Once you’ve traveled to several different countries, especially those within the same region, they start to blend together. For example, when I traveled throughout Southeast Asia, it seemed every country had the same temples and statues. This is why every country I go, I’ve tried to find 5 unique places or things that make that country stand out from the rest. This list is solely based on my experience and may not cover certain well-known traditions or tourist sites.
Pura Vida- A phrase that means “Pure Life” in English, pura vida has become a way of life in Costa Rica. Similar to “aloha” in Hawaii, this phrase will surely find its way into any routine interaction whether you are hailing a cab on the street or paying your bill at a restaurant. The Ticos tend to take a very relaxed view on life and that phrase dictates their relations with both each other as well as extranjeros they may encounter.
Manuel Antonio National Park- Located on the southern tip of the Pacific coast of the country, Manuel Antonio is a must visit for anyone traveling through Costa Rica. Many people make neighbor Quepos their staging base for visiting the park. From Quepos, it is about 10-minute bus ride that costs about 40 cents to the park. Manuel Antonio does have a public beach in the small town outside of the park but most of the action is found on the inside of the park. A ticket for a day (single entry) and a guide will run you about $20 USD per person. You don’t NEED a guide but having one will make the experience much better as they are able to point out animals and plants throughout the park that you won’t see with your naked eye. Get there early (park opens at 7 AM), because after 8, the park fills up with tour groups and everyone is fighting to see the same thing. The park has everything from waterfalls to two private beaches. If you are going to stay all-day, make sure you bring food and water because I didn’t see any restaurants or shops inside the park.
Puerto Viejo- Located north of the Panamanian border on the Caribbean coast of the country, Puerto Viejo is a great way to connect with Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean community. Although it is not as built up (and slightly more expensive) than the towns on the tourist centric Pacific Coast, it is still a worthy experience. Puerto Viejo itself is a small fishing village that is about 5 hours away from the countries capital, San Jose. Although it may appear run-down on the outside, it has everything one would need to sustain themselves as well as a great mix of local Caribbean and international cuisine. A word of caution, the waves are a lot stronger on the Caribbean side than the Pacific side so you should be a confident swimmer if you plan on hanging out at the beach.
Hot Springs- Deep in the heart of the country is Volcan Arenal or Arenal Volcano. As a result of being located next to a volcano, there are many natural hot springs in and around the town of La Fortuna. Most of the hot springs have been claimed by one of the many 5-star resorts in the area, however there is a “free” hot-spring right off the highway about 10 km north of La Fortuna. The free hot-spring is literally water under a bridge off the side of the road. Most tour packages include it in their itinerary, so it’s always packed with tourists. The best way to enjoy the hot-spring experience is to purchase a day pass from one of the local resorts which run you from $10-150 USD. I bought mine for about $15 and was satisfied with the experience. Be warned, public transportation is non-existent in La Fortuna and cabs are expensive even by American standards.
Tortuguero National Park- Although I didn’t actually go because of logistics and timing, I did enough research on it and think it’s worth checking out if you have time. Tortuguero National Park is located in the Northern Caribbean Coast of the country just south of the Nicaraguan Border. The village itself is pretty small and has few budget lodging options but with a little research you should be able to find lodging in one of the nearby towns. The national park is so secluded that it actually requires a ferry to reach it. The seclusion has done wonders as there is plenty of wildlife to see including turtles (obviously), jaguars, and manatees. There is even a conservatory that runs a volunteer program for people over 18 that offers various programs for various prices.