While Costa Rica isn't considered as off the beaten path as it used to be, there are still ways to visit the country and feel like you're miles away from civilization. Pauline Frommer's Costa Rica author David Appell joins host Kelly Regan to talk about "the other" Costa Rica. Appell discusses great experiences shopping and eating with locals at mercado central, participating in a wildlife rescue, and finding great places to stay for under $30 a night. Appell also reveals how you can find quiet beaches and great surfing, as well as the best ways for travelers to take advantage of the many outdoor and adventure travel opportunities.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
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- Alternative Accommodations: While you can stay at a hotel for merely $30 a night, try homestays, lodges, ecolodges for as little as $5 a night.
- What to Do: Rafting, hiking, ziplining, backpacking, surfing, canopy tours, hot springs.
- Where to Go (Shopping): Visit the three large cities around San Jose for their Mercado Centrale.
- Where to Go (Wildlife): Gondoca Beach, Osa Peninsula, Cano and Cocos Islands, Corcovado bioreserve.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to the frommers.com podcast. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.
My guest today is David Appell, one of the authors of our new book, "Pauline Frommer's Costa Rica". As we've discussed here in the past, Pauline Frommer, Arthur's daughter, has launched a new series of guidebooks that are putting a fresh spin on budget travel. Pauline couldn't join us today because she's traveling in Hawaii at the moment, but David is here to talk about how to spend less and see more in Costa Rica.
David lives in Miami and has been a travel journalist for the past 18 years. He has written for "Travel & Leisure", "National Geographic Traveler", "GQ", the "International Herald Tribune" among other places, and he's also served as the executive editor of "Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel" and "Caribbean Travel & Life".
At the moment, David edits two websites, www.hotbabel.net and www.gaybabel.net, as well as a new series of foreign language phrasebooks for love, dating and sex that come in straight, gay and lesbian versions. They're available in Spanish, French, Italian, German and other languages, and they can be purchased on those websites, as well as on amazon.com.
So, David, welcome. Thanks for being here today.
David Appell: Thank you very much, it's a pleasure.
Costa Rica is a fascinating country. Over the last five or ten years, we've really seen it explode as a travel destination, and it's become increasingly popular with even the most mainstream travelers. It's not as off the beaten path as it was once perceived to be.
So, I'm curious about whether you think that this increased popularity has affected the country's affordability as a budget travel destination. Do you think it's pricier now, and is it still a bargain for travelers?
David: I've heard some people say that Costa Rica's been ruined by "all the increased tourism and all the Americans, etc. etc." And sometimes I have to laugh, because there are certain parts of the coast, for example, that may be a little bit honky-tonkish, but there are plenty of places that you feel like you're a million miles away from civilization.
David: In this tiny little country you can be in the rain forest, and it still does attract a significant backpacker and surfer, and a lot of other budget travelers, who would not be going down there if they only had the Before Season as an option. So yes, you can get rooms still - and pretty decent rooms - for $30 or less a night, and...
David: I don't think there's any problem with that whatsoever. Even in the capital, San Jose, it's easy to spend less.
Kelly: OK, great.
You mentioned getting rooms for $30 a night. One of the hallmarks of the Pauline Frommer series is the focus on alternative accommodations, and encouraging people to think beyond the notion of just checking into a hotel as part of your vacation.
So, can you talk a bit about things like vacation rentals and homestays in Costa Rica? What are the pros and cons of doing this, and are there any places that are particularly good for that?
David: The homestay option often is linked with the language schools.
David: And there are a ton of language schools in Costa Rica, throughout the country. Anywhere you want to go, from the big city to the rainforest way up in the mountains, and they will arrange homestays for you. Now if you want to do that without having to take language classes, there is something called Bells' Homestay based in the San Jose area...
David: ... that will just do it for great fee. And they get very nice middle-class Ticos to stay with - "Ticos", by the way, are how Costa Ricans refer to themselves. The other options include volunteering, and they, too, will put you up with families. There are lodges, ecolodges, that are very good alternatives in some areas, bio-reserves, national parks and so forth, for as little as $5 a night.
David: So there are quite a few options.
Kelly: OK, OK. That's great. You mentioned volunteering, actually, and I wanted to pick up on that a little bit. Costa Rica as a country is also becoming increasingly sensitive with ecotourism, and you've mentioned the ecolodges and bioreserves and things like that. Volunteering is one way that people can really experience the country in a more sustainable way, adhering to the principles of sustainable travel, which is something we've talked about a lot in the podcasts.
So can you talk a little bit about what sort of volunteering opportunities there are, and maybe recommend a few trip ideas that have a more environmentally-friendly bent?
David: Every single part of the country has programs that vary widely in what you can do or how long they'll accept volunteers. For some, you can do it on a day-by-day basis, for others, you have to it for two weeks to a month a minimum.
David: Depends on what kind of time you have. But, for example, you could volunteer at... Costa Rica's a big birding destination. But if you want to see the birds in a more convenient, controlled environment, there's a place called Zoo Ave, near San Jose, that has a great, amazing selection of all the many, many species that Costa Rica has...
David: ... as well as volunteer opportunities. So, you can take care of the birds as well as see them.
David: You can volunteer at all the national parks and then have an experience that way, or you can do something a little more town and city-oriented, such as teaching English, such as helping out in a day care center or a nursing home - a lot of different possibilities. So whether you want to go more rustic or more city-oriented, there's something there for you.
Kelly: OK, that's great.
That actually points to another feature that's common to all of the Pauline Frommer guides. You all have sections in the book called "The Other", like "The Other San Jose" "The Other Manuel Antonio National Park", and it helps readers travel beyond the habitual tourist path and make a deeper connection to a country's people and their culture. And some of the things you've just recommended seem like those would be ways to actually do that... to get past the typical tourist trail and see a little bit more of Costa Rica.
Are there other ways, in the cities, or in the more remote regions that you recommend trying to do that?
David: Well, for example everybody likes to go out for a drink or for dancing, whatever, so we try to include some of the nightspots for example, that really attract locals and where you can mingle a little bit with them and indicate when is good to go and all this kind of thing. But, apart from the volunteering and some of the programs that have been set up, that I was just talking about, we also recommend going to a sports game.
The Ticos are soccer nuts. They're loony about soccer. If you go there and help cheer on Heredia or Alajuela or something, right alongside them, you'll have a friend for life.
Kelly: That's right!
David: One of the other things I really recommend is, especially in the central valley, there are three large cities around San Jose, which have, what they call Mercado Centrale, which is a big covered, central market. Go in there, and don't go to the big hypermarket, the Wal-Mart kind of places. Go into the Mercado Centrale and rub shoulders with the housewives. See what they're buying. Sit down and have lunch with them there. It's really an amazing experience, and a little bit of by-gone Costa Rica. I don't know how long it'll be around. But, for now, it's still there to be enjoyed.
Kelly: OK. Yes, that sounds great. Those are often when you get the best meals, as well.
David: Oh my god! Tell me about it! I had ceviche in Heredia recently, that I wish I could have shipped back home. It is stacked up against anything I've had in the States.
Kelly: [laughs] That's great. Let's talk about the food for a bit. What is the country's cuisine like? Can you describe some typical dishes, what people can expect to see when they get there?
David: Well, you want to go fresh, basically, in Costa Rica, because it's not like, say Mexican, or Peruvian, or Argentine, where there's a certain identifiable, national characteristic. It's sort of typical rice and beans, Latin cuisine, nothing too special. However, you can get some really tasty meals. They do grilled meats, they do seafood to die for. So, I just can't generalize about the food too much. It's not the best aspect of Costa Rica. But, you won't be sorry. You'll go home satisfied.
Kelly: Yes. It sounds like if you, as you said, stick to the fresh stuff, that's really where you're going to see it at its best.
Kelly: Yes. OK. That's great. To switch gears for a minute, Costa Rica is obviously also well known as an adventure travel destination. There's a zip line canopy tour, there's hiking, things like that. What are some of your favorite outdoor experiences in Costa Rica?
David: Oh, my god. Every time you get go there, you could probably spend a year's worth of vacation just going doing the outdoors stuff. There's some excellent rafting, for example, within a pretty decently close drive of San Jose. A quarry that has it's own rivers. There's a gorgeous valley, over near Torrealba.
I do enjoy the zip lines. That's what people think of first, when they think of outdoor activities in Costa Rica. The Monteverde, which is a mountaintop cloud forest environment, around the middle of the country, has the best known zip lines. One of the ones I especially find cool is down on the coast in the area called Montezuma, on the Pacific coast, where they have a canopy tour that takes you over waterfalls. It's just unbelievable.
Kelly: Wow! That's sounds incredible!
David: Yes. The hot springs are also another favorite of mine. If you go up to a town called La Fortuna and Atenal, volcano area... Being a volcanic area, there's all these volcanoes in Costa Rica. For such a tiny country, it's an amazing volcano cradle. They have hot springs there, in the form of waterfalls, and rivers, and landscapes and everything. One of the best is called Tabacon, which is really an experience.
Kelly: Do the waters seem therapeutic at all? I know often hot springs are considered to be that way. Or, is it really more just an experiential thing?
David: Yes, there a couple of places where they do Thalassotherapy, and that kind of thing. There are spas associated with some of these hot springs. But, what the heck, I just like splashing around in them.
Kelly: [laughs] Of course! With so much opportunity to experience nature, you're obviously going to encounter wildlife. So many people are going to Costa Rica because you can see things there that you're not really going to see that many other places. The toucans, and the monkeys, and the beautiful little, brightly colored frogs with those red eyes that you always see pictures of. What's your favorite wildlife encounter, and why was it your favorite?
David: Well, I don't know. You know something for me? The turtles really did it. All over, there are several beaches, on both the Caribbean side, and the Pacific side, where they get, certain times of year, leatherbacks and green turtles and a lot of these enormous marine tortoises, basically, the ones that live hundreds of years and swim all over the world. They come back to mate and nest and hatch on these soft sand beaches, every year.
One of the most incredible experiences that I can remember was climbing around a Caribbean beach called Gondoca, Puerto Viejo, at 11:30 at night. While the guide was saying, "There it is!"
You have to be very careful not to disturb them as they're nesting, because they take that very seriously. It's very easy to be voyeuristic and trample the beaches. But, they manage to do it in a way that's not intrusive to the animals. And just witnessing that there was the highlight of the past five years for me.
Kelly: Wow. It sounds like there are groups that are vested and there to protect the environment while this is happening.
David: Absolutely. There are lots of gringos in Costa Rica and a lot of them have become involved in this kind of group, and locals as well. It's half and half, as far as I can tell. Let's face it. Ecotourism is not just an environmental issue, it's a bread and butter issue for them. And it's in their interest to protect that.
Kelly: Of course, which is at the heart of what ecotourism is about. It's about preserving a place both for preservation's sake and also because it does generate significant dollars for the economy.
You bring up an interesting point about the beaches and the turtles, because people might think of Costa Rica as primarily a jungle or a rainforest destination, but there are great beaches too. I wanted to have you talk about that for a bit. Do you have a favorite beach, and is there a difference between the beaches that are on the Caribbean side and on the Pacific side?
David: Yes. I would say the Caribbean side tends to be less visited than the Pacific side.
David: Right there, that means that you have less crowding. You have uncrowded beaches on the Pacific side too, but for example if you go to the Punta Uva, near Puerto Viejo on the Limon coast, you will be like something out of Robinson Crusoe.
David: It's a lush canopy behind shimmering white sands. You'll see some people there, there are more crowded beaches and there are less crowded beaches. There are some that are really popular with surfers. Surfing is one of the biggest industries in Costa Rica.
Kelly: That happens pretty much on the Pacific coast?
David: It does, yes, most on the Pacific coast. There is a famous break on the Caribbean side called Salsa Brava, which means 'hot sauce'. It's known all over the world, but the Pacific side is really where the surfing beaches are. You'll want to go down especially to the Nicoya Penninsula, where there are some surfing schools, camps, and just a real gnarly scene. I mean, just some amazing stuff down there.
Kelly: What about snorkeling? Are there some places that are particularly good to see marine life?
David: They've got a great reef over on the Caribbean side near Cahuita and Monzanillo. That's an amazingly colorful experience. On the Pacific side, you've got stuff up near the Nicaraguan border, but really I think the best snorkeling - and I haven't done this, but I've heard about it aplenty - is down on the Osa Peninsula, which deserves an interview just about the Osa.
It's one of these relatively remote areas that you have to drive 12 hours from San Jose to get there (you can also fly). And Drake Bay is one of the marine wonderlands of the world. Cano and Cocos islands have some great snorkeling. There's also whale watching over there, dolphins. The Osa Peninsula is also home to one of the most amazing national parks and bioreserves in the world, called Corcovado.
David: You have your choice, basically.
Kelly: That sounds fantastic. As you have, I've heard so much about the Osa Peninsula and all the varied things there are to do there. Actually, you touched on something else, and as we start to wind down our conversation, I thought I'd ask you to elaborate a little bit. How easy is it to travel from place to place in Costa Rica? Will you need a car to get around, or is it possible to visit regions or go from region to region without renting a car?
David: Well, with the exception of the Osa, most of the rest of the country is within a four hour drive of San Jose, it really is that small. In the central valley, which is the high poppy-growing area surrounding the capital, the roads are pretty decent. I wouldn't have a problem recommending a car for that area.
The roads outside that area get a little dicey sometimes. A little bumpy, not always paved, and there's almost no signage. This is a very important thing to remember about Costa Rica. You have to go, "Well, it's 100 meters to the right".
With the exception of San Jose, there are no street addresses, so you could get lost. There are bus services that are also inexpensive. For a few bucks, they'll take you in an air-conditioned bus from San Jose to any part of the country, and also between those parts. So, in many cases, I would recommend that, as a good option, if you don't want to drive. Manuel Antonio, for example, is a great, great place to visit but the road going into it is shameful, and the bridge is hair-raising.
Kelly: If people are going to be driving, are the directions that they get equally imprecise? Are there maps that can help them find their way around?
David: There are maps, and that does actually help a bit. People are very friendly. If you ask directions... English is not always well spoken in some areas, but you can generally get where you're going, it will just take you a little bit longer.
Kelly: OK. That's encouraging. We're just about out of time, but I can't let you go without asking you one last question, which is, given your work on the foreign language phrase books related to love, dating, and sex; during your research and travel for this book, did you learn any Costa Rican slang that might come in handy for your website?
David: 'Pura vida, mi'. Every Latin American country has its own jargon, and Costa Rica's no exception. I try to include that kind of thing in my books whenever possible. The one expression that you'll hear constantly down there is 'pura vida' which means cool or awesome. Anything really good is 'pura vida' which means literally, 'pure life.' It's a not bad way of summing up Costa Rica because I think pure life is what it's all about. It's a great little country.
Kelly: That's all the time we have for today. I've been talking with David Appell, one of the authors of our new guide "Pauline Frommer's Costa Rica". You'll find other Pauline Frommer guides on sale now to cities including London, Paris, New York, Las Vegas, and Disney world, as well as larger areas such as Italy and Hawaii. Now, we have a Costa Rica title to add to that list.
It's been really good to talk to you, thanks so much for being here.
David: Pura vida, Gracias.
Kelly: OK, great. Join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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