Traveling to Costa Rica? Looking for information about where to go or what to bring? Maybe you are looking to move to where travel brochures tell you it’s cheap to live and always sunny? (…and you want to find out if the hype is real.) Keep reading.
Let’s say you are traveling to Costa Rica for at least 2 weeks to 1 month- like I did. If you are a female and can identify with being the mid-maintenance type of woman, you want to get dirty, get sandy, and get wet- but look good doing it. And makeup and jungles don’t mix…not to mention trying to smell like Versace Pink Crystal when 1 billion mosquitoes are looking for fresh blood. Ok, so let’s talk about what you’ll need and how to prepare. We can talk about where to go in a minute.
I’m going to get you started and get you through. After initially visiting Costa Rica for 1 month over the holidays, living there for almost one year, and moving around the country, I will tell you everything that I wish I had known going in. At least I left with some pretty good stories.
Below I’ll break the packing situation down for both the ladies and the gentleman:
- It’s pricy to buy there
- Bug spray
- This is too
- Hair bands and toiletries
- Sunglasses, ball cap (even if you’re not into casual retro or baseball, it gets very sunny)
- Phone charger, phone, earphones, electronics, no adapter needed! Yayy
- Mini empty spray bottle to fill with ice water
- You’ll thank me for this one if you’re planning on taking the unairconditioned bus to get around
- *Airport hack: you can bring an empty water bottle and fill it up once you pass through TSA. $4.00 for a bottle of water at the gate? I don’t think so.
- I once saw a sign in the stall of the bathroom at a language school in Heredia asking- in English- to be considerate and remember this. It wasn’t randomly sharpied, it was laminated.
- A face and body towel if you’re staying somewhere that doesn’t provide it
- Leave the rainboots behind. I’ve never seen a Tico (Costa Rican) wear them.
- Jeans, if you’ll be in or around San Jose
- Shoes: Waterproof sandals, wedges for the evening, sneakers. Nike, Keds, Converse are all popular there.
- Have anything branded by Roxy, Quicksilver, Hurley, or any other brand made for the adventurous Go-Pro packing crowd? Choose that for your clothes and swimsuits. It’s popular, especially for the gentleman!
- Leave the jewelry behind! Trust me.
- Waterproof mascara, brow pomade, eyeliner, concealer, lipcolor
-So, I have since moved into a stage in life where I wear very little makeup. Ladies, if you like a full face, bring what you love! Just keep in mind, you may be wearing it the first day and maybe to the bar at night, but find that you sweat/swim/rub it off during the day. If you prefer to assimilate a little, don’t be afraid to keep it natural. Ticas do not usually wear much/any makeup during the day.
-That being said, the tried and true brands that passed my oily skin test on the beach and in the jungle, were Tarte, Maybelline, Urban Decay, It Cosmetics, NYX, Nars, Pixi, and Dermablend.
- Repeat steps 1-14.
- Optional: You also may want to bring a lock in case you’re staying in an AirBnB or hostel
-Speaking of keeping valuables safe, you will probable wind up near water at some point and wonder what you should do with your wallet, cell phone, extra. Ladies listen up, too.
First, do you absolutely need to bring a fanny pack full of valuables? If not, leave it at the hotel/hostel/bungalow. Second, if you decide that all you need is a credit card, bit of cash, and your cell you may want to take the case off of your cell phone and wedge the paper-thin objects inside. Close it back up. No one will be the wiser.
Now what to do with your cell phone? Well there are 3 options. If you’re on the beach, you can leave them (stuffed inside a towel) with another party such as an older couple or fellow American tourists. Avoid the Tico sitting alone drinking beer or a group of teenagers. I know there’s a chance they may be trustworthy, but you don’t have the time to find out. Options B, purchase a waterproof cell case and string and take it Watch out for the waves. Option C, hide it in plain sight. Depending on the size, this can be in a shoe or even your female companion’s feminine hygiene box or pads. No one will be picking that up.
The rest of your items should depend on the season, what your plans are, and who you’re going with. Remember, if your friend or partner is bringing something you can both share, it’s better to do that and bring less. If you do forget something, there are small corner stores called Chinos that carry a multitude of products, food, and more.
I would strongly advise that you pack with versatility in mind. If it can all fit into a carry on and good size personal bag/backpack, you’re golden.
Ok, now the fun part.
Where are you going?
When I first arrived to Costa Rica, I stayed in Heredia and Alajuela. Downtown Heredia and Alajuela are located in the central region of the country. Here you will find a few tourists and many locals. If you need directions, practice your Spanish. There are no street signs. Let me say that again, there are no street signs. Or bus signs for that matter. So it is best to ask a local or stop in a store. Some travelers like to bring a pocket dictionary. I don’t have room for that in my skinny jeans. Spanishdict.com app is a great resource and I find it much more accurate than Google Translate. Sorry Google.
If you’re looking to see downtown Heredia, there are buses that go to and from the surrounding areas. I lived in a town outside of the city called Santa Barbara. Alongside the park there are green buses that go to and from Heredia. There are also red and white buses that go to downtown Alajuela. And by the way there is major bus hub in Alajuela that will bring you to Jaco beach located in Costa Rica’s Pacific coast called Puntarenas.
If you have a free afternoon and want to see Heredia I would recommend visiting…
- Nicolás Ulloa Soto Central Park next to the church
- Sus Amigos Beach House for drinks
- Intercultura School- they will have tons of recommendations, just walk in
- Palacio de los Deportes for a football game
- If you choose to see a game, do not bring coins, only paper money. Officials will confiscate coins.
- Any place close to Universidad National- where there are college students, there is good food and good shops.
Thinking about getting out of the downtown area? One place you should not leave without seeing is La Paz. Yes, it is also the name of a waterfall, but this park high on a mountain also houses animals, plant life, and a butterfly exhibit. I would also recommend seeing Poas Volcano. It is better to go when it’s early and sunny; otherwise, it may be too foggy to see inside the volcano at the top.
Side note: if you’re looking to visit Costa Rica to teach English or get TESOL certified there are programs which place you in this providence too. There is one in Barva that I am more familiar with. My good friend attended school through one of these programs two years ago. She wound up finding a job, a lover, a house, and a new life there. She’s probably hiking through the jungles or exploring one of Costa Rica’s 6 active volcanos right now.
Moving forward, if you’re looking to whitewater raft, zipline (or “canopy” as they say), and have a few beers on the beach, you will be exploring elsewhere. I’ll break this into three parts: Pacific Coast, Montverde, and the Caribbean Coast.
Pacific Coast, Puntarenas
Two major beaches on the Pacific Coast aka Puntarenas (aside from those located in Guanacaste) are Jaco and Manuel Antonio. Jaco used to be a little surf town that has since tuned into a tourists’ surf town. Here, many locals speak English. You can find a variety of accommodations from hostels on the beach to fancier hotels. The water is warm and the beach is hot! If you want the best authentic Tico food in Jaco go to Rustico- easy to reach for shoppers and beach bums. Nightlife here definitely does not disappoint. There are a variety of clubs and bars to choose from. And one more small detail. Prostitution is legal. You will see women working while you stroll the main drag. Please be careful with your things and your surroundings. Rule of thumb, stick with a partner or friend (especially after the bar).
The other famous beach town is Manual Antonio. Here you can pay to enter the park contains monkeys, racoons, and birds among many critters in their natural environment. Careful with your food and the monkeys however, they can get a little feisty. There are also some pretty neat waterfalls you can walk under and cool off. The fee is less for Ticos and more for tourists by the way, and they may ask to see ID. Meanwhile, back on the beach, you can make yourself comfortable under the palms. Move the coconuts and lay out your towels. What really makes it special? In the USA people often have ice cream men wheel a cart on the sand advertising cold blablabla. In Manual Antonio, there is a gentleman who walk the beach and serves fresh ceviche with lemon and utensils included. It tastes AMAZING. Especially after time in the sun and very warm oceanwater.
Side note: If it is around the holiday season when you visit and you feel any sting in the water- than you have probably brushed up against these near invisible little creatures called aquamala. Translation- “bad water”. I believe these are the baby jellyfish that sometimes populate the ocean during breeding season. If you get stung, you will know. Trust me. It’s best to put vinegar on it as soon as possible. Where can you get vinegar in 2 minutes while in the ocean? The Chino shop across the street. See? I told you they have everything.
Puntarenas is more than just beach. If you want to check out an alternative, slightly dangerous side of Puntarenas, look to Isla San Lucas. You can sign up for a tour and transportation from San Jose. Bring a bathing suit and sneakers. A camera and courage will be necessary too. Prepare yourself for Costa Rica’s version of Alcatraz- an old prison island that is said to be haunted in the middle of shark infested waters. The murals on the walls of the prison are by the prisoners. Any color you see in red isn’t paint. You know what I mean. If you want to visit a more relaxing island with no morbid past, check out Isla Tortuga. Aka Turtle Island. You will need a boat to reach this destination as well.
Monteverde is located in Alajuela. Here is where you can zipline and see some amazing wildlife. It’s wet and foggy and full of life. Monteverde is where you can take many different tours, and see Arenal Volcano. I would recommend checking with the experts here.
Caribbean Coast, Limón
Located on your way to the Caribbean Coast is the Pacuare River. This is the place to whitewater raft the right and adrenaline pumping way. Another good friend of mine surprised me by buying tickets to go white water rafting as a Christmas gift. I will never forget this adventure which included breakfast, lunch, transportation, and bilingual rafting guides. I choose to be in a Spanish speaking raft. Without a doubt, the fastest way to learn general directions in Spanish is when your life depends on it. Wear your old sneakers and bring your A game.
If you want some advice from the locals check out this blog. Que tuanis!
The Caribbean Coast is the Jamaican influenced, Rasta loving side of Costa Rica. This is Limón. If you have already seen the east coast this is very different- both by the clearer water, the stickier sand, the hillier land, the people, and the vibe. There are also mountains to explore. If you want to see the coast, I recommend Playa Tortuguero, Playa Bonita, Playa Cocles, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva and Playa Manzanillo. These beaches are a dream for surfers, hippies, and free spirits. One famous beach town I just mentioned is Puerto Viejo. There is a bus that travels from San Jose. Get a taxi to take you to the pickup location.
Again, there are accommodations to choose from, but if you don’t mind sleeping in a tent or hammock, feet away from the beach under a brightly colored tiled roof (and walls and floor for that matter) look to Rocking J’s. Everyone will have heard of this place in town, and half of them will probably be staying there themselves. It’s very open (and I mean in both structural layout and rules). You also have the opportunity to rent a bike -I highly recommend-and ride further into town or go the other way and explore where the blacktop ends. One word to the wise: enjoy and make new friends, but please be careful while visiting. Crime exists everywhere and you do not want to be a victim of theft or anything else. Now that that’s said, feel free to enjoy the fire dancers and acrobatic entertainment that Rocking J’s offers to their guests at night!
Lastly, you must try Gallo Pinto with Costa Rican cheese and a coffee on the side. Gallo Pinto is served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At dinner, substitute the coffee for la cerveza de Costa Rica: Imperial. If you’re not a fan of rice and beans try the fish ceviche, tamales, and array of authentic Tico soups. Actually, just try them anyway. Fried plantains or churros for dessert and you’re all set.
There are two main seasons in Costa Rica. The wet season and the dry season. The dry season begins around late October or November and last until about April or May. This is the best time to go, explore, and get your adventure on. The wet season, on the other hand, should be called the season of Noah’s Arc because from about noon to five o’clock every day the skies open and can drop a solid two inches of rain. In six hours. But, as all things are in Costa Rica, different parts of the county are unique with different terrain, jungle, mountains, and beaches- and varying weather. The Central regions sees a lot, but if you venture to the coasts, it may be a very different story. I recommend taking a look at Matt and Jenn’s blog– they cover this in detail.
Costa Rica uses colones. If you traveled before, chances are you exchanged your current currency for the local at the bank or airport. To tell you the truth, I just did a little food shopping at the Pali or other larger named supermarket and used dollars. I make sure there are no rips or bends in my USDs, or else they won’t be accepted, and receive change in CRC, colones. To some this may not be their preferred way, but I did this for about a year if I add up my entire time with no issues. The cost of living and transportation is low, so you can take a bus, for example, for $.75, or rent a one bedroom furnished apartment for about $400 or so. The cost of food depends on where you go, and imported goods obviously cost more. Bottom line, if you’re just visiting, do not worry about using USD, if the bills themselves are physically in good shape. You can acquire colones on the go. Also, if you’re ever asked for “un rojo”, you’re being asked to spend 1 thousand colones (or $2.00) which is a red bill.
If you guys have any questions for me or want to hear about my personal stories in Costa Rica, where I’d go twice (or where I wouldn’t) let me know! If you’re like me, you’ll go more than once because there’s too much to do and you’ll want to keep in touch with the friends you’ll make. Pura vida!