Costa Rica is not showing any signs of slowing as a popular destination for Americans. And for good reason. The place is flat-out fun, with beautiful rainforests, rampant wildlife and
genuinely wonderful people (even those who don’t work in the tourism industry). It’s been a few years since my visit, but I still have some tips that’ll help.
1. Don’t drive. If you’re from the United States, the driving situation is a lot like the opening 10 minutes of Revenge of the Sith (but with better acting and dialogue). Oddly enough, while their driving would spark road rage incidents in America, Costa Rican drivers honk and wave at the people who cut them off or pass them on the right at high speed with three inches of clearance.
2. Plan ahead for shuttle or bus service. It’s pretty inexpensive – and you can enjoy the countryside instead of fearing for your life.
3. Go to La Fortuna. This great little town north of San Jose is right near Volcan Arenal. Take a guided hike into the rain forest with any of the many services. The guides know their flora and fauna, and their knowledge will add to the hike. Many of the hikes also include a visit to Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort. If you go for a late afternoon hike, you can unwind in the naturally heated thermal pools and watch Arenal belch glowing cinders.
4. Don’t miss Monteverde. It’s a very relaxing place tucked into the mountains west of La Fortuna. You’ll have to take car, a boat and then a van to get there. Let me warn you about the last leg of that trip: The road is brutal. You’ll get bounced and jostled, possibly to the point of nausea. But you can walk that off in Monteverde. You can see wild coatis, enormous hummingbirds and huge spiders. There are tons of hiking trails, including the Cloud Forest. A few steps away from La Colina, a great bed and breakfast, we found an open-air restaurant serving the best-ever veggie burger. Still unequaled to this day! Bring rain gear – it often alternates between drizzle and downpour at night. During the day, you can often feel the light rain known as pelo de gato. Oh, and let’s not forget the Original Canopy Tour. TOO MUCH FUN!
5. Fly where you can. NatureAir is reasonably priced (and claims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral airline), and can get you to a lot of destinations in 30 minutes instead of four hours. Distance doesn’t mean much in Costa Rica – traffic moves a lot slower there overall because of the road conditions.
6. San Jose is really pretty cool. A lot of travelers badmouth it for some reason. Yeah, I’ll admit there’s a layer of crime and diesel exhaust. But there is also a vibrant, lively, friendly feel to it. Maybe we caught it at its best during the holiday season. We arrived at 7 p.m., and had ample time to grab a taxi to our hotel before wandering into a nighttime open-air market and a stack of fresh, tasty pupusas. Bring a GPS receiver to help you navigate.
7. Some travelers like to say Costa Rica is “Americanized.” This is the traveling equivalent of music fans who wrinkle their nose and insist they only like “the old stuff” of any given band. Yes, you’ll find ATMs and McDonald’s (which are a great source of clean, free bathrooms in the cities). But America still isn’t this friendly. It has no monkeys, tropical mountains, coffee plantations, friendly stray dogs and aura of barely controlled mayhem. And the last time I checked, I never went to a shopping mall guarded by guys with shotguns. If you find Costa Rica “Americanized,” you either didn’t go to the right places or you’re simply trying to be hipper-than-thou. Word. This reminds me of the time this couple patronizingly mentioned they don’t go anyplace where English is the official language. Their case in point? Thailand. “Oh, did you learn some Thai?” No! So what, exactly, is the point of going to a non English-speaking country if you’re not going to meet them partway?
8. I think the Caribbean side would be nice to see. But I have nothing to say about it since we didn’t make it out there. Try it and report back to me, eh?
9. Costa Rica has a lot of fresh food. The dairy, in particular, is awesome quality. And don’t be afraid of loading up on gallo pinto, the national beans and rice staple. It won’t make you as flatulent as you think. I’d attribute that to being freshly made beans rather than canned. Otherwise, I’d eat anything, anywhere in Costa Rica except Chinese food, no matter how fancy the location. I think they load it full of MSG. The fruit you’ll find everywhere is amazing. By the way, if you want to eat on the cheap, hit the sodas. This is what the call their local, semi fast-food places.