Dos and Don'ts for Travelers in Costa Rica

Here's what to do and what you should avoid in Costa Rica in order to be a responsible traveler and show respect for their nature and culture.

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Photo © iStock/tropicalpixsingapore

Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful countries you can visit; it's full of exceptional wildlife, lovely and diverse scenery, and wonderful people. However, always remember that to be a responsible traveler there are some do’s and don’ts you should follow:

Do:

  • Do learn and use the phrase pura vida (pronounced POO-ra BEE-da).
    The commonly used phrase literally means "pure life." Costa Ricans use pura vida for hello and goodbye and to express their happiness.  It can also mean “no worries.” 
  • Do embrace and compliment Costa Rica's progressive reputation.
    Most Costa Ricans you encounter certainly will. Costa Ricans are proud of the fact that they have more teachers in their country than police officers. Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate in Central America.  In fact, Costa Rica has traditionally elected former teachers to the presidency.
  • Do use your Spanish, no matter how limited your speaking skills are.
    Costa Ricans respect the effort, and they will be friendlier with you if you at least try to speak their language. 
  • Do break the ice with Costa Ricans by acknowledging the ecological wonderland that is Costa Rica.
    Complimenting the splendor of the country and asking questions about its natural resources are great conversation pieces with locals.
  • Do take public transportation or arrange for your travel company to transport you, rather than rent a car.
    Bus transportation is inexpensive, pretty reliable, and the drivers know where they are going. Road signs are notoriously poor in the countryside and it's easy to get lost, especially if you don't speak good Spanish; so unless you’re up for a real adventure don’t rent.
  • Do tip.
    You are not obligated to tip the wait staff extra at restaurants. A service charge of 10% is already included in your bill on top of the tax. However, an additional 5-10% is appreciated if service is excellent. For short taxi journeys, it's fine to round up the fare, but for longer taxi rides, tip $1-5 depending on the distance. Tip hotel busboys and maids (about $1 per bag or $2 per day). Tour guides should be tipped 10-15% of the tour cost. It’s a great idea to bring lots of US $1 bills—they are easy to pull out for tips and the US Dollar is welcomed in Costa Rica’s tourism industry.
  • Do participate in all the great activities on offer.
    Like...zip lining, surfing, canopy tours, turtle patrols and scuba diving.
  • Do bring your own sunscreen.
    It can be super expensive in Costa Rica. Along the same lines, you can never bring enough insect repellent.
  • Do bring an umbrella and raincoat.
    They’re always helpful in the green season (that's a tourist-friendly way of saying wet season).  Binoculars are also helpful when those naturalist guides spot wildlife in the forest that you would never be able to see with your own naked eye.
  • Do bring an extra pair of sandals and sneakers if your feet are US womens size 9+ or US mens size 11+.
     Costa Ricans are generally a bit smaller, therefore these sizes are very hard to find if your shoes break or get ruined in the mud.
  • Do get a room.
    Costa Rica can be a very romantic country, but try not to be overly affectionate in public.  Excessive public display of affection between adults is frowned upon in Costa Rica.  

Don’t:

  • Don’t bathe nude at the beach.
    Also, wearing bathing suits away from the beach, on the street or in restaurants/stores, is not acceptable unless at a resort – respect local customs.
  • Don’t hike in the rainforest off of any marked paths.
    They don't have lions and tigers and bears, but they do have fer de lances, pit vipers and fire ants! Especially do not hike after dark as that's when snakes are most active.
  • Don’t plan a vacation to Costa Rica during the Christmas and Easter holidays
    ...because these are the most popular vacation times for locals.  The whole country shuts down as locals head to the beach and join in family celebrations, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find hotels, restaurants, and guides.
  • Don’t pick plants or hunt for seashells
    ...
    and don't damage trees or flowers, no matter how beautiful and irresistible they are! In Costa Rica, vegetation is strictly protected by the government and it could be the equivalent of a felony if you are caught disturbing the flora and fauna.
  • Don’t skimp out by not paying for a local naturalist guide.
    In the national parks, hiring a guide is definitely worth it because you will end up spotting a lot more than if you go in by yourself. 
  • Don’t wear bright colors if you hope to see elusive wildlife. 
    You will scare off the animals and maybe even other travelers! Instead, wear darker, neutral-colored clothing (bonus – it also helps hide the dirt),

What the locals have to say

Costa Rica rafting operator Rios Tropicales recommends researching the training, certification, and safety procedures of your outfitter for adventure trips that require "hard skills" like river guiding, canopy tours, rock climbing, mountain biking, etc.

i-to-i, a voluntourism company with projects throughout Costa Rica, recommends bringing a camera with a decent zoom, high resolution (7 megapixels or better) and waterproof case or bag to carry it in. Even if it is supposedly dry season, be prepared for rain.

Tales from travelers

A fellow World Nomad, Alexia, went to Costa Rica to work with sea turtles and ended up spending quality time with the local mosquito population:

“After three straight nights of mosquitoes buzzing around my head I can highly recommend investing in the $5 mosquito net for your bed if you are in an infested zone. The buzzing can be quaint on night one, but by nights three, four, and five you will be at war if you don’t have a net.”

Learn to appreciate rainy days like this nomad:

"It has rained here EVERY day since the beginning of rainy season; like clockwork between 1pm and 3pm. I've always appreciated rainy days (here and there); the world is still, its good naptime, there’s a nice fresh smell afterwards...  "

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6 Comments

  • Anna Donegan said

    Do break the ice with Costa Ricans by acknowledging the ecological wonderland that is Costa Rica. <br>Complimenting the splendor of the country and asking questions about its natural resources are great conversation pieces with locals.<br><br>How about their disgusting practice of collecting EVERY SINGLE LAST TURTLE EGG that is laid during laying season and therefore implimenting themselves in the eventful extinction of sea turtles..do they advertise that as part of their wonderful eco practice!!

  • Jaimie said

    You SHOULD ALWAYS tip 20 %, don't be stingy. That is their livelihood.<br> Tip from a Hospitality individual; Karma comes around.

  • mathieu tallard said

    Being naked on a beach is the natural way of enjoying it, especially on secluded ones. I dol and if they don' t like it its their problem, not mine.

  • Julie Dean said

    Don't bother going to Irazu Volcano. It used to be my favourite. Now there are huge lineups of vehicles to get in, fences and vegetation blocking your view, and I doubt there are any crater lakes left. They charge non-residents big bucks, too. Try Poas or Arenal Volcano & these days Turrialba which has been active.

  • Robert Howland said

    I am disapointed that we can'n get travel insurance because we are over 70. What a dissapointment.

  • Maneesh said

    We're first time travellers to Costa Rica, we're planning three places. Punterenas, Arenal Volcanic, Jaco. My question, is Taxi / Public transportation convenient and Reasonable? from San Jose to Arenal and Arenal to Jaco and Jaco to San Jose?

    We'll be carrying luggages along with us? So any suggestions?

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