Landing for the first time in Costa Rica: Things you should know upon arrival.
Actualizado: 20 jul 2019
You’ve finally arrived after a long trip to your destination: Juan Santamaria International Airport. This is the beginning of your trip and you want to start off with the right foot. That’s why we’ve prepared a list of dos and don’ts at the airport and everything you should know when arriving for the first time to Costa Rica.
Besides feeling humidity like a punch in your face (in a good way), second thing you’ll notice is the Pura Vida vibe – it’s not a cliché! So, let’s get started:
1. Immigration Requirements
It’s a small airport, so you’ll walk directly to immigration where depending on your arrival time it can take from 5 minutes and up to 45 minutes on high season, so be prepared for the worst-case scenario. We know a lot of travelers come to our country without an exact plan or departure date, but you should know you’re going to be asked for a proof of onward travel (proof of exit). If you don’t have a roundtrip ticket yet, or if you’re exiting the country by bus through Panama or Nicaragua I recommend you to buy a last-minute refundable flight to any destination on websites such as Expedia or CheapOair, where you can cancel your flight for free within the first 24 hours (just make sure to double check the policies!).
Also, make sure to have handy the address or name of the place you’ll be staying at (hopefully with us, right?), because this is another requirement.
In some cases, you will be required to prove economic solvency for your stay in the country in cash.
2. Shops & Restaurants
When you’re arriving you don’t get to see much buying options, however you’ll pass through a Duty-Free store right after immigration, in case you need to buy anything they are open from 5:00 AM to 8:00 PM.
Regarding restaurants, on your way out of the airport the only place you’ll find is Malinche Deli, which is right outside the arrivals main exit. After you pass through immigration and customs you are basically out to the street, so Malinche is the only place available on the arrivals area in case you need to wait for someone landing after or if the person who’s picking you up hasn’t arrived yet.
3. Money Exchange
Whatever you do, say, or hear – DO NOT EXCHANGE MONEY AT THE AIRPORT.
There’s a money exchange window located at the customs area, but they have a ridiculously low rate. If you’re worried about how you will be paying your transportation or your first meal and snacks in San José, then you should know:
- Most places take credit/debit cards, this also applies for taxis. If you need to pay a taxi with card, just mention it beforehand so they find you a taxi that has a card machine. In Costa Rica there is no extra fee to pay with card at businesses or hotels. (Just check your local bank restrictions!)
- Most places take US dollars. Just make sure you have bills $20 and below, because not everywhere they will accept $50 or $100 bills.
Our recommendation is to exchange at the bank. Most banks have the same rates and will not charge commissions for exchanging. So just find the nearest bank from where you’re staying and bring your passport with you (it’s required to complete the transaction). Normally banks open from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and banks inside malls only have an extended schedule from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM.
Since our exchange rate has been fluctuating a lot lately, you can check this website for day to day updates on USD and EUR exchange rates: https://www.tipodecambio.info/
4. Getting a SIM Card
The three main phone carriers on the country are Kolbi, Claro and Movistar. The three of them offer very similar packages, but probably the most important thing to look for is data – internet speed and coverage in the rest of the country. On these scenarios, we would recommend you either Kolbi or Claro.
There is a Kolbi kiosk right when you enter the customs area, so if you’re an internet addict just like us, maybe it’s a good idea to check out their prepaid data plans while you’re waiting for your luggage. They are open from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM.
If you’d like to wait, you can also find all three carriers on San José Downtown walking on Avenida Central.
Note: You can also buy SIM cards at grocery stores, but they are not activated. Registration and activation procedures are not as easy as they should be, so we always recommend you go straight to the carrier agency and avoid worrying about your sim card not working properly later.
5. Car Rentals
After you’ve picked up your bags, you’ll see all the car rental offices. At the airport you’re going to find most of the well-known brands such as: Budget, Enterprise, National, Payless, Solid, Hertz, Alamo, Economy and Dollar. They all have very similar prices and fleet, so it’s just going to be a matter of availability and last minute deals for you to decide. They are all open from 5:00 AM to 11:00 PM.
You should know though, that driving around Costa Rica is not easy. You’ve probably heard about this before, but our addresses are given by reference points and not by street names/numbers and the roads do not have clear signs. There are some roads that are narrow, some others curvy and some others with only one lane going and one lane coming transit, as well as heavy trucks and buses slowing you down. Traffic can also get pretty rough in San José. But hey! You’ll be fine, just be prepared. If we do it every day you can do it too.
If you decide to rent a car our recommendation is not to hire a GPS, unless it’s complimentary. They don’t work for our type of addresses and directions because they will not necessarily have every reference point loaded, so it will be useless in most cases. Instead, download Waze – it’s the best navigation app for Costa Rica, or you can just stick to Google Maps too.
6. Transportation options
We're detailing the following info for directions on how to get to our place, however you can take these and adapt them for what you need.
- Bus: Public buses can be taken outside the terminal; you can just walk to the main road (on your front left as soon as you walk outside the arrivals main exit) and then on the main street turn right to spot the bus stop. Make sure it says San José (route name is San José-Alajuela), the bus has a frequency every 10-15 minutes and they have a cost of approximately $1 USD, the ride may take around 35 minutes.
Instead of going all the way until the last stop in San José, let the driver know you will need to get down at La Sabana. Usually they stop in front of the Crowne Plaza Hotel where there's a taxi station outside with official taxis (red cars with yellow triangle on the door).
A taxi from there to our place will cost around $5 USD and remember to have our address handy: “Sabana Sur, 50 metros oeste del Cotepecos (Colegio Tecnico Profesional), casa de ladrillo a mano derecha.”
- Shared shuttles: Some private companies offer shuttle services to most hotels in San José. They are located next to carrousel 5 at the baggage claim area, you can check out Grayline which is the one that will drop you off directly here. They charge around $12-15 USD and you just mention our full name (Capital Hostel de Ciudad) and they’ll know where to drop you off. Their last shuttle departs around 11:00 PM but their offices close at 10:00 PM, so if your flight is arriving after this time this option may not suit you.
- Uber: While this is a great (and cheap) way to move around in San José, we don’t really recommend its use at the airport. Taxis and other drivers have been forcing the authorities to forbid Uber from picking up people at the airport, so even though it’s not exactly illegal, you may have an uncomfortable time and receive a little bit of harassment from cab drivers if they notice it. If you decide to use Uber, the airport has free Wi-Fi and you can request it as soon as you get your luggage – while you’re waiting at the customs line. The ride would be approximately $15 USD. Just type in Capital Hostel de Ciudad on your destination.
- Taxi: The official taxis at the airport are the orange cars located outside the arrivals main exit. They charge approximately $30-35 USD for the ride. If you’re taking any taxi, remember to give them our exact address: “Sabana Sur, 50 metros oeste del Cotepecos (Colegio Tecnico Profesional), casa a mano derecha de ladrillo y reja gris.” Remember in Costa Rica most addresses are given by reference points and not by street name and number.
- Private pick up: If you want to, we can also arrange airport pick up which has a cost of $25 USD for one person or $30 USD for 2-4 people. To schedule it we would just need your flight number and arrival time, which can be sent here.
We hope you find this tips useful and if there's anything we missed, please let us know in the comments below or contact us directly here if your have any further doubts!