Traveler: Kat Calvitti
When: April 2017
Places visited: San Jose, Arenal, Monteverde, Playa Negra
Overall Experience: PURA VIDA! You’ll hear this phrase (translation: pure life/simple life) often and in so many different ways—to say hello, goodbye, cheers, etc! Costa Rica truly is pura vida! It’s a beautiful country that offers something for everyone—hiking, beach life, city vibes, etc, and allows you to escape your daily life for a simpler, peaceful way of life (even if it is only for vacation). The basis of my trip was to attend a friend’s wedding in Playa Negra so I traveled early to explore the country and I’m so glad I did. The people are very friendly and happy (pura vida isn’t just a phrase, it’s also a lifestyle) and most speak English so communicating wasn’t a problem, although it helped that I can speak a bit of Spanish. If you’re a dog lover (like myself), you’ll be in doggie heaven—there are friendly dogs EVERYWHERE!
Logistics: Roundtrip flight (Washington, DC (DCA) to San Jose, CR (SJO) was around $450, rental car was around $500 for one week, hotel rates varied by location. Most places accept credit cards and some will even accept US dollars; however, I recommend having colones, the local currency, as well.
Getting Around: I rented a car for the week since I like to travel without set plans—I enjoy having the flexibility of extending stays in cool towns or leaving a town early if I saw all that I wanted to see already. Be prepared to drive for a few hours to get anywhere you want to go. Although the distances may not seem far, it takes a long time to get anywhere due to the poor road conditions (most roads were unpaved and had giant potholes). I highly recommend renting an SUV to make the dirt roads a more bearable. Warning: Costa Rica mandates local insurance, which resulted in an additional $30/day charge for the rental. Check with your credit card company if your coverage is valid in Costa Rica and ensure all necessary documentation is obtained prior to your trip to avoid the additional insurance fees. This will result in an increased temporary hold on your credit card, but it will save you money.
If driving long distances on dirt roads isn’t your thing, there are public buses that provide service from San Jose to major attractions so you can sit back and relax along the journey. Many hotels offer transportation services as well, so be sure to check with your hotel upon booking. There are also taxis available in larger cities or you may hire a personal driver to shuttle you around (ask your hotel for recommendations).
Tip: If you rent a car, be sure to stop at the sodas along the way if you’re hungry! You’ll see signs for “comida tipica,” which is typical Costa Rican cuisine that is served at the sodas. If you want a large portion of food (rice, beans, meat, salad) at a small price—order the casado and you won’t be disappointed! Also ensure you have colones on hand—there are some toll roads that require cash (although the attendant should accept US dollars if you don’t have colones).
San Jose: The bustling capital city has a lot to offer—museums, parks, dining, etc. Avenida Central runs through the middle of San Jose, which includes about a 1km section for pedestrians only (don’t drive on this strip—I learned from experience). Shops and restaurants line both sides making this a busy and popular stretch of the city. I didn’t spend much time in San Jose because I was anxious to get to Arenal, but if you’re flying into San Jose it’s definitely worth checking out the downtown area, which is about 20-30 mins away from the airport! I stayed at Hotel Presidente (around $90/night)—the staff was amazing and it was conveniently located next to Avenida Central so I had a great view of the morning hustle from my window!
Arenal: The drive to Arenal from San Jose was about 3.5 hours. I stayed at Arenal Lodge (about $130/night), which is surrounded by rainforest and provides an amazing view of Arenal Volcano. Check out the property map to see the trails located on-site (guided tours are available for a fee). Definitely check out Danta Waterfall and Hanging Bridge—those are easy hikes and can be completed within an hour! I highly recommend hiking Cerro Chato Volcano—it’s about a 3-4 hour hike depending on your abilities. It’s a difficult hike (straight up; no switchbacks) and was quite muddy (you’re in a rainforest, remember?!), but the view of the lagoon at the top is amazing.
I hiked it alone at 7am (probably not my smartest idea), but I had the whole volcano and lagoon view to myself. Pura Vida! If time permitted, I would have continued down to the lagoon, but my friend and I wanted to drive to Monteverde before dark (the roads are scary enough in the daytime).
Monteverde: I heard there was quite a bit to see and do in Monteverde, such as the cloud forest, coffee tour and ziplines, so I was excited to get there! We stopped at the Visitor Center on our way into town to request information on various tours available. We scheduled a coffee/sugar/chocolate tour for the next morning, followed by a ziplining adventure. Tip: You can book excursions at the visitor center or through your hotel at no extra cost. After driving around town for a bit, we settled on spending the night at the Rustic Lodge ($75/night and they serve the best chicken caviar for breakfast) and booked a night walk tour in hopes of seeing nocturnal animals. The employees and owners were very friendly and enjoyed getting to know their guests over coffee.
The town of Santa Elena is adorable and walking distance from most hotels. The town has plenty of restaurants/bars to choose from for lunch and dinner (most hotels included breakfast). The Tree House is literally built around a tree—I recommend going for a drink, but you’ll have a better meal and service at one of the other restaurants in town (we ate at Torro Tinto and it was fabulous!).
- Night Walk: There are various tours to choose from, but we went on the Wildlife Refuge ($25) based on the recommendation from the hotel. You’re provided with a flashlight and a guide for the slow-paced walk on the trails to spot the wildlife. Our guide was absolutely amazing—he was beyond excited to find the creatures of the night and even more excited to tell us about them! We saw tree frogs, tarantulas, a scorpion (fun fact- if you shine a UV light on a scorpion, it glows), toucan, kinkajous, and green vipers!
- Don Juan tour: I highly recommend the Don Juan tour ($35) if you like coffee, sugar and chocolate! You’ll learn about the history and cultivation in an interactive way (samples included)! The tour lasted about 2 hours.
- Ziplining: There are also various options for ziplining in Monteverde, but we chose the Extremo canopy tour due to the price ($53) and number of platforms. The canopy tour also includes repelling, a tarzan swing and a superman cable! As a first time zipliner, I was grateful for the first few shorter platforms to get me acquainted with ziplining. Some of the cables were really long (over 3000 feet)—I’m pretty sure there were great views, but I think my eyes were closed for most of the trip! The tarzan swing was terrifying for me—I didn’t enjoy being pushed from a ledge and swinging freely through the trees, but the superman cable was awesome! I loved soaring through the rain forest and not having to worry about where my hands were or breaking (you have to pull on the cable to slow yourself down at the end of some cables)! The tour lasted about 3-3.5 hours. Warning: There is a lot of hiking to get to various platforms so if hiking isn’t your thing then this might not be the tour for you.
After ziplining we were going to start our drive to Playa Negra and asked Jose, the Rustic owner, if there were any towns to stay in that would get us about half way. He said there weren’t many options and recommended we stay in Monteverde one more night so we could go to the Cloud Forest in the morning. We booked a room at Hotel Tropico ($150/night), which is a newer hotel he owns. We were exhausted from all of our adventures and enjoyed a night of amazing cocktails and dinner at the restaurant on-site.
We also got a lovely driving tour of the town by one of the employees (my trips aren’t complete without getting in a car with a stranger) and learned a lot about the history of Monteverde—did you know Monteverde was founded by Quakers from the US whose values led them to defy the American draft before the Korean War? There is still a small Quaker presence in the area.
The next morning, we went to the Monteverde Cloud Forest ($20) for one last hike. We were excited to experience another hanging bridge; however, it was closed for repair. Instead, we hiked to La Ventana—the overlook situated on the continental divide. Unfortunately, it was quite foggy that morning and we missed out on some amazing views. The cloud forest also attracts birders since it’s a sanctuary for over 500 species.
Playa Negra: I was definitely ready for some r&r (and my friend’s wedding!) after days packed with adventure! We stayed at Hotel Playa Negra, which was the perfect way to end the trip. The hotel is located on the beach, which is considered a surfer’s paradise, and the rooms are spacious bungalows! We opted for the suite bungalow (which slept 4) because we wanted air conditioning (highly recommend). I had a great time unwinding at the pool and beach while sipping delicious cocktails.
The hotel restaurant had great food and amazing staff, but it was nice to head into town for meals too. There are great restaurants that are worth the walk or short drive (I recommend Jalepeno for lunch and Villa Deevena for dinner). We also went to Lola’s in Playa Avenella (15 minute drive from Playa Negra) to have lunch and hang out on the beach… my main interest was the pig who lives there, but the atmosphere was great! If you want to escape the direct sunlight there are plenty of palm trees and tables to sit at with umbrellas.
After a lovely long weekend at the beach, which capped off with my friend’s wedding, it was time to head back to San Jose for our flights. I was sad to leave my friends (old and new) and all the animals I befriended along the way, but I’ll cherish the memories we shared! Tip: if you’re mostly interested in visiting the beaches you may want to fly into Liberia, which is only about 1.5 hours away.