Costa Rica is full of natural beauty. One can spend an entire week on the gorgeous Pacific Coast beaches learning to surf in the northwest Guanacaste region. Alternatively, there are many different natural wonders spread across the country. We chose to spend a couple of days in Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio and live “Pura Vida”.
After arriving in the late evening into San Juan, we were happy that our hotel was close to the airport. The Adventure Inn was very affordable with breakfast included. The hotel room and bathroom could use some updating, but the restaurant on-site and pool allowed us to sufficiently relax during our first evening in Costa Rica and practice our Espanol. The staff was very courteous and helped us to arrange our 3-hour drive/transportation to the volcano La Fortuna (via email before our trip, $40pp). We decided to use intercity transportation as I had heard some stories of flat tires on the bumpy roads, as the occasional robbery on the road. I do have a friend who drove around the country with 3 other girls though with no problems. There are flights available among the major destinations (Arenal, Manuel Antonio), but not Monteverde/Santa Elena which is why we chose to take small buses.
In Arenal, we stayed at the Tabacon Hotel which is carbon neutral and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. The rooms are beautifully maintained; our garden view room was quiet and felt secluded. We decided to take a taxi to the Arenal Eco Zoo to view its serpentarium and frog habitat.
For a couple of bucks we got a personal guided tour in English from a very knowledgeable student. He let us hold the snakes (aak!) and watch a feeding. The zoo is located on the opposite side of the volcano and while it was a turbulent car ride, it was worth the trip for any reptile and/or amphibian lovers. We probably spent 1 ½ hours here!
Included with the hotel is free unlimited admission to the adjoining hot springs – a great deal. The hot springs are heated by the volcano’s lava (97% rain-based and 3% magma-based)! As you move up the mountain within the natural springs, the water gets noticeably warmer. Fun during the day, this was an amazingly romantic experience at night when the springs were lit up.
The outdoor dining at “Los Tucanes” was delicious. We enjoyed sea bass and Costa Rican beef with a bottle of wine (recommended by the hotel staff).
To fully explore Arenal, we booked a full-day tour through the hotel that included a walking tour through the national park, lunch, a visit to the Arenal Waterfall, and a hike through Arenal Volcano National Park. Our tour guide pointed out lots of wildlife, including monkeys, a snake, and a bright red frog by the trailside.
We had lunch at Que Rico and enjoyed the volcano view. The lunch portions were enormous and the quality of the meat was great. Affordable place to stop and relax while traveling in the area.
The hike to the base of the volcano took longer than expected (>1 mile), but was not particularly strenuous. One is rewarded with stunning views of the volcano as well as Lake Arenal. A tour guide isn’t needed for this part, but it was a bit of a drive to get to the trail entrance and our guide told interesting stories about the country.
The following morning we took a ferry across Lake Arenal as a shortcut to Monteverde. The boat ride was very pleasant despite the ominous weather, but the car ride after was just as bumpy as expected. We wanted to visit Monteverde/Santa Elena area for its cloud forest (a rainforest located above cloud level). This unique environment creates an ecosystem that supports a multitude of plant and animal life.
We booked this hotel later than we wanted to and ended up finding an eco-lodge in Santa Elena. We were SO happy with Arco Iris Lodge. The staff was extremely friendly, breakfast was very fresh, and the room had a very rustic/camping feel. There were monkeys located just outside the breakfast eating area which was very entertaining to watch while enjoying the delicious spread of fruit, bread, coffee, eggs, etc. The bathroom was pretty outdated/rustic and a few uninvited bugs were able to get in. The property is beautifully arranged with individual cabins. We felt a part of nature, a wonderful introduction to visiting the cloud forest.
We opted to visit Selvatura Park since I wanted to be sure of safety for our ziplining adventure. It is definitely a tourist attraction, but was a perfect way to enjoy the eco-tourism.
The hanging bridges are not for those afraid of heights, yet they provide a unique bird’s-eye perspective to appreciate the canopy of the rainforests. We spent hours wandering the circular route, stopping to enjoy the breathtaking views.
Before leaving, we also went to the zip-lines of the canopy. You “zip” through the sky hundreds of feet above the ground from tree to tree, but it was less thrill-inducing after the 5th time along the route. As an Industrial Engineer, I also was frustrated by the needlessly long line…the one starting point as well as the bottlenecks that occur as individuals follow others throughout the course.
To fully see more of the wildlife, we booked a nighttime guided tour for after sunset. What an awesome way to experience the area! We saw sloths, monkeys, a tarantula, lots of birds, and stick insects to name a few. It almost felt like a zoo, given the number and variety of animals we saw in an hour (and yes, it possibly might be a bit staged).
After our night walk, we walked into town for dinner and found the Tree House. Prices were a little high but it was one of the few restaurants in town. Food was good, drinks were delicious (plus a good beer selection), and the service was very friendly.
We took another private transport (Shuttle Bus, $45pp) to Manuel Antonio. The first part of the drive down out of the mountains was windy but showed the beautiful remote parts of the country. We stayed at the Hotel Parador in Manuel Antonio hotelparador.com. Our hotel room was clean and well-decorated, and the hotel pool was lovely. While not located on the beach, there is a small wooded park on-site with views of the Pacific. One day, we took a ½ mile walk (down a steep hill) with our towels to a local secluded beach. The hotel had a wonderful concierge staff that was able to assist us with booking tours, water sport activities, zip-lining, etc.
Entrance to Manuel Antonio park was $42 pp on its own, so we booked a tour guide through the hotel. What an amazing experience! Our tour guide walked us through the park and communicated with other tour guide operators to find wildlife hidden from view. We clearly heard and saw so much of what the park is famous for – sloths, birds, monkeys, etc.
The walk ended in the heat of the day – even in March! We stopped for a fruit salad and tropical drink just outside the park before returning to the air conditioning and our lovely pool.
In the evening, we took a sunset boat tour and were able to see some dolphins while enjoying a couple of drinks. The wildlife is truly spectacular and the dolphins were a fantastic end to the day.
We took a flight on a VERY small plane “puddle-jumper” back to San Jose. As my husband had taken some flight lessons, we were both comfortable with the small plane and knew it would save a lot of time. We were able to reminisce about the amazing trip we had just taken and can’t wait to return again.
Other Popular Costa Rican Destinations
1) If you choose a relaxing beach vacation, I would recommend a hotel in the Guanacaste region and flying into Liberia to shorten travel time around the country. Most of the hotels offer a travel shuttle from the airport .
2) If you want to visit the Caribbean side, there is also plenty to see – specifically the turtles hatching in Tortuguero during July-October. One of my friends visited and said it was absolutely beautiful.