Costa Rica: nature, beaches and adventure!
Car selection (4WD or not)
One of the main questions we had before booking our rental car was if we would take a 4 WD or not. We read two different versions on the internet. One was that most roads were getting better and better and that it was doable with a regular car. However, there were also a lot of people advising to take a 4WD for certain areas. To be on the safe side, we selected a 4WD. This was the right choice!
We rented a Daihatsu Terios through Sunny Cars. This was an ideal car for 2 people with lugage. You sit a bit higher and it gives way more comfort when the road are not good. This was the case when heading to Volcan Arenal Hot Springs, Rio Celeste, Arenal Observatory, Finca Pineapple, Tapanti, Nauyaca waterfall and Monteverde. These were the moments we were very happy to have our 4 WD to drive on the challenging roads. I’m not saying it won’t be possible with a normal car, but it will take you way longer. With the 4 WD you can go obviously faster as you’re higher. However, I only activated the 4 WD a couple of times. Mostly it was possible without because we were there in dry season. If you would be closer to rain season, or hit more rain than we did, I think you would need it more.
You will probably read it on other blogs as well, but Costa Rica is expensive. Don’t expect low prices as you might have in other Southern America countries or Asia. Everything is European style and you have to pay for each and every activity you do. The cool activities are even really expensive. Like this we paid 140 dollar for the Ziplines (for 2) and 160 dollar for the rafting (for 2). They know many visitors want this, so if you are on a tight budget, you might want to avoid these. On the other hand, we only plan to go once to Costa Rica, so we did it.
Now also for every other thing you will have to pay. For the National Parks that is rather normal according to us, but if there is some isolated waterfall in the middle of nowhere, you can be sure that some local exploits it and will charge you entrance fee plus an additional parking fee. Nauyaca waterfall you will pay 25 dollar, Irazu 32 dollar, La Paz even 98 dollar. (each time for 2 persons). This is something not to underestimate when heading towards Costa Rica. The cheapest and also one of the best experiences we had at Cascada Verde. It was unique, heavenly and was one of the cheapest with 8 dollar entrance fee.
Below you find all the Strava tracks of our hikings, rafting and zipline experience. Each has pictures to inspire you and to show what to expect.
- Volcan Arenal Hot Springs (6.85 km)
- Natiional Park Volcan Arenal (4.49 km)
- National Park Rio Celeste (5.80 km)
- Arenal Observatory Trails (12.34 km)
- Arenal National Park (6.01 km)
- Class IV White Water Rafting
- La Paz Waterfalls (4.07 km)
- Finca Pineapple (1.26 km)
- Cahuita Natiional Park (4.46 km)
- Manzanillo beach walk. To the boat and back (1.25 km)
- Irazu Volcano (2.05 km)
- National Park Irazu sector Prusia (15.03 km)
- National Park Tapanti (10.01 km)
- Uvita beach (7.97 km)
- Nauyaca waterfall (7.54 km)
- Manuel Antonio National Park (6.80 km)
- Superman Zipline! (68.4 km/h max)
- Santa Elena (Monteverde Cloud Forest) (9.49 km)
- Llnanos de Cortes (0.91 km)
Costa Rica shares its borders with 2 oceans: The Pacific Ocean and the Carribean Sea. Both sides have beautiful beaches and they all look different.
Before reaching Cahuita you can visit Playa Negra. As it name says, the beach is coloured black which makes it very dramatic. Not very crowded and more for surfers. In fact, during our visit, we only spotted 6 other people. Around pepe’s surf place you have a place to have a drink and they play some good music. The waves are a bit too strong to swim, so better not go in deeper than your waste or ask advice to some locals.
Within the Cahuite Natiional Park you have 2 sectors that you can visit. The first, close to the city, is based on a donation to enter. You decide yourself how much you want to pay. You can hire a local guide at the entrance to help you spotting some wild life. You are not allowed to swim everywhere as the rip currents are very strong.
Be aware of the wild racoons you can cross here. Don’t leave your bags unattended, certainly when you have some food in there, as they will tried to access the food and might act aggresive. You can spray water to them, and normally they will leave. We learned that from a local guide and it worked for us. They left us alone.
On the other side of the National Park you have the Vargas sector which is not free of charge. However, if you donated enough at the main entrance, you can reuse your ticket. To reach the beach there is a wooden board walk which will take you roughly 30 to 40 minutes. We spotted some monkeys in the trees on our way back. The beaches are not crowded and the views are magnificient with the sand and the palm trees. But here as well, the rip currents are strong, so you better don’t go to deep in the sea. The beach is not that wide, so you’ll have to look for a nice spot.
When driving in the direction of Manzanillo you first pass by Cocles Beach. This place is famous for surfing and the waves are strong to swim, but you still can easily go in the warm water till your waste. The beach is a long strech and you can easily park on the road directly next to the beach. We saw here and there some people, but as the beach is so long, and not crowded, you can search for your own private beach. We enjoyed the sun, reading a book and look a bit at the beginning surfers. In our opinion, the waves are a bit too difficult to start with surfing att Cocles Beach. We didn’t spot any drinks close by.
Punta Uva Beach
A few kilometers further you find Punta Uva Beach. A wider beach, a bit more crowded than Cocles Beach, but also better suited for swimming. Next to the beach there is also a mangrove where you can do SUP. We decided to enjoy the sun, read a book and refresh every 20 minutes by going into the sea. As we were still early we could park very close to the beach, where you also have a place where they sell cold water and beer, and fresh coconuts.
The last beach you can reach at the Caribean Sea before reaching Panama is Manzanillo Beach. Quite abandoned, but we enjoyed it. Reading a book, swimming, walking to the stranded ship or even running in the waterline. There was a small town, but we didn’t visit it. We concentrated on the beach. Definetly worth a visit.
A couple days after our visit to the Caribean Sea, we arrived at the Pacific Ocean. We experienced the water even warmer than the Caribean Sea, but we might be wrong. Uvita beach was quite popular and it was a big change to see very quiet waves. Towards the evening, you can walk to the whale formed part, which is very special, as there are coming waves from the left and the right. Impossible to capture on pictures or movies, but a very special thing to see. When around, make sure to check it out. It also brought an incredible sunset.
Located between the town and the National Park, you find this extremely crowded beach. When arriving we experienced first some very aggresive self-proclaimed parking attendants. They are standing in the middle of the street, trying to guide you onto their parking lot. Even if you want to park next to the public road, some of these guys will come to you and make you pay. The tell they will watch your car for some money. Because they were so arrogant and aggresive I refused to pay and we just left to check out the beach, which was literaly across the street. Just like at the beaches at the Caribean Sea we could see our car from the beach. So quite safe according to me. The atmosphere was completely different, and we really didn’t like it. The person at our hotel hobby said it is better to pay them, as they sometimes might damage your car. I really discourage going to this beach.
Manuel Antonio Beach
Located inside the National Park, you find quite some nice beaches. When you visit the park, make sure you bring your beach outfit with you. During the morning you can visit the National Park, and you can end your day with enjoying the beach. As you already paid for the parking for the National Park, you can enjoy the beach without having to deal with those parking attendants of Playa Espadilla.
Cost Rica is world famous for its wildlife and obviously that was one of our main reasons to go there. We can be short about the wildlife, Costa Rica didn’t disappoint us. Wether you go to a National Park, the beach or just sit on the patio of you hotel, wildlife can be spotted almost anywhere. My main objective was to spot the colourful poisoned frogs in the wild. Mainly the Strawberry Poison-dart Frog also known as the Blue-jeans frog. The frog is only 1.5 to 2 centimers big. We spotted him on a pinaple farm. Also the Black-green Poison-dart Frog was really beautiful. We saw them near the porch of our hotel and also while visiting a waterfall. You need to keep your eyes open, and don’t rush too much.
In many National Parks you can hire a local guide. (We hired one in Manuel Antonio) It is really recommended to do at least during one visit, as they are so good in spotting wild life and they also know where the animals often hang out. Next to that, they bring along a binoculars and they are experienced to take pictures with your smartphone while using the binocular. Below a few of the pictures were taken like that (Dragonfly, Cameleon, Land crab & Sloth).
Plenty of beautiful waterfalls can be found in Costa Rica and in some of them you are allowed to swim. Just like almost any other activity in Costa Rica you have to pay for it.
The best experience we had was at Cascade Verde, located near Uvita. It’s exploited by a private instance and it’s only 2000 colones entrance, by far the cheapest entrance fee we have paid. There is also a butterfly garden which you can visit included in the price. As with many places, it’s key to go early. We had moments we had the waterfall by ourselves in the morning, but as time passed by, more people arrived, and then off course, the place looses a bit of it’s charm. The temperature of the water was heavenly refreshing, as in the morning it was already close to 30 degrees. The waterfall has been erosed into a water slide and for daredevils like us this was obviously a must do. I have to admit that I was not fully ad ease the first time, and my landing was not the most elegant one. The second time was already better, and after 3 to 4 times you know how to do. I strongly advise you to close your noise when you hit the water, as otherwise the water will explode up your noise which is very unconfortable and after 2 to 3 times it started to hurt. When closing the noise all went fine. The slide is approximately 3 to 4 meters and then you have a drop of 3 to 4 meters. This is really an incredible thrill. Before you reach the waterfall there is an other natural pool where you can jump of a construction into the water. The platform has a height of around 4 meters. It’s fun to do that one as well, and as long as you jump over 1 meter into the water, avoiding the rock below, you’ll have a great time. When leaving we also saw a black/green Poisoned-Dart frog.
Around 30 to 40 minutes away from Uvita you have the more touristic Nauyaca Waterfall. You can drive around 1 kilometer from the information point down to the parking. A 4×4 is advised to reach the parking. From there it’s another 3 km walk to the waterfall. You have to work a bit to reach this heavenly place. We arrived around noon and thus there were already quite some other people, but still the experience was unique.The water is clean, refreshing and full of (big) fish.
Not far from Liberia you have Llanos de Cortez. As beautiful as Nauyaca, and at moments quite busy, but it have a less touristic impression to us. The people come and go, and a couple of time we had the waterfall for us and we were the only ones in the water. There is a little beach in front of the water and the water is refreshing, but again full of big fish, that sometimes swim against you 🙂
Rafting, zip Lines, bungee jumping, diving, snorkling, .. the list is almost endless if you search for adrenaline in Costa Rica.
We had a first gentle rafting experience in Sri Lanka and I said for many year not to do it again. However, by preparing our trip, the white water rafting kept on coming back. We decided to go for it and selected at once a class IV rafting. The guides of Sarapiqui Outdoor Center (SOC) were very good and made it an unforgetable experience. So if you seek for a thrill, don’t hesitate and go book your own rafting experience.
Jungle canopy ziplininng was invented in Costa Rica, so you according to us you can’t visit Costa Rica without a zipline ride. It was invented in 1979 in Sarapiqui, but as we already had our white water rafting in Sarapiqui, we decided to do the zipline in Monteverde. We selected the Selvature Adventure Park where you can do around 15 ziplines. The basic package costs 55 dollar and there is also a Superman upgrade of 11 dollar. I have to say that out of the 15 ziplines there are around half which are incredible and the others are to reach another point or relatively short. In the middle there was a longer zipline (+/- 650 meter) which we had to do in couple. It was fun to fly over the trees together with Marie-Claire.
The second last zipline is called the Tarzan Swing and is a combination between bunjee jumping and a zipline. You have to step of a platform which is about 8 meters high and then you swing a couple of times. Stepping of the platform is for daredevils and it’s a huge thrill. I didn’t panic for none of the ziplines, but for the Tarzan Swing I had some nerves. But don’t hesitate, just to it!
The last is a zipline of 1 kilometer long and as we selected the Superman option (Please take this one!) they give you an extra armor so your hang like Superman. What follows is according to me the closest you will ever get to flying. You go head first, with a top speed of around 70 km/h, over the the canopy trees and it was amazing! This was one of the best experiences ever, and I will never forget the superb views. It’s a pity we didn’t brought our goPro or at least rented one to capture this experience, but it will last hopefully longtime in our memories.
National Park Volcan Rincon De La Vieja
There are two sectors in this National Park, the Las Pailas sector with main building and the Santa Maria Sector. Las Pailas is the part where you can visit the mud pools via a loop trail. There are also trails that go to the waterfalls, but then you have to go early, as they close around noon. We arrived around noon, but for us they were closed due to heavy winds and the rangers declared it was too dangerous. Still the mud pools are worth a visit as they are cool. We saw them before in Iceland, but they easily kept our attention. We decided to avoid the crowds and went to sector Santa Maria in the morning. From Liberia this was around 40 – 45 minutes on a gravel road, glad to have a 4 WD. After paying the entrance fee to the ranger we headed towards the Hot Springs. The return walk is around 7 km and along the road there are some side trails to see some smaller waterfalls or view points. The reward are two small pools where one is gentle warmer than the other. It was a nice experience and when we left after 30 minutes the first other people started to arrive. So here the advice is simple, go early to be the first.
National Park Volcan Tenorio
Rio Celeste Waterfall is famous for its (sometimes) turqoise colored water. During our trip we had 1 day of bad wheather and it was the day of our visit. It is simple, when the sun is not shining, the water is not blue. They warn the visitors with a sign before you pay, appreciated. Nevertheless, the waterfall itself is a nice hike and we saw some monkeys at the junction of the rivers. Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose. Bad luck is part of travelling. I advise you to Google for Rio Celeste and see how magnificient it can look. There are some nicely paved stairs down to the waterfall, which will test your physical health when going back up. We were early at the waterfall and only saw 5 to 6 other people. However, when we returned from our walk, we crossed plenty of people and at the entrance there were about hundred of people queuing. If you want to beat the crowd, go early.
Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
This park sells itself as a rain forest experience where you can cross up to 16 hanging bridges. As with other attractions the entrance was not cheap and although it was a nice stroll, it didn’t meet our expectations. If you are new in travelling you will enjoy this but for us it didn’t bring too much new. It’s also quite touristic and wildlife is limited to birds and some Coati/Nasua. When you are travelling with kids they migh enjoy this experience.
National Park Volcan Arenal & Arenal Observatory
In the morning we headed to the Arenal Observatory in order to hike to Cherro Chato. We got this idea from our Lonely Planet and didn’t Google too much about it. In the morning we learned the trail is closed. At first we were still believing that we could make it as we found a trail report of a hiker of 2 days ago. However, that was via the Arenal waterfall, and not from the side we intended. Don’t think you will be able to start the hike as it’s closed with wires and there is an active guard that prevents you do the hike. Nevertheless the Arenal Observatory is worth a visit. We hiked all their trails which is up to 12 km, they have a nice hanging bridge, a waterfall, frog pound, watchtower, bird observation platform. We spent some time on the watchtower to fully see the Volcan. In most days the top is hidden in the clouds. We were lucky, because at some moment in time we saw the Volcan clear.
From the Observatory we went to the National Park. You have two sectors and due to time constraint we selected the main sector. You can see once again the Volcan, and some lava fields. I would not call the old lava fields impressive. And only for that, I wouldn’t make the detour. However, they also have a huge 400 year old tree. We are found of huge and old trees. The roots were really impressive. This tree was for us a real added value. Glad we saw that tree.
We try to avoid zoos and similar, as we like to see the animals in their natural habitat. While heading out for La Paz waterfalls, we only realised at the entrance, there are also plenty of animals next to the waterfalls. As it took us quite some time to get there, we visited the entire park. At first sight it looked that the animals were well threated, but still, it’s there for tourists. We did manage to see quite some animals from closer than we had spotted in nature. They have an area for birds, butterflies, frogs, snakes and wild animals. Although the butterflies and frogs seem to do fine, I do have some serious doubts with the wild cats, jaguars, …
The hummingbird garden is one of the most impressive areas. There are really hundreds of them, in all sizes and colors. They come to drink and when you move slowly, they fly around your head. The sound of their wings is special. We spent a significant time observing these beautiful creatures.
After visiting the animals there are 5 more waterfalls to explore. Going from one waterfall to another you decend significantly, but at the end you can take a shuttle bus back to the park. Yes, we are Sporty Travellers, but here we took the convenient shuttle bus as well. The park is quite expensive, but the experience is good. I recommend making the detour to visit this park.
National Park Cahuita
There are 2 sectors in the National Park. The first is the most crowded as the beach is directly accessible from the entrance and the entrance fee is not fixed, but it’s a gift, you decide how much you want to donate. However, if you donate enough, your ticket is also valid at the other sector, Puerto Vargas. I do encourage to check the date they write on your ticket, as our attendant put a wrong date, and they didn’t want to accept the ticket at the other sector. Luckily I could proove via the pictures (and datetime stamps) on my phone that we only arrived in the region and that we were right. The main sector is definetly more crowded and the beach is nice, but there are not that much areas where you can go in the water. We enjoyed more the sector Puerto Vargas as there were not a lot of people. From the parking lot it’s about 40 minutes walking on a nice wooden boardwalk.
National Park Volcan Irazu
Plenty of blogs and website describe this Volcan as the most special one of Costa Rica, and maybe even the most special one of the world. After our visit, it’s more a good marketing campaing. First you have to drive up the Volcano for about an hour, luckily a brand new road is available. And once you arrive and have paid the entrance fee, you have to walk 200 meters to the Volcano. You see a crater, and depending of the season there will be some water in the crater. As we were there in the dry season, there was only very limited water. We did read on the internet that clouds arise mostly around 09:30, so with our arrival time of 09:15 we were good. We went from the parking lot to the crater, saw the crater, took few pictures, and then at almost 09:30 sharp, clouds arrived and filled the crater. Luckily for us, we at least saw the crater for the money we paid. But after us, plenty of people, often busses, arrived and only saw clouds. Bummer for them, but really, they didn’t miss a thing. We continued our journey and walk around the place before checking out the higher point. Most people do that by foot, and against our nature and our name, we decided to take the car. The disappointment of this visit was too big. And boy, what were we happy to have taken our car up that steep hill. On top we didn’t see too much, only 5 minutes, when the clouds move a bit. The positive was that we met a Canadian couple and we have a pleasant conversation of about 30 minutes before we both decided to continue our trip. I know this Volcan is famous, but think twice before heading here…
While decending back down the Volcan, we went to the Prusia sector. There you have a couple of trails, and if you combine them like we did, you can reach 15 km. Don’t underestmate these trails. There were quite some steep parts.
National Park Tapanti
Before leaving Cartago region and heading to the Pacific Ocean, we visited this less known National Park. It is more for local people. There was one heavy trail, but the others are more family trails, where plenty of picknick tables are present to enjoy sunny afternoons. We walked around 10 km and it was a nice stroll, but we didn’t spot any wildlife. Probably because there are too much loud people present. If you have a spare half day and are around, go visit the park. But I wouldn’t recommend a detour for it.
Before our holiday I had very high expectations from this National Park. Everywhere you read how magnificient it is. The number of visitors used to be limited, but that has been changed recently. The raised from 400 to 1000 to unlimited. Couple of years ago, people were queueing from 5 AM to obtain tickets. We hired a local guide at the entrance of the park. They bring along binoculars and are trained to take pictures with your cellphone. The result is impressive and in the wildlife section you can see a few of those pictures. In the park you can see several insects, sloths and a few kind of monkeys. Although we saw plenty of wildlife, the expectations were not met. Maybe it was because the visit was near the end of our trip and we already saw plenty of animals, but the hurdle of other people also didn’t help. When a sloth was spot in a tree, there were 10 – 15 small groups of people, each with their guid, looking through binoculars to the animal. This was in a way not the wildlife experience I expected. I would advise to go to smaller and less famous parks, to beat the crowds.
Next to the wildlife the National Park also has some marvelous beaches. It was mentioned in the beaches section, but make sure to bring your beach outfit when entering the park. You are not allowed to exit and enter again. Well, you can, but you’ll have to buy another entrance ticket. There are 2 sides where you can lay on the beach, at one there is less crowd, but the waves are stronger. At the side with the people, however, there are some rocks when you go in the sea, so be careful for your feet and toes. I would avoid going back to the main beach (outside the park) as you’ll have to deal once again with those (illegal) park attendance. As you already pay for the parking to enter the park, you can benefit to end your day on the beach. An important remark is that you are not allowed to bring in snacks into the park. Sandwich or bread is allowed, but no candy and bars. They check your bag when you enter the park. This is to avoid that people feed the wildlife.
Fruit! Costa Rica has a huge amount of fresh and delicious fruits. We ate already plenty of them on previous trips, but I was really looking forward to eat fresh pineapple straight from the field. Finca Sura is an eco friendly lodge which you can also visit for guided tours. A 4WD was convenient to reach this place. The owner guides you along his property with a good mix of information and humor. We enjoyed it. And moreover, we saw the Strawberry Poison-Dart Frog in nature! This was one of the main objectives of this trip, and that at the same moment we would eat fresh pineapple 🙂
The owner had a big manchette to peel the pineapple and to present the pieces to us. I really cherisch this elementary moment. Before leaving the owner insisted we would presh some sugar cane and drink the fresh liquid. We could also add a little of the alcohol from it. When you pass from Sarapiqui towards the Caraiban Sea, or in the other way, make sure to reserve a little 2 hours for this visit.
Cartago & Paraiso area
On our way from the Caribean Sea towards the Pacific Ocean we stayed two nights around Paraiso. There you can find the ruins of Ujjaras. Exceptionally they are free to visit! It’s a ruin, with a park around it. We spent 15 minutes and the funny thing was that they were filming a scene for a movie. A bible person was taking some notes. If you don’t pass here directly, I wouldn’t recommend the detour.
The same goes for the Los Angeles basilica. We went to the city center to do some shopping to have some drink to have an aperitief at the swimming pool so we made the detour, but again, not that special if you have seen tons of churches or similar before.
When selecting a hotel I’m often seduced by luxury, which mostly comes with a higher price. On the other hand, we know from experience that we don’t spend much time in the hotel, certainly not in the hotel room. That’s why I try to find a nice balance between value and money. However, as we didn’t want to spent too much time in the car and preferred to stay regularly 2 nights in the same hotel, some luxury like a swimming pool was welcome. We selected mainly mid-range hotels which were a little cheaper compared to European standards.
Las Espuelas (Liberia)
Hotel is 20 minutes away from the international airport which is very convenient with late arrival. However, the hotel is also a 5 minute drive away from the city.
- Spatious room
- Tico breakfast
- Swimming pool
Hotel Linda Vista (La Fortuna)
Next to the Volcano Arenal National Park and the Arenal Observatory Lodge. However, quite isolated and a bit away from the busy La Fortuna. For us this was not a problem, but if you want to spend the evening in a city, you might take that into account.
- Nice room with good bed and great shower
- Nice breakfast served at your table
- Infinity pool with view on the lake
- High quality dinner options
Hotel Los Rios (Guacimo)
Transfer hotel between Sarapiqui and Cahuita. We didn’t want to drive too many kilometers per day and this hotel was somewhere in the middle. It is located next to the highway, but we didn’t hear a thing of it in our room. However, you do hear it when you sit on the terrace for breakfast or dinner.
- Spatious room with comfortable beds
- Rain shower
- Swimming pool (didn’t use it)
Cabinas Yucca (Puerto Viejo de Talamanca)
Hotel located direclty at the beach, however without breakfast.Nevertheless, there is a great place for breakfast across the street. One of the only hotels without pool as we were directly located at the beach, however, the last room available that I booked was without airco. There were 2 fans that helped a bit, but I would discourage doing the same in this warm location.
- Patio with free coffee
- Next to great bars and restaurants
Hotel Rinconcito Verde (Paraiso)
Located around 1 hour from Volcano Irazu and a 5 minute drive from the city center. Nice room with a small kitchen. A eco friendly hotel where the only downside was the weak shower jet.
- Nicely heated swimming pool
- Freshly prepared breakfast
- Onsite dinner delivery possibilities
Hotel Nino del Halcon (Ballena / Uvita)
On walking distance from the beach (7 min).
- Breakfast buffet
- Big heated swimming pool
Hotel La Colina (Manuel Antonio)
Located close to bars and restaurants, but not on walking distance of the beach. You’ll need your car.
- Nice restaurant for dinner
- Smaller pool (we didn’t use it)
Greemount Hotel (Monteverde)
This family run hotel is 5 minutes away from the city center by car.
- Lovely hosts
- Freshly prepared breakfast