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