Here are nine apps that you might want to install on your phone before you travel to Costa Rica.
Getting around Costa Rica in a car sometimes can be very challenging. Roads in Costa Rica are often narrower than many North Americans are used to. Additionally, addresses, as we understand them in the United States and Canada, don’t function the same way as in Costa Rica.
Traffic jams (which ticos call presas) are common in the Central Valley. During rush hour it can take an hour or more just to travel 3 or 4 miles.
Having a good map and navigation app on your Android phone or iPhone is helpful if you plan on driving. Here are some apps to consider:
Waze is by far the most popular navigation app among Costa Ricans. It is unique in that it uses user data to provide up-to-date and accurate navigation information. When you are navigating with Waze, it automatically updates route information, while you are on the road, based on traffic conditions at that moment. For example, if your original route suddenly slows down because of an accident or other kind of trouble, Waze quickly recalculates a new route to avoid the slowdown.
TIP: If you are navigating roads in Costa Rica, use the Waze App instead of Google Maps or Apple Maps.
Google Maps is great for finding information about destinations and things that may be around you as you’re traveling. Google Maps location information is linked to reviews, contact information, phone numbers and other location specific information about places in Costa Rica.
With Google Maps you can now download areas or parts of a map so that you can access that information while your phone is offline.
TIP: Download the area through which you’ll be traveling in your Google Maps app on your phone so if you do happen to be offline you’ll still be able to access Google Maps information about the area.
While in the United States or Canada. Google Maps is good for navigation, in Costa Rica Waze is a better app for getting from Point A to Point B.
If you plan on spending your entire Costa Rica trip at an all-inclusive resort, then you will probably have no need for WhatsApp. However, if you plan on adventuring, then pay attention to the following.
WhatsApp is a messaging app, owned by Facebook, that is ubiquitous in Costa Rica. With this free app, you can send text messages, audio messages, videos, images and documents. You can also make VOIP audio calls and video calls.
According to an El Financiero study, 97% of Ticos surveyed use WhatsApp.
Many businesses accept messages via WhatsApp.
TIP: Most phone numbers, for businesses and individuals, that begin with the digits 6, 7, or 8 are mobile phones and most likely have an associated WhatsApp account.
In Costa Rica Central Valley Uber is an inexpensive, convenient and safe option for transportation. If you are familiar with using Uber in North America, then you’ll be able to use Uber in Costa Rica. The process is the same. You don’t need to open a new account or make any changes.
In San Jose and the rest of the Central Valley Uber cars are abundant. And, they tend to be significantly less expensive than than the official red taxis.
As you can imagine, there is friction between the traditional red taxi drivers and Uber, including a few minor incidents of violence.
Technically, Uber is not legal in Costa Rica. However, enforcement of this law is lax.
Because of the technical illegality of the service and friction with official taxi drivers, riders in Costa Rica make sure that the front, passenger-side seat is occupied when riding Uber. If you are traveling alone then you will want to sit in the front. This makes it not-so-obvious that you driver is with Uber.
According to El Financiero, there are more than 21,000 drivers and 800,000 riders in the country. Of the 21,000 drivers, 45% report that driving Uber is their main source of income.
TIP: If you are in the Central Valley, Uber is a great option. However, make sure that someone in your party rides in the front seat, so it is less obvious that the driver is an Uber driver.
Moovit & Off The Grid Traveler
If you are doing a Costa Rica trip on a budget, one of the best ways to save money is to eschew car rental and private transportation for the public bus. Buses are downright cheap and they criss-cross the country. Almost every tourist destination in the country can be reached by bus from San Jose.
Unfortunately for the first-time traveler to Costa Rica, the bus system can be challenging to navigate.
Each bus route is operated by a private company that is awarded a monopoly (and in some cases a duopoly) concession by the government agency known locally as ARESEP. This means that there is little uniformity among the look of the buses and the configuration of the bus stops.
We recommend two smartphone apps to help overcoming these challenges. They are Moovit and Off the Grid Traveler.
Moovit is a San Francisco-based tech company that uses crowdsourced data (much like Waze) to provide accurate and up-to-date public transit data for users in over 2,000 cities. The app is free.
Off the Grid Traveler is a home-grown tool, developed in Costa Rica, with solid local information. The primary advantage of this app is that it functions even when your phone has no internet connection, which Moovit doesn’t automatically do.
TIP: Download both Moovit and Off the Grid Traveler before your trip if you plan on using public buses or other mass transit.
The TravelSafe app makes it easy to access country-specific emergency information, embassy contact information and provides a panic-button widget that automatically sends SMS messages to up to three emergency contacts.
While English is widely spoken, to at least some degree, in most heavily traveled parts of the country, Costa Rica is primarily a Spanish-speaking country. If you want to fully enjoy the experience, you will want to be able communicate, at least basically, in Spanish.
Google Translate is gold standard for travel translation apps. Here are the things that you can do with it:
Conversation mode switches between the two languages: after you speak, the app translates from English to Spanish. Then, the other person speaks, and the app translates Spanish to English.
When you find yourself attempting to read a sign, a restaurant menu or other document, Live Lens translates in real-time via your phone’s camera.
TIP: Use Google Translate to converse and read signs and documents in Spanish.
XE Currency Converter
For North American and European expats living in Costa Rica, converting currency amounts to and from the local Costa Rican currency, the colon, becomes second nature. But, until you can do that mental math easily, why not put a currency converter app on your phone?
The XE Currency Converter will help you easily convert amounts from your home currency to Costa Rican colones.