Costa Rica: Why some love it, why others hate it, & what I ultimately thought

Costa Rica is a country that seems to polarize travellers. When I told people who had already been there about my upcoming trip, I found they organized themselves into two distinct camps: the “Ohmigod, I looooooove Costa Rica!” group and the “Ugh, I was not a faaaan!” group.

These passionate responses left me both scratching my head and curious about how folks could have such disparate reactions about the same place.  Truth be told, this Central American nation had never really been on my radar, if only because I had heard that it was very touristy, super expensive, and I was hell-bent on seeing other places in Latin America first (like Machu Picchu in Peru). Going to Costa Rica was also less of a priority because naysayers had also intimated that its popularity amongst American tourists had “watered down” the culture somewhat, so that the country was kind of like a tropical, 51st state. No bueno, chicos!

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But with only a week of holiday at our disposal and an increasing desperation to escape the frigid February climes of the Big Apple (New York, I love you, but I can’t handle you in the winter), we decided to give Costa Rica a try anyway.  Besides, I think it’s always important to see places and judge things for yourself!

The Highlights

The beaches in Manuel Antonio: Full disclosure, I’m not a beach person (not least because I find lying out in the sun boring and I don’t swim very well).  However, I am a sucker for beautiful scenery.  And by Jove, these beaches have got it in spades! Manuel Antonio is a few hours’ drive from San Jose, the capital, and thus worth a stop.  Best known for its national park (which I didn’t find too impressive, see below to find out why), the four expanses of white sand beaches on which it borders is the true stunner. Whether you’re here to swim, sunbathe, or navel-gaze, these playas are a great spot.

IMG_2010IMG_2087The food: Costa Rica pleasantly surprised me in terms of the range and quality of food options available. The tourism industry is booming here, so restaurants for all cuisines and at all star levels can be found in the major hubs. However, please note: Latin American food takes carbs and starch to. another. level. Rice, potatoes, bread, beans, and tortillas magically appear as sides for every meal– so much so even this carb-fiend was hankering for a bit of greens at some point. Go nuts with the “beige food”, if you will, but order a side of salad when or where possible to avoid constipation.

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Having our own car: Ahh, the joys of road-tripping! We partnered with Carrentals.co.uk on this trip and were given a vehicle to take us all around the country.  Now, I usually am a huge proponent of using public transportation on my travels since I’m afraid of driving, but our short trip, coupled with poor coach schedules and large distances to cover, meant that renting a car was a way more intelligent option. I loved being able to get from A to B at our own pace and Costa Rican roads (with the exception of the bumpy gravel path from La Fortuna to Monteverde) are paved and well-maintained. The views out the window weren’t bad either! IMG_1904

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Things we weren’t impressed by

The high costs of entrances and activities: Exploring Costa Rica’s forests/wildlife ain’t cheap! Example: In Monteverde, we paid $75 USD each for Selvatura’s hanging-bridge and canopy tour and $30 USD each for a night hike (with a tour company I don’t remember the name of). Ouch! Days later, in Manuel Antonio, we paid $16 USD each to enter the relatively unimpressive national park. While these experiences are necessary to get a feel for the country, I felt them to be way overpriced.

La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano: This well-worn spot on the tourist trail left both Liebling and myself feeling flat.  La Fortuna is a dusty, backpacker town filled to the brim with grimy bars and leaves-a-lot-to-be-desired restaurants.  The main reason people come here is to visit the nearby Arenal Volcano and the national park that surrounds it– they are perfectly nice but nothing to write home about: no bubbling lava, crazy scenery, birds of prey nipping at your ears or strange animals crossing your path. Walking thorough Arenal National Park kind of felt like skulking around the ravine behind my mom’s house in Canada— totally pleasant but nothing particularly exciting.  Knowing what I know now, I would skip La Fortuna and the volcano altogether. IMG_1677

Manuel Antonio National Park: Tiny, expensive to enter, and completely overrun with tourists (you could barely move, the crowds were so thick!), it was impossible to see any of the sloths, 184 species of birds, or any other diverse wildlife the park is renowned for– all the people presumably scared them away. If it weren’t for the beautiful beaches the park encompasses I would have skipped it completely.

Things we didn’t do but wish we did

Go to the Caribbean Coast: I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Guatemalan’s Caribbean Coast and in retrospect I highly regret not doing the same in Costa Rica. I’ve been told that Puerto Limon and Puerto Viejo provide an interesting mix of Latin and Caribbean cultures and that the jungles and beaches are more rugged and pristine.  Apparently the region is cheaper and way less touristy as well. Next time!

Bring warm clothes and proper rain gear!! I was somehow under the mistaken impression that all of Costa Rica had scorching temperatures, but boy, was I wrong! I spent approximately half of the trip freezing my buns off— Monteverde, which is a city found in Costa Rica’s Central Highlands, is notoriously chilly and rainy, and La Fortuna had some windy, wet weather while we were there as well. Luckily, I was able to pick up the very very bright rain jacket you see below (always the fashionista, I am!) as well as warm myself with a few cups of tasty coffee, one of the country’s primary exports.

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The Takeaway

So what are my feelings about Costa Rica, you ask? Startlingly, I don’t find myself planted firmly in one camp or the other: I didn’t love my time there, but I didn’t wholly dislike it either.  While I wasn’t wowed or thrilled by what I did or saw, I realize that my trip was very much limited to the well-worn tourist trail of La Fortuna, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, and San Jose.  If I had made the effort to visit the not-as-popular Caribbean or Pacific coasts I would have surely had a different impression of the country. Altogether I had a decent time and if nothing else, Costa Rica is an easy, low-stress trip to plan and undertake (I should mention that English is widely spoken and it is entirely possible to exclusively use U.S. dollars for the duration of your stay).  Infrastructure is good, the tourism industry in the country is well-developed, and many of the attractions are child-friendly. However, I now understand where Costa Rica’s detractors are coming from: for those seeking that “wow”-factor, a total “fish out of water” experience, or a sustained adrenaline rush, Costa Rica would seem kind of tame and far too touristy.

Have you ever been to Costa Rica?  How did you feel about your trip? And if you’ve never been, what encourages you to or discourages you from going?

16 Comments

  • Jennifer miller says:

    thanks for this post, very insightful, I do agree with you on a few points, such as the town of la fortuna is underwhelming and Manuel Antonio park is not overly exciting, but I want to add some recommendations of my own to the list.
    Why I actually enjoyed arenal was our hotel! Tabacon hot springs, such a relaxing, beautiful place, I wanted to stay forever and highly recommend it. I also recommend the zip line sky trek, which is the highest one, and the mother of all zip lines, that was amazing! I actually went twice! Flying high over the tropical forest and volcano, was a thrilling experience. I skipped Monteverde, so no rain for me. As for Manuel Antonio, we stayed at the Parador hotel with a killer view and they had their own nature trails where we had an up close and personal experience with 2 mama sloths with babies, that was amazing too. So my thinking is it depends on where you stay if you love it or feel meh. So give yourself a higher budget for this trip/ those 2 destinations, for me it was part of my relaxing, beautiful, fulfilling experience that I don’t know if a basic hotel would have given me. Also, I see you skipped Samara which was my favorite beach town, just a cool, calm, pretty little beach town with a very natural beach, lots of Europeans mixed with locals, cool restaurants ( I got tired of rice and beans fast) and just an overall great vibe. The kind of place where you want to stay for a while, the people there are amazing and we made some great friends. I highly recommend samara for off the beaten path ( for now).

    • Oneika says:

      So funny, we actually went there to check out the springs! We got on a cart and they gave us a tour around the property. In the end we didnt end up staying because the music was so loud, lol, the resort had a real party vibe!

  • Ashley says:

    I felt the same way about Costa Rica: meh. I’m surprised that you say the roads were good! I actually had to take motion sickness pills for the first week I was in San Jose because I would be sick in 20 minutes on the bus or in a taxi because of the roads. But anyway, Manuel Antonia is, in fact, absolutely stunning and I do hope to go back with my husband and explore the Caribbean Coast. I kept being told that there were people who looked just like me in Limón 🙂 I absolutely adore the people of Costa Rica. They’re so happy and kind and always make a point to pass that along to you. Thanks for the post!

  • A really great post Oneika and you still look good in the yellow raincoat LOL!

    I’ve never been to Costa Rica? In fact, I haven’t yet been to Central America and I simply haven’t a clue why. I’m guessing because Asia!
    When I do eventually get to that part of the Americas, I would prefer to go to Peru, Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico as I like history, culture and hiking! As for being discouraged about destination hearsays, like yourself, I prefer to find out for myself and make my own mind up LOL! ‘Such a shame that the Arenal Volcano and the national park were unimpressive. Try the volcano in Bali instead….!

    • Oneika says:

      I’ve been to Bali before but didn’t make it to Mount Bromo near Surabaya, on my bucket list though!

  • Amanda says:

    I can definitely understand where you’re coming from on this one. Luckily, when I went to Costa Rica for a week, I was with a friend who’s Costa Rican (and also a tour guide), so he knew some of the best places to go. Having a car was definitely a plus for us, too.

    And we DID go to the Caribbean coast, but I actually didn’t fall in love with Puerto Viejo. I DID love the animal sanctuaries we visited, but Puerto Viejo itself gave off more of a backpacker/beach bum vibe than anywhere else we went. (And the fact that my friend would carry around large sticks at night – as a local! – in order to ward off would-be muggers made me uneasy.)

    I didn’t make it to Monteverde, but I agree that the area around Manuel Antonio was probably my favorite. 🙂

  • Sara says:

    Your comments on La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio are spot on — but you did chose the most touristy places in the country to visit!

    Next time try Cahuita’s National Park on the Caribbean coast for stunning beaches and wildlife without having to share with the crowds. I’ve lived on this side of the country for years and don’t carry a stick with me to go out 🙂 Puerto Viejo is certainly geared towards backpackers and a young crowd looking to party but the rest of the coast is far more laid back and all about the nature.

  • Rashida says:

    Costa Rica was one of my first trips out of the country in a long while. I was attracted to the “eco-tourism”. My boyfriend and I made it to Arenal for the rainforest tour. Our tour guide made it worth it. If it weren’t for him it would have seemed like a regular walk in the woods. We also decided to go to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side. We stayed about 5 days and made friends with tons of people. Expats, locals, and other tourists. The animal sanctuary was awesome, one of the best parts of the trip. The vibe was very backpacker-y, but I also liked the rasta vibe. We always felt safe, not to mention the cab drivers were very honest with our inability to count money. 🙂 We will definitely be back after a few more stops elsewhere around the globe first.

  • Alwina says:

    I went to Costa Rica on a whim for Thanksgiving (US) weekend 2014. I didn’t do a lot since I was on a budget and by myself. I used Airbnb for the first time, I stayed in Quepos (neighbor town to Manuel Antonio and my host’s name is Thierry. I had a great experience. I didn’t know what to expect. The only that was planned were the flights and hotel. Everything else was improvised. I liked Manuel Antonio Park; I went later in the day and got lucky when I needed a tour guide. It wasn’t crowded and I learned a lot. I enjoyed the beach the following days. The food was great!!! For me this was a relaxing vacay, I didn’t want to do much cause I do the most already every day for work. So I think everyone’s experience of Costa Rica will be different based on when and where you go, as well as what you choose to do. I would definitely like to visit the Caribbean side the next time I go.

    • Oneika says:

      I agree with you!! Glad you enjoyed Manuel Antonio!

    • Mary says:

      I am not sure if anyone is still active on this blog but it was nice to finally see a decent comment about Quepos and Manuel Antonio. My daughter and I are making our first trip to Costa Rica in late November/early December. We are staying at a AirBnB in Quepos for two nights and then headed over to Dominical and then Drake Bay. After that we are planning to go to Monteverde and Arenal ending at Samara. At this point I am thinking I should revise my itinerary and find a way to visit the Caribbean coast instead of going to Monteverde. Any additional information you can give me on Quepos would be great.

  • Alex says:

    Hi mary… let me know if you need some guidance or help plannung your trip

  • Cathy says:

    Costa Rican here. It is indeed very watered down. On the one hand all these expats have helped the economy, on the other hand I can barely recognize the country I left 25 years ago.

    Regarding your trip though – February is dry season and a time of the year when all the locals have time off (like June to August in the states). The weather is likely best but everything will be crazy packed. Growing up I usually went during the rainy season (because of school vacation) and it was pretty great. It tends to rain (torrential downpour) every day at the same time for an hour so you can plan your day around that. The one downside is that the Atlantic side tends to get more rain in general so during prime rainy season it might be a a bit of a pain. That said, Puerto Limon and surrounding areas are definitely awesome if you’re into Caribbean culture.

    Source: Mom’s from the Pacific coast, Dad’s from Limon, I grew up in the capital

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