What I Wish I Knew Before Going to Costa Rica (Part 2)

If you live anywhere in North America, I’m sure you’ve heard about the country of pura vida sometime in your life before. And as someone who lives on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I’m so jealous that so many people can easily travel to this paradise. But like any trip, there are things I  wish I knew before going there.

Note: This is a continuation of a list that turned out to be longer than I had originally anticipated. For part 1 of this list, click here.

11) Expect to pay tips when you’re doing touristy things.

This could be because of the number of North Americans who visit this place, but it doesn’t matter as everyone is expected to pay tips.

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12) Bring cash around, and in small denominations.

Costa Rica has an interesting status as a developing-but-not-yet developed country, so while most developed countries are predominantly card dominated, that’s certainly not the case in Costa Rica. Some towns will have no ATMs, even the touristy ones like Tortuguero. Make sure you check before you arrive at a place whether you’re able to get money out.

And because most places outside the major cities would not cost much when you compare them to your home, many people will not carry cash in big denominations, just because they don’t need it.

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Costa Rican colones

13) You cannot have enough insect repellent (and make sure they have DEET in them).

Costa Rican mosquitoes are amazing at doing their job of sucking people’s blood! Sure, Costa Rica may be tropical and humid, so you might wear singlets and shorts, but that also means you’ll have more exposed skin. And for some reason, even when I wore tights, I still got mosquito bites. Make sure your insect repellent is strong enough for tropical weather- look for an active ingredient called DEET.

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My personal favourite

14) Nor can you have enough sunscreen…

Chances are, you’re going to be doing lots of outdoor activities while you’re in Costa Rica. Even if you come in rainy reason, it’ll still be sunny for half the day. Make sure you have enough sunscreen with you, and reapply it every couple of hours.

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My personal favourite

15) The people here are some of the nicest (and smiliest) people you’ll meet.

I’ve been so touched (and surprised too) by people’s generosity, e.g. driving an extra 30km for you even though you’re the hitchhiker. Costa Ricans make me believe that people are inherently good at heart, and that just makes me want to be a kinder, smilier person.

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16) Salsa is everywhere.

There are free salsa lessons in most touristy towns, and many restaurants will offer live salsa music. Time to embrace your love for Romeo Santos!

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Trying to salsa

17) If you buy souvenirs, buy them in San Jose (capital city).

I wish I’d done this. I originally thought San Jose would be more expensive because it’s a metropolitan area, but in a country like Costa Rica where their rural areas are most popular for tourists, the capital city was able to lower the prices. Maybe this was a way to encourage more tourists to visit this place?

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San Jose- a beautiful city

18) Dress conservatively.

While you’re in a tropical country and would probably like to lie on the beach in your bikinis, Costa Ricans consciously make an effort to avoid getting sunburnt by wearing long sleeves and pants. This doesn’t mean they will condemn what foreigners wear, as most of the touristy places are used to seeing foreigners, but it just means you might attract unwanted attention.

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Who’s this non-conservative foreigner?

19) Know what an official taxi looks like.

An official taxi is red with yellow light on the top and yellow triangles on the side displaying the taxi license number and the area where the taxi is permitted to operate. Also, make sure the meter is on as soon as you start driving. To ask for the meter to be on, just shout: “Maria! Maria”.

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20) Uber will be cheaper, if it’s available.

There’s wifi available at many public places in San Jose, and there are many uber drivers around. From my personal experience, they were always cheaper than taxis, and the drivers were friendlier too.

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21) Be aware of the airport tax.

Some airlines do not include the $29USD exit tax, so check with your airline whether this is included when you buy your flights.

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Spotted at Juan Santamaría International Airport

22) Bring some warm clothing.

I really doubt the beach will be the only place you’re going to while you’re in Costa Rica. Don’t forget that this place is filled with volcanoes, mountains and forests- even the capital city is 1172m above sea level! As a general rule, the higher you ascend, the colder it will be. An exception would be Monteverde Cloud Forest, then it’ll be cold no matter what time of the day you’re out and about, despite its altitude being merely 1440m.

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I was definitely not warm enough in shorts

23) Traffic is insane in San Jose.

You’d be surprised by the amount of time it takes to get from one place to another in this city. There are motorbikes everywhere, and traffic rules are mere suggestions. What makes the traffic problem even worse is that many roads are only one-way. It’s not a big city, so try and walk as much as you can.

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24) The rip currents are relentless.

Both the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts are notorious for their deadly rip currents. If you’re going to the beach (and you will most likely be), make sure you know how to spot a rip and how to get away from it. Rips are strong ocean currents that go in the opposite direction to the shore, and they will most likely look a little brown from a distance. If you’re caught in one, swimming towards the shore will only carry you further out into the ocean. Instead, swim diagonally away from the shore to get out of the rip.

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24) They say: “Pura Vida!” a lot…

This is a phrase I’ve since adopted into my daily conversation. It simply translates to pure life, so Ticos can use it in every possible situation. As a way of saying: “You’re welcome.” As a replacement for thank you. It can even be used in negative situations, such as when it buckets down in the rainforest. Anything that is a part of life can be summed up by the phrase pura vida.

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25) Costa Ricans don’t age and succeed in longevity.

National Geographic released an article in 2005 identifying the five Blue Zones in the world, where people lived statistically the longest. I’m so happy and unsurprised that the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica was included on this list (For the full list, click here). I never believed it when a Tico told me how old they were, and whenever I asked them what their secret was, they always said that it was because of their strong communities, deep social networks, habits of regular but low-intensity physical activity, and of course, embracing the pura vida.

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Even this dog is embracing the pura vida

Have you been to Costa Rica before? If so, what else did you wish you knew before travelling to the land of pura vida?

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