I was desperate to fall for Costa Rica. To feel the admiration for it that others held. To swoon about its nature, its people and its Puravida. However, as time went on I felt a niggling sense of disappointment.
Following my first visit to the country’s carribean coast in December 2017, I made excuses for this strange lack of affection. Well, I had suffered food poisoning I suppose. I also based myself in a surf town when I don’t surf. The weather could have been a bit better, I suppose.
With the help of these excuses in the five months between my exit and re-entry into Costa Rica, I had managed to shake my negativity. I was very excited for everything the north and west had to show me. I told myself that it would of course have everything that was lacking on my first stay. The locals will be friendlier here surely? They won’t smirk at my foreigner’s Spanish and drop their reply in abrupt English. Accomodation will be much cheaper of course, because it’s off-season and demand won’t be as high. The weather in rainy season might be a bit iffy, but that’s why everything’s so wonderfully green. I was ready to have a better experience.
Despite my highest hopes, Costa Rica never really delivered.
I had happy and exciting moments. Days of hiking when I was taken in by its natural diversity and lazy swims on beautiful beaches. However, like a long-term relationship that is gradually going sour behind the scenes, I felt I was forcing my emotions. I was actively looking for those moments rather than letting myself be swept up into the romance of it all. The little sentiment I did have was one of nostalgia for a place I’d been before and the fact that I’d come full circle, rather than that wonderful warmth I’ve had in other destinations.
Why I felt that way is harder to pinpoint but there are several factors that might have compounded my indifference.
Value For Money
Having come south through Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Cost Rica’s prices were always going to hit hard. Although even as a backpacker, I’m of the mindset that value is more important than base cost.
Unfortunately, I repeatedly felt that I was paying over the odds for experiences, services and food that simply weren’t good value. Fifty-dollar shuttle buses had broken AC, restaurants didn’t show taxes that sometimes topped 26% and even without a guide in the national parks I was parting with $20 a day.
So, once I realised that my remaining cash only allowed for rice and beans in the hostel, exploring became increasingly difficult. I not only found it hard to justify spending money on more activities, shuttles and the odd meal out, but also had to reconcile my jealousy of other holiday makers who could afford the expensive seaside restaurants, sunset horse rides and hire cars.
Naturally, Costa Rica’s rise as a mainstream tourist and family-oriented destination is no-one’s fault, but it does seem to be pricing backpackers out of the market; quite literally. In fact, I met several groups of travellers further north who had decided to skip the country completely as it just didn’t fit into their budget.
The Gringo Effect
Value for money and type of tourism aside, there’s something that’s very important for any destination: cultural experience. And my apparent inability to immerse myself is what niggled at me most about Costa Rica.
As a tourist I spoke Spanish, was culturally sensitive and always went out of my way to try to engage with the locals. Unfortunately, I rarely got much back. This feeling of being a ‘gringo looking in’ made me feel upset and at times a little angry. From what I saw, Ticos lived in certain towns, expats mingled with expats and tourists stayed away from everyone – even being shipped around in their own shuttles because public transport between any two visitor destinations was virtually non-existent.
Eventually, like most relationships that are on the rocks, my time in Costa Rica came to an unceremonious end. However, as my plane taxied around San Jose airport I thought about the time I saw my first sloth; I remembered the pretty views from the foot of Arenal Volcano and I almost laughed out loud as I recalled my one (and only) twelve-bed dormitory experience of the trip in Puerto Viejo.
I realised that it was OK to feel done. It was OK that I didn’t want to come back to Costa Rica. It was OK that I never fell head over heels with the country, because sometimes, it’s those individual moments that last longer in our memory.
Have you visited Costa Rica in recent years? Where does it rate among your favourite destinations?