It was a long and eventful journey from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, starting with 3 hours standing around frustratingly waiting in a hot carpark at the border. Once in the country, slow roadworks and bad roads meant that we were well behind schedule. We had planned to jump off on the side of the road along the way and find another bus into the mountains but by the time we reached this spot it was in complete darkness and pouring rain. Given it had taken all day and we still weren’t there, weren’t sure where to get the next bus, would be arriving in town late (if at all), and had no accommodation booked, we made a last minute decision to continue on to San Jose for the night before organising to find a bus there in the morning.
It was 11pm by this stage and we found a shit hole of a hostel in San Jose. Every building in the street was covered in barbed wire and Lauren could’ve sworn Snoop Dogg was the security guard. The hostel only had one free bed in a dorm but it was so late that the guy didn’t want to turn us away for fear we would not find anywhere else. Instead we shared a tiny bottom bunk for an uncomfortable and broken nights sleep. If there was one positive to come from the tiring day, the guy only charged us for the one bed ($8)…
The next day we finally made it to our intended destination, La Fortuna, and took it easy walking around exploring the town.
Parts of Costa Rica can be very touristy catering to the large portion of visitors from the U.S. that choose Costa Rica as their “big summer holiday”. In these parts there are tour operators trying to get your business everywhere you walk. Wanting to avoid these unnecessary costs and bus loads of loud Americans, we often sought out ways of doing things ourselves whether it be local buses, walking, or negotiating with a taxi driver.
We walked to La Fortuna waterfall from town, a walk which turned out to be much longer and hotter than we expected. After an hour and a half of walking a nice couple in an air conditioned car spotted us stopped at the base of a really steep hill and offered us a lift. Due to the amount of rain recently the waterfall was raging. We followed the trail to the base and took some photos before going for a quick swim in the cold water. Walking back it poured rain and we huddled under a tree with Lauren’s tiny umbrella trying to keep my bag holding my camera dry.
Based on a recommendation, we ventured to the natural hot springs, heated by the nearby volcano’s geothermal activity. It is a popular spot with the locals and a free alternative to the larger resort hot springs that are fed by the same source. It was a remarkable experience climbing down the unsignposted and nondescript path and walking through a drain tunnel to uncover a series of natural pools of running water with steam rising from them. We fumbled our way in and sat for a couple of hours resting our sore muscles and edging our way upstream towards the hotter water.
Our last day at La Fortuna was spent at the nearby hanging bridges walk, a 3.2km network of trails and 16 bridges including large suspension bridges spanning up to 100m gaps 50m high above the rainforest canopy. We took our time walking through, taking photos and spotting wildlife.
There are surprisingly bad roads in Costa Rica and with the public buses set to take an estimated 9 hours we instead took the “jeep-boat-jeep” transport from La Fortuna to Monteverde. As well as being a much faster trip it also involved a scenic boat trip across Lake Arenal in between the two mini-bus (not jeep…) rides.
On arrival we booked a night walk through the rainforest with low but hopeful expectations that we might see some wildlife. Turns out we were very lucky and in the space of two hours and not much walking we managed to avoid the rain and see a lot of wildlife, including:
- Red eye frog
- Hercules beetle
- Mexican hairy porcupine
- Green viper snake
- Eyelash pit viper
- White nose coati
The next morning we went ziplining, one of Costa Rica’s (and especially Monteverde’s), most popular activities. This also marked the first time in Central America we have had to sign a liability waiver despite the many dangerous activities we have done so far. There were 9 zip lines including two superman style runs high over the whole valley, one spanning 1.5km! It was an amazing feeling to be flying face first that high in the air looking down on the treetops and even further to the ground. The final hurdle involves walking out on a high bridge to a large Tarzan swing with a freefall before swinging out over the trees.
We extended our stay by a day and visited Monteverde Cloud Forest, opting to take a local guide at the entry. It was a good move as he spotted countless animals that we would’ve walked straight past. He could identify birds (gender, age and type) by their whistles and even communicate back with them also managing to find us monkeys, giant caterpillars, and a sloth.
On the way out we stopped in to see hummingbirds feeding and sat down to have a snack as many flew around us speeding past our heads. They don’t stay still for long and flap their wings around 50 times a second making it difficult to get a photo.
We got up for another early morning bus trip, moving away from the cool mountain temperatures and wet rainforests out to the Pacific coast where the heat was back to what we expected. We took a ferry across from the mainland to the Nicoya Peninsula and then a long, slow bus to the popular beachside town of Montezuma at the southern tip.
The following morning we took off on a walk along the beaches in search of a waterfall that falls into the sea. Under-prepared, as usual, we walked the 12km round trip in thongs and barefeet along the sand and rocks struggling in the heat but making it to the waterfall. 5.5hrs later we were back in town exhausted yet satisfied having found landscapes just as we imagined in Costa Rica with bright green jungle meeting the sand of empty beaches.
On our final day in Montezuma we followed the river upstream, bypassing the warning signs about needing hiking shoes and recommendations for guides, and instead hopping between the rocks in our thongs to eventually find Montezuma waterfall. We cooled off with a swim in the icy but refreshing pool at the base of the waterfall before heading back to get ready for our bus.
The decision was made to move around the peninsula to Santa Teresa and see some more of the area whilst we were there. Santa Teresa is another sleepy surf town consisting of a long, straight stretch of road running alongside the beach scattered with houses, restaurants and accommodation. We took the opportunity to relax and spent our stay swimming and surfing, walking along the beach, and laying around reading a book.
We ended up staying in a scary and empty hostel with not only the room to ourself but the whole place. It did not look like anyone had stayed there for weeks or maybe even months. The owner was almost impossible to find when you needed him, however the room was clean and it was in a good spot so we were happy enough though at night Lauren still insisted that I double check the door locks…
Heading south past the capital, San Jose, our next stop was Manuel Antonio. Multiple forms of slow transport made for another long day of travel starting at 7am with a bus, then the ferry back across to the mainland, a taxi to the bus station and finally a long bus, eventually arriving at our next accommodation by 5pm.
Manuel Antonio National Park is the second most visited park in Costa Rica and is known for both its beautiful beaches and hiking trails through the tropical forest filled with diverse wildlife. We took a guide at the entrance and managed to see:
- Squirrel monkeys
- Howler monkeys
- Capuchin monkeys
- Baby green iguana
- Three-toed sloths
- Rainbow grasshopper
The walk finished at a refreshing beach where the monkeys and raccoons have become so used to people that they were raiding bags on the beach and even opening zippers. We went for a swim and on the way back managed to spot another two three-toed sloths lazing in the trees above us.
Uvita is a small village in southern Costa Rica and was a good spot to base ourselves for a day trip to a nearby national park. We spent the afternoon relaxing with some down time in the hammocks. The hostel is owned by a friendly Italian woman with her own restaurant on site. We ate dinner there most nights with the Italian meals also including homemade bread and dessert. The food was good quality and the variety was a nice change from the excitingly named “typical plate” we had been eating throughout Costa Rica for weeks prior. The owner however was horrified when Lauren requested chicken in her pesto pasta and was never really nice to us again after that.
The following morning we took a boat down the river and out through the river mouth into the Pacific Ocean heading for Corcovado National Park, regarded by National Geographic as one of the most biological intense places on Earth. We never like to set high expectations on seeing animals in the wild as obviously this can’t be guaranteed however before we even made it down to the Osa Peninsula a couple of humpback whales appeared right beside our boat, a great start but there would be much more to come. We landed on the beach with our guide and before we even made our way into the tropical rainforest a whole flock of large colourful scarlet macaws took off from the trees in front of us and flew overhead. Walking through the thick forest we saw three different types of monkeys; howler, spider, white faced capuchin as well as both black and white hawks preying on the baby monkeys. Coming back into the dock at the end of the day our wildlife spotting was not over with a large crocodile appearing right in front of the boat.
We had a slow morning before walking uphill to the nearby waterfalls and swimming holes. Passing the main pool, where a couple of other visitors were swimming, we followed the river upstream across the difficult and slippery rocks finding small pools and waterfalls to ourselves all the way up. Slowly making our way back down we stopped in each of the pools for a swim and fought the flow of water to climb into the rock pools and sit at the base of the waterfalls for a natural spa.
With an early morning start we managed to make it across the country in a day to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast by way of multiple public buses and avoided having to stop for a night in San Jose. With the long travel days becoming the norm in Costa Rica we have grown used to the longer trips which is just as well as we are told it only gets worse once we are moving around South America. We had been craving sushi for a while and were keen to reward ourselves after spending all day on a bus. Lucky for us, and very unlucky for them, we found a restaurant stupid enough to offer all you can eat sushi and we took full advantage of the offer seeing many other tables come and go whilst we sat and ate 105 pieces combined, wary as they tried to fill us up with miso soup.
The Sloth Sanctuary in Puerto Viejo was something we had been looking forward to visiting since first planning the trip, Lauren especially, and I was forced to jog to keep up with her as we headed for the entrance. The sanctuary cares for sloths of all ages and is currently home to 150 that were either born there or were found injured around Costa Rica and brought in. If the sanctuary takes them in as a baby they become a permanent resident as they will not be taught by their mother to survive. We were shown around the adult enclosures as the guide woke them up to introduce us before being led in the nursery to meet the babies. When the tour ended we were able to take photos of Buttercup, the very first sloth in the sanctuary that now hangs outside the office area. We ended up staying an extra hour just watching and taking photos everytime it woke up and climbed around.
On our last full day we hired bikes and rode a 22km round trip to explore the surrounding beaches. We stopped about half way at Playa Punta Uva, a quiet beach with clear, warm water and like most beaches throughout the country, leafy green surrounds. Hot from our bike ride, we locked the bikes and walked in the opposite direction to others on the beach finding a spot in the shade. Upon getting out of the water a friendly lady approached us from the front yard of her house and told us she has two baby sloths that live in her yard if we wanted to have a look. When we walked over a guy was holding a small three toed sloth and Lauren nearly wet herself with excitement. Heading into Costa Rica seeing a sloth was well and truly the first item in the wish list. Up until now we had spotted 7 in the wild, typically as balls of fluff high in the trees. The day before we were thrilled to be able to see them up close at the sanctuary and even though we weren’t allowed to touch them we had mentioned to each other that this was likely the closest we would get. You could imagine our excitement when this guy was more than happy for us to take turns holding and feeding one. He was so curious and cuddly and we managed to get plenty of great photos with him smiling and posing just as much as we were. It was one of those right place, right time moments with the family expecting nothing in return.
We continued south on the bikes towards the border to Panama and arrived at the end of the beaches in Punta Manzanillo where we climbed up the bush tracks to get a better view of the point and small hidden beaches. We stopped for lunch before starting the ride back.
Many people had not bothered with Costa Rica or skipped through it quickly due to its increased costs in comparison to other Central American countries. This day capped off an already amazing 3 weeks there and it was impossible to wipe the smile from our face.
The next country for us is Panama.