Vibrant macaws. Fragrant orchids. Adorable monkeys – wait, did that monkey just steal my food?? Costa Rica is a tropical, eco-friendly paradise, filled with colorful wildlife and lush forest canopies just waiting to be explored on ziplines and hanging bridges. Visiting Costa Rica makes you want to get a “pura vida” tattoo and a lifetime supply of salsa lizano, and it’s a difficult place to leave.
Which is why I’ve been back four times! My first two trips to Costa Rica were with my family. I was 8, and Costa Rica was the most magical place I could imagine. I remember galloping on horseback along the beach, kayaking through rapids on a river, chewing sticks of fresh sugarcane, befriending a baby squirrel monkey, and plucking a sweet starfruit from a tree. Our family trip was filled with wildlife and adventure, which cemented much of what would later become my preferred travel style. (Major props to my parents for picking such a bada** vacation spot.)
To this day, when I close my eyes at night and try to fall asleep, I imagine that I am in Costa Rica, listening to the patter of rain and swinging gently on a hammock. To help cement the illusion, I have filled my entire house with tropical plants, despite living in arid California.
Costa Rica has pulled me back a few more times since those first visits over two decades ago. Jeremy and I spent a few weeks backpacking Costa Rica on our year-long honeymoon, and we returned again this year to celebrate our five-year anniversary.
Through all of my trips, I’ve learned a few things about Costa Rica. Like that you need REALLY good bug repellant (I swear by this combined with this). Or that starfruit really is the best fruit ever. Listen: not everything I’ve learned is helpful, OK?
From gallo pinto to hot ziplining scientists to monkeys flinging poop, here are 35 things nobody tells you about visiting Costa Rica!
Costa Rica At-a-Glance 🐒
Here’s a bite-sized snapshot of everything you need to know to plan your trip!
- When to Go: The ideal time is June & July, aka “green season,” when prices are low and the rain takes a break.
- Where to Stay: Hostel Plinio near Manuel Antonio NP is an amazing, budget-friendly hostel. Aguila de Osa Rainforest Lodge near Corcovado NP is an incredible, sustainble eco-lodge in the rainforest overlooking the ocean – basically, paradise!
- How to Get Around: Public transportation is excellent in Costa Rica. Buses, shuttles and ferries will get you everywhere you need to go! We recommend using Bookaway to reserve transportation online before your trip.
- Top 3 Highlights: Ziplining & hanging bridges through the cloud forest canopy in Monteverde, snorkelling in Corcovado National Park, white water rafting in La Fortuna.
- Before You Go: Read our 2-week Costa Rica itinerary, our guide to things nobody tells you about Costa Rica, and our detailed packing guide.
Psst: Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Check out some of our other posts!
- Two Weeks in Costa Rica: The Ultimate Costa Rica 2 Week Itinerary
- Costa Rica Packing List: 42 Essentials to Pack for Costa Rica
- How to Be a More Responsible Tourist: a Traveler’s Guide to Ethical Tourism
Need some help packing? We’ve created a FREE Printable Packing List with everything you need to plan your trip to Costa Rica. We’ll also send our favorite travel tips straight to your inbox! Just sign up below.
Things Nobody Tells You …
… About the Food in Costa Rica
- “Soda” means something different than you’d think.
And no, it has nothing to do with the beverage. In Costa Rica, a Soda is a locally owned restaurant or cafe serving typical tico food, usually at very reasonable prices.
Head here to taste traditional Costa Rican fare: literally, just walk into any soda filled with locals enjoying their lunch. It will probably be delicious
- Same with “casado.”
Casado means married in Spanish, but you’ll be seeing that word everywhere – even if you’re not on your honeymoon!
In Costa Rica, a casado refers to a typical plated lunch consisting of rice, beans, plantain, salad, tortilla, and a meat. Supposedly it’s called that because that’s how married men eat at home thanks to their hardworking wives, to which I say, must be nice.
- You will have gallo pinto every morning for breakfast.
Gallo Pinto, Costa Rica’s most delicious and ubiquitous dish, is served pretty much everywhere. At its core, gallo pinto is rice and beans – but it’s so much more than that. It’s like, the best rice and beans ever. In my life, all other rice and beans are held to the standard of gallo pinto.
Plus, it has a fun name: gallo pinto means “spotted rooster,” so named because the black beans against the white rice look kinda like a spotted rooster. Cute, right?
- You will never get sick of eating gallo pinto.
Whenever we visit Costa Rica, I’m perfectly happy eating gallo pinto for breakfast, lunch and dinner, every single day. Gallo pinto with eggs. Gallo pinto with chicken. Gallo pinto with ice cream. (OK – maybe that last one isn’t exactly traditional, but I was hungry.) It never gets old!
- You will discover the secret of gallo pinto, and you will bring a bottle of it home with you.
The secret to a delicious gallo pinto isn’t the chopped veggies and black beans mixed perfectly with the rice, it’s the secret sauce that gives it all of its flavor: salsa lizano.
What is salsa lizano? It’s basically a tangy, salty, slightly sweet condiment – think Worsterchershire’s way better cousin. It’s made with sugar, salt, carrots, chili peppers, cucumbers, cauliflower, dry mustard, celery spice, turmeric, and molasses, and it’s the national sauce of Costa Rica and also of my heart.
Luckily, this delicious sauce isn’t hard to find: it’s got a permanent home in pretty much every soda, restaurant, grocery store, or souvenir shop. Which is good news, because you’re going to need to bring some home with you (or spend years trying to make it, so that you can make proper gallo pinto, only to eventually give up and order a bottle online, which is much more expensive than if you would’ve just picked some up with you and brought it home in the first place. Do we speak from experience? Maybe.)
- There is excellent gallo pinto in the San Jose airport, of all places.
Every time we fly through San Jose we stop at Restaurante Malinche. There’s a location right outside of customs once you exit the airport, and one inside after security. It’s easy to write it off as a typical airport cafe, but don’t, because it has really good gallo pinto.
Conveniently, the post-security location is also where some shuttle buses pick up travelers, so you might get lucky and have an excuse to enjoy gallo pinto while you wait!
… About Visiting Costa Rica
- Don’t be afraid of visiting during Costa Rica’s rainy season.
Costa Rica’s rainy season generally lasts from May to November. But it isn’t a monsoon, with non-stop heavy showers. It’s just a wetter-than-usual time of the year! That means everything is incredibly green and lush, waterfalls are flowing, and you can expect a rainshower each day during your visit (so pack accordingly).
Personally, I love a good rain – and an excuse to spend a few hours relaxing on a hammock and listening to it! Plus, “rainy season” tends to scare away tourists, which means lower prices and less crowds – win/win.
- Plan a trip during “Little Summer” to enjoy perfect weather during the off-season.
In mid to late July, Costa Rica experiences a weather phenomenon in the middle of their wet season bringing mostly dry, sunny weather! It’s known as “Little Summer,” and it’s the perfect time to visit because it’s still the tourist off-season.
We happened to plan our last trip in the middle of Little Summer completely on accident, but we highly recommend doing it on purpose
- Don’t throw your toilet paper in the toilet.
Like many other countries in Central and South America, Costa Rica’s plumbing system does not respond well to toilet paper. So, you’ll need to throw your toilet paper away in the trash can (if there is no trash can, and no signs instructing you to use it, you can probably assume it’s safe to throw it in the toilet.)
If you’re not used to this, you might at first be a little grossed out, but don’t worry: restrooms in most places are cleaned often. A polite thing to do is to wrap any extra- gross toilet paper bits (you know what I mean) in more toilet paper, so nobody has to see …well, you know.
- It’s never a bad idea to bring along some backup TP.
On occasion, you’ll come across a bathroom without TP in the stall. It’s usually out front, on your way into the stalls. But I’ve literally never noticed this before I’m reaching for it. So, I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a little bit of toilet paper with me at all times. I keep a bit folded up and tucked away in a pocket of my passport holder or money belt, and keep it stocked up whenever I can.
- Ziplining was invented in Costa Rica.
Here’s a fun fact for nerds like us: zip-lining was actually invented as a research tool to help scientists study the tops of forest canopies. I was skeptical of the idea of teams of scientists careening at top speed across the treetops, frantically trying to record measurements as they pass by, but facts are facts.
The inventor of scientific ziplining – who was a young, attractive guy, a fact which I find only slightly relevant but still notable – went on to write a fascinating book about his experiences and learnings, and was the primary consultant for the 1992 movie “Medicine Man,” featuring Sean Connery flying through the canopy on ziplines collecting plant specimens to cure cancer. YASS, hot adventurous scientists, yass!
- Costa Rica arguably has the best zip lining in the world.
(And yes, we’re prepared to argue about it.)
Long after its origins in the realm of hot-scientist research, ziplining was turned into an adventurous activity for tourists. The very first commercial zipline was in the cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica.
… But soon, there was major drama. The guy who “invented” ziplining (but definitely just ripped it off of Hot Scientist) filed a patent for his “creation,” and then proceeded to sue everyone else who dared to operate similar canopy tours in Costa Rica.
And just in case suing wasn’t enough, he also marched right into the forest with a pair of clippers to cut down everyone else’s zipline ties, accompanied by the very woman from the International Property Rights Registry who had granted his patent. The DRAMA!
Of course, he was fighting a losing battle – ziplining caught on faster than he could cut down wires, and today, there are plenty of awesome ziplining tours throughout Costa Rica (and the rest of the world, for that matter).
On our most recent trip, Jeremy flew on a one-mile long Superman tour across the cloud forest canopy in Monteverde. I don’t know if he managed to collect any specimens to cure cancer, but he did have a fantastic time.
- There’s a good chance you’ll be taking a boat to get somewhere at some point.
Lots of places in Costa Rica are only accessible by boat, so there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself taking a river taxi or shuttle boat at some point. There’s also a good chance your boat ride will be accompanied by crocodiles (if in a river) or dolphins (if on the ocean).
Don’t be surprised if there are some tricky waves to navigate or a wet landing, either (in fact, expect it). But don’t worry: those massive waves that look like they’re going to trip over your boat are probably no big deal to your experienced boat captain. Pura vida, amirite?
Travel Tip: I recommend packing dramamine and a pair of sturdy water-friendly sandals or water shoes.
- If you tend to get ear infections, maybe be extra careful around rivers in Costa Rica.
This is maybe just a genetic curse, but both my dad and I were afflicted with horrible ear infections after getting Costa Rican river-water in our ears.
For my dad, it was on my first trip to Costa Rica. I was 8 years old, and all I remember is that we went kayaking and he took it way too seriously. I don’t remember he if flipped the kayak or I just imagined he did, but either way, he ended up with a nasty ear infection that he claims took years to fully go away.
For me, it happened on a white-water rafting trip during our year-long honeymoon. I didn’t even get in the water, but water got on me, and within 24 hours, I was writhing in excruciating pain. It took a week and some heavy steroids to clear up – I’ve never had an ear infection like that in my life. And I’ve had ear problems my whole life, although they’ve only gotten worse since then.
Nowadays, I stick to the ocean in Costa Rica. And if I’m going anywhere near river water, I jam a couple of swimming earplugs into my ears and hope for the best.
- The healthcare in Costa Rica is fantastic.
One small upside to getting the worst ear infection of my life during my third trip to Costa Rica was that I had the pleasure of being treated by several local doctors. (I mean, I was in horrible pain the entire time, but hey, they were great!)
Thanks to my World Nomads insurance policy, I was connected to a small doctor’s office in a rural area, as well as a big hospital in bustling San Jose, where I had the unfortunate experience of getting a painful shot in my butt (which sucked, but at least it cleared my ear infection right up.)
Everything was super fast, efficient, and clean, and billing was a snap. And although the whole thing was surprisingly inexpensive – thanks to Costa Rica’s Universal Healthcare system – I was able to get my claim processed with World Nomads with no issue (along with the extra 3 nights I had to spend writhing around in pain before the doctors cleared me to fly safely).
So, lesson learned: don’t go in the water, but if you DO happen to share my family’s genetic predisposition to awful ear infections from Costa Rica, at least you know you’ll be well taken care of! (Oh, and make sure you pick up a World Nomads insurance policy, too. It was a HUGE help!)
- There is amazing woodworking in Costa Rica.
Walk through any souvenir shop in Costa Rica, or an outdoor patio at a restaurant, or even just a random farm, and you will quickly turn into a part-time Ron Swanson, drooling over a particularly juicy slab of live-edge wood or an intricate chevron pattern. You’ll find yourself admiring the hand-carved animal displays, saying things like “wow, look at that dowel joinery,” and looking sadly at furniture while you cram as many cutting boards and coasters into your carry-on luggage as you can.
… Or maybe it’s just because Jeremy picked up woodworking as a pandemic hobby and reads Nick Offerman’s woodworking book as a bedtime story.
But in any case, Costa Rican woodworking is absolutely beautiful and will give you a new appreciation for woodcraft. They really know their way around trees there – I mean, there are even restaurants literally in trees, like this one.
Just be sure to leave some room in your suitcase for wooden souvenirs!
- There is a very different culture between Costa Rica’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
It’s difficult to visit both of Costa Rica’s coasts on one trip – getting in between the two isn’t terribly easy. And each coast has its own selection of attractions for visitors, slightly different weather, and so on. There are plenty of helpful comparison guides to help visitors decide which coast to visit on their trip (like this one). But one thing that is often overlooked or not mentioned is the difference in culture.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is largely defined by Jamaican descendants, who came to Costa Rica in the late 1800’s to farm bananas and build railroads. Over the decades, Afro–Costa Ricans – which includes one of the largest communities of Jamaicans outside of Jamaica – have retained their culture and mixed it in with Costa Rican culture.
The result is a unique blend of culture, food, music, and even language. Visiting the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, you’ll likely hear reggae or Calypso music playing in cafes and locals speaking Mekatelyu/patois or Creole. You’ll taste Caribbean Tico food made with Carribbean flavors like coconut, ginger, curry, allspice, cinnamon, and chili peppers.
… About Communicating in Costa Rica
- There are a lot of unique Costa Rican slang terms and phrases.
We’re pretty OK at basic Spanish. I like to explain my personal level of Spanish aptitude as “Taxi Spanish,” meaning I can have a pretty decent conversation with taxi drivers. Jeremy’s Spanish aptitude level is “Restaurant Spanish,” but he’s making good headway on “Hostel Spanish.”
But that all flies out the window when it comes to Tico Spanish. There are so many Spanish slang terms and phrases that are completely unique to Costa Rica (like “tico” itself, which incidentally means Costa Rican). Bomba means gas station, and birria, which is both a Mexican dish and a Spanglish attempt to say beer, actually does mean beer.
Want to learn some Tico slang? Chiva! Here’s a list. And another one. There’s also one at the bottom of this page.
- Pura Vida is more than a saying in Costa Rica: it’s a lifestyle!
Pura Vida, or “pure life/simple life,” represents the Tico life: happy, low-stress, worry-free, and filled with gratitude. You know, just living in paradise with sloths for neighbors, basically.
As anxiety-prone travelers, we’re not usually the type to wander around carefree. We’re more likely to be found in a state of constant panic, dripping with sweat and chugging water 20 minutes behind whatever group we’re with.
But Costa Rica has a unique effect on us: it’s as if Pura Vida seeped into us through the gallons of lizano we’re consuming at breakfast every morning. Oh my god, is THAT the secret ingredient?!
- …But Pura Vida is also a saying.
Pura Vida is the correct response to literally every question in Costa Rica, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. You can use it for hello, goodbye, thank you, or just to say you’re having a great time (or you’re having a terrible time but want to be polite). To quote a song about a different and entirely unrelated phrase, “it means no worries, for the rest of your days.”
Pura Vida is also appropriate in a wide range of scenarios. Like, you know that feeling you get when you’re hanging out on the beach and feelin’ really good? This is a good time to exubarantly shout Pura Vida! Or when you’re about to dive off a cliff to swing out a mile into the tree canopy below? Definitely a good time for an exclamation of Pura Vida (even better if you shout and jump at the same time). Or when a howler monkey flings poop at you? Yep: Pura Vida!
It can mean anything from “whatever, I’m still having a great time” to “I’m honestly having a terrible time, but I’m in Costa Rica so all things considered, I guess I’m still doing pretty OK!”
For us, it serves as a reminder to express gratitude and appreciation for life’s simple joys and for the simple act of living. Pura Vida.
- You don’t need to speak Spanish in Costa Rica, but it will certainly help.
There are lots of places where not speaking the language will make your travels very difficult, but in Costa Rica, you’ll be OK even if you don’t speak much Spanish. Although Spanish speaking will definitely make your trip easier, English is very common – especially among guides and at hotels.
Just make sure you know a few words, like “please” and “thank you.”
Or, when in doubt, just say pura vida.
… About Conservation & Politics in Costa Rica
- Costa Rica is a leader in conservation, eco-tourism, and ethical wildlife tourism.
As responsible travelers, it’s incredibly important to us that the money we spend as tourists, and the businesses we support as travel writers, align with our values. (You can learn more about what that means, and how to be a more responsible tourist, in our ethical tourism guide).
Costa Rica is one of the few places in the world (along with the Galapagos Islands) where we know with confidence that every single tour we book will follow ethical and responsible tourism guidelines.
No tour guides will try to feed wild animals to make them come closer. Nobody in our group will be allowed to get too close to an animal just to take a selfie. No wild animals, even in sanctuaries or Rescue Centers, will be bred for profit. And the money we spend on our tour, and as visitors to Costa Rica, will play a part in reforestation and environmental conservation.
Why? Because it’s the law. Lots of laws, actually, like the Biodiversity Law and the Wildlife Conservation Law. Lots of things are illegal in Costa Rica that are merely “guidelines” elsewhere, such as touching or disturbing plant and animal life, keeping wild animals as pets,
Costa Rica’s commitment to conservation and the environment isn’t just a marketing hook: they walk the talk, and they pull other global leaders along, too. They’re aiming for total decarbonization by 2050. They’ve established a fossil fuels tax and a water usage tax. And today, they’re pushing for a global commitment to biodiversity policies. Costa Ricans play a major role in international environmental politics
- Costa Rica learned its lessons about wildlife conservation the hard way.
Between the 1940s and 1980s, many of Costa Rica’s beautiful and biodiverse forests were destroyed and replaced with cattle farms and crops. In just over four decades, rampant deforestation stripped away nearly 80% of Costa Rica’s beautiful forests. The country quickly degraded from lush and green to a sad, arid landscape.
And while the increase in farming led to economic development, it was short-lived: in the late 70’s, the price of coffee dropped and the price of oil rose. Suddenly, coffee farming as a primary source of income for Costa Rica didn’t make sense anymore.
But the story doesn’t end there: the country took action and completely changed course, quickly pivoting away from agriculture. In the early 90’s, deforestation was made illegal. The forests grew back with astonishing speed (because nature is amazing), and Costa Rica invested its efforts into other sources of income.
Today, eco-tourism is one of the primary sources of revenue for Costa Rica!
- Costa Rica does not have an army.
Costa Rica has had a pretty peaceful existence as a country. Although they were colonized by Spain along with the rest of Central and South America, they were the poorest of the Spanish colonies, with no gold or minerals for greedy conquistadors to fight over. Nobody put up a fight when they overthrew Spanish rule and established a democracy
And with little to provoke conflict, the country has existed peacefully, fighting no wars in its 180-year history.
The army was abolished in 1948 following a short but violent Civil War, and the country has had peace ever since. And like, how incredibly awesome is that?!!
- Costa Rica has 12 different political parties, but they all generally agree when it comes to environmental conservation.
Since 1948, the country has had peace. That political stability has allowed long-term visions for the country to continue, rather than change with each new administration.
Which is wild when you consider how many political parties there are in Costa Rica (like, a lot). How do they get anything done? Simple: they all agree on a few important things, like conservation and eco-tourism.
And that, my friends, is how you become a global leader in sustainable tourism. Simple, right?
- Costa Rica has a phenomenal National Parks system.
We’re huge fans of our USA National Parks, but Costa Rica’s National Parks system really gives us a run for our money. From the tidy boardwalks at Manuel Antonio to the lowlands of Tortuguero and the rugged coastline in Corcovado, the national parks in Costa Rica are epic.
In addition to the jaw-dropping scenery, each park is well organized, with clean bathrooms, maintained trails, clear maps, and expert guides to safely lead visitors in and out of the parks (and make sure they respect the local wildlife).
And, to our delight, there is also a clear emphasis on accessibility: many of the parks and reserves we visited had wheelchair-accessible paths or offered tours by golf cart for differently-abled visitors.
… About Wildlife in Costa Rica
- There is always a sloth nearby.
Costa Rica is a magical wonderland filled with sloths, and as a huge sloth fan, I am never not on #slothwatch. As I write this from Monteverde, Costa Rica, there are probably like, 18 sloths in the forests surrounding me, just chillin with their little claws eating leaves and stuff. They are everywhere.
But it’s hard to spot them! They tend to look like bundles of leaves, perfectly blended in with the trees. Adorable leaf bundles with adorable little snouts hanging upside down bein’ the cutest little tree muffins ever! I love sloths so much, y’all.
If I’m not with a guide, looking in the same direction as a group of people with better eyesight than me, or actively looking for sloth butts in trees with my travel binoculars, I usually can’t see one unless it literally crosses the road in front of me or, in one memorable instance in Manuel Antonio, does a little shimmy move on an electrical pole directly across from the window of my hostel room. (Yes, I spent the next 5 hours watching it very slowly move its way from the electrical pole back into a tree, where it promptly vanished from sight. It was amazing.)
- Most of Costa Rica’s wildlife is nocturnal.
It’s pretty much impossible to leave Costa Rica without seeing a TON of wildlife.
It’s not rare to see a blue morpho butterfly dancing flitting by a toucan while a monkey tries to steal your breakfast because you’re distracted by watching the butterfly and toucan.
As you lay by the pool, you’ll watch macaws fly overhead yelling their
majestic very recognizable WHAAAAAAT while Jesus Christ lizards scamper over the pool water a coati ambles by your chair. That’s just an average day in Costa Rica!
So it might be hard to believe that 60% of Costa Rica’s wildlife is actually nocturnal. But it’s true: if you’re only looking for wildlife in the daytime, you’re missing out!
We highly recommend taking a night tour to see the rainforest come alive – they’re offered at most of Costa Rica’s rainforest destinations. You’ll meet so many more of Costa Rica’s resident tree frogs, lizards, snakes, insects, and spiders (so. many. spiders).
Then again, if you’d rather not know how many spiders are quietly snoozing all around you waiting the sun to go down, maybe just stick to daytime wildlife spotting.
- There are 4 kinds of monkeys in Costa Rica, and they’re all totally different.
Capucin monkeys, aka white-face mokeys, are brown with a tan/white head and shoulders, just like a foamy cappuccino (hence the name). They’re SO freakin’ cute, but they’re also wiley, and excellent jumpers.
Years ago – before strict food rules were put into place at Manuel Antonio – we watched a monkey jump onto an unsuspecting tourist, snatch their lunch from a backpack, and escape into the trees before the guy even noticed.
Spider monkeys are huge, with long limbs and a very long tail (like a spider). They use their long tail like a fifth limb, and they can move through the forest canopies faster than any of the other monkeys.
Squirrel monkeys, aka mono titi, are the cutest monkeys on the planet and I love them. They are teeny tiny, with a black snout and a white face on top of a yellow body. They are sadly endangered, but you might be able to see them on the Osa Peninsula.
On my very first visit to Costa Rica, one climbed on me and sat on my head. I was 8 years old and it was the greatest moment of my entire life (it might still be).
Howler monkeys sound like King Kong himself is careening through the jungle on a mission to kill. They are LOUD! But despite sounding absolutely terrifying, they’re all bark and no bite: howler monkeys are super lazy, and are much more likely to fling poop at you from the trees than physically attack. (That said, if a group of howlers is above you screaming, move away quickly, because poo and pee come next.)
- If you take a selfie with an animal, you could be breaking the law.
Animal selfies have long been a contentious subject for ethical wildlife travelers, because often an animal selfie is made possible by feeding or touching an animal or getting too close to it. That’s. not OK, and it’s not ethical.
But Costa Rica takes things a step further: animal selfies are not allowed at all in their national parks. The government has even created a #stopanimalselfies campaign full of ethical animal selfie tips. Use the hashtag to share your (ethical) wildlife photos!
… About the Flora & Fauna in Costa Rica
- Don’t touch the trees.
And listen, I’m not only saying that because “don’t touch” is a core tenet of ethical wildlife tourism.
Here’s the thing about touching trees in Costa Rica, even accidentally: you’re going to regret it. Between the spiders, lizards, and snakes who make their home in the foliage, and the spines and thorns on the bark, the trees in Costa Rica fight back. Much like Ents. Was Tolkien inspired by Costa Rica??
Although this warning was shared with us by multiple guides, like many things in life, I had to learn my lesson the hard way: I touched one of these trees for about 2 seconds while hiking (not on purpose -I tripped and my hand just flew out, seeking anything to grab on it). The tree, which is covered in inch-long spines, straight up punctured my hand.
I spent the rest of the hike watching where I was going, nursing my bleeding palm, and wishing I’d brought trekking poles. Travel Tip: bring trekking poles!
Side Note: Aside from having insanely sharp death spikes, the pochote tree also has one of the most delightful smelling flowers I’ve ever sniffed! Just … sniff carefully.
- Costa Rica has both cloud forests and rainforests.
Rainforests are humid, tropical forests with a dense canopy which receive a ton of rainfall. Cloud forests are humid, tropical forests with a dense canopy which receive a ton of rainfall. Wait, hang on – so what’s the difference??
The difference between a cloud forest and a rain forest is elevation. Rain forests are located at a low elevation, like sea level. This is why in all of my beach pictures from Costa Rica, there is a looming rainforest literally steps away from the ocean. If you visit Manuel Antonio, Tortuguero, or Corcovado National Parks, you’re visiting a rain forest.
Meanwhile, cloud forests are located in higher elevations, such as in the mountains. Because of the higher elevation, the temperature is much cooler. Combined with the humidity, you’ll usually find cloud forests covered in a dense mist or fog (which made us feel right at home coming from the the foggy Bay Area.) If you’re visiting La Fortuna or Monteverde, you’ll be visiting cloud forests.
Both rainforests and cloud forests are home to myriad critters and fascinating eco-systems. But personally, I think I prefer cloud forests. There’s something about the pleasant temperature, the hanging mist, and the giant, looming strangler figs (so named because the tree grows around other trees and slowly starves them to death, leaving a hollow center) that reminds me of the redwood forests back at home in California! Except, like, with monkeys.
- There are hundreds of types of avocados growing here. Including cinnamon!
Was anyone else’s mind blown when they found out that cinnamon comes from the bark of a type of avocado tree? Just me?!
Anyway, there are hundreds of varieties of avocado trees native to Costa Rica – and the kind that humans eat is just one of them. They come in all sizes and colors, and they make a yummy, nutrient-rich food source for birds and monkeys!
- Houseplant lovers: litereally every tropical plant grows here.
I’m pretty sure Jeremy got sick of me shrieking every time I saw an enormous monstera or giant alocasia, but I couldn’t help it: Costa Rica makes me want to turn my
embarrassingly large modest plant collection into a full-blown indoor jungle.
Except I know my calathea will never be as happy in my California bathroom as they are in the wet, tropical forests of Costa Rica. *cries in plant mom*
- The secret of the magic of Costa Rican forests is epiphytes.
So, here’s the thing: forests in Costa Rica aren’t just like, filled with trees. They’re not *just* dense, tropical forests with a thick canopy and shade-loving vegetation covering the ground and providing a home to thousands of happy critters.
Because growing on every single tree trunk, branch, and limb, are epiphytes.
What are epiphytes, you ask? They’re basically aerial plants that grow on other plants. Except unlike aggressive vines, they don’t hurt the plants they grow on at all – they grow symbiotically, sharing resources with their host plants, not really needing much soil or water, and beautifying absolutely everything they grow on.
A few examples of epiphytes that are freakin’ EVERYWHERE in Costa Rica, particularly in the cloud forests, are orchids, bromiliads, ferns, mosses, and monsteras.
The older the tree, the more it will be covered in epiphytes, and the more it will look like a work of art.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of an entire forest filled with bushy ferns, flowering bromeliads, drooping moss, and brightly colored orchids all growing on the trunks and limbs of enormous trees, so that the very forest floor seems to be climbing all the way to the canopy.
You simply have to go to Costa Rica see it in person!
Ready to pack your bags and head to Costa Rica? Did you learn something new about Costa Rica from this post, or is there something you think should be on this list? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Check out some of our other posts!
- Two Weeks in Costa Rica: The Ultimate Costa Rica 2 Week Itinerary
- Costa Rica Packing List: 42 Essentials to Pack for Costa Rica
- How to Be a More Responsible Tourist: a Traveler’s Guide to Ethical Tourism
Hey, did you find this post interesting or informative? Share it on Pinterest!
Our Top Travel Tips & Resources
- Booking Flights: To score flight deals, search on Google Flights or Kayak. Money-saving tips: fly mid-week or on the weekend; fly carry-on only on a budget airline; and take red-eyes or early morning flights.
- Accommodations: We usually stay in budget-friendly vacation rentals, boutique hotels or private rooms in hostels. We use Booking.com to book hotels (we love their flexible cancellation policy) and Hostelworld to book hostels (low deposit, easy change/cancellation, and excellent reviews). For vacation rentals, we prefer to book using VRBO because they've got lower fees and better support than Airbnb, and we're not fans of Airbnb's unethical track record. You can also book vacation rentals on Expedia and Hotels.com. We also use TrustedHousesitters as both hosts (for our home and our fur-child) and travelers!
- Travel Insurance: We always, always, ALWAYS buy travel insurance for international trips, and we STRONGLY suggest it - visit our Travel Insurance Guide to find out why. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing for international travel insurance. SafetyWing is one of the few policies that covers Covid-19, and they have excellent monthly policies that are perfect for Digital Nomads and long term travelers!
- Travel Credit Card: We book all of our trips on our favorite travel credit card. Not only do we earn cash back that we can spend on more travel, but the card offers fantastic travel perks like travel insurance, trip delay and cancellation coverage, lost baggage reimbursement, and rental car coverage, which helps protect us on our travels. Learn more here.
- Vaccines & Meds: We use the travel guides on the CDC website to research recommended medications and vaccines for international trips. We always recommend getting every vaccine recommended by the CDC! You can get them at your primary care doctor's office or a walk-in pharmacy.
- Tours: We love booking guided tours, especially food tours and walking tours, to get a local's perspective and a history lesson while sight-seeing! We book our tours using Viator and GetYourGuide.
- Transportation: We use Rome2Rio to figure out how to get from place to place, and book local transportation online using Bookaway wherever we can. When we book a rental car, we use DiscoverCars to compare rental companies and find the best deal.
- Luggage Storage: Whenever we're checking out early or taking advantage of a long layover, we use LuggageHero to safely store our luggage while we're running around. Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.
- VPN Service: A VPN keeps your digital information (like website login details, bank info, etc) safe, even when you're connected to an unsecured network while traveling. Plus, it lets you use Netflix & other streaming sites abroad! We use NordVPN. Use the code WANDERLUSTPROMO when you sign up!
- What to Pack: Here are the travel essentials that we bring on every trip. We also have packing lists for hot weather, cold weather, and many more. Take a look at all of our packing guides!
What a great article! We’re currently dreaming of going to Costa Rica again – we’ve been
there before and we love, love love it! Here’s to a year with loads of travel plans and new experiences!
Capuchin monkeys were named that by Portuguese explorers who thought they resembled the Capuchin Franciscan monks back home (the robes they wear are a similar color, apparently), not because they resemble cappuccino
No, I don’t have any friends…:)
Thank you for all the information! We’re planning a trip for Dec. 2022.
Practical Wanderlust says
This is the kind of random information we love! Thank you! Hope you have the best trip!
Tom Knight says
Absolutely no mention of the Dry Tropical Forest…i.e. the North Pacific coast…where all the pricey high end resort towns are located.
Also, terrible back roads. And, local bus transportation is to be avoided at all costs… unless you get off on stopping every mile..or less to pickup and unload passengers.
Lia Garcia says
We haven’t been to that part of Costa Rica (maybe b/c we aren’t typically high end resort people!) but I’ll keep it in mind for our next trip! Personally, I think the bus transportation in Costa Rica is fantastic, and I really don’t mind stopping to pick up and unload passengers – that’s typically what I expect from bus transit.
CR was a nice place to visit , warm ocean , rainforest , nice people .. From my point of view it s way too expensive for what CR has to offer. Indonesia , Malaysia , Phillipines or Mexico are as beautiful as CR ( maybe more beautiful for some people ) and twice or three times cheaper than CR.
Nice place but way overrated.
Lia Garcia says
Costa Rica is definitely pricey! But to me, the prices are somewhat justified by the country-wide focus on ethical tourism as well as social services provided by the government to its citizens. I feel good about spending my money there as a tourist, because I know it is going to a government that is doing a good job taking care of its people and its natural resources.
Abi O. says
This is all pretty spot on. My plan is to retire in Costa Rica with my tico and build a self sustaining finca. It’s all about what you make of your experiences there and I absolutely love it.
Corinne E France says
Visiting CR has been my dream for 2 years now. I think about it everyday and watch every travel show there is on the subject. At this moment a series on the Galapagos islands is on my TV. I’m retired and live on a strict budget and don’t want to die here in Dallas, Texas without seeing my dream through. I would love to be a travel writer. My family is grown and now is my time. Thank you.
Lia Garcia says
Take your window of opportunity and go live your dreams, Corinne!! I highly recommend a trip to the Galapagos Islands – like Costa Rica, it can be pricey, but there are some tricks to visiting cheaply if you’re on a budget. We’ve got a guide here: https://practicalwanderlust.com/the-galapagos-islands-by-land-a-complete-guide/
Lars Johnson says
Having lived a long, insufferable 3 years in Costa Rica I can truthfully tell you that everything on this list may apply if you’re here for a week or two, but not when you’re here for months or years.
I don’t even know where to begin, but here are a few points:
1. Think you like rice and beans? Good. Because you’ll get them with almost every meal. After about a year, the look of rice and beans, or beans and rice, or rice, and beans will make you nauseous.
2. You don’t have little pitty patter showers for a few hours during the wet season. Depending on where you live you will have almost daily monsoons that start around noon and go the rest of the day. And some parts of the country have no dry season…, it’s wet season and wetter season.
3. If you happen to go somewhere that’s not geared strictly for tourists be prepared for the worst roads in Central and South America (this is a documented fact). It is common for a 20km trip to take upwards of an hour. Most “highways” are little more than two lane, pot-hole filled goat trails that curve back and forth like a worm on a hot griddle. You get stuck behind a semi or an old Tico doing 15kph be prepared to be there a while. And since there are few stretches of road where it’s safe to pass you’ll be able to count your trip in minutes per kilometer, not kilometers per hour.
4. The reason CR has no army is that there is nothing in this country any other country would want. Long-time residents will attest to this.
5. You will NOT see sloths, monkeys, macaws or toucans around every corner. They’re here, but don’t go out expecting to see them in the wild on every trip.
6. Costa Rica is EXPENSIVE. Be prepared to pay twice as much to get half as much as you would anywhere else south of the US/Mexico border.
7. If you want to come to CR without knowing any Spanish you better stick to the very touristy places. Otherwise you’ll likely find yourself unable to communicate short of pointing and grunting.
In short, CR is not the paradise the uninformed would have you believe. You’d be much better off finding somewhere else to spend your hard-earned money.
Lia Garcia says
I’m sorry your experience living in Costa Rica isn’t a positive one! It’s very different to visit a place versus live in it, and our experiences are solely informed by the visits we’ve taken over the years. It’s a pretty incredible, paradise-like place to visit, but living in paradise isn’t always a good thing!
Abi O. says
Wow so negative, maybe it’s not that Costa Rica is such a bad place but wherever you grew up spoiled you so much you can’t aww passed the things you find as an inconvenience. I hope your life is happier now compared to when you wrote this comment
Lars Ulrich says
Clearly someone pee’d in this guy’s Gallo Pinto.
Warner Foster says
You have done a spectacular job depicting Cost Rica as it is. What you wrote makes me want to return for the fourth time. Some of the things I enjoyed were the sea turtles nesting, poison dart frogs, volcanoes, hot springs, humming birds, white water rafting, Scuba diving the list goes on. Found driving was at times a challenge due to the lack of road signs. However, the people always tried to give directions but my lack of Spanish didn’t help. You didn’t mention that petty crime which is a problem but major crime is not. Therefor, keep valuables out of sight. Also, driving time between point A & B is not as quick as one would expect due to the mountains and other factors. As you mentioned prices have risen very fast. Found lodging almost doubled in a two year period but food remained very reasonable.
Lia Garcia says
Fantastic points, Warner! Thanks for the feedback 🙂
The back roads are terrible… how can they pay so much tax and have roads like cow paths or worse!
ali ahmed says
these types of things will literally be not told by anyone not about this place but about anywhere. thanks for sharing this kind of details.
Mary Asselin says
For bug repellent, I used a combo of African Best Ultimate Herbal oil (bought at WalMart for about $3) combined with some known bug repellent pure essential oils (Citronella, lavender, and lemongrass, about 2-4 oz total). I slathered this on before a hike every morning. Not only was it “natural” (and not DEET), it kept my skin smooth. I believe the bugs would either be repelled by the smell or if they landed on me, would get greased and leave – but it was effective. I was in CR 3 months and didn’t end up using more than half of one bottle (I had brought two).
Lia Garcia says
That’s a great recommendation! We’ll have to check it out. I’m pretty sensitive to smells and essential oils are typically too strong for me, but I think there are blends out there, I’ll have to try some of them!
Thank you for bug repellant recipe, I’m a bug magnet, when no one else is getting bug bites I tend to get them all, I wasn’t sure I was going to do, I will follow your suggestion
Linda peters says
What is your bug recipe please
Great article. I have been reading all about Costa Rica and would love your recommendation where to go for a few months with young teen children. We love the beach, snorkeling, waterfalls and rainforest Work and school will be happening virtually so we can’t travel all over! Thank you!!
Lia Garcia says
I’d recommend taking a look at Quepos. It’s a medium-sized town on the ocean, bordered by the rainforest and adjacent to Manuel Antonio National Park!