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Grace's Guide to Costa Rica

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Before traveling to Costa Rica the first time in March 2019, I honestly didn’t believe the hype. I was on a mission to visit as many new places as possible and never could have imagined that Costa Rica would throw a wrench in my desire to explore.

Now, after my 4th visit, I’m already looking ahead to my next trip and have a list of things to do that continues to grow despite my best attempts to check them off.

I wanted to put together a little guide of my experiences for anyone who is wanting to explore this beautiful country.

In alphabetical order, here’s my tips, cities, and insights:

Alajuela - when you fly into SJO airport, you are actually flying into this city/province. When needing to book an airbnb/hotel for your travel days, consider this Alajuela in your search if you want to be closer to the airport. San Jose, Proper, is going to be 30-60 minutes away, depending on traffic.

Jaco - tourist-y beach town with easy access to multiple beaches along the Pacific coast. The beach area is cute, with many places to stay with an ocean view. However, ocean view restaurants are less abundant. We ate dinner, twice, at El Point Jaco Beach, simply for the sunset view and ease of walking…except during High Tide, when the Rio Najanja is a little too deep to walk through, in which case you have to walk around on the roads. We definitely learned this hard, or rather wet, way, which made for lots of giggles on the walk home in the dark. Jaco has no shortage of options to eat, further away from the beach. There’s a super active strip, and also a more mall-type food court area (with super yummy pizza!). Rumor has it that sting rays can be seen while surfing in these waters (I didn’t surf this trip, but definitely intrigued for the next time). Overall, this town gave me Myrtle Beach vibes, and although the sunsets sure were pretty, I would choose something smaller, and less touristy for my own personal preference. However, I would definitely go back to Playa Hermosa and Playa Herradura, both super drivable, but in opposite directions from Jaco.

La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano) - fun little mountain town. The town area is definitely geared towards tourists and is no short supply of shops, places to eat (both tipico and Americanized), and it kinda reminds me of Gatlinburg is it’s charm. Further outside of the town are tons of resort areas all with views of the famous Arenal Volcano. If you stay closer to the volcano, you may be able to score a hotel with access to the natural hot springs. I stayed at Arenal Kioro Suites and Space, which had theirs on-site plus access to one closer to the town of La Fortuna. We only had 2 nights (1 full day) here, and the weather was on the rainy side so we opted to skip the waterfall (which can be cloudy with lots of rain) and focused on the national park. There are a few options for hikes within the park, and we hit all the main spots. There a lookout (mirador) in the second parking lot, with a great long-look at the volcano. The main hike inside the park has 2 options, we took one on the way IN (2 km) and one on the way OUT (3 km). The way OUT leads you by a 400 old Ceibo tree which was LIFE-CHANGING! The massiveness of the tree is impressive, and the roots look like elephant trunks. I told that tree “see you later” knowing full well this wasn’t good-bye. Both trails culminate at the volcano trail, and is full of giant rocks to travel over. The lookout is at the edge of the lava trail, and a safe distance from the actual peak. There’s a 2nd lookout that gives you a view of Lake Arenal as well, but is further away from the lava trail. The weather may change rapidly, during both the dry and green seasons, so stick around if there are clouds blocking your view. It’s very likely they will clear within 30 minutes, and give way to stunning (and quick) view of the peak. The second trail requires a bit of a drive away from the main part of the park. This “Peninsula Trail” (1.4 km) is more accessible, and paved for folks with wheels. The end of the trail leads to a dock in the middle of Lake Arenal and has a beautiful view of the surrounding hills plus the volcano.

Liberia - city of the smaller airport, and the easiest to access to southern Nicoya Pennisula aka Nosara (2.5 hour drive and mostly paved straight roads versus 5ish hours and lots of mountain roads). LIR is MUCH smaller than SJO and many of the flights from pre-2020 haven’t returned, yet. Airbnb’s are super cheap in the town area, with many places easy to access by foot. Traditional housing with locked metal gates, and secluded outdoor areas.

Manuel Antonio - this beach was definitely the most crowded of the places we visited, and it definitely gave me Miami/South Beach vibes for all the exciting things happening. My brother and I had been traveling together for a few weeks, and opted to book separate places for these few days, and we got to experience different areas of this popular beach town. Highlights: amazing view from the top of the hill at El Faro Hotel, sunsets, SLOTHS!!, 3 different kinds of monkeys, and secret beach spots with less people

Mehhhh: traffic, pushy street vendors, soooo many stairs for the views, and alllllll the people

Manual Antonio is popular with local families, and we were definitely there on the weekend, just after American Thanksgiving so maybe other days aren’t so crowded. Manual Antonio National Park is totally worth it because SLOTHS!!! My most favorite memory of the trip happened early one morning: there was noise outside my door so I stepped outside on my balcony to see what was happening. I was greeted by 20-30 monkeys who were systematically going through the hotel property looking for anything that wasn’t nailed down, and worthy of taking. It was spectacular to watch their methodological approach, and I definitely kept my distance…..while taking ALL the videos!!!

Nosara - even though this was the very first place I visited, it still reigns supreme as my favorite place. It’s a perfect blend of nature and comfort, with easy access to delicious restaurants and pristine beaches. Nosara is part of a Biological Preserve, and the 3 beaches are all protected from future development. It sits in the middle of the Nicoya Peninsula and is easier to access from the Liberia airport (2.5 hours, versus 5 from SJO). Playa Guiones is the largest beach, and where the surfer hang. Expect to see surf lessons happening all up and down the beach, and zero buildings. Look for little jungle paths, marked by standing wooden structures, to find your way from the beach through the town parts (hint…they all have numbers). Playa Pelada has a few one-story buildings, with options for beach food and drinks. Olga’s has local drinks, and snacks, and Luna’s is fancier, with ocean views. There is a jungle trail that leads from Guiones to Pelada, and a tuk-tuk ride back is always a good time. Playa Garza, about 15 minute drive away, is more low-key, and the fishing boat beach. I like the quietness of this beach, and there’s a beach front restaurant with amazing ceviche, family run and when I visited the pups were just as excited to be there.

Paquera - not usually on “must-visit” lists, but this one made my itinerary for one reason…BIOLUMINESCENT PHYTOPLANKTON!!! Loosely translated to dark ocean swimming surrounded by magical glowing floating organisms. This experience was definitely unforgettable, but maybe not for the best reasons. But first, the super cool part: we took pretty magical sunset boat ride to Isla Tortuga a mostly deserted island that straight up had Morla from The Neverending Story vibes, and we also had a bit of a biology lesson as our guide explained the why’s and how’s behind their glow. The not-so-awesome part…their glow also attracts sand fleas which may bite you while you are swimming in the magical light. There were some super amazing local restaurants in Paquera, as well as some beautiful hidden beaches. This is also the first place I ever saw Macaw's in real life...also a moment of happy tears and JOY!

Honorable mention: the sunset ferry ride across the bay from Puntarenas to Paquera was super beautiful and not to be missed if in this area!!!

Playas Hermosa, Herradura y Esterillos - I have definitely read whole blogs dedicated to each of these beaches, but I only spent a few hours in each place so keeping it brief. All 3 are easy to drive from Jaco; 30 minutes S, 30 minutes N, and 50 minutes S, respectively. For starters, there are at least 3 Playa Hermosas in Costa Rica, 1 in Nicaragua, and I would imagine they exist elsewhere as Hermosa is spanish for beautiful! The one I visited this trip was on the Pacific coast, and was wide open with black sand. Playa Herradura was probably my favorite beach out of the 3, except for the towering Marriott resort that occupied half of the view. The food on-site is expensive, shocker, but there are plenty of cute(r) local spots all along the beach with more reasonable options. El Pelicano was my personal favorite as they had swings for seats!!! Play Esterillos is home to the famous La Sirena statue….a bronze mermaid sits right on the beach watching the ocean from her perch!!! It had started to rain when we arrived, but we patiently waited our turn for the photo op!! DUH!!!

Santa Teresa - I would, and AM, most definitely go back to this area! <Hint, Hint> I have only spent one night here, but immensely enjoyed the town. This was a stopover-Zipline-Adventure-Time, and I left wanting more! The zipline was a trip highlight, with a terrifying/exhilarating jump into a waterfall pool included! The beach at Santa Teresa had a large area of magical, light-reflecting tide pools that captured my imagination and wonder. I can’t hardly wait to revisit this part….psssst Early 2023!!!

San Jose - San Jose gets a bad rap in a lot of travel posts, but depending on the neighborhood, it can be quite delightful, and full of culinary treats. Depending on the traffic, which can be intense with folks on tiny motorcycles zipping in and out of slowly moving trucks and cars, it can take 45-60 minutes to get from the airport to your destination.

Two neighborhoods I can vouch for: Barrio Escalante and Barrio Amon. They aren’t too far apart from one another, and rather different in their offerings. Barrio Escalante is marked by a large apartment (and short-term rental) building URBN Escalante. It’s super cute, easy to find, and has fun areas to explore on sight. Pro tip: check the view from the top during the day AND night! Both are stunning, and maybe a bit dizzy-ing. BEST view of the city. My favorite, and most frequented place, is Jardin de Lolita. A super cute outdoor food court style place. You can order directly from the food stalls, or have a seat in the dining area to be waited on, and access to a few of the menus (but not all). My favorite part of this neighborhood is all the street art. I spent a whole morning exploring and taking photos. One whole avenue (17th) is blocked off and covered in murals. Barrio Amon is a little older, and a little more centralized to the city-like area. There are multiple parks nearby, a zoo, and plenty of cool street art to notice as well.

Other places I recommend:

Kam’s Bakery - delicious breakfast menu, kind staff, and easy access from Barrio Escalante

Cafe Rojo- B.Y.O. Vietnamese. I know, Vietnamese in Costa Rica, and yes! The mushroom protein option was amazing, and I sat for awhile determined to eat my whole bowl. I wish I would have found this place sooner, I wanted to try everything. I took a few pastries to go and had them to snack on while traveling home.

Uvita/Dominical/Ojatal - um, yes!!! I LOVED this area and totally could have spent more time here. The 3 towns make up Costa Ballena (Whale coast) and Uvita is home to the famous “Whale’s Tail” park (Protip: visit the park during low tide so you can walk along the sand bar to the end of the “Tail”). This is also the best place to see the whales migrating (mid-December). We stayed in Uvita, and mostly explored this middle town. Ojatal was further south, and the least developed of the 3. Conversely, Dominical is the furthest north, and the most developed. This area is also where the Envision Festival happens annually. While in Uvita, we went waterfall hiking (Nauyaca - take the horse/bus ride there, and probably back….I was ill-prepared for the hike, and definitely cried when I saw one of the hills. Luckily, a super nice man picked up on the way back and drove us a bit. Seriously, pay the extra money), snorkeling to Caño Island (more on that in a moment), and met up with one of my brothers friends who had moved there a few years ago who took us to a local market and vegetarian restaurant (Indomintos - BEST damn acai bowl of my life!). My brother is SCUBA certified and wanted to explore underwater. We found a tour that had both snorkeling and SCUBA to take us to Isla de Caño, which is a Biological Preserve meaning that only scientists are allowed on the island, and the number of water visitors is limited daily by the government. Isla de Caño was about an hour boat ride from Uvita and we rode by Corcovado Park (still on my list to visit!!). I was unsure how I would feel snorkeling as my adventure in Bermuda when I was 18 was less than impressive. And WOWZA, I have never been more thrilled to be wrong! I went in with zero expectations, and squealed/screamed/cried when I was rewarded with seeing 2 different kinds of SEA TURTLES!!!!!! Even typing this out, I’m crying happy tears remembering how majestic they were. When we visited, it had rained on the way in, but that was no lacking in the fish department. I mean, sure; visibility probably was better on a sunny day but WHO CARES?! I could see a million different rainbow fishies, reef sharks, lobsters, more fishies, and did I mention RIdley Scott and Green SEA TURTLES?! 10/10 would do it again, and Corcovado I’m still coming for ya one day!!! We drove through Dominical on the way out, and I would definitely go back and anchor here next time. The beach looked beautiful, and there was an abundance of street vendors selling beautiful crafts, and many of them weren’t too pushy.

So what’s left to visit?!

My “short” list includes:

The whole Caribbean coast

Corcovado National Park

More volcanoes, including RIncon de la Vieja

And back to Nosara!!

S/o to everyone who has adventured to Costa Rica with me in the past, but especially to Evan Smith and Hillary Heath! Mostly because of that one driving incident...ya know the one with all the rivers, and stress. Because of y'all no retreat participant will EVER have to deal with me driving!! #alwayshireadriver

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