I love to travel. I know most people do too… But I REALLY LOVE to travel. So much so, I’ve been known to cry during the entire plane ride home because I was so sad to leave (we spent two weeks traveling around Hawaii for our honeymoon… can you blame me?!)
Yes, I’m delighted when I sleep in my bed. I absolutely adore our house and our property. And, I miss our dogs terribly when we’re gone (In an ideal world, they would go with us!). But getting out and exploring somewhere new, whether it’s for the weekend or a few weeks, really is amazing. Being able to experience different cultures, ways of life, food, and experiences. We can learn so much when we step out of our comfort zones.
After enduring the effects of the pandemic for the last two years, I, for one, am ready to go and go all out! Apparently, I’m not the only one. Travel experts call 2022 the year of the “GOAT,” or the greatest of all trips. 65% of people surveyed are planning on “going big” for their next trip, choosing destinations they have always dreamed of – especially those centered around outdoor experiences.
Before the pandemic hit, my husband and I were planning our “GOAT” trip. We booked a Mediterranean cruise with our friends. Starting in Rome, Italy, we planned to cruise around the Med for 10 days. Florence, Naples, Barcelona, Cannes… are a few spots where we would dock. Amazing right? I’ve never been to Europe before. Heck, I’ve only left the U.S. twice in my young 40-some years (ah-hem!). Needless to say, it’s been on my bucket list for quite some time, and I was thrilled to go.
But, as we all know, the pandemic changed everything. Our plans came to an abrupt halt, and even when we thought we might be able to reschedule for late 2021, the new Delta variant put a wrench in things, once again.
Since all of us planned on taking two weeks off in October for the cruise, we didn’t want to let the vacation days go to waste. Plus, we were ready to get the heck out of Florida! (This state has a way of making one feel… Well, a little crazy sometimes!)
So we brainstormed a few options and ultimately decided to spend two weeks in Costa Rica.
It checked off a few of our vacation wishlist boxes: 1) It wasn’t Florida, 2) There were a lot of things we could do outside (minimizing our exposure to people), and 3) The country was open to tourists. If you were vaccinated (which we are), you only had to complete an online health questionnaire and get a Q.R. code to show immigration. (Non-vaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals had to do the same but must purchase travel insurance minimums). Re-entering the U.S. required a negative COVID viral test taken within one calendar day of travel.
Easy enough! So without thinking twice, we booked our plane tickets and marked our calendars.
During our two-week visit, we experienced a lot: delicious places to eat, beautiful scenery, wonderful people, and a relaxed way of living. It’s impossible to detail out every moment, or story, from our trip (even though it seems I did my best in this article). If you like what you read, drop me a comment at the end of the blog or on our social feeds. Let me know if you’d like a series of follow up articles, or travel guides, spilling all the tea about our Costa Rica adventure (places we ate, where we stayed, what we did – you know the who, what, when, where, and why of our trip).
One final thing… if you’re looking to plan a trip to Costa Rica soon, or if it’s on your eventual bucket list, sign up for our FREE guide, “Top 5 Savvy Tips to Note Before Traveling to Costa Rica” at the end conclusion of the article. The fun stuff I talk about below, but the nitty gritty important details are within the document we will send your way. Or, click here, to be taken straight to the signup form.
How we decided where to go…
We planned on being in Costa Rica for 14 days, which allowed us to cover quite a bit of territory. So, we decided to split our trip into four destinations that offered unique options: Puerto Viejo, Arenal/La Fortuna, Santa Teresa, and Manuel Antonio. We spent 3 days at each place (½ day afternoon arrival, two full days exploring, and ½ day morning departure). Because four of us traveled together, we decided to assign one place to each person to research and plan activities. Once we got there, we could always revise our plans, but it was comforting to know we weren’t heading into each place blind.
Puerto Viejo was our first stop and is the main tourist town on the South Caribbean coast. Located in the Limon province, with an eclectic Caribbean vibe, it’s known for its beautiful beaches, parties, nature, and wildlife.
We rented an Airbnb within biking distance from the “downtown” area with two living spaces. The main space contained a small kitchen, a seating area with a tv, and a dining room. The bathroom was outside, providing an open-air space for bathing and using the facilities. A small dog actually ran up to me while I was washing my face one day – yikes! Scared the crap out of me! However, as weird as it was to get ready outside, it was very relaxing at the same time. I could listen to the birds and occasional howler monkeys in the background. That’s something I can say I’ve never done before!
We opted to rent bikes instead of driving our car to get around town. The town is small, and parking is scarce. So it was easier to move around (and honestly quicker at times) than packing up the car.
Savvy Suggestion: Sometimes, the trip is a lot further than you may think. We decided to try and ride bikes to Manzanillo, which we thought was close by. However, it ended up being a lot further than it looked on the map. So we bowed out and stopped for apps and drinks instead. The next day, we went to Manzanillo by car, which was a better decision (but we didn’t burn as many calories).
Puerto Viejo is centered around nature and its surroundings. It’s a beach town, so there were numerous picturesque spots to take in the scenery or go for a swim. The sand is pinkish (except for the beach closest to our rental, Playa Negra, which has black sand), and the water was crystal blue.
With Afro-Caribbean and indigenous descent residents, Puerto Viejo offers a unique culture that can only be found in this part of the country. There’s a great international selection of restaurants in this area and something for every person’s palette. One of the best and most common breakfast selection we tried included a side of rice and black beans with our eggs and bacon. Different but delicious, and enough carbs to fuel me for the entire day!
One of the highlights of our stay was meeting our neighbor, Cindy. Originally from Texas, she now lives in Puerto Viejo full-time. When we visited, she was in the middle of coordinating her home renovation while building a new rental directly next to ours, so we happened to meet her when checking in. Cindy was a wealth of information! She told us all the best places to dine and things to do – including a waterfall hike that we ended up having all to ourselves. We were so thankful to meet her on the first leg of our trip. Not only did she offer advice for Puerto Viejo, but for some of the other areas we were planning on visiting as well.
Savvy Suggestion: Get to know your neighbors! They can offer local insight that Google may not know. (gasp!)
If you’re not into beaches or relaxing, Puerto Viejo may not be the best place for you to visit. Besides shopping, eating, and beaching… there isn’t much going on. However, I thought it was the perfect place to kick off our vacation. It gave us time to rest up and energize ourselves for all the exciting things ahead of us.
La Fortuna / Arenal
After our 3 days in Puerto Viejo, we said goodbye to the town, and Cindy, and headed toward the interior part of the country, Arenal/La Fortuna. La Fortuna is located in the Northern Highlands of Costa Rica, about 2.5 hours from San Jose’s airport and close to a 6-hour drive from Puerto Viejo. The town is centered on a beautiful park with colorful gardens and a large church. Arenal Volcano provides a fantastic backdrop, which on a clear day is stunning. (Most days, it’s topped by clouds).
The town of La Fortuna often gets a rap for being touristy. There are dozens of restaurants, hotels, tour operators, and shops within walking distance. However, there’s still a quaint small-town feel among all that’s going on. When we arrived, it was cloudy, and the volcano in the background almost reminded me of a mountain ski village.
Our VRBO was on a large piece of property, about 5 minutes from the heart of downtown by car. There were a few other properties to rent, along with a home the property manager occupies. Our rental outfitted a shipping container into a house. There were two bedrooms, each with its own bath, a living/dining area, and a tiny kitchen. But by far the best amenity was the hot tub out back.
The property was beautiful and well maintained. We were surrounded by colorful flowers, fruit trees, and active wildlife. Each morning, the property manager would stop by to leave bananas for the birds. As we grabbed our coffee and headed outside, we were greeted with a show of vibrant colors and sounds. It was a lovely way to start the day!
La Fortuna is a popular part of Costa Rica because it has a lot to offer. You can find all of the quintessential Costa Rica adventure tours here: explore the rainforest canopy on a hanging bridge, fly through the sky on a zipline, rappel down waterfalls, or ride the rapids on a whitewater raft. All rested from the first leg of our trip; it was go time.
We put all our fear of heights aside the first day and went ziplining. The views were breathtaking, and the company that we booked our tour with was professional and put our fears at ease. It’s definitely something I would do again.
Savvy Suggestion: You only live once, so try something outside of your comfort zone!
Eager to explore more, we took that afternoon to check out the La Fortuna waterfall. Located around 4 miles outside of town, the 200-ft waterfall is the stunning backdrop of many photos. However, prepare yourself for a “hike” to get there. Taking around 15 minutes both ways, the 500 step staircase is much easier to go down rather than up. However, there are plenty of areas to stop and rest or rehydrate along your way. Once you get to the waterfall, the view is unreal and worth every calorie you’ll burn both getting there and back. Bring your bathing suit for a dip, but it may be a quick one… the water is chilly! It’s such a spectacular sight. I would gladly brave both the stairs and the water temperature to revisit the waterfall again.
On day two, we decided to up the ante and go white water rafting, a first for most of us. My dad frequently went in the NC mountains when we were younger, but I never had the opportunity to go. While I was nervous because I didn’t want to fall out of the boat (once again, the water was COLD!), I couldn’t wait to check this activity off my bucket list.
Our guide, Aurelio, was fantastic. His clear instructions made us feel at ease on class 2 and 3 rapids (and dare I say he almost made us feel like pros?) When the rapids were calm, he took the time to answer all of our questions about Costa Rica, along with its history.
The day-long tour featured not only white water rafting but followed with a traditional Costa Rican prepared lunch (Roasted chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, beans and rice, roasted vegetables, and fried plantain chips). After lunch, we toured the farm owned by the rafting company, where they showed off locally grown fruits and vegetables and educated us about sustainable farming in Costa Rica. During our lunch, and the tour, we were able to mingle with other rafters, many from various countries around the world. It was amazing to chat with them about where they live, why they were in Costa Rica, and where they were headed next. Many of them were able to give us advice on our next two stops after La Fortuna. (networking comes in handy again!) Our new friends were fantastic, but they weren’t as cute and cuddly as the baby goat we got to hold. Overall, it was an unforgettable day and something I highly recommend if you have time in your schedule.
Two days went by quickly in La Fortuna, so we were off to our third destination the following day. On our way out, we caught a rare, non-obstructed glimpse of Arenal Volcano. Majestic and awe-inspiring, it was the perfect way to end our stay.
On the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, and far from the city lights, is Santa Teresa. I’ll be honest, the drive from La Fortuna to Santa Teresa was not the most pleasant (especially with a slight hangover). There were numerous twists and turns around mountains, along with bumpy roads. At one point, Waze took us on a “shortcut” that was highly questionable. However, it ended up giving us an up-close view of the massive wind turbines that are used to produce clean electricity for 50,000 people and 11,000 households in rural, underdeveloped areas. I first saw the turbines from the plane as we landed in San Jose, so I appreciated the new vantage point to see how truly impressive these structures were.
Closer to Santa Teresa, the paved roads stopped, and the town took on a more rugged yet hip vibe. Trendy restaurants, beautiful beaches, attractive people, and dogs EVERYWHERE – I knew this new location would be my happy place.
We planned this leg of our trip purposefully. As somewhere to pause, regroup, and recharge before our final stop. So we splurged and rented what I liked to call our “bougie” home. This place wasn’t just pretty; it was spectacular! The views alone made your jaw drop as you walked through the door. I could have easily stayed at the house all day, lounging by the pool, sipping wine, and listening to the ocean (which we did a lot of). But I’m glad we didn’t because Santa Teresa is really amazing!
One of the highlights of our visit to Santa Teresa was our preferred mode of transportation: ATVs. It was the guy’s dream come true. Through a recommendation from the VRBO property manager, an ATV company drove the vehicles directly to our house. And after 5 minutes of instruction (and getting side tracked by the howler monkeys in the trees), we were off exploring the town.
Santa Teresa is a surfing village, so we decided to try out the waves ourselves. We rented a few boards (also a recommendation from the VRBO property manager) and headed to Playa Hermosa (Santa Teresa). It had been a hot minute since I last surfed, so I had some re-learning to do. Challenging but fun, it’s definitely something to check during your visit.
The next day we took the ATVs to explore a little further from our rental. Our first stop was the Malpais Tide Pools. Down a dirt road and a short hike through an unmarked path led us to natural pools carved out of surrounding rock. The size of the pools varied, but our search led us to the perfect spot for a quick dip. The water was crystal clear, so we could see different sea life, including tropical fish, crabs, and spiky sea urchins.
Savvy Suggestion: Water shoes are your bestie in Costa Rica. It will help you grip your feet against slippery surfaces or sharp shells/objects.
From there, we drove to the Montezuma Waterfalls. Because of the natural geography, most of the rainwater on the Nicoya peninsula flows towards the Montezuma side. This results in many falls flowing freely year-round. However, this is the area’s biggest attraction. Three waterfalls (lower, middle, and upper) make up the Montezuma Waterfalls, each different in size and accessibility.
The lower waterfall is the highest and prettiest of the three. It’s also the easiest to get to. There’s public parking for your car or ATV. The falls do not have an entrance fee but do charge a parking fee (1,000 colones or $2USD). There are a few tricky spots as you hike toward the lower waterfall, but designated ropes will make the pass easier. Once again, water shoes would come in handy here.
Accessing the upper falls is more involved. We decided to check it out (when in Rome, right?), but truth be told, if I was asked again, I would have passed. It’s a steep, vertical climb of around 200 steps (approximately 100 feet). One website describes this hike as moderate to difficult. However, I would say it’s more difficult than moderate. Once we made it to the middle waterfall, we had two choices to return to the bottom: keep climbing up and hope there’s a way out, or go back down the same way we went up. Considering I couldn’t bring myself to look down at all as I was climbing (for fear I freak out and fall), I convinced the others to keep climbing in hopes of an easier exit. But first, we had to scale a rock wall by climbing up a rope beside the small waterfall in front of us. I felt like I was on the show American Gladiators! It was way more than what I signed up for. But, we kept going and finally reached the top and back to the main road. It was an adventure, to say the least!
We enjoyed the bougie pool that evening after our exciting climb and took in one last sunset before we headed out the following day.
To get to our last stop, Manuel Antonio, from Santa Teresa, we decided to do something a little different and take the Puntarenas to Paquera Ferry. This would give us all a break from driving and a chance to see Costa Rica from the water. Once we got to Puntarenas, it would take us a few hours to reach Quepos and our final VRBO rental.
Our rental was a lovely two-story home consisting of upstairs and downstairs living spaces, a relaxing porch with stunning views of native wildlife and plants, and a pool to cool off after our activities. The location was centrally located between downtown Quepos (which had numerous restaurants to choose from) and Manuel Antonio (which offered the most opportunities for hiking and to see wildlife).
Each year, thousands flock to this area, drawn to the breathtaking views of the Pacific and the beautiful beaches. And while you can find just about any activity to partake in (ziplining, waterfall rappelling, white water rafting, etc.), we decided to live less dangerously this time and stick to low-key hiking and swimming.
Although compared to Florida, hiking in Costa Rica is anything but low-key! We started off by walking around the neighborhood where we were staying. It’s a neighborhood; it can’t be too challenging, right? Wrong. The hills were intense and provided quite the leg workout that day. But, the lush greenery and wildlife we encountered broke up the walk and made for a pleasant outing. The top of the driveway offered beautiful views of downtown Quepos, where we ended up going for lunch after our hike.
Refueled and ready to go, we decided to check out a beach we found listed online. A short hike through the woods revealed capuchin monkeys, which we hadn’t seen previously. The beach was nice, but nothing exciting, so we decided to move on. We found a public beach as we were heading home and decided to look. While we had to pay for parking once again (1,000 colones), the site offered accessible toilets and showers, which was a nice perk.
We managed to get back to our place just before the rain set in, so we spent the rest of the evening relaxing on the porch. The sound of rain along with the buzz of the insects was a heavenly way to end the day.
We rose early the following day to head to Manuel Antonio National Park for our last full day of activities. Established in 1972, Manuel Antonio contains a charming combination of rainforests, beaches, and coral reefs.
Although it’s the country’s smallest national park, the beauty and diversity of its wildlife are incredible. While there, we saw a wide variety of birds, including a tucan, iguanas, monkeys, and even a sloth!
Savvy Suggestion: The monkeys are a hoot, but watch your belongings! Especially if you’re going to swim at the beach. We saw a couple leave their bags to go into the water. As soon as they turned around, the monkeys dug through their bags for food. Even worse, when the couple tried to shoo them away, they hissed and acted aggressively. Eventually, they left, but they’re sneaky buggers. My suggestion would be to leave personal items at home or have someone watch them while you swim.
Before we headed to the park, we researched if we should hire a guide or not. We didn’t, and I thought that was the best decision. I don’t think we learned quite as much as we could have, but we were able to leisurely soak in nature and check off the remaining creatures that were on our “wildlife we hope to see in Costa Rica” list.
Savvy Suggestion: Get to the park early! You’ll avoid the late-day crowds, it’s less likely to rain, and there’s more of a chance the animals will be out and about instead of napping.
Overall the park was highly entertaining and something I would definitely recommend. Be prepared to spend at least a half a day there. And you may walk around a while before you see any wildlife.
We made one final stop before we headed back to the rental, El Avion. Touted as the “must-see and be-seen restaurant and bar in Manuel Antonio,” it’s famous for a cargo plane that’s been converted into a pub. It also features a two-level bar and restaurant. While we were hoping to be seated around the perimeter of their dining area to take in their sunset view, the restaurant was packed. So we stayed for a drink then made our way back to start packing.
All good things must come to an end…
The following day it was time to head back from our epic vacation. At one point, we asked each other, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” which was hard to answer. Each place we visited offered unique things to do, cuisine tailored to the region, and a vibe different from the last. It was impossible to pick.
While I didn’t cry on this trip home, I was sad to go. However, I left with beautiful memories, a rejuvenated mind, and the determination to work hard upon my return so we could schedule another epic vacation soon.
Hoping to plan a trip to Costa Rica?
Even if it’s just on your eventual bucket list, sign up for our FREE guide, “Top 5 Savvy Tips to Note Before Traveling to Costa Rica” below! The fun stuff was above, the nitty gritty is within the document we will send your way. Fill out the form below…
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Diane Helms says
Hey Summer! What a great article! Loved reading and seeing your pics. Greg and i went there twice several years ago and have talked about going back ever since. Arenal is amazing and you were so lucky to see it without clouds! It truly is a lovely country with friendly people and a nature lovers dream. Gotta start planning a return trip soon!!
Hi Diane! Thank you so much for reading the blog and commenting! We were blessed with beautiful weather the whole trip. Especially considering October is supposed to be one of their rainiest months. So, the volcano in the clear was a pleasant surprise – amazing to see! Yes! You both should plan another trip soon. I can’t wait to go back!! 🙂 Hope you both are well!
Melissa Wrage says
So very Savvy!!! I LOVE IT! 💕💕
Aww thank you my friend!! I can’t wait for us to plan another trip there soon!