Muy Bien! A Tu?
That was all the Spanish I knew before stepping foot in Costa Rica. Well, that and ‘Pura Vida’.
Christmas vacation and Costa Rica travel plans coincided this year. What made us put a pin on it was the geographic diversity it offered. Costa Rica has everything – mountains, volcanoes, rivers, ocean, rocky beaches, sandy beaches. What’s more, it also offers a new culture, new cuisine and a language that was new to us. Bingo! We had found our new destination.
What followed were some arguments about safety after hearing stories from fellow travelers and friends. We agreed on some important rules and Costa Rica trip was on! And oh, it just took us a month or so to get reasonable December tickets. No biggie! Fortunate enough to get decent prices with American Airlines and Avianca.
The basic safety rules we followed were:
1. No driving in the dark for more than a few kilometers. No walking at night alone.
2. No accepting drinks or food from strangers. Savor food from budget yet decent places.
3. No luggage to be left back in car, not even in trunk.
4. Distribute cash and cards in the luggage in different pockets. Pay with cards wherever possible. Always keep wallets in front pocket of trousers or in inner pocket of bag.
5. Passports to be kept safe in room locker.
6. Always carry torch. Not all places have street lights.
7. Prefer bottled water to make sure you’re out and about enjoying your trip and not getting sick.
8. Book day trips or park excursions from verified vendors. Make sure you go through reviews of the vendor before shortlisting one.
If you notice, these rules don’t just apply for Costa Rica. These are standard rules that pretty much make sense in any country.
Costa Rica rolls on Colones but USD is accepted almost everywhere. On an average, people accept 500 Colones as 1 USD.
Spending too much on lodging didn’t make much sense because we wanted to be outdoors. So any hotel that had a good clean bed, lock/safety latch, clean bathrooms, hot water, wifi and some character, made the cut.
Airbnb was our savior. Made the browsing, booking and contact process super easy and smooth. It took us no time to book suitable options that catered to our very specific requirements of location and facilities.
We also had some IHG points to spend on cheap hotels. Booking.com also provided some decent budget options.
The standard options like Enterprise, Hertz, Alamo, National etc are available. We booked a car from EuropCar through EconomyBookings at $130 for a non 4*4. Even though we opted for an insurance of $51 (included in $130) on EconomyBookings, we were told at EuropCar that the insurance wasn’t valid in Costa Rica, it was merely between us (the consumers) and the website (EconomyBookings). EuropCar refused to rent out a car to us without buying insurance($170, which is $25 per day) from them. Eventually, we had to cave and buy the insurance to get going. We upgraded to a 4*4 Daihatsu Terios for an additional $36, which, we later realised, was a good decision. At the end, including insurance, booking charges, upgrade and taxes, we ended up spending a whopping $500 just on car rental, excluding fuel. And fuel costs $1 per liter (not gallon).
We were just beginning to realize how expensive Costa Rica is.
Costa Rican coffee is a world-class gourmet coffee and it’s a must try. You wouldn’t find a place in Costa Rica that doesn’t serve black beans and rice, also called Gallo Pinto. Fried plantains, salad, fresh fruits are available easily and in abundance. Delicious fried fish, chicken and meat is served even at local road-side cafes called Sodas. Queso Palmito is a local cheese that the Ticos are proud of. Fresh strawberries at Poas Volcano are one of the sweetest kind I have ever tasted. Almost all restaurants accommodate dietary needs.
If you’d like nothing better than a cold beer after a rough hike, try Imperial. It’s a local brew and the most popular one.
Majority of the locals use public transit which is cheap and reliable. Even most of the fellow travelers used buses to get across the country.
Downloaded offline Google maps work most of the time. Another great app for navigation is Waze, which is what we used and it worked great every time. (For quick tips, mail me!)
Roads are not very crowded but at times heavy vehicles may cause traffic on single lane roads. Do not depend on ETA given by GPS, its not realtime.
We had 7 days to experience Costa Rica so we had to have a fixed route. It looked something like this:
Day 1: San Jose -> Poas Volcano -> San Jose -> La Fortuna
Day 2: La Fortuna -> Arenal Volcano -> La Fortuna
Day 3: La Fortuna -> San Ramon -> Puntarenas
Day 4: Puntarenas -> Quepos
Day 5: Quepos, Manuel Antonio
Day 6: Quepos -> Playa Hermosa -> San Jose
Day 7: San Jose
We stayed at the airport IHG Holiday Inn for better accessibility. Took us 10 minutes to reach the hotel from airport.
San Jose city is about 15-20 minutes from the airport. There are two parts to San Jose. One part has the malls, high end restaurants, cinemas etc and the other main city area which has all the local shops and old establishments. You can drive through the main city even after dark. There are literally a bunch of cops at every single corner of every single block in that locality. Cop cars drive around and keep circling the area to ensure safety of the tourists as well as locals. We did not find a parking spot but if you intend to stop in the area and walk, make sure your parking spot is in a well lit and crowded area.
Poas Volcano is 1 hour 10 minutes (approx 33 km) drive from the airport, depending on traffic. Starting early helps to evade the rush and crowd. Entrance is $15 per person and parking charges are $3 per car. It was cloudy at the top of the volcano that day so we hardly got a glimpse of the crater. Checking the weather beforehand wouldn’t hurt. We went anyways because the drive is scenic and worth it. There’s a cafe, gift shop and restrooms up there.
Important Tip: Carry umbrella/poncho and a jacket. As you can see the volcano was up in the clouds.
Touristy town but quite happening. Proximity to Arenal Volcano and national park, waterfalls, lake Arenal, numerous hot springs, endless food and lodging options, makes it a popular destination with international tourists. Costa Rica is a bird watcher’s paradise. You don’t need to go places to see pretty birds, we saw a Toucan right outside our bedroom on a palm tree. Through Booking.com, we found a simple Bed & Breakfast Hotel Vagabond right in the town. For food, a cafe called ‘Su Casa’ was recommended to us by a local and it was every bit as good as promised.
Arenal Volcano and national park is 10-15 minutes drive from the town. On clear days, the volcano is visible from the town but otherwise even hiking up the volcano won’t get you clear views. We saw monkeys, birds and other animals while driving to the park. There’s a $10 entrance fee of to the park and $15 to the observatory. Quite a few options for adventure activities like hiking, zip lining, rappelling, wildlife spotting, night hike etc. I would suggest looking for a vendor with good reviews so as to get your money’s worth.
There are a number of Hot Spring resorts between the town and the national park. We got a good deal through our hotel to Baldi Hot Springs (which is the largest one with 25 pools). $40 per person including a big lunch buffet. Totally worth it! Spare at least 3-4 hours to spend at the resort.
San Ramon town falls on the way to Puntarenas as a preferred driving route. A quaint little town crowded with locals around churro carts, street singers and inexpensive shopping centers. The traffic on this route might slow you down though.
Domestic tourists find destinations like La Fortuna and Quepos too steep and commercialized. So Puntarenas is the place they head to. There’s a beach where people like to hangout, do camping, barbecue and spend evenings watching sunset. The adjacent road is lined with many great restaurants, cafes, small hole-in-the-wall eateries and ice-cream parlors. There’s some scope for street shopping if you’re interested in haggling in Spanish. A busy local market sits in the adjoining area where locals sell catch of the day, fresh vegetables, fruit.
We got a great place to stay in Puntarenas thanks to Airbnb. A German gentleman (who has traveled over 100 countries and settled in Costa Rica) and his French wife Elizabeth were the perfect hosts to their gorgeous ‘palace’ they built themselves from scratch. It took them 5 full years to build it, and boy, was it charming! It had character, stories, trinkets and antiques, pretty nooks and a posh Jacuzzi. The host, Michael, showed us around town, took us to the local market and told a lot many tales about his travels and life in Costa Rica.
Important tip: If you want to eat something other than Gallo Pinto, Puntarenas offers a variety to pizzerias and pasta-serving restaurants.
Another popular tourist destination, and rightly so, because of the pristine Manuel Antonio Beach, the national park, the wildlife and, to some extent, the nightlife. Reach the beach around 6:30 am to avoid the crowd. If you enjoy parasailing, jet skiing and other water sports, you’ll find it all here.
We booked a room via Airbnb at Casa Buena Vista run by a sweet lady, Anita and her assistant. Felt like we’re staying right amid a jungle. Howler monkeys visited ever so often. We spotted iguanas, scorpions, some vibrant birds and incredibly gorgeous butterflies. The beach was just a short walk away through a trail ahead. Our mornings started with a walk to the beach, a dip in the ocean watching sunrise, wholesome breakfast at the BnB and back again to the beach.
There are a lot of grocery stores, restaurants, liquor stores at walking distance. Cafe Milagro is one of the most famous food joints in the area, followed by El Avion, a restaurant built inside a crashed plane and El Wagon, a cafe inside a train wagon. We headed to the Falafel bar for a change from Costa Rican food. Short yet delicious middle-eastern food options on the menu.
All throughout our road trip we passed by hoardings of zip lining, Tarzan swing, night jungle hikes, wildlife spotting. It made us all the more anxious for our zip lining adventure reservation with TiTi Canopy Tours. The tour lasted 2-3 hours and we carried nothing along because they provide water and lunch. The guides are entertaining and informative, making the experience super fun. You can carry GoPros because anything other than those are risky.
Manuel Antonio National Park is the best place to spot sloths in their natural habitat. The beach inside is spectacular. There’s only one authorized ticket counter and its recommended to buy from them instead of buying from local guides. The park closes at 4 pm and ticket counter closes around 3 pm so its best to start early. Bus rides to and from Quepos cost just a dollar.
Playa Hermosa is another stunning beach on the way back to San Jose. Volcanic black sand beach running miles parallel to the highway. Cheerful looking bars and food joints line the beach making it a great pit stop for backpackers. We stopped at The Backyard Bar for food and chilled beer.
Every now and then we kept searching for inexpensive souvenirs to take back home. But until the last day, we found nothing under $6. A handwoven blanket caught my eye in a store and since it was locally made, I didn’t mind shelling out a bit more. Support local businesses by eating, shopping, staying at places run by locals. It’s a satisfying experience altogether. For more pictures of my Costa Rica trip, check my Instagram account.