In October 2019, I spent 12 happy days in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica hadn’t actually been high on my list of places to go, but once I started looking into it I realised it’s quite a unique place. Despite being less than one percent of the Earth’s land mass, it accounts for 6% of its biodiversity. It’s got volcanoes, hot springs, white sand beaches on the Pacific Ocean side, and black sand beaches on the Caribbean side and a huge amount of birdlife. I spent some time exploring and these are my observations.
My travel buddy and I flew into San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. It feels small and European in the city centre, and bustling and more modern on the outskirts. We did a little half day tour and it was a great intro to San Jose and Costa Rica. We ground our cocoa beans and made our own hot chocolate! It is hard work grinding those beans into soft mush!
The massive Arenal volcano is located there and it’s still active having last erupted in 2010. It’s ridiculously green and fertile around that area as a result. We spent our days hiking through forests and lazing in the thermal pools (both natural and man-made) dotted around it. A highlight was the Mistico Hanging Bridges – a series of bridges built in the canopy of the jungle with a fabulous view of Arenal volcano. We spotted howler monkeys and heaps of birds and sloths (gah!). There are lots of activities in addition to the hiking and lazing (horse riding, ATVs, chocolate making, nature reserves, zip-lining, waterfalls) in this area so you can happily spend 3-4 days up there.
From La Fortuna, we headed across to Tamarindo on the Pacific Ocean to see some friends. They have bought a yacht and charter it out to holidaymakers for half and full-day cruising, and longer cruises as well. It was great having a local’s perspective and they took us to some wonderful beaches we would never have found on our own. Tamarindo has a bit of a Noosa vibe going on there and there are quite a lot of tourists. Our mates live at Playa Flamingo (20mins drive from Tamarindo) and there are no tourists there!
From Tamarindo, we went across the country to the Caribbean coast. It was a 7-hour drive from Tamarindo to Cartago when we called it quits and overnighted (it’s in the mountains and quite chilly compared to the other places we went) and then continued on the next day down the Caribbean coast to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. This little town is about 50km north of the Panama border. It’s really relaxed and laid-back and perfect for chilling out, swimming and eating. Not far from Puerto Viejo is Cahuita National Park which is a protected marine area, a nesting ground for sea turtles, and has some of the nicest and undeveloped beaches in Costa Rica.
We found an Israeli barista in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and he made the best coffee we had in CR which he had learned in Sydney!! Every place in Costa Rica that had good coffee (and by good coffee, I am definitely not referring to the dreadful percolated stuff) all had a connection to Australia – they’d all spent time here learning how to make it right! (I maintain Australia has the best coffee roasters in the world.)
Also on the Caribbean coast is Tortuguero (it’s considerably further north from Puerto Viejo). This place is famous for turtles nesting and you can either walk through it, or better yet, rent a kayak and see it from the water. It’s a place where fresh water meets seawater so it’s a great place for wildlife lovers.
October is the wet season in CR so it was hot and humid and rained every afternoon. Don’t worry about wearing make-up because it doesn’t last long in those conditions. Most accommodation has AC in it. Cafes and restaurants don’t tend to have AC, but they all have fans working overtime and that makes it pleasant. Food in CR was pretty good and really quite healthy except for the fried chicken, but it was the BEST fried chicken of my life! Most meals consist of rice and beans (they even have a song about rice and beans – no joke!) and your choice of meat. I’m a big fan of fried plantains – yuuuuum! If you stop at roadside diners (called sodas) you can pick up these tasty, healthy meals for between AUD $4 – $8. Most people speak a bit of English but certainly try and learn a few Spanish words before you go because the locals appreciate it.
We hired a 4WD and drove around CR. It was great having a car and the freedom to roam as the wind took us, BUT (!) driving can be a bit hairy. It’s quite daunting having a large truck coming towards you on a narrow country road that has 3-foot gutters on either side of the road and nowhere to pull off! There are a lot of these types of roads in CR, but around the major towns/cities, there are ring roads and 2-3 lane highways which I personally found worse than the country roads. There may be 3 lanes marked, but that just means you can have 6 cars across!
There is a public transport network of buses which seems quite comprehensive, but it is slow and time-consuming; if you have plenty of time, give it a whirl.
Uber is also available and we used that a couple of times and it was cheap and clean and efficient, but not a lot of English.
We bought some pre-paid SIM cards for our phones on our first day and that was excellent to have while we were there. It was about AUD $8 for 3GB and they were super easy to top up at any grocery store even with limited Spanish!