Why Costa Rica Wasn’t My Favourite Country In Central America

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.

Most visitors make a bee-line for Costa Rica’s coasts to surf and relax.

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.

Costa Rica’s biodiversity was definitely a highlight of my time in the country.

Booming Tourism

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.

Inland, a hike to the lava fields at the base of Arenal Volcano should be on everyone’s Costa Rica itinerary.

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?

13 thoughts on “Why Costa Rica Wasn’t My Favourite Country In Central America

  1. Aww. That’s a pity you didn’t enjoy your stay in CR more.
    I was pretty surprised by the pricing when I went. I did a homestay so I felt fairly connected and was able to get several different perspectives even from people living in the same family! Lol
    I’ve been reading some of your other posts… Sounds like you had an amazing Central American adventure.


    1. I really did! I still feel a little guilty for not enjoying CR more but that said, I had some really amazing moments there and I hope this comes across in the post. Most of them wildlife-related and very memorable.

      I think you chose the right way to stay in the country by doing a home stay. This would have perhaps opened up more communication channels for me and more opportunities to mingle!

      Despite the cost of living and the mass tourism, I still loved all the natural aspects of the country and was able to practice my Spanish a little too…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds like you had a more than amazing time in general across Central America. Lol. I love that even your ‘least favourite’ place was still a fantastic experience. I look forward to making a trip across the whole isthmus one day too!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A good and honest way to sum up your feelings about a place. Not everywhere is going to be your cup of tea, and it’s especially hard if your views of the place are at odds with the general perception. Do you think that if you were to return at another time, having not travelled in the region first, you’d have a different take on Costa Rica?


    1. Thanks James. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. I think my impression was partly damaged by the fact that I felt obliged to fall in love with it like everyone else had.

      I think if I’d have visited CR on a three week holiday as a break from work (and had a secure income to return to afterwards!) I would have had a very different experience, yes. I think the reason it’s becoming so popular with families is for exactly that reason – it feels adventurous, the wildlife and nature is stunning and yet you still have access to comfortable hotels and fine dining. My biggest problem was my budget so yep, I think if it hadn’t been part of a 6 month trip I’d have enjoyed it much more 🙂


  3. Sorry to read that you did not enjoy Costa Rica but that’s okay. Not everyone is going to like it. As far as expats and Ticos, my husband and I know expats that have lived there for 20 years or more and mingle just fine with everyone. It is a matter of choice on the expat’s part. Some choose not to associate with the locals.

    Costa Rica uses some Spanish dialect different than other Spanish speaking countries. You may have been pronouncing some things in a way they did not understand.

    My husband and I often bike-pack in Costa Rica and love it. We know very little spanish, but never had a problem socializing with the locals. Some come up to us to talk.

    Most of our nights are spent camping because we prefer going “off the beaten path”. When we are in an area with no place to camp, we stay at hostels for two reasons. 1) They are affordable. 2) It is a great way to meet people from all over the world. We get into some interesting conversations.

    Bob and I avoid the expensive restaurants and choose the smaller places. They offer quality food choices; more than rice and beans (which we like as well).

    I will be sure to read your other posts. It sounds like in general you had a great experience in Central America.


    1. Hi Patty, thanks for your comment however I think you have slightly misunderstood my post.

      I didn’t dislike my time in Costa Rica (far from it at times) it simply didn’t match up to some of the other more authentic experiences I had in parts of Central America such as Honduras and El Salvador.

      Luckily, the level of fluent Spanish that I have allowed me to debate in detail with locals that I did manage to cross paths with, what their relationships were like with tourists and expats and what they felt the pros and cons of travel in their country were.

      The point I make was that despite this, there was still a very tangible barrier between tourists and locals which we didn’t experience as strongly in the other countries we travelled through.

      During my 6 month trip through Central America I only spent 3 nights in a hotel – I completely agree with you that hostels and camping are the most cost-efficient way to travel. Especially in parts of South America and South East Asia and Australia where real bargains can be had – most campsites in Tasmania for example, are absolutely free!

      It’s clear however that Costa Rica has made the conscious decision to target the higher-end of the tourism market – advertising family breaks and tailor made tours over camping experiences, which means that some backpackers do even find its hostels very poor value for money (again, in comparison with other countries in the region).

      I’m really glad that you and Bob enjoy visiting Costa Rica, as did I, and I’m sure that opting to camp makes for some excellent close encounters with its beautiful wildlife!

      As you rightly say, we are all unique in our travel preferences and it’s great to hear that the country has a diversity that caters for all of us 🙂

      Thanks for visiting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for clarifying things. Except for being in Panama for a few hours, Bob and I have never been in any other Central American country. Bob and I agree that Costa Rica is expensive in general.

        As bike-packers, we do experience places much different and not visit the tourist attractions.

        Sounds like you have traveled to a lot of interesting countries that we might enjoy visiting. I will certainly read more of your posts!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I imagine biking’s a great way to see different sides of places.

          I’d definitely recommend countries like Cambodia and Vietnam for cycling – I met lots of people who were biking long distances there and having a great time away from main traffic routes – although I must admit I only ever cycled around the smaller towns!

          Happy travels 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I just returned from my second trip to Costa Rica earlier this month and I can resonate with a lot of your comments. It is beautiful! And so fun! But…. for the most part, it’s expensive and prepackaged tourism. For vacationers, I think it’s a great low-stress option. However, for backpackers, I think it’s difficult to have those experiences on a modest budget when day trips are $100 and dinner in Tamarindo runs about $30.

    On my first trip to Manuel Antonio and San Jose we tried to do the budget experience with a small group of friends and it wasn’t memorable and we also got food poisoning twice (from trying to eat at more “authentic” establishments). I was trying to recreate my European and South American backpacking experiences and it just… didn’t work? On my return, my friend and I were a more little settled in our careers and decided to splurge on a private room ($75/night) and lots of day trips for a long weekend and it was perfect for what it was: a few days of fun and no stress before returning to the office.


    1. Thanks for visiting and for your thoughtful comment. It’s interesting that it was more enjoyable when you returned on a larger budget for a shorter time – I’d like to do this one day and see if I came away with a different opinion! I’m sure I would as it was a great country to explore for those not trying to save the pennies!

      Happy travels 🙂


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