The Traveling Doctor's Perspective on Travel to Costa Rica

Why would a physician post a blog on travel on his website? Well, I’ve always had an interest in travel, and that passion has been cultivated especially by my wife’s career choice as a travel adviser. I do spend a sizeable portion of my time outside of the office sharpening my medical skills and knowledge; however, I do not long to be one-dimensional. I would hope that my patients see me as more than a robotic answer to their medical question. I also greatly desire to know my patients well beyond their medical issues. Many of my patients also share my passion for traveling, and I treasure the couple of moments in the patient room when we discuss not only their arthritis, sprain, fracture or tendonitis, but also their past or upcoming domestic or international travels. I can gather their travel tips while also sharing my own. This sharing of information can be one of the highlights of my day. All that being said, here’s some nitty gritty on Costa Rica for those considering a trip to this fantastic country. I’ve been there twice in the past 5 years…once as adult couples and just recently, with my wife and children of 11 and 13 years of age.

WHY GO TO COSTA RICA?: This is a country full of beauty- mountains, volcanoes, animals, flowers and many forms of water. It’s an outdoor paradise for nature-lovers, fisherman, hikers, etc. Plan to be quite active. Of course, you can set your own schedule, but if looking for a low-key place to rest and relax, this is not the place for you. There are other destinations that focus more on R and R. Also, if you do love the outdoors, then your body needs to be prepared for some of the rigors that come with the territory. Those with very symptomatic hip, knee or ankle arthritis, or those fresh off of a lower body injury or surgery, will not find this to be an easy trip. Also, if Costa Rica is on your bucket list, don’t save this one for your retirement years. Many of the activities are not very conducive to older individuals (of course, this is a generalization, not an absolute), and in my travels to CR, I’ve not seen many tourists in their 60s or above.

Costa Rica is a great vacation option for families with active children, ages 6 to 18. Your family gets to experience an international destination, learn some Spanish, not have to travel a tremendous distance from the U.S,. and jet lag is not much of an issue, as CR is the same as the mountain time zone in the U.S. For Nashville, this means Costa Rica is only one hour behind us.

GROUND TRANSPORTATION: If traveling any significant distance from the airport (San Jose or Liberia) or when heading to a tour, I strongly recommend arranging for a private driver. They typically drive mini- to large vans of fairly new and of high quality. The roads are steep, curvy, somewhat narrow and not well-marked. This is not a country I recommend you drive yourself. Also, as a driver, you lose the ability to enjoy the beautiful views that will surround you because your focus is on the road. The drivers also tend to be excellent tour guides as well, providing a wealth of interesting information about the area. Finally, because of the many curves and hills, beware of motion sickness. If you are prone to this, sit towards the front of the vehicle, and for long rides, consider an OTC med such as Dramamine to counteract the motion sickness. My family was on the verge of vomiting a few times, but we survived without any messes!

WHERE TO STAY: If looking for an inland experience, let me endorse two properties. No, I do own stock in either, but I can speak highly of both based on personal experience. The first is the Peace Lodge, located about an hour north of the San Jose airport. This is more of a rustic lodge, developed around an animal sanctuary. The rooms are well-appointed with waterfall themes, especially in the bathrooms which are very unique including waterfall-type shower heads. The room amenities are impressive. The food options are a nice variety of Latin America fare and Americana cuisine. The highlight of this property is the animal sanctuary. Here, you will be up close and personal with toucans, parrots, ducks, monkeys, sloths, snakes, wild cats, poison frogs and butterflies as well as others. Most of our time with the animals was very personalized, getting uninterrupted and one-on-one education from the animal keepers while also experiencing the “high” of actually feeding the sloths, hummingbirds and toucans while holding some impressive non-venomous snakes. There is also a small trout pond where you can reel in a trout with relative ease. While I’ve been to some impressive zoos before in Washington, DC, St. Louis and San Diego, the Peace Lodge blew those away. In addition, all within about a one-mile hike, you can get an up-close look at 7 very powerful and beautiful waterfalls. Finally, the customer service at this property was first-rate.

The next location I recommend is The Springs Resort and Spa. This is located about 3 hours north of the San Jose airport, near the town of La Fortuna and within a great eyeshot of the Arenal Volcano, one of 7 active volcanoes in Costa Rica. The signature of this property is 26 pools, several derived from the mineral water pumped from wells near the volcano area. The pools range in temperatures from 88 to 103. The views from the property are spectacular, especially of the volcano when not covered by clouds, often late in the afternoon. At the base of the property, Club Rio offers numerous outdoor activities including river kayaking and tubing, animal sanctuary tours, horseback riding, ATV tours and rappelling. Off site and within about 30 minutes of the property, we enjoyed a 2-hour guided rainforest hike traveling over many hanging bridges hundreds of feet in the air while seeing monkeys, snakes, lizards, tarantulas, giant grasshoppers, sloths and owls, all in their natural habitat. A chocolate tour was our culinary education on this trip, seeing the process of making chocolate from pod, to bean, to nib to the many varieties of delicious chocolate. You participate in the process and are rewarded with several tastings at the end. Zip lining and coffee tours are two other popular tours for the area, but we did not partake in either this time. The only true drawback to the Springs property is the 2-mile road leading to its entrance. Curves, bumps and pot holes galore define this ride into the property. Once at the Springs, the road can be a deterrent to wanting to journey out from the property on a frequent basis.

A previous journey to the Costa Rica took us to the Pacific coastal area of Jaco, staying at the very nice Los Suenos resort. Golfing and deep-sea fishing were the highlights of this area. An 8-hour journey into the Pacific Ocean yielded some major battles with 75 lb. or greater sailfish, won by the humans. However, this was a “catch and release” outing, and thus, the fish were not significantly harmed, and we had photos and memories to commemorate the experience. Although a coastal area, I would not consider Jaco to be a “beach trip,” as the gulf beaches of Florida are far prettier.

THE COSTA RICAN PEOPLE: Rarely will you find a more friendly and hospitable group of people. This includes the tour guides, the drivers, the restaurant wait staff and all the property employees. These people are all impressively knowledgeable about their country, quoting statistics about their volcanoes, the number of resident animal species, the types of inhabiting flowers and their cuisine. The large majority speak very good English and also enjoy teaching you and your children Spanish along the way. They welcome tips but certainly don’t demand it. The Costa Ricans understand that tourism is a huge part of their economy, and thus, are very hospitable hosts. Fortunately, they don’t have to put up with a “spring break crowd” of college students very often, as travelers to Costa Rica tend to be a bit more calm and sophisticated. No offense to you college students! Also, of note, both American dollars and Costa Rica “colones” are widely accepted by most. Don’t be intimidated by the currency exchange rate: approximately 1 American dollar = 500 Costa Rican colones.

THE FOOD: Obviously, Latin American influence, resembling that of a more traditional Mexican cuisine. Unique options include rice and beans, aka "gallo pinto," a staple on the Costa Rican breakfast table. The fruit is extremely fresh and tasty, including bananas, plantains, papaya, pineapple and guava, among many others. Of course, seafood is a solid option for the area. Parents and those with “tongues of familiarity,” not to worry, American choices such as nachos, quesadillas, burgers and pizza are options at many hotels and resorts.

WHEN TO TRAVEL AND THE WEATHER: The temperature does not vary much in Costa Rica. There are basically two seasons: the rainy and not-so-rainy season. Expect major rainfall from May until December, with one native counting on a break from the rain in July of each year. This break from the rain, however, was not substantiated by other natives. However, traveling to Costa Rica during the rainy season has its advantages. First, the crowds are much smaller. Our 2nd trip in late May almost never felt crowded, and thus, wait times were minimal and our experiences felt much more personalized. Also, prices of the hotels, flights and tours tend to less expensive during the rainy, ”non-peak” season. Finally, after very busy and taxing mornings and relatively non-rainy tours, we welcomed the afternoon rain, giving us permission to catch up on some rest. Alternatively, if you truly desire to travel to CR during the drier season, then late December through March is your best bet. Expect to pay more during this season.

SAFTEY AND MEDICAL ISSUES: As mentioned before, if you desire to partake in hiking, water sports, waterfalls tours and similar activities, you need to be in decent if not relatively good cardiovascular and musculoskeletal condition. Our Fitbits usually read 11,000-15,000 steps by the end of each day. Good condition and slip-resistant shoes are a must. Waterproof clothing is highly recommended. Regarding food and water safety, gastrointestinal issues are always a concern, but at most higher-end restaurants and properties, the water is filtered and food is quite sanitary. I always recommend traveling with a medical bag of OTC meds including pain-relievers, cough and cold meds, motion sickness meds, Pepto-Bismol, an acid blocker, eye drops, antibiotic ointment and minor bandages. In addition, it’s not a bad idea to a have a broad-spectrum antibiotic prescribed by a physician to treat Strept. throat, ear, skin and urinary tract infections. Finally, keep a nice supply of hand sanitizer in your pocket, as you will touch many surfaces contacted by many others and may want to grab a bite to eat spontaneously when not near soap and water. Insect repellent is a must, but anti-malarial medications are not needed in most areas.

In conclusion, Costa Rica is a can’t-miss destination for those who love animals, love the outdoors, appreciate beautiful scenery and desire to experience a new culture without draining the bank account or begging for major jet lag. I wholeheartedly welcome friends and patients to knock on my door if you desire more information on a trip to this fascinating country.