Costa Rica was the perfect getaway from NYC—escaping just as the snow came flurrying to the northeast. To my sadness as I write this (Friday night before my flight), the weather back home is SNOWY the day we fly and will be 20 degrees F by 12 AM 😱
Overall, the trip was pura vida, which is simply the way of life in Costa Rica. Although it translates directly to pure life, it is something that all Costa Ricans embrace whether in happiness, poor health, or everyday occurrences.
This blog post will cover everything from where we went, what we ate, where we stayed at, and even Pokemon Go coverage 🙂
Blue icons are the places we went and yellow are the places I would check out the next time I go.
Activities & Places Visited (province):
1. Britt Coffee Tour (Heredia)
2. Tabacon Resort @ Arenal Volcano area (La Fortuna de San Carlos)
3. Mistico Park – Arenal Hanging Bridges (La Fortuna de San Carlos)
4. Don Olivo Chocolate Tour (La Fortuna de San Carlos)
5. Extremo Superman Zipline @ Monteverde (Santa Elena @ Puntarenas)
6. Manuel Antonio National Park (Puntarenas)
7. Crocodile Bridge (Puntarenas)
Hotels & Accommodations:
1. Hampton Inn (Heredia @ San Jose)
2. Tabacon Hotel (La Fortuna de San Carlos)
3. DoubleTree Resort All Inclusive (Puntarenas)
4. Hotel San Bada (Puntarenas)
5. DoubleTree (Heredia @ San Jose)
We rented a car from National for 263 USD for the entire week, what a steal!!! Collision damage is required (forgot the price) and we opted out since it’s covered by the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (sign up for one here). This price is like one day in Iceland !!! (see my Iceland post here) or half a week in the USA. A 4×4 car is a must if you are considering making a trip to Monteverde.
Waze the is the best navigation app to use in Costa Rica, as recommended by all the locals. Google Maps, while good for looking up distances and estimated drives, is not as reliable for directions. With Waze, there are no addresses to input. You type up the name of the destination and hit go. The traffic data is not the most accurate, so the ETA was underestimated for the most part of our trip.
The street signs are pretty terrible. Some signs are small white boxes and black text that you cannot see until you make a turn already. Just trust Waze and don’t rely on reading any street signs. The larger signs when there is a fork in the road can be useful; they show county names and KM distance.
The locals drive here like there are no rules. We drove a total of approx 600 km, mostly winding roads and on the mountains, with at least 90 km of unpaved rocky roads, and even got stuck in a mud pit. The locals tend to cross over the yellow line whenever there is a turn, so drive with caution. The roads are mostly one lane on each side and drivers tend to pass slow cars by driving into the opposite lane. This is necessary to skip trucks and buses.
We didn’t really look into this since our plan with T-Mobile includes international data roaming and calls for $0.20 a minute. We had cellular service through Movistar (local Costa Rica network) most of the time. During our drive on the mountain, we lost service in certain spots. Looking back, I would get a SIM card for those moments when service is gone. Driving through a mountain is no easy feat and it’s always reassuring to know you can call for help.
Money & Economics
The week’s rate was 1 USD to approx 550 CRC (see current rates on Google). The USD is really strong right now. A lot of tourist areas take USD, but the CRC is usually the best rate if you have a credit card without any foreign transaction fees (compared to the USD price listed). It doesn’t hurt to do some quick math on a calculator to figure out the best price.
Do not exchange money at the airport. The rates are much much lower. It was 1 USD to 477 CRC, which is practically a 13% loss. The plus side of doing the exchange there is that the rate is guaranteed when you return the money… so you get your USD money back, up to 50% of the total exchanged. We did this and tried not to use the CRC cash as much as possible. The guy at the booth scared us into thinking that vendors won’t have a reader for the chip credit cards. Only one place we went to didn’t accept it (a gas station). When we returned our money at the airport, the staff told us that any extra over the 50% is the rate of 610 CRC to 1 USD. We didn’t know that only 50% was allowed to be changed back. I highly do NOT recommend this service at the airport!!
Some hotels exchange USD. The Hampton Inn’s rate was 1 USD to 523 CRC (a 5% loss, but pretty awesome considering banks in the USA would probably charge a similar price). It’s best to exchange in your country before coming to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica has the highest standard living in Central America. It takes roughly 1,500 USD per family to live decently (18K a year).
The Costa Rican money has won international awards for having money that symbolizes the country so well. Each bill tells a different story. On the right side of this image (the backs), the top right side has words for the bill’s theme.
Image from: http://acercandomundos.com/costa-rica-2/
The weather was sunny in the high 60s to 70s most of the week. It did rain during the first few days as we headed north from SJO Airport. The whole thing you read in blogs about Dec – April as the dry season is only applicable to the Pacific area (north west) as the Caribbean side has more consistent rainfall year round. You can read more about the weather and see historical rain fall using the interactive map here: http://costa-rica-guide.com/travel/weather/weather-map-rainfall/. I wish I knew ahead of time! I would’ve packed different clothes and more because I was so sweaty from the humidity 😓. Clothes don’t dry completely either due to the humidity so if you are in a rush between hotels, I would recommended carrying extra plastic bags and dryer sheets to keep your clothes fresh and away from your clean clothes.
Activities & Places Visited
Britt Coffee Tour
The tour guides were funny and cracked jokes the entire time. The guides speak both Spanish and English and explain the entire process of coffee. The coffee plant has many layers. The coffee fruit is ripe when red (the outer layer), the inner layer holds two coffee beans, the sweet laxative goo around each bean, and then the coffee bean as we know it. Britt buys dried coffee beans from around the world and they specialize in roasting the coffee beans the darker brown/black colors.
A coffee farm work typically earns 3 USD for each full basket of coffee beans picked, which weighs 25 pounds. These baskets are placed in front of the worker’s stomach and tightened with a rope. The fastest worker can fill 20 baskets, earning 60 USD, which is good pay in Costa Rica.
Don Olivo Chocolate Tour
This was more than just a chocolate tour. We walked through the family farm and the guide, Minor, was great at explaining everything in it. When we arrived, we gave ourselves a sneak peek of the farm walking towards the restroom. The tour started and Minor’s father gave us mango, papaya, orange, and coconut. This was the first 5 minutes of the tour. My hand was so sticky that I didn’t want to take out my phone for pictures. Minor showed us the old sugar cane crusher, which was super pricey back in the day (like 100,000 USD) and now worth much less. Minor and his father strained a sugar cane for us and gave us two glasses of delicious juice.
On this tour, I learned that chocolate was almost extinct in the 1970s. At this time, corporations wanted the cocoa farmers’ land and the farmers did not sell. Because of this, the corporations introduced a Monilla fungus that destroyed 80% of cocoa plants. The fungus would spread from one cocoa plant to the next and the only way to get rid of them was to burn the plants. You can read more about it here.
Cocoa trees do not require much work as these plants can grow in Costa Rica without much from the farmer due to good temperatures and rainfall.
Tabacon Resort – Natural Hot Springs
The hot springs were very nice with different pool areas throughout the resort. The temperatures ranged from 98 to 103 degrees F. Almost all the floors of the pool areas are unpaved and a bit rocky. There is this one area with a strong waterfall that can be used to massage your upper back. The main pool area with the bar also has a slide. The slide was fun and accelerates really fast near the end, so hold our nose!
As a hotel guest, there is also the Shangri-La private area that has 3 different pools and lounge space. We spotted two iguanas on the edge of our pool. They blend in very well.
The resort closes at 10 PM. While there are lights throughout the entire resort, some areas are harder to see, especially the depth of certain pools. There isn’t much signage either, so you will have to wander about to find the next pool.
It was very peaceful here, just laying in the water with no care in the world.
Lockers and towels are provided. The locker area is a bit lacking. The changing area is very small and heats up really fast if people shower, which is the next area. There are about 5-6 shower areas with overhead fans. The heat gets trapped inside the locker room. The best part is the water strainer.
Mistico – Arenal Hanging Bridges Tour/Hike
The tour was a good two hour hike around the Rainforest. The hanging bridges were pretty cool—you walk through the Rainforest and can look below at all the nature. Our tour guide explained a few things along the hike, from the trees to flowers to typical animals/insects in the Rainforest. We were unable to spot any Sloths or small animals during our hike. If you don’t care to learn about the Rainforest, then skip the guide and do the walk yourself. I wish I brought a notebook and pen to write down everything guide explained (I forgot most of it already). I was hoping to learn more about the Rainforest on this tour, though.
We saw a bunch of leaf carrying ants along our hike. These ants bring back specific leaves to their ant colony. They spit into the pile of leaves and farm their own mushroom to eat.
We saw a “moving tree”. This tree grows roots on one side to follow the water source. As roots grow on one side, the other side dies.
Monteverde Extremo – Zipline / Canopy Tour
Talk about adrenaline rush! The entire activity was two hours but it felt much longer! This place it the #1 recommended by tourists and the 1 local I met, haha. There are 15 different zip lines; 2 are paired up; 3 are a bit shorter; 2 are superman style; 1 goes down instead of across. The crew has a few cameras to help you capture the moment. (10 USD for 1 person + 5 USD extra per person after; cash only).
Superman? Yes, that’s right. Your legs are also held up on the zip line. While you are advised against the Superman arm pose (it’ll cause you to slow down and be stuck in the middle), the anticipation was terrifying as I looked at the participants before me and the long zip line ahead. Once the crew member let me go, it felt very peaceful. The speed was not as fast as the other zip lines. The crew member on the other side breaks for you, and it puts pressure in the chest area. The second mini superman zip line hurt since the crew member tightened my straps a bit too much (there has to be a bit of slack). There’s a video of me super scared while getting strapped up to the zip line on Facebook here (I did not cry nor pee in my pants, lol).
The views of the mountain were spectacular on the zip line!
What was the most surprising was the bonus Tarzan swing! The rope is tied to the top of the tree an the crew member pushes you off the edge, literally. You then swing as far as the rope can take you (are you screaming yet?) then swing back and forth until they catch you. I think my heart dropped for a second from fear but then it was OK after the first swing. I was pretty sure my heart was beating out of my chest so I checked my Fitbit Charge HR that night and surprisingly, my heart rate was only at 62% (cardio zone, not yet high intensity).
NOTE: If you are driving from the Arenal area and hit a fork in the road (with about 5 minutes left), do NOT take the path that goes UP the road; continue on the normal road alongside the mountain edge. We took the road up since it was 2 minutes vs 5 minutes and got stuck in a mud pit. We were able to call (thanks T-Mobile) and the crew members from Extremo saved us with their ATV and motorbikes. Scariest drie ever with only 300M left (3 minute walk)—it felt like the car was going to flip back every moment.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Definitely invest in a tour guide! The cost is 25 USD pp (cash) or 60 – 80 USD when booked with a hotel (very overpriced, which we learned!!) We went in the morning and a park-approved tour guide approached us. Thank goodness because with my poor eyesight and fear of bugs, I would have seen nothing without Socio! The tour included his skillful use of the telescope(?) showing us the animals spotted, and sharing his knowledge on the animals and plants. Socio seemed to know the entire tour guide community there as he greeted everyone. We learned he was their teacher and he majored in biology, specifically in hummingbirds. So glad we were in good hands 😌
Check out the work of our tour guide, Andres Socio Chavez Rojas, on his Facebook page (EndemicCostaRica). Book a tour with him and mention Winnie & Kevin from New York referred ya 😉 (I get no commission from this, just want to share our awesome experience!) —> firstname.lastname@example.org
There are restrooms mid-way and a picnic area right by the beach. If you plan to stay longer than 3 hours, definitely pack some lunch.
Check out some of the animals we saw:
The beach inside the National Park is considered the best in the area. There are also some raccoons that may visit you to search your bags for food while you are enjoying the sun.
Outside of the park, the beach strip is not too shabby either. There are also a lot of water actives you can book, including parasailing (170 USD), snorkeling (25 USD or 60 USD trips), surfing, etc.
We were driving and saw a sign for this (and lots of stopped tourist cars). If you look over the bridge, you will see the crocodiles. This is also the separation point of the two ocean regions.
Hotels & Accommodations
Hampton Inn (Heredia @ San Jose)
This was very close to SJO airport, approx 10 minutes away by car. We didn’t intend to stay overnight near San Jose but due to unfortunate circumstances, we made a last minute booking. The stay was like every other Hampton Inn we stayed in back in the USA. They had shuttle services to various places deeper in San Jose. From here, we made our morning trip to the Don Olivo Chocolate Tour since it was only 20 minutes away.
It’s great that breakfast is always included 🙂
Tabacon (La Fortuna de San Carlos)
After a 2-3 hour drive, it was very refreshing to be greeted by their staff with a glass of delicious watermelon mint water and a cold towel with floral scents.
The hotel was very nice! The bathroom was beautifully designed and had double sinks, which is helpful in the morning. While the shower area looked really pretty, the water pressure was sub-par. The toiletries were good quality and the conditioner actually moisturized my hair. I forgot to pack them all up before we departed. Avoid a room on the first floor since it is more likely for bugs to visit each time the door is opened… like our water bug visitor… The room itself was very big and had a living room type of space with a double sofa and coffee table. Incense was included in the room and it lasts about 3 hours.
The hotel is not connected to the hot spring (Resort) area, unfortunately. We didn’t read all the review beforehand. There is a shuttle service that runs every 5 minutes (and less) to drop of hotel guests to the hot springs.
There is also golf cart service if you’re too lazy to walk to your room… or if the rain is bad, or whatever, you’re on vacation.
The restaurant is separated from the lobby and gym area. There was construction when we stayed there and had to walk a big loop to find it.
We got to plant our own mini trees! #31 and #32. The hotel was very accommodating for us even though we did not schedule it 24 hours in advance.
DoubleTree Resort All Inclusive (Puntarenas)
We stayed here as a mid-point from our two destinations. Everyone at this resort seemed to speak Spanish, so we figured this is a probably a destination Costa Ricans like to visit for a relaxing time. There are three buildings of rooms, totaling to approx 400 units. The room was pretty basic DoubleTree standard and our balcony view was the pool. The water pressure was much better here, but the drain was much slower. The breakfast and dinner buffet was pretty good with mostly Costa Rican food and a bit of Italian. There were a ton of flies around the fruit bowls… All inclusive means COCKTAILS too! There are 2 pool bars and 1 outside of the pool. It was a relaxing time being able to sit in the cool water with a drink in hand. Don’t lose your towel or you will be charged 20 USD.
Pokemon Go: There was a Snorlax by the pier around 9 PM but it started to thunderstorm, Kevin didn’t want to venture outside to capture it for me. Some other sightings include Scyther, Weedle, Nidoran, and Pidgey.
Hotel San Bada (Puntarenas)
This hotel’s location is perfect to visit the Manuel Antonio National Park (literally next door) and the nearby beaches (3 minute walk away). The stay was very comfortable and the breakfast included was much better than the DoubleTree All Inclusive. The staff here try to make sure you are having an enjoyable experience and call to check in if anything can be improved. The toiletries provided smelled so nice, I wish I had a small plastic bag to take the unfinished soap bars home.
The WiFi is terrible.
DoubleTree (Heredia @ San Jose)
This stay was really to be near the airport. It’s close to the highway and had a few shops nearby: 3-4 restaurants and a supermarket. This hotel design was very cute! It felt like a tree house since the hallway was out in the open (no walls). The room was very spacious and perfect for repacking our luggages.
Pokemon Go: Eevee, Ekans, Eggecute, Weedle
Casado Typico (typical plate)
This is a dish that you can find almost anywhere in Costa Rica. This consists of gallo pinto (arroz con frijoles aka rice and beans), salad, platon aka plantain, and a main: pollo (chicken), carne (beef), carne en salsa (beef that is stewed and in strips most of the time), pescado (fish – this was not as often in our trip).
The best place to have this dish is at a Soda, which is a local Costa Rican eatery (I won’t use the word restaurant here since some are wide open with no doors or walls – only the kitchen is blocked off). The people working at Sodas don’t really know English well. Some have menus (due to more tourism) and some have the menu on a chalkboard on the wall.
Summary: 🍚 + 🐔 + 🍌 + 🌱 = 💕
La Fortuna @ Arenal Volcano Area
Instead of eating at the hotel, which was very pricey, we drove ~20 minutes to the nearest town. We tried the following places:
Soda Hormiga – this is right by the bus station and by far, the best casados typicos we had on our trip. There are no walls at this joint. The menu is on the wall, in Spanish and English. There are flies all around. The bathroom is meh. But the food is so good. The rice and beans is flavorful, the carne (beef) was perfectly stewed, and the chicken was delicious and not dry. This will be the best 2,000 CRC you spend. And drinks are 500 CRC.
Soda Viquez – this joint is clean and also open without walls. We thought the food here was good until we went to the Soda mentioned above. For 2,300 CRC + 600 CRC for a drink, this was an enjoyable meal. The store owner knows a few English phrases and was very friendly.
In this area, you will also find pizza joints, a vegetarian joint, smoothie shop, ice cream spots, fried chicken, and empanadas. There is a little park here across from the church and a post office (that we couldn’t find).
Restaurant El Novillo del Arenal – this was much closer to Tabacon hotel & resort and we stopped here since it was raining pretty heavily. The steak (12,100 CRC / 22 USD) and burger (8,000 CRC / 14 USD) was just perfect. The prices were higher than the local Sodas. They gave us really delicious garlic buttered toast and a second helping 🙂 . TripAdvisor
Chocolate Fusion – chocolate tastings, yum! It was so rich with 70% cocoa and there were also assorted pieces with different flavors. The gelato was blah and the cones were stale—so avoid that. TripAdvisor
Life House Organic Restaurant – owned by someone from British Islands, their restaurant is probably the most English language friendly I saw on the entire trip. Their breakfast is 3 USD and there is happy hour for 4 USD. We had a iced ginger sugar cane drink which was really good. The owner is awkward. TripAdvisor
Manuel Antonio area
This place is full of restaurants. The prices range, depending on which part of the beach you are near. We were at the top, so restaurant prices were pretty much all the same. There was also an Italian and Latin restaurant.
Restaurante and Sports Bar El Sol – casado typico con carne was bleh. The beef was like a hamburger, except not juicy and very overcooked. It was not worth the 7,000 CRC / 13 USD. The mahi mahi was delicious! We were surprised to see broccoli served with the dish, haha. TripAdvisor
Down the mountain path, you can finder other options. There are a ton of hostels in the area, which means more affordable dining options.
Drinks & Smoothies
Guanabana / soursop fruit – try this! We had this as a juice on our second night at a buffet and were hooked. We kept looking for it at Soda shops. It is very sweet and tastes like a mixture of pineapple and strawberry with a tangy coconut smell. We didn’t eat the actual fruit since we didn’t stop by any fruit stands. Try it and let me know what you think. 😊
Granadilla – we saw this fruit at the Tabacon resort buffet dinner. Trying local fruit is awesome 🙂 . The staff told us to peel it like an orange since it’s pretty soft. Inside was a bunch of seeds covered in sweet goo. This fruit requires a lot of patience since it takes time to suck off the sweet goo from the seeds. It’s very good but we didn’t finish it (hot springs time!).
Smoothies – these drinks are on almost all menus and have the option of blending with water or milk. At local Sodas, we saw prices as low as 500 CRC! Since it’s super humid in Costa Rica, refueling with a smoothie is the best.