When I was in Costa Rica with my daughter, as I’ve said before in a previous post (Day Trips From San Jose, Costa Rica- Poas Volcano, Waterfalls, Hot Springs, Manuel Antonio National Park, Sloths, and Monkeys!), we basically had our own private tour guide. Since we were the only people that had booked tours with Christian through Sol Tropical Tours from our resort that week, we had him all to ourselves. As a result, we got to know him and his home country quite well. He passed along several tidbits of knowledge I’d like to pass along now.
Costa Rica is a peace-loving nation with no military. After the 1948 Civil War, the National Army of Costa Rica was abolished and the money went instead towards education, healthcare, and infrastructure. According to Christian, Costa Ricans value these three things as fundamental constitutional rights that all people should have. There are five public universities that are funded by the government so students can get excellent educations at an affordable cost.
The healthcare system in Costa Rica is consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. Although there is a free public healthcare system in place, it’s primarily free for the poor people who are residents; expats and people with a job have to pay for health care, but it’s still a fraction of what most Americans pay. If you’re part of the public healthcare system, what hospital you can go to is determined by where you live. For example, Christian said the best hospitals in Costa Rica are in or near San Jose but there are good hospitals throughout the country.
It is one of the most biodiversity rich places in the world. Costa Rica is in the top 20 places in the world for biodiversity and has one of the top 10 most biodiverse-rich rainforest ecosystems. A big chunk of the country is also protected from companies like loggers and developers, with a little over a quarter of its land protected in national parks, wildlife refuges, biological reserves, and private reserves.
Costa Rica is one of the most “green” countries in the world. During his inauguration speech in 2018, Costa Rica President Carlos Alvarado announced that he plans to ban all fossil fuels with the ultimate goal of becoming carbon neutral. Costa Rica produces nearly 93 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. Abundant rainfall and rivers allow for hydro power to meet most of the electricity demand, followed by geothermal, wind, solar and biomass.
Tourism is Costa Rica’s main source of income, with almost 2 million tourists a year. The majority of tourists are from the US and Canada, so Costa Ricans are friendly towards Americans for the most part, knowing they are such a vital part of their economy (according to Christian). That being said, Costa Rican officials don’t want tourists to overstay their welcome and you had better have proof that you will be leaving the country within 90 days, as checked by immigrations and border patrol.
Costa Rica is known to turn lemons into lemonade by repurposing some of its military buildings. Several museums are former military barracks, prisons, and other related buildings such as the Juan Santamaria Historical Cultural Museum in Alajuela, the Guanacaste Museum in Liberia, and the National Museum in San Jose. For Costa Ricans, these buildings are proud symbols of national peace. Instead of just tearing the buildings down, they decided to keep them and use them for something positive.
Driving in Costa Rica is complicated. Christian was telling us how a person on one of his tours commented that Costa Ricans like to lay on their horns a lot and Christian said he disagreed. Then he continued to tell us that when drivers blow their horns, it’s almost like a secret language. One quick toot means something specific, while two quick toots mean something else, and there’s an entire sequence of horn blowing and hand gestures that seemingly only locals can understand. When I mentioned that many drivers don’t stop at stop signs, he said, “Only when it’s clear that we don’t need to stop. If it’s night time or no one else is coming, we may not stop.” Pedestrians also seemingly don’t have the right-of-way, as I experienced first-hand when walking around downtown San Jose.
Knowing at least a little Spanish is helpful. Christian told me that he learned English in school, as does everyone else, so Costa Ricans usually know at least some English (although if they aren’t regularly using it they’ll forget it like anyone else). Still, Costa Ricans appreciate if you make an effort to learn some basic Spanish words like por favor (please), gracias (thank you), hola; the “h” is silent (hello), and adios (goodbye). Don’t worry about not getting words exactly right or if your accent isn’t great. They don’t expect you to speak in perfectly fluent Spanish but the effort is appreciated.
Having a guide isn’t necessary but can be extremely helpful, especially if it’s your first time in Costa Rica. Since driving is complicated, there are often mudslides, especially in the rainy season, and it’s such a diverse country with so much to see, having a guide can help you navigate (literally) safely and efficiently. Sure, you can hire a taxi or Uber to drop you off at a national park but you won’t learn about the history and gain the insider information about the area like you would from a tour guide. Although this wasn’t my first time in Costa Rica, I was grateful to have a guide.
Costa Rica has some of the best coffee in the world. I had heard this before and I had seen bags of Costa Rican coffee in grocery stores before but I’m not a coffee drinker so it didn’t mean much to me. My teenage daughter, however, is a huge coffee lover so of course she wanted to try the coffee, and of course she loved it. There’s a unique way of brewing coffee in Costa Rica with something called a chorreador. This is a popular brewing device used for over two hundred years in Costa Rica built of a wooden stand that holds the coffee cup or pot and a piece of cloth held open by a wire or rim. It’s cool-looking and makes you feel like you’re getting something special rather than just a cup of coffee brought to you. Also, I can attest there’s something special about Costa Rican coffee because as I mentioned, I don’t drink coffee, however, one time when I ordered a hot cocoa, I was accidentally handed a coffee. I didn’t realize it was coffee until after we had left the cafe and I was cold so I figured I’d just try it. It was GOOD and most of all, it didn’t make my heart race like coffee normally does. I’m not going to start drinking Costa Rican coffee now but there’s definitely something different about the coffee.
Skip the all-inclusive hotel. There are many AI hotels in Costa Rica and I understand it’s tempting to just have all of your food and drinks already paid for along with your hotel room. The first time I went to Costa Rica, I stayed at an all-inclusive resort and only left the resort to go on a day trip for horseback riding, ziplining, and mud pools and one other time for a bike tour of the area. Every meal was eaten at the resort so I didn’t get to try food from different areas or even go to many different areas for that matter. I didn’t get to experience the grocery stores (which I always love to do on vacation) either. That was why this time I wanted to stay in the central valley and take day trips so I could see more of the country.
I think that’s about everything but I’m sure I’m forgetting some important points about Costa Rica that Christian passed along or that I ended up learning on my own (like the all-inclusive hotels). What about you- have you been to Costa Rica? If so, where did you go and what did you do? What things did you learn about the country while you were there?