Costa Rica
Two weeks in Costa Rica: San Jose, Osa Peninsula, Monteverde, Fortuna, and Monteverde.
FeedbackBy Preston Hunt, 02 December 2007
Pictures from the trip

Why Costa Rica?

Neither of us has been south of Mexico. We had a trip to Belize planned back in 2003, but it was nixed by my cancer diagnosis. For 2007, we had thought of going to either Belize or Peru, but airfare and lodging costs were prohibitive. Our decision was made for us when Aimee found a great deal on airfare to Costa Rica that intersected well with our work schedules.

Getting there

We flew Continental from Portland to Houston, a four-hour layover, then Houston to San Jose. The trip from our condo to our hotel in San Jose took over 16 hours. Despite its length, it was a pleasant trip.

Getting around Costa Rica

"Costa Rica is a small country, but the roads make it big," is an apt local saying. The roads are terrible and often have huge Volkswagen-sized potholes. Rental cars take a lot of abuse, a fact reflected in their expense. Ticos (what Costa Ricans call themselves) use the public buses which are dirt cheap and fairly comfortable but slow and unreliable. A lot of tourists use the "gringo bus," which is a little nicer, a bit more convenient, a lot more expensive, and generally not that much better than the Tico bus. The most luxurious option, flying, is far and away the fastest and also the most expensive.

Example trip: San Jose to Palmar Sur (one-way):
Distance: About 80 miles as the crow files
Rental car: $50/day + gas, 3.5 hours
Public bus: $6.50, 6 hours
Gringo bus: $39, 4 hours
Flying: $100, 30 minutes

San Jose

After clearing customs at the international airport, we walked next door to the regional airport and tried to grab a flight to Bahia Drake. Unfortunately we had missed the last flight of the day and were stuck in San Jose for the night.

While at the airport, we talked with a couple of American guys. While driving their rental car in San Jose, they twice had their tires slashed in a local scam where "friendly locals" offer to help change your tire, while their accomplices steal your possessions. This made us glad that we had decided against a rental car!

A gaggle of taxi drivers were falling over themselves to take us downtown for $17, but I dug into my high school Spanish and eventually got directions to the local city bus. The buses come every 8 minutes, the trip takes about 35 minutes, and it only costs 60 cents per person. While on the bus, a local tried to lure me into a game of Three Card Monty. Ahh, welcome to San Jose!

In San Jose, we stayed at the Hotel Kekoldi. Large, pleasant rooms, free Internet access, a great private courtyard (where free breakfast was served), and a friendly staff made for a nice stay. $65 cash per night.

We walked down the Avenida Central, fought off countless beggars, and didn't worry about pickpockets since our passports were at the hotel and our cash was in a money belt.

The weather in San Jose was very pleasant during the day and a tad chilly at night owing to the city's elevation of almost 4,000 feet.

The next morning, we slept in too late and missed the once-daily Tico bus to Bahia Drake. So we headed back out to the airport and jumped on the next Sansa Air flight.

Osa Peninsula - Bahia Drake - Agujitas

The Osa Peninsula is cited by venerable institutions, such as National Geographic, as possessing the richest density of biodiversity on the planet. We definitely saw a lot of animals, including scarlet macaws, toucans, coatis (I didn't get any pictures, but my friend Ben has video from his trip), frogs, ill-tempered white-faced monkeys, jumping sting-rays, dolphins, reef sharks, turtles, a whale, an iguana, leaf-cutter ants, land crabs big and small, and countless other birds, fish, and lizards that we didn't know.

Our major activities were a boat ride down the Rio Sierpe river and through the mangroves near the mouth of the river, a snorkeling trip to Cano Island, and a hike through the Corcovado National Preserve (where we saw jaguar prints and swam behind a powerful waterfall that easily could have killed us if we had slipped). Our favorite outing was a seven-hour hike along the coast to the Rio Claro.

Accommodations here are pricey. We spent one night at the Mirador Lodge ($41/person/night) which had a tranquil arboreal setting, great food, gregarious guests, and a friendly common area for congregating, but also no electricity (I had my first cold shower by candlelight here) and slightly moldy smelling pillows.

So we hiked through town on the lookout for other hotels. Along the way, we met Felix, who has lived in the Osa all his life and was the most genuine and friendly person that we met on our entire trip. He worked for 20 years as a park ranger followed by 10 or so years at La Paloma Lodge, a $200 per person per night luxury hotel. He had recently decided to start a lodge himself, along with his wife Monica and brother Juaquin. His hotel, Ranchitos Las Cotingas, has delightful cabins with a commanding view of the bay. Combined with Felix's friendly nature, we quickly decided to switch hotels.

Also of note, although not exactly wildlife, was the large number of stray, skinny, and hungry-looking dogs. When you walk down the road, a dog will usually start following you. As you keep walking, other dogs will join in, until you have four or five dogs walking with you. Luckily they are almost always friendly. We would see lots of stray dogs all over Costa Rica, but Bahia Drake seemed to have the most!

Monteverde

Getting to Monteverde required a flight back to San Jose on Nature Air and then a five-hour Tico bus to Monteverde. The highlight of the bus trip occurred when the road was blocked by an SUV flipped on its side. The bus driver and several volunteers simply got out and pushed the car upright and out of the way. In Monteverde, we stayed at the Oasis Hotel ($25/night, with a very friendly owner, Carlos) and met up with Aimee's brother and his girlfriend, who by coincidence were vacationing in Costa Rica at the same time.

Monteverde is a fun city with the sophisticated feel of a European mountain town. Due to some unique geography, the mists of its "cloud forest" are home to many species of animal. The Children's Rainforest Preserve is also here.

While in town, we went on a zip-line and canopy tour, a night-walk, and a coffee farm tour. All of these activities far exceeded my expectations. Along the way we saw sloths, a tarantula, a rat-like thing, and many sleeping animals, including a toucan, a quetzal, and a snake. The coffee tour was most excellent and highly recommended if you ever have the chance.

Fortuna

We took two Gringo buses and a boat to get over to Fortuna. Back in Monteverde, Carlos had arranged our first night's hotel in Fortuna at a place called Wally's ($25/night). It was pretty basic and we were in need of some pampering after a week on the road, so we changed hotels the next day and splurged on the Sierra Arenal Hotel, $45/night with air conditioning, cable television channels in English, and free Internet. It was at this hotel that I got hooked on the Latino hit pop song, Baila mi corazon. We would continue to hear this addictive song throughout our stay...

Overall, we didn't care much for Fortuna. Due to its proximity to the active, red-lava-producing Arenal Volcano, an unpleasant strip-like city has formed here with all the concomitant traffic, pollution, and noise (both auditory and visual). We also ate perhaps the worst Chinese food in our lives there.

While in town we went horseback riding, hiked to and swam in the town waterfall, and tried unsuccessfully to see lava spewing from the volcano. Far and away the highlight of Fortuna was the Baldi hot springs, which has twenty outdoor pools heated geothermally up to temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit! The whole experience is lush and surreal and is definitely something to experience.

Montezuma

We spent three days in this sleepy beach town, mostly spent hiking along the beach, eating delicious California-inspired cuisine, and enjoying the environs of Los Mangos, a screaming deal of a hotel ($30/night) with ocean-side rooms, a swimming pool, and beautiful grounds. Aimee bought a banana at the grocery store here for 4 cents. Filled with countless aging hippies and stoners, this is an easy city to spend time in, although there is never any doubt that you are in a touristy type town.

We had hoped to go surfing while here, but the waves were too small. Mal Pais came highly recommended as the current "in" surf destination, but we couldn't get down there due to travel logistics. Next time!

San Jose Redux

The evening bus ride back to San Jose was on a modern bus with comfy seats, air conditioning, and even a DVD player and TVs (we watched "The Nanny Diaries").

For our final night in Costa Rica, we went to Pangea Hostel. Pangea is one of a new generation of mega hostels -- tons of rooms, pool tables, big screen satellite TV, couches and bean bags, dozens of PCs with free Internet, roof-top restaurant with panoramic views of the city, swimming pool, and even a dance/nightclub! Our private room was $26/night.

We had been looking forward to doing some shopping at the central market on our final day. Unfortunately, our final day was Sunday and the market was closed. We found a few craft stalls, picked up some coffee to take home at Mas Por Menos (Costa Rican Wal-Mart), and took the city bus back to the airport.

Eating

The most common food is appropriately named "comida tipical" (typical food). It was generally good and cheap. Almost everything comes with rice, beans, and fried plantains. Fish, beef, and chicken are the most common proteins. We also encountered the usual assortment of tropical fruits. The few times we had foreign foods (Chinese, American, French, etc.), it was pretty bad.

Gear list

Back pack, rain jacket, fleece jacket, shorts, bathing suit, convertible pants/shorts, 1 long socks, 4 shortie socks, 6 underwear, 1 long sleeve shirt, 3 t-shirts, wide-brimmed sun hat, sunglasses, umbrella, cell phone, camera, trip journal, lots of reading material.

Also took (but didn't need): light long pants, towel, baseball cap, Nintendo DS, Chacos, running shoes, 2 more t-shirts.

Should have taken: Crocs, Purell towelettes, copy of passport to carry around (leave original at hotel), small padlocks (for hostels)

The other thing we wouldn't bother with next time is exchanging money into the local currency. Dollars seem to be universally accepted down there, at a reasonable exchange rate of 500 colones to the dollar.

Next time

Surfing in Mal Pais. Caribbean side of the country. Will probably check out Peru, Panama, Honduras, or Belize before returning to Costa Rica however.

Cost breakdown

Grand total: $2933 ($1467 per person)
Total days in Costa Rica = 12 full days + 2 half days
Total approximate waking hours = 182
Amount spend per waking hour (per person) = $8.05

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