Costa Rica was my first time ever in Central America. Alex bought the tickets as a SUPER AMAZING Christmas present and I was shocked! And then as I began to tell people of our impending trip and heard their reactions I was shocked again. That’s right, double shocked! People who have been truly love this place. Like, l-o-v-e it. I heard, “You’ll never want to come home” from more than a few people.
So needless to say, I was psyched when we left. Even though it was crazy early in the morning and that’s not my thing at all. Although you really can’t be too grumpy when you’re waking up for a flight to a place you’ve never been to before.
One thing I noticed from the moment we arrived to the moment we left is that Costa Rica is pretty chill. People are relaxed and easy going. There’s a breezy, laid back vibe and that I loved. It was a breath of fresh air in comparison to the lovely ol’ East Coast where people and things are a little more… high-strung?
We split our time between hanging out with Alex’s sister and nieces and doing our own thing. We were mostly near the center of the country and on the Pacific coast. Costa Rica, for those who, like me, aren’t so map-savvy, has a Pacific coast and a Caribbean coast. I’ve heard awesome things about both, but we only had time for one this trip. And I had sea turtles to find and admire! More on that in a minute.
Arenal is a rather giant volcano that set up shop in the middle of Costa Rica. It is an active volcano, which, thankfully, doesn’t actually mean it’s spewing out lava all day long. It just means that it could, I suppose. Anyway, the town you stay in to access all the best volcano activities is called La Fortuna. There are everything from hostels to spas and the big thing in the area – after the huge volcano – is the natural hot springs.
We stayed at Arenal Paraiso Resort, which was very pretty and had great views of the volcano. We had our own bungalow-type room and there are hot spring pools (one with a swim-up bar) and even a restaurant on premise. It’s a little further out of town than the other place we stayed, Hotel Fortuna. Arenal turned out to be a blast so we stayed another night, but Paraiso was booked. Hotel Fortuna was right in the center of town, which was handy even though there’s not a whole lot to do in La Fortuna itself. The hotel was a clean, no-fuss place to stay. The room was simple and that was fine for what we needed – a good night’s sleep before traveling.
As for activities, there are TONS of things to do around Arenal. We went on a tour that took us on a hike through some rain forest scenery and down to a waterfall. I learned it’s not as easy to swim near a waterfall as I had thought. It was a very cool experience and I’d do it again, feelings of drowning be damned! The day ended with a trip to a hot spring river after the sun went down. I didn’t even know hot springs could run through rivers! This ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip. Everyone gathered in the river under giant trees and passed around rum drinks, our faces covered in volcanic mud our tour guide had collected for us.
To get a good feel for the surrounding area, I’d suggest an ATV tour. We had such a blast doing this! The tour took us through some fields up to almost the base of the volcano and back down to a river. Neither of us had ever driven an ATV (…and one of us still hasn’t because sometimes you need to know your strengths and weaknesses), so it was a fun thing to try out together. Of all the activities we did, the ATV tour gets you the best up-close view of the volcano. Plus you get to wear these sweet helmets 😉
We also got the chance to visit a place called Ecocentro Danaus, which was way more fun than we anticipated. I attribute that to our tour guide, who was incredibly knowledgeable about the animals, and to Costa Rica for having so much kick ass wildlife. In NJ we pretty much just have deer running all over the place, so I was excited about this! As we walked around, we saw tons of different birds, caimans, a red-eyed tree frog and even a sloth. And for as slow as they are, sloths are pretty hard to photograph. It’s like they know we’re all standing there with cameras waiting for a good shot.
We went to Tamarindo with one goal in mind: to see some sea turtles! I have always wanted to see baby sea turtles being born. The time of the year corresponded to the nesting schedule of the Pacific green sea turtles, which live near Tamarindo. So off we went. And one incredibly bumpy, 5-hour bus ride later we were there! I should mention that I’m prone to carsickness and Costa Rica kicked my butt, so for normal people it might not be so bad. It’s an extremely mountainous country so it can take quite a while to drive it too.
We arrived with 18 hours to do our turtle thing. Actually 18 hours. So what did we do first? Walked along the GORGEOUS beach, had lunch at a beachfront restaurant and got massages right there on the beach (#priorities???). But after that, it was turtle game ON. So we booked a tour since people aren’t allowed to just wander the beaches at night while the turtles are nesting and hatching their tiny, adorable babies. Makes sense, right?
Our tour group was about 6 or 7 people and 2 tour guides. We went to the beach, flashlights in hand, ready for action! And… we waited. And waited. Turns out, turtles don’t really care that you’re looking for them. After waiting a while longer, in the thick, hot air everyone was ready to call it quits. Except us. I didn’t want to give up on seeing the turtles. And Alex didn’t want to give up on all the time and money we spent getting to that specific beach for those specific turtles. Right before we packed it in, our tour guide got a call that another group had spotted a mama turtle coming up the beach to nest. YES!
We headed over and met up with the other groups. Pregnant turtles have a period of a few days to give birth, so they’ll head up to a beach and decide whether or not the spot is right for their little turtle-to-be’s. In this case, she decided no, but we got to watch as she used her flippers to push herself back down the beach and floated into the water. It was beautiful! I didn’t include any pictures because they don’t allow you to use flash since it would disrupt and scare the turtles, so the pics aren’t that great. I really appreciated the precautions they take throughout the process to make sure the turtles aren’t disturbed or harmed.
As for accommodation, Tamarindo was overflowing with backpackers, so it’s not a problem. We stayed at Hotel Flores which was a very pretty little place with a pool, run by the older woman who owns it. She was really accommodating and even kept a look out for our early morning shuttle out of town the day we left. It was clean, comfortable and exactly what we needed for our quick stay.
This part of the trip was especially fun because we got to spend some extra time with Alex’s family. We rented a GORGEOUS place on AirBnB. I’d totally recommend staying here with some friends or family. There was plenty of room, a beautiful pool and the housekeeper was soo sweet! In Manuel Antonio, we relaxed by the pool and spent some much-needed time just hanging out at the beach. No better way to end a vacation. We got up close and personal with some of Costa Rica’s infamous monkeys who know no boundaries – but are pretty freaking cool so we let it slide. A piece of a banana may or may not have been stolen.
I also had my very first zip-lining experience ever and it was a blast! That’s been on my bucket list for a while now, so I was really happy we found some time for it.
The night before we left Costa Rica, I got to see an old friend from high school who I love dearly and haven’t seen in 8 or 9 years. Just another reason why Costa Rica is awesome.
What to Eat:
The food in Costa Rica is fresh, delicious and pretty straightforward. Also, totally vegetarian-friendly. I did eat some fish during the trip, but vegetarian food was my base and was really easy to come by. We ate gallo pinto for breakfast everyday, which is rice and black beans served with tortillas, natillas (kind of like sour cream) and Salsa Lizano (which is good on literally everything!). Since Costa Rica is chock full of fruit trees, there is always fresh fruit available. Alex’s niece even helped me pick my first ever green mango right in their backyard. And all the fruit tastes amazingly different than it does at home. We ate our weight in pineapple, mangoes and papaya.
For me, trying all the different fruits was an adventure in and of itself. My favorite fruit we tried was guanabana, or soursop. The outside is green and spiky, but the flesh is white and soft with a sweet/sour combo. I also really liked palm fruit, which are red/orange in color and have a starchy texture and savory flavor. You usually buy them already cooked and we ate ours right from the bag. Granadilla, in the picture above, is related to the passion fruit and is full of sweet, tangy little seeds that you slurp out of the skin.
Another staple of our Costa Rican diet was casado – a lunchtime plate of more rice and beans, plantains and different vegetables. Below, mine came with avocado, but traditionally it’s usually chicken or beef. We also ate patacones more than a few times, which are called tostones in most places. They’re green plantains sliced and fried. I’ve made them at home more than a couple of times since we’ve been back.
We joked – half seriously – about the fact that we were eating healthier on vacation than we sometimes do at home. Another reason to love Costa Rica in my book. Luckily, living in NJ means there are places not too far away that we can get pretty good gallo pinto and grocery stores that sell Lizano to douse it in 🙂
All in all, it was an incredible trip! We’ve talked more than once about moving down there one day. It’s a very different way of living – and apparently they’re doing it right down there. Not sure if anyone’s seen this yet but the Happy Planet Index, which measures countries on happy, sustainable living, just named Costa Rica #1. Pura Vida!!