In late November 2016 went for a long weekend to Costa Rica to explore some parts of the country and to visit a good friend. I have to say that I really liked Costa Rica and its people, but unfortunately the trip to CR was very short (4 days / 3 nights) so I will need to go back soon.
Day 1 (Irazu and SJO)
We landed at San José airport at around 10am on a Friday morning. To pick-up the car from Hertz they need to drive us to an off-site office and they were not terribly efficient, so the whole procedure took for quite a while (approx. 1h). After we left the office the traffic around the airport is really bad.
Right away we drove to the Irazu volcano, which is about 2h from the airport and the road takes you around the whole city. On the way up to the crater it looked like there’s a lot of clouds, but as we arrived up there we were very lucky and had nice views of the crater.
After seeing the crater and the volcanic ‘beach’ we also walked up to the highest point of the volcano (where are the telecommunication antennae). The views from there are very nice.
Fortunately, we were lucky to have nice views, as there’s a hefty $15 entrance fee to the volcano national park for foreign visitors, but only 1,000 colones (approx. $2) for nationals 😦 However, it’s important to know in advance that most of official pictures of the volcano show a lake in the crater (i.e. here), but the lake has dried up and there’s nothing there any longer. It can be a mayor disappointment if you’re expecting the same view as the promotional pictures.
After Irazu we headed to San Jose centre. Most locals (and visitors) would say that SJO is not very nice and it could be left out of your itinerary. Well I don’t completely disagree, but it also has its charm. It is true that there are just a handful of worthwhile sights (e.g. teatro nacional), but the city is very lively and people are very nice. So my recommendation is to dedicate a couple of hours for a quick walk through the city before dinner.
For dinner and nightlife, I would definitely recommend Escalante neighbourhood. It’s a trendy neighbourhood with lots of nice restaurants and people meeting friends over dinner/drinks. We had dinner at La Uvita Perdida restaurant (more here).
We stayed at the Sheraton hotel in SJO which (allegedly) has a nice rooftop, but it was very late when we arrived and it was raining so we didn’t manage to see it. I’d definitely recommend the hotel (especially if you’re an SPG fan). However, the fact that there’s a casino inside is a bit strange and staff are not very helpful. The biggest disappointment was that the breakfast didn’t include any other coffee than drip coffee (i.e. Americano), and they charged ¡¡¡$5 for a cappuccino!!!
Day 2 (Poás, coffee estate and Arenal)
Our plan was to start early and drive to Poás volcano, as all the guidebooks say one needs to get there before 10am (before the clouds cover the volcano). And so we did, but as we arrived to the entrance of the national park the employee told us that there is zero visibility 😦 and that it doesn’t make sense to go in. Thankfully though, he saved us the $15 entrance fee to see that for ourselves 🙂
TIP: Instead of driving up and wasting time, next time I’d try ringing the national park before. There’s a number on their website.
So instead we drove down and went for a coffee production tour at Doka Estate, which is about 30 minutes drive from the Poás national park entrance. The tour fee is rather expensive ($22 for visitors and $14 for nationals), but it was very informative and quite worth it. ¡Not even talking about all the coffee tasters!
The drive to Arenal (La Fortuna) took us through small country roads, which were beautiful in this tropical rainy day. On the way we stopped at the Catarata de la Paz (waterfall of the peace).
There’s a visitor centre and a path through the rain forest along the road, before you actually get to the waterfall. If you don’t have lots of time and only want to see the waterfall no need to pay the entrance fee. You can drive further down the road and stop along the road to have a beautiful view of the waterfall.
After arriving at La Fortuna we spent the evening at the Tabacón spa. It is beautifully done, the water comes straight from the volcano and it really relaxing. I highly recommend it. On Saturday night the spa was very full though, so do book in advance.
We opted for the evening package with dinner ($70), which allows entry as of 6pm and then we had the latest possible dinner time at 8.30pm. On the positive side, the buffet dinner was rather good. However, the downside is that once we decided to go for dinner, we had to shower and change, and then it’s quite tedious to go back into the spa. Next time I’d do the spa without the dinner, so that you can enjoy the volcanic water for longer… that’s why you went there, right?
We stayed at the Green Lagoon Hotel. The hotel was very decent and a good value for money, it had some amazing views of the La Fortuna valley. On the downside the breakfast was not very exciting, and the access is quite difficult. There is a very small, steep and unpaved road, which is quite scary at night. The nice thing is that the hotel is just next to the La Fortuna waterfall and you can climb the Cerro Chato for free.
Day 3 (adventure activities)
Definitely one of the highlights of our trip were the adventure activities. We reserved a package with SkyAdventures to ride on their funicular, ride the zip line and do a rain forest walk (COMBO – Sky Trek & Sky Tram & Sky Walk). To get to the park you need to drive all around the volcano and the last half of the road is unpaved, but it’s completely doable with a normal car (no need for 4×4).
The areal tram is nice, but nothing that special. On the other hand the zip lines are amazing, even if centre had only 7 lines (and 2 are very very short).
Most of the lines are pretty long and the views are just spectacular of the volcano and the lake.
The zip lining activity took from 9am to about 11am. After which we were actually quite hungry and had a lunch in their restaurant. the restaurant was quite nice, but clearly more expensive than elsewhere.
After lunch we went for a 3h rain forest walk, including over hanging bridges. The walk was quite magical with all the rain and mist and the guide was very nice and trying to explain everything in detail. However, we didn’t really see that many animals, apart from monkeys, serpents and tarantulas.
We had dinner at Las Brasitas restaurant in the La Fortuna town. A decent Mexican but slightly expensive.
Day 4 (waterfall and return)
We paid a quick visit to the impressive waterfall – Catarata de La Fortuna. The entrance fee to see just one waterfall was $14, quite expensive 😦 There’s also a steep descend with lots of stairs to the waterfall, so think of the ascent.
You can take a dip in pool beneath the waterfall and also the stream from it, so take your time and bring your swimwear.
After that we drove back to the airport and that was the end of the adventure 😦 On the way, the navigation directed us through the (apparently) shorter country roads via San Ramón. The problem with this road is that it’s very narrow and you get stuck behind trucks. I also think it’s more unsafe from that perspective, so I’d think it through.
And as we were leaving Arenal finally showed some of it’s glory:
Costa Rica is a tropical country, which means that it rains a lot and November is just in between the rainy and dry seasons. We were not very lucky with the weather though. Most of the time it was rainy and the volcanoes we came to see were shrouded in clouds. But on the other hand, the rain and mist added to very ‘dramatic’ landscape views. It was relatively warm though, and we only needed a light jacket in the evenings.
Driving in Costa Rica
The roads in Costa Rica are very varied in quality. The toll roads close to SJO are overused and not in a good shape and the country-roads are very narrow, in general the roads are not bad and the driving around is easy. However, some side roads will be unpaved and they say a 4×4 drive could be needed. So I’d recommend checking the roads before departure.
Traffic is the biggest problem while driving in Costa Rica. To navigate the local traffic with ease I recommend using waze app on your phone. It works very well and it tries to take you through shortcuts and side-streets to beat the traffic. It helped us around SJO traffic on Friday afternoon very well.