Costa Rica - How to avoid mass tourism

Costa Rica without tourists
Strange to travel again after almost a year and for the first time in 2021. The choice fell on Costa Rica because this country is one of the few countries with an absence on the local risk country list and in addition, no PCR test is required for an entry into Costa Rica.

Although shortly before departure the quarantine list changed and Costa Rica was added. To avoid going to quarantine after the trip, I extended the trip by adding Nicaragua and Honduras. This way I could skip quarantine back home.

One of the reasons why I was hesitating to visit Costa Rica in the last years, was my expectation about it being overcrowded with tourists. I heard from several people that Costa Rica is the Mallorca of Central America and that is something I really don't need when going on vacation.

I always wondered which area of Costa Rica is probably less flooded with vacationers, to avoid the massive crowd from abroad and have a bit of a unique experience.

How to avoid mass tourism in Costa Rica?

The simple answer is, to travel during the pandemic :D.

The best time to travel in Costa Rica without the masses from South America, the hordes of European travelers and the big people from the United States is definitely now.

Even during this ongoing pandemic I expected to face an extraordinary amount of travelers in Costa Rica but was surprised to see the country (or even touristic hot spots) totally empty. 

My arrival on Friday evening

The whole planning was in a very short preparation time with only two weeks in advance. It was probably my most short-termed long-distance trip, accompanied by a lot of uncertainties because of Covid.

After a relaxed during-the-day flight on IBERIA business class (yes, the business class upgrade prices will never be as low as they were during Corona), I arrived in the capital San Jose in the early evening.

Class Upgrade during COVID

An extraordinary experience to see a Latin American airport so quiet. There were very few people in the airport and so everything went very quickly until I was outside. The Adobe Car Rental guy was on time to pick me up and bring me to the car rental station.

To avoid the rampant covid spread in Costa Rica, I spent the night close to the airport and the car rental station.

Saturday - With the car rental towards the volcano "Arenal"

In the early morning I started with the rental car, a Hyundai i10. The ride went over the unexpectedly hilly landscape towards La Fortuna. This is the area with many volcanoes and also with the most famous volcano in Costa Rica - Volcano Arenal.

Self Drive to Alfaro Ruiz
Fastfood Chains in Costa RicaZarzero Central ParkZarzero Park

From San Jose to La Fortuna it's a 3-4 hours ride but at no point any hassle. It's easy to drive in Costa Rica - except for the devastating potholes.

One of them got me already within the first minutes of driving and left a leg-long scratch on the side.

The streets are only half full as due to the covid restriction these days, it's only allowed to drive every second day and which is determined by numbers plate. But, that rule isn't valid for rental cars.

Landscape towards La Fortuna
Craft Market La FortunaEcotourism by Rental CarSmall Towns towards Arenal Volcano

The few short sunny stretches were not enough to see the volcano Arenal in all its glory. At the wrong time at the wrong place. The locals called this quite normal, but it can also change completely within a few minutes. 

My scarcely two days in this area were not enough to see the sunny normal and thus the whole volcano.

Arriving in La Fortuna
Chance to see volcano is 50%Backpacker Hub in Costa RicaWell equipped city around Lake Arenal

The hub for Volcano tourists is situated a few kilometers from the entrance to the walking paths up to the volcano.

I was waiting there near the entrance gate at a cafe, waiting until the rain stops and then waiting until the clouds are gone. But the waiting for better weather remained without any improvement in sight. So I decided to check again tomorrow morning and if it's better, go up then. 

Arenal Volcano during rain
View on Volcano from La FortunaRental Car Lake ArenalMiniature Arenal VolcanoVolcano Simulation ArenalLake Arenal and Arenal VolcanoTienda in La Fortuna

For the rest of the afternoon, there was still enough time and so I went to visit the city La Fortuna. The city which during normal times is a backpacker hub of central America.

Center of La Fortuna
Bakery in La FortunaSwimming Pool in La FortunaLa Fortuna has one church

Sunday - Continuing towards the city "Liberia" in the west 

The onward journey with the small Hyundai over many more of the hilly landscapes and curvy roads along "Lake Arenal". It's a nice ride but could be much more spectacular if the weather is not cloudy. There were a few viewpoints, miradors and lookouts to stop along the road. 

Lake Arenal
Cloudy weather on Lake ArenalBoat ride Lake ArenalBig volcano under the cloud

Also small restaurants and coffee shops along the road, all waiting to cater for the non-existent tourists. But many of the restaurants used the quiet pandemic time to extend or renovate their infrastructure, make it all ready for the next tourist wave which is surely coming soon again.

Different perspective on Lake Arenal
Ecotourism in Costa RicaSven travel ban is overHouses of Costa RicaWell maintained shopsSmall town around the Lake ArenalNot difficult to drive in Costa Rica

Hola Liberia

The final destination today was the larger town of Liberia, where I also had to take the first PCR test. This is for the onward journey to Nicaragua which will be in 3 days. 

Liberia is pleasant, it's busy but not too busy. It has good accommodation options and has many restaurants and large US American fast-food chains. Clearly, all that the US American tourist needs to get a vacation feeling.

I wasn't really in the mood to park the car and make a long-distance walk through Liberia. So I made a round trip with the rental car. A sightseeing tour with the rental car through Liberia, with snapshots from the car with air conditioning - hah - my pure vacation feeling.

The main area in Liberia

There is a huge main road that connects all the major cities in Costa Rica, whereas the road to the north leads to Nicaragua and the one to the south to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The small center of Liberia has this huge white church and many restaurants nearby. 

In general it's a very quiet city.

The famous church of Liberia
White modern ChurchRelaxing Pavillon in Costa RicaLiberia visit during covid

The sideways and residential area of Liberia

Only a few dozen meters behind the main square, the residential districts appear.  The further away from the church the quieter it becomes. I wasn't sure if this is normal like that or if this quietness has something to do with the covid restrictions.

Much Wow Costa Rica
Woman walking along street in Costa RicaEmpty side streets in LiberiaNot many people in side of streetNot much money to repair carsTypical Costa Rica bicycleMeme house Costa Rica

Monday - I'm going to the pacific beaches

I first became aware of the advantage of traveling during the Corona Crisis last year while traveling to Iceland, but this trip reaffirmed it now on a broader scale. 

There are few to no tourists. 

Costa Rica and especially the coastal towns with beautiful beaches would be hopelessly overcrowded under normal circumstances, especially with US tourists. The infrastructure is ready with huge Wallmarts, KFC; McDonald's, etc all ready to fill the bellies of the northern tourists of the American continent.

I change my plan and make it more relaxed...

According to my original planning for this Costa Rica trip, I saw myself sitting in the car for several 100 kilometers driving along the pacific coasts. With the realization that it is actually more or less everywhere the same empty and the beaches look more or less similar, I limited myself to driving 2-3 coastal towns with their beaches. But with extended and relaxed breaks to enjoy the quiet time.

The first beach I was heading to was Playa Panama. 

It's still morning and only a 45 minutes ride from Liberia. So empty.

Playa Paname during Covid
Beach of PanamaClean beachBoats in Liberia HarborCosta Rica SharksPlaya Panama good to relaxGood weekend beach Liberia

Continuing further south one of the next beaches that appear is Playa de Coco. 

As it was already time for lunch I settled on this well-equipped beach hub. But all was so empty.

The buildings and infrastructure speaks for themselves but indicate that under normal circumstances this place is heavily crowded. All the shops have a full range of Quad bikes, normal bikes, kayaks, boats, and other stuff ready to be used. 

But no one uses it these days. I like it - it's so quiet and empty.

Arriving in Playa de Coco
Afternoon cloud in Playa de CocoEmpty Costa RicaPlaya de Coco food templesMcDonalds Playa de CocoEmpty streets in Playa de CocoBest beach experience during covid

Last beach for today "Playa Hermosa".

Because of all these quietnesses, I decided not to hassle further down the pacific coast. Instead, I slowly drove back and settled on another beach which is called "Playa Hermosa".

Playa Hermosa during covid
Normally hordes of TouristsExactly how I imagined Costa Rica isCovid is best time to relax

Tuesday - PCR Test day and getting ready for Nicaragua

Traveling during Covid has advantages and disadvantages. Besides the obvious disadvantages, there are also many hidden disadvantages, such as the administration around the formalities of border crossings. Printed test results and invoices of them are needed and this in multiple forms. 

COVID causes lots of administration effort for travelers

Online forms have to be filled out before crossing the border, indicating the exact time of crossing. Bus connections must be checked several times to see if the schedule still fits. 

Covid Travel means, always check the time. If, for example, a bus is canceled or massively delayed, this would at best invalidate the validity of the test result (72 hours from the time of test taken). Such a scenario can throw the entire planning over the edge. Before Covid, the administration effort around the visas was a challenge. With Covid, this effort has almost doubled. But those are the pitfalls of traveling during Covid.

PCR Test Center in Liberia. It's one of many.

PCR Test Center San Miguel

Last stroll through Liberia - "Negativo"

Later this afternoon I had to return the car to Adobe Car Rental. Luckily the person in charge didn't see the ugly scratch (because of some damn Costa Rican pothole) at the bottom of the side, (or maybe he guessed that it was already there when he saw the car). However, so far all is well. Car is gone and I'm negatively tested.

In the sideroads of Liberia
Typical Costa Rica ArchitecturePaintings in Costa Rican StyleBusy LiberiaAnonymous Alcoholics in LiberiaAlcohol for Costa Rica alcoholicsTica Bus Hotel Liberia Costa Rica

Wednesday - Bus ride to Nicaragua

The day of the crossing to Nicaragua with the Central American bus line Tica-Bus. All test results are printed, invoices of it copied 4 times. I've been told to do so. Departure from Costa Rica should be at 7:30 - now it is 9:30 and the hotline of Tica-Bus is not available. 

Has the Tica bus driver forgotten me? I had to remember those days when I was still used to traveling, which last time was almost a year ago, before Covid. 

Calm down Sven, it's normal here that busses have hours of delay...

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