Nature Travel Specialists

nature tours & travel, wildlife tours, adventure travel and general travel to Australia, Southeast Asia, South America and Alaska





Spanish is Costa Rica’s official language, though English is widespread in the areas visited by tourists. Away from these, however, English speakers can be hard to find. Pura Vida is heard all the time; while literally translating as pure life, it is used in the sense of “all is good” “life is fine”, and similarly meanings. So, you may hear “How are you? Pura Vida”

Costa Ricans -Ticos – are generally laid back and relaxed, enjoying life and entertainment, especially in a family setting. Other than for business or formal occasions, punctuality is not a priority. Most Costa Rican are Christians, and of them most are Roman Catholic, so church is an important feature of Costa Rican life, holidays and festivals. The second most important – some say equally important – “religion” is soccer, and wins for the home team can mean street-filled celebrations.

Friends and relatives are usually greeted with a kiss on the cheek between women; as a visitor you may be patted on the arm. Men shake hands – in small groups, make sure everyone’s hand is shaken. Hola, hello or hi, is mostly reserved for casual greetings, more so among the young. Buenos dias (day), Buenos tardis (afternoon) of Buenos noches (evening) are more acceptable for older adults. Adiós is the usual farewell, with perhaps Señor or Señora added for a little more formality or for strangers. Strangers or visitors will usually be addressed with Señor or Señora plus if known the surname; first names are used for friends, children, subordinates etc. To show respect for older men and women, Don and Doña may be used.

Dress is generally casual, other than for business meetings, but shorts, especially on women, are not considered suitable outside tourist areas, and even there not in restaurants other than in resorts. Revealing clothing on women is for the beach or evening wear only. Look around and follow the lead. Should you have the opportunity to visit a family’s home (don’t do so uninvited), be punctual, and bring a small gift. But beware, inviting someone to “come and stay” is usually a social gesture not meant to be followed up on.

Some toilets in outlying areas may not have paper; carry a little with you.


In keeping with its European heritage mealtimes in Costa Rica tend to be lengthy and social, with conversation often being as important as the meal. Costa Rica has boundless supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat is plentiful, but fish is mostly imported, despite the long coastline. That being said, the general quality and interest of Costa Rican food may account for the importance of conversation at meal times - let’s just say that no-one goes to Costa Rica for the cuisine. Most meals, from breakfast to dinner, are a variation on rice and beans, from gallo pinto – black beans and rice at breakfast to casado – rice and beans with a salad of tomato and cabbage at lunch to Arroz con pollo – rice with chicken – for dinner. With a side of beans. Local food, and therefore cafes, on the Caribbean coast generally have a strong influence from the Caribbean, increasing the interest of the food. Costa Ricans use a lot of salt; you should definitely taste before adding extra, and you may even ask for the kitchen to reduce the salt in individually cooked meals. The e food is compensated for by some o f the best coffee – all local – that’ll you’ll be privileged to drink, even in the lowliest places. The best coffee is simply superb.

Better restaurants, mainly in San Jose and better resorts, will have a larger selection of meals, including European styles; lesser restaurants will mostly be serving typical Costa Rican home food. The ceviche is worth eating, although not of the quality or variety found in Peru or Chile.

Generally food is safe to eat, although raw food is best washed to remove chemicals applied during growing.


In a word, arrgh! However, rental cars can be reasonably priced in Costa Rica, and it can be a good way to explore the country. Be aware that most roads are not paved, even main access roads in areas of 15 feet of rain annually, and what passes for a bad pothole on a US road is not even worth a comment in Costa Rica. Add to this the fact that generally there are no street signs, no street lights, no addresses or other numbering systems, streets and roads are narrow, many bridges are one way, narrow, can have gaps between planks where you can see down maybe 200ft, and most have no guard rails – these are rare generally, even on twisting mountain road. Lanes on multi-lane roads, and even roads themselves, may just abruptly run out with no warning, and many rural roads are one or 1.5 lanes for two-way traffic. People and animals will cross any road anywhere, and cyclists and other manner or vehicles share all roads. Many large vehicles seem to be in no hurry on the roads, especially for some reason on narrow ones, so passing can be very difficult. Remember that when that wider part of the road arrives, it’s quite possible there’s an equally frustrated driver trying to pass a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.

Gas stations are bombas, but especially in the country there are no signs indicating where they are; you just have to know. And remember, out here most people won’t speak English.

Driving at night is especially hazardous. It’s best to leave your car in a safe area at your hotel and use a taxi to get about.

Always obey the law, and remember the police, though not openly corrupt force found elsewhere, can still be looking to make some money for themselves. If you are in an accident, you are not allowed to move your car until both the police and the insurance agent arrives. Just sit in there in the road, backing up traffic for miles. Always carry a book to read, because if you’re driving in Costa Rica for long enough chances you will get caught up in one of these traffic jams.

If you do rent a car, go over it very carefully with the rental agent, noting every scratch, dent or rub, no matter how small, to avoid nasty surprises on the final bill. You can drive on your US license.

Drunk driving is a serious offense, and driving in Costa Rica is difficult enough stone cold sober.

Lastly, whenever driving very slowly, or stopping, in San Jose, keep your windows up, as thieves will quickly reach in and grab whatever they can. Along these same lines, never leave valuables in plain view in a car. If you are going to drive in Costa Rica take your cell phone and enable global roaming (visitors can’t get a cell phone number in Costa Rica), as there are several scams where you are forced to stop (eg a flat tire caused by opening a valve), and someone turns up to help – then robs you. Just stay in your car and call for help.


Food generally and water in major cities and towns in Costa Rica is safe to consume, but bottled water is a wise precaution for visitors.

Costa Rica is generally safe, with a low crime rate, especially outside the cities. However, wealth always attracts criminals, and so avoid obviously seedy area, don’t flash expensive jewelry, designer bags, or cash, and keep valuables well tucked away. Pickpockets, with variations such as spilling things on you to distract are common in downtown San Jose, and muggings occur in visited but unprotected areas such as National Parks at night and beach thefts are also common. However, if you know how to wander about any major city in the US, then you shouldn’t have any problems in Costa Rica.


Never, ever use one of the credit card phones found in hotel lobbies and other places. Charges of $40 connection fee (even if there’s no answer) and $20 per minute are not uncommon.

The best way to call home is by buying a calling card, easily purchased in most shops, and using public phones. Make sure you get an international calling card, as the domestic ones are in small denominations and will run out very quickly when used internationally. There are different forms of these, and the scratch-off ones, able to be used in Colibri and Multipago phones are easiest to use, as these phones are the most widespread. Some internet cafes have VOIP facilities, which is cheaper still.

Unless you have a special model, and an appropriate international plan, your cell phone won’t work overseas; even with such a plan the calls will be far more expensive, and incoming calls will cost considerably more for the caller than their normal international rate. There are no pre-paid SIM cards available in Costa Rica, and it’s not practically possible for a visitor to get an assigned cell phone number even if you buy a cell phone while there. Internet cafes are widespread, so for a few dollars you can log on to check and send emails, and in some cases uses VOIP. If you have a proprietary ISP such as AOL you can use its webmail to access and send your messages. Setting up a Yahoo account will give you more facilities, such as message storage. But remember, being on vacation means just that – you’ll enjoy your stay more by saying to your friends and family “talk to you when we return.”


No immunizations are required for Costa Rica, unless you have been to a Yellow Fever country in the previous six days, when a Yellow Fever Certificate is required. We highly recommend that your tetanus-diptheria shot is up to date – though no more prevalent down there than here, tetanus can stop a vacation in its tracks. You should also be up to date with Hepatitis A , Measles Mumps Rubella if you were born after 1956.

Although Hepatitis B is usually recommended for long-term stays and for those in intimate contact with locals, if you are going to drive there is also a possibility of blood exposure due to a traffic accident.

Malaria is present in the far north near the Nicaraguan border in Guanacaste region and, in the Limon district of the central Atlantic coast. If these areas are not in your itinerary, no anti-malarial drugs are necessary.

Dengue Fever is widespread, so precautions should be taken to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, including during the day.

Costa Rica has generally good medical facilities, although remote areas may only have a simple clinic, and doctors, hospitals and medicines tend to be cheaper than in the US. Many US insurance plans do not cover or restrict services overseas – please check with yours. We highly recommend travel insurance; although excellent care is available locally, associated transport costs, especially from remote areas can be high, and aren’t usually covered by your own insurance. South American Natural Adventures can advise you about insurance, and assist you in obtaining travel insurance from a reputable third-party insurer. Many US prescription-only drugs can be bought over the counter in Costa Rica, and pharmacies will issue medicines without a prescription and with their own suggestions. However, this can be unwise; a visit to a doctor, where you will have to pay cash or sometimes with a credit card, is advised. If you wish to replenish your own supply while overseas take your prescription with you for filling at a pharmacy with an exact replacement. Please note that some specialized drugs may not be available overseas, and some have different names.

Sunburn is a real risk in Costa Rica, especially on the west coast. For fair-skinned people skin damage can occur in as little as 20 minutes in summer. Cover up with a hat and sunscreen.


To help recover lost cameras or memory cards photograph your name address and leave the image on each card. Taking a photo of your hotel name when you arrive may also help quickly return a lost camera, or just photograph your hotel list. Although large capacity memory cards can hold all your photos, they do get corrupted, and we recommend using several smaller cards rather than one large one. Downloading photos via the internet from time to time can also prevent loss of those precious memories. Don’t wait until you arrive to learn about your new camera – saving $50 at the duty-free store or on a last-minute web bargain isn’t a deal if you lose the memories of a $5000 once-in-a-lifetime trip.

As you enter each town or area take a photo of the town’s name, as the first shot and when you depart. Six months later you’ll be able to tell where you took the shot and work out general scenery in between. This also works for hotels, attractions, etc.

Ziplock bags are the duct tape of travel; always carry a few of various sizes. In flight they can be used to enclose tubes that might leak due to pressure changes, including ballpoint pens. Large sizes can hold wet swimsuits, useful if you want to be in the water on the day of your return. They’re also good for smelly or just dirty socks. Also take a few plastic grocery bags for larger dirty items, such as shoes. A little laundry detergent in a ziplock will also be useful along the way. On the beach or in a boat a ziplock is useful for carrying your camera to avoid sand and salt spray; securely fastened it will keep water out for long enough if your camera (or phone) is briefly dropped in water.

While a poncho or other wet gear should be part of your luggage, a decent travel umbrella is very useful in the tropics especially, as the rain is often of short duration and comes straight down. Umbrellas roll back up into their sheath, and can be placed in a grocery bag when wet, whereas bulkier wet weather gear is harder to keep separate from dry clothes, and is often makes you pretty steamy while wearing it.

If you plan to buy clothing locally, save space on your return by taking old clothes that you no longer wear, wear them until you replace them during your stay with local goods, then leave them in Belize, preferably with locals who will use and appreciate them. This way your bag will be no fuller on the return then when you departed the US.

Save space by putting non-prescription pills in one container, but don’t forget to include a guide – colors, eg – as to what each one is. Prescription pills are best left in their own container, or if you buy them in bulk transfer to a small one but make sure you take your prescription with you to avoid problems at borders.

If you a birder, and taking a guide, here’s a suggestion to make IDs easier. Go through the book, and work out which birds occur in the area you’ll be visiting, and maybe the altitudes. Use colored dots from the office supply store to mark the plates of the possibilities. We use codes such as blue for lowland only, green for above 1000m only, etc; dots can be overlapped for wider ranges. An “R” for “very rare” can be written on the dot to further refine things. When you have to quickly look at a page of unfamiliar and confusingly similar birds, the possibilities will stand out from the rest. It’s quicker, and more concise than making written notes.

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