My Costa Rican Dream Come True; Pura Vida!
Going to Costa Rica was my dream. I didn’t know the specifics of where I wanted to go, I just knew I wanted the landscape – I wanted the jungle, I wanted the volcanoes, I wanted the ocean. On top of all that, I wanted zip lining! I wanted to know what it felt like to fly, gliding seamlessly over the jungle canopy. Last year in December, that dream finally came true when I headed south to Costa Rica for two weeks.
Our two-week Costa Rica trip was not the vacation to worry about money – money was no matter. Having never been to Central America before we had some apprehensions about safety and the language barrier, so we opted to do a G Adventure Tour. To start we did the 8 night, 9 day Costa Rica Quest tour. Then we added on the Guanacaste Beach Break for 4 days, which we did on our own. We thought between the two we would get the best of both worlds – the ease of traveling to different parts of the country without the stress, and the last few days to relax on the beach just the two of us. This was a really fantastic trip, and the added extra days on the beach was a fantastic decision.
We left at the end of November around the time weather would start to transition from rainy season to summer. We flew with Copa Airlines from Toronto to Panama for a brief stopover, and then hopped from Panama City to San Jose. It was our first time flying with Copa Airlines and we were very impressed. San Jose was the starting point of the tour; from there we would hit La Fortuna, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, having roughly two days at each location. Finally, we would hit Samara on our own.
We admittedly did not spend very much time here – we had very little time before the tour started and half a day after it ended. We did so little exploring here that I really have nothing to say about the city. Perhaps this was bad on my part, but we were somewhat at the mercy of the booked tour. We also simply had other places we were more interested in spending time at, so San Jose was neglected.
La Fortuna was a quaint little city – just big enough that restaurants and activities were plentiful, but not too busy that you had to really wait for anything.
- Arenal Hot Springs – these were lovely! We went in the evening so it was quiet and there were just a handful of others. The pools varied in temperature from hot tub temperature to quite cold, with several surprisingly fast waterslides – some leading to a cold surprise and others the loveliest comfortably warm temperature. This was a really nice time. This was an included activity, so no extra fees.
-Waterfall rappelling – This was probably my favourite activity of the whole trip! This involved some hiking, but you essentially hike along/in a stream and rappel waterfalls along the way. My adrenaline was pumping and I was feeling pretty nervous! Of course, my partner is a bit of an adrenaline-junkie so he was volunteering us to be the first ones to rappel. This was simply the best. They set you up with all the safety gear and you get an included lunch with chicken, rice and beans. I highly recommend this activity for anyone visiting this area of the country. This was an additional activity we purchased.
-Extreme Hike – this was a several hour hike up a dormant volcano. It was quite literally straight up, then you descend to the inside of the crater, only then to climb back out again. This was challenging but manageable, though it was very muddy – we came back absolutely covered. At times you were on all fours or scrambling to make it up a few feet, but I love that stuff and I don’t mind getting muddy! Unfortunately it was a bit of a wet and misty day, so there wasn’t much of a view from the top. After the hike we headed to another waterfall where we took a break for lunch (sandwiches and beer) and could linger and swim for a while. We took this as our opportunity to wash some of the mud off. This was an additional activity we purchased.
This was a surprisingly wet and cold part of the trip, so all of the rain gear really came in handy. Definitely pack a waterproof raincoat and a waterproof cover for your backpack at the very least. I had waterproof pants as well and I used them the whole time we were in Monterverde. Again, another small town with a flurry of touristic activities.
-Coffee Plantation – I was pleasantly surprised by this tour. Initially I did not care too much about this activity, but it ended up being fantastic. It was super interesting, very informative and the staff were very friendly. The guide took us throughout the plantation teaching us about making coffee and sugar, covering the process from seed to roasting the beans. The tour also included a delicious home made lunch – it was amazing! This was an included activity, so no additional fees.
Zip Lining – Finally, the activity I had been waiting for! After quickly being streamlined into proper equipment and watching literally a 1 minute demonstration on safety, you start zip lining immediately! Again, I was nervous, but that quickly dissipated. At first you go through a series of shorter zip lines, nothing too high or too far, just enough to get comfortable. After that, there was a tandem option to do a zip line with a partner, and the remaining ones were ‘super man’ style, where you are clipped from your back and gliding across like super man! It was not as adrenaline pumping as I had thought it would be, rather, I found it relaxing maybe even meditative. I felt this especially so on the long ones, where it took a good 90 seconds to cross the zip line.
I can remember hanging looking around and seeing nothing but treetops and white mist, I could feel the dampness on my face and coolness as I moved. In that moment there was nothing to be afraid of, because I was suspended in the air and if something terrible went wrong, there would be absolutely nothing I could do about it. It may sound morbid, but it wasn’t, it was just a very accepting moment. The faith we have in a harness, clips and some cable – whoa! Finally, the Tarzan swing. You continue to be harnessed, but it is essentially a free fall drop and then a swing. This was terrifying, I had no thoughts in my mind as I dropped off the edge of the platform – I couldn’t allow a thought, because if I did I wouldn’t do it! This was a quick go, but it was worth the fear and adrenaline. I screamed on the top of my lungs like a screechy little girl, but it was pure instinct. This is obviously a Costa Rica must do activity. This was an additional activity we purchased.
It was a long and early bus ride to Manuel Antonia, a small beachy town on the coast. Our accommodations were just a bit North in Quepos, which was apparently more affordable. The place was quite nice – we had our own little villa with terrace, there was a lovely swimming pool, outdoor bar and dining area and then an American style bar which became quite busy in the evenings. There were no planned or included activities in this part of the trip, which was warmly welcomed.
Manual Antonio National Park – Our first morning there we grabbed the bus and headed into town to hike the park. This may be the most popular and well known of parks in the country, but it is surprisingly small. There are guided tours you can take, but we were over guided tours in beautiful parks – we wanted to go solo and enjoy it our own way! We never felt harassed, but the guides quite incessantly approached us on the way to the park offering their services and trying to convince us that we NEEDED them in order to see the wildlife. Not so surprisingly the cost of their services dropped as we got closer to the park, they often walked along with us and dropped the price even when we continued to say ‘no thank you’. This may be useful to know for people who DO want to have a guide on the way, and there is no denying that they have fantastic gear that allows you to see wildlife close up.
That being said, we had a great day on our own – we saw three different kinds of monkeys, sloths, coatis and iguanas, so we never felt like we missed out. We had a pair of binoculars too, which we used throughout the day. Most of all we were happy to hike and explore on our own and at our own pace.
Manual Antonio Beach –The public beach was beautiful and the waves were huge! It is a public beach, so be prepared to be approached by people selling various knick-knacks and souvenirs. A simple ‘no thank you’ is sufficient and they were pleasant. The odd wagon full of coconuts came by as well, and I don’t think there is anything I enjoy more than that! They were usually the comparable rate of $1 per coconut, but you could usually haggle 2 for 1.
I mostly laid out, swam and jumped in the waves, but my partner rented a surfboard and took some time to try out surfing. Lucky for us, our guide loved surfing and was able to give some tips and brief lessons.
This was where our trip ended – we had a long drive back to San Jose and the group tour ended.
Thoughts on the tour – Group size was about 15, a pretty decent number. The age range was around 22-35 for the most, part with the odd outliers. It was nice to have a group of people to socialize with, but we often found ourselves wanting to go on our own and do our own thing. We also had different ideas about the experiences we wanted to have – we wanted to eat at local ‘sodas’ and eat Costa Rican food, while most others were content at touristy American style restaurants selling burgers and pasta (WHAT?!).
We were lacking in travellers confidence, so this was a good tour for us exploring a very new part of the world, but we also learned that we wanted more freedom then what could be offered on an organized tour.
The transportation was comfortable, the guide was exceptional and the places beautiful – overall a really great way to travel for a short vacation. This way of travel is good for people with limited time and don’t have to worry about budgeting. I don’t think we could have seen and done this much on our own in the time we were there, had we done the same trip solo. But you could definitely do this cheaper on your own, if you didn’t have the same timeline to worry about.
Overall, a WONDERFUL experience that I would not change for the world.
This was a more solo part of the trip, but was also booked through G Adventures. The ‘Adventure Bus’ picked us up from our hotel and took us to Samara, making stops, pick-ups and connections along the way. It was comfortable and it was nice to be on our own.
Samara was an interesting little beach town. It is funny, because when I got there I was a bit disappointed, it was small, quiet, no hustle or bustle, and everything went at a much slower pace. I initially thought it seemed like a ‘boring’ place to be for 4 days, but by the time we left my feelings about Samara were much the opposite. It was a slower pace, but it was beautiful. No rushing, no running, no panic and no stress – just being. We stayed at the Samara Inn, about a 10-15 minute walk from the main strip and beach. It featured a lovely little pool where we often sat after a long day at the beach, drinking beer and eating plantain chips. They offered a delicious hot and fresh breakfast every morning. Across the road was a field with horses that came and went as they pleased – literally they did, sometimes they would be in the pen and sometimes they would roam the streets or run on the beach. Just passed the field was a line of palm trees and the ocean just sparkling behind it.
Every day was clear skies and the hottest sun I have ever experienced. We walked to the beach everyday. I walked the beach and soaked up the sun, Bryan did the same and went surfing everyday. We went trolling one morning and caught a rooster fish, which we brought to a soda and had them cook it fresh for us – we paid the price for a regular casado and ate it with rice and beans, sharing the fish with the restaurant owners and other patrons there. We stayed on the beach all day.
There was an AMAZING little beach restaurant called Lo Que Hay where we had the best fish tacos and chorizo nachos I have ever had! I am not even kidding, I fantasize about eating these all the time – never again will I have a nacho that replicates those! I just might have to go back.
Samara had a very interesting mix of people – Costa Rican’s, many ex-pats and little children fusions of the two. It was common to see hippy looking ladies and men with long hair and beads, doing yoga on the beach and playing trumpets at sunset to the ocean. All animals roam free there, horses and dogs alike – you may think they don’t have owners, but they do! Samara had a feeling of ease and freedom unlike any place I have ever experienced. This was the first time that I could look at a place and see there was another way of being, another way of living – especially with the ex-pat culture. There were many Americans and Europeans (from cultures not so unlike my own), who had uprooted themselves from the city life and 9 to 5 grind, and were here, living much slower, much purer. It oddly changed me a little bit. I cannot describe it any different than my realization that there was another way to live. I have thought about this a great deal ever since.
Costa Rica was everything that I had hoped it would be and more. It is one of the best vacations I have ever had. The people were so friendly, the food was amazing and the landscape had so much variety and beauty to offer. We only hit a few of the major tourist spots, so guaranteed there is so much more to see. I hope that I will have an opportunity to go back and experience the rest of the country, and maybe get to sleepy Samara for chorizo nachos again – maybe next time I will have the opportunity to linger a little longer.