Hello from Costa Rica! We hit the ground here and instantly began exploring along with slacking on our blogging. The beach has been calling too often.
We began our journey in Costa Rica by renting a car and heading North to the Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna and Monteverde. In these northern mountains we explored, hiked and saw an amazing array of animals. We then worked our way to the northern Pacific coast to enjoy the Costa Rican beaches. We’ve made four main stops along the way: Playa Hermosa, Playa Grande, Playa Samara and Playa Dominical/Uvita.
Our adventure actually began in San Jose where we stayed at a nice big house (airbnb) for a few nights to get our feet under us before setting out into the jungle. Plus, we didn’t have an action plan for Coast Rica so we took a day for planning. San Jose is a big, dirty city, which we learned by venturing into it one day; so to all you fellow travelers: don’t spend much time here. After a rough itinerary was nailed down we hit the road. We rented a car for a month, and by car I mean a cheap basic Suzuki 4×4 that could get us around the country. It’s done well so far except once.
On our way north, we pit stopped at a large coffee plantation, Doka Estate Coffee, for a coffee tour. We had a really fun time on the coffee tour learning about the plantation and coffee. Did you know it takes three years for a coffee bush to produce coffee? And plants then produce coffee beans for thirty years. Also, we learned that if a coffee bean sinks during the first selection (in a big tank of water) it is good and if it floats it is bad and is sold as cheap coffee on the market. It was our first time going through a full tour of a plantation, and it was neat to understand how the oldest wet mill in Costa Rica worked.
Next stop was Vulcan Poas where we stayed the night at a quaint little place, slightly out dated, but that makes sense because it has been closed for 15 years and it just reopened! It was great location to the volcano that we were going to hike in the morning, but eerily remote. We woke to the volcano Poas covered in clouds so it wasn’t worth the hike (or admission fee – everything in Costa Rica has an admission fee) because of the absent view. So, instead, we spent the day at La Paz Waterfall Gardens which was amazing! We stayed over 4 hours exploring the trail along a river (getting a rainy morning run in), checked out the animal exhibits, fed toucans out of our hands, held a snake, ate lunch and saw all the waterfalls. This was a really well run wildlife refuge — most all of the animals were once “pets” that were taken in when the owners either abandoned them or were caught with the illegal animals. The guide book said we should plan on 2 hours, we soaked it in and stayed for 4+ because we really enjoyed it.
As we continued north toward La Fortuna we stopped for a dip at Termales del Bosque (hot springs) in the afternoon. It was secluded, clean and well worth the admission price. Not real touristy at all (a real “tico” place – local Costa Ricans are called Ticos), a lovely and relaxing break in our drive for about an hour and a half. We enjoyed our first cocktail in over a month — a swim up bar and a piña colada! The pools temperatures were staggered, and it’s recommended to start in the coolest one and work your way up to the 41 degree pool (Celsius, of course)
We arrived in La Fortuna in time for dinner. We choose a local soda and ordered some casado plates. Sodas are small, locally owned Costa Rican restaurants that serve the typical CR dishes like casado which is chicken/fish/beef with fried plantains, rice, black beans, sometimes an egg and a tortilla. Delicious and cheap! Our accommodation at La Fortuna was really remote, yet comfortable. It overlooked Arenal Lake, the volcano and was next to a zip-linning adventure company. In the morning we set out to hike Cerro Chato at the Arenal Observatory. Cerro Chato is actually an old extinct volcano that’s directly next to Arenal. While the weather report stated it would be clear and 88, it was overcast with a few showers around the volcanoes. During our muddy and steep hike we saw a toucan and great curassow birds and found some huge pine needles that my mom could put to use in basket making. We also chose to venture down into the crater to dip our feet in the crater lake water, also to rest. It was a steep climb back up and a muddy adventure back down the cerro. After the hike that ended in a downpour of warm rain, we went to the Observatory for a beautiful sunset and some red wine. It was a cozy lodge stye observatory where we stayed another hour to have dinner.
The next day we traveled to Caño Negro wildlife refuge to see an array of wild animals. We traveled via boat down a river and observed caimen (like alligators), a few different white cranes, king fisher birds, turtles, iguanas, lizards (incl Jesus lizard), white face capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, bats, lung fish, howler monkeys and lots a other cool birds. It was hot, but the fun surroundings and the breeze of the boat felt great. This was an experience that we really enjoyed, and having our own car and being on our own schedule was very enjoyable. Unlike the tour bus, we were able to stop at a local fruit stand and pick ripe bananas right off the stem! This was also where I started developing an addiction to the delicious pineapple that grows extremely well and is cheap in Costa Rica. Later that night we had happy hour wine and ate dinner at the Observatory (yes, again, this place was both convenient and good), yet before dinner we went on a short walk and ran into a few more monkeys in the trees. They were playful and very cute, one even had a baby on her back! Lucky us.
Monteverde & Santa Elena (cloud forest)
On our drive northwest from La Fortuna to Santa Elena we stopped for a swim in Lake Arenal. It felt great to be in the water on a warm day when we had a long drive ahead. After an hour of swimming and some lunch we traveled 30 long, dusty, bumpy kilometers on a rocky dirt road to Santa Elena, Monteverde.
The first day we ventured to a cloud forest tour with a great guide, Esteban on the Curi Cancha reserve. The tour was almost 3.5 hours long and definitely worth the price. We saw quetzal birds, vipers, tarantulas, humming birds, cow birds and oropendolas were the highlights. We also learned about the parasitic fig tree and got to climb one. Our tour guide was amazing and taught us all about each animal. Will managed to tell him that, “Jenny just loves birds”, in which I am impartial but went with the joke as our guide pointed out every bird to me. Funny time. I went on an hour run around the entire reserve after the tour to take advantage of the nice trails. It felt like I had the place to myself until I came face to face with a deer. We stared at each other for a while before he wondered into the brush. I met up with Will at the hummingbird tree. After the tour we decided to make a quick stop at a famous Monteverde Cheese Factory for some ice cream, little did we know we’d regret the decision. After returning to our hostel after ice cream we noticed the camera bag was gone. No clue what happened to it, but we noticed the back lock on our car was popped and it was stolen. We ventured to the police station for a few hours to file a report. We struggled to work out the anger of having our nice camera, Patagonia messenger bag, a windbreaker jacket, our extra memory cards, credit card and Will’s PASSPORT stolen. What a headache and hassle. We are still dealing with the paper work and figuring out how to replace everything. The donation line is open and Will’s birthday is coming up…hint, hint. All joking aside, I wish this upon no traveler ever.
After the horrible day prior we needed some adventure that took our mind off our anger so we went to the largest zip lining course at 100% Adventura. It was a fun time zipping across the tree line and taking a leap off the Tarzan swing which is a free fall a few hundred feet into a swinging motion. Fun and terrifying. After the morning adventures we ate lunch at Taco Taco (best burritos in town!), Will got a much needed hair cut from the local barber that everyone seemed to know and recommend, and we ran a few errands. Later that evening we ventured on a night tour with our favorite guide, Esteban, to Santa Maria Reserve. The reserve is family owned and operated and spans 17 acres. Yet again, another successful tour that kept us on the go. Esteban quickly figured out we were tourists that wanted to see it all and we could move quickly if need be, so when an animal was spotted by a guide we ran after Esteban to catch a glimpse. By being quick and on a private tour we were able to see a porcupine in a tree, a three-toed sloth that I spotted, a raccoon, a huge female tarantula, a beautiful owl, leaf cutter ants and their massive hill, katydids, June bugs, fireflies, Hercules beetle, and a small sleeping Emerald Toucanet that despite the gusty wind was glued to it’s tree branch. That was the first time either of us had ever seen a sleeping bird! Or gone on a night tour through the jungle. We were equip with flash lights so we could see, but it was eerie being out in the rainforest at 9pm hunting for animals. So worth it and exciting.
In the morning we headed toward the coast as we were more than ready for some beach time. We stopped in the city of Liberia for lunch at a small cafe before arriving in on the northern Pacific coast. Liberia is the regional hub of the Costa Rican northwest and is the capital and largest city of Guanacaste province.
Pacific Coast: Playa Hermosa
We were greeted at Playa Hermosa by our Canadian expat airbnb hosts and their two playful rescue dogs. We instantly felt at home. We quickly unpacked, put on our suits and hit the beach. The water never felt so good. It was a humid 90 degree day and all we wanted to do was swim. We spent a few hours in the water, took a short beach run, ordered celebratory margaritas and fish tacos while we enjoyed our first beautiful Costa Rican sunset. We are truly lucky. We cooked fish for dinner at our airbnb and fell asleep soundly in separate double beds (our room was pretty big, and it was cooler to sleep separately).
We woke to a delicious breakfast from our host of fresh tropical fruit, banana bread, coffee and we also cooked up some eggs. Trainer Jenny was then unleashed on the beach for a solid hour workout that involved way too many lunges and ended with a swim. After resting and doing some planning, we went paddle boarding. Will negotiated us a great discounted rate for an hour and a half paddle. We paddled to a private beach, explored a bit, then paddled back with the wind in our favor. Later that evening we went to happy hour at a beach front bar to watch the sunset and invited our new friends, a swiss couple that were our airbnb neighbors, to join us. It was fun meeting another couple on a long trip and hearing about their adventures. They got us excited about New Zealand!
Another delicious fruit filled breakfast in the morning and we went on a hot beach run. We decided to go see the Rincon de la Vieja national park and our Swiss friends joined us. We had an eventfully bumpy drive that ended up being an extra hour do to google maps. We are now double checking out google gps every time we use it! We eventually made it to Rincon de la Vieja, which is called the Yellowstone of Costa Rica, with enough time for hiking. We hiked to the mud pots to see boiling mud and smelled enough sulfur to last us a while. It was crazy to see, knowing that the gasses being released were coming from the depths of our earth. Along the trail we met a german couple who became part of our group and were also on a long trip. We all got to know each other as we walked the hot trail back to our cars. When we got back we jumped in the ocean for a quick swim and joined all our new friends for dinner in Coco Beach. A great way to end the day.
Pacific Coast: Playa Grande
We said goodbye and safe travels to our new friends and headed south to another beach. We arrived after a lovely lunch at a Lebanese restaurant, La COQ, in Coco Beach and getting groceries where we stocked up since there is not too much in Playa Grande. When we saw Lebanese we had to stop because we missed the Lebanese restaurants back home and were craving falafels, pita bread and hummus. It hit the spot! After getting settled in our airbnb we went to the beach (of course) where we walked to the estuary between Grande and Tamarindo beaches. We were amazed at all of the auger shells we found all over the beach! Swimming near the estuary, I did a beach workout and we relaxed with a glass (err, water bottle) of white wine while watching the sunset on what seemed like a private beach. That night we cooked a meal of baked chicken with beats and carrots as a side. This is our usual favorite meal. That night we were awoken at 4am by a long and powerful thunderstorm that shook the whole house. The power blinked a few times while the thunders boomed for hours.
In the morning we went on a humid run followed by 2.5 hours of getting re-acquainted with surfing! Just out the beach access path, the shores were all to ourselves. We struggled at first and got tossed around in the salt water repeatedly, but caught on to the skills we had (back from our Hawaii days) and rode a few waves. We were exhausted after the few hours out in the water and rested that afternoon. That night we woke at 4am to another downpour and the closest we’ve been to lightening since Amatani island in Peru. It made us jump in bed a bit, but soon passed and we got a few more hours of sleep.
The next morning we woke, downed eggs and leftover fish tacos and then headed out for another session of surfing. Though tired, our technique was better today. We hope to keep improving over the next month or so. We set a goal of this and are pretty determined to do it. After surfing and getting tossed around in the water a bit we cooked up a good meal of pasta and chicken/sausage and then drove north to Playa Conchal. It has a small rocky area where the fish are abundant. They feed off the plants that grow attached to the reef which made it perfect for snorkeling. We saw so many brightly colored fish including a bright yellow puffer, eels, and an octopus. We swam around following these sea creatures around and observed how they lived. It reminded us of Hanauma Bay in Hawaii.
As I laid on the seashell beach and looked upon the spot we had been snorkeling for the past hour, I couldn’t see one fish. If someone told me there were thousands of fish there, I might not believe them. Until you put on the mask, the window to the sea, you don’t believe; but when you do, it’s quite amazing to see the diversity of life in such a small area. — Will
Next on the agenda was happy hour at Volcano Brewing in Tamarindo, which turned out to be a crowded beach with a small surf but lots of boarders trying to catch waves. We were glad we weren’t staying there since it was more crowded and seemed to be full of surf schools and bars. We took a sunset beach walk and decided to skip dinner out and cook at our quiet airbnb instead. More our style.
Our last day at Playa Grande we cooked up breakfast, Will took a beach walk and I did a workout video in the air conditioned room. We decided to surf for the third day in a row and rented from a great local shop, Frijoles Locos (crazy beans). Will rode an 8′ board and caught his first real wave! It was fun to watch! I on the other hand, got tossed on the biggest wave we saw and have a big bruise on my leg to prove it! It was fun none-the-less and relaxing being on the water and working to improve. After a few hours we called it good and went to rest. That afternoon we took a beach walk where we got dumped on with rain, cooked up Will’s infamous black bean burgers for dinner and called it an early night. That night… no 4am thunder wake up call which meant a restful nights sleep.
Pacific Coast:Playa Samara
After a beach run and good breakfast we packed up from Grande and drove a few hours south to Playa Samara. The owner of the airbnb also owned a vegan cafe restaurant called Luvburger so we met her there and ate lunch. Little did we know it would take over 45 mins to get our food. Hot and tired we quickly ate so we could settle into our new airbnb. The accommodations could have been nicer which made for a long three day stay. No air conditioning and dim lighting we hard to live with. We went for a beach walk and noticed more of a crowd since it happened to be a holiday weekend. We also noticed the surf and rip current were a lot stronger at this beach so surfing would be tougher. We cooked dinner in and had a hot nights rest.
We didn’t have much to do in Samara so we planned for a few hours in the morning and tried surfing in the afternoon. The surf was too big for my skill level and a little big for Will, however, on a 68″ board he caught his first wave after an hour of trying! Impressive. I was a bit frustrated from the surfing so I went for a long evening run and then we watched Theory of Everything, which is a very good film about Steven Hawking. You should see it if you haven’t. That night we took a full moon beach walk that was fun because the whole beach was lit up and no one was out.
Our final day we planned to go kayaking, but couldn’t because the waves were too big. We were a bit frustrated because we were bored and wanted to go do something. With nothing to do we did some planning while a heavy rain storm rolled in that afternoon. We drove to check out two other beaches in the rain — Buena Vista (a small private beach reached by wading through an estuary) and Playa Carillio (where the palm trees were planted in organized rows). Both beaches were a bummer since it was pouring rain and windy. That day I became quite down and homesick and looked up flight options back home. If I wasn’t having fun I might as well go enjoy people I love. Instead of paying a grand to fly home I sucked it up and did the one thing that always makes me feel better. Worked out. I took an aerobics fitness class at a local studio for $4. It was just what I needed to pick myself up. Will cooked a good dinner of our usual chicken with carrots, beets and sweet potatoes that hit the spot after my fitness class. We slept well, but were excited to move on from this beach. While in Playa Samara we learned a little about what makes us uncomfortable and what to avoid as we travel. We didn’t enjoy our stay and now recognize the factors (no a/c, crowded, bad host, etc.) that made me want to fly home. Good lesson learned!
Up Next… Central and Southern Pacific Coast
Coming soon to a blog post near you. Now, off to find adventure.