One of the main reasons travelers are traveling is for that unique experience.
Sure you can buy mangoes at your local supermarket anywhere in the U.S. but they don’t come with cross-cut inside-out opening demonstrations as they might from a roadside stand in Costa Rica.
Many unique experiences are best explored with professional assistance and the appropriate gear. For example you would be ill advised to head into the jungle looking for a vine to slide down a waterfall on your own homemade canyoneering expedition.
The first rule for enjoying unique experiences is that mostly they don’t just happen. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because you’ve planned, prepared, or sought out an experience it isn’t genuine or unique. Sometime you have to work for it.
You may luck into some unique experiences spontaneously simply by visiting a foreign country. For example it’s likely that you’ll end up at a roadside fruit stand sometime on your vacation. Without any preparation at all you might get the tastiest pineapple you’ve every experienced. But, if you spend five minutes reading up on tropical fruits before you go you might just have the nerve to try scooping the seeds out of a two foot long tree bean pod and sucking off the fluffy mallow coating for an experience you’ll never get in the produce section of your local grocery.
Any fruit will probably taste better when it doesn’t get picked green and packed in a cargo container for a couple of weeks. Mangoes, papaya and pineapples are a whole different experience when picked ripe, warmed by the sun in a stack at a roadside stand and consumed al fresco without plates or utensils while the juice drips down your chin.
Try the local smoked bananas. They are totally different than the desiccated banana chips you find in the states that resemble dried blobs of wallpaper paste. They slice them full length then work some sort of drying magic (I think it’s the same process headhunters use to shrink heads) that makes them sweet, moist and packed with flavor.
Suggested Unique Experiences
- Waterfall swimming – there are thousands of waterfalls in Costa Rica and hiking to one where it’s safe to swim under a tropical cataract is amazing.
- Fogata – A giant Bonfire on the beach – just ask they might do it for you
- Eat at a real soda. Sure some of the Tipico restaurants are good and pretty authentic but that’s like saying there’s a good fondue place in the small world exhibit at Disneyland. You’re in Costa Rica you don’t have to do the Disney version. How do you know it’s a typical restaurant? The first hint is that a truly authentic local restaurant usually does not have typical (Tipico) or authentic (auténtico) in the name.
- Territorio de Zaguates is an extraordinary dog shelter that offers a chance to “run with the pack” when they take hundreds of dogs on an off leash hike across their mountain property.
- Take a bus – don’t forget to carry cab fare just in case.
- Night in the jungle – it’s a whole different world at night (probably want a guide the first couple times you try this).
- Waterfall rappelling – unless you have experience or equipment this is best done on a commercial tour, but there are some professional outfitters who will equip, guide and teach you as you go (see the Valley of the Waterfalls suggested itinerary).
- Surfing – if you’ve never tried it this is a great place to start. Same goes for kite boarding, stand up paddle boards, white water inner-tubes, boogie boards and para-sailing.
- Local foods – cicharones, tamales, chan and hundreds of others if you just give it a try. On our first trip we though we were going to have a culinary adventure trying something we’d never heard of from a soda menu – “Palmitos de Maiz”. We still laugh about it twenty five years later whenever we eat “microwave popcorn”.
- Tree houses – sleep up in the rain forest canopy.
- Get lost – maybe go wandering is a better phrase but whether on foot, by bicycle, in a bus or by SUV have a look around and intentionally end up somewhere you weren’t planning on going.
- Take a walk – guided wildlife watching is great but there’s a certain thrill to finding a troop of monkeys on your own.
- Pipa – coconut water straight from a green coconut. Hack the top off with a machete and enjoy.
- Sit down and talk to someone in a central park. Costa Ricans enjoy just hanging out in the park and are the friendliest people you’ll ever want to know.