The first time I went to Costa Rica, I was eighteen years old. So, like, a million years ago. There were still dinosaurs roaming about at the time. To go for a swim or an evening walk was to take one’s life in one’s hands, as, back then, the only form of protection against wild beasts was either a club (pointed sticks hadn’t been invented yet) or a rock. Fire hadn’t been harnessed either, but that was alright because Costa Rica was even hotter than it is now.
I may be exaggerating slightly; it wasn’t quite a million years ago; more like thirty-ish.
At the age of eighteen, travelling anywhere and doing just about anything is amazing, especially for a young rube from Nowhere, British Columbia. My memories of the trip were probably more fantastic than the real experience, but I imagine it was probably pretty cool all the same. Costa Rica is a beautiful country, and a million years ago, when I first visited it, there were hardly any foreigners.
I went back a couple of years after that first trip, with a friend, and, from what I can remember (we drank heavily; we were young men), it was still beautiful, fun, and very untamed.
Flash forward to September 2021, with a lot of pretty epic experiences under my belt since those footloose and fancy-free days of yore, and Costa Rica didn’t quite seem as fabulous as my ancient memories would have had me believe. Or maybe I’ve just outgrown Latin America.
The little Central American nation definitely has its share of winning qualities (nature and the locals being the top two, by a massive margin), but, as is my way, I’ll address the good, the bad, and the ugly. In no particular order.
Let’s begin with the ugly then, which is San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.
Other than the fact that it’s the main international flight hub for the country, it’s not really a city worth seeing. In fact, it’s one of the ugliest cities I’ve ever been to. It’s run down and littered with garbage in many areas, and the newer, pseudo-ritzy parts are characterless and offensively overpriced. And it’s boring. It doesn’t have a lot to offer visitors. Or anyone.
If at all possible, getting a flight to Liberia, 250 kilometers to the north, may be a better option if a person plans on spending any time in or near that area of the country. Liberia isn’t a great city either, but at least it’s close to beaches and the many other outdoor attractions that Costa Rica is best known for. And it’s a bit nicer than the capital. If the plan is to head to the southern areas, however, you’ll probably want to do so within a few days of landing in San Jose.
After flying over from Madrid, Spain, to San Jose, we hopped a bus for Santa Elena in the Monteverde cloud forest as soon as we felt capable, jet-lag be damned. It rained heavily almost the entire ten days we spent in Santa Elena, and we were exhausted from extensive travelling so we didn’t get out much, but it was a nice, restful little getaway and the few things we did do were very pleasant.
R&R in Monteverde
After our short excursion to Monteverde, my dear wife and I returned to San Jose to stay with our Canadian friend’s partner while she was out of the country. We lasted three weeks in the city.
What made those weeks very worthwhile was meeting Emmanuel, our friend’s partner. He’s a saint of a man, and we would have gladly spent that time in hell to meet such a person. Oh, and hanging out with their dogs was wonderful as well. But, that being said, enough was very quickly enough of San Jose, and we ended up relocating to Playa Dominical, on the Pacific coast.
OK, time for a little aside here.
Although San Jose is definitely a city with little to offer in the way of attractions for visitors and locals alike, and it’s not beautiful to look at, it has a lot of great people. Just because I think their town is lame, it doesn’t in any way mean I think San Jose locals are. In fact, it’s got some of the most honest and welcoming people I’ve ever encountered in any big center.
I forgot my computer at a small hotel once, and the caretaker of the place had it safely waiting for me when I returned in a mad panic for it. Another time, I left my wife’s five-hundred-dollar tablet in a Didi car, and after tracking down the driver over a number of days, though he wasn’t available, he made arrangements for a friend to go out of his way to return it to us. These things don’t happen in other cities.
Something else to note, it does seem like many people that live in the capital realize that it kind of sucks, and there seems to be a bit of an effort to make it less sucky. There were a few bright spots during our longer stay there.
A few ounces of brightness in San Jose
Alright, with the fact that San Jose isn’t truly awful now clarified, let’s continue on to Dominical.
Dominical, located roughly an hour’s drive south of Jaco, is a very small village in the Costa Ballena region of the Puntarenas province. It’s one of three groovy little destinations in the area. The other two are Uvita and Ojochal.
As a rule, small towns and villages aren’t really our thing, they’re nice to visit for a week or two, but normally we try to avoid staying anywhere with fewer than one-hundred-thousand people for any length of time. Little places tend to get boring fairly fast. Due to circumstances, however, we ended up staying in Dominical for just over three months.
Though Dominical is a tiny little place, it packs a hefty punch of charm, convenience, exercise, adventure, and entertainment. The town’s setting itself is not the least of its attractions. It’s fairly spread out, with hotels, homes, and little farms scattered from up the Rio Baru down to the town proper, where one then finds cafes, restaurants, bars, shops, surf schools, yoga retreats, more restaurants, a craft brewery, and much more. The west side is bordered by a huge, long beach that extends far to the south.
The food scene in and around Dominical may be among the best in the entire country. Whether it’s great shops, street food, or sit-down dining, it’s not hard to find something good to eat.
Mama Toucan’s bakes some of the best sourdough bread I’ve ever had, they make what would probably be called “craft” ice-cream, as well as delicious cookies, and they have many organic, local, or locally sourced goodies. The same people (a Canadian couple from BC) that own Mama Toucan’s also run Cafe Mono Congo next door. It’s a nice, chill little cafe and internet hotspot that’s very popular with foreigners.
Just a stone’s throw from both of these, across the street, tucked away all by itself, you’ll find an excellent Asian fusion restaurant called Phat Noodle, which is a must for anyone who appreciates such fare. It’s affiliated with Mama Toucan’s and Mono Congo as well. We went there often. It’s great. If you’re not an experienced fire-eater though, don’t go for the really spicy options or they’ll blow your head off (the food will blow your head off, not the people of Phat Noodle).
For great pub-grub, Roland, at the Rio Lindo Bar and Hotel, makes wicked chicken wings (they’re huge, soaked in BBQ sauce, and cooked to perfection). They’re an entire meal by themselves. No exaggeration. He does killer pizzas too, and, well… I’ve never actually eaten anything he’s prepared that wasn’t delicious. He needs his own restaurant.
Sunset From the Rio Lindo
The Rio is also a great spot for sunsets, imbibing copious libations, and playing pool all evening. It’s almost entirely a foreigner bar though. I rarely ever saw locals at the Rio, so if you’re looking for an immersive hangout with genuine Costa Rican flavour, you won’t find it here. Go to the Rum Bar next door for that.
Continuing down the stretch are many more eateries, hotels, and shops of all sorts. It’s actually quite impressive how many businesses one finds in such a short distance. And that’s just on the main drag. Along the beach are even more. Places like Tortilla Flats, Bar y Restaurante el Coco, Piramys, and a huge number of vendors.
The day market at Tortilla Flats
Great dining isn’t just confined to the town limits of Dominical, or any town limits, however, and in some of the most unlikely locations, one can find culinary treasures.
Around a ten minute drive south of Dominical, there’s a sign pointing up the mountain towards the Jolly Roger. I’ve never been (it was under renovation for most of the time I was in Costa Rica), but everyone I met from the area had, and they all raved about the place. They have something like thirty-two flavours of chicken wings, stellar pizzas, and I don’t even know what else. Everyone was absolutely in love with the wings, though, and those seemed to be the main draw.
Up the same steep, windy road as the Jolly Roger, but not quite as far up, is probably the best example of fine dining in the area. Restaurante Scala (which I also didn’t get to experience, but my wife told me was fantastic) is located on a mountainside in the jungle, and a person would drive by it forever if they didn’t know it was there, but it’s apparently a hidden gem with a well-deserved reputation for excellence.
In a more likely location, on a little peninsula beside the highway, about five minutes south of Dominical, at the southern end of Playa Dominicalito, is La Parcela Restaurante.
La Parcela Restaurante makes good food, great cocktails, has a BIG wine list, and is in one of the nicest locations of any restaurant anywhere. You have a view of the ocean on both sides. In the evenings, local monkeys swing by for their daily visit, which is good if you like monkeys scampering about while you eat dinner, but not so good for those who prefer monkey-free dining.
Whatever your preference is concerning monkeys, La Parcela should be something everybody does at least once.
There were a few more places in the area that we enjoyed, such as the restaurant at the Hotel Villas Rio Mar resort, and Ricar2 (Ricardos, get it?), although our absolute favourite ended up being Cafe Ensueño.
One day, while out searching for some long-term accommodations, just as the busy season was starting, our friend Bob suggested we go have a look at some of the rooms at Cafe Ensueño, which is located in the very southern part of town, just past the popular Cool Vibes Beach Hostel.
The rooms were new and well-priced, and there was a restaurant at the bottom of the stairs. We figured we’d stay a month while looking for something a bit bigger. Yeah, OK, a month. We ended up staying for the better part of three months.
Café Ensueño, our favourite place in Costa Rica
Sure, they easily have the best breakfast in town, and the smoothies are one-of-a-kind, but what kept us there far past when we would have otherwise moved, were the people. The room we stayed in was very small, though new and comfortable, the showers were cold water only, and the place isn’t at all soundproofed, but after the first two weeks we didn’t want to leave.
The best pancakes I’ve ever eaten were at Cafe Ensueño (and I don’t even like pancakes). The bacon was real bacon (hard to find in all of Latin America), and the fettuccine, though it was a little different every time I ordered it, was delicious and plentiful. But best of all, we were treated like family. Probably better than family because nobody ever gave us a hard time for anything.
Rosa (the boss) became our other mother, we made what I hope will be lifelong friends with Alberto (who doesn’t work there anymore), and we loved everyone involved with the place. I think that our time at Rosa’s is one of the few things I actually miss from our most recent Latin America trip.
So far, this doesn’t sound too bad, and it wasn’t, so you may be wondering what I meant when I stated that I didn’t find Costa Rica to be as fabulous as I had in the past. Or, indeed, particularly fabulous in general.
Though we met many, many wonderful people (mostly Ticos – Costa Ricans), we went fishing at Puerto Jiminez with Marino Azul Eco Excursions, did a road-trip from Dominical to La Cruz (a little town in the far north of Costa Rica), went to a huge, epic New Years party at Tortilla Flats, ate good food and drank many drinks, and much, much more, there were some glaring faults that we just couldn’t ignore.
Enjoying the view at La Cruz
Costa Rica is ridiculously expensive for the quality of life a person can expect to have in the country. Why are the prices of almost everything so insanely high for a nation that’s still very much a developing country? For the same cost (or lower), one can live quite comfortably in Eastern Europe with a much, much higher standard of living.
The insane prices are in part due to all the Americans and Canadians moving to the country, setting up shop, and selling their goods and services for what they know other Americans and Canadians will pay. This then drives the prices up for everything, which excludes locals from being able to afford to shop at such places.
The average Tico can’t really justify a six-dollar loaf of bread on what they make per day. Although if I made even seven dollars a day, I would probably still buy the sourdough from Mama Toucan’s. It’s that good.
The huge taxes that the Costa Rican government imposes on imports obviously have something to do with the high prices for many goods in foreign shops, and that, plus whatever the individual shopkeepers decide to mark the profit up to, combine to create absolutely ludicrous price tags.
For many Costa Ricans, whose incomes haven’t increased at anywhere near the rate of inflation, much of what a tourist can enjoy in their country is way out of their reach. To see hordes of foreigners flock to your country to experience it in a way that you can’t, because you can’t afford to, must be terribly disheartening. The only way most locals can take part in many of the activities Costa Rica offers is by working for tour companies or other tourist-based operations. And that’s just not the same.
Costa Rica is quite safe (very safe, actually), but there’s been a significant increase in petty crime rates and scams in the tourist areas. We got utterly taken at Manuel Antonio. If you’re eating and drinking on the beach, hang on to the menu and record everything you eat and drink (and the bill) while the server/servers are present.
The way the scam works there is: they feed you drinks until they think you’re drunk (or until you are drunk), then they remove the menu, suggest off-menu drinks without telling you the cost, and when it comes time to pay, they present you with a hyper-inflated bill for twenty-dollar custom drinks. If this ever happens to you, call the police, they’re usually close by.
Let’s move on to bigger issues though.
With the billions upon billions of dollars pouring into Costa Rica over the last twenty years or more, why is the infrastructure still in such third-world condition? Why does the power go off multiple times per day? Why, in much of the country, are the main highways still two-lane tracks, and the lesser roads and streets still dirt or broken asphalt?
Whose pockets have these vast sums of money been pouring into? Costa Rica should be a glimmering beacon of progress, not another shabby example of gross mismanagement and short-sighted corruption. The country’s actually in massive debt, like much of Central America.
Greed is a hell of a drug.
The final knock against the country concerns the traditional food.
With such a cornucopia of amazing ingredients at their fingertips, why is traditional Costa Rican fare so unbelievably dull? Rice and beans (with no spice) is NOT good at every meal. And no, cilantro is not a spice. Do Costa Ricans have such overdeveloped taste buds that they can extract every single iota of flavour from everything on the plate, dull though it may seem to everyone else with a mouth? I think not.
Chicken is the redeemer of local cuisine, however; it’s some of the best I’ve had anywhere, including Mexico. In truth, there are in fact a few other decent Costa Rican offerings, and I’ll admit that I’ve been exaggerating slightly for effect, but, generally, the local food is unforgivably boring.
I guess the best things to come from the mass migration of North Americans to Costa Rica are the new flavours and the standards for cuisine they bring with them. Thank God!
So, in closing, I’ll say that the natural gifts of this tiny Central American country are stunningly beautiful. The water is always warm, there are innumerable outdoor activities to partake in, almost the entire nation is a playground for nature enthusiasts and surfers, and just about all of the locals I met were unusually wonderful people. With all that going for it, Costa Rica is a country worth seeing once if you’re in the area.
But, although life is very laid back, fun, welcoming, and relaxed, unless you reside in a mansion on a hill and never leave it, living in Costa Rica is like camping. All the time. And as much as I enjoy camping, it eventually gets tiring. And it definitely shouldn’t cost more than living in a palace in Macedonia.