Sarada and I just spent a week in Costa Rica, and I thought it'd be nice to look back at the planning and how it turned out. We had an absolutely awesome time and would recommend the country to anyone, but we didn't start the planning process with Costa Rica on our radar.
We knew we wanted to do a bigger trip, but not something too crazy or expensive. We originally discussed a few domestic options (wine country or extended trip to NYC and the northeast were the leading contenders), and we had left room for an international option, but didn't really know what we could do or would want to do. So, one night I played around with Kayak Explorer and plugged in a budget around what it would take to get out to wine country. There were some Carribean options that didn't really interest me (I wanted more than just a beach vacation), some Mexican ones that didn't seem too exciting, and one or two in Central America.
Pretty quickly, I started to look into Costa Rica -- I had heard good things about the country and had known several friends who had either taken trips there or honeymoons. I knew the trips ranged from typical beach vacations to intense rainforest hiking, and I liked that we could have both options. After doing a little research and chatting with friends, we were sold. We knew we would be traveling during the first week of the Green Season, which had its benefits (cheaper and less crowded) but also its negatives (chance of getting afternoons washed out with storms); we decided it was early enough in the Season that we'd risk it and take a chance. Costa Rica would let us have a mix of hiking in nature, laying out in the beach, and exploring a developing country all at a reasonable price and with a relatively quick flight.
Now, it was time to figure out what we would do when we got there.
Beach and Mountains Planning
Figuring out an itinerary ended up being a lot easier than I anticipated. Since much of Costa Rica is still developing, there are really pretty defined areas that travelers stick to -- especially those that speak as little Spanish as we did ("uno mas Cerveza" was about the extent of my capabilities). Using recommendation sites and chatting with friends, we were able to discover that a common path from San Jose airport was to drive up into the mountains, straight over to the beach, or to combine those.
Since we would be there for 7 nights, we decided to combine the two and start by going north into the mountains and then west to the beaches on the Pacific side. We decided that since we live just a few hours from the beach and would be there the week before, we would spend 4 nights in the mountains and do 3 at the beach. This approach seemed like the best way to take advantage of the most unique Costa Rican aspects (rain forests, volcanoes, monkeys!).
We realized that the place we wanted to go in the mountains was Arenal Volcano and its surrounding town of La Fortuna. First, it's an active volcano, which is awesome. Second, it was right in the forest, which would let us take advantage of hiking and zip lining. Finally, there were a multitude of cool lodging options.
Deciding on a beach was a little harder. People always talk about Tamarindo; so, that was the first spot we looked into. While it looked like a fun town, there weren't many truly beach front properties, it seemed a little over developed and touristy, and it put more emphasis on nightlife than beach life. There are dozens of beaches on the Pacific side of the country, though, allowing us to start looking to try and find one that was the best fit. After narrowing it down to a few and torturing ourselves by reading every possible negative TripAdvisor review, we ended up deciding on Playa Flamingo. While I thought the name was a little silly, it boasted one of the prettier and more private beaches, had a decent size town nearby, and featured hotels that were right on the beach.
When deciding on which hotels to stay at, we relied heavily on TripAdvisor. I had never used the service too much, but it proved to be really helpful. From letting us look at hotels in certain price ranges to seeing pictures of the grounds to reading reviews from people who stayed there, it was an invaluable way to really get a feel for each property. The one downside was that every property seemed to have at least one extremely negative review, which always leaves you scared that you might be the next one. However, upon closer inspection, you could typically sense that review was left by an unpleasant person who had no plans on actually enjoying their stay. For example, several negative reviews would focus on seeing bugs or breakdown in communication with staff, seeming to miss the point that they were in the jungle of Costa Rica. Lonely Planet was also a good source of recommendations.
After a lot of TripAdvisor work, we made our decision. At Arenal, we would stay at Arenal Springs Resort. At the beach, we'd stay at Flamingo Beach Resort. Each location was locally managed and owned, accustomed to American travelers, sat on very cool grounds, had its own restaurant, and seemed to just be a nice fit for what we wanted. To get to these locations, we rented a car from Poas Rent a Car, which was another Costa Rican owned company and could offer us a car for the dates we'd be there (the other Costa Rican company we looked at couldn't).
Actually Being There
We arrived on a Tuesday morning in San Jose and were driving to the mountains right after that. Instantly, we were excited by how nice everyone was, which is something we had read ahead of the trip. We were also happy we were not spending any nights in San Jose when the car rental employee told us, "Just a small tip. Don't stay out in San Jose past 7...very dangerous." The drive to Arenal was great. The country was very mountainous and gorgeous. While the main highways were pretty well maintained, there are not many main highways, making the our car's four wheel drive come in handy. I would definitely recommend it to others.
Aside from our lodging and car, we entered the country with a few specific plans and just wanted to let the rest develop on its own. We booked a couple of activities before arriving: we were going ziplining with SkyTrek in the mountains, getting a massage at the Arenal hotel, and taking surfing lessons from Point Break Surfing at Playa Grande. We thought this was a good base to start from and then had a list of options from there (hike to La Fortuna waterfall, hike in a rainforest, spend time at the beach, etc.).
After three hours of driving, we reached La Fortuna and Arenal. It was awesome to see the volcano as we got closer. Ahead of the trip, we were told we'd be lucky if we ever clearly saw the volcano peak, especially in green season; inexplicably, we were able to have a clear view each day there, including on the drive up. We felt very fortunate! While La Fortuna is a popular tourist town, being at the base of the volcano, it was still very small and poor. We ventured out to some of the restaurants recommended by our favorite bartender, Manuel, and walked around the town, but our focus in Arenal was enjoying nature and the hot springs at our hotel.
While in the mountains, we hiked to the La Fortuna waterfall, which is a very steep but well-kempt trail; swimming in the waterfall and subsequently laying out to dry was a great way to start our vacation. We also hiked a few miles into the rainforest in El Silencio Reserva. We went early in the morning to try and see some monkeys, and while we didn't see them (we heard them, though!), we were the only people on the trails, letting us see a lot of wildlife (including a snake...). For our next hiking stop, Arenal National Park, we hired a guide ($40 for 2 hours) at the park entrance to teach us the history of the volcano and take us to some cool spots on a 3.5 mile hike. While our guide's English was not very good, he was great at finding animals (green basilisk, three toed sloth, wild pigs, wild turkey, and more) that we probably couldn't have spotted on our own. The highlight of our mountains adventures was probably ziplining -- we used a company, Skytrek, that our hotel and others had recommended based on their great views and speed, and it turned out to be a great recommendation. We were zipping through the canopies at 45 mph -- it was a really awesome feeling.
Around the town, we had fun eating at a couple of local spots for Costa Rican and Mexican fare. The hotel also had a good restaurant and a swim up sushi bar, which was delicious. One of our favorite activities was hanging out with the bartender, Manuel, at night for a couple of drinks and to talk about life in Costa Rica. The Arenal hotel also featured several natural hot springs that were warmed by the volcano; temperatures ranged from 94 degrees fahrenheit to 104, and it was very relaxing to spend time soaking in them.
The mountains were everything we had hoped for, and we were sad when it came time to leave, but we were excited to get to the beach to relax.
The four hour drive to Playa Flamingo was a little less enjoyable than our original drive. The first hour was great as we got to wind around Lake Arenal and take in some awesome views, but the next three hours were much less scenic. Similar to the first drive, while there were some rough patches, single lane bridges, and steep hills, the drive was overall uneventful and not dangerous.
We had reserved a surfing lesson for the second day at the beach, but otherwise just really wanted to relax while there. Beaches in Costa Rica were different than we were accustomed to on the east coast and reminded me more of a Northern California beach. They were generally smaller, surrounded by mountains/cliffs, and had some brush toward the top of them. They were still very beautiful and peaceful, and the fact that there were so many beaches in such a small area made it easy to find a quiet place for yourself. The days on the beach were spent reading (I reread Great Gatsby and read The Yellow Birds, which was great), having some drinks, and eating fresh seafood. Our hotel also had a pool right before the beach, but it really confused me that some people would lay out at the pool when the ocean was right next to them.
The only activity we took on was surfing, and we had a blast. Point Break had been the top activity in the area on TripAdvisor, and they lived up to the reputation. Luckily, the other people who were supposed to be surfing with us canceled at the last minute, allowing us to get a personal lesson, which was awesome. If you're wondering, Sarada was the much better surfer. The beach hotel was a little bit of a different feel than the mountain hotel. It seemed to have more of a party atmosphere, which we expected but was amplified by the fact that there were 40 people in town for a wedding. The facilities were really great, but it was a contrast from our late night one-on-one discussions with the bartender at Arenal. When surfing, we had asked the photographer for local restaurants, and she gave us the names of two (Septimo Cielo and Mar y Sol), and both turned out to be awesome.
We had to wake up early on our last day to make the 4 hour drive back to the airport, and we left wishing that we had another day or half-day at the beach. I'm not sure if we would've traded it for a day in the mountains, but it would've been nice to extend the trip at least 12 hours to just get a little more sun and relaxing...but, what vacation wouldn't you say that about?!
Overall, the travel between cities went flawlessly, the country was beautiful, the hotels were very accommodating, the people were amazing, and we felt very safe. It was a wonderful trip, and I couldn't be happier that we chose it over the other options. While there are plenty of other places I want to explore, I would certainly go back to Costa Rica in the future and would even do the same route, as there were definitely more activities that could be taken advantage of in each location.
If I Could Do It Again
As I said, we had an amazing trip, but if I were doing it again, I would consider doing a few things differently.
First, I would consider flying into Liberia rather than San Jose. I'm not sure why I didn't look into Liberia in the beginning (maybe it was more expensive at the time or I was hesitant about a small airport?), but if you're going to be going to a Pacific beach, it may be the better location than Liberia. We would've shaved 2-3 hours of driving (~20%) off our trip if we had flown into Liberia. With that being said, we would've sacrificed a very pretty drive back into San Jose. Looking into it now, it seems that Liberia flights are typically the same price or cheaper as San Jose, so it could also be a great way to save money.
Next, at the beach I would have explored the surrounding town more. The two restaurants we went to were great and better bar options than our hotel, and I wish we had known that sooner. Also, while we did love the beach hotel, it was a little bit more of a party than we were looking for on this vacation (on other trips, it would be too little of a party, ha). However, that was probably partly due to the 40 person wedding, and it was also not bad and wasn't worth trading the ability to walk up to the beach.
Don't drink the water at places other than your hotel.
I would absolutely stay at Arenal Springs Resort, again. It was amazing. Definitely be sure to go into town, though, and have some meals there.
Finally, I think I would be willing to go at the beginning of Green Season again, but not much later into it. While we certainly got lucky with only having ~6 hours of rain on the trip, I think that early in the season, it's rare you're going to be hit with too many storms. I could obviously be wrong, and it's called Green Season for a reason, but the cheaper prices for rooms, flights, tours, and the lack of crowds is a nice bonus.
This post ended up being about 5x longer than I anticipated, but it was a blast to recap. It's an amazing trip, and I highly recommend it to folks looking for a vacation with some adventure and uniqueness.
For convenience, I've placed a list of links from the trip below (these are scattered throughout the post, too):
- Arenal Springs Resort (highly recommend)
- Flamingo Resort (recommend for the grounds and location, but I'd eat most meals in town and you should be prepared for some All-Inclusive partiers.)
- Poas Rent a Car (highly recommend, but Vamos also seemed like a great option, too)
- Skytrek Ziplining (highly recommend)
- El Silencio Reserva (highly recommend if you want to go on your own jungle hike)
- Arenal National Park (recommend, but this is less jungle and more volcano)
- Point Break Surfing (highly recommend)
- Septimo Cielo (highly recommend for some Italian seafood)
- Mar y Sol (highly recommend for a sunset cocktail and fresh seafood)
- La Choza de Laurel (highly delicious Costa Rican food in Fortuna)