Travel Photo of an old car on the streets of San Jose Costa Rica
Travel Musings

Travel Tools Now and Then – Tripping Costa Rica in 2020 vs 1994

Thanks to our modern travel tools, travel is so easy now.  While recently traveling on my 6th trip to Costa Rica, I found myself reminiscing back to my first trip to Costa Rica in 1994. It was my first true travel adventure. A trip outside the familiar box of Mexico resort towns. But twenty-six years ago, tripping was blind tripping.  All of the familiar travel tools that help our trips go smoother now didn’t yet exist.  Here’s a little taste of what it was like for The Not-Quite-Thorough-Yet Tripper back then.

Internet Now – Guidebooks Then

Now, most of us use the internet to research our trips.  It’s hard to even imagine a world without all information pretty much at our fingertips.  

Back in 1994, the internet was very new and few people owned computers.  I heard that Costa Rica was an up-and-coming travel destination.  So I went to my local bookstore and purchased the Lonely Planet Guide Book for Costa Rica. That’s what I used to plan my trip. I suppose I could have called a travel agent.  But I was looking for experiential travel even back then. I wanted to research and plan it myself with the information provided in the book.  I guess, in retrospect, that was the birth of The Thorough Tripper.

The Lonely Planet Guidebook to Costa Rica 1992 edition.  My chief travel tool then

Google Maps Now – Paper Maps Then

Now, I use Google Maps to get me from point A to point B when traveling. It’s GPS shows me exactly where I am, so getting lost is rare. It shows me what routes are best, tells me how long it takes to get from one place to the other, helps direct me to nearby stores and restaurants. Google Maps is one of my most invaluable travel tools. 

Back then, I used the sketched maps in the Guide Book. They gave me a general idea of where I wanted to be.  

A parking lot carnival during travel to  Quepos Costa Rica back then
A parking lot carnival in Quepos – a town on the map between San Jose and Manuel Antonio

Vacation Rentals & Lodging Websites Now – Faith and Phone Calls Then

Now, I stay in vacation rentals when I travel to Costa Rica.  They are inexpensive and have great amenities.

Back then, the concept of actually renting an apartment or house hadn’t even crossed my mind.  At some point in the mid-90s, there was a Seinfeld episode where the  joke revolved around whether or not Jerry could rent a villa in Tuscany.  That’s the first time the concept of renting a vacation home entered my brain and it seemed like an option for only the wealthy. 

Now, when traveling around the world, I depend on all the thorough information on VRBO, AirBNB, and Booking.com websites to help me make a decision. These websites show me pictures, amenity lists, and a multitude of reviews. Then I simply click a few buttons, and make a reservation

Back then, I stayed in lodging recommended by the Guide Book – a hotel in downtown San Jose, and a cabana near Manuel Antonio. The recommendations in the guidebook were short – just a few sentences at most. It took a leap of faith and a trust in the book writer.  I had to actually figure out how to call Costa Rica and book them. 

A cabana near Manuel Antonio Costa Rica where I stayed during my travels back then
The Cabana I stayed at – it was a small hotel that featured several small 1-room cabanas on a jungly hillside

Restaurant Review Sites Now – Taking Your Chances Then

Now, I depend on TripAdvisor, Google Reviews, and other Bloggers to suggest the best places to eat.  I want to see pictures of the food, look at the menu ahead of time if possible, know how much I’m going to spend, and be confident that the food is good.  

Back then, I had to walk into restaurants blindly.  Sometimes I had a good meal, and sometimes I didn’t.  (It could be argued that is one of the joys of travel, but I like good food, and a bad travel meal makes me sad).  The Guide Book would recommend a few restaurants in each area,  but they weren’t always easy to find (or sometimes they had closed), and the recommendation was based on the one writer’s opinion.  

The beach at Manuel Antonio back then.  I'll bet if you travel there now, it will look the same
The beach at Manuel Antonio. No food picture in this food section because I didn’t take them back then….

Smartphones Now – Incommunicado Then

Now, I use my iPhone to manage my travel via all the travel apps, to take my pictures, and to easily communicate with family back home.  Smartphones have made traveling exponentially easier.  It’s the Swiss Army knife of travel tools. I always pay my carrier’s international daily data plan when traveling out of the country, so I can use my phone to its fullest potential.

Back then, the idea of an iPhone was Jetson’s futuristic (along with flying cars – still waiting for those).  I was incommunicado. 

No digital cameras back then either.  I carried a camera with me. Then I had to actually wait until after I arrived home to develop the pictures and see them. 

Sometimes I wouldn’t want to carry my camera around, and so missed out on some great photo opportunities. It’s so nice to always have a camera in my pocket now.

A shadowy photo inside Manuel Antonio Park in Costa Rica back then
Pictures like this would happen back then. Short shorts happened back then too.

Car Rental Now – Buses Then

Now I rent a car whenever I go to Costa Rica.  To fully experience the country, I want that type of mobility.

Back then, the idea of renting a car in another country hadn’t even entered my mind.  I took a bus everywhere.  True, that was experiential in a whole different way.  But the 4-hour bus ride from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, across the winding mountain roads, still haunts me to this day.  I know it’s a cliche, but I do remember chickens on the bus, along with very firm school bus-like seats, and a good amount of motion sickness.  

I also remember the uncertainty of my transportation.  There wasn’t anyway for me to access timetables ahead of time, so I would go to the bus station, try to figure out the Spanish language schedule, and hope for the best.  At the time, that was certainly part of the adventure, but The Thorough Tripper in me far prefers being able to check everything out ahead of time online now.

Bus Station in Costa Rica.  I used local buses to travel back then
One of the local bus stations

Traveling to Costa Rica in 1994 was a great adventure. It helped whet my appetite for all the great adventures that have followed. Traveling to Costa Rica, and everywhere else, is much easier now thanks to exponentially better travel tools. And just wait until we finally do get those flying cars. Even better…..

Sunrise over beautiful Atenas Costa Rica
Atenas Costa Rica – the view from our vacation rental during a 2019 trip

22 Comments

  • Stefan (Berkeley Square Barbarian)

    Great reminder for me to always be grateful for how much easier travel got. I must have done my first proper adventure trip at around the same time.

    I guess you can see something nostalgic in not having smart phones, apps, and the internet, etc., but heck no, much prefer it the way it is now. Also, how awesome to have visited this country six times.

    I still have to do my first trip there, but it is very high up on the list. Only ever heard fabulous things about Costa Rica.

    • thethoroughtripper

      I do love it there. Hasn’t lost it’s authenticity despite steep growth in tourism over those 26 years.

  • Jane

    How times have changed! My first trip abroad was in 1979 when I went to work in Germany. No mobile phones, no internet or email. Communication with home was via snail mail and it took about 2 weeks for a letter. Great reflective article!

  • Linda Kouwenhoven

    What a fun post to read. Not sure many of us have Had the opportunity to really examine a country we’ve visited from then to now…so often it’s a one time trip. Loving Costa Rica this was interesting because so many things are still a bit “behind” where we are in North America…it still retains some of that unspoiled beauty and adventure!

    • thethoroughtripper

      I completely agree with you. One of the reasons that I love Costa Rica is that it still feels authentic to me.

      • Francesca

        This is such an interesting comparison about travel then and now. I agree the smartphone is definitely the Swiss army knife big travel. It’s definitely made it a lot more accessible. I know I would quite literally be lost without my smartphone abroad! Still, it’s good to put the phone down now and again to experience some spontaneity now and again 🙂

        • thethoroughtripper

          Very true. It’s always important to leave a little room for spontaneity. Travel really demands it anyway. Things never go completely as planned…

  • Travel Bugs World

    i love this story! It actually makes me pine for the good lol days. Yup remember showing up at accommodations and asking if they had a room or going to the bus stop and catching it wherever it ended up going. Don’t get me wrong! Love the mobiles, internet and modern conveniences we have now but something special about travel has lost… maybe its because it has all been plastered over Instagram!

  • Alison

    I love this!! I wrote something similar a while back about the joys of backpacking before the internet (I went inter-railing in the late 80s and then had a gap year (or three) in the mid 90s). It’s almost surreal to imagine now. :o)

    • thethoroughtripper

      So different now. It will be interesting to see how COVID changes things in the short term and how technology will continue to change things over the longer term

  • Kevin | Cocktails and Carry-Ons

    This is absolutely fantastic. Chanel and I often talk about how much easier it has to be now, as an expat with technology than 20-30 years back. This is the PERFECT example. Faith and phone calls! I love it. So very true. Even capturing it with photos has changed completely. 1000+ digital shots vs a few rolls of carefully selected shots.

  • John Quinn

    Great comparison. I recall travelling with my parents in the early 90s and knocking door by door looking for a b&b. Wasn’t much fun. Phones have made our lives so much easier.

  • Lannie Travels

    What a genuinely great post! One thing that I really miss is the reliance on paper maps. I used to be a great map reader so it was always my forte. Sometimes the journey is so much more fascinating when you do get lost! But then again, I often walk in the direction opposite what google maps shows hahaha. Thanks for sharing, Steven!

    • thethoroughtripper

      I used to have one of those extra big Rand-McNally road atlases. It was all dog-eared from years as a prized possession. So I hear you…

  • kmf

    Thanks for that bit of nostalgic time travel. I still love maps, but rely on my apps to get me where I need to go. And I think I may still have a Foder’s guidebook or two still sitting in my bookshelves somewhere collecting dust.

  • Wendy

    Wow this certainly brings back memories of how travel was. I used travel agencies back then and booked package holidays. I’ve had some great ones and not so good lol
    With eating out, it was a case of seeing how busy it was. Can’t really remember any bad choices although I think my taste buds are more refined now than they were in my 20’s.

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