Costa Rica’s currency is the colón (colones plural), which is written ¢ and sometimes colloquially called a peso. Notes are issued in the following denominations: 1,000 (red; called a rojo), 2,000 (called dos rojos), 5,000 (blue; called a tucán), 10,000 (called a jaguar) and 20,000 colones; coins come in 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 colones (the 5, 10, and 25 colones coins are being withdrawn from circulation). You may hear cash referred to colloquially as efectivo or plata. Menudo is loose change.
Most businesses accept payment in U.S. dollars, as do taxis. Other international currencies are generally not accepted. Many shopkeepers won’t accept notes that are torn, however minute the tear, but will dispense such notes to you without guilt.
The value of the colón has gained in recent years after previously falling steadily against the U.S. dollar. At press time the official exchange rate was approximately 505 colones to the dollar. All prices in this book are quoted in U.S. dollars unless otherwise indicated.
You can change money at the two international airports upon arrival. At Juan Santamaría International Airport, the bank is inside the departures terminal. (Use it rather than the bureau of exchange in the baggage retrieval hall; its exchange rate is 10 percent worse than banks.) Travel with small bills. Legally, money may be changed only at a bank or hotel cash desk. You are allowed to convert only $50 in colones to dollars when departing, so spend all your local currency before leaving.
Banks are normally open 9 A.M.–4 P.M. Monday–Saturday, but hours vary. Foreign-exchange departments are often open longer. Don’t expect fast service. At some banks you may have to stand in two lines: one to process the transaction, the other to receive your cash. It can sometimes take more than an hour. Ask to make sure you’re in the correct line. Banks close during Easter, Christmas, New Year’s, and other holidays.
Most hotels will exchange dollars for colones for guests; some will do so even for nonguests. Hotels offer similar exchange rates to banks.
Many hustlers offer money exchange on the street, although this is strictly illegal and dangerous (the Judicial Police say they receive between 10 and 15 complaints a day from tourists who’ve been ripped off while changing money on the street).
Most larger hotels, car rental companies, and travel suppliers, as well as larger restaurants and stores, will accept payment by credit card. Visa is the most widely accepted, followed by MasterCard. Conversion is normally at the official exchange rate, although a 6 percent service charge may be added. You can also use your credit cards to get cash advances at banks (minimum $50); some banks will pay cash advances in colones only. Most banks accept Visa; very few accept MasterCard.
At least one bank in every major town now has a 24-hour ATM (cajero automático) for credit and debit card withdrawals. You’ll need your PIN number. Stick to regular banking hours if possible in case of problems (such as the cajero not returning your card).
The American Express Express Cash system (tel. 800/528-4800, www.americanexpress.com ) links your AmEx card to your U.S. checking account. You can withdraw up to $1,000 in a 21-day period; a $2 fee is charged for each transaction.
You can reach the major credit card companies from within Costa Rica by calling the following numbers:
The Credomatic office (Calle Central, Avenidas 3/5, tel. 506/2295-9898, www.credomatic.com , 8 A.M.–7 P.M. Mon.–Fri., 9 A.M.–1 P.M. Sat.) is authorized to assist with American Express, Visa, and MasterCard replacement.
You can arrange wire transfers through Western Union (tel. 506/2283-6336 or 800/777-7777, www.westernunion.com ), which has agencies throughout the country. MoneyGram (tel. 506/2295-9595 or 800/328-5678, www.moneygram.com ) provides similar service. In either case, funds are transferred almost immediately to be retrieved by the beneficiary with photo ID at any location. You’ll be charged a hefty commission.
Major banks will arrange cash transfers from the United States for a small commission fee. Ask your bank for details of a “correspondent” bank in San José.
Most businesses are reluctant to take travelers checks. You’ll usually need your passport. You’ll receive one or two colones less per dollar than if changing cash. Take small-denomination checks, and stick to the well-known international brands, such as American Express (www.americanexpress.com ), Citibank (www.citibank.com ), Barclays (www.barclays.com ), or Thomas Cook Currency Services (www.thomascook.co.uk ).
Budget travelers should be able to get by on as little as $30 a day. Backpackers hotels will cost $5–15 per night. A breakfast or lunch of gallo pinto will cost $2–4, and a dinner with beer at a soda (lunch-counter) should cost no more than $5. At the other end of the spectrum, the most expensive restaurants might run you $40 or more per head, and $400-a-night accommodation is available.
Your mode of transportation will make a difference. You can fly anywhere in the country for $50 or so, or travel by bus for less than $12. Renting a car will send your costs skyrocketing—a minimum of $50 a day, plus insurance ($15 per day minimum) and gas.
Haggling over prices is not a tradition in Costa Rica, except at street-side crafts stalls.
Restaurants (but not snack bars, or sodas), and most service businesses add a 13 percent sales tax. Tourist hotels add a 16.3 percent tax.
Taxi drivers do not normally receive tips. Nor is tipping in restaurants the norm—restaurants automatically add both a 13 percent sales tax and a 10 percent service charge to your bill. Add an additional tip as a reward for exceptional service. Bellboys in classy hotels should receive $0.50–1 per bag, and chambermaids should get $1 per day. Tour guides normally are tipped $1–2 per person per day for large groups, and much more, at your discretion, for small, personalized tours. Again, don’t tip if you had lousy service.