Costa Rica Explored

Despite the ongoing travel restrictions, I was recently fortunate enough to visit Costa Rica as a solo traveller. It truly is an incredible country, and perfectly suited to travelling, whatever your holiday type.

Costa Rica possesses interesting attractions throughout its varied landscape, another feature ensuring travel is fulfilling. It’s possible to uncover hidden gems, exotic wildlife, and staggering panoramas in every locality, so there is no region unworthy of discovery.

My stay incorporated a number of different activities and experiences, yet was hardly inclusive of all Costa Rica offers. Traversing virtually the entire Pacific coast, stretching from the north to south border, I can still only inadequately comment on the nation.

I was also foolish enough to lose my camera whilst I was abroad. Typically, I would share a variety of images, on this occasion spanning mountain ranges to ocean reefs. Sadly, due to an incident involving a waterfall and my lack of sound judgement, you’ll find a shortage of pretty colours.

Costa Rica Explored:

Costa Rica is genuinely unique. At least, from the perspective of one visiting Central America for the first time. There’s no way to definitively encapsulate in a neat sentiment exactly how it feels, so hopefully some of the critical facts may be sufficient.

There is a heavy focus on conservation and sustainability, stemming from desire to live harmoniously with nature. Environmental interconnectedness has prominent awareness. Most properties in Costa Rica appear to reflect this, being built un-obstructively, often in or around trees, open to the outside world. This impact is apparent everywhere you step, with bird song a constant feature. Should you gaze above you, most of the trees accommodate some form of lizard or even monkey if you’re lucky, even in the towns, perhaps with the exception of San Jose alone. After concluding a short but bloody civil war in 1949, the Costa Rican National Army was abolished when their new Constitution was drafted, an event still celebrated on the 1st of December. This was pivotal in enabling funds to be repurposed, allocated away from defence and towards conservation, social, and educational programmes. That said, a generational divide persists, where some older members of the community remain detached from these efforts. Additionally, Costa Rica is not wholly vulnerable to attack. The nation is not immune from the temptation to deploy armed forces, and on occasion uses its police force in a defensive capacity. This proved valuable during the period of my stay, as roadblocks erupted across the country as protestors objected to rumours Costa Rica would be thrust into lockdown. This, to the best of my knowledge, never materialised in any sense, though cases were rising in the most populated regions. It was actually by complete chance my arrival back into the UK happened to be days prior to Costa Rica entering the Red List. Regardless of the governmental debates, infrastructure is dependent enough on certain key roads and bridges much of the traffic can be halted by roadblocks, which could instead be disrupted by the police.

One of the most important phrases to understand should you visit Costa Rica is ‘Pura Vida’. Literally translating to ‘Pure Life’ in English, it’s commonly employed as both greeting and farewell, or in general expression of contentment. It’s also convenient in conveying the broad principle governing how many Costa Rican locals lived. Most interactions are laid-back and unhurried. ‘Pura Vida’ is a perfect holiday motto. For a Western traveller more accustomed to strict timekeeping, it occasionally grows frustrating. For one moment in particular it was almost disastrously annoying. Fundamentally, it never pays to be in a rush, and you might well not receive your restaurant bill within the hour of requesting it. Otherwise, pura vida amigos.

Costa Rica is also hot, humid, and not especially windy. Dissected by the equator, there are virtually no seasonal shifts during the year, culminating in the perfect conditions for rainforest growth. Costa Rica is blessed by some of the most bio-diverse regions in the entire world thanks to this climate. Personally, however, it was not a climate I adapted especially well to. Far from the crisp, English spring I had stepped out of, temperatures seldom dipped below uncomfortably hot, with no relief provided in form of cool breezes. Of course, I’m being slightly dramatic, but the nature of my trip did involve frequent exertion under pretty intense duress. Generally speaking, the north is cooling than the south, the coasts more volatile than inland. But speaking of volatility, there’s one other factor to be wary of in Costa Rica’s climate: the rain. December – April is the most popular tourist season, since it’s typically dry. My month of May is regarded as transitional before the rainy seasons reaches full force from June – November. There were some brutal thunderstorms during my visit, with heavy rains often lasting entire days and severely restricting the activities you could participate in. I was lucky, in that nothing I arranged was ever cancelled by bad weather, but if you’re travelling in the south or near the coasts during the rainy season, take something waterproof.

Costa Rica Explored: Manuel Antonio public beach
Manuel Antonio public beach

Travelling Costa Rica: My Journey

I adventured through Costa Rica as a solo traveller on a budget. It can be difficult to keep pace with evolving COVID intricacies regarding foreign travel, but at the time of my departure exiting the UK was only permitted for legitimate reasons. I had one such valid purpose, in the volunteering programme I was enrolled in.

Before I left, I had always intended to primarily utilise buses, to avoid high taxi prices. When leaving San Jose Airport, my advice, however, would be to call an Uber. Strictly speaking, I’m not convinced Uber is legal in Costa Rica, and drivers are not operational all across the country, so I would not recommend it outside of the capital. A regular taxi will cost approximately $30 (£21), however, whilst my Uber was a little under $8 (£5.50). Elsewhere, I attempted to call an Uber from a town called Quepos. Here, only two drivers were active, and had evidently planned their scheme together because the map showed them in the same location. They would accept a ride, but then insist the price was too low for them to consider the journey, and only take you on to your destination if you agreed to pay a regular taxi price in cash after cancelling the trip on the app yourself.

Outside of these attempts, since I didn’t accept the Quepos offer, buses were reliable more often than not. Don’t be alarmed if you struggle to find information online; little is available. By my understanding, a number of private companies operate buses throughout Costa Rica, each running different routes at different prices. Most of the major destinations were well connected, and generally had buses departing twice daily for incredibly cheap prices. It was obviously difficult to plan these trips in advance, unaided by the internet, but I did have another problem: I hadn’t spoken a word of Spanish in about seven years. Arrogantly assuming English would be commonplace, that was one element I most severely underestimated. Mercifully, my vocabulary didn’t need to be massively advanced to convey meaning, even if my subsequent understanding was slightly flawed.

Helpful phrase (for relative beginners):

Hello, I want to go to… (San Jose) please.

Hola, quiero ir a… (San Jose), por favour.

I know basic Spanish, which is to say, enough to navigate, respond, and hold what must have been either highly amusing or infuriating conversation for the locals. But nothing was communicated more commonly than my attempts to get somewhere new.

To add a slight addendum to my assertion the bus was reliable, it wasn’t always. Which, by definition, I suppose means it was not reliable. As is always typical, the bus network also chose the most crucial day to fail me. So as not to spoil the chronological journey to come, you’ll have to wait for this teaser to pay dividends but, rest assured, it makes for at least vaguely entertaining reading.

Costa Rica Explored: water in Manuel Antonio
The mineral-rich waters of Manuel Antonio

Different locations across Costa Rica:

San Jose –

The capital city, and a major transportation hub. Many travel guides will attempt to convince you San Jose is worth more than simply passing through. Certainly, there are several museums scattered across the main high street, whilst Parque la Sabana looked impressive from the glimpse I snatched out of a bus window. Beyond that, there is not enough to occupy you further than a day. Some areas are also best avoided, with a lot of advice suggesting you stay away from downtown regions unless essential, and it’s not advised to walk the streets after around nine at night.

I was in San Jose on three occasions. My flight arrived in the evening, so I spent the first night in the city. Having arrived too late to do anything, I then left too early in the morning for anything other than appreciating the pleasant views of distant, rainforest-studded mountains. A lot of buses operate from San Jose, so I did briefly return for a couple of hours by means of completing a connection, and finally was in San Jose for my departing flight.

Manuel Antonio –

One of the most famous national parks in Costa Rica, and perhaps the most popular, at least with tourists. The town’s namesake is shrouded in mystery, with several myths perpetuated regarding the identity of founder ‘Manuel Antonio’, though I was assured they were all false. The national park itself is undoubtably the main draw, with plenty of wildlife lurking in the trees. The entire area is well-equipped to receive tourists, especially since the only establishments are either hotels, hostels, or restaurants. Two private beaches are only accessible once you have entered the national park, though there are some large, public beaches available too. The national park organises a number of tours, and I would definitely advise enjoying a guided walk. It’s also possible to stay in Quepos and visit the national park, since an inexpensive shuttle bus runs frequently between the towns, taking around fifteen minutes and costing approximately $0.50.

I spent two nights in the town of Manuel Antonio, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Feeling surprisingly un-jetlagged, I had arrived at around midday from San Jose and headed into the national park self-guided after having lunch. There’s an enjoyable contrast between the mangroves and secondary forest. My untrained eyes were also able to pick up iguanas and white-faced capuchin monkeys, despite the late hour being the least favourable for animal activity. The next morning, I had planned a guided walk, which I did not regret. A vast abundance of nature suddenly revealed itself, exposing numerous birds, insects, several bats, and crabs. Howler monkeys were visible shuffling through the high canopy, and our guide picked out no fewer than four individual sloths. If you’ve ever tried to spot a sloth, something I was never close to doing, you’d agree I’m sure on how incredibly difficult it is. Later that day, I embarked upon a kayak mangrove tour. It was arranged through the national park portal, but was hosted at a different site by an independent company. I love the experience of kayaking, and was immensely refreshed by the sensation of floating upon the tranquil river. Spotting tiger herons, a boa constrictor, more bats, and a playful troop of white-faced capuchins, we were relatively successful with the wildlife, too. William was incredibly friendly, eating a fantastic lunch with me in his garden. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the public beach, before meeting some friends from the guided tour for supper. That next morning, I strolled along the beach once more, before continuing south along the Pacific Coast towards Dominical.

Costa Rica Explored monkey
A Howler Monkey

Dominical –

Another town seemingly only in existence owing to tourism. Capitalising upon its fantastic position along the coastal highway, Dominical taps into this vein having been transformed into a backpacking destination and surfer community. Various shops and cafes line the single road towards the beach, with another track running parallel to the beach packed with souvenir stands.

I spent only one night in Dominical, which was probably sufficient to explore everything it offers. I left satisfied, but of course were you planning to take surfing lessons or enjoy this particular beach (I can confirm there are, however, plenty of nicer beaches) you could easily extend your stay. On my first day, I strolled around the Hacienda Baru Wilderness Lodge and nature reserve, 3km north of Dominical. I’m assuming the lodge was not receiving guests, since I was the only visitor, so had the well-signed trails and beach to myself. Well, shared with some of the local residents. Here, I saw a poison dart frog, some variety of snake basking on the main trail, peccaries, and more white-faced capuchins. A taxi from Dominical was $5 each way. On a separate occasion, I also visited Nauyaca Waterfall, which is roughly 7km inland of Dominical. It makes for an impressive sight, with pools you can paddle in, though the current is incredibly strong, and I wouldn’t advise non-confident swimmers venture beyond standing depth. This latter excursion was completed from Ojochal but might as well be included under Dominical.

Ojochal –

Not the most recognisable name, and probably excluded from tourist guides, Ojochal is a small town that winds inland from a glorious coastline. Still very connected to the main highway, bus stops in both directions are accessible immediately surround the small road and bridge that leads towards the main cluster of buildings. It’s difficult to identify a high street or centralised hub, since Ojochal sprawls into the surroundings hills and rainforest, but there is a small plaza with bars, shops, and a pharmacy set back but parallel to the highway. Realistically, intending no disrespect to Ojochal, there’s little to even warrant a rest stop here.

My staying here was for a specific purpose and legitimate reason for travel: volunteering. The Reserva Playa Tortuga operates a reptilian conservation programme, on which I was enrolled. Based adjacent to a fishmonger, evident from the sign and smell, this consisted of a large building with a communal seating area, kitchen, with accommodation blocks behind. Outside, there was a shaded seating area with hammocks that remained stiflingly hot at virtually all hours. Even more exciting than the location were the duties. That said, we were based in a wider rainforest reserve, hosting monkeys, bats, birds, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and insects. Barely one-hundred meters down the road was a wild beach, brilliant for exploration, though far more dangerous than I initially realised, since it was also frequented by crocodiles and caimans.

Our primary function as volunteers was to assist to turtle hatching. When nests were discovered on nearby beaches, they were collected and transported to a guarded hatchery close to the reserve. Tragically, the greatest threat to turtle numbers in recent years has been human poachers. The survival rate of turtle young is naturally astonishingly low, somewhere in the region of one per thousand, but people have eliminated even that final hope in recent years. This, of course, is alongside other, harmful human activities. The bright lights of civilisation are confused with the moon, causing a number of turtles to head inland, as opposed to the ocean. Domestic dogs have been found more than any other predator to unearth turtle nest on their walks. Some anecdotal reports even indicate that human harassment of adult turtles as they struggle up beaches can drive them back into the sea. It was our responsibility, therefore, to provide a haven until the babies hatched, whereupon a small number of measurements were taken, before the turtles were released into the sea. I can provide no estimates as to how many will survive into adulthood, but I can assuredly say no fewer than ninety-three individuals at least reached the waves.

In addition to turtles, the project aimed to monitor the plethora of native species. Most days, we would conduct a survey walk through the rainforest, looking for either monkeys, bats, or birds, aiming to note the number of individuals spotted and their activities. The most exciting excursions were night walks. On our first, we encountered two tree-born snakes, and attempted their capture. This involved a number of methods, the most adrenaline-inducing of which was my climbing into the tree to try and shake them loose. Contending with biting ants the entire way, I was inches away from success before my branch broke, approximately five meters off the ground, forcing me to desperately locate another hand-hold and concede defeat in that endeavour. Eventually, one snake was enticed by way of being pulled free, and was invited to spend a night back with us whilst she was measured and her micro-chip checked.

On a subsequent night, we took to a lagoon connected to the sea. Our objective was crocodile-hunting, though not in the sinister sense. Scanning the water with torches, eye-shine betrayed the presence of these ancient beasts lurking in the mangroves. When captured, smaller specimens could be carried onto the boat, to also experience measurement. One caiman entered our craft this way, resting on my lap as the scientific survey proceeded, before it was returned to the water. A greater monster was yet to reveal herself. A crocodile extending beyond two-and-a-half meters was also captured and dragged ashore after battling for almost thirty-minutes. Finally placid, I found myself perched on her back, desperately hoping to deter any future struggles. Deceptively cunning, her apparent patience during this process belied a calculated plotting. Once the tape from her jaws was removed, we gathered several meters away to watch her slink back into the water. Obviously, she was otherwise motivated. With incredible speed I had not anticipated, our group was charged by snapping jaws and lashing tail. Mercifully, we all survived the encounter unscathed.

Thoughts on Reserva Playa Tortuga:

I’m actually slightly conflicted, despite all the fun I’ve just regaled you with. I should first assure you I have no regrets, and genuinely believe the project is valuable and worthy of my happily-contributed donation. When originally planning my trip, however, it had been my intention to spend most of it on the Reserve. Ultimately, I elected to leave early for a couple of reasons. The first, through no fault of theirs, was my urgent desire to witness more of Costa Rica. The country feels perfect for travel, and I would truly recommend against staying in one place for the duration of your visit. The issue I faced was having no means of independent transport, without the laboriously slow bus system, and only Sundays scheduled away for volunteering duties. This was enough, on one occasion, to visit Nauyaca Waterfall, but could not have permitted us to travel anywhere else. Bleeding into my second reason, we were effectively expected, as volunteers, to remain on-call twenty-four hours each day. The working culture in the reserve was stricter than expected, including an alcohol ban, and assumption we would utilise all non-working periods to ready ourselves for the next activity. Wishing to avoid sounding selfish, it was certainly less relaxing than an average holiday, and actually contrasted with my third reason for leaving. There actually wasn’t that much to do. Again, I don’t blame the project for this necessarily, but the highlights I’ve mentioned were thinly spread across my week-and-a-half stay. There was a lot of downtime, with little to fill it.

More than anything, it was a bit of a shame. None of us wanted to betray the project, but for the adventures I then pursued, I was glad I left.

Costa Rica Explored beach
A pretty random beach I grabbed

Drake’s Bay (Corcovado) –

One of the most incredible places on earth, holding 2.5% of the planet’s biodiversity, and 50% of all Costa Rican species. Wherever you plan on visiting, there’s space for Corcovado on your itinerary. The national park is so well preserved, it’s actually something of a challenge to reach it, though it’s completely worth it in the end. Most tourists stay in one of Drake’s Bay or on the Golfito Coast, to the north or south respectively of the national park itself. Though it wasn’t open during my trip, there is also an eco-lodge based in the heart of the park, complete with its own airstrip. Drake’s Bay is a pocket of tropical paradise, yet fully developed enough to sustain all vestiges of civilisation. The atmosphere is distinctly backpacker orientated, which is to say the vibe is relaxed, welcoming, and a perfect emulation of Pura Vida. For trivia fans, the name derives from Sir Francis Drake, who utilised the bay as a port during raids against the Spanish. Apparently, it remains home to long-lost treasure. I didn’t find any.

Reaching Drake’s Bay from Ojochal was straight-forward, but lengthy. The Pacific Highway reaches a town called Palma Norte, another transit hub in the south. Deposited seemingly at random, we roamed the streets in search of breakfast, having left at five in the morning, stumbling by complete chance onto the next bus station required. Shuttles run every two hours to another town called Sierpe, from a completely innocuous shelter that’s easy to miss. Only once in Sierpe can you take one of the twice-daily boat taxis to Drake’s Bay. I received enthusiastic encouragement to purchase all my rations in Sierpe, bombarded with horror stories of exorbitant prices and complete drought in Drake’s Bay, but these never materialised. I wouldn’t suggest abandoning caution, but prices are moderate, and I never found myself ill from drinking the water.

I spent a magnificent few days here. Prior to our arrival, we had been concerned about booking tours, but never should have worried. In keeping with online options being sparse, next-day tours are very easy to organise. On our first day, we set off on a guided tour into the national park, which requires boarding another boat and travelling a further hour around the coast. There are multiple options, but we started from the Sirena Ranger Station. The general consensus appears to indicate it’s worth the slightly higher price for this improved experience. Toucans, four species of monkeys and tapirs later, we were back for a complimentary lunch. I also scuba dived off Caño Island, an absolutely fantastic site. Making the initial ascent, attempting to properly equalise and shrug off my rustiness, I reached the bottom and was instantly confronted by a white-tip reef shark, the first of many. The visibility was not the greatest I have ever seen, but it was more than compensated for by the abundance of marine life visible. Across two dives, I saw sharks, turtles, octopus, eels, pufferfish, stingrays, and a huge variety of different fish species I could probably have identified two years ago. Even without this gamut of life, the thrill of diving alone felt special.  

Uvita –

A similar town to Dominical, in that it also survives by latching on to the Pacific Highway and siphoning tourists onto its coast. With the Marino Ballena National Park and iconic whale-tail beach, Uvita certainly has a lot to offer. Unlike Dominical, despite probably having a similar number of shops and hostels, they are spread over a much wider area in Uvita.

My reason for staying in Uvita, beautiful though it is, was slightly strange. Through my volunteering in Ojochal, I actually visited the Marino Ballena Park a number of times for free, so didn’t repeat this independently. Instead, a Caño Island scuba dive from Uvita was the only thing I had booked before leaving, and so had already paid a deposit. Originally, this was to be on one of my free Sundays, but I shifted it by half a week. Anyways, here I found myself for one night, and was the only person staying in my hostel. Abject loneliness aside, I endeavoured to explore, and so went to Uvita Waterfall on my first afternoon. This was arguably more entertaining than Nauyaca, with less recognition and for a fraction of the price. In Uvita, there are another two pools one can swim in, and a platform in the lower pool to allow you to jump in. Further along the path, the waterfall comes crashing down next to a very uncomfortable ladder. Here, the unthinkable happened. I foolishly attempted to slide down the waterfall with my camera. Would it have made for a mediocre video? Yes. Did it? Well, potentially. But we shall never know. I underestimated how hard you hit the water, the camera was ripped from my grasp and I, struggling to orientate myself in the searing plunge pool, never saw it again. So, no pictures of me surrounded by sharks, I’m afraid.

The next day, I went to Caño Island again, from a slightly different starting point. It should also be mentioned that, on the three occasions I visited this stretch of water, I saw a different species of dolphin each time. On two separate trips we also witnessed flying fish leap from the water and hover alongside the boat, keeping pace and unblinkingly locking in eye-contact. On my second bout of dives, I saw more sharks, turtles, stingrays, pufferfish, a sea horse, a frogfish, and, definitely most excitingly, dolphins! Caño Island itself is gorgeous, but inaccessible to tourists. Our guide was nice enough to traverse the section of island open to tour boats, giving us a wonderful insight into this preserved gem. On our return journey, we were treated to a special appearance from whales as well.

Monteverde –

The fabled cloud forest. High in the mountains of central Costa Rica, Monteverde towers above its counterparts, at skiing resort-altitude, shrouded by the year-round mist of clouds. The rain forest here is unique, owing to the exceptional moist conditions and cooler temperature, producing a distinct array of wildlife. Though many familiar favourites return, perhaps the most remarkable resident of Monteverde is the Quetzal, a bird with long tail feathers and striking colours.

From Uvita, a bus into San Jose is easy enough. From the Tracopa Bus Terminal, where you arrive, the walk to Terminal 7-10, which provides a Transmonteverde service, is actually quite arduous. Maybe it was just carrying my bags. In downtown San Jose, the area isn’t the nicest, but the terminal is pretty new. Modern, air-conditioned, but not well-signed. Not being a Spanish speaker, I did struggle to locate the ticket terminal, which is in the basement. With everything arranged, I arrived in Santa Elena, a few miles north of Monteverde, and found my next hostel. Bizarrely, I was the sole occupant once more, but thankfully knew people in the surrounding hostels, and met a lovely group the next day when I hitchhiked to the national park. When in the Monteverde region, you’re spoilt for choice with your cloud forests. There are three major locations: Monteverde, Santa Elena, and the Children’s Eternal Forest. Each has their own perks, but Santa Elena is the highest, and less populated than her counterparts. Of course, when I visited Santa Elena, the conditions were the clearest I had ever seen, so it was not so much a cloud forest as regular rainforest, but this did allow me to view Arenal and the sequence of volcanoes from the Santa Elena viewpoint.  

Santa Elena is a lot of fun as a town, small though it may be, with several restaurants and bars. The next morning, I had some free time, so visited the Ficus la Raiz, a remarkable natural feature where the roots of a Ficus tree have formed a functioning bridge across a river. Later that day, I embarked on a ziplining tour, navigating the rain forest canopy at high speeds that culminated in a long, 1.5k ‘superman’ zipline. Facing forwards, you literally fly over a mile of trees with glorious views. The tour concluded with a Tarzan jump, a 40m drop and effective leap of faith, before the rope catches you and swings you into the opposite trees. Still full of energy, I attempted the Cerro Amigos hike. The only free cloud forest, it follows a service road up 580m of elevation gain deep into the clouds, reaching a cluster of satellite dishes. Steep and slippery, the views are not that rewarding, but the walk is fun. That evening, I watched the sunset from the Cerro Plano Viewpoint, blessed by clear conditions that enabled me to see straight to the ocean.

Costa Rica Explored
I was ready.

Tamarindo –

One of the more bustling towns in Costa Rica, home to a party scene. Tamarindo might just have some of the nicest beaches around, but they are full of pushy locals trying to impart their various wares of questionable legality… There’s plenty to do in terms of tours, but, equally, multiple options for anyone determined to simply relax.

Tamarindo is worse connected than anything along the Pacific Highway. Theoretically, there is a bus line direct from San Jose, but I was unable to experience this. From Santa Elena, I caught a 4am bus to one highway, a later bus to Liberia terminal, and a final bus to Tamarindo via Flamingo. Once there, I was able to do nothing but recline on the beach and absorb a sensational sunset. Positioned almost directly on the equator, the entire sky fills with red and burns long after the glowing orb has vanished below the sea-soaked horizon. I embarked on another kayaking tour on my second day, which was combined with snorkelling around the island we reached. Compared to Caño Island, the fish were not spectacular, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. My guide not only found an octopus, but caught one and handed it to me. For the rest of my time in Tamarindo, I did little of significance. Certainly, little that appears noteworthy when recounted in text. I did, however, make an unfortunate decision on my final night. Before arriving, I had planned to spend two nights, getting a bus back to San Jose in the afternoon and spending a night in a hotel close to the airport. Upon discovering that buses ran at both 3am and 5am, I opted instead to relish in one final sunset, sleep through a partial night, and then arrive back in San Jose in the morning. My flight was the next evening. It felt safe enough. Disappointingly, it was this day the bus system failed me. Neither bus arrived and so, with the prospect of waiting until 10.30 proving incompatible with a seven-hour journey and my looming airport COVID test, I was cornered into the most expensive Uber of my life. It was only by complete chance a driver happened to be available, and on his way to San Jose irrespective of me. He felt bad enough to buy me breakfast, at least.

Costa Rica Travel Advice:

Visit. The most important thing I learnt from my trip was the value of independent travel, and the unbelievable joy of navigating Costa Rica. It’s a fun country, with a lot to offer. Costa Rica needs to be explored.

The physical act of travelling is the toughest assignment, dependent on your method. Private transfers are obviously hassle-free, but quickly become expensive. Hiring your own car would also be expensive, and the roads surrounding San Jose are chaotic. In some of the outskirts, roads are also in poor condition, making for challenging driving. It would, however, provide you with substantial freedom, sorely missed by myself during my travels. The buses were adequate until they were not. Omitting Tamarindo, I found them to be pleasant and cheap, if confusing, with little support from staff. Ultimately, it depends on where you hope to visit, and how many places you need to travel between. Buses around Tamarindo and the equally popular Santa Teresa, just to the south, are it seems notoriously unreliable.

Travel with local Colónes, and a healthy supply of physical cash. US Dollars are widely accepted, but the conversion rates are normally calculated by hand to the dollar’s extreme disadvantage. Some places only accept cash, which is also the case on the buses. On that note, bus tickets are purchased on the vehicle itself, so don’t worry if you haven’t located a terminal.

Whilst accommodation and travel can be inexpensive, restaurants catering to tourists are not competitively priced. Try and find out local ‘Sodas’, for better value and portion size. When gauging your bill, also presume a 13% tax will be added onto the menu value.

Look after your stuff as you travel. I say this less forcefully than others, but don’t assume from my casual tone that theft is not an issue. Amongst the items I lost over the course of my trip, my wetsuit also vanished from my bag one day. I might be careless, but not so much it could have been cast astray without another person’s intervention. I have no other horror stories personally, but met plenty of pickpocket victims.

Navigating COVID requirements:

Admittedly, it’s almost pointless to include this section since I have no intention to provide regular updates. I’m writing from a UK perspective, following the late-June travel update. If you’re reading this in the future, who knows what’s happened next?

Ironically, Costa Rica is on the Red List as I write. That was not the case when I planned my trip, and was actually only announced on the day of my return flight. Entering Costa Rica is pretty easy, as it remains one of the few destinations to waive a negative COVID test in the entry requirements. Instead, you must fill out a Pase de Salud (Health Pass) prior to your arrival, which includes confirmation of having purchased specific travel insurance approved by their government. With no direct flights from England, I had to transit through Germany, which was the greatest complication. For the twenty-minutes I spent in Frankfurt Airport, I did need a negative COVID test, which, despite my getting it with their demanded forty-eight-hour window, was denied in Gatwick. I had to buy another one in the airport, which was a frustrating start to the trip. At the time, leaving the UK also required a legitimate reason, besides holidaying. I believe that has now changed.

Once in Costa Rica, you can largely act as you please, within the basic guidelines. Mask up, but otherwise roam free. The most populated regions, like San Jose, are struggling, but the majority of the country is doing just fine.

Returning home, the UK requires a passenger locator form, which is easy to complete, combined with confirmation of at least one COVID test booked for your second day in the country, assuming it’s a green or amber country. If red listed, you’ll be scheduled for a luxurious stay in a government-mandated hotel.

In reality, my forms were barely glanced at, save for the first COVID test. My volunteering forms were skipped over, my passenger locator form brushed past. I’m hardly complaining now.

Costa Rica Explored Tamarindo beach
A slightly blurry Tamarindo sunset

Costa Rica Explored:

I managed to escape on this spontaneous adventure, and am extremely grateful I did. Not only is Costa Rica a wonderful country, but the entire trip was a necessary break from the rigours of lockdown.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you found this interesting – if so, check out my other travels. For a slightly different flavour, head over to my short stories, or simply peruse the blog.

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    1. I would 100% recommend it! I was obviously exploring as a solo traveller, but it only gives you the opportunity to meet loads of similarly-minded people whilst you’re out there. This is actually another reason I was grateful for my volunteering, since I made some lovely connections and spent time travelling with the friends I had made. I would definitely look at staying in hostels too – this was not something I had done widely before, but it’s a great way to meet people, and very safe (even in large dorms, I never heard of any theft, abuse, etc.) plus you can pick up recommendations from people out there. It is important to look after yourself as a solo-traveller, so definitely avoid wandering around at night alone.

      I’m delighted you found my guide helpful – I only wish I had more surviving pictures to share, especially from the scuba diving. If you’re looking for other information, I loved another site called Mytanfeet, written from the perspective of a Costa Rican national, and includes articles on free activities.

      Have fun!

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  1. Your time at the reserve sounds interesting (if a little frustrating with how it worked out in the end). I think getting out to explore as much of the place as you can is a great idea, especially as you said Costa Rica lends itself naturally to that kind of travel experience. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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    1. That was pretty much the exact conclusion we came to. The reserve really was fantastic, and there was potential for it to be a complete and fulfilling experience for multiple weeks, there simply wasn’t enough variation in place. This was enhanced by how fantastic the rest of the country is, and how much incredible opportunity is available. I’m very glad I went, and would happily join volunteer programmes in the future, but would definitely think more carefully about my time allocation!

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