Lessons Learned in Costa Rica

Blue River Costa Rica
Blue River Costa Rica

For those of you wanting an epic road trip full of stunning scenery, cool accommodations and sometimes-questionable roadways consider Costa Rica for your next adventure. Amazing ocean vistas and beaches are still etched in our memory. We took a sailboat for a day and had the best sailing and snorkeling adventures. We drove up volcanoes and zip-lined back down through rainforest. We stayed a few nights in a treehouse with howler monkeys to wake us up in the morning and we volunteered at an animal rescue center for a day. We even rafted down rivers with alligators and snakes.  In short, we had some great adventures in this beautiful country. We were also schooled on a few things that we weren’t prepared for but as with any adventure, you have to be ready and willing to roll with it.

Five Lessons We Learned

  1. If you reserved the perfect rental car, forget about it.

car rental in Costa Rica
car rental in Costa Rica

Forget about the crazy rush at you in arrivals by taxi drivers and cars for hire, you know your stuff and have already booked the perfect vehicle for your road trip across the country. We finally found our pickup who took us to the rental agency who told us they didn’t have our car and tried to give us a little two-wheel drive toy car. It took a lot of arguing and arm waving but they eventually agreed to have one for us – the next day. We took the toy car and struck out for our first stay – a small resort near Papagayo.

  1. Think it’s all green? Think again.

Costa Rica iguana in dry season
Costa Rica iguana in dry season

We expected lush tropical foliage and thick jungle in Costa Rica. We didn’t realize that it was dry season then and the whole Guanacaste area was brown and dead. It was still cool because it was so hot – it was winter and we are Canadian – but it was certainly a surprise. Not much wildlife the first day other than some massive iguanas and some cool blue jay type birds.

  1. If someone tells you that everyone in Costa Rica speaks English kick them for lying to you

We can speak English and some French but that’s about it. We weren’t worried though because we were told that most people in Costa Rica speak some English.  That may be true in the cities and on the resorts, but it wasn’t the case where we were much of the time. My “in my head” voice told me to download Duolingo before we went and learn some basic Spanish phrases. Good thing I listened because those broken phrases came in handy when we were lost…more than once. I actually think I might have told someone they were a pretty fish but I can’t be sure.

  1. Don’t bother with taking GPS – it won’t work anyway

back roads in Costa Rica
driving back roads in Costa Rica

We did end up getting our four-wheel drive vehicle but it had certainly seen better days. The front bumper was hanging on by sheer will and parts of the dash kept falling into my lap as we bumped and lurched our way over dirt back roads. The GPS unit occasionally cut out but seeing as the roads ended on the screen miles before we were now off the grid as far as it was concerned.  By now, we were in the thick of the rainforest and going no more than 15 kph. At one point, it showed us driving on the border to Nicaragua but no road in sight on our GPS. We were headed to our next resort on the Blue River (although most of them were blue) and had no idea where to go. We eventually did get there thanks to the “pretty fish” lady we finally came across who pointed and drew us a map.

  1. Stock up on snacks and water every chance you get

a pulperia in Costa Rica
a pulperia in Costa Rica

We live in the land of mini marts and gas bars and it’s usually only a short hop to grab a drink, have a bathroom break and gas up…not so in Costa Rica. The main highways are actually very good; it’s when you get into the backcountry that you start to question yourself and your bladder. We learned to keep the car well stocked in water and snacks. The villages usually have a food mart or two but the only thing you will find on the back roads, and they are scarce, are little places called “pulperias”. Best we can tell these are like a mini mart; they are just a shed or wooden structure and they usually have a drink fridge that may or may not be plugged in for drinks and a few hot chocolate bars or bags of chips. Having said that, we sometimes went what seemed like hours without any signs of life or pop.

  1. If they offer to take you swimming in a waterfall make sure it’s a big honking waterfall and not a trickle and a pool

Costa Rica waterfall
Costa Rica waterfall

There are brochures and websites all over the place showing people young and old frolicking under a majestic waterfall in an insanely blue river. This is a common advertisement for Costa Rica. An opportunity came up to swim in a blue waterfall so we jumped at it. There are a few lessons learned here: ask how you are getting to the falls (the horse was a clue); listen when the guide tells you something, even if you don’t speak Spanish and he doesn’t speak English (fire ants are nothing to laugh at); and don’t ever swim in a small pool in a trickling river (my husband picked up some kind of parasite we traced back to this little adventure).


To us this is what adventuring is all about. To some intrepid travelers I’m sure this trip seemed very genteel but adventure comes by degrees. We found it around every corner and it was probably about as much as we are comfortable with. Overall, we had a blast and would do it again (except the pool) in a heartbeat.



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