Costa Rican Money 101

Detail from a Costa Rican bill

Costa Rica’s paper money is as riotously colorful as the country itself.

Each denomination not only sports its own size and color scheme; every bill is also a lesson in history and a showcase for Costa Rica’s flora and fauna. On the front of each note is an historical figure; on the back you get an entire ecosystem!

The back of the 2000-colon note, for instance, is devoted to the endangered coral reef. Pictured in full color we have a bull shark, a sea star (aka starfish), two types of coral, sea turtles, sea plumes, and a small yellow reef fish with five vertical stripes that I’m hoping someone reading this post will be able to identify.

detail from the 2000-colon bill

I want to show you all of the new bills (scroll down if you can’t wait), but first, the basics. Costa Rica’s currency is named after Christopher Columbus, known in Spanish as Cristóbal Colón, and is represented by a ₡​ (a cent sign with two slashes). At current exchange rates (late 2017), 575 colones is worth about one US dollar.

The bills come in these denominations (conversions are approximate):
₡1,000 (1 mil) = US$1.75
₡2,000 (2 mil)  = US$3.45
₡5,000 (5 mil) = US$8.65
₡10,000 (10 mil) = US$17.25
₡20,000(20 mil) = US$34.55
₡50,000 (50 mil) = US$86.45

detail from 50-mil note

A note on practicalities: ATMs can be found throughout Costa Rican cities and in most small towns. You can usually choose whether to get colones or dollars, but you can’t chose your denominations. This means that if you get a large amount of cash (which makes sense since you pay fees each time you use an ATM), they will probably give you large bills. This can be a real problem, as most merchants prefer small bills and in fact some will not accept bills larger than ₡10,000. The solution? Bigger bars and restaurants will usually break big bills if you’re a customer. But ordering a round of drinks each time you need to break a bill can make you broke, not to mention drunk.


So here, without further ado, are the stars of the show: money so pretty you’ll want to take it home with you rather than spend it.




relative sizes of Costa Rican bills