Getting there & away
Citizens of most nations are required to have a passport that is valid for at least 30 days beyond the date of your arrival in Costa Rica. (See the Costa Rica Embassy website for specifics.) When you arrive, your passport will be stamped. The law requires that you carry your passport at all times during your stay in Costa Rica.
Airline fares are usually more expensive during the Costa Rican high season (from December through April), with December and January the most expensive months to travel.
Cruise ships stop in Costa Rican ports and enable passengers to make a quick (and insignificant) foray into the country. Typically, ships dock at either the Pacific port of Caldera (near Puntarenas) or the Caribbean port of Puerto Limón. It is also possible to arrive by private yacht.
Costa Rica shares land borders with Nicaragua and Panama and a lot of travelers, particularly shoestringers, enter the country by bus. An extensive bus system links the Central American capitals and it’s vastly cheaper than flying.
If crossing the border by bus, note that international buses may cost slightly more than taking a local bus to the border, then another onwards from the border, but they’re worth it. These companies are familiar with border procedures and will tell you what’s needed to cross efficiently.
There are no problems crossing, provided your papers are in order. If you are on an international bus, you’ll have to exit the bus and proceed through both border stations. Bus drivers will wait for everyone to be processed before heading on.
If you choose to take local buses, it’s advisable to get to border stations early in the day to allow time for waiting in line and processing. Note that onward buses tend to wind down by the afternoon.
The cost of insurance, fuel and border permits makes a car journey significantly more expensive than buying an airline ticket. Also, the mountain of paperwork required to drive into Costa Rica from other countries deters many travelers, who prefer to arrive here and then buy or rent a vehicle. To enter Costa Rica by car, you’ll need the following:
Valid registration and proof of ownership.
Valid driver’s license or International Driving Permit.
Valid license plates.
Recent inspection certificate (not required, but a good idea).
Multiple photocopies of all these documents in case the originals get lost.
One traveler who has made this journey by vehicle recommends arriving at border stations late in the morning or by noon. Border posts tend to be clogged with commercial trucks in the early hours and you’ll end up waiting anyhow.
Sometimes border guards can be overzealous when examining a vehicle, so make sure that it doesn’t violate any potential existing (or imaginary) safety regulations or you may have to pay a hefty ‘fee’ (read: bribe) to get it processed. Before departing, check that:
the head and tail lights, and blinkers are all working properly.
the spare tire is in good condition.
there is a jerry can for extra gas (petrol).
there is a well-stocked toolbox that includes parts, such as belts, that are harder to find in Central America.
the car is equipped with emergency flares, roadside triangles and a fire extinguisher.
Insurance from foreign countries is not recognized in Costa Rica, so you’ll have to buy a policy locally. This can be done at the border and costs about US$15 a month. In addition, you’ll probably have to pay a US$10 road tax to drive in. You are not allowed to sell the car in Costa Rica. If you need to leave the country without the car, you must leave it in a customs warehouse in San José.
A few people arrive in Costa Rica by sea, either on fishing or scuba charters or as part of a brief stop on a cruise. Others travel in by bus from neighboring countries. But the vast majority of travelers land at the airport in San José, with a growing number arriving in Liberia.
Entering Costa Rica is usually hassle-free (with the exception of some long queues). There are no fees or taxes payable on entering the country, though some foreign nationals will require a visa. Be aware that those who need visas cannot get them at the border.
Travelers officially need a ticket out of Costa Rica before they are allowed to enter, but the rules are enforced erratically. Those arriving by land can generally meet this requirement by purchasing an outward ticket from the TICA bus company, which has offices in Managua (Nicaragua) and Panama City.
International flights arrive at Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría, 17km northwest of San José, in the town of Alajuela. In recent years Daniel Oduber airport in Liberia has started receiving international flights from the USA. Although there is a lot of talk about airport expansion, at the time of research only American Airlines, Continental and Delta fly into Liberia. It is expected that many international airlines will start to offer flights in and out of this airport, including some flights direct from Europe (eliminating the layover in Miami or Dallas). Daniel Oduber airport is convenient for travelers visiting the Península de Nicoya.
Costa Rica is well connected by air to other Central and Latin American countries, as well as the USA. The national airline, Lacsa (part of the Central American Airline consortium Grupo TACA), flies to numerous points in the USA and Latin America, including Cuba. The Federal Aviation Administration in the USA has assessed Costa Rica’s aviation authorities to be in compliance with international safety standards.
Airlines flying to and from Costa Rica include the following companies:
American Airlines (257 1266; www.aa.com; airline code AA)
Continental (296 4911; www.continental.com; airline code CO)
COPA (222 6640; www.copaair.com; airline code CM)
Cubana de Aviación (221 7625, 221 5881; www.cubana.cu; airline code CU)
Delta (256 7909, press 5 for reservations; www.delta.com; airline code DL)
Grupo TACA (296 0909; www.taca.com; airline code TA)
Iberia (257 8266; www.iberia.com; airline code IB)
Lacsa see Grupo TACA.
Mexicana (295 6969; www.mexicana.com; airline code MX)
SAM/Avianca (233 3066; www.avianca.com; airline code AV)
United Airlines (220 4844; www.united.com; airline code UA)
US Airways (toll-free reservations in Costa Rica 800-011 0793, 800-011 4114; www.usairways.com; airline code US) no office in Costa Rica
American Airlines, Continental, Delta and United all have connections to Costa Rica from several other Central and Latin American countries. Grupo TACA generally offers the greatest number of flights on these routes.
Recently, the domestic Costa Rican airlines have begun offering a few international flights. Nature Air (www.natureaire.com) now flies to Granada from both Liberia (one way/round-trip US$65/130) and San José (US$120/240) four times a week, and to Bocas del Toro (US$99/199) two times a week.
Grupo TACA offers direct flights to Caracas (US$500, three hours, daily), Guatemala City (US$250, 1½ hours, twice daily) and San Salvador (US$236, 1½ hours, three daily). TACA and Mexicana have daily flights to Mexico City (US$500, three hours), while both TACA and Copa have several flights a day to Panama City (US$300, 1½ hours, three daily). Round-trip prices are quoted unless otherwise indicated.
Trailfinders Australia (1300-780 212; www.trailfinders.com.au)
Most travelers to Costa Rica connect through US gateway cities, though Air Canada has direct flights from Toronto. A good choice for student, youth and budget airfares is Travel CUTS (866-246 9762; www.travelcuts.com). Many of the companies that operate from the USA can also arrange travel from Canada.
Most flights from Europe connect either in the USA or in Mexico City, although this may change once the new airport in Liberia starts attracting more flights. High-season fares may apply during the northern summer, which is the beginning of the Costa Rican rainy season. Some recommended agencies that operate across Europe are Ebookers.com (www.ebookers.com) and STA Travel (www.sta.com).
Discount air travel is big business in London, which means that it’s possible to find some bargains there. Advertisements for many travel agencies appear in the weekend broadsheet newspapers, in Time Out, the Evening Standard and in the free magazine TNT. Some recommended agencies include:
Flight Centre (0870-499 0040; flightcentre.co.uk)
Journey Latin America (JLA; in London 020-8747 3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk)
North-South Travel (01245-608 291; www.northsouthtravel.co.uk) North-South Travel donates part of its profit to projects in the developing world.
Quest Travel (0870-442 3542; www.questtravel.com)
Travel Bag (0800-082 5000; www.travelbag.co.uk)
European travelers will most likely find it cheaper to travel to Costa Rica via London or the USA. Some recommended agencies include:
Airfair (0900-7717 717; www.airfair.nl in Dutch)
Anyway (0892-302 301; www.anyway.fr in French)
CTS Viaggi (06-441 111; www.cts.it in Italian) Italian agency that specializes in student and youth travel.
Just Travel (089-747 3330; www.justtravel.de) German agency.
Nouvelles Frontières (0825-000 747; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr in French)
OTU Voyages (0155-82 32 32; www.otu.fr) French agency that specializes in student and youth travel.
Voyageurs du Monde (0892-23 68 68; www.vdm.com in French)
More than one-third of all travelers to Costa Rica come from the USA, so finding a nonstop flight from Houston, Miami or New York is quite simple. Schedules and prices are competitive – a little bit of shopping around can get you a good fare.
The following agencies and websites are recommended for bookings:
American Express Travel Services (800-297 2977; www.itn.net)
Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com)
Exito Latin America Travel Specialists (800-655 4053; www.exitotravel.com)
STA Travel (800-781 4040; www.statravel.com)
Tico Travel (800-493 8426; www.ticotravel.com)