Costa Rica Vacation. Part 1: Where We Went.
Costa Rica offers gorgeous beaches, colorful flora and fauna, numerous adventure activities, active volcanoes, and some of the world’s most beautiful hot springs (and I am sure my list is not all-encompassing). When planning our trip, we evaluated these offerings, our family’s interests, available vacation time and came up with the following plan. We would spend a week on the beach on the Northern Pacific coast (Guanacaste Province) followed by four days in the town of La Fortuna in Alajuela Province to explore the rain forest and enjoy some hot springs.
Here is how it all worked out.
Arrival in Liberia. Casa Cerca del Mar
We were scheduled to arrive in Liberia airport after 9pm in the evening (on a recent fine day at the end of June), and after picking our rental car at the airport (a lengthy process in Costa Rica) we have arranged – wisely – to spend the night at the nearby motel. Driving in Costa Rica is not for the weak of heart: outside of main highways the roads are typically not well maintained, not lit and not marked – altogether a pretty prohibitive combination for night driving.
After stocking on groceries in the morning (large supermarkets are not widely available in small coastal towns) we headed to our rental house Casa Cerca del Mar: a little over an hour drive from Liberia. Our gps took us on a Monkey Trail – and fresh from the plane- we were not yet prepared to tackle it (there is a slightly longer highway (rt 21) route as well, which I thoroughly recommend to new Costa Rica drivers!)
Read the details about our stay at Casa Cerca del Mar and tips on Costa Rica lodging in our post Planning Costa Rica Vacation here.
Guanacaste Beach Hopping
The province of Guanacaste’s coast stretches from Papagayo Gulf to Tamarindo Beach. During the beach portion of our stay, we planned to just veg out on the beach several feet away from our rental property in Portrero. But during our dinner at Coco Loco on Flamingo Beach on the first night of our stay, we discovered not just the appetite for the innovative Costa Rican food served at this restaurant, but a yearning to explore beautiful tropical beaches around us- and our readiness to go an extra mile (or so) for it. We then spent 5 days exploring area beaches while never stopping to be grateful for renting a Four-Wheel Drive – higher class car than we had originally planned (to find out why – stay tuned for our upcoming article about Guanacaste Beaches).
Outside of the hours of frolicking in the blue waters of the Pacific, our activities included fishing boating expeditions (fun, but no fish came home), riding the scooters and afternoon meals with ocean vistas. We came to love our life on the coast so much that we felt sad to leave, but the rain forest was calling!
Driving from Portero to La Fortuna.
After a week of relaxation by water and now much more experienced in Costa Rican driving, this time we actually enjoyed our Monkey Trail off-road adventure on the way to La Fortuna.
The road from Portrero to La Fortuna took us about 4 hours, including a stop for coffee with a view of Lake Arenal.
In La Fortuna there was more rain, but we were officially in the rain forest now and considered it a part of the territory. La Fortuna is famous for its Volcano Arenal which has been dormant since 2010 but is considered young and active. Volcano National Park offers several hikes to get closer to the volcano, but we opted to observe it from a comfort of our hotel’s spa. (Entrance to Volcano National park is $10 and frankly, it does not offer you a better view than from your hotel or just driving around. Our friends opted to hike the natural trails though).
During our La Fortuna lazy afternoons we enjoyed natural volcanic hot springs in our hotel Volcano Lodge, and in the rainy mornings we undertook several very enjoyable nature excursions.
We spent our first morning in La Fortuna in Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park – a nature park where you can observe the rain forest and its inhabitants from the paved railed trail taking advantage of the height of the hanging bridges. Our tour guide Andreas mesmerized us with his stories about flora and fauna of the forest, as he lead us through the two-mile trail. There are 16 bridges in total on the trail (six of them are hanging suspension bridges) and some of us chickened out of some of the bridges. Here is Dennis’ report from our rain forest walk.
Rainforest Chocolate Tour was our second adventure in La Fortuna and although the setting of a small chocolate farm was less dramatic than a 150-ft tall hanging bridge the previous day, the effect of our close nature encounter was quite as powerful. In the 1.5 hour program we learned about the history of chocolate discovery and making, and more importantly- participated in the chocolate production process- from drying and grinding to roasting, milling, pressing and finally pouring into our cups – served with a side of delicious flavorings add-ons of orange, almond and salt.
La Fortuna Waterfall is offered to those braving a strenuous walk down the steps. Here my daughter and I stayed behind in a lovely café amidst a tropical forest (they give you a special “café only” bracelet so that you don’t pay a $15 entrance fee).
Tabacon Hot Springs
We love all things water spa and could not miss this one of a kind experience – easily the most naturally beautiful spa we have encountered in our travels. Imagine a river fed by the volcanic hot springs formed into cascading pools with waterfalls of different temperatures and depths amidst a lush tropical forest.
You will need water shoes as the bottoms of natural pools are uneven and covered with stones. Entrance fees and packages (you can add the meals) vary by season so check the website or call (make sure to reserve in advance in the high season). When we visited in June’s low season, the day’s entrance fee was $60/adult, $25 kid (a little cheaper if you enter late in the day). There are some less expensive hot springs in the area you may consider trying, such as Baldi. Tabagon was worth pretty much every dollar for us.
Costa Rica Trip Planning
As this was a family relaxation type trip, I did not reach out to the travel books like I normally do. Instead, I was following friends’ and fellow blogger’s experiences. I also contacted Anywhere Costa Rica for recommendations on the tours and activities. They work with an extensive all over the country network of attractions and can help you plan and arrange your activities (and transportation – if you prefer not to drive in Costa Rica!). I suggest you check their website first for ideas where to start. Our agent Katya (who responded to my initial inquiry) acted like my personal travel concierge in Costa Rica: while I did not go for all the tours we have discussed (we decided to opt-out of the Palo Verde Boat Tour, for example, in favor of more time at the beach) – it was great knowing that we had a trusted expert who could provide recommendations for – literally- anywhere in Costa Rica.
Ideas for next time.
We loved our trip and are hoping to return one day- to revisit the beaches we fell in love with and explore other nature parks, such as Monteverde Cloud Forrest and Manuel Antonio National Park.
For more tips on planning your trip, read our story Costa Rica Part 2: TIPS FOR PLANNING YOUR COSTA RICA VACATION
We thank Anywhere Costa Rica for helping to arrange our Mistico Hanging Bridges Walk and Rainforest Chocolate Tour.
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