Hello again! Inna and I spent Christmas and New Years in Costa Rica, and now we are back to tell about it!
We had three primary goals for this trip: to go somewhere warm (our last two trips were to the British Isles and Argentina, ie Patagonia), to see lots of animals (we saw a toucan in Argentina and that wet our appetite), and to relax at the beach (more of an Inna thing, especially since she loves scuba diving). Each goal was met in spectacular fashion, and here’s my blog post about it!
NOTE: there are lots of pictures in this blog, especially animal pictures. Some are small (to save space) but if you click on them you’ll get an enlarged version.
DAY 1 – We took the red eye from Los Angeles to San Jose, arriving at six in the morning on Christmas Eve. We spent our first couple hours sleeping our hostel’s lobby.
Inna sleeping in our hostel lobby. Our hostel was really nice!
Although San Jose is Costa Rica’s capital, it is not the reason most people come to the country. In fact, many people skip the city altogether, preferring to head straight to the country’s resorts/jungles/beaches. But this is Costa Rica’s capital and is home to authentic Tico culture, so we wanted to check it out.
For our day in San Jose, we loosely followed a Lonely Planet walk, which took us to several museums, parks, squares, churches, shopping districts, the country’s Supreme Court building, and the National Theater. We walked through nice areas and slums, places that reminded us of Mexico, Buenos Aires, and even parts of the San Fernando Valley. Other than nightlife and the insides of museums, we saw most everything the city had to offer, all in only a couple hours.
The Temple of Music in Morazan Park. An almost lifesize replica of the Temple of Love and Music in Versailles, this temple was built in 1920 and has been one of the most important cultural and political sites in the city ever since.
The National Theater of Costa Rica, opened in 1897 and paid for by coffee taxes. Inna and I were surprised to find that, despite being founded in 1738, San Jose doesn’t contain much from before the 20th century. According to our guide book, the population of San Jose was only 50,000 in 1900, not much for a capital, and we assume that was why we didn’t find much here from before then (today the city’s population is ~330,000, with a metro population of over two million).
Plaza de la Cultura, the heart of San Jose, located right next to the National Theater. The plaza is filled with pigeons and at one point, for reasons unknown, all the pigeons lifted off and circled the plaza three or four times, then landed and went back to roosting/feeding as if nothing happened. It was really cool!
Lunch on our walk. Costa Rican food, which mainly consists of rice and beans, is not very good. But the drinks were the best. The fruit was so good (our favorites: coconut, guanabana, banana, and pineapple), the smoothies so inexpensive and delicious, we had them with almost every meal. Costa Rican coffee and iced tea were also the best we’ve ever had.
After our walk, we rested at our hostel (not only were we jet lagged, but San Jose was really hot and humid). By evening most of the city was closed (it was Christmas Eve), so we went out for Chinese food, then watched A Charlie Brown Christmas in our hostel’s lobby. Then we went to bed.
Animals seen today: pigeons
DAY 2 – Many people skip San Jose, we did one day, and that was plenty. Today we’re off, to the rainforest, to Volcan Arenal and its accompanying National Park!
We got lost on our way to the bus station, and ended up walking by this building. We thought it might be the legislature offices or even the president’s house, since it reminded us of both the White and Pink Houses. Turns out it’s a post office, although the building is still grand enough to have its own Wikipedia page.
One of the drawbacks of being so close to the equator is that the days are short. Because of this, even though our bus ride wasn’t long, by the time we got to Arenal and transferred to the local shuttle to our lodge (we splurged on the Observatory Lodge, located inside the national park), it was already dark. It also just starting raining (thankfully it was still warm) and so we spent the evening in the lodge’s covered Jacuzzi.
Animals seen today: northern raccoon
DAY 3 – We woke up early and had breakfast at the lodge. Just outside the breakfast area, the lodge put out old fruit, which attracted numerous coatis and birds, including crested guans, some turkey-like bird I don’t know the name of, and many others.
There are three main attractions inside Volcan Arenal National Park: Volcan Arenal, the observatory lodge, and Cerro Chato, an inactive volcano with a lake in its cone that you can hike to and swim in. Today, we wanted to hike Cerro Chato, but the weather was pouring rain. We did go on a guided hike around the observatory grounds (where we saw a howler monkey, a sleeping red eyed tree frog, and a dead millipede) and to a nearby waterfall. If it had been dry Inna and I would have left the guided hike and continued to Cerro Chato, but the rains showed no signs of relenting, so we stayed with the group and headed back to the lodge.
Pouring rain at the start of our hike.
Howler monkey in the trees.
The waterfall. It is still pouring out.
As the day went on the rain continued to pour, so for our evening activity we left the park and went to Baldi, a nearby hot spring resort.
How to describe Baldi? Pool after pool of warm mineral spring water (warmed by geothermal activities from Volcan Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world), each pool decked out with bars, music, lights, lounge chairs, and more. The best way I can describe it is a cross between a water park and Las Vegas. It was touristy, but it was also awesome.
The entrance to Baldi. The resort had restaurants and concessions and even water slides, it was like a theme park!
Lounging in hot mineral spring water.
Once night fell, we went back to our lodge and visited its frog pond, which we heard would be filled with frogs. But it was still raining and so we only saw two: a red eyed tree frog (awake this time) and a green frog I don’t know the name of. Then we went back to our room, where outside we found a millipede, a spider, and a bullfrog.
Animals seen today: howler monkey (pictured above), coatis, sleeping and awake red eyed tree frogs (this was the animal I most wanted to see on this trip; it was beautiful and strange and amazing), bullfrog, other green frog, dead and alive millipedes, spiders, butterflies, crested guans, turkey-like birds, lots of other birds.
DAY 4 – We hoped to hike Cerro Chato today, but we woke to find it raining even harder than yesterday. Come on rainforest, are you kidding me?
Because of the rain, we left the park again. This time we went La Fortuna, a nearby town were the Arenal visitors who aren’t splurging stay. We explored the town and went on a sloth hike that we’d heard lots of recommendations for. Basically, there’s this privately owned undeveloped land on the outskirts of town where ten sloth live. The leasees of the land give tours and they guarantee to show you a sloth, or your money back.
Inna and I got really lucky on our hike. We were the only ones scheduled for our time slot, and so we got a private tour. We saw: another red eyed tree frog (it was sleeping but our guide woke it up and we got to see it transform from camouflaged sleeping to colorful awake, seeing this made the animal even more amazing), a strawberry poison dart frog, lots of birds, including two toucans, a vulture, a woodpecker, several hawks, and much more, a mauled half eaten dead sloth (I guess there are only nine sloth living in this area now), huge ant colonies (affectionately called the “Costa Rican Army” by our tour guide, as Costa Rica has no army) and finally, at the top of the highest tree at very end of our tour, a brown throated three toed sloth.
Money shot: a brown throated three toed sloth.
Not money shot. Still cool though.
I took this picture through the monocular the guide brought to show us far away animals up close. The bird is a collared aracari (a type of toucan) and I think this photo is awesome!
After our hike, we went back to La Fortuna, did some shopping, had the best casado (Costa Rican rice and beans cuisine) on our trip, and then went back to our lodge. It was still pouring here so we went in the jacuzzi again, then re-visited the frog pond (it was empty), then went to sleep.
Parque de La Fortuna, the town’s central park/square. The town’s main church, Iglesia Catolica, can be seen in the background.
Delicious casado. Inna doesn’t like rice and beans, so she got a sandwich. Notice the iced tea with her meal and the smoothie with mine. Every meal we got these drinks, they were the best!
Animals seen today: brown throated three toed sloth (this was the animal Inna most wanted to see on our trip), red eyed tree frog, strawberry poison dart frog, ants, coatis, pacas
Birds seen today (we son tons on our hike, and thanks to a bird exhibit at the observatory lodge, we actually know the names of some of them): three toucans (a keel billed toucan and collared aracari on our hike and another toucan, type unknown, at the lodge), a woodpecker, black vultures, hawks, herons, yellow throated euphonias, green and shining honeycreepers, red winged blackbirds, hepatic and passerini tanagers, warblers, the turkey-like birds, many other birds
A last note before we go onto day 5. Today Inna and I finally felt the excitement of birdwatching. The birds in the tropics are so colorful and strange and unique, we’ve never felt so excited seeing birds (although the California Condors I saw at the Grand Canyon were pretty awesome too).
DAY 5 – We left Arenal today, and guess what? It stopped raining. Seriously, another couple traveling the same route as us but one day behind told us they hiked Cerro Chato today and encountered no more than five minutes of rain all day. Just our luck.
Anyways, since it stopped raining we got our best view of the volcano. Here it is, from our hotel’s balcony view:
Volcan Arenal National Park, as viewed from our lodge. Far left, behind the lodge, is Lake Arenal, and far right, covered in clouds, is Volcan Arenal. This is the most we saw of the volcano all trip; we never saw Cerro Chato.
The next stop on our trip is Monteverde, on the other side of Lake Arenal. There are two ways to get there: a seven hour bus ride or a four hour jeep-boat-jeep journey, consisting of a shuttle (not a Jeep) to the lake, a boat ride across the lake, and another shuttle through the Tilaran Mountain Range. We chose the latter.
Our “jeep” picked us up a hour after breakfast, so we used that time to take one more hike through the lodge’s grounds. We were hoping for one last glance at some Arenal wildlife, and we were not disappointed:
Three howler monkeys, that we know of. There might have been more.
Now, the jeep-boat-jeep. This was one of the most enjoyable travel routes I’ve been on. Fun and beautiful and unique, it’s not quite the train through Europe, but it was close. We saw birds on the boat trip, drove through lots of farmland (where horses and pigs and cows were sometimes outside their fences, strolling along the side of the road), and stopped at an outpost that had a parrot!
Lake Arenal is huge and tripled in size in 1979, when the Arenal Dam was completed. This growth caused three cities to submerge, and now you can scuba dive through them. Unfortunately, Inna didn’t know this until the end of our trip, otherwise she surely would have done it. The mountain peak in this photo is Volcan Arenal.
Inna and myself, on the lake.
As the crow (quetzal?) flies, Monteverde and Arenal are only fourteen miles apart. But because there’s a mountain range between them, the climates/environments are very different. Whereas Arenal is a rainforest, Monteverde is a cloud forest, named for the low-level clouds the area is known for. Of course, the days we visited there wasn’t a could in the sky, the opposite of Arenal.
Due to an abundance of moisture from the clouds, moss covers everything in cloud forests. It is beautiful. I also love how the tops of the trees are flat, are the exact same height, and how they fit together like a puzzle as they fight for space to receive sunlight. Very cool.
Canopy and zipline tours are popular all over Costa Rica, but they are best (and were invented) in Monteverde.
Inna and myself on one of the canopy bridges. Walking across them was scary, but fun!
Since it got dark so early, we didn’t have time to zipline, so we saved that for tomorrow. Instead, we went on a guided night hike, were we saw lots of cool animals, including a kinkajou and a green white striped viper.
Animals seen today: three howler monkeys (videoed above), parrot, coatis, white herons, lizard, kinkajou, green white striped viper, another snake I don’t know the name of, sleeping birds, scorpion, tarantula, other spiders, daddy long legs (not the spider kind), stick bug, crickets, a frog small enough to fit on a quarter, a giant ant hill, a wasp nest, other birds, other bugs
DAY 6 – There are tons of ziplining companies in Monteverde, but we went with Selvatura because they were walking distance from the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, which we wanted to visit when we finished. Selvatura was a really impressive outfit (although I’m sure they all are), with thirteen ziplines, many back-to-back and the last one a kilometer in length. They also owned the canopy bridges we walked the previous day.
This is me on one of the shorter, more relaxing lines. Although it was interesting, all the lines were relaxing, even the long, high, fast ones that really got your adrenaline pumping.
For the kilometer long line they sent Inna and me together. It was amazing; we felt like we were flying.
A Tarzan swing we got to do in addition to the ziplines. 0:57 is the best part.
We didn’t see any animals while ziplining (or on yesterday’s canopy tour, the ziplines scare them away), so once we finished, we went to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve and did some hiking.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is one of two cloud forest reserves in Monteverde, the other being the Monteverde Reserve. From what we’ve heard, unless you’re a ecologist the reserves are essentially the same, although the Monteverde Reserve is older, bigger, and much more visited (interesting trivia: the Monteverde Reserve was founded by Quakers who moved from Alabama to Costa Rica to protest the Korean War. The Quakers moved to Costa Rica specifically because the country does not have an army).
Inna and I walked a good four miles in the Santa Elena Reserve and the place was so empty that we were by ourselves almost the entire time. Even so, other than spiders and butterflies, we didn’t see a single animal.
Ground level in the cloud forest. It was hard to take ground level photos of the cloud forest (and the Arenal rainforest) because they were so dense, there was too much obstructing our view. But on our Santa Elena hike we found a nice little opening, which let us get this cool shot.
As evening came we went back to the city, ate at an amazing chicken place and had drinks in a restaurant built around a tree. It was a very unique business and Inna’s drink, a coconut cream based cocktail, was without a doubt the best drink we had on our trip (it took us awhile to learn Costa Rican cocktails; basically, cream based cocktails = amazing, sugar based cocktails = not so good).
The town of Santa Elena, right next to (and part of) Monteverde. It was a quaint, simple town, but it had a charm that Inna and I really enjoyed.
Animals seen today: spiders, butterflies
DAY 7 – Yesterday was our last day in Monteverde; today we’re off to Tamarindo, to the Nicoyan peninsula, to the beach!
There are no buses from Monteverde to Tamarindo, so we took a shuttle. Our shuttle was filled with cool people, so the ride was very enjoyable. (Actually, all of Costa Rica was filled with cool people, both locals and travelers. Costa Rica is so nice and beautiful, it brings out the positivity in everyone; everyone was friendly and we met lots of interesting people, it was great.)
Panorama from a lookout on our drive.
We arrived in Tamarindo with enough time for Inna to book a dive trip, and then spend a couple hours at the beach. Which we did.
The beach at Tamarindo was amazing! Warm clean water that was so easy to play in, soft smooth sand that massages your feet, fun reefs to climb on and great waves to surf (Tamarindo is one of Costa Rica’s most famous surf beaches), all accompanied by a great beachside community; we loved it!
The tropical themed hotel we stayed in. It was great!
The beach, the last of the three things we came to Costa Rica for.
We didn’t waste any time with our nighttime activities: December is sea-turtle mating season and the beach just north of Tamarindo (Playa Grande) is one of five beaches in Costa Rica where the females lay their eggs. So we joined a tour (you aren’t allowed on the beach at night without a tour guide) to check them out!
You never know what you’ll get on these sea turtle tours. The ultimate experience is to see a leatherback, the largest turtle in the world, but those are so rare (one or two come ashore per month during mating season, thirty years ago it was forty per day, thanks poachers!) that tour groups focus on green sea turtles instead. And even with these, sometimes you have to wait hours to see one, and 10% of tours don’t see anything at all.
We arrived at the beach to find a green sea turtle already digging its nest. We only had to wait fifteen minutes before the tour guides let us view it (they waited until the turtle was deep enough in that it wouldn’t sense us and get scared and run off).
A green sea turtle, lit under a red light (red because sea turtles can’t see it; there is very little red underwater since it gets absorbed so fast). Inna and I were really impressed by the conservation efforts on this tour (on all tours, but this one in particular), everything was done in a way that ensured the turtles never even knew we were there.
Just before the turtle laid her eggs, one of the tour guides cut a wedge into the nest, so we could see the eggs drop into it. Then, after the turtle finished laying her eggs, she buried the wedge along with her nest; she never even knew we were there or that we got a peek inside. Amazing!
We were prepared for the turtle tour to last up to five hours or more; it lasted one. When we got back to our hotel, we had a wonderful, full night’s rest.
Animals seen today: a flock of macaws (perched on a tree at a stop on our shuttle trip, we saw them soar through the air as they all ganged up and attacked one of their own. The soaring was amazing, the attack was crazy!), ten howler monkeys (Inna missed them but I saw them climbing across trees and rooftops inside Tamarindo), lizard, pelicans, schools of fish, green sea turtle (pictured above)
DAY 8 – Today we hiked an hour south of Tamarindo, to a coastal inlet where water comes in during high tide and goes out during low tide, creating a two way river system that you can play in. During low tide you can also hike up the river, through a mangrove forest, and see lots of animals. So that’s what we did.
The river, about two hours before low tide. The current was strong enough to knock you around but not so strong as to carry you out to sea. Playing in it was fun!
Upstream. It’s pretty close to low tide now. I continued hiking to the other side of the second sandbar pictured above, where there was nothing but water and mangroves. It was peaceful and quiet, not a single sign of humanity; it was amazing (no animals though).
Inna’s lounge spot, under some trees on the beach. Sexy! (her, not the trees)
Pizza and ceviche from a restaurant near the beach. There are so many expats in this part of Costa Rica, and you can tell this more than anything by the food. Not much casado, tons of international food, and pizza was everywhere! Good pizza too. We also had great German food and the best fish tacos I’ve ever had while we were here.
After finishing at the beach, we took a bus back to our hotel, where we prepared for tonight’s nighttime activity: celebrating the new year. That’s right, it’s New Year’s Eve, and it’s time to party!
We didn’t party hard, but we still had a great time. We met up with a South African/Russian/Canadian couple we met on the shuttle from Monteverde (he’s South African, she’s Latvian, they both live in Canada, and they were in Costa Rica on their honeymoon), bounced from bar to bar along the beach, drank and chatted and had a great time.
One of the bars we went to, during twilight.
Bonfires while everyone waited for midnight.
At midnight we watched fireworks go off from seven different locations. It was awesome, very romantic and best New Years we’ve ever had, except for Vegas!
Animals seen today: pelicans, iguana, crabs, fish, other birds, two monkeys outside our hotel room, three monkeys at the place where I saw ten monkeys yesterday
Monkeys outside our hotel in Tamarindo.
DAY 9 – Today was our day to see Tamarindo itself. We slept in late so we didn’t go surfing; instead we explored the town, the beach, and Tamarindo’s own inlet mangrove (you can’t hike up this one because it has crocodiles).
The city of Tamarindo. Not the most photogenic place, but it was fun!
Tamarindo beach, low tide. The difference between high and low tide was over 600 feet. At low tide locals would play soccer on the beach, the sand was perfect for it!
Tamarindo beach, medium-high tide
Lounging at our hotel. We spent a lot of time here.
Animals seen today: pelicans, blue pincher crabs, lizard, one monkey outside our hotel room
DAY 10 – Today was Inna’s dive day. It’s also the busiest time of year (not just for diving, for everything), which meant the dive outfit was booked (ie no room for discovery dives, no room for snorkelers). So while Inna went diving, I took a tour up the Tamarindo inlet. I was hoping to see crocodiles, but we didn’t see any. We did see another family of monkeys, this one with kids, even a baby!
Boating up the inlet, through the mangrove forest.
Monkey family. One of the kids is playing around, hanging on a branch by its tail. The baby is not pictured, as the mom was protecting it and so I couldn’t get a good angle (when I tried I almost got pooped on).
After Inna got back from her dive, we relaxed at our hotel, then spent the evening drinking smoothies and listening to live music at a bar in town.
Animals seen today: monkey family (pictured above), lizard, a different smaller lizard, termite nests, black hawks, pelicans, lots of other birds
Additional animals Inna saw on her dive: eagle ray, white tip shark, camouflaged scorpion fish, puffer fish, trumpetfish, school of fish, moray eel, lots of other fish
DAY 11 – This is our last day in Costa Rica, and you know what we haven’t done yet? A white sand beach. There happens to be one forty minutes north of Tamarindo, so we hopped on a shuttle and we were off!
Brasilito Beach, eight miles north of Tamarindo, is the town nearest to the white sand beach. It was much more Tico than Tamarindo.
The beach of Brasilito Beach. This beach was great, and it would have been packed if there wasn’t an even more amazing white sand beach next door.
Playa Conchal, next door to Brasilito Beach. White sand, crystal clear water, it was a beautiful, beautiful beach.
Playa Conchal takes its name from the millions of crushed seashells that cover the northern portion of the beach.
White sand on the non-northern portion of the beach.
We spent the day in Playa Conchal and Brasilito Beach (mostly Playa Conchal), then took the last shuttle back to Tamarindo, where we went to its beach and watched the sunset.
Sunset in Tamarindo
This is our last night in Costa Rica. We’ll miss it. (someone else drew this image, I just took a picture of it)
Animals seen today: variegated squirrel, black hawks, pelicans, seagulls, other birds
DAY 12 – It’s time to go home. A puddle jumper to San Jose, then a couple hours at the airport before heading back to the states (don’t get us started on this portion of our trip: American Airlines, Miami International Airport, not good!). All in all, it was a great trip.
The puddle jumper we took from Tamarindo to San Jose. The Tamarindo airport was very small; it was literally on a farm with no security and had pigs and cows roaming about.
Costa Rica is a small country, smaller than 41 states. But while the country owns less than one percent of the world’s landmass, it is home to five percent of the world’s biodiversity. More than 25% of the country is protected in some way, a higher percentage than any other nation. All told, while in Costa Rica we traveled ~330 miles by bus/shuttle, 122 miles by plane (not counting our flights in and out of the country), and just over two miles by boat.
That marks the end of this post. Hope you enjoyed it!