A popular destination for bird-watching, surfing and adventure sports, from white-water rafting to zip-lining, Costa Rica is undeniably touristy, so unless you stay in the middle of nowhere, don’t expect to escape other visitors completely.
However, if you choose your time (don’t go over the Christmas holidays) and destination carefully, you can escape the crowds.
Here are my tips:
1. Make Manuel Antonio your home
The small southern Pacific Coast community of Manuel Antonio and the adjoining town of Quepos have an interesting population mix of expats, tourists and locals, making it a fascinating place to spend some time. It’s also very attractive, set amongst lush jungle and boasting alluring beaches.
2. Book a beach/tree house
We did both. We spent one week in a jaw-dropping villa without walls overlooking the jungle and another week at a house just steps from the sand. They were both wonderful, and aside from the luxuries of space and privacy, and the opportunity to cook our own food (we made local dish gallo pinto!), what we loved most were the friendly visits by locals who dropped in unannounced each day. Yes, I’m talking about the monkeys!
3. Use public transport
There’s no need to hire a 4WD, which is what many guidebooks tell you to do. After heavy rains some of the roads are impassable, so trust me, you don’t want to be behind the wheel – it’s best to be in the back seat of a vehicle driven by an experienced local. Organize a transfer to your holiday rental, and then use the affordabel local buses that frequently run between Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park.
4. Shop the local markets
An excellent farmers market is held in Quepos, running parallel to the waterfront, where you’ll find plenty of fresh local produce for about the same price you’ll pay in the supermarket, only the quality is better. You’ll also find free-range eggs and baked breads and cakes.
5. Do as the locals do
There are all sorts of regular local events happening in Manuel Antonio and Quepos, from yoga classes and football matches to chess tournaments and movie nights, and the friendly locals are more than happy to welcome newcomers. How much more authentic can travel get?
Costa Rica has 32 national parks and Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular, with plenty of wildlife to see. On the morning we visit, we spot sloths, agouti, tent-making bats, blue morpho butterflies, purple and orange tropical land crabs, red and black scarlet tanagers, a laughing falcon, vibrant toucans, glorious iguanas, cute raccoons, and a boa constrictor. The locals love the wildlife as much as the tourists do, so go with a local, such as the excellent licenced guide we used, Manuel Cabalceta Mendez (email@example.com; 506 8719 6195).
7. Spend time on the sand
The locals seem to live on the beach. It doesn’t matter where they come from but they all have deep dark tans. When we were here we would bump into people we met everyday at the beach – taking their daily walks, collecting seashells, reading a book, riding a horse, throwing a Frisbee, just watching the sunset, or enjoying a surf.
8. Learn to surf
Costa Rica is a popular surfing destination, for locals and visitors alike, so if you don’t surf and you want to do as the locals do, then you need to learn how. There are a couple of surfing schools, but individual instructors came more highly recommended to us by locals, such as long-time surfing teacher Ivan Castillo (firstname.lastname@example.org) who can be found renting his boards out under a shady tree not far from the lifesavers’ stand.
The locals and expats are an active and altruistic bunch, devoting time to all sorts of causes, so why not volunteer a day or at the very least a few hours of your time while you’re there? We participated in a tree-planting event with local schools organized by the Titi Conservation Alliance, aimed at re-establishing a biological corridor for the endangered red backed squirrel monkeys. When we visited they’d already planted 35,000 trees and planted 650 the day we joined them. Email email@example.com to find out if there’s a planting when you’re there.
10. Do very little
There’s no denying that it’s hot and humid here, so how do the locals always look as cool as cucumbers? By doing very little, that’s how. The locals have 'the art of doing nothing' down to a very fine art. How many destinations can you go to where you can live like locals and take a good old-fashioned lie-on-the-beach holiday at the same time? Manual Antonio, for one, Costa Rica for another.