“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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Where to stay:
We stayed at Andaz Papagayo Peninsula, a beautiful property with 2 private beaches (and no one else around for miles :D)
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.
Where to stay
We stayed at Arenas Del Mar. In terms of location and views, it does not get better than this.
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!