Costa Rica, the land of Pura Vida (“pure life”), was declared the most environmentally advanced and happiest place on earth in 2016. Considered a very peaceful country, it hasn’t had an army since 1949 and is one of the safest countries in Central America. Around 300 beautiful beaches, over 200 volcanic formations, rainforests, a wide variety of plants and animals, amazing surfing spots are just a few of the reasons you should visit this country.
But Costa Rica also has its share of unpleasant aspects. No place on earth is perfect, but that should not prevent you from exploring the world. The list below is going to prepare you for the best trip when you travel to Costa Rica, and help you make informed decisions and have as few unpleasant surprises as possible.
15. Creepy Crawlies Everywhere
If you have a phobia of insects or other small, crawling creatures, this might not be the right country for you. Imagine waking up one morning and finding half of the beautiful potted fern on your porch gone. And then noticing an army of leaf-cutter ants going up and down the plant, carrying big chunks of your fern and marching back to their colony. The whole fern is gone in a few hours. What about waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, picking up a towel off the floor and getting stung by a scorpion. True story! Your hand will go numb for a while, you will freak out and wonder if you should run to the nearest hospital. Don’t worry you will be fine!
You don’t even get privacy in the shower, where little geckos, crabs or frogs that somehow managed to get in will keep you company the whole time.
If you happen to run into fire ants, you’re in for another surprise. They are mean and travel in huge groups! And let’s not forget about the adorable tarantulas. Just because you saw one outside, it doesn’t mean that they can’t get in, or that they can’t crawl on you while you’re sleeping.
14. The Bite of the fierce Fer-de-Lance
The land of Pura Vida is also home to some of the most poisonous snakes in the world. The most feared one is Fer-de-Lance, as this viper’s bite can be fatal. If you meet anyone with long scary scars on their legs they probably had an encounter with this snake.
You might have heard the story of the British Columbia resident who was bitten by one of these snakes while walking on a Costa Rican beach at night. He suddenly felt an intense pain but had no idea what happened. The local medical clinic wasn’t able to help him because of the language barrier, so he got on the first flight back to Vancouver. By the time he arrived, his condition had gotten a lot worse. He told the doctors he was bitten by an ant, but the doctors figured out that it was actually a snakebite . However, Fer-de-Lance venom is not something commonly found in hospitals, so they had to fly some in from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle in order to help the poor man recover.
13. Water hazards
Costa Rica is known for having some of the best waves to surf in the world, and you can surf all year round too. But those seeking for adventure need to be aware of the dangers as well. While beaches and waters are enticing, they can also be very scary: powerful rip currents, large rocks, underwater caves, just to name a few.
Playa Sirena, one of the wildest beaches in Costa Rica is also one of the most dangerous ones. You can run into sharks and caimans in the water and pumas and jaguars on the land.
12. A bounty of fruits and vegetables
Pretty much every Costa Rican town has a weekly Farmer’s Market, called La Feria, where you can find an abundance of inexpensive fruit and vegetables. You will find fruit you’ve never eaten or seen before and you should take advantage and try them all. This is, indeed, a vegetarian’s paradise. Mamónes (rambutan) are a must-try, especially if you find the yellow ones.
Unfortunately, it’s not all great news. These delicious fruits and vegetables are loaded with pesticides. It might come as a surprise that one of the world’s most eco-friendly countries is also one of the biggest consumers of pesticides in the world. Large levels of pesticide has been proven to be dangerous for humans, and even banned in many countries. So, when travelling around Costa Rica, be cautious about the fruits and vegetables you consume.
11. Pura Vida
Spanish for “pure life,” the meaning of this expression is manifold. It defines their relaxed way of life, the “Take it easy” and “Enjoy life” philosophy. And the closer you are to nature and to the beach, the more relaxed and happy people seem. The locals (called ticos and ticas) are always smiling, laughing, having fiestas, celebrating life and are incredibly friendly. Even people who don’t speak much English will try their best to communicate with you.
While all this sounds great, there is a downside to their relaxed lifestyle. For instance, when you hire a local for a job, there is a chance it might not be completed in time. It will be ready mañana, they will say, and even though it means “tomorrow,” it might take another week before the job is accomplished. The same goes for ahora (“now”), which in tico language means, “at some unspecified time in the future.” What’s the rush man? You are on tico time. Just relax!
10. Bribery Equals No Arrest
If you travel by bus, avoid placing your backpack on the overhead luggage area unless you want someone to “accidentally” leave the bus with it.
Do not leave anything of value in your car. I don’t mean hide your valuables under a blanket or in the trunk. Just don’t leave them in the car unsupervised! Rental cars are targets in Costa Rica because they are new cars and many of the models are the same.
Many places have a security guard on the premises that will watch your car and it is not a bad idea to tip them a few dollars for extra peace of mind.
While it is not very common, it does occasionally happen that tourists get pulled over even though they weren’t breaking any traffic laws. Due to their low wages, police officers often seek out bribes in lieu of actually writing you a ticket. Some people prefer to bribe them because it is cheaper than the ridiculously high traffic fees, while others will simply ask for the ticket and hope they don’t get one. No matter what you decide, just keep your calm and be polite! And use a traffic app like Waze to avoid such situations.
9. Driving May Lead to Death
Driving in Costa Rica can be intimidating for first-time visitors, but the roads also give you a certain freedom you can’t really get elsewhere. While it is not the norm, you will find that many Costa Rican roads are curvy, in poor shape, or even unpaved, and some of the bridges look very unreliable. Mountain roads often don’t have a guard rail and there is always the risk of falling rocks. In the rainy season, you might find entire roads or bridges washed out. Costa Ricans are not afraid to pass other cars in blind curves, or on double yellow lines, and even worst, semi trucks and buses have a habit of doing this as well!
Cerro de la Muerte (“Mountain of Death”) sounds like the name of an infamous road, but in reality, is not that scary. Sure, there have been several accidents due to heavy rain, fog, and reckless drivers, but the story behind the name goes back a hundred years when people would cross the mountain on foot or by horse and died from hypothermia. Temperatures can get very low at that altitude.
Most roads in Costa Rica (San Jose is an exception) are not marked with street signs because they don’t have a name or number. When traveling by cab or asking for directions, you will need to use a landmark.
8. An Uber Uncomfortable Public Transit System
There is an efficient and inexpensive bus system, with buses that even travel to remote areas, but don’t expect five-star comfort or air conditioning. You could be leaving San Jose on a hot bus, struggling for 15 minutes to open the window, only to end up freezing an hour later because of the higher altitude.
You can choose to get a rental car, but they are not cheap and you have to still be prepared to deal with all the issues mentioned above.
Taxis are easy to find and inexpensive. If you speak any Spanish, they are the best solution for short distances. Just pick a red one (the official government licensed taxi) and make sure they have their meters on (called la maria).
7. A Sketchy Health System
You have probably heard of many North Americans flying to Costa Rica to get cheaper medical care, especially dental treatments. Medical tourism is booming in Costa Rica because they are offering high-quality services for a fraction of the price you would have paid back home. A procedure costing $10,000 in the U.S. can cost as low as $2,500 in Costa Rica, so even after paying for a plane ticket and accommodation, you’re still better off flying here.
You will find many doctors who were trained in the U.S. and speak very good English, so language barrier won’t be an issue.
However, most medical procedures have the risk of causing complications so be careful when making plans to travel to Costa Rica. To be on the safe side, make sure to do a lot of research before picking a doctor. Read reviews and if possible talk to people that have already traveled there for treatments.
6. Suicide Showers
There are countries where you simply don’t have access to hot water and others where the luxury of a hot shower comes with a few risks.
Just because they are called “suicide showers,” it doesn’t mean they will kill you. You just need to learn how they work. These contraptions funnel water through a shower head, which contains an electric coil that warms the bath water upon contact. Though the shower may have two knobs, only one will typically work. Use the sliding button on the shower to choose your desired temperature and most important, do this before you turn the water on.
5. Cuánto cuesta? (“How much does it cost”?)
Costa Rica used to be dirt cheap years ago. Now it is the fourth most expensive country in Latin America. Don’t be surprised if you have to pay mega bucks for regular items like sunscreen, especially if it is imported. Clothes are also expensive, so don’t plan to revamp your wardrobe here. Costa Rica has very high import taxes, which is why a lot of products are considered luxury items. If you can’t live without your peanut butter, be prepared to pay twice as much for a jar.
Cigarettes are cheaper than in the U.S. and most Latin countries and so is local alcohol. However, smoking is banned from restaurants, bars, and many other public places.
“Gringo prices” are a fact of life in Costa Rica. Americans are often required to pay more than what locals would pay for the same service: car repair, haircut, accommodation etc. Your best bet is to make friends with the locals and ask them to negotiate for you.
4. Drugs and Prostitution are Rampant
It is not unusual in certain towns (like Tamarindo, for example) to be approached by someone trying to sell you drugs. It is also not uncommon to be approached by gorgeous young women in bars. Don’t get too excited; it comes with a price. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, which seems unusual for a predominantly Catholic country. It is practiced openly pretty much everywhere, especially in popular touristic destinations. And if that wasn’t shocking enough, it is also a destination for child sex tourism, even though the government is working hard to put an end to it.
Jaco Beach is not only a popular surf destination but quite a tourist attraction for its numerous brothels that employ girls from all over Latin America. Theoretically the girls are supposed to register as prostitutes, get checked regularly by a doctor and carry ID cards, but of course, most of them don’t.
3. Quality Food Not a Given
Small restaurants are called sodas and almost all of them will serve Costa Rica’s traditional meal, Casado (black beans, rice, some protein, fried plantains, a small salad or fried egg). Don’t expect consistency. No two casados are the same, not even at the same restaurant, but they are delicious nonetheless.
Don’t be shocked if you see dogs walking around outdoor restaurants or cats jumping on your table. Just offer them some of your leftovers.
Tip (10%) is included in your restaurant bill and most Costa Ricans will not pay extra. However, as a tourist, if you add another 10% to the bill you will be make a friend for life. Employees will be eager to serve you and make sure you are satisfied if you come back again.
You might think that any Latin country will have tacos, burritos, and enchiladas at every corner. Not the case here. There aren’t as many restaurants serving Mexican food, even though they eat rice and beans almost with every meal. And don’t be surprised if you order chips & salsa and they bring you chips covered in ketchup and mayonnaise!
2. Weather and natural disasters
It rains a lot. And by a lot, I mean almost every day during the rainy season, which lasts from May to November. The good news is it only rains for an hour or two every day.
It is also very hot and humid. Wear sunscreen, light clothing, and stay hydrated. However, if you’re planning to go up to the mountains, you’re going to need a jacket because it can get very cold.
The cloud forest is also called fog forest and it can pose a few dangers when driving on the mountain road. Fun fact: the fog will even enter your house if you leave the doors and windows open, so expect low visibility in the corridors.
1. Best Coffee in the World?
It is not uncommon for Ticos to give coffee to their children, even when they are very young. So, don’t be surprised if they seem to have an unusual amount of energy.
Costa Rica is home to one of the best coffee in the world. But few know that a few years ago they were struggling to save their crops from an African beetle that was destroying up to 50% of their coffee berries. However, pesticides sprayed on coffee plants are not only bad for consumers, but also for the environment. They end up in the cloud forest, where they accumulate and contribute to the drastic decline of amphibians.
The good news is that they were able to identify several species of birds that started consuming the beetles, significantly reducing the number of insects. However, if you are environmentally conscious, you should purchase coffee that is labeled Fair Trade or Rain Forest Alliance Certified. Coffee farms that receive these certifications use less pesticide, recycle their trash, and pay their workers a fair wage.
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