Updated: May 27, 2019
Pura Vida - It means the good life in Spanish. Think of it a lot like Hawaii's "aloha." Pura Vida represents both a way of life and a friendly saying to one another on the streets. It also represents one of the funnest countries I've been too; filled with loud jungle sounds, big surf, and the most amazing scenery. Read on and you'll learn why!
Costa Rica is up as my first blog post because it was the very first country that I traveled to all alone. Costa Rica has a very special place deep down for me; mostly because of the awesome people that I met, the funnest waves that I got to surf all week, and the life outlook that the “Ticos/Ticas” live by.
Pura Vida is a lifestyle here. It represents being happy, cruising in the slow lane with your shoes off, and living in the moment. With this way of life, there exists such a thing called “Tico Time.” When you go to a restaurant or some service like taking a taxi to a destination, don’t expect the kind of speedy service that you would get in most western cities. Everyone here kind of moves at the slower pace of life, and you should too! Afterall, you are on holiday and enjoying yourself, so go with the flow.
Costa Rica is a smaller country nestled in the south of Central America and is located south of Nicaragua and north of Panama; which is the border country to South America.
Coming from the United States, the flight to Costa Rica is fairly easy when compared to traveling to other foreign countries such as Europe and Asia. The flight time is roughly about 8-10 hours (from San Francisco), excluding layovers, and the time zone aligns with the time zone on the East Coast. So unless you’re traveling from other parts of the world, you won’t have to deal with much jet lag here.
Throughout my trip, I visited three different towns in Costa Rica; Jaco, Montezuma, and Santa Teresa/Mal Pais.
There are a TON of other amazing destinations to visit in Costa Rica. The north, is home to a large active volcano and hosts lush jungles and zip line tours; if you’re into that. To the southern-most part of the county is Manuel Antonion and Domincial which is where you’re going to find more of the quiet/local Costa Rican flavor. The Gulf of Mexico side of the country is also home to many white sand beaches with light aqua-colored water. For me, the sole purpose of this trip was mainly just to surf, explore traveling alone for the first time, and to learn more about their lifestyle down there.
The currency is called the Costa Rican Colones and it’s fairly easy to convert to USD. Just take the colones amount, multiply it by two, stick a decimal point in there somewhere and that’s roughly how much you’re paying. See below:
500 colones = just a little less than $1 USD
1000 colones = <$2
2000 colones = <$4
5000 colones = <$10
10000 colones = <$20
If you’re reading this and also an avid surfer, you would love it here. To date, Costa Rica has had the funnest waves, and biggest waves, that I’ve ever surfed abroad. Best time is go in the spring before May. May starts their wet-season where it rains a ton. If you’re planning a trip, also make note to avoie
Getting to Costa Rica
The main airport is located right outside of Costa Rica’s city of San Jose. After arriving here, this is the main central port where you can take a bus and decide on which direction you’d like to go.
My first stop on this trip was Jaco; which is a smaller, developing beach town with a popular beach break.
To get there, I took a taxi from the airport to San Jose’s main bus terminal. Please be aware of taxi fares and how much you are actually paying the guy. If you don’t speak Spanish, then do your research before on cab fares as many of the taxi drivers here only speak Spanish.
For me, I usually bring a lot of cash with me and convert it to Costa Rican dollars at the airport. Sure there are cheaper currency exchanges scattered throughout any country you visit, but the convenience of having money there is worth it.
To get to Jaco, take a taxi from the airport to San Jose’s bus terminal. From there, take the green line bus to Jaco. The travel time from San Jose to Jaco will take you about 2-2.5 hours but it will only cost you around $4 USD. The bus I took is a local bus so they pack as many people into the bus as possible. Be sure to arrive early or else you’re standing in the aisle for the entire trip!
Jaco is a wonderful beach town that is going through a lot of development. My bold comparison would say to think of Jaco very much like an early-day Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. The town has one main street that runs parallel to the beach, a ton of bars, markets, nightclubs, and a large beach that stretches for miles.
In Jaco, you’ll see that most of the development comes in the form of hotels and believe it or not; casinos. Jaco has been considered a fairly safe city, however at the time when I went, it had a growing problem with drugs and prostitution. Like any foreign country, just be smart friends and don’t do anything dumb like buying crack in the wee hours of the night.
Aside from that, I felt 100 percent safe in Jaco and loved chatting and meeting many of the friendly locals here. In the day, you can find a lot of surf shops, and street vendors selling their art and jewelry.
I stayed at a few different hostels here Jaco and both accommodations were amazing. The first place I stayed at was Manga’s Surf hostel. Maybe a 3 minute walk to the beach, this hostel is fairly small with bunk beds and plenty of hammocks outside to lounge in. The other hostel was the Big Buddah Hostel and was a little bit nicer and had a small pool set up.
The surf at Jaco is a beach break and it stretches for miles. I didn’t have any problems dealing with crowds here and in some pockets that may appear packed, you can just run down the beach a half-a-mile and find more waves. The waves here were pretty big and a lot of fun. Since it’s beach break, it can be forgiving for those who want to learn and there are plenty of inside waves to learn.
The sunsets here were one of the best and golden hour was unlike any other.
Jaco is a small town that can be explored all within a day. There are a lot of fun restaurants and swing set bars that can make any vacation a great time. For those who just want to have fun at night, it’s good but not crazy wild like Bali or Thailand. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being Bali, Jaco is maybe at a 5. Unless you’re drinking at the same bar every night and posting up at the same beach every day, then this place is for you. If you wish to travel south to Manuel Antonio, this can be a great place to stay half way; as the bus ride to there is three hours.
Montezuma is an even smaller town than Jaco. Like the town has a small beach front and maybe a 5-6 block radius small. However, it is WAY different.
Sitting to the west, across the bay on the southern-most point of the peninsula, Montezuma brings you an entirely different climate and demographic. In comparison, I thought of Jaco weather to be somewhat like Mexico; hot, dry, party town, and more desert-like. Montezuma was the opposite; consisting of a lush, dense rainforest, and a hippie, beach town vibe. A lot of tourists come to Monetzuma mostly for a famous waterfall that is sitting in the middle of the rainforest closeby. This waterfall is known for it’s watering hole, tree swings, and waterfall ledges that you can jump off. With that said, it also can crazy packed. ESPECIALLY around spring break. So plan accordingly. Montezuma also has a large beach here… that is actually been said to be haunted! Playa Grande is the big beach here is said to be an ancient burial ground. Scary!
I acutally didn’t get the feeling of that at all and actually didn’t learn about it until after I went there. To get to Playa Grande, you have to do a light hike through the west of town where you’ll see an open trailhead. The paved and rocky trail is an easy walk, with no hills, and will take you roughly 20-30 minutes to reach. Just be sure to bring some kind of shoes as the rocks can be rough on your feet. I did the whole thing barefooted and felt it afterwards.
You can actually surf at this beach too, but I didn’t. The coast was fairly rocky and you had to paddle a ways out to reach the break.
Getting to Montezuma - To get to Montezuma from Jaco, you can go two different ways; by boat or by bus. By boat, it’s going to be a lot faster but a lot more expensive. A one-way ticket across the bay via boat will cost you roughly $40 USD! Aye! But it will also get you to your destination a lot faster in just an hour. To get there by bus, it’s going to be A LOT cheaper; but it’s also going to take you a really long time to get there.
I met two girls from Morocco who were traveling from Jaco to Montezuma at the same time as me, and they both said that it wasn’t worth the travel time. I think it is said to take you 5-6 hours just to reach your destination. It takes this long, because you have to travel north, take a few ferries to hop across waterways, and then travel back down along the peninsula. I took the boat and I enjoyed it. I got a nice tan during the boat ride and got to admire on how blue the ocean was. The boat company also mentions that you have a good possibility of seeing dolphins during the trek. So that’s pretty cool. However, I did not see any marine life. Lame.
Upon arrival, you are greeted by a coastline covered with large palm trees and a blast of jungle humidity.
Like I said, this was a fairly small town and I personally would only spend one day here. You can see the entire town in maybe an hour or two.
Mal Pais/Santa Teresa; Where jungle meets the sea
If I ever had to return to Costa Rica one day, which I will, I would come back and stay here. Easily, no questions asked. Santa Teresa and Mal Pais was the exact vibe and image I was looking for all along this trip.
Santa Teresa is a surfers/yoga/hippie paradise nicknamed “Where the jungle meets the sea.” This is one of my favorite places in the world and you can feel something spiritual here. This town is not much of a party town, but instead you’ll find many yogis and surfers staying here. The town is like something out of the jungle book. The street is all dirt. You have to walk through a jungle to get to the beach, and here you can see many iguanas, monkeys, and the loudest birds.
Golden hour (sunset) is where the magic happens. The beach may appear empty, but that’s because many of the people are posted up next to the trees that border the beach. Walking along the beach, you’ll find solo travelers meditating, people doing acroyoga, dogs playing freely with each other, and basically family and friends end there day together here to watch the sun go down together.
Be sure to get back into town before it gets fully dark… because trying to navigate back home in a dark jungle with no signs, lights, and a clear path is no fun. Trust me on this.
If I had to go back to Costa Rica and spend a week somewhere, I could easily see myself spending a week just here.
5/5 – Costa Rica was the first country that I traveled to by myself and I had the greatest time. Out of all the countries I’ve been to, I think there will always be a place deep down for Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, Costa Rica. The waves were a ton of fun and the sunsets were beautiful. Factor in the lifestyle, waking up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to birds and monkeys going ape shit crazy in the jungle, and the chillest of people; and Pura Vida gives you a 5/5 experience.
3/5. One thing that I loved about the food in Costa Rica was how fresh, organic, and healthy everything tasted. Plantains are huge here and for the first time trying them, it became one of my favorites. Beans, rice, and plantains kind of becomes your staple side with any plate dish and the chicken, if you get it, is amazing. Spaghetti noodles surprisingly was fairly common at restaurants too; as well as hamburgers. But I try to stay away from western food wherever I go. But oddly enough, hamburgers are big here. So are $2 empanadas which you can find sometimes from street vendors.
The fruit and smoothies were unlike anything else and the quality makes jamba juice taste like something from a McDonalds dollar menu. The coffee here is unbelievable. Everything was good but honestly nothing fairly different compared to what is served in most western lifestyles. The price of food was almost equivalent to a meal in the United States or Europe. So the price was kind of whatever.
4/5 – My Tico/Tican friends were so cool. I can get around speaking Spanish fairly well so it was very easy to make friends and strike up conversations with almost anyone. Even though the United States has some influence in Costa Rica, surprisingly not a lot of people speak English; aside from most expats located down there. That pura vida vibe comes from the people and everyone was so cool. One guy I’ll remember was a former New York Lawyer, who’s dad was a well-known lawyer, went to a top law school in New York, and quit everything to move down to Costa Rica and clean up around the hostels. It was one of his greatest decisions and it goes to show you that the vibe and lifestyle here can trump money.
2/5 – Not much here. At least nothing that I came across. Costa Rica has a lot of lush rainforests and big beaches that stretch for miles. San Jose had some vintage feel to some parts of the city but overall, nothing too noteworthy.
2/5 – All I can remember before leaving was hearing how expensive Costa Rica was. I can see why. Although transportation like taking the bus was cheap, everything else was almost comparatively similar to the value of what you get in the United States or Europe. A lunch plate was around $5-6. My last meal was nice, a seafood fried rice, and that was equivalent to $14 USD. There are other destinations where your dollar can go a lot further on your holiday.
3.3 – Costa Rica is very special to me. I’ve been to a lot of great countries, and Costa Rica is one that I will definitely come back and return to in a heartbeat. For me, I surfed the biggest waves here and it really helped boost my confidence in the water. The sunsets were unreal with parrots flying in the sky and the jungle coming to life in the early mornings and evenings. Although, it was fairly pricier compared to like Vietnam, the vibes, the nature, and the surf was all worth it and a great place to have your soul indulge in the pura vida.
Other non-deciding considerations
3/5 - Photogenic City: Not much of a city scape to photograph here. For my photographer friends, you’re going to find more success photographing jungles, waterfalls, beaches, and birds and other wildlife here.
5/5 - Coffee: The coffee here is amazing. Costa Rica is the home to many coffee farms and you can really taste the quality here. If you drink with milk and sugar, try it black straight up and you can taste the flavor. It’s amazing.
5/5 - Surf: The surf here is really fun. Jaco is a beach break that stretches for miles. This beach may be better suited for the beginners with an inside break, but this break can get fairly large as well.
Take a drive south of Jaco and you’ll find Playa Hermosa. The waves here are a lot bigger here and mostly suited for intermediate to advance surfers. This is a popular break with many of the locals.
Playa Grande is another known break located near Montezuma. You have to take a little hike to get here from the main town; as it is fairly secluded. It’s a 15-20 minute hike through the jungle but the trail is not bad and the beach is huge.
Santa Teresa – This is was my favorite spot. You have to walk through the jungle to get to the beach. The waves here are huge; with some calling this break Costa Rica’s North Shore. With that, said the currents here are strong and you’re going to get your butt kicked while paddling out. But these were the best waves in Costa Rica in my opinion.
There are plenty of other well know spots too in Costa Rica that I never got to visit like Tamarindo and Dominical, but if you’re reading this, go explore those places too!
4/5 - Safety: Costa Rica has long been deemed the safest country in Central America. But up until recently, Costa Rica got bumped down to the second safest country behind NICARAGUA! I heard that with growing development in Jaco and with the casinos and nightlife, that the drug and prostitution has become a major problem. But aside from that, which doesn’t really effect your safety, Walking around town by yourself is normal and I met a bunch of girls from Europe and a girl from Morocco who were all traveling along and were having the time of their lives. Now I’m not saying to that it is ok to go wandering around the streets at 1 am while flashing your “bling-bling” and parading through town with your latest Apple iPad 10+S.
3/5 - Nightlife: Depending on where you go, San Jose I hear has a good night life scene and so does Jaco to some degree. Aside from that, most of the other towns that you’ll come across are just quiet jungle/beach towns. But in those towns, you can still find a local bar scattered here and there. Just don’t come expecting to raise the roof.