The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón. Frommer's lists exact prices. In this guide, prices are listed in the currency you are most likely to see them quoted. Hence, nearly all hotel prices and most tour and transportation prices are listed in dollars, since the hotels, airlines, tour agencies, and transport companies quote their prices in dollars. Many restaurants do as well. Still, a good many restaurants, as well as taxis and other local goods and services, are advertised and quoted in colones. In those cases, prices listed are in colones (C).
The colón is divided into 100 céntimos. Currently, two types of coins are in circulation. You'll find gold-hued 5-, 10-, 25-, 50-, 100-, and 500-colón coins, as well as light-weight silver-colored alloy coins in the 5- and 10- colón denominations.
Paper notes come in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 colones. You might also encounter a special-issue 5-colón bill that is a popular gift and souvenir. It is valid currency, although it sells for much more than its face value. You might hear people refer to a rojo or tucán, which are slang terms for the 1,000- and 5,000-colón bills, respectively. One-hundred-colón denominations are called tejas, so cinco tejas is 500 colones. I've yet to encounter a slang equivalent for the 2,000, 10,000, and 20,000 bills.
Forged bills are not entirely uncommon. When receiving change in colones, it's a good idea to check the larger-denomination bills, which should have protective bands or hidden images that appear when held up to the light.
You can change money at all banks in Costa Rica. The principal state banks are Banco Nacional and Banco de Costa Rica. However, be forewarned that service at state banks can be slow and tedious. You're almost always better off finding a private bank. Luckily, there are hosts of private banks around San José and in most major tourist destinations.
Since banks handle money exchanges, Costa Rica has very, very few exchange houses. One major exception to this is the Global Exchange (tel. 2431-0670; www.globalexchange.co.cr) office at the airport. However, be forewarned they exchange at more than 10% below the official exchange rate. Airport taxis accept U.S. dollars, so there isn't necessarily any great need to exchange money the moment you arrive.
Hotels will often exchange money and cash traveler's checks as well; there usually isn't much of a line, but they might shave a few colones off the exchange rate.
Be very careful about exchanging money on the streets; it's extremely risky. In addition to forged bills and short counts, street money-changers frequently work in teams that can leave you holding neither colones nor dollars. Also be very careful when leaving a bank. Criminals are often looking for foreigners who have just withdrawn or exchanged cash.
Conversion rates fluctuate, so before departing consult a currency exchange website such as www.oanda.com/currency/converter to check up-to-the-minute rates.
MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted credit cards in Costa Rica, followed by American Express. Most hotels and restaurants accept all of these, especially in tourist destination areas. Discover and Diners Club are far less commonly accepted.
Beware of hidden credit card fees while traveling. Check with your credit or debit card issuer to see what fees, if any, will be charged for overseas transactions. Recent reform legislation in the U.S., for example, has curbed some exploitative lending practices. But many banks have responded by increasing fees in other areas, including fees for customers who use credit and debit cards while out of the country -- even if those charges were made in U.S. dollars. Fees can amount to 3% or more of the purchase price. Check with your bank before departing to avoid any surprise charges on your statement.
Costa Rica has a modern and widespread network of ATMs. You should find ATMs in all but the most remote tourist destinations and isolated nature lodges. In 2009, in response to a rash of "express kidnappings" in San José, in which folks were taken at gunpoint to an ATM to clean out their bank accounts, both Banco Nacional and Banco de Costa Rica stopped ATM service between the hours of 10pm and 5am. Other networks still dispense money 24 hours a day.
It's probably a good idea to change your PIN to a four-digit PIN. While many ATMs in Costa Rica will accept five- and six-digit PINs, some will only accept four-digit PINs.
For help with currency conversions, tip calculations, and more, download Frommer's convenient Travel Tools app for your mobile device. Go to http://www.frommers.com/go/mobile and click on the Travel Tools icon.
What Things Cost in Costa Rica (US$)
Taxi from the airport to downtown San José 22.00-32.00
Double room, moderate 90.00
Double room, inexpensive 45.00
Three-course dinner for one without wine, moderate 15.00-25.00
Bottle of beer 1.00-1.50
Cup of coffee 1.00-1.50
1 gallon/1 liter of premium gas 4.70/1.25
Admission to most museums 2.00-5.00
Admission to most national parks 10.00
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.