Ten Things to know Before Traveling to Costa Rica
When it comes to traveling I am either an extreme over planner, or more of a laid back, “we will figure it out when we get there” type of person. When I planned to visit Costa Rica with family I decided to opt for option B. Not everyone enjoys my tight schedules going from location to location so I decided not to drive everyone insane and try to go with the flow a little more for this trip. For once I honestly did no research other than finding a couple of spots I wanted to visit.
I love how our trip turned out, but there were definitely some things I wish I had known before I visited Costa Rica!
1.) There are scorpions, but the sting doesn’t kill you
Our first night in Playa Flamingo my Aunt and Uncle warned us about the scorpions and that their sting wouldn’t kill us (so thankful for that piece of knowledge) My Aunt had been stung once and so had a couple of her friends. Even with all this forewarning I was not as cautious as I should have been. On our first night I pulled a blanket out of the chest, threw it at Brian while yelling, “Here is the scorpion infested blanket lol” He opened up the blanket and crawled under to be immediately stung by…you guessed it…a scorpion.
He claims it hurt about as much as a bee sting, but it definitely wasn't small. Apparently the small ones are more dangerous. Either way, I was hyper vigilant for the rest of the trip. No more scorpions stings on my watch! Especially since I had always assumed scorpions killed you!
2.) There are stingrays, the sting may or may not kill you
While I was away on a waterfall chasing excursion my Dad and Boyfriend went back into Tamarindo to surf. When my Dad was walking back out to the beach he felt a sharp stinging pain in the top of his foot. The water was churned up and sandy so he couldn’t tell what had happened but we had seen stingrays around and it was safe to assume that was what had stung him.
He went into the surf shop where he had rented his board to ask them if he should be scared. They immediately grabbed the lifeguard and called the doctor as a precautionary measure. Most of the time if you get stung by a sting ray it can be fine, but sometimes it is not. After a half hour or so they deemed that my Dad was in no danger and sent him off to the pharmacy for some ibuprofen.
If you have been to any tropical beach location you have probably been told to do the, “stingray shuffle” you probably didn’t see any stingrays and immediately forgot about the stingray shuffle. We definitely began doing the stingray shuffle for the rest of the trip after my Dad’s encounter!
3.) Listen to your surf instructor when they tell you to wear a rash guard
I have been surfing many times before and yet this is a lesson I never seem to learn. We spent two days surfing and I refused the rash guards our instructor brought both times. I ended both sessions with my stomach and legs COVERED in small red bumps that were raw to the touch. As I write this a week after returning from our trip my stomach is still covered in little red bumps, although I can put on a shirt without crying now.
Listen to your instructor. Wear the rash guard, and consider shorts. You will be able to spend a lot more time on the water that way!
4.) There aren't many major highways, prepare for dirt roads.
When I was looking at places I wanted to go and trying to figure out travel times I was surprised to see seemingly short distances mileage-wise being estimated as 4 hour drives. Once I arrived in Costa Rica this made way more sense. Our entire time there we only drove on one major highway.
Other roads were generally narrow and winding, and about half the roads that we traveled on ending up being unpaved and similar to forest access roads we use to get to hikes in Washington. Be prepared for this if you rent a car and opt to drive yourself around!
5.) The People are Extremely Friendly
Seattle is not known for having friendly people (ever heard of the Seattle freeze?) so how comfortable Costa Rican people were with starting up conversations with strangers was a bit of a culture shock for me.
This especially became apparent when my boyfriend passed out from heat stroke in Tamarindo. Street vendors all dropped their stuff and ran over to make sure he was okay. People gave him water and ice and offered to call a doctor if he needed it. Brian ended up being fine but the next couple of days when he was in town they would stop him and ask how he was doing. I honestly don't know if I could ever imagine this happening anywhere in Seattle.
6.) Watch out for the plumbing
The plumbing is a little different in Costa Rica. In most public restrooms you will see signs not to throw your toilet paper in the toilet. Regardless of that I found myself forgetting and accidentally clogging a toilet or two *face palm* be better than I was, remember to throw your toilet paper in the conveniently placed trash cans by the toilets.
Even if you don't see a sign it's better to be safe than sorry (and mildly embarrassed when you are THAT tourist)
7.) Bring a telephoto lens
As I generally shoot landscapes I rented a Sony 16-35 f2.8 lens for my a7II for this trip. I didn't really think about renting any other kind of lens. Once I got there I realized this was kind of a mistake. Wildlife ABOUNDS in Costa Rica. This is a little embarrassing but I had no idea where Sloths were from before going down to Costa Rica. Guess what…THERE ARE SLOTHS down there! I saw them in the rainforests near Arenal Volcano, but without a telephoto lens I was only able to get a sad iPhone video. We also saw Monkeys, Tucans, Coatis, and a bunch of other awesome wildlife.
If I go back I will bring a 70-200mm f2.8 instead. It might be a beast, but it would have been a way better lens for the type of sight-seeing I was doing!
8.) Prepare for everything to move a little slower
Since most of my international travel recently has been to Asia I think I am used to things being EXTREMELY efficient. Having a very Type A personality I loved that about Asia.
Costa Rica is definitely the opposite and it took a little getting used to for me. When you order food or drinks it takes a while for them to arrive. In order to get your check you need to ask for it, it isn't dropped off at the end of your meal. Most people drive, well, slowly.
It would definitely take me longer than the week I had to get used to moving at that pace, and honestly I am not sure I ever could!
9.) Don’t be against hiring a guide
This goes a little with moving slowly. Most of my vacations I pack as much as I can into a single day hurrying from location to location until I pass out exhausted at the end of the day. For two days of this trip my Aunt hired a guide to show us around some waterfalls and Arenal National Park. At first I was a little bummed about that choice because I wanted to take a rental car and drive to all the locations myself.
After doing our guided trip I am super glad my Aunt went about it that way. Our guide was super knowledgable and stopped often to show us wildlife I NEVER would have noticed on my own. We saw a bunch of wildlife all while seeing all the waterfalls on my list.
We also met our guides family on our drive back to Playa Flamingo and it was great to meet people that are actually from the place I was visiting. Generally I keep to myself assuming I am an annoying tourist bugging all the locals. I am thinking this mindset may not be the best one to have. Part of why I travel is to experience other cultures and if I just keep to myself or stick with my family during a trip I am missing out on that opportunity. This probably warrants a post of it’s own but there is a way to respectfully interact with other cultures when traveling and one of those ways is hiring a local to show you the things they love and supporting the local economy.
10.) Don’t use Google Maps to Navigate
Remember all those dirt roads I mentioned? You will travel down a lot more of them if you use Google Maps to navigate. After picking up our rental car I was tasked with navigating to Playa Flamingo since I was the only one with an international data plan. I put in Playa Flamingo in Google Maps and off we went. Everything was fine until it directed us to turn off the main road onto something known as, "The Monkey Road" It was a long dirt road with a few shallow river crossings. We had a 4WD, but the mood in the car was definitely tense. My Dad kept turning to me to ask if I was SURE this was the way we should be going.
We made it safe and sound but my relatives seemed shocked we had taken The Monkey Road to get to them. My Aunt immediately recommended I download Waze as it gives better directions.
Even without knowing all of these things I still had a great time in Costa Rica. Sometimes things go okay even if you have no idea what you are doing! It helped that I have family that owns a vacation home down there and they were able to help me out. If you are looking for a place in Costa Rica to stay you can check out their vacation home on Airbnb here!