Smartphone apps make life more convenient. Whether you carry an Apple iPhone or an Android device, that’s never more true than when away from home. There are apps that my Costa Rican friends and I recommend to make life easier and more convenient when you’re traveling or living in the Central American country. As part of your trip planning, you might consider opening up your phone’s app store and installing these apps based on your needs.
Before we get into the apps, you’ll want to plan on how you’re going to access cellphone service in Costa Rica. Many cellphone providers in the United States and Canada offer international plans that start at $10 per day.
If you’re staying for a while, that ten bucks can add up to a tidy sum. Fortunately, there are multiple choices for inexpensive local prepaid service. In most cases, it’s just a matter of buying and installing a pre-paid sim card into your unlocked phone. Read this to learn more about how to do that.
Here is a list of smartphone apps that we recommend downloading and installing before you embark on your trip to Costa Rica. Most are free apps but a few come with paid premium options. Unless otherwise noted, all of these apps are available for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating system.
This Google-owned company is by far the most popular navigation and map app in Costa Rica. If you’re going to be driving Costa Rican roads in a rental car it is a must-have.
The feature that makes Waze so useful is the real-time crowdsourced traffic data, which co-owned Google Maps doesn’t offer. The streets in Costa Rica can sometimes be a challenge to navigate for unaccustomed drivers, especially in San Jose and the rest of the Central Valley.
Accidents, construction, excessive traffic on narrow roads, and weather conditions can make automobile travel challenging. Waze users around you share real-time road condition data, hazards, and travel speed which helps the app automatically guide you through the quickest route to your destination, which isn’t always the shortest distance.
Whatsapp is the most popular app in Costa Rica. In fact, 97% of people in Costa Rica have it installed on their phones. And it is the single most-used tool for staying in touch with family and friends.
If you’re not familiar with it, Whatsapp is a Facebook-owned communication app from which you can chat, send audio, send video, make international and domestic audio calls, share documents, and make group phone calls. And all of that is free and works worldwide with only an internet connection.
Unlike Apple’s iMessage, it works across multiple platforms, including Android. There is even a limited-function version that you can use from a desktop or laptop computer.
Many businesses use Whatsapp to communicate with customers. Look for the Whatsapp logo on advertisements and signs. Even if you don’t see a logo, the odds are high that you can use Whatsapp to communicate.
This app is so popular in Costa Rica that the cellphone companies regularly offer promotions in which Whatsapp usage doesn’t count against data usage.
You might find other video-calling apps, such as Skype and Facetime, helpful for keeping in touch with loved ones back home, but for in-country communication, Whatsapp is the clear solution.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
There are two reasons why you may want to use a virtual private network app while traveling in Costa Rica. They are security and location.
A VPN creates a secure encrypted connection between your smartphone (or computer) and a server located somewhere else in the world. All of your data to and from your phone is routed through this secure connection.
When you are on a shared wifi connection, a VPN makes it difficult for snoopers on the same network to intercept and steal your data.
VPNs are also helpful in making your current location appear to be somewhere else than where you are at the time. This is helpful when you want to watch streaming entertainment that might not be available in Costa Rica due to geographic restrictions. Want to watch your favorite Netflix show but it’s not licensed to Costa Rica? Simply connect to your VPN’s server in your home country. Voila!
The best value VPN that I’ve found is Surfshark. Check current prices here.
This app provides information for many popular tourist destinations in the country. It’s great for finding hotels, transportation, restaurants, and other services. If your smartphone’s available storage is running low, you can also access much of this information via the website, CRmaps.com.
This user-friendly app is a so-called urban lifestyle app that offers delivery from restaurants, groceries, gifts, liquors, pharmacies, and other kinds of stores. My tica friend Marie, of Juno.CR, calls it the Uber for stuff.
If you’re spending time in the Central Valley, Glovo could be a helpful tool in getting food and other items delivered to you.
In the Central Valley, Uber is a great way to get around. While ride-hailing apps are technically illegal in Costa Rica, Uber is a ubiquitous and popular alternative to the standard red taxi. Prices are often lower than red taxis.
Due to the questionable legality of the service and conflict with the country’s taxi syndicate, Uber drivers often prefer that a passenger sits in the front seat so that it’s not obvious that the driver is working through Uber.
Uber in Costa Rica offers a cash-payment option but you can also use your existing account attached to a credit card for payment.
One aspect of Uber that is especially helpful to travelers is the ability to plot your destination in advance. Addresses of places in Costa Rica are sometimes challenging because they often are expressed in relation to commonly-known landmarks rather than in absolute house numbers and street names.
Didi is a ride-hailing service similar to Uber. The company, based in China, is rapidly growing throughout the world and is well funded. In fact, in 2018 Priceline.com invested $500 million USD into the ride-sharing company.
Sometimes ride-sharing apps aren’t the best choice for where you are or where you’re trying to go. Fortunately, there are taxis in literally every corner of the country.
The ubiquitous red taxis in Costa Rica use a meter to determine the cost. Taxiando is an app that calculates taxi fare based on your current location and destination.
Obviously, you may want to take a lot of photos of your fabulous vacation and share them with friends, but Instagram has another helpful feature for you when you’re preparing for your vacation and visiting Costa Rica.
On the Instagram smartphone app, you can search for photos by location. As your making decisions for your trip, you can make location searches in order to get a good idea of what each destination that you’re considering offers.
Trying to decide between spending a day in the cloud forests of Monteverde or the hot springs near Lake Arenal? Check out each destination in advance via an Instagram search.
Weather Underground (Wunderground)
Depending on who you believe, there are somewhere between twelve and thirty-two unique micro-climates in Costa Rica. Weather can change quickly as you travel from one part of the country to another. There are rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, tropical beaches, and more.
Most weather forecast apps don’t provide the kind of granular weather report that is useful when considering travel destinations in Costa Rica.
Windy is a specialty weather data app for people that enjoy wind and water sports. If you plan on sailing, fishing, surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, or any other water and/or wind-oriented activity, this app is a valuable resource for wind details.
It offers detailed Costa Rica weather forecasts, wind reports, direction, as well as a worldwide wind map with near-real-time data.
This one is a must-have for surfers. It provides long-range surf forecasts, including wind, waves, and swell. There are live webcams, reports, and other helpful information for surfers. It not only covers Costa Rica surf-spots but hundreds of other locations around the world.
This app is for those who plan on fishing in Costa Rica. According to the official website, you can get maps of sea surface temperature, chlorophyll concentrations, ocean conditions, real-time notifications, as well as laws and regulations related to fishing in Costa Rica.
If you’re sticking to heavily-trafficked tourist areas, most of the Costa Ricans that you’ll encounter will speak English. However, if you want to get off the beaten path and more deeply explore the country, you’ll want to know at least a little Spanish.
You can use it to learn basic Spanish phrases which are useful for travelers. If you don’t feel comfortable talking, this app also offers prerecorded audio that you can use in order to communicate with Spanish-speakers.
This app doesn’t require an internet connection to work, so if you find yourself in a remote location with spotty cell coverage, you’re still in good shape.
Many lists like this often include Duolingo for language learning. And, I agree that it’s a fine app for improving general Spanish skills. However, for quickly learning and understanding Spanish words and phrases that are helpful for a traveler, the Pimsleur app is superior.
The Pimsleur method of language learning uses graduated interval recall to quickly introduce and reinforce new words and phrases. It also focuses on vocabulary that you’re likely to use as a traveler.
While the app is free to download and there is one free lesson, the Spanish program comes with a monthly subscription fee (at the time of writing costs around $20 USD). It also offers many languages in addition to Spanish and works well on a tablet.
If your Spanish isn’t great, Google Translate is a helpful tool in translating the language to English. In fact, this translator app supports 108 languages, so it’s a must-have for international travelers throughout the world.
If you find yourself looking for information on a local website, which is only available in Spanish, Google Translate can translate entire webpages for you. Just simply put the links in the app and it will return a machine-translated version.
Google App (for Google Lens)
Google Lens, a part of the Google Photos app, is an image-based search and informational tool. And, it does text translation in real-time. For example, you can use the app to translate a restaurant menu simply by pointing your smartphone camera at the menu and reading the translated text on the phone’s screen.
This app bills itself as the mobile app for tourists, expats, and nationals. It makes geographical-based recommendations based on your location. They cover a collection of tourism activities, restaurants, events, sites, and other helpful info for English-speakers.
Costa Rica Travel Guide
Costa Rica Travel Guide, an eTips app, is similar to InCostaRica, in that it is a digital travel guide. It works even if you don’t have data service. This app-based guide offers daily itineraries ideas and safety tips.
Buses crisscross Costa Rica every day, providing affordable transportation for locals and visitors both. The Moovit app calls itself a real-time worldwide public transit app. You can use it to plan bus trips across the country and then let it guide you on your trip with step-by-step directions. It includes an expansive database of routes, schedules, and bus stops.
My Currency Converter & Rates
Unlike the neighbor to the south, Panama, Costa Rica’s official currency isn’t the US dollar. It’s the colon. While many businesses in tourist areas will accept US dollars, it’s usually a better idea to pay in colones when the price is quoted in colones. You’ll get better value on your money.
With this app, you can up-to-date currency exchange rates for more than 150 currencies, including the Costa Rican colon. It even has data for Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Dogecoin.
Like the aforementioned app, XE Currency will help you make currency conversions. It also offers money transfer options.
Ojeadores de Arboles Mágicos
Arboles Mágicos is a helpful app in identifying trees that you might encounter while in Costa Rica.
Airbnb is an absolute must-have for me. There are hundreds of short-term and long-term lodging options available from one end of the country to the other. It’s the king of vacation rentals. If you’re a cost-conscious budget traveler and want to avoid expensive hotels, there are shared-room options for as low as $10 per night. There is also a 16-bedroom villa on the beach in Jacó for more than $2,000 per night. And, there are hundreds of options in-between. No matter what your tastes or budget, it’s nice to be able to quickly and conveniently make reservations from your phone.
Via the app’s Experiences, you can book a large variety of activities such as bar crawl in San José, a kayaking tour through bioluminescent water in a remote part of the Nicoya Peninsula, horseback riding on the beach, and much more. It’s a simple and convenient way to book tours.
If you don’t already have an Airbnb account, you can get up to $50 off of your first stay and $15 off of your first Experience by signing up using this referral link.
According to Blue Ridge Overland Gear:
Overlanding is vehicle-based, on-road and off-road, adventure travel with a focus on self-reliance, resilience, and enjoyment of the journey. [source]
The iOverlander app helps the person who is overlanding find places to camp with comments, reviews, and detailed descriptions of the offered amenities. It’s one of the few sources of information for camping information in Costa Rica.
Merlin Bird ID
Encountering wildlife and animals is one of the most popular aspects of travel to Costa Rica. There are more than 900 bird species in Costa Rica. It’s a great place to spot toucans, hummingbirds, motmots, and many more.
With this birding app, you can identify birds by taking a picture or by answering three easy questions. You can also view range maps for the area.
This app taps data from more than 900 million bird observations from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird project.
If you’re an avid birder, you probably already have this app.
Bird Sounds Costa Rica Lite
Identify birds by their songs and calls with this app. There are 136 calls and songs covering 30 species in Costa Rica. The “lite” version of this app is free but there is a premium version that costs $20 USD at the time of writing.
If you like to take copious pictures and videos when you’re traveling, then have a look at the Filmic Pro app.
This mobile cinema app brings advanced tools to your smartphone camera, such as focus peaking; zebra (for managing exposure levels); variable frame rate; a manual lens array; and, manual control of focus, zoom, and exposure.
When you want your photos and videos and to look just right, Filmic Pro is a great choice.