Costa Rica is the perfect destination for a first time excursion out of the United States. With a multitude of activities to enjoy, eco-friendly and conservation-centric lodges and expeditions, an unofficial second language of English, and a laid-back-enjoy-life mentality called Pura Vida, it’s easy to feel like a Tico in no time. We decided to take a 4 day whirlwind trip to La Fortuna, located in the low-lying Arenal Valley and rainforest section of the country, to celebrate our 30th birthdays and upcoming nuptials.
Planning Your Trip
- It would be ideal to spend at least a week in Costa Rica. We tend to be marathon sprint travelers, working our vacations into long weekends from work and running from dawn to dusk to see as much as possible. After some research, we decided on the lucky city La Fortuna based on fantastic reviews from travelers and how well it met our needs for such a short span of time. However, we are definitely planning a trip back to experience the beautiful beaches, Caribbean coastline and night life in the cities!
- Although English is widely spoken and understood throughout the countries, I think it’s helpful to brush up on native phrases before you visit a foreign country. My favorite phrase is “Yo tratando a practicar mi espanol, pero es muy mal” (I’m trying to practice my Spanish, but it is very bad– usually said with a huble, sad frown), followed closely by “Donde esta el bano?” and “Yo necesito una cerveza por favor :)!”
- Book your reservations in advance, especially in the high season. Most of the hotels were fully booked when we started planning our trip in December, so it’s worth it to look into accomodations and transportation well in advance.
- Pack hiking shoes, comfortable clothes and layers for rainy weather, especially when traveling inland.
- Be aware that self-guided transportation can be difficult. With spotty cell service, and windy, narrow roads with pedestrians and (extremely street savvy) dogs walking, we left all the driving to more experienced locals.
- RELAX! Pura Vida seems to mean everything from “Hello!” to “Cheers!” to “Fuck it, whatever!”, and it translates into experiences. Be prepared to experience lingering lunches, unhurried hikes, and lots of hammock living (Craig’s worst nightmare.)
Day 1: Arrival and Drive to La Fortuna
From the San Jose Airport, Costa Rica’s central hub, it’s about a 3 hour drive to La Fortuna. ***IMPORTANT NOTE*** San Jose, COSTA RICA is NOT the same as San Jose, CALIFORNIA. The night before our trip we discovered that we had accidentally booked tickets to Calif-fucking-fornia (home of the Winchester Mansion, which might have been interesting, but not quite what we wanted)…thank goodness for travel insurance! Our hotel arranged transportation from the airport through a friendly driver, Robert, who put up with my Spanglish for about 1.5 hours before he was obviously tired of my terrible grammar. The ride isn’t particularly scenic until you get to the Cloud Forest just outside of Chachagua, but I am a huge believer that you can find beauty in everything.
After we checked into our eco-friendly lodge at the sprawling Chachagua Rainforest Ecolodge, we had dinner at the on-site restaurant and spent the night listening to the sounds of the rainforest in the hammock on the deck. Chachagua is a beautiful resort, and not too pricey for what you might expect in the States. They offer complimentary breakfast, private cabins, winding walking trails throughout the property (guided and unguided), and are happy to arrange all aspects of your trip for you through 3rd party booking vendor. They use Desafio Adventure Company, who I highly recommend, although one of our tour guides did seem to have a different girlfriend at every stop, and I’m not sure I condone his player-like nature.
Day 2: Ziplining and La Fortuna
We arranged a ziplining tour through Ecoglide Arenal Park the next morning, and there’s no better way to explore the rainforest in Costa Rica than soaring over top of it. The guides were super friendly…actually, a little TOO friendly as one of them suggested I ditch Craig and be friends with benefits with him, but like I’m not that attached to Craig anyway… They also have a Tarzan swing off of a cliff like hill, and to quote our taxi driver on the way there “Oh it’s so fun, you feel like you’re going to die!” They gave us a beer at the end, and showed us a sloth in a tree, which was way more exciting than it should have been.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town of La Fortuna, which is full of restaurants, a picturesque park, and souvenir shops to relieve you of your hard earned money. The weather is temperamental, as that part of the country never truly has a dry season, so be prepared to carry a rain jacket or umbrella for mid-day showers.
Day 3: Arenal Hanging Bridges, Volcan Arenal National Park, La Fortuna Catarata and Hot Springs
We linked up with a larger tour group to experience the most popular attractions of the area. First stop was Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park where you can view wildlife and nature up close while crossing 16 sky high swinging bridges. This was definitely the most touristy spot of all the places we went to, and although it was only a relatively easy 2 mile hike, it took much longer because huge groups of tourists are looking at a camouflaged snaked every 10 feet. I recommend going there on a cloudy, overcast day when it’s not so crowded, and definitely bringing rain gear as it sporadically showers or pours.
After our complimentary post activity cerveza, we headed with a smaller group to Volcan Arenal National Park for a short, flat hike to see the base of the volcano. Volcan Arenal is just as fickle as Denali, in that she (or are volcanos “he”?) only shows her/himself out of the mist and clouds a couple of times a year. It was interesting to learn about the violent history of the volcano (it’s most destructive recent eruption was in 1968), and our guide explained how the forest has been slowly rebuilding itself ever since.
The tour took us for lunch at a local restaurant with an organic garden and farm that boasted crops like peppercorn, banana trees and some plant that if you chew relieves you of headaches, stomach problems, and “all hangover problems”, according to our tour guide. I tried it, I think it gave me a hangover, but I felt fine later so maybe it did work.
From there, we ventured to Catarata La Fortuna (La Fortuna waterfall), which requires you to walk down 530-ish steps to the base of a majestic waterfall with a swimming hole. Even though it was freezing, I was certainly not passing up the opportunity to float in a Costa Rican river beneath a waterfall on a Sunday. Everyone else in my tour group looked on with extreme jealousy.
Our final stop of the day was visiting one of the many hot springs in the La Fortuna area, Baldi Hot Springs. Part hotel, part spa, part waterpark, Baldi is definitely a tourist spot, but never feels crowded thanks to its 25 thermal hot springs featuring natural saunas and swim-up bars (Craig was delighted to find a sports themed one showing the NBA All-Star Dunk Contest). A self serve buffet style dinner was included, and I had the most embarrassing encounter of my Spanish-speaking life, when I said “Quisiera la cuenta por favor,” and the waiter coldly looked me dead in the eye and said, “…You want the check?”
Day 4: Relaxing at the Hotel FOR ONCE, and Alajuela
One thing I can’t recall ever doing on our vacations in building in time to relax, so we took a day to sleep in and take a free guided hike around the property with Diego. He showed us the hotels impressive organic farm, encouraging us to take in the sights, smells and sounds, explained the history of Costa Rica and its traditions, and entertained us with fun facts about the animals, including the local sloth who only comes out of his tree once a week to poop (I mean, that’s all sloths, but I like to think it’s just that particular sloth, like he’s suuuuuper lazy.)
After relaxing at the pool and getting a huge strip of sunburn across my forehead, a different driver took us the 3 hours back to Alajuela, a small city just outside the airport. The owner of the hotel was a cute little Tico abuelo, and recommended dinner at Cevicheria Junior’s, a little diner featuring just about every kind of food you could imagine. Our waiter was as friendly as everyone else we met in Costa Rica, and gave us great recommendations for the next trip we take, and was interested in meeting someone from Delaware for the first time. My hope in life is to be “the first person from Delaware” that people from multiple different states have met. I think I’m well on my way.
Our flight out of Costa Rica was smooth and easy, and we only encountered issues when we arrived at DFW (OF FUCKING COURSE, see my Alaska blog), once again proving that America mostly sucks*** and we should all just say Pura Vida, especially when at DFW……the worst airport ever.
(**Obviously I’m joking, except about DFW, I hate that place…America has awesome things to offer, but we could seriously learn a thing or two from other places.)