We emerged from the plane onto the tarmac at Juan Santamaria International Airport bleary eyed after travelling since 6am that morning. The warming Costa Rican sun was a welcome arrival as we headed toward the terminal to have our official entry stamped onto the pages of our passports and then embark on 3 weeks of road tripping Costa Rica.
I travelled to Costa Rica with my boyfriend and we had decided on this particular country having done lots of research and fallen in love with the results the internet presented to us. A rather large swaying factor for me was the fact Costa Rica has the worlds only Sloth Sanctuary (aka the best place on earth, in my opinion).
We rented our car online through Europcar and got a pretty good deal for the length of time we were going. If you’re not in Costa Rica for longer than around 2 1/2 weeks and you’re planning on travelling around then I would definitely recommend a car because the buses take a very long time on the roads which are often in poor condition. If you want to make the most out of your time there then definitely hire a car it’ll enable you to see more of the country in a shorter period of time. If you’re planning expeditions through Central America for longer than this then the bus is without a doubt your best option.
The Pacific Coast
Our first week was going to be spent exploring the Pacific Coast with stop number one being a town called Quepos, right by the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. We set off from the airport at around 4pm and arrived just after sunset to the little room we’d rented on AirBnB and promptly crashed out. In the morning we rose early and sat on the balcony amidst the rainforest as the sun rose and the birds started tweeting, very, very loudly. Our host had told us that apparently there was a sloth living in the trees opposite our room which naturally increased my eagerness to get out of bed to begin the hunt which was met with a somewhat less enthusiastic grunt from my better half. All in all a pretty great start to our first day.
The Pacific Coast is a beautiful area to both drive along and explore, the coastline is stunning with rain forests lining huge sandy beaches which for the most part are relatively empty. We stopped off in Quepos, Montezuma and Tamarindo which were all beautiful and great locations to surf, relax and do a little bit of yoga!
To drive from Quepos over to the Guanacaste Province and Nicoya Peninsula, where Montezuma and Tamarindo are located, you have to catch the local ferry from Puntarenas which you can drive onto and takes about an hour, it’s a really beautiful way to see the Peninsula. The roads in the Guanacaste Province are some of the worst in the country so be prepared for a bumpy ride!
Here’s a little guide to what you should do in my two favourite locations on the Pacific Coast;
Montezuma – Head up to the Butterfly Garden just outside of town, take a yoga class in an open air hut at Montezuma Yoga, visit Cafe Organic for delicious organic and fresh food with vegan and vegetarian dishes making up the core of the menu. Puggos is a must for the best dinner in town. If you’re feeling adventurous then take the small hike to Montezuma Falls and frolic in the cooling waterfall!
Tamarindo – Tamarindo is great place to learn to surf where waves aren’t too big but still fun. Rent a board for 24 hours for $10 from Banana Surf School (average price for the area) and teach yourself or ask for a class and they’ll teach you all the basics! Eat at Green Papaya for delicious Mexican-style food, La Bodega for very good value sandwiches, juices and incredible brownies or pay a visit to Cafe Tico for an afternoon iced latte and a homemade cake!
If you’re slightly more adventurous at heart to be satisfied by surfing and sunbathing then the central region of Costa Rica, just north of San Jose, is where you’ll find a breadth of acitivities for you to take part in. Monteverde, La Fortuna, the Arenal Volcano and Lake, Volcano Poas and Rio Celeste are five of the main destinations for adventure seekers.
In Monteverde there’s the longest zip line in the world, as well as suspension bridges, hiking and white water rafting to name a few. You also MUST visit Taco Taco which is in the main town and make hands down one of the best burritos I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten quite a lot in my lifetime).
The other locations such as Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna and Volcano Poas both have a wide range of adventurous things for you to do, such as Hot Springs trips, hiking the volcano, white water rafting, water sports on Arenal Lake and much more! La Fortuna Waterfall is worth a visit if you don’t mind that it’s not exactly a secret location anymore, the waterfall is stunning and you can go for a dip after a long descent down into the valley. You don’t need to book ahead for any of these activities just ask the hostel/hotel you’re staying at and they’ll tell you everything you need to know!
Rio Celeste is an exquisitely bright turquoise colour and you can bathe in the glimmering pools, highly recommend a visit!
The Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean Coast doesn’t have as many destinations to visit however two that are the most popular are Tortuguero National Park and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
Tortuguero is translated to mean ‘Land of the Turtles’ so I’m sure you can guess exactly what the attraction to this area is! It’s only worth a trip if it’s turtle season because it’s infamous for the turtles coming onto the beach to lay eggs, so if it’s not the right time (you can check online) then it’s potentially not worth the trip to get there as the area is only accessible via plane or boat. The area is stunningly beautiful however the unique attraction is the turtles so double check before making a booking!
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a little town on the Caribbean coast. Rasta influences can be seen throughout and it was totally unique to any location we’d stayed in previously. The town itself has Playa Negra and Playa Puerto Viejo which are both beautiful but the real treats lie a little further south of the town. As you drive out you’ll be thinking to yourself you’re in the middle of nowhere but then you’ll find the idyllic, sparsely populated Playa Cocles. A white sand beach lined with dense rainforest and hidden locations for you to stay. We found a gorgeous little white open plan hut that was 100m from the beach and it was potentially my favourite part of the trip. Playa Cocles is great for surfing and there’s little wooden huts on the beach offering lessons. The area feels like a totally separate island and nothing like the rest of Costa Rica. It also receives bonus points because Puerto Viejo is only a 20 minute drive from the Sloth Sanctuary!
While you’re there you should visit OM cafe for smoothies, yoga lessons and a brownie; La Pecora Nera for a delicious slightly more expensive Italian dinner and the Bikini Hostel for super cheap Caipirinha’s and incredible homemade pesto pasta – a strange combination but just go with it.
Top Tips for roadtripping Costa Rica
Petrol: Petrol stations are few and far between but when you see one there tends to be about 4 others in exactly the same area which made little sense to me but basically top up whenever you see one and don’t bet on one being close by!
Roads: The main roads are generally okay quality, some are recently resurfaced but others are a very pot hole-y so make sure you’re concentrating so you don’t bust a tire! The roads to Monteverde and around the Guanacaste region are appalling, you’ll forget what driving on tarmac is like by the time you get back to it!
Sodas: Eat at the Sodas, they’re the local restaurants that you’ll see lining the roads most of them are delicious and high quality food for half the amount you’ll pay at any more American looking restaurants.