COSTA RICA

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Arenal (left) and Cerro Chato (right) in the background

Arenal (left) and Cerro Chato (right) in the background

 
View from the Cerro Chato hike 

View from the Cerro Chato hike 

 
La Fortuna waterfall 

La Fortuna waterfall 

Arenal/La Fortuna  

Things to do:

  • Cerro Chato (mountain to the right in the picture to the left): There are two entrances to the extinct volcano next to Arenal—one is through the national park, and the other is through Arenal Observatory. The trail through the Observatory is about 4-5 hours long, and includes long segments of paved walkways. The one through the national park is about 4-5 hours if you just go to Chato, 5-6 hours if you include the Old Lava trail, and is very rugged. We chose to go through the national park, and were very pleased with the trails.
    • NOTE: This is a very challenging trail, particularly when wet. Be prepared before you go, and bring lots of water. 
  • Mistico Hanging Bridges: Navigate through 3.2km of gardens and rainforest across trails and 16 suspension bridges hanging in the canopy of the rainforest. This easy hike/walk takes you up close and personal with the tree tops of the rainforest, and offers stunning views of the trees and plants in the rainforest. Entry fees are about $16/person.
  • Hot Springs: There are several different resorts in the area that offer hot springs in a luxurious setting, including Baldi, Eco Termales, and Tabacon. Entry to the resorts ranges in price and inclusivity, but you can expect to pay at least $35/person. For those of you who want to experience the hot springs, but don’t want to pay a fee, you can drive just past Tabacon towards Arenal Volcano and join the locals in a hot river. The river is basically the end of the stream that supplies Tabacon with its hot spring source, and scores of locals will go sit and play with picnics, families, and friends. You’ll be able to tell where the entrance is by the food vendors outside and the dozens of cars parked along the road. 
  • La Fortuna Waterfall (pictured bottom left): Be prepared to hike down (and then up on your way back) a LOT of stairs to get to the waterfall, but know that it is well worth it! The falls are beautiful, and a great place to go swimming on a hot day. Entry fees are about $15/person.
  • Arenal Observatory: As stated in the restaurants section, this is both an activity and a restaurant. On a cloudless day you can clearly see Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano from the huge glass windows, and word has it you can sometimes see lava flowing down the volcano’s slopes at night. This is also one of the entrances to Cerro Chato’s hike, but I cannot speak to the trails as we chose to enter through the national park. Entrance fee is $10/person.  
  • Tico Wind: This is about an hour and a half around Lake Arenal from La Fortuna, but if you are interested in wind or kite surfing it is without a doubt the place to be. You can bring your own gear, rent, take a lesson, or sit on the beach and watch. The winds here are strong, and perfect for avid wind/kite surfers, but may be a little too intense for beginners.

Where to eat and drink

  • La Parada: Very local, traditional restaurant, and it’s super inexpensive—we got a tico (typical) breakfast with rice and beans, eggs, plantains, toast, and fruit. If you’re looking for something low cost without a lot of flair, this place is for you.
  • Pollo Fortuneño: Mostly outdoor seating arrangements, this restaurant is very little, very full of character, and very popular with locals. The dishes are inexpensive, delicious, and in HUGE quantities. Come full and be sure to get one of their signature baked chicken dishes!
  • Arenal Observatory: This is really an activity and a restaurant, and I would not recommend going unless the skies are cloudless and you get there with plenty of time before sunset. They have good deals for guests of the associated hotel. Food and drink are much more expensive than in town, but for the view that it offers of the volcano it would probably be worth it on the right day. 
  • Lava Rocks: Costa Rican food with an American twist. This restaurant is a little bit more touristy, and kind of feels like a sports bar. The food and service were good, prices were moderate, and they had a long drink menu. Good place to watch bull fighting (a national pass time here).
  • Soda Mima: Little hole in the wall with a big character! We went for breakfast and had great omelets, desayuno tico, and coffee. If you go, be sure to draw a picture that represents your journey to add to the growing travelers wall!
 
Beaches of Manuel Antonio 

Beaches of Manuel Antonio 

Manuel Antonio

Things to do: 

  • Manuel Antonio National Park: A little expensive for tourists ($3 for residents, $18 for non-residents), but it is well worth it. You can spend an entire day here hiking to over looks, taking a nature tour, or sitting on the beach. No need to hire a guide before you get to the park (even though you’ll be propositioned a dozen times). There are plenty of guides at the park to point out the distinct wild life for you, or you can just walk through the park and stop whenever you see a crowd of people! We saw more animals here than anywhere else on our trip including howler, squirrel, and white faced monkeys, two- and three- toed sloths, huge iguanas, deer, and all sorts of birds. Beaches are a beautiful place to sit out or swim, but be sure to keep an eye on your bags and not leave them close to the tree line. The monkeys will go through them and take your things, and can be aggressive when you try to get them back.
  • Quepos Farmers Market: Small in size, but big in character. This is a great display of all the different kinds of foods produced in the area, as well as an opportunity to get hand crafted items. Lots of vendors sell prepared foods as well as produce, so come hungry!

Where to eat: 

  • Note: Pretty much all the restaurants in Manuel Antonio are for tourists. If you want an authentic experience head into Quepos—about 10 minute drive away.
  • Tiquicia: This Quepos restaurant was exactly what we were looking for. Big plates, traditional food, and pretty cheap. We ate way more than we needed for a very good price, and had enough left over for a full meal the next day. Patacones were served with pulled pork, which was the first we’d seen, and we really enjoyed it.
  • Hawg N’Bill: A touristy take on a Costa Rican seafood restaurant. Staff is very friendly, they have 2 for 1 cocktail specials, and the seafood platters are truly massive! Very fresh and yummy.
 
Tarzan Swing at 100% Adventure 

Tarzan Swing at 100% Adventure 

Monte Verde   

Things to do:

  • Kinkajou Night Walk: This was an excellent tour lead by a very informed, and sharp eyed, guide. We saw more animals on this tour than we had in the week we’d been in Costa Rica prior! We saw sloths, tarantulas, tucans, green pit vipers, a kukajuo, olingo, tree frogs, an armadillo, and more. 2.5 hours for about $25 per person (you can get a discount if you book ahead of time through your hotel or pay with cash).  
  • 100% Adventura Zip-Line: One of my absolute favorite things we did on this trip. This tour takes you across 9 zip-lines, including two “superman” glides, has the longest glide in Latin America at 2km long, and offers an optional “Tarzan Swing.” The staff was very friendly and helpful, and the views were unbelievable. I highly recommended this for all ages!

Where to eat and drink: 

  • Pollo Asado: As the name suggestions, this is a chicken restaurant just off the main strip. We had great food, huge portions, and friendly service.
  • Taco Taco: If you go to only one restaurant while you’re here, it should be Taco Taco. I’m not exaggerating when I say these are the best tacos I have had in my life. The flavor combinations and the fresh quality of all the food cannot be beat, and you will find yourself craving these for weeks to come! It's often closed for dinner, so make sure you go before 5pm, and don’t forget to try their assorted salsas.  
  • Don Juan Choco Café: Chocolate and coffee are two staple crops of this area, so you’ll definitely want to try both before you go. Don Juan’s is at the top of a pretty steep hill, but don’t let that deter you! The chocolates come in a variety of interesting and delicious flavors, and the coffee is excellent. We didn’t get a chance to try it, but their breakfast looked incredible!
 
Sabana Park 

Sabana Park 

 
Irazu Volcano

Irazu Volcano

San Jose 

Things to do: 

  • Sabana Park (left): Absolutely beautiful park where you can grab great food from vendors, go skating, walk, bike, ride horses, or relax in the grass. Highly recommend spending at least a couple hours here.
  • Visit the National Museum: It was closed while we were there, but it was beautiful from the outside, and I hear great things about the internal museum.
  • El Museo de Oro: A very interesting look at the lives of indigenous Costa Ricans before they were conquered by the Spanish, their lives during the conquest, and the intricate goods they made. Tons of beautiful, delicate gold pieces to see, and really interesting look at Costa Rican history.
  • Irazu Volcano (pictured left, bottom): Irazu is about 45 minutes outside of the city, and if the day is clear it is well worth the drive. The volcano is extinct and you can see the lake that has formed in its crater, hike through volcanic ash, and get an incredible view from the top. Most people park pretty close to the crater, but you can hike up past it to an overlook about a 15-20 minute walk up. Entrance is about $15 per person.

Where to eat and drink: 

  • Escolante: You really can’t go wrong with a restaurant in this neighborhood. Off the corner of Calle 33 and Avenida Central, this is San Jose’s gastro district. Here are a few of the many places you can eat there:
    • Costa Rica Beer Factory: Great place to get a local or imported beer, especially if you are with a big group. Tons of people there all the time, with a fun atmosphere, and lots of yummy Costa Rican style bar bites.
    • La Luna Rosa: If you’re looking for upscale Costa Rican food, this is the place for you. The dishes are nicer than what you would get in a soda, but have a distinctly Costa Rican flare. The staff was very friendly and helped us pick through some of the best and most traditional dishes on their menu.
    • Puro Peru: Owned by two brothers who immigrated from Peru, this was the absolute best food we had in Costa Rica. The brothers were incredibly personable and friendly. They walked us through what the best dishes were on the menu, where their inspiration for them came from, and the history of the dishes in their home country. We had a savory Lomo Saltado with hints of citrus, Aji Gallina with an incredible milky, sweet flavor, and wonderful Pisco Sours. One of the pricier places we ate, but it was definitely worth it. I will be sure to stop here again!
  • La Bruja: This is technically in Escazu, just outside the city, but it is well worth the Uber. This is a very traditional, local restaurant with very few tourists and makes for a really good time. There is a petting zoo, trampoline, and swing set out back, the food is incredibly good, and comes in huge portions. If you’re looking for an authentic meal, this is the place to go.

Where I stayed: 

  • Casa 69: I stopped in San Jose twice, and both times I stayed here and loved it. The rooms were nice, it was in a very central part of town, was incredibly inexpensive, staff was great, and there was breakfast in the morning. It's not the Ritz, but I loved it and would definitely stay again! (Tip: book through Airbnb or Trip Advisor to compare prices and get a discount!) 

Foods to Try:

  • While I have listed some of my favorite restaurants above, you really cannot beat the street food in Costa Rica. My favorite foods (with the exception of our dinner at Puro Pero) were all street foods. We tried everything from empanadas, to ceviche, to tacos, and arroz con leche and were never disappointed. This is the time to be adventurous with what and where you eat!

  • "Sodas" are café-like restaurants that often serve the cheapest, most traditional, and delicious foods. We sought them out whenever possible. 

  • Tip is included in the cost of your meal. There is no need to leave additional tip unless you feel you have had exceptional service. 

  • Coffee and coco beans are local to the area, which makes for absolutely incredible cups of coffee and chocolates. I drank and ate as much as I could during my trip!

General Info:

  • Do not feed the wildlife, no matter how cute, how tempting, or how many other people are doing it. Introducing a new food to a wild animal’s diet can be incredibly bad for it, and could cause it to become sick, sometimes to the point of death. It also encourages animals to return to more heavily trafficked areas, particularly roads, and can lead to increased numbers of road kills. Feeding the animals can also cause them to become more aggressive to humans, as they are accustomed to being fed. This can lead to injury, or in our case a ransacked bag and chewed through water bottle.

  • Many of the most beautiful places are privately owned. Be prepared to pay steep fees to access parks, hikes, and other natural areas.

  • When you go to an ATM, you have the option of withdrawing “Dollars” or “Colones.” You can typically use either when paying for things in Costa Rica. 

  • Many places will also assign an unwritten “Gringo Tax” to the cost of an item or activity. However, bargaining is not often tolerated. Just be prepared to pay a little more than you may anticipate for items!

Safety Tips: 

  • Costa Rica is relatively safe, but normal "be smart in new places" rules apply. Don't wander around by yourself at night in unfamiliar areas, keep your valuables in your sight, ask your hotel/hostel/Airbnb host which areas to avoid at night. 

Transportation in Costa Rica:

  • “Rules of the road” are very loosely defined, and you’ll see cars constantly attempting to pass each other in unsafe ways. Be very cautious when walking along the road if there is no sidewalk, and try to avoid walking on the inner curve if you think cars coming along it won’t be able to see you.

  • Use Uber whenever possible. Knowing your price ahead of time is very good for gringos, as you are most likely going to get ripped off by a Pirate Taxi if you don’t know how much it should cost to get from A to B. For example, we paid $25 to a Pirate Taxi to get from the airport to San Jose the first time. The second time we made the trip we took an Uber and it cost $10.  

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