Nothing defines Costa Rica in traveler's minds as much as its leafy tree canopies and endless fields of grass. But first-timers who flock to this Central America paradise during the dry, peak season are often sorely disappointed by barren landscapes. Why? It's only a few weeks after the first rains, typically in May, that the fields and trees sprout into the lushness that we imagine.
That's one of many surprises we learned about Costa Rica on a recent visit: It's much more beautiful in shoulder season. Here's what else you might not know about traveling in Costa Rica, and in the rainier, less-crowded, and less-expensive months:
1. Rainy season isn't really that rainy. June through August, it typically rains for only a few hours in the late afternoon, meaning you can pack plenty into your itinerary. Given the summer heat, it's not a bad idea to get an early start by 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. anyway, then head indoors for a siesta around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.. If it does rain -- and some days, it doesn't at all -- it often clears up after dinner.
2. Drinking the water is generally safe. Of course, you should use your judgment here. A dirty glass is just as likely to get you sick in Costa Rica as it is at home. But in most parts of the country, tap water is fine to drink. The exceptions are extremely rural areas lacking basic infrastructure, and along the Caribbean coast, where more problems have been reported in the past.
3. Humidity is no joke. While rain might not be a big deal in shoulder season, there's no question that humidity is. Some parts of the country are extremely close to the equator -- Guanacaste, for example, is a mere nine degrees north. If you've ever been to Southeast Asia in the height of summer, that's how it can feel. Take it easy when you first arrive and give yourself time to adjust.
4. "Pura vida" is not a marketing slogan. Directly translated as "pure life," this phrase sums up the Tico way of life, embodying a mix of optimism and grounded-ness. Don't be surprised to hear it all the time -- it's used as a greeting and it's used as a farewell. It's used as a cheer when things go well and is uttered with a shrug when things don't.
5. You don't have to rule out uncooked food. Just as most concerns about water safety are unfounded, so are concerns about raw food. Again, you should use your judgment, but it'd be a shame to miss out on the amazing ceviche that Costa Rica, with over 750 miles of coastline, has to offer. Our proof: the insane dish below (from JW Marriott Guanacaste's Azul Grill).
6. A guided river tour is worth it. We've been on some not-so-exciting boat rides before, but there's so much wildlife to miss in Costa Rica if you aren't looking. And by "looking" we mean being able to spot three-inch iguanas blending into a tangle of leaves, from 10 feet away. That's precisely what the Palo Verdes Boat Tour guides did for us, along with pointing out submerged crocodiles, flitting birds, sleeping bats, and resting monkeys.
7. In rainy season, the bugs are relentess. Though malaria isn't a concern in most parts of the country, itchy bites are no fun. Our rule of thumb: If an insect repellent smells good, it probably won't work. Get the real stuff, with 25% DEET or higher -- Off's Deep Woods spray worked pretty well for us on a recent trip. (Dengue fever is a mild concern, with an outbreak a few years ago, but this should not impact your travels.)
8. The summer sun sets early and rises even earlier. If you're out exploring, know that sunsets begin at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. and plan your return accordingly. The sun rises, on the other hand, just a little after 5 a.m. This might be helpful in encouraging early starts, but we also suggest that light-sensitive sleepers pack an eye mask.
9. There's wifi and satellite TV everywhere. It's easy to lump Costa Rica in with its less developed neighbors, but it's one of the most stable, connected regions in the area. Unless you're in extremely remote areas, you'll be able to find a way to get connected, even in the countryside.
10. Many stores and restaurants accept U.S. dollars. In fact, many places in tourist-heavy areas will advertise prices in U.S. dollars. You might get some of the local currency back for change, but you can save them for street vendors and other smaller merchants who don't accept dollars. Whatever you do, don't exchange money at the airport -- you'll get better rates by using a credit or debit card if you can, and going to an ATM if you can't.