Costa Rica is one of my favorite countries. It is close to the US, the people are friendly and it still has some very cool places to go. One thing that you learn quickly in a country like Costa Rica it that you aren’t going to go anywhere “quickly”. A road trip that normally takes two hours in the US, becomes 5+ hours in Costa Rica.
Flying is many times the best way to get around the country quickly and can be a very economical mode of travel, long trips on Costa Rican roads can wear you out. When renting a car in Costa Rica I always get 4 wheel drive. There are two international airports, one in San Jose and the other in Liberia, look at both, Liberia can be cheaper at times. There are two internal airlines Sansa and Nature Air. There are good points and bad points with both airlines, Sansa flies right out of Juan Santamaría, the international airport; Nature Air’s planes fly out of an small airport that is about 30 minutes from Santamaria but their planes are newer, have two engines and two pilots. I like the number two.
Note: The internal airlines have a weight limit of 30lbs per bag and one small handbag (not to exceed 10lbs). They will charge you for additional luggage or weight. The charge is usually $25 for each increment of 30 lbs or additional piece of luggage.
There are two spots that I really enjoy in Costa Rica and I will focus on in this post, Arenal and the Osa Peninsula. The Arenal and Monteverde areas are side by side so plan to stay several days in this area. I would drive from San Jose or Liberia to the Arenal or Monteverde area.
There is a ton to do here, white water rafting, zip lines, hiking, horseback riding, waterfalls, checking out the cloud forest, water sports on Lake Arenal, 4 wheeling or just sitting back in one of the many hot springs and watch an active volcano overflow with molten lava.
The Arenal volcano and lake are just a few kilometers from a small town, La Fortuna. La Fortuna has grown quite a bit in the last few years but is still a great place to find a grocery store, bank or to do a little shopping. There are a number of great resorts and hotels to stay in the area, with new ones springing up every day. Check out Trip Advisor for the lastest, I have stayed at the Arenal Observatory, Arenal Lodge and Tabacon, all very nice hotels there are better places for the money to stay now.
Do not miss going to one of the hot springs, Tabacon or Ecotermales or another private spring through a hotel. For the public springs you have to reserve a spot before you get to Costa Rica. This can usually be done online. I would recommend that you make an evening of it at Tabacon, make a reservation for the springs, a massage and then a nice dinner.
It is worth the drive to make a reservation for dinner at the Arenal Observatory. The food is okay but the show can be fabulous if the volcano is performing and at times they have a live music.
If you are around Arenal on a Saturday night you have to go to the disco at the end of the lake, near Piedras. Between Pedras and Naranjos Arios there is a soda (grill) that has the best roasted chicken and rice but they also have the only disco in the whole area. Just ask around, everybody knows where the disco is. It has been crafted as an open air disco complete with toilets and a disco ball in the middle of the jungle. The disco only rocks on Saturday night, starts late, goes late and is up a long rock path up the side of a cliff. This is a place where you can shake your booty like the locals do, and is the wildest disco you will ever see.
The Osa Peninsula is on the southern side of the western coast, right at the border with Panama. Virtually the whole Osa Peninsula is a national park, called Corcovado. You have to fly into Puerto Jimenez or Golfito to access the south side of the park. Rent a four wheel drive vehicle, you’re going to need it (there is more than one place you could be crossing deep streams). There is one road going southwest out of Puerto Jimenez and that road goes all the way around the southern tip of the peninsula and dead ends at a resort called Luna Lodge (www.lunalodge.com). Trip Advisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g309280-d301435-Reviews-Luna_Lodge-Carate_Osa_Province_of_Puntarenas.html.
Luna is the perfect place to go if you really want to splurge, there are several nice lodges along the road that are less expensive but Luna is the nicest. There is a hiking trail at the end of the road that is quite a hike, make sure that you have a full day, plenty of water, maps, food and other emergency gear as you may not see another person while hiking this trail and it is not for the faint of heart.
Puerto Jimenez or Matapalo are great places to rent a house, (check out www.homeaway.com or www.vrbo.com). You end up with more space, privacy and the ability to cook your own meals for less than you can rent hotel rooms. We rented this 4br home (http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p140268), right on the beach for $150 a night. It was a block from a little local’s restaurant and bar and a great place to get away.
Both Puerto Jimenez and Golfito (the town right across the Golfo Dulce and an easy ferry ride) remain cool little Central American ports. The Osa peninsula has some of the most diverse wildlife in Costa Rica and the best sport fishing in the world. You can hike around and in Corcavado park (take a guide), surf (there is some of the best waves in the world here), go fishing, kick back and enjoy the ocean, or try something totally different (dolphin diving).
There are several tour operators in Puerto Jimenez who will take you out into the gulf and drive around until they find a pod of dolphins. They will drop you in and pull you slowly behind the boat with a dive board and a mask. By dipping and turning the dive board, you can soar underwater, tipping the board up to break the surface and get a breath and then down again to dive. The boat keeps pace with the pod of dolphins so basically you become a dolphin among dolphins. It is AWESOME!
Costa Rica has changed a lot over the last 10 years, and not all for the best. It has become a lot more Americanized. Prices have gone up and that resort mentality has set in some places. That is why I avoid Jaco or the Quepos area. You have to be very, very careful and diligent about keeping an eye on your valuables. Do not leave anything lying around anywhere, it will get stolen.
But Costa Rica still has a lot of those places that hold that old time Central American feeling. Don’t be afraid to stop in the small towns and just go into the local soda (grill) or shop in local shops. Use cash machines to get cash, avoid going to a bank if at all possible, they are notoriously slow. If you have to go to a bank, make sure you bring your passport.