Costa Rica is a perfect getaway to experience a diverse geography of lush rainforests, massive volcanoes, and hidden beaches. We were craving for a trip that was both adventurous and laidback, so we decided on a 10 day escape to beautiful Costa Rica!
Usually when booking a trip, we use a spreadsheet to plan things we want to do, places we want to see, and food we want to eat. These lists aren’t usually too detailed but it gives us an idea of how we want the overall trip to go. But this trip to Costa Rica was so spontaneous that we decided not to plan for any activities at all. Instead, we went along with the country’s way of life – Pura Vida style!
Even though we didn’t pre-plan any of the activities, we researched obsessively on how to get around the country. Do we hop on a public bus? Or do we use private shuttles? What about just renting a car and driving ourselves?
Here are some of the pros and cons we’ve found for each choice:
- Public buses – cheap and efficient in Costa Rica if you’re not pressed on time, but there will be frequent stops and you’ll be in a large bus filled with random people. Lonely Planet has a few tips on using this option – check it out here!
- Private shuttle services – easy since they’ll take you from city to city without much hassle, but you won’t really have the freedom to go wherever you want. If you’re the type that doesn’t like the headaches that come with driving, then choose this option! Interbus has routes through all major parts of Costa Rica.
- Renting a car – great since it’ll provide flexibility and freedom, but driving in some parts of Costa Rica can be challenging (lack of street signs, dirt roads with potholes on the drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde etc.) But if you’re prepared with GPS, drive slow on dirt roads, and have a sense of adventurous spirit, it will be totally fine!
We knew we wanted to explore Costa Rica on our own terms and didn’t want to spend hours on a crowded bus or van. So we decided to rent a 4×4 SUV (highly recommended) and go on a 700km roadtrip around western Costa Rica.
After a short flight from Houston, we landed in Alejuela around 9pm, picked up the rental, and headed to our hotel for the night. It was our first time in the country and we were driving in the dark, but we didn’t have any trouble finding the hotel using Google Maps. Instead of paying for GPS from the car rental company, we downloaded Google Maps offline and saved the entire map of Costa Rica on our phones. That way, even in areas where we didn’t have data, we were able to use navigation without any issues.
The hotel we chose, Villa San Ignacio, resembled an old mansion, with its rustic charm and quaint decor. And even though we arrived pretty late, the staff was gracious enough to leave the restaurant open and serve us some delicious food!
The next morning, we woke up fairly early and decided to drive towards La Fortuna. Since Costa Rica is known for its coffee (and we’re also coffeeholics), we stopped by Doka Estate for a coffee tour! This small family-owned plantation is located on the foothills of Poás Volcano and the fertile grounds make it ideal for coffee to grow. The tour was very informative and interesting since you get to see the entire process of how coffee is grown, harvested, and roasted. And it also came with unlimited coffee tastings! Safe to say we left feeling super jittery and hyped up for our next adventure.
La Paz Waterfalls
Back on the road, we drove by La Paz Waterfalls (we didn’t stop and go inside the garden but we could see some of the waterfalls right from the road). It’s a cool little spot to stop and take a few pics, especially since it’s on the way.
Because Arenal Volcano is still active, it produces plenty of natural hot springs in the region. Since we were planning to do a bit of hiking and extreme sports, we wanted our hotel to have hot springs so we could relax at the end of the day. We decided to stay in Baldi Hot Springs Resort Hotel & Spa since it had over 20 hot spring pools to choose from.
Arenal Volcano National Park
I was really excited to see the volcano up close but the entire 4 days we were in La Fortuna, we only saw Arenal once on our last day (and it was just ¾ of the volcano too!). Because we were there during the rainy season, the clouds covered the volcano and left us with zero visibility. Even though we couldn’t see it, we still decided to hike the Los Heliconias trail, which exposed us to lava rocks, wildlife, a massive Ceiba tree, and views of Lake Arenal. A tip if you’re driving – there are lots of potholes on the road leading up to Arenal so drive slow!
La Fortuna Waterfall
Another fun hike that we did was to La Fortuna Waterfall. This trail consists mostly of stairs leading down variety of flora and fauna towards an impressive waterfall. We spent half an hour or so near the waterfall and came back up to relax with a few drinks and ceviche at their small cafe. While we ate, we watched a howler monkey on a tree nearby eating leaves and getting “drunk” – our waiter explained this tree had a sort of intoxicating effect on monkeys and this one howler was addicted to it!
As we were driving back to our hotel from the waterfall, we saw signs for a Rainforest Chocolate Tour and thought why not? You can’t go wrong with chocolate, right? The guide thoroughly explained and showed us how to extract the cocoa beans from the cocoa tree and ferment, dry, and roast them to make chocolate. The tour ended with a freshly made cup of hot chocolate! Yum!
White Water Rafting
Costa Rica is known for its white water rafting and we definitely did not want to pass this up. So we asked the hotel to book an excursion for a Class III/IV rapids with Wave Expeditions. A helpful tip to note is to not book your excursions until you get to the area since the weather is so unpredictable. This excursion was cancelled twice because of high water levels before we were finally cleared to go on our last day.
The guides drove us to Sarapiquí River and explained the rules and safety of rafting and before we knew it, we were facing giant waves of water crashing towards us. The river was really high since it had been raining non-stop so we even experienced some Class V rapids! It was such a thrilling experience (and quite a workout)! Afterwards, we were treated to local beer and delicious casado, which is a traditional Costa Rican dish consisting of rice, beans, salad, chicken and fried plantains.
The drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde is one of the most scenic drives I have ever been on. As we left La Fortuna, Arenal finally showed up from behind the clouds and it loomed over us while we continued on zig-zaggy roads through green lush trees. Halfway through the drive, the road switched from paved to dirt and this is where our 4×4 SUV really came into use. The road was on steep cliffs and it was full of potholes, so we drove real slow. If you are planning to do this drive, make sure are mentally prepared for the twists and turns and the bumpiness of the dirt road (and consider motion sickness pills!).
Monteverde is around 5,000 feet above sea level and we wanted to stay at a hotel that not only gave us a view of the Cloud Forest and the Gulf of Nicoya, but also was a short distance from town. We stayed at El Establo Mountain Hotel and the views from our room definitely did not disappoint! We were literally inside the clouds! The hotel rooms are situated on a hill so walking up and down can be quite challenging, but they do provide a free shuttle that takes you to and from the dining area and rooms.
Jungle Night Tour
Most of the animals in the Cloud Forest are nocturnal so we booked a night tour of the jungle through El Establo. We came across several species of snakes, coatis, spiders, and frogs. It was kind of creepy entering the forest at 8pm at night but the experience was totally worth it! I do have to admit – at certain times, I felt like I was in a horror movie kept picturing someone with an axe chasing us down the jungle.
The next day, we went on a canopy tour of the cloud forest with Sky Adventures. The guide walked through the forest and over tree tops using suspension bridges, while explaining the ecosystem and pointing out all the howler monkeys. It was raining the entire time and we were wet and cold so after the hike, we stopped by the cafe and ordered latte with a shot of Bailey’s to warm up!
Driving from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio, we crossed the infamous Tarcoles bridge (aka Crocodile bridge). Dozens of crocodiles, some even 16 feet long, live under this bridge so naturally, we had to stop and see them.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park combines pristine beaches, rugged rainforest, and a rich biodiversity of animals and plants. We wanted to be walking distance to the national park, so we booked a room at Hotel Vela Bar, an adults only hotel that was 5 min walk to the park and Espadilla beach.
The hike through Manuel Antonio National Park was amazing! We walked through the rainforest and followed white-faced capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and howler monkeys. One of my goals during this whole trip was to see a sloth (especially after seeing Kristen Bell’s sloth meltdown on the Ellen show) and I was so happy that we came across a sloth with a baby on its back!
At the end of our hike, we came across the white sands of Escondido beach. I thought the Pacific ocean would be too cold to swim in, but the water felt wonderful. We spent the whole afternoon bumming around on this beach.
On our last night in Manuel Antonio, we decided to eat dinner at La Luna Restaurant since it gave us perfect views of the sunset over the Pacific. The food (especially the mahi-mahi and tuna) at La Luna was also one of the best we’ve had in Costa Rica – it’s a bit pricey, but you have to treat yo’self sometimes right?
As the trip drew to a close, we reflected back on how wonderful the people in Costa Rica were. Everyone was incredibly gracious, welcoming, and really lived by the philosophy of pure life. We can’t wait to visit back!
Restaurants we loved:
Manuel Antonio / Quepos
- Restaurante Puerto Escondido
- La Luna Restaurant at Gaia Hotel & Reserve
- Rico Tico Jungle Grill at Hotel Si Como No
Have you been to Costa Rica? Let us know if you have any questions below in the comments!