The local currency is the Costa Rican Colón (plural, Colones) CRC, named after Christopher Columbus (whose name in Spanish was Cristobal Colón), sometimes given locally as ₡ and sometimes with the more common American cent symbol ‘¢’ or ₵.
As of March 2014, 1 US$ = ₡548 or 1 € = CRC762. Currency exchange is offered at most banks, but it is recommended to do so at state-owned banks, especially Banco Nacional, as they charge lower rates. There is also a currency exchange service at the airport, but it is outrageously expensive. Note, however, that the use of US dollars is quite common; almost everything in the tourist trade is priced in US dollars (although prices are sometimes cheaper in colones). When a price is quoted in “dollars”, the speaker may think that one dollar is equivalent to 500 colones, so it is always worth checking that this is what is meant. If you pay in US dollars, you may get change in the local currency. So if you are about to leave the country and no longer need colones, make sure you have small denominations in US dollars.
You will find ATMs in most places. They usually dispense US dollars and colones. With Visa, you can withdraw money from almost any ATM. If you have a MasterCard, try the ATMs in AM/PM supermarkets, they will give you up to ₡250,000 (~US$500). Another option is ATH ATMs, but they will only give you up to ₡100,000 (~US$200) per transaction. EC (European) cards are accepted at all ATMs. The limit is usually set by the card only. Also, you will almost always get a better exchange rate when withdrawing money with your EC card than when exchanging cash at a bank. Around payday, the 15th of the month, ATMs may be empty, especially in small towns like La Fortuna or Quepos, and some cards may not work.
It is also very common to pay even small amounts with Visa or MasterCard, Amex is much less common.
It is possible to get a discount (between 5 and 10 %) if you pay in cash, but it is not so common to expect this. It is also not really necessary to get colones at the airport, as you can pay with US dollars everywhere and get colones as change. Most places, except the smaller restaurants, accept credit cards and many places, including petrol stations, accept American Express.
Travellers’ cheques are rarely used. If you pay with traveller’s cheques, except for hotel accommodation, change them first at a bank. Expect long waiting times for travellers’ cheques at the bank, lots of stamps, the higher the bank official, the more stamps he has. Dollars are easier.
The most common souvenirs are made of wood. If it is not labelled as responsible (plantation wood), it is very likely that it is not and that it contributes to the deforestation of Costa Rica, even Nicaragua or Panama!
Most returning visitors are not allowed to bring raw food or plants. Therefore, the most sought-after commodity for visitors is roasted (not green) coffee, considered by many to be among the best in the world. Many websites explain the qualities of the different growing regions, bean varieties, roasting methods and sources of supply. The best prices are obtained by buying several bags (sealed) of about 12 ounces. Experts recommend buying whole beans (entero), regardless of storage method; whole beans have a longer shelf life, and ground coffee from Costa Rica often contains sugar, which is preferred by locals. You can get excellent coffee in the shops at San José airport, but you can also find other good quality blends in local supermarkets and directly from roasters. It’s an expensive but delicious habit. If you are serious about your coffee, take at least a partially empty suitcase with you and fill it with a supply for maybe a year (there are websites on how to keep it that long). Watch out for tourist outlets where small quantities can cost as much as an internet order.