But that was a while ago, and I also heard more recently from fellow travelers that Costa Rica has become insanely touristy, extrmely expensive, and so overrun with wealthy Americans, that some people I'd talked to actually left the country early.
So when Tim and I rode our motorcycle zig-zagging across Costa Rica, I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to fall in love with it, or hate it.
And then once our passports were stamped, the roads into the country were perfectly paved with clear painted lines, guard rails, good signage, even reflective strips! And the best part, no trash along the sides of the roads! After traveling through Central America for so long, this was all very welcome for us.
Luckily, we were still able to see white-faced monkeys, an owl, a python, but did not see the sloth of our dreams that we had been hoping for, but it's not a zoo, only the wild, so we just weren't lucky. Overall, I felt the experience was worth the money as a truly atmospheric introduction to the rainforest and all its majesty, but we left feeling a little unsatisfied, not just because we didn’t see a sloth and our pockets were now much emptier, but because this initial glimpse at Costa Rica proved to be the touristy, expensive, Disney World-like version that I had feared Costa Rica had become.
Cahuita and the Caribbean
The town itself reminded me a bit of Playa Del Carmen in Mexico: an expensive beachside place completely built around the American tourists that come to spend their money, walk around in bathing suits, and get drunk. But Cahuita NP was a dream come true: a long stretch of coastal forest where capuchin monkeys are everywhere (and got quite up-close and personal to us), raccoons march around looking for food, and the swimming in the waves is truly heavenly. Cahuita National Park charges no fees (but takes donations), and was easily walkable from our hotel room.
San Jose and its Surrounding Hills
Our time in Costa Rica was coming to a close, so in order to complete our Costa Rica experience before heading into Panama, we wanted to go to a place that everyone recommended:
Marino Ballena National Park on the Pacific Coast
A bit of background on Costa Rica
Costa Rica has also not joined the CA4 agreement (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua) which allows for easy and free movement of its citizens throughout the region. Though Costa Rica does take in a fair amount of refugees and asylum seekers from Latin America, compared to the CA4 countries, Costa Rica is seen as having closed their doors on Central Americans. And when you travel through Central America, you do feel the difference once crossing into Costa Rica, like you’ve entered a whole new land: a privileged place that has to work constantly at keeping its squeaky-clean reputation for the tourists, even if that means isolating itself off from its neighbors.
But Costa Rica’s greatness is not all due to U.S. and foreign money coming in. Since its civil war in 1948, the government has adopted a strong stance for peace and demilitarization. Since then, Costa Rica has completely demilitarized, meaning they spend 0% of their GDP on the military, a shocking move in a region wracked by military coups and armed violence. But even without an army (or perhaps because of it), Costa Rica remains one of the safest countries in Latin America, and has inspired Panama to follow suit in demilitarization. Costa Rica has made other great social improvements, and is known for its highly educated workforce, its progressive environmental policies (they have plans to become carbon-neutral by 2021), and has a healthcare system ranked higher than the U.S.’s.
For me, I was excited to visit a country that had no military, and a stable democracy that is surrounded by developing nations that are often overcome with violence and government instability. And Costa Rica did not disappoint. I believe that Costa Rica can be an inspiration not just to its neighbors, but to the world, at how even a tiny country in a volatile region can become safe, healthy, environmentally friendly, and prosperous.