- What to Ex­pect: How to Han­dle Money in Costa Rica

Howler Magazine - - Contents - by Karl kahler

Many vis­i­tors to Costa Rica won­der if they should bring a lot of cash when they come, where and how to change for­eign cur­ren­cies, and whether or not it's best to use a credit card. Here's some ad­vice:

Dol­lars are widely ac­cepted here, so if you're from the U.S., by all means bring dol­lars. If you're not from the U.S., con­sider chang­ing some of your cur­rency to U.S. dol­lars be­fore com­ing. But read on. Many busi­nesses will not ac­cept $50s or $100s, on sus­pi­cion that they may be coun­ter­feit. It's best to bring $20s, and smaller bills also come in handy for tip­ping or for small pur­chases. If you use dol­lars at most busi­nesses, you will usu­ally get colones in change at an un­fa­vor­able ex­change rate. This is not a big deal when spend­ing small amounts, and it's fine to spend dol­lars on your taxi from the air­port, but even­tu­ally you'll want to change your dol­lars to colones.

Do not change money at the air­port, un­less it's a small amount, be­cause the ex­change rate is ter­ri­ble. (And it's even worse if you buy colones at the air­port in your home coun­try.) Find a Costa Ri­can bank and change your money there — and bring your pass­port, be­cause you can't change money without it.

For years, there has been a sim­ple rule of thumb that, roughly speak­ing, c500 is $1, c1,000 is $2, c5,000 is $10, c10,000 is $20, etc. So to cal­cu­late the ex­change rate in your head for colones to dol­lars, you drop three ze­ros and dou­ble the num­ber. This re­mains a pop­u­lar way to make change at small busi­nesses, and is use­ful for mak­ing rough cal­cu­la­tions in your head. How­ever, in re­cent years the colón has lost value against the dol­lar, so that now $1 is worth about c567. The up­shot is that if a mer­chant on the street is sell­ing a knick­knack for c10,000, and you ask how much in dol­lars, he may say $20. But in fact it should be closer to $17.60.

When han­dling coins, the rough 500-to-1 rule is use­ful for do­ing cal­cu­la­tions in your head. If c500 is roughly $1, then c100 is roughly 20 cents, c50 is 10 cents, and the lit­tle sil­ver-col­ored c5 and c10 coins are prac­ti­cally worth­less.

Of­ten the best op­tion for ob­tain­ing money in colones is sim­ply to bring your debit card and use it to take money out of an ATM (“ca­jero”). All ATMs dis­pense money in colones, but some give you a choice of dol­lars, so if you're given a choice, se­lect colones. You may want to check with your bank first to see if your debit card will work in a for­eign coun­try.

Credit and debit cards are widely ac­cepted at most busi­nesses, though you will oc­ca­sion­ally find smaller restaurants or stores that don't ac­cept them. Some taxis can process cards and some can't, so it's best to ask. Be aware that most credit cards charge a 3 per­cent sur­charge for for­eign pur­chases, which can add up, but a few credit cards

(like Cap­i­tal One) do not. You may want to con­sider get­ting a card that doesn't pe­nal­ize you for be­ing in a for­eign coun­try.

Trav­el­ers checks are not rec­om­mended — they are ac­cepted in very few places and they're a has­sle to buy in your own coun­try and an­other has­sle to cash in this one.

All ATMs dis­pense money in colones, but some give you a choice of dol­lars.

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