In January 2018, I left freezing and snowy Canada for a two-week vacation in the jungles and on the beaches of sunny Costa Rica. It proved to be exactly what I needed and if I could have, I would have stayed an extra month! Costa Rica has so many options of activities that you could easily stay for a whole year without running out of things to do.
Even though Costa Rica is a tiny little country compared to Canada or Mexico, the roads are mountainous and it takes a while to go from one town to another so we tried to spend at least a few days in each town so we wouldn't be spending most of our trip on a bus.
San Jose - Arrival day and day 2
On our first day in Costa Rica, we landed in San Jose at about 1PM. By the time we made it to our hostel it was almost 3. We had nothing planned for our first day since we knew we would be tired from traveling and didn't know if our flight would be delayed or if it would take longer than planned to arrive at our destination. We spent the afternoon and part of the evening walking around town. We bought some snacks and lunch for the next day and spotted some nice places we would like to spend some more time at the next day. We went back to the hostel, ate some nachos, talked with our host to plan the rest of our time in San Jose and went to bed early to get an early start the next morning. It took two minutes after our arrival for our host to let us know that there were pineapples and bananas in the backyard and we could take what we needed: I was already in love with Costa Rica!
On day two, we went to Irazu volcano. We took the bus early in the morning so we had time to explore the park for a while and then go back to town for more exploring. We came back to town early, had a shower and then went back to the downtown area to the places we had spotted the day before. We had dinner at a restaurant, had the biggest ice cream cone I have ever seen and took lots of pictures. For more information about San Jose or to know how our visit to Irazu Volcano went, click here.
La Fortuna - Days 3-4-5-6
On day 3, we took an Uber from our hostel to the bus station, and took the bus to La Fortuna. It looks really close on the map, but it's actually a 3,5 hour bus ride! We arrived in La Fortuna in the middle of the afternoon and walked to our hostel to drop off our bags. We spent the evening walking around the small town and looking at all the different restaurants, souvenir shops and tour companies. Since there were so many activities we wanted to do in La Fortuna, we compared prices and offerings before choosing Red Lava Tours for our activities. We booked with them for a hike around the Arenal Volcano, a hike in Rio Celeste, the Jeep-Boat-Jeep tour to Monte Verde and the ziplining in Monteverde, but more on that later.
On day 4 was our hike around the volcano. We had to be up early again because they were picking us up at 9:45 AM. We stopped by the Red Lava office to pick up our lunch and then we were on our way. Since we were a pretty big group, they split us into two groups of about 12. Our tour guide Emanuel was great. He explained a lot about the insects and trees and snakes we saw along the way and then gave us some information about the volcano. We stopped for lunch by a river and had time for a quick swim. Since it was very humid, we jumped at the chance to soak in the shallow refreshing water. We continued our hike through the jungle, walked on some hanging bridges and made it to the view point for sunset. We had an amazing view of the Arenal Lake and Volcano. Before they brought us back to our hotel, we had to stop by the hot springs. While relaxing in the warm water, Emanuel brought us a drink and some lava mixture to make a mask and exfoliate our face. What a great day!
On day 5, we went to Rio Celeste. The park is outside of the town and about an hour drive away. During the drive, our guide Mauricio spotted some monkeys and sloths and we got to observe them in their natural habitat for a while before getting back on the bus. When we arrived in Rio Celeste, it was cloudy and very humid. We started hiking, but the trail was very muddy. At first, we were trying to step around it, but at one point we all accepted and embraced the fact that we were going to be covered in mud by the end of the day. We had so much fun running around that it didn't really matter in the end. The hike was worth it anyway because the river and the waterfall are absolutely gorgeous. It reminded me a little bit of the lakes in Banff, but without the snow obviously. The water was a pale, milky shade of bright blue. After the hike, we stopped at a small restaurant on the side of the road and had a delicious Costarican meal. Usually on this tour, you get to go for a swim in the river, but since it started raining during our hike, our guide told us it would be dangerous to swim as the current could unexpectedly get stronger. Instead, we asked if it would be possible to be dropped off at the hot springs and they agreed! So for a second night in a row, we got to soak in the river and relax. We stayed there for hours looking at the stars and the moon and just enjoying the moment.
On day 6, we went to La Fortuna waterfall. I have to say it. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life and you absolutely have to go if you visit Costa Rica. We walked to the park and it's about a 5 kilometer walk from town on a paved road, but it is a hard walk, You are going up the whole time and it is hot and the sun is beating on you, so if you decide to walk bring a lot of water and lather on sunscreen a few times along the way. It took us about an hour to get there. Entrance to the park is 15 USD and then you get to walk down about 500 steps before getting to the bottom of the fall. It was a rough week of hiking for us, but so worth it. You get beautiful views of the fall on the way down and there are water fountains where you can refill your water bottles and splash some water on your face. Once you reach the bottom, on the left there is a little path that leads to a little beach where you can swim in the river. The water is freezing cold and there are fish so I didn't swim, but I did put my feet in it and it was refreshing enough for me. We stayed there for about an hour, soaking in the sun with our feet in the water and taking pictures. Then we went to the actual waterfall to take pictures and it took my breath away. It is very high and surrounded by lush jungle on every side and the water at the bottom was almost as blue as Rio Celeste. It was incredible!
Monteverde - Day 7
On day 7, we were leaving La Fortuna on the Jeep-Boat-Jeep tour and heading to Monte Verde and then we had a reservation for the zipline in Monte Verde. The Jeep-Boat-Jeep tour was convenient for us because otherwise we would have had to take the bus back to San Jose and then another one to Monte Verde, but it was not the best tour we went on in Costa Rica. First, the Jeep is a bus. Second, the bus is not made to climb up a mountain. So, to make the story short, our bus broke down while going up a hill and we got stock on the side of the road for about an hour and a half waiting for another bus to come pick us up. We told them we had reservations for the zipline and they told us we would make it in time, but they were in no hurry. They even stopped at a little corner store on the way to get some lunch and our driver and guide were taking their sweet time. When we understood that we would not be making it on time to our hostel, we asked if they could drop us of directly at the zipline and they said no worries, but still dropped us off at our hostel even when we reminded them. So was it fun? Not really. Was it still convenient even with all this trouble? Definitely! The 4 hour drive to San Jose and then 5 hour drive to Monte Verde would have been infinitely worse. When we arrived at our hostel, we asked our host where the office was for the zipline and went to their office. They were really nice and scheduled us on a later tour. After this not so great start to our day, the bus from the zipline company picked us up on time and the ziplining was amazing! Check out my article about my experience here. That night, we went to the town to get dinner at Sabor Tico. The food was delicious and pretty cheap. We later went to the Tree House for a drink and that was expensive, but the restaurant is really a tree house around/in the tree and there was a live band so it was fun.
MAnuel Antonio - Days 8-9-10-11-12
On day 8, we were once again up very early since we had to walk to the bus station with all of our bags for our 5:30 AM departure. Yes, 5:30 AM... We took a bus to Puntarenas, then another one to Quepos and then the city bus to Manuel Anotnio. It was a long day, but we arrived in mid afternnon at our hostel in Manuel Antonio. We had a nice swim in the pool and then went to El Wagon for dinner for delicious wood oven pizza.
On day 9, we headed to the beach and we were ready for some sunshine and heat after the cold and wind of Monte Verde. We spent the whole day swimming and jumping in the waves and laying on the sand and reading. It was amazing. After a whole day at the beach, we took the bus back to our hotel (we could walk about ten minutes to the beach, but we were exhausted and the bus ride was about 30 cents). That night, we went to the grocery shop and made dinner before going into the town of Quepos where we got chocolate gelato and mango sorbet and walked around the town and marina.
Day 10 was spent at Manuel Antonio National Park. We spent the morning hiking in the park and the afternoon on the park's beautiful beaches. We saw about 30 monkeys either in the jungle or on the beach and even though it was pretty hot for a hike, I was proud that we managed to hike at least a few trails. You really have to be careful with your bags in Manuel Antonio, especially if there is food in them. The monkeys are little thieves! That evening was spent at the restaurant El Avion that overlooks the ocean and where we had an amazing view of the sunset.
Day 11 was spent in the pool at our hostel. We were tired from the day before and a little bit sunburnt so we tried staying in the shade at the resort. But for the evening, we had something special planned! At about 4 PM, they came to pick us up for a parasailing ride. They brought us to the beach and harnessed us to the boat and then two seconds later we were flying again! I think, this whole trip, I spent more time either swimming or flying than on the actual ground. We were in the air for about 15 minutes before we started going down and then we were droped in the Pacific Ocean. It was an amazing experience and I hope to do it again someday! We had a beautiful view of the region. We could see our hostel and the park and the cliffs and beaches around Manuel Antonio.
On day 12 we went back to the beach for our last day in Manuel Antonio. We tried surfing, but I am terrible at it and it fell on my head so I decided it was not for me and that swimming was better. I'll take a lesson next time! We took so many pictures it's crazy, but we had a lot of fun swimming and playing in the waves and we were treated to once again a beautiful sunset.
San Jose - Day 13
On day 13, we took the city bus from Manuel Antonio to Quepos and then got on the bus to San Jose. It took about four hours to get to San Jose. We then took a taxi to our hostel a little bit outside of the city. We took it easy that night and went to the hostel restaurant for pizza bites, cheese sticks and nachos. Our hostel had a sauna so we tried that and then went to bed early.
Goodbye Costa Rica - Day 14
Day 14 was departure day. I was so not ready to leave and would have rather stayed at the beach, but apparently I had to go back to work. We had an early flight so we had to take an Uber at about 5 AM and when we arrived in Montreal, it was -1000 degrees and we were miserable. I can't wait to go on another adventure!
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San Jose is not the place everyone dreams of going to, but it is the biggest city in Costa Rica and probably the place where you will land, so might as well go and visit. The city looks like pretty much any big city, but its population is very friendly, the mountains in the background are absolutely gorgeous and there are some nice neighborhoods that are fun to explore. So here is my guide to anyone visiting San Jose or transiting through San Jose.
What to do
In the city itself, there are some nice restaurants, cute souvenir shops and beautiful murals to see, but if you are in San Jose for a few days, I suggest taking the public bus and exploring the surrounding active volcanoes. Poas is a popular choice among tourists since you can see both coasts from up there on a clear day, but it was actually erupting during our trip so we opted for Irazu, which is the highest volcano in Costa Rica. The public bus leaves from the Teatro Nacional every morning (we asked our host at our hostel and there were a few departures everyday, but it is worth it to go early) and costs about 5 USD per person for a round trip. Entrance to the park itself costs 10 USD per person. The drive takes a few hours, but you get beautiful views of the valley and, especially since we went on our first day in Coast Rica, we were very impressed by the landscapes. The Irazu volcanoe has an impressive crater filled with blue and green water. On the day we visited, the top of the volcanoe was completely surrounded by clouds and we could barely see a few meters in front of us. We were so disappointed we wouldn't be able to see and started exploring the surrounding trails. After a while, we had no idea where we were and couldn't see the way back, when suddenly, the wind pushed the clouds away and just for a few minutes we could see the whole crater! During the hour that we spent in the park, we were lucky to get a few minutes of visibility every ten or fifteen minutes, but it was so worth it. The view was breath taking and we were so happy to just be able to see it that we enjoyed those few minutes even more. Know that the crater sits 3000 m above so level so a coat and long pants are necessary even if the weather is warm in San Jose.
Where to stay
We stayed in hostels both times we were in San Jose and had a really good experience. Our first two nights in Costa Rica, we stayed at Hostel Finca Escalante and our host Warren was super helpful and knowledgeable and really helped us figure out the rest of our trip and our time in San Jose. He also helped us with bus schedules and places to see in San Jose and gave us fresh bananas and pineapple from the garden! Yum! I highly recommend this hostel. It is close to the downtown area and we could walk to bus stations, restaurants and attractions. It is also in a quieter neighborhood.
On our last day in Costa Rica, we slept in Fauna Luxury Hostel which is still a hostel but deluxe. Each bed was in a little box with a curtain at our feet so it felt like having our own tiny room. There is a pool and sauna and a restaurant/bar. They also offer yoga classes and other activities. If you are looking for a resort atmosphere where you can relax without any worries and not looking to explore the town of San Jose, this place is perfect!
There were many affordable options on Hostelworld, but also on Booking.com or Expedia, just make sure to check where they are located depending on what you are looking for and at the amenities they offer.
Where to eat
Two words: get ice cream! Okay it's actually three words, but whatever! Seriously, they have so many options for ice cream and so many ice cream parlours everywhere in Costa Rica, but especially in San Jose and it is delicious!
In the downtown area, there are a lot of restaurants that offer any kind of food you could want. We opted for a Costa Rican meal at El Patio del Balmoral and it was delicious and affordable. There are also fruit stands at every corner with fresh seasonal fruits.
How to get around
Know that there are no street addresses in Costa Rica so the address for your hotel is going to be on avenue X between streets Y and Z. Good luck! It's actually not as bad as it sounds, just a little disorientating at first. Also, Uber is available in Costa Rica and much cheaper and safer than taking a cab. Not that cabs are unsafe (use the red taxi company as they are the only ones that are approved), but on the few occasions that we had to take one, for example from the airport to our hostel, they acted like they had no idea were we were going and took the long way and tried to give us the price in Colones and the wrong conversion in US dollars and say that their TPV machine wasn't working which was false. Public buses are safe and reliable and usually on time. We always took the bus between every city or town that we visited and never had a problem. Just be aware that you need to pay either in Colones or USD and they don't accept bank cards or credit cards. Also the schedule is not on Internet, but you can ask your host or go to the bus station the day before to see the schedule.
Even though I couldn't say that San Jose was one of my favorites in Costa Rica since it cannot rival with the smaller villages and towns, their local feel and beautiful scenery, I still enjoyed my time in San Jose. I wouldn't spend more than a few days there though. For a major city, everyone was nice and welcoming and I never felt unsafe.
Are you taking a few days to explore San Jose or are skipping it to head directly to beach and the jungle? Tell me in the comments below!
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