I spent Thanksgiving in Costa Rica this year. This post shares my six days visiting volcanoes, rain forests, and islands across the country.
A foreword: Why Costa Rica?
In 2014, while sitting in a bus in Berkeley, I met a stranger who shared her love of traveling. At the end of our conversation, she exclaimed “Costa Rica!” before getting off at her stop. Without any previous interest in visiting the country, this brief encounter has led me to visit the country first in 2016, and again this year. I thank her for being the catalyst to both trips.
I took this trip with my girlfriend. Our objectives were to:
1. See a mix of nature including volcanoes, rain forests, and beaches
2. Observe wildlife in their natural habitats
3. Be physically active through hiking and outdoor adventures
4. Be immersed in nature including lodging
5. Eat good local food
As with my other travel posts, the trip’s cost breakdown can be found at the end of this post.
Day 1: Poas Volcano and La fortuna
We took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO), with a brief layover in Panama City. We landed at 9 a.m. Our car rental company Vamos Rent-A-Car awaited us at arrivals and drove us the office to fill out paperwork.
Once the paperwork was done, we drove straight to Poas Volcano National Park. The volcano last erupted in April 2017, closing the park until August 2018. Online reservations and payments were required through the government website.
Along with a group of ~30 individuals, we arrived at our scheduled time, checked in, put on safety helmets, and walked about 1.0 km to the overlook.
After 10 minutes of walking, we arrived at the overlook and were taken away by the enormity of the crater.
We enjoyed the view for about 20 minutes before leaving for La Fortuna, a small town at the foothill of Arenal Volcano. The drive through the central highlands completely blew me away. We pulled over several times to take panoramic photos.
We arrived at La Fortuna after two hours of driving. Unfortunately, just like my first trip, clouds blocked the summit of Arenal Volcano. All we saw was the base of the mountain. We got drinks at Selina, a hostel/co-working/hangout spot.
For dinner, we ate at Tiquicia Restaurant, the #1 rated restaurant in La Fortuna on TripAdvisor.
Our lodging for the night was at the Arenal Tree Cabin, booked through Airbnb. We had an entire cabin with a balcony and hammock next to a beautiful lake.
Day 2: arenal sky adventures and hot springs
We ate breakfast at Rancho Cerro Azul. The plan for the day was an adventure package within the Arenal mountains, followed by walking some hanging bridges in the afternoon.
After breakfast, we drove to Sky Adventures Arenal Park to take on the Sky Limit package. The package consisted of riding a tram 3,000 feet up the mountain, then making our way down over three hours of zip lines, bridges, high ropes, a Tarzan swing, and rappelling. This was the last photo I took before putting my phone away.
We got lucky with a small tour group. With just two other visitors from Texas and Los Angeles, the four of us were guided by two tour operators.
After taking the tram up to the summit, we started with a zip line. That was followed by a series of obstacle courses like unstable bridges and climbing down nets, followed by another zip line. I was mesmerized by the rain forest between each course. It rained intermittently, making the experience feel even more authentic and natural.
Then came my two favorite moments. We reached the top of a waterfall, then each of us swung off the ledge like Tarzan. My stomach churned as if I was riding a roller coaster. We were each lowered to the base, only to find that we were standing on top of a much steeper waterfall.
One by one, we rappelled down the waterfall. I estimate the drop to be 100 feet. It was both nerve-wracking and difficult. The rocks were slippery, and the water current was strong. I lost balance twice, resulting in my body softly hitting against the rocks. I also went into the waterfall by mistake, which soaked my entire body. When it comes to outdoor adventures, this was the most adrenaline I’ve felt since bungee jumping in 2012; the feeling trumped sky diving and zip lining by quite a margin.
Another noteworthy moment was the second to last course. Each of us put on something resembling a wing suit. We then rode a long zip line across the mountain in the superman position. It rained during this time, and the rain sharply peppered my face, but boy was it fun.
Our tour operators were wonderful and kept us safe. We graciously tipped them, and I highly recommend both Sky Adventures as a company, and Sky Limit as the go-to package.
The Hanging Bridges at Mistico was supposed to be the next destination. However, the Texas/Los Angeles guys convinced us to instead go to a natural hot spring, an activity La Fortuna is known for. We chose Ecotermales and made our way over. We arrived in the early afternoon, starving and ready to relax.
The facility was situated in the rain forest, yet modern and well-maintained.
The facility was built on top of the hot springs. The water naturally flowed through different sections/pools. The water on the upper end was the hottest, the lower end the coolest.
The afternoon was spent relaxing at the hot springs. We left after several hours and drove to our hotel just outside of Tenorio Volcano National Park.
The drive wasn’t easy. We were off the beaten path with few street lights. Many sections of the roads were unpaved. Fog rolled in and visibility was in the single digit yards. We drove to a restaurant I had bookmarked, only to find it was closed. We settled for the restaurant at our hotel at Catarata Rio Celeste.
This was the most difficult check-in of our trip. The hotel staff did not speak English, so we resorted to speaking single words of each other’s respective languages, and pointing to our instruments like passports, credit cards, keys, and our stomachs (for dinner of course).
With satisfied stomachs, we called it a night.
Day 3: Rio Celeste and driving to Montezuma
Most tourists visit Tenorio Volcano National Park for the Rio Celeste (sky blue river), known for distinctly blue waters. The blue color is caused by a chemical reaction from two conjoining rivers. We visited the park precisely to see this phenomenon.
It rained heavily all night. We awoke to fog and rain but were finally able to appreciate our hotel grounds.
After eating breakfast and checking out of the hotel, we drove a short distance to the entrance of Tenorio Volcano National Park. While buying tickets from the park ranger, he warned us that the heavy rainfall had caused the water to not be blue. He asked if we still wanted to purchase the ticket. I appreciated his honesty, but figured we might as well continue.
There’s only one main trail in the park. One path deviates to the waterfall, while the main path leads to the two rivers that cause the color reaction. We decided to detour to the waterfall, and depending on what the water looked like, we would decide whether to continue along the main trail or call it quits.
We eventually arrived at the waterfall, and to my dismay, the color of the water was green/grey.
We stayed and admired the 80-foot waterfall for some time before the rain started beating us up. It was too late by the time I put on my poncho; I was completely soaked, and my hiking shoes sloshed water with every step. We called it early, avoided the main trail, and started our long drive to Montezuma.
The drive to Montezuma was an experience in and of itself. We slowly descended to sea level as we exited the highlands. Along the way, we drove through several microclimates ranging from heavy storm, to the cessation of rainfall, and everything in between. The skies were clear blue by the time we reached sea level, and we were rewarded with a backdrop of beautiful green hills peppered with grazing cows.
Montezuma is a small town in the Nicoya Peninsula of the country. Soon after entering the peninsula, the roads shifted once again from well-paved to dirt, gravel, and potholes. The road was bumpy and several construction sites caused some delays. It was 5:30 p.m. by the time we arrived at city.
Our lodging in Montezuma was completely unforgettable. Imagine a two-story house in the hills of a forest. Imagine an outdoor patio on both floors, with a panoramic view of the beach. Imagine full immersion in nature. That was our experience at Kassandra’s House.
After settling in, we drove into town and ate dinner at Cocolores. This was the best meal of the trip by far.
Montezuma is a surfer and hipster town. Most of the buildings in the central area were hostels and surf shops. We walked around briefly before heading back to the house to sleep.
Day 4: Tortuga Island
We woke up early to enjoy the priceless views.
Kassandra’s House is managed by the home owner, who clearly loves her home. She cooked us some of the best breakfast we’ve had from the kitchen, and served it to us in the outdoor patio.
Most of the day was going to be spent at the nearby Tortuga Island (Turtle Island). After breakfast, we walked down hill to the beach. Did I mention the drive to the house is absurdly bumpy? Tree roots, pot holes, and uneven dirt reminded me of the terrors of driving up to Monteverde three years ago.
Tortuga Island could only be visited by tour reservations. I booked an all-day package with Zuma Tours (highly recommended). We were to ride a speedboat for one hour, snorkel at two different sites off the island, eat lunch aboard the island, and relax in the afternoon before riding back to Montezuma.
Along with 18 other people, we boarded the speed boat at 9:20 a.m. and made our way over. All aboard!
The ride over was smooth. The tour operators stopped a few times to explain some landmarks.
One tour operator was dropped off at the island to begin cooking our lunch. The other two operators then took us to the first of two snorkeling sites. We were to spend 45 minutes at each location. We geared up in the speed boat and hopped right off.
Visibility was decent at maybe 7 yards. We saw plenty o’ fish in the sea, most hanging around corals.
Water, beer, watermelons, and pineapples were free on board the boat. The dive mask was also crystal clear and clean; I didn’t have to clear my mask at all, not even once. These small details added a very nice touch to our experience.
We were taken to the island come lunch time, and served a nice cooked meal while sitting on shaded picnic benches.
We saw some interesting things on the island. Some wild turkeys scoured near us, behaving like pigeons, trying to scavenge leftovers. The tour operators lazily shooed them away, but the turkeys did not fear anyone.
Later on, we encroached upon a wild boar who behaved like a dog! She stopped moving as soon as I pet her. She lifted her butt up as I scratched her butt. She lifted her head up as I scratched her chin.
We were told that she’s 20 years old — highly impressive as typical wild boars live 10-14 years. She’s been fed by the locals for years and is accustomed to human interaction. Her fellow companions still avoid human contact, so we were blessed to see the single friendly one.
At 3:00 p.m. it was time to go back to Montezuma. We said our goodbyes.
We ate dinner at Puggo’s, another top restaurant in the town.
We played chess and drank some fruit smoothies while waiting for dinner.
After dinner, we walked back to the house to find a fucking SCORPION at the stairway to the second floor.
I was trying to figure out how to contact the homeowner when my girlfriend stepped in and took care of it. Without hesitation, she trapped it in a drinking cup and frying pan cover, brought it outside, and dumped it in the backyard. She rolled her eyes at my lack of courage. My manliness waned by a solid 80%. Dude it’s a SCORPION man, wouldn’t you have been scared?
I relaxed on the hammock for a couple of hours, and for the first time of the trip, caught up with the internet before going to sleep.
Day 5: Paquera Ferry and Driving to Manuel Antonio
Breakfast the next morning was charming as usual, but with a twist. Some wild critters watched us from less than 10 feet away.
Saying goodbye to Kassandra’s House was difficult, but it was time to go. We attempted to go to Montezuma Waterfall, but I researched poorly. We couldn’t find it on Google Maps, and after a few minutes we gave up and drove to the Paquera Ferry.
The Pacquera Ferry is a large vessel that transports vehicles and people across the Gulf of Nicoya. The ferry only runs three times a day at scheduled times.
Since we had some extra time, we took a detour to Ballena Bay.
Only two others were present at the beach: a local woman and her daughter. Assuming we were staying for a few hours, she approached us and started a conversation in Spanish. She told us that her restaurant served very good food. We combined our broken Spanish, courtesy of high school language class, to inform her that we were headed to Manuel Antonio. She then warned us there are far more people at Manuel Antonio, that they are not as warm and friendly as those in Nicoya Peninsula, and to keep our belongings safe due to pickpockets and vehicle break-ins. It’s hard to describe her warm and genuine mannerisms, but it’s little things like this authentic conversation that make me love the people in this country. I really wish we could have been guests at her restaurant.
We arrived at the ferry building at 10:30 a.m., presumably 30 minutes early. In yet another flop of the day, I found out that the ferry was scheduled for 1:00 p.m. My schedule was incorrect, and I felt terrible as the Oregon family of five had also arrived too early due to my misinformation.
We walked around for a few minutes, but there wasn’t much to do except eat at the ferry cafeteria and wait.
We ate some sandwiches from the cafeteria for lunch. At 12:30 p.m., I drove the SUV onto the ferry. Our vehicle was one of the first to board due to getting in line two hours early.
The ferry was enormous. It housed two floors of vehicles, and three floors of passengers. We sat on the highest outdoor deck to adore the views.
See those clouds? The one-hour ferry ride to Punt Arenas took straight into the clouds, and back into rain. We entered our vehicle and began our drive to Manuel Antonio.
Driving to Manuel Antonio took three hours and was not pleasant. It quickly began raining and worsened as we drove through a storm system. I missed three exits which added several minutes to the drive. Lightning flashed each minute, and I counted as little as three seconds before hearing thunder — we were in the heart of the storm. Windshield wipers were at max, yet visibility was low.
We arrived at our Manuel Antonio Airbnb at 5:30 p.m. This was one of the most unique places I’ve ever stayed at. Barring bug nets, the hillside studio was open-air. A balcony similar to Kassandra’s House faced the ocean.
It stopped raining an hour after our arrival. We walked to eat our final dinner in the country at El Patio de Cafe Milagro.
After dinner, we walked to a supermarket and bought some chocolate. We bought a 70% and another 80% cacao bar. The 70% tasted real good; the 80% was a bit bitter, but that was to be expected. Eat Costa Rican chocolate: check. Satisfaction: guaranteed.
We slept early, for our alarm was set to go off at 6 a.m.
Day 6: Manuel Antonio National Park
I naturally awoke at 5:30 a.m. No rain. Good. Much better than yesterday.
We woke up early because Manuel Antonio National Park opens at 7:00 a.m. It is the most visited park in the country, and the park is capped at 600 visitors at a time.
We ate some granola bars for breakfast and arrived at the park at 6:45 a.m. We were among the first 30 people to enter the park for the day.
Manuel Antonio National Park is a forest situated on a beach. It’s also very small. Over the next 4.5 hours, we walked virtually every trail.
What an absolutely gorgeous park. Let’s start with the forest.
Let’s move onto some wildlife.
Finally, the beaches. As one of the first visitors of the day, we got to witness beaches without people and footprints. Made for great wide photos.
By 11:30 a.m. we had walked every trail. 19,000 steps. Nearly 8 miles. Feet Tired. Stomach hungry. We exited the park, packed up at our Airbnb, and headed to our final lunch at Emilio’s Cafe.
After lunch, it took us three hours to get back to San Jose. Returning the car was smooth. They are tremendously professional and I highly recommend Vamos Rent-A-Car. We had a brief layover in El Salvador, and made it back to LAX by nightfall. You’ll be missed, Costa Rica!
I’ve broken down spending by categories (Column A), point of purchase (Column B), and line item (Column C). You can view the Google Sheet here.
The trip cost $2,273.89. Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points saved us $574.1. Not included in the figure is another $100 or so of savings from using Chase Sapphire Preferred’s collision damage waiver. Good travel card.