Drifter’s Guide to Costa Rica
Being on the classic tourist trail of Central America, Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystem, relatively advanced infrastructure and long term political stability, turned it into a major touristic hub, while also being a focal point for many American retirees and other expats. It is undoubtedly the most expensive country in the region, yet traveling there is somewhat a hassle-free experience.
The remarkable thing about Costa Rica is its bio-diversity, so there’s something for everyone, whether it’s volcano hiking, beach lounging, zip lining, surfing or turtle watching, to name a few. It straddles two bodies of water, the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Both are accessible and each offers its own particular experience.
The trail and what to explore
San Jose: The capital of Costa Rica located right in the center of the country. It’s quite a cosmopolitan city with busy streets, markets and a few interesting landmarks to explore, such as the beautifully designed Teatro Nacional, the national museum and the “Barrio Chino”, San Jose’s very own China Town. Overall a good place to spend a couple of nights soaking in some culture and the local life. I would recommend it as a starting point to explore the entire country due to it’s centralized location.
Monteverde: Located in the north of the country, a couple of hours away from the border with Nicaragua. A peaceful and serene little town nestled between mountains. It’s a great place for nature, bird-watching and exploring the surrounding cloud forests. It’s quite famous for its coffee production and plantations, and there are a few coffee and sugar cane tours available where you could learn a lot about the coffee production. It could get a little chilly and wet at night so keep a light jacket at hand. I highly recommend the forest night walk, where you get the chance to see a lot of animals and reptiles up close, overall a very nice experience.
La Fortuna & Arenal: One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Arenal is located next to the town of La Fortuna which is a good base to explore the volcano national park as well as a series of hot spring resorts nearby and La Fortuna waterfalls. Entrance fees to the resorts vary greatly, and could range between 50US to 500US if not more in some cases depending on the hotel rating. Also these places are quite developed so don’t expect to see a lot of “natural looking” hot springs. I highly recommend the volcano full or half day hike, as it is the main highlight of the area.
Manuel Antonio: If relaxing by the beach is your thing, then Manuel Antonio is the place for you. With its outstanding national park where you’ll be able to get up close and personal with Costa Rica’s diverse wildlife, and enjoy some pristine, paradise-like beaches. This place is definitely the country’s highlight. Many activities are available here including diving, snorkeling and fishing. The park is literally buzzing with various animals, and the beaches there are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Definitely an experience not to be missed!
Santa Theresa & Montezuma: Two small picturesque surf towns located in the Nicoya peninsula, known for their bohemian atmosphere, intense waves, stunning beaches, rivers and waterfalls, and very popular for hippies and backpackers. They are a great place to just lay on the beach, surf, hang out with people, relax or even take some surfing lessons. The whole area is dotted with little restaurants, bars and surf shops/schools.
Tortuguero: Located in the north-east, on the Caribbean side. It’s one of the country’s most important nesting sites for the leatherback sea turtles. The entire area in located in a dense, jungle-like lush rainforest, and during the northern hemisphere’s autumn months, visitors will get the chance to see baby turtles heading towards the shore for the first time. One of the many activities here is taking boat tours around the canals to see hundreds of species of wildlife, especially birds.
Puerto Viejo: Another hotspot on the Caribbean coast. Located much further south, close to the border with Panama, you’ll find the surf capital of Costa Rica, a great place to learn surfing. Here you will find excellent surfing, snorkeling and diving, great night life, cheap accommodation, and a lot of delicious food. Just a few hours from here is Cahuita National Park, a beautiful park for hiking and Capuchin monkey spotting.
Tips and what to expect
The term “Pura vida”: Spanish for “pure life.” The expression is used by Ticos (people from Costa Rica) in many forms, from a greeting, to a synonym for “excellent” and “thank you”. Feel free to use it often and see the positive energy it spurs in people…
Street vendors: Same as with other neighboring countries, it seems that everyone in Costa Rica is trying to sell you something, whether it’s a tour, a ride or various accommodations, and they’re quite good at it actually. So be prepared to politely respond with a simple “No gracias”.
Bargaining: It is unlikely that bargaining will get you anywhere here. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to try, especially with the inflated prices which you will encounter everywhere.
Cash: US dollars are widely accepted everywhere even in cabs, in fact most touristic establishment will quote you in US dollars. Of course it’s always recommended to carry local Colon with you, which would probably give you a better exchange rate.
Essentials: Make sure to pack an extra strength mosquito repellent and a high protection sun screen.