The Caribbean is full of popular tourist destinations, but for those looking for true adventure, beautiful Costa Rica offers tons of options for all ages. Today’s guest contributor, Whitney Rider, is giving us the low down on some great places to find active travel in Costa Rica. And don’t worry – there’s plenty of time for relaxing by the beach!
Understandably, many travelers head to Costa Rica for the beaches and the surf. It’s “Rich Coast,” in fact, extends nearly 1,300 kilometers, fronting both Pacific and Caribbean waters. But a few weeks of travel exposed us to a number of Costa Rica’s other attractive features, not least the ease of getting around, the hospitality of the locals, and a diversity of activities to suit all types – from endless sun bathing to jam-packed adrenalin seeking.
Our own trip started with a flight to the capital, San José. Prior to arrival, we had received numerous warnings about pickpockets and other tourist theft in San José (we did experience one incident, more on that later), and the particularly common pitfall of being cheated by taxi drivers at the airport. Do find the airport’s official taxi stand to avoid this minor hassle. Also, if you are not staying at a major hotel, do get “local directions” from your host in addition to the formal street address. Local directions will sound something like “in Neighborhood X, the hotel next to the Farmacia California, across from the Tiki bar beside Restaurante Josefina.” I belatedly realized it wasn’t my bad accent confounding our driver, it was the fact that many drivers don’t know formal addresses because half the time there are no street signs! A quick call from the driver to the hotel cleared this up (note: keep phone numbers available).
San José, the capital, is useful mainly as a launching pad to other destinations. The central bus station, aka Coca-Cola, though crowded and confusing at first, is quite efficient and the well appointed, nation-going buses that depart from there (with assigned seating) are a clean, comfortable, and inexpensive way to get to many major ports of call should you desire to take the less touristy route. That said, if you have time there, there are a few attractive city parks and a kind of interesting central pedestrian mall that starts out as fashion row and winds up as a meat market, literally.
English is spoken well and widely, but any attempt at even basic Spanish will earn you significant bonus points and considerations. It will also increase the likelihood you get off at the appropriate bus stop!
For our first leg, however, we arranged for a shared Interbus shuttle to transport us to Monteverde, a mountainous region known for its cloud forests. We based this decision on 1. the fact that we would have little need of a car for days at a time in each of our stops, and 2. my initial hesitation to rely on my Spanish to get to around. Private and shared shuttles run frequently amongst Costa Rica’s popular destinations and aside from the unfortunate over-sharing tendencies of one family on one leg of the trip, we found them timely, convenient, and both drivers and passengers were often good sources of additional information on our target destinations.
When planning your travel, do pay attention to the suggestions of your guide book or local hotel staff regarding travel times. While Costa Rica’s main highways are well maintained, certain local roads conditions can be poor, making distances deceiving.
We had heard devilish things about the road to Monteverde: ruts, car-sickness, rained-out roads, etc. Though this only applied to the last 1.5 hours of the trip, by the time we arrived at Monteverde Lodge and Gardens we were ready to crash. Fortunately the Lodge has its own restaurant and a Jacuzzi, both of which will ease your arrival pains. And awakening to our very own sloth outside the bedroom window certainly kicked things off smartly!
Start exploring Monteverde with a tour of the Cloud Park reserve.
We had planned a self-guided tour, but happily for us, the concierge at the Lodge recommended we ask at the park if any ranger-guides were available on our arrival. Our guide, Sergio was a veritable font of information. Also, without Sergio, I think we would have seen exactly… nothing. Much of the walk went like this:
“Do you see that walking stick insect?”
“Oh, that walking stick that you are pointing to? Of course.”
“See that bird?”
“What bird?” (We see a wall of earth)
“That bird, in the hole, underneath the branch there.”
“Oh, that hole three feet from my nose? There’s a bird in there?”
“See that other hole?”
“Yes!” (reaching towards the hole) “Where’s the bird?”
“That’s a tarantula hole.”
You get the point. Take a guide. In addition to actually seeing the flora and fauna you have traveled here to see, you can learn about exploding pollen sacks, alcoholic beetles, and the so-called “hot-butt pollinators” (one tree exudes a sticky, pepper-imbued pollen that adheres to animals’ rumps, inducing a burning sensation and a lot of bottom shimmying (i.e. pollinating) around the forest. See the value of an educational tour?).
Next up was a zip-line canopy tour complete with a Tarzan swing. After the safety talk, which included warnings about dedos (fingers – as in, don’t cut them off), cabeza (head – as in, keep your helmet on it), and pies (feet – as in, don’t ram them into me when you get to the landing platform), we were ready for a serious scare-fest. In reality, zip-lining is a rather lovely and relaxing, if speedy, way to check out life above the canopy. The swing, on the other hand, produced some bona fide shrieking. Thankfully, it moves too fast to capture a good picture.
Amongst other treats, you can complete a round-up of Monteverde with trips to:
- The Ranarium, a frog zoo, where you will learn that amongst Costa Rica’s incredible number of frog and toad species, nearly all of Monteverde’s frogs probably, or might be, at least “kind of” poisonous. So just don’t touch any. (They do take cute pictures though)
- Catarata San Luis, a day-hike that cannot be recommended for everyone. Though the waterfall is more impressive than expected, and the final stretch of trail a fun exercise in modest bouldering, the first (and last) 4 kilometers follow an insanely steep camp road – very hot and only modestly scenic. We did, however, see a family of six white-faced monkeys when we stopped to catch our breath under the guise of “letting the animals come to us,” as Sergio had taught us. Some folks hike there (downhill) and taxi back. Smart move.
- Monteverde’s Ecological Sanctuary, which offers a night tour. A particular favorite of this hike was witnessing the virtual freeway of “jeep beetles,” so called because of the two lights in its tail that, while traipsing around in the dark, make it look like a little jeep cruising down the highway.
The next leg of our trip begins with a shuttle ride to Tamarindo, a beach-side town that feels hot and hyper-populated compared to Monteverde. But our door-to-door service drops us in front of Hotel Flores, an adorable place with about 7 rooms and a dipping pool, off the main drag and we find a cafe with lovely refrescos to cool off seaside.
Kick off your time in Tamarindo with some ocean fishing. In the wee hours of the morning, we meet up with another couple to stalk the wily sailfish. Though we crisscross the seas like treasure seekers for half a day, we did not catch any fish. We did see dolphins, an enormous ray, lots of birds, and off in the distance, one sailfish. It was still a lovely way to spend the morning and we returned to port just in time to beat the rain.
A PSA about rain: Rain in Costa Rica comes in many forms. Brief, cooling showers. Crashing evening thunderstorms. In Tamarindo, any lengthy rain turns the roads into rivers. Now, even rain is cool when it’s blowing the ocean around, however, squelching down what had been the main road on the way to dinner, I hated to think what was running in that water … Little did I know! After an evening of being violently ill a local woman told me that the poor sewage systems cause significant waste runoff and one should avoid wear rubber waders when walking through such water. Let my experience be your lesson!!
Having recovered from the Costa Rican equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge, we tackle Tamarindo’s other water-going activities. First up, ocean kayaking. Go early and pick a rental place close to the beach. Kayaks are snapped up quickly for guided morning estuary tours and you will likely be hauling your own (heavy) kayak from shop to sea. In an few hours you can paddle through the estuary, where the current will carry you along at a tranquil pace, and, paddling much more seriously, against the tide, explore the closest island, a tiny bump of rocks littered with perfect conch shells and disturbed only by the sound of the wind, the waves, a few snoring sun bathers, and the scuttling of baby crab.
Next explore the less touristy beach at Playa Conchal, one town over (a local taxi will drop-off and pre-arrange a pick up). Though the water conditions can be unpredictable for snorkeling, they are generally ripe for body surfing or a quick power swim, and you may have substantial stretch of beach all to yourself for a picnic and nap. The friendly neighborhood bar, though kitschy, also feels more like a local watering spot than a tourist trap.
Finally, surfing, something we’d both done exactly once before. Let’s just say that compared with a beginner experience in Hawaii, this was a whole new ball game. After 90 minutes of flailing and a few unladylike expressions, I managed to stand up long enough to begin to understand the addiction. Absent several very sporty bruises, I might have been persuaded to go again right away. But instead we packed our trailmix and water bottles and headed to Jacó.
Jacó is one of Costa Rica’s fastest growing tourist stops, primarily because of its long and consistent waves. Consequently, it has a more developed ecosystem of hotels, restaurants, and other amenities (like car rental agencies, grocery stores, and combined Spanish-language/surfing classes). There is also a more substantial residential community. The beach attracts both tourists and locals and makes for interesting people watching. Besides the inevitable sunbathers, surfers, snack-peddlers, and beach soccer, we saw 4-wheeler tours, sunset horseback riding, and one surf instructor practicing head stands on the board.
For those looking for more of a private resort environment, Playa Hermosa, a mere 5 km down the main highway, features a strand of hotels book-ended by two restaurants and a very long stretch of black sand beach. A much quieter scene, Playa Hermosa hosts a lot of family foursomes and talented teenage surfers and is still a quick jaunt to Jacó for restaurants or day-trip expeditions for more zip lining, waterfall tours, or bird watching.
Having survived several weeks in country and modestly improved my Spanish, we decide to test our luck and the local bus system with a trip to Manuel Antonio, one of the smallest but most biodiverse national parks in Costa Rica.
Boarding the bus, our tickets were inspected and cleared, a good indication you are on the right bus, and a driver’s assistance/baggage claim attendant is on hand to ensure folks are in their assigned seats. This is comparatively luxurious bus riding. We even departed a few minutes early (so don’t be late)! The main bus runs to the town of Quepo, where you will switch to a local bus for the 20-minute trip to the park itself. The local buses run roughly every half hour. Only 90 minutes southeast of Jacó, if you leave early, you can view the park in a long day trip.
Given its small size and well-marked trails, you can easily traverse Manuel Antonio on your own. Of course, you can also discreetly pause near any stopped tour groups and pick up a bit of insider info from the rangers as well. Otherwise, meander at will and enjoy the four beaches where the forest grows right down to the hide tide line (including the dainty La Playita beach which is inaccessible at high tide), 12 isles, and nearly 300 species of mammals. As it was the end of our trip, we chose to overnight in Manuel Antonio town to enjoy a more relaxed timeline and take advantage of a sunset swim at the scenic and popular public beach in town (the park closes at 4:00) and drink our fill of refrescos before heading home.
Now, about that one fleecing incident. For business reasons, my husband and I were departing on different flights a day apart. After weeks of delightfully hospitable and scrupulously honest procurers everywhere we went, our cab fare, in an “official” taxi no less, was suddenly doubled upon arrival at the airport. Having brought exactly enough cash for me to get back to town and my husband to pay the exit tax, I argued over the fare in broken Spanish, but our driver rattled off something about tariffs and rightly assumed that, being tight for time, we were not going to tackle him for our change.
However, the ending is more interesting. Returning to town, I quizzed my new driver on how much it should have cost to get to the airport and what mysterious tariff might apply (hint: none). My driver proved more incensed than I about the matter and asked for the taxi number, which, in impotent frustration I had, in fact, noted. Two hours later, the hotel doorman knocked on my room and handed me my change from the cab company. He said negative experiences were bad for tourism. You can’t get that kind of responsiveness just about anywhere. The next morning I spent the change on tips for the doorman and my (very upstanding) taxi driver. It, like the rest of the trip, was more than well spent.