I am in Costa Rica since around seven weeks now and there is still a lot I could explore. But I booked a flight to Cuba from Mexico end of February. So time for me to slowly move north by bus. After I will fly to Colombia. Hopefully my last flight in Central and South America. There I will work for at least one month. Maybe more. I will see.
I started in San José, the capital. Not a city I would recommend for more than 2 nights. It is a place where a lot of big companies (e.g. Microsoft, Novartis, Coca-Cola) are. A place to work and live and escape in the nature on the weekend. The criminality is high and the traffic is a big problem. So most tourists avoid San José. I had nice hosts. Especially my second host in San José. He made his own peanut butter. Difficult to find healthy peanut butter in Costa Rica. Together with a banana a delicacy. I was in heaven.
First I wanted to go on the beach. So I took a bus from San José to Jacó. As the closest beach to San Jose, Jacó is known for its party atmosphere (mostly in the bars). An interesting nightlife. The beach is a long gray arc and the smaller waves are perfect for learning to surf.
My host was located in Playa Hermosa. He owned a hostel (Wipeout International Hostel). A famous surf location just eight km to the south of Jacó. I loved that place. The relaxing atmosphere, the possibility to learn how to surf, the beach, the pool, the full equipped kitchen which I used every day, the people I met in the hostel, the fun teasing of my host with everybody, and the time to read and write. The fact that I came back twice (for Christmas and New Year’s Eve) tells a lot. I tried to help as much as possible but honestly there was not so much to help. So I made them a website for their hostel and some promotion on social media.
The beach and the town are amazing. I loved the vibe there. But I can’t recommend the Manuel Antonio National Park. It gets very busy during the high season, is overpriced (16 USD), and the well-maintained paths take away the authentic feel of being in the jungle. There exist countless jungles in Costa Rica and most of them are for free, less touristic and as a consequence you might be able to see more animals.
Tamarindo is located in one of the driest regions of Costa Rica. It is not so much a local Tico culture but a busy tourist town. No surprise Tamarindo is one of the most expensive places. There is only one main road and everything is within a short walk or bicycle ride (renting is 20 USD). Tamarindo is a surfing town so if you haven’t learned to surf yet, this is the place to start. Competition keeps lesson prices low and the waves provide the perfect conditions for learning. Loved the sunsets there from the surfboard. The nightlife (bar scene) starts later than elsewhere in Costa Rica.
La Fortuna is located in the hills northwest of Costa Rica. On the streets surrounding the central park lie many restaurants, cafes, hostels, tour operators, and souvenir shops. Most people who live there work in tourism. One of my host was renting mountain bikes and another was a tour guide (zip line). When I was there, beginning of December, the high season just started but it was still not crowded. I liked the atmosphere. One of my highlights was the Free Natural Hot Springs. It is in the jungle, very relaxing, free massages, sometimes 40 degree Celsius, and in the night people light candles. Very romatic. No wonder my host put his arm around me. I kindly took his arm and put it back where it was. Arenal Volcano you can see from almost everywhere if it is not cloudy. Lake Arenal is definitely worth to visit. I also had fun jumping in the Rio Fortuna.
El Castillo is a small neighboring village to La Fortuna and has a breathtaking view on Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano. It was raining most of the time I was there. So I used the extra time to read, write, and skype with some friends. I volunteered there for around one week at the Essence Arenal Boutique Hostel. After I went back to La Fortuna to meet a friend from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The work on the organic permaculture farm was not for me. Pulling up weeds for 6 hours a day is tough and the ants loved me more than I could handle. The work in the vegetarian kitchen / restaurant was fun and made me want to work even more than 6 hours. To the mouldy smell of the mattress I could not get used to.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
After Christmas a friend from Switzerland was visiting me. We went together to Puerto Viejo for a few days and stayed there in a hotel. Puerto Viejo is located in southeastern Costa Rica, close to the Panama border. A laid back small beach town with a Caribbean feel, chill nightlife, and great restaurants. Beautiful beaches, coconut rice, reggaeton, and colorful homes dominate. In Puerto Viejo center everything is within walking distance. But you can also rent a bicycle and visit the Cahuita National Park. Great to observe animals and it is for free.
I really enjoyed my stay in Costa Rica: The beautiful natural environment, the rich variety of plants and animals (e.g. sloths, monkeys, crocodiles, fireflies, parrots, many different birds, turtles, iguanas), and the different landscapes (jungles, forests, volcanoes, mountains, countless waterfalls, and two seas: to the west the Pacific Ocean and to the East the Caribbean Sea). Animal watching, surfing, kayaking, flying through the sky on a zip line, horseback riding, hiking, yoga classes, canyoneering down waterfalls, catamaran cruises, scuba expeditions are just a few sample of the many activities you can do in Costa Rica. And I loved to wake up at 6 am every morning because of the sun, birds, and monkeys.
- You can drink the tap water.
- “Ropa Americana” are second-hand (thrift) shops which offer clothes for as little as 1000 colones. The clothes come from the US.
- Pura Vida: It is a way of life in Costa Rica. A very relaxed, simple way of looking at life. It means being thankful for what they have and not dwelling on the negative. Ticos use this term to say hello, goodbye, and to say everything is great.
- Ticos: How the Costa Ricans call themselves
- Most people do not have an address. Maybe a few in San José. So people get their mail via post office box. When I did couchsurfing I just asked my hosts to send me their location on google maps.
- Mosquitos are worst right after sunset for around one hour.
- The army was abolished in 1949. As president of Costa Rica, José Figueres announced that the nation’s former military budget would be refocused specifically in healthcare, education, and environmental protection.
- In 1869, Costa Rica made primary education obligatory for all its citizens, and both preschool and high school free. There are both state and private universities.
- In May 2007, the Costa Rican government announced its intentions to become 100% carbon neutral by 2021. They use hydropower since years and more recently geothermal power, solar power, and wind power. Thanks to its geographic advantage. As of 2015, 93-99 percent of the country’s electricity comes from renewable sources.
- The border Costa Rica / Nicaragua closes at 6 pm.
- Many people live in a house out of sheet metal.
It is possible to rent a car (starting from 40 dollars per day included basic insurance), a motorcycle or a bicycle (e.g. 5 dollars per day in Puerto Viejo). I used the bus most of the time since it goes to even smaller cities and is most cheaply. Or I got a lift from one of my hosts. The only disadvantage is that often you need to go back to San Jose first and sometimes the bus you would like to take is already full. So buy the ticket one day before in case you have a target date. Trips longer than four hours usually include a rest stop as buses do not have toilets. Try to avoid taking a taxi in San José. Other places can be fine. Sadly, there are taxis that take advantage of tourists. The taximeter is often manipulated, they drive around circles and if you ask them how much to a specific place they will stop somewhere else (closer) and asking for more money to drive you to your requested destination. Uber works very well. Or shuttles. But they are most expensive. Or Hitchhiking. It is safe. Also for a woman.
Timetable for the buses (only partly correct but better than nothing): http://m.horariodebuses.com/cr/index.php
Prices and point of departure of the buses I took:
- Juan Santamaría International Airport (Alajuela. Bus stop is just one minute walk from the airport exit) to San José (City center): 540 colones
- San José (Terminal 7-10) to Jacó: 2285 colones
- San José (Gran Terminal del Caribe) to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: 5270 colones
- La Fortuna (Parada de autobuses) to San José: 3000 colones
- Hostel: One night is around 10 dollars in San José. More in touristic places like Tamarindo (20 dollars).
- Couchsurfing is common and I can highly recommend. Used it most of the time.
- Free camping is allowed. Just watch out animals especially crocodiles if close to a river (e.g. Tamarindo).
You can get a meal at a local place starting from 2500 colones. Other restaurants are often double as much. Food at local markets is most cheaply of course. A smoothie is between 1500 and 2500 colones.
Gallo Pinto is the national dish of Costa Rica. Most people here eat it especially for breakfast. Click here for the recipe.
Restaurants with great vegan options I can recommend:
- Playa Hermosa and Jacó: Pizza pata (best pizza I ever ate. Ask without cheese), Las Pitaz (hummus, falafel), and Jaco rustico (cheap and very local)
- Tamarindo: Falafel bar (delicious moisty big falafels)
- Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Como en mi Casa Art Café (gluten free options as well)
- Manuel Antonio: Falafel bar
- La Fortuna: Organico Fortuna (expensive but very healthy and even gluten free options)
Costa Rica has only two seasons: The dry season from December to April and the rainy season from May to November. The Caribbean side does not have a defined rainy season. Be prepared for sun or rain at any time. At sea level you will find the warmest temperatures and in the mountains the coldest.
Costa Rica is pretty safe for a country in Central America. In San José, Jacó beach, and Limón are a few places that can get creepy after sunset. Just ask locals or your hostel where not to go. Only carry the amount of money you think you will need each day and do not wear valuable jewelry.
I am not surprised Costa Rica is called Switzerland of Central America. It is expensive. The currency in Costa Rica is “colón” (plural: colones). USD are accepted at all major tourist destinations. Some of the prices are even in USD. For small purchases it is better to use colones, because some people give you a lower exchange. Major credit cards are accepted at all medium to large size hotels, restaurants and stores. ATM’s are becoming more common (El Castillo does not have one yet).
There are no epidemic diseases in Costa Rica. No vaccinations are required if you are traveling from Europe or the USA. You do need a Yellow Fever vaccination if you are travelling from some countries in South America or Africa.
Most people can get into Costa Rica without the need of a Visa and can stay in the country for 90 days. If you want to stay longer in Costa Rica just cross the border for a one minute, pay exit (only USD accepted) and return. Nicaragua is much easier. For Panama most people need to show a return ticket to their home country. But it is possible to fake one.
If you work in a bar, restaurant or surf shop you won’t earn a lot of money (e.g. 3 USD per hour in Tamarindo). You would need a working Visa. But most people don’t have one. It is possible to buy a property / house as a foreigner and open a restaurant, hostel or another business and you will earn enough for living. Or work in an international company.
Other places I have heard are nice: Monte Verde, Samara, Santa Teresa, and Cahuita (close to Puerto Viejo but quieter).
Border crossing to Nicaragua
- bus from Liberia to Penas Blancas (border): 1750 Costa Rican Colon, 105 mins.
- exit Costa Rica: 8 USD
- enter Nicaragua (only accept USD): 12 USD
- Go left at the exit to the buses. You need to take two buses to San Juan del Sur. You will get dropped off at the junction in the middle of the road where the two roads split. There is no official bus stop but the bus will stop for you.