Granada is Grand!

Traveling to Granada, Nicaragua is fun for people of all ages. If you are traveling with children, it’s an easy city to navigate. Here are my Granada recommendations for adults or children in order:

Carriage ride around the city (a must)

We rode in carriage #15 and carriage #21, both drivers were excellent and spoke English. #21 was great with my kids. My kids asked to sit in the front with him and although this was an odd request, he was completely okay with that. My son asked him questions non-stop and he answered all of them, and when he pointed out a church, my son asked if we could go in, and he pulled over and waited for us to go in and look around. He even let my daughter “drive” for a few minutes.

 

Las Isletas (Islets of Granada)

Before you take the carriage ride around the city, go ahead and negotiate the rate to do the city tour, then have the driver take you to the lake to ride the boat to the Isletas, then wait for you to drive you back. The boat ride was about an hour, and my children (ages 6 and 8) loved it. There are also playgrounds on the way to the boat if you are looking for somewhere to play with small children. We didn’t stop, but I saw several on the way.

 

 

Art Galleries

There are several good art galleries on Calle el Arsenal between Tip Top and Kathy’s Waffle House.

Choco Spa

This random little rustic and magical botanical slice of paradise is attached to the Choco Museo (Chocolate Museum). For some reason my children had no interest in the Chocolate Museum. It was shocking. The two times we walked in, it was crowded and noisy with large groups. I think they do classes and/or tours that people seemed to enjoy, but my children were having none of it.

But it wasn’t a completely wasted trip because we all loved the Choco spa. You can get treatments, but we all just got manicures (even my children). They have a pool that they allow children and my kids loved it. There were people there with toddlers, but I wouldn’t advise it as there are a lot of cactus and you’d have to keep a close eye on your child.

Make sure you go up the spiral staircase next to the bar because there is a fantastic view of the city on the roof, even though it appeared to only be 1 story above ground.

 

Centro Cultural Museos Convento San Francisco

Presumably this museum has a shorter title or nickname. This is a small museum, but totally worth going to, good for both adults and children. The first two rooms as you walk in are your typical historical people trapped behind a glass window type of museum. And they have a video on Nicaragua that is informative and interesting. Then if you keep walking past the gift shop, it opens up to a courtyard filled with palm trees and paintings on a back room that shake as the wind whips through the building. And there are more statues in a garden out back and a view of the volcano behind the statues.

 

Masaya Volcano

Most people see this volcano at night. But I didn’t think that our children would be able to stay up or more importantly, engaged for this. From our hotel, the concierge said it was 3 hours there and back at night because of traffic, to only see the volcano for 5 or 10 minutes. (During the day the drive to the volcano was only about 25-30 mins from our hotel.)

So we went during the day, there was no wait getting into the park, no wait at the museum, which was small but well done/informative, and no wait when we drove to the actual volcano to look down. And it was beautiful because you could see for miles and you can see the fields of lava rock that you drive past on the way.

Masaya Artisan Market – Mercado de Atesanías

Cafe du Parc was recommended. On the same park is Kaffe Cafe Bistro. Restaurante Verdi 2 was also recommended. Quesillos el Pipe is another one that was supposed to be great. But we didn’t make it to any of them because we ended up getting smoothies at the Mercado.

 

Laguna de Apoya

I recommend-ish this. We did not have a great experience because I didn’t know that you have to have reservations ahead of time. But I can see how one would have a good experience if they drove all the way there and were actually able to use the lake and facilities.

Laguna Beach Club would be my top choice to spend a day at Laguna de Apoya, again, call ahead and make sure you have a reservation.

My second choice would be The Monkey Hut, although when we were there they were very unorganized and we stood in line for about 10-15 minutes even though only 2 people we ahead of us in line. And although The Monkey Hut has wifi, they won’t let you use it or give you the password unless you are an overnight guest.

I found that in Nicaragua, it’s not good enough to call and ask if a place is open, you have to call ask if they are open and if you need a reservation. Same with wifi. Don’t just ask if they have wifi, ask if they have wifi that they will let you use.

Our cell phones did not have service at Laguna de Apoya, so if you aren’t on someone’s wifi, you won’t be able to reach the outside world.

Coffee plantation tour – Hacienda el Progreso. 

I recommend this, but it wouldn’t be at the very top of my list. If you have already seen and done everything you want to do in Grenada, then I recommend this. My kids loved this and our guide spoke English and was very informative. I believe they also have zip-lining here if that is something you are looking to do. And we didn’t have time to hike, but I read that the hike is amazing.

You can take a shuttle from Granada and they will pick you up at your hotel. Then once you get there you take an open air giant jeep/truck up to the coffee plantation, and it looked like it would be a lot of fun to ride in.

We had a rental car, so I drove to Hacienda el Progreso. It was fine driving up. But I don’t recommend driving up if you don’t have a car with a decent amount of horsepower or 4WD. Or if you’re not comfortable with the idea of driving up the side of a volcano on a one way street made out of cobblestone/tiles and several drainage ditches on the way. (Note: at no point is the road unsafe or near the edge of cliffs, it just happens to be steep for most rental cars.)

 

Rental Cars vs. Shuttles

You can get around with a car, but also get by without a car as well. The roads are better maintained that I was expecting. There are shuttles and taxi’s and tuk-tuks or motorized rickshaws everywhere. Price wise, we probably would have come out about the same or cheaper to have not rented a car, but it depends on where you are planning to visit during your time in Nicaragua.

Granada Restaurants
(In order of recommendation)

Selina Granada 

We ate here two nights. It was both mine and my husband’s favorite place and my children loved it. It’s basically just the front porch of a new/modern hostel and it overlooks a park. They have these giant swings that my kids couldn’t get enough of and good music and great drinks. There food was amazing, too. Although the menu is limited, everything we ate was fantastic – lentil soup, chicken sandwich, chicken satay, etc. I can’t explain it, but it’s a kid-friendly bar vibe with good food. Check it out.

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El Zaguan 

This was probably the fanciest place we ate in Granada, although it is still very kid-friendly and has a little house in the middle of the restaurant/garden for children to play in. The service was great and the food was good.

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The Garden Cafe 

We ate here 3 times during our stay. It’s a restaurant with a garden inside and shop. I think of it more of a breakfast/lunch place, but they might be open for dinner.

 

Pita Pita 

Nicer than it sounds. It sounds like something you’d find in a mall food court, but it is better. It has an indoor garden and the best service we had our entire time in Nicaragua. We were seated quickly, the service was prompt, and a manager even came by to ask if we were enjoying our meal. All the food we ate was very good and chocolate lava cake desert was great.

Taco Stop (Taco Restaurant) 

Down the street from the Choco Museo. It is a good place to grab a quick bite. I wouldn’t plan your day around this restaurant, but if you’re in the area, it’s a good place to eat for lunch. It’s small, but it has indoor seating and sidewalk seating.

 

Tip Top (sigh) 

I made the mistake of accidentally walking past it the first day in Granada, and my kids made me promise we’d go back. We saved this for the last day. Tip Top is like if KFC had an indoor playground. My kids loved it. No, my kids LOVED it. They ate all of their food and played and had a blast. There are several Tip Top locations in cities in Nicaragua.

Bochadillos

This place has a cool indoors and garden. I actually didn’t eat here, because I discovered it after we had just eaten and were walking around. But it’s on my list to go back to and eat at next time I’m in Granada.

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Kathy’s Waffle House

Everyone raves about it, and it actually looks like a nice place. I just couldn’t get excited about a place with “waffle house” in the title. It is across the street from Centro Cultural Museos Convento San Francisco, and I’m certain it’s delicious, so I’ll check it out next time.

Hotels:

 

Hotel Plaza Colon 

I highly recommend this one if it is your first time in Granada. It is centrally located across the street from the carriage rides and park, parque central, down the street from Selina and other restaurants, and it has a good bar and decent breakfast buffet. It also has larger than your average hotel rooms and our room had a vaulted ceiling. And the concierge and front desk staff were very helpful.

 

Hotel Gran Balcon

This hotel is crisp and modern and nice and the staff are exceptional. The rooms are small, so if you have children or a bunch of luggage it might be a tight squeeze, but it is stunning. And it has a pool and a good restaurant.

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Paraiso Granada Condominums 

I highly recommend if you are traveling with several people. It is basically a hotel with a pool and a restaurant, but instead of rooms you have your own condo. The only thing it didn’t have was a washer/dryer. You can have them wash your clothes but it was pretty pricey. I think $2 to $3 per item of clothing.

Tribal Hotel

This hotel is across the street from Paraiso. I haven’t stayed here yet, but everyone that I know that has loves it. However, it’s an adult-only hotel, so if you have children you should book other accommodations.

Selina Granada

I haven’t actually stayed here and I don’t normally stay at hostels, but I love the location and the restaurant and it looks like a nice place. Although if you are traveling with small children, I’m not sure if you could all fit in one room, but worth inquiring about. (Maybe book an entire 4 bed dormitory room?) For couples or individuals, there are basic queen bed rooms. They also have yoga and cool workspace for guests.

 

 

Other things to know: 

In general, the food is saltier than I’m used to in Nicaragua.

People wear jeans even when it’s insanely hot. People even wear jeans in water. At water parks. Even though their are signs saying not to.

In some places, the lines in the middle of the road will look like it is okay to pass, but then there will be a sign that says “Don’t Pass” so I’m not sure what the correct answer is, so i’d err on the side of caution and not pass.

There are police everywhere. I can’t decide if that is good or bad. There are many traffic stops.

It is a beautiful country. I was shocked at how well maintained the roads were.

Be aware that if you are reading reviews online about volcanos, apparently people get the Masaya volcano and the Mombacho volcano confused.

Happy travels. Don’t drink the water.

Nicaragua to Costa Rica Border Crossing

Nicaragua to Costa Rica Border Crossing at Peñas Blancas

Almost the same as the Costa Rica to Nicaragua crossing, but you don’t pay the Costa Rican exit tax.

As you are approaching the border you will go to the right of the blue/white fence if you are going on foot or returning a rental car. (You can’t drive a rental car over the border.)

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If you are returning a rental car, this is where you return it, this building will be on your right. If you have a lot of luggage, the rental car company will drive you right up to the gate after you have returned your car and checked out.

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If you are walking/driving with the blue and white fence on your left, you will eventually come to a blue gate. Walk through it, someone at the gate may ask for your passport. There may be a line at this gate.

Then walk in the building immediately in front of you a few steps to your left. In this building you will pay $1 per person in a little booth, then pay $3 per person at the main booth. Next you will come out and walk away from the gate you just came through and walk towards Costa Rica. After you pass the colorful tires along the road, you will cross the street so that the Costa Rican police can check your passports.

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Then you officially cross the border. Rental cars (Alamo/Enterprise/National) will be on your left. If you parked a car next door to the rental cars, this is where you pick it up. If not, keep walking straight towards the customs building and go to the right side of the building.

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You will approach the main customs building behind the blue sign.

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You will see doors to bathrooms on the outside of the building. Pass the bathrooms and get in line to get your passports stamped. The line may extend all the way outside.

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You don’t pay anything on the Costa Rican side to enter the country. If you are driving, you will have to drive past the building to park, then go inside. If you are traveling with children under 3, they allegedly have a separate/faster line, or let you skip.

In general, people will try to scam you at the border crossing, however, when we were returning, I rolled the dice. We had a ton of luggage and gifts we had bought in Nicaragua. We had been gone from home for 10 days and had acquired a lot on the way.

When a guy named Arial who spoke English and had an official looking blue and white badge offered to help, I agreed. If anyone offers to help you do anything, it will not be free and you should be upfront and negotiate the price ahead of time.

He put all our luggage (and our children) in a cart that he wheeled to the border, checkpoint then his Costa Rican friend met us at the border and rolled our luggage all the way to where our car was parked on the Costa Rican side. I payed him and his friend what was negotiated and it was a pleasant experience. Especially for my children who rode in the cart.

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But as a general rule of thumb, if you can carry your own baggage, don’t let anyone help you because there will be a fee for it. And don’t let your bags out of your sight.

Also, be aware that when you enter Costa Rica, whether by flight or foot, if you are not a Costa Rican citizen, the officials want to see proof that you are leaving the country again. So have a copy of your return flight, or your next flight out of the country. Note: it will have to be a flight in the next 90 days. Side note: Most airlines and Orbitz let you book flights then cancel within 24 hours. Side side note: If you get caught in Costa Rica staying past 90 days there are financial penalties and if you are a repeat offender, you can get banned from ever coming back into Costa Rica.

Pura vida.

Take Me Down to Panama City

Panama. Pane-ma-ha-hah-ha-ha-ha. Panama!

A few people have asked me for suggestions for Panama City, Panama. So I’m pasting it below. Sorry the writing isn’t sexy and it’s missing vital information, like the actual names of a few places, but hopefully this helps if you’re planning a trip to Panama City.

Le Meridian Hotel – In a great location, and a good hotel. A modern looking hotel, but probably built 10-20 years ago. They had a rooftop pool and downstairs had excellent food. I liked the hotel, but I loved the location. It’s between old town (Casca Viejo) and the modern downtown with all the super tall high rises. Intercontinental hotel is nearby in same location.

Although if you want to be downtown near all the shopping malls, Radisson Decapolis, is a better choice. American Trade Hotel in Casca Viejo was highly recommended. I haven’t stayed there yet, but I like the location.

Luna’s Castle Hostle – we booked a day trip to Toboga at the travel agency next door to this hostle. I forget the name of it, but I highly recommend them. Google to Luna’s castle. Tobago (island) was a fine trip. It wasn’t super exciting but great for kids, a cool very old village that is only about a 30 min boat ride away, and it leaves from Causeway de Amador, right next to a playground and ice-cream shops, which my children loved. But wherever you wanted to go near Panama City, this travel agency that I can’t remember the name of would be a good resource. They were recommended to me by a local in Panama.

Try Geisha coffee at Bajareque Coffee House
($9 a cup, but the best coffee I’ve ever had!)
The food there is just so-so. So just go for the coffee.

Monkey Island Tour – Boat ride (we missed this, but it’s on my to do list next time.)
Gatun Lake – same thing as above, on my to do list
Biomuseo – closed on Tuesdays so we missed it, but a colorful architecturally interesting building and supposed to be great for kids.
Causeway de Amador that is a fun place for renting bikes and riding around, has touristy shops, ice-cream, a playground, a giant Panama sign near the end by the port. It has a great view of Panama City across the water.
Ancon Hill – recommended as amazing view, closes at 3:00 pm, so we never made it to see it.
Cinta Costera – Park near Le Meridien hotel, has a giant colorful Panama sign.
Casco Viejo – old city – the best part to see in my opinion.
See Panama sign in park across street from Le Meridien and at the end of the causeway at the marina (Causeway de Amador)

Cabana Restaurant – is on the 6th floor of a giant high end apartment. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. It’s a really nice restaurant, but we went around 5:00, sat outside on the terrace on cushy seats, and the kids could move around, and apparently they don’t get crowded until later, like 8:00/9:00 pm. We watched the sunset. I highly recommend this place.

Miraflores – you can see 3 canals from this location. They have a museum that my children really liked, and a really good restaurant upstairs and a cafe downstairs. We went later in the afternoon and saw a bunch of boats. I think they close around 4:30 or 5:00.

Recommended restaurants that we never made it to:
Eco Gourmet
Donde Jose
Maito
Athanasiou Cafe/Bakery – there are several locations, and the one I went to by the Meridian hotel was packed, so I didn’t wait in line for food, but there are locations all over.

Coffee Recommendations:
Bajareque – highly recommend
Cafe Unido
Casa Sucre
cafe/bakery/lunch place
Kotowa

We used Uber to get around. I think regular yellow cabs are fine to take, but they will charge you more and have crappier cars. I think there is a amphibian bus that can drive in the water that we didn’t get a chance to do, but we did have a cab driver that drove down a flooded street that I was feeling like the engine was going to bottom out at any moment, so that added some excitement to the drive.

If you’re going longer than a few nights, I’d suggest getting out of Panama City. Do your research, but here are some blogs that I found on nearby excursions.

Recommended Hotels and More:
http://pty.life/panama-city-guide/

Panama – El Valle – Mountain Town:
http://pty.life/el-valle-panama-guide/

Places to go around Panama:
https://walkingontravels.com/things-to-do-in-panama/

Costa Rica to Nicaragua – Border Crossing

I was apprehensive about going across the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua because it sounded confusing and chaotic from what I had read online and hearing stories of friends who had done it.

But it is relatively simple as long as you know a few things ahead of time.

  1. Have cash money ahead of time. It’s best to have it in US dollars because both Costa Rica and Nicaragua accept US dollars. And it is best to have small bills as you may not get change back.
  2. If you go on a Monday through Thursday it is most likely to be less crowded.
  3. Do not pay anyone other than the officials listed below.
  4. If someone comes up to you and tells you that you have to pay them, you don’t. If someone offers to help you as a “volunteer” they are expecting a tip. If someone offers to help you with your luggage, they are expecting monetary compensation.
  5. Both on the Costa Rican side and the Nicaraguan side of the border, if anyone approaches you simply say “No, gracias.” (Unless they are a police officer.)
  6. You can not drive rental cars across the border.
  7. If you live in Costa Rica and own your car, you can in theory drive it across the border, but you have to have done all the necessary paperwork ahead of time, and you will possibly have to wait in a long line to cross.
  8. Before going to the border, check to see if you need a visa. If you are an American or Canadian passport holder, you do not need a visa.

Who needs this border crossing info?

Ex-Pats living in Costa Rica have to spend 3 days out of Costa Rica to renew their visa/passport status every 90 days. If you are living in Guanacaste, Nicaragua is the closest county to get to. Also, travelers have started flying into Liberia, Costa Rica and then driving up to Nicaragua. The beach town San Juan del Sur is only about 30 minutes north of the Costa Rican border and the picturesque colonial town of Grenada is only an hour and a half from the border, and both are tourist friendly.

From Costa Rica:

Drive to Peñas Blancas. (It is a little over an hour north of Liberia, Guanacaste, and from Liberia the road is newly paved the entire way.)

Map of Costa Rica - Liberia

When you get close to the border, you will see a white building with blue trim in front of you before the road curves slightly to the right. The building is in a fenced in area, but you can drive in the fenced in area and park. The door you will need to go in is on the right side of the building towards the back. The door you enter is under a large metal awning.

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Walk in, if the machine in the right corner of the room is working, you can pay your Costa Rican exit tax here. If it has a sign on it, it is not working, and you will need to go back outside the door you just came in and walk (or drive) back out of the fenced area, across the street to the green building on your left. There is a sign in front of the building that says “Pay your exit tax here.”

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Pay $8 US at the window on the front of the green building. Save your receipt! To the right of the building there is another green building with an ATM if you need cash.

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Then walk back across the street to the main Costa Rican border control building. You will need to give them your receipt and get your passport stamped at one of the windows.

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If you are walking you can flag down someone in a rickshaw bicycle to help you with your luggage and drive you to the border for around $5. Confirm the price before getting on and riding to the border. Or you can just walk.

If you drove here, you can get back in your car, drive towards the border and leave your car next to Alamo. Technically it is the office to the right of Alamo, but they share a fenced in area. It will be on your right before you get to the border. It may be hard to see as there may be a line of semi trucks obstructing your view. It costs $12 per day to leave your car here (as of 2018). You will probably be waved forward to pass the semi trucks, then someone will let you turn right to get into the parking area.

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After you park and get a parking receipt, you will have to walk down the paved road towards the border. It is not far. You can technically still flag down a bicycle rickshaw, but they wlll only be able to take you to the CR side of the border which is only a few yards away.

There will be a white shed on the right with police in it, show your passports to the Costa Rican police.

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Then cross the street. As you are crossing the street there may be a Nicaraguan police officer that wants to see your passports.

Continue walking along past the colored tires on the road.

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Continue walking until you see the blue and white Nicaraguan immigration building on your left.

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The door you need to enter is on the left side of the building.

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When you walk inside, immediately to your right there will be a small glassed in booth. Pay $1 per person. Save your receipt. Then walk to the main booths, there are approximately 5 or 6, pick the one with the shortest line. You will pay $12 per person here, and show your passports and get them stamped.

You will walk past this booth when you are done to walk out the back of the building (not back out the way you came in.)

In the next room you will have your luggage scanned. After you get your luggage scanned there might be another police office on the inside or outside of building that wants to see your passports again.

When you walk out of the immigration building door you will take a left and walk through a gate to a fenced in area with vendors on a paved-ish gravel road. There will be a white fence on your right. If you keep walking straight along the fence there will be taxis if you need a taxi.

If you continue walking down this road, the white fence will eventually become blue. You will come to a Dollar Rent-A-Car, then an Alamo Rental car.

View of border fence from rental car office.
View of border fence from Nicaraguan side near rental car offices.

I highly recommend making a car rental reservation ahead of time as it is a small parking lot and they do not have many cars. If you are having a taxi or shuttle pick you up from the border, I would recommend arranging that in advance as well.

Many people will walk up to you along the way and offer to help you or make up an excuse for you to pay them or say that they are volunteers (but they will want a tip). I recommend just saying “no gracias” to whatever they say and just keep walking.

It is safe to do the border crossing and I was with my family and felt safe the whole time. However, people will approach you, so if you are traveling with children you may want to prepare them for that.

Obviously do not give your passports or luggage to anyone on the street that is offering to “help” you.

No one I was with needed to use the bathroom during the border crossing, but if they had I would have done it on the Costa Rican side. The bathrooms were right behind the main customs building. I have read that the bathrooms on the Nicaraguan side charge a fee.

Unless you are a citizen of Costa Rica or have applied for residency, legally you can only stay in Costa Rica for 90 consecutive days. If you are going back into Costa Rica, immigration is going to ask you for proof that you will be leaving Costa Rica again and not overstaying your welcome, so you will have had to have booked a flight ahead of time or have proof of how you plan to leave the country again.

There are Costa Rican shuttles that will take you to the Nicaraguan border and drop you off, and there are also shuttles that will drive you all the way to Grenada. Several companies offer this service and to go all the way to Grenada. Itt is about $80 per person, one way. If you are taking a shuttle, your shuttle driver should be able to guide you through the process.

You can also check out how to cross the border to return to Costa Rica.

Happy travels. Nicaragua is a beautiful country to explore.

Final - Volcano

You Know You’re an Expat Living in Costa Rica if…

You’re reading this while stuck in traffic behind oxen.
There are more lizards living in your house than people in your hometown.
You complain about the price of groceries like someone 50 years older than you.
Your car has a snorkel.
You wish your car had a snorkel.
You know what a car snorkel is.
You paid more than you’ve ever paid for a car and it’s the oldest you’ve ever owned.
You’ve shopped at the nicest Wal-Mart you’ve ever seen in your life.
You now back into parking spaces and you don’t know why.
You know where every pothole is within a 10 kilometer radius.
You have driven in potholes wider than your car.
You laugh hysterically when Waze says “Pothole reported ahead.”
You have a favorite place to get gallo pinto.
You have an earthquake app on your phone.
You’ve taken a number from a number dispensing machine and are currently sitting in a line at a bank.
You now realize how expensive gas actually is.
Your once boring name is now exotic and impossible to pronounce.
You’ve started telling people your name is something different so it’s easier to pronounce.
It’s rainy season and you’ve fallen down 3 times today.
It’s 80 degrees and you think it’s chilly.
It’s 80 degrees and you could swear it’s at least 110.
Your home doesn’t have an actual address.
You personally know more than ten people who are surf instructors.
Pizza Hut sounds like a high-end dining experience.
Your kids no longer complain when it’s bedtime because it’s already been dark for four hours.
You’ve ever had a bug bite you in a spot that already had a whelp from a bug bite.
You could film an entire documentary about the diverse variety of insects in Costa Rica without leaving your home.
You can completely sleep through the wildlife noises that start at 4 am every day.
You pretend your dog is a stray so it can go to restaurant with you.
You (or your child) has skipped class to go see turtles nesting.
You had to stop taking Spanish classes because they were conflicting with your surfing/paddlboarding/hiking/ziplining.
You’ve worn a swimsuit to a parent-teacher conference.
You say “¿Tienen wifi?” as often as “Buenos Dias.”
You can’t remember the last time you ate in a restaurant with air conditioning.
You can calmly wait for wayward oxen and wild dogs in the road, but you loose your mind when you’re stuck behind a wayward tourist that sat out their turn at crossing a one-way bridge.