Costa Rica: La Pura Vida Road Trip
In 2009, my friend and I rented a 4×4 and drove from the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica to the Caribbean Sea and back.
In two weeks, we laid on deserted, volcanic sand beaches, climbed an active volcano, walked through a cloud forest, relaxed in natural hot springs, encountered monkeys and sloths, witnessed two wild parrots flying, danced to reggae, had three flat tires, met the most adorable parrot named Paquito and drank the best (& biggest) margarita ever!
Costa Rica wasn’t really on my travel radar but the chance to go came up so like any other poor soul stricken with a serious case of Wanderlust, I had no other choice but to give in (really, I had no other choice – ahem). I mean, there are worse places to be in than the laid back country of La Pura Vida don’t you think? Wait – before answering, have a look at the following pictures then let me know.
If you plan on going to Costa Rica, I highly recommend renting a 4×4 – this will make traveling much easier and much more time-efficient not to mention give you complete freedom to do as you please.
Interesting fact: Costa Rica doesn’t have a national army – it’s the safest country in Central America but also the most expensive.
PARQUE NACIONAL RINCON DE LA VIEJA
Its meaning in English is “the old woman’s corner” which made me want to explore it even more! Parque Nacional Rincon de la Viejo is a beautiful natural park located in the province of Guanacaste on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. There are many hiking trails clearly indicated at the entrance along with the time it takes and difficulty level. Give yourself a few hours to explore the diverse floral and fauna.
Along the way, you can also encounter some natural pools to refresh in and a few fumaroles – sulfur pits that fill the surrounding air with a very fowl smell. At the top there’s a volcano that can be reached by following the trails but we started our hike too late to go and come back safely before nightfall.
PLAYA GRANDE & TAMARINDO
Costa Rica sure isn’t short on vast often empty beaches and Playa Grande (also known as Salinas) was no exception. With only a small surf center nearby there wasn’t much else to do but to lay back to admire the scenery and the skillful surfers – not that I’m complaining! Playa Grande is on the Pacific Coast where the sand is dark, the ocean is tumultuous and the waves are unbelievably high. I had never experienced such strong waves – it was actually quite dangerous!
Also located on the Pacific Coast is Tamarindo – a beach town with everything one needs for a complete, worry-free vacation. A wide choice of hotels, resorts, Westernized restaurants, shops and bars can be found all within walking distance of each other. Void of anything authentically Costa Rican, it definitely seems like Tamarindo was built (or rebuilt) for the sole purpose of attracting tourists. Good or bad – I’ll let you decide. The beautiful beach, though, had very few tourists. But the beach chairs and sunbrellas suggest this isn’t always the case. It was in April so things probably pick up reasonably during high season.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST RESERVE
Besides its wide, open beaches and awesome surfing, Costa Rica is also known for its natural beauty and diverse eco-systems. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is the most popular of its kind where hundreds of plant and animal species live and thrive.
There are 5 suspension bridges to help make your way through the forest which, at some point, reaches above the clouds – it’s actually quite impressive! The peaceful surrounding, untouched nature and extremely fresh air make this reserve a must-see while in Costa Rica. I mean, come on, who can resist floating ABOVE the clouds?!
Beware – the road is unpaved and rough (another reason to rent a 4×4). This is where we had our second flat tire but, luckily, we met a young German couple who helped us out. It’s a difficult, steep and winding drive to make it to the reserve but well-worth it (remember floating above the clouds?).
ARENAL ACTIVE VOLCANO
There are many volcanoes in Costa Rica but the most famous is the active, lava-producing Arenal Volcano in the district of La Fortuna. It’s currently dormant but it menacingly and imposingly watches over the surrounding hillside villages and towns. When we went we were lucky enough to find a local guide who took us halfway up the actual volcano unlike others who walked on trails surrounding it. We walked on lava turned black that had flowed not long before we set foot there. It felt like we were back in prehistoric times – it was quite surreal!
When night came around, we made our way to an area designated to watch Arenal Volcano spur smoke and lava from its mighty mouth. It took a while for it to manifest itself but when I finally saw a small sliver of red flowing down (we were at a safe distance far from the volcano) and heard its fierce rumbling, I was reminded of how vulnerable we were in the face of this majestic beast.
CARIBBEAN TOWN & BEACH OF PUERTO VIEJO
Given its small size, it’s surprising that Costa Rica shares its coasts with two oceans – the Pacific and the Caribbean. When we arrived in Puerto Viejo, I was instantly hooked! It was like we were in a completely different country with reggae playing loudly everywhere and Rastafarians hanging out at every street corner. The tri-colors of Jamaica could also be seen on shop signs and t-shirts. Puerto Viejo is the very definition of laid back living and farniente. Quaint shops and restaurants serving healthy granola breakfasts are the norm in Puerto Viejo – welcome to the other side of Costa Rica!
There are several beaches in this area all of which were completely empty except for a few wild (I think) horses. Playa Negra is aptly named after its black, volcanic sand. It can be reached by foot from town but there’s nothing on the beach in terms of amenities so lather on some sunscreen lotion, bring ample drinking water and lay down (bring a towel – the sand can get very hot) just watching the clouds go by.
La Pura Vida at its finest!
PARQUE NACIONAL MANUEL ANTONIO
The town of Manuel Antonio itself is, in my opinion, overdeveloped but follow the paths into Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio and you’ll feel like you’re worlds away. Here your chances of coming across lazy sloths, mischievous monkeys and other species native to Costa Rica are guaranteed.
The three-toed sloths are the cutest ever with their ever-smiling faces. I was lucky enough to see one crossing the road but for the most part you need to keep a watch high above in the trees. As for the Capuchin (white-faced) monkeys, there are lots of them each one trying to get their hands on whatever they can so beware. One even grabbed a bag of chips from an unsuspecting tourist and greedily started munching away. I didn’t see any howler monkeys but their very loud cry, which sounds like the bark of an angry dog, echoed all around in the forest.
While walking along the paths, views of the ocean suddenly appeared making for great pictures. There’s a main beach which can get crowded in the town of Manuel Antonio but if you want seclusion and untouched beaches head into the park. The beaches scattered in and around Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio are some of the most beautiful I had ever seen. Pack some empañadas and set yourself on one of the many boulders for an impromptu picnic.
PLAYA HERMOSA (NEAR JACO)
The beach in Jaco wasn’t very inviting (neither was the town) so we drove a few kilometers away on the aptly-named Playa Hermosa (Beautiful Beach). With only a few houses and one restaurant, this was a perfect place to take in the surroundings and listen to the waves crashing. This beach was also made of volcanic sand representative of Costa Rica.
I wasn’t lying when I said the beaches in Costa Rica are almost void of any tourists (at least that was the case when I went in April). Here you can count them (including me) on one hand!
PAQUITO – THE MOST ADORABLE PARROT
Paquito lived at the guest house where we stayed at in La Fortuna. He was free to fly wherever he pleased often visiting the neighbors to then return home safe and sound. He also spoke a few words in English and Spanish and seemed to take a liking to my hair!
How adorable is he?!
THE BEST MARGARITA AT FATHER ROOSTER’S, PLAYA OCOTAL
And on a final note – check out this setting and the size of that Margarita – need I say more?
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Have you been to Costa Rica? Did you enjoy the Pura Vida vibe?