Nine things to know to make the most out of Costa Rica
January 1, 1970
by Minushika Punchihewa
Unlike Phileas Fogg in the infamous ‘Around the world in 80 days, my travel over this summer took me to two beautiful tropical Islands, involved 11 flights, and a killer total of 75 hours. However, just like the film, I can safely say I have traveled a full loop around the globe, starting from my humble hometown in New Zealand, flying to Sri Lankan, Costa Rica and then back home.
In saying all that, this blog post isn’t a modern day tale of the old classic, rather, it’s a little glimpse of all the things I wish someone had told me before I left for Costa Rica.
Pura Vida in Costa Rica
First of all, I will begin by saying what a beautiful country Costa Rica is. It truly is a paradise with the Caribbean Coast on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other. So while surfers and divers enjoy the warm crashing waves on the south, beach-lovers alike are treated to the exotic hidden beaches accessible only through rainforests and National Parks. Yes, I am talking about one place in particular – Manuel Antonio. For those who are looking for a tropical rainforest and beach haven in one, this is certainly the place.
Pura Vida is a saying that is commonly used in Costa Rica and translates to ‘pure life,’ or a ‘way of life.’ This expression is used in various social contexts, for instance as a reply to ‘how are you, hello, goodbye’ or even as a alternative to ‘yes.’
Visiting Costa Rica marked my first visit to Central America, and honestly, I wouldn’t’ have had it any other way. However, just like travel into any foreign land, there are a few things that I encounters along the way that made this trip even more incredible, and a few experience Is wish I could have avoided.
So here it goes.
Be aware of Costa Rican time
If you’ve heard of ‘Island time’ before, then Costa Rica is the epitome of this concept. This term allows for lateness to be socially acceptable. From what I’ve been told by locals, the acceptable margin of lateness is 45 minutes after a set time and this is quite common in all of Central America. This delayed time extends to public transport, specifically public buses. For someone like myself who likes to micro-manage my day, not having any idea of when a bus will arrive and having to stand at the bus stop for 55 minutes can be absolutely manic. Therefore patience will go a long way in Costa Rica!
Know some basic Spanish
Make sure you know at least the bare minimum of Spanish when visiting Costa Rica. This will not only make your life so much easier, but locals are more receptive if you attempt to converse in Spanish – even if it is just the basic Hola & Gracias. More importantly, attempting to speak and learn shows that you acknowledge the language of the country you’re visiting. Therefore, being in a new country, with a new language, why not learn a few words? It will make your travels so much more enjoyable and there is no better time to practice than being surrounded by it by the language 24/7.
Get out of San Jose
While San Jose showcases the bustling city life and is definitely worth a day of touring, I found it to be pointless to spend too many nights here. Get out of the city and explore the rest of Costa Rica! There are so many beautiful towns, each with its own rich history and stories. Coffee lovers will absolutely love the coffee plantation tours, while the more adventurous are spoilt for choice with adrenaline-pumping excursions, picturesque beaches and tropical rainforests. Some of the most popular places are Manuel Antonio, Tortugero Island, Quepos, Arenal Volcano and the La Paz Waterfalls just to name a very few.
Experience Costa Rica like a local
While I have traveled with my family numerous times on family holidays and have journeyed by myself before overseas, this was the first time I ever truly felt immersed in a new language, culture and country. There is just something incredible about staying at a host family that both throws one out of their comfort zone, but also enables you to be truly conscious of the world around you. The way I see it, being a tourist in a new country is easy. To be a local, is an entirely different challenge – one that doesn’t come without its tears, frustration and vulnerabilities. But I can almost certainly guarantee you will leave with a greater depth of understanding, respect and consciousness of the world around you. It is also a great way of meeting new people and finding out about hidden gems that aren’t typically promoted through tourist sites.
Central America had always been on the bucket list for as long as I could remember. However, the odds were stacked against me, being a full-time university student who was raking up a huge student loan, and flights from New Zealand being extremely expensive. So when I was presented with the chance to volunteer overseas, I thought what better time! While it didn’t significantly cut the cost of travel (airfares left my bank account looking terribly sad), it certainly made the trip much more memorable and a once in a life time experience I wouldn’t have been able to have if I were just a tourist.
I volunteered through an organisation called Global Volunteer Network as part of my GVN Youth Ambassadorship. There are however a number of organisations that provide volunteering placements overseas, it’s simply a matter of doing your research and finding an area which interests you.
Uber in San Jose
While taxi services in Costa Rica (mainly in the dense cities such as San Jose and San Pedro) are relatively affordable (this again depends on the home currency you’re comparing it with – NZ dollars to Colon’s have quite a good exchange rate). I would recommend considering Uber.
For those who don’t know what this is, Uber is a app-based taxi service. There are quite a few upsides for going with Uber. First being its cheap prices, and secondly, it helps to overcome the language barrier when communicating where you want to go. Costa Rica in particular functions very differently when it comes to giving the address of a location or house. Street names and address numbers aren’t popular in Costa Rica, which makes for an absolute nightmare when trying to describe how to get to your desired location to a taxi driver who speaks little to none English.
This is where Uber’s app-based nature becomes quintessential when travelling, as the Uber driver would already have your desired location on his phone, thus avoiding awkward and stressful explanations in Spanglish. (It also avoids angry/worried taxi drivers who apparently seem to care more about your welfare than yourself).
However, if Ubering is not quite your thing, I would recommend pinpointing your desired location to the driver on google maps on your phone, or even writing down in Spanish a landmark close to the location so that your driver can easily navigate.
Tourist led prices
Before heading to Costa Rica, I had the assumption that cost of living was going to be extremely cheap. This however came crashing and burning when I realised this was not wholly true. While it was true that prices were relatively cheaper than in New Zealand, I found food to be a bit more expensive than what I expected. Especially in the big cities, such as San Jose and San Pedro. Therefore, it’s a good idea to account for extra costs that may incur due to inflated tourist prices.
Busing like a local
The incredible thing about Costa Rica is its bus system. You can literally catch the bus to any town in Costa Rica – which makes travel affordable and very easy! Busing from the main city out is little more comfortable than busing in the rural areas, where you will quickly be accustomed to the term ‘chicken bus,’ as entire families are crammed into one seat. If this kind of adventure doesn’t sound like you, then opt for a private bus. While they may be a little pricier, they can guarantee far better comfort.
Just a warning: Watch out for scams. I think I once got exchanged Mexican Peso’s instead of Colonels. I was able to laugh at this, purely because I was dealing with a minuscule amount of change. But something tells me I wouldn’t be laughing if it was something bigger, so make sure you’re always aware of the change you receive.
Tours Vs adventuring on your own
Tours are a great chance to travel in a group and meet other people. They typically include all transport, accommodation, guides and entry into parks and activities and are absolutely stress free! However, they can add up to be a bit more expensive compared to if you were to travel on your own. Another option if cost is a barrier, is to go on a day or half day tours while travelling on your own – this way you get the best of both.