Tips For First Time Visitors Going To Costa Rica
You've packed your flip flops and your best bathing suit, and you can already feel the sunshine on your skin. As tempting as it is to pack in as much into your itinerary as you did in your suitcase, leaving room in your plans, and extra space for souvenirs allows for the excitement of discovery in a country filled with hidden gems.
So, you think you are ready? Before taking that leap, here are five pro tips travelers should take with them when traveling to Costa Rica.
Be a Sloth: Don't Rush
Upon arriving, you may notice how many images of sloths there are in Costa Rica. The more time you spend here, the more you realize how this beloved animal embodies the laid-back Pura Vida lifestyle, a feeling of ease that infuses life here in Costa Rica.
Do as the sloth does, and SLOW DOWN. The more you allow your senses to take in the incredible natural and cultural wonders around you, the richer your experience will be.
Moreover, feeling rushed and frazzled is the perfect recipe for making mistakes or getting scammed by opportunists. Stay calm, find some shade and a cold drink, and take a moment to observe what is around you. Often, the answer is closer and clearer than you think.
A prime opportunity not to rush? Right before you leave the airport, take a moment to collect yourself, grab some water, and exchange some dollars to the local currency, colones. Don't exchange all of your money at the airport since you'll get better exchange rates elsewhere. If you are taking a taxi, make sure you are going with one of the official orange airport taxis.
Pro tip: When you arrive at any bus station in San Jose, you are often met by a horde of taxi drivers. Don't go with the first person that asks you if you need a taxi. Call an Uber or make sure you are going with an official red taxi with a yellow triangle on the side, and ask them to turn on the meter ("Ponga la maria, por favor").
Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
As much as I am constantly in awe of the natural wonders here, I am equally taken aback by the amount of kindness shown to me by strangers.
I have arrived at bus stations later than I expected, not knowing how to get to my hotel in the dark and have been kindly guided to my destination. I have been told about secret waterfalls and hideaway beaches and the best places to get an affordable and delicious meal.
If you find yourself feeling lost or confused, follow tip #1 -- slow down -- and then, find a friendly face. Many people will be more than happy to help you.
Pro tip: Even if you wouldn't consider yourself to be fluent in Spanish, making an effort to speak in Spanish makes a huge difference.
Here are some basic phrases:
- Please - por favor
- Thank you - gracias
- Hello - Buenas or Hola
- Excuse me - Permiso
- How Much? - Cuanto Vale
- You're welcome - Con Mucho Gusto
Also, practice using the local mantra, Pura Vida, which means everything, chill, that pure life.
This is probably the hardest tip to follow. The best experiences that I have had in Costa Rica were when I gave myself permission to give up the wheel and go along for the ride. Allowing myself to tune into the present moment and see how things unfolded.
I stopped worrying about whether the waterfall I'm visiting will be deep enough to swim in, or if I'll have enough time to reach the lookout for the sunset.
When I stopped trying to engineer my day to maximize enjoyment, the flash of blue of a morpho butterfly quickly became a moment of wonder and delight. I didn't make it to the perfect sunset spot because I lost all sense of time watching a mother howler monkey carefully scale the trees with her newborn clinging to her chest. Lifting expectations made room for these spontaneous discoveries.
Pro tip: Don't expect to make it around the country as quickly as you would think. Addresses are essentially non-existent in Costa Rica and distances can be deceiving. The best way to make sure you arrive at your destination before the sun goes down -- around 5:30 pm -- is to leave ample time for traffic on the narrow, windy roads and stopping to ask for directions as you get closer to your destination.
Don't underestimate the power of nature
Rain forests are like cities, jam-packed with life. Every creature in the rainforest, even an unsuspecting frog, has a secret weapon to keep themselves safe. The ocean can be equally deceiving. Although the water may look calm, fast-rising tides and rip currents are abundant.
That being said, don't miss out on the natural beauty of Costa Rica, a small country that hosts almost 6% of the world's biodiversity.
Think of the rainforest like an art gallery, look but DON'T TOUCH.
Pro tip: Expect to sweat.
An essential tool kit for entering the rainforest includes:
- long pants
- close-toed shoes
- a hat
- as much water as you can carry.
Also, hiring an official local guide is a memorable way to learn about the rainforest and its many hidden wonders firsthand.
Note: The water in Costa Rica is safe to drink but can cause an upset stomach as your body gets used to it. Try your best to drink as much filtered water as you can to avoid becoming dehydrated. If you can, get a filtered reusable water bottle.
Don't Be Shy
As an introvert, this is easier said than done. But studying, living, and working in Costa Rica over the years has certainly helped me to get out of my shell.
When I first came to Costa Rica, I thought that all the drivers had some serious road rage, which can be true in San Jose, of course. Later, I came to realize that much of the honking was, in fact, a friendly way of greeting someone in another car.
Though it may seem daunting at first, starting conversations with strangers is a great way to learn about the many cultures here, from the cowboys of Guanacaste to the indigenous communities in the rainforests of Talamanca.
Pro-tip: As most seasoned travelers know, do as the locals do. Try those fruits at the market that you have never seen before. Take the time to observe what people are doing, and this fresh perspective can be rewarding.
Living Pura Vida
Tapping into the sense of ease that permeates Costa Rica may be a departure from your current, well-structured existence. Also, letting go of expectations and that sense of drive that propels you may seem contrary to making the best of your travels.
However, I promise, if you muster up the courage to step out of your comfort zone and give the Pura Vida lifestyle a try, you will not regret it.