In general, Costa Rica is cheaper than North America or Europe, but travelers looking for dirt-cheap developing-nation deals may find it's more expensive than they bargained for—and prices are rising as more foreigners visit.
The tourism industry quotes prices in dollars. You may certainly pay for hotels and tours in local currency, but they will be priced at that day’s equivalent colón exchange rate.
Food in modest restaurants and public transportation are inexpensive. A 2-km (1-mile) taxi ride costs about $2.
ATMs and Banks
Costa Rica's four state-owned banks (Banco Nacional, Banco de Costa Rica, Bancrédito, and Banco Popular) come complete with horrendous lines, although many branches have chairs for sitting while you wait for your number to be called. Private banks (BAC San José, Citi, and Scotiabank) are quicker options in larger cities. Better yet, get your spending money at a cajero automático (automatic teller machine). If you do use the bank, remember that Monday, Friday, and the first, last, and 15th days of the month are the busiest days. For security reasons, all banks prohibit cell and smartphone use while inside.
Although they are springing up at a healthy rate, don't count on using an ATM outside San José. Though not exhaustive, the A Toda Hora website lists locations of its ATH cash machines, and notes which ones offer colones (usually in increments of 10,000 colones), dollars (in increments of $20), or both; choose your region or city in the box on the homepage called Búsqueda de Cajeros.
For reasons of security, a growing number of ATMs shut down at 10 pm and begin working again at 6 am. In addition to banks, you'll find them in major grocery stores, some hotels, gas-station convenience stores, and even a few McDonald's. ATH, Red Total, and Scotiabank machines supposedly accept both Cirrus (a partner with MasterCard) and Plus (a partner with Visa) cards, but sometimes don't. If you'll be spending time away from major tourist centers, particularly in the Caribbean, get all the cash you need in San José and carry a few U.S. dollars in case you run out of colones. It's helpful to have both a Visa and a MasterCard—even in San José—as a few machines accept only one or the other. Both companies have sites with fairly comprehensive lists of accessible ATMs around the world.
ATMs are occasionally out of order and sometimes run out of cash on weekends. PIN codes with more than four digits are not recognized at Costa Rican ATMs. If you have a five-digit PIN, change it with your bank before you travel. Although it seems counterintuitive, try to use ATMs only during bank business hours. If an ATM "eats" your card, you can go inside to retrieve it or get cash from a teller.
The Credomatic office, housed in the BAC San José central offices on Calle Central between Avenidas 3 and 5, is the local representative for most major credit cards; get cash advances here, or at any bank (Banco Nacional and BAC San José are good for both MasterCard and Visa; Banco Popular and Banco de Costa Rica always accept Visa).
State banks have branches with slightly staggered hours; core times are weekdays 9 to 4, and very few are open Saturday morning. A few branches of Banco Nacional are open until 6, or occasionally 7. Private banks tend to keep longer hours and are usually the best places to change U.S. dollars and travelers' checks; rates may be marginally better in state banks, but the long waits cancel out any benefit. Multinational banks like Citi and Scotiabank have branches here, but none has any link to your back-home account except via your ATM card. The BAC San José in the check-in area at Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría is open daily 5 am to 10 pm.
A Toda Hora. 2211–4500; www.ath.com.
It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you're going abroad and don't travel internationally very often. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank's number is printed on your card.
Major credit cards are accepted at most hotels and restaurants in this book; Visa and MasterCard have the widest acceptance, with American Express, Discover, and Diners Club somewhat less so. As the phone system improves, many budget hotels, restaurants, and other businesses have begun to accept plastic; but plenty of places still require payment in cash. Carry enough cash, including smaller denominations, to patronize the many businesses without credit-card capability. Note that some hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and other businesses add a surcharge (around 5%) to the bill if you pay with a credit card, or give you a 5% to 10% discount if you pay in cash. It's always a good idea to pay for large purchases with a major credit card so you can cancel payment or get reimbursed if there's a problem.
Currency and Exchange
Costa Rica’s currency is the colón. (The plural is colones.) Prices are shown with a "¢" sign in front of the number. At this writing, the colón is about 535 to the U.S. dollar and 590 to the euro. After years of unstable exchange rates, the colón has settled into the mid-500s in relation to the dollar. Coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 colones. Be careful not to mix up the very similar 100- and 500-colón coins. Bills come in denominations of 1,000 (red), 2,000 (blue), 5,000 (yellow), 10,000 (green), 20,000 (orange), and 50,000 (purple) colones. As you'd expect, prices have a lot of zeroes. If you want to approximate a colón price in dollars, lop off the last two digits and divide by 5. You’ll be pretty close (2,500 colones = about $5). Avoid using larger-denomination bills in taxis, on buses, or in small stores. Many tourist-oriented businesses accept U.S. dollars, although the exchange rate might not be favorable to you. Make sure your dollars are in good condition—no tears or writing—and don’t use anything larger than a $20. Many counterfeit $50 and $100 bills circulate here.
Assuming you can find them at all, Costa Rican colones are sold abroad at terrible rates, so wait until you arrive in Costa Rica to get local currency. U.S. dollars are still the easiest to exchange, but euros can be exchanged for colones at just about any Banco Nacional office and at the San José and Escazú branches of other banks. Private banks—Scotiabank and BAC San José—are the best places to change U.S. dollars and travelers' checks. The arrivals area of the international airports in San José and Liberia both have ATMs and are your best bet for getting cash after you land. There is a branch of the BAC San José upstairs in the check-in area of Juan Santamaría airport where you can exchange money when you arrive or depart—it's a much better deal than the Global Exchange counter in the baggage-claim area or at the departure gates. Airport taxi and van drivers accept U.S. dollars. Outdoor money changers are rarely seen on the street, but avoid them if they approach; you will most certainly get a bad deal, and you risk robbery by pulling out wads of cash.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there's some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh . . . that's right. The sign didn't say no fee). And as for rates, you're almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.