By Elaine Knight, designer and creator of Lost Iguana
Costa Rica tops list of ‘happiest’ nations – CNN.com — Forget Disneyland! Costa Rica is the happiest place in the world, according to an independent research group in Britain with the goal of building a new economy, “centered on people and the environment.”
Costa Rica is a beautiful country with happy, friendly people called Ticos. The name Tico originated from their frequent use of momentico (in a short moment). Outside of San Jose, you will not see poverty or beggars. People will sell things along the street, but they are rarely pushy. Ticos are proud of their country and happy to have you visit.
Traveling within Costa Rica You can easily travel anywhere in Costa Rica by plane, bus, taxi or rental car. There are small tourist busses that are inexpensive and go directly from main tourist cities and pick up ⁄ drop off at your hotel. Rental cars are expensive, but fun for exploring the country. It is still easy to get lost since there are no road names. There are signs to the volcano, beach or a large city. CR does not have addresses, instead, it has directions as in 1 Km east of the dam Arenal. The roads, unlike a few years ago, are in fairly good shape. There are still plenty of bad roads and unnerving bridges left – but just bad enough to give you good stories to tell your friends. If you are considering renting a car, I do suggest you consider hiring a driver to bring you to the hotel and renting a car a day or two after you arrive. A driver will be at the airport and you will avoid both the hour plus wait picking up the rental car and the chance of getting lost. If you relax the first day and pick up a car the next day the cost of the driver will be same as 2 days without a rental car. Your car will be brought to the hotel and it takes about 15 minutes to fill out the papers. Easy!
Safety There is violence in parts of San Jose, but it is almost unheard of in the rest of the country. Petty theft, however, has increased dramatically as tourism has changed from mainly surfers and nature lovers, to high end resorts and well-to-do travelers carrying expensive electronics and jewelry. It is very important to protect your valuables at all time.
Food, Money & Tipping You can stop at any local restaurant and feel welcome. Most menus are in Spanish and English. The local food is simple and not spicy. When in doubt, order arroz con pollo (seasoned rice with chicken pieces). Prices in all non tourist restaurants and stores will be in colones, but everyone will take dollars and usually give you change in colones.
The small difference in the bank’s exchange rate is not worth the long lines and its much easier using dollars. The exchange rate at the airport is bad and starting off with colones is not necessary. All taxis will quote prices in dollars. Do not bring all large bills, since most stores do not accept bills over $20. Many hotels, restaurants & stores will not accept travelers checks. The Lost Iguana does accept travelers checks from guests with proper ID. Credit cards are always accepted and there are ATMs around tourist areas. Bring plenty of $1 bills for tipping and for taxis who will conveniently never have change. Tipping is not customary for locals, but is expected from tourist. I tend to tip about half of what I would in the US. A 10% service change is almost always added to your restaurant bill and you do not have to pay more.
Weather, What to Pack I strongly recommend you buy a good guide book to Costa Rica for information on different zones.
Costa Rica is very different from coast to coast and changes dramatically from one zone to the next. The Pacific coast gets extremely hot and dry. The Arenal area gets more rain, is always green, and the temperatures rarely get very hot or cold. You can travel all over Costa Rica with 2 pairs of jeans or comfortable slacks, shorts, a few T shirts, sleeveless or hot weather tops, and good hiking shoes or tennis shoes. Don’t forget a bathing suit and light weight rain jacket. If you are going to an expensive hotel or restaurant, Its good to have one nicer outfit. For the women, a sundress is perfect with a sweater for cool evenings. But even at the nicer hotels, you will see people in blue jeans or hiking clothes.
Arenal weather & the Arenal Volcano The weather around the volcano is completely different than the rest of Costa Rica. The end of November is not the dry season. March and April are the only two months that I consider too hot and dry to plant. All other months usually have some rain. I will share what I consider to be normal but please realize I have also seen exceptions to everything I am telling you. The only thing I can say for certain is that Arenal has extremely unpredictable weather and there is no weather forecast that is ever correct. December and January usually have light rain with less sun. February is a transitional month where at some point we go into the dry season which is hot, sunny and very little rain. May is the transitional month that starts the rainy season. Normally a mix of sun and light rain. June through the end of October are mixes of sun and outbursts of rain which last from 10 minutes to hours. These are my favorite months.
All rooms at the Lost Iguana have balconies or porches that have perfect views of the volcano.
Bugs We have surprisingly few biting insects considering we are in a jungle. You may want insect repellant for trails, and you will definitely need repellant if you are going to the coast where the mosquitoes can be irritating. For those who find bugs intriguing, you will be in paradise. There is an array of very unique bugs. We do our best to keep to keep them outside.
Water I have never heard of anyone becoming ill drinking the water in Costa Rica. However, if you are concerned there is always bottled water available. At the Lost Iguana, we have a 400’ artesian well with excellent water. The waiters will still try to sell you bottled water, but I would askagua mineral.
Snakes There are a number of poisonous snakes in Costa Rica. Several fluer de lances, coral snakes and eye lash viper snakes have been found by the gardeners on property. It is not likely you will see one. I have hiked through the jungle for years and only encountered a couple of harmless snakes who were successfully hunting frogs.
Snakes do not want to be around humans, and when you encounter one it is as surprised as you. Snakes are most active at night, so having lights at night and making noise will help warn a snake of your presence.
I am far from an expert, but I will share a few things that I have learned that might help those with concerns. The most common situation likely to result in being struck by a poisonous snake is encounter with one that has just swallowed a large meal. After eating, it is so full it is unable to easily move to find cover. This snake will strike in self-defense when it feels threatened. However, in killing its meal it has used up most of its venom and for several days its poison glands will be very diluted and of low toxicity. The most dangerous bites occur when a snake has been starved for a number of days. Due to the amount of food available to snakes in Costa Rica, there are not too many starving snakes. There are two types of vaccines available for snakebites. One is for the coral snake, another for all other poisonous snakes. The coral snake has red and yellow stripes on black and is very small. If it is red and white, it is the king snake and not poisonous. There is an emergency clinic in La Fortuna that has vaccines available. A few guests have encountered snakes, but no one has ever been bitten.
Leaving Costa Rica The airlines ask you to be at the airport 2 hours before departure time. If you arrive less than 1 hour ahead, you will most likely not be allowed to board. Be prepared to pay a $29 for person departure tax prior to going to your airline. You can pay in colones, dollars or use a credit card.