|The real life Costa Rica website|
I guess one the best ways there is to survive real life in Costa Rica is to research the country as much as possible before your trip, which you seem to be doing right now, so you're on the right track. Aside from this page, you might want to review tour operators' pages, the US State Department references and comments, and the United States Embassy in Costa Rica home page, they've got pretty good updated info. Also, check the references section for more good information sites.
Before you begin:
Probably the best thing you can do if you're going to be doing urban life in Costa Rica is to find yourself a guide, a buddy, a bodyguard for society or whatever you wanna call it: someone who knows the country and can guide you through the first few weeks until you start getting the hang of things. Yeah I know you're probably itching to hit the "email Steve" button at about this time... can't say I'm readily available 24/7, but if you wanna go ahead and do it, write me...
Keep a number for your local embassy handy at all times, along with your credit card company's service number, and any other numbers you might think are worth having around. Whatever you do, don't put these in your purse or wallet... they won't do much good if they're stolen...
Talk to your bank about international restrictions on your credit cards. Find out if they can be used with local ATMs. They probably can, as long as the credit card is authorized for international purchases. If it's not, it won't do you any good.
Talk to your insurance company, and make sure your insurance plan covers you 24/7 anywhere in the world. Many people who come to Costa Rica get the itch to travel to Panama and other areas of Central America, and that's normally where water intolerance or food poisoning hits 'em. Needless to say, it's worth it to get a worldwide plan. Find out about restrictions of your plan, so that you'll know where you're covered and where you're not.
Keep your passport and a photostatic copy handy at all times. The photostatic copy is especially important, since you never know when you'll be required to provide a copy for record purposes (for example if you need to execute a major bank transaction).
At the airport:
Standard airport safety measures apply. Keep your bags in sight at all times, don't carry or watch luggage for strangers. And for chrissake... remember to label your luggage.
If you're a neat freak, be prepared to disorganize your luggage's contents. At customs you're subject to luggage search, and that means emptying the contents of your carryons. The hard part isn't always emptying, but putting the stuff back in. It's not a very good idea to pack your bags at home to the bursting point, you'll regret it later during the customs search.
Use only certified taxi cabs if you don't have transportation arranged. This rule goes for all you do, not just for the airport. Check the transportation section of the website for information on how to identify authorized cab services. At the airport you'll find an orange type of taxi cab, called "airport taxi". These are fine, and are much easier to find than the standard red type. Use the orange cab and you'll be fine.
If you're going to a hotel
Do yourself a favor and go with the well known chains. There's quite a few in Costa Rica: you can find Holiday Inn, Best Western, Hampton, and the Barcelo chain of hotels (San José Palacio, Irazú, Corobicí to name a few) which are high standard places to stay. During the first few days it's better to spend a bit more on lodging and to know where you're going than to save a bit and not know what rathole you're going to stay in. As the days go by you can search for more adequate options, but for starters, stick to the standard.
Try to find lodging outside of downtown San Jose. Downtown San Jose is the standard for tourists and is suggested by many travel agencies, but really it's not the most "wonderful" option. Noise, pollution, huge masses of people, is not a good way to start a trip.
If you're going to an apartment
Before you sign for it, make sure all the basic services work. This means water (hot and cold), electricity and telephone. You can check the phone by dialing 112 which'll give you the time of day. Check the water color by pouring it into a glass and contrasting it against a white surface (a sheet of paper is good). Chances are the water will be clean, but you never know. Let the faucets run for a while to check for clogged drains. I'm probably going out on a ledge here, but it's probably worth it. Nothing like a clogged bathroom drain and no plumber to fix it on a sunday to brighten your day.
Make sure all the door locks that need to lock do.
During your first few days
Explore the place where you're staying, but don't wander around without knowing where you're at. If you live near a primary road, you'll see there's a lot of buses and you have to wait very little for one. The catch is that the bus you get on doesn't always bring you back to where you boarded... until it completes its full route. The wide variety of bus routes takes a little getting used to, and it's easy to get lost during the first days, so don't play around too much.
Stick to bottled water for a few days or a week or so. The water in the metro area isn't unsafe in any way, but it does present a tendency to have a few microorganisms. This isn't a real problem and most people get used to it fast (or probably are used to it already), but if you come from a place where the water is spotless and has been all your life, you may find you get a nasty reaction to the water. Switch gradually to regular water and you'll see the transition goes much smoother. If you live in a rural area, you'll probably want to make the transition even more gradually.
Stay out of downtown San Jose at night. A common mistake people make is to assume that downtown San Jose is the place to go for nightlife. Well, it's not. Ok, it is if you're looking for nightclubs and such, but if not then you'd best stay out. There's much better places (check the entertainment section for suggestions) which you can get to just as easy and can safely tour all you want.
Very important... clean as it may look and attractive as it may look, do not buy prepared stuff from street corner vendors unless it's an industrialized unopened product they're selling. Sure the fruit looks great... but trust me, if you had fun with the water, you're gonna have the time of your life with the microorganisms in that street corner food.
When you're touring the country
Be extremely careful with ocean currents at the beaches. Costa Rica should have a very large sign painted on it that says SURFERS BEWARE. The beaches look calm and the waves look awesome, but there's some very nasty ocean currents where you least expect them. Find out about ocean currents from lifeguards or the local Red Cross station where you're staying, and most important, if there's a sign that says NO SWIMMING, it means exactly that.
Don't bathe in rivers or water currents unless you know what you're getting into. Metro area industries and housing developments have a very bad habit of dumping spent water into the rivers and creeks, which makes for some extremely bad swimming in coastal rivers. Aside from the obvious bio and chemical contamination, the material dumped into the river often collects and forms dams upstream, which later break resulting in sudden intense water currents being released. So unless you know that where you're at is safe, don't go in.
If you're driving, follow the standard safety procedures such as wearing your seatbelt and always do what the signals tell you to. If there's a no passing line (solid yellow line on your side of the road) in the middle of the street, it means don't try to pass. If there's a yellow sign telling you to move slowly, it means exactly that. Those signals are there for a reason, and ignoring them can get you killed, as hundreds of people find out every year.
Don't try to capture, tame or feed wild animals. This goes for any type of animal. Besides being illegal it can get you a nasty bite, scratch and infection.
Regular every day urban life
Most supermarkets open around 7 or 8 AM. Large supermarket chains include Peribásicos (or Periféricos, same thing), Mas x Menos, Palí and Mega Super. Larger chains tend to be better for everyday shopping since they normally maintain the lowest prices.
Pharmacies are open into the late hours of the night. Hospital and clinic pharmacies are open 24 hours.
Most large scale commerce opens at 10 AM and closes around 7 or 8 PM.
Government offices normally open at 8 and close at 4.
Clubs open around 7 PM and close around 2 AM on weekends.
Bus services run into the late hours of the night, depending on the route. Primary routes have service up until 11 PM or so, others have service until around 9 PM.
Cabs are available 24 hours. If you shouldn't be able to find a cab on the street, you can call dispatch and ask for one. Look for numbers in the yellow pages under "taxi".
911 service exists nationwide from any phone.