Coronavirus in Costa Rica: New Travel Rules as Country Reopens
After a four-month shutdown because of the coronavirus, Costa Rica is gradually reopening its doors to foreign visitors. But you might say there’s a security chain now attached to the door — to check out the people who want to come in before opening wide.
Costa Rica closed its borders and airports in March 2020 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but as of August it began allowing flights from the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and several countries in Asia and Oceania.
The United States was conspicuously missing from the list until Aug. 19, when Costa Rica announced that it would begin accepting visitors from certain U.S. states. That list was later expanded several times to include new states, and on Oct. 2, the government announced that it would allow visitors from the entire United States as of Nov. 1.
In normal years, the U.S. provides the great majority of Costa Rica’s foreign visitors. But opening the doors to Americans has been seen as problematic because the U.S. is a global hot spot of coronavirus contagion, with over 7 million cases and over 200,000 deaths as of late September. (Costa Rica, meanwhile, has experienced just under 70,000 cases of COVID-19 and less than 800 deaths as of late September.)
Those who are allowed to travel here will face significant new costs and entry requirements. But on a brighter note, Costa Rica is in the process of loosening many internal restrictions, allowing more businesses to reopen and permitting more freedom of movement within the country.
New Costa Rica travel requirements
One new requirement for international visitors is that they must buy travel insurance that would cover medical expenses of $20,000 and lodging expenses of $2,000 in case they contract the coronavirus in Costa Rica.
At first, Costa Rica said it would accept insurance only from its own National Insurance Institute (INS), at costs ranging from $275 for minors to $965 for people over 70 years old for a two-week stay. But an uproar from business owners dependent on tourism led to a substantial reduction in these costs, so that a 45-year-old would now pay about $131 for a two-week stay, while a traveler over 71 years old would pay $252.
Also, authorities decided to allow travelers to purchase travel health insurance in their home countries, as long as it meets Costa Rican requirements.
In addition, tourists must provide proof that they tested negative for COVID-19 with a PCR test conducted within 72 hours of their flight, and they must submit a “Health Pass” epidemiological form. However, in many places it can take a week or more to get results from a COVID-19 test, so travelers will have to find a test that reports results rapidly.
Also, travelers returning from Costa Rica may be required by their home countries to remain in quarantine for 14 days.
COVID-19 travel restrictions within Costa Rica
If you are able to travel to Costa Rica in the near future, you’ll find the same friendly, welcoming country, but one that has been substantially transformed by coronavirus restrictions.
Face masks are ubiquitous and are required to enter most businesses. Grocery stores have remained open throughout the crisis, although some have installed hand-washing stations and most offer alcohol gel for customers to disinfect their hands before entering.
Many restaurants that were temporarily closed, and then were open only for takeout or delivery, now offer sit-down dining again. Servers are generally required to wear masks but diners aren’t. And a host of frequently changing rules govern the hours of operation for a wide variety of enterprises.
Speaking of “frequently changing rules,” it’s nearly impossible to describe the current state of restrictions because they are constantly updated, and different areas have different rules.
The Tico Times, an English-language online newspaper, does a good job of updating its readers on day-to-day changes. If you’re thinking of traveling to Costa Rica, we suggest you check this website for the latest news. The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica also provides frequent updates, and you can subscribe to its email alerts to keep up with recent developments on the coronavirus in Costa Rica.
Yellow and orange zones
Costa Rica has been divided into two color-coded zones — yellow, where COVID-19 cases are lower, and orange, where risks are higher.
Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces (the equivalent of U.S. states) and 82 cantons (the equivalent of U.S. counties). Cantons that have been designated orange zones are mostly concentrated in the heavily populated center of the country, including the capital, San José. Coastal areas, which are those most visited by tourists, are now mostly lower-risk yellow zones. But these designations change frequently.
All beaches nationwide are now open to the public, although only from 5 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in orange zones and from 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in yellow zones. And there are myriad other rules that vary depending on whether an area is designated yellow or orange.
For example (and yes, this is incredibly complicated), Costa Rica declared an “open phase” from Aug. 1 to Aug. 9, followed by a “closed phase” from Aug. 10 to Aug. 21, followed by another “open phase” from Aug. 22 to Aug. 30. The “closed phase” does not affect yellow zones at all, but in orange zones, a number of restrictions are imposed during this time, primarily on driving.
During the initial “open phase,” most commercial establishments were allowed to open, including grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, banks, hardware stores, rental car companies, health services, movie theaters, gyms, hair salons, botanical gardens, hot springs and outdoor tourism activities.
Events and venues that are still barred include concerts, fairgrounds, bullfights, sporting events, trade conventions, conference centers, skate parks, amusement parks, night clubs and casinos.
But many rules differ during the “closed phase” in orange zones.
Costa Rica has long had driving restrictions in San José, in which vehicles are banned from driving on certain days based on the last digit of their license plate. This measure was previously intended to reduce congestion and pollution.
This system has expanded to the rest of the nation to reduce travel during the coronavirus crisis. On Saturdays, only vehicles with plates ending in odd numbers can drive, while on Sundays, only plates ending in even numbers are allowed.
From Monday through Friday, in yellow zones, vehicles cannot drive on a certain day of the week, depending on the license plate. But in orange zones, from Monday through Friday vehicles can drive on ONLY one day of the week!
Also, there are restrictions on the hours when driving is allowed, depending on the area. Driving is generally prohibited everywhere between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
But there are several exceptions to these rules, and the good news for tourists is that these restrictions don’t apply to rental cars, buses or taxis.
Impact on foreigners living (or stuck) in Costa Rica
A lot of foreigners live in Costa Rica but do not have legal residency, and in normal times these expats have to leave the country every 90 days to renew their visas. Many expats normally comply with this requirement by making a “border run” to Nicaragua or Panama every three months.
But after Costa Rica closed its borders in March, the government extended 90-day visas until July. It later re-extended them until November, and then until March 2021.
The same rules apply to visitors who never intended to stay in Costa Rica but got “stuck” here when the borders closed with very little notice. A handful of “repatriation flights” have been organized to allow stranded tourists to fly home.
What are the prospects for the foreseeable future?
Residents of approved countries should be able to find a limited number of flights to Costa Rica in the next few months.
One consideration: Even in normal years, the rainy months of September and October are the bottom of the low season for tourism, with visitors down 80% from the peak season. So we may not see the real test of Costa Rica’s “new normal” until close to Thanksgiving, when tourism typically spikes.
Meanwhile, the recent steps taken to loosen domestic restrictions within Costa Rica are sure to be constantly re-evaluated. If loosened restrictions lead to an increase in infections, it’s a safe guess that they will be tightened again until the situation improves.
But if cases of coronavirus in Costa Rica decrease or remain flat, we should expect the same measures to remain in effect or to be relaxed.