Costa Rica – I was so not that into Costa Rica before we went. All that I really knew about it was that you could go zip lining and that it was super touristy, expensive and full of Americans. Stuart visited 10 years ago and really enjoyed it, but had heard it has changed a lot since. It was hard to pick out things we wanted to see because everything seemed so expensive and a lot of places would be hard to get to without renting a car. I know a lot of people rent cars in Costa Rica but they are fairly expensive and that just wasn’t the type of trip we were on. We were bus people, not car people. With all that in mind we only budgeted two weeks for Costa Rica. We spent nine days.
In San Carlos we first had to visit the immigration office to get stamped out of Nicaragua. We then took a one and a half hour boat ride down the river to Los Chiles in Costa Rica. Even though Costa Rica is across the river from San Carlos we had to take the boat to a town with an immigration office. We were advised to get there early, and this time it paid off because the seats on the first boat filled up quickly.
When we arrived in Los Chiles we got in a long line with our luggage for customs, but soon the staff pulled out all the Gringos from the line and let us go straight to the immigration office which was a couple blocks away. Maybe they assume white people don’t smuggle stuff. I guess they don’t get the TV show “Locked Up Abroad” down there. There were a lot of Americans doing “visa runs” on our boat and they were pretty helpful in giving us directions to the bus stop and helping us figure out where to change money – which turned out to be just some lady’s house. She had a really weird way of doing the math and that made me nervous, but her exchange rate turned out to be really good.
After our semi-shady money change we walked a few more blocks through Los Chiles to the bus station and waited about an hour for the bus to Quesada. From there we transferred to a bus for La Fortuna. I immediately noticed that the roads, houses and cars in Costa Rica were much nicer than in the rest of Central America.
We had decided to go to La Fortuna because it was near the Arenal Volcano – something Stuart remembered as being awesome. Although, when he visited ten years ago, the volcano was still active. It stopped erupting a few years ago, so we wouldn’t get to see magma, but we could still do some hiking – plus, La Fortuna has a backpacker scene (i.e. cheaper accommodations). It’s funny, we asked a fair amount of people who have recently traveled to or lived in Costa Rica where we should visit and they all end up telling you about the same three places. So La Fortuna was a good a place to start as any. We managed to find a private room in a hostel for only $25. And, bonus: the hostel had a kitchen so we could cook and save money on food.
The hostel happened to be next door to a doctor. He turned out to be super friendly and helpful, but he still couldn’t tell me what was causing my weird pains. I did feel better after seeing him. He spoke English very well and was very attentive. I was able to ask him a lot of questions and he at least put my mind at ease.
Getting to the Arenal park from La Fortuna turned out to be a bit of a challenge. We wanted to go after I saw the doctor, but there is only one public bus that goes anywhere near the park and we had already missed it. While we were walking around La Fortuna trying to figure out another option we ran into a helpful couple in the town square. They were American ex-pats and they walked us to a travel agent that they highly recommended. We really didn’t want to do a tour so we didn’t stay at the agency. I later saw this couple do the same thing with other tourists. Made me wonder if they were getting a commission for sending people over to the travel agent. They were really against the idea of us trying to take a bus.
We gave up on trying to get there that afternoon and instead ate an expensive lunch in town and hung out in the town square. Later, when we went to check out the bus schedule for the next morning, we ran into that couple again! We started chatting and again they discouraged us from taking the bus, mmm hmm.
In the morning (despite all the advice we got against it) we took the bus out to the park. It dropped us off two kilometers from the park’s entrance and we had to walk the rest. Still better than an expensive taxi ride or an organized tour. We had a choice between a private set of trails or the public park’s trails. Both were $10 to enter. We decided on the public park. We got to the entrance around 9:30 and had to be back at the bus stop by 2pm for the only bus back into town that afternoon.
Even though the volcano is no longer active, the hike around it was pretty nice. We started in a bamboo forest and then hiked along some lava flow paths for some great views of the volcano and Lake Arenal. The top of the volcano is almost always cloudy, so were felt pretty lucky to take in some cloudless views. The last bit of the hike was forest and we moved kind of slowly so we could spot birds, and we ended up having to book it to make it back to the bus stop by two. And then, of course, we waited an hour for the bus. Back in town we got a smoothie and hung out in the park.
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So, the other thing to do in Costa Rica is the cloud forest in Monteverde. This is the famous site of the zip lines that everyone you have ever known who has gone to Costa Rica has told you about. To get to Monte Verde from La Fortuna on the bus is a complete nightmare – slow bumpy roads and inconvenient bus transfer times. So, we opted for the very convenient $25, “jeep-boat-jeep” service that, curiously, does not involve any jeeps.
A guy in a van picked us up 45 minutes late from our hostel in the morning and drove like crazy to drop us off at a boat which took us across Lake Arenal. On the other side of the lake we were put into another van and driven to our hostel in Santa Elena, the town closest to the Monteverde cloud forest. It only took about three hours, and even though we didn’t get to ride in a jeep we felt it was well worth the price.
After we settled in and had lunch we took the bus out to the Monteverde Cheese Factory. Monteverde was settled by a dozen Quaker families looking to settle somewhere where they wouldn’t be thrown in jail for refusing to join the military. They eventually decided on Costa Rica, which had just abolished its military and settled in the cooler cloud forest of Monteverde. They decided to learn how to make cheese as a source of income and their company is still thriving today. We took a tour of the factory, tasted some cheese and had some ice cream and then walked back into town.
The next morning we got up early and were picked up around 8am for our zip line and hanging bridge tour of the cloud forest. The staff at our hostel were super informative and helped us pick the company that was most in-line with what we were looking for. There are seven zip line companies in the area (as opposed to just one when Stuart visited 10 years ago) and some of them are more about the nature and some are more about the adventure. We went with the most nature-y outfit.
Once we arrived in the park we paid and, like a well-oiled machine, were quickly fitted with helmets, harness and gloves and sent off with a dozen more people to the zip lines. The biggest, toughest-looking guy in our group, an American guy from the South (from the sounds of his accent) chickened out before we even started. I wasn’t scared at all. After the zip lines we did over the canyon in Mexico, this was easy.
The zip lines go through the tops of trees into the clouds. Yeah, it’s totally touristy, but it is actually a great way to see the forest, plus it’s really fun. We did about a dozen lines and then at the very end something called a Tarzan swing. Basically, you stand at the top of a platform and they hook your harness onto a long rope. You grab the rope and jump. Once the rope is fully extended you swing back and fourth like Tarzan, then some guy at the bottom grabs your foot to slow you down. The whole experience is terrifying. I can’t even tell you what Stuart screamed after he jumped!
After we finished the zip lines, Stuart scored us some free tickets to the hummingbird garden, which turned out to be really neat. It’s just a bunch of humming bird feeders, but they get about a dozen different types of humming birds and you can stand real close to the feeders to watch them.
Next we took our walk through the top of the cloud forest on the hanging bridges. This is a much slower, peaceful way to enjoy the canopy. It’s really cool. You’re on eye level with a lot of the birds instead of having to look up at them from the forest floor. We took our time and spotted another Bell bird and a really cool Ornate Hawk Eagle.
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We were lucky to see so many birds on this trip so far, but, there was one bird that had been elusive: the Quetzal. These birds are notoriously hard to spot, but we heard that they were nesting in Monteverde this time of year and that there was a good chance that we could see one. A guy in our hostel saw three just the day before.
We booked a bird walk in the Monteverde forest for the next morning. We had to be at the park at 7:30am and were lucky to find some people with a car that were also driving to the park in the morning so we wouldn’t have to get up super early and take the bus.
Our guide on the walk was great. He had all kinds of scopes and binoculars and he was super enthusiastic about spotting birds and wildlife in the park. He had a good philosophy too. His attitude about spotting wildlife was, if you’re meant to see something you will. It takes the stress off of trying to find something specific and helps you enjoy what you do see. Our walk started out strong we saw a toucan and some other cool birds right away and then a huge pack of monkeys traveled through the trees right over our head.
And then suddenly he had us all running down the trail. Another guide had given him a hot tip on a pair of Quetzales and we needed to book it so we didn’t miss them. We got to the spot and he set up his scope and low and behold a male and female Quetzal. Done. They were pretty brilliant, especially the male, although he didn’t have his signature log tail. Apparently they fall off and grow back every year.
After about three hours with our guide we were released into the forrst and we took to the trails alone. We spent the rest of the day hiking around Monteverde. We hiked up to a lookout where, if it were a clear day, you could see both the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans. However, it is rarely clear in the cloud forest so we couldn’t see them. We ate our lunch there but didn’t hang out too long because there were some supper annoying flies hanging out there (maybe waiting for that view?).
On our way back Stuart spotted another Quetzal flying across the path, but I missed it. We did spot some other birds in the trees that we thought might be Quetzals, but we think they were just a similar type of birds, the trogons.
After bussing it back to the hostel we had to put in some serious research on where to go next. We finally decided on Puerto Viejo in the south on the Caribbean Coast. There is an easy crossing there into Panama and we weren’t really inspired by any other destinations in Costa Rica.
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In the morning we had to catch the 6:30am bus to San Jose, meaning we missed our free breakfast, which I hate doing. In San Jose we had just enough time to eat a couple empanadas at the nearby restaurant before boarding the bus to Puerto Viejo. The bus ride took us from the cool highlands of San Jose through the jungle and out to the coast. I really felt like I got to see a lot of Costa Rica on that ride.
Puerto Viejo turned out to be pretty different from the rest of Costa Rica, with less of a rich tourist/ex-pat vibe and more of a Caribbean/backpacker vibe. The little town was laid back with a handful of kinda pricey restaurants and there were a few good beaches nearby.
On the down side we had heard two stories of people being robbed there. One group was robbed at gunpoint while riding bikes to the beach. The other group had a backpack stolen that they had “hidden” in the tress next to the beach. Signs around town also warned us to be careful. We took the warnings to heart and when we traveled around we took the bare minimum of stuff and left the cameras and backpacks in the hotel. It seemed to help, we didn’t experience anything more than a few guys offering to sell us drugs.
We spent a couple days there visiting the nearby beaches. One nearby beach was popular with surfers and had some pretty big waves. It was fun to watch them for an afternoon. We also rode bikes out to a quieter beach with calmer water. The road along town turned out to be a great place to see wildlife. We spotted toucans, howler monkeys and even a sloth making a slow decent down one tree and up another.
After two days we were headed to Panama. We didn’t see a lot of Costa Rica, our budget didn’t really allow for it, but we were happy with everywhere we went and all the cool things we did see.