The local currency in Costa Rica is Colones.  They do also accept US dollars in most places.  Now we all know that exchange rates change daily, so if you are planning to travel to Costa Rica it would be best for you to check what the current exchange rate is prior to leaving from a reputable source, so you don’t end up being taken advantage of by currency exchange places once you land.  Here are some quick money tips for traveling Costa Rica.  Below the bullet tips are more in-depth explanations and ramblings on money:)

  • Avoid airport exchange rate centers.  They are notorious for giving the worst rate and for slapping on extra charges.
  • Carry smaller bills.  Many places won’t accept $100 bills due to counterfeit issues and many places don’t like giving lots of change out from larger bills.  So stick with $20 (10,000 colones) or less.
  • ATMs: If you are in a larger city, get there EARLY!!!  My first night in San Jose as I wandered the streets I looked for places to exchange my money for local currency and for ATMs to simply get out some local currency.  However the lines for each of these tasks were easily a mile long.  No joke!  Perhaps it was because I arrived on a Saturday, that perhaps was the only reason for every line being that long, but in any event it was enough for me to decide not to join the lines but rather to wait for a less crowded area to get or exchange money.  I have never had to wait in line in smaller locations such as La Fortuna, Puerto Jimenez and Puerto Viejo.
  • Store money smart: As a general travel safety tip, I would recommend to store your money in different locations.  For example, I always had a little bit of money in my travel bag for incidentals like taking the bus or getting something to eat.  But the vast majority of my money was stored in my bra.  Ok, perhaps that’s TMI, but I’m just being honest here:)  The more prepared traveler would perhaps consider a money belt or other clever device that looks innocent enough, but that stores the majority of their money.  Just food for thought!

Now for the ramblings…

Generally speaking, 500 colones is equivalent to 1 US dollar.  So 1000 colones (also called one Mil) is 2 US dollars.  The one Mil bill is actually quite cleverly designed.  It’s plastic believe it or not!  Practically indestructible and I would assume recyclable… They also have a 2,000 bill ($4.00 which is also my favorite bill because it has an image of a shark and coral reef on one side) a 5,000 bill ($10.00) a 10,000 bill ($20.00) and a 20,000 bill ($40.00).  I don’t know if the bills get higher than the 20K one, and honestly I’ve only seen the 20K bill once.  In general it’s best to have smaller bills (10K or less) since many places either won’t have the change for larger bills, or won’t want to accept them because you will be taking all their change!

That brings me to another quick point.  Avoid bringing $100 US dollar bills here.  They have had a lot of problems with counterfeit $100 bills and many places will not accept them because they aren’t sure that they aren’t counterfeit.  I have personally seen this occur to a few travelers at a hostel in Manuel Antonio.  They tried to pay with a $100 bill and were asked to pay with another form of payment because the hostel owner couldn’t verify that the bill was real.

Most places that are tourist related will simply use the base exchange of 500 colones to the 1 US dollar.  So for example, if you have a tour for 15,000 colones, they will accept $30 US dollars no problem.  Other places however are much more in tune with the exchange rates and will convert the colones to US dollars using the current exchange rate.  So if the exchange rate is low (i.e. less than 500 per 1US) then you could be paying more dollars out than if you simply had colones on you.  Unfortunately there isn’t any way for me to say “use this place or that” as per the places that will use the 500/1 rate vs. the places that are checking rates daily.  It’s simply something that I noticed along the way.

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