Costa Rica General Information

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Costa Rica General Information


North Americans can stay in Costa Rica legally for up to 3 months, and do not need a visa – the entry stamp is an automatic 3 month visa. They must then leave for a period of 72 hours, then can then return to the country for another three months. If the three month period is overstayed, a travel agency or Casa Canada can arrange payment of a small fine and prepare the travel documents required to leave the country for the required 72 hours. Tourists can own vehicles, property, businesses and generate income from self employment, however there is a risk of deportation if the government deems the person a resident because of too many renewals. If an application for residency is in process, this does not apply.


Weather in Costa Rica is largely a matter or choice, unless someone is looking for snow. There is none, even on the 13,000 foot high mountains. It varies from hot coastal lowlands, where rainfall varies according to location and season, to very cool mountainous regions. There are plains which go months without rain, and areas where it rains daily. The average temperature in the Central Valley is ideal, with evenings of 17 – 18 C and days averaging 25 – 28 C year round. The dry season is usually from the end of November until past Easter. The amount of rain in rainy season depends on the climate zone, with heaviest rains usually in October in the central and Pacific part of the country. It is usually fairly dry on the east coast in October. Rainfall is usually in the afternoon, if it is going to rain.


  • Import duties are being decreased in Costa Rica in compliance with the GATT agreements. Duties on vehicles are high, ranging from 50-90% of the blue book value. Condition of the vehicle is not taken into account for tax purposes. New residents will be charged import duty on cars and boats at the same rate as would be paid by a resident bringing them in. Personal effects and artwork are not taxed. Electronic equipment and appliances will be valued and a duty charged.
  • There is an exit tax at the airport, often included in the ticket price.
  • License plate fees are paid annually for vehicles, and depend upon the value. They include a very nominal liability insurance.  Buying extra liability insurance is recommended.
  • Property taxes are low in comparison with North America.


Costa Rica has a state owned hydro and telephone company (ICE). Phone installation can be slow, but once installed they function well. Touch tone international dialing for phone and fax is in place, as is a well developed cellular system. A number of private companies also provide cellular service.  Costs are competitive. Internet was introduced in 1995 and use has become widespread.  Costa Rica has 110-115 Volt electricity and the NTSA television system as in North America.

There are no long distance calls in Costa Rica, and only one area code (506), so it is only necessary to dial the 8 digit phone number no matter where in the country your are phoning from.  Don’t dial the area code for local calls.  Numbers that start with “8” are ICE (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad – a government company) cell phones, and those starting with “2” are ICE land lines.  To phone the US or Canada from Costa Rica dial “001” before the area code and number.  For Europe dial “00”.  To dial Costa Rica from Canada or the US dial “011” rather than the usual “1”.


There are several Spanish language and one English daily newspaper, two English and one German language weekly plus various magazines. Foreign newspapers can be purchased readily. There are several Spanish language television stations, and different cable TV companies offering English language channels. Satellite TV dishes and Direct TV are readily available.


Air service from Costa Rica is well developed, with many direct flights daily to Mexico, USA, Central and South America, and also direct flights to Italy, Spain, Germany, England, Holland, Canada and Cuba. There are two domestic airlines that connect Costa Rican destinations.  SANSA flies out of its own terminal at the international airport and Nature Air flies out of the Jorge Bolaños Airport near San Jose.

Bus service is excellent, frequent and inexpensive. Deluxe buses are operated on many runs with air conditioning and video movies. There is no passenger train service except for commuter trains near San Jose.


Costa Rica is within 2 hours of most North American cities for time zone. There is no daylight saving time, so it varies seasonally.


Most things are offered for sale in and around San Jose, much less so in the rest of the country. The central valley boasts many large, enclosed malls and there is little which one could want which is not readily available at competitive prices. There is a wide range of warrantee, service and repair companies to choose from. Computer software sales and service is common, as are hardware repair facilities. There is a duty free zone in Golfito in the South West of the country, where everyone is permitted to purchase up to $600 in goods from some 80 stores at low prices twice a year.

There are thousands of restaurants in the central valley offering cuisine from most countries of the world. Giant supermarkets offer most familiar items. Items imported from North America are more expensive usually, however many familiar name brands are manufactured in Central America and the prices are reasonable. Also, many items will be available inexpensively from local manufactures with as good or better quality than the brand name you are used to.


Almost all hobbies are represented by clubs and suppliers locally. Some of the many clubs are the Canadian Club (Which also has a charity division which specializes in repairs and additions to poor schools), Republican Club, Democrats Club, Women’s Club (Charity work, particularly funding needy children to finish school), Veterans of Foreign Wars, Little Theater Group (Who put on excellent English language live theater), and many, many more.


There is an excellent symphony orchestra, several live theaters, and many local or visiting musical, dance and entertainment groups. There is an active art community and several galleries.  The Little Theater Group puts on live performances in English.

Football (soccer) is the most popular local sport. Every region, no matter how small, has a football field. There are dozens of cinemas, and many films are in English with Spanish sub-titles. San Jose never sleeps, with a large number of night clubs, discos, bars, casinos and dance halls. Fiestas are popular and frequent throughout Costa Rica.

There are many recreation and health centers, private and public, and 18 and 9 hole golf courses.  Tennis and basketball are popular. Whitewater rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, water sports, hiking, bicycling and many other sports are popular and well provided for.


There are few dangerous animals. There are several varieties of poisonous snakes, but are seldom seen. Insects are few in the central valley, more on the coast and in rain forest. There are a variety of big cats, but it is very unlikely they will be spotted in the wild. The Corcovado park on the Osa Peninsula and the area around Tortuguero on the east coast are the best for seeing wildlife. There are three varieties of monkey (Howler, White Faced and Spider) that can be spotted in many areas throughout the country.


Violent crime is low. In the San Jose area break-ins of unoccupied cars and buildings are common, and care is necessary. The police do not differ in their treatment of foreigners or citizens. Generally the police will not come to a break-in until the victim goes to their office and files a report, which can be a lengthy process. There are four police organizations, not connected with each other.

  • Transito – the traffic police who issue traffic tickets and man breathalyzers.
  • Fueza Publica – Operate police posts in most smaller cities and towns, plus assist with foreclosures and other court situations requiring a police presence.  They also included the mounted police, border police, coast guard, VIP protection and canine units.
  • OIJ (Organismo de Investigacion Judicial) – Criminal investigation police for serious crimes such as assault, murder, kidnapping and robbery.
  • Municipal Police – They are found in larger cities such as San Jose, Heredia, Alajuela and Escazu.  They stay in their own cities, and look after traffic, local security and regular police work.

For a greater description in English go to


There are a wide variety of professional people available in all fields. Lawyer-client relations are protected by confidentiality laws. Many of the major international accounting firms have offices in Costa Rica. Lawyers, engineers, architects, customs agents and so on are widely available.


The health care system is excellent. There is a plan for citizens and residents who have work permits covering medical care, hospitalization and prescription drugs. Citizens are also covered for dental care. This is funded by employers contributing 22% of wages paid, and the employee contributing 9%. There is also private medical insurance, through the state owned insurance monopoly (INS), which is inexpensive and covers 80% of medical costs. The state plan operates their own hospitals, but are slow and bureaucratic.  An appointment must be first made at a local clinic, where the doctor will then begin the process of making an appointment with a specialist if this is deemed necessary.

For those who wish, medical services and hospitals are available on a “pay as you go” system for those without medical insurance. Medical care costs are low compared to North America. Hospitals regularly do high tech operations such as heart & organ transplants. There are many specialists in Costa Rica. There is an ambulance service in almost every town in the country, most operated by the Red Cross. There is also a wide choice in dental care. No special shots are required to come to Costa Rica.

If you are paying for medical, you can go right to a top specialist, and if an operation is necessary he will very quickly make arrangements with one of the private hospitals.  Medical and dental in Costa Rica is of high quality, and compare to Europe, the US and Canada quite inexpensive.  If you have an emergency go to your closest hospital or clinic.  If it is a state hospital operated by the CCSS (Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social – or social services) they will receive you in emergency, give you the necessary treatment and often there will be no charge – but expect a waiting line.  The major private hospitals are Hospital Cima (Tel: 2208-1000) located on the express highway near Multiplaza shopping mall between San José and Santa Ana, Clinic Biblica (2522-1000) located in downtown San José and Clinica Catolica (2246-3000) located in Guadalupe, a suburb of San José – all have excellent emergency services.  Medical and dental tourism are big business.  There is also a small CIMA Hospital and Clinic behind Do-It Centre between the Liberia Airport and Playas del Coco.  The writer has had operations in all four, all very successful.  Casa Canada can help with further information.

Cosmetic surgery is also major in Costa Rica.  Medical tourism – people coming to Costa Rica for medical or dental treatment – is very common due to the much lower costs and high caliber of service.

There are a number of dental offices that offer world class dental treatment, including implants, cosmetic dentistry, crowns and all other dental work.


Costa Rica has relatively high health standards. Tap water is purified, so is no problem to drink anywhere you go. There is no need to worry about the water put on your table at a restaurant, or the ice cubes in your drink. Bottled water is sold in all restaurants, bars and large or small supermarkets if you are looking for water to take with you.


There is a free education system for all, through high school. The official literacy rate is over 93%. There are many universities and technical training schools. Many university students have their tuition paid by scholarships. English is taught in the public school system but the main language is Spanish. There are excellent bilingual and trilingual schools available with a principal language of English, French or German. Some private schools are on the North American school year.


Costa Rica, in comparison with other third world countries, is very environmentally conscious. 27% of the area of the country is in national park or protected reserve, the 50 meters above high tide is public property and cannot be privately owned or developed and the next 150 meters inland in approximately 85% of the country is owned by the local municipality and cannot be sold. This land can be leased from the municipality for approved projects or residence. There are strict environmental guidelines in place for all developments and mining activity. Logging is closely monitored. Most international ecological groups are represented in Costa Rica, so even where the government overlooks an infringement of the environmental laws, the legal mechanisms are in place for concerned organizations or individuals to halt development with cause. Attempts are being made to address pollution in rivers and streams, and vehicle emissions are now being tested to keep them within set standards. There are many privately funded research facilities, as may be expected in a country with more bird and insect species than all of North America, over 200 types of hardwood tree, over 1,500 varieties of orchids and so on.


Immigration is quick and easy, although there can be lines when a number of flights arrive at the same time.  They will require your passport and the small form you fill out on the plane.  In San José an escalator descends to the baggage area where there are free luggage carts.  If you have an unlocked cell phone you can purchase a SIM card in the luggage area at a reasonable price.  Your bags go through one of three X-ray machines at the exit to the baggage area where you hand over the larger customs form received on the plane.  If no one is there to receive it throw it away.  Next are the car rental counters and the exit.  Luggage carts cannot go past the exit, but there are porters and taxi drivers to help.  Hotel and car rental buses pass the exit frequently.

The Liberia airport is smaller, and the process is even simpler.  For those going to Playas de Coco or other beach destinations there are usually taxis, and there are also inexpensive public buses.  Ask at the airport for the bus schedule.


Costa Rica is legally a two-currency country – the Costa Rican colon (plural colons – uses the same symbol as cents (¢) and the US dollar.  Other currencies are not likely to be accepted, including Canadian dollars.  The US dollar, while often used in legal contracts, is not commonly used for purchases – although in tourist areas they will be happily accepted, usually at an unfavourable exchange rate.  In more remote areas they may not be accepted.  It would be best to change US dollars to colons at the bank – the exchange rates given at the airport are decidedly unfavourable.  Airport taxis will accept payment in US dollars.

ATM machines are popular.  Most cities, beach areas and major provincial towns will have ATM machines available.  Credit cards are widely accepted, but you can sometimes negotiate a better deal for cash purchases, as the merchants pay a high fee on credit card sales.  Credit card sales also force them to report the sale for income tax purposes, and sales tax is withheld from part of their payment.  It is sometimes possible to negotiate a discount of 15-20% for cash, and 10% is common in small retail stores.

Travellers’ cheques are not accepted in all tourist locations.  Better to change them at a bank, but expect a 1% fee for cashing them.  The best thing is to bring cash.

Costa Rican has coins in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 500 colons.  Most are brown in colour, but some and 10 colons coins are silver.  Bills are in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 colons.  The bills are colorful and easy to tell apart.


Restaurant and bar bills include a tip of 10% and usually 13% sales tax.  Many restaurant menus have a column that says I.V.I.  This means “Impuesto de Ventas Incluido” or sales tax and tip included.  If it does not say that on the menu, count on your restaurant bill being 23% higher than the menu price.  An extra tip can be left for exceptional service, and if you pay in cash it is common to leave the small change.  Large tips are not part of Costa Rican culture.  Most Costa Ricans do not leave any extra tip when using a credit card.

Taxi drivers don’t expect a tip, but if you have some small change left over it is appreciated.

Tips for hotel porters would be the same as expected in most places – between $0.50 and $1 per bag.


Costa Rican food is generally not spicy. Beef, pork, chicken and fish are the staple meats, while rice and beans, fried cooking bananas (platino) and cabbage salad are staples. The San José area has fine restaurants from everywhere in the world, and most of the well-known fast food chains are represented. You can safely eat the food from restaurants and food stalls. If you eat in local restaurants the price will be a fraction of that charged in tourist restaurants.


Be extremely careful crossing the street, particularly in the Central Valley and especially in San José. Do not count on pedestrian’s rights, even in crosswalks. Cars will take the right of way, and often do not even watch for pedestrians, only other vehicle traffic. If you are on the curb and the light turns green, watch for cars running the yellow light, then watch for cars turning right from the street beside you – let them go before you proceed. Crossing in the middle of the block, or against the red light is common – just wait until you are sure you can make it to the other side when there is a break in the traffic.


Many Latinos, including Costa Ricans, have a first name, a first last name (the father’s first last name) and a second last name (the mother’s first last name). Business cards, directory listing and so on will often show all three names, however for alphabetic sorting or to refer to someone as Señor (Mr.), Señora (Mrs.) or Señorita (Miss) use the first last name. No one would be referred to by his or her second last name alone.


San Jose airport taxis are coloured orange, and are not permitted to pick up passengers other than for transport to and from the airport. Other taxis are generally red in colour, and most have a taxi sign on the roof. They are plentiful in major cities. Taxi drivers are required to use their taxi-meter (“maria” in Spanish) for the fare – orange airport taxi meters charge a little more than red taxis. If a driver does not turn on the meter, mention it. If he says it is broken get another taxi – he will overcharge you. The exception to the meter rule is if the ride requires the use of an autopista, or freeway type highway. Then the fare must be negotiated before travelling.


Costa Rica is a very casual country. Although it is changing slowly with younger people, in major centres like San Jose and Alajuela long pants are normal for men. It is unlikely you will be refused admission anywhere for wearing shorts. As the climate is seldom cold pants and a shirt are fine for men, and slacks, dresses, skirts for women. Shorts are normal in the beach communities.