Costa Rica Money
The Costa Rican unit of currency is the colón. Named after Christopher Columbus, the first European to visit Costa Rica, the colón has a value that fluctuates between 500-550 colones per 1 US dollar. The cost of travel in Costa Rica is higher than other countries in Central America, but is still significantly cheaper than in the U.S. or Europe.
The Spanish introduced the first real currency to Costa Rica in the 16th century. Known as pesos, these coins were originally manufactured in Spain and transported to Costa Rica, but were later minted in Peru after gold and silver mines were discovered here. The two original denominations – the golden “Escudo” and the silver “Real” – were used for exchanges, with the “Real” being used for most daily transactions.
Following Costa Rica’s independence from Spain in 1821, it joined the Federal Republic of Central America and adopted the Republic’s currency. After Costa Rica separated from the Republic in 1838, its currency again changed. The change was reflected in the coin design, which used coffee and tobacco symbols, the two main exports at the time. When the Republic of Costa Rica was officially declared in 1848, new symbols – a flag and a shield – were adopted and have continued to be used since.
In 1993, Costa Rica began printing the so-called “new currency,” which cost much less to manufacture. Still in use today, this currency consists of golden coins made of bronze coated steel, in addition to 5 and 10 colónes coins made from aluminum.
The only thing you need to worry about during your holiday in Costa Rica is enjoying yourself. Not only is the Costa Rican government stable, the nation is known as the most stable country in Central and Latin America. This stability carries over into Costa Rica's economy; you will have no difficulty accessing money in Costa Rica upon your arrival or departure.
US dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica, especially at upscale hotels and restaurants—some places even list their prices in US dollars to make it easier for international travelers. For smaller services (including local meals or public transportation), be prepared to pay with colónes.
Budget travelers can survive on around US$30 to US$40 a day. This covers basic transportation, lodging, and food. Rooms in budget hotels usually run around US$10 to US$20 per person and may include private or shared bathrooms. Meals at local restaurants (called sodas) usually go for around US$3 to US$4.
Midrange travelers usually spend US$50 to US$100 per person per day. Hotels in this range are more comfortable and offer a good list of amenities; these usually go for around US$30 to US$80 a night. Restaurants in this category offer meals for US$5 to US$10.
High-end travelers will find a number of upscale hotels and restaurants in Costa Rica. Nicer hotels start at around US$90 and are often found in more developed areas, although there are some impressive eco-lodges in remote destinations. Meals at the best restaurants begin at around US$20.
Hotels are generally more expensive during the dry season (December to April) and holidays, including Christmas, New Years, and Semana Santa.
Banks, ATMs and Money
Colones come in paper denominations of 1.000, 2.000, 5.000, 10.000, 20.000, and 50.000. Coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 500. Older coins are silver and slightly larger than the newer versions. Most of the newer coins are gold-colored, except for the 5 and 10 colones coins, which are silver.
Expect little difficulty when it comes to exchanging money in Costa Rica. All banks will exchange US dollars and many will exchange British pounds or euros. Travelers checks can be cashed at banks or exchange bureaus for a commission of 1% to 3%. Some hotels accept travelers checks for payment, but many do not.
ATMs (known as cajeros automáticos) are widely available in Costa Rica. Some banks charge a fee for using an ATM abroad, so check with your bank before traveling to Costa Rica. Credit cards are widely accepted at midrange and upscale hotels and restaurants. Most credit cards include a transaction fee for international purchases.
Credit cards are widely accepted throughout the country, but there will still be occasions when only cash will do. We recommend reading our article "Are Credit Cards Accepted?" to learn when and where credit and debit cards are appropriate. This article will also help you better determine how much cash you may need throughout your trip.
Taxes and Tipping
There is a 13% tax on all purchases in Costa Rica, including souvenirs, food, and hotels. Hotels add an additional 3% tourist surcharge and most restaurants include a 10% gratuity fee. You are not obligated to tip on top of this, but it’s good practice to do so, because the 10% fee is split among many people. If you want to tip your waiter directly, leave more money on the table.
You may want to tip other people while in Costa Rica, including maids, bellhops, or drivers. Tips for these services usually range from US$1 to US$10 a day. Taxi drivers do not expect a tip.
Frequently asked questions
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- How Much Are Meals, Drinks, Taxis and Other Daily Expenses in Costa Rica?
This depends on the type of traveler you are and what areas of Costa Rica you'll visit.Many restaurants and grocery stores are slightly less expensive in Costa Rica than in the United States, but like most places, you get what you pay for.
Food and Dining Out
Keep in mind that most hotels offer a complimentary breakfast.
If you eat breakfast out, a typical small restaurant (called a "soda") will serve you rice and beans, eggs, and coffee/juice for about $3-5. You can expect a lunch or dinner to cost around $5-7. Costa Rica's staple meal is called a casado, and it includes rice, beans, salad, meat, maybe some plantains, and a savory sauce.
For a change of pace, you can find pizza, pasta, and steak in both typical and international restaurants. Top destinations (like Arenal, Monteverde, and Tamarindo always have plenty of options catering to international travelers. These meals will range in price from $8-15 per person. High-end restaurants have prices comparable to those in the United States.
Remember that the price of meals can vary quite a bit depending on your location. You can expect to pay less for restaurants in rural areas, and quite a bit more in popular beach towns like Tamarindo and Playa del Coco. When you're visiting these destinations you should budget to spend as much as you would in a beach town in the U.S.
Beer or mixed drinks are about $2 - 4 at restaurants or typical bars. In fancy hotels or upscale restaurants, drinks can be 2 to 3 times as much.
Water is about $1 for a 20 oz bottle and $1.75 for a 60 oz bottle, while sodas and juices are similar to U.S. prices.
Taxi rides are reasonably priced, and cost between $1-1.50 per kilometer.
Shopping and Souvenirs
T-shirts are around $10, and bags of coffee usually cost $7. Souvenir shops near the Costa Rica's top beaches have prices similar to those in the U.S.
- How Much Cash Should I Carry in Costa Rica?
In general, it's a good idea to carry between $50-$100, most of which should be composed of small and medium-sized bills (example exchange rates include $20 =10.000 colones, $10=5.000 colones, $4=2.000 colones, $2=1.000 colones.)Naturally, how much cash you carry with you depends on what you plan on doing. If you are going to the beach for half the day and don't plan on making any big purchases, then $20 should be fine. However, if you're planning on going out for dinner and drinks - and perhaps even making a stop by the local souvenir shop - and you don't want to pay with a credit card, then you should bring at least $30-$50 per person.
In nearly all tourist destinations, if you run out of cash you can always visit an ATM and pull out more money. If you don't want to go to the ATM every other day, keep most of your cash in the safe at your hotel or inside your luggage, then just pull out whatever you need for your daily activities.
- Where Can I Exchange Money in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica's official currency is the colón, however, U.S. dollars are still widely accepted throughout the country. Money can be exchanged in public banks, such as Banco Nacional and Banco de Costa Rica, or at private banks, although the public banks have a better exchange rate. Your passport is required to exchange money at banks.ATMs are another way to exchange money (this time, however, without having to go inside and wait in line), and offer the same exchange rates as banks as well. Some ATMs, however, do not work between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM. Hotels or shops will sometimes exchange U.S. dollars, but they have higher rates.
$100 bills are generally not accepted at most shops, stores or restaurants, and for this reason it is recommended to carry smaller bills. Furthermore, it's not reccomended to exchange a lot of money at the airport exchange office - perhaps no more than $20-$50 - as the rates are not very good.
- What Kinds of Gifts and Souvenirs Can I Find in Costa Rica?
In Costa Rica, you'll find amazing coffee, hand-crafted wooden bowls, figurines, jewelry boxes, t-shirts, colorful beach towels, sheets, paintings and more.Souvenir shops are located in nearly every town, although they can vary considerably from place to place. The town of Sarchi is known for its excellent hand-crafted wooden products and furniture, as well as super-sized souvenir shops.
If you need to stock up right before your flight home, the SJO airport has a wide selection of shops, however, the prices are inflated. The LIR airport in Guanacaste is much smaller and offers very few choices in terms of last minute shopping. There are, however, shops along the road to the LIR airport.
- Are Credit Cards Accepted in Costa Rica?
Credit cards are widely accepted in Costa Rica, but there are some exceptions. Knowing how and when to use your credit card will make your trip smoother and less stressful.If you plan on using your credit card or debit card frequently, it is very important that prior to leaving you tell your bank that you will be in Costa Rica. Banks often automatically block transactions in foreign countries (a protective measure), so be sure that they allow transactions in Costa Rica since you will need to use your credit/debit card throughout your trip.
Also, be sure to check with your credit card company to see if there are additional fees for international transactions. Many credit cards do not charge an additional fee for purchases in foreign countries while others do add additional transaction fees - often, it's about 1-2% of the total transaction cost, so if possible try to use credit cards that don't have additional transaction fees.
Places that don't usually take credit cards include small restaurants (known as "sodas" in Costa Rica), small supermarkets (pulparías), street vendors and art galleries. There are some other small business that may not accept credit cards, but more and more, businesses are providing customers with the option to pay with a credit card. In larger cities, you'll have a better chance of finding restaurants, hotels, and shops that will accept credit cards.