Traveling Around Costa Rica
By Julia Preszler
Costa Rica is a very beautiful place you will want to fully explore. The country is small — at 19,700 square miles, it is around the size of West Virginia — but it packs in an impressive range of physical terrain and biodiversity. Here, you’ll find two oceanic coasts, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, dry forests, rainforests, and cloud forests. The diversity in plant and animal species here is incredible. The many different altitude levels in the country (think about the peak of a mountain compared to the bottom of a valley) create a multitude of microclimates that have different temperatures, rainfall levels, and humidities. All of these different conditions support different species that need different conditions to survive. Although Costa Rica only accounts for 0.03% of the world’s land, it is home to a whopping 6% of the world’s species.
Places of Interest
Weekends provide a great opportunity to leave San José and see other parts of the country. Costa Rica is pretty small, and San José is pretty centrally located, so you can reasonably travel to a lot of interesting places from Friday to Sunday.
On the Pacific Coast, I have been to Jacó, a kind of trashy surf town; Dominical, a smaller and sleepier surf and beach town that is near the Nauyaca Waterfall; and Uvita, home to the Marino Ballena National Park and known for its coral reefs, the presence of whales, and a whale-shaped sand bar that stretches from the beach out into the ocean. (Side note: I don’t surf, but these are all still great places to go if you are looking to spend some time by the ocean in towns with beachy vibes. If you do like surfing, though, it is helpful to know that the waves on the Pacific coast are considered to be better than those on the Atlantic side.) Centrally, I have visited the mountainous area of Monteverde and the nearby area of La Fortuna. Later, I will be taking field trips to a turtle nesting beach in the province of Guanacaste, and some sustainable-run farms, including a cacao farm that produces its own chocolate.
There are still a number of spots on my list of places to visit. On the Pacific side, I would like to go to Manuel Antonio National Park. I also hope to visit Cahuita and Puerto Viejo, which are in the Limón Province on the Carribean Sea. Farther north on the Caribbean is Tortuguero National Park, an archipelago of volcanic islands with beaches, canals, wetlands, and lots of interesting plants and animals. Lastly, I hope to visit Corcovado National Park. Located on the Osa Peninsula, which is on the southernmost part of the country’s Pacific coast, it is quite the trek (maybe 8 or 10 hours). But, I think the trip would be more than worth it. Within just 424 square kilometers, the park houses 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity, making it one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. The park is home to a number of endangered species, including the Central American squirrel monkey, the white-faced capuchin, the mantled howler monkey, and the Geoffroy’s spider monkey. Also living in Corcovado is the tapir, a large mammal that has a body that resembles a grey pig and a short trunk similar to an elephant. They look cute and awkward. (Do a quick Google Image search. You won’t be sorry).
Planning a Trip
Once you have a destination in mind and know how many people will be going, the first step to planning a trip is finding a place to stay. I would recommend looking for hostels and Airbnbs in the area. The prices are ridiculously cheap by U.S. standards. I have been paying about $30 for two to three night stays. Figuring out bus tickets can be a little tricky. Depending on where you want to go, you might have to take a bus with a different bus company, out of a different bus station in downtown. With some companies, you can order tickets online. With some, you can call, and with some, you just need to show up at the bus station.
You can book activities/excursions such as ziplining or boat rides ahead of time if you want, but it just as easy to make it up as you go along once you arrive in the place. A lot of hostels partner with tour companies to help you figure out the best deals. When we went to Monteverde, we booked a ziplining tour before departing, and then cancelled it and booked another one once we got to our Airbnb and our host let us know about a better deal.
When it comes to transportation between locations within your destination, it is important to be patient. Sometimes, excursion companies will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel, which is very convenient. Sometimes, you need to take a public bus to wherever you are hoping to go. This is less convenient. The buses don’t have a super reliable schedule, so you might have to wait for a while. At the end of our trip to Dominical, one of my friends said: “This weekend has been me waiting at a bus station for a bus that doesn’t come and may or may not exist.” Hitchhiking or calling a taxi sometimes your only option. While Uber is everywhere in San José, it is not usually available in other locations in the country. If you are hitchhiking, make sure you do it in groups for safety reasons.
When you travel, make sure to exercise caution. Touristy places attract some people who are looking to take advantage of ignorant foreigners. Exercise common sense whenever you travel. Keep your bag close to you on the bus. Don’t flash money or valuables. If you go out at night, don’t drink too much and make sure everyone who goes to a bar returns back to the hotel/hostel at the end of the night. And never, ever walk around alone after dark.
Universidad Véritas has an Adventure Office that can help you plan both one-day and overnight trips. Some of the options include coffee and chocolate tours, whitewater rafting, and going to popular parks like Monteverde. I think doing a tour through them might be a little more expensive than planning it yourself, but if you don’t want to deal with the stress of planning (which can definitely become a little much on top of normal school assignments), it’s a good option to keep in mind!