Melissa and I touched down in Costa Rica around 10 PM, took a shuttle to the rental car facility to get our car (a Nissan Versa), paid for rental liability insurance ($300, and required by law), and we were on our way…to downtown San Jose.
The drive from San Jose airport to San Jose is a bit like the drive from Newark airport to Newark. There’s some trucking facilities, a chemical plant—that kind of thing.
Our hotel was located in “central” San Jose, but you wouldn’t know it from looking around. For a Friday night, the area was bereft of pedestrians, and most businesses looked closed.
We dropped our bags at the hotel and walked the empty streets (Melissa said she wouldn’t have walked them alone) looking for something to eat. We came upon a casino with a boisterous crowd outside. We go inside, find a bar and an open kitchen, and order a “typical” plates—rice, beans, salad, plantains, and chicken.
It was delicious.
We chased our meals with silly cocktails, plus a papaya juice to share. The meal comes out to $30 with tip.
The next morning we wake up around 9 AM, have a complimentary breakfast in the hotel, and go for a jaunt around town. We stop off at Movistar—a Costa Rican phone store—and get new SIM cards that allow us to use our phones as we usually would in the states for the duration of our visit (9 days).
The cost is $10.
Walking around San Jose is a bit underwhelming. It feels like a city that randomly sprung up because they needed a central location for things. The concierge at our hotel explained that very few people actually live in San Jose—they just commute there for work and to party on the weekends (although we didn’t see too much of that).
There were a few pretty buildings and tiny parks that fit into a square block. The church in the center of town is also quite impressive, as is the Central Market, where fresh meat and fish abound. But by noon we were ready to hit the road to La Fortuna in the northwestern part of the country.
The drive to La Fortuna takes about 3.5 hours on one-lane roads. The first leg of the trip requires going up a mountain and down the other side. The elevation is so high that the road becomes shrouded in mist from the clouds. And because we’re so high up, rain falls suddenly and lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
But because of this, the mountain was filled with lush vegetation and waterfalls cascading down onto the road (Costa Rican roads have little gulches on either side to capture all the runoff). The lack of visibility combined with the scenery makes for an engaging ride—especially since few roads in Costa Rica have shoulders to pull off onto or guardrails to prevent your vehicle from shooting off the edge of a cliff.
Basically you just need to keep your hands at 10 and 2, move your head as close to the windshield as possible, and hope the car in front of you knows what they’re doing.
Once we got off the mountain and began driving through farmlands, things felt more familiar. It personally reminded me of the Dominican Republic, which I visited last year, or some more isolated parts of Florida.
Basically your driving on one-land roads through farms, fields of grazing cattle, and small towns. Most of these towns consist of brightly painted houses lining the sides of the road, followed by a school, a soccer field, and a church (always the nicest looking building in town). A couple of random dirt roads also shoot off from the main road towards other houses.
Save for that, it was pretty trees, sodas (mom-and-pop restaurants with delicious local cuisine), and places where fresh produce and coffee was sold from little cars by the side of the road (Costa Rican coffee is delicious).
We reached La Fortuna around 3 PM. The town lies in the shadow of Mount Arenal—an intimidating structure. From the ground you cannot see the top for it’s hidden in the clouds. The volcano isn’t active, but it isn’t inactive either. It’s considered “dormant.” It last erupted in 2010, and shouldn’t be a liability to erupt anytime soon.
It’s most famous eruption occurred in 1968, which wound up killing 87 people (and led to the formation of the man-made Lake Arenal, which now helps supply a majority of the country’s electricity).
Our hotel was located about 20 minutes outside La Fortuna at the top of a long, windy, and treacherous road that is definitely not made for a Nissan Versa (as you’ll see, a lot of roads in Costa Rica aren’t made for a Nissan Versa).
The Casa Torre Eco Lodge, as our hotel was called, is perched on a hill looking out towards Mount Arenal and offering beautiful views of the valley below. The facility features tiny cabins with beds and electric outlets. There’s one communal bathroom (much to Melissa’s chagrin), an outdoor sink for the brushing of teeth, and an outdoor patio with a kitchen and tables for dining.
After getting settled, we headed back into town to book some activities at Jacamar Naturalist Tours, which we read online was one of the more reputable tour operators in the country.
We ended up booking a river boat safari and hiking expedition of Mount Arenal for the next day, and then a canyoning expedition for the day after that. For two people, the combined cost of all three was $440. We then booked a trip to a hot springs for the evening. This is a must for anyone visiting La Fortuna, as hot springs are what the region is most known for (pretty much every resort in the are has their own hot spring).
The hot springs we visited was called Baldi Hot Springs, which is the largest one in La Fortuna. Baldi is something of a cross between a hot spring and a waterpark. There are 31 different springs of varying temperatures, some of which are connected via a series of hidden waterways. There’s also a natural sauna, swim-up bars, ice baths, four different waterslides, and lots of children running around.
For $40 we stayed at the hot springs from 5 PM to 10 PM with dinner included. We did our best to explore every pool, but spent the majority of our stay getting drunk at a swim-up bar with a couple visiting from Alaska.
We left happy.
Today we were up at 6:30 AM for the river boat cruise. They picked us up in a bus in the center of town, and it promptly started raining. We hopped off the bus at the Rio Penas Blancas, threw on some ponchos, and jump into an inflatable raft with our tour guide Miguel.
It rained for most of the two hour tour, which prevented a lot of animals from coming out. However, eagle-eyed Miguel was still able to show us some Howler Monkeys, sleeping bats, toucans, a few iguanas, and a dead piraña (but no sloths!).
After the tour he took us to a little soda where we were served fried plantains, coffee, some homemade cheese and banana cake, and tamarin juice.
Once we arrived back in La Fortuna, on Miguel’s recommendation, we head north out of the area to a place called Tobacon—home of the Chollin hot springs. Unlike the Baldi Hot Springs, which is a manmade facility, Chollin is a naturally occurring hot spring. In other words, heated water from Mount Arenal flows several miles down into this area to make the river water comfortable enough to sit in all day—which is exactly what hundreds of people do.
I’d compare it to a warm water version of Barton Springs in Austin, Texas.
Melissa and I wandered up and down the river a few times, then settled in and talked to this nice American family who had decided to move down to Costa Rica full-time five years ago (the three kids now speak fluent Spanish, but the parents still don’t know a word). They live in a town on the Pacific coast called Tamarindo, which they say is full of expats and fairly Americanized. The father provided us with some interesting tidbits about Costa Rica. For instance, he claimed that the Costa Rican government doesn’t truly care about the environment. But because eco-tourism is a big part of the Costa Rican economy, they pay lip service to it for travelers.
As we chatted, we passed around a large plastic bottle of Costa Rican jungle juice—a mixture of wine, rum, some sweet tasting syrup, and (if the father is to be believed) hallucinogens.
I didn’t hallucinate, but the juice was really good.
That afternoon we took a bus to Mount Arenal for the hike. The hike isn’t up the mountain per se, but rather a large lava flow created after the 1968 eruption that has now dried and hardened (Mount Arenal itself is too dangerous to hike, due to volcanic gases). The top of the lava flow offers stunning panoramic views of both Mount Arenal and Arenal Lake.
The most interesting aspect of the hike for me was all the vegetation that had grown out from between the brittle, black rock. Our tour guide explained this occurs because the rains erode the lava and allows soil to grow underneath.
When we got back to the base of the mountain we were greeted with watermelon and pineapple (the fruit in Costa Rica is on-point) then driven back to La Fortuna—where Melissa and I got dinner at an upscale restaurant called Don Rufino. Melissa ate a yummy cauliflower steak, and I enjoyed some of the best risotto of my life. We also split a hummus dish, and some cocktails.
The total cost with tip? $59.
These are the kinds of mornings I love most on vacation: Sleep in, have a late breakfast (fresh eggs and fruit), then hang out and read. Even better if you have a spectacular view of a volcano from your hotel patio.
Around 11 AM we made our way into town for the day’s activity: Canyoning (a.k.a. repelling down waterfalls). We were picked up by a bus in the center of town, then taken to a resort out of town to pick up our fellow cayoneers. Lunch consisted of tender BBQ chicken with rice and beans. With our nervous bellies full, another van took us to an area south of La Fortuna, where we were transferred to yet another vehicle (a flatbed pickup truck), which drove us down a rocky road into the canyon.
Once there, we were outfitted with harnesses, helmets, and gloves (to grip the ropes), and led down into the canyon.
If you’ve never repelled before, the worst part is waiting. After a (very) brief safety presentation, we lined up in groups of two. Our guides strapped each of us to a rope (meaning we couldn’t escape) and walked us to the edge of a cliff. They snapped our harness to another rope, had us grip the rope with two hands (one hand at the top and the other hand down near our waist), and told us to jump.
Against every survivalist instinct in my body I obliged…and I fell approximately two feet. That’s because you need to loosen your grip on the rope to actually drop. This takes some getting used to, since you feel that if you loosen your grip you’ll tumble to your death. Experienced canyoneers can bound down the side of a rock face in two jumps. But for me, that first rappel took about 12 baby jumps.
The expedition led with the largest drop (160 meters), so that subsequent drops wouldn’t feel as intimidating. By our fourth and final rappel, I actually got down the side of the 95 meter drop in two leaps.
Overall it was well worth the $101 dollar price tag, even if our Costa Rican tour guide kept making fun of us for how scared we were (it was all in good fun). We actually met several nice American couples on the tour whom we bonded with over our shared fear of dying (there were a lot of “well, it I don’t make it…” jokes).
By the time the bus took us back to La Fortuna, we decided we had earned another hot springs. So we purchased a second voucher to Baldi, snuck in some of our own alcohol, and lazed around in the pools all evening.
Melissa woke up at 6 AM to use the bathroom today and saw a sight we hadn’t seen since we arrived in La Fortuna—the top of Mount Arenal. In the early morning stillness, the clouds had briefly dissipated from the top of the volcano.
However, that view was soon to be beat when we left La Fortuna about three hours later and headed southwest towards Monteverde (translation: green mountain).
Monteverde is about 25 miles from La Fortuna in terms of distance. However, there are no direct routes there (you can take the ferry across Lake Arenal, but cars cannot go on these ferries). So the drive takes about three hours, and leads you on a long, winding, one-lane road around the lake.
It was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever been on. The roads are covered with lush, green, vegetation, and the views of Mount Arenal behind the lake are even better than what you see in La Fortuna (of course, by this time the top of the volcano was again poking into the clouds). Along the route, there are lots of sodas to pull over at, drink a juice, and look out across the landscape. There are also dozens of wind turbines dotting the landscape, helping produce clean energy for the region.
If I had to compare it to another landscape I’ve seen, I’d say the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, sans the volcano.
Once you get about 40 miles outside Monteverde, the lake views give way to green rolling hills and tiny rural villages. The road also turns from asphalt to dirt and gravel. This is fun in an SUV, but anxiety inducing in a little Nissan. We drove very slowly and were able to make it without issue.
Monteverde is high up—approximately 4,662 feet above sea level (for contrast, La Fortuna is 883 feet above sea level). For this reason, Monteverde is surrounded by cloud rain forests.
After we dropped our bags at our hotel (a charming place called the Jaguarandi Lodge), we headed into this unique landscape for an afternoon hike.
Needless to say, the landscape is breathtaking (and extremely vulnerable to climate change). In a cloud rain forest, everything grows on top of everything. There were trees growing out of trees, flowers sprouting from other flowers, and shrubs cannibalizing other shrubs. It’s like a giant nature orgy.
The most interesting flora we came upon is the fig tree. These are trees with hollow trunks. People make sport out of climbing into the trunk and scaling the tree from the inside!
The cloud forest is also home to the Quetzal, a very beautiful bird with bright green and red feathers that only lives in high elevations like the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We were lucky enough to see one with the help of a tour guide.
Our hotel room was a little cabin surrounded by trees (with it’s own bathroom!). We showered and sat out on our porch reading and listening to chirping birds.
We ate dinner at a place called Sabor Tico (kind of like a TGI Friday’s restaurant in Costa Rica, don’t really recommend). Then we found a much more interesting restaurant in downtown Monteverde called Tree House (the restaurant is three floors with a giant tree growing in the middle) where we played cards and drank Pina Coladas.
One thing about the town of Monteverde: It’s got a fairly modern feel. It’s small but has a cute little town center with lots of modern looking restaurants and a few bars. There’s a shopping mall, paved roads, sidewalks, and lots of traffic. It’s almost like a suburb you’d find in the US, but surrounded by jungles.
After leaving Tree House, we found a Discotheque next door called Rio Amigos that had a room downstairs with four pool tables. So Melissa and I shot some pool with the locals, then called it around 10 PM. We begged a closing restaurant to serve us some ice cream (most of Monteverde closes around 10 PM), then went to bed.
Today we slept in and spent the morning on our porch reading. Then we headed to a place called Sky Trek adventures for zip lining in the cloud forest. This wasn’t quite as nerve wracking as canyoning because, unlike canyoning, you have no control over whether you live or die.
But you get over the anxiety of flying through the sky with no control whatsoever, it’s actually pretty awesome. The clouds make it so you can’t see three feet in front of you, but far down below you can see the canopy of the trees.
By the end of the zip lining course your face is soaked with mud (I don’t know why, maybe there’s mud in the clouds?). But before your guides let you leave, you have to bungie jump down from a suspended platform. This was a lot scarier than canyoning or zip lining, but somehow I did it—and I’ll never do it again.
In the afternoon we relaxed at the hotel, then headed to another cloud forest for a night hike. Of all the hikes we did, this was undoubtedly the coolest because you see so many more animals at night. Our tour guide pointed his flashlight at tarantulas in there tiny caves, a scorpion, multiple colorful sleeping birds, and deadly snakes napping on branches. But the highlight was a giant furry sloth scaling down a tree with its baby to poop (sloths only come down from their trees to poop every 10-15 days, so this was very lucky).
We finished the night at Tree House, and passed out early.
This morning we woke up bright and early and headed to the beach. The drive down the mountains was as beautiful as the drive up the mountains. At some points, you can even see the Pacific Ocean. Once we made it down, we drove along the coast through little beach towns, then made a right turn west out to the peninsula of Quepos and the beach town of Manuel Antonio.
Our hotel was called the Selina Manuel Antonio, and it was lovely. It’s comprised of dozens of little villas spread across an acre of land, three different pools, three bars, a yoga studio, and a restaurant. At night, the main bar turns into a club, and folks from all over town come to dance.
After all the adventures, Melissa and I agreed that in Manuel Antonio we would relax on the beach as much as possible. This way, we could return to New York tanned and refreshed. So after checking in, we promptly drove to the ocean.
More so than any other place we’d been to in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is full of folks trying to separate you from your money. When you arrive at the beach, there are dozens of men telling you to park in certain locations along the road, then demanding you pay them for the public parking spot.
The parking isn’t private, so there’s no reason to pay these men. They’re just hoping uninformed tourists will do so anyway in order to get the men to stop heckling them (we also heard the men may vandalize your vehicle if you refuse to pay, although this didn’t happen to us). Once you reach the beach, there are other men trying to sell you beach chair rentals. The going rate is about $10 for the day—which is a bargain. However, we bartered anyway and got a few dollars knocked off.
Once you’re set up in your spot, other men come around trying to sell you surf lessons, parasailing (which looks really cool, but costs over $100), jet skiing, and various little trinkets and souvenirs. It’s pretty annoying, and different from anything we experienced in La Fortuna or Manuel Antonio.
However, it can’t take away from the beauty of the beach. The waters are warm and blue, the sun is always shining (as opposed to inland, where it was mostly cloudy), and the sand is soft.
We spent three hours on the beach, then spent the late afternoon lazing around the hotel pool. For dinner, we went to a place within walking distance of the hotel, and met a European couple recently engaged. Vad hailed from Russia, and his fiancee Flora was from Italy. They both lived in London now, and Vad had recently quit his job so that they could travel around South America for the next four months (they had already been to six countries in three weeks when we met them).
We chatted with them over dinner, then went back to the Selina and played cards with them at the bar. Around 11 PM we parted ways and went to bed.
Today we were on the beach from 10 AM to sunset—and what a sunset it was. The sky turned a brilliant shade of crimson and purple, and the clouds appeared as if they were suspended just above sea level and extended far off onto the horizon. Easily a top 10 sunset of my life.
For dinner we went to a nearby restaurant called Jolly Roger, which was essentially an American sports bar in Costa Rica. We ate cauliflower wings and burgers, watched the Lakers game on the YTV, and listened to the live band. After dinner we crowded around a pool table in the corner of the bar and made friends with a bunch of fellow travelers.
There was Jay and Cole, cousins we were in Costa Rica with 23 other relatives on a family reunion of sorts. There was also a pilot from Canada, a mother and her 18-year-old daughter (who was getting hit on by much older Costa Rican men) visiting from Canada, and two girls our age getting away from the cold weather in Seattle.
We all made fast friends, and ended up closing down the bar after numerous games of pool and beer pong.
We then headed to the Selina and did a little dancing, finally retiring around 2 AM.
On our last full day in Costa Rica, we stayed on the beach until 3 PM. By the time we left we were burnt to a crisp—three full days under the Costa Rican sun will do that to you.
We did the 3.5 hour drive from Manuel Antonio to Costa Rica, and checked into the same hotel we had stayed at the first night. To be perfectly honest, ending the trip in San Jose is a bit of a downer, as it’s not a particularly charming city.
But we were in for one last treat, as we found a well-reviewed Argentinian steakhouse near our hotel, and had a phenomenal meal (after a delicious tenderloin in goat cheese sauce, I resolved to go on a diet when I return to New York). Then we passed out early, woke up early, dropped off the rental (tip of the cap to Nissan—we put that car through a lot and it never wavered), and grabbed our flight home.
Some Thoughts/Travel Tips on Costa Rica
Aside from the annoying vendors in Manuel Antonio, the Costa Rican people we encountered were by in large extremely friendly and accommodating. It does help to know a little Spanish, as not every Costa Rican is fluent in English, even in the major tourist areas (Melissa spent a lot of time practicing the Spanish she picked up in high school).
You’ll also obviously meet many travelers if you head to the major tourist areas. We personally met Americans, Italians, Russians, Canadians, Brits, Mexicans, and French people. All were very lovely—save for the French couple in the room next to us in Monteverde, who complained to reception that we were too loud (then pretended they didn’t speak English when I confronted them about it).
There’s no real delicacy in Costa Rica, but all the food we had tasted fresh—probably because most areas are surrounded by farms. I had delicious chicken, tender steak, and lots of rice and beans (plus that amazing Risotto in La Fortuna).
You’ll also find a lot of restaurants in Costa Rica that serve traditional fare—burgers, hotdogs, pasta, pizza etc. It’s all very good, but try and seek out the more unique places if you can (especially the roadside sodas).
In terms of drinks, there’s no shortage of sweet cocktails. The beer variety is a bit limited, though. I mostly drank Imperials, which I think is there version of Budweiser. The best drink is the coconut water they sell on the beach in Manuel Antonio (it’s a cold coconut sliced open with a machete full of sweet water).
The prices you pay for meals can’t be beat—an appetizer, two drinks, and two mains will only run you somewhere between $30 and $50.
This was personally one of my favorite parts of the trip. The countryside is beautiful, and getting to see it by car is a real treat. If I was to do it again, however, I’d get an SUV. There are quite a few dirt and gravel roads (especially in Monteverde), which was anxiety-inducing in our four-door sedan. More treacherous is the fact that pretty much every road has large gulches on either side to capture rainwater.
This means if you veer off the road even a little, you’ll find yourself wrecked in a ditch. Fortunately this didn’t happen to us, but I did wind up high-sided several times, and had to have some locals help push me out.
It’s SUPER cheap. An 8-day trip with hotels and car rental ran us about $2500 combined. I booked my flight using points, but the typical cost is around $300 – $500.
You should carry around a little bit of cash for tolls and tipping (although many places have tip built into the bill). Also make sure to ask for your bill at restaurants, as many places won’t bring it to you unless you ask them to (because of this, Melissa and I actually walked out of two different restaurants without paying. Each time a waiter had to call to us to remind us that we didn’t yet pay).
Inland it can get cold at night and there is intermittent rain, even once the rainy season (May – December) has passed. We got by mostly with shorts, t-shirts, and bathing suits. However, it’s a good call to bring a pair of pants and a raincoat, plus a pair of hiking boots or closed toed shoes if you plan on doing any excursions.
Sunglasses, flip flops, and a hat are a must.
How to Travel
I’m a planner, so I booked all our hotels beforehand. However, I got the impression that you could probably show up at most hotels and get a room that night, and I don’t think it would be much more expensive than booking ahead of time. Any excursions you want to do can be booked day of, usually for the same price that you would have paid if you booked online.
In other words, if you’re not a planner, that shouldn’t be an issue. You can wake up each morning without a plan, and still find a good time.
Overall it was a wonderful vacation—especially considering the amount of things that could have gone wrong (the rental car breaking down, having our stuff stolen, losing our passports or credit cards, getting into a big fight with Melissa, and all the other stuff I like to freak out about).
Costa Rica is both beautiful and affordable. It can work for those seeking adventure, to laze around on the beach, or both.
That combination, plus the wonderful company (hey Melissa!) makes this a trip I will remember very fondly.