If you have followed the trail through Central America, you have just crossed the border from Nicaragua. Outside of the border station, you can catch buses to either Liberia, or San Jose. Those who want to experience the northern beaches or national parks of Costa Rica will usually take the buses to Liberia, while everyone else heads further south to the capital. Since we wanted to explore Parque Rincon de la Vieja and the beaches of Coco and Tamarindo, we caught the bus to Liberia. From the border, it’s about 90 minutes to Liberia and the bus should cost about 1500 Colones.
Fortunately most tourists don’t spend much time in Liberia. They prefer to move on to the Pacific coast beaches or inland rain-forests that are set nearby. This gives you a chance to see a more authentic Costa Rican town if you decide to spend a night or two there. In a country dominated by tourism and thus quickly losing its culture, it’s a nice experience. Cruise the city’s central park and sip on Jugo de Caña (sugar cane juice) or crunch on some Copos (snow cones) from the local vendors. While staying in town, Hostel Liberia is a good choice. It feels more like a hotel than a hostel, it’s run by nice staff, has a good location in the center of town, and includes towels and soap! A rarity in these parts for the price of $10 each. If you’ve taken the bus into town, you could walk to the hotel, but its better to get a cheap taxi for 750 Colones. Oh and they also do laundry for $2/kilo. If you are looking for nightlife, a couple blocks from the hotel is Palermo. It’s popular with locals and they have live bands and DJ’s nightly.
About 25km north of Liberia is the Rincon de la Vieja National Park. It is one of Costa Rica’s most diverse ecological parks. It is home to two volcanoes, the Rincon de la Vieja and the Santa Maria, as well as six different volcanic peaks, and thirty-two rivers and streams. Boasting fantastic scenery, beautiful waterfalls, soothing hot springs, boiling mud pits, a fresh water volcanic lagoon, picnic areas and long-winding trails that one can hike or horse back ride, the park is a great day trip. The trails are well-marked and easy to medium in difficulty. If you keep a moderate pace, you can complete the two main trails in a day. Your hotel or nearby travel agency can arrange transport to the park if you do not have a rental car. It will cost you $15/person round trip for the jeep to the park, $10 entry at the park, plus 700 Colones for a road tax that the local landowner charges for using his road into the park.
After the park and local experience around Liberia, it’s time to head to the beaches! Although many head straight to Playa Tamarindo, we decided to stop in Playa del Coco first. Playa del Coco is an easy 1 hour bus ride from Liberia and just 700 Colones. Here you will find a mile long stretch of grey sand, Costa Rica’s best diving, and the world-famous surf spot Witch’s Rock. The iconic landmark that became popular after it was shown in the movie Endless Summer 2 lies just a few miles north of Coco.
The town itself is mostly restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops, and it is very popular with locals on the weekends. If you want to watch locals party on the beach, this is the place to do it. If you are looking for some quiet time on the beach, walk south around the point and you will find a beautiful stretch of white sand beach. Depending on the season, you may get lucky and have it all to yourself. Be careful with your valuables around here however. We heard several stories from locals and other travelers about people’s belongings being stolen while they were in the water.
While in town we stayed at a locals house. He rents out a few rooms in a separate detached building on his property and calls it the Pura Vida hotel. It was clean, quiet, within walking distance to town and the beach, $10, and the owner was a really nice guy who will let you borrow snorkels and goggles for free. He usually waits to meet the incoming buses so if you see him with his sign, give him a shot. For food, El Chinamo Caribeno has very good jerk chicken!
South of Playa del Coco there are several nice beaches, including Playa Flamingo which is very popular with the resort travelers, but the main tourist beaches are Playa Grande and Playa Tamarindo. To reach any of these beaches, catch a local bus to the highway near Communidad, and then flag down another local bus heading for Tamarindo. Together they should cost about 2000 Colones. When leaving Coco, let the driver and ticket taker know you are headed for Tamarindo so they drop you in the right spot.
Playa Tamarindo is the area’s most developed tourist town, but unfortunately that development has not been done properly. Developers cut corners and did not install the proper infrastructure for black water treatment. This caused the area to lose it Blue Flag status, meaning the water can be dangerously filthy at times. Thankfully, efforts are being made by the government and local business organizations to clean things up, so by the time you visit things may have changed. If the water is clean, the surfing and windsurfing conditions here are near perfect for both experienced and novice surfers. Tamarindo has two main breaks for advanced surfers. Pico Pequeño is a rocky point in front of the Hotel Tamarindo Diriá, and there is also an excellent river mouth break across from Cabinas Tsunami called El Estero. The rest of the beach breaks are perfect for learning. The biggest waves can get up to 12 feet, although only during November and December. The area also offers all the typical tourist activities like swimming, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, jet skiing, boogie boarding, horseback riding and scuba diving. Like San Juan del Sur to the north in Nicaragua, turtles beach themselves nearby to lay their eggs. Near San Juan del Sur you can see Olive Ridley turtles, while here at nearby Marino Las Baulas National Park it’s the massive Leatherback turtles that come to nest and breed.
There are many hostels and hotels in Playa Tamarindo. Coral Reef Hostel was the cheapest during our visit and in the center of town. For $8, you will get a dorm bed in a fan room and wi-fi. If you want to use their computers for the internet, they are free, but only 4 hours a day and at strange times. A slightly more expensive option with a better vibe and a pool is the Botella de Leche hostel. It’s only a 10 minute walk from town and you can get a dorm bed for $10. For food, check out the sports bar Sharky’s for great burgers! If you are in the mood for Italian, the restaurant Buen Apetito has amazing pizza and lasagna.
From Tamarindo, you can head south through the Nicoya Peninsula for more beaches, or head east for more national parks. Minivans or buses will take you anywhere you need to go from Tamarindo, and there are plenty of travel agents begging for your business.
Since I would be meeting friends who had their own rental car and would be coming up the peninsula, I decided to take a 4 hour shuttle for $35 and jump all the way to the end for a town called Moctezuma. For the average traveler heading south through the peninsula, the next beach stop would be Playa Samara. To get there from Tamarindo you can catch local bus to Santa Cruz, then Nicoya, and then Samara. It will take all day, but should cost less than $10. Playa Samara was my favorite beach in Costa Rica. It’s wide beach set in a bay at the foot of a hill and stretches for over a kilometer. The water is clean and calm and there is a great reef nearby for the divers. On the far north side of the beach you can often find locals digging for oysters. Join them for a tasty snack, or grab a knife and go searching on your own. So that everyone can enjoy the experience, don’ t take more than a few if you can help it 🙂 The town itself feels much more relaxing than Tamarindo, and the beach is far less busy. See photo above. The locals say Samara now is what Tamarindo was like 10 years ago. Hopefully you can get there before it changes!
The next great stop south is the small town of Montezuma at the far southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula. In this part of the peninsula the roads get pretty bad and are often blocked by flooded rivers. Although Google maps shows distinct roads, reality looks more like this. If you have a rental car, you can try to navigate the unlabeled beach roads. Otherwise you can take a 4 hour shuttle for $35, or take the 12+ hour series of buses/ferries around the peninsula and through Punta Arenas. If you choose the rental car route, be sure to have a full tank of gas, and be ready to ask numerous locals for directions along the way in Spanish. You will get lost, but it’s not impossible, and hey this is adventure right?! Plus, you’ll get to see some beautiful wooded scenery and isolated beaches. Just be very careful that the river you think you need to cross is actually passable, and the one you actually need to cross. We almost made that mistake in the middle of the night!
Along the way you’ll pass Playa Coyote and Playa San Miguel. if you are looking for “off the path,” you’ve found it! Both are practically uninhabited with long stretches of golden sand. The few homes around here seem to be owned by seasonal visitors and the local fisherman. Pop up a tent and it’s likely you’ll see more massive iguanas than other tourists. 🙂
If you’ve made it to Montezuma by rental car, congratulations! Welcome to MonteFUMA! For decades, Montezuma has drawn a blend of naturalists, artists and hippies seeking an alternative lifestyle. Of course, they have set up a vibrant healing arts and yoga community. In the center of town you’ll find a vivid street life with a Caribbean flair where a continuous mellow party takes place. The hot spot of the nightlife scene is Chico’s Bar. The open air bar with dance floor opens to the street life on one side, and to the sea on the other. During the day you can of course play in the beach, hang out with the local monkeys, surf the mild break, or go hiking along the nearby river to the 4 waterfalls nearby. Two of the waterfalls are quite large. One about 40 feet and the other around 80 feet. While the 40 foot jump is fairly safe and exhilarating, DO NOT JUMP OFF THE 80 FOOTER! The bottom is not deep enough, and people have died after being swept over the edge by rushing water after large rain storms. There is also a smaller 5-10 foot waterfall to jump from and rope swing to play around on.
While in Montezuma I stayed at two different places. The first was a hostel called Luz en el Cielo that is just above town on the hill. The dorm beds here are a bit expensive at $15, but the vibe is relaxed, the staff is fun, they have an open kitchen for cooking food, a family of Capuchin monkeys lives in the trees above, and its CLEAN! The other place I stayed was Hostel El Parque directly on the beach. It’s cheaper at $9/night, but it’s quite dirty, and a friend had her phone stolen while there. Not recommended. There are several hostels in town and it’s easy to walk between them, so your best option is probably to compare them yourself when you get to town. For some great food, give Coco Loco a try! It’s a bit more expensive than the local food around, but it’s delicious, especially the Chicken Banana Curry!
From Montezuma you can head south to Manuel Antonio, or head east toward San Jose and the other national parks in the central mainland. If you are going south, there are speed boats available to the beach town of Jaco across the Gulf of Nicoya for $30. A cheaper alternative is to take the local bus and ferry through Paquera and Puntarenas. From Puntarenas you can catch a bus to anywhere in Costa Rica. If heading to San Jose, or vica versa from San Jose to Montezuma, ask about the direct bus with Transportes Rodriguez. It’s only $14 including the ferry and takes about 6 hours.
For my group, our next stop was La Fortuna. This is the bio hotspot of Costa Rica! With Lake Arenal, Volcan Arenal, Monteverde, hot springs parks, and the ziplines of La Fortuna where Jurassic Park was filmed, you could easily spend a week around here. Using La Fortuna as a base gives you easy access to all the areas activities, and it’s a cute little town with good restaurants, nightlife, and shopping. While in town we stayed at Las Palmas. It was $8 for a dorm bed and the place has free internet, computers to use, and hot water. The owner was nice when we arrived and needed us to fill a bed, but threw a temper tantrum while we were there so we left. The place is a good deal so I’ll still recommend it, but be careful of the owner. There are plenty of other hostels in town, they are just a bit more expensive or dirtier. For food, there are many restaurants in town. One of the best we tried was a steak house that started with “S” on the east side of the central park by Bar Kazan. They offered large steak meals with sides for just $6!
If you have hiked other volcanoes or park in Costa Rica, you won’t see anything different on the Arenal volcano hike. It’s a major tourist attaction so there isn’t much wildlife, and the trails are full of people. However if you have never seen a lava field before and this the one volcano you plan to hike, you will enjoy the view. It’s $10 to enter the park.
For me, the best activity I did in Costa Rica was here with Mundo Aventura. There are several zip-line companies around, some cheaper, but this one is incredible. For $48, you will zip-line 11 different routes, some over a kilometer long, and two of them over the La Catarata de La Fortuna! This is the waterfall used in the beautiful scenery shots of Jurassic Park. Unfortunately they have a policy of not allowing you to film while zip-ling (they say for safety reasons) but if you have a GoPro you are going to get some amazing footage. To see the waterfall from below, you can also hike to it through the national park.
After a day hiking and or zip-ling, what could be better than dip in natural hot springs? In La Fortuna there are several enterprising companies that have built parks around the springs and used them to fill man-made pools. The largest and most touristy is the Baldi Hot Springs Hotel and Resort. For $20 you will get free dinner and a party atmosphere with DJ’s and 25 different pools of various size. Drinks here are $8 each though so you might want to pre-drink! Another option is the Termales Los Laurels. They also have many pools and patios, but they allow you to bring your own food and drinks, plus its only $8 to enter. As cheap backpackers we chose the latter, but if you have a more liberal budget, Baldi is probably worth the extra cost.
If you are a biologist or just need more national parks in your life, you can also visit the Monteverde National Park while in the area. We heard from several travelers that it wasn’t much different from other things we had seen on our trip so we skipped it, but for you it may be worth checking out. You can get there from La Fortuna by taking a shuttle and boat across the lake. There will be plenty of info about how to make the trip from the many tour operators in town.
About 2 hours drive to the north is the Tenorio National Park. Here will find a beautiful river called the Rio Celeste. The hike leads you through dense rain forest to a vividly blue river with a natural hot spring. You can see the spring within the circle of rocks in the image on the left. The drive to the park will lead you through beautiful farmland and volcanic vistas. If you have a rental car and extra time, it’s a great day trip.
From the La Fortuna area and heading south, your next stop will most likely be the sister cities of Alejuaha and the capital San Jose. On the way is the beautiful Volcan Poas. If it’s a clear day, you will be greeted with stunning views of the two cities below. On the way up, be sure to stop for fresh honey, strawberries and other fruit that the local farmers grow on the volcanic slope. After taking in the view, stop in Alejuaha at the Mercado Central for delicious $2 ceviche, and a relaxing break in the cities central square. The city life around the square feels uniquely Costa Rican. If you have a flight coming up, Alejuaha is actually closer to the airport than San Jose. It should only be a $5 taxi ride to the airport, and lodging is cheaper than San Jose, making it a great place to start or end a trip to Costa Rica. To get to San Jose, you can take one of the many local buses for just $1.
The main downtown area of San Jose is a bustling collection of very busy streets and pedestrian thoroughfares lined with eclectic and historic architecture. The pedestrian streets of Avenida Central and around Parque Central are blocked to traffic and filled with shops and eateries, making it a very social place to be. There are police on every corner in this area, so it is generally a safe to be besides the pick pockets to watch out for. At night however, do not go beyond the main grid established for tourists. You will know where not to go by the lack of lighting and lack of people walking around 🙂 In San Jose we stayed at the Hostel Pangea. For $15/dorm bed, you get a great roof top deck, central location, movie theater, pool table, and even a pool! They also have parking for your rental car which is pretty huge in this area.
In San Jose I said good-bye to my friends and was back on the road riding solo again. This meant no more rental car and back to the buses. If you are heading south from San Jose and into Panama, you can go along the east coast or the west. The west coast has Manuel Antonio National Park and a few other good beaches, while the east has the surf town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and the party island of Bocas del Toro just across the border in Panama. For a change of pace, I chose the latter route and headed east. From Hostel Pangea you can walk to the bus station and grab a bus to Puerto Viejo for 4,725 Colones. It will stop on the way for food, and 4.5 hours later you’ll be in the tiny beach town.
Although is it Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destination on the Caribbean side, the eastern side doesn’t get much tourism. You will find a small town with several restaurants and bars, great snorkeling, and the biggest and most dangerous surf break in Costa Rica. The daily life here is a very relaxed mix of locals and ex-pats, mostly focused on smoking bud and surfing. For the average backpacker this is obvious heaven if you’re looking to relax, but some may be bored here. Check out this website for a good description of the area. Nearby is the world-famous break Salsa Brava. It earns its reputation by breaking over a shallow coral reef. While in town I stayed at the Hostel Puerto Viejo. For $10 I got a private double room, practically unheard of in Costa Rica! The hostel is managed by a very nice ex-pat family staff who often cook group BBQ’s. It’s a chilled out and social place perfect for the vibe of this town.
From PV to the Panama border as Sixoala is just 1.5 hours and 1470 Colones on the local bus. On the way you’ll pass through some beautiful farm land, giving you another view of the local life in Costa Rica. I hope you stored up on rest in PV, because next up are the beautiful waters, beaches, and partying mecca of Bocas del Toro!