Common Misconceptions About Costa Rica

It can’t possibly snow in Costa Rica – it’s the tropics

Been there, seen that.  It’s unusual enough, but I grew up in Alberta and know snow when I see it.  It definitely snowed on us at the top of “Cerro de la Muerte” one November rainy day..   the highest point in the Costa Rican section of the Inter-American Highway. Its name means "Mountain of Death" or "Summit of Death," since in the past, crossing the mountains from the Valle Central meant a three- or four-day journey, on foot or on horseback, and many ill-prepared travelers succumbed to the cold and rain.

You have to drink bottled water, if you don’t want to get sick

Costa Rica mostly has excellent water

One of the driving forces behind the creation of the national parks, wildlife refuges and forest reserves system was protecting the watersheds.

Note: The Southern Zone or Ballena Coast has safe water!  Feel free to ask for a glass in any restaurant! Overbuilding, lack of planning and drought conditions have lowered many aquifers in Guanacaste and the Nicoya peninsula to the point that water quality is suffering.  Arsenic and other natural contaminants are being concentrated, and tap water is no longer drinkable in some lowland and coastal areas in that northern part of Costa Rica.  Always ask locally.

Costa Rica is cheap

Um, nope again.  The cost of living in Costa Rica can be close to the cost in the U.S., Canada or Europe.  For some significant things, it’s actually more expensive. Learn to shop where the locals shop…tourist areas are more expensive…. just like in North America!  If you are eating out in the more “North American style” restaurants, shopping where the other tourists or “Gringos” shop…yup!  …it can be expensive!  Shopping where the locals shop, eating where the locals eat, has reduced my personal grocery bill by around 30%! If you are in a “tourist zone”, prices for groceries, etc. are about 30% higher than a more “Local” area! Where we, who live here, save money, is on things like taxes, insurances, domestic help, gardeners, health care, dental care, any labor such as repairs on vehicles – the parts may be expensive, but the labour is far less!

The Dry Season is December to May

This is one of the most pervasive and widespread bits of misinformation about Costa Rica.

Storm over Lake Arenal from the slopes of the volcano

The rains usually dissipate in to daily “sun showers” over most of the Pacific side of Costa Rica and the cities of the central valley by the mid to end of December, depending on the year.   Occasionally, in the driest reaches of Guanacaste and the Nicoya peninsula the statement that “December is the Dry Season” is true for the whole month; but for most of Costa Rica the rains continue into mid-December and sometimes even through Christmas or into January.  Rain in Costa Rica is warm, little wind…so are not as uncomfortable as they can be in North America! No worries about being caught out in one….. unless it does happen to be one of our torrential downpours! 

The Costa Rica Dry Season is December to May – Part II

Not only is half or less of December drier, there’s another half-truth hidden in the most common misconception about Costa Rica’s seasons.  Barely half of Costa Rica even has a dry season…

 In contrast to the North Pacific’s dramatic swings between desert like conditions and daily tropical showers; the Caribbean side experiences more consistent rainfall year-round.  In fact, if there were a “dry season” for the east coast it would be when the rains diminish in September and October, which are the wettest months on the west side.

The south Pacific Zone experiences dry season from mid to late December, depending on the year, and sometimes a few showers into January…they are warm and don’t stop your activities!  Heavy tropical rains begin in May. June, July and August see less rain, clear sunny mornings. This is our favorite time of year!

The dry season myth arose because well over 80% of the population and all of the international destination resort investment is on the Pacific side of the Continental divide.  However; some very popular tourist destinations like Arenal volcano are on the Caribbean slope. 

That phone number can’t be right, it’s got an extra digit

2694 – 0400 is a real phone number in Costa Rica.  All the phone numbers are eight digits.  They all used to be seven digits but when cell phones were introduced they started running out of numbers, because there are no area codes.  So, they decided to add one digit up front and cell phone numbers typically start with 8 while landlines start with 2 (a while back they ran out of 2’s and 8’s and started adding leading 6’s etc. but the 2/8 rule is still generally true).

All tips are included in Costa Rica

While it’s true that a 10% “service tax” is added to most restaurant bills (and usually bar tabs); it’s sort of like minimum wage for the servers and nothing is added for tour guides, drivers, bus boys, maids etc.  All of these people work very hard for minimal base salaries and many have families to support so we recommend adding a little bit to the tip.  These people are working for $2.00 per hour!  Top that tip up a little bit! Make a difference in someone’s life!

“Suicide” Showers

Thankfully there’s a common misconception as part of the name “suicide shower” and it isn’t really suicidal to use one.  These are a contraption about the size of a coffee can, usually made of white plastic and mounted in place of a shower head.  They are “on demand” electric water heaters; and while it’s a bit disconcerting to see live electrical wires leading into a water pipe, we’ve used a lot of them over the years and have never had a shocking encounter. 

Costa Rica’s roads are abominable

Okay, so that’s not entirely a misconception.  Costa Rica’s roads can be pretty abominable; but compared to what they were twenty years ago, they’re marvels of modern road engineering!  There are fairly modern “freeways” accessing San Jose, Liberia, and the beach areas that actually have passing lanes now and then!

For the most part though the roads are still narrow, two lane, winding, and might have chickens in the middle.  Guard rails, painted lines and reflectors are popping up occasionally; but can be pretty rare overall.  What has improved immensely (believe me or not because they’re still be bad) are the potholes.  You used to actually be able to literally lose a car in some of the potholes! 

Costa Rican food is boring

While Costa Rican food is not as spicy, varied or exotic as many tropical cuisines like Thai, Mexican, or Ethiopian, it does have a unique character and interesting varied ingredients if you know where to look.  Gallo Pinto at most restaurants is amazing ( Rice and beans, mostly served at breakfast) Costa Ricans make the best fish fingers ( aka Fish and Chips), fried chicken, etc.  Try the food at little sodas…you may be amazed!  It is safe to eat anywhere in Costa Rica, so do not be afraid to eat the food at the sodas!! 

 We need local money

U.S. dollars are accepted nearly everywhere. You’ll usually get your change in colones, but in more than 20 years we’ve never had anyone refuse dollars – a few occasional grumbles, but never a refusal.  Once at a toll booth they insisted we dig through the seat cushions to find ¢100, but that was because they didn’t have change for a $5. If you are from Canada or Europe you’ll need either U.S. dollars or local Colones. Have smaller bills to use for taxi’s, etc. and use the larger bills to buy groceries, gas, etc... they will give you Colones in change. You can use your debit cards at most ATM’s. However; in my experience, with my Canadian debit card…. it only works at BCR’s or Coopelanzia’s.  Everyone is a bit different, so do not get discouraged when one ATM does not work with your card… just go to eh next bank till you find the ones that work for you.

 Don’t eat raw fruits and vegetables

Never had a problem!  If it’s at a restaurant it’s been washed in that high-quality water that you can drink as we mentioned above.  If it’s from a fruit stand or fresh off the tree wash it.  If it’s from a modern supermarket wash it to get the pesticides off just like you would at home. 

You always have to use the poopy paper basket

Even the newly remodeled SJO international airport has toilet paper waste baskets

For those of you who have never been to Costa Rica or other Latin American countries, the poopy paper basket is a waste basket next to the toilet for the purpose of depositing used paper. The majority of restrooms you use will have one, along with a sign explaining its use; and pleading that you do so for the sake of their septic system. Most systems in Costa Rica are way under capacity and poorly built, so it is very difficult or impossible to pump them; which is a required maintenance procedure every few years, if you flush paper products and the system can’t keep up digesting them.

However; if there is no sign you are safe to flush away. Ticos grew up with the basket and can be baffled when there isn’t one.

Even new buildings with modern systems, where it’s fine to flush usually provide a basket because they don’t want to pick up a pile off the floor.

I have a personal rule…”brown goes down, the rest goes in the “Poopy Basket”!  Still; reducing the amount of paper into the septic system, but…. not stinking up the bathroom! 

Costa Rica is an island… seriously??

 

Map of the imaginary country of Costa Rico 

Um, nope! It is not an island!

And, it’s not the same place as Puerto Rico.

They are different in location, geographically and politically; although there is an imaginary amalgam of the two…. 

“Costa Rico”

I suppose "Costa Rico" would have to be a peninsula jutting off the Coast of Central America into the Caribbean sea. Since the name “Costa Rico” is an imaginary compilation of Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, I guess the country would be a cross between the isthmus nature of Costa Rica and the island nature of Puerto Rico.  But then, many people still think Costa Rica has to be an island…so would "Costa Rico" have to be an island??

Really folks?  Costa Rica is that small piece of land joining North and South America; with Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south … and all the people who live in any of these countries are Americans! 

We all live in one of the Americas! Ours just happens to be Central America!

The differences being that a lot of us are from “North America” or the “Estados Unidos” or Canada. Hence; we are “Americanos del Norte”!