Impressions: Costa Rica


These are my personal impressions of Costa Rica. They are highly subjective and the product of reflection well after the fact. I have been to many countries in my life and often try to create an abridged, condensed recollection of those places. The good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful all weigh in, being synthesized into a sort of scenario.

Costa Rica must be viewed along two dimensions, the first, the economic dimension, the second, the environmental dimension. Both of those dimensions can then be split into three parts, thus, from my experience there are nine Costa Rican permutations (I’ll leave the subtleties of those permutations aside). This sounds a little complicated, but Costa Rica warrants it.

Firstly, the economic dimension: there are the poor, the middle class and the tourists.

The poor are much like the poor in Nicaragua ostensibly but don’t seem to have the downtrodden mentality that their “friends” to the North have (Costa Rica, apparently, does not view Nicaragua favorably, as the US does not view Mexico favorably). There is a pride to the people, they care about their appearance, they try to look good. They may be poor but they give a shit about their surroundings. Their lots are not covered with trash. They may be living in what we would call tin shacks, but they are neat and tidy. They do not look upon foreigners with distrust or disdain – they may not be overly friendly, but they are not overly antagonistic either.

The middle class seem to be much like the middle class of America, though not nearly as wealthy. They are friendly and talkative and helpful. They have radiant smiles, are well groomed and would not look out of place in America at all. They form the majority of the people any tourist would deal with.

Then, there are the tourists… they range from the hippie, through the backpacker, to the aged, to the opulent. They are mostly American and form a significant portion of the population of the country at any given time. Costa Rica is a tourist Mecca, plain and simple.


The tourist trade has shaped Costa Rica, for good or ill, to a very deep level. If you stay on the beaten path, in your tour bus, you can have all your American comforts, if you stray from that, you still can live quite comfortably but will not see as many hallmarks of corporate America. I think it fair to say that Costa Ricans have formed a comfortable détente with their many visitors, both people and corporations, which informs any impression of Costa Rica to a large extent.

Aside from the problems Wiggles had getting into the country, the authorities have a very hands off approach to foreigners. The infrastructure of the country is quite good. All the telephone poles have fiber optics on them. The cell coverage is excellent – much better than the United States. There are schools everywhere. The main roads even have reflectors and government installed signs that are mostly accurate. The secondary and mountain roads however are VERY treacherous. If you go there and rent a car make damn sure it’s a four wheel drive with some clearance. If you’re caught in a rain storm on a mountain road, you’re somewhere between stuck until the road dries out or at the bottom of a 300 foot cliff in a smoldering pile of twisted metal – seriously!


As for the environmental dimension, any given area seems to be in one of three states.

Firstly, “untouched” Nature abounds. It can be found just about anywhere in the country, with caveats. The national parks are first class, not exactly US first class, but first class nonetheless from an ecological standpoint. The beauty you can find there is breathtaking. The mountains, the volcanos, the rainforests and the beaches are truly splendid. You can pay someone to show it to you, or you can go it alone.

Adventure tourism seems to have hit Costa Rica in a big way. How much of an actual adventure you’ll get from any given company remains to be seen, but our experience there is that they deliver on their promises. Do not expect it to be cheap because it most certainly will not be. Someone there said that Costa Rica was the fifty-first state of the US, referring to prices. So be prepared to spend for the fancy stuff.

Then there is the behind the scenes kind of area. These are primarily deforested areas. There are vast expanses of Costa Rica that have no trees. That is not the natural state there. The beautiful rollings hills with green grass and cows and whatnot are completely unnatural, though still beautiful and well kept. There are also large plantations of palms, bananas, etc. Costa Rica seems to have learned early enough though to preserve at least some of its natural wonders from the slash and the burn.

Then there are the urban, tourist and industrial areas. There are signs everywhere saying “for sale” – in English, with prices in US Dollars. San Jose is a sprawling hodgepodge of slums, resort hotels, middle class houses, modern buildings and US chains. Large industry has carved out niches here and there in the country as well. To compare it to the United States as a whole based on land use percentages seems unfair because of Costa Rica’s small size, but it “feels” like more of Costa Rica has been preserved than in the US, though that is undoubtably untrue.


When I think of Costa Rica, I think of natural beauty in an awkward but possibly sustainable balance. The people have not sold their souls completely to America, but may. The land has not been completely subsumed by greed, both foreign and domestic, but may. Costa Rica has an optimism to it, an effortless sophistication, while maintaining its wild banana republic feel. I truly hope its optimism isn’t an opiate allowing a slide into Nature confabulated onto the balance sheets of American chain hotels and rich retirees’ gated estates.

Jeff Chapple

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One Response to Impressions: Costa Rica

  1. Rico says:

    Costa Rica: Know many Expats who have moved permanently to CR!! There were many reasons … having a 500 colones (CRC) to the dollar exchange rate was significantly attractive! Plus there has been a very favorable climate for US technical manufactures’ to build plants there! When I worked for Intel they had a very large setup there as well as Bourns and several others that I represented in the early 1970s.
    Plus during the US Civil War many Southern farmers migrated to CR to escape the craziness that was to follow. All of this lead to a favorable relationship with the US early on! Yes CR is cool … I was thinking of moving there but my wife preferred Hawaii!
    And now so do I!