Costa Rica: the things that the studying abroad brochures didn’t tell you

Brianna stands in front of Costa Rica’s most active volcano. (Photo courtesy of Brianna Gunter)

By Brianna Gunter
Foreign Correspondent

In the months leading up to my departure for Costa Rica, I — like so many others before me — busied myself with finding out everything I possibly could about the Central American country (it is in Central America, despite the surprising belief by some of my friends that Costa Rica is an island). I spent hours poring over websites and books that supposedly told me everything I needed to know, and accordingly I felt pretty well-prepared for my three-month trip. Now after three weeks of having actually lived in Costa Rica, I can confidently say I was not.

Upon arrival at Juan Santamaria International Airport, I was distressed to find there was nobody outside holding an Internatial Studies Abroad (ISA), my study abroad program provider, sign. After 20 minutes of turning down cab drivers and wandering awkwardly around clusters of elderly tourists (January is retiree season here apparently), I finally found a piece of paper taped to a wall with “ISA” scribbled in black Sharpie. While debating whether or not to wait by this sketchy looking sign, a Tico (male Costa Rican) came up to me and asked “ISA?” I barely finished nodding when he grabbed my suitcase and started walking quickly down the sidewalk. Not knowing whether he was working for ISA or robbing me, I had no choice but to follow closely behind him.

It turned out he wasn’t robbing me, but he wasn’t working for ISA either. Instead, he led me to where another ISA student was waiting, and told me I should stay there. Long story short, I found myself safely unpacking in my host family’s house after waiting outside the airport for five hours. Note to future study abroad students: it isn’t always best to arrive early at your destination.

Now, you can’t always believe what you read — this article being an exception, of course — and this has certainly been the case here.

For example, I read that Ticas (female Costa Ricans) tend to dress more conservatively because of religious values that run deep across the nation. Right. While it certainly is more common to see a woman in pants instead of shorts, shirts here are skin tight and often lack sleeves. My host mom (who I love by the way) is in fact very fond of tube tops and matches them with color-coordinating wedged sandals.

As for deep religious values, it is true that Christianity has a strong hold in Costa Rica. In fact, thanks to Catholic persuasions, this is one of the only “modern” countries where

abortion and the Plan B pill are completely illegal. Religion nevertheless remains more of an influence than a practice, and many people here do not attend church regularly or identify with a specific religion.

Then there are the dangers to tourists. Most of what I read made it seem like I was going to have to walk around with my money hidden deep in my clothes and have a suspicious eye focused on every passerby. In all honesty, it’s just like anywhere else in the world where tourists flock. If you act like a foreigner, you make yourself a target. The same rules apply in New York, Philadelphia, etc. Don’t fear for your life; just be smart. Here, of course, it also helps tremendously to speak Spanish. For me, a work swiftly in progress.

If there is anything that has been truly surprising to me, it’s the natural beauty of Costa Rica. As corny as it may sound, I never expected it to be so beautiful. Even in a city, I

she’s joined by fellow ISA students on a catamarán on the coast of Tamarindo. (Photo courtesy of Brianna Gunter)

can see striking blue skies and mountains in the background in every direction. Of course, my readings did fail to mention the not-so-beautiful aspects of Costa Rican urban areas. Garbage lines the streets, and the sidewalks (when there are sidewalks) are absolutely atrocious. If you don’t look where you’re walking, you risk falling about four feet down a random hole in the cement. Yep, those holes sure add to the beauty of Costa Rica.

Nevertheless, I can say my experience so far has been nothing short of incredible. I’ve bathed in hot springs, gone rappelling in the rainforest, zip lined through a jungle, swam in a hidden waterfall and seen an active volcano up close. My camera is filled with photos of exotic plants and animals, awesomely old colonial architecture and breathtaking green mountains. As I said aloud the other weekend as I sipped my margarita on a Catamarán (a boat) watching the sun dip swiftly below the horizon of the Pacific Ocean, “Now this is why I came to Costa Rica.”