Sunday, April 10, 2016

Why You Need to Visit Costa Rica and 11 Tips/Observations

I'm back from Costa Rica and all I have to show for it is a fading tan and remarkable family memories. 

Our last night/sunset on Flamingo Beach

Could we 100% afford this trip with child #1 leaving for college and a house that needs new gutters and a million other repairs? Not especially. But, I knew that this would be our last family spring break, maybe ever, and this mom wanted everyone together for one last hurrah (and bickering and getting on each other's nerves, but whatever). Around here we try to give equal attention to the practical and the experiential expenses.

Catamaran tour for snorkeling and sunset cruise

Over the years we've done the all-inclusive thing in Mexico. Sure, that's all fine and good because what's not to like about constantly flowing drinks and water aerobics? But, let's be real, this is not the way to authentically see a country.

GET A ROOM! Sunset on Flamingo Beach

So this time, we rented a condo on HomeAway (a cousin of VRBO) and we also rented a car. My hope was that we would explore and get a feel for the country itself without doing all the typical tourist stuff (although there was some of that). I was a French major and love languages, but I don't speak much Spanish. Prior to going, I downloaded the app Duolingo, and it helped me tremendously to be able to say short phrases and to recognize words.

Over the week we quickly settled into a routine of beach time, exploring, running and eating. And while there is much I do not know about this country, I did learn a lot about visiting Costa Rica. Here are some tips and thoughts:

1. Renting a car is cheap, but the required insurance is not. In most countries you can waive the collision damage insurance, especially if you have coverage through a credit card. In Costa Rica, even if you show proof of coverage, you are required to take some insurance. While we rented a moderate sized car and it was only $200 week, our total cost ended up being close to $500 with insurance (and this was with a letter of eligibility from my credit card). Ouch. Keep this in mind. There is no way around it, so don't bother wasting your time arguing.

Fording a river in Costa Rica
One thing is certain - if you drive your rental car through a river your contract is voided.
Driving through water is actually not uncommon in CR during the rainy season.

2. Running is a thing! I have run in some foreign countries where you are looked at like an alien. Costa Ricans are active people and running is fairly common. In fact, we met someone who had just done a triathlon in the area where we were staying. Although there is not much of a shoulder on the roads, drivers tend to be courteous and give you room. There are also running trails in the hills. CR is a great place to hill train! But the humidity and heat nearly killed me.

3. Groceries are generally more expensive than in the US and not all stores are created equal. The first night we got there, we set off for what we assumed was the largest grocery store in the area - Super Compro. This was a smallish, dark and un-air conditioned store (mind you it was 95 degrees). We found the basics there, but in the following days we found larger stores. For a relatively small cart of groceries, just the essentials, we easily spent $80!

4. Eggs are not refrigerated. Americans tend to balk at this, but actually most counties do not refrigerate their eggs. This is due to how the eggs are treated once they are laid. In the US, the eggs are immediately washed and refrigerated. Other counties tend to vaccinate their chickens against salmonella and don't wash and refrigerate. Bottom line is that it's fine to eat the non refrigerated eggs in these countries.

5. The typical "Tico" breakfast is fantastic and my new go-to meal. This includes black beans, rice, tortillas and maybe eggs. Throw in some avocado = perfection.

6. Sometimes you can't flush. I'm not sure about the rest of Costa Rica but the guy who rented us the condo said that the plumbing was temperamental and that we shouldn't flush any toilet paper. We immediately set up a house rule that when you took a dump you had to take out the trash. Hence, we were all made aware of each other's poop schedules. Good family bonding (btw this was also the case in our honey moon in Greece. A friend of ours had an apartment in Athens that we used and we couldn't flush paper. Romantic).

7. Costa Rica is not always tropical and lush. It depends on where and when you go but we were staying on the northwest coast (Gold Coast). This time of the year it is especially dry and brown. There were multiple fires in the hills. On our first day we watched a huge house burn to the ground! Generally, the rainy season (or "green season") is from May to mid-November. Costa Ricans call this wet time of year their winter. The dry season, considered summer by Costa Ricans, is from mid-November to April.

8. The roads are touch and go. If you stick to the main roads, they aren't bad. However most of the roads are not main roads and are dirt and narrow. Even on the main roads there is not a shoulder and the locals use the roads as a means of getting from point A to point B as there are not many sidewalks. This means there are always many people walking and biking on the side of the road. There will also sometimes be animals and livestock in the road. I snapped this photo on our way to lunch one day.

Ribs anyone? Yes, the cows are extremely skinny in CR. 

9. You can drink the water. Unlike Mexico and some other countries, Costa Rica has potable water and it tastes good. However, it is not recommended that you drink the water in a cuople of port cities such as Limon and Puertaneras.

10. It's hard to find half and half. (major First World Problem). This was probably my issue - but I love half and half in my coffee. Costa Rica has amazing coffee (the Britt brand is very good), but I couldn't find my half and half. I bought something called semi-descremada, which turned out to be partial-skim-milk. Ick.

11. Your iPhone GPS might not work. I rely on my iPhone map/GPS a lot. It didn't work well in CR even though I had data service. I downloaded an app called Waze that worked very well.

Bottom line: Costa Rica is an amazing vacation destination. It is safe, relatively easy to get to and family friendly. You can mix it up by having lazy beach days and active adventure days of zip-lining, hiking and rafting.

One of the many beachside restaurants we found for lunch.
Fish tacos FTW every single day.

Which do you prefer? All inclusive or do-it-yourself?

Best tip for traveling abroad? Be open minded and flexible. Expect bumps in the road and roll with them. Instead of resisting difference. embrace it. This is how you truly learn about how others live.



  1. That's funny about the half and half. When I was in Spain I asked for "leche de dos por ciento" (milk of 2%) and everyone thought I was crazy. It turns out they do "desnatada" (decreamed, skim), "semi-desnatada" (semi-decreamed, low-fat) and "entero" (whole). It's part of the experience of learning about a new country. :) Also, figuring out what they call ATMs was another adventure!

  2. There's always leche de roja (which is whole milk)!

    I love the picture of you and your hubs but I couldn't help but think about that slogan for Cialis: why wait until the moment is right?

  3. Love it! Went to CR a few years ago with husband and a 3 year old son. We speak a minimal amount of Spanish and had an amazing time! Did some outings, but with a small child had a different pace. We fell in love with the people, terrain and animals. We tend to "budget" for one big family trip a year. I am of the opinion that real family bonding occurs in foreign countries. I loved the coffee!

  4. I used to prefer do-it-yourself but as I get older, all-inclusive sounds mighty nice and very relaxing.

    In Thailand they have buckets next to the toilets and you scoop water and pour it into the toilet instead of flushing in some places.

    The half and half thing would be hard! Major FWP, but seriously I'd struggle! Costa Rica is definitely on my bucket list. One of these days...

  5. Is that a fat naked man sitting behind your daughter in the picture on the catamaran? I swear I'm seeing ass crack!

    1. Haha!! I had to go back and look - and I can see where you thought it was a crack, but his leg is bent and the "crack" is where his thigh meets his calf. Glad my daughter wasn't sitting by a hairy crack!

  6. I'm a do-it-yourselfer. We usually rent a condo with a kitchen and washer/dryer. I can't stand going out to eat for every meal. We have breakfast at home, either pack a lunch or go out for lunch and then I make dinner at home. That's relaxing for us. We haven't traveled outside of the US though, so this style of travel has been easy to arrange.

    My son is almost 12 years old and I am already cherishing the remaining time we have together before he moves out, it really does go by quickly.

  7. We used to do all-inclusives exclusively, in the Dominican Republic, but they offered plenty of real culture experience and such with buses that left the resorts. This last time, however, the whole area had gotten SO touristy that it was a completely different experience. Now, I'd be willing to try out a more do-it-yourself style so that I can see more of the actual county. Sounds like Costa Rica is a good bet as the water is safer than some other places, that's important to me!

  8. Glad you all had a nice trip! As someone who loves my flavored creamer, and someone who is living here for a year, the cream-in-my-coffee thing was tough. But I found a great solution in sweetened condensed milk mixed with regular milk and vanilla or almond extract. Does the trick. For future reference.

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