When I began planning my trip to Costa Rica in September, the country was only admitting travelers from a handful of U.S. states, mostly from the Northeast, due to their low COVID-19 infection rates. All visitors were required to produce a recent negative COVID-19 test and purchase travel insurance that would cover medical and housing expenses should they contract the virus in Costa Rica.
A few weeks later, Costa Rica relaxed its entry requirements and began welcoming travelers not only from anywhere in the United States—regardless of the state’s current infection rates—but also travelers from every single country in the world. Though all visitors are still required to fill out an online health form and provide proof of adequate travel insurance, as of Oct. 26, a negative COVID-19 test result is no longer required to enter the country and there is no mandatory quarantine policy in place. All of a sudden, I felt much less confident about the conditions I would encounter on the ground.
Safety and Hygiene in Costa Rica
Mask-wearing is one of the simplest things anyone can do to help fight the spread of COVID-19, so Costa Rica has made masks mandatory across the country. Nearly every single building and business has outdoor signs posted, reminding patrons of the mask policy, but more importantly, Costa Ricans wholeheartedly embrace masks. Not only do they know masks will help keep them safe, but they know that strict safety measures will help revive the tourism industry that the country depends on so heavily.
I’ve traveled quite a bit across the United States over the past few months—from camping in upstate New York and hiking in West Virginia to bike-touring South Dakota and road-tripping across Nebraska—and in every single destination, I found locals and visitors mask-free in situations they clearly should have been wearing one. In the U.S., I’ve encountered restaurant employees serving meals without masks, tour companies driving guests around without masks, and hotel staff cleaning rooms and wandering the hallways without masks. I’ve even seen tourist visitor center staff roaming their offices mask-less, only reaching for their mask when a visitor enters the door.
Contrast this with the land of Pura Vida (Costa Rica’s all-encompassing catchphrase that’s used as a greeting, farewell, or signal of health and wellness), where I spent 11 days, during which, I only encountered one person not wearing a mask indoors. Everyday Costa Ricans wear masks religiously, even in uncrowded areas and outdoor spaces.
Costa Ricans employed in the tourism industry wear masks outdoors even when there is little to no risk of infection. For example, though I was the only passenger on a 30-person wildlife spotting boat tour near the Nicaraguan border, Captain Mango (yes, Mango) wore his mask during the entire two-hour boat ride. While zip lining in Monteverde, a stunning cloud forest biological preserve, I was the only participant on the tour but all of the guides and I wore masks because we needed to be in close proximity while they adjusted my harness.
In addition to wearing masks, nearly every single restaurant and hotel worker (particularly in cities that receive a lot of tourists) also wears gloves and face shields. Temperatures are taken before entering most hotels and before participating in some outdoor activities. Hotels and tour operators line their entrances with foot-sanitizing floor mats, tour operators spray disinfectant on the soles of guests’ shoes before entering the van, and drivers disinfect their vehicle’s floor mats after guests visit public bathrooms.
What I find most impressive, however, is Costa Rica’s commitment to installing outdoor sinks to enable hand washing before entering a restaurant, hotel, pharmacy, supermarket, etc. In some cases, an outdoor spigot attaches to a makeshift sink, in other cases, a hose or pipe connects the sink to the main building. Some sinks are nestled in between wood and rocks, in line with Costa Rica’s natural, pura vida aesthetic. Others resemble prison-issued steel sinks or are makeshift contraptions made from repurposed oil drums. Either way, they get the job done and most of them even have foot pumps so you don’t have to touch any faucet handles.
Sinks are most prevalent in areas that receive a lot of tourists but in the event that an outdoor sink hasn’t yet been installed, an employee will typically guide guests to an indoor sink as soon as they walk in the door. In several cases, I was asked to apply hand sanitizer immediately after washing my hands at the outdoor sink. Though I’m a pretty thorough hand washer, I appreciate their erring on the side of caution so I didn’t protest.
Flexibility is Required
Gallery: How to plan a vacation in a changed world (StarsInsider)
Costa Rica is clearly ready for tourism, there’s no question about it. They’ve implemented some of the strongest safety and hygiene practices in the world and even before the pandemic, their main attractions centered around outdoor activities like hiking, zip lining, kayaking, tubing, rafting, cycling, surfing, and snorkeling. Though the borders are open, there are very few tourists here. Parks that normally receive 400 visitors per day are now receiving 60, zip line operators that normally receive 300 tourists per day are now receiving a dozen, and each of the five hotels I stayed in were operating somewhere between 10-30 percent capacity. The streets, beaches, hotels, and attractions are largely empty, though my guide told me tours are filling up quickly for trips beginning after April, 2021. As such, I believe Costa Rica is one of the safest destinations to visit right now but that doesn’t mean everything has necessarily returned to normal.
Around the world, businesses have shuttered as a result of the pandemic, unable to pay rent when their customers stopped coming in; Costa Rica is no different. Within some of the most popular tourist towns like La Fortuna, Monteverde, and Quepos, many restaurants and tour companies remain closed, some displaying a lonely “for sale” sign on the front door. Though you’ll always find a place to eat—particularly on the weekend, when more businesses open to cater to the Costa Rican tourists that have sustained them the past few months—midweek visitors will have far fewer options.
Some tour companies have reduced the number of activities they offer or require a minimum number of participants to go out, which can be hard to achieve midweek. At Manuel Antonio National Park, you’ll find only a fraction of the visitors the park usually receives (think dozens, versus hundreds) but many of the trails remain closed, meaning some beaches and viewpoints are not currently accessible. Though parks and outdoor recreation areas are typically considered to be safe spaces, several popular routes have been blocked off due to concern that some walkways may become crowded. Now, you can only explore a portion of the park via one-directional walkways that minimize the likelihood of visitors running into each other.
When searching for a hotel in San Jose, I scrolled references on several booking sites, only to find that the most references were from February, unsurprising given that they’re just beginning to re-open. Though I had a wonderful experience at every hotel I stayed in, I did meet two couples in Quepos, the gateway town to Manuel Antonio National Park, who had poor experiences in some of their hotels. In both instances, they believed the hotels rushed to reopen before they were sufficiently cleaned or aired out.
Uber is available in Costa Rica and budget travelers will still be able to find public buses to shuttle them between cities (while wearing masks, of course), but just about every traveler I met had opted to rent their own vehicle. A few groups hired a tour company to organize their entire trip, including transportation, and one group I met opted to rent taxis between major cities, but by and large, most travelers find renting a car to be the most convenient option. Signs are well-marked and even if you don’t have a global data plan on your phone, your hotel will surely have Wi-Fi, allowing you to search and download driving directions before getting into your vehicle.
Most hotels can arrange day trips, which typically include transportation, and can also arrange taxis to nearby cities. Though you can get by just fine without your own wheels, having your own vehicle tends to be more convenient. If you choose not to rent a car, however, confirm in advance that your hotel has a restaurant on premises and/or is within walking distance from a restaurant that’s open during your stay (this is of particular concern for mid-week visitors).
Planning Your Trip
Even though Costa Rica no longer requires a negative COVID-19 test, getting one is the responsible thing to do (your state may also require you to get another test before returning home). Also note that the online health form, where you confirm that you don’t have any COVID-like symptoms, needs to be filled out no more than 48 hours before your arrival to Costa Rica. You can begin filling out the form earlier, and then update and submit it the day before your flight. Airport staff will confirm that you’ve completed the health form—and have booked an onward flight leaving Costa Rica—both at your home airport and again when you land in Costa Rica.
Though, technically, Costa Rica does not require the travel insurance you purchase to be from the handful of Costa Rican companies recommended within their entry requirements, most third-party travel insurance providers don’t meet the minimum required coverage for potential medical expenses and accommodations. I’m a huge fan of travel insurance that also covers potential trip interruptions, flight delays, and cancellations—all of which are more likely during the pandemic—in addition to theft, delayed baggage, assault, and medical-related evacuation. The insurance that Costa Rica requires and promotes is specifically for COVID-19-related expenses but I always travel with more complete coverage so I also purchased (and highly recommend) World Nomads travel insurance.
Costa Rica is a beautiful destination year-round and a rainy destination year-round but to minimize the likelihood of downpours, you may want to plan your trip between January and March. Wanna visit for free? Enter their “Who is Essential to You” contest by nominating someone who’s made a difference in your life.
Save Money but Tip Well
After eight months of lockdown, restaurants, hotels, tour operators, and attractions are desperate for business so as a result, many are offering significant savings. I met travelers from New York City, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver that had booked last-minute vacations to take advantage of luxury hotel discounts up to 60 percent off.
Though everybody loves a good deal—myself included—keep in mind that these businesses are counting on us to stay afloat and individual employees rely on tips to feed their families. If we can afford to jet set around the world in the middle of a global pandemic, we can afford to tip the people who are not only making our vacations possible, but are also potentially risking their lives to do so. Most businesses in Costa Rica will accept U.S. dollars so keep some $5s, $10s, and $20s handy to thank the people serving your food, cleaning your room, driving your taxi, handling your luggage, and leading your tour.
Taking care of those who take care of us? Now that’s pura vida.
Cassandra Brooklyn is a writer, travel expert, and group tour leader. She runs EscapingNY, an off-the-beaten-path travel company and is the author of the guidebook Cuba by Bike.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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