12 Surprising Truths About Costa Rica
For 10 days, I beat my inner control freak into submission and let Costa Rica surprise me, again and again, while I travelled with my husband during the dry season (aka the “less rainy” season). We saw the Arenal volcano from hanging bridges and horseback, zip-lined through the forest canopy of Monteverde, got up close with monkeys in Manuel Antonio, and sampled every smoothie while soaking in the infinity pool overlooking Uvita’s beaches.
But, like most travel, reality didn’t always match expectations.
Disclaimer: My husband spent months meticulously planning our trip, and despite his (many) requests for me to do some research and go over our plans so that I’d be equally prepared for what was to come, I didn’t. I just showed up, with no idea what the currency was or even how long the flight was. So, some of what surprised me might not surprise anyone who’s actually done their research!
12 Surprising Things About Costa Rica
The fruit is what tropical paradise is made of – but steer clear of the veggies
It probably won’t surprise you that the fruits were delicious. I was in heaven at every breakfast buffet, with all the freshly sliced pineapple, papaya, banana, mango, and more. My favorite was freshly-squeezed guanabana juice. But, the vegetables. Unless you’re staying in a yoga and spa resort with delicious healthy food, the vegetables tasted sad and tired, and after a few days I gave up on salads altogether.
How expensive everything was
Coming from Israel – one of the most expensive countries – I was expecting to coast with rock-bottom Central American prices. No such luck! Smoothies in many places were $6. Even regular supermarkets were pretty expensive.
Gallo Pinto is delicious
When I first heard that Costa Rica’s national dish is rice and beans, I thought “I won’t be trying that”. Beans aren’t my thing. But, when the hostess at the hotel was explaining the breakfast buffet, she pointed to the rice and beans and said “It’s better than it sounds, I promise”. You read my mind, sister. I tried it and was hooked.
Thieving monkeys aren’t everywhere
As I confessed, I knew embarrassingly little about Costa Rica. But I did know one thing: my friend told me to watch out for the monkeys, because they steal your bags if there’s food inside. It was the only thing I knew about Costa Rica, so I held onto this nugget tightly. And because I get hangry fairly easily, I always carry snacks in my bag. My suitcase was loaded up with 23 emergency energy bars for my 19-day trip.
At every hotel I checked into, and every tour I went on, I anxiously tracked down someone in charge to inquire about my snacks and what to do in case any monkeys approached. The image I had in my head was a gang of monkeys surrounding me, conspiring to steal my bag to get my dried fruit bar. When my husband accidentally walked into the Manuel Antonio National Park with cigarettes in his backpack, I had a panic attack, and visions of monkeys climbing on him and stealing his backpack.
Reality check: The only place where monkeys get that close was on the beach in Manuel Antonio. But monkeys (and raccoons) only loot unattended bags. They weren’t holding us at gunpoint to snatch our cigarettes and snacks.
The lack of insects, animals, and other living creatures
The month before our trip, I had literal nightmares about the poisonous snakes and venomous spiders waiting for me in Costa Rica. To be honest, I almost didn’t come to Costa Rica became of them, certain that I would meet my inevitable demise at the mercy of a eyelash viper.
In reality, I was underwhelmed by the amount of wildlife I saw. During our three hour walk in the Arenal Volcano National Park, we didn’t see so much as an ant. We saw more interesting wildlife from our hotel balcony: a sloth making his way down a power line, a spider-fly hybrid that might be one of the hundreds of not-yet-discovered species in Costa Rica, and more.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m relieved that I didn’t run into any scorpions or rattlesnakes. I’m just surprised that I didn’t see a wide variety of exotic animals.
The country runs on tourism
When I travel, I love to blend in and observe locals, taking a peek into other cultures and seeing what I can learn from them. For example, you can go for a haircut or a cup of coffee in Tel Aviv and get a crash course in Israeli culture.
In Costa Rica, however, there seemed to be nothing to observe, other than how diverse the tourists were: we met people from Scotland, the Cayman Islands, Israel, and more. Costa Rica was more like a fishbowl, and we were the fish. The only place where we ran into some locals (other than hotel staff) was when getting our flat tire fixed.
Dollars are accepted almost everywhere
Even random supermarkets on back roads in the middle of nowhere. Some places can even give you change in dollars. Though I would still make sure to have local currency on hand.
Fixing a flat tire was uncharacteristically cheap
Because everything else was so expensive, I was surprised that fixing our flat tire at the mechanic’s cost a grand total of $5.25 – and it actually lasted for the three days of driving we had afterwards. Another way to look at it: we fixed our tire for less than the price of that morning’s smoothie.
The lack of English in this tourist economy
You might think that because the main industry is tourism, the hotel staff would all speak fluent English. Not necessarily, though. At one of the most cookie-cutter, touristy hotels we stayed at, I asked the waiter what came with their cheese platter. He smiled and told me he’d go check and be back in a minute. About ten minutes later, another waiter came over and asked me to repeat my question because his colleague hadn’t understood.
Overall, many people did speak English, and it was surprisingly easy to get by even with those who didn’t. You’d be amazed at the conversations you can have just by pantomiming!
How processed the local food was
I was expecting a tropical, healthy paradise – a haven for healthy foodies (that’s me, sort of). What I found in supermarkets was anything but. It was really hard to find plain yogurt – most were loaded with sugar – and that I did find was the watery and tasteless fat-free variety. I also craved aloe juice and thought Costa Rica would be a great place to try it. But when I looked at the ingredients, all options were sugar water with bits of aloe floating inside.
Varying quality of the roads
The roads in Costa Rica were anything but consistent. All were winding, but that’s where the similarities end. Some roads were perfectly smooth and paved, and yet others were extreme-ATV-style adventures, filled with rocks and stomach-lurching moments. Renting a car on your trip? Read up a lot about the roads between the cities you’ll be going to, and decide if you’re up for it.
12 Surprising Things About Costa Rica
Plantains are delicious and go with everything
Plantains are kind of like giant bananas, but you cook them instead of eating them raw. You can bake them or fry them, make them savory or sweet. The first time I tried plantains, they were fried and next to a huge bowl of fresh guacamole. I figured the hotel must’ve put the dip in the wrong place – who would eat bananas with guacamole?
When I saw everyone else using the plantains like chips and the guac as dip, I hurried back to try it myself. It was delicious. From then on, I became obsessed with eating plantains cooked in various ways: baked, fried, or used in a dessert.
Looking back, I’m happy I didn’t do tons of research and just let Costa Rica surprise me. It was a refreshing break for my inner control freak. What do I wish I had known? That the flight was 11 hours from Madrid (I definitely didn’t pack enough snacks) and just how touristy Costa Rica was (I would’ve taken off “learn about local culture” from my mental to-do list).
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Have you enjoyed traveling to Costa Rica? Are there any surprising things about Costa Rica you would add to this list? Email us to share your experience with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.
12 Surprising Things About Costa Rica photo credits: unsplash.