This past November, I took my first trip to Central America over the Thanksgiving holiday and explored the beautiful country of Costa Rica!
My friend Susie, whom I featured on my Travel Spotlight Series here, had the itch to go abroad before the end of the year and asked if I was interested. I obliged, of course. I was in serious need of a restful yet adventurous vacation. Costa Rica wasn’t on the top of either of our lists per se but considering it was less than 6 hours away (nonstop) from L.A. and flight tickets were ~$400 roundtrip, we thought why not?
One term that you’ll get familiar with when planning and visiting Costa Rica is “¡Pura Vida!” meaning “pure life” or “simple life.” It’s more than a saying and greeting, it’s a way of life for the locals here.
I’m not sure why I haven’t traveled more over the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s the perfect time to take a trip considering most jobs in the U.S. give you 2 days off (Thursday and Friday) and you can easily plan a week long trip with only taking 2-3 days of PTO. Now that I see the light, this will definitely be my annual travel holiday. Maybe next time I’ll even take my family with me!
Planning & Deliberations
We booked a red-eye flight for November 23rd (Thanksgiving Day) and stayed through November 29th. Planning a 6 day Thanksgiving Adventure meant we had a good amount of time to explore, however, popular landmarks in Costa Rica are spread out, so we had to be strategic about what we wanted to see and do. This was probably our biggest challenge since the country has many different climates and areas to explore.
Tip: To maximize your vacation without taking additional days off, I suggest booking a red-eye flight to your destination. You can always sleep on the flight going in, land in the morning, and start your full day in another country!
We quickly realized that given our timeframe and how spread out each location is (a 3-4 hour car ride at a minimum), realistically, we could only do two locations. As a result, we had to cut Monteverde Cloud Forest from the itinerary but I think we achieved a similar experience in La Fortuna with the hanging bridges and rainforest adventures. After narrowing our search down to La Fortuna and Tamarindo Beach, we just had to pick activities and lodging. Luckily, we are both pretty adventurous and interested in similar excursions, which made that part of planning fun.
Since the end of the year was a busy time for both of us, in order to help us plan, I created our itinerary with the help of an amazing travel app, Travefy, that I now swear by! It’s a an awesome tool for traveling because it creates an itinerary for all travelers involved; you can print a hard copy or just use the app for a digital version on the go.
To break down this fun-filled experience, I’ll share highlights of where to stay and things to do for each location below. At the end of this post, I’ll share additional insights of what we learned along the way!
Part I: Rainforest Adventures: La Fortuna
Duration: 3 nights | Accommodation: Rancho Cerro Azul Hotel
We flew into Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), the primary airport serving San José, the capital of Costa Rica. Our hotel arranged our transportation and our shuttle driver was waiting for us at the airport. We found him right away and headed directly to our first destination, La Fortuna, about a 3 hour ride from the airport with no stops.
Note: Shared shuttle options from SJO to La Fortuna only pick up at designated times ($52/person) and private shuttles can pick up any time you need for more flexibility ($165 for the entire van).
La Fortuna is known for its natural hot springs, waterfalls, volcanoes, and hanging bridges and is a great introduction to what Costa Rica has to offer, especially for adventure seekers. The small town of La Fortuna has plenty of souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes to enjoy but is super small. You’ll cover just about everything in town after walking around for an hour or two. Try the Rainforest Cafe for a bite and some coffee, their menu is pretty extensive.
We stayed 1 mile away from the center of town at Rancho Cerro Azul! Our cabin was nestled among a tropical garden with views of the Arenal Volcano and we loved the feeling of being in the middle of the rainforest, away from town but not too far. This was a great budget friendly ranch that serves delicious breakfast every morning and the staff was super helpful! I highly recommend staying at Rancho Cerro Azul!
- Don Juan Coffee and Chocolate Tour
- We couldn’t decide between coffee and chocolate so we did both! This was our first tour just hours after we landed and it allowed us to explore a coffee plantation and learn about the coffee and chocolate making process. We of course got to sample everything and we definitely needed some coffee after our red eye flight. The coffee was so smooth I could drink it black!
- We booked this tour through Desafio Adventure Company, Costa Rica’s local one stop shop for adventure tours and I was highly pleased with their service. If you’re in Costa Rica and looking for tours of all types, check them out and use my referral code: GBY2018; they will take great care of you!
- 3 in 1 Combo: Arenal Volcano Hike; La Fortuna Waterfall; Hanging Bridges
- We covered all the main attractions of La Fortuna in one full day. This 9 hour excursion, booked through Viator, began at the Arenal Volcano where we hiked around the base of the volcano, through lava fields, and enjoyed gorgeous views of Arenal Lake.
- Then we explored La Fortuna Waterfall, where we climbed 500 steps down to the base to take in the amazing view and go for a swim. It was breathtaking and then the thought of going back up those 500 stairs became breathtaking in the literal sense!
- Lastly, our tour ended at the Mistico Hanging Bridges Park in Arenal which consisted of a 2.5 hour hike through the rainforest where we crossed nearly 16 hanging bridges in total! We got to see lots of unique flowers and colorful critters along the way.
Note: This combo tour is not for the faint at heart; each activity on it’s own isn’t super strenuous but when you combine all 3 in one day it proved to be pretty exhausting. If you have bad knees (like me) or can’t walk for long periods, try breaking this tour up instead of doing it all at once. Each part of this tour is definitely worth seeing.
- Restaurante El Coloso Arenal
- The food at El Coloso was probably my favorite place to eat in the city. Located on the main road, our tour guide brought us here in between activities for lunch and I’m so glad she did! I ordered the Casado with chicken, a typical Costa Rican meal that comes with rice, beans, salad, fried plantains, and choice of protein. The fresh squeezed juice was also delish. Lunch was included with our 3 in 1 combo tour, winning!
- Zip-lining & Rappelling at Go Adventure Arenal Park:
- On our second full day in La Fortuna we enjoyed another fun-filled adventure: Zip-lining and Rappelling at Go Adventure Arenal Park! We booked a combo package through a third party that included an Arenal Canopy Tour + Rappelling + Horseback riding + Baldi Hot Springs + Buffet Dinner all for $95! In this case, I highly suggest booking directly with Go Adventure Park here for ziplining/rappelling and book the hot springs package separately.
- This was Susie’s first time zip-lining and she was a little scared. I mean we were up pretty high up but she did so good and I think even enjoyed herself. This was my second time zip-lining but this time was more exhilarating because the wires were wet and we went faster than my first time. I’m really glad we didn’t go with a full day of rappelling like we had originally planned. As cool as it sounds to rappel down waterfalls, one (dry) rappel was enough for me!
Tip: No need to book all your activities in advance. If your itinerary is packed, build in some flexibility to adjust with your energy level. We ended up changing our Saturday adventure from a Canyoning Tour, which includes rappelling down waterfalls for 4 hours, to a simple zip-line tour with ONE rappel option. My knees weren’t up for another intense day but if you’re an adventure seeker, check out The Lost Canyon Adventure with Desafio Costa Rica, and use code GBY2018.
- Baldi Hot Springs Resort & Spa:
- This was an awesome way spend our last night in La Fortuna, soaking up at the world’s largest hot springs resort, with 25 thermal pools! After 2 intense days of activities, these thermal and mineral pools were very much needed to relax and detoxify our bodies. The setting in the middle of the rainforest was absolutely stunning and they even had water slides for some additional fun.
- Unfortunately, the buffet dinner at Ristorante Virgita that came with our package wasn’t that great. Instead, I would skip the buffet and try their other restaurant, Pyramid Restaurant, if you need to grab a bite. You can also check out many other hot springs resorts in the area; Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa is another great option!
Part II: Beach & Chill: Playa Tamarindo
Duration: 2 nights | Accommodation: Wyndham Esplendor Tamarindo
After non-stop activities and fun in La Fortuna, the second half of our trip was all about relaxing by the beach! With no real itinerary, we were able to enjoy the sunsets, go to the spa, and just take a stroll around the cute shops. A great balance for our needs. To get there, we booked an Interbus shared shuttle and went west for 4 hours until we arrived at our second stop, Playa Tamarindo!
Tip: On the way to Tamarindo be sure to stop at Cafe & Macadamia, just 15 minutes past Nuevo Arenal. This casual restaurant offers fresh baked goodies, coffee, and an amazing view! Everything was so good!
Upon arrival, we were in awe of our amazing hotel. The Wyndham Esplendor was high up in the hills with beautiful views of the ocean and sunsets to die for. The hotel even provides a free local shuttle to and from the beach and town which was super convenient.
Located in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province, Tamarindo is a surfing town that definitely brings in tourists from all over. I absolutely loved this colorful beach town which offers a plethora of organic and healthy cafe’s and Susie loved looking around at all the boutique shops in town. We couldn’t get enough of Tamarindo and wished we could have stayed longer! Maybe next time, I’ll look into a surf lesson here.
- Langosta Beach Club:
- When you stay at the Wyndham Esplendor you get free access to the private Langosta Beach Club! We thoroughly enjoyed our lazy day by the beach, reading, eating, and watching the sunset with a cappuccino at hand. Pure bliss!
- La Oveja Negra Mexican Bar and Restaurant:
- Where beach vibe meets hipster cool, this restaurant had such a fun and youthful scene. I ordered the Chalupa with fries to share but I would do shrimp or fish instead of the chicken. It was a great spot to people watch and is perfect for larger groups. They even have live music events on some nights.
- Catamaran Tour with Snorkeling:
- If you want more adventure, go out on the Pacific Ocean for the day and enjoy activities like snorkeling, kayaking, and sunbathing. Tour options with Desafio available.
Part III: Final Stop: San Jose
Duration: 1 night | Accommodation: La Riviera Hotel Bed & Breakfast
And just like that, our time was up. We decided to leave the beach the day before our flight to make sure we had enough time; the drive from Tamarindo to San Jose was another 4 hours and traffic going into the city is usually bad. Our hotel booked a shared shuttle for us and it was time to say goodbye to a perfect stay by the beach.
By the time we arrived to our next hotel in the city, it was already dark. We were pleasantly surprised with La Riviera Hotel Bed & Breakfast, considering we booked it on the go without much thought. It was clean, affordable, and the restaurant has great reviews. Even though breakfast was included with our stay, our flight the next morning was early and we had to miss it. I wish we had more time at this cute hotel and time to explore the city. Most tourists actually just pass through San Jose to get to more exciting spots like La Fortuna; we were also advised that it wasn’t the safest place to explore at night so we didn’t feel like we missed too much.
Additional Info & Insights:
- Language: Mostly Spanish / Some English
- Currency: Costa Rican colón but U.S. dollars are also accepted. I suggest having some cash on hand for tips, taxi rides, and smaller stores but most places will take credit or US Dollars and give you change in the local currency.
- Pick 2 locations for a 6 day itinerary: The hardest part was choosing which coast (pacific or caribbean) to explore. The beaches on the pacific side, like Jaco and Playa Tamarindo, are more touristy and great for surfing, while the caribbean side is a little cheaper with turquoise waters and beaches like Puerto Viejo and Playa Blanca. The Caribbean side is also more laid back with a Rasta-infused vibe and I plan to check that side out next time!
- Additional Fun: If you have more time, check out Rio Celeste Waterfall, a day trip from La Fortuna; Monteverde Cloud Forest, a 3 hour drive from La Fortuna; and maybe even a day trip next door to Nicaragua! Live a little!
- Private Shuttle vs. Interbus vs. Driving: Of all the options available I recommend utilizing the shared shuttle service, primarily Interbus, to get across the country. You don’t need a car in my opinion as most tours will offer transportation services as a part of your activity. However, driving wouldn’t be too bad either as the main roads are well paved but signage may be an issue. And private shuttles only make sense if you have a larger group. If you want less stress, I say the shared shuttle is the best option for smaller crowds!
- Climate: The weather was beautiful in November, Costa Rica’s dry season goes from mid-November to April. La Fortuna was still humid and rainy (considering you’re in the rainforest) but the weather was perfect in Tamarindo, less humidity and NO rain! Bring lots of bug spray and SPF sunscreen and nix any jeans you’re thinking of packing, you won’t need them at all given the overall high humidity levels!
And there you have it! Our perfectly balanced Costa Rican adventure! From the rainforest to the beach, we fell in love with the kind locals and beautiful scenes here and I hope this overview helps some of you who are planning a future trip to the country. With SO many options to explore it can get overwhelming trying to decide what to do and see but honestly, you can’t go wrong regardless of where exactly you decide to go.