Costa Rica is a country that seems to polarize travellers. When I told people who had already been there about my upcoming trip, I found they organized themselves into two distinct camps: the “Ohmigod, I looooooove Costa Rica!” group and the “Ugh, I was not a faaaan!” group.
These passionate responses left me both scratching my head and curious about how folks could have such disparate reactions about the same place. Truth be told, this Central American nation had never really been on my radar, if only because I had heard that it was very touristy, super expensive, and I was hell-bent on seeing other places in Latin America first (like Machu Picchu in Peru). Going to Costa Rica was also less of a priority because naysayers had also intimated that its popularity amongst American tourists had “watered down” the culture somewhat, so that the country was kind of like a tropical, 51st state. No bueno, chicos!
But with only a week of holiday at our disposal and an increasing desperation to escape the frigid February climes of the Big Apple (New York, I love you, but I can’t handle you in the winter), we decided to give Costa Rica a try anyway. Besides, I think it’s always important to see places and judge things for yourself!
The beaches in Manuel Antonio: Full disclosure, I’m not a beach person (not least because I find lying out in the sun boring and I don’t swim very well). However, I am a sucker for beautiful scenery.
And by Jove, these beaches have got it in spades! Manuel Antonio is a few hours’ drive from San Jose, the capital, and thus worth a stop.
Best known for its national park (which I didn’t find too impressive, see below to find out why), the four expanses of white sand beaches on which it borders is the true stunner. Whether you’re here to swim, sunbathe, or navel-gaze, these playas are a great spot.
The food: Costa Rica pleasantly surprised me in terms of the range and quality of food options available. The tourism industry is booming here, so restaurants for all cuisines and at all star levels can be found in the major hubs.
However, please note: Latin American food takes carbs and starch to. another. level. Rice, potatoes, bread, beans, and tortillas magically appear as sides for every meal– so much so even this carb-fiend was hankering for a bit of greens at some point. Go nuts with the “beige food”, if you will, but order a side of salad when or where possible to avoid constipation.
Having our own car: Ahh, the joys of road-tripping! We partnered with Carrentals.co.uk on this trip and were given a vehicle to take us all around the country.
Now, I usually am a huge proponent of using public transportation on my travels since I’m afraid of driving, but our short trip, coupled with poor coach schedules and large distances to cover, meant that renting a car was a way more intelligent option.
I loved being able to get from A to B at our own pace and Costa Rican roads (with the exception of the bumpy gravel path from La Fortuna to Monteverde) are paved and well-maintained. The views out the window weren’t bad either!
Things we weren’t impressed by
The high costs of entrances and activities: Exploring Costa Rica’s forests/wildlife ain’t cheap! Example: In Monteverde, we paid $75 USD each for Selvatura’s hanging-bridge and canopy tour and $30 USD each for a night hike (with a tour company I don’t remember the name of). Ouch! Days later, in Manuel Antonio, we paid $16 USD each to enter the relatively unimpressive national park. While these experiences are necessary to get a feel for the country, I felt them to be way overpriced.
La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano: This well-worn spot on the tourist trail left both Liebling and myself feeling flat. La Fortuna is a dusty, backpacker town filled to the brim with grimy bars and leaves-a-lot-to-be-desired restaurants. The main reason people come here is to visit the nearby Arenal Volcano and the national park that surrounds it– they are perfectly nice but nothing to write home about: no bubbling lava, crazy scenery, birds of prey nipping at your ears or strange animals crossing your path. Walking thorough Arenal National Park kind of felt like skulking around the ravine behind my mom’s house in Canada— totally pleasant but nothing particularly exciting. Knowing what I know now, I would skip La Fortuna and the volcano altogether.
Manuel Antonio National Park: Tiny, expensive to enter, and completely overrun with tourists (you could barely move, the crowds were so thick!), it was impossible to see any of the sloths, 184 species of birds, or any other diverse wildlife the park is renowned for– all the people presumably scared them away. If it weren’t for the beautiful beaches the park encompasses I would have skipped it completely.
Things we didn’t do but wish we did
Go to the Caribbean Coast: I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Guatemalan’s Caribbean Coast and in retrospect I highly regret not doing the same in Costa Rica. I’ve been told that Puerto Limon and Puerto Viejo provide an interesting mix of Latin and Caribbean cultures and that the jungles and beaches are more rugged and pristine. Apparently the region is cheaper and way less touristy as well. Next time!
Bring warm clothes and proper rain gear!! I was somehow under the mistaken impression that all of Costa Rica had scorching temperatures, but boy, was I wrong! I spent approximately half of the trip freezing my buns off— Monteverde, which is a city found in Costa Rica’s Central Highlands, is notoriously chilly and rainy, and La Fortuna had some windy, wet weather while we were there as well. Luckily, I was able to pick up the very very bright rain jacket you see below (always the fashionista, I am!) as well as warm myself with a few cups of tasty coffee, one of the country’s primary exports.
So what are my feelings about Costa Rica, you ask? Startlingly, I don’t find myself planted firmly in one camp or the other: I didn’t love my time there, but I didn’t wholly dislike it either. While I wasn’t wowed or thrilled by what I did or saw, I realize that my trip was very much limited to the well-worn tourist trail of La Fortuna, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, and San Jose. If I had made the effort to visit the not-as-popular Caribbean or Pacific coasts I would have surely had a different impression of the country.
Altogether I had a decent time and if nothing else, Costa Rica is an easy, low-stress trip to plan and undertake (I should mention that English is widely spoken and it is entirely possible to exclusively use U.S. dollars for the duration of your stay). Infrastructure is good, the tourism industry in the country is well-developed, and many of the attractions are child-friendly. However, I now understand where Costa Rica’s detractors are coming from: for those seeking that “wow”-factor, a total “fish out of water” experience, or a sustained adrenaline rush, Costa Rica would seem kind of tame and far too touristy.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? How did you feel about your trip? And if you’ve never been, what encourages you to or discourages you from going?