“You’ve Gotta See This” is author and photographer J.M. Hoffman‘s occasional column about unusually enticing destinations. Connect with him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, or stop by his photography blog for more exotic photos.
The world’s newest country is nothing short of amazing. I don’t mean politically new or governmentally new. I mean that just a few years ago, by geological standards, Costa Rica surged forth from the sea to connect North and South America. The latest member of the world’s great landmasses, planted vertically between two continents and horizontally between two seas, Costa Rica offers exquisite beaches for sunbathing, majestic volcanoes for adventure, verdant rainforests for exploration, and biodiversity that’s off the charts — all supported by a vibrant ecotourism industry, accommodations for every budget, and some of the nicest people you’ll ever encounter. It’s even easy to get to.
This fabled “rich coast,” costa rica, is one of a kind. And you’ve got to see it!
What You’ll See
Of course I’ll start with the wildlife you’ll see.
In many parts of the country, you can’t throw a stone without hitting an iguana
as with this shot of one I found waiting for a taxi. (I was waiting for the taxi, not the iguana. And please don’t throw stones.)
Enter Manuel Antonio National Park, and you’re bound to see Mantled Howler monkeys
who tend to stay clear of people while yelping at the top of their lungs, and the smaller White-Headed Capuchin monkeys, who crave attention and love crowds:
The sloths, by contrast, seem indifferent to everything and everyone
as they mosey along at about 10 hours per mile. (Yes, hours per mile. That’s about 1/10 MPH. But I’m told that in a pinch these guys can sprint well over 1 MPH.)
Adding to the list of famous animals is the toucan:
And there are less famous creatures like the White-ish Fluffy Crawling Thing (I might not have the name right)
which is interesting for reasons I can’t recall.
Venture out at night (with a good flashlight), and you’ll easily spot spiders,
critters, like this Zebra-Eyed Grasshopper (not it’s real name),
and a huge variety of frogs, including the famous Red-Eyed Tree Frog (yes, that’s it’s real name):
Astoundingly, all of this diversity is available right in Manuel Antonio National Park, which also sports an exotic beach:
Head to the less traveled La Selva Biological Station and you’ll also see tiny Eyelash pit vipers, which can kill you,
and Bullet Ants, which can make you wish you were dead,
along with tiny Honduran white bats, which huddle under leaves,
and large Crested Guans,
which make me think of what turkeys would be like if turkeys liked flying.
You might even spot a peccary wandering around the grounds:
And for sure you’ll see more iguanas:
Planning Your Trip
If you want to go to Costa Rica (and of course you do!), you want Shay Tippie at Costa Rica Vacations. (Call 1-800-606-1860 x1209 from the U.S., or email her.) Here’s why.
For my trip, I was tasked with the nearly impossible. I had to plan a vacation to Costa Rica for eight people with completely different goals, personalities, and abilities. We ranged in age from 8 to 75, in interest from sunbathers to photographers, and in mobility from hikers to disabled.
So even though I normally plan things on my own, this time I Google’d something or other and started making phone calls. That’s how I found Shay, a fluent English speaker who now lives in Costa Rica and works for a company that specializes in vacation planning there. I gave her our budget and described what we needed — everything from my photographic interests to my sister’s disabilities, from my brother’s plans to relax to what his kids wanted to do, from our housing preferences to our food peculiarities, and so on. (It wasn’t a short call.) Just a few hours later I got what would turn out to be the perfect itinerary.
Shay’s company includes, for no extra charge, an in-country concierge service, which I optimistically if foolishly thought I wouldn’t need. But then my brother’s family’s inbound flight was delayed by six hours and we suddenly had to scramble to find more ground transportation. I called Shay’s company and told them about the flight change. They responded with the sentence I’ve longed to hear my whole life: “We’ll take care of it.” And they did. Later on they also took care of retrieving a backpack we’d forgotten in a van.
So give Shay a call, and tell her hi from me. (Shay offers a modest referral incentive, but I have declined it in this case to underscore the impartiality of my praise for her. Neither I nor the Frequent Miler make any money or receive any other benefit by referring people to Shay. She and her company are just that good in my opinion.)
Where to Go
Though it’s not a large country, Costa Rica is astoundingly diverse. So most people try to visit more than one area. And that’s what we did, opting for a common combination: Manuel Antonio National Park and the Arenal Volcano region.
- Manuel Antonio is among the country’s top destinations, and for good reason. It’s got resorts, wildlife, adventure activities, beaches, and more. The park itself does attract crowds, but I didn’t mind. We stayed at Si Como No, which may be my favorite lodging ever. (Don’t let its affordable price fool you.) I can’t wait to go back.
I also went on a night hike through the jungle. Thanks to my childhood phobia of flying insects, I thought it would be terrifying but worth it. It was certainly worth it, and to my surprise, it was almost unbelievably peaceful, really one of the most satisfying and memorable things I’ve ever done. My guide — and you do need a guide — was Felipe. A true lover of nature, amazingly well informed, and super easy going, he was stellar. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or +506-7106-1560 to set up your own unforgettable adventure. (He does daytime outings, too.)
- Arenal is another favorite, set against the backdrop of the now-dormant Arenal Volcano which created the region’s world-class hot springs. We stayed at Tabacon. Though a little pricey, the hotel/spa offers not just hot springs but an actual hot river right on site! Even if, like me, you’re a doer and not a sitter, be prepared to sit and do nothing.
- I also ventured out to La Selva Biological Station. Compared to more popular destionations, La Selva is less touristy, less fancy, and much more impressive in terms of wildlife opportunities. I only had time for a day trip, but you can stay overnight there, too.
- And we spent a couple days in San Jose. Most people skip the low-key capital, but I was glad to have this additional window into the country. San Jose is also where you want to buy gifts. Stop by the amazing Namu Gallery to pick up incredible works from indigenous and other local artists.
What to Bring
Though you can buy almost anything you’ll need when you get there, you want to be prepared:
- Camera. Your phone will be fine for many purposes. (Read more: “Five Tips for Better Travel Photographs.”) And for wildlife, most guides tote a spotting scope to help you get photos. Still, even a modest investment in camera equipment will really pay off for you.I have some camera suggestions and buying advice here.
- Walkie Talkies. Your foreign phones might not work well, even if you have coverage. (I was really surprised by this.) Walkie talkies are a great solution, whether or not you get a local SIM for your phone.
- Flashlight.. Most trips to Costa Rica include the rainforest, where there’s not much light, so you’ll want a good flashlight, even if you don’t venture out at night. (But, really, venture out at night. As I said above, it’s worth it!)
- Clothes. Well, yes, you should bring clothes, but I’m not the right person to give advice in that regard. What I can say is that you’ll do well to take the humidity into account when planning your trip. Cool temperatures can feel colder than you expect, just as warm temperatures can feel truly hot. In addition, I recommend a hat, a poncho, and closed-toe shoes.
The Local Lingo
Though you can get by with just English at most tourist destinations, even in the capital some people speak only Spanish. And in any event it’s always polite to know a few words in the local language. So consider learning some Spanish before your trip, and then adding these bits of local dialect to your vocabulary:
Costa Ricans (Ticos) use the ubiquitous pura vida to mean “thanks” or “cool” or “I love it here” or “it was my pleasure” or “groovy” or a myriad of other things. This short phrase is as Costa Rican as can be.
Also similar to the English “cool” is tuanis.
“Thank you” in Costa Rica is con gusto (and “thanks” is sometimes the slangy con gus), not the de nada that’s used almost everywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world.
Of the various Spanish forms for “you,” you’ll only need usted and ustedes in Costa Rica.
Good to Know
I found Costa Rica to be safe, friendly, easy going, and easy to navigate.
The Zika virus has been reported in Costa Rica. You may want to talk to an ID doctor before your trip, especially if you’re pregnant or might get pregnant.
It’s usually inexpensive to fly to Costa Rica, whether on a paid ticket or with miles. But if you want to go for Christmas and New Year’s, be prepared to pay extra, perhaps a lot extra.
Consider picking up a local SIM in the airport. We had significant trouble with our U.S. cell phones. Though we usually had reception and service, text messages were sometimes delayed by hours or days, even over WiFi. (And again, you might also want walkie talkies.)
Costa Rica uses U.S.-style outlets, usually the two-pronged variety, and the U.S. standard current of 110v/60Hz. From the US, you won’t need adapters or converters.
I was able to find vegetarian food everywhere, but not in abundance. It was the same with gluten- and dairy-free options.
I didn’t rent a car, but it looks like a reasonable option, certainly during the day, and, depending on your comfort level, perhaps at night. Be aware that many bridges are one-way-at-a-time. In general, all the cars from one side of the bridge cross at a time; then all the others go.
If you do drive, you’ll want a GPS, of course. Just keep in mind that Costa Rica doesn’t use addresses. I don’t know what will happen if you type 100m norte de la iglesia (“100m north of the church”) into Waze.
Have a great trip!