Editor’s note: The headline is a reference to “Mo Money Mo Problems” by 1990s hip-hop artist The Notorious B.I.G. (in an unforgettable collaboration with Mase and Puff Daddy). You picked up on that, right? Okay, just checking. On with the post…
South of Mexico, the cruising crowd thins considerably. Almost everyone we met in our first six months fell into one of three categories: One, they never leave Mexico, returning year after year to cruise on their boat. Two, they’re leaving from Mexico to cross the Pacific, and plan to skip Central America. Or three, their cruising plans are short-term and finite; they’ll turn around and head back north to the USA eventually.
By the time we reached Costa Rica, it was common for Pineapple to be the only boat in an anchorage. This was different than our time further north, where I could often count 20 or more boats sharing a bay with us. And during more than a month in Costa Rica, we socialized with only a handful of other boats. Which led us to wonder:
Where are all the cruisers? And why are they choosing to skip this wildlife haven? This tropical paradise? If traveling by sailboat, why not come south from Mexico to visit Costa Rica?
Admittedly, the other countries on our Central America itinerary may have raised some eyebrows back at home. Violence from organized crime and drug trafficking are real issues, and many Americans choose to stay away entirely. Compared to Mexico, we weren’t surprised to see fewer cruisers in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
But Costa Rica? The country is safe, stable, and prosperous. Americans are the lifeblood of the Costa Rican tourism industry. And it continues to develop: If the surf-town, eco-friendly, pura-vida vibes don’t do it for you, you can find true luxury at any number of high-end resorts. And I won’t even get into the sport-fishing industry! It’s almost Cabo-level in the number of sport-fishing boats and the extent to which local marine services have sprung up to service the fleet.
Having spent five weeks sauntering down 300 short miles of Costa Rican coastline, we have a good understanding of why this tourism hotspot is so neglected by cruisers. And honestly, after our experience, I kinda wish we were like the vacationers—arriving by airplane and sleeping comfortably on shore each night… here’s why.
Costa Rica’s anchorages are rolly
Nothing sours our spirits as much as a rolly anchorage. Picture this: You spent the day sailing down a lovely stretch of the Costa Rican coastline. Dramatic, lush jungle provided a stunning backdrop. The water was an unreal shade of blue. Dolphins showed up to say “hi.” You enter the bay you’ll call home for the next few nights, take down the sails, and are struck by the insane “pinch-me”-level beauty of your surroundings. As you drop the anchor, you hear howler monkeys in the trees and spot scarlet macaws cruising the shore.
But you can’t seem to read anything without getting dizzy. You can’t walk the length of the boat without bouncing around like a ping-pong ball. The boat is rolling incessantly from side to side. The idea of spending several days in this particular spot has just gone from thrilling to… not so much.
Unfortunately, the ocean swells roll right into many of the well-known, commonly used anchorages in Costa Rica, and that means very little protection for boats like ours. We got into the routine of rigging our FlopStopper every time we set the anchor. This is a clever device that uses a set of aluminum louvres to provide water resistance, which slows or stops the boat’s side-to-side rolling. In many anchorages, it’s a total game-changer. But Costa Rica’s anchorages are too much for the FlopStopper to handle, and it basically did nothing (except chafe through rope).
It’s true that the uncomfortable anchorages make the calm ones that much sweeter… but that sentiment provides limited consolation in the moment.
Many anchorages are in out-of-the-way locations
Almost everywhere we anchored in Costa Rica, we found fault with the location. Either:
1. The anchorage was far from the nearest town. We love a long walk on the beach as much as anyone, and it’s usually a pleasure to stretch our legs in a lovely setting. But sometimes we are looking for something practical, like a hardware store, or we want a meal ashore without it turning into a three-hour adventure. Or…
2. It required landing the dinghy in surf. Given the swells, going ashore in Costa Rica meant landing our dinghy in some pretty big waves. With proper timing—that is, closely watching the swells behind you and waiting for a break so you can beach the dinghy and pull it ashore before a wave clobbers you—landing on the beach is not too difficult. But launching the dinghy to go back to the boat, on the other hand… that’s when things tend to get wild. As hard as we try, we never time the surf perfectly. Translation: we get soaked. It’s often dark, and the tide is higher or lower than when we landed, making it a challenge to find the right time and place to jump in and start the engine. I’ve gotten used to the sensation when I look up and think: “Oh shit, this wave is going break right over the dinghy, we’re going to get drenched, and there’s nothing we can do.” At least it happens on the way back to the boat, when we can rinse off upon arrival! Or…
3. Both! When this was the case, we spent a lot of time on the boat 🙂
(This photo is only slightly dramatized. This was not an anchorage where we tried to land.)
Costa Rica is expensive
And not just by Central America standards! To give you an idea, we found a nice grocery store in Playa del Coco. They had this bag of almond flour…
For $23! Yes, $23! Regular flour will do just fine, thankyouverymuch.
Fortunately, we were highly motivated to save money during our time in Costa Rica. Our good friends Taylor and Carolyn were planning to visit us at the end of April, which was awesome! We were looking forward to spending time with them, and we were excited to splurge a little on restaurant meals, cocktails, guided tours, and parking the boat in a fancy marina for convenience. We planned ahead for these expenses, built our monthly budget accordingly, and stayed extra frugal until Taylor and Carolyn arrived. Tune in next week to see how we did!
It’s true: We found a few downsides that might keep the average Pacific Coast cruiser away from Costa Rica. But try to forget about those things (we have), because they don’t nearly outweigh the amazing experiences we had exploring this country. Here are the highlights of exploring Pacific Costa Rica by boat.
Costa Rica’s wildlife is breathtaking and easy to spot
We saw countless exotic birds, lizards, butterflies, crabs, insects, and other critters. Wildlife reserves like Curú and Manuel Antonio did not disappoint. But we saw most of these wonders of nature on our own—on quiet beaches, hiking, or just looking up into the trees wherever we were. With my limited photography skills, I focused on the larger subjects: monkeys, which were everywhere!
This guy was trying pretty hard to sneak into John’s backpack:
And here’s a sloth looking for some sun to dry out after a rainy night:
And a coatimundi (in the raccoon family):
But nothing was as mesmerizing for me as the toucan. Here’s the best shot I could manage. Do you see it?
Of course, this does not show the vibrant colored beak set against its jet black feathers; the combination is what makes this bird so beautiful and striking.
We spent the last six months amazed at the sea life along the coast, but being in Costa Rica gave us lots of reasons to keep our eyes peeled above the waterline as well.
The surroundings are simply epic
These creatures’ habitat is no less stunning. Our nightly surroundings looked a lot like this:
And the beaches are practically empty:
The sunsets in Costa Rica cannot be beat:
We were in Costa Rica at the start of rainy season, which meant that at some point every day we got a rain shower (and sometimes a deluge). The rain was a big change after the arid coasts of California and Mexico, but we didn’t mind it at all, as it kept the scenery green, the boat clean, and the temperature a bit lower.
Costa Rica’s tourism development makes life a little easier
For cruisers and other travelers, it’s really nice to be in a country with potable tap water, where even the tiny local grocery store is well stocked with familiar brands and good produce. The hardware stores had everything on our list, and thanks to the aforementioned sport-fishing boats, we found several good marine stores. Plus, with such a developed tourism industry, many Costa Ricans (they call themselves “Ticos”) speak enough English to help you with whatever you need.
The coastline is compact
No long passages here. In Costa Rica, we had our choice of multiple destinations within an easy day’s sail. This, for some reason, is known as “gunk-holing” among cruisers. I don’t prefer the term myself. But I do like short passages!
We had relatively calm seas along the entire coast. And to our delight, the cats have been spending more time with us in the cockpit while we’re underway. Notice Chase is completely passed out!
Costa Rica made us more self-sufficient
Our five weeks in Costa Rica impressed us with natural beauty and the quiet solitude of empty anchorages. But it also had an important impact on our skills as cruising sailors: we became more self-sufficient.
Shore was sometimes difficult to access (because of the surf landings), and towns were sometimes far away, and when we got there, the prices were always high—so we learned to spend more time aboard, doing our own chores and making our own food. We did our laundry in a bucket. We made homemade bread and yogurt. There were nights that I really didn’t feel like cooking, but tough! because going ashore for dinner was not an option.
The transition from our comfortable life in San Francisco to life as full-time sailing nomads has come with challenges and rewards. But cruising in Costa Rica has pushed those challenges to a new level, and they came with a new level of reward, too. Simply put, Costa Rica is a tough place to cruise; but it’s also incredibly rewarding. We’ll take away the confidence and skills we developed there—but we’ll also take the memories and experiences that will stay with us forever.
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