Costa Rica: 5 Places Not to Miss

Philip Santos Moreira

Philip Santos Moreira

Philip Santos Moreira is the Contributing Editor at Global Storybook (Portugal/USA).
You can read more about Philip here.
Philip Santos Moreira

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Latin America in general holds a special place in my heart.  When people ask what my favorite countries are I have an impossible time separating 3rd place between Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.  I share with you now my highlights of Costa Rica and what I recommend you to visit.

Again, like in my articles on Nicaragua, don’t worry about transportation.  It’s reliable and affordable.  Just ask the locals or a worker wherever you stay.  They know the best ways to move around and where and how you can arrange your travel.  Our transport was always arranged on the fly so you don’t need to worry about things filling up.

1) Monteverde

Arguably the main “must see” location not only in Costa Rica but in Central America in general.  This location is known for its ecotourism and adventure activities.  For starters, National Geographic has described the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve “the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves.”  Newsweek rated it as the world’s “#14 Place to Remember Before It Disappears.”

In Costa Rica it was naturally voted as one of the country’s Seven Wonders of Costa Rica.  The park attracts some 70,000 tourists each year and is known as the rainforest with the largest number of orchids in the world.  If you are fortunate you will encounter some of its’ famed wildlife such as the Quetzal, a multicolored bird.  We had the luck of walking into another group of people who happen to hush and caution us as we got close because they spotted one in the canopy.

 I highly recommend not missing Monteverde on any trip to Costa Rica.

Monteverde Cloud Rainforest

Monteverde Cloud Rainforest

Monteverde Cloud Rainforest

Monteverde Cloud Rainforest

Quetzal at the Monteverde Cloud Rainforest

Quetzal at the Monteverde Cloud Rainforest

Monteverde Extremo Park near the lodging town of Monteverde is an adrenaline area known for its zip-lining and bungee drop.  The zip-lining is world famous here and the views over the cloud rainforest from mountain side to mountain side are breathtaking.  I cannot personally speak for the bungee jump, but from watching other people take it on I can agree that it looked spectacular.

Monteverde Extremo

Monteverde Extremo

Monteverde Extremo

Monteverde Extremo

2) Manuel Antonio

This area is frequented by even more visitors than Monteverde (roughly 150,000 per year).  The Manuel Antonio National Park is its main attraction.  The draw of the park is unquestionably its diverse wildlife, pristine white sandy beaches, and bath-warm coastal waters.  You would be very unlucky not to see a sloth or a group of monkeys at play in their natural habitat.  We not only saw two sloths but also several families of monkeys.  With one group in particular we were able to get into a “touching distance”.  One lone ranger even managed to steal a bag of chips from another person’s backpack.

Also, the park has enough trails to keep you busy for a long while.  Definitely leave a day alone for this park.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park

The general area of Manuel Antonio offers gorgeous beaches with very consistent, entry-level waves to surf.  There are many people offering lessons and rental gear.  Do your homework and beware that some places are more reputable than others.

You should also know that it was in Manuel Antonio that I saw one of my favorite sunsets of all time.  The sun drops into the pacific and seems so close you could swim to it.  There was something magical about his location.  I strongly advise visiting it.

Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio

There are many places to eat, ample hotels and hostels in the town.  You should have no problem but do try and book in advance as this is a highly popular location in Costa Rica.

3) Puerto Viejo de Talamanca / Cahuito

This Caribbean area of Costa Rica was difficult for me to place after Manuel Antonio.  Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is an ideal location to make your way to Cahuito National Park, Playa Negra, the Gabdoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, or when in route to the border of Panama.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a quaint costal town with coral reefs right off the beach.  So much in fact it looked uncomfortable to attempt a jump into the sea.  However, the turquoise-blue water is a spectacle to behold.  Especially if you rise early for sunrise and catch the sun rising over the Caribbean.

We stayed at “Rocking J’s” backpackers.  The hostel has its’ own private beach front, hammocks, private and shared rooms, and the camping areas.  They also had their own bar and restaurant with some of the most amazing fish tacos I’ve ever had.  The town itself has markets, a bakery run by Italians from Milan, restaurants and shops.

I do not recall much to do in the town itself other than take in the natural beauty.  However, Puerto Viejo is the ideal launch point for many other spots near by.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca from Rocking J's Beach Front

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca from Rocking J’s Beach Front

Cahuito National Park lies approximately on a 30 minutes bus ride north of Puerto Viejo and has great coral for snorkeling and super warm Caribbean water for lounging in.  The park is a protected white-sand beach reserve which also contains plenty of wildlife for viewing; most eye catching will be the monkeys dancing around the treetops.

I strongly recommend paying a visit to this park.  Nearby Cahuito is Playa Negra which is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park

The Gabdoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is South of Puerto Viejo and is another exceptional white sand beach reserve with coral reefs.  I cannot personally speak of or show pictures of this particular area as I was not there, I only came to learn of it from speaking to locals in Puerto Viejo.

During the prime Leatherback turtle mating season (March to April; however, it technically occurs from February to July) you can purchase tickets in Puerto Viejo to go turtle watching for these monstrous animals which can weigh up to 2,000 lbs.  The people that we spoke to, offering this adventure, provide transportation and a professional guide, and if you did not see the turtles one night – you would be offered a complementary return the next night.

Unfortunately, we were not going to be in town during this specific period and without better promise of seeing Leatherbacks we decided against going.  I kind of regret not being able to go so I strongly encourage you to try and be in Puerto Viejo during this point of the year for this purpose.

Puerto Viejo is also a popular crossing point for those coming from Panama to Costa Rica or vice versa.  The main draw when traveling from here to Panama is Bocas Del Toro of Panama.  A gorgeous Caribbean island located off the Panamanian coast that still ranks as one of my all-time favorite beaches.  Crossing the border is done by foot unless you are traveling by car.  Visa upon arrival is easy to secure but be warned you will be bombarded by people attempting to win you over with their transportation to Bocas Del Toro.  The price is a reasonable $15, while a boat ride is even less expensive.

4) Liberia

The city of Liberia was not too impressive for me.  It does have some cute little white-washed colonial style homes but overall it seemed like a typical city to me.  I saw plenty of people running at night, including solo females, which probably attests to the safety level of the city.  I personally never felt unsafe as well, but, like anywhere, always be cautious especially at night and when unfamiliar with the area.

The main draw of this city will most undoubtedly be Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park which can be found an hour norths drive from Liberia.  You will be able to arrange pick-up, transport to and from the park in Liberia.  Asking the owner of a place you decide to stay in will probably be the easiest option.

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park is highly underrated in my opinion and for largely one reason: the most spectacularly gorgeous oasis waterfall swimming holes I’ve ever come to lay my eyes on in person.  For the highly adventurous you can hike very close to the crater of the volcano in this park and we had heard it was an amazing sight to see.  The hike is rated as difficult.  However, when we were there volcanic activity was of concern so these trails were closed and I would not advise going off on your own.  The park has cougars and jaguars so I would not want to venture alone along unfamiliar trails.

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

You can hike the several mile-long loop at any time, as well as close to six-mile-long loop (this will take you to the oasis I mentioned).  Watch yourself by streams of water because the blood sucking flies are present there and will viciously go after you if you hang around for too long.  During the two-mile-long loop you will be able to see bubbling mudpot fields, fumaroles, and some wildlife.  The six-mile-long loop is a little different.

Six-Mile-Long Walk to Waterfall Oasis in Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Six-Mile-Long Walk to Waterfall Oasis in Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Bring plenty of water especially as you tackle the six-mile-long loop.  I recommend a large CamelBak or something of the sort.  The 2+ liters of water I had was not remotely enough.  Eat a very hardy breakfast that morning as well.  The trail is long but easy.  The temperature can be the unforeseen demon as it was well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (+32 C).

You will transition from tropical forest to what looks like a semi-arid grass wasteland and then back into forest as you reach the waterfall.  The waterfall is absolutely incredible.  The journey to get there makes it all the more impressive because you wonder what it will be like.  I never imagined what we would find there.  The water felt cold to me but is easily swimmable and is very refreshing after being so hot while hiking.

I unfortunately became severely dehydrated during our trek to the waterfall oasis and almost collapsed.  Sarah told me that she was very seriously concerned about and was not sure if I would make it back.  After coming out of the water my body would not stop shaking and retrospectively I believe I put my body into mild shock after being so hot and then plunging into cold water, which felt great at the time.

Even after warming up and returning to my dry clothes I would not stop shaking.  That same night I was shaking like a leaf and was fairly delirious.  I cannot thank Sarah enough for acting quickly during the night when she saw me shaking uncontrollably with clattering teeth in 90-degree weather.  Electrolytes and forced water recovered me but we put off our travels a day to allow me time to recover.  May my mistake be a lesson to those reading.  Never underestimate a hike no matter how fit you know you are.

Waterfall Oasis at Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Waterfall Oasis at Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

5) La Fortuna

This was supposed to be one of our highlights of the trip but it was extremely disappointing.  In all fairness, we had terrible weather which obstructed our view of Volcán Arenal.  The volcano is the highlight and it was only in 2010 that the volcano became dormant.  Prior to that during many years in the 1990s, you could see lava flow from the volcano.

The hike through the park to the viewpoint would be enjoyable during a normal sunny day.  The heavy rainfall soaked through all of our ‘waterproof’ and Gore-Tex gear.  If you take a bus to get to the park be aware that it only runs a few times a day.  We saved a few hours when Sarah decided: “let’s hitchhike it”, and being more persistent than me about getting a ride.  Luckily, we did get one from a very nice couple on a holiday from Europe.

Arenal Volcano View Point

Arenal Volcano View Point

The area of La Fortuna does have other tourist attractions but we did not allow enough time to enjoy them all.  There is said to be a very beautiful La Fortuna Waterfall and relaxing hot springs only a short ride away.  From La Fortuna you can also hitch a Jeep-Boat-Jeep ride to Monteverde for a very reasonable price.  Transport in this way cuts the travel time from La Fortuna to Monteverde in half by crossing the lake by boat rather than going all the way around it.  A roughly 8-hour long trip transforms itself into a 4-hour long trip and offers some views that you will really want to see.

Jeep-Boat-Jeep Ride to Monteverde from La Fortuna

Jeep-Boat-Jeep Ride to Monteverde from La Fortuna

I hope you enjoy Costa Rica!
Special thanks to Sarah Gallo for planning this trip to a tee.

Instagram: Philipm814

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