I’ve barely finished wiping the water out of my eyes when our guide yells, “Get down, get down!”
Get down again? We just got up! But guides know best, so back into our raft we crouch as the next waves of white water rapidly wrap around our life-vested bodies, propelling our raft over a rock and onto a shallow pool of placid waves. These waves are by no means still, but in comparison to what we just sailed through, they seem sleepy and calm. It is in this brief moment of serenity that our guide gestures around us and announces, “Welcome to my office! How can I not be happy here in Costa Rica?”
I totally get what he’s saying. In the days before and after our rafting expedition, it’s an observation I made repeatedly—that people in Costa Rica truly do seem happy. Life isn’t perfect; most residents live simply in humble houses that line unpaved and rocky roads. But nature is everywhere—over a quarter of its land consists of national parks. It also hosts 5% of Earth’s biodiversity, an impressive statistic when the country is 0.03% of the world’s landmass.
Over the years, conscious initiatives by the government have shaped the country into one of peace and liveliness. There is no army; resources instead pour into preserving the wildlife and promoting tourism, the country’s main source of income. CR also recognizes itself as a secular state, with no official religion. To promote education, the government’s school system exists on the radio as well as in actual schools, so that kids in rural areas can still learn. As a result, the country has a 96% literacy rate, one of the highest in Central America.
The happiness of the Costa Rican people spreads to anyone who visits. They are eager to show off their beautiful country, and I can see why. Whether you like food, beaches, hiking, adventure, or simply soaking it all in, there is room in Costa Rica for you.
Our trip spanned 8 days, from Saturday morning to the following Saturday evening. This ensured that we didn’t rush through anything and experienced things in their entirety. There was still much more to see, but as a first-time visitor, I was happy!
Getting around Costa Rica:
- If you aren’t going with a tour (which I don’t recommend), rent a car. There are no freeways in Costa Rica, so although the country is small, it takes hours to get from place to place, so factor that into your planning accordingly. We utilized the time by listening to audiobooks and podcasts.
- Waze is your best bet for mapping, as it picks up on the road conditions better than Google does.
- You can use USD to get around. Most everyone speaks English as well.
- No need to tip in restaurants.
- Weather changes dramatically from place to place. Pack for rain, sun, beach, cold, and wind. It especially gets chilly at night.
- I lived in my Keen sandals. They were great as walking or water shoes, and they cleaned up easily after muddy hikes.
- Things in CR don’t open super early. Since you’ll be on the go a lot, pack lots of snacks for breakfast and the road. I survived off of Quest bars.
- We deliberately didn’t plan our 3 days at Manuel Antonio and I’m so glad for it. Since this is a beach town, we decided on activities day-of or day-before and it was great. Any free time was spent at the pool/beach or taking excessive videos of wild sloths.
- If you’re in decent shape, most hikes will take you much less than the time they say. For example, we completed the cloud forest hike in two hours instead of the predicted four.
- People say San Jose is underrated but we loved it. It’s got a great food and craft beer scene and lots of greenery. It’s a nice respite after roughing it out in nature. We spent a day and night before flying out.
- These waterproof phone cases were a godsend throughout our trip. Highly recommend!
- La Fortuna:
- Magic Mountain Sports Bar. Good margaritas and chimichurri pork.
- Rainforest Cafe: Not THAT Rainforest Cafe, but equally as good.
- Don Rufino: Come for a nicer dinner with elevated Central American food.
- Red Frog and Coffee Roaster: Excellent coffee and breakfast dishes, especially the tamales.
- Manuel Antonio:
- El Avion: An airplane-themed (and shaped) bar and restaurant! Great drinks/food, and a fun spot to explore and learn the history of the plane.
- San Jose:
- Wilk Craft Beer: An awesome spot with really nice beers and vibe. Their logo is a wolf; I wish I had bought a t-shirt to take back with me.
- Maza Bistro: Excellent brunch spot with a cute patio.
- Costa Rica Beer Factory: Self explanatory, good spot for wings and beer.
- El Apotecario: A funky cocktail spot with interesting drinks and a pirate vibe.
- Al Mercat: One of the best meals we ate was here. It serves elevated fusion cuisine with excellent wine to match.
- La Fortuna [2 days]
- Arenal volcano hike. Come early in the morning to avoid crowds and hike up to the top.
- Baldi Hot Springs: Baldi has water slides! Tabacon is famous for being romantic and calm, but I mean, water slides.
- Canyoning. We went with this company and loved it.
- Monteverde [2 days]
- Santa Elena Cloud Forest: The Monteverde forest is famous, but we found it too overrun with people. Santa Elena was beautiful, devoid of tourists, and perfect. It really did feel like we were in a cloud, and the trails are barely marked, making for lots of mud. This was my favorite hike of the trip.
- Bungee jumping: WAY scarier than sky diving, and so worth it! We booked through here.
- Manuel Antonio [3 days]
- We splurged here and stayed at a boutique hotel and it was so wonderful. Gaia was super accommodating and helped us book all our activities. Highly recommend as a way to relax, since the first half of the trip was so action packed.
- White water rafting: It was my first time and I loved it! The water is super warm and the guides are really fun. We ended the rafting by a little cliff jumping!
- Spices tour: I’d recommend this only if you are into food like I am. The farm is very small and the tour is 4 hours, but it’s interesting to learn about the spices and take some home with you. CR vanilla ages for longer than other types, so it’s a much more flavorful bean and much cheaper to purchase!
- Los Campesinos: This hidden hike is an hour away, and fun to do if you have a car. The roads are very bumpy, but you are rewarded with a quiet trail you have all to yourselves. There’s a suspension bridge, private waterfall, and a a hand-pulled tram that looks cool but is actually way more work than expected.
- San Jose [1 day]
- Irazu Volcano: This is a half-day trip from the city, and worth it only if you leave in the morning. It’s very touristy, so the traffic is horrendous. We left late and it took us 4 hours to get there. That said, it is a pretty cool spot and the crater is enormous! The drive back down is picturesque and goes through the countryside.