I have written about my love for Costa Rica before. And as I write this, I am once again in Costa Rica, sitting on the patio of my wonderfully inexpensive room in a charming boutique hotel (called, appropriately enough, La Ramona Charming Hotel), overlooking a calm pool and lush gardens, still stuffed from a bountiful breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs, relaxing after an early morning swim in the Pacific Ocean a couple of short blocks away.
And though I'm reluctant to see towns like touristy Tamarindo get even bigger and filled with still more traffic, I can't help but spread the gospel of Costa Rica—especially to my fellow Houstonians. The pristine beaches, animal-filled jungles and awe-inspiring volcanoes offer endless realms of exploration for the casual vacationers, the adventure-seekers and everyone in between, and getting to this Central American paradise has never been easier.
In addition to the highly helpful fact that all of the power plugs are the same in Costa Rica (no need for a travel adapter!), below you'll find five more reasons the so-called Switzerland of Central America should be on every Houstonian's to-visit list:
The flight is short and relatively cheap.
Southwest Airlines offers routes that fly into both San Jose (the capital, smack-dab in the middle of the country, close to popular tourist areas like Punta Arenas) and Liberia (a small town in the north that offers a quick means of getting to the beautiful Nicoya Peninsula). Both are non-stop flights, both take around three-and-a-half hours, and both cost around $350 round-trip. And once you're here, lodging can be found at every price point, from tidy hostels for $30 a night, boutique hotels for $90, or flat-out luxury resorts where you're treated like royalty for $200.
English is spoken widely.
In Costa Rica, education is both free and compulsory; as a result, it has one of the highest literacy rates in the western hemisphere. (Costa Rica also offers universal healthcare, which is a discussion for another time.) And since the primary industry here is tourism, many Ticos speak basic to fluent English, especially in touristy areas. That said, brushing up on your Spanish is a welcome courtesy, and making an effort will earn you friends wherever you go—even if all you learn to say is "pura vida."
American currency is accepted most places.
You can certainly change your dollars into colones, but it won't matter either way, as most taxis, restaurants, surfboard rental shops, boutiques, bars, tour companies—you name it—take both forms of currency, often giving change in a mix of American dollars and Costa Rican coins. If you're in a particularly touristy area, such as Tamarindo or Jaco, you'll find prices listed for goods and services in U.S. dollars, with nary a colón in sight. Pro tip: Spend those colones, if you do have them, before you hit the airport for your return trip, as the conversion rate back to dollars is pretty dismal.
It's safe and family-friendly.
So about that "Switzerland" nickname: Costa Rica's military was famously abolished in 1949, with the budget instead allocated towards education and culture. It's the most stable country in Central America, with a democratically elected government that steadfastly refuses to involve itself in regional conflicts. As a result, its crime rate is also quite low, with violent crime rates well below those in the U.S. (Petty crimes, like theft, can be a problem in more tourist-ridden areas though, so don't leave your purse or backpack laying around unattended.)
Moreover, the diversity of attractions in Costa Rica makes it an ideal destination for all ages and nearly all levels of physicality; pretty much anyone can take part in an ATV tour of the jungle, a stroll through a rescued monkey sanctuary, or a brisk walk to the hot springs and mud baths found near the top of area volcanoes such as those in the Rincón de la Vieja National Park. (And yes, most restaurants have a children's menu, many with some form of chicken nuggets.)
The food is amazing.
Speaking of chicken nuggets, Costa Rican cuisine is accessible for even the fussiest American palate. It's essentially rice, beans, chicken, fish, seafood, eggs and tropical fruit, in abundance. Should you, for some dire reason, not want to partake of this cornucopia of amazingly fresh food, American food is also found in abundance, as is Italian, German, French, Argentinean, Chinese and Japanese. You'll pay American prices for this, however; sticking to comida típica is both healthier and cheaper, and you really can't beat a bowl of red snapper and shrimp ceviche on the beach, enjoyed a few yards away from where it was just hauled in that morning. Pura vida, indeed.