The most popular Google search on Costa Rica’s relationship with the USA is whether it is, in fact, one of the US’s 50 states. This would have sounded absurd to me before I visited the small Central American country, but after a couple of weeks enjoying its mountains and coastline, I can see where the confusion comes from.
13% of the Costa Rican economy, and 13% of employment, is dependent on tourism. From the minute we stepped off the plane everything was done to make it as easy as possible for tourists, most of whom are from the US of A, to part with large amounts of cash.
I was reminded of the stereotype of Brits abroad, who shout English louder and louder in an effort to be understood. There was no need for any shouting in Costa Rica. The US influence has been so great that most Ticos I came across had long given up trying to speak Spanish to tourists and spoke English as well as me.
US visitors do not even need to go to the hassle of changing dollars into the local colones. Everything is priced in dollars and most of the time the price in colones is not even displayed. By giving prices in dollars, it’s also easy to overlook how expensive Costa Rica is in comparison to other Central America countries. The prices were eye-watering and meals out were on a par with London. In just two weeks in Costa Rica we had spent as much as we had in six weeks in Bolivia or Ecuador.
Make no mistake, Costa Rica is packed with unforgettable experiences, from seeing turtles and sloths, to surfing and zip lining. We had a lot of fun toasting on Costa Rican beaches, tumbling off surf boards in Pacific waves and uncovering creepy crawlies in the cloud forests. (You can read more about these in Monkey Business). But this is not a country where we found much to do for free.
Over the last five months, we have spent a good deal of time walking. We’ve walked around the towns where we are staying; up and down the hills that they nestle in; and caught local buses to climb the bigger hills and mountains nearby. All for free. In Costa Rica we struggled to find anywhere to walk which didn’t have an entrance fee, apart from the road. For my Scottish man, used to roaming freely over the Munroes, this was particularly frustrating.
It was almost as difficult to do anything without being part of an organised group. The roads were buzzing with minibuses taking tourists here, there and everywhere. It was easier to organise a private transfer to get from place to place than to spot a public bus – the mode of transport we’ve relied on so heavily for nigh on 13000 kilometres around Latin America.
I had to laugh when a young traveller (not one of mine) had got so used to being bused around that he complained to his dad about having to walk a few metres to get to the next zip line. “Why do we have to walk through the forest, Dad?” he wailed, “Why can’t they just drive us to the next line?”.
Costa Rica has done a grand job of carving out a niche for itself as the Central American destination for wildlife and scenery, despite many of its Central American neighbours matching it sloth for sloth, and volcano for volcano. Although Costa Rica does have some strong green credentials, for environmental protection and sustainability (last year producing 98% of its energy from renewable sources), I’m pretty sure these aren’t the foremost reason travellers have for visiting. Where Costa Rica excels is in giving travellers the opportunity to see incredible sights without having to work very hard. You can speak in English, pay in dollars and feel safely removed from the politics and conflict, which are centre stage in many other Central American countries.
In fact, Costa Rica sells itself on its non-militarist tradition, having abolished the army in the 1940s. You can buy all manner of merchandise emblazoned with the slogan: “Army free since 1948”. I was slow to realise that this was nonsense. Costa Rica spends $900 million a year on military and security services, which is 2% of GDP, and more than other Central American countries that do have armies. It’s just that in Costa Rica the work of the army is done by the police.
In a similar vein, Costa Rica goes to great lengths to protect the wild animals in its territory and you hear about it. But behind the scenes, the government has resisted efforts to give even minimal protection to Costa Rican workers.
Yes, it’s a beautiful country, but I don’t have any desire to go back. At any rate, it would take years of hard saving to be able to. I will remember Costa Rica for the abundant wildlife; the eye-watering prices; and an uncomfortable feeling that nothing is really as it seems.
*Main image: Playa Samara