As the first country I traveled to alone, Costa Rica has a very special place in my heart. I chose it for the turtle conservation program, but did not realize how much more I would get out of my visit.
Here is where I backpacked and what I did, tips for keeping cost down, and insights for fellow solo travelers visiting Costa Rica for the first time. Enjoy!
What I Did
I spent a little over two weeks in Costa Rica, starting in San Jose then making my way east town by town to the village of Parismina, where I was placed for turtle conservation.
Note: If you’re visiting San Jose, I recommend taking taxis and not renting a car. I have never seen crazier driving in my life, and I’m from Boston.
My favorite part of visiting San Jose was the day trip we took to La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Animal Sanctuary. We learned about the history of the city while speeding through winding roads up into the mountains. We visited a coffee plantation where the air hung thick over the tropical vegetation and you could faintly smell the bitter beans. We stopped and tasted strawberry wine in a vineyard, and hiked a waterfall in La Paz. We walked through the animal conservatory and learned about the exotic species, then took a break for lunch and ate beans and sweet plantains and buttery chicken and SO MANY delicious foods. Clearly this is an experience I recommend.
From San Jose I took two buses and a boat to get to Parismina, stopping in Siquirres and Cano Blanco along the way. In Parismina I made some great friends; there were a few college kids with me who I spent a lot of time with. We met some locals who took us out on their boat to search for monkeys and collect clams, from which they made us an amazing Caribbean stew. There was a single convenience store in the village, where we purchased rum that we put into coconuts we pulled off trees. No joke – i felt like I was in a Kenny Chesney song.
Our local friends took us by boat to Tortuguero, another turtle conservation area that was more populated and had a fews bars and restaurants.
I could go on about Costa Rica, but if you’re looking for recommendations on where to go I would definitely say take a day trip from San Jose and get out to Tortuguero if you can!
Money Saving Tips to Avoid Gettin’ Spendy
The currency in Costa Rica is colones, a colorful combination of large coins and bills. The exchange rate is about 600 colones to one dollar, and I noticed a lot of local places were happy to take US dollar bills instead.
Visiting Costa Rica as a volunteer tourist saved me a lot of money; my housing and food expenses were paid for the most part, and there weren’t a ton of places to shop in the village. I would say the majority of what I spent money on was sweet plantains, fresh papaya and pineapple, sightseeing tours, and of course alcohol.
I was able to get my flight for free with my JetBlue credit card points, but I also recommend using the Hopper App, which notifies you when is to best time to buy as flight prices drop.
Before you leave sure your credit card has no foreign transaction fees. When purchasing things with your credit card, request that they put it through in colones instead of dollars. The exchange rate may end up costing you a little more, so this is a great way to save money.
When getting cash, use a local ATM. This will avoid the additional exchange fees, which can add up to $10 to every $100 you take out.
Lastly like most places, tourist heavy areas jack up the prices. Head to a place somewhere off the beaten path for your souvenirs and snacks, and you will likely see a significant drop in price.
Tips for my Fellow Solo Traveler
While Costa Rica is a beautiful place, it is important to be vigilant and trust your instincts while you’re there. Here are a couple things you should know:
The Tico Culture
On my first day in San Jose, we had an overview on culture to prepare us for our volunteer projects and our travel through the country. One of the topics they touched on was the “Tico” (Males in CR) culture. Basically we were told that men look onto women as objects, and they will stare and objectify you – but just let it slide.
OBVIOUSLY that rubbed me the wrong way, but I understood I am a foreigner in their home and I am in no place to challenge their culture. I expected it to be like a night out in Miami Beach, but instead I only had one run in with the “Tico culture” at a bus station in Siquirres. I was standing with a few of the college girls and noticed a man hanging out of a bus window staring. Not in a curious way, but looking at us as if we were something to eat (gross, I know). While it made my blood boil, I kept my mouth shut and just stared back until he stopped.
Don’t get too wrapped up in this, just ignore it (or stare back like I did) and if possible travel in groups.
While Costa Rica is a tropical paradise it has its impoverished areas as well. Opportunists will take advantage of a silly tourist, so be vigilant and keep your belongings hidden.
While in the city we had to keep very close to our luggage as people were not afraid to get close and examine what we had, and in the village there were stories of break ins and theft from the common area.
Long story short, be aware and smart with your belongings and mannerisms. As much fun as it is to live the Pura Vida lifestyle, remember that you’re in a foreign country- and other people notice that too.
Costa Rica is a beautiful place with magnificent nature, people, and food. I definitely recommend visiting there if you haven’t already!
Planning a trip? Have questions? Ask in the comments below!