Why go to Costa Rica? For the monkeys of course! Actually there is more to Costa Rica than just monkeys, but in general any trip to Costa Rica will be a nature oriented trip. According to the travel book I read, Costa Rica has .01% of the world's land mass, but 5% of the world's species. So there is a lot to see, if you are interested in seeing animals, plants, and natural wonders. On the other hand, in the pre-Columbian days, Costa Rica was a bit of a backwater country and never had any large civilizations like the Inca or Aztec. So there really aren't any large ruined temples or other cultural tourist attractions. But it's warm all year round, there are a lot of beaches, and plenty of natural places to look at, which makes it a great choice for anyone interested in ecotourism.
For the third world, Costa Rica is very modern. The GDP is the highest in Central America, and the population is relatively well off. They have plenty of stores, and cater to most western tastes. It is a good travel tip to try to underpack as opposed to overpack. Things like sunscreen and such can be purchased easily once you get there, if you need them, so don't feel that you have to pack for every possible contingency.
I would certainly buy a tour book, perhaps several. In addition, if you are going to be driving yourself around, I'd recommend getting some very good maps.
Costa Rica is a pretty casual country that is used to having American tourists, so don't feel that you will look funny if you dress like an American tourist. The interesting thing about Costa Rica is that they don't really have seasons. It is the same temperature all year round. But, there are big differences in what that temperature is based on elevation. Costa Rica is basically two beaches with a mountain in between. When you are down near the beaches, the high is probably going to be in the 80-90 (F) range. But if you are up in the mountains, the high is going to be closer to 60 (F). So, I wouldn't pack a winter coat or anything, but if you intend to be up in the mountains, I'd bring a light jacket.
Costa Rica also has a rainy season, which just so happens to be the season we went there. If you are going during the rainy season (May-October), I'd strongly suggest bringing something waterproof. Nam went to LL Bean and got this cute all weather rainproof jacket that really served her well. You might also invest in an umbrella. The hotels that we stayed in all had free umbrellas in the rooms that you could borrow, which I felt was a really nice touch.
Also, if you are going to Costa Rica to look at rainforests and other natural wonders (and why else would you be going there?), I'd recommend a pair of waterproof hiking boots. You'll get your money's worth out of them.
I hate driving long distances, but when I was a kid I thought how cool it would be to just get in a car one day and drive all the way down to South America. In theory you can do it. However, I'd really advise against driving in Costa Rica. The traffic wasn't bad at all really, there were no insane drivers like you see in other parts of the world, and everybody obeys the traffic laws. The problem with driving in Costa Rica are the roads.
I don't blame the Costa Rican government too much. They are trying to build roads up a mountain in a rainforest. This is not easy. There were floods, washouts, mudslides, cow herds, and other things that make driving difficult. The fact that the giant trucks are driving on these small curvy mountain roads also doesn't help. There are a lot of potholes in places.
But all of that can be overcome. The main reason that you should not drive in Costa Rica is that there doesn't appear to be a single street sign in the entire country! I didn't quite understand it, because there were plenty of stop signs and other signs, but no one ever bothered to put up a street sign. You have no idea what road you are driving on. This makes getting places difficult. The locals tend to give directions in terms of landmarks, as in, "drive 20 miles until you see the gas station, then turn left". I'm not a good driver, and this would have been way out of my comfort zone, so we just hired a driver.
There are companies in Costa Rica that will be sort of like long distance taxis and take you from place to place. When we went from Arenal Volcano to Manuel Antonio, it was a five hour drive. We hired a driver to take us. How he was able to get us there without getting lost, I'll never know. Hiring a driver is a little more expensive than renting a car, but it certainly relieves stress.
Nam says: To make our travel arrangements, I did research to figure out where I wanted to go, and then I used a travel agency (www.centralamerica.com) to make the airplane (both international and local) and hotel reservations and the private driver arrangements. Nella at www.centralamerica.com was very helpful. Our private driver was always early to meet us. Lots of people seem to rent cars and drive in Costa Rica without any problems, but that would have been too stressful for us.
I was very impressed by Costa Rican food. Not that it was all that great, but it was decent and at a reasonable price and there was a lot of it. One misconception about Central and South America is that it is all the culinary equivalent of Mexico. Costa Rica serves Costa Rican food, not Mexican, so if you are looking for a burrito and some tacos you are mostly out of luck. They seem to eat an awful lot of those banana-esque plantains. They also served pineapple, papaya, and watermelon everywhere there was a salad/breakfast bar. I saw a lot of coconuts on the trees around the country, but no one ever served me a coconut. I was also impressed that every single place we went to had a decent vegetarian option on the menu. I hadn't been expecting that. The food in Costa Rica turned out to be more veggie-friendly than in Miami.
As I've said, you go to Costa Rica for nature, not culture, and a lot of the hotels are a bit isolated. Every hotel has a restaurant, and you are generally expected to eat at the restaurant hotel. There were only a few times when we ventured away from the hotel restaurant to try food elsewhere. If you are driving around the country though, there are lots of diner-type places that the locals like to eat at. They are for some reason called Sodas. We ate at one and it was pretty decent and I hear that they are reasonably cheap.
For alcohol, they like this special Costa Rican drink called Guaro. It's made from sugar cane. I think it's pretty similar to the Peruvian Pisco. Most restaurants and bars have modified standard drinks to make them Guaro drinks (such as whiskey sour --> guaro sour). It's not that great tasting straight. However, I bought a bottle to take home, as a liter only costs around $6.
Unlike Europe, there didn't appear to be tourist information offices in Costa Rica, at least not in the parts that I was in. On the other hand, every hotel that we stayed at had a tourist desk and a number of tours that were available. These tours were run by local tour companies, and I'm guessing that all of the hotels in an area have the same set of tours. The good thing about these tours is that they pick you up at your hotel and know exactly where to take you, plus the guides we met all seemed pretty competent. The bad part is that you aren't really in control of your trip and if you want to take a detour, it can be difficult. There were a few places where I would have liked to stop the bus, get out and see something, but I didn't get the chance.
I speak a few words of Spanish, but it's very very limited. However, in Costa Rica, probably because the place is continuously flooded with American tourists, most people speak pretty good English. This is especially true of those who are in the tourism field. We never had a problem communicating with anybody in English. I'd imagine if you got off the beaten path and found yourself in a non-tourist area you might need a little Spanish, but if you stick to the hotels, Spanish is completely optional. One of our tour guides told us that there are tour guides who specialize in other languages as well, like French and German, but I didn't hear anyone speaking anything other than English and Spanish while I was there.
The Costa Rica currency is called the Colon, and during our trip it was about 480 Colones to the US Dollar. We considered getting some money at an exchange, but you know what? Everybody takes dollars down there. The restaurants, the hotels, the gift shops, they are all happy to take US money. In fact, I hadn't even seen a Colon until the last day when I was trying to break a large bill so I'd have change for tips and the waiter asked if I wanted Colones or Dollars. So I got a few Colones just to see what they looked like.
As for ATMs, I saw a few signs for them, but I never actually saw one. I'd imagine you'd have to go out of your way a little bit to get more money. On the positive side though, every place we went to took credit cards, so I didn't part with a lot of cash. In fact, since the tours and meals are usually at the hotels, you typically only have to pay one large bill per hotel stay. I think that except for having small bills for tips and trinkets, you might be able to make it through an entire vacation without ever needing cash.
Speaking of tips, Costa Ricans are very subtle about them. I got the impression that, although tips are included in restaurant bills, a lot of other people aren't really expecting them. At first I thought that maybe they just didn't take tips, as they never really left an opportunity for me to give them one. But I found that they would take one if you were quick about it. For example, the drivers would often take our bags out of the car and then drive away before I could even get my wallet open. If you want to tip a Costa Rican, you probably have to get money ready well in advance.
I've always found it best to have a guidebook when going to a foreign place, if for nothing else that just some good maps. We were using the Frommers' Guide, but there are plenty of good ones to choose from. If you are headed to Costa Rica, perhaps you'd like to chose one of these fine guides from Amazon:
Ok, that's enough background information, now let's move on to the actual trip:
If you are thinking of going to Peru instead of Costa Rica, see my Peru Page.
If you are thinking of going to Southern France instead of Costa Rica, see my France Page.
If for some reason you think that I'm a great writer, and you like scary, conspiracy-laden, psychological thrillers (think DaVinci Code), you can read my novel, City of Pillars, published by The Invisible College Press. It has nothing to do with Costa Rica though. PS: I use my middle name as my nom de plume, but it's still me.
If for some reason you want to read my creepy, melancholy, darkly-humorous photocomic, just click on this link for tiny ghosts. Unlike the book, this is totally free! However, it also doesn't have anything to do with Costa Rica.
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