1. Not All Roads are Equal
Even in the remote corners of the states, we still have access to paved roads. Down in Costa Rica, however; it is quite the opposite. Sure the main tourist routes from the airports to the “big named” destinations have quality roads & highways with speed limits up to 50mph, but the excitement begins as soon as you find yourself, even remotely, off the beaten path. For instance, if you aren’t planning to spend your time by the “metropolis” beach town of Tamarindo, nearly every other town’s roads are exclusively dirt and riddled with large rocks. This creates tons of problems for the unsuspecting tourists, which we grew aware of right away when none of the rental insurance plans covered tire replacements or flats. During the dry season, the dirt roads become so hard and bumpy, our car’s nuts and bolts definitely began to loosen up by the end of the trip, but we kept pushing it along (hooray for rentals). During the rainy season, a majority of these same roads can wash away completely. This is not to dissuade you from exploring the country by car, but to give you a heads up for what to expect when your tires leave the paved road.
2. Expect to pay/tip for everything you do
Going for a hike, gotta pay the park entrance fee. Parking on the road by the beach, gotta tip the local “security” for watching your car all day. Want to check out a cool waterfall, gotta pay to open your eyes. I completely understand why they do it, but it can wear down the traveler who hasn’t had to deal with that much. This gets a little confusing when you mistake the laid-back, helpful attitudes of the people, with those just trying to make a buck. I personally hate tipping, I’d much rather pay you for the service and have your “tip” included, mostly to avoid the lingering awkwardness when the service provider stands around waiting for more money from the Americans-on-vacation. On the flip side, the beach is free and most prices of services are easily negotiable.
3. Beaches can be torturously hot
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive at the beach, is that not a single person is laying out on the actual beach. Mostly everyone is as far from the water as possible, tucked underneath the few trees to capture as much shade as possible. Yup, this applies for the locals as well. The sun is just too hot to hang out under it all day. This became very apparent after our first day in the sun, most of us were burnt from head to toe. If you don’t have an umbrella or tent, this can easily be avoided by bringing a large bed sheet to hang up in the trees or bushes at the edge of the beach. It was so strange, after growing up spending summers on the crowded beaches of New Jersey, that nobody was just laying out on a towel in the open sand. But the reason became obvious after trying to walk on the sand, without flops, how hot it truly can get. Watching people sprint from water to their shady spots, or vice versa, was entertainment in itself. Otherwise, Costa Rica has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with warm and clear blue waters.
4. Sorry, not much “unguided” anything
On the same note as above, before going here I felt I had earned my chops as an independent traveler, capable of navigating through countries on my own. For me, this meant a lot of hiking and other outdoor activities being attainable with only a trusty map and a piece of local advice. But for whatever reason, it seems like anything remotely fun in Costa Rica needed some type of “guide service”. Even though the topography of the region is begging to be explored by foot, there aren’t many hiking trails. And the ones they do have, are built for the typical tourist and not the backpacker (if you know what I mean). Tourism makes up ~12% of Costa Rica’s GDP, but in the small towns you’ll most likely visit, it feels like 100% of the GDP. Sure, they offer tons and tons of awesome “adventure packages” which include rafting, zip-lining, etc, but then I end up getting the feeling of having to pay every time I want to have fun. This can be great, if that’s what you are looking for in a trip. But like I’ve griped before, most guided activities end up taking over your entire day’s free time, leaving very little time for you to make new of someone else’s discoveries by exploring the country yourself.
5. Don’t Be Fooled by Exchange Rate
As of May 2017, the conversion rate is 564 Costa Rican Colónes equals 1 US Dollar. Normally, you’d be jumping for joy, thinking that you’ll be living like a king/queen down there. Unlike their Nicaraguan neighbors to the north, where the dollar goes tremendously further, the prices in Costa Rica are adjusted to reflect that of which we are used to here in the states. What do I mean by that? In Mexico you can get chipotle sized burritos for a buck; but here, you can expect to pay 3,500 to 5,000 Colónes (or $6 to $9) for their customary meal of Casados. Maybe that’s not a deal breaker for you, until you hear that the dish only consists of rice, beans, choice of meat, and a tiny lettuce salad. Compared to the states, it is still significantly cheaper to eat out for 3 meals a day, since you can expect to spend $6/meal totally up to $18-$20/day. Unfortunately beer does not follow that trend. Their two major Costa Rican beers are Imperial & Pilsen and normally you’d expect to spend around $1/beer for any bottom-shelf beer, right? Nope, that cheap beer costs about $2.50-$3 when you’re down there. And if you thought about getting fancy (or would like a beer with any real flavor in it), expect to spend $15 for a 6-pack of Coronas or Milwaukee’s Best. This is definitely better than the highly priced countries in Europe and major cities like New York, but I just wanted to give you a heads up before you head down here with $100 and expect to be living large for a week.
6. Most of the good surf breaks are over rocks or reef
This is a no-brainer for those surfers out there trying to surf big breaks. But if you’re headed to Costa Rica for the first time to try surfing, check yourself. You could unknowingly paddle your rental board out into some decent waves, only to wipeout onto a jagged bunch of rocks or the sharp edges on a reef. Waves are made by taking the water from the deep, and as it gets shallower and shallower, it builds the wave until it breaks. And when deep water, moving inland, hits a bunch of rocks first, well the break can be incredible. But I can assure you, at low tides, you can find yourself surfing only 3 to 4 feet above the rocks below you. So make sure you ask a local out in the water where the rocks are and how deep below are they. Rather look like a kook who doesn’t know the local break than end up getting dragged across the reef and need a visit to the hospital. But for those who can really rip, you’ll love the consistent lefts and the rights that the West Coast of Costa Rica has to offer.
7. Get used to eating Rice & Beans
While we’re on the topic of food, it only makes sense to point out the likelihood of you eating beans 3x a day is almost certain. My boss, who went to Costa Rica this past winter made a joke about this and I totally thought he was kidding. You’ll most likely be eating some type of fish/pork/chicken Casados for lunch and dinner, but don’t worry you get to switch up the style for breakfast. Because in the morning, you get Gallo Pinto. But that’s just rice and beans cooked together from the leftover rice & beans the night before. On the plus side, all these beans and rice had us feeling full for hours and hours between meals, which is super helpful when you’re surfing all day.
8. Tipping is normally built into the check
This is just a quick bit of info that I always forget to check before arrive in a place. Similar to Europe, tipping is accounted for in your bill. Unlike Europe, it is not an insult to tip here. So when the server or bartender really brightens your day with a joke or solid locals-only advice, feel free to lay some more Colónes down on that check.
9. It takes way longer to get from Point A to Point B
Due to the topographical landscape of the region being so mountainous, the roads rarely are straight for more than a quarter mile. And speed limits are also relatively low for both highway and local roads, yet nobody seems to take them into consideration as they barrel around hairpin turns in their 4×4 trucks. This means a 60mile drive can still result in a three to four hour long trip if you were to drive like the locals do. It’s quite shocking when you put your destination into the GPS and see that it’s less than 15 miles away, but the estimated time of arrival is an hour from then. Keep this in mind when you are planning to bounce from beach to beach or town to town during the day. You could find yourself, very easily, spending more hours in the car than expected. Plus, expect to drive slower in most scenarios when you find yourself on a dirt road, cringing each time you bottom out your car on a rock or bump. We tried to take the shortest route from La Fortuna to the West Coast and found ourselves pushing our Toyota Carola up a steep, mogul field pitch of road that was only accessible by 4×4. We eventually got her up the hill, but not after a few bottom-outs and coating the entire interior of the car in a thick layer of dust from constant spinning of the tires in the dirt.