Costa Rica. Such an exotic name that evokes images of windswept palm trees, crystal clear blue water and the smell of coconut oil. I think a lot of Costa Rica’s mystique stems from its mention in popular culture as the ultimate paradise destination, but for me, it didn’t make the grade.
Costa Rica is expensive, frustratingly difficult to get around and so hideously over-developed in some areas you’ll think you’re in a particularly tacky part of Florida.
To get there we took an overnight bus from Panama City to the Panama/Costa Rica border, in what was our first experience with the lacklustre bus system in Central America.
We got to the station in Panama City nice and early with the thought that I could scan my travel insurance claim (for when I was mugged) at the print shop, but alas, the scanner was broken. Or so the grumpy man who clearly couldn’t be bothered doing his job told me. We then spent 45 minutes trying to get ‘fast’ food before our bus, which left us with not much time to find our platform. After being sent in the wrong direction by several people and running around the steamy bus terminal with all our belongings in some kind of deranged version of The Amazing Race, we found our bus with minutes to spare. But a surly woman wouldn’t allow us to board because apparently we needed metro passes, even though we would not be using the metro system… So off Andrew ran to buy a metro pass as Niki and I watched everyone else board the bus, the cargo doors slamming loudly shut. Andrew returned just in time so we ran through the barriers (Niki’s long awaited burger was seized on the way) and onto the bus to find our seats had been taken by a Panamanian family.
Long story short, we made it to the border having survived aircon induced sub zero temperatures on the bus (made no less frosty by the icy looks the Panamanian family kept shooting us from a few rows back after we reclaimed our spots) as well as cramped seats that wouldn’t recline.
But we were too early for immigration. So we sat here for an hour:
The border crossing was surprisingly straightforward and efficient, which I had not been expecting. We then took yet another bus to Puerto Viejo.
Puerto Viejo was probably the highlight of Costa Rica. To be fair it was a pretty cool town with a very chilled out, reggae vibe. We stayed in a horrible hostel called Rocking J’s though, do not recommend. It crams in far too many people for the number of staff and bathrooms, and is completely filthy. It wins the coveted title of my Most Disgusting Hostel Kitchen Award.
On our only full day in Puerto Viejo we hired bikes and made our way to a slightly more deserted beach out of town.
The coast was fine, nothing to write home (blog?) about.
The ride there was pretty nice though.
On the way home we saw some pretty huge waves.
We spent too little time in Puerto Viejo, but we had decided to move a bit faster through Central in order to spend a decent chunk of time in Mexico. The result of this being many hideous long bus days…
We bussed from PV to San Jose, got a taxi to a different bus terminal in San Jose and were fleeced $USD80, bussed from San Jose to Liberia, stayed one night (I do recommend Hotel Liberia! Very relaxing and great food), then finally bussed from Liberia to Tamarindo.
Tamarindo is in northern Costa Rica on the Pacific Ocean side. It is 300% overdeveloped, is full of American sports bars and even a Canadian ‘Loose Moose’ bar. It’s expensive and there is nothing unique or authentic about the place. It’s also extremely dry and dusty.
The town beach is sort of brown and swimming there means copping a faceful of noxious boat fumes.
To get to a decent beach you have to take an expensive shuttle. Or two slow local buses. Because most of the people in Tamarindo are American tourists or American expats everyone drives. So there are a million car hire places but no decent public transport.
We opted for an expensive return shuttle to Playa Conchal, which admittedly was beautiful. We walked a fair way down the beach to avoid the hoards but soon ended up with a family from Colorado practically sitting on top of us. The grandparents were lovely, the screaming kids not so much.
We enjoyed our day and then returned to the shuttle pick-up point, but our prepaid ride never came… So we took one local bus and then hitched a ride back to Tamarindo to fight with the obnoxious owners of Neptune’s for a refund. They told us to come back the following day after they had spoken to their driver. It was a pain but we got our refund.
We then had to backtrack to Liberia to get a bus to the Nicaraguan border. Once we crossed over, passing soldiers with AK-47s and police with riot gear and AK-47s, I honestly breathed a sigh of relief.
I can imagine Costa Rica would be nice if you are on a family vacation or are over 50, don’t mind spending way more than you should and are looking for a place that feels familiar. But for me, no bueno. We’ve since spoken with many other travellers who feel the same way. Have you been? Thoughts?