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 and relocate here.
Food in modest restaurants and public transportation are inexpensive. A 2-km (1-mile) taxi ride costs about $1.50.
ATMs and Banks
Lines at San José banks would try the patience of a saint; instead, get your spending money at a cajero automático (automatic teller machine). If you do use the bank, remember that Monday, Friday, and the first and last days of the month are the busiest days.
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 (ATH) company website lists locations of its ATH cash machines, and notes which ones offer colones (usually in increments of 1,000 colones), dollars (in increments of $20), or both; choose your region or city in the box on the homepage called Búsqueda de Cajeros.
All ATMs are 24-hour; you'll find them in major grocery stores, some hotels, gas–station convenience stores, and even a few McDonald's, in addition to banks. 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 most or 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 some machines accept only one or the other. Both companies have sites with fairly comprehensive lists of accessible ATMs around the world.
ATMs are sometimes 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.
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 some are open Saturday morning. Several branches of Banco Nacional are open until 6, or occasionally 7. Private banks—Scotiabank and BAC San José—tend to keep longer hours and are usually the best places to change U.S. dollars and traveler's checks; rates may be marginally better in state banks, but the long waits usually cancel out any benefit. Multinational banks Citi, HSBC, 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 Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría is open every day 5 am to 10 pm.
Although it seems counterintuitive, whenever possible use ATMs only during bank business hours. ATMs here have been known to "eat" cards, and are frequently out of cash. When the bank is open, you can go in to retrieve your card or get cash from a teller. As a safety precaution, look for a machine in a bank with a guard nearby.
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 generally printed on your card.
All major credit cards are accepted at most major hotels and restaurants in this book; establishments affiliated with local credit-card processor Credomatic also accept the Discover card, although many businesses don't know what it is. As the phone system improves and expands, many budget hotels, restaurants, and other properties have begun to accept plastic; but plenty of properties still require payment in cash. Don't necessarily count on using your credit card outside San José. Carry enough cash 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 if possible, so you can cancel payment or get reimbursed if there's a problem.
Currency and Exchange
At this writing, the colón is about 500 to the U.S. dollar and 690 to the euro. 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, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, and 50,000 colones. Bills are undergoing a design change at this writing. Motifs and sizes of old are changing, with new bills being quickly phased in. Avoid using larger-denomination bills in taxis or small stores. Many businesses accept U.S. dollars, although will use a less favorable exchange rate in their calculations.
Costa Rican colones are sold abroad at terrible rates, so you should 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 branch and San José and Escazú branches of other banks, such as BAC San José. Private banks—Scotiabank and BAC San José—are the best places to change U.S. dollars and traveler's checks. There is a branch of the BAC San José in the check-in area of Juan Santamaría airport (open daily 5 am to 10 pm) where you can exchange money when you arrive—it's a much better deal than the Global Exchange counter. Taxi and van drivers who pick up at the airport 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 pulling out wads of cash in such a public place.
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.
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