There are many arrival points in Costa Rica for foreign visitors. Most will arrive at Juan Santamaria International Airport in Alajuela, only 15 minutes from San Jose. Others may arrive at Liberia International Airport, Puntarenas (cruise ships), Limon (cruise ships), or by car/bus across the Panamanian border or the Nicaraguan Border.
Juan Santamaria International Airport
Located only 15 minutes west of San Jose, Juan Santamaria International Airport has become much more modern over the past few years. A new, expanded and modern terminal has made arrivals and departures much more pleasant.
Upon arrival as you travel from your gate, the obvious first stop is passport control where your travel documents (passport and arrival declaration) will be inspected by customs officers and, depending on what country you are from, you will receive a tourist visa for up to 90 days.
From customs you go downstairs to the baggage claim area where there are a few baggage carrousels. Flight information will be displayed so you can meet your luggage at the appropriate carrousel. Once you have your bags you must present your customs declaration form at the baggage inspection center. You should receive a copy of the Customs Declaration form while in flight before you arrive in Costa Rica. The customs official will then decide if it is necessary to open and inspect your bags or not.
Once you have completed your customs requirements you will exit the baggage inspection area and see a number of Costa Rica car rental agencies, a pre-paid taxi desk (highly recommended if you plan to use a Costa Rica taxi from the airport because fares are fixed to various destinations in the area) and a currency exchange desk.
Important Note regarding Costa Rica car rental agencies: If you plan to rent a car, be advised the rental car companies in Costa Rica often put a reserve on your credit card of $1,000, just in case you damage the vehicle (making sure you have tenough credit to pay the deductable). This means: if your card has a $2000 limit, $1,000 will not be available until you return the car. They do not actually charge your card, only reserve the deductable to ensure if there is any damage to the car they have this amount. The high charge is mostly due to the insurance monopoly in Costa Rica. The rental car companies have been given a specific deal by the Instituto Nacional de Seguros (National Insurance Institute - know as INS). They cannot vary from this arrangement or the car will not be insured.
The bank in the airport may be a good place for you to get a few colones (the local currency) before you head out the door. The currency has recently been deregulated and the "buy/sell" rates fluctuate daily. It is very likely the rate you receive in the airport will be better than at the Hotel - and certainly much better than the rate a taxi will give you. If you plan to ride a bus from the airport, you definitely should get some colones - and make sure you have some small bills (i.e. 1000 colone notes) or the bus driver may not have change (or at the minimum give you an exasperated look).
There is a booth for the official "Airport Taxis" (Taxis Aeropuertos) at the exit area - these are a distinctive "orange" color whereas typical local taxis are red. Although a bit more costly than some of the red taxis, these are the only taxis officially approved to provide service from the airport to local destinations. The prices are fixed, and you pay at the airport before you depart. If you plan to take a taxi, we recommend you pay the extra and use the official airport taxis. Other taxis are not allowed in the airport area (except to drop off passengers in the arrival area upstairs), and although there are a few guys at the exit yelling "taxi sir", these are not officially sanctioned and you never know what they might charge you, or if they are real taxis. In recent months, some tourists have been robbed by drivers of "Pirata" (Pirate) taxis - so be cautious about accepting rides from non-licensed operators.
If you have arranged for an airport pickup by your Costa Rica hotel, a bus or van should be waiting outside the airport exit and the driver should have a placard with your name on it. Take your time and look around. If you don't see the bus, it may be they simply forgot to pick you up, or they are a bit late. Things move a bit slower in Costa Rica but that's what taking a break is all about: getting away from the rush. If you have to just take a taxi and let it go. Yelling at the desk clerk when you arrive may only make your stay, and their day, an unpleasant one (you can't change a culture, just enjoy it).
Upon exiting the airport to find your taxi, hotel pickup or bus, you will typically find a mob of people waiting to offer you everything from hotels to transportation to 'whatever'. Watch your wallet/purse. A few pickpockets have been known to frequent this area and prey on unsuspecting, tired tourists.
If you packed for a 6 month vacation and have taken advantage of a baggage clerk to transport your bags, the clerk will expect about $1 per bag tip (or about 500 colones/bag). Ticos consider this highway robbery and don't pay this much, but the clerks know the "Gringos" have a few more bucks so it's their chance to make a little more cash for their effort. If your Spanish is fluent they may mistake you for a resident and you could lower the per bag tip a bit without getting disappointed looks. Either way - the tipping in Costa Rica is far less (and far less frequent) than in many places.
By the way: driving in Costa Rica is quite a bit different than in some other countries so don't be surprised by some of the antics the taxi drivers and coach drivers get up to. They are used to the conditions and do a few things we might think are reckless - but they are accustomed to the driving conditions and drive accordingly. The airport taxis tend to be more conservative so your ride from the airport in one of their taxis should be a bit more relaxed. Be sure to review our Costa Rica driving map before you plan your trip. It provides details on how long it takes to get from one place to another.
Daniel Oduber International Airport (Liberia)
In recent years the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste, has become a major arrival/departure point for tourists. Several major air carriers such as Delta, America West and others have begun non-stop service from several US cities. It's proximity to the popular and economically booming Northern Pacific beach area has made it a top destination for vacationers and property investors alike. It's only a short drive to Tamarindo, Playa Negra, Papagayo, Playa Grande, Playa Flamingo, Playa Hermosa and the Marino Las Baulas National Park. It is a much smaller airport than Juan Santamaria but it has basically the same processes, if in a simpler setting. If you are arriving at Liberia Airport we highly recommend you arrange for hotel pickup. Some of the beach resort areas are some distance from the airport and it will work out cheaper to have the hotel shuttle pick you up.
When you do arrive in Liberia, depending on where you are arriving from, you may notice quite a temperature difference. Liberia is in Guanacaste Province, known for it's heat and humidity. You should begin to sweat the moment you step off the airplane, even if it is raining. It will be humid and you will need lots of water, maybe a hat and good sunscreen. The UV rays over all of costa rica are many times stronger than in Florida and most people burn very quickly when they get in the sun.
Puntarenas Cruise Ship Port
Most passengers who arrive at Puntarenas Port rarely spend much time in the city of Puntarenas itself. Upon departing the cruise ship you will see many hawker stalls selling loads of tourist goodies. Some of these are worth the price and some are not. Don't be afraid to politely haggle a bit, maybe asking if they would accept a lower price. If not, there will be alot of opportunities to buy other products during your tours.
Many of the tours will be to destinations close by such as the Rio Tarcoles crocodile tour (real big crocs - fascinating to see in the wild); the Carara National Park (beautiful hiking - keep your eyes open for poison dart frogs and exotic parrots); Poas Volcano tour (beautiful drive - like entering a post card); the Rainforest Aerial Tram, and the Rio Savegre rafting trip (watch for monkeys in the trees along the river). There are many more tour options from Puntarenas but these would be some of the more popular.
All of these tours will be in hot, humid locations, be sure to bring mosquito repellent and clothes you don't mind getting wet.
Limon Cruise Ship Port
Arriving in Puerto Limon is like arriving in a sauna, it is humid. Of course this is the price you pay for all the natural beauty that is the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Limon itself is not a large town with lots to offer the traveler. However, it has a rich history filled with stories of Afro-Caribbean slaves who were brought to Limon to help build the railroad system. Many decided to stay and live in Limon after the Costa Rican railroads were completed. For this reason, Limon boasts some excellent Caribbean cooking. Unfortunately, as a city, Limon has been neglected by the Tourism authorities and suffers from a high unemployment rate and very little tourist infrastructure. Most people head south to the towns of Puerto Viejo or Cahuita where they find more things to do.
If you do stay around Limon, be sure to try the "rice and beans" (made with coconut milk) ar a "Pati" (pronounced 'pa-tee' - spicy pastry sold by street vendors). Limon has it's own Afro-Caribbean culture, most of the residents in Limon are of Caribbean decent and speak Patois and English. The younger generation are losing their English and speaking only Spanish. Most cruise ship passengers do not stay in the Limon area but rather take day tours to various locations near Limon. These may include an Aerial Tram ride in Braulio Carrillo National Park (about 2.5 hours from Limon), a white water rafting adventure, horseback riding, or visiting beaches south of Limon.
Panama Border (by car)
Many "Ticos" (Costa Ricans) travel to Golfito, the southernmosts city in Costa Rica, to shop due to it's status as a duty free zone. Many will also cross over into Panama to shop at their duty free shops too, buying such items as tennis shoes, clothing and electronic goods.
Like any border in Central America, the Panama/Costa Rica border is a bit unpredictable at times but most persons have very little problem with customs provided they have a valid passport and their declaration forms properly completed. We have always found the customs people to be courteous, provided the traveler is courteous to them (sounds like a fair arrangement, doesn't it?).
Nicaragua Border (by car)
It is estimated well over 1 million Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica. Some are in the country illegally, however many have work permits and travel to and from Nicaragua at various times of the year. If you were to cross the border during a heavy traffic season (such as Semana Santa [Easter] or Navidad [Christmas]), have fun with longer lines. For some persons it can take hours to cross at inopportune times. When traffic is light one can get through both sides of the border in less than an hour.
Other than the occasional food stall or tourist shop, there are few places to shop on the Nicaraguan border. Nicaragua is not a duty free zone. Most travelers are simply passing through to get to Granada or Managua (north), or to a specific destination in Costa Rica (south).