The following are things that you will need to consider when traveling to Costa Rica.
You will need to have a current passport. If traveling from the U.S., you will not need a visa, but from other countries this may be necessary. Check with your local travel agent or embassy. Some travel agents or airlines will explain that U.S. travellers can enter Costa Rica with a valid American birth certificate, but this is always much more complicated than having a passport and may cause delays.
It takes about 6 weeks to obtain a passport.
Vaccines and prophylactics
We highly recommend the use of a travel clinic in preparing for travel to any foreign destination. These clinics will check the current recommendations for your destination country and then provide the appropriate vaccines and medications for such things as malaria prophylaxis. Although the incidence of malaria is very low in Costa Rica, a phophylactic drug is recommended. Please do not uselarium. Although many U.S. physicians are prescribing this drug, or its equivalent, we have had students that had very bad and long lasting reactions to the drug.
If you use your family doctor instead of a travel clinic to prepare for your trip, you should visit the CDC website to see what preparations are recommended for your destination prior to visiting the doctor to be sure you know what is needed.
We recommend that you purchase your tickets online using any of the various travel websites (e.g. Travelocity.com or Hotwire.com). These will provide you with flight options in order of cost. Remember to shop around, as different sites will offer deals through various carriers. From the U.S., most people can still find flights for under $600 from a major airport. Be sure of your travel dates, as changing flights can be expensive or impossible for certain deals (e.g. hotwire does not allow any change of flights). Your destination will be the Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose (actually located in Alajuela), Costa Rica. The three letter acronym for this airport is SJO.
We recommend that you arrive in San Jose on the day before the first day of your class and get a room near the airport. We generally pick students up near mid-day of the first day of class at a predesignated hotel (varies with the class). We will pick you up at this airport in a bus and drive you to the field station. If you try to arrive on the first day of class, you run the risk of delayed flights causing you to miss our bus! You will then need to take public transportation (bus) to the town of Cariari, where we can send a car for you.
Let us know if you wish to share a hotel room with somebody else from your session. We will make names and e-mail addresses of those who wish to share available to you via e-mail.
In the airport and traveling in San Jose, it is a good idea to keep your money, traveller’s checks, and passport on your person. Although the incidence of violent crimes is vanishingly small in Costa Rica, there are individuals (in major cities in all countries) who would gladly take that which is not theirs, given the opportunity. Do not leave your baggage unattended, and never leave your passport or money in your luggage or in any purse or handbag that is not secured within your clothing. Although you are less likely to be robbed in Costa Rica than you are in the U.S. (for example), the consequences of such thefts are more acutely felt in a foreign country.
Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica. All courses at El Zota will be taught in English. Although guide books may tell you that most Costa Rican know some English, this is generally only true of heavily used tourist destinations, and does not apply to us. In fact, most Costa Ricans expect tourists to make some attempt to learn a little bit of the local language. This is a must if you plan to travel around the country before or after the class.
Although knowledge of the Spanish language is not necessary to come to El Zota, you will learn much more about the local culture if you attempt to pick up a few words and phrases. If you have taken Spanish in college or high school, practice a little before coming to Costa Rica. It can only enrich your travel experience.
The official currency of Costa Rica is the Colón. You can exchange American dollars for colones at most major hotels in San Jose (as a service to customers of the hotel) for a small fee. If you do not wish to pay a fee, you can go to a bank and get the exact exchange rate for your money. We do not recommend this if you speak no Spanish.
You are not likely to find colones easily or cheaply in the U.S. or Europe, so wait until you arrive to exchange money. Please exchange some cash for spending money before coming to the field station, as it will be difficult to do so after you arrive.
At the airport and on the streets in San Jose, there are street vendors who will attempt to exchange money for you. We do not recommend this method, as you may be swindled.
We recommend changing $50 to $100 dollars to colones before coming to the station. This will allow you to purchase refreshments at El Zota, and souvenirs on your field trip.
Pack light, but bring everything you may need. There will be little opportunity for shopping in Costa Rica before class, and you may not be able to find what you need. Also, goods produced outside of Costa Rica (such as batteries and film) may be much more expensive and of inferior quality to those you are accustomed to purchasing.
Remember, you will be limited to two check bags and one carry-on by the airline. Soft-sided luggage is preferable to hard-shelled suitcases.
Always carry your money and passport on your person when travelling. Although we have never had any incidences of theivery at El Zota, your instructor can keep your passport and money under lock and key when you arrive at the station, if you so desire.
Make a photocopy of the photo page of your passport and keep this in a separate place from your actual passport. This can aid in getting a new passport should you lose yours.
Leave your driver’s licence, school ID and unnecessary credit cards at home. If it is difficult to replace, if you don’t need it, if you can’t afford to lose it, leave it at home. The only necessary documentation in Costa Rica is your passport.
If you take medication for any reason, be sure you have an adequate supply.
Bring plenty of plastic bags (ziplocks and the like). The air is humid at the station and you may wish to protect some items from the moisture. Many electronic devices do not work well in the humidity (including many laptop computers, electronic cameras, video cameras, etc). Be particularly careful with cameras and binoculars. We have a drybox for such things, but you will still want plastic bags to protect them in the field or during transport.
Bring plenty of insect repellant with deet, but remember, deet eats plastic and 100 percent deet is not recommended for direct contact with skin.