I've been to Costa Rica three times, and I usually just go somewhere once, and then never want to go back again. It feels like I've checked it off the list, and I'm just over it. With Costa Rica, it feels different. The entire country is so laid back and happy, and it feels safe. My Spanish is pretty broken, but I can read a little bit, and say some basic things. STill, almost everyone speaks English, so that makes it really easy, while it still feels like you're getting a cool, foreign experience.
One of the coolest things about Costa Rica is that you can get a rental car and just drive everywhere you want to go. I've noticed that it is hard to get an automatic car, especially if you do the naughty thing and do not book until the last minute, so I have even driven a manual car though the country, even though I am basically pretty crap at driving manual cars.
When you land, most people think they are in San Jose, the capital. Personally, I am not crazy about San Jose, but you’re actually just as close to another city, which I use as a base for my first night: Alajuela. Because Costa Rica is VERY backpacker-friendly, there are plenty of hostel type of places absolutely everywhere you go. In Alajuela, I sometimes just stay there for the night, or you can spend time being touristy. I guess it depends what you came to Costa Rica for. Alajuela has some cool things to see and do, but it still feels like a city. It was the hometown of Costa Rica’s martyr, a drummer boy named Juan Santamaria from the 1800s – who the airport is named after – and you can go see a big statue of him in Alajuela.
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In Alajuela, at the very center, there is a gorgeous park called Parque Central. Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful outdoorsy place I’ve ever been, and this is a lush, gorgeous spot. If you want to get some religion, head on over to Alajuela’s famous red domed church, which is right by the park.
If I were you, I would see Alajuela for a couple hours, then I am ready to drive to the beach, but I do not. Honestly, my main problem, once I get my favorite beach, which I talk about, is that I do not want to leave once I get there, so I always try to do some good touristy stuff before I make that trip.
So instead of going to the beach, I go to Arenal Volcano. It’s a frickin’ VOLCANO! How cool is that? Arenal is a national forest, to preserve the volcano and probably to protect people. If you do not have any budget, you can just see the volcano for free from a distance, but it really is cool to get as close as you can. I took a hanging bridge tour inside the Arenal National Forest, and it was stunning. It was crowded, but I was there during the high season – which is winter in North America – so I got a little nervous, walking across what felt like rope bridges over huge drops below me. If you are really into butterflies, there is a cool butterfly conservatory in Arenal. The Arenal Oasis Wildlife Refuge is AMAZING, though! It’s a cool space that preserves all sorts of cool animals you will probably never see again in your life. When I go, I feel like a little kid. You see frogs and all sorts of animals that literally look like something in a crazy science book.
Finally, now I go to the beach.
One of my favorite beaches in the world is Playa Hermosa – this translates to Beautiful Beach – and stay there for as long as you can. I had never surfed, so I got some surf lessons from a Tico guy. (Tico people are those indigenous people from Costa Rica.)
Costa Rica is the only place I have ever been in my life, where I swear that time just moves slower there. I am not even a huge beach person, but when I am in Playa Hermosa, I can just hang out, have a late breakfast, chill on the beach, meet some nice people, have a few beers, and maybe even go to bed early. I usually do not go out drinking in Costa Rica at night – I feel like that is a big part of the culture over in Tamarindo, which I will talk about later – but for most of the beach towns, days are such perfection, I feel satisfied and ready to go to sleep by the night.
Tamarindo is a popular beach area, but I do not like it, as a beach destination. I love the waterfalls there – you can walk to a bunch of gorgeous waterfalls. The big, famous one is a two-hour walk, but it really is stunning. I also did a kayak tour, which I loved. Tamarindo town is either one of your favorite places, or you really can’t stand it. The center of town is full of bars and touristy shops, and all the signs are very cute. I guess it is just TOO American for me. It feels touristy. I know I like that Costa Rican’s speak English, but I still want to get a foreign vibe. I went to Tamarindo once for waterfalls and kayaking, and I think it is worth a visit for that, but I will not go back.
I have heard that Cahuita is a great beach, and it is on the opposite side of the country – on the East side – but it was rained out when I tried to go the one time. It felt totally different from Playa Hermosa, though: it was more of a Caribbean vibe, with Rasta guys and a LOT of people smoking pot. The rainy season in Costa Rica is no joke – there are floods, and it rains so hard, it is difficult to do much of anything. I guess that is how the place is so lush and gorgeous! Even when it’s raining, places are set up to have hammocks under coverings, so you can still just chill for the day and lay around, playing board games and drinking beer. Still more fun than you would have at home, but it is worth it to pay a little more for a plane ticket during the high season, and get some sunshine.
Manuel Antonio National Park, down in the south, is a really cool way to spend a couple days. You can go hiking in forests right beside the ocean, and basically just get lost in nature. You will see sloths and all kinds of amazing wildlife, then go back to a little bungalow or hostel and sleep the best sleep you have ever had.
Monteverde Cloud Forest ecological preserve is worth a visit, too, although be warned: it is a little chilly up there. I did a zipline tour twice, and it was one of the coolest experiences of my life, ziplining the length of two football fields, over hundreds of feet of nothingness. You are literally in the cloud, looking around at paradise. Really, what could be better than that?
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