Costa Rica is one of the first countries that people visit when they decide to venture out of the United States... it was my forty-third. I can see why people flock to Costa Rica; there’s so many things to do, the food is good, there’s a ton of tourism infrastructure, and "it's safe" (although I haven't felt any more or less safe in most places I've been).
My dude Jason and I visited Costa Rica in January of 2018, with a flexible week to plan as we went along. We flew into San Jose where I had reserved a basic car from Economy Car Rental (we bought full coverage insurance which I highly recommend you get). I accidentally made the reservation for San Jose, California, but that was quickly straightened out and we were soon out the door and driving down the coast. Several friends and travel forums had recommended that we check out the Manuel Antonio National Park, so that was our first destination.
Our first day in Manuel Antonio was a monday and the national park was closed, so we went on a day trip to Nauyaca Waterfall. The road down to the parking lot was rough on the rental car, and the hike was longer and muddier than we had anticipated. When we reached the waterfall, it was beautiful, but crowded as a public swimming pool! Regardless of the crowds, we enjoyed our tropical surroundings and a refreshing swim in the rock pool at the lower falls. A guide had strung up a rope to help a tour group climb up the fall to jump, so I ascended the falls and jumped the medium-high 20 or so foot jump. The upper falls were massive and majestic, but there was nowhere safe to swim beneath the falls, so we just snapped a few photos before making the return hike.
It was only the first day of our trip and we already had blisters on our feet, and came back to a flat tire on the rental car. A friendly local resident helped us change out our tire, and we were back on the road in no time. Once back in town we phoned Economy Rental Car and our full coverage insurance got our tire easily swapped out for a new one.
On our final day in Manuel Antonio we visited the national park with hopes of getting up close with wildlife. We found the park to be populated mostly with humans, although we did get a faraway glimpse of a mother and baby sloth up in a tree, and at the beach there were a whole lot of monkeys.
If I'm completely honest, I was a little disappointed by the the waterfall and national park. Perhaps I have been spoiled by similar places in the world where you can visit and feel more connected to nature without being part of a crowd. It may have been the season that we chose to visit, or maybe this is the drawback of visiting such a touristically popular country.
One place that was lovely and well worth visiting was Manuel Antonio Beach. We went to the beach late in the afternoon and rented a surfboard and Jason and I had the best time splashing around in the warm water and crashing waves. As sunset approached the sky put on a show of vibrant pinks and oranges... definitely one of the most memorable sunsets of the places I've been in the world.
If you do find yourself in Manuel Antonio, be sure to eat at the M.A. Falafel Bar. They have better falafel than I can find in Los Angeles, and everything else was delicious too, we ate there twice! Emilio's Cafe was quite good too, with delicious seafood and desserts. Overall Costa Rica has very good food with quality comparable to what you'll find in California.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST
Monteverde was entirely different from Manuel Antonio, it was a breath of fresh air. The air in Monteverde is literally SO fresh, being that it is up in a cloud forest. We left Manuel Antonio in the afternoon, and by sundown we were driving up a bumpy, winding road, climbing higher and higher up a mountainside. As night fell, I was starting to feel uneasy about the condition of the completely unlit road, and how very isolated we felt. I've had a bad experience driving at night (in South Africa), so I felt vulnerable to a similar thing happening up here should we break down and somebody decide to prey on us.
Fortunately nothing bad did happen, and up at 4,662 feet elevation out of nowhere signs of civilization started to appear. We found our guesthouse, and checked into our cozy little room on the edge of a very windy hill. We woke up to an absolutely stunning view of a lush, green valley that we were perched on the edge of, and throughout the day a sprinkling of rain would display a rainbow or double rainbow arching over the valley.
One of the main attractions in Monteverde and Costa Rica is zipling. There are 5 or 6 ziplining adventure parks, and each boasts of having the fastest or longest ziplines. We picked the one that claimed to have the longest zipline in South America, and we had a blast. Watch my Instagram story highlights (@wrenees) from Costa Rica to watch Jason and me zipline for 1590 meters, and our terrifying (and hilarious) falls from the tarzan swing.
Rio Celeste is a river with turquoise water in Tenorio Volcano National Park. When I saw photos of Rio Celeste online, I couldn't believe to color of the water and had to see it for myself. We stayed at a secluded jungle resort which had access to the river on the property, and absolutely loved our relaxing stay there. Up on the volcano the weather was very rainforesty, it would pour rain intermittently throughout the day. In the rest of Costa Rica it was the dry season, but the high elevation volcano seemed to make its own weather.
We arranged a horseback ride down to another point in the river and went for a swim. The cloudy weather and heavy rains made the river more of a blue-gray color instead of the vibrant turquoise we had seen in photographs, but still it was a sight to see.
TAMARINDO & PLAYA CONCHAL
Our last destination within Costa Rica was near the beach in Tamarindo. Tarmarindo is a popular surfing destination, and I had hopes of catching some more waves before we left. The ocean did not cooperate, so instead we lazed on the beach at Playa Conchal. Playa Conchal is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, and nice it was, but I would argue that Manuel Antonio Beach was quite a bit nicer because of the surrounding topography and palm trees. Those who love sandy white beaches would appreciate Playa Conchal, as "conchal" translates to shell or conch shell, and the beach is named after the white sand made up of tiny bits of broken shells.
After Tamarindo we drove to Liberia where we returned our rental car and caught a local bus (for the equivalent to just a few dollars) to the Nicaragua border where we crossed the border on foot.