Because Costa Rica is awesome, that’s why!
It was exactly as I expected, yet also much more and is up there with my favourites. Yes, it is firmly on the tourist trail and its expensive (you’ve been warned) but in exchange for your hard-earned cash, Costa Rica offers a unique and unparalleled glimpse into a country of natural beauty and a forward-thinking approach to conservation.
Everything is set up for tourists in Costa Rica without feeling like Disney World. Buses run on time, trails are clearly marked, you can pay with USD, food doesn’t make you ill and, in many places, you can drink from the tap. However, my favourite aspect of this Central American country is that they give two shits about their country. They have embraced the ecological aspects of tourism and reforesting projects are underway to repopulate with original plants and trees. Quite simply, locals care about their country and are genuinely excited to show it off. I really can’t say enough good things about this Costa Rica.
Why on earth would anyone travel to Costa Rica?
Wildlife, wildlife and wildlife. In Costa Rica you don’t need to search of animals, just be still and they will find you. Sloths hang from telephone lines, hundreds of bird species flutter overhead, monkeys loiter in towns ready to pounce for scraps and iguanas soak up the rays. Not being a keen bird watcher, or a twitcher, the highlight for me was the opportunity to observe sea turtles hatch and make their maiden voyage down to the ocean. This unique experience is something I grew up watching with my father on wildlife documentaries and is my favourite ‘David Attenborough experience’ to date!
One thing I’ll say about Costa Rica is that it’s hot and wet. When it rains it’s torrential, I sweated constantly, nothing dries outside, and the humidity affects phones, laptops and cameras. I suggest a waterproof bag with rice in it for the evenings and air-con. You’ll need a light waterproof jacket, but I found an umbrella worked best. Like New Zealand, Costa Rica is green because it rains a lot, well, they don’t call it the rainforest for nothing!
You can pay for everything with either USD or Colón. Whilst there is an official exchange rate, each shop has their own idea of what the currency is worth and there is no rhyme or reason. Sometimes you get a better deal when paying in USD, and other times Colón, it’s a lucky dip so you may want to change some money to be on the safe side.
The Best Places for 40 Winks
As with most countries, there’s accommodation to suit all budgets but I can only let you know where I stayed at which was at a mid to upper level. I was very happy with all the hotels and lodges listed below and wouldn’t hesitate to stay in or recommend any of these again.
San Jose – Presidente Hotel – Centrally located to the shopping, market and gold museum, this hotel is a great option. There is no pool, but the bar and restaurant area are excellent. Rooms are simple but adequate with Wi-Fi, air-con, safe and included breakfast. They also have loaner bikes if you fancy hitting the road on two wheels.
Tortuguero National Park – Laguna Lodge – Honestly, if you’re going to stay anywhere, it really needs to be here. From the ferry building you need to travel for 30 minutes by boat to get here but it’s worth it. All meals are included, it’s situated on a thin stretch of land between the beach and river, the complex is a tropical wonderland and wooden cabins have the rustic charm you’re looking for. Most importantly, sea turtles hatch right by the beach where this lodge is…you can thank me later.
La Fortuna – Arenal Montechiari – A great option and only ten minutes’ walk to town. The quiet ambience makes it an ideal setting to relax in the pool with a beer and a view of Arenal volcano. Individual cabins are modern with wooden floors, clean bathrooms, air-con and free Wi-Fi.
Monteverde – Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge – Did I just go to rainforest lodge heaven? Oh, I think so. You’re a 10-15-minute taxi ride from Monteverde town and up in the middle of the rainforest/cloud-forest. They have a wonderful restaurant and bar area, separate from the cabins and Toucans, monkeys, coati and an array of bird species can frequently be spotted from the conservatory. You’re also a short walk away from the zip-lines for you thrill seekers (highly recommended).
Manuel Antonio – Villa Bosque Hotel – Nothing special but perfectly adequate. They have a pool, Wi-Fi, and simple rooms and you’re only three minutes’ walk to town. I didn’t eat at the restaurant so can’t comment on this.
Piedras Blancas National Park – Esquinas Rainforest Lodge – The backstory of this lodge is incredible, as is the forest regeneration happening around it. This was the accommodation highlight for me and is smack bang in the middle of the rainforest. You wake up and fall asleep to the sound of birds and monkeys, and even when just relaxing on the grounds, it is truly astounding at the array of wildlife that can be spotted. The grounds are a tropical paradise, truly something beautiful, and the pool is stream fed and 100% natural. Esquinas is also the lodge for a cheap evening tour searching for frog species including the Poison Dart frog. The lodge employs and trains up only the locals, and profits are used to fund projects in the nearby village. Right up there with my top accommodation experiences.
Savegre Cloud Forest – Savegre Hotel, Nature Reserve & Spa – This is a lovely place and is currently rated as carbon neutral (by modern standards). Make no mistake about it, the lodge is wonderful and worthy of a visit if you’re a twitcher.
Costa Rica being the size it is, most itineraries tend to follow a similar pattern unless you want to get really off the beaten track. The itinerary below manages both well by ticking off all the usual suspects and a few more out of the way places.
Day 1 – San Jose (arrival day)
Day 2-3 – Tortuguero National Park
This network of waterways, canals beach and swamps are only accessible by boat or light aircraft. It is peaceful, unspoilt and devoid of rubbish and noise pollution. From the ferry building, you need to travel by covered boat about 30 minutes to the lodge which is hidden on a small strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and the main lagoon. Spend the remainder of the day cruising around the Tortuguero village and Sea Turtle Museum, with a walk back along the beach, or follow the forest trail right form the lodge grounds.
Tortuguero is most famous as a nesting site for endangered Green turtles, although Loggerhead, Giant Leatherback and Hawksbill also nest in this region. My advice is get up early, 4:30 or 5am to watch the turtles hatch (November to January). You’ll need a torch and to watch where you place your feet. Please keep a respectful distance, it’s always so disappointing to see what humans will do for a bloody photo!
On day three you should hire kayaks or a boat and guide to take you on a tour of the waterways. This is where you will see a crazy volume of animals and a local guide will be best at spotting them. Keep in mind, whether it’s hot or raining, you’ll regret no having cover and protection so be prepared for both eventualities. Outside of that, you’ll regret nothing because this place is fabulous.
Day 4-5 – La Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano
It has been said not to bother visiting this place since the volcano is no longer active, but I disagree. La Fortuna and Arenal and both very cool places. En route here you’ll pass endless pineapple, sugar cane and banana plantations which makes for a nice stop. Do yourself a favour and book in advance to visit Ecotermales Fortuna in the evening, the place is paradise with limited spaces and a bar where you can sip cocktails in the heated springs.
On day five I highly recommend walking the forest trail through Arenal National Park and up to the lookout point for Arenal Volcano. You’ll hike through virgin rainforest and see so many different species of flora and fauna. In the afternoon, naturally you need to head for the 65-meter cascading La Fortuna Waterfall and walk down to feel the spray on your face. Take your swim suit so you can near to the drop of the falls, or just around the corner in one of the calmer pools.
Day 6-7 – Monteverde in the Tilaran Mountains
From Arenal, travel to the Tilaran Mountain Range in the Central Highlands for views of the Costa Rican cloud forest. There are a few reasons to visit here including to walk through Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve to see first-hand a real cloud forest. The place is visually stunning with an endless array of wildlife and misty views to give your camera a workout.
In the afternoon, I recommend heading for the upper canopy heights and hitting the six ‘Sky Walk’ suspension bridges and in the late afternoon, getting your head up amongst the monkeys and do a zip-line course. It’s such a unique experience and gives you yet another way to experience Costa Rica’s diversity. Failing that I’ve heard mixed reports about the coffee tour. The orchid garden walking tour is quite interesting if that’s your thing.
Day 8-9 – Manuel Antonio National Park
Travel the beautiful Pan-Am Highway, passing African oil palm and teak plantations, along the coastline to Manuel Antonio; considered to have some of the said to have some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica. Although you’re never far from the forest, this is a great place to wind down on the beach in town or chasing away thieving racoons from the shores inside Manual Antonio National Park. Once inside the park, resist all urges to go directly to the beach because you’ll never leave. Instead make your way along one of the forest trails to get better acquainted with the parks geography including vast marine life, 1,700 acres of mangrove swamp, primary and secondary rainforest. You’d be very unlucky if you don’t spot loads of White-faced Capuchin and Howler Monkeys.
Day 10-11 – Piedras Blancas National Park
I spent the next two nights in the beautiful Esquinas Rainforest Lodge set in the heart of primary rainforest and bordered by the newly created Piedras Blancas National Park and Golfito Nature Reserve. This place is something of an oasis and is as close to working in harmony with nature as I imagine possible. In truth, there isn’t a lot to do here but it is a wonderful place for down downtime. Now please don’t think you’ll be bored, no quite the contrary. There are rainforest trails, evenings spent stalking frogs with flashlights, and relaxing in the stream fed pool whilst watching and listening to nature unfold around you. Did I mention you are smack bang in the forest? This place gets my top endorsement!
Day 12-14 – Savegre Cloud Forest – return to San Jose
The main reason to come here is your chance to witness the Resplendent Quetzal, a brightly coloured bird with long flowing tail. On day 13, you’ll need to depart the hotel at 4:30am and travel to a well-known viewing area on private land to see the Resplendent Quetzal. There is a minimal cost associated and only a short ride trip from the lodge. A nice way to pass your time is by following the river trails through Los Quetzales National Park.
More or less…next time
Honestly, I loved my time in Costa Rica but if you held a gun to my head, I would probably give Savergre Cloud Forest a miss. It was lovely to see the Quetzal but I’m not a twitcher and if truth be told, I was tweeted out by the time I left. I was gagging to see the humble pigeon and sparrow again. Having said this, the forest is beautiful, and I did have a lovely run through it.
I would probably spend more time in Tortuguero as this place encapsulates everything I look for from a travel experience. Forest, beach, wildlife, narrow waterways from exploring by boat and if I had to put it mildly, natures true paradise.
I’ll leave you with a video synopsis of my time in Costa Rica, you’re welcome!