Pura Vida: A Costa Rica Travel Guide

Pura Vida!

That is Costa Rica’s motto, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a country live up to its promise more.

“Pura Vida,” meaning “pure life,” is the response you’ll receive from many Costa Ricans (or Ticos) when you ask “¿Cómo estás?” instead of the traditional “bien” or “muy bien.” They are proud of their way of life, and happy to share it with visitors. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve met a happier people in my travels so far.

This “Pura Vida” way of life is one of the things that makes Costa Rica so much fun to travel to – apart from the amazing food and stunning scenery!Costa Rica Travel Guide_8

I’ll be honest though, I didn’t know the first thing about traveling to and through Costa Rica when I first began planning my trip. Was it safe to travel alone there? Would I need to know Spanish? Can I take the public buses easily and safely, or should I arrange for private transport everywhere?

I’ve compiled all of the answers to those questions in a quick Costa Rica travel guide below.

If I can say one thing before jumping into the logistical stuff, it’s this: Costa Rica was one of the most beautiful and alive places I’ve ever visited. Yes, parts of it are quite touristy, but the heart of the people there shines through in every city and town. Don’t miss this amazing destination!

Costa Rica Travel Guide

Language Skills

If you don’t know any Spanish, take the time to brush up before you head to Costa Rica (Pssst: Duolingo is a fantastic option!). At a minimum, I’d recommend being able to hold a basic “Hello, how are you” introductory conversation, ask for directions (and understand them when they’re given to you), make a transaction (i.e. know the lingo to purchase a bus ticket or a night in a hotel), and the vocabulary for basic food items, times and dates.

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Traveling by Bus

I’ll be honest – this was the part of traveling through Costa Rica that intimidated me the most. I take public trains at home, but not usually buses, and the thought of wheeling around in one in a foreign country gave me a bit of anxiety.

Thankfully, I soon learned that the public bus system in Costa Rica is just about as painless as it could possibly be. I used it multiple times to get from city to city.

I used thebusschedule.com to input where I was departing and arriving, and within seconds I could see the available buses for the next day. You can also click the little map icon next to each city listed to find out exactly where the bus picks up and where you’ll be dropped off.

Public buses are by far the cheapest option for travel. It only cost me about $6 USD to get from San Jose to Monteverde, and about $12 USD to get from Tamarindo back to San Jose. These are each 5-hour bus rides (approx.)

Note that public buses stop every 2-3 hours for a 15-minute bathroom / snack break at a rest stop. Frequency is determined by the driver. Try not to drink too much water before your bus ride, as the roads in Costa Rica can get quite bumpy, and that makes 3 hours seem like a long time when you gotta go. Trust me on this.

Traveling by Private/Group Transport

There are a few destination routes around Costa Rica that require multiple bus transfers and many long hours of travel. Because of that, I opted for “private” group transport in a few cases.

The first was from Monteverde to La Fortuna, where instead of taking a 5-hour public bus ride that included connections, I jumped on a “shuttle-boat-shuttle” transport for $25 USD. My hotel booked it for me in a flash. The shuttle picked me up right outside my Monteverde hotel, took me to a boat where we crossed Lake Arenal, and then another shuttle took me directly to my hotel in La Fortuna. Easy, and still fairly cheap.

The second time was going from Arenal to Tamarindo, which I was told was also a multi-hour and multi-connection public bus trip. I paid $40 USD for a group transport through Anywhere Costa Rica. They picked me up at my hotel and drove me directly to my hostel in Tamarindo. We stopped twice for bathroom/coffee breaks, and other than the driver getting a bit lost at one point, the ride was pretty painless.

Traveling by Car

While there are familiar rental car companies all over the country, driving in Costa Rica really isn’t for the faint of heart. The other drivers on the road are quite aggressive, passing you without a clear view ahead on winding mountain roads, and the roads themselves are…well, paved at best. Unpaved with potholes the size of people at worst.

If you chose to drive, keep your wits about you! You’ll need to know how to drive a stick, as automatic cars in Costa Rica are few and far between. You should also get some really good travel insurance and car insurance. Just saying.

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What You Should Bring

A Backpack
I would highly advise against traveling with rolling luggage in Costa Rica (I did it, and I hate myself for it). There are many unpaved paths and roads, and your suitcase wheels will get beaten up quickly. It’s also just a pain in the ass. Opt for a backpack or duffle instead.

A Daypack
You’ll find yourself carrying a lot here for basic day trips, so don’t forget a daypack that can easily fit in your luggage.

A Rain Jacket
You’re heading to the rainforest, after all! Depending on the time of year, Costa Rican weather can be unpredictable. Pack accordingly.

A Little Something Nice
Most of the time you’re in Costa Rica you’ll be dressed very casually (bikinis, flip flops, cargo shorts, etc.) But, I’ll tell you…Costa Ricans love to party…and they really love to dance. A flowy skirt and dancing shoes will have you swaying with the beat in style.

Compact Tennis Shoes or Tevas
The terrain in many parts of the country is slippery. From damp earth to rocky paths, I found the cute, slick-bottomed sneakers I brought weren’t always up for the job. Luckily, I had my Vibrams for outdoor hikes and they saved my life a few times!

Bug Spray
I somehow escaped Costa Rica using no bug spray and getting very few bug bites, but I had friends who weren’t so lucky. Bring a high-grade bug spray and potentially even mosquito netting for sleeping at night (depending on the quality of your accommodations) if you’re susceptible to bites.

I won’t spend much time on this because I already told you my tragic, terrifying story, but just trust me on the sunscreen.

Aloe Vera and Advil
For you fun folks who undoubtedly will NOT trust me on the sunscreen.

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Foods You Shouldn’t Miss

Gallo Pinto – I really love Costa Rican breakfasts, and this is partly why! Gallo Pinto is made slightly differently across the country, but the basic ingredients are rice, black beans, and spices. Some places add tomatoes/pico de gallo or green peppers/onions, but the general concept is the same. It’s delicious and shouldn’t be skipped!

Ceviche – Ceviche is served all over the Costa Rican coasts, and consists of fresh seafood marinated in lemon/lime juice. Sometimes served with tortilla chips.

Imperial – You haven’t been to Costa Rica until you’ve tasted the beer of Costa Rica. The taste to me is similar to a Corona, but trust me, there’s nothing like knocking back a cold one on the beach in Tamarindo.

Coffee – Costa Rica is one of the largest coffee producers in the world, so they know how to do it right! Don’t even bother with the cream and sugar. You won’t need it.

Fried Plantains – A Central American favorite, fried plantains (a cousin of bananas) are sweet, slightly crispy, and delicious. I was shocked when someone encouraged me to pair the sweet plantains with fresh mozzarella cheese and empanadas – OMG. I never would have put those flavors together, but it was truly delicious.

Miscellaneous Closing Advice

  • Don’t stress too much about converting your currency. The majority of places I went to also accept USD.
  • Don’t plan to use your credit card everywhere. Most places won’t accept it, unless you’re staying at nicer hotels or eating at nicer restaurants in high-tourist areas. Plan to use cash and always keep enough on you. ATMS aren’t as easy to find here as they are in the states.
  • Wifi is fairly good in most parts of the country. There were a few hotels that only offered Wifi in the common areas, but the majority had it in the rooms as well.
  • Take tours. I’ve already raved about my experience with Marbella Tours. While the prices can add up over the course of a trip, the time and effort that you would spend to do these activities on your own wouldn’t save you much in the long-run. And this way, you get to meet fellow travelers, too!
  • Eat at a soda. This is where the majority of Costa Ricans stop for snacks and small meals. The food is typically delicious and authentic…and cheap. You really can’t “eat like a local” more than when you eat at a soda.
  • Have breakfast. Desayuno is one of the meals that Costa Ricans do best. Between the gallo pinto, fried plantains, fresh pineapple (a staple of the country), and the coffee…it just doesn’t get much better.
  • Relax. Costa Rica’s relaxed, “Pura Vida” lifestyle means that things don’t always go according to plan. Roll with it. Your bus will probably be late. Your dinner will probably take 30-45 minutes to get to you from the time you order it. It’s all part of the lifestyle. Pura Vida! Enjoy the ride.

Is Costa Rica on your list of dream destinations? Let me know in the comments below!