I travelled to Costa Rica for two and half weeks last Spring on a last minute completely unplanned trip. It ended up being lot of fun as we explored the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the country and some of the central highlands as well.
Costa Rica is a fairly small country and you can travel from coast to coast in a day. Geographically it’s located in Central America and bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Eco Tourism is very big in Costa Rica thanks to large swaths of land, almost a quarter of the country, protected conservation forests and natural parks lands. Besides that, the beaches are top notch, and there are lots of options for adventure travel, including hiking volcanoes.
“Pura vida” is a common expression you’ll hear, translates to “pure life” and used wherever you want to. Costa Ricans (Ticos) use it as a hello or bye bye, expression of enthusiasm or a simple agreement. Perhaps the most startling fact about Costa Rica is that the country has no standing army since 1949 and has remained quite peaceful considering what its neighbours witnessed.
There is tremendous geographical variation in the country, from rain forests to dry tropical and temperate forests, to volcanoes, to Caribbean and Pacific beaches, to high mountains, and marshy lowlands. This is given rise to many micro-climates and tremendous amount of biodiversity.
Arriving in San Jose, we left on the first bus to Cahuita on the Atlantic Coast. Within few hours we were greeted to a delicious lunch consisting of a coconut sauce dish and a jerk seasoning dish. Good food makes a great start of any trip and this one was no different.
Cahuita, Puerto Limón, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and the Tortuguero park are the main places to see on the Caribbean side. Reggae music, rum, fish and a generally relaxed vibe is what you’ll find here. There are many opportunities for bird watching, turtle watching, trekking, snorkelling, diving, cycling, etc. as well as arranging visits to indigenous villages deeper in the interior forests.
Semana Santa or the holy week around Easter, is a major holiday time for Ticos and we heard that hotels get booked up, public transit slows down and people simply party for days. This worked well with our one week of volunteer work in a little village called Parismina. Asociación Salvemos las Tortugas de Parismina (ASTOP) is a non profit community organization that is dedicated to protecting sea turtles and their eggs from poaching. Through donations from volunteers, the organization is working towards sustainable development and providing a viable alternative economy to poaching in the village.
We had a great time staying with a family and patrolling the beach at night to ward off poachers as well as rescue any newly laid turtle eggs. During this nesting season, leather back turtles and green turtles lay eggs on the dark sand dunes of the beaches along Central America and most of these eggs as well as green turtles get preyed upon. This was a very meaningful and fulfilling experience.
Cahuita’s beaches are beautiful and the Parque National Cahuita has a scenic trek along protected areas by the shoreline that you can easily spend a day doing.
Pacific Coast: Tamarindo
I had never surfed in my life so I was excited to learn it and where else should one learn surfing but at Tamarindo. They say the beach is blessed by the surf gods and one of the best places for newbies to learn.
It felt like the entire town was centered around surfing. Every other store is a rental places slash surf school and it’s not uncommon to notice men and women walking around with a surf board any time of the day. There is a second layer to tourists that stay in the plentiful resorts in and around Tamarindo and swimming in their pools next to the beach (I don’t get it).
Restaurants tend to be pricey because, you know, tourists, but walk in the smaller back lanes and you’ll run into smaller restaurants ‘sodas’ run by a house mama preparing dish after dish of cheap delicious eats.
Costa Rica’s capital city is no Quito or Lima, but is very functional and conveniently located in the middle of the country. The thing that stood out for me is the number of street murals, some of which are posted here.
Mercado central is small and compact, and has the usual fare that any Latin American market does. The food lane has numerous indistinguishable eateries, with enthusiastic ladies trying to grab your attention to their restaurant.
Most of our time in San Jose was spent between buses, since the city is the hub for buses going east, west, south, and north, and you probably have to connect through here. Once you buy your tickets and have few hours to kill, store your bags at the bus station and turn your steps towards the town. There’s a central east-west pedestrian path that cuts through the commercial area and perfect for a stroll to soak up the city. If you have more time, venture a bit south to the central park and further to chinatown, or east to the government areas.
Central Highlands: Monte Verde
The cloud forest of Monteverde is as spectacular as it sounds. This is a heavily tourist area and most of the city’s economy is run on commissions, meaning if you ask someone for directions, they’ll take you there and expect a tip from the owner. Applies to hotels, restaurants, and tour agencies. It’s kind of weird system, but as tourists we don’t get impacted directly. What it means is that the price you are paying includes many commissions, so you might be able to negotiate it somewhat.
My advice would be to go to the cloud forest as early as possible. It’s much more fun to trek in the rainforest when the cloud cover is hanging low. Opportunities for bird watching are incredible, and there are many animals too. If watching animals is what you are here for, I highly suggest arranging a guide. Otherwise the park maps are plenty to loop through the forest on its extensive trail system.
Monte verde is also a great place to go ziplining. The options are extensive and the setting is very scenic. The option that we took included a really long zipline from one mountain to another over a valley and it was incredible.
Food in Costa Rica varies from place to place, but is generally in the same genre. This is no Mexico, so don’t expect to fall in love with the food, but you do get exposed to a large variety of tastes from coast to coast. Rice and beans (Gallo Pinto) is the staple in this region and there is no escape from it unless you cook your own food.
Caribbean food was my favourite due to a wider use of spices in cooking. Also, “patacones” – fried plantain/green banana is amazing and you can substitute potatoes with patacones which I did almost every meal.
That was my fun packed travel report from Costa Rica. Hope you enjoyed reading. Have a good trip!