My First Time in Latin America: Spending One Week in Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Years ago, my boyfriend (now fiancee) approached me and said: “Let’s go to Costa Rica in December 2016.”

Knowing absolutely nothing about the country, I said “Sure.  Why not.”

Since boyfriend planned our previous trip, he said Costa Rica planning was up to me.

As I mentioned before, I knew jack shit about Costa Rica.  To be perfectly honest–I had to look the country up on Google Maps.

Where does one go in Costa Rica?  How do we get there?  How do we get around?  Do we rent a car?  Can we drink the local tap water?  What’s worth seeing, what’s not?  How’s the weather?

Most of all… is it worth going to?

Brief Intro on Costa Rica

costa rica blog waterfall

When I told my American friends I was going to Costa Rica, they all said:

“Oh good.  That’s a U.S. territory so it will be safe.”

Um, no.  First off: Costa Rica is not Puerto Rico.

costa rica map

Costa Rica is located in between Nicaragua and Panama and is one of the safest countries in Central America.  It’s also home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity–basically, a slew of different animal species call Costa Rica home. Costa Rica is also the only country to meet all five standards of the UNDP criteria for environmental sustainability.  Most of all energy in Costa Rica is sourced through dams, solar panels and windmills.  In other words, Costa Rica takes care of the environment, and the environment takes care of Costa Rica (through tourism).

Costa Rica, once an uninhabitable jungle populated by only a few sparse indigenous people, experienced an industrial boom through banana, coffee and chocolate plantations.  Although the country still does a lot of banana and coffee trading, the economy mostly thrives on tourism.

Another fun tidbit: Besides the United States, Costa Rica is the only other country to successfully adopt a presidential form of government (see, I actually learned something in graduate school).

The Volcano in the Jungle

Costa Rica Arenal Las Colinas

Our boutique hotel in La Fortuna, Hotel Las Colinas

So we (my fiancee, H and her husband) spent the majority of our time (four days) in the Arenal Volcano region.  Instead of haul ass and try to hit every tourist spot in the country, I thought lingering in one location and taking it easy would make for a better, more relaxing vacation.

Active Volcano Arenal

Active Volcano Arenal.. hasn’t erupted since 2010

I was right.

This region is in one of Costa Rica’s most lush and vibrant jungle areas, and it’s easy to see on the drive there.  Whizzing by your window you’ll see rolling hillsides spotted with grazing cows and sheep along with lush jungles filled with wildlife.  We had to stop the car once to let a herd of meek rats cross the road.

Costa Rica Arenal 7

Green, green, greeeeen!

The activities in Arenal are endless.  Rafting.  Ziplining.  Canoeing.  Hiking.  Swimming in waterfalls.  Chocolate plantation.  Repelling.  Wildlife safaris.

Our vacation was fairly tame (no ziplining or repelling for us), but we did go on a few hikes, swam  in some waterfalls, visited a chocolate plantation and did some safaris.

Costa Rica 3

The waterfall in Mistico Park

My personal highlights of the trip were hikes through Mistico Park (a jungle famous for its hanging suspension bridges and waterfall) and the area surrounding Arenal Volcano.

Costa Rica Mistico Suspension Bridge

Suspension Bridge in Mistico Park

After living in the deserts of Southern California for three years, I gotta say: Seeing this much green felt so good.

Costa Rica Arenal La Fortuna Waterfall

The hike to La Fortuna Waterfall

Costa Rica Misitco Park

Everything feels so alive

And one simply cannot visit an active volcanic region without taking a dip in some natural hot springs nearby.  We went to Baldi, the grand daddy of Arenal’s natural hot spring resorts that houses over 25 different thermal pools.  The entrance fee is $34 per person, but it’s totally worth it.  I could easily spend half a day there.

Beware of the Beach

costa rica beach Sugar Beach

Our “private” beach on the coast

As I write this, I am suffering from serious food/water poisoning from Costa Rica.  Really, it’s hard for me to focus on the positive aspects of my Costa Rica trip through all of my stomach cramps, frequent trips to the toilet and nausea.  Yet I know Arenal is not to blame–it is the beach.

Arenal has safe drinking water (we drank the tap water and were fine).  The coastal cities do not.  I am almost positive that we were served tap water on the coast, because upon our return from Costa Rica my fiancee, H and her husband were all running to the toilet.  H and I have been bedridden for three days.

Alas, the beach was not all bad.  It’s more expensive than Arenal and feels much, much more touristy.  However, we lucked out and stayed at a place called Sugar Beach Hotel where we got our own private beach.  The next beach over (Dantitas Beach) is also famous for having the best (free) snorkeling.  If you’re looking for R&R and no crowds, I highly recommend this hotel (and bring mosquito repellent!).

Thoughts and Tips

Costa Rica Blog

Costa Rica felt like.. a vacation.  It wasn’t an eye-opening cultural experience.  I didn’t have any life-altering epiphanies.

But I had a great time.

I think Costa Rica is a great getaway for North Americans, especially since it’s so close (we flew there from California on a $400 round trip flight via Southwest) and the tourism infrastructure is highly developed.  If you live in the U.S., are new to traveling and scared to venture out too far, Costa Rica would be an excellent start.  It’s safer than Mexico, the people are friendly, food is good, and there is a ton of fun stuff to do there.  The wildlife and jungles alone make the trip totally worth it.

Traveling Costa Rica also made me realize: hot damn, Spanish is way easier than Japanese and Chinese (for English speakers).  I never studied Spanish in my life and I could pick up the gist of most conversations in Costa Rica.  By the end of the trip I was ordering food in Spanish.  Compared to Japan and China where I couldn’t read menus for two years or faintly understand anyone, Spanish was a walk in the park.

Costa Ricans were extremely friendly and open, and unlike my ‘fake’ service in Thailand I felt them to be genuine and honest.  The locals were open about their culture and way of life, and in the jungles of Arenal it was apparent they lived very much at peace with the jungle and its inhabitants.  Most locals could list the different species of wildlife either from daily interaction or from memory.  I sensed a deep connection between the people and surrounding jungle.

Tips for travelers going to Costa Rica

Costa Rica Arenal 2

  • If your party is 2+ or more, rent a car.  Just do it.  Public transportation is terrible.  It will cost about 600 USD/week, and that’s that.  There is no way to get a discount.  We used Vamos and they were excellent.  It is fairly easy to drive in Costa Rica, just beware of the massive potholes and some rocky roads.
  • Costa Rica has wet and dry seasons (dry season is from Dec-April).   We visited at the brink of dry season, but we still hit a lot of rain in Arenal–which was actually nice.  Visiting a lush, green, tropical Costa Rica is totally worth it.  The rain also comes and goes, so non-stop downpours are unlikely.
  • Eat at “sodas.”  This is where the locals eat.  Sodas are small joints that serve “casados” (the working man’s mish-mash of rice, beans, and fish/meat) along with other local staples.  Sodas are good, authentic, and CHEAP.
  • Costa Rica is not cheap.  In fact, it’s almost on par with the U.S.  Food is about 10 USD/dish, tours cost around 30-70 USD/person depending on what you want to do, and hotels are around 80-150 USD/night.  This aint Southeast Asia.
  • DON’T DRINK THE TAP WATER ON THE COAST.  In fact, my food/water poisoning was so bad I am hesitant to drink tap water in any foreign country again (except for Japan, of course).
Costa Rica Food Casado La Fortuna

A “casado” at a “soda”… all this food for 6-7 bucks!

Arenal Volcano Misty

Rolling green hills and mist

Overall, I really liked Costa Rica.  I wouldn’t move there, I didn’t fall head over heels in love with the place–but it was an enjoyable and adventurous vacation, and I will probably be back for a second time.

Merry Christmas everyone, and as they say in Costa Rica:

Pura Vida!

Costa Rica Arenal 5

12 thoughts on “My First Time in Latin America: Spending One Week in Costa Rica

    • rubymary says:

      Oh man I have no idea.. but it aint good. I hope I don’t have worms or something.

      I’ve talked with multiple people who have been to Costa Rica before and they ALL got the same bug we got. I seriously think there is something in the water.

      Still, it’s a nice place.

    • rubymary says:

      Yeah I have many mosquito bite souvenirs… despite spraying myself down every five minutes. I wonder if the local people become immune to the bugs :/

      Thank you Autumn! I feel better already 🙂 Nothing like tons of tea, sleep and relaxation!

  1. Marta says:

    Costa Rica is quite popular in Spain as a nature destination. I didn’t know it was so expensive though! I doubt local’s salaries are similar to the US ones…

    Glad that you had a good time and boooh about the poisoning! Get well soon!

    • rubymary says:

      My friends and I were wondering how the locals survive in Costa Rica. The grocery stores were cheaper than the U.S., but only slightly. I heard rent is cheaper, but still, the locals can’t be making that much money… It made me feel bad for the locals…

      It was a good trip, and even with the food poisoning I still have no regrets! Costa Rica was worth it.

    • Rick Zhang says:

      I chatted with a taxi driver there and he asked me how expensive rent was in San Francisco. I told him that $2500 was about the cheapest you could get an apartment. He whistled and said that in Costa Rica, for that much money you could live like a king for 3 months!

      I’m assuming to him a king’s lifestyle would mean eating out some meals, rather than every day as expats and tourists tend to do. It does make one ponder the significance of lifestyle inflation and how much we take for granted in the US. Our lifestyles are already quite opulent compared with the rest of the world.

  2. Lani says:

    When I think of Costa Rica, I think about it being an expat retiree haven, although CR I think has long past it’s ‘good days’. So many North Americans look south of the border for cheaper cost of living, ease of language learning, warmth, and it’s not very far!

    Sorry you all got sick. I’d say no tap water in any country less developed than America and I wouldn’t drink the tap water in America. I know some folks go so far as to not brush their teeth with the tap water in Asia, but I think that’s a bit silly and I’ve never had problems with that.

    Hope you have more Latin American adventures! I definitely want to go back one day. xxoo

    • rubymary says:

      Yeah I can see how Costa Rica is an attractive getaway for retiring North Americans. Although it’s awful of me to say this, but I would rather live in CR than in Mexico.

      I learned my lesson about tap water… sigh! I will take your advice to heart Lani!

      And yes, I don’t drink water in California. I tried once, but it tastes god awful.

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