Costa Rica

Pura Vida

Costa Rica…the land of Pura Vida, pure life.

For so many years I dreamed of meeting you. And when I finally did, it was love at first site.

View from a beach cottage at Ylang Ylang Beach Resort
Montezuma, Costa Rica

Why Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is not a tropical beach vacation. If you want that, go to the Caribbean.

Costa Rica is a nature lover’s paradise. Rainforests, cloud forests. Where you can lose hours watching adorable white-faced monkeys playing in the trees. An endless variety of beautiful birds to photograph.

But the essence of Costa Rica is in it’s people. They are truly happy to be your guide and to share their beautiful country. Observe the simplicity of their lives, their interactions with friends and family. There is something to learn.

Ease in, slow down, take your time.

Be like the sloth.

Brown Throated Three Fingered Sloth
Pacuare Lodge, Costa Rica

I have traveled to Costa Rica 3 times. Each time is different, yet as with any place you return to it becomes more familiar and begins to feel like home. And each time I go there is a real risk that I won’t ever come back.

Start below with travel planning tips. Then you will find links to the destinations I’ve experienced with sites to see and places to stay.

Planning Your Trip

Are you thinking, “I’d love to go but I just don’t know where to start!”

No worries, I’ve got you covered. I usually do all of my own research and planning for trips. I’m willing to do the work. But planning Costa Rica was harder than I thought. Where to go? How many destinations? How long? What about getting around? Will I be safe? I put this trip off for literally years because of the struggle to put all the pieces together.

And then the universe intervened as it often does. In a chance conversation in passing at the coffee pot, I realized a good friend of mine was from Costa Rica originally. He referred me to his childhood friend who happened to own a travel agency specializing in ecotourism and trips to Costa Rica for Americans.

I reached out to Jorge at what was then called Valle Dorado Tours. A small, family-owned agency with a solid track record took the base itinerary I had created, added a personal driver and a destination I hadn’t even considered (which turned out to be a top 5 all-time spot) and saved me 20% over what I anticipated spending. Not too mention the comfort of knowing you have someone in the country that can help you if something goes wrong.

I HIGHLY recommend this agency, still family run but now called Top Travel Costa Rica. Click their logo and get free advice. I do not get paid anything, I just fully endorse them.

Click this image to visit their site

Ancient Trail and Waterfall Hike
Pacuare Lodge, Costa Rica

Marvin

Marvin was my driver and naturalist guide and companion for the majority of my first trip. An absolute gem! If you go to Costa Rica for birding, you simply can’t do it without a guide.. My count after this trip was near 200 different birds. Without Marvin it would have been about 5. Request him if you can!

Where I’ve Been – Click to Jump

Link to Arenal Volcano section
Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna
Manuel Antonio National Park
Corcovado National Park
Sarchi
Montezuma
Pacuare Lodge, Rio Pacuare
San Jose
Arenal Volcano from the town of La Fortuna

Arenal Volcano,

La Fortuna

Things to Do

This is a popular destination for first-timers. About 2 hours drive Northwest of San Jose. Hiking, zip-lining, hanging bridges, birdwatching, hot springs.

Things to Know

Every destination in Costa Rica requires a good drive. The roads are pretty good with several paved main highways but signage is poor. This is why I highly recommend letting TopTravel arrange your trip – it is common in Costa Rica to have a driver. Most properties provide simple accommodations because your driver is also your tour guide. This is part of the lifestyle of their job. Having the right guide will make the trip what it should be and by the time you leave, you’ll have a new best friend.

My cabin, Ylang Ylang, at Finca Luna Nueva. Click to visit their website.
Main Lodge, Finca Luna Nueva. Click to visit their website.

Where I Stayed

Finca Luna Nueva

This was the only place that TopTravel did not select for me. I had heard about it at my hair salon (which is the best place for tips) because one of the owners is from the town where I live.

This is an eco-lodge on a farm that produces, among other things, turmeric and cacao. An ecolodge is not a Marriott. The accommodations were cabin-like. Simple. Absolutely immaculately clean. And really all you need.

There is a small restaurant on site. You’ll eat in an outdoor pavillion. There was a basic menu, but they are working off what is raised on the farm. I remember loving everything for it’s simplicity, freshness and because it was enough. And yes, there was wine. There is also a raised platform for sunrise yoga.

For the birders, I can tell you that this property had tons of species throughout the grounds. Marvin showed me a ficus tree (not the same thing as the fake one in your living room). He got me up at sunrise one morning and I believe we spotted over 40 unique birds on that tree alone. He was also responsible for my first sloth sighting.

As an introduction to ecolodges, naturalist vacations and to this beautiful country, Finca Luna Nueva was perfect. I cherish this memory which is scented with ylang ylang and plan to return someday soon.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Located just south of Quepos on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It’s very small in terms of parks. A half-day excursion, tops. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the gorgeous Punta Catedral beach but secure your belongings. The monkeys are cute, but they can open backpack and peel a mango better than you can πŸ™‚

Where I Stayed

Gaia Hotel and Nature Reserve

This was an over-the-top change from the ecolodge I had just come from. I had a 2 bedroom, 3-story villa that rivals the nicest accommodations you can expect in the US at a fraction of the price. 3rd story had an outdoor queen bed, plunge pool and views for days of the pacific.

The property has a nature reserve with tours available. Ate my first termite here (tastes like peanut butter).

Costa Rica is not known for it’s food. It’s mostly a chicken and bean culinary scene. Gaia’s restaurant was exceptional, again even by U.S. standards. It was here that I first understood what ceviche really was. And formed a forever taste memory of the Tico Especiale breakfast of black beans and rice, plaintains, fresh papaya, and the quintessential flavor of Costa Rica, Lizano.

But the thing that changed my life was the spa.

His name was Carlos. My room came with a free spa service for each day. I had a massage and facial, the usuals. Then Carlos led me through a chakra opening ritual that changed my life forever. That was 2013, but I dream that I will find him again someday.

Capuchin Monkey at Manuel Antonio National Park
View of my 2-bedroom, 3 story villa. Rooftop plunge pool and queen bed.
Click photo to link to Gaia Hotel and Nature Reserve website.
Honeymoon Bungalow, Casa Corcovado
Click photo to link to their website.
Scarlett Macaw, Osa Peninsula

Corcovado National Park,

Osa Peninsula

A destination of a lifetime.

This is the location I never in a million years would have found or planned without Jorge at TopTravel. I am forever changed after spending 4 days here.

The Osa Peninsula is the southernmost area of Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast just above the border with Panama. This is one of the last primary rainforests on earth and the only one in Costa Rica (primary rainforest meaning it is original, never been cut down, truly wild).

This is the pinnacle of a trip to Costa Rica. The real deal. Scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, pumas. An adorable animal called a coati. Completely cut off from civilization.

There are no roads to get here. The journey is just the beginning of the adventure.

I would like to say that this destination is not for everyone. This property is extremely remote. I signed a waiver prior to arrival that informed me I was 6+ hours to a hospital, that pumas had recently been sighted on the property and that the Fer-de-Lance, one of the most poisonous vipers in the world, resides in this jungle. I saw families with small children. In my opinion, bad idea. Some things should be saved until you are old enough to appreciate it, and wise enough to follow the warning placards.

Casa Corcovado

Accessible only by boat, your journey begins at La Hacienda in Sierpe. You board a small boat that is probably carrying a few staff members, necessary supplies and maybe one or two other people for an hour-and-a-half pleasant river sight-seeing cruise followed by 20 minutes of white-knuckles as you leap from the peaceful waters of the river to the wild and unpredictable Pacific. And then suddenly you realize the boat has slowed down as it approaches a sleepy beach shaded by palms.

Hope you wore your boat shoes because there is no dock. You and your 35lb luggage limit which is wrapped up in a garbage bag will step out into the water and wade in. There you will board trailer hooked to a tractor to help you make the steep climb to the main property.

It’s an oasis in the rainforest. A solar and propane powered eco resort. You’re very ready for your welcome cocktail and lunch. Then you’ll be escorted to your bungalow, a paradise beyond what an ecolodge in this remote of a place should be. Enjoy your outdoor shower and your first nap in the hammock. Start to take in the sounds, the smells.

At dinner, you actually have a menu to select from and a wine list. The options are simple, clean, fresh and delicious. I promise you’ll eat every bite.

Get to bed early because jungle life wakes up at dawn. Sometimes earlier. The howler monkeys aren’t shy about stopping by your bungalow at 3am. But you are safe and sound inside, snuggled up on your 4-poster bed and lulled back to sleep by the gentle rotation of fan in the canopy roof.

Tomorrow you’ll take one of many excursions where you will lose yourself in the sheer wonder of the rainforest and see plants and creatures you’ll never see anywhere else on earth. Watch your step, it’s a jungle out there.

4 days from now you’ll realize you’re forever changed. In some ways you’re ready to get back to civilization, but as soon as you are, you want to go back.

Main dining room, Casa Corcovado
Click photo to link to their website.

Sarchi

I was drawn to this destination for two reasons – the chance to see the painted oxcarts that the town is famous for and because I did not want to waste any nights in the city of San Jose before flying home.

Sarchi is reached by a winding and narrow road that goes up over cloudy mountains and down into lush valley. It is just over one hour’s drive from the airport, so you can stay for a night or two prior to your departure as a way of easing back into reality. Just book your flight home late enough to allow for the drive.

The town is sleepy, so you can stroll at a leisurely pace checking out the main square and the painted oxcarts. There were locals handmaking crafts scattered around, all willing to negotiate. Sarchi is also known for the manufacture of wooden rocking chairs. I had seen them all over the country and they are simply gorgeous. Considering the craftsmanship, the prices were a steal but you’ll have to be patient as it will take several months to ship back to the U.S.

Sarchi also boasts Costa Rica’s most impressive waterfall, Catarata del Toro. You can hike to it, nothing strenuous and no risk of vipers here πŸ™‚ It was a refreshing dip on a humid day.

Having had enough jungle and adventure for one trip, Sarchi was the perfect place to unwind for 2 days. The lodge, El Silencio, was serene (see below).

The benefit of mixing in some low-key days during travel is that you have time to just wander and immerse in the local culture. My travel companion and I wandered into the nearby village of Bajos Del Toro Amarillo which has only about 200 residents. We wanted to try some local cuisine and do some people- watching. There were 2 different mom-n-pop restaurants and we didn’t want to offend anyone so we ate at both πŸ™‚

The locals here do not speak any English but we managed no problem. They were as curious of us as we were of them. We had a delicious beef tongue dish at one spot (do not miss this delicacy in Costa Rica). At the other there wasn’t really a menu so I just said “plato del dia”. We were serenaded by a lovely lady with mad accordion skills while our food was prepared. We were served a plate of fried yucca which was simple and would have been ok until they squeezed a copious amount of mayonnaise on top. Like a good guest should, we ate every bite with a smile but it was a long meal πŸ™‚

We stepped outside and saw a soccer game going on in a field across the street. The Costa Rican soccer team had just lost 1-0 to the U.S. in a World Cup qualifying match that made national news due to the weather conditions (see “2013 snow classic”). We sat and watched, absorbing ourselves in the spirit of the community and it’s love for “futbol”. The experience of that simple night is one of my fondest travel memories.

Local futbol match in progress
Painted Ox Cart, Sarchi, Costa Rica
Hand-crafted wooden rocking chairs manufactured in Sarchi
Try whatever they have with beef tongue. Trust me.
Local entertainment – experiences you can’t plan for
El Silencio Lodge & Spa
Hanging Bridge at El Silencio

El Silencio

This property is a romantic gem hidden in a deep valley. Surrounded by mountains and shaded by their mist, it is absolute serenity.

The room was amazing. It was essentially a villa with sliders that led to a raised front porch (with locally made rocking chairs of course), sprawling king size bed, a living room with plenty of space to spread out….and an outdoor hot tub on your private screened porch.

There is a lovely upscale restaurant on site. Definitely not getting fried yucca with mayonnaise here. Spa services are available. They also offer activities including guided tours to the waterfall, chocolate tours and bird watching.

I highly recommended this property as an exit-point to Costa Rica. I can’t wait to go back someday and really sink into the peaceful bliss of this place.

Montezuma, Nicoya Peninsula

The Nicoya Peninsula is on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Known for it’s surfing and larger resorts, this is a popular destination for people that don’t necessarily want to do all the “big jungle” stuff but want to get a taste.

Montezuma is the southernmost tip of the peninsula. It is a small, bohemian beach town with plenty of hostels and low-budget accommodations including beach campsites. While the locals and visitors are a colorful bunch, it is very safe. No car needed. Tip for getting there – I talked to so many people that flew into Liberia and took some horrendous 4 hour bus ride. Hell no. Fly into San Jose and either take the ferry (yes, you will have to coordinate timing) or splurge just a little and take Costa Rica Green Air from San Jose to Tambor. There are flights about every hour – it is a prop plane for those who need to know that. There are always taxis ready to get you to your hotel upon arrival. (Note that the terminal for these intra-country connector flights is outside of the main San Jose terminal. You can walk there, follow the arrows on the sidewalk.)

The town center is bustling with surf shops, eclectic art galleries and rastafarian craftspeople on the streets. Everyone is very laid back, no pushy vendors in your face.

I took the short hike to the Montezuma Waterfall and took a swim. I’m not sure I took the most direct route as I ended up actually hiking up in the water part of the way…probably should have asked for directions to the start of the trail.

On my way back to my beach bungalow at Ylang Ylang Beach Resort (see below) I did some shopping and a local told me about a turtle release that was happening later that day.

Turtle release πŸ™‚ I’m in.

So I had walked right by it and not noticed it before. The ASVO Turtle Hatchery.

At 4pm, volunteers dug up leatherback turtle babies that had just hatched and gave them a headstart on their way into the mighty Pacific. To see these tiny creatures instinctively aim toward the great unknown was humbling. It’s hard to imagine that they actually make it, but they do. Every last one. To get perspective, check out my Trinidad and Tobago page to see a picture of a 40-year old leatherback coming in to nest on a beach. Stunning.

There are no adequate words for what I experienced that day. Video below. This was added to my “best life moments ever” journal as soon as I got home.

I always have to get a little birding in on a trip to Costa Rica, so I did a day excursion to Curu National Wildlife Refuge. We made several stops and I added some new birds to my list.

The rest of my time was spent on the property where I stayed eating vegetarian meals and sushi, drinking papaya coladas, taking long beach hikes and taking thousands of pictures of the capuchin monkeys that were hanging out over my bungalow.

Capuchin monkey catching a little nap above my bungalow.
Ylang Ylang Beach Resort, Montezuma, Costa Rica
Costa Rica Green Air flight to Tambor
Montezuma Waterfall
Howler Monkey at Ylang Ylang Beach Resort
Yoga Pavillion at Ylang Ylang
Capuchin monkey in the palm above my bungalow
Private path to Iguana Beach Bungalow
Playa Grande, Montezuma

Ylang Ylang Beach Resort

An absolute paradise.

Located past the paved roads and directly on the beach is a family-owned boutique resort ideal for a 4 or 5 day getaway for the yoga-loving, vegetarian.

They do have meat. So husbands will be fine. But I chose this place because I wanted to unplug. I wanted beach and jungle, yoga and fresh, healthy food.

The resort is considered all-inclusive, meaning that you get 3 meals a day included in the room rate. Alocohol and spa services are extra of course.

I arrived and checked into my fabulous domed beach bungalow situated just steps from the beach. Shaded by lush jungle, french doors onto a private patio, indoor and outdoor showers, small fridge, queen bed, A/C. Super cozy and all you need.

I had scheduled a massage for late afternoon knowing it would be a long day of travel. They have a raised pavillion with 2 private open-air treatment rooms. I had a fabulous “Ylang Ylang Experience” massage as the sun was setting and the howler monkeys were saying goodnight.

After a short nap, I headed to the outdoor dining room and reveled in the diversity of fresh options available including sushi handrolled on site. Costa Rica is not known for cuisine. They usually serve chicken, beans and rice. They usually have beef as well but Ylang Ylang’s restaurant had fresh fish options (daily catch could be tuna or grouper), unique salads (heart of palm and avocado salad was my favorite) and yes, sushi. Such a treat to have this many choices.

The next morning I got up early and participated in a yoga class. They have a raised yoga studio over the dining room with views that are simply breathtaking. There is no better way to start the day. It is a small fee and worth every penny. The teacher was a local and she offered something different than the standard sun salutations. I really loved her class.

The rest of my time on the property was spent either on the beach, drinking fresh papaya coladas by the pool, hiking to the more remote beaches or just hanging out on my patio watching the white-faced monkeys playing (which can easily take up several hours).

Even though dinner was included, I chose to walk into town twice to try other places. Just as the sand turns back into pavement, there was a restaurant called Ubin just making it’s way into existence but it had the alluring, upscale vibe that I can never resist. Seemingly out of place in bohemian Montezuma, it was a nice treat and I had 2 truly exceptional meals there. A multi-course gourmet foodie-worthy menu that was about half the cost of an equivalent meal in the U.S. Check out the link if you travel here and inquire about a reservation for the Chef’s Tasting Menu. Ideal for an anniversary or other special date night.

Duck confit salad at Ubin by Keilor Sanchez at NYA hotel
Montezuma, Costa Rica

From the Ylang Ylang property you can hike a seemingly endless strip of beaches linked by jungle paths and dotted with rivers and tide pools to explore. The El Chorro waterfall is a 1.5 hour hike each way but is one of only 7 waterfalls in the world that drops into the ocean. A great way to spend a lesuirely day. Bring a backpack with water and lunch, sunscreen and your camera.

My memories of Ylang Ylang are scented in their custom crafted lotion and shampoo, which I purchased, wrapped carefully and brought home. Some things are worth checking luggage for. Almost a year later I am still transported back when I smell them.

Turtle Release – ASVO Turtle Hatchery

Look closely!!

Pacuare Lodge, Rio Pacuare

I tell the story of this destination through my experience at Pacuare Lodge, one of National Geographic’s Great Lodges of the World.

This was a splurge trip but worth it. You’ll spend one night in San Jose and then you are done making decisions other than which excursion to try next or what to eat.

As expected, traveling with Nat Geo was a top-notch experience. I was alone and I loved knowing I was safe at all times and everything was taken care of. All I had to do was experience it.

Not accessible by land, your entry to the lodge is a whitewater rafting trip. I was nervous about this because I’d never done it but once again, I was with Nat Geo. No worries. Exhilarating. I just love unique arrivals like this…really jumpstarts the trip.

The property is gorgeous. Period. My villa (Lora) was so ridiculously over the top. It was a house more than a villa, minus the kitchen. With the ability to be fully open air or safely sealed off, it was just spectacular. Private outdoor deck overlooking the river below with a plunge pool, a shady hammock, indoor and outdoor showers (never used the indoor one), rich wood furnishings, 4-poster canopy bed. I took my best photo of the fiery-billed aricari from my clawfoot bathtub.

The villa was on a hill but they provide golf cart service if you want it. I walked down and got a ride back up.

The restaurant is a fully open-air building with a deck right on the river. The food was amazing, particularly considering the remote location and that Costa Rica isn’t exactly a culinary destination. I loved absolutely everything and struggled with choices knowing I only had so many meals during my stay. They have a great bar area for pre and post dinner socializing and a very unique cocktail selection using local fruits and spices.

The real essence of this trip is the people.

The staff quickly become family. There are several young guides that can be your spotter on the zip-line in the morning, your hiking guide in the afternoon and your raft captain the next day. Some of the staff are Cabecar, a local indigenous people that maintain an incredibly primitive way of life in the hills nearby. Of course Nat Geo supports their community and you are able to visit the village and interact with the people as part of the stay.

Pacuare Lodge was an intimate experience. Many days I was the only one signed up for an excursion and the guides allowed me to set the pace and scope of our adventures. One day I went on an excursion to the local town with Luis and Eric. Knowing I was a bird enthusiast, they both went to great pains to point out birds along the way. They were knowledgeable beyond expectation, sometimes hearing a bird in the distance and then using an app to mimic the call and draw the bird closer so I could photograph it (gallery below of the highlights). We actually went to Luis’s house and had lunch with his family. They let me swim across the river on the way back instead of taking the overhead cable cage. These are the magical experiences you simply can’t plan for. You’ve just got to go and leave enough time for them to happen. I still keep in touch with Luis almost a year later. I remember the names of the others – Jazmin, Annaneis, Geovanny, Alvaro, Eric (you owe me a pair of shorts πŸ™‚ ) And the nice man who always ended up driving me to my villa after dinner. Without him, I’d never have seen the sloth. Or the tarantula πŸ™‚ (Don’t worry they are not interested in you.)

When it is time to leave, you get a much better taste of whitewater rafting. Again, I was a little nervous but there was no reason to be. The staff are experienced. It is not Disney though and there is always some risk. But that trip out on the river was another extraordinary experience…there are slow points between the rapids where you just take the scenery in, passing by waterfalls, beaches and jungle. The staff stops midway, takes the raft out of the water, flips it over and turns it into a buffet table for the gourmet lunch that you didn’t know they packed for you. Fantastic!!

Many of the people I met here were couples doing multi-destination trips in the country. There were families. Some people only stayed a night or two. In my opinion, that is too short. You won’t get a chance to immerse yourself. As with every destination in Costa Rica, it takes effort to get there. So don’t rush to the next place. The property itself is lovely to just wander on your own and they have a great pool. I think 3 nights minimum. I stayed 5 with a night in San Jose on each side for a one week trip.

Would go back in a heartbeat, and I hope it will be soon.

Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica
Brown Throated Three Fingered Sloth at Pacuare Lodge
Villa Lola, Pacuare Lodge
Ceviche Lunch, Pacuare Lodge
Pre-dinner cocktail

San Jose

In most cases you will fly to the capital of San Jose when entering the country. I’m a fan of just getting all the travel out of the way on Day 1 so as not to waste any precious vacation in a city. If possible, make arrangements to continue on to your first destination upon arrival. It will be a long day but you’ll be glad you did it.

On my last trip I was traveling with a National Geographic tour. It was not possible to get to the destination same day, so I spent the first and last night of the trip here at Grano de Oro.

Hotel Grano de Oro

What a classic grand dame of a hotel! It had so much character and felt like stepping back in time, but yet it was up to date, rooms were fresh and everything was immaculate. They have a little rooftop sun deck with 2 hot tubs for unwinding after your flight in. The gift shop had some awesome local crafts. I bought several handmade journals.

The restaurant in this hotel was top notch. Absolutely gorgeous with a formal open air dining room surrounding a romatic enclosed courtyard. Clearly this is the place the locals come for very special occasions as it did not appear to be all tourists.

I splurged on my first night an got the chef’s tasting menu. “Top 10” meal in the world to date which blew me away considering Costa Rica is not really a culinary destination. The service was impeccable. I was wearing relaxed resort-wear since I had mostly packed hiking clothes – totally fine. I ordered from the menu on my final night, and again the food was exceptional. Let the waiters guide your decisions as the menu was pretty extensive. For those meat lovers, this is a place that takes pride in it’s beef.

Courtyard at Grano de Oro restaurant

That is all for now for the land of pura vida. Don’t put it off any longer. Call Top Travel and tell them you are ready!

Already been to Costa Rica and want a similar nature and jungle adventure? Try Trinidad & Tobago. Click the image below to jump to that page. Ready for the ultimate naturalist trip? How about Galapagos.

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