We just spent a week in Costa Rica and had a fantastic trip (trip photos). We saw a volcano erupting lava, beautiful countryside, a cloud forest, the Pacific coast and lots of wildlife. You always learn a lot that wasn’t in the guidebook while traveling, so thought I’d post some things we picked up during our loop from San Jose to La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano area), Monteverde (4600 ft. high rain forest) and the Pacific coast and national park in Manuel Antonio.
- Rainy season - We traveled in the rainy or "green" season (the tourist industry term) in October when there are many fewer tourists than from Dec. - April. There are pros and cons to when we visited. We were often among a small number of people at hotels (maybe 20% full), restaurants or on trails. Only once had a restaurant that was closed for October. Also, most hotels were a bit cheaper than during peak season. It did rain most days in the late afternoon, but only once did it interfere with a night hike. The rain seemed rather predictable so it was simple to plan around (if you mind the usually gentle rain.) Most of the time it was in mid-70s, humid and partly cloudy.
- Speaking Spanish - There was almost no one we encountered in the tourism industry that didn't speak English well. I enjoyed trying to use my poor, high school Spanish speaking and the locals were always friendly to humor me. And then would kindly switch to English when they realized I was lost in the conversation. Certainly learning a few phrases is handy and polite, but it wasn't a requirement to getting around.
- Driving - We chose to rent a car and drive ourselves around. I was very glad we decided to spring for the GPS when we picked up the car. Our experience was that the signage was spotty, both in built up areas and remote areas, and the $7 / day was definitely worth it. I read most rental cars are manual transmission. That was fine once I re-learned the feel for the clutch, although it got a bit tiring on the bumpy, dirt roads. The drivers there seemed no more crazy than Boston drivers (not saying much), and the driving local customs were all familiar. We rented a small SUV with 4WD because we wanted to go to Monteverde, which has 30km of unpaved & very bumpy roads leading there. The rental fleet seemed to be mostly Hyundai Tucsons - I didn't see many American cars overall. Having 4WD and higher clearance was helpful for the steep roads, although we saw brave locals driving in small cars.
- Bugs - Every hotel we stayed was nice & overall very clean, but if you mind tiny bugs you might be unhappy. Many restaurants are open air so they also attract bugs. We found a spider under a shoe the morning after a hike that I could have done without and some bats buzzed us at dinner, but the wildlife is part of the reason to go.
- Photography - There was no shortage of things to photograph. I wish I had brought my larger zoom lens to better capture animals or birds in trees, instead of just my standard 24-105mm lens. As always there is a tradeoff between weight of the gear and flexibility in the moment. Also, depending on the length of the hike carrying around unneeded equipment gets tiresome. I brought my small gorillapod hoping to take some night shots, but it never really worked out. (The cloudy weather meant we saw fewer stars than I'd thought we might.) The mini-tripod was helpful in shooting a short movie. Overall I could have gotten away bringing less since I spent more time enjoying the experience than snapping photos.