Things to never assume in Costa Rica

There are many differences you notice after living in a new country for several years.  Some are a welcome change from life in the US and some are quite a surprise.  We lived in Costa Rica for 5 years and loved just about every minute.  We also noticed how similar people are no matter what the cultural differences.  At the same time though we could not help but notice some very humorous differences.

Costa Rica is perhaps the country I have the most knowledge about (aside from the US of course).  I have written about the best beaches, what to do with kids, the common misconceptions, what we miss about our time there, and how to save money on a trip there but one thing that I have not written about was the near constant occurrence of oddities and funny situations we found ourselves in.

Here is our partial list of things to never assume while living in or vacationing in Costa Rica!

Never assume........
  • If on a boat ride, out in the open ocean, that you will be provided with a flotation device.   Trust me if you want to stay in the good graces of the boat operators and keep your children safe, ask before leaving the office for the long walk down to the boat.
  • If on above mentioned boat ride, that it is just a boat ride because what appears to be a simple dolphin boat tour can also double as the boat operators way to catch dinner....for his entire extended family. Sounds harmless enough but when the fishing takes up an hour, on a small boat, rocking in the waves with 5 small children, and then the fisherman catches a fish so large that it needs to be clubbed to death in front of you, multiple times, it can actually be quite traumatic.  Yes this happened to us but we did get to see dolphins so all was good!
  • A quick bank trip is even remotely a possibility.  In fact even an ATM stop can be a challenge.  Be prepared for long lines, especially on Friday, the machine to be out of communication hence not doling out any money, or flat out closed, as they are after 10pm in most towns.
  • That because a highway has taken 30 years to get built that is in any way a safe road.  The new highway, though a great shortcut on time, brought landslide after landslide due to lack of realizing that there are earthquakes and torrential rain for 1/2 the year!  In Costa Rica??  Who knew.. 
That used to be the highway!
  • Manana means tomorrow!  No matter if it's your new Tico friend, the electrician, or a taxi, most likely if they say manana it will be quite a bit later than that.  It is used more as a general term to express yes I will be there soon but in no way do I actually mean tomorrow in most cases.
  • If it says no 4x4 needed and you are going to Nosara, for example, that they actually mean you don't need it.  Silly I know but on one of our trips out to a remote beach we were specifically told that there was no 4x4 needed yet when we arrived at the house it most certainly was.  It was so necessary that my friends actually cracked their transmission trying to get up the driveway.  Good thing we didn't have loads of luggage, no place else to stay, an 8 months pregnant friend with us, and in total 7 children!
  • Hot water is standard.  Most local style homes don't use any hot water at all.  We had a suicide shower which is basically a heating coil in the shower head complete with exposed wires.  That's right exposed in the shower, the one with water!  Totally safe but interesting to say the least.
  • All washing machines are created equal.  Semi automatic and washer should never even be in the same sentence yet in Costa Rica that is the standard machine.  I used one for 3 years and was actually quite used to it but when we upgraded to an American style machine I suddenly had about 15 hours more a week!  Bottom line is they suck, not as much as hand washing in a  sink but semi automatic sucks almost as much.
  • That you can ever be rid of the ants in your home.  Kill them all you want but more will come it their place.  Easiest thing to do is just accept it and live with them!
You can try but I doubt it will help for long
  • There will be an address for anything and while you are at it don't assume there will be street signs either.  Finding your way around can be really challenging but getting lost was the way we learned where we were and luckily its a pretty small country.  
  • Mail will be delivered to your home, it will not and your street address will be something like, "50 meters west of the church in San Jose Sur neighborhood".  I kid you not, that was my actual address!
  • When someone gives you directions that they have any clue at all where they are sending you.  Ticos in general do not like to have a confrontation and are more likely to flat out lie to you than to say they do not know.  My advice is to stop and ask, then stop and ask again, and again until you reach your actual destination.
  • That your check will be brought to you at a restaurant.  I have seen so many people waiting and wondering why it has not come after they are done eating.  In Costa Rica, it is considered rude to rush you out after eating.  You need to specifically ask for it or you will be sitting there all night! 
So have you been to Costa Rica?  Did you notice some of these or ones we did not mention?

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  1. So true about the addresses! I think our address was something like, quarter a mile from the school, or something like that!

  2. All in all where is best place to rent house for a month in summer with 3 small kids. We lovemoumountains and beach but we live on the beach so prefer a mountain getaway with restaurants but driving distance to beach thanks so much

    1. Well we lived In Atenas up in the mountains and loved it but I would not say it was good for any tourism purposes. If I were interested in more mountain than beach I would do Arenal/Monteverde area. You could do a weekend or 2 to the beach from there. Manuel Antonio is really fun and touristy, loads of wildlife, and Nosara or Samara would be a beautiful and closer spot for a relaxing beach weekend!

  3. We are planning a trip to CR for the month of June, pretty large travel party, my wife, me, our 7 kids (age 1-19) and my mom. We would like to get a good feel for the country while staying in as few rentals as possible. We will have a rented van. Can you recommend a few locations for "base camps" we can set up in and then go exploring?

    1. Hi Chad, well there are many great locations in CR. What are you interested in doing? Are you looking for a spot to move to?