The Mole Diaries: Costa Rica
If you go to Costa Rica on a tourist visa (which is the easiest option, as getting a working or student visa is an incredible hassle) make sure you have proof of onward travel! As a tourist, you get given 90 days upon entering the country, which you can easily renew by popping over to Panama or Nicaragua for 72 hours. However, you are supposed to be able to prove that you are going to be leaving the country – everyone will tell you that the Costa Rican immigration never actually check that you have an exit ticket, but the country you are flying FROM may cause problems. This happened to me in Frankfurt; I very nearly wasn’t let on my flight to San José, and it was only by buying a return flight to Panama City mere minutes before boarding closed that I was able to get it. Although having a valid excuse to visit Panama City wasn’t so bad, it was a stressful and expensive mistake that was easily avoidable; all you need is a refundable return ticket, or even a fake bus reservation – they will accept almost anything with your name and a date on it.
Costa Rica has a tropical climate, which means it is warm all year round. It can get cool in the evenings or when the clouds roll in, so make sure to pack a couple of long trousers and light sweaters, and something against the rain if you’re going to be there between May and October. As you’ll almost certainly be travelling around the country, you’ll need clothes for city living, the beach AND the rainforest. Fitting all of that into one suitcase may sound like an impossible task, but I promise you, it can be done!
Bear in mind also that Costa Rica is an expensive country. If you have space, pack all the toiletries and clothes you will need, as you will probably pay more for them there than you would at home.
Finally, for chocolate addicts – take an emergency supply! Despite the fact that the country has a few cacao plantations, chocolate is simply not a thing there. You will be able to find Cadbury, Hersheys and even Lindt in most supermarkets but again, at approximately double the price they sell in Europe.
I was lucky to be provided with accommodation by the family of a friend, so finding somewhere to live was one challenge I didn’t have. Depending on where you work/study, I would recommend looking around the San Pedro area – it is the reasonably safe university suburb just east of the city, and caters to the student population.
The public transport system in San José is simply awful. There are only two train lines in the whole country, so buses will almost certainly be your only way of getting around (unless for some crazy reason you want to risk your life by driving a car). All the buses are owned by private companies, so there is no centralisation in terms of bus terminals, bus fares and bus routes. Timetables do not exist for local bus routes; some bus stops are actually not bus stops, while some empty stretches of pavement actually are; stops are not announced and do not have names; it is often not obvious how to request a stop when you are on a bus; and you can forget about finding information online. In a nutshell, the bus system is completely and totally illogical, and the only way to work it out is to use it (and ask for help, on the first few occasions!).
It seems that most people going on their Year Abroad have at least one fellow student in the same city. This was not my case in San José, and because I was working, not studying, I didn’t even have the safety net of a university environment. My colleagues were not my ticket to a social life either, as I worked in a very small office and most of them lived very far away from me anyway. If that is your case, my advice is to explore every option; hang around the university campus, extract a phone number or Facebook name from anyone you meet (you can always decided you don’t like them afterwards), use social media. I joined Couchsurfing and even downloaded Tinder simply in an effort to meet people (although I ended up using neither). In my case, it turned out that I did have one contact in the country; a volunteer on her gap year, and it was through her that I ended up building a social circle, mainly American volunteers. Maybe not ideal for practicing the language, but perfect for week-end travel buddies!
Everyone will tell you that the Costa Rican capital is awful. This is true to a certain extent, but like every place it has its hidden charms if you look far enough.
To start with, head into the city centre on a Saturday to watch some of the parks come alive with the weekly Enamorate de tu ciudad activities. Puppet shows for children, free yoga classes, dance shows, chess boards and an outside library, there is something to suit every age and taste. And even if you don’t take part, just wandering through the crowd and soaking up the atmosphere is a nice way of spending a couple of hours. Check out their Facebook page here.
Costa Rica in general and San José in particular are not particularly culture-rich (partly due to the many earthquakes that keep destroying the city), but there are some things out there to satisfy the culture vultures amongst you. The capital has a few museums – although a couple are free, most of them are quite pricey so keep an eye out for the Art City Tour, an evening every three months or so when all museums are free.
If you’re there in March or April of an even year, don’t miss the Festival Internacional de los Artes; food, music, theatre and all kinds of unexpected activities in La Sabana, the city’s biggest park, most of which are free!
San José also sorely lacks reasonably priced eating establishments with character. If you really cannot stand another soda (small snack-bar type place), there are a few quirky cafés if you know where to look. I discovered Café Rojo and Café de los Deseos in San José, and the Café Kracovia in San Pedro – for anyone who is craving the café culture that does not exist in Central America, these are the places to go to.
When it comes to the nightlife, I don’t know if I wasn’t looking hard enough, or if there really is no good nightlife in Costa Rica, but I found it quite disappointing. La California, a barrio east of the city, has a few cool bar-cum-clubs, or you can stick to the safety of the calle de la Amargura in San Pedro for average bars, cheap drinks and lots of students (be warned that you will probably just spend the night drinking beer and playing foosball). There is an organisation that has a weekly bar-crawl with locals; it’s quite pricey so I never gave it a go, but their website is really good for general advice on places to go and things to do in San José, both by day and night. Check them out here: Carpe Chepe.
Food and shopping
With rice and beans forming the basis of almost every dish, Costa Rica is not exactly a gastronomic hotspot. Some of the most widespread dishes are:gallo pinto: a mix of rice, beans and spices eaten for breakfast. casados: a cheap set lunch comprising of rice, beans, a piece of meat, some vegetable stew and salad. rice ‘n beans (yes, there is actually a dish called that): apparently Caribbean, in my opinion this is basically a casado with coconut sauce.
Luckily, the abundance of fresh exotic fruit (and the cheap smoothies you can get everywhere!) makes up for the slightly bland cuisine.
It’s easy to ignore the rice and beans diet and stick to Western products when cooking for oneself, but it will be expensive. A sure-fire way of saving money on food is finding out where and when the feria (weekly farmer’s market) closest to you takes place, and stocking up on fruit and vegetables there. There are also plenty of small fruit and vegetable stalls in the streets of San José – a good place to pick up 5 avocados or 3 punnets of strawberries for 1000 colones (that’s less than $2).
I’ve already mentioned that it’s better to avoid clothes shopping in Costa Rica, but if you really cannot resist the urge, Americanas are the place to go. They are giant second hand shops found absolutely everywhere, but you must be prepared to rummage. American and even European high-street brands are present in the many shopping malls, but I tended to steer clear of them, firstly because they’re expensive and secondly because I hated the malls with a passion.
For touristy memorabilia, from Imperial (the local beer) t-shirts and shot glasses to dream-catchers and hand-made jewellery, the Mercado Artesanal is the place to go – psyche yourself up for a bit of bargaining though.
Costa Rica is a top tourist destination because of its incredible natural beauty and diversity, and as an expat you have the chance to discover these treasures at your leisure. Central American countries are a very manageable size and Costa Rica is no exception. Even though roads and transport mean it can take a long time to cover small distances, you can reach most of the country’s top sites in five hours or less. And the good news is, long-distances buses are actually pretty cheap, and hostels aren’t that bad either.
The beach at Manuel Antonio, the cloud forest in Monteverde and the Arenal volcano in La Fortuna are probably the most famous sights, but take time to explore as much of the country as you can. I recommend Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, Montezuma or Mal País on the Nicoya Peninsula, less visited places such as Corcovado or Tenorio if you have time and your own wheels… And don’t neglect the destinations close to San José you can do in a day: the Orosi valley and the Irazu or Poas volcanoes are some favourites.
Travelling further afield
It would be a shame not to discover the neighbouring countries of Nicaragua and Panama as well; both are an inexpensive and relatively easy bus ride away, as well as being generally cheaper than Costa Rica. San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua and Bocas del Toro in Panama are the usual, beach-side party destinations, but if you have the time it’s definitely worth venturing to Granada and Ometepe island in Nicaragua. Panama City is that much further away, but also worth a visit. You can always convince yourself with the “when is the next time I’ll be living in Central America?” argument!
Do you speak tico?
Let’s not forget that you’re in Costa Rica to learn the language though. This task is made easy there as the locals (called Ticos) tend to speak quite clearly, even if their Spanish differs slightly from the one you learn at uni. The tú and usted forms are pretty much interchangeable, and the Latin American vos is also used. Weirdly, Ticos don’t roll their Rs – those who don’t like them say it’s because they try to imitate gringos, but I have been assured that is not the reason.
A few of the most widespread tiquismos:Pura Vida!: this expression is emblematic of Costa Rica, and can be used as a greeting, thanks, answer to the recurrent ‘Qué tal?’ question and pretty much however you want. Mae: often used with pura vida, this loosely translates as ‘mate’. Con gusto: means ‘you’re welcome’ – I don’t think I heard a single ‘de nada’ throughout my 5 months in Costa Rica. Macho/a: a blond person. Queque: One that makes me laugh! It means cake, and is one of many words that have been phonetically adapted from English (carro for car is another one).
It is gappies more than third year abroad-ers that seem attracted to this country, but I would thoroughly recommend considering Costa Rica as a year abroad destination – the locals are lovely, you can spend every weekend at a different beach and coconuts abound.