Costa Rica travel guide
About Costa Rica
Steaming rainforest, iridescent hummingbirds, smouldering volcanoes, tumbling rivers, and miles of palm-fringed sandy beaches: if Mother Nature can ever be accused of showing off, it is in Costa Rica. Sat just north of the equator, this verdant chunk of the Central American isthmus is one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet. Added to which, as the only country in the region with no standing army, it’s a beacon of peace and democracy.
A world pioneer in eco-tourism, Costa Rica has set aside more than a quarter of its territory as a protected natural area, more than any other country on Earth. Its national parks are its greatest glory, comprising a stunning variety of landscapes, microclimates, flora and fauna. The cloud forests of Monteverde are the haunt of the resplendent quetzal, sacred national bird. Corcovado’s coastal rainforest is home to all four native monkey species. The northwestern Nicoya Peninsula is teeming with birds, wild cats, whales and dolphins. The canals, beaches and mangroves of Tortuguero are alive with wildlife, including nesting green and leatherback turtles.
Alternatively, if you are looking for an adrenalin kick, whitewater rafting, tree-top zip wires, surfing and quad biking are just a few of the extreme activities on offer. You can hike around the many volcanoes studded along the country’s spine; tread carefully on grumpy Arenal Volcano, or wallow in the hot lagoons and mud baths of the more placid Poas and Irazú.
Costa Rica’s cities may not win many architectural awards but they’re worth a visit, if only for an insight into the urban lives of Ticos, as the citizens call themselves. Downtown San Jose has superb museums and excellent cafés. Or head to sleepy Puerto Limón on the Caribbean coast; a popular stop-off with surfers en route to the big waves off Isla Uvita. For anyone in search of an ethical adventure, Costa Rica’s charms will have you under their spell all too quickly.
51,100 sq km (19,730 sq miles).
4,857,218 (UN estimate 2016).
94.2 per sq km.
President Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera since 2014.
President Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera since 2014.
120 volts AC, 60Hz. North American-style plugs with two flat pins (with or without round grounding pin) are standard; some sockets may not accept plugs with a grounding pin however, so you may need an adaptor.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
There has been a steady increase in crime. Petty theft of personal items including passports is the main problem, but gang muggings and armed robberies can occur even in daylight on busy streets. Eight foreign nationals (including one British national) have gone missing in the last few years, with some related to criminal activity.
Don’t wear jewellery or carry large amounts of cash. Take particular care of your belongings in hostels and hotels. Lock valuables in a hotel room safe. Don’t use street money-changers.
Be vigilant when using buses, as thefts are increasingly common. Bags in overhead compartments are particularly vulnerable. Thieves have simple but effective ways of distracting you. Be particularly watchful of your valuables at the beach. Avoid poorly lit or remote areas.
Avoid using unofficial taxis – ‘taxi piratas’. Violent incidents involving tourists have been reported. Official taxis are red with a triangular sticker and plastic box on the roof with the name and number of the taxi company. Ideally, use radio-dispatched taxis. Make sure the driver’s ID is clearly visible on the dashboard and that the driver uses the meter.
Violent attacks including rape and other sexual offences are rare but there have been some in recent years. You should maintain at least the same level of personal security awareness as in the UK, including when using ATMs. Don’t accept lifts from strangers. Avoid leaving drinks unattended in bars as there have been reports of ‘spiked’ drinks resulting in assault and theft.
Car theft and theft from cars is common, even during relatively short stops at restaurant and other car parks. Don’t leave valuables in hire cars, even in the boot, and avoid leaving belongings where they can be seen from outside the car. Park in secure car parks with visible security staff, or in well-lit busy areas. There have been incidents where slashed tyres have given thieves the opportunity to help change your vehicle’s tyres while an accomplice steals from the car.
If you’re visiting jungle areas you should go with an experienced local guide. If you visit a volcano pay strict attention to restrictions on entry to dangerous areas. When there is the risk of an eruption the national park is closed to visitors until the danger has passed.
Emergency contact numbers are: Police Emergency – 911; Ambulance – 911 or 128; Fire Service – 911 or 118; Police Investigative Service – 911 or 2221-5337.
You can drive in Costa Rica on a UK Driving Licence or an International Driving Permit.
If you enter the country in a right hand drive vehicle you should be aware there have been instances where such vehicles have been refused entry as they contravene local law and are ineligible for local insurance.
Road conditions are generally good on main routes, although there can be potholes due to heavy rains in the rainy season. Landslides in the rainy season sometimes block the road between San José and Guapiles on the way to Limón and the new San Jose/Caldera Highway. Take care when approaching bridges as these are often only one-way, even if the road is two-way.
The standard of driving is lower than in the UK. Accidents are often caused by speeding or overtaking irresponsibly. Traffic lights are often ignored. Traffic police strictly enforce speed limits. If you have an accident where somebody has been injured or where blame has not been accepted by the other driver, you must not move the vehicle until the traffic police have arrived. The Traffic Police (Transito – telephone 2222-9330 or 2222-9245) and the Insurance Investigator (INS – telephone 800-800-8000) must come to the scene of the accident to complete accident reports.
Criminals sometimes cause deliberate collisions as a means of stopping vehicles in order to commit robberies or other crimes. If you think a collision was a deliberate act by another driver to make you stop, consider driving on until you reach a safe place like a police station or garage. In these circumstances you will need to be able to explain your actions to the traffic police.
Swimming and water sports
Take extra care when taking part in water sports and swimming from all beaches in Costa Rica. Rip tides are very common. There are normally no lifeguards. You should seek reliable local advice. Eighty six people died by drowning on Costa Rican beaches in the first 8 months of 2015.
There are regular sightings of crocodiles along the Pacific Coast near beaches popular with surfers (from Playa Azul down to Playa Esterillos) and there have been attacks in recent years.
Adventure activities, sea and river travel
Safety standards for adventure activities and on small boats are not always of a high standard. If you plan to undertake any of these, you should arrange this with an established company with experienced instructors.