Gone with the Grins

Costa Rica: 9-Day Itinerary

Arenal Volcano dominates the landscape in La FortunaCosta Rica may only be the size of West Virginia, but don’t be fooled, you can’t see everything in just one week. However, plan carefully and you can hit some top spots and still have an amazing vacation that shows you what Costa Rica has to offer. Here is the itinerary we used in March of 2015.

Day 1 – Fly to San José, Costa Rica

We arrived in San José and rented a car from Vamos Rent-A-Car. To save money, Vamos doesn’t have a counter at the airport, so we were greeted outside by a Vamos employee who drove us — in our rental car — the five minutes back to the office where we filled out the paperwork. After officially getting our car, and with the help of our rented and ABSOLUTELY  NECESSARY GPS, we drove to the Courtyard by Marriott only a few minutes away. The Courtyard is a very nice hotel but really offers no local charm. It was easy, and because it was late, we wanted easy.

Day 2 – San José to La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano)

The next morning, we walked to an ATM to fill our pockets with colones, which we then spent at the nearby Wal-mart on breakfast, sunscreen and bottled water. The 2 1/2 hour drive north from San José to La Fortuna was scenic, ranging from steep and rocky to rolling and densely forested hills. The nicely paved, yet narrow roads meandered through quaint towns, over many skinny, one-lane bridges, and through at least 487 school zones. We stayed just outside of town in a charming rainforest-view cabin at the family-run Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul. (The owner lives across the street where he serves the “tipico” or typical Costa Rican breakfast each morning on his patio. We highly recommend it.) We drove into town for dinner and ate the first of many casados, traditional and inexpensive meals of rice, beans, chicken, salad and fried plantains.

Day 3 – Visit the Arenal Volcano National Park and the Arenal Hanging Bridges

We decided to start the day by driving the 25 minutes to Arenal Volcano National Park for some hiking. Let’s just say… the road leading from the main road to the park entrance is probably the worst road you’ll ever drive on. Think potholes. And then multiply that by more potholes. We were glad to be in a rental car. We paid the park entrance fee in dollars (most places take them), received our map and instructions in Spanish from the nice guard, and proceeded to the parking lot. We were visiting in the “dry” season, but it still managed to rain for six straight hours that day. We were well-prepared with sturdy rain gear and closed-toe hiking sandals. Many of our fellow flip-flop wearing tourists were not. It was an excellent hike with lots of wildlife, a lava field, and a very, very huge tree. The only downer… we never did see the volcano that day because of the clouds.

After lunch at a roadside “soda” — their name for the small, family-run restaurants that are as common as Starbucks in Seattle — we drove the 15 minutes over to the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges that are straight out of an Indiana Jones movie with stunning scenery to boot. The clouds sitting on the hillside and the incessant rain only added to the ambiance. Since we finished up our hike at the end of the day, the timing was perfect to see howler and spider monkeys bedding down for the night, and coatimundis searching for their dinner on the ground. Truly an amazing experience not to be missed.

Arenal Hanging Bridges

Day 4 – Visit La Fortuna Waterfall, the Ecocentro Danaus preserve, and the hot springs by the river

The sun was finally out so we decided to start the day at La Fortuna catarata or waterfall. The road up is long, steep and full of… what else… potholes! A lot of people walk to the waterfall from La Fortuna which we think is insane, since the road up to the Visitor’s Center is only half the battle. Consider that once you get there, you have to hike down 500 uneven and unpaved steps to the bottom. It’s tough going, but worth it in the end. The waterfall is bigger than you can even imagine… and powerful… and loud. Some people swim by the waterfall; some choose the calmer, albeit chilly river downstream. Our advice: enjoy it while you are at the bottom because the hike back up is going to hurt, and it did. It was mid-morning by the time we left, and already hot and humid.

Next stop was lunch in town and then on to Ecocentro Danaus just outside of town, a private ecological reserve with easy walking paths, a butterfly house and all kinds of wild rainforest critters like caimans, tree frogs, leafcutter ants, ocelots and lots of birds. You can walk the preserve with or without a guide. During our visit we saw a baby sloth sleeping just over our heads within the first five minutes of arriving, which was neat.

Afterward, we headed back to our cabin to change into our bathing suits for a soak in the natural hot spring. There are many resorts with hot springs around Arenal… for a price. Being cheap and always up for an adventure, we chose to “go local” and visit one that’s free. Just past the entrance to the Tabacon resort, there’s a yellow gate on the right. Park on the side of the road and walk down the path behind the gate to the hot spring creek below. Don’t be alarmed by the drainage tunnel in front of you. Just turn left, walk through the tunnel, climb over some rocks, and join everyone else who’s hanging out in the water. The area is open 24 hours a day, but as visiting gringos, it looked like a place that could be dicey at night. Regardless of the time of day, though, keep your items in sight. Leave your valuables in your room and just bring a towel and water sandals. The crowd varies wildly from 20-something hippies to local families looking for a fun way to spend the afternoon. It’s a great place for kids and grown-ups of any nationality.

La Fortuna Catarata

Day 5 – Drive five hours to the town of Matapalo on the coast

After breakfast, we said goodbye to the rainforest, packed up and headed south for the beach. The trip takes about five hours. The roads are paved and fairly good, even if they’re not always striped or particularly wide. The grades can be steep and the terrain is winding, so we spent most of the trip in 1st and 2nd gear. We got stuck behind large trucks on many occasions which slowed our progress, which is how we learned how to drive like the locals. Despite their laid-back lifestyle, Costa Ricans are “passers” by nature, regardless of double yellow lines and blind curves. We weren’t as daring as many of them, but we did use the invisible “third” lane in the middle to get around tour buses and cement trucks. Be sure to fill up before you leave the “big” city because gas stations are not on every corner.

After our enlightening driving experience, we finally arrived on the Pacific coast, staying in the small town of Matapalo at a very secluded place called Rafiki Beach Camp. Rafiki offers a pool, an outdoor kitchen and only four South African-style safari tents overlooking the most amazing beach that we’ve ever seen. These are not camping tents; they are hard-floored with electricity (no A/C) and fully enclosed all-tile bathrooms with open showers. The beach is soft and black, and covered with sand dollars, not people. It’s an absolutely breathtaking place.

Day 6 – Visit Manuel Antonio National Park and the town of Dominical

Spending some time at Manuel Antonio National Park is a must if you’re in this part of Costa Rica. But it’s also the most popular park in the country, so that means crowds. We got there early to avoid the crush of humanity and beat the heat. The park is very hot and humid. There are nice restrooms, but no food or drink vendors, so be sure to have water. If you choose to drive to the park be sure to drive all the way to the entrance gate. There will be lots of men in official-looking yellow vests trying to get you to park along the way, but keep going until you can’t go any further. The last parking lot on the left is next to the entrance gate and the ticket booth. There will also be tour guides trying to get you to hire them. We chose to go without a guide and are glad that we did. Perhaps we could have seen more wildlife with their spotting scopes, but we didn’t want to be tied to a slow-moving group. The park offers a number of hiking paths, a boardwalk, beautiful beaches, and wildlife that can be seen on your own. We saw lizards at eye-level, and a family of capuchin monkeys that were close enough to touch.

A morning in the park left plenty of time to spend the afternoon in the sleepy surfing village of Dominical. The village consists of two parallel dirt roads lined with restaurants, surf shops and local stores, many of them filled with young backpackers. When we visited, the road by the beach was lined with open air stalls that had a local craft bazaar feel to it. It’s also a great place to see surfers in action or to learn how to surf yourself.

Dominical Bazaar

Day 7 – Canopy tour with El Santuario and then pool and beach time

For day seven, we booked a canopy tour (ziplining, that is), with El Santuario Canopy Adventure because of their great reputation and online reviews. They have 11 ziplines… one of which they claim to be the third longest zipline in the world at almost a mile in length. They also have hanging bridges, air stairs and a little bit of rapelling at the end. We had an absolutely fabulous time and found the excellent, bilingual guides to be friendly, funny and thoroughly safety-conscious. The ziplines themselves were thrilling to be on. We even went upside down once… once. Afterward, they served everyone a traditional casado lunch which was a major plus.

Day 8 – Hammock time and then drive to San José

We slept in, had a late breakfast, and spent some quiet time in the hammock by the ocean. After saying goodbye to our tent, we had lunch and then headed out of town for the 2 1/2 hour drive back to San José. Here, we stayed at the Trapp Family Country Inn by the airport, a nice facility that’s a bit of an oasis in the middle of the rundown big city. Behind the security gates, the Inn has a pool, an open-air porch for meals and walkable grounds boasting a large number of local birds.

Resting in a hammock by Rafiki Beach Camp

Day 9 – Fly out of San José, Costa Rica

We got up early and returned our trusty Daihatsu to the Vamos Rent-A-Car offsite location, after which they took us to the airport for our flight home. A word about leaving Costa Rica: each visitor much pay a departure tax (about $29 per person) before checking in with the airline. There is a special desk in the front, facing all the ticket counters. It’s large; you can’t miss it. You can pay in dollars, colones or by credit card. After that, we got through airport security quickly and without any problems. We even had time to spend the last of our colones at the gift shop by our gate.

A few final things: You cannot take drinks of any kind onto the plane, and they search your bags before you board. As in, they set up tables on the gangway and unzip your bags and rifle through them. They’re probably looking for fruits, vegetables, orchids, that sort of thing. No big deal unless you decide to smuggle home a baby monkey. Just be prepared, chalk it up to being in a foreign country, and add the experience to all the rest of your priceless memories.

To plan your own trip to Costa Rica, be sure to get a good travel guide like this one.

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