Last year, I managed to save a bit more money than usual and I decided to go to my first “winter holiday”. It was my first “trip to summer” during the European winter. I wanted to find the perfect destination. Thailand and Indonesia were too trendy and Egypt was way too much popular for me.
Finally, I decided for Costa Rica, not so common destination among Croatians or Czechs. I took my mom with me and we bought our plane tickets for the 8th of December.
Costa Rica is a small country in Central America between Panama and Nicaragua. It a bit smaller than Croatia (51 000km2), but with more inhabitants (about 5 million). It was ideal for a two-week journey!
A short history of Costa Rica
The same as the rest of Latin America, it was inhabited by indigenous tribes. Some of them are still present in today’s Costa Rica, they live in special reservations or villages. There are Bribri and Boruca tribes at the Caribbean coast near the border with Panama, Chorotega tribe in the region Guanacaste, Maleka tribe in Alajuela, etc.
In the 16th century, Costa Rica became a Spanish colony. From that period comes the name of the country. Why Costa Rica (in Spanish the rich coast)? Well, according to tradition, it’s believed that Cristopher Columbus discovered Costa Rica in 1502. In these lands, he saw indigenous tribes wearing rich decorations on their clothes and neck. Thus, he believed that the land is full of gold.
Columbus indeed discovered Costa Rica, but he came home with no interest in the country completely covered by jungle. The name of the country probably came from the other conquistador, Gil González Dávil, who tried to take gold from the tribes near the rivers on the peninsula Osa.
Later on, Costa Rica formed a part of the First Mexican Empire and the United Provinces of Central America, from which it gained independence in 1838. But it was not until 1949 that Costa Rica was recognized as a constitutional independent republic. It was then that the Costa Ricans, or in their local name “Ticos”, as one of the first countries in Central America, refused the national army. They invested the money for the army in education and the protection of the environment.
The "green" country
In 2009, Costa Rica was declared the “greenest” country in the world and in the last decades, it’s turning to renewable energy sources. In 2016, 98% of the electricity in Costa Rica came from the “green” sources – water, sun, geothermal sources, and biomasses.
Costa Rica is one of the pioneer countries, whose main profit comes from eco-tourism. Eco-tourism consists of showing tourists natural beauties of the country: forests, national parks, reservations, and their inhabitants (plants and animals) without destroying their habitat. The profit of eco-tourism (entrance to national parks, etc.) goes to the protection of the environment. We were excited to meet many Costa Rican animals – sloths, monkeys, frogs, butterflies, coatis, and agoutis, etc. 🙂
So, I chose a safe, environmentally conscious Hispano-American country washed by both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. I chose a country with over 200 volcanos (even 7 of them are active!), with 25% of the territory covered by rain forests. I chose a country with 4,5% of the whole planet’s biodiversity. What more could I ask?
The only thing that Costa Rica is not is cheap. Among all travel expenses, accommodation is the cheapest one. You can find a bed in a hostel dorm or a regular double room for a good price all around Costa Rica (until 30-40$). If you want to sleep outside in a tent, some of the hostels will lend you their backyard. It’s definitely the cheapest option, but not the safest one considering all the poisonous animals.
Most of the places are better to see in an organized tour, which can be pretty expensive (30-100$, depending on a tour). Without a guide, you can easily get lost in the forest, so don’t worry, spending your money will be worth it.
The restaurant food can be expensive, especially if you want to eat fresh fish with a side dish and fresh salad (15-20$). However, you can always choose to eat lunch in a soda, a smaller local restaurant. The traditional meal in Costa Rica is called casado. It consists of chicken or fried fish, rice with black beans, caramelized plantain, and a bit of salad. Casado costs about 6-7$ and it will definitely give you energy for the rest of the day.
As you can see, the main ingredient of the Costa Rican cuisine is starch, which you eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can have it in the form of rice with beans, fried plantains, tortillas, fried fish or meat, and a bit more rice. They even serve rice with soup! There are also many fast food restaurants with American burgers or Italian pizzas.
The most expensive are the souvenirs. I recommend you to buy most of your souvenirs the last day of your trip to the market Mercado Nacional de Artesanías in San José. The difference in price is huge! For example, one T-shirt in small souvenir shops costs 15-20$, but you can buy the same T-shirt on the market in San José for just 7$.
We were buying souvenirs along the way and finished our shopping at the Mercado Nacional de Artesanías. However, on the market, you won’t have your piece while shopping. The vendors will drag you from one stand to another promising you “un buen precio” (a good price). Similar as in the Arab countries, you can haggle about the price at the San José market.
The Costa Rican currency is colón (₡). About 600₡ are 1$. Most places accept American dollars, as well, but it’s better to pay in the local currency. As you can see, colón is a weak currency. Nonetheless, they have coins of 5₡ which don’t have almost any value. The 5₡ coins are very thin and are used to make jewelry: earrings, necklaces, etc. You can find them in almost any souvenir shop next to the earrings from coconut shells.
The time in Costa Rica
This was my first long flight (11h), my first travel across the pond and I experienced my first jet lag. Costa Rica is 7h late in comparison to Zagreb or Prague. It means that when it’s 8 p.m. in Costa Rica, it’s 3 in the morning in Central Europe. That fact caused us difficulties in our communication with home. We gathered our daily impressions in the evening, but couldn’t share them because everybody at home was already asleep. 🙁
An interesting fact about Costa Rica is that they don’t have summer and winter time. It’s the same all year round. The sun comes up around 5:30 a.m. and the sunset is around 5:30 p.m. This is the reason why life there is a bit “messed up”.
We were waking up between 6 and 7 a.m. and when we came down to breakfast, the kitchen was already full of people. Cafés and restaurants offering breakfast are open from 7 a.m., post offices and banks from 8, 9 a.m.
The important thing in Costa Rica is to manage everything before dark. In the morning, locals go to work, children play on the streets, we went on tours. Everybody is back home before dark so that they can relax and go out again around 7 p.m., but this time to dinner or go evening shopping (supermarkets and souvenir shops were open until 10 p.m.!). The restaurants close between 10 and 11 p.m. After that, people can continue to have fun in the discos.
One of the things that has to be done before dark is the traffic between two cities, as well. Check the bus schedule when you want to travel 3-4h from one city to another. For example, between San José and Cahuita on the Caribbean coast. You can usually find it in your hostel or hotel. Public buses go only during the morning with the last one departing around 1 or 2 p.m. After that, you’ll be stuck in San José.
The tourist shuttles have the same schedule. They usually depart at 8 in the morning or even earlier. Some shuttle companies have the second option - a later departure at 1 or 2 p.m. Maybe you’ll find a taxi driver who’ll be willing to drive you, but for the price of 200$. We never got why there are no afternoon or night buses in Costa Rica. Maybe they’re afraid to drive after dark because of the bad roads, who knows… However, local city buses normally drive until the evening, so don’t be afraid, you’ll catch a bus to the airport later on.
Our 2-week trip to Costa Rica
I spent months figuring out a plan to see the best in Costa Rica. Finally, I came up with the 2-week itinerary. We’ll spend two days in the capital, San José, and in the Central Valley around the city. We’ll visit the smallest but the most beautiful National park Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast. We’ll go to the mountains and cloud forests of Monteverde, climb to the base of an active volcano Arenal. We’ll relax in the hot springs around the resort town La Fortuna and, finally, we’ll have almost a week to swim and sunbathe at the Caribbean beaches in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.