A huge mistake many people make when coming to Costa Rica is to convert their U.S. dollars into Costa Rican colones.  Well here is my advice... DON'T - THERE IS NO IMMEDIATE NEED TO DO SO!  

While Costa Rica operates on the 'colon', most merchants and service providers readily accept U.S. dollars for everything.  In fact, in the almost four years we have lived in country, not once have we ever had US dollars not accepted.  Be forewarned, that when you give a vendor US dollars, you will most likely receive colones as change.  That's a good thing.  You should also know that Costa Rican retailers either do not carry lots of extra cash to make change or they just don't like making it.  Simply put... do not carry bills of large denomination.  If you come with a wallet full of $50 or $100 bills, they will be useless.  You will need to visit a bank and get it changed into smaller denominations.

As soon as you clear CR Customs, you will see kiosks where you will be requested to exchange your US dollars for Costa Rican colones.  Remember that these companies are in business to make a buck and their rate of exchange will not be in your favor.  See related article below.


Cash is king in Costa Rica, so be advised that not all establishments accept credit cards.  Many small, roadside restaurants (known as sodas) are a cash only business.  Same holds true when shopping at farmers markets (ferias) and the like.  However, when making significant purchases at stores, super markets etc, plastic is readily accepted.

We recommend using a credit card for most major purchases (Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted, Amex no so much) and a debit card to make cash withdrawals.  This minimizes the amount of cash you need to carry.  When you feel you may need cash, you can go to any number of ATMs located throughout the country.  Just make sure that the ATM system your home bank system uses (i.e. PLUS, Interlink etc.), matches with the system the CR bank uses.  That is easily identifiable at the ATM.  Another thing worth noting... not all ATMs offer you an English language option.  This can be daunting the first time you try to get some cash at a "todo español" machine.


As I write this article, the exchange rate for one US dollar is 492.84.  It will fluctuate daily and trying to keep up with its always changing value can be a real pain in the ass.  However, there is a nice and easy way for you to do a quick and easy conversion in your head.

An item costing 5.000 colones will convert to $9.94 using today's rate of exchange.  Instead of being exact, just use the exchange rate of 500 colones to the dollar.  So if something cost 5.000 colones, it will convert to $10.00.  All you need do is strip away the three numbers to the right of the decimal point and double the numbers to the left. 

When you are dining out and the waitress brings you your "cuenta" and it reads ₡23.465, the exact conversion is $46.64.  But if you use my little tip, strip away the first three numbers (465) and double the first two; 23 becomes 46.  That gets you close enough so that you have a good idea what you are spending (in US Dollars).


Here are a few more examples:
A camera costing ₡165.000 will cost you $330.00
Your cold beer costing ₡2.000 will cost you $4.00



At the end of your trip, you are likely to have amassed quite a collection of various types of Costa Rican money.  Taking it to a currency exchange is rather stupid because after they take their commissions, you come out on the short end of the stick... again.

Manage your colones and use as much as you can before departing Pura Vidaville.  Also remember, you will need to pay your $28 (₡14.000) EXIT FEE at the airport.  This is another great way to dump all your extra change.  But my favorite recommendation is save some of the small stuff, especially that aluminum crap that's worth nothing, and bring it home as gifts for the grandkids.  They'll be stoked and have something cool for "show & tell."  You'll be loved and it will have cost you NOTHING.




















New tourism group points out exchange rate pitfall

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

REPRODUCED FROM AUGUST 24, 2012 ISSUE (Vol 12 No. 169)

The new tourism chamber has characterized the currency exchange rate at Juan Santamaría airport as a government-sponsored robbery mainly directed at tourists.  The group, the Asociation para las Protección  del Turismo in Costa Rica, posted a receipt from a U.S. visitor to its Facebook page. 

The receipt shows that the visitor received 444 colons to the U.S. dollar in a transaction Saturday. That's 48.50 colons per dollar lower than the bank rate on the same day in San José.  The visitor, identified as Joe Allan Stokes, exchanged $600 at the airport currency broker. He received 266,402 colons in return. At the bank rate of 492.5 colons per dollar, he would have received 295,500 colons.  That's 29,098 fewer colons or about $59.

Reactions to the posting were mixed. One person wrote that everyone knows that currency deals at airports are heavily discounted.  Ironically, some hotels also exchange currency at rates that are very favorable to the business. 

The business at Juan Santamaría is Global Exchange, which has airport currency windows at many airports. The firm says on its Web site “we are the leading company in Foreign Exchange Services at main International Airports of Latin America and the Caribbean, and we are growing exponentially in Europe, North of Africa and the Middle East.”

The tourist probably did not realize that the taxi firm at the airport accepted dollars. In fact, supermarkets downtown accept dollars as do a number of other businesses. So there really is not a pressing reason for a person arriving by air to change money at the airport.

Global Exchange makes no secret about its business, and it is listed with other currency outlets on the Banco Central Web page. The most recent quote was that it would sell colons for 438.87 per U.S. dollar and that it would sell a dollar for 512.02 colons. The difference was 73.15 colons, by far the greatest among the Costa Rican money outlets. However, the numbers have not been updated since late July.

dollar squeezed