Last Updated: May 20, 2021
In 2020, the world was turned upside down and we were all affected. But with vaccinations currently underway in many countries, travel is slowly getting back to normal. 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.
Since Costa Rica reopened its borders last August, tourism numbers have been much lower than normal. Some estimates say that international arrivals are down 80% from normal levels. However, with vaccination campaigns advancing in countries like the United States, we have seen a noticeable increase in travel to Costa Rica, especially in March and April 2021. Additionally, many travelers are now planning longer stays in Costa Rica, working or studying remotely.
Costa Rica does have many active cases of the virus (see stats and info here) and is currently in a second wave (since mid-April). Hospitalizations are at an all-time high as well, which is stressing the public healthcare system. As far as we know from local news reports, very few tourists have been hospitalized. Additionally, the government is trying to limit any new restrictions on the tourism industry since the spread of the virus seems to be primarily within the local population, especially in high-density areas.
Overview of What Is Open in Costa Rica
While some businesses did close during the pandemic, for most, it was temporary. As of May 2021, most hotels, restaurants, tours, and attractions are open again. The country’s beaches and national parks are open too.
We have done several small trips within the country ourselves during the pandemic. 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, Opening Hours, and Health Precautions
Though open, all businesses face new regulations to help protect both employees and visitors.
Generally, most businesses are only allowed to operate at 50% capacity. Bars are currently at 25% (until the end of May 2021). 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.
The hours of operation for businesses are also regulated. Currently (as of May 2021), businesses only can be open between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. Previously, when cases were lower, things were able to be open until 11:00 p.m.
As far as health precautions go, people entering most businesses or starting a tour are 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.
Masks are not required in the outdoors or while walking on the street, unless you are at a bus stop or some type of event like a farmers market, function, etc.
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. Many businesses will enforce the use of masks, since they can be fined and shut down if they are non-compliant.
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 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. is also in effect. We have heard that rental cars are exempt from this as well, if traveling to and from the airport. 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 (including friends and family) that the process was smooth and sometimes 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. (An exception is large hotels with 100 rooms or more. Until the end of May, these are at 75% capacity.) 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 9:00 p.m.
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.
Currently beaches in Costa Rica are open from 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
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.
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 at 50% capacity. Some have limited trail access to avoid crowding.
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 most 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: May 20, 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.