Costa Rica is the perfect balance of misty cloud forests and sun-filled beaches. In Costa Rica there is a saying, when the cicadas (or cigarras) sing, the sun is coming out! The experience is more magical than the phrase. Head inland to experience it first hand. Head to the east or west coast to soak in the sun while you’re soaking in the ocean.
GET THERE: Depending on where you’re flying from, you might go through Houston, or direct to San Jose. We deboarded in San Jose and were beyond excited to get started with our Costa Rica adventure only to be met with a two and half hour line through customs. No joke. We stood for more than two hours in the customs line, and then in an extra line to check our custom papers and then in another line to get a rental car (read more about the rental car debacle below). Good thing we were laughing our way through it because plenty of people weren’t. Now that we’re seasoned Costa Rican travelers (*cough* we’ve been one time *cough*), we now know to fly into Liberia, for shorter wait and line times.
If you want to drive around and explore we recommend a rental car but beware – it’s EXPENSIVE. We chose the cheapest four-wheel drive option from Avis for five days.
In Costa Rica, because the roads are so pot-hole ridden, bumpy and dusty, most rental car companies REQUIRE you to buy full insurance coverage.
So, even if the estimate is $450 online the insurance could (and likely will) double that price. Here’s a pro-tip to save some money: as we were waiting in the line we overheard the man in front of us arguing with the Avis worker. It turned out that he has purchased insurance from a third party company (like Kayak, Expedia, etc.) Most foreign rental car companies won’t actually except insurance that isn’t theirs. So that man spent hundreds on insurance once and then again, almost tripling the price of his car. It cost us $945 dollars, with a GPS and one driver.
STAY: We split our time between the mountains and the beach and we were working on a budget, so finding a quality place to say for an affordable price was important to us. We recommend choosing from one of the many lovely, affordable Airbnb options. Just be sure to read the reviews!
Wanting to spend half our time in the Lake Arenal area (knowing we wanted to get to Rio Celeste to the north), we decided to stay near Tilaran, a small tropical mountain town. We can’t say enough good things about Hotel Mystica. It’s close to Lake Arenal (set up in the hills overlooking it!), the Arenal Volcano and hot springs, but not in the more “touristy” area of La Fortuna. The compound has an outdoor yoga facility, views overlooking the lake, an ancient Cieba tree within hiking distance and an Italian restaurant. The couple who own this sweet inn moved from Italy, so imagine a fun-filled day exploring topped off with homemade pizza or pasta and a glass of wine.
In Costa Rica you’re faced with the difficult decision: east or west coast, and Pacific or Caribbean?
After some thorough research, and going back and forth a few times, we decided to go with the east coast, specifically Nosara, in the Guanacaste Province.
We stayed up the beach near Playa Pelada, becuase it’s a little less expensive there than on Playa Guiones. Again, we chose an Airbnb, Villa Mango. It’s hidden up in the hills above the ocean. We weren’t sure we had arrived at the right place because the front door was very deceptive. Upon entry we were greeted with a nice deck and pool. There are some rooms underneath and a few rooms inside the main house and up the stairs. We stayed there. We really enjoyed Villa Mango and the colorful couple that operate it. From France, the two had plans of riding a motorcycle straight to Columbia but stopped in Costa Rica and haven’t left yet. That was almost 20 years ago for them. I recommend staying here but if you do try to get a room below the main house. We stayed in a room above the kitchen. We didn’t notice any funky smells in our room, but in the morning when breakfast was being made, the smells rose and then kind of nestled in on that upper floor hallway. That being said, the food wasn’t bad at all!
DO: Get ready for BIG ADVENTURE in Costa Rica – from zip-lining high above the canopy to surfing in the ocean. It’s not all high-throttle activity, though. Costa Rica is known for ultimate relaxation, whether it be world-class yoga or soaking in hot springs and mud baths.
LAKE ARENAL AREA
Get your head IN the Clouds – in one of Costa Rica’s Cloud Forests.
There are plenty of Cloud Forests to choose from in Costa Rica.
Monteverde is the the most popular, but we went to Tenorio VolcanoNational Park. Before you pick your destination, ask about the road conditions and make an educated decision on whether or not your rental can make it safely.
So what’s a cloud forest, you ask? Usually clouds inhibit our views, but in this tropical rain forest, they’re their own view. It’s a misty, creepy being that hangs in between the trees and atop the canopy. It’s stunning – as long as you’re not afraid of a little mist and rain.
One of the reasons we skipped Monteverde and went to Tenorio is because it’s the home of Rio Celeste, a bright blue, mineral-filled river. Sparkling like a sapphire, we knew we needed to walk along it’s magical bank. It’s a two-plus mile hike covered in mud. You can read our trail review here.
But first, let’s talk about what else you can do on the way to Tenorio. There are plenty of small towns to stop and eat authentic Costa Rican chow. You’ll want to stop and get a snack before heading in the park because there’s no food.
On our way back we kept seeing signs for “finca chocolate.” On a whim we followed our gut and weaved through backcountry roads to what looked like a neighborhood dead-end. We had arrived at the Chocolate farm. A small family owns the farm and gave us a private tour. We ate raw cocao, hung out with some monkeys and taste-tested the product. Even though our Spanish is choppy this family did a wonderful job teaching us their process and communicating. They’re proud of what they do and they should be it was delish!
Find adventure and relaxation
It wouldn’t be a trip to Costa Rica without a little zip-lining through the canopy. We can’t lie – we were a little nervous, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a blast. Don’t be afraid to look down and take in the view – you might just see some animals while you’re zipping by.
There are plenty of options and companies to choose from. We chose to go to Los Lagos Hotel in La Fortuna because we wanted to pick a company near Arenal that was also close to hot springs. La Fortuna actually has ziplining, hot springs and even a wild animal display (including crocodiles, butterflies, ants and more) to walk through as you wait or cool off. After we zipped and bounced our way through the jungle we soaked in 100 plus degree naturally hot water. On the way back to our hotel, we grabbed a bottle of South American wine.
Pretend you’re on Pandora and live like an Avatar
There is a special tree in Costa Rica (and other tropical places). It’s called a Ceiba Tree. If you’ve seen the movie Avatar and you know what the “Tree of Life” looks like, then you know what you’re in for. These trees can grow up to 230 feet tall. They are hundreds of years old and sacred in many communities in CR. Their trunks are ginormous and homes to dozens of species. They stand for the intricate web of life that connects us all.
There is a tree literally called, “the avatar tree.” It’s on a private property near Tilaran, but the owner allows people to hike up a steep hill to visit this beauty. It really is quite magical. Be sure to bring a few colones to pay for your time spent on the property.
Once you’re finished imagining yourself as an Avatar – head towards Lake Arenal. We desperately wanted to kayak the lake. Our hotel helpedus find a company that would rent us kayaks and we headed out. To warn you: it is WINDY. We got out into the middle with ease, getting back was a workout to end all workouts, but we survived.
Lazy beach day and a stroll around town
The Nosara Area is split into three beaches: Playa Nosara, the Northern most beach, Playa Pelada, where we stayed, and Playa Guiones. You’ve been warned – getting to this funky beach area is a bumpy ride. Once we made it there over the pot-holed dirt roads all we wanted to do was sit on a beach and have a drink. So, that’s exactly what we did.
The Pacific is incredible. If you’ve been to Seattle then you know this ocean is a chill you can’t handle for more than 20 seconds, but in Costa Rica, the water is just right. Claim a patch of sand and take a seat – you’ll find tons of little twisty shells that look like unicorn horns all over the beach. Sit back and enjoy the view – Nosara is actually a world-class surf location. Just be sure to lather up with sunscreen.
Once you get hungry, follow a sandy path into town. There are dozens of excellent places to eat. Grab a seat at Jasmine’s Kitchen, where the hash bowls are hot, the veggie burgers are bursting with flavor and the “minty Moringa lemonade” is just plain life-changing.
There’s plenty of shopping to be had for all types too. We hopped from furniture and home goods shops, to yoga outfitters to aromatherapy and handmade soap shops. There are also plenty of locals selling handmade goods like blankets, shorts, jewelry and pottery.
Olga’s and La Luna are the only two beachfront businesses. The government banned development on the beach as a conservation effort, and it’s paid off. The sandy stretch of coastline is some of the most pristine in the world. We recommend sipping some of Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co.’s beer as the sun goes down.
Yoga and surf
Nosara is famous for it’s Yoga schools. There’s a studio at every turn. If you’re in town, you’ll overhear Yogi’s who are grabbing a bite in-between practice. It’s easy to find a place to get your zen on.
If you’re more of an adventurer than a meditator, in between every Yoga shop, there’s a surf shack. Nosara is known for it’s surfing schools too. Sign up for a lesson!
Ostional Wildlife Refuge
The best thing I saw in Costa Rica was by accident. We didn’t plan to be in Costa Rica when the sea turtles would be laying their eggs, but we were. We drove to the Nicoya Peninsula to the Ostional Wildlife Refuge after we overheard a local talking about. The turtles only come at night and it’s a sacred and heavily protected time period for the locals. The Ostional Community watches over the process, and they protect the beach and the turtles from poachers as they go through the grooling process of digging a hole deep enough for their precious cargo.
We paid a guide – which is the only way to see it – to take us on the beach. With red lights, so as not to disturb the turtles, we walked out on the pitch, black beach. At first we saw nothing, but little by little, black lump after black lump appeared, moving up the shore. The turtles were coming. We followed one female as she began to dig her hole. It looked exhausting as she dug and wriggled her body and eventually laid her eggs. She was so tired it was hard for her to even make it back to the water. By the time we were finished watching her, the beach was covered in them. We zig-zagged our way back to our car with the awed sense of having seen something magical – the cycle of life.
For a real view – hop on a horse
While Nosara is all about the beach it’s also the place where the Nosara and Montona Rivers meet and dump into Playa Nosara. The river banks are wildly different than the beach. To see both, we jumped on horseback at Boca Nosara Tours. Monkeys, crocodiles and more can be seen from the shore and our tour guide gave us the insider’s scoop on Nosara and what it’s like to live there. It was the perfect way to end a magical trip.
Other food and drink: El Chivo (drinks and yummy mexican inspired bites to eat), Tibidabo Mediterranean Food & Cocktail Bar, Al Chile (tacos and delicious cocktails)
And as perfect as it all seems – this vacation came with some serious ups and downs. As two female travelers in a country where we didn’t speak the language, there were times where things went very wrong. There were some times when we were scared, whether we should have been or not. The best part of this journey was overcoming and experiencing true adventure. Some of our antics just have to be told the old fashioned way – by mouth.