My first impressions from spending 5 days in Costa Rica: eating at “sodas”, hitch-hiking with police vans and other learnings from around San José

Ever since I moved to Miami I have made it a quest to explore Latin America as often  as possible and being back in school definitely provided an easier escape than the regular 9-5 job.

I had found a $200 round-trip ticket from Miami to San José, Costa Rica for February 2016. Pretty sweet deal, I thought. There really was no reason for me not to go…. And so I went.

The trip was a total of 5 days which is really one of the shorter ones I have ever taken (and not the type I prefer). Nonetheless, I was able to explore some great places around the small country. I flew in to San José and immediately jumped on a bus from the airport that took me to the central bus station in the capital. At 1 USD it was one of the cheapest airport transfers I’d ever taken.

Through a friend of a friend I had been given a possible 5-night itinerary for the country, though it’s completely doable and I did take a lot of it into consideration, I didn’t follow  it completely (see the suggested itinerary below).


My itinerary looked something like this: San José – Monteverde – La Fortuna – Alajuela – Volcán Poas – San José. See this and this post for more detailed info on the different sites.

So sure, five days in a country is far from ideal and definitely does not give you enough time to have an adequate understanding of said place. But it does give you a little bit of a sneak peak at least… and here are some of the main takeaways from my little taste of Costa Rica:

1. The country has a mantra and it’s”Pura Vida”

Once in Costa Rica one of the first things you will likely hear is the phrase “pura vida” literally translated as “pure life”. It’s used as both a comment and a greeting but really is much more than that. It shows Costa Ricans’ (“Ticos'”) pride of their bio-diverse nature, which is thankfully reflected in the huge eco-tourism industry found throughout the country. And by eco-tourism I mean green, very very green. Plants aside, expect to see this phrase plastered onto signs, advertisements etc. It’s literally everywhere.

“Pura Vida” indeed. Costa Rica offers an overload of green-ness.

2. Eat at “Sodas”, my friend. And no, this is not the carbonated drink kind

San José is not really world-renowned for its cuisine but for those on the hunt for a little local flavor I highly recommend checking out the different small shops, or “sodas”, in the city. A huge selection can be found at the Mercado Central right by the central bus station. Swing by for lunch, a mid-day snack or early dinner. You will likely not find many tourists hanging out and about. And as a little plus, much unlike other restaurants in the city, this option is very much affordable for the frugal backpacker.

Ordering food at a local “soda”
The food is ordered “á la carte”. Try the fried plantain with cheese – it’s absolutely delicious!

3. If thy goest to Volcán Poás, thy shall check the weather first

One of the few day trips you can make from San José is the one to visit Volcán Poás. Major warning though: make sure to check the weather beforehand. Let’s not forget you’re close to the cloud forest and even the slightest bit of rain will completely obstruct that view. I was fortunate enough to go there under sunny skies and so I was able to make out the deep turquoise waters of the volcanic crater.

Footnote: Let’s say your party is taking too long to get back to the bus, why not hitch a ride? I sure did – with a police van (although I do hear hitch-hiking is not ideal in this country so do be wary).

4. When staying in San José, don’t stay in San José. Stay in Alajuela

Chances are that when you’re going to Costa Rica, you plan on heading out to the cloud forest, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio for the squirrel monkeys and other great sites. If you are not blessed with your own ride, fear not! Costa Rica has got excellent bus systems. OK, by excellent I mean they run somewhat on time and they are decently priced and comfortable. That said, there is a fairly big bus station in the south of San José but chances are you will be transferring in the outskirts of the city in a town called Alajuela (about 20 minutes away, which translates to 1.5hours during rush hour…). Considering  I was on a tight schedule only having 5 days to spend in Costa Rica, and, always looking for a cheaper option, I opted to stay in Alajuela.

5. There are A LOT of tourists… and Ticos speak English

You can let your cell phone data rest as you won’t be using Google translate all that much. With the huge influx of American and European tourists in the country, most Ticos I ran into spoke English. I realized that had I had more time to spend in this country, I would have opted to venture more south as the places I went to were really overcrowded with tourists.

To read more about my adventures in Costa Rica, check out this and this post.


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