The following is a guest post by Camille Willemain, author of The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica.
Lush jungle spills onto golden sand beaches. Crashing waves kiss the shore. Divers plunge deep into the ocean. Surfers hide in the tubes. Monkeys shout from the treetops. Volcanoes bubble and erupt over valleys. Butterflies flutter across flower-covered mountains. Sunrises and sunsets demand standing ovations. Nights are lit up by the moon and the stars.
Costa Rica is one of the most magical places in the entire world. It’s a natural playground for hikers, surfers, paddle boarders, animal lovers, snorkelers, divers, and anyone who feels happiest in nature. Costa Rica reminds us how it feels to be truly alive.
Over three years ago I flew to Costa Rica, planning to stay for just a month before returning to the United States to get my Master’s degree. On the deserted beaches and in the abundant jungle, something opened within me that I didn’t even know existed. I connected with the true spirit of myself. That changed the entire course of my life completely.
Since then I’ve lived nomadically across the world, and returned to Costa Rica eleven times. Costa Rica is the one place on earth that for me feels like home. Over the years, I’ve had many adventures and misadventures in this nature wonderland. Today I’m sharing with you my most precious advice for how to ensure that your trip to Costa Rica is completely magical, just like mine have been.
1. Expect the Unexpected
There are plenty of places in the world where the bus will always come on time. Where business will open when they say they will. Where rainstorms and volcano eruptions will not halt your plans. Costa Rica is not one of those countries.
In fact if there’s one thing I’ve really learned from traveling to Costa Rica over the years, it’s that the best way to feel the magic is by surrendering to it. Yes, do your research. Yes, plan an itinerary. Yes, have ideas about where you want to go. But also be open to throwing it all out the window. Be open to the unexpected twists and turns the road can take. That’s what makes it an adventure.
2. Take Your Time
People often contact me looking for guidance in how to plan their one week vacation in Costa Rica. Many talk about including volcano hikes, cloud forest zip-lining, surf camps, and beach bumming in several locations across the country. Costa Rica may be a small country, but with its rugged terrain, it can take an entire day of travel just to get from one coast to the other.
When you rush from one destination to the other, you often miss out on the magic that comes when you just sit still and relax. For that reason, unless you’ve got a month to spare, I typically recommend choosing one beach destination and taking mini side trips to waterfalls, volcanoes, and national parks from there.
3. Keep it Simple
In a country like Costa Rica, you learn quickly just how little you need to be happy. Comfort is valued over fashion, you’ll rarely feel the need to wear makeup, and the ocean and jungle have no respect for material possessions. You will get dirty. Your clothes will get stains. Everything metal may rust. And at some point you will have to carry your luggage across potholed dirt roads.
Bring a durable travel pack (I’m a big fan of the Osprey Porter 46 liter travel pack) and fill it with multifunctional items that you wouldn’t be heartbroken over if they got ruined. Learn to travel with, and need less, and you’ll discover an incredible freedom.
4. …But Bring What You Need
That said, it’s not easy to shop in Costa Rica. Electronics are hard to come by and extremely expensive, clothes are hit or miss and also expensive, and you’ll be hard pressed to find your favorite snacks and toiletries here. It’s safe to assume that you won’t be able to find the things you need in Costa Rica.
I recommend packing an assortment of comfortable beach wear, hiking clothes, loose linen and long dresses for the evening, your favorite toiletries in travel size, an inexpensive digital camera, and a smartphone or iPad.
You can find my full, comprehensive packing list in my Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica ebook.
5. Be Safe
Rarely do I feel unsafe traveling in Costa Rica, but crime here is certainly higher than in countries in Southeast Asia or Europe. When in doubt ask for advice at your hotel about safety precautions for your particular destination. Generally I advise avoiding deserted areas after dark, locking your valuables in a safe, keeping a watch on your possessions at the beach, and keeping your valuable items with you on bus journeys.
6. Protect Your Tummy
Few things will ruin a trip like a bout of food poisoning. You will be exposed to different bacteria in Costa Rica that poses the threat of getting you ill. In many towns in Costa Rica the water is completely safe to drink, but always ask at your hotel first. Puerto Viejo in the South Caribbean is one area where I never advise drinking the tap water. We tend to blame the water when we get sick, but more often than not it’s actually the food we’re eating. It may be contaminated or it may just be your body’s response to something foreign.
The best way to protect yourself is to regularly ingest high quality probiotics at least a month before departing, and to continue to take them while you’re in Costa Rica. Personally I take my probiotics in the form of fermented foods (water kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha).
7. Overestimate Your Budget
When you land in Costa Rica, you may experience some sticker shock. It’s less expensive than traveling in Europe or other very developed parts of the world, but for a developing country it’s downright expensive.Expect to budget about double what you would in Nicaragua or Guatemala.
Depending on how you travel, you can get by on anywhere from $40-$150 per person per day. Expect to spend about the same as you would in the USA for meals ($5-10 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, $20 for dinner, $5-10 for one alcoholic drink) and $15-20 for hostel dorms up to $200 for hotels or vacation rentals.
If you budget more than you think you will need, it will be much easier to enjoy yourself when you get there.
8. Don’t Itch the Bites
Yes there are mosquitoes in Costa Rica, especially when it’s rainy. A lot of mosquitoes. If you’re sensitive to the bites, you may get massacred. I strongly advise against using chemical repellent, which is horrible for the environment and your own health. Locally you can pick up all natural repelling oil. I also recommend Please Don’t Bite Me skin patches which put lots of vitamin B and aloe into your blood stream, two things that mosquitoes hate. Drinking lots of local fresh coconut water can also help.
If you do get bitten, please please please do not scratch. I’ve noticed that if you leave the bites alone they will eventually disappear, whereas if you scratch them they will continue to bother you. Open wounds are the last thing you want in Costa Rica because infection can happen very rapidly.
>> Check out HPL’s post on favorite bug repellent gear for more ideas.
9. Get Dirty
Costa Rica is a country without walls. Where the boundaries between the built world and the natural world blur. Costa Rica is a country that is still wild, rugged, and dirty, and there is something inexplicably healing about that. When we press our hands into the soft earth and walk across the sand with our bare feet, we remember that any separation we feel from nature is one we’ve created ourselves. Faced with mosquitoes and scorpions and snakes you could look for the nearest concrete resort and spray yourself in a bottle of Deet, or you could rip off your shoes, run into the wild, and get your feet dirty. I highly recommend the latter.
10. Embrace Pura Vida
Why I love Costa Rica so much can be summed up in two words: “Pura Vida”. This national mantra embodies the most beautiful philosophy I have ever known. Pura vida is all about accepting the beauty in the world no matter what may be happening around you. Pura vida is all about seeing every experience in life as a gift. It’s the essence of Costa Rica and if you can learn to embrace it, Costa Rica will surely embrace you.
So if you find yourself on a rainy beach, on a broken down bus, or waiting an hour for your plate of rice and beans, smile, relax, and remember: Pura Vida.
Check out The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica. Camille put together this 148 page ebook, full of travel tips, packing guides, brilliant imagery, unique itineraries, a first timer’s food guide, safety advice, a bucket list of must-have experiences, and more.
About Camille: Over three years ago I sold all of my belongings and booked a one-way flight to Costa Rica. I didn’t have much of a plan but I knew that I felt happier barefoot on beaches than in high heels in an office, so I took a chance. Since then I’ve driven motorbikes through rice fields in Indonesia, gone diving with sharks in the Caribbean, spent the night inside of temples in Cambodia, and been privileged enough to call Costa Rica my home. I’ve achieved things I never imagined possible including earning a living as a writer, becoming a yoga teacher, and living with my home on my back. I’ve transformed my perspective through not only taking a journey across the world, but by taking a journey within my own being. Follow my travels and self exploration on my blog This American Girl and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.