Wild & Scenic – Costa Rica

We get a ton of destination-specific questions from friends and contacts seeking insight on buzzy locales, hidden gems, and optimized itineraries. Most recently a housesitting host from Portishead, England asked if we had any recommendations for a Costa Rican adventure.

Laura and her husband are planning a belated honeymoon and hope to explore the country’s dense interior then soak in the sun on a long stretch of beach, cocktails in hand.

We landed in the Central American country several years ago with a similar idea in mind. Beach time was a must, be we also wanted to explore inland villages and mountain trails.

Our Costa Rica 411:

With a land mass roughly the equivalent of West Virginia (or for our British friends, less than a quarter of the UK,) this small country in Central America is a great choice for travelers looking for a mix of adventure and relaxation within easy reach. It’s inexpensive by British and American standards, and although the currency is the Colon, many places accept US dollars.

Spanish is the official language and most people also speak English. Tourism is a thriving industry and, in general, the country is extremely safe for visitors.

The dry season between December and April is the ideal time. Most visits begin with a flight into the centrally located capital of San Jose. Costa Rica has two other international airports; one near the Pacific coast in Liberia, the other on the Caribbean side at Limon.

Volcano Drama
We flew into San Jose, then immediately took a shuttle three hours northwest to the resort village of La Fortuna at the foot of Arenal Volcano. Private taxis can be pricey, so we opted for a shared shuttle. You can save even more by taking a local bus from the airport to the main station in San Jose, then grabbing a public bus to La Fortuna, but that option takes almost three times as long. Of course, you could rent a car, we just didn’t want that hassle. We had been warned that some of the roads in the country were absolutely terrible (and soon learned those warnings were fully merited.)

Once in La Fortuna, the laid-back tropical vibe at Hotel Lomas del Volcan provided the perfect backdrop for taking in the drama of the 5,358 ft Arenal. A dozen or so individual wood cabins situated around a common pool and restaurant with an amazingly close-up view of the volcano. Rustic, but lovely.

In the shadow of Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
In the shadow of Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

We walked into the tiny village most afternoons or went hiking in Volcano National Park.  A range of official park tours offer insight into the area’s fascinating geology and history. Plus, there’s more than a few adventure outfitters in town for adrenaline junkies. Caving, anyone?

Hot springs are more my speed. Tabacon Grand Spa Hotel has gorgeous springs, but staying there wasn’t within our budget or style palette so we did the next best thing. Purchased a day pass! We enjoyed the “morning pass,” which gives you access in less crowded hours, followed by lunch, for about $70. Still a splurge, but one we could live with for the unique experience.

Forest Horror
Next, we moved slowly, very slowly to the cloud forest area of Monteverde. It’s only about 60 miles (100 km) from Arenal to Monteverde which sounds like a short drive, but the roads are simply awful, filled with pothole craters. Locals say on some days it can take up to 5 hours to make the drive. So to get from Point A to B, we chose a highly unique and totally fun option. Horseback!

The adventure began with a quick half hour boat ride across Lake Arenal. As we approached the lake’s far side, we spotted our horses, saddled and waiting. There’s something thrilling about riding a horse for the sake of your own transit, even if it’s only at a trot.

Over a few hours, we covered surprisingly wild terrain along with a few unexpected encounters. We didn’t enjoy the surprise, nor did our horses, when we came upon wild pigs sloshing in a section of mud puddles. A bucking horse threw one of our riding companions during this episode. Other than a mud caking, he was fine but everyone was a bit more alert after that experience. Warning, if you aren’t accustomed to horseback riding…you will be sore in some interesting ways the next day.

If you’re legs can manage it, the thing to do in Monteverde is hiking. In most areas you can go out on your own or with a guide. We did a bit of both to mixed results. Going on a nighttime forest trek is one of those travel experiences that makes us belly laugh whenever we think about it. I’m not sure what we expected, but basically nighttime in the Costa Rican forest was the stuff of (my) nightmares.

As we walked carefully through dark jungle, single file with a dozen or so other tourists, flashlights scanning tree trunk and creeping vines, our guide would shriek with excitement every few paces. “Look there, thousands of ants!” or “Wow, another tarantula!” or my fav, “Come check out this snake hole.” Uhh, no.

We spent what seemed like a lifetime watching a sloth sleep in a tree (anyone who has seen a sloth knows this isn’t exactly an exciting endeavor.) I must say, some people LOVED this tour, but it wasn’t for us.

If we had it to do again, we’d opt for a morning hike – ah, sweet daylight – to check out some pretty chirping birds and colorful butterflies.

Forests aren’t the only draw of Monteverde. There’s also cheese! An oddity turned culinary industry of the area is cheese making. In the 1950’s a group of American Quakers moved south to start a new life in the tropical country, cheese-making skills in tow. Although it seems the Monteverde Cheese Factory they began has closed, there are still many cheese artists (yep, they’re artists,) working and selling products in the area. (Delicious gouda.)

While we’re talking eats, the main staples of Costa Rican cuisine are rice and beans – even for breakfast in the form of a dish known as gallo pinto. The mild, okay maybe bland, flavor of most specialities was surprising. A crop of new chefs and restaurants throughout the country are bringing more spice (and variety) to the table, but overall expect simplicity.

Use the opportunity to go crazy on fruits. Juices all day long, what could be more healthy and tropical!

Beach Bliss
After days of hiking the forests, the beach call inevitable sounds. We wanted a full week to relax and refill and found a spot that delivered ample nourishment. From Monteverde, we took a bus to Puntarenas to catch a ferry to Pacquera, then a taxi to the laid-back artist enclave of Montezuma. Warning, the last bit is a bone rattling ride, but it’s worth the shaking for these beautiful beaches.

Montezuma is all about sunning and swimming in the day and drinking in beach bar shacks at night, with some hammock lounging in between. In other words, real vacation.

The biggest activity is the Saturday Farmers’ Market where local artists show their goods. There’s also usually some live music at a bar or two every night. The yoga scene has developed quite a bit since we were there so there should be plenty of drop in classes.

We spent so many hours reading and swaying in the hammocks on the porch of our bungalow at Los Mangos. When we did manage to get off the porch, we went snorkeling some afternoons and trekking to waterfalls on others. We even went zip lining on a canopy tour! 

If you’re looking for more of a party and resort beach scene, check out Malpais and Santa Teresa. Montezuma moves at a deliciously slow pace.

Next Time
When we visit again – and we definitely hope to return soon! – we would probably choose to revisit Arenal and Montezuma but also make time for Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast to see the turtles!

Also on our “next time,” list is beginning the trip with a cultural immersion in San Jose. A few days to sink into the art and music scene and visit museums would be a great way to start the trip and gain more insight on the culture.

We hope this helps anyone thinking of a Costa Rican adventure! And, we’d love to hear any recommendations you have for a visit.

Have questions about a specific destination? Simply respond to this post and we’ll share any insights we’ve picked up along the way. Let’s get out there, y’all!

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Catching the Spirit of Exploration in Lisbon

Nomadic Life: Destinations

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