The official unit of currency in use in Costa Rica is the colon. Notes come in denominations of 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 colones and at present there are two types of coin in circulation. The first are the older silver coins which come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 and the second set are the newer gold coins in values of 1, 5, 10 and 25 colones.
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish which is very similar to Castilian Spanish. English is the second national language and is widely spoken throughout the country, particularly in the major cities and tourist areas.
While Costa Rica is a tropical country it does have several distinct climatic regions. There is no definite winter or summer but most parts of the country have a rainy season between May and November and dry season for the rest of the year. Temperature, however, really does depend on elevation but the annual average is about 72 degrees in the Central Valley, 89 degrees on the Pacific coast and 82 degrees on the Atlantic Coast.
Favoured times of year for visiting Costa Rica, as you would probably expect, are from late November to late April when the tourism industry is operating at its highest.
All of Costa Rica is on Central Standard Time which lies 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. It does not observe daylight saving time so this time difference is an extra hour from April to October.
Typical business hours see most stores opening from Monday to Friday between 9.00am and 6.00 or 7.00pm. Most open for a while on Saturday too but almost everything closes on Sundays. Government offices also open Monday to Friday but between the hours of 8.00am and 5.00pm and banks open from 9.00am and 3.00pm. It is worth noting, however, that much of the country also closes between noon and about 2.00pm for the traditional siesta.
Electricity in Costa Rica operates on the same voltage as that in the US, 110 volts AC 60 cycles. Three pronged outlets are rare, however, so it is advisable to take an adapter with you suited to this voltage.
The cost of living is quite high in Costa Rica and this is largely due to the fact that taxes being levied on restaurant and hotel bills are quite steep. For example all hotels charge a 13.3% tax, restaurants charge 13% and this is before the 10% service charge is added on and the airport departure tax is $17.
US, Canadian, British and most European citizens can visit the country without a visa for a period of up to ninety days without a visa. Those coming from Australia or New Zealand can only stay in Costa Rica for up to thirty days without a visa. For both groups an up to date passport is required or a valid photo ID and a copy of your birth certificate for US citizens although having your passport with you is always a good idea. All other visitors will need to obtain a visa from your nearest Costa Rican embassy and it is worth noting that certain European citizens will also need to do this as already outlined.
If you overstay your visa you will have to pay about $45 for an exit visa and a fee for each month that you have overstayed. To get this visa you will probably have to visit a travel agent in the capital. This is easier than dealing with Immigration but you will have to pay a minimal fee. If you wish to stay longer than your assigned period the easiest way to do this is to cross the border into Nicaragua or Panama and return after three days where you will get a new visa. It is not recommended that you do this too often, however, as it may be picked up on.
The country’s main tourist office run by Isntituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) is located at Apartado 777 in San Jose and you also find a smaller branch at Santamaria International Airport. As well as this tour operators in the main towns and cities should be able to offer useful advice and answer any questions you may have about an area.
The best place to exchange foreign currency during your stay is in any bank branch but be prepared. The transaction will be quite bureaucratic and can take up to 1 hour. Changing it anywhere else, however, will result in higher charges and lower exchange rates. As well as this many of the money changers which you will encounter during your stay are illegal so it is not recommended that you avail of their services.
Credit cards are widely accepted by tour operators, large restaurants, department stores and car rental companies with American Express, Mastercard and Visa being the most common. And, if you have the PIN for this card you can also use it to withdraw cash in compatible bank machines. This also applies to bankcards which are members of any of the international banking networks.
The country code for Costa Rica is 506 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 506, the city code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local code where applicable.
The good news is that Costa Rica has the best telecommunications system in Central America, the bad is that public phones are not that easy to come by. Pay phones accept 5, 10 or 20 colon coins and a phone usually costs about 10 colones per minute. More common now, however, are card phones for which cards can be purchased in most stores as well as pharmacies and gift shops. There are several companies which compete against each other, however, and some cards may not work in certain telephones so bear this in mind before you lose it – your mind that is, not the telephone card.
Because a 10% service charge is included in all restaurant bills tipping in Costa Rica is entirely at your own discretion. If the service was exceptional, therefore, you may wish to give your waiter something extra. Tour guides, taxis and the like can be given a small tip too but again it is mainly up to you what you want to give.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Costa Rica they take place on January 1st, March 19th and 28th, Good Friday, April 11th, May 1st and 30th, July 25th, August 2nd and 15th, September 15th, October 12th and December 8th and 25th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.