Honestly, I didn’t love Costa Rica

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:

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Amazingly, still in good spirits

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

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.

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On our only full day in Puerto Viejo we hired bikes and made our way to a slightly more deserted beach out of town.

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Niki with our bikes

The coast was fine, nothing to write home (blog?) about.

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Meh

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The ride there was pretty nice though.

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On the way home we saw some pretty huge waves.

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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

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.

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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.

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Coconuts being a highlight of the day

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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?

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11 Responses to Honestly, I didn’t love Costa Rica

  1. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy yourself! I stayed in Cahuita (about 25 minute bus ride from Puerto viejo) for about 5 days and I loved it ! I think if you are visiting the Carribean side of Costa Rica you need to stay for a few days to enjoy it. The best part about it was the ability to relax. I stayed at Hotel Carribean de Coco and it was awesome and not too pricey for a pretty big room. I also loved Cahuita because it was so NOT Americanized like some places closer to San Jose. Go back to the carribean side and stay a while. I wrote about my visit on littlepinktravelbook.com, Check it out 🙂

  2. Let me take you places says:

    Ahh I totally get why you didn’t like CR. It was definitely not what I expected, and so much more costly than I expected. But I agree with above, Cahuita is a must in PV, and we bypassed Tamarindo (thankfully), but La Fortuna and Monteverde were pretty good. It wasn’t terrible but it did not meet the hype I had heard before hand, and I met so many travellers that didn’t enjoy it. It’s not at the top of my recommendations for Central America.

    • Bec says:

      Looks like we definitely didn’t the hot spots, totally our fault! CR isn’t awful by any means but as you said, just didn’t live up to the hype.

  3. Nix Stix says:

    Oh my god we just left Costa Rica and found the same thing. So expensive. Buses were impossibly difficult and almost the whole country was mega touristico. We gave in an hired a car in the end which almost bankrupted us. Well done for persevering! X

  4. I think you should give Costa Rica another chance, but avoid the coast and stay/explore inland. I didn’t love the Pacific coastal areas either, but fell in love with the rainforests around the Arenal volcano. Next time, try staying in the La Fortuna area. Yes, there are a lot of resorts in that area, too, but plenty of hostels and inexpensive sodas (local eateries). You will see the beautiful waterfalls, vegetation, and hot springs that Costa Rica is known for, and many of those are free or very inexpensive visit.

  5. Rachel ¦¦ A Nesting Nomad says:

    That’s really interesting, because I’ve heard some good things about Costa Rica but in a very non-specific way, and thinking about it it was from people with plenty of money who like a beach holiday… Thanks for shedding some light on your reality, it’s always refreshing to read posts that aren’t all rah-rah about everything. And aren’t gross hostel kitchens the absolute worst??

  6. Callie says:

    I spent six years of my life there from ages 4 to 10, so my vision of Costa Rica is skewed, but I had the best time growing up there. We lived in a nice neighborhood in San Jose. I remember liking the city — there were parks we could ride our bikes to and going shopping downtown was always fun — but nostalgia has a way about it so I don’t know what my opinion would be going back now.

    We went to such incredible places during the time we lived there and almost all of them having me wanting to go back! Volcanes Arenal, Irazu, and Poas are all among my favorites. Zip-lining in Monteverde was incredibly fun! La Paz Waterfall Gardens is probably 1000x more expensive now, but it was soo cool! Just being in the jungle (I don’t know where, haha, I can just remember countless times we went on vacations and the rainforest was involved) and seeing wildlife right there in front of your eyes — from tree frogs to sloths to macaws to howler monkeys — Costa Rica is teeming in life! The care that the government takes toward conservation is truly amazing. I can just remember all the times we would be at the hotel pool and a family of monkeys would go soaring through the treetops above us. You can’t get that in a lot of places.

    Best beaches/beach areas that I can recall (and my mom has concurred because she remembers better than I) would have to be Playa Hermosa, Punta Uva, Manual Antonio, Puntarenas, Jaco, and probably others but I don’t know their names! As a kid who wanted to dig around in the sand, the black sand beaches were terrible. But the grownups didn’t seem to mind.

    Yeah, it definitely is overpriced and the beaches aren’t as great as in some parts of the world, but I think Costa Rica is a stunning gem. It’s hard to get away from the gringo side of things for sure, but even when you’re doing touristy stuff it can be pretty incredible. You just have to take the right trip and maybe slow down a little. It probably would help to rent a car… At age 19 I can’t do that yet so I’m waiting it out. Maybe give it another chance?

    This is an obnoxiously long post… I just felt the need to defend my favorite country in the whole entire world. I plan on eventually living there at some point in my life (hopefully long before retirement) so I have my reasons for loving it there! The “pura vida” lifestyle is truly how the people live there. It’s just hard to see it when you’re surrounded by gringos. 😦

    • Bec says:

      Not obnoxious at all! I wanted to hear what other people think and that includes different opinions 🙂 next time (and I do hope there is one) I want to rent a car and do more jungles and stuff inland. And you’re absolutely right about the environment and conservation there, I was really impressed when I read up on the stats there and saw signs for recycling everywhere (rare in this part of the world!). Also I loved it whenever anyone, be it a shop keeper or someone on the street, said ‘pura vida’ to me. Definitely the right way to live. Thanks so much for commenting, it sounds like you had an absolutely amazing childhood!

      • Callie says:

        I think it’s beyond interesting how people can have such contrasting experiences and in the same place! That’s what I love about travel! It’s an adventure and things aren’t always what you expect them to be. I also strongly believe that “I can always come back later” because you cannot see it all so it’s better to travel like you’re going to come back at some point down the road. Thanks for sharing your opinion on Costa Rica, because it’s a valid one and a lot of people agree with you on that; I’m just glad you also realize that there’s another side to Costa Rica, too!

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