Costa Rica was our first international trip together. Sarah, a good friend of mine from our hometown of Friday Harbor, WA had moved down to Costa Rica with her Costa Rican partner Julio and started their own eco-travel company, Boyero Tours.
We told them how much time we had, and what we were interested in and they planned our trip for us. We were excited to support their new company, which focuses on environmentally sustainable travel and supporting the local economy.
We traveled in September, which is the rainy season. Peak season is in the spring when the weather is nicest. Coming from rainy Seattle, rain was something we were used to but found the tropical rain to be a bit more convenient. It would be bright and sunny every morning while we went on tours, and then it would pour rain in the afternoon. If you go during the rainy season, it’s best if you’re an early riser and can get your sightseeing done in the mornings.
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We flew from Seattle to San Jose on a night flight, with a layover in Miami. We arrived fairly exhausted, grateful that Sarah and Julio met us at the airport. Their rented house was on a coffee plantation not far from the airport. Growing on the property were bananas, coffee, guavas, and other fruits.
Sarah was about 4 months pregnant with their son Gabriel when we visited. We were very happy for them and glad we had a chance to visit them before they became busy parents. As it was, they were busy with their company but were able to take some time to show us around.
The next morning, we visited Zoo Ave, a zoo in Alajuela that donates a portion of the entrance fee to helping save and rehabilitate animals. We saw parrots, turtles, peacocks, tucans, monkeys, and many other plants and wildlife. The giant bamboo was quite impressive.
The next morning, we were to travel to La Fortuna by bus, where Sarah and Julio would meet up with us the next day.
This bus ride ended up being the low point of our trip. I was a bit nervous as there was no bathroom on the bus, as I seem to have the world’s smallest bladder. I avoided coffee that morning and drank minimal water in preparation for the 5 hour bus ride to La Fortuna. I am also plagued with motion sickness, but wasn’t very concerned about it as long as I got a window seat.
We got to the San Jose bus terminal early so we could make sure I got a window seat. We had no problem getting a seat next to a very large window that opened. We set off on our journey, stopping to pick up people in the towns along the way. The seats on the bus became full very quickly, but the bus still stopped to pick up as many passengers as would fit in the aisle.
** Note that it is dangerous to leave luggage in the upper luggage storage area above the seats on buses. We stored our hiking backpacks in the luggage compartment underneath the bus and held our small backpacks in our laps during the ride. Theft is very common on buses in Costa Rica, and you should be aware of your belongings at all times.
About three and a half hours into the bus ride, I began to feel queasy. I was maintaining a steady view out the window the whole time and was listening to my ipod, but eventually we realized that we were going around a very windy mountain road. The windy road went on for about an hour, and I tried to take a Dramamine tablet but it was too late. Eventually, I realized that losing my breakfast was inevitable. Fortunately, I had packed a thick plastic “just in case” bag in my backpack, and made use of it. Thankfully, no mess was made but it’s pretty embarrassing to yack into a plastic bag on a crowded bus. I made note to always carry a plastic bag in my backpack while traveling from then on.
Finally, we arrived in La Fortuna. We grabbed our luggage and walked to our nearby hotel, Hotel Monte Real. We stayed in one of the premium rooms, which I would recommend paying the extra money for. We had a very nice room with a balcony, mini fridge, coffee maker, and air conditioning. The hotel also had a pool and a computer in the lobby that we could use to check our email and bank accounts.
There are a range of options in La Fortuna, but this one is a great budget option with an ideal location in walking distance to the town and restaurants.
Another great thing about the Hotel Monte Real is it’s spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano, the main draw of La Fortuna.
After I had recovered from the motion sickness debacle, we were starving. We ventured into the town in search of sustenance and an adult beverage. Or two. Or three. Being the low season, the town was pretty empty. We looked around and saw very little activity at any of the open air restaurants except for the Lava Rocks Cafe. So we opted for that.
The decor was fun and the service was great. We shared an order of ceviche which was outstanding. After some good food, bloody marys, and margaritas, we headed back to the room to relax.
We had a morning of sleeping in and relaxing, which was the only relaxing morning on our whole trip. We took a dip in the pool and walked around town a little, waiting for Sarah and Julio to join us in the afternoon.
Sarah and Julio arrived in the afternoon and we went on a hike in the Arenal Volcano National Park. Julio is a tropical biologist and was able to tell us a lot about the park and various plants we encountered along the way.
After the hike, we all went to Eco Termales Hidalgo hot springs, which was a serious of pools at different temperatures heated by natural volcanic activity. We enjoyed relaxing in the natural pools with drinks from the bar. Lockers were available in the locker room to store our stuff while we soaked in the pools. There was about 45 minutes of pouring rain while we were in the pools which was kind of fun while soaking in the warm water. After our swim, we enjoyed a delicious typical Costa Rican family style dinner cooked by the Eco Termales kitchen.
On day 4 we woke early to a bright sunny morning and another majestic view of the Arenal Volcano from our hotel. After a quick breakfast of eggs, beans, and rice we were picked up by Canoa Aventura tours for a wildlife tour by boat at Caño Negro wildlife reserve. There was only one other couple on the tour with us as it was the low season. The guides were very accommodating and often took photos of the wildlife for us by putting our camera lenses up to their binoculars for a great close up.
On the way to Caño Negro we stopped off at a small shop for coffee and empanadas. We spotted some wild iguanas in the trees near the shop. Our guides also stopped along the way to point out a pineapple plantation (no, they don’t grow on trees) and caimans (a close relative of the alligator)
Caño Negro was one of the highlights of our trip. We were so excited to see monkeys and sloths and other rainforest animals in their natural habitat.
Above: Caiman. No, we weren’t that close.
Howler monkeys telling us to go away:
We were lucky to see a rare albino howler monkey riding on his mama’s back as she swung through the trees.
On the way back from the tour, the sun went away and the rain came pouring down. This ended up being a typical daily occurrence with great weather in the mornings and pouring rain for a few hours in the afternoons. We took the afternoon rainy periods to rest and relax before dinner.
For dinner we went to Sarah and Julio’s favorite restaurant in La Fortuna, La Choza del Laurel. The staff dresses in “traditional” costumes and they serve typical and international cuisine at reasonable prices.
After dinner Sarah and Julio drove us around to the side of the Arenal Volcano where the lava was coming out. We were able to see the hot lava spewing out of the top of the volcano from a distance. The picture below was the best I could get, but it gives you a idea. Kind of. It was pretty spectacular.
The next day, we woke to another bright sunny morning and went on an Arenal canopy zip-line tour. Zip-lining seems to be the trendy thing to do these days in Costa Rica, and we had to try it. When we arrived near the rainforest zip-line platforms, our tour guide parked and led us the rest of the way on horseback. I am not so experienced at horseback riding and this was the scariest part for me. Paddy was perfectly comfortable on a horse and galloped on ahead, leaving me and the guide to walk along behind. I think the guide thought I was going to be high-maintenance and chicken out when we got to the zip lines.
When we got to the zip-line platforms and hiked up to the top, Paddy’s vertigo set in and he went back down to the lower platforms to wait for us there. To the guide’s relief, I did all the zip lines with no chickening-out whatsoever. Paddy did the last few lower ones that weren’t giving him as bad of vertigo. Overall we both had a lot of fun. Not recommended for those with vertigo or fear of heights.
Here is a video our guide took with our camera that gives a pretty good idea of the zip-lining experience:
After our zip-line adventure, we checked out of the hotel and began the drive to Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. While September is the rainy season for most of Costa Rica, the Caribbean Coast is usually dry this time of year. While dry, it is extremely hot and humid. The drive took all afternoon and we arrived after dark at Bluespirit Bungalows. The bungalows were very cute, with palm roofs and bamboo furniture. There was a loft bed upstairs with mosquito netting, and a bathroom and small living area below. Outside were some chairs and a hammock. There were only three bungalows, and a house where the owner lived with his family.
That night we slept with a fan on and the mosquito net tucked around our mattress. It was hot enough to barely need a sheet to sleep with. While falling asleep we heard the pitter-patter and chirping of little geckos running around the roof and walls around us. At least that’s what we told ourselves that was as we tucked our mosquito net a little tighter around us.
The next morning, we went on a snorkel tour with the owner of Bluespirit in his boat, launched from the rocky beach on the property.
Short videos of our snorkel experience:
After the snorkel tour, we were dropped off on the main beach of Cahuita and took a walk through the jungle back to the town with a guide, who showed us animals, plants and insects along the way.
In the afternoon we had time to check out the town of Cahuita
That night for dinner went to Miss Edith’s and had some fantastic Caribbean food. Rice, steak, vegetables, and a spiny lobster tail in a spicy coconut sauce.
We had breakfast in town and then went on a tour of a Kèköldi Indigenous family’s farm and the rain forest surrounding them. We learned about various medicinal plants, their iguana farm, and their traditional way of life.
We couldn’t get enough of the Thanksgiving-style turkeys. They were so entertaining. Raised for food, but allowed to roam the property freely. They weren’t very shy. They made such funny gobbling noises and they shook all over and puffed their feathers when they gobbled. Their tail feathers would drag on the ground as they strutted pridefully about the compound.
After our introduction to the farm, we went on a hike through the rainforest to learn about plants used by the Kèköldi people for generations. We were told not to stray from the trail or touch anything unless we were told to, as there are poisonous plants and trees, as well as poisonous insects. The warning that stuck with us the most was that of the bullet ant. They are about the size of carpenter ants, and if they bite you, the pain is so severe that you may not be able to walk.
One of the first plants we were introduced to was the cacao tree, from which cocoa beans are harvested to make chocolate. Cacao is actually a fruit, and when opened each bean is covered in a fruity white covering. The fruit is eaten by putting each fruit-covered bean in your mouth and sucking the meat of the fruit from it. It tastes like a fruit, but with a cocoa butter aftertaste. Our guide says that cacao bean fruit was his “candy” when he was growing up.
Along the way we encountered one of the trees we were told not to touch–the spiky bark of the pochote tree.
After our tour through the rain forest, we were cooked a traditional lunch of chicken, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes served in banana leaves, which are used as plates and bowls.
After our tour, we spent a short amount of time at the beach in Puerto Viejo on the way back to Cahuita. We didn’t stay long because Julio was concerned about leaving their car parked as there was a lot of theft and break-ins in the area. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is a lot more dangerous than other parts of the country, especially in Puerto Limon. We really enjoyed Cahuita though and didn’t feel unsafe there.
On our last night we went to dinner by ourselves and then out to a local reggae bar for drinks. Unfortunately we can’t remember where we ate or what we ate. We do however remember the best piña coladas we’d ever had. No high fructose corn syrup here, just all natural juice and local rum.
Our last morning we got up early and spent the morning at the beach in Cahuita. Beautiful sandy beach without much coral and bathtub warm water.
Short video of the Cahuita beach:
In the afternoon we drove back to San Jose, and flew home the next morning. It was a great trip and we are so grateful to Sarah and Julio for their hospitality and planning. Check their tour company out at http://www.boyerotours.com
If we return to Costa Rica, we’d like to see some more of the Pacific coast and rainforest. Costa Rica is a diverse country, and there are many adventures to be had there.