Costa Rica is a beautiful and affordable destination and one which I get asked about quite often. It has such a diverse landscape that you can be on the beach taking in the sun one day while trekking the trails near Arenal Volcano the very next day. There is something for everyone in this beautiful country and you’re going to see wildlife, landscape, and other sites which you might have never seen before. My wife and I took a flight from Albany, NY to Liberia, Costa Rica and rented a small SUV to get around. We started on the northwest side of Costa Rica and made our way southeast. We returned the car to San Jose International Airport. It’s not really far in terms of distance but there are roads where you will have to drive slow either due to the speed limit or due to the poor conditions of the road themselves. If you are going to rent a car, I highly recommend an SUV. It doesn’t have to be huge and anything with decent ground clearance will suffice. You can see the distance between the two airports below.
Arriving in Costa Rica
We arrived at Liberia International Airport from Newark at 1:40 pm. 17.5k United miles per person was what got us here. We headed straight for the car rental counters which were adjacent to the airport and this was probably the worst part of our trip. We pre-booked with Budget so I assumed I would just have to show my license and passport, give them my credit card, and we’d be on our way. That’s not how it went. First of all the line was long and it was slow moving. The issue at hand with just about everyone in front me? Not reading up on their car rental laws prior to arriving and then assuming that Budget was in the wrong. Here is how it works: In Costa Rica, you are BY LAW, required to purchase government issued liability insurance (SLI). This is different than benefits from your credit card. The concern with most people was that purchasing this insurance would void the collision damage waiver (CDW) their own credit card might provide. It does not void the CDW because purchasing the SLI is law. Now it’s true that the rental agencies might try to upsell you their own insurance in addition to the SLI. That’s where they earn most of their profits. For your sake, it’s redundant and a waste of money. We spent nearly two hours in line before we finally got our SUV. And again, I strongly recommend an SUV because you will find gravel roads and roads that are poorly paved in Costa Rica.
Days 1 & 2: Puerto Potrero
For the first two days, we stayed right on the beach at Sugar Beach Hotel. It was a relatively inexpensive and comfortable place with a very friendly staff. One of the biggest appeals of this hotel was having their own private beach. A clean pool and complimentary breakfast were huge pluses. They also have their own restaurant but my wife and I opted for the local food scene instead. The sunset views from the beach were incredible. If you’re into surfing, boogie boarding, or water paddling, this place was perfect for that. There are plenty of hotel options on the west coast of Costa Rica and you’ll get sunset views and clean beaches from just about all of them.
Day 3: Bijagua and Tenorio Volcano National Park
We left around 9:30 and arrived at our B&B called Sueno Celeste around 11 am. This is the area near the Rio Celeste waterfall and if you happen to find yourself in this area, I would definitely recommend this B&B. Rather than one large building with multiple rooms, they have several colorful cabin type rooms in a lush green garden setting that is frequented by several unique and colorful birds. I saw birds on this property that I’ll probably never see anywhere else. You can see some of them below.
The lush grounds of the Sueno Celeste B&B. All the birds that were seen below frequent the property so always have your camera ready
We arrived at Sueno Celeste, dropped off our luggage, and drove to the entrance of Tenorio Volcano National Park. There is only one road to get there and not only is it gravel, there are bumps, potholes, and craters everywhere. It was hard enough traversing this road with an SUV, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be with a sedan or smaller car. Once we were there, the entrance fee was $10 per person and off we were. The hike to get to the Rio Celeste Waterfall is about an hour and there is some steep uphill climbing involved. The return is about 45 minutes. Bring a couple of water bottles and some granola bars because the uphill portion can be exhausting. Since the trails get frequent rainfall, it will be very muddy and you will likely get mud over your clothes. Make sure you bring a decent pair of hiking shoes and hiking clothes that you wouldn’t lose sleep over if they got dirty. I saw a few people trying to do this hike with flip-flops and they struggled. The mud was eating their flip-flops alive. The views along the way are picture worthy and the reward at the end of the hike, the Rio Celeste Waterfall, is incredible. Swimming in the national park is forbidden but since the Rio Celeste runs 9 miles, you’ll find locals swimming in the portions that are outside of the national park territory.
The blue color of the Rio Celeste
Rio Celeste Waterfall. Well worth the hike.
Capuchin monkey high in the trees. These monkeys spend almost all of their time near the canopy. They won’t bother you but please don’t feed them. That’s how they lose their fear of humans.
Tenorio Volcano National Park closes at 4pm and they don’t allow visitors after 2pm so the earlier you get there the better. After we were done with our hike, we drove the bumpy road back to Sueno Celeste. The family that owns this B&B has a rotating menu for dinner each night (for pay) that they cook themselves. That particular night, fish cakes with peanut sauce, steamed vegetables, and jasmine rice were on the menu. We never had anything like it and it was delicious. This property also had a large outdoor jacuzzi that can fit 8-10 people. Since no one was using it, we figured it would be a nice way to cap off a productive but tiresome day. We stayed in Bijagua for just one night and the next day it was on to La Fortuna, about a 2-hour drive southeast with Arenal Volcano National Park being the main attraction.
Day 4 & 5: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano National Park
La Fortuna is a small town near Arenal Volcano and one that is used as a base camp to get to the sights near the area. We stayed at an inexpensive but comfortable hotel called Hotel Eco Arenal for two nights. On the day we arrived, we did a quick hike to La Fortuna waterfall. The entrance fee was $15 and the hike took about 20 minutes. This hike will take you through the lush tropical forest and will provide you with plenty of spectacular picture opportunities.
La Fortuna Waterfall from a distance
Once we were done with this excursion, we headed back to La Fortuna and just walked around the town. They have a beautiful park located in the town’s center and there is an abundance of restaurants, boutique shops, and souvenir shops throughout town. The following day, we did the hike at Arenal Volcano National Park. The Volcano is easily seen from La Fortuna but to hike the trails, we had to drive about 40 minutes to the entrance of the park. The park is open from 8am to 6pm and there is an entrance fee of $15 per adult. If you’re in Costa Rica, this is one of the must-see places you should add to your list. Arenal Volcano is still considered an active volcano and it last erupted in 2010. On a clear day, there will be multiple points on the trail where you will be able to take incredible pictures of the volcano and surrounding landscape.
Arenal Volcano. The ashy gray areas are from the last eruption in 2010.
The hike was mostly flat grounds but if you wanted to get better photo opportunities, there are trails that diverged from the main path and required some steep uphill climbing. If you’re able to do it then I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity. As an FYI, you don’t need a guide to do these trails but if you feel more comfortable having one, you will find guides at the entrance of the park (for a fee). Now it was time make the 3 hour drive southwest to Monteverde.
Day 6: Monteverde and Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
Even though the straight line distance isn’t far, the drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde took us 3 hours since there are no roads that cut through the center of Arenal Volcano National Park. We also had to drive around Laguna de Arenal and this added considerable time and distance. But 3 hours later we were in Monteverde and we stayed at a very cheap hotel called Hotel El Bosque. In places like Costa Rica where we were going to be out and about almost the entire day, we opted for cheap but comfortable accommodations. Although this place was cheap, it certainly wasn’t comfortable so I wouldn’t recommend it.
The main attraction in this area is the Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a sanctuary to over 500 species of birds, 130 species of mammals, and 120 species of reptiles and amphibians. For this excursion, we opted for the guided tour ($37 per person for foreigners and $27 if you have a student ID) on the recommendation of friends who had been here before. They had tours at 7:30am, 11:30am, and 1:30 pm. Since we had a 3-hour drive from La Fortuna, we opted for the 1:30pm tour. You can choose between a few different types of tours including a night tour if you’re feeling more adventurous. The website for booking the tour is http://www.reservamonteverde.com/guided-tours.html.
Having a guide for this tour was worth it. Our guide was able to point out reptiles and birds that were well camouflaged in the trees which we would have certainly missed without his expertise. He was able to identify the species of birds based on their chirping noise and had some powerful Nikon binoculars that he passed around to everyone in our group when an animal or bird was spotted. This walking tour took about 4 hours and the trails were mostly flat and easy to navigate.
Beautiful view from the hike at Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
One of the rarer birds in the forest, the resplendent quetzal
This concluded our hiking/nature/adventure portion of our trip to Costa Rica. It was off to the capital city of San Jose early the next morning.
Day 7: San Jose
Our return trip home was via San Jose International Airport so we made sure we gave ourselves an entire day to experience Costa Rica’s capital city. San Jose is a vibrant city and the largest city in Costa Rica. They have plenty of museums, theatres, parks, and interesting architecture. You can experience most of this by choosing a central hotel location and walking around. We decided to stay at Hotel Aranjuez which I highly recommend. Their complimentary breakfast had a huge selection and it was a clean and comfortable accommodation. It only cost us $67 for the night so there was a ton of value there.
The National Theater of Costa Rica, which opened in 1897
Central Park in San Jose, Costa Rica
The breakfast spread at Hotel Aranjuez
The following day we returned our one-way rental to San Jose International Airport and off we were back to the U.S. We used Southwest Airlines for our trip back and we got an incredible redemption of 6,200 points per person for our flight back to Albany via Baltimore. In a span of 7 days, we were able to enjoy the beach, spectacular sunsets, multiple waterfalls, volcanoes, exotic wildlife, and a beautiful city. That’s what makes Costa Rica very special. There is something for everyone and you can customize your itinerary based on your specific interests. The people are so friendly and helpful and it’s a place I’d highly recommend. Just remember to bring mosquito repellant, a good pair of hiking shoes/clothes, and read up on the car rental laws prior to arriving.