Since my first trip to Costa Rica, in 1995, I have always been struck by the magic of the country as soon as my feet come off the airplane. Although it is a very different place than it was in the 90s, it is still one of my favorite spots on earth. Today, most of the roads are paved and you no longer need to judge distance driven in flat tires. Unfortunately, fast food restaurants let you know quickly that the modern world is encroaching, but there are still areas around Arenal, Monte Verde, and the Northern Guanacaste Coast that are mostly unspoiled.
Don’t get me wrong, it may not be the same, but I’m still going back again….and again!
We landed in San Jose on a Friday. Due to the economy and that fact that we were there the week before Christmas there weren’t many tourists. This played to our advantage the entire trip. There is nothing better than short waits because Ticos (slang for Costa Rican) have a tendency to not move as quickly as Americans. Picking up the Mitsubishi Montero rental from Adobe Rental Car was easy, and I got to experience my first time driving through this country. Yeah, it is very different than the US – bumpier, slower (max speed is 80 KPH = about 59 MPH), and traffic laws are more of a suggestion. To borrow a phrase from my dad: time is merely a suggestion too.
First stop was the Hotel Nayara in Arenal. In the past I’ve stayed at the Arenal Observatory, but Nayara is a much nicer place to stay. It doesn’t have the same view of the volcano the Observatory has, but still a nice one! Arenal houses an active volcano that makes thunderous sounds quite often. Unfortunately, on this trip, we did not get to see the summit or any of the eruptions due to cloud coverage, but we did get to see some boulders slide while having lunch at the Observatory.
Of course, while in Arenal, one must visit the hot springs. There are two: Baldi and Tabacon. I’m a big Tabacon fan. This was another place where the light tourist load seriously played to our advantage. We basically had each hotspring to ourselves and easily found seats at the pool bar for Imperials and Pina Coladas. I won’t get into too many details about Tabacon, other than to say you have to go. And go after 6:00 PM. This is one of those things you’ve got to do before you die.
Visiting the hotsprings was absolutely essential after all the hiking we did. We hit the hanging bridges, the Observatory paths, and then decided to trek to a waterfall (pictured).
After Arenal, we hopped in the car for about 4 hours to go roughly 20 miles to Monte Verde. Monte Verde is higher in the mountains and splat in the middle of the cloud forest. It is constantly raining or misting with a steady wind. The winds can get so strong we’d call them tropical storm level in Virginia Beach. There, it is just normal. Monte Verde reminds me a lot of the original Costa Rica I met in 1995. The roads are all dirt (mud in this case) and everything is far less expensive. While there we went zip-lining between mountain tops. Some of the lines were so long and high, the only thing I can compare them to is sky diving.
The forest is beautiful. It is technically jungle, but not you like you think. It is more like a forest with incredibly large trees. If I ever go back to Monte Verde I will take rain gear and hiking boots, and spend much more time on the trails. I didn’t take many photos because it was so wet. I only took one camera body and didn’t want to chance destroying it.
Monte Verde is where a lot of coffee comes from. There are coffee plants everywhere.
I almost forgot to mention that the first time we got really lost was on the way to Monte Verde. And lost doesn’t even explain how remote and dangerous the road we ended up on was. It was by far the craziest road I’ve ever been on. 4 Wheel drive was a must! When a farmer ran into us all he could say was “Muy Mal” over and over again….yeah, we were pretty damn lost.
We got lost a second time on the way out of Monte Verde. We were given completely different directions back to Highway 1 which was actually one very cool scenic drive. We ended up at a ranch before finding our way back to a road we needed to be on. It wasn’t nearly as adventurous as our first time getting lost, but definitely a fun experience as well.
Playa Hermosa was the final stop on our trip, and the place we spent the most time. On all of my past trips I’ve gone to Tamarindo, but it is getting way too touristy to visit anymore. Playa Hermosa was the perfect retreat away to the Costa Rica I originally knew. It is a beach about the size of Croatan, in Virginia Beach, but curved and flanked by mountains. Tuna and Mahi Mahi are everywhere – you could almost drop a net and have dinner within 30 seconds. Aside from all the fish, I saw more animals around Playa Hermosa than every single Costa Rica trip I’ve ever been on! I’ll post photos of the animals later.
There aren’t any waves at Hermosa, but for about $40-$70 you can get a boat to take you on a 45 minute ride to Ollie’s Point or Witch’s Rock. On top of that, Playa Hermosa is only about a 20 minute drive to the airport at Liberia. On my next Costa Rican surf trip, I think I might go back to Playa Hermosa and just catch a boat ride to waves.
We did hop on a sail boat for a sunset cruise around the bay. It is beautiful:
You can find more photos from the trip in my December 2009 Costa Rica Gallery.