“What to pack for Costa Rica?” you ask. The first question to answer is “How much cash should I bring?”
When my clients are coming to visit, they always want to know how much cash they should bring, and if they should exchange it at the airport. First off, everyone takes US dollars here; every one. And almost every single restaurant and store takes major credit cards. The only people that don’t are the street vendors and the taxi drivers. Nobody wants Canadian Dollars unfortunately, so you need to turn those into US dollars prior to your flight, and you will have a very hard time with traveler’s checks as well, so just don’t bring them.
There are also ATMs all over town and 4 or 5 local banks as well. So you can easily withdraw money from the machine or go inside to the teller for a cash advance, but you will need to physically show your passport. That is the only acceptable ID, not a Driver’s License. The problem with paying with US cash though, is that many of the stores or gas stations won’t give you the exact daily exchange rate for the Colon, so you will lose a few percentage points in the transactions. Places like Grocery Stores compute it by the day, so you will always get the exact correct exchange if you pay in Dollars. They usually give you back Colones though, as most stores are not stocked with US Dollars, and almost no one wants to take a Hundred Dollar Bill for fear it is a counterfeit. Bring 20s and 50s.
Here is what I would do. Bring at least enough cash to get you through the first few days, maybe $1000. Of course this depends on what activities you are doing and your spending habits and budget. Stop by one of the local banks and turn some of your Dollars into Colones so that when you are in the bars and restaurants you can pay the correct amount and not lose anything in the exchange.
DO NOT exchange your money at the airport as they will not give you as good of a rate as the local banks.
For larger purchases, like souvenir stores or nice dinners, just pay with your credit card. Your Card Company computes the exact correct exchange according to the daily bank rate. On the subject of souvenirs, remember to allow space for them when you’re deciding what to pack for Costa Rica.
One Dollar Bills are nice to have a stack of as they are a nice gesture for a tip; to the guy at the airport who helps you with your luggage, or the young man carrying your groceries or beer to your rental car. When you park your car at most public areas, there is usually a person in a striped vest that is there to watch your vehicle. They also help you when you back out into traffic. A buck goes a long way to help this person feed his or her family. Most restaurants add a 10% gratuity to the bill, but this is not really a tip. This is shared amongst all the employees in the building. So I also encourage you to leave a little extra, as these people are working very hard to make your vacation extra special. Remember that Costa Ricans make a fraction of what you do back home, so spread the love.
Come to Costa Rica with a generous heart and you will leave with a lot more in return.
COME ON DOWN BABY!