Costa Rica is probably my favorite, easy to get to, vacation destination. Pura Vida! Which translates to 'pure life'. This saying is used as an 'all good' or 'live life' message. It encompasses happy and chill vibes with only two little words. You will hear it many many times, and this mentality will stick with you even when you go home. Honestly, it's a energy you have to experience first hand to fully understand. Pura Vida Costa Rica.
We've been to Costa twice now and are sure to return again and again. We still have the whole Caribbean Sea side to see. But let me tell you, you can have it all in this country! Gorgeous nature, fantastic wildlife, warm crystal blue waters, epic white sand beaches, endless relaxation, everyday carefree vibes, adrenaline pumping adventures, nonstop exploration and delicious food. The best of all worlds in my opinion. I enjoy vacations that you can do more than just lay by the beach or the pool. Yes, 100% do those things, but you go to a new country to truly experience what it has to offer. There is so so so much more!
Costa Rica is honestly just a happy place. I can't even describe it properly. Regardless if the sun is shining or you are getting a rainforest downpour. Everyone is kind and cheerful with genuine smiles on their faces. Literally everyone. Locals and visitors alike. I know they say Disney is the 'happiest place on earth,' but I don't think Mr. Walt Disney ever went to Costa.
Costa Rica's primary language is Spanish with English as its secondary. Most people in tourist areas will speak both, but you will come across locals at shops and bodegas who do not speak English. Put your middle school language stills to their test. Honestly, it would be wise to brush up on a few words and phrases, just to get by if you go off the beaten path. But really, you'll be fine 95% of the time.
Seriously, even Costa Rica's currency is pretty. Covered with wildlife and bright colors. It is called the Costa Rican Colon. The USD is much stronger, but it gets a little confusing on the coin vs paper denominations. Rule of thumb is 1,000 colons is $2. The trick is to double the first number of the Costa amount to equal your USD amount. USD (in small bills) is accepted in Costa Rica, but you will get your change in Colons. If you use USD, your cash has to be in pristine condition to be accepted (no rips or defaced bills). Best to get Colons just in case and have some USD as backup. You can get it at your bank pretty quickly. Make sure you have cash for smaller local places and markets/shops. Restaurants, hotels, excursions/activities and large souvenir shops take credit card.
I will say, Costa is more expensive than you would expect. Costa Rica is such a tourist hotspot with such incredible... well everything... that the country has capitalized on that ideal. Restaurants in focal areas aren't local spots, and they jack up prices accordingly. Again, cost saving tips are crucial. Go to the bodega and grab booze and snack items. Stop at the local fruit stands for breakfast. First, it'll be the best fruit you've ever had. Second, the prices are local prices. Plan your own trip! There are suggested itineraries online. Use them as a guide and modify to your interests. You know what you'd enjoy. You'll save a lot of money in the long run; booking your own hotels, transportation and activities/excursions. If you don't want to deal with planning, that's cool too! Just expect a little more pricey of a vacation.
Food in Costa Rica is so fresh and comes from farms across the country. Again, the fruit is out of this world. Dole actually has quite a few plantations in Costa. The pineapples, mangos, kiwis, bananas etc. are mouthwatering. You will see a lot of rice and bean dishes, such as Gallo Pinto. Gallo Pinto is actually a breakfast staple in Costa. There are lots of different meats dishes as well. Regardless of where you are, you will also be able to find American dishes too. I almost forgot... the coffee. It is literally the best! There are many coffee bean plantations and they brew using the drip technique with old brew sacks. They are also known for their sugar cane and chocolate, which pairs nicely.
Both times we've been to Costa Rica have been entirely different. We've done the boutique hotels route and then the true resort vibe for our honeymoon. They had breakfast included or breakfast options available. Both I liked differently, but you know me, I'd take the more authentic boutique hotel any day. If you aren't going for total all inclusive luxury, boutique hotels are the way to go.
Why choose Boutique Hotels?
You'll save so much money! No resort/service fees with tipping galore. No $20 drinks and expensive meals that are good, but not mind blowing. Remember, everything adds up!
It's truly authentic. Your host will have local touches and novelties throughout the hotel, creating an ambiance that is just... real.
They are more tranquil and relaxing. When you go back to the hotel you really have that time to feel calm and chill.
Just as good, if not better views. You won't have to choose between garden, ocean and courtyard views with varying costs.
They usually have great rooms with everything on the premises. Choose one that has all the amenities you will actually use.
Located right near the heart of things. Resorts are too large to fit in the best locations. Boutique hotels squeeze right in.
Most are family owned and operated. This is their livelihood! I've found that they provide better service with personal touches.
Typically, you can walk to local restaurants. Your host will give you authentic restaurant ideas vs being forced to eat on site.
Their goal is to make your vacation incredible. Hosts will have must do/not worth doing suggestions from a local's perspective.
Honestly, you feel better supporting a mom and pop business. They are successfully doing something we could only dream of. I have a true appreciation and respect for how much hard work they put into their establishments each and everyday.
You can also choose if you would like to arrange transportation through private divers/pre-arranged taxis or rent your own car. Again, we have done both. You can find very reputable companies online through Costa Rica tourism sites or ask your hotel to help arrange. You will have an agreed upon fare rate, so there will be no surprises. Car rentals are also pretty easy. Pickup and drop off is outside the San Jose airport. The airport provides a shuttle service to the lots. You will need to pay for additional insurance with the car rentals. Believe me, it's better to be safe than sorry! I will say, driving in Costa can be a little... overwhelming. Rules don't really apply. You'll have people weaving in and out, with motorcyclists looking like they are going to crash every second. Depending on where you are, you could be on a normal highway, or climbing a gravel winding road, or on dirt roads trying to avoid potholes, that you'd think were one-ways but aren't. Just be prepared. Also, you may come across a random police checkpoints. This happened to us. Unfortunately, the officer did not speak any English, which made it a bit difficult. You'll be fine though! I will say, even though driving is a little stressful at times, it is awesome to be able to stop off wherever and whenever you want. To be able to check out small villages or cool beaches that catch your eye. To be truly on your own schedule, not someone else's. Remember 'Pura Vida.' If you've arranged a driver, he may be a little late, no biggie, no stress, no worries. He will come.
As I said, the exploration of Costa Rica is endless. Any outdoorsy activity or interest you have can be actualized on this trip. We've spent a total of 17 days in Costa and haven't nearly seen it all. We've only traveled the Pacific Ocean side (the west side) of the country. There are also places and things we would love to see and do again. I will cover some highlights, by province/state, of our trips so far that are seriously must dos. In our future trips, we intend to see the whole east side (Caribbean Sea). Costa is a very safe place. We have had no issues and no feelings of discomfort even far off the beaten path. The only other thing to worry about is monkeys trying to steal your bags. That's no joke.
Alajuela Province- Arenal Volcano
The Alaguela province is home to Arenal Volcano National Park. This beautiful place is a combination of lush jungles, rolling fields, farmlands, lakes, rivers, hot springs and most unique of them all... active volcanoes. This area of Costa Rica is a nature and adrenaline lover's paradise. Again, anything you are interested in doing, exists here. There are also small towns around the area that have shops, restaurants and a little nightlife. You will find hotels and resorts with incredible views of the Arenal Volcano. I must say, we had an incredible time here and would love to return.
As you know, making memories is my number one priority in life. We had the best experience on this vacation, one that I will never forget. On our rafting adventure, we met some other Americans and also befriended our local guides. Everyone was super cool and just wanted to enjoy life. The guides invited us to meet up with them that night at a local bar and experience authentic Costa Rican night life. We all figured, what the hell, why not? Let me tell you, it was a wild time. We were not able to really communicate with the locals, but they welcomed us with open arms. We were taught to Salsa, drank and ate a lot of local beers and cuisine and the 'men' aka 'boys' were challenged to arm wresting matches. Needless to say, our new American friend happened to be D-line for Ole Miss football haha. They stood no chance. But everyone loved it! I felt like we were at an old school boxing match, with everyone getting pumped up and waging bets. Seriously, the best time ever. But that's my point! Be open to new things and new experiences. You never know what may come from it. Make the lasting memories.
CERRO CHATO VOLCANO AND CRATER HIKE
On this half day hike, you can decide book with a guide or do it on your own. If you choose a guide, they will arrange all transportation for you and manage park fees. They will also take you to great lookout points on the journey. If you choose to do it on your own, you will need to request a Taxi to the trailhead. This hike is super cool. You begin by walking through tiny villages, farmlands and through Rainbow Tree forests. No joke, the tree bark is rainbow colored. Then, you begin your hike through the jungle. You hike up to the top and then down the other side of the extinct volcano with views of Arenal the entire way. At the top, is a crater lake that you can take a swim in. Remember, you are in a rain forest... it rains haha. But hiking in the rain, deep in the jungle, is a really cool experience. Just bring a lightweight rain jacket and something to cover your backpack and you'll be good. Again, choosing to use a guide is totally up to you. But I will say, we did use a guide and we learned so much. We learned about the animals and nature we were seeing, as well as the volcano. Things we wouldn't have even seen or noticed without them. Our guide was our age and let us wonder off and do things at our own pace as well. We also had an authentic Costa Rican lunch within the park.
WHITE WATER RAFTING AND RAPPELLING
We booked an adventure activity with a tour group, which was a lot of fun. They pick you up from your hotel and take you to the adventure park locations. First, we rappelled down rock facings and a waterfall. I am afraid of heights, so this was way out of my element. I was extremely happy when my feet were back on the ground haha. It really was cool though, just a little high anxiety for chickens like me. We were then transported to the Rio Balsa River and did white water rafting. It was a blast! We had a great group with fun guides. We went down the river and stopped off here and there for swimming and lunch. The river tour concluded with beers and going down a lazy river section to the end pick up location. Again, if you want some adventure, look into some tour options. You then have time to go back to your hotel and chill.
EXPLORE TOWN AND TRY NEW THINGS
If you aren't staying in town, you will have to take a taxi or use the hotel transportation, if provided. It really isn't far though, just not a walkable road to get there. You should try to check it out one late afternoon or evening. There are lots of shops and restaurants covering the gamnet of food. It's nice to wonder around for a little while and sit off with a cocktail. Again, I wouldn't make a whole day out of this, but it's a nice break. You'll also be able to buy some items if you want from little markets around town. Anything from clothing and shoes to food and trinkets. I found going to the small markets was a way to try different foods that you may not know about. The prices are also much more reasonable. These small street vendors take cash only, so make sure you have it with you. There are also ATMs in town if needed.
Puntarenas- Monteverde and Manuel Antonio
The Puntarenas province is home to both the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Manuel Antonio National Park. You have both dense rainforest jungles as well as amazing beaches with their own tropical jungles. Both very very different in under a 5 hour drive from each other. You can request transportation through logistics websites or prearrange with your hotel. Again, Costa is one big happy family, working together to provide you with the best experiences.
The easiest/prettiest way to get to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, is to boat across the lake and then take transportation up into the forest of the mountain. They call it land-boat-land from Arenal. In Monteverde, there is a really cool village town called Santa Elena. We decided to say in the town to be able to explore around. This area is very unique. Massive rainforest trees and rooftop canopies encompass the village. Some restaurants and hotels have even used the existing ecosystem as its décor. In the cloud forest, there are many designated walking/hiking paths as well as adventure activities. Monteverde is also known for its coffee beans. Anything coffee related in this area is delicious; cups, fraps, ice cream, crepes etc. Remember, it rains a lot here. Don't let it stop you! Embrace it! Just come prepared with some gear.
CANOPY TOP ZIPLINE AND ATV TOUR
Although slightly terrifying, you must do the zipline adventure. Again, I am scared of heights and there were times that I didn't know if I was crying or the speed was making my eyes water. But regardless, it was breathtaking. You will be soaring high above the rainforest canopy. There are many different ziplines within this park, but the most epic are the Superman and Tarzan Swing. The Superman is as you are flying, arms straight out, facing the ground. The Tarzan Swing is optional, thank god. You literally launch yourself off a platform like you are bungie jumping. No way Jose. The ATV tour was also cool. You cruise all around and get covered in mud and dirt. They take you to a high peak where you can see both oceans on either side of the country. Crazy. There are also horseback riding tours here as well if you are interested.
DAY/NIGHT TREK IN THE CLOUD FOREST
There are quite a few hiking paths only 15 minutes away from Santa Elena. You will be deep in lush damp forests with tons of foliage and animals galore. You can easily grab a cab to the trail entrances or take the bus. There were also a few trails that were walkable from town depending on your preference. These trails are well marked and typically have pavers throughout. They really want to make sure that hikers say on the marked paths. Remember, this is a nature reserve that is home to many animals. The less their habitats are disrupted, the better. We also did a guided night hike that was so much cooler than I anticipated. You'll get to see a lot of nocturnal animals. For instance, we saw a sloth family and a few kinkajous. We also saw a tarantula on the hunt. Thing was huge!
RESTAURANTS AND VILLAGE LIFE
Most likely, you will be staying in town in a Eco Hotel. Resorts don't really exist here. The vibe is just a little less touristy and a much more chill. Like I said, this is a very unique town built around this insane ecosystem. Experience it! Even if it is just for a drink, you should check out The Tree House. It is a restaurant/café that was build around a gigantic tree that soars up through the roof. Just cool things like that exist all through this town. There are also butterfly and hummingbird reserves and cafes that are beautiful. Costa really tries to marry nature and experience all in one. I also found that this town had some great local artisan shops (wood work, clay, paintings, jewelry etc.) where you can pick up some beautiful pieces at fair prices.
Manuel Antonio is beautiful. I wish we stayed longer honestly. This area is simply gorgeous with an incredible national park filled with jungle wildlife everywhere you turn. You'll hear your first Howler Monkey of your trip here. They are so much louder than you would expect and can get a little aggressive. You will also most likely see quite a few sloths in this region. They love it here! It has fantastic beaches that back right up to the jungle. Reminder to watch your things! The monkeys are very brave and will try to take anything they can. Most beaches are also within walking distance from your hotel, through a little bit of jungle. Some hotels also provide a golf cart taxi service to the beach if requested. But seriously, walk it out! You'll come across awesome things as you go. Finally, Manuel Antonio has many options for fun restaurants and nightlife in town. I'd say it was probably the coolest town we stayed in during our time in Costa Rica. Also, the best part, everything is within walking distance! Just remember, it is very hilly.
In this area, I would highly recommend choosing a boutique hotel with a pool and a patio facing the water. Also, do yourself a favor and choose a location with unobstructed views of the sunset. It is simply magical with some of the most vibrant colors. You know me, I'm a sucker for a good sunset! Just sit off with a bomb Marg and enjoy. Pura Vida.
Random note, don't be surprised if you have smaller monkeys and other animals playing right outside your hotel room. Each morning we would have a group play flighting over the roof and swinging on the decks. It was an amazing thing to experience. Our host also gave us fruit to feed them with.
VISIT MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
Manuel Antonio National Park is absolutely incredible. You could spend multiple days in the park if you wanted. We only did one full day. There is an entrance fee so make sure you have some cash. This park has tons of walking trails within the jungle, with lookout points over the ocean. Sneakers are totally fine. Lots of wildlife live within as well. You will see sloths, monkeys, birds, reptiles and more. The park also has its own beaches with shower/bathroom facilities, and small restaurants/snack stands within. It'll be warm so make sure to pack water, your swim suit and a towel. I would not do a guided tour here. You'll see many tours, but honestly you don't need to. If there happens to be an animal sighting, you'll see groups staring up at it and they will be happy to let you join them for a moment or two. Most even let you look through their binoculars. Explore on your own.
ENJOY THE BEACHES AND WATER ACTIVITIES
Again, the beaches here are very nice. You can find more local options (bring your own towel) and others that are more official. Choose your vibe. There will be vendors walking the beaches with fresh coconuts and other treats as well as places to buy some cocktails. That or bring your own. Your hotel will provide you a map on how to get there and suggestions. The water is super warm and very clear and the beaches are nice and sandy. Literally, popping out from the jungle. There are also many water activities; kayaking, paddle boarding, jet skis, etc. I would highly recommend if you have some extra free days, to do a catamaran cruise. They have bottomless booze, fresh caught fish for lunch and take you to awesome swimming spots. It's also a great way to have a relaxing day out on the water, meet new people and see a sunset on your way back to the harbor.
FUN HOPPING AROUND TOWN
If you are looking for some restaurants with cool vibes or a place to do a little bar hop, this is your spot. You really can't go wrong with your choice of location. There are fine dining options as well as chill low-key spots. Really whatever you are looking for, food included, you will find here. Just walk around and explore until something peaks your interest. We didn't have any problems without reservations. If you don't want to eat out, there are take away spots as well. Grab some things to go and just relax at your hotel with its amazing view. Remember, find a location to watch the sunset!
The Guanacasta coastline is spectacular. Beaches are endless, with both private and public options. They are all gorgeous, don't get me wrong, but some of the prettiest are actually the less known local ones. In this area, you can choose to stay at a big resort with every luxury in the world or in smaller quaint boutique hotel on the beach. There are also a lot of rentals available if you have a big group or family. Whatever is your preference. Again, the coastline is known for anything water related. From surfing to sunbathing. you can do it all. We actually ended up renting a car to explore around Guanacasta. There are so many little beachside villages to stop at along the way. Guanacasta is also known for its mountain ranges and volcanos, with some great national parks that are worth a visit. This also gives you a chance to have a change of scenery and go back into the jungle. The hikes are filled with beautiful waterfalls, tons of foliage and wildlife.
AND POOL RELAXATION
This is your time to unwind and enjoy the warm waters and tranquil scenery. As I said, there are an over abundance of different beaches and beach towns to explore on the coast. Visit more than just the one at your resort or hotel. All the beaches are unique and have new things to offer. Some may be more water spot associated, while others are full relaxation. Whatever vibe you are looking for exists. Some also have small towns with beachside restaurants and shops. You will need a car rental if you want to explore here. But honestly, driving in this part of Costa Rica really wasn't bad at all.
We really enjoyed going off the beaten path on this ATV tour. We were guided around Playa Flamingo through farmlands and towns to extremely secluded beaches. Beaches you wouldn't have even known existed other than the tire marks on a small dirt trail. These beaches were the prettiest and most untouched that we had seen in Costa Rica. We had time to swim and enjoy the waters as well as snorkel with the vibrant fish. There literally was no one on these beaches. It was incredible.
TENORIO VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK
There are many national parks you can choose to check out in Guanacasta. Again, you will need a car to get there or pre-arrange transportation. Reminder, all national parks in Costa have entrance fees that must be paid in cash. This particular hike was more of a walk, but it was very beautiful. Sneakers are fine. It had lush forests with vibrant blue rivers and many waterfalls. Overall, it was a very relaxing ambiance and a nice change of pace. This area is protected, so you cannot swim in the waterfalls or rivers. Save your swimsuit for the beach or pool when you return to your hotel.