Last Updated: January 24, 2021
In 2020, the world was turned upside down and we were all affected. But many are trying to put it all behind them and still travel—to get away—at least for a little while. Those planning to visit Costa Rica have been asking us what it is currently like here and what is open for them to enjoy. In this post, we’ll share what you can expect when traveling around Costa Rica, what is open, and how locals and other travelers are handling the situation.
Costa Rica, like most countries, suffered a big economic hit from the pandemic. With tourism being a major income source for many citizens, the government decided to reopen its air borders to the entire world on November 1, 2020. The country also eliminated the need for a COVID-19 test to make the entry process easier. See here for the full entry requirements.
These efforts have opened Costa Rica’s doors to international tourism once again. It has slowly trickled down to the many families that rely on tourism, making a big impact on their lives. And while some viewed the opening and lack of testing as rash, the government has stood by the decision.
Leading up to the reopening, hospital capacity was increased and, as of this writing, there has been no shortage of beds (see update below). Additionally, travelers are required to carry specific travel insurance for private care. This further protects the public healthcare system from being overwhelmed in the future.
Costa Rica does have many active cases of the virus (see stats and info here). In general, though, the situation has somewhat leveled off. There haven’t been any dramatic spikes in the number of new cases for the last few months.
Update as of January 24, 2020: While the number of active cases has continued to remain fairly level, hospitalizations have steadily increased. On December 19, government health officials announced that intensive care beds (ICU) in the public hospital system (CCSS) were at or near capacity. As of January 24, the number of patients in ICU beds has decreased to a safer level and there is not a capacity issue at most public hospitals. Health officials continue to monitor the situation daily.
It is important to note that tourists are required to purchase travel insurance that covers medical care at private facilities, not through the public hospitals. Private hospitals have ICU beds available to care for COVID-19 patients and have not had capacity issues so far. See our post about entry requirements for more information about the required insurance.
Overview of What Is Open in Costa Rica
While some businesses did close during the pandemic, for most, it was temporary. Starting in November and December 2020, many hotels, restaurants, tours, and attractions are open again. The country’s beaches and most national parks are open too.
Everyone in the tourism industry is getting ready for what is normally the busy season in Costa Rica. High season starts in December. The weeks around Christmas and New Years are typically the busiest time of year here. This year may look a little different. But we are still expecting a larger volume of visitors during that time.
We have done several small trips within the country ourselves over the last several months. Based on that and our experience living on the central Pacific coast, we would say that about 7/10 things in tourist destinations (restaurants, hotels, shops, attractions, etc.) are back open.
With appreciative locals that have been through a lot, you’re likely to get an especially warm welcome when traveling these days.
Limited Capacity and Health Precautions
Though open, all businesses face new regulations to help protect both employees and visitors. There are also some temporary measures in effect from December 31 to January 31. We will discuss them in the relevant sections below (e.g. restaurants, beaches, national parks, driving restrictions).
Generally, most businesses are only allowed to operate at 50% capacity. That means that things like tour times, available tickets, or table space at restaurants are limited. We highly recommend reserving your spot in advance, especially for tours.
Additionally, people entering most businesses or starting a tour are now required to sanitize or wash their hands, wear a mask, and sometimes have their temperature taken.
You’ll also notice markings on the floor, reminding you to keep at least 1.8 meters (6 feet) apart from others.
Use of Masks
Just like everywhere around the world, the use of masks is controversial. But in Costa Rica, it is the law to wear one when going inside any indoor space (shared vehicles like shuttles and buses included). The one exception is at bars and restaurants. They are not required, except for the staff. Luckily, many restaurants in Costa Rica are open to the outside and have plenty of natural airflow.
While traveling around the country as well as in our own town, we have seen masks being used incorrectly or not at all. However, most people are following the rules and being respectful.
In areas where there have been more cases, like San Jose, wearing a mask is part of life. People are just used to it. In rural areas that may not have been impacted by the virus as much, there is generally more resistance to using masks.
Most travelers won’t have to worry about this, but all of Costa Rica has driving restrictions in place. Currently you aren’t allowed to drive certain days of the week, based on your license plate number (see this post for the latest info). However, rental cars and tourism vehicles are exempt.
If you experience any problems, just show the officer the rental car contract. If you’re still looking for a rental car company, check out our discounts page for a really good option.
A driving curfew between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. is also in effect. We have heard that rental cars are exempt from this as well, but just to be sure, we would not recommend driving during curfew hours unless necessary (e.g., to catch your flight).
Refer to this government website (Alertas section) for more information on the measures in place. It is in Spanish but can be translated using the Google Translate extension.
What to Expect When Traveling in Costa Rica
Below we’ll give some specifics for what you should expect when traveling around Costa Rica and how different establishments are handling things.
Arriving at the Airport
We’ve been getting a lot of feedback from people entering the country that the process was smooth and quick (as fast as 30 minutes). This is assuming you meet all the entry requirements, of course. We’d still plan on about one hour, just in case.
People have said that they only needed to have their QR code from the Health Pass scanned and then they could continue through to immigration and customs/baggage.
Some people have reported that the lines through immigration and surrounding the baggage claim can get crowded. While there are markings on the floor indicating where you should stand, multiple people in the same group crowd up these designated areas and push everyone closer together. So, just be prepared that there may be some closer contact inside the airport if immigration is processing a lot of people at once.
When arriving at your hotel, you’ll be required to wear a mask, wash your hands, and most likely, have your temperature checked. The staff should inform you of other safety protocols during check in.
Hotels are one of the few businesses that are allowed to operate at 100% capacity. That means that all rooms can be booked. However, common areas like restaurants, pools, and gyms are limited to just 50% capacity.
As a result, you’ll notice some changes at hotels. For example, instead of a breakfast buffet, you may be asked for your order ahead of time. Or you may be given a specific time slot to visit the breakfast area. Or the breakfast area may have the tables spread apart with a la carte ordering only. Different hotels are handling it in different ways.
Pools at hotels are limited to 50% capacity too. We’ve seen some hotels remove half the lounge chairs around the pool to help with this. However, we’ve also seen some pretty full pools at other places, especially on busy holiday weekends.
Restaurants are allowed to operate at 50% capacity between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. weekdays and between 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. on weekends. From January 4-17, bars could only operate at 25% capacity.
When visiting a restaurant, expect to have to sanitize your hands before entering. Most have a handwashing station set up right near the entrance. Often these have a foot pedal so that you don’t have to touch the faucet.
Many restaurants require a mask when entering but you can take it off when sitting down at your table. We usually take ours off after ordering and getting our drinks. Other restaurants are, honestly, pretty lackadaisical. They allow people to enter with no mask, only requiring the hand washing.
Waiters and other staff are supposed to wear a mask at all times. You may also notice that some restaurants have big chalk boards or QR codes that you scan for the menu, to avoid extra contact with objects. We’ve even eaten at a couple of restaurants where the entire inside area was closed off and only outdoor tables were available.
Most beaches in Costa Rica are open from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. weekends), though a few municipalities may have different hours. From January 4-31 beach hours will temporarily change. They will be open only from 5:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. during those dates. (Initially, beaches closed at 2:30 p.m., but the government extended the hours until 6 p.m. starting on January 13).
When visiting the beach, there isn’t much to know, except to keep your distance from others. You are not supposed to have large gatherings or play close-contact sports like soccer or volleyball, though some people still do.
The nice thing about Costa Rica’s beaches is that there is usually plenty of space to spread out. Beaches that are busy still aren’t that crowded, and in general, everyone can keep a distance of at least 20 feet or so, if they want to.
The weeks between Christmas and New Years and during Easter (Semana Santa) will definitely have more crowds, though, so be sure to watch for that.
Along the beach, vendors selling things like ice cream, ceviche, and souvenirs, on foot should be wearing masks. However, we’d say that about half don’t in the areas we’ve been to lately. If you’re not comfortable having them come close, just wave and shake your head to indicate you aren’t interested. Most will be respectful.
Almost all of Costa Rica’s national parks are open again, though with limited occupancy and some with limited trail access. In Manuel Antonio National Park, for example, there is one loop of trails open and you are supposed to stay in one direction, limiting the amount of passing. From January 4-17, all national parks were limited to 50% capacity.
When hiking through national parks, we have noticed that some people keep their mask handy in case they pass others along the trail. At other times, we’ve had to ask people for more space, when waiting in a short line to see something like a waterfall.
All national parks require handwashing, a temperature check, and a mask upon entering. They are only accepting credit cards to limit the use of cash. For some national parks, you can buy your tickets online in advance.
Most tours are operating again so you can still do things like zip lining, whitewater rafting, nature hikes, boat trips, agricultural tours, and more.
Each tour is different, but all operators are following the basic protocols like hand sanitizing, requiring masks (especially at reception areas, in vans, etc.), and limiting the number of people. We know some tour operators that are only offering private tours, to prevent mixing different groups.
For watersports and adrenaline-type tours, the use of a mask is only required during portions of the tour. Especially since it would either get wet or fall off in some cases.
In booking tours for clients, we have seen that some operators that usually offer a tour several times per day have modified their schedule to reduce the number of time slots available. For this reason, we recommend booking ahead of time if possible so that you can get a reservation and they can schedule staff. Many tourism workers have been laid off or are only working part time because of the pandemic.
Compliance of Locals and Other Tourists
Generally speaking, most people in Costa Rica are taking the pandemic seriously. Everyone at grocery stores, banks, and other indoor businesses are all wearing their masks and sanitizing hands often.
On trips we have taken recently, we have seen many locals (especially from city areas like San Jose) respecting the protocols very carefully. On the other hand, in our small town on the central Pacific coast and in some other rural areas, we often see people mingling and very few wearing a mask. Many expats living in the country also seem to be hesitant to wear a mask when getting together. Of course, with any population, there is a mix.
Those international visitors that we have seen seem to be going with the flow and learning what to do at each place they stop. They all seem very happy to be here and who can blame them!
Like everywhere, people in Costa Rica want to get back to some type of normalcy after having businesses closed for many months in 2020. Locals are excited to have international tourists back again and it gives them hope for the future. If you are thinking about planning a visit, we hope this post helps you decide one way or another. If you do come, Costa Rica will be waiting with open arms (and a mask).
Last Updated: January 24, 2021
Have a question about what’s open? Or are you in Costa Rica now? Leave us a comment below.
Need more info? Check out our other Covid-related posts before you travel:
Costa Rica and the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Latest Statistics
Just starting to plan your trip? Check out these helpful posts and pages:
Rental Car Discount – Save 10% or more and get free extras like surfboard racks, child seats, and more.
Weather in Costa Rica: What You Need to Know – Weather Apps hardly work in Costa Rica. Read this post to find out typical weather patterns for the month you are planning to come.
Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials – Covid may have changed a lot, but you still need much of the same gear these days. Be prepared for your Costa Rica trip with our detailed packing list.