We had heard amazing things about Costa Rica from our friends, and had been looking forward to visiting for a really long time. We spent 10 days hiking, walking through cloud forests, surfing and watching the sun set on the pacific. I will say (particularly for the backpacking crowd) is that it is considerably more expensive and touristy than some of the other parts of Central America we’ve visited (similar activities, accommodation and food in Nicaragua, for example, were often 1/4 of the price!) so 10 days was more than enough for us. I do think it would make for a great vacation if you’re not backpacking and looking to escape cold winters (like we do in Canada). I’ve outlined our highlights below.
San Ramon, Ometepe to Pena Blancas (Costa Rica Border)
Time: 3 hours
Cost: $48.20 US for two people ($30 US transfer to Moyogalpa, $3.20 US ferry ride, $15 US transfer to Penas Blancas)
We were coming from Ometepe, and the journey was pretty straightforward. We left our accommodation at San Ramon bright and early in hopes of catching the 7:00 am ferry (and ended up doing one better and getting the 6:30 am!). The driver who took us to Moyogalpa asked how we planned on getting to the border from San Jorge on the other end of the ferry; we had planned to take a taxi to Rivas and then a bus to the border (which is about 45 minutes away). He let us know he could arrange a private transfer for us directly from San Jorge for $15 US and since we were keen to make good time, we took him up on it. This had us crossing into Nicaragua before 9:00 am!
We had to pay an exit tax to leave Nicaragua (around $3 US, paid in two parts), and note that they only wanted US currency for one of the payments. Money changers are everywhere if you happen to be short on US cash.
Note they were asking for proof of onward travel at the Costa Rica border as we had read they might. We used www.returnflights.net to make an itinerary for a flight out of Costa Rica that we hadn’t actually booked. No entry fee for Costa Rica.
Once you cross the border, it is pretty straightforward to catch a bus to Liberia (which is what we were doing) or to San Jose. You can also take out local currency at the ATM and get a free SIM card from one of the many Claro reps, easily spotted in red shirts.
Penas Blancas to Liberia Airport Rental Car
Time: 2 hours
Cost: $3.75 US for two people ($2.50 for bus to Liberia, $1.25 for bus to airport)
We had to wait about 20 minutes for the bus, but once we were on it was a straight shot to the Liberia bus terminal. We opted to rent a car from Liberia airport, otherwise we would have looked for a transfer from this station to San Jose or any other location that could get us to our first destination – La Fortuna.
We had heard renting a car in Costa Rica could be painful – we used Dollar for our rental and would have to agree.
In Costa Rica, third party liability insurance is mandatory – so if your online quote doesn’t specifically include this, you’ll have to pay an additional $20 – $30+ US per day than your quoted amount (varies by company).
We picked Dollar as it was the lowest quote that we could find that included third party liability, but when we went to pick up the car, there was about $10 US per day added in “taxes” that the rep couldn’t explain or break down, and when we asked about it he got very angry.
Also, in addition to the normal credit card pre-authorization, Dollar required us to sign blank credit card sales slips (which effectively is writing them a blank cheque). When James wrote “for deposit only” on them, the rep told us he was going to drive us to the airport and we could rent from another company.
We managed to talk him down and just signed the blank slips. When we went to collect our car, we first were given a 2-door manual SUV (we had reserved a 4-door automatic SUV). We were told it was the same as what we reserved, but we insisted that we wanted the automatic that we had paid for.
We were finally given our 4-door automatic and when doing the walk-around inspection there was a loose plastic plate nearly touching the ground that we were told was fine, but they would remove it, and the tires were pretty bald.
Despite a pretty negative pick-up experience, the car was actually totally fine and did well despite some pretty horrible road conditions. The drop-off experience was a total contrast with friendly staff and no threats or suggestions of any extra charges; they even offered to shuttle us to the bus station to catch the bus to San Jose (where we were flying out of) rather than having to wait and pay for the city bus.
Which Places Should You Visit in Costa Rica?
This can be a tricky one; it’s a very large country with lots to see and do! We were coming from the north, so it made sense for us to start there. We narrowed down the places to visit based on recommendations from friends and what we wanted to see, which included Volcan Arenal, Cloud Forests (and wildlife!) and some downtime at the beach. So we did a pretty typical circuit of Arenal, Monteverde and the Nicoya Peninsula (we chose Santa Teresa).
Arenal, Costa Rica
Arenal refers to a large area around the volcano which encompasses surrounding towns including the largest, and arguably the most touristy, La Fortuna. Since we had a rental car we opted to stay out of town and drove to the various attractions.
Where to Stay near Volcan Arenal
We were considering El Castillo, but found great accommodation at Arenal Bungalows, about 10km from La Fortuna. The bungalows had a small fridge and kettle for snacks and coffee, and we also had access to a full kitchen off reception. Best of all, each bungalow has an outstanding view of the volcano. And it was one of the more reasonably priced places around at just over $50 US per night.
What to Do near Volcan Arenal
This is undoubtedly the most popular activity, and there are a number of options. We were originally interested in Cerro Chato (one of the more challenging hikes in the area), until we heard that the trail had been closed by the government as a result of heavy rainfall. We had also climbed Concepcion on Ometepe a few days prior, so we were okay with taking it a bit easier. We decided to check out the 1968 hiking trail, which involves hiking through the rainforest as well as a lava field left from the 1968 eruption (depending on which trail you select; we opted for the longer one). The hike was pretty easy and took us less than 2 hours. It also cost $12 US per person (we were already starting to feel the high prices of CR, a few days earlier we were complaining about a $3 US fee to see a waterfall on Ometepe!). It did provide us with a pretty spectacular view of Arenal and seeing greenery push through lava rock was pretty cool!
Swim under La Fortuna Waterfall
On our second day, we got up early to head to La Fortuna waterfall. The parking lot was already quite busy when we arrived around 8:45 am! This is a very accessible ‘hike’, as you essentially climb down stairs to get to the base of the waterfall; no scrambling on rocks here! The cost is $15 US per person for entry, but if you want to get a photo swimming under a waterfall with turquoise water, it’s worth it. My advice would be to get there when it opens at 7:00 am so you can truly enjoy it without the other tourists! As I mentioned, it was already getting crowded when we arrived and there were a lot more people coming in as we left (around 10:00 am).
Soak in the Hot Springs
Besides the volcano, Arenal is well known for its natural hot springs. There are a variety of options if you’re interested in visiting hot springs, including free ones! We opted to visit ‘The Springs Resort & Spa‘ which is the largest, and has a two-day special for $65 US pp. The resort is massive, and holds 18 pools in three different areas; one by the main pool and reception (Las Lagunas), one within a 5 minute walk from reception (Perdido Springs), and another area (Club Rio) that you can walk to (~20 minutes) or take the shuttle that runs from the main building. We arrived late afternoon on the first day and opted for Perdido Springs, which still felt pretty removed from the main pool area and not over-crowded. The second day, we walked down to Club Rio and that was a lot less crowded / spread out. We had an area with 3 pools to ourselves for a few hours.
Fun fact, The Springs has been a filming location for ‘The Bachelor’ and there is actually a pool called ‘Bachelor Point’, so there’s that. The view of the volcano from the main building is also pretty spectacular.
Monteverde, Costa Rica
The second stop of our road trip was Monteverde to explore the cloud forests and hopefully see some wildlife (seeing a sloth was pretty high on both our lists). Interestingly, in the 1950’s Monteverde became a Quaker settlement when a dozen or so American families moved to the area for the men to avoid being drafted to fight in the Korean war. The Quakers are still actively involved in protecting Monteverde’s unique environment. One word of caution, the roads leading to Monteverde are in rough shape; expect bumpy dirt roads teeming with potholes sometimes the width of your car. In the wet season, a 4×4 would be something to consider.
Where to stay in Monteverde, Costa Rica
Having access to a rental car gave us, once again, some freedom for accommodation. Many backpackers opt to stay in Santa Elena, but from what I understand, taxis to the major attractions can be expensive. Hitchhiking is not uncommon, and we gave a young couple a ride back to town from the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve one afternoon. The restaurants are quite expensive, and we decided to get a place with a kitchen to make our own meals. We found this property on Booking.com, which was in a good location and well set-up for our needs. We stayed 2 nights for $70 US per night.
What to do in Monteverde, Costa Rica
Visit a Cloud Forest Reserve
Naturally, this is the reason people come to Monteverde and a trip to this area would not be complete without exploring the cloud forests. There are many ways to do this, whether on the ground (by yourself or with a guide), up high on the hanging bridges or ziplining through the trees. If you are into birds, this is a great place to come and I would recommend getting a guide for one of the morning walks. Because we aren’t ‘birders’ and were more interested in the nature, we decided to go to Selvatura one morning for the treetop walkways, which include 8 hanging bridges for $35 US pp.
We arrived when they opened and had the place to ourselves which was quite peaceful. We saw lots of birds, though admittedly didn’t know what any of them were.
Go on a Night Tour
This was my favourite activity in Monteverde and quite possibly all of Costa Rica. We were keen to see at least one sloth, and knowing that they are nocturnal animals decided to go on a guided night tour. I spent a few minutes researching and came across Oscar of Nasua Tours; he was rated #1 on Trip Advisor and after reading through the glowing reviews I reached out to see if he could accommodate us the following evening. He wrote back quickly and said we could join a group of 3 at 5:30pm the following evening for $25 US pp (he won’t take more than 6 people at a time). We met at Refugio de Vida Silvestre, paid the park fee ($7 US pp), were given flashlights and then followed Oscar and his telescope into the forest. Within a minute, he spotted a green viper and positioned the telescope so we could all get a look, using his flashlight so we could see the animal. As we moved closer, he told us of how poisonous this snake was, but assured us we didn’t have to worry because all of the nearby hospitals have anti-venom. He told us that if there’s anywhere in the world to get bitten by a snake, it’s Costa Rica. We didn’t want to take any chances, but followed his lead inching a bit closer. Once he was happy with the position of the telescope, he took each person’s cell phone and snapped a picture. We couldn’t believe the quality!
Over the course of the 3 hour tour, we saw toucans, tarantulas, scorpions (which glow in the dark if a blue light is shone on them), hummingbirds, another viper (a baby one, which apparently is more dangerous because they don’t pay attention to how much venom to give in order to incapacitate their victim) and a sloth. The sloth was very low in the tree which made for great viewing, but not very good pictures as we did not use Oscar’s telescope.
In addition to being an excellent guide who imparted his knowledge of nightlife in the cloud forest, Oscar left us all with amazing pictures that will help us remember this experience for years to come.
Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
The last stop of our 10 day trip was to the beach. We knew we wanted to stay on the Nicoya Peninsula and after some reading and research we settled on Santa Teresa close to the southern end of the Peninsula. We visited during the dry season, and the town was covered in a light layer of dust from the dirt roads (another word of warning here; the drive from Monteverde to Santa Teresa wasn’t the most fun of our trip!). It was insanely hot, which usually resulted in lazy mornings in the comfort of AC, before venturing out to the beach in the afternoon and seeking shade between dips in the ocean. It also gave us some of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve ever seen.
Where to stay in Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa has some of the best food we had in Costa Rica, and it would be easy to eat out for every meal. In order to keep our costs down a bit, we rented this Airbnb with a kitchen; though it was more basic than we had anticipated with a small bar fridge and a hotplate that took 20 minutes to heat up. Still it was inexpensive for the area, and allowed us to make breakfasts and basic meals like salads. It also had three air conditioning units in the small two bedroom villa which was much appreciated in the oppressive heat of Santa Teresa! We were walking distance to the beach, and the crossroads was 20-30 minutes walking on the beach. There were shops to get groceries and a few restaurants less than 5 minutes away.
What to do in Santa Teresa
Take a morning (or evening) yoga class
Though not quite as ‘hippy’ as neighbouring Montezuma, Santa Teresa offers many options for yoga classes; you can buy a pack or just drop in. I decided to take a morning yoga class at Casa Zen, a hostel which offers yoga classes on the open air second floor. There morning classes are at 9:30 am, so it was already 30 degrees by the time class started! There were a few fans that provided some respite, but it was comparable to a Bikrim Yoga class at times. Our instructor was gentle with us which was much appreciated. The 90 minute class put a lot of focus on breath, movement, and stretching. I left feeling totally blissed-out and centered.
There are lots of shops in and around that offer board rentals and lessons. I was quite content to sit under the shade of a palm tree and read (I’d had enough of surfing for the time being in Nicaragua), but James was keen to get out and so one day we drove up to Playa Hermosa, which was supposedly one of the best places for novice surfers. He rented a board for $10 US and spent a few hours out in the waves.
Where to Eat in Santa Teresa
Since Santa Teresa offered some of the best food options in Costa Rica, eating really deserves its own section. Here are a few of our favourites.
This restaurant was conveniently a 5 minute walk from our Airbnb, and when we arrived in town late in the afternoon tired from a long drive it seemed like a good option. We liked our first meal there so much, we came back three times, getting take away the second and third time to take down to the beach for sunset.
Notable mention goes to their classic beef burger and fish burger. They also have delicious vegetarian options like their falafel burger which we really enjoyed!
This restaurant is continually mentioned in blog posts and lists, and for good reason. One afternoon after relaxing at Playa Carmen we walked over to Product C to get a late lunch. We shared two fish tacos and the surfer bowl, which had rice, fresh veggies and fish. Both options were fresh and delicious.
Have you been to Costa Rica? Which were your favourite parts? We saw such a small portion of the country, we’re excited to come back one day and explore some more!