Pura Vida – A Few Travel Tips for Costa Rica

TravelWhimsy and I took her parents to the amazing country of Costa Rica during Thanksgiving week. Two of our dearest friends, M & P, who had recently retired there, hosted us at their new home. M & P expertly planned almost every single aspect of our trip, so this is not going to be my typical trip report involving much about miles and points strategy. Instead, I will share a few notes I jotted down along the way that could help you better plan your future trips to Costa Rica. If you have never experienced PURA VIDA, don’t wait too long. It only takes 30-35,000 miles per person, and you won’t regret it!

Beautiful “Bluebird” (Yes, Pun Intended for You Mile/Point Junkies!) in Costa Rican Rainforest
Amazing Costa Rica

1. Car Rental

(1) Vehicles

*Most cars have manual transmission. Make sure to reserve one with automatic transmission (and pay more), if necessary.
*Book a smaller car (if larger vehicles are expensive) and upgrade on the spot. We booked an automatic compact for $18/day and was offered an automatic standard SUV for an extra $10/day (Alamo was asking for $75/day at the time of booking).
*Pricing of optional items/upgrades is negotiable.

(2) Mandatory Liability Insurance + Loss/Collision Damage Waiver (LDW or CDW) Coverage

*Costa Rican government, the sole provider of insurance, mandates liability insurance coverage for all renters, even if your US insurance carrier tells you that you are covered.
*Standard daily charge of $10-15 for liability insurance comes with a 20% deductible. The Alamo agent offered an $8/day charge to waive the deductible; I asked for a lower rate and was offered $5/day.
*United Club Card, United Presidential Plus Card, United Explorer Card, Chase Ink Bold offer primary CDW/LDW coverage. Bring coverage documentation with you as some car rental companies ask for proof (ask your credit card company for a copy if you’ve tossed the one that came with the card).

(3) Credit Cards

*A carbon imprint of your credit card is mandatory. Fancy cards with card numbers on the back, such as the United Presidential Plus or Chase Sapphire Preferred or United Club card, do NOT work. I had to give my Ink Bold instead.
*A US$1,000 hold is placed on the card provided/imprinted, in addition to the estimated rental charge.
*Upon return of your vehicle, you can ask to pay with a different card.

(4) Check Tires

*Criminals intentionally slit tires so they can steal your valuables when you try to seek roadside assistance.
*Poor road conditions make flat tires common. If you get a flat tire, be wary of strangers offering help. Drive to the nearest gas station (gasolinera) for repair.

2. San José Airport (SJO)/Immigration

(1) Arrival

*No quarantined path to immigration upon arrival. Follow signs to immigration on the lower level.
*No tourist visa required for US citizens (a stay up to 90 days).
*Citizens of other countries, use this link for visa information.

(2) Departure

*Departure tax of $28 per person to be paid prior to check-in. This can be purchased on the day of arrival or in most local bank branches. Cash or debit card only. Credit card charges will be processed as cash advance.
*Fill out immigration form on the back of your departure tax receipt before going to the check-in counter (there is no self check-in kiosk).
*No elite security line. Budget extra time for security.
*Thorough security check again at the gate prior to boarding. Bottled water is not allowed to be taken aboard.
*VIP lounge accepts Priority Pass/Lounge Club membership cards.

3. Driving

(1) Rent a GPS locally or buy the map for your own GPS (there is generally no road sign/address in Costa Rica).
(2) Even major roads only have one narrow lane in each direction and are laced with pot holes. There is a lot of offroad driving on unpaved roads.
(3) Before crossing a bridge, watch for the triangular yield sign with the words “CEDA EL PASO.” Yield to oncoming traffic if the sign is on your side of the bridge.
(4) Average speed limit is 40-60 km/hr (25-37 miles/hr). If you get caught, speeding tickets could be $500+.
(5) If there is no address for your destinations, ask for GPS coordinates.
(6) No self service at gas stations. Attendants fill up your car, and you can pay with a credit card (with no foreign transaction fees). Get “regular” even if your rental car gas tank is marked with “super.”
(7) Highway 1 near the San José airport has a toll booth collecting 150 colónes each time (~$0.30).

4. Planning

(1) Don’t be too ambitious by trying to maximize the number of places you visit. Our friends M&P suggested that we only stick to the Arenal Volcano area for our visit (we had 3 full days). (Their second choice would be the Manuel Antonio area.)

(2) There is plenty to do in one area, so don’t worry about missing out on any must-dos or must-sees.
(3) US dollars are widely accepted (1 USD = ~500 Costa Rican colónes). You can easily withdraw cash with your Schwab ATM card if credit cards are not accepted.
(4) Bring insect repellent or invest in an insect-repellent hat. It really works!
(5) Try getting a vacation rental and budget time/activities with locals (“ticos” or “ticas”). We had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with M&P’s new-found local family/friends!

5. Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort

This was one of the highlights of our trip and a very special place that deserves its own section. You don’t have to stay at the hotel to enjoy the natural thermal hot river, springs, and pools.

Tabacón Thermal River Originated from the Arenal Volcano
Bathing in the Natural Hot Springs at Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort

(1) Day passes are $60 (without meals), $85 (with lunch or dinner), $95 (with lunch and dinner).
(2) TravelWhimsy and I have been to all the top spas in Las Vegas and many others in Asia and Europe. This was hands down the best spa experience. We wish we could have spent more time there.
(3) The resort is part of the “Leading Hotels of the World,” and rooms start from $250, which includes access to the thermal spa area (a 10-minute walk from the hotel to the thermal features).
(4) If you are still not convinced, this place is listed in the book “1,000 Places to See before You Die.” Our friends told me this fact after our visit.
(5) If your budget doesn’t allow a paid visit, go across the street to the locals’ secret – free Tabacón – a few steps past the yellow road fence will take you to the steamy river and 2 hot waterfalls.

Locals’ Secret – Free Tabacón

6. Be a Part of Nature and Let Nature Be a Part of You


While exploring the rain forest on the Arenal Hanging Bridges trail, we witnessed the leafcutter ants hard at work, carrying “huge” pieces of leaves. The leaves turn into mold, which is what the ants feed on. It is during those unexpected moments that we realize how we are all part of nature.

Lace-like Patterns in the Leaf Created by Leafcutter Ants
Leafcutter Ants Working Hard
Some More Leafcutter Ants

During our entire stay in Costa Rica, we stayed offline and it felt wonderful! When practicing yoga surrounded by an incredible natural setting, we couldn’t help but feel contentment overflowing in our hearts. Our hosts M & P have a small picture frame with the following sentence on it – “Wherever you go, go with all your heart!


Pura Vida! M & P, thanks a million and we love you!

Rise and Shine – PURA VIDA!


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  • Very nice.  I agree that the Tabacon is one of the best spa experiences around!  See you over the weekend.

  • A E Iowan

    thanks for all the info and good tips, will be very helpful if we ever have a chance to make a trip

  • Wow, what a lovely place. I have heard about this country but I never thought there would be such a lovely place. This is awesome. I would like to visit Costa Rica someday. I have added the country to my dream list. 

  • americantaitai

    Awesome trip, and amazing photos of what looks to be an amazing place!  Thanks for some detailed tips on logistics.  Glad to hear that you and TravelWhimsy were able to spend 3 days offline, and welcome back!   

  • MileageUpdate.com

    I visited Tabacon in 2003. I made the day trip with the meal from San Jose. Great article, your pictures really brought me back. 

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