I Traveled to Costa Rica During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Here’s What I Learned

by Kristy Tolley
Manuel Antonio National Park beach

By Cassandra Brooklyn

Editor’s note: We understand that the decision to travel is a personal one. While traveling right now isn’t for everyone, we want to provide our members with up-to-date information and helpful tips should they decide to do so.

Costa Rica is open to travelers and it’s one of the safest places to visit right now. Here’s what you need to know.

I lived through the terror that was New York City during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and I’m very fortunate to have not caught the virus myself, despite seeing many friends and family members suffer from it. As such, I’m extremely cautious when leaving the city (which I believe is the safest place in the country right now). Also, I only want to travel to destinations I believe are just as safe — if not safer than — than New York City. Costa Rica fits the bill. Even better – it’s a lot warmer than New York in the winter. Also, I’m a huge fan of beautiful beaches, zip lining, hiking and snorkeling — all of which are available in abundance in Costa Rica!

woman sitting at a beach in Costa RicaCOVID-19 Safety Precautions in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has implemented some of the strongest safety and hygiene precautions anywhere so I felt extremely safe visiting. Everyone — and I mean everyone — wears masks and most hotel and restaurant workers also wear gloves and face shields. Hand sanitizer is readily available and most businesses in popular tourist areas (Monteverde, La Fortuna and Quepos) have installed sinks outside so that visitors can wash their hands before entering. On a few occasions, I was even asked to apply hand sanitizer immediately after washing my hands. I’m not so sure that was necessary but I appreciate how cautious they’re being so I didn’t object.

Instead of the usual paper menus, restaurant tables display QR codes that, once scanned, pull up the day’s offerings on your mobile device. In an effort to fully relax on my vacation, I left my cell phone in my hotel room a few times, and instead brought a magazine or book to serve as my dinner companion. In those cases, servers either provided me with a disposable paper menu or offered me the restaurant’s mobile tablet. In either case, they then pointed to the bottle of hand sanitizer on the table.

two tropical drinks sitting on a table in Costa RicaQuiet Luxury

Given the lower rates of travel, many luxury properties are offering steeply discounted rates. Not only can you book a $600/night beachfront paradise for half the price, you’ll have the place just about to yourself. At Arenas del Mar resort, which sits on an 11-acre private rainforest reserve that’s walking distance from famed Manuel Antonio National Park, I had the hotel’s private beach area all to myself two nights in a row. At the Hotel Arenal Springs in La Fortuna, I arrived early to a nearly empty open-air dining room and chose a table overlooking the stunning Arenal Volcano. The absence of guest chatter was replaced with the sound of birds and frogs stirring in the early morning hours.

La Fortuna is known for its hot springs but the naturally-heated, private springs at Hotel Arenal Springs were closed for repair so I headed to Paradise Hot Springs. The mineral-rich outdoor pools are usually bursting with visitors but on both nights that I visited, there were only a handful of other guests. Once the sun set, soft classical music was piped in through the speakers and I had several thermal pools all to myself.

Be Flexible

Like many destinations around the world, some hotels, restaurants and attractions remain closed or are operating at a limited capacity. In areas that receive a lot of tourists, restaurants may only open on the weekend. So, if you plan to visit mid-week, make sure your hotel has its own restaurant. In La Fortuna, I had hoped to go rafting in the jungle but nobody else signed up for the activity on the weekend I visited. The tour operator was able to find another couple to go river tubing so I joined their small group to float through the forest, splash in the cool water and stare up at sloths and howler monkeys.

sloth hanging in a forest of Costa Rica

How to Get to Costa Rica

Costa Rica reopened its borders to the world in September, 2020, first allowing only the residents of a handful of U.S. states to visit, and then expanding its welcome to all states and countries on November 1st. Though fewer direct flight options exist due to reduced air travel, it’s fairly easy to find a flight to Costa Rica by flying through Newark, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles or Miami.

All travelers to Costa Rica must fill out an online health form within 48 hours of travel, as well as provide proof of adequate travel insurance. Costa Rica offers its own insurance plans that will cover COVID-19-related expenses but I also purchased (and highly recommend) travel insurance, which also covers theft, delayed baggage, trip interruption, assault and medical-related evacuation. Given the impact that COVID-19 has had on the travel industry, I think it’s especially important to have comprehensive travel insurance for any trip abroad.

Even though Costa Rica doesn’t currently require a negative COVID-19 test to visit, that could change. Even if it doesn’t, getting a negative test is the responsible thing to do to ensure you’re not an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.

Costa Rica outdoor hand washing station

Returning to the United States from Costa Rica

The United States is now requiring all travelers (including U.S. residents) to produce a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country. Testing facilities are widely available in Costa Rica — particularly around the capital, San José — and results are typically returned within 48 hours. I paid about $90 for my test and received my results within 12 hours, though I’ve heard some have waited several days for their results. Speak with your tour guide, travel agent or hotel about testing opportunities, as they may be able to help you find a facility that can return test results quicker.

Also note that some states within the U.S. may have additional restrictions on top of the federal testing policy. New York State residents, for instance, are required to complete a Traveler Health Form before their return, indicating where they’ve traveled and whether or not they exhibit any symptoms. Once the form is completed, you’ll be directed to a screen with a green checkbox, which you’ll need to be shown to airline staff before boarding the plane, and again to airport staff in New York City before you’re allowed to proceed to customs.

Though there are a few more steps required to travel right now, airlines, tour operators and destinations have gone out of their way to simplify the process. Information is plainly laid out online, clear directions and confirmations are communicated via email and there’s usually a friendly staff person on the ground to help you out should you have any questions.

Your AAA Travel Agent can help you navigate all the details of your Costa Rica vacation. So, grab your passport and a few of your favorite masks, and begin planning your getaway to the Land of Pura Vida!

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