“Pura Vida”—the call to live life to the fullest was in this case not just the words that you regularly hear from the “ticos,” or locals, but also the motto of our three-week trip through Costa Rica over Christmas and New Year’s. The plan was to stop in the country’s most awesome places over those three weeks and to familiarize ourselves with the surroundings.
When we arrived relatively late in the evening after a flight that lasted roughly 15 hours, including a stopover in New York, we were still happy to finally make it to our hotel for a few hours of sleep, even though it was in the middle of the poor section of town and had bars on every window and door. But the next day we were supposed to immediately continue on with the bus to the Caribbean coast.
In planning our trip, we’d decided to take the public bus to Puerto Viejo, since it would go straight there and also wasn’t too expensive at $10 per person. But whoever wants a seat or even a ride at all needs to get there early. We got to the site 1½ hours ahead of time and still had to sit on the bus floor for 4 hours. It paid off, though, because the next bus didn’t leave until 3 hours later, in which case we wouldn’t have arrived at our destination until late in the evening.
Puerto Viejo – The Caribbean side
Puerto Viejo is seriously Caribbean. Everyone runs around with dreadlocks, and Bob Marley’s music is heard up and down. We decided to spend the night somewhat away from the village in a jungle lodge. The highlight was probably the arrival itself. After hours of flying and a long bus ride, we’d finally begun our vacation, which we promptly celebrated in our hammock with a beer. For supper, the best choice is Stashu’s con Fusion. Our memories of their skewered meat in blue cheese sauce will stay with us for a long time!
Those who sleep in the jungle have to count on being awoken by howler monkeys at 5 am. For us, still suffering from jetlag, it was luckily not that bad. We’d take a siesta in the afternoons and in that way even managed to sleep through Christmas. Could be worse, since the joy of being in the middle of the jungle means abundant plant life, mysterious sounds, and a diverse animal kingdom. We spotted the toucan, Costa Rica’s symbol, several times in the trees.
In Puerto Viejo, your best bet is to get around on foot or by bike. But be careful—on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, it can quickly turn to rain for several hours, which we experienced in the middle of a bike tour. A lot of beaches, like Playa Punto Uva, are reachable by bike, as is the little village of Manzanillo. These excursions are highly recommended, and we would have preferred to have more time there ourselves.
Tortuguero National Park
We heard from friends that we absolutely had to visit Tortuguero—“the place where the turtles come.” We’d already booked the 3-day tour by Gecko Trail Adventures at home, and we were then picked up at our lodge in Puerto Viejo.
It turned out that we had a driver all to ourselves, which was very practical for the 3-hour car ride to the river. We drove through banana plantations owned by Chiquita and other companies, saw ylang-ylang flowers, and a whole bunch of monkeys. When we arrived at the river, our guide for 3 days was already waiting for us,
The ride down the river took us through mangrove forests. The water was so dark and still that the trees reflected there gave the illusion that we were flying over an underwater forest in the boat—a unique and magical experience.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any turtles the next day, since they don’t mate at this time of year. Our guide still did a good job and told us all about the green turtles. On our water safari, we rode through the mangrove forests and saw a whole bunch of birds and iguanas, whose orange color signals their readiness to mate. On the way to Arenal National Park, we were also lucky enough to see crocodiles, and we immediately had to take a selfie with them.
Arenal Volcano National Park
Now arrived in La Fortuna, we quickly realized that Daria had caught a cold from the constant running of the air conditioner on the shuttle bus. I have to add that the shuttle bus companies are instructed to turn on the air conditioner as soon as there are Americans on the bus. We could bargain with some of them to turn it off, but others insisted on having the temperature at 16 degrees.
Once there, the weather was unfortunately really overcast, which first of all didn’t make things any easier on Daria, and the volcano was also perpetually covered in clouds so that we never got a full view of it.
At our Arenal Backpackers Hostel, which we can’t really recommend here, among other things there was no awesome breakfast, which is why we quickly headed out to find a café. In Cafeteria Vienna, we found a great café, super fruit juices, and a delicious breakfast. Now invigorated, we took off on foot towards the waterfall and zip-lining. For this you should definitely put on a rain jacket and be sure to wear sturdy shoes.
For some real R&R, we were taken to Hotel Baldi and its hot springs. The hot springs have their source in a river that flows through the volcano. It’s through this that the water gets seriously heated up. Along this river is a row of several hotels that offer hot springs. Whoever wants to jump in for free can try to find a place between the hotels along the river.
La Fortuna is very touristy, which makes it a great place to stock up on trip supplies (especially cash).
Samara: finally—back to the warmth
Going from a rainy 18 degrees to a sunny 30 degrees did us a lot of good, and Daria was immediately well again. Our AirBnB was some distance away from the village center of Samara, but thanks to our bikes, we could make it to the center in about 10 minutes. At night on riding back, we would sometimes also come across this or that cow on the road.
For our first surfing lesson, we got the name of a contact for C&C Surf School right from our AirBnB landlord, and a couple of hours later we were already standing on a surfboard. But surfing makes you hungry real fast, which is why the Locanda Bar quickly became our regular eatery. They have the best guacamole snd freshly baked nachos there out of anyone on the entire beach.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve in Samara, which does an awesome spectacle on the beach. Every restaurant makes its own bonfire, and when it turns dark, lucky lanterns are released all along the coast.
For our journey onward to Santa Teresa, we came knocking too late for the shuttle service, so we searched for another option. With the public bus, the trip would have taken a good 7 hours, with multiple transfers. Luckily, our landlord was able to help us out one more time, and we hired his housekeeper’s husband as our driver. The funny part was that the man had never even been to Santa Teresa. Thanks to Google Maps, we arrived at our destination 4½ hours and a couple of river crossings later.
Experiencing Santa Teresa by Quad
Santa Teresa definitely doesn’t have as many restaurants and shops as Samara, but it’s the perfect spot for surfers and yoga types. Since we couldn’t borrow any bikes from the hotel this time, we just rented a quad to explore the surrounding area. One goal we had in mind was Koji’s Sushi Restaurant, which had been recommended to us back home. After a good 20-minute drive on an untarred road, we were covered in dust but ready for super sushi. The next day, we just took off for both coasts, which was serious fun.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t ride the quad to Montezuma, so we rented a shuttle for $15 per person and arrived there a good 40 minutes later.
Montezuma – Yoga und Relaxation
Compared to Samara and Santa Teresa, Montezuma is more peaceful and filled with lots of little souvenir shops. There’s one local ATM, which takes a good three days to fill when it’s empty. Fortunately, you can pay with a credit card just about everywhere.
For those who want to go surfing, this is definitely the wrong place. At one point, we borrowed a surfboard locally and then walked to Playa Grande, where you can surf. But the beach was 2 hours away by foot, and you can’t get there by car.
Instead of lugging a board, we preferred walking through the forest to a waterfall, where you can enjoy swimming or venture a Tarzan leap. If you keep walking higher up, you might be lucky enough to run across a couple of the monkeys that live there.
Shortly before our departure, we decided that we wanted to really relax again, which is why Daria was able to talk me into taking a yoga lesson at the Ylang Ylang Beach Resort. For me, those hours were the most painful and embarrassing ones ever, but at the same time, I enjoyed the view onto beach. Luckily, we were able to really recover with a 2-hour massage shortly afterwards.
On our last evening, we went to the restaurant Playa de los Artistas, which we’d also visited the day before, except that all the seats were already taken. The restaurant is run by a young crew and has a great menu. We ordered a whole barracuda for ourselves, including vegetables and a bottle of wine.
Back in San Jose
For $50 per person, a shuttle bus including ferry ride took us back to San Jose, where we spent our last night. This time, we stayed in the city center, where there are several shops and restaurants. After hours of searching, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant after all. Anyone who needs to go to the airport the next day should reserve a taxi through the hotel the evening before. The ride to the airport takes around 20 minutes and costs about CHF 30.
And so, our three awesome weeks in Costa Rica—which we really enjoyed—came to an end. Now we wouldn’t travel around so much, and we’d spend more time in each spot, especially Puerto Viejo and Samara. Whoever wants to explore and experience Costa Rica should definitely spend 4–5 weeks there.