Congratulations! You are planning a trip to the land of pura vida, and it will be life-changing. There will always be a before and after Costa Rica. My husband Andy, our dog Sophie, and I have spent the last 14 months traveling around this special country and here is a list of everything we have learned along the way, and everything I wish we knew before beginning this journey.
1) PURA VIDA
This popular phrase in Costa Rica literally translates to mean "pure life", and that is the only way of life in this laid-back country. Pura vida means to live a peaceful, simple, uncluttered life with a deep appreciation for nature, family, and friends; a "real living" that reflects happiness, simplicity, well-being, and satisfaction.
It means leaving your watch behind, being present, and surrendering yourself to the pace of Mother Nature. Ticos, as the locals calls themselves, say "pura vida" all the time and it can mean anything from "have a good day" to "isn't life grand" to "I have no idea what you're saying". When you can't understand someone, when you're overwhelmed, when in doubt, simply say "pura vida", and all will be understood.
Your first decision should be which part of the country you want to spend your time exploring. Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia, but due to road conditions it can take a full day to drive from one end of the country to the other. Ask yourself: Do you want to explore the Caribbean beaches? Or relax on the famous Blue Zone beaches of Guanacaste? Do you want to zipline through the cloud forest in Monteverde? Or hike up the Arenal Volcano? Or explore the rugged Osa Peninsula? Or rappel down a waterfall? Or swim with dolphins?
This will determine which international airport you choose. The larger airport is in San Jose, the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO). SJO is typically less expensive, but more crowded with longer waits. The smaller option is in Liberia, Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIB). LIB is usually a bit more expensive, but is much less crowded and less stressful, with shorter wait times.
3) CAR RENTAL/AIRPORT TRANSPORTATION/GPS
If you can, I recommend renting a car. Next to every crowded, touristy beach lies a hidden, secluded gem. Having the freedom of a rental car allows you to experience special, unplanned, off-the-grid activities. Otherwise there are affordable airport shuttles you can arrange in advance, and the local bus system is also very affordable. Be careful using taxis in this country, I prefer a rental car, a shuttle, or using the bus, although there are plenty of honest taxi drivers available if you choose that route, just do your research.
If you rent a car I recommend having GPS, as it can be difficult to navigate this country. Typically you can rent a GPS system with your rental car, or you can download the GPS app Waze on your phone for free. Also, be cautious of other drivers. Costa Ricans are very laid-back, until they get behind the wheel. Then all sense of pura vida seems to fly out the window. Be wary of motorcycles, sometimes with a family of five piled on, wildlife in the road, lack of street signs, road conditions and potholes that can swallow your car.
4) CELL PHONES/WHAT'S APP
Contact your service provider before your trip to see if your cell phone will work. (Verizon phones are notorious for not working in Costa Rica. We were told ours would work but we ended up stranded at midnight with no working cell phones, and still had to pay for the international plans that didn't work all month.) Typically you can switch to a temporary international plan. If you have an unlocked phone you can purchase an inexpensive SIM card in Costa Rica. Otherwise wifi is readily available in most parts of the country. I recommend downloading What's App, which is an app you can use for free texts and calls.
5) COLON/COLONES/LOCAL CURRENCY
The local currency is called the colon, or colones (pronounced kuh-lone-ace). I would not bother exchanging money ahead of time, and certainly not at the airport due to the high exchange rates. U.S. dollars are accepted most places, as are debit cards. ATM's are readily available and you can withdraw colones from the ATM. You also receive change in colones when paying in dollars. Figuring out the dollars to colones conversion rate can be tricky but we have an easy trick to avoid hard, on-the-spot math, just to figure out the price of cereal.
It is roughly 500 colones to the $1. So a 10,000 colones (diez mil) bill is a very common bill. It is equivalent to roughly $20. To figure out the rough value you take 10,000 and drop the last three 0's. So 10,000 becomes just 10. Then you double the 10, so 10+10=20. So 10,000 is around $20. And 5,000 colones would be $10 because you drop the three 0's, 5,000 becomes 5. You double the number, 5+5=10, so 5,000 colones is roughly $10. This is not exact but helps you to quickly determine the rough price of an item.
COLONES TO DOLLARS CHEATSHEET:
1,000 mil = $2
2,000 mil = $4
5,000 mil = $10
10,000 mil = $20
20,000 mil = $40
P.S. Let your bank know of your trip ahead of time, that way they won't turn off your bank card when charges start being made in a foreign country.
In Costa Rica hammocks are a way of life. They are everywhere. In every house, apartment, on every porch. They are at every beach bar. In every hotel, bed & breakfast, and hostel. At some hostels you can rent just a hammock for the night. Costa Ricans spend much of their free time swinging away life’s worries in a hammock. (No wonder they are known to be some of the happiest people on the planet.)
The only souvenir I recommend, and almost require, is an authentic Costa Rican hammock. They come in a rainbow of bright colors and are inexpensive at the local tourist shops at around $28. You can purchase some rope from a local hardware store (or bring some with you) and then spend as much time as possible swinging in your hammock at the beach. The hammock can fold up nicely to fit in a beach bag, and it is the perfect souvenir to bring home to remind yourself to keep the pura vida spirit alive. Laying in a hammock feels like permission from the universe to do nothing. And a true Costa Rican vacation is all about learning the beautiful art of doing nothing.
How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterwards. - Costa Rican proverb
7) BLUE ZONE/HAPPIEST PEOPLE ON THE PLANET
Costa Rica is known to have some of the happiest people on the planet. “Blue Zones” is a concept used to identify a demographic and/or geographic area of the world where people live measurably longer lives, only occurring in a handful of places on Earth. This concept is the result of research by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, as they identified 5 areas with the highest longevity they called “Blue Zones”.
These places have a high concentration of people over age 100, and there is a substantial disability-free and disease-free life. People live significantly longer, happier lives, in these places, than anywhere else in the world. The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, is one of these known longevity hotspots. People living in this area of Costa Rica are more than twice as likely, as other Americans, to reach age 90.
So while you're here, don't worry, be happy, keep calm and pura vida your way through life.
8) RAINY/DRY SEASON
Rainy season, or green season, falls between the months of May and November, with September and October being the rainiest months in Costa Rica. Dry season is from December through April. The Caribbean side of the country doesn't experience much of a change and remains wet and green year-round. The Guanacaste region experiences an extreme dry season, becoming very hot and dry as the foliage dies and the trees lose their leaves as they starve for water.
Rainy season is not a bad time to visit Costa Rica however, as most of the days begin with sun. The fascinating, dramatic thunderstorms typically wait until the afternoon, so plan your activities for the morning. I prefer rainy season, as the beaches and bars are deserted and you can find better deals on hotels, B & B's, activities and restaurant specials.
Costa Rica has been a peaceful democracy without a military for more than 60 years, and is often referred to as the Switzerland of Central America. Costa Rica enjoys a high standard of living, a nationally high literacy rate, and a lower level of poverty in comparison to other countries in Central America. But still be cautious when traveling here, as petty thievery is still very common. Don't leave valuables in your car, don't leave electronics in plain sight, and always be aware of your surroundings. I know many people who have had cell phones, backpacks, wallets and passports stolen. But my husband and I have been lucky and have so far only been robbed of our flip flops and a bottle of booze during our travels around Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is home to many exotic animal species and you rarely have to travel far to have an incredible animal encounter. The animals are my favorite part of this country. To see a sloth up close, to have a Scarlet Macaw fly directly over your head, to be surrounded by the roar of a howler monkey as he tries to pee on you, these are all life-changing experiences.
But remember the jungles and oceans of Costa Rica also contain dangerous animals, like venomous snakes, crocodiles, stingrays, jaguars, etc. In the year we have lived here I have been stung by a sting ray and a jellyfish, I've been nearly trampled by an out-of-control psychotic beach horse, and I've been struck at by a 6-foot pit viper, or fer-de-lance, which is Costa Rica's most dangerous snake. You can read about that experience here:
So remember where you are and be cautious because you are surrounded by wild animals. But with that said most of the animals here seem to take the pura vida part of life pretty seriously.
11) WORDS/PHRASES/THINGS TO KNOW
A. "LA CUENTA POR FAVOR"
In Costa Rica you always have to ask for the bill at any restaurant. "La cuenta por favor" means check please. This is very refreshing, and there is never a rush to get you out the door. In America you are treated like a number and they want to turn your table over immediately and often deliver the check with your meal. In Costa Rica they consider that rude. Even if you're only drinking a soda, you have the right to sit at that table all day enjoying it if you like.
In most Latin American countries it is appropriate to use the informal version of you, "tu", when speaking to someone. However, in Costa Rica it is considered incredibly rude to use the casual "tu" form. Costa Ricans prefer to use the formal version of you, "usted", as a sign of respect. I have even heard Ticos addressing their pets with "usted". Always use "usted" in Costa Rica, unless addressing a close friend or family member.
In Costa Rica they use "Buenas" as a general greeting, anytime of day. Forget buenas dias, or buenas tardes, or buenas noches. Just basic "Buenas" can mean from what's up, to good day, to hello, to how are you, to good morning, to have a good night. When in doubt just say Buenas.
D. VASO DE AGUA CON HIELO
Tap water is safe to drink in most of the country, and the water in Costa Rica tastes clean, fresh, and delicious. When ordering water to drink at a restaurant, just saying "agua" can sometimes result in an over-priced bottle of water showing up at your table. If you say "vaso de agua con hielo por favor", that means you are asking for a glass of water with ice, which typically means a glass of tap water you won't be charged for.
E. NO ENTIENDO
No Entiendo means I do not understand.
F. LO SIENTO, PERDON, DISCULPE
These are three ways of saying I'm sorry, pardon me, or excuse me.
G. HASTA LUEGO
This means see you later.
E. MUCHO GUSTO, OR CON GUSTO
This means much pleasure, or with pleasure. You will hear this in place of "de nada", as you're welcome, or when you meet a new person, it is like saying nice to meet you.
F. PIPA FRIA
Pipa Fria is an ice-cold coconut, packed with healthy, refreshing, hydrating, delicious coconut water. You can find a local selling these on most beaches throughout the country for around $1. Pipa Fria tastes like happiness. When we leave this country I already know I will miss drinking Pipa Frias more than anything else.
You will hear this a lot in restaurants, it typically means are you ready to order?
H. GALLO PINTO
This literally translates to mean "spotted rooster", but it is a local, flavorful dish made of rice, beans, herbs and veggies. It can be served with any meal of the day, but typically is eaten with breakfast.
A typical meal in Costa Rica, a casado consists of either fish, chicken, pork, beef, or veggies, alongside rice, beans, salad and sweet plantains.
Not the soft drink, but a small, inexpensive restaurant that serves local food. Eating at sodas is a good way to save money while experiencing the culture.
There are many helpful Spanish phrases to know, but these are at least some basic ones to get you started.
12) WHAT TO BRING
First of all don't over pack, less is more. Less stuff, less stress. Big bulky bags draw negative attention. In Costa Rica we find we end up wearing the same things over and over. Basic and simple wardrobes of flip flops, lightweight shorts and tank tops.
*camera and/or binoculars
(if you are a bird watcher I recommend bringing a Costa Rica bird watching book, or you can purchase a book here at most tourist shops)
*lap top, kindle, books, games, cards
Remember that it gets dark in Costa Rica around 6pm, year-round. Once the sun goes down it is nice to have something to occupy your evening hours. Bring books, or a kindle or lap top, cards, games, etc.
Mosquitoes can be overwhelming in Costa Rica, particularly during the rainy season which falls between May and November. I prefer to make my own bug spray with essential oils.
Costa Rica is less than 10 degrees North of the Equator, so remember to apply sunscreen as a bad sunburn can ruin most of your trip. Also a hat, or umbrella, are both effective options for sun protection.
*lightweight, light-colored, breathable clothing
In this climate you will want to wear clothing that dries quickly and has good air flow. Black clothing is not recommended.
*insulated water bottle
You lose a lot of water in this humid climate. An insulated water bottle will provide you with cold drinking water and sometimes on a hot beach, a cold sip of water feels like a life-saver.
It is priceless going back to re-live memories you may have forgotten years down the road. I have spent countless hours writing in my journal while swinging in my hammock at the beach.
*a sweat rag
Central America is extremely humid. As soon as you step foot in this country you begin sweating and don't stop again until you leave. A lightweight sweat rag, or even a wash cloth, or two, will come in very handy.
* flashlight or head lamp
As I said earlier, it gets dark early around here and it is not fun to be stuck outside in the dark without a flashlight. A head lamp is even better as it frees your hands.
* poncho or rain jacket
Although these items won't give you much protection if you are caught in an unrelenting jungle storm, they are still nice to have when caught in a drizzle.
* shoes with traction
Either river rock hiking shoes/sandals (I recommend Chacos) or hiking shoes with traction, if you plan to explore. If you plan to simply lounge on the beach then flip flops are all you will need.
* your patience.
The pace is slow in this country and there is a lot of waiting. Just try to enjoy the scenery around you, be up for all adventures and learn to ride the waves of life and laugh off inconvenience.
(Please grant me patience Lord, but hurry!)
Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have about your upcoming Costa Rica trip. Safe Travels, Pura Vida, and Happy Exploring!
Kari Pinkerton Silcox
It would be a tragedy to die, having never really lived. Which is why my husband Andy and I quit our jobs, sold our house and decided to chase our dreams. We moved to Costa Rica without a plan, and this is the story of our adventure.