Understanding (and Saving) Money in Costa Rica

Folks have varying attitudes about the money they spend on vacation. Some consider foreign currency to be "Monopoly Money", spending it willy-nilly, only to gasp when they get home and open their Visa bill.  Others spend their vacation with a calculator Velcroed to their palm in constant worry about what they're spending, finding they, upon returning home, have missed the fun of their holiday while obsessing about its cost.

Living here for eight years, I want to extend some focus. I am offering a series of postings to provide an "Insider Guide" to spending money in Costa Rica.  You'll read pointers on credit cards, gratuities, bartering and finagling.  But today’s post is direct and crucial: Value & Conversion.


Traveling to other countries, we from the United States, start to ask: Why is “our” money so ugly? Costa Rica colones are colorful, made of synthetic materials (the bills feel like pages in Life magazine) and vary in size by denomination of the bill.

While the US dollar is becoming more valuable here since March 2014, it’s still a reasonable approximation ($1 = 500 colones) to convert amounts in your head by doubling the large printed digits you see on the bill (above) to get its equivalent in dollars. (“mil” = “thousand”):

1 mil = $2

2 mil = $4

etc. . . .

50 mil= $100

It’s not an exact science, but it saves you from having to pull out your calculator every time you pay for something. (Plus, it’s very cool to know you only need $2000 to be “a millionaire” in Costa Rica). You can save this link to see the precise exchange rate.

Because of its tourism industry, Costa Rica accepts U$D virtually everywhere, so there’s no need to convert money prior to your arrival here. When you pay in U$D, change will be returned in colones, so estimate what your change should be before you pay any bill. (This advice is particularly helpful when paying a bar tab or restaurant check, assuming your math skills may be "lesser").

If you’ll feel better with some local currency immediately, ATM’s that dispense colones are in the airports. The additional benefit to this advice is that it prevents you from having to bring a lot of cash on your flight. TIP: Prior to leaving the US, it is vital that you notify your bank that you will be in CR so it will not freeze your cards. Casa Tranquila has had many guests (who do not heed) lose vacation time on the telephone to the US trying to get their cards useable again. Worse, your card could be held by the ATM machine itself. It’s worth a quick telephone call or email to let your bank know.

Fun Fact: Since Christopher Columbus discovered Costa Rica, and his name in Spanish is Cristobal Colon, the currency is named after him. The symbol is ₡.

Even after you arrive, there’s no need to “convert” anything. Since your change from U$D will always be in colones, you’ll have all you want quickly. TIP: Costa Rica requires a $28/person (₡14,000) departure tax in the airport as you are going home. (Everyone must pay this). This is a great way to “dump” those leftover colones which will be valueless in the US. (You can also pay this tax in U$D or with a credit card).

It may be easier to use credit cards when you’re abroad, but many places in Costa Rica will give you a discount for using cash. (Up to 10%). The establishment has to pay a fee every time it accepts a credit card, so it passes that savings on to you. Remember, before you get your check, ask your attendant for the “bill in cash”, and it may reduce.

Costa Rica's soft currency is difficult to confuse with all its different colors and sizes. The coins’ denominations, however, are very similar to each other. You’ll have to look at the digits closely before you offer it. The novelty of their heavy weight will be fun while you’re here, but when you return, you’ll be astonished at how “light” those US coins feel in your pocket.

I trust you’ll find this information helpful, and I am happy to answer any additional questions you may have . . .or offer further advice. Whether or not you are Casa Tranquila’s guest, feel free to email me at Donald@casatranquilacostarica.com.

Next posting: Credit Cards. Feel free to Follow Casa Tranquila's blog now so you will be notified.

Pura Vida,