Our first trip to Costa Rica began and ended at the Orquideas Inn in Alajuela, with a few drinks at the Marilyn Monroe Bar. It was a nice, clean place in a great location for jumping out to anywhere in Costa Rica. After several more trips since then, various jumping off points, and different experiences along the way, we're learned a thing or two. But we'll always remember our first time. Here's a simple guide to help out if you're a Costa Rica virgin too!
Alajuela, La Fortuna, and Arenal Volcano
Our first trip to Costa Rica began and ended at the Orquideas Inn in Alajuela, just outside the capital city of San Jose. We rented a car from Solid Car Rental (pronounced SO-lid) and our ultimate all-terrain vehicle - a Suzuki Jimny (not a typo, I think they're only available in Costa Rica) - took us north the next day to the La Fortuna region, and Arenal Volcano. With a few stops at the craft towns in-between, we reached La Fortuna in no time, and the active volcano and hot springs of Arenal Volcano. Our first morning in La Fortuna began at 4:45am with the chorus of howler monkeys which eventually woke up everything else. I grabbed my camera as soon as I first heard them, clicked on the video and sat quietly outside listening to the most amazing primal noise of the howlers. Such a great introduction to Costa Rica!
Where to Stay: Arenal Paraiso Hotel & Spa
Centrally located, we loved the comfy room and clean pool. The grounds are full of beautiful flowers and birds galore. http://www.arenalparaiso.com
After 3 days up north, we headed south to the Pacific Coast and Manuel Antonio. The only road to get there took us across the famous Rio Tarcoles (Crocodile River), home to monster saltwater crocs.
Bring your camera (long lenses are a plus) and plan to take a break in driving. Park along the road before the bridge and walk halfway down for the best view. Afterwards, grab a casado (lunch) or quick drink at a number of good, local restaurants at the bridge.
A funky coastal town, Manuel Antonio is touristy and laid-back. It's famous Manuel Antonio National Park has miles of amazing trails and is home to the endangered Mono Titi, or Squirrel Monkey. The town's slogan is "Still more monkeys than people", and we happily found that to be the case. The National Park sits on the ocean, and is a must-see while you're there. It's a great place to see wildlife of all kinds, and a nice break from the 'bustle' of Manuel Antonio. Keep your eyes open in the Park, as some of the wildlife you'll encounter may be right under your feet or close by. Be still, and enjoy why you came to Costa Rica in the first place!
Dominical and Uvita
Further south, travel the infamous "bumpy road" - what an understatement! - it'll take you to the southern surf towns of Dominical, Uvita, and the growing areas of Palmer Norte and Palmer Sur. Beautiful beaches and friendly people. In the funky, surf town of Dominical, check out the surfer bar at the beach which promises you a free beer in exchange for your broken board and bruised ego - "You break 'em, we hang 'em", as their declaration goes.
There's even a shrine there to the King! No, Costa Rica doesn't have a King, I'm referring of course, to Elvis! If you're a fan like me, you HAVE to stop and check it out. I mean, how often do you get to see this?
Where to Play: Playa Ventanas
Where to Stay: The Lookout at Playa Tortuga
Individual spacious and clean cabinas surround the main hotel, pool, and common terrace (great for bird-watching). Just a short ride from amazing beaches - we loved Playa Ventanas which is so close to the hotel. http://www.hotelcostarica.com
Leaving Uvita for Puerto Jimenez and the Osa, we traveled a road that's worse than the 'bumpy road'! Crater-sized potholes filled with rainwater leave no hint at their depth, and bridges with gaping holes and missing supports carry us further south. All part of the adventure, but exercise caution and common sense. National Geographic calls the Osa Peninsula "the most biologically diverse place on Earth" and it IS truly amazing. Our first night we stayed near the beach at Iguana Lodge, then moved on to Bosque del Cabo for the remainder of our trip.
Where to Stay: Iguana Lodge and Bosque del Cabo
Iguana Lodge is rustic and very comfy, and the staff and owner welcome you like old friends. They graciously offered to show us around the grounds, download my overloaded memory cards to a CD, and our small dinner group ended the evening with guitar playing and great company. And the food! Oh my. Wish we had stayed much longer! www.iguanalodge.com
Before we ever heard the term 'Glamping" (glamorous camping), there was Bosque del Cabo - truly one of the most fabulous places on earth. It's not just a great place to stay. It's over 700 acres of well-maintained and well-preserved land on the southwestern tip of the Osa Peninsula. Committed to sustainable growth and preservation, the owners and staff share their obvious love of the land with their guests, enthusiastically inviting you to enjoy the peace and quiet, the sumptuous accommodations, the mouth-watering cuisine (fresh and local), and the incredible wildlife. At BdC, the wildlife takes center stage, and their naturalist programs, tours and network of integrated hiking trails showcase that in a big way. This may be the perfect family getaway in Costa Rica, offering something for everyone in the family to enjoy - whether you want to lounge by the pool, immerse yourself in the natural world, hike nearby Corcovado National Park, or hang out in a tidal pool on the beach. BdC offers everything you could imagine in a Costa Rica stay. www.bosquedelcabo.com
Like every first trip to a new place, we had the usual nervous anticipation and didn't know quite what to expect from Costa Rica. Even with all the stories we'd heard from online travelers and friends, we could not have imagined how much this amazing place would stay with us for years to come.