Two of my nearest and dearest friends in this world had been scheming for a while about coming down to Central America to join Tim and I are on our travels for a stretch. It just so happened that they both arrived in Costa Rica on the same day. I’ve known Kendra for the better part of my life. I imagine we must have met in preschool, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 years ago. Amanda and I met while studying commerce at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Kendra was also bringing along her boyfriend, Tyler. Suddenly our well-rehearsed travel due was going to expand to a group of five.
Amanda landed around midday in San Jose and caught a bus up to Liberia, where Kendra and Tyler would be flying into that evening. We had booked rooms at the Hotel Liberia, which turned out to be a very nice option. Once Amanda had arrived and Kendra and Tyler’s plane was about to touch down, we headed to the airport to meet them.
Meeting up with everyone after not seeing them for so long (1.5 – 2 years) was amazing. None of us missed a beat, and we quickly fell into a comfy group dynamic. After our night in Liberia, we headed out to Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula by local bus (1500 Colones, 3 hours). Tamagringo, as it’s known, came as a bit of a surprise. We had heard it was a bit of a tourist hub and a party town, but we weren’t prepared for the hugely developed beach town that greeted us. It felt a bit like we were back on the developed beaches of Mexico. Many people spoke English, tourist souvenir shops lined the streets, and tours were offered to destinations around Costa Rica. We spent two nights enjoying the beach, the shameless partying, and the excellent array of international restaurants. We stayed at La Oveja Negra, a popular hostel, for 12 USD per person. We played around on boogie boards, Tyler and Amanda took Tim up on his offer to teach them the basics of surfing, and a blurry night filled with lots of karaoke set our group trip off to a great start.
When it was time to carry on, we altered our original plan of further exploring the peninsula and visiting Mal Pais or Montezuma before continuing inland. Kendra and Tyler had only about 10 days in total for their holiday, so we didn’t want to spend too much time travelling. We decided, without doing our research, to head directly to Monteverde. It turns out that this is actually much easier said than done, and to do it by public bus is only possible with an early start. Which we had not gotten. It is a lot easier to make one’s way to Monteverde from the southern end of the peninsula, as there is a ferry connected the peninsula to the rest of Costa Rica and direct buses then go from this town (Puntarenas) to Santa Elena and Monteverde. In our position, still conscious of time, we ended up negotiating a shuttle down to the (still very dear) price of $25/person for the 4-ish hour journey. These shuttles generally run around $50. Our hostel in Monteverde (Monteverde Backpackers) was able to help track down a shuttle that had to do the return trip anyways, so it could well be worth calling your hostel and seeing if they can help you out. About halfway into the journey, we found out why they are able to charge such high prices. Despite being a major tourist destination, the road to Monteverde is truly atrocious. Rough, broken, and steep, it would generally be advisable to only attempt the journey with a four-wheel-drive. Public buses do it, however, as do tourist minivan shuttles. General comfort levels are the same, though fear for broken bits of the vehicle certainly increases.
Monteverde Cloud Forest is one of the main tourists draws of Costa Rica. It’s an outdoor enthusiasts’ dream, with endless opportunities available for hiking, exploring, and wildlife-spotting. The #1 thing we wanted to do while we were there? Ziplining.
Though other Central American countries are slowly getting on the bandwagon, Costa Rica undoubtably offers the most opportunities for eco adventures in the area, and ziplining is one of the best. We ended up booking a trip with Monteverde Extremo, one of the many companies operating out of Monteverde, for the standard rate of $45/trip (3 or so hours). Different companies have their own claims to fame – the longest, highest, or fastest zip lines. Things to look for in the inclusions? A Tarzan swing, superman zip line, and transportation to and from town.
Being relatively used to harnesses and ropes meant that the excitement level of ziplining was relatively tame. It certainly isn’t an intense extreme sport, though if you were scared of heights I’m sure your heart would be pumping. It was still incredibly fun, probably more so than expected. We had a complete blast climbing up to tree-side platforms and zipping over and through the cloud forest canopy. The lines ranged from short, quick rides to long, relaxed flights to quick and speedy darts through the trees. Twice, we paired up and two people went down the same line at the same time. A definite highlight was the Tarzan swing, where people were harnessed in, jumped (or were pushed) off a platform, and swung out on a rope attached to a tree branch high above. That one definitely got the adrenalin pumping. They end the day with the big guns. For the last zip line, which is the longest and highest of the day, you are strapped in from your back in “superman” position. You sail facedown over the beautiful scenery, and the heart-pounding position offers unparalleled views of the amazing scenery. Amazing!
Our other main objective in Monteverde formed when we learnt of the existence of the Monteverde cheese factory. All lovers of excellent cheese (and, in our case, having been deprived of it for so long) we headed out to the factory for the 9 a.m. daily cheese tour and tasting. The tour included a lot of interesting information on the history of the factory and the processes involved in making cheese, but our favourite part – of course – was the tasting. The cheeses were varied and delicious, and we bought a couple of blocks to take home for lunch.
For Tim and I, that was the extent of our adventuring in Monteverde, and we spent the rest of our time wandering town, slacklining in the backyard, playing with the resident hostel dog, Bob, and taking pictures of sloths. Our time-short and budget-rich travelling companions, however, took advantage of a couple of other neighbourhood offerings, including a chocolate and coffee tour and a highly recommended canyoning trip.
The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Costa Rica was La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano area. We split up to make our way to La Fortuna. Kendra, Tyler, and Amanda chose to make the most of the morning in Monteverde and take the afternoon “Jeep-Boat-Jeep” transport, which has become a popular backpacker travel option, as it knocks off the better part of a day of travel. The name may be deceiving, though, as it really involves bus-boat-taxi. This option will get you from Monteverde to La Fortuna for $22 in about 3.5 hours. The other, much more time-consuming, option is to go by public bus. This takes a total of about 8 hours and costs about $7. It involves taking the 7 a.m. bus from Monteverde to Tilarán, waiting for around three hours in town, and then taking the 12:30 bus to La Fortuna. Note that there is also a bus at around 10 a.m. that heads to Arenal – this is the town of Arenal, not the volcano or the park, and is not where you want to go. The town of Tilarán is alright, with a large park, several restaurants, a supermarket, and a bakery, so it’s easy enough to while away a few hours there – well worth the cost savings on the trip, if you have the time. On either trip, you will get to see the beautiful Lago Arenal, though photo opportunities from the bus are admittedly limited.
In La Fortuna, we stayed at a lovely and helpful backackers, Hostel Backpackers La Fortuna. They have great staff and nice facilities. As an added bonus, they are affiliated with one of the “hostel resorts” in town, and we were able to use the sister hostel’s facilities, including pool and swim-up bar.
For years, Arenal Volcano was one of the most active in the world, after it suddenly began erupting in 1968. A substantial tourism industry was built up as a result, as visitors poured in to see the angry mountain spewing lava and ash. When the volcano mysteriously ceased in 2010 the established infrastructure and remaining natural attractions to the place – including hot springs – were enough to keep bringing visitors to the area. What exists now has been described as a “cultural wasteland,” and while not necessarily untrue, I still feel this is a bit harsh. Do not expect, certainly, to find yourself in a hot bed of authentic Costan Rican life. The line of flashy and tacky resorts and hot springs leading in to town certainly gives accurate foreshadowing for what to expect. Tours are touted on every corner, prices are more equal to North American than Central, and public transport is virtually non-existent, which means expensive taxi rides are necessary to go anywhere out-of-town (where most of the highlights lie).
The imposing Volcan Arenal looms over the town of La Fortuna, with the paths of lava flows still very visible on its steep slopes. There are no shortage of hiking trails or volcano tours that will take you around Arenal. The nearby Volcan Cerro Chato offers a short and much greener climb, with the added bonus of a crater lake swim at the top. This was the volcano our group chose to summit, though we had the unfortunate timing to do it on a rather cloudy day (as many days here are) so our views of the neighbouring Arenal were rather non-existent. Nonetheless, it was a good hike, and we made it up in about two hours at a slow-to-moderate pace. Climbing down (and back up) to the crater lake was the best part, as it involved steep, technical sections and lots of mud. We met a small terrier at the lake, though, so it couldn’t have been too tough of a climb. We cooled off quickly, as much of the climb was shaded, and it took a good amount of guts to plunge into the frigid water at the top of a volcano. We figured, though, that this would be about the only time we’d get the chance to swim in a lake set into the crater of the volcano, so we sort of had to.
Though Arenal is no longer erupting, the bubbling system of hot springs in the area is definitely still active. Many resorts around the outskirts of the volcano have harnessed the natural springs and charge visitors rather costly entrance fees to enjoy them. For example, a night pass to Tabacon hot springs, including buffet dinner, is $70 per person. The resorts are beautiful, and offer a wide range of pools of different temperatures in a nice, private and exclusive atmosphere. An alternative, which is where we probably saw the most local culture in the area, are the free hot springs across the road from one of the main resorts. It was Kendra and Tyler’s last night, so they treated themselves to an evening at Tabacon hot springs. The rest of us headed for the gratis option. From the entrance of Tabacon, cross the street and head to yellow gate that blocks off a dark drive. Head torches and cold beer are recommended. Following the path, you will come down to a concrete slab below the bridge with hot springs to your right. This is where the crowd will be and you can hang out here if you like, but if you cross the concrete and continue down the path, you will find yourself at nearly deserted springs down the river where you can basically have the place to yourself. This is where we set up shop, and it was fantastic. The hot spring river bubbles past and threatens to pull you down stream if you are not wedged securely amongst the rocks. Lights through the steam cast eerie shadows around, and the water somehow remains at the perfect temperature for hours – steamy but not so hot you feel the need to get out and sit on the rocks. It’s key to keep your gear in good sight here: we put our bag with clothes, shoes, and drinks on our side of the river, off of the path, where it was within reach. I wouldn’t recommend taking anything valuable out to the springs. We had an amazing time, which was unfortunately twisted only at the very end. Some locals made their way down to our perch via the springs and stopped to have a chat. When it became clear that we didn’t share a common language, they chose to hang around, and sat so that they were almost encircling us. Tim picked up on weird vibes from they as they eyed our stuff on the banks; Amanda and I picked up on weird vibes from them in a more creepy fashion. It didn’t take us long before we made the group call to flag the hot springs and hot-footed it out of there. We grabbed our gear, said adios, and scampered along the path towards the exit, without bothering to stop and put on shoes or clothes. When we saw their lights bobbing in the darkness as they trailed along the path behind us, we stepped on it and hurried back up to the main road. They could well have been perfectly harmless; at worst they were likely just opportunists: ready to take our stuff it was lying available, but we didn’t want to take the risk and wait and see what happened.
We scampered across the road and finally stopped at the entrance of Tabacon to change and get ourselves sorted. We popped in to the resort to see how far away Kendra and Tyler were, and whiled away our time waiting while we salivated over the lavish dessert table. With the crew all back together, we jumped in a cab back to town, had a few drinks, and wandered around briefly trying to find some nightlife which, on a Monday, unfortunately failed. The next day, Kendra and Tyler were off to San Jose as they had an early morning flight to catch. Amanda, Tim, and I opted to spend one more night in La Fortuna. Amanda and Tim went off to visit one of the area’s waterfalls, while I spent an afternoon resting in an attempt to ward off an oncoming cold. The next day, it was back down to two; Amanda had decided to further explore Costa Rica, and Tim and I were off to Panama, via San Jose. Adios amigos!