COSTA RICA -rainforests, greenery, fresh air, outdoor adventures, beautiful nature, oh my!
So you constantly browse Groupon‘s “getaway” deals and dream of actually hitting the Book Now! button, but then something stops you. Whether that is finances, work, or simply being unsure of the whole Groupon thing. (Is it legit? Why can’t I fly out of somewhere else and why are the travel dates so limited?!) Ya, those were my thoughts at least. Yet I caught myself browsing the getaways. all. the. time. So there came a point where we said screw it, and gave it a try. That’s when we purchased our first Groupon Getaway….. to Costa Rica.(And it was AMAZING).
Now, I can’t say all Groupon’s will turn out amazing since they are posted by individual companies and travel agencies, but we used Travel by Jen. They were informative, quick, honest, and AFFORDABLE. The one thing about Costa is it’s a great trip for those, like me, who are usually on a budget.
GETTING THERE: We took a direct flight from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to San Jose, which was just over 2 hours in flight. Majority of flights fly into centrally located San Jose, although there is another airport in Liberia in the northwestern region if you are headed to the Guanacaste region.
GETTING AROUND: A rental car is a MUST in my opinion. It allowed us to see so much more of the country than we would have without it. The price of rental cars is cheap (like $10/day), but rental car insurance in mandatory which is where they get you because it can be between $100-$300. (However, I can’t stress enough how much it is worth it, get. the. rental. car.) We used Thrifty Rental Cars. Their shuttle picked us up from the airport and took us right to the car rental, which was about 1 minute from the airport. (Reminder: ours was included in Groupon, so we didn’t shop around other rental car companies, but we had no problems with our car).
The roads are CRAZY, at least compared to the United States (and especially to people used to flat, straight roads like us Floridians ;)). And mostly if you are going inland.. mountainous with lots of ups downs and turns, while there are people and dogs walking on sides of busy highways, and most streets are not labeled. Instead of having road signs, most directions will say, for example, “turn left shortly after passing the gas station”. Um, ok. (for this, HIGHLY recommend also purchasing a GPS. We would have been lost and arguing about where to go the whole time without ours. GPS=MUST). But long story short, rental car will allow you to go more places and experience more of the country.
RECOMMENDED CITIES: Our trip was on the western coast of the country. If you like nature and being outdoors, this country is for you! Although we drove through MANY cities and towns along there, I recommend a few for travelers. First, La Fortuna (inland, small town by Arenal Volcano), is most recommended for those seeking greenery, adventure, nature, being outdoors, rainforests, and less tourists. Manuel Antonio (on coast), pretty touristy, but for those who want to relax on the beach and be guaranteed to see monkeys, sloths, and other native mammal animals. Jaco,(on coast) for those who want to surf and do water sports. For those who like to see more local aspects of other countries, drive through places considered “the slums”, like Puntarenas (although if you have a rental car you will get to drive through many places to see how the locals live). & Sadly I didn’t get to go there, but I know many who recommend Poas National Park to see a beautiful volcano crater. More details of each city below.
MUST SEES/TO DO’S IN SOME OF THE CITIES MENTIONED ABOVE ^ :
No words needed. One of Costa’s active volcanoes. I took this picture from our hotel rooms balcony. (Magic Mountain Hotel) It was beautiful and I highly recommend it. Located in downtown La Fortuna.
ECO TERMALES HOT SPRINGS
There are a bunch of different hot springs around, and you choose based upon what you’re looking for. I wanted something quiet and nature filled so chose EcoTermales Hot Springs. There are 5 springs at this location ranging in temperatures from 90 degrees F to 105ish. They are naturally heated from volcano. It was my 2nd favorite part of my trip. RELAXING, beautiful, restoring, and all around wonderful. It was semi-pricey but totally worth it. You pay for 4 hour periods in the springs. They said the evening period is most crowded. We went to the afternoon period and there was only 1 other group there! In the picture below, it was raining and I had the springs to MYSELF to lay in the hot water and watch the rain drops fall down in the middle of the rainforest. By far the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done. GO!
There is a bar & restaurant there for food & drinks as well as lockers and changing rooms.
There are other hot springs around town, such as Baldi Hot Springs, which is much larger with more springs, but it is also busier with more people and less nature.
LA FORTUNA WATERFALL
This waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions, and for good reason. It is a waterfall over 200 feet high that is surrounded by luscious greenery and lands in fresh water. It is located just outside of La Fortuna. It is not for those who cannot walk up and down steps as you have to walk just under 500 steps to get down to it, and then, you guessed it, walk back up all 500 of them to leave. It’s one of the most BUDGET FRIENDLY and cheaper things you can do if you don’t have much money to spend. Under $10/person.
I am always about “beating the crowd” and going places when nobody else is there… So, my best piece of advice is to GET UP EARLY and go right when they open! (I believe they open at 7am). Otherwise, you will be looking at this with multiple buses filled with groups of people. Picture below is me at the bottom, to put the height into perspective. Taken at about 7:30am before anybody else arrive ;)– GO EARLY!
CERRO CHATO HIKE
The most challenging thing we did, the Cerro Chato Hike. The Cerro Chato is an inactive volcano located next to the Arenal Volcano. Because it is inactive, hiking on it is permitted. However, it is not your typical hike. There are no paved paths, stairs, or cleared trails. I mean, there is a “trail” on each side to get to the top, but it is more like climbing a mountain than hiking. It was hot, and it was hard, but it was SO WORTH IT.
The top of the volcano houses a “green lagoon” (pictured above) which is what remains of the peak of the volcano. This is your ending point of the hike. There are multiple view points throughout the hike as well as chances to see plants and animals (mainly insects, snakes, etc.) OH! And it’s CHEAP. About $10/person to hike it.
The picture below is an example of what the trail looks like to get to the top. It’s steep and filled with formed rocks. This was my favorite thing we did on our trip, but I love to do active things. It’s a very REWARDING hike mentally and physically 🙂
I liked this hike so much that I wrote a separate blog all about it… so for more information about this hike click there –> Hiking the Cerro Chato (Costa Rica)
AT LEAST ONE GUIDED TOUR (CANYONING* [PICTURED BELOW], ZIPLINING, ATVS, HORSEBACK RIDING, HANGING BRIDGES, ETC.)
I keep saying I hate crowds and tourist groups, but I have to admit, you have to do at least ONE tour while in the country. You’ll get to do things you otherwise couldn’t. We chose to canyon/rapel down waterfalls with Desafio Adventure Company. (recommend them!) It was so much fun, and they made it so that you cannot fail and just enjoy yourself! It was green, it was fun, and it was different!
If thats too challening for you, there is a BUNCH of tours you can do such as ziplining (which we also did, great views!), atv tours, horseback tours, hanging bridge tours, etc.)
Tour companies will be everywhereeeeeeeeeeeeee, but I recommend booking in advance so you get the day you desire. Not the cheapest thing to do, but definitely a good time.
When I booked my trip, I was so excited to see MONKEYS and SLOTHS in the WILD instead of locked up in a zoo. I was so disappointed when I didn’t see ANY during my first 4 days of being in the country and knew I had to go somewhere that would guarantee I would. So we took the couple hour drive south solely for this purpose, and we were not disappointed.
I literally almost cried thinking I wasn’t going to get to see one, but once in the National Park (paid a small fee) we saw/heard MULTIPLE monkeys, 2 sloths, kuwati’s (spelling?) and so much other wildlife. My life was complete.
Otherwise, Manuel Antonio is a beach town with a few beautiful public beaches. You can parasail, jetski, surf, shop, eat, drink, etc. But I only went to this town for the animals 😉
If you scroll down below, I talk about the delicious local food. However, I wanted to point out this restaurant because of it’s views. It was a more “mainstream” menu as opposed to a small local menu, but super delicious nonetheless, just with VIEWS VIEWS VIEWS. Located near Manuel Antonio.
PAOS NATIONAL PARK
We were so busy and all over the place that we ended up not having time to drive to Poas National Park. It is most known for this beautiful crater, so I wanted to be sure to make note of it on here. At least I got to see the green lagoon on the Cerro Chato volcano! (see above). Beautiful place.
DON’T RECOMMEND/DIDN’T LIKE: So every traveler can tell you about what they loved, how wonderful everything was, and what to do. But it is just as important to talk about what they would tell others not to do so that they can make the best of their time away! 98% of my trip was positive and beautiful. However, here is the 2% I wasn’t fond of:
1- My all-inclusive hotel (Doubletree by Hilton in Puntarenas). Now, I love budget-friendly places and in no way need luxurious places to stay, and YES, it was budget-friendly (if that’s you, you’d love it), YES, it included all meals and drinks, and YES, it was convenient. BUT, it was so crowded, filled with people, and on a beach so filthy you couldn’t even swim in it! The sand was black as to be expected because of volcanic rocks, but you’re legs got filled with nasty things just by putting your feet in the water. (hence why of the hundreds of people at the pool, not ONE was in or on the beach). The people in the room next to us literally screamed and argued all night long with what sounded like some domestic violence but our phone in our hotel did not work to call the front desk about it. When I tried to go on a beach walk at night, I had to sign a waiver that I was leaving the property and wouldn’t hold them liable if something happened (its in a bad part of town). I think they put a large “nice” beachfront hotel for tourists in the middle of a bad part of town on a dirty beach. Long story short, stay somewhere else along the coast, like in Jaco or Manuel Antonio, where there is other all-inclusives on prettier beaches in better parts of town 🙂
2- I guess that’s it. I enjoyed everything else lol.
FOOD: The eats in Costa Rica are pretty predictable, but VERY fresh if you venture into the local places. Be prepared to eat rice & beans with all 3 meals (yes, even breakfast). There is so much farmland in the country so most of the produce and meat (pineapples, watermelon, yuca, eggs, chicken, beef etc.) is super juicy and so fresh, local, and delicious. I am a picky eater but ate every bite of my dinners when we ate at local restaurants. When we spent a few nights in the “all-inclusive” hotel aimed at vacationers, and the food was not nearly as fresh or tasty. It worked as it was included and filled up our stomachs, but if you’re going for flavor and taste, eat local! Expect to sit outdoors, most places are open air, as you can’t forget it is a 3rd world country. In La Fortuna, I can highly recommend Lava Lounge & Grandma’s Spoon. Although I’m sure any restaurant there is great.
WEATHER: As to be expected, it rains nearly every day at some point.. It is so regular it doesn’t affect anyone that lives there. There will be thunderstorms and lightning at some point, if not daily, during your stay. However, in between the rain storms is beautiful, sunny, tropical warm weather! The only thing that surprised me was how early the sun rose. I was up when the sun was, which was around 5am. This also meant the sun went down sooner, meaning dark by 6pm. I’m not usually a morning person, but here I most definitely was, and enjoyed it too! (TIP: As mentioned above, being an early riser has its BENEFITS as you can get to the beautiful places before anybody else and have it all to yourself!!)
CONCLUSION: I highly recommend a trip to Costa Rica if you like the outdoors, being active, and nature. It is a beautiful country with breathtaking geography and plenty of stuff to do. Get up and do things early in the morning to beat crowds and eat locally. Keep in mind the country is not a wealthy one, so to have an open mind with accomodations and culture. If this sounds like you, GET OUT THERE AND GO! DO IT!