Costa Rica had been on our radar for the past few years. Every once and a while we would check on flight prices and brainstorm a rough outline of what exactly we wanted to do if we had the opportunity to go. To be honest, there were many nights where we would have a few drinks and come up with a grand plan, only to be discouraged by the reality of trying to fit in too much in too little time. Paralysis by analysis would kick in, and we would end up pushing the trip back. When you dive into vacation research for Costa Rica, it can be difficult to decide where exactly you want to go, and when you think you’ve got a plan nailed down, FOMO kicks in and then you end up drawing a pretzel on a map telling yourself “I gotta hit it all!”. This year, however, thanks to a Southwest Companion Pass (yeah, they fly to CR) and the decision to keep it simple and focus on two particular areas, we made it happen. As we had never been to CR, we figured it would be best to start with Arenal/La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio.
Day 1 – Travel Day – LAX/HOU/SJO
Our flight out of LAX, with a stop in Houston, arrived in San Josè in the evening. After the smoothest landing we’ve ever had, in a Thunderstorm no less, we headed to our hotel near the airport. Ideally, it would have been nice to go from the airport to our hotel in La Fortuna, but it is heavily advised to not drive at night if you have never driven in Costa Rica before. We spent about $66USD (booked through Expedia) for a room at Hotel Aeropuerto. The hotel pays for your taxi ride from the airport, which is a plus. For a cheap place to get a few hours of sleep, Hotel Aeropuerto checks the boxes. We had a decent dinner at the hotel along with two Imperials (the first of many) and went back to our room for a few celebratory shots of Flor de Caña Rum, before calling it a night. After all, the adventure was truly beginning in the morning, so probably good to rest up after a travel day.
Day 2 – Arrival in La Fortuna/Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
We woke up the next day and the car rental company, Adobe Rent a Car, conveniently delivered a mid-size suv to our hotel so that we didn’t have to spend time backtracking toward the airport. Booking a car in Costa Rica can be intimidating in the way that third party rental companies will quote you an insanely low rate, only to find out that you will be charged hundreds more for your rental upon arrival. Through this awesome Costa Rican travel blog, MyTanFeet, we were able to find very helpful information about how to rent a car, explanations of mandatory fees, and a discounted rental rate with Adobe Rent a Car. Our experience with Adobe was pleasant! After inspecting the car for prior damage and signing the contract, we were now free to hit the road to La Fortuna, which is about a 2 ½ – 3 hr drive from the airport.
Driving in Costa Rica is an adventure in itself. Waze becomes more of a lifeline than a navigation app, and sometimes Costa Rica even gets the best of Waze. In order get from point A to B, you have to rely on directions using only the name of the place you are going. Addresses don’t work, and good luck finding street signs when being directed through towns. The route to La Fortuna was marked fairly well with highway signs, but on our drive we experienced heavy fog and sporadic downpours, all while having to pass slow moving trucks on a windy two-lane highway, dodging monster potholes and pulled over cars where there are no shoulders. If you see pretty shrubbery in the middle of the road, consider it a compassionate courtesy. Ticos are trying to help prevent your car from parking ass-end up in a sinkhole. That said, I do recommend renting a car, because you get to take in this beautiful country at your own pace. Though sometimes turning into the white knuckle express out there, I deeply enjoyed driving, and our trip playlist provided a fantastic score for our journey.
We arrived at our hotel, Volcano Lodge and Springs, around 11:30. We were able to check in early around 12:30. After killing time with a couple of Imperials at the lobby bar, we dropped our luggage off in the room and headed out to the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. While the park offers a menu of adventure activities, we took a self-guided tour of the Hanging Bridge trail. This trail is around two miles long and involves a series of bridges suspended in the rainforest, with opportunities to see various local wildlife. The self-guided tour is $25USD per person. The one caveat in opting for the self-guided tour is that you definitely won’t see as many animals as you would with a guide. Certified guides in Costa Rica are able to better locate animals and insects, so it would be worth spending a little extra to have a trained eye make your experience even better. Having walked past some guided tours, we were able to see a poison dart frog and a couple of spider monkeys. While we didn’t see much wildlife here, we got to experience the forest and hanging bridges during a warm and misty rain shower, which was more than worth the price of admission.
After our time at Mistico, we headed to downtown La Fortuna to walk around and have dinner at the Lava Lounge Bar & Grill and then headed back to the lodge to soak in the thermal pools. The Volcano Lodge and Springs is an awesome accommodation option if staying around Arenal. The lodge offers guests a couple of soaking areas, a quiet multi-tiered one near the pool, and an area away a short walk from the pool that has a swim up bar and music. The lodge also offers upgraded rooms that have their own soaking tubs and a view of Arenal Volcano. We opted for one of these rooms and that was a damn good decision on our part!
Day 3 – Ziplining, Tubing, and Soaking
We grabbed a quick breakfast before heading to our first activity, Sky Trek! SkyTrek is considered the safest and most exciting zipline adventure in Costa Rica. It consists of 7 ziplines, with the highest cable being 656 feet above the park base, and the longest cable stretching about a half mile. The tour we did was $81USD per person. With both of us having never ziplined before, there was some anxiety building up before zipping down the first line. In fact, when Heidi completed her first line, her face was pale and she was shaking. However, with that first one under her belt, she began to feel comfortable and had a blast going down the rest of the cables. As for me, my braking abilities were mediocre at best, so I was coming into the platforms hot like the Human Torch. While flying down the ziplines, the view of the forest, Arenal, and Lake Arenal were breathtaking. Sky Trek is a must-do activity in this area, the staff was incredible, keeping everyone safe and at ease.
After ziplining, we headed to an Arenal River tubing session at the Club Rio Outdoor Center, which is part of The Springs Resort and Spa. For $35USD per person, you take a short guided tubing run on the Arenal River and are also granted access to their springs located at the tube take-out point. At the take-out point, there is a warm waterfall cascading down into the river. While the run on the river is short, they drive you back up to do it again. After the tubing activity was over, we stayed to enjoy the springs, which were beautiful and secluded. At one point it felt like we had this area all to ourselves.
Back at the Lodge that night, we hung out in our private tub and had dinner at the onsite bistro (the ceviche and Costa Rican-style steak were phenomenal!). We decided to go grab a drink at the lobby bar and a quick game of pool before heading to bed early. However, we met two hilarious guys from Florida, took Guaro shots (look it up!) and ended up in the lobby until 2am which was about 4 hours past our original planned bedtime.
Day 4 – Rio Celeste, La Fortuna Falls, and Tabacòn
On our third and final day in the La Fortuna area, we took about an hour and a half drive to Tenorio Volcano National Park to hike along Rio Celeste. While feeling the effects of the previous night, we committed to hiking to the waterfall and seeing how we felt at that point. The hike to the waterfall is about a mile (1.7km), which starts out mostly flat, until you begin a ascend a gravel and dirt path to reach the staircase, where you descend 250 stairs to reach the viewing platform of the waterfall. When you get to the viewing platform, you will instantly want to take a plunge in the stunning blue-turquoise water. However, this area is off limits to swimming, though viewing this beautiful 295 foot waterfall is reason enough for the hike.
After climbing back up the stairs, we felt well enough to continue on the trail which ultimately takes you to Teñideros, where you can see the transition of color between the Rio Celeste and Rio Buenavista. This portion of the trail is very muddy and you have to be careful where you put your feet. I managed to slip down some steps, which was pretty embarrassing. In my defense there were plenty of shoe skid marks emanating from the edge of the sneaky step, so it was assuring to know that other victims shared my pain. Along the way to Teñideros, there are picture opportunities at La Laguna Azul (a beautiful blue pool), Borbollones (a thermal area in which the water bubbles and smells of sulfur), and cross a couple of small suspension bridges over the river. In total, this hike is about 3.29 miles (5.3km), which isn’t that long, but the heat, humidity, and mud make it a bit more strenuous. Admission to Tenorio Volcano National Park is about $12USD per person, and is definitely a reasonable asking price to see the beautiful river and waterfall. On another note, we took a wrong turn out of the park, and Waze led us down a 6 mile deeply-graveled road in the middle of farmland and random small communities. We ended up making it back to the main highway, but Waze had a grand idea to take us a completely different way out of the park than we entered it.
When we got back to La Fortuna, we hit La Fortuna Waterfall for a quick dip. The trip down to the base of the falls, where you can swim, is about a 15 minute trek down 500 stairs. Once you get down to the base of the falls, you are treated to a 200 foot waterfall pouring down into an refreshing emerald green pool, all surrounded by jungle. We hung out for a bit, swam in the coldest water we encountered on our trip, and then headed back up the steps for beer and ceviche, of course. La Fortuna Waterfall is located about ten minutes from town, and there is an entrance fee of $15USD per person.
As we finished up at the waterfall, the evening was approaching so we set out to answer the age old question, “What is up with the Tabacòn?” While planning this trip, and then speaking with other fellow travelers, we were constantly told to check out the thermal pools at the Tabacòn Grand Spa Thermal Resort. We purchased admission to the evening session for $70USD per person, which included access to the pools and a buffet style dinner. When I say “access to pools” that is probably understating the actual experience offered at Tabacòn. You are really given access to a thermal, cascading, lava-rock lined river in which there are numerous soaking areas, whether it be under a small private nook or a larger pool with a waterfall set under a jungle canopy and lush botanical garden. This was true paradise, and quite the private, intimate experience in the evening. After about 3 hours exploring the various pools and enjoying a delicious dinner, we called it an early night, as we would be waking up early to drive to Manuel Antonio for next portion of the trip.
Day 5 – Drive to Manuel Antonio
We woke up to a bit of rain in the morning, so instead of rushing to begin our 5 hour drive to Manuel Antonio, we decided to hop into our private thermal tub one last time. The smell of the rain and the surrounding plants, warm raindrops hitting you as you relax in your own private oasis, all of these elements were worth getting a bit of a late start. We then hit the road, Waze dialed into our next destination, and trying to be careful not to miss any left or right turn instruction with the lack of street signs in the towns along the way. About half way through our drive, we stopped in Tàrcoles on the advice of the hotel front desk upon checking out. Tàrcoles is a must stop for three reasons: 1) small shopping opportunities 2) quick stop for a beer and ceviche and 3) crossing the bridge over the river to see the crocodiles below!While on the bridge, you won’t have to look very hard, as there were at least 20 floating right below. After about two more hours of driving, we reached the town of Manuel Antonio, which is home to Costa Rica’s smallest, yet most visited national park. We checked into the Hotel Byblos Resort and Casino, about a 10 minute drive from the national park entrance. Byblos is located in a great area at a reasonable price where you can book a bungalow surrounded by jungle. We ended up with a standalone bungalow that provided a decent amount of space and included a balcony. After dropping off our luggage in the bungalow, we went to Bar Jolly Roger, our hotel bar, for Happy Hour. While you may not have come to Costa Rica for chicken wings, At Bar Jolly Roger, you must get the wings! While at Happy Hour, we noticed a lot of movement in the trees, looked around and saw squirrel monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Everyday right around sunset, the squirrel monkeys would make their way through the resort. We walked down the hill to catch the sunset and have dinner and drinks at El Aviòn.
El Aviòn is a pub that was built in and around an old cargo plane that was sold by the U.S. to the Sandinista army in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Without giving a full history lesson, the plane is a relic from the Iran-Contra Affair. While inside the “plane bar” you can grab a drink and climb into the cockpit, which is a tiny sweat box! El Aviòn offers a great view of the sunset, as it sits high on a hill looking west toward the ocean. Unbeknownst to us, when we arrived back at our hotel later that evening, Bar Jolly Roger (our hotel bar) was jumpin’! The place was packed with tourists and locals enjoying live music. At one point, the owner got up with the band and did a De La Soul Song (Hey Hey Hey). While we didn’t come to Costa Rica for the nightlife, this was a pleasant surprise.
Day 6 – Manuel Antonio National Park
The next day was dedicated to spending time at Manuel Antonio National Park. While we hadn’t yet seen a sloth in Costa Rica (aside from a balled-up baby high in a tree in the Arenal area), this was to be the day. We drove down toward the park and set out to hire a guide. We walked around the park entrance looking for a guide, and found one named Radames, who was trying to get people together for a small group tour. We each paid him $20USD per person, and he said he would be back and the tour would start when he returned. After about 20 minutes, he had not returned, so we thought we got hustled, no doubt. He did return however, and we were glad he did. Radames was a fantastic guide. He took us down the Sloth trail, and pointed out multiple small species such as frogs, bats and various insects that we likely wouldn’t have seen without his help and telescope. There was a running joke in which people would ask him where he glued the animals today, because of his ability to locate small objects as he walked along the trail. While on the main trail, he made the group’s sloth dreams come true! We saw 4 three-toed sloths. One such sloth was on his way down from the trees to use the restroom, so we were able to get some pretty good pictures. At the end of the trail near Playa Manuel Antonio, we also saw a two-toed sloth enjoying the ocean breeze high in a tree. Along with the two-toed sloth, there were raccoons, white-faced monkeys, and iguanas hanging around the beach areas, with the Raccoons roaming around the sand like a pack of bandits, trying to steal any food you might have snuck into the park. Before ending the tour, Radames took the time to point out a poisonous tree, the Manzanillo, that could probably kill you if you eat the fruit, and make you vomit if you touch any part of it or sit under it for too long. If it rains and you are under it, good luck! Naturally, he walks us over to once such tree, and a group of youngsters were eating lunch under the tree, while another tourist family was using the branches to hang their wet clothes. One might assume that all parties involved probably had a hell of an evening. We then broke off from the group, and swam at Playa Manuel Antonio for the rest of the afternoon. Playa Manuel Antonio is an absolutely gorgeous little beach. The water was warm and clear, with a gentle current. This was paradise, even when you looked back at the sand and saw man vs. raccoon turf stand-offs, the water was damn near spiritual.
That evening, we went to Barba Roja for dinner and sunset. Barba Roja is another great open air restaurant facing the ocean, which is perfect for catching the sunset. We enjoyed some drinks and sushi rolls to go along with the fantastic view. After dinner we walked down the hill to check out the pool bar at Selina, which is a scene equal parts hostel and Ace Hotel. They were selling dollar Chili Guaro shots, so naturally we ordered two shots and two beers, and carried on with our evening, ending back at our hotel bar for a night cap.
Day 7 – Catamaran
On our last actual adventure day, we decided to see Manuel Antonio from a different perspective and booked an afternoon catamaran ride. When booking the catamaran, we somehow ended up with a different catamaran company than we had originally planned . We called to book a tour through Ocean King, which was basically an adults-only booze cruise. When Heidi called, she was given a different number that ended up being for Planet Dolphin, another catamaran company. Apparently it was not stated that these were two different companies, so when we showed up and were given Planet Dolphin bracelets we were very confused. When we explained our confusion to the deckhand, he was more than willing to let us try and catch the Ocean King instead, but he said that we were in good hands on his boat. We decided to stay with Planet Dolphin and we loved it. Our tour ended up being all you can drink liquor, with lunch included, for $75USD per person. There was a smaller group of people on the boat than the Ocean King. Our tour sailed further into the national park area, so we had better views. Both companies also anchor at the same snorkel spot. Last but not least, the crew was exceptional. While the snorkeling was just okay due to water clarity, spending time jumping off of the top of the catamaran and going down the slide. We did see a pod of dolphins as well, so the company lived up to the name!
In the evening, we went to El Wagon for phenomenal wood-fired pizza, then walked over to Café Milagro to pick up some coffee to bring home. On the way to Café Milagro, it started pouring heavily. It might have been raining buckets, but walking up the street in Manuel Antonio on our last night there was romantic, liberating, and definitely memorable. As we got to the Café and out of the rain, Heidi rushed back outside to play in the downpour, to the amusement of both myself and everyone at the café who watched her bolt out the door. While we stopped in just for coffee and a quick beer, we ended up chatting with the friendly bartenders and listening to some live music before heading back to our bungalow.
Day 8/9 – The Journey Back – Hotel Aeropuerto/SJO/HOU/LAX
While we had one final day in Costa Rica, our only real option for a flight home was an early morning departure. We didn’t want to have to drive in the middle of the night from Manuel Antonio to the airport, and risk not waking up and potentially missing the flight, so we decided to stay near the airport the night before. However we couldn’t leave Manuel Antonio without taking one last dip at the beach. We drove down toward the national park area, stopped into a few shops for last minute souvenirs, and parked our asses in the sand at Playa Espadilla Norte for a little while before our two and a half hour drive to drop off our rental car and check into the Hotel Aeropuerto. We woke up at 4am the next morning and headed to the airport to catch our flight.
While we can now finally check Costa Rica off of our “travel list”, we certainly hope we are fortunate enough in the future to visit again, multiple times if possible. We had such a great experience in such a beautiful country. We came home feeling that there is much more to experience, and even at the most basic level, we wouldn’t mind doing this very same trip again in the future. Until then…PURA VIDA!