is on the yellow, triangular sign on the side of every registered taxi). They will likely let you go rather than deal with the hassle of getting reported over a few extra colones.
2. VISAs, Border Crossings and Proof of Departure.
One lesson I had to learn the hard way was about showing proof of departure to enter the country. Most foreigners are allowed three months on a tourist visa, but in order to enter the country (by bus and by plane) you may be asked to show a departure ticket within the 90-day period. This can be inconvenient for travelers who don’t know their future plans yet and therefore haven’t made any reservations.
What I can suggest is using an online service called “A Safe Passage” which will book bus tickets for you with a local, trans-Central American bus company called TicaBus. Unlike with the TicaBus website itself, “A Safe Passage” is available 24/7 and will send proof of departure by e-mail within 2 hours of your request. (I know because I did this in a panic in the Orlando airport at 2 a.m. right before boarding my flight to San Jose).
TicaBus is pretty flexible with their booking policies so if you decide to use your ticket on a different day or to a different destination, you can always change it later. The only thing you can’t change is the name and passport information of the passenger. I would also suggest buying a ticket to the cheapest destination outside the country so that if you don’t end up using it, you don’t lose out on as much money. And finally, some border patrol officers will stamp you passport with an expiration date that matches the date indicated on your departure ticket, even if its less than what your tourist VISA would allow. Check with your local embassy just to be safe, but in my experience, this stamp was meaningless.
3. Give San José a chance.
San José is often thought of by travelers as nothing special, but if your itinerary allows it, I suggest spending some time there anyways in order to get a more realistic view of Costa Rica. As the nation’s capital, many of the country’s top universities, businesses and organizations are located there, as well as a majority of the population. Sure, nothing beats the many beaches on either coast, but in these towns, you’re more likely to socialize with other backpackers and your interaction with locals will be limited to the people running your hostel or serving your drinks.
In San José, you can have a more genuine experience with Costa Ricans as you see where many of them live, work, study, shop, go out, etc. etc. The “pura vida” mentality is just as strong in the city as it is at the beach and furthermore, the city is covered with local flavor in the way of street art, boutique cafés and restaurants, street performers and live music. And since it’s located in the Central Valley, there’s always an amazing view of the mountains surrounding the city.
4. Tico talk
I wouldn’t want to take away the fun of learning the local slang for yourself, so I’ll just mention a few here.
Costa Ricans are referred to, and refer to themselves as, “ticos” and “ticas.” The expression “pura vida” can be used in almost any situation; for example, to say “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “no problem,” “I’m good/fine,” “Bye,” “No, thank you,” “I forgive you,” “Help yourself to some of my drink,” and the list goes on and on. The word “tuanis” has been changed from Spanish slang to mean something like “very cool.” And finally, “mae” is used like a filler-word, the way Americans use “dude.”
5. Drink chili guaros. Lots of them.
Chili guaros are shots, usually sold 2 for 1000 colones (2/$2.00), and if you like spicy stuff, you will love them. The shots are made with a local hard liquor called Cacique Guaro, lemons or limes, tabasco or hot sauce, salt and pepper, and sometimes tomato juice. There is slight variation in the recipe or type of spices depending on the bar, so the shots may taste a little different each time, but they are always amazing.
6. Be prepared to spend money.
Costa Rica, or “The Rich Coast,” should actually be called “The Expensive Coast.” It is by far the most expensive country in Central America in terms of cost of living and I was surprised to find that a lot of things have the same cost as in the U.S. and sometimes even higher (for very random things like shampoo and toothpaste.)
The country is really “Americanized” in the sense of having a consumer-driven culture and economy, so unless you are very frugal, you might find yourself spending a lot of money going out to eat, going to bars, and souvenir shopping. Prices are even rising in places like Nicaragua and Panama, as more tourists are discovering these neighboring countries. Take all of this into account when budgeting your trip!