You can tell someone is an obnoxiously world-weary hipster traveler if you ask "What’s Costa Rica like?" and the answer starts with a sigh. And then a sneer, and then the words "Costa Rica is so -- Americanized.
I’ve heard this answer countless times, and I find it just as myopic now as I did the first time.
Yes, Costa Rica has McDonald’s and common fast-food chains. But show me just one place in the United States where a jackhammer of a road like the one from Lake Arenal to MonteverdeÂ serves a major destination for travelers. Show me a major metro-area mall where guards tote shotguns. Show me a hotel in a capital city that’s surrounded by razor wire.
What’s Costa Rica Like?
I might not have made Costa Rica sound very nice right then. It definitely doesn’t sound like the United States. And it’s not.
It’s more laid back, more laissez faire. During my trip, the chaotic traffic through me off. Now that I’ve been to Vietnam, I might be a bit more comfortable with it.
Here’s what you can expect: tasty food, beautiful scenery and people who are genuinely friendly, even those not affiliated with the tourism industry. People there really do say "pura vida" to greet each other. It’s not some travel magazine exaggeration. One traveler friend described Costa Ricans, aka Ticos, as the Canadians of Latin America.
Living Pura Vida
Here’s a great example of what Costa Rica is like: I was a few hours outside San Jose visiting La Paz Waterfall Gardens.Â And shit -- I missed the last bus back. Well, an employee from the gardens noticed, and offered me a ride back toward San Jose, where he lives in a different neighborhood. We had a pleasant ride back, chatting the whole way about all that’s good and bad about life in Costa Rica. When he dropped me off at a convenient spot, I offered him some gas money. He wouldn’t take a dime from me. He’s still one of the all-time nice guys I’ve met in my travels. (If you go to La Paz Waterfall GardensÂ and see someoneÂ named Roy, that’s him. And if Cassador the cat is still around, give him a scratch between the ears. Cassador, that is. Not Roy.)
Advice for Your Costa Rica Adventure
Fly anywhere you can with one of the local airlines. Four hours in a bus on bumpy roads equals 15 minutes aloft in a Nature Air Twin Otter. The views are spectacular, and that’s time you add to your valuable-beyond-money vacation. It is worth every penny you spend (especially since you won’t be holding in a giant pee after a few hours). A quick flight fromÂ San JoseÂ puts you inÂ Quepos, where it’s a short ride toÂ Manuel Antonio.
And look, there are tons of blogs out there that will give you Top 10 Most Awesome lists about everything in Costa Rica. They’ll tell you what to add to your – excuse me while a barf just a little from cliche-induced nausea – "bucket list." So I won’t dive too far into that.
I’ll just say the volcano-philes like me will love Costa Rica. So will people who love zip lines, coffee, simple-but-hearty food and soccer rivalries; if you can schedule your trip around Saprissa versus Alajuela, you will have a ton of fun basking in soccer madness. The country is also brilliant-green enough to blind someone from a desert environment.
Costa Rica in a Word: Aware
The powers that be in Costa Rica know what they have on their hands: scenery, scenery, scenery. The country has protected 25 percent of its land area, and is still working to improve.
Just ignore the hipster travelers and their scorn. Go to Costa Rica and have fun, even if you aren’t going before it was cool. Because it still is. Honestly.