Costa Rica has been on my Bucket List for a while, but only started to take it seriously into consideration when me and Alle where looking for a destination where we could experience the place throughly in just over 2 weeks and that wasn’t too pricey. This was our ‘serious’ holiday of the year, but it took a bit of discussion as Alle wanted to go to Asia and I to Latin America. After considering Burma, Colombia, Myanmar and Nicaragua, we finally settled on Costa Rica as it has it all, we would have got good weather in August and it was well connected thus easy to travel in in a short amount of time.
In my usual pre-departure research, I stumbled in countless articles with suggestions on places to see and how life in Costa Rica is, but never quite found good and updated information on the way I wanted to travel the country: by car, and for 2 weeks. For this reason (and because I have a travel blog, obviously!) I am writing this post to share with you how expectations met reality. Please bear in mind I am a budget traveller so no fancy places here!
It’s (Really) Expensive
I was truly expecting Costa Rica to be expensive, I was told this by other travellers who had been there and I read about it. I took it as a sort of challenge, but I did not expect it to be this much. To give you an idea, I spent more or less the same money I would have spent if I went on holiday in London.
Accommodations prices are not great, as it’s hard to find a dorm bed in a mixed room with shared bathroom for less than $15 a night. We often slept in double rooms and the prices ranged between $30 and $35, from hostels to B&Bs. We found that the best value for money came from Airbnbs, where for the same amount as a hostel we slept in some amazing places in the middle of the jungle with great hosts.
Food is really expensive as well. Expect to pay at least $15-$20 per meal each when eating out at a restaurant. Sodas are the local and slightly cheaper restaurants, but they close at 8pm most of the times if not earlier, so we often went there for lunch. The most cost effective way is to buy food at supermarkets (Pali is the cheapest and it’s amazing) and cooked our own food.
We also made the decision to rent a car, which came with its price. Luckily I found Vamos Rent-a-Car that gave us a really good deal on a big Toyota Rav 4, and I couldn’t have been happier with the service. The car came at $530 for a 15 days hire, which was including the compulsory basic insurance. Unfortunately petrol was a big hit to our budget as well, as we spent $60 per tank refill…
Overall, we spent an average of $40 each a day, excluding the car rental and flights.
You Don’t Really Need a 4×4 Car
Everything I read before leaving suggested we should hire a 4×4 car as the roads are not good and often closed before of the weather. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such well maintained roads ever before! If you’re not planning on doing any major off road driving like we did, then you won’t need such a car. Roads are all well paved, bigger and smaller ones, with the exception of some entrances to parks where even a smaller car will take you – perhaps slower but it will.
However, if you are planning to get out of the paved road and into the rougher local ones then I’d suggest you hire a decent car. I was glad we had one as we got to see some wonderful places we couldn’t have reached on a public transport or with a ‘normal’ car. These included all the Guanacaste Coast, from Tamarindo to Samara and past El Carrillo until Punta Coyote.
It’s Raw Happiness at Its Finest…
Only after a couple of weeks I managed to give a name to what I felt while travelling in Costa Rica, meeting such happy people and through amazing landscapes. I decided to define this thing that was making my heart feel so light as Raw Happiness, a sort of pure joy that is hidden in every corner, the sparkle in people’s eyes and in every breath of fresh air. Something very unique that I never quite experienced before and anywhere else.
This is, perhaps, the essence of the so-called Pura Vida, the Costa Rican way of life…
… and It’s Pura Vida
Expect to hear this a lot when you are there… The cynical part of me thought it was a way to engage with tourists initially, something that the locals would say to visitors in a way. Then I realised this is actually how they are, the lifestyle there is Pura Vida (Pure Life) at its core, people enjoy it and don’t seem to care about anything else. They may seem lazy, laying on their hammocks all day long, taking their time to do something and appreciating every little thing, but isn’t this just how everyone should be? Coming back to hectic London was rather traumatic, and would swap it in a blink of an eye.
You’ll Most Likely Have a Beach to Yourself
Costa Rica has a crazy amount of wonderful beaches and they can be for everyone – from surfers to tanners to snorklers, there is one for all. And because of this, you will mostly find yourself surrounded by no one but your shadow, or maybe a couple of piglets 😉
If you don’t want to pay the parking fee of $2-4 that they charge in most beaches in Guanacaste, just drive to the next less popular beach and it’ll be free parking, if any.
It’s a Small United States of (Central) America…
I haven’t travelled that much in latin America, so I certainly cannot call myself an expert on the area… But I know the US rather well, and let me tell you Costa Rica is like the suburb-by-the-jungle of the latter. I’m not talking about all the expats who live there, I actually understand the reason why someone would want to move to this paradise on earth, but there is a great Northern influence here that is almost palpable. In a way it’s good for those who don’t like to move far from the known into the unknown, but I’m not one of those and I was a bit disappointed. When I travel I like to discover the real-deal, the people, their culture and tradition and the language… I find it a shame when I see some places are starting to lose touch with their roots.
…So Much So that You Can Pay For Everything in Dollars
Although I don’t suggest it. In fact, the exchange rate between Colones (local currency) and Dollars is not good and each place makes up its own. The general rule is that 1$ is 500 Colones, but if you exchange the latter beforehand and pay with those, you will find that it works out much cheaper. In London, I found Colones at the best rate at Thomas Exchange UK Ltd on 48 Bishopsgate.
You Don’t Need to Go to a Park to See Exotic Animals
In fact, they are actually everywhere! Just look up, or down, and you will notice you’re surrounded by them. If you don’t want to pay $15 to get into a park but still want to see one (fair enough!), head of to Cahuita where there is the only free national park in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful place, a rough 8km hike in the forest but right on the beach, where we’ve seen more animals than anywhere else. We’ve also seen a baby sloth and baby Mantler Howler monkey on the same tree, which was rather magical!
As with everywhere else, you have to use common sense, but it’s an overall safe country. I noticed many women solo traveller and even I had no problem there at all when walking around in the evening on my own.
Our car had dark windows, which got me worried would make us look like we had something to hide in it (and to be fair, we did most of the times), but nothing ever happened to it.
Although I must admit once I witnessed some kids running away with someone’s backpack at Bri Bri’s Waterfall (on the Caribbean side), but police arrived right away and managed to retrieve most of its content. So beware of your possession everywhere you go.
The Food is Not That Great
Yep. I didn’t even think it would be possible, I was sure I would find some great pescado here and there, but no. To my disappointment, Costa Rican diet is mostly made of rice and beans and the two together make possible the most popular dish of all: Gallo Pinto. Luckily, on some restaurants on the beach you can still find some great Ceviche and fresh fish.
There you go, these are all the tips I can think of that I learnt travelling in Costa Rica, I hope some of you will find them useful! If you have any more or disagree with something, please share your view in a comment!