Best of Central America: 1. Costa Rica
Costa Rica was our first destination in the Central America tour. It was one of 5 countries in the Federal Republic of Central America – whose independence occurred on September 15th 1821. Historically, it has been a pretty peaceful country, having only had one 44 day civil war which ended in 1948 and resulted in the dissolution of the Costa Rican Army. The money is used instead to fund other things such as education which shows as they have a 97% literacy rate in the country.
I arrived at Juan Santamaría Airport in San José on the 28th of March and travelled by private taxi to La Fortuna (fortune in Spanish) to catch up with the tour group. As I had suffered heavy delays at Gatwick with my Norwegian Airlines flight, I missed out on spending time in San José and my week in Costa Rica was cut short to 5 days.
La Fortuna is a lovely town, overlooked by Arenal volcano which is still active. This provided a perfect backdrop for one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen!
We stayed at Hotel Las Cabañitas which is a 15 minute walk to town. It’s a cute hotel with cabins as bedrooms and an outdoor pool! It is also opposite a Soda restaurant which you’ll see below is a great place to eat.
The town centre is small and can be conquered in an afternoon. Around the square are many shops, restaurants, bars and also a few banks. Costa Rica was preparing for their presidential elections so the town was filled with people driving around honking with their preferred party’s flag on show…I didn’t know how vibe would be around a Central American election but this was pleasant!
We visited Catarata Río Fortuna (the waterfall) which can be reached easily from the town centre via the official red taxis (about $2 USD per person). Entrance to the park costs $15 USD. Once inside, you can walk along the Orchid trail…as beautiful as it was, we had clearly missed the season as we only saw 1 flower!!! It is then a 500m walk down steps to the waterfall.
It is so beautiful yet powerful so you’re not allowed to swim too close to the bottom (lifeguards are on duty to blow the whistle if you do). Alternatively, you can swim next door in the calmer stretch of water. This was also a good spot to have a picnic. Don’t forget to save a bit of energy for the 500m steep walk back up!
There is also an observatory which you can do a short hike up to. There are minimal signs at the beginning but it’s a simple path, you cross a slightly creaky bridge and then final steps to the viewpoint. We even saw some people ziplining across which looked spectacular with the volcano in the background!
The other main activity we did was to visit El Chollin hot springs at night. There are many hot springs in the area to choose from, however this one was free! We had a bus to take our group there but taxis would be a great alternative. It has a fast stream of water at the beginning to be aware of as a few people got carried in it but it’s calmer when you get past all the rocks. Everyone brings their own drinks and the locals even had a barbecue going so it had a nice communal feel to it. Headlights/torches are a must as it is pitch black otherwise…some people had brought lanterns which created the cutest ambience! Also there is nowhere dry to leave your stuff so essentials only!
Both places were very busy with locals as we were there during Semana Santa (Easter Week) so most people had the whole week off as holiday! People from Costa Rica are called tico (males) or tica (females) and are some of the loveliest local people you will meet. My favourite phrase of the trip was “Pura Vida” which literally translates as pure life. Ticos use it in all contexts and are happy if you use it too!
My food and drink highlights in La Fortuna:
Soda – there are multiple of these around town, serving reasonably priced traditional food. The one opposite our hotel had the best chicken fajitas I’ve eaten in a long time!
Lava Lounge – really cool restaurant and bar in town which has live music at night. I had a delicious fish dish there “el pescador” and tried the local beer Imperial. I’m not a beer drinker but it is light so went down well.
Nanku – We had drinks here after the hot springs including chilli guaro (which are super spicy shots and not for the faint hearted!) plus amazing beef nachos.
After a short 2 days here, we travelled to our last stop in Costa Rica called Monteverde. The journey included a bus to Lake Arenal (which was created following a volcanic eruption) then a breezy boat ride across it to our second bus.
Monteverde is a gorgeous town which is visited for its ecotourism. You can do all sorts of activities there from ziplining to horseback riding to night time nature walks and more. The weather is unpredictable here as there would be rain then rainbows one minute and scorching heat the next (carrying round sunglasses and a rain mac simultaneously was essential!)
We stayed at Cabanas Linda Vista which was a cute hostel with beautiful views, particularly at sunrise and sunset.
One of the main activities to do here is ziplining on what is said to be the longest zip line in Latin America. It costs $50 USD pp and you go across at least 10 ziplines, starting small and working your way up to do the superman pose (which means no hands!) and you are “flying” over the treetops. This view was SO beautiful that I had happy tears streaming down my face! The tarzan swing at the end is one of the scariest things I’ve done but all 100% worth it for the adrenaline rush! We were so lucky that it was the most clear day of our time here.
I also went on a coffee, cocoa and sugar cane tour ($32 USD) at El Trapiche which was informative, fun and perfect for all ages. They run guided tours at 10am and 3pm everyday except Sunday’s which only has the 3pm tour. We got to grind coffee beans whilst riding a bike, make our own sugar to take home, learn about both the traditional and modern processes of harvesting and making each product and of course many tasters of chocolate, coffee and sugar cane (including a super strong shot!). We even spotted a few sleepy sloths during our tour which was my first encounter of them.
Best fact of the tour: Costa Rica and Colombia offer degrees in coffee. So you can become a Master Roaster!
If you’re keen on weird and wonderful nature, you can visit the Ficus tree and climb the tree from the inside. It reminded me a bit of the Whomping Willow tree from Harry Potter! The inside of the bark gets tight as you ascend so we had to wait for people to get down before we could go up safely. The best way to get there is to navigate yourself to Cloud Forest Lodge Hotel and turn left just before the entrance sign to the hotel..you should see an opening in the woods immediately and the tree is a few metres in. It wasn’t easy to find so if in doubt, ask that hotel for help!
Monteverde Food and drink highlights:
Taco Taco..this place was my favourite of the country. I had half of a large yet divine tempura avocado burrito and mango and mint smoothie. Prices are great and the owner is American so helpful for those with limited Spanish. Even their bathroom was pretty!
Soda of course…this time for meat enchiladas.
And just like that, our time in Costa Rica was done and we were on our way to Nicaragua on Easter Sunday.
A few final words about this beautiful country:
*The local currency is Colón (named after the Spanish translation of Christopher Columbus’ surname). You can pay in US dollars pretty much everywhere you go (notes only) and they will give you change in colón for a fairly decent rate.
*The tap water is safe to drink! This wasn’t the case for the rest of the trip.
*This was the first of a few countries to have elections whilst we were here…each one interesting to observe!
*Costa Rica uses renewable energy! Pura Vida!
I would love to visit again as there are so many other parts that I want to explore…have you been to Costa Rica? Share your thoughts or tips below!