17 local quirks that you’ll appreciate knowing before planning a vacation to Costa Rica!
Visiting another country is a great way to find out how the rest of the world live. Some quirks are good! For example, getting out of New York made me realize it’s not normal to pay $13-15 for a cocktail. Some quirks are less fun, like daily rolling blackouts, and speed traps that target tourists. Here are some fun (and not so fun) things you might want to know before planning a vacation to Costa Rica.
17 Things You Need to Know Before Planning A Vacation to Costa Rica
1. Driving is not for the faint of heart.
There’s only one hard and fast rule while driving in Costa Rica: don’t hit anything. One of the most terrifying things about getting around by car here is that anybody can pass you at any time. Some cars drive both fast and aggressively. We don’t recommend getting a car here unless you’re confident about your driving skills. (Read our guide to traveling by car in Costa Rica!)
You should also know there are speed bumps spread out along the main roads, and speed traps—areas where the speed limit drop suddenly. Cops sometimes sit at these points to snag tourists who don’t know better. Someone told me this is their main source of ticket revenue, and I believe it (See #2).
2. No rules.
Living in Costa Rica, I sometimes I forget that the country is not as rule-oriented as the US. Want to walk down the street or ride a bike while drinking a cerveza (beer)? Totally OK, as long as you don’t hurt anybody. Ditto for parking on the curb as long as you don’t block the street or the sidewalk!
3. Animals run rampant.
I still remember one time I was walking home with groceries in Tamarindo when a herd of cows came barreling down the street. I fully expected a cowboy to come after them but nobody did. This was the only impromptu bull run I’ve experienced, but nobody bats an eyelash when stuff like this happens here. Howler monkeys making a racket outside your window? What do you expect when you’re living in the jungle?
4. You can’t flush your toilet paper!
The plumbing system in most of Costa Rica is not up to par with more developed countries. Almost every bathroom you use will have signs posted reminding you to dispose your used toilet paper (yes, skidmarks and all!) into the trash can.
5. The Costa Rican version of Mr. Clean is Mr. Musculo.
6. Their dish soap comes in a bowl.
This is actually one of the things I love about living in Costa Rica and can’t understand why this hasn’t taken off in the states. Instead of liquid dish soap, they use a container of caked dish soap. You just wipe a wet sponge across it to get some foam and whatever you don’t use can stay in the jar!
7. Grocery stores are “Supers.”
If you’re looking for a store that sells food items, just ask for the local “super.”
8. They have an equivalent for almost every American snack.
Love Cheetos? Try a bag of Quesitos! It tastes almost exactly the same for half the price. More of a Pringles person? Ligo has your back with flavors from Queso to Original!
9. Pura vida!
This is the official slogan of Costa Rica. Pura vida or “pure life” is a greeting similar to “aloha” in Hawaii, which evoke the warm, easy-going “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” island life. Don’t be surprised to hear this greetings from strangers as you pass by!
10. In the dry season, they may turn off the water all night and there’s nothing you can do about it.
If you’re planning a vacation to Costa Rica, you should know that mandated water outages are part of the deal. Most people know to fill jugs of water ahead of time so they can flush their toilets in the middle of the night when the water is turned off.
11. They don’t all love the tourists.
Planning a vacation to Costa Rica? You would think it helps the local economy when tourists spend their American dollars here. However, not all locals appreciate the “Gringos” moving in on their turf. Our presence means higher cost of living for the locals and also more crowding (both on land, and for surfers in the ocean).
Always be respectful of locals. In some of the more touristy towns like Tamarindo, you may feel harassed walking down the street. Person after person will ask if you want a taxi, or to buy weed. Don’t get upset! The last thing you want to do is escalate the situation. Decline politely with a “No, gracias” and you won’t have any trouble.
12. Put your Best Dollars Forward
The banks in Costa Rica are practically running a racket for dollar bills. Don’t be surprised if vendors won’t accept any bills with the smallest rip or tear in them, even if you just got them from the ATM. The banks charge a fee when people try to deposit broken bills, though they have no problem giving them out through their ATMs.
Most Costa Ricans know about this shtick, and are apologetic when they ask for smooth bills. Luckily, you can bring your money to any bank in America and they’ll exchange them for new ones. Bring fresh dollar bills when you visit if you can. Otherwise, just get more dollars out of the ATM and bring the “broken” ones home to spend or exchange.
13. The Costa Ricans work with the elements, not against it.
The Costa Ricans have tremendous respect for nature because it’s what feeds and nourishes them. It’s clear in the way they build houses and fences to allow easy drainage of water. Many “water-heating systems” are just a tank left outside that’s warmed naturally by the sun!
In many areas, you may notice what look like small rope bridges connecting trees across a road, and sometimes monkeys (walking?) across them. When the road was built, clearing the trees probably disrupted the monkey’s daily moving patterns. The bridges gives the monkeys a way to cross the road without having to run across the ground (and probably get hit by cars).
In a way, that’s the perfect analogy for the relationship Costa Ricans have with the environment. They do what they need to do without throwing off the ecosystem.
14. Recycling is almost non-existent.
Contrary to the government’s conservation efforts, and it’s ambition to become the first “carbon-neutral” country in the world, recycling is still not widely implemented in most of the country.
15. The Costa Rican beer is the Imperial.
If you’re planning a vacation to Costa Rica, you have to try its local beer. Almost every region in the world has one. The Indonesians drink Bintang, Americans have their Budweiser, and the Scots love their Guinness. For Costa Rica, that’s the Imperial.
16. Your dollars are welcome here.
In fact, many prices for hotels or apartment rentals are in U.S. dollars. Depending on the exchange rate you get, you may actually lose money trying to pay in Costa Rican colones. (To find out more, read our guide to getting the best exchange rate when you travel to Costa Rica!)
17. Dogs run free.
If you’re eating outdoors, don’t be surprised if a random dog comes up to you looking for food, or (strangely enough) curls up next to you for a nap! Some of the dogs even have collars because people rarely leash their dogs here. Fortunately, I’ve never met one that’s unfriendly. As with everything else in Costa Rica, people (and dogs) can do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.
Are you planning a trip to Costa Rica? Let us know your questions in the comment section!