Costa Rica: More Bark than Bite

The last official stop on our around-the-world honeymoon was Costa Rica, the country so renowned for its breathtaking nature and a government that manages to stay at peace with its neighbors in spite of not having an army.

Having been there however, Costa Rica to me is a bit like prom – or a high school dance for those who did not grow up in the US. It’s something you hear so many stories about, see in movies, and have such high expectations for that when the day comes you can *almost* overlook the fact that it’s a bunch of awkward, overdressed teenagers hanging out in a gym or cafeteria. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it or have meaningful memories based on the experience, but just that there is a lot of hype involved.

Part of my issue with Costa Rica as a travel destination is that blogs and travel websites – and I perused quite a few – all say the same thing. Not a single must-see list left out Manuel Antonio National Park, whereas speaking to locals the reaction to that particular park was “yes, the nature there is beautiful… but only go there if you like luxury and chain hotels full of tourists and peppered with Russian prostitutes”!

Personally, when I travel I don’t like feeling like a tourist and I enjoy spending time in nature, especially when it’s not shared with hundreds if not thousands of other visitors.

We also understood why Costa Rica is called the Switzerland of Latin America – it’s an expensive place! Eating a meal for less than $15 per person is rare. In fact, compared to Mexico City where Francois and I had a delicious dinner with cocktails in the posh part of town for a grand total of $25, Costa Rica qualifies as highway robbery!

Regardless, here’s the itinerary we followed with my friend Natalie who joined us for a ten-day getaway (and yes, we rented a car to be independent and not have to go back to San Jose every time we wanted to head to a different destination, which the bus routes tend to require):

San Jose A capital benefiting of few of the big city charms and most of the downsides including terrible traffic and some of the most polluted and smelly rivers I have ever seen. However, we did come across an incredible Asian cuisine restaurant called Tin Jo (I had the best eggplant curry of my life); the Spirogyra butterfly garden had more species of butterflies than I knew existed, including some big ones with stunning metallic blue wings.

Our first move was to head down to the Sierpe area, where we stayed at the Finca Bellavista Treehouse community – a magical if remote place full of inspiring eco-construction, offering happy hour every evening and delicious food for every meal in addition to hikes, waterfalls and a river to swim in, ziplines all around the property, and a fascinating team of young managers who combine living close to nature with technology (seriously, for the most high tech tree house you have ever seen, check out the Fusion Home Blog).

On our way back up the coast, we visited Finca 6 (a low-key yet fascinating archeological spot where perfectly round carved rocks were found dating back to when carving perfectly round rocks should not have been possible) and then stopped at the Marino Balleno National Park. In spite of a very touristy feel outside this natural reserve, inside it was quiet and made for a gorgeous beach walk as the sand is shaped like a whale’s tail (hence the name) and presents a 360 postcard-worthy view.

Jaco was not as bleak as expected, though it is a party beach town full of hostels and young travelers looking to have a good time (as well as some unfortunate and depressing-looking unfinished cement high rises, go figure). We found a spectacular restaurant using local and seasonal ingredients, Green Room Cafe, and enjoyed a juicy burger with guacamole. Win.

We veered back East, inland to a Puma Rescue Center which for once looked like a place that cared more about the animals than tourists, before spending the night at a slightly odd Lake Arenal Hotel & Brewery. At least it boasted great views, and we saw wild toucans, just hanging out in a tree as toucans do! It was also driving distance from La Fortuna, the best place to go rogue and enjoy thermal springs the local way: bypassing fancy hotels and parking on the side of the road before going through a hole in the fence to sit in the river, full of volcanic black rocks, hot water, and happy people.

Then came the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park, where we stayed at the charming Rinconcito Lodge and spent a morning doing an unexpectedly ultra-touristy horse-riding and tubing down the river experience with Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin… Never before have I gone on a trail ride with 50 other people, a stark majority of which had apparently never ridden a horse before! But tubing down the river was incredibly fun so it averaged out to a good activity.

After lunch, we went for the opposite extreme: a walk in the Rincon de la Vieja national park where we did not see another human after the ranger who signed us in. A short hour into our hike, we found a million-dollar spot where the cold stream was adjacent to a hot spring – so as you waded across, the water went from downright cold to gradually warmer and deliciously hot. If you could overlook the smell of sulphur, it was a little piece of paradise.

Headed back West for some beach time, we landed in Casa Mymy, owned by a friend of a friend and a gem of a place: a house with hammocks everywhere, a large common room and kitchen, and a 5min walk from Playa Negra – a black sand beach that goes on seemingly forever and where on a busy day there might be 30 people soaking up the sun. Boogie boarding, walks on the beach, sunset beers, star-gazing, fresh fish BBQ… that kind of a place.

Last but certainly not least, we went to Montezuma for a night on our way back to San Jose. It had come highly recommended as a cute and not-too-touristy town on the coast, nicknamed “Montefuma” (need I say more). It had its charm, but after Playa Negra it felt a bit fake, as if it was trying too hard to be alternative and cool.

Although it felt like we had fallen for a marketing campaign, I am glad I went – and if I ever go back I will happily explore the East Coast of the country. Then again, if I never make it back to Costa Rica, that’s ok too.