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Pura Vida: A Road Trip Through Tropical Costa Rica

Pura Vida: A Road Trip Through Tropical Costa Rica
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“Pura Vida” were the two words splashed across a huge billboard on the London Underground. I stood there, waiting for my Northern Line train, thoughts from work still running through my mind. Turquoise blue waters, happy people, multi-coloured birds, extraordinary wildlife, hissing volcanoes, and sprawling coffee farms – what was not to like? Just a few days prior a colleague had described his experience of a road trip around the tropical rainforests and beaches of Costa Rica – this billboard that I was staring at just summarised that experience.

 

Couple beach Costa Rica Playa Del Coco

Beautiful sunset in Costa Rica

 

Fast forward a couple of years and here we are. Just back from driving around in the dense forests of Costa Rica. We experienced everything that Costa Rica promised – delicious coffee, lush drives, zip-lining through the rainforest, areas teaming with exquisite wildlife (think green snakes and 3-toed sloths), and pristine beaches. Yet, this road trip felt a bit incomplete and we have been unable to pin-point at the exact reason why we felt this way – perhaps it was the fact that it’s too commercialised or that drives did not offer the scenic beauty that our road trips in Canada and New Zealand did!  Even so, we enjoyed our time in Costa Rica and will surely return in the future to explore the areas we could not on this trip.

BTW, Pura Vida is Spanish for “Pure Life” and if there were two words you needed to know while in Costa Rica, these would be the right ones. Good morning –Pura Vida, Good Day – Pura Vida, Thank You – Pura Vida, Welcome – Pura Vida. Well, you get the point.

 

Pros and Cons of a road trip in Costa Rica

 

Pros:

  • Decent roads – most roads are paved and national highways are in decent condition. Side roads can be a tad bumpy, but nothing that will deter you from driving
  • There are well stocked supermarkets in all places we visited, including a huge Walmart in San Jose.
  • It is the ideal place to visit if you are a keen bird-watcher. Even without making a conscious effort to go on bird-watching tours we saw thousands of birds we had never seen before.
  • Tourists are well catered for, so it’s perfect if you haven’t travelled widely and want to gradually introduce yourself to the maddening rhythm of Central and South America. If you have just 10-14 days to spare and would like a comfortable introduction to Central and South America, Costa Rica is the place

Cons:

  • More expensive than most Central and South American countries.
  • Quite westernised – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but does detract from the local flavour that makes neighbouring countries like Guatemala so special

 

Planning a road trip in Costa Rica

 

Renting a car

Our fondness for road trips is no secret, so whenever we can rent a car to explore a new country, we do that. When we searched on Google for tips on a Costa Rican road trip, we read mixed reviews. While many people swore by the convenience it offered, a lot of reviewers mentioned bad and often dangerous roads, corrupt police officials, and extortion by rental agents for purchasing mandatory local insurances. Not ones to be deterred by bad roads (as was evident from our road trip in India), we decided to go ahead and book anyway.

 

We recommend going through car rental comparison websites to get the best price – we booked through EconomyBookings.com and got the best price available online for a sedan. The good part was that our booking clearly stated that basic insurances were included in our rental price. Once we reached to collect our car, the agent did try the old “you need to buy the mandatory local insurance” trick, but on seeing our confirmation he politely backed off. Mission accomplished! As for corrupt police officials, well, we never gave any of the officials stationed along the highways a reason to stop us – ALWAYS drive within the speeds limits and follow all rules and there should be no problem.

 

We also got upgraded to a 4×4 which wasn’t really needed for our itinerary, but if you are planning on going to Arenal or Monteverde, you should definitely get a 4X4. Now that are we back from our Costa Rican road trip, we strongly recommend everyone to rent a car in Costa Rica as it makes exploring the countryside so much easier. You can compare prices on EconomyBookings.com.

Rental Car Costa Rica

Our trusted ride through varying Costa Rican landscapes

 

When to visit Costa Rica

Weather in Costa Rica is divided into two seasons – rainy season (between May and November) and dry season (between November and April). Rainy season is technically low season but in our opinion, the best time to visit Costa Rica is in the rainy season – there are fewer tourists, there are lush-green forests everywhere, and prices are much lower. While we were there, it rained for a couple of hours every afternoon, so we scheduled our naps or massages in that time. We ventured out during mornings and evenings when the sun was almost guaranteed.

 

What to eat and drink on your roadtrip of Costa Rica

There is no dearth of options when it comes to eating on your road trip in Costa Rica – think tropical fruits and flavourful dishes prepared lovingly in the kitchen. These are some of the things we REALLY enjoyed eating when diving through Costa Rica:

  • Mamón Chino – Costa Rican rambutan
  • Salsas – HUNDREDS of varieties of sauces – from picante (spicy) to muy picante (very spicy)
  • Burritos – needs no explanation. One of our favourites 🙂
  • Pico de gallo – A dip made from chopped tomato, onion, coriander leaves, fresh serrano peppers, salt, and key lime juice
  • Gallo pinto –  rice and beans, tortillas, and grilled plantain – chances are that you’ll see every Costa Rican eat this dish at least twice a day 🙂 Be it in a roadside shack or a five-star hotel, the taste remains the same – scrumptious!
  • Coffee: You cannot leave Costa Rica without trying a cup (or hundred) of locally grown, roasted, and brewed coffee
Gallo Pinto local dish Costa Rica

Gallo Pinto – always 😀

 

Costa Rica coffee tasting

So much coffee – always a good sign in our books 🙂

 

Places to explore on your road trip in Costa Rica

One thing is for sure – there is something to suit all interests in Costa Rica – be it lounging on the beach, zip-lining through forests, sampling coffees, or discovering the abundant wildlife of the region. No wonder millions of tourists visit Costa Rica every year. So we went exploring. Pura Vida!

 

Day 1 – Fly into San Jose and pick up your rental car

You can fly into either San Jose or Liberia airport. The former is better connected and will give you more options for flights, especially if you are flying in from Europe. It’ll probably be a long flight, so we recommend staying closer to the airport on the first night. Cariari is a beautiful and quiet residential neighbourhood, just a 10 minute drive from the airport. We felt this was perfect as driving into downtown San Jose in the evening is a nightmare. If you’re interested in exploring San Jose, spend a couple of nights in Cariari and venture into San Jose during the day.

 

Where to stay:

We stayed in a pretty little casa called Cariari Bed and Breakfast.

Cariari B&B in San Jose

Cariari B&B in San Jose

 

Day 2- 4: Bring out the coffee connoisseur in you at Finca Rosa Blanca

You know how much I love coffee. So much so that I am carrying a big bag of my coffee paraphernalia with me on this round-the-world trip. Sampling Costa Rican coffee and immersing ourselves in the coffee culture of Costa Rica was a big draw for us. Bless Savi, for she planned a stay for us in the middle of a coffee farm. This was not just a stay, but an experience, as people plan special day trips from San Jose to experience a coffee plantation tour. For us, it was right at our door step, nestled in sprawling plantations of Costa Rica’s central valley. The sleepy little village of Santa Barbara was just a five minute drive and whenever we felt like trying out a local meal, we’d head there.

Other than witnessing a coffee plantation and going through numerous coffee tastings, , we spent these couple of days in this region exploring the volcanoes and observing the beautiful wildlife, often times from the comfort of our balcony. Being away from the city meant that the birds came visiting throughout the day.

An hour’s drive from Finca Rosa Blanca lies the Poas Volcano, an active volcano known for its highly acidic (and often times turquoise coloured) crater lake. Often, the crater is not visible due to low lying clouds. But we were lucky enough to witness the lake and spot steam rising from its surface. Truly magical! It’s an easy hike from the parking lot to get to the viewpoint from where you see the crater lake, and if you’re in the mood for exercise, you can go further looking for the second lake, which is not as dramatic as the first one. The entrance fee for the volcano is USD 15 per person and if you’re driving, you have to pay USD 3 for parking. We felt these prices were a bit too steep for the sight, but unfortunately, it also set the tone for things to come as we were about to find out how expensive Costa Rica is.

On our way back from Poas volcano to Santa Barbara, we took a slight detour to check out La Paz waterfalls, which seemed to be a popular spot for locals. The drive to and from Poas is quite stunning. There were lush green rolling slopes and low lying clouds. At one point, we were actually driving above the clouds 🙂

When we weren’t driving or getting caffeinated, we sat on our balcony admiring the amazing variety of birds that inhabit the Central valley in Costa Rica.

Coffee farm San Jose Costa Rica

Staying in the middle of a coffee plantation in Costa Rica

 

Costa Rica Bird Mot Mot

Beautiful birds all around

 

Poas Volcano Crater Lake Costa Rica

Beautiful landscape at Poas Volcano

 

Costa Rica San Jose Day Trip Waterfall

La Paz waterfalls

 

Where to stay:

We stayed at Finca Rosa Blanca, a luxurious boutique hotel located in a coffee plantation, 20 minutes away from San Jose International Airport.

 

Finca Rosa Blanca San Jose Room

Our room at Finca Rosa Blanca

 

Day 5-7: Time to hit the beach at Papagayo Peninsula

From the central highlands we made our way to Papagayo peninsula, located in the North West region of  Guanacaste in Costa Rica. We were excited to explore this area as it boasts of some of the best sunsets in the world.

Our hotel was on the beach but we did not have to venture out of the hotel to experience beautiful wildlife – cute little white-faced monkeys jumped around as we ate breakfast and howler monkeys made sure guests got their wake-up calls in time 🙂

Our plan for these two days was to relax and unwind on the beach (or in the pool). When we got bored of doing that, we decided to drive out to nearby villages, to experience the Pura Vida vibe in these colourful seaside Pueblos. Our favourite has to be Playa Del Coco – a vast stretch of white sandy beach offering one of the best sunsets we have ever seen. What’s more, you can drive your car right up to the beach 🙂

Back at Papagayo peninsula, we ventured out to the “hidden” beach at the hotel, as howler monkeys jumped around on the branches above. We absolutely loved this corner and spent most of our days lazing around here, or at least when the tide allowed. And guess what? On our last day in Papagayo we booked ourselves another coffee tasting – different setting, different barista, same excellent coffee 😀 Vid was so impressed after this workshop since he learnt something new about coffee brewing techniques!

Playa Del Coco Costa Rica Guanacaste Car On Beach

Playa Del Coco – Advantages of driving 😉

 

white faced monkey Papagayo peninsula

Cute little guests at breakfast 🙂

 

girl on beach at Papagayo Peninsula

Happy 😀

 

Beaches bring out the BEST in us 😉

 

Where to stay:

We stayed at Andaz Papagayo Peninsula, a beautiful property with 2 private beaches (and no one else around for miles :D)

 

Andaz Papagayo Peninsula Costa Rica Infinity Pool Dusk

Andaz Papagayo – our home for a few nights 🙂

 

couple at private beach at Andaz Papagayo Costa Rica

Distracted by the tiny private beach at Andaz Papagayo on our way to lunch

 

Day 8-10: Get ready for amazing adventures at Manuel Antonio National Park

Batteries recharged, we tore ourselves away from the seaside comforts of Papagayo Peninsula and made our way to another seaside haven – Manuel Antonio National Park. We had heard it’s really beautiful and teeming  with unbelievable flora and fauna despite being the smallest national park in Costa Rica. Add to that a gorgeous stretch of white sandy beach and a village that offers basic amenities and a decent night life – we were sold!

If this wasn’t enough, we spent 3 nights in a hotel right next to the Manuel Antonio National Park. Despite being in the middle of the rainforest, we had a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean too. Win win 🙂

By virtue of being in the middle of the rainforest, the hotel had resident monkeys, racoons, and the cutest sloths. But our plan for these few days was to get out there and learn more about natural eco-systems.  On the first day, we headed out early in the morning to experience something we have never done before – zip-lining through the rainforest. We were apprehensive at first – the instructor said we’d be going over 11 zip lines with 2 of being at least 1000ft long and over 60 metres above the ground. Scary, right? We thought so too, but after getting the hang of it, we thoroughly enjoyed the entire course. The whole experience made us feel close to nature – the feeling of flying like a bird,making our way through tall canopy trees that lined the forest, up close with wildlife that lived in those trees. We booked this tour through Manuel Antonio Estates.

Exhausted from flying through the jungle, we made good use of the outdoor jacuzzi in our hotel room. After spending a languorous afternoon feasting on tortillas and guacamole and washing them down with local craft beer, we ventured into the village for a gander. There are plenty of places in Manuel Antonio to sample local dishes, including Gallo Pinto 🙂

The following day, we opted for a tour of Manuel Antonio National Park. The initial plan was to explore the park on our own, but the hotel concierge and Google convinced us to go with a guide as we’d be able to enjoy the tour much more. We were happy with the organisation of our zip-line tour so decided to book our National Park tour with Manuel Antonio Estates as well. We’re so glad we opted for a guided tour as we noticed those who were without a guide barely got to see anything here. Barry, our guide, was really passionate and helped us click some amazing photographs of the wildlife. He knew where to look for wildlife and had a telescope which made observing wildlife so much easier and a better experience. Over a period of 2 hours, we saw the most beautiful butterflies, the cutest sloths, colourful snakes, amazing birds (including 3 varieties of hummingbirds), and to top it all, a green snake. We highly recommend this experience to anyone who goes to Costa Rica.

 

Manuel Antonio NAtional Park Beach Sunrise

Manuel Antonio beach at sunrise – absolutely gorgeous

 

Costa Rica Ziplining Manuel Antonio National Park

Flying through the rainforest 🙂 photo courtesy titi canopy tour

 

Owl butterfly Costa Rica

Haven’t seen a prettier butterfly 🙂

 

three toed sloth costa rica manuel antonio national park

How cute is this three-toed sloth 🙂

 

It took a giant telescope to see this colourful one ;-)

It took a giant telescope to see this colourful one 😉

 

Where to stay

We stayed at Arenas Del Mar. In terms of location and views, it does not get better than this.

 

The view from our hotel room's balcony

The view from our hotel room’s balcony

 

Day 11: Off to new adventures

The following morning, after one last dip in our jacuzzi and a scrumptious breakfast overlooking the ocean, we drove to San Jose airport to catch our flight to Guatemala. New country, new adventures!

We’re so happy to have driven through Costa Rica – we saw and experienced so many different things in such a short period of time. If you have just 10-14 days to spare and would like a comfortable introduction to Central and South America, Costa Rica is the place. Pura Vida!

 

Sunset Costa Rica Beach

Will miss these sunsets 🙁

 

Read our top 10 experiences during the road trip in Costa Rica.

 

 

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52 Comments

  1. Hi Savi and Vid,

    This looks amazing. I’m going to the US next year and I’ll definitely be going to make a trip to Costa Rica and Guatemala! This guide will be so helpful! The photos are stunning, especially the wildlife ones! 🙂

    http://www.secondbreakfast.in

    • Thanks a lot Ruchika 🙂

      We had a great time in Costa Rica and Guatemala (article on that coming soon) – it’s an amazing place for photography!

  2. The sunset pictures are amazing! We’re planning to visit Costa Rica sometime next year!

    Can you throw some light on the expense incurred during the trip?

    • Hey Priyanka – The expense would definitely depend on where you’re flying from but do expect to spend £100/night or so for a good hotel and £70/day per person for food and activities. As we mentioned in the ‘cons’ section, Costa Rica is definitely expensive compared to other countries in Central America.

  3. costa rica. so beauty country <3

    • Completely agree 🙂

      • A perfect place for a getaway. This is such a paradise-like destination and each of your photo justifies it.

        • Thanks Jessica – we really enjoyed our time in Costa Rica 🙂

  4. Your images are beautiful, zip-lining and the B&B – just from the exterior looks like an amazing villa, I’ve never been to South America.

    • You should head there soon 🙂 it’s an amazing country!

  5. Wow, your photos of your road trip through Costa Rica are absolutely stunning! I’d love to do that!

    • Thanks Rosie – we had an amazing time in Costa Rica 🙂

  6. We did a rainforest tour in Costa Rica a few years back – the bird and insect life was amazing.

    • Hey Christine – so happy to hear you enjoyed your trip in Costa Rica as much as we did 🙂 Did y’all drive there as well?

  7. Your pictures are absolutely beautiful, the one of the butterfly especially! I would love to go to Costa Rica, maybe one day!

    • Thanks Charli – Costa Rica is a great country, especially for nature nuts 🙂

  8. I am literally sitting here say wow wow wow at each photo, how amazingly beautiful x

    • Hehe thanks Rachel – Vid loved photographing Costa Rica 🙂

  9. When our daughter is a bit older we’d like to go spend a year or so in Costa Rica. Sun, coffee, great food, beautiful country, nature & birding…what’s not to love?

    • Hey Kelly- that sounds like an amazing idea. Loads of people visit Costa Rica for a week or two and end up settling there – the lure of the beach 😉

  10. Wow Costa Rica looks lovely, it’s on my wishlist to visit x

    • Hey Rhian – hope you make it to Costa Rica soon. Make sure you opt for a roadtrip when you are in Costa Rica 🙂

  11. It’s a place on my travel bucket list for sure. Those photos are beautiful! Maybe I could do this for my honeymoon…

    • Thanks Annie – Costa Rica is perfect for a honeymoon, you’ll love it so 🙂

  12. I have always wanted to go to Costa Rica, and this post has made me want to go even more. We will definitely consider renting a car too.

    • Thanks Daannii – so happy we could convince you to rent a car in Costa Rica. It’s totally worth it 🙂

  13. Wow, Costa Rica is absolutely breathtaking! Looks like you had a fab time!

    • Thanks Mellissa – we had a great time driving around Costa Rica 🙂

  14. Another incredible post, how amazing does Costa Rica look in your images.

    • Thanks a ton – so happy to hear you enjoyed reading about our road trip in Costa Rica 🙂

  15. An amazingly beautiful place love ur photos Costa Rica is certainly a place I’d love to go

    • Hey Joanna – you should definitely visit Costa Rica soon 🙂

  16. Just wow!! It sounds amazing! I want to go to costa rica so bad! Your photos are so stunning!

    • Thanks a lot Francesca – Costa Rica was amazing for us. We loved the beaches 🙂

  17. This is a great guide. I think a Costa Rica adventure would be so nice. The sights are amazing!

    • Hey Liz – Costa Rica is amazing 🙂

  18. It looks like an amazing place to visit. Your photos truly capture its beauty.

    • Thanks Melanie – we loved photographing Costa Rica 🙂

  19. Great tips! This post makes a great travel guide! We’d love to visit Costa Rica, maybe one day….

    • Hope you guys make it there soon – Costa Rica is amazing. Loved the rainforest!

  20. I love the photos you have included. I would love to visit one day

    • Hey Hannah – hope you make it to a roadtrip in Costa Rica soon 😀

  21. Such a lovely place to visit! Totally reminds me I need to go on holiday soon 🙂

    • Thanks Melissa – you MUST go to Central America. It’s a special part of the world 🙂

  22. The food looks amazing, and THAT SLOTH!!! Your photos are stunning too. x

    • Thanks Jacqui – it was our first time seeing sloths and they are so adorable 🙂

  23. Costa Rica looks amazing! We are planning a road trip to Costa Rica as well. Any reason why you din’t drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio National Park? It looks like it’s closer. Thanks!

    • Hey Chaitra – You can drive straight to Manuel Antonio if you so wish. We wanted to include Papagayo on our itinerary for a roadtrip in Costa Rica, so we drove there first 🙂

  24. Now what can I say? Savi & Vid you guys are my dream couple, I’ve always dreamnt of having a life full of travels and adventures 🙂 when I look at your blog I feel as if a part of me is also living your life; so pure, beautiful, soul soothing and mesmerizing. Idols would be a understatement 😉 you guys simply ROCK!! 😀

    I’ve been meaning to write my comment for your blog but life of an attorney can be draining plus boring :'(
    You wont believe it but I’m actually getting alot of my friends and families to have a look at your blog and YES they’ve fallen in love with you as well 🙂

    Savi you are a goddess! Your pics are as stunning and so is your personality! #beautiful #girl-crush LOL!
    Vid you are an amazing husband/photographer/companion and i’m sure much more!! 🙂 <3

    Keep up your tremendous work and God Bless you both!
    Thanks for giving me a new perspective of life 🙂

    Much Love
    Sanjana
    Fiji Islands)

    • Thanks a ton for your little note Sanjana – you brought such smiles on our faces. Thank you so much for sharing Bruised Passports with your friends and family. We’re so happy to hear our perspective of life shines through our blog. Love and hugs to you.

  25. Thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds like such a unique and great trip to have taken. It’s interesting that you found it to be a bit incomplete. The tricky thing with travel is how much pressure and expectations we can often put on it. It’s good to accept that a trip will be different, but it’s also ok when it isn’t everything you had hoped. Travel is all about experiencing different things. Sometimes these aren’t all experiences that fit as well with you.

    • Thanks for your comment Jane – it’s true. In the age of the internet and social media, we tend to put a bit too much pressure on destinations and sometimes things just don’t live up to the hype 🙂

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