I have always wanted to visit South America, but Central America never really crossed my mind until some friends of ours invited us there for their wedding. We decided to spend time catching up with friends for just under a week and then drive through Costa Rica for the remaining time we were there, which was three weeks in total.
Costa Rica is rated one of the safest countries in Latin America, dedicated to peace and democracy and even abolished its army in 1948 . It has some fantastic landscapes from mountains to volcanoes, waterfalls to hot springs, rainforests to jungles, beaches to cities and rivers and valleys. One of Costa Rica’s popular attractions is its Eco-tourism dedicating 26% of it’s land to wildlife reserves, national parks and protected zones. In fact, there are 27 national parks located throughout the country.
We flew from the British Virgin Islands, via Puerto Rico, Panama and into the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. As soon as we landed in San Jose we were straight out of there. We flew on a small airline called Sansa Airlines. They were a great company to fly with, however they were extremely small planes, possibly the smallest I have flown on with around 8 passengers, and Gavin and I were absolutely petrified (neither of us are the best at flying, but needs must). We flew straight down to a city called Golfito. The views across Costa Rica from up in the air were absolutely incredible. The country looked so diverse and we couldn’t wait to start our trip.
We landed on the smallest airstrip in amongst the lush green forest. There was no real airport, you just grabbed your bags from the plane and off you went. Our friend was waiting for us in a little bar at the side of the runway where we decided to have a quick catch up and a beer for the road.
We then headed off on a 90 minute drive to Pavones. The roads were rough and the drive was challenging as it was dirt roads most of the way there. Pavones is known as a surfers paradise and is home to some of the longest waves in the world. It is a small community located along the Southern Pacific Coast.
We arrived in the jungle amongst the abundant lush green vegetation and went to meet the wedding party who were staying at one of the local surf lodges. Lanzas De Fuego is an incredible adventure surf lodge with breathtaking views, plentiful surrounding wildlife and the owner Rainy Venter has made it a wonderful little surfers hideaway.
A group of us stayed at Villa Pavones. Set in private grounds, the accommodation has great space, a pool and some incredible wildlife. You get to hear the eerie sounds of the howler monkey in the distance, parrots flying overhead and we had a couple of iguanas visiting us in the gardens daily.
We explored the area by both foot and car. We drove into the hillsides looking for sloths, it’s quite difficult to find them in the trees at first, but once you get an eye for them, they are hiding all over, especially in the Cecropia trees which tend to be their favourites. We had a couple of days exploring the black sandy beaches surrounded by rocks, palm trees and rainforest. A few of us did a spot of horse riding, whilst others surfed, looked for crabs along the waters edge or went hiking lookng for the beautiful waterfalls. Pavones has several scary little road bridges which look like they are going to fall to pieces when you drive across them located throughout the village. On the weekends, when the tide is right you will find locals jumping from the 40 ft. bridges into the Rio Claro river below. The water levels are low, around 4 ft. deep, so good judgement is needed for the landing. We decided to stop our car on the side of the road and take a look. Next thing I know, Gavin is taking his shirt off and joining in, launching himself in to the shallow waters below.
The wedding was a few days into our trip and was absolutely amazing. The ceremony took place in the rainforest, the aisle made out of palm leaves and vows were made under a bamboo gazebo the men had erected earlier that morning. The bride and groom looked stunning in their outfits and it was the perfect jungle wedding. Photos were taken on the rocks with a gorgeous back drop of beach and palm trees.
The evening reception was held in Castillo de Pavones which had the most superb sunsets on their upper deck. Great food was eaten, speeches were made, drinks were flowing and a lot of dancing was to be had.
Our time in Pavones was incredible and now it was time to explore the rest of Costa Rica.
Our friends drove us back up to Golfito where Gavin and I rented a car for a couple of weeks. We decided to book accommodation on the fly and chose where we were heading on a day by day basis, based on recommendations and activities in the area.
Our first stop was Quepos with our evening accommodation being located in Hotel Coco Beach, Manuel Antonio. It was a dodgy looking hotel, but it was comfortable and was in close proximity to the beach and restaurants. After a long drive, we decided to drop our bags at the hotel, take a stroll along the beachfront and go for a bite to eat. Costa Rica is fantastic if you are looking for an action packed getaway. It has every activity you can think of under the sun. Gavin and I found a company called Adventure Park and decided to book a white water rafting excursion for the following day. That evening we sat on our balcony in the pouring rain watching the most magnificent thunderstorm.
The following morning we were provided with breakfast as the guides prepared the rafts and we boarded the bus to take us to the Savegre River. The drive to get to the river was pretty hair raising itself. The bus driver was flying down the dirt roads, towing smaller buses up the hills and screeching around cliff edges. He had obviously driven those roads several times, so I was hoping we were in safe hands! Once we arrived we were allocated our rafts. Most people were in large groups and were all put together in the bigger rafts. Gavin and I got our own personal guide called Flander and our very own raft. We then had a quick 10 minute run through on how to paddle and where to sit on the raft when going through the rapids. The guide asked us if we wanted to have ‘fun’ on the ride and although I was a little apprehensive to say ‘yes’ as I knew what that meant, we agreed and set off down the river.
The scenery was remarkable, as we paddled down the river we spotted many different species of birds, saw canyons and waterfalls and plenty more rainforest. Then the action began as we crashed through the waves and paddled over the rapids. We managed to end up in the river several times that day, thrown from the raft as we plunged under the water, the adrenaline was definitely pumping! Further down the river we paddled to the rivers edge, grabbed our belongings and headed into the jungle. We walked for about 10 minutes when we came across the most spectacular waterfall. We stayed for a swim, had some lunch that was provided for us and returned to our rafts to complete the final leg of the river rapids. We had a fantastic day and I would highly recommend using Adventure Park for any excursions in the area!
The next morning we packed up, had breakfast and were on the road again. This time we were heading for the lively beach town of Jaco. Jaco is known for its party atmosphere and active nightlife. The main strip in town is jam packed full of bars and restaurants. We took a walk along the beaches and chilled out in the evening, enjoying some great food, a few drinks and took some time out, relaxing from our previous days activities. We stayed in a small Eco friendly hotel called Tuanis Aparthotel, a short walk away from all the hustle and bustle of town. It was clean, modern and the staff were friendly and happy to help with any questions you had of the area. We were informed of a local farmers market which was happening the following day, so we woke up and went to check it out. There were locally grown fruits and vegetables, organic cheeses, chocolates, Kombucha and crafts all on offer. As we had another long journey ahead of us that day, we stocked up on almost all of the above for snacks a long the way.
We had just over a two hour drive until we reached our next destination of Monteverde. Monteverde is a mountainous, Eco tourist town renowned for its bio diverse forests in the clouds. We had a couple of days booked here and we stayed at the quiet, family run Sunset Hotel located a short distance out of town. This was a fantastic hotel set in beautiful gardens and provided some outstanding sunsets in the evenings (hence the name). The owner was extremely helpful and knowledgeable of the area and the hotel came with the cutest resident kitten called Lucy.
When we arrived we booked our trips in advance with the hotel owner. We had booked to see the cloud forest and to zipline over the lush rainforest. That afternoon we had a stroll through town, grabbed some food from a local food bus and headed back to the hotel. Just behind the hotel grounds was a hiking trail we decided to take to finish off our day.
Gavin woke up anxious and feeling slightly on edge. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he didn’t want to do the canopy tour as he was terrified of heights and he didn’t trust the cables on the zipline. He had been worried sick since we booked the tour, but I told him he would be fine and convinced him it would be great fun! That morning we drove to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. The cloud forest is a high elevation forest covered by a persistent cloud cover. The clouds provide the forest with a consistent supply of moisture supporting the wonderful array of plants that live there. There is abundant vegetation as well as insects, reptiles, mammals and birds living in the forest. We had a wonderful walk through the forest along the sky bridges taking in the fascinating beauty.
We had a stop for lunch and then we headed to the canopy tour. It was pouring down with rain and absolutely freezing that afternoon, so we bought a couple of raincoats to keep us reasonably dry along the way. We were suited and booted, strapped into our harnesses and given helmets. There were 13 zipline stations of various lengths, but more longer ones than short, and it was quite a trek on the many trails between each one.
We finally reached the ultimate zipline. You were now given the option if you wanted to go down the regular way, sitting up in the harness or flying down ‘Superman’ style. We both decided to go ‘Superman’! I made Gavin go first because I was afraid he would back out if I didn’t send him down before me. They put your feet in a sack and attach both your body and feet to the line. They then send you flying head first miles above the forest, into the thick cloud for 1000m. Even though we had a cloudy day and the majority of our views were a complete white out, the views from the few breaks in the cloud were absolutely spectacular. The feeling of flying was absolutely incredible and it was an amazing experience. I arrived at the end of the line to Gavin’s smiling face. Thankfully he loved it as much as I did and was very happy he went through with it!
We left Monteverde and headed up to Tenorio Volcano National Park. Like most places in Costa Rica, they are expensive and over populated with tourists. This National Park was yet another tourist trap. We decided to pay the $2 fee for the car park and another $12 per person entrance fee and set off on the look out for the waterfalls. The hike was pretty tough going, traipsing through mud and over rocks, it took an hour and a half to get to the waterfalls, but it was definitely worth it. The Rio Celeste waterfall was exceptional and the water was so beautifully blue. This is due to the emission of sulphur from the volcano and precipitation of calcium carbonate. It was a fantastic sight and we were happy we didn’t turn around at the park entrance.
We left the park and drove towards Lake Arenal. The lake is situated in the Northern Highlands of Costa Rica and is the largest lake in the country. We made a stop for lunch by the side of the lake in a restaurant called Casa Delagua. This was a Romanian cafe which served authentic Romanian dishes, homemade pastries and cakes. We grabbed a bite to eat and a drink and enjoyed the cool breeze out on the balcony and took in the wonderful views of the lake. We continued on to find our hotel which was one of the nicest yet that we had stayed in, in Costa Rica (on a budget). It was a small boutique hotel called Agua Inn. The rooms were comfortable, the staff were excellent and breakfast was served on a small balcony over looking the river. It was a peaceful and tranquil location. That evening we found a quiet little restaurant called Moya’s Place. It had wonderfully hand painted walls and a great atmosphere which served delicious pizzas. Highly recommended.
We couldn’t leave Arenal without visiting some hot springs. Every tourist trap was so expensive so I decided to google free hot springs. I thought surely the locals like to enjoy these natural wonders too without paying extortionate fees. Sure enough I found some ‘free’ hot springs right opposite the Tabacon hot springs. I’m sure they weren’t quite as beautiful as the ones you spend an arm and a leg to see, but they were pretty darn good and did just the same job. Gavin and I parked on the side of the road, put our swimwear on, wrapped ourselves in a towel and ran down a side road underneath a road bridge to this amazing steaming river. The access isn’t easy, having to climb up rocks through the rapids to reach the slow and steady part of the river, but if you’re feeling adventurous and want to sit in the fast rushing river it is doable, albeit a little rocky, but absolutely incredible sitting in warm waters amongst the lush green forest behind you. Definitely worth a visit.
The next stop on our itinerary was Poas Volcano. It was a really long, but extremely scenic drive from Arenal today and we almost missed getting to see the volcano because it was closing time, however we had 30 minutes to dash from the entrance gate to the volcano. The rain had set in and the cloud cover was forming. By the time we got to the volcano, it was covered in a blanket of cloud. We hung around for a while, mostly because we were tired from running to see the sight, when eventually a gap in the cloud came and we got to see the unbelievable crater below us. Poas remains one of Costa Rica’s largest and most active volcanoes.
The accommodation that evening was a treat!!! (a little sarcasm involved here)!! We drove about 10 minutes from the volcano and turned off on to a challenging dirt track down a steep, bumpy hill (4X4 was essential) into some open fields. Gavin loved the off roading experience, me, not so much. In the open fields we came upon what seemed like an old rundown farmhouse. We stayed in a rustic wooden cabin just behind the main house. Inside was an old brick fire, with logs ready to burn, beds with mattresses which sank in the middle covered by thick blankets, dirty dishes in the sink and no hot water in the showers. The views from the cabin were fantastic as we sat on the porch reading books and discussing who was booking the next place to stay (this was Gavin’s choice as it was nice and cheap and definitely not what I was used to)! We had our evening dinner in the farmhouse which was cooked by the owner and turned out to be very tasty indeed. Once back in the cabin, Gavin lit the fire, we layered up in as many shirts and hoodies as we could because it was absolutely freezing cold and snuggled under the blankets in the uncomfortable bed. I woke up in the morning to hear Gavin thought I had left him a treat in the toilet over night, however it turned out to be two dead mice who had drown in the toilet bowl!! I’m glad it wasn’t me who found those! With all it’s little quirks and dirty dishes, we actually had a pretty good time and would recommend this accommodation to anyone wanting a new experience!!
The drive to Tortuguero National Park was another exciting day with Gavin behind the wheel. We drove for miles on the look out for sloths, through the beautiful hillsides and many dirt tracks. What we hadn’t realised, because we hadn’t done our research is that you get to Tortuguero by boat. We were following the Sat Nav for miles and miles (in the wrong direction, but would Gavin listen to me?) heading off road once again into fields that led to nowhere when we came to a halt. There was a slight wooden ramp and behind it a small river running by. Gavin was determined we were heading the right way, got out of the car and went to see where we were. He came back to the car to tell me ‘I think we can make it’. My response was ‘make what’! He thought we could back up, take a run at it and jump the ramp over the river and see where it took us. You can imagine my answer to this one!! Thankfully a local guy came riding up on his horse and in broken Spanish asked what we were doing all the way out there… He told us we had taken the wrong turn, to head back to the main road and follow the signs. I was extremely happy with this stranger arriving, otherwise we would have been floating upside down in our little Jimny in the river if it was up to Gavin. We turned back, got on the right road and eventually arrived at the car park to the National Park. A tour guide came to tell us what the park was about, that we needed to pack a small bag with a few essential items in, leave the car behind and jump on one of the boats. Look for ‘Rico’ when you arrive at the other side and he will take you to your accommodation. We did as he said and boarded the long, narrow wooden boat. I’m surprised we floated with the amount of luggage and supplies they were piling on to the little vessel! Snaking our way from the mainland through rivers and canals we spotted Alligators, birds and much more fascinating wildlife.
Arriving in Tortuguero we met our guide who showed us to our accommodation through a maze of small streets and alleyways. Our room was small but comfortable and we had a nice pool to cool off in after our long journey. Later that afternoon we went for a short stroll in the jungle. The following morning we went on another boat ride through the National Park. It was a pretty cool trip looking out for wildlife such as Spider Monkeys and an array of birds including Toucans and Kingfisher. Later that evening we had a quick dinner in the Budda Cafe before heading off to the beach to watch the Green Sea turtles nesting on the beaches. Nesting occurs at night and you need to be taken by a licensed guide for the viewing. Even though you only got a few moments to glace at them as the tour was overrun by hundreds of tourists, it was a fantastic experience. The giant turtles crawl up from the sea onto the beach pausing as they look for a good nesting spot. Some decide to nest and some turn back, often due to artificial light and the presence of people on the beach. Once they decide to nest they dig themselves a body pit with their flippers. The turtles apparently go into a trance as the eggs are laid and they are not to be disturbed. Eggs are laid two to three at a time with approximately 100 eggs laid in total. The female re-covers the eggs, heads back to the sea and never returns to the same nest. Sea turtle hatchlings emerge from their nest after 60 days and make a dash to the sea. Due to predators and dying of dehydration from the sun on their way to the sea only one in 1000 baby turtles survives. Unfortunately no photos were allowed to be taken of these magnificent creatures.
Our final destination before heading back to San Jose was Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. The town is located in the Southwest of Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast. A vibrant and bustling town filled with bars and restaurants and beautiful beaches. It has a blend of Latino, Afro Caribbean and Bribri indigenous cultures.
We visited the Jaguar Rescue Centre where we learned about the rescue, medical care and rehabilitation of some of Costa Rica’s most loved animals, and I finally got to see some baby sloths! They are the cutest things ever!! Later that afternoon we went for dinner and chilled out with a glass of wine in the Koki Beach restaurant and bar overlooking the sea and watching another beautiful sunset.
We headed back to San Jose for our final evening before our flight home. We stayed at the Parque de Lago Boutique hotel located next to the La Sabana Metropolitan Park. When we arrived we rented a couple of push bikes and decided to take a ride around the park, an urban forest with one big lake! After the ride we took a walk into the center of town down the bustling main strip where all the main shops are located. San Jose was not one of my favourite capital cities and I personally would only recommend a day there.
After 3 weeks of jungle, volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls, rainforest, wildlife and cities I can honestly say we had a wonderful time. The only bad things about Costa Rica we found are that it is expensive and everywhere is overrun by tourists, however it is a beautifully diverse, Eco friendly, action packed country and I would highly recommend as a place to visit on your bucket list. Pura Vida!!
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