- Go zip lining in Monteverde or La Fortuna (Arenal).
- Lay low in the surf town of Jaco.
- Enjoy Puerto Viejo's Caribbean vibe and culture.
- Explore the beaches of the Guanacaste Province.
- Take a day trip to Manuel Antonio National Park.
- Go for a surf. Or learn!
- Underestimate how long it takes to get anywhere because of the size of the country. Due to mountainous terrain, poorly paved roads, and sometimes weather conditions, short distances may take hours.
- Assume your stay will be cheap because you're in Central America. Costa Rica is one of the more expensive countries in the region.
- Feel the need to fit in every tourist attraction. Waterfalls, volcanoes and rainforests are everywhere in this country. Plus if you have some time look into doing some of your activities in Nicaragua where things like volcano tours can be done much cheaper. Unless you have money to blow, then you do you.
Not going to lie, my stint through Costa Rica was a quick one. Not because it isn't beautiful or anything, but on my quest for a culture shock, this country is painfully Americanized and in opinion, is struggling to maintain it's culture. But just because I was looking for a certain experience doesn't mean you shouldn't experience Costa Rica for yourself. The wildlife and overall beauty of this country definitely keeps Costa Rica on the radar for places you should visit within your lifetime.
Here are my picks of the top 5 places to see in Costa Rica:
1. Arenal Volcano National Park
My friend and I flew into San Jose, where we made our way to La Fortuna to explore the rainforest. We stayed at Nayara Springs Hotel, Spa and Gardens located in the Arenal Volcano National Park. Definitely the most lush hotel I've ever seen. The hotel is literally built on the side of a mountain and is surrounded by rainforest and wildlife. Not to mention they have their own mini sky walk.
We were only here for 3 days but every day was jam packed with activities. Here are some things you'll want to check out:
Zip lining! So I'll let you in on a secret. I'm absolutely terrified of heights. I probably would have second guessed going, but my friend was so keen on zip lining that I couldn't say no. And I'm so glad I didn't. It's amazing! I was loving it so much I even got my guide to go with me down one line to do some tricks and take a video. Make sure you bring a rain jacket! You're in the clouds. In a rainforest. It can pour at any given time. You don't want to end up drenched when you get to the bottom.
Later that day we went on the Arenal Hanging Bridges tour, where we crossed 15 or so bridges throughout the rainforest and our informative guide pointed out every native plant and animal. First time I saw a toucan!
The following day we took a short hike to La Fortuna waterfall. The waterfall was pounding down when we went and the water is such a brilliant blue, but despite how inviting it looks it is pretty chilly. Admission is $10 and be careful the hike down can be slippery. After our waterfall adventure, we took a hiking tour of the Arenal volcano. It's a beautiful hike where you can experience the gradual change in scenery from lush forest to volcanic rock. From the top you can see the halfway point between the Americas.
2. Guanacaste Province
Now all the beaches down this coast are great for different reasons. If time is a factor in your trip, stick to the west coast as the east coast can be a little tricky to get to due to accessibility. But because of the slight difficulty, the east coast is far less busy, slightly cheaper and a bit untouched, so if time is in your favor, head here. That being said, there are an overwhelming amount of beaches and the only way to narrow them down is to zero in on what you want out of your trip. Surfing? Snorkeling? Whales? Fishing? Yoga? Whatever it may be, don't drive yourself crazy trying to do it all.
If you want a bit of everything or don't know what you're looking for, the beaches along the Guanacaste Province will definitely provide you with some of Costa Rica's best coastlines. Plus, if you didn't make it inland to Arenal or Monteverde, zip lining, hot springs and volcano tours are all in reach from the coast. Tamarindo is a great place to surf or learn to surf. We spent most of our time on the Papagayo Peninsula at the Four Seaons where we were staying, snorkeling, exploring the peninsula's unspoiled beaches and taking a painting class.
Future Picasso's right here:
After a week of honeymooning in Costa, my friend had to get back to LA. We took a shuttle to the Liberia airport where we said our goodbyes and I caught a taxi to the bus station to get to Jaco.
Jaco is a great little surf/town backpacking destination. I stayed at the Rutan Surf Cabinas for 5 days and explored the area. Owned by a chill chick from LA, the environment is really relaxed and since it is smaller in size, this will give you the chance to get to know everyone staying there. So if you want to socialize, make some friends or surf buddies, definitely check out Rutan. Also stop by the juice hut down the road during a nice morning walk.
With buses running often through the town, Jaco is also a great place to situate yourself to explore the coast. It's also very accessible from the San Jose Airport. However, the accessibility has made it into a popular tourist destination so if you want to escape the crowd while you're here, head 20 minutes north to Playa Herradura or 20 minutes south to Playa Hermosa. You can go for a surf at each spot or have a relaxed day and sip on some coconut water.
4. Manuel Antonio National Park
From Jaco you should check out Manuel Antonio National Park. The area is a bit expensive, hence the day trip, but it is worth going to. Manuel Antonio is a beautiful beach/park where you can go snorkeling/swimming and get up close and personal with the wildlife in the area. While I was there, there wasn't much wildlife to be seen, but with a great beach in front of me it didn't really matter. You'll definitely want to pack some snacks/lunch and water. $16 for entrance into the park. I also met the girls I would be sailing through the San Blas islands with on the bus back! We just didn't know our paths would cross again yet.
After my week in Jaco I went cross country to the east coast. I wanted to stop in Tortuguero National Park, which is apparently a nesting ground for turtles and a great wildlife spot, but it was just too far out of the way and Costa Rica was not doing my wallet well. So I went straight to Puerto Viejo where I was meeting up with some friends from LA for a wedding. I took a bus from Jaco-San Jose-Limon-Puerto Viejo (full day of travel).
5. Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo is an awesome destination! With it's Caribbean influence and great nightlife, it's definitely one of my favourite stops in Costa. Here are some tips for your time in Puerto:
- Definitely rent a bike and take a ride down the tree lined roads along the coast. With the right timing of the sun in the morning or late afternoon, you'll feel like you're in a dream.
- If you're into animals, check out the Jaguar Rescue Center.
- Take your pick of one of the laid back beach bars all around the area.
- Surf! A local surf competition was being held during my stay, so I got a little taste of Costa Rica's thriving surf culture.
After a few crazy days in Puerto and a beautiful wedding, my friends were headed back home to LA and I was headed back on the solo road to Panama.