Central America is a different kind of place. It is a little bit off the normal tourist route and not terribly accommodating for backpackers as far as hostels go, although there are numerous cheap hotels. Each country in Central America is unique. Costa Rica is the current hot one in this region. It is fantastic. There are many big tourist hotels and resorts that have sprung up in the past few years. But a country cannot escape what it really is just because some fancy resorts move in. I feel sorry for people who stay only in those resorts because they do not get to experience the real Costa Rica. It is because of the real Costa Rica that I keep going back.
The first time I went to Costa Rica was about seven years ago. I went on a whim. I had about two weeks off before I started a new job. I fell in love with the country. It has everything for the adventure tourist such as myself, and it also specializes in what’s called eco-tourism – Costa Rica’s brand of tourism.
Whether it is bird watching in the rain forest or zip-lining through the trees in search of toucans and sloths, you can do whatever you like in this tropical paradise. They have some of the best surfing in the Northern Hemisphere in Playa Jaco, Playa Hermosa and Playa Tamarindo. The beaches are like temples, secluded and not crowded. There are black sand beaches that emerge from the jungle, and pristine unoccupied white sand beaches in some of the national parks such as Manuel Antonio in the southwest of the country.
Additionally, Costa Rica offers bungy jumping and some of the world’s best white water rafting. The Rio Pecuare has a whole day of level four and five rapids for some heart pounding excitement. Costa Rica also has some of the most active volcanoes around, and Arenal is the king of the volcanoes. There are hikes where you can actually go to the base of this monster and smell the lava, look up and see the volcanic activity going on. Or, you can sit in the Tabacon Hot Springs surrounding Arenal and sip cocktails while you watch the lava flow down the sides of the volcano like a Christmas tree branching out down the mountain. Located smack dab in the middle of the country, this sight is not to be taken lightly. It is truly amazing and a must for anyone visiting Costa Rica.
If you continue north along the west coast of Costa Rica, you will pass numerous signs for zip-line courses, some of which are in the forest and some of which are out in the open. They are suitable for anyone. It is not scary and the lengths of the lines can range from a few feet to nearly a mile with speeds ranging from 10 miles per hour to over 60. These courses are unique to Costa Rica and although other countries may have introduced these courses, Costa Rica invented them and they have the best scenery to make it a memorable experience. The guides are fantastic, giving you pertinent information on the wildlife and vegetation that you will encounter. There is no better way to view a rainforest than upside down at 50 mph speeding toward a tree that is 1,000 years old.
As you approach the top of the western peninsula, you head toward Playa Tamarindo, the crown jewel of the Costa Rica beach and party towns. The surfing is stellar and the off-roading 4-wheel tracks are well worth a look. My friend, Mike, almost killed himself on a recent trip. He came back covered in blood and mud and was dying to do it again. Now that’s awesome. Also, Tamarindo has a small casino where we recently cleaned house. Between my three friends and I, we each won nearly US$200, playing in the local currency, Costa Rican Colones – thats a lot of money.
There are numerous ways to see this ecologically diverse and beautiful nation, but there is one thing that is consistent throughout the country – you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. After flying into the capital, San Jose, you will generally need to spend at least one night there because of strange flight arrival times from the U.S. San Jose is an underrated city with a lot to do. It has its bad areas like any other city, but what it lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in energy and nightlife. There are so many great bars and clubs in the center of town that anyone can find something to suit their needs. The casinos are open all night and so are the bars. Additionally, San Jose has a very large expatriate population. There is no shortage of people who speak English in the capital. Just ask a local where to go and where not to go, and you will be fine.
From San Jose you are faced with a quandary of which way to drive. Should you go south to Quepos and Manuel Antonio for some exciting nightlife and secluded beaches, or out to Montezuma and Punta Arenas on the southern peninsula for a few cheap deals and lovely beaches? Should you shoot out due west to Los Suenos and Playa Jaco for beautiful black sand beaches and a challenging first-rate golf course? Should you head up toward Arenal and then up to the resort beaches of the north or should you stay in San Jose and take advantage of the tour possibilities around the capital?
The answer is yes. Do all these things and there is so much more in addition to those I have listed. In Costa Rica, you need time. Everything moves a little slower. As the national slogan says, Pura Vida (pure life), you need to enjoy yourself while you are there, and realize you are not in the first world anymore.
The roads are an atrocity. There are potholes from San Jose to Tamarindo and everywhere in between. Landslides are very common throughout the country, especially during rainy season from April to October. You may be stuck behind a diesel-burning, third-world truck driving through mountainous roads barely wide enough for two-way traffic for hundreds of miles. You need patience and appreciation for the incredible scenery surrounding you.
On my most recent trip to Costa Rica, my three friends and I were driving from Arenal to Tamarindo. There was a landslide about halfway in between where we wanted to go. The entire road was blocked off except for a small passage. To get through, the car had to go on an angle using the slope of the forest next to the road. We sat and watched as a large truck attempted the stupefying stunt. It was like watching the coyote chase after the roadrunner knowing he was going to run off the cliff. This moron tried to invert his truck and, of course, ended up flipping it on its side. He was really stuck and the passage was blocked. It could have taken days for the Costa Rican highway department to clear that landslide. So we pulled out our trusty road map and realized the only way to get where we wanted to go was to drive back three hours to the last fork in San Ramon, where we could catch a different road heading north to Nicaragua.
Out of options, we headed back and then up toward Nico land. Approaching the border we sharply veered west toward Tamarindo. It turned out to be an extra eight hours on our drive, but we took it in stride and enjoyed the ride. Driving in this country can be a blast because there really are no speed limits and if the cops stop you for speeding, you can play the dumb tourist and/or just drop them $5.00 and you are good to go. On my most recent trip there, we were stopped three times and only had to pay $5.00 once to a cop who actually spoke some English. The money obviously went straight into his beer fund.
If you can handle the potholes, bad roads, hairpin turns and landslides, you are in for the ride of your life, and one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable. I promise that you will want to return time and again. Whatever your taste, you can find it in Costa Rica. Get outside and do something crazy. Don’t be afraid to be daring and do some things you never thought you’d do. Enjoy the tropics and have a few Imperial beers for me.