As soon as we crossed the border from Panama, it was clear we had entered Costa Rica. Somehow, the vegetation seemed greener, despite both countries virtually sharing the same geography. Our bus rode on seaside roads and through lush jungles, past miles upon miles of solitary beaches, small towns, verdant hills, and towering waterfalls. From aboard the bus, I gazed out into the passing trees trying hard to spot a monkey or a sloth, and at one point I think I saw something hanging from a palm tree – a sloth for sure, I thought, although it was probably nothing more than a coconut.
My boyfriend Eamonn and I were travelling northbound through all of Central America, and Costa Rica, the second country on our list, was the one I was most looking forward to visiting. We had a week to discover the country, so we narrowed down our time there to three places that we felt would give us a good understanding of Costa Rica: the capital, a beachside national park, and a mountainous cloud forest.
Day 1: Arrival
After a long day of travel, our bus arrived into San Jose in late afternoon and, after checking into our hotel, we headed out to Chelles, a famous restaurant that’s popular with locals. We indulged on a casado, a traditional dish consisting of rice, black beans, fried plantains, stewed vegetables, salad, and grilled meat – simple but delicious, and very filling. Wishing to explore the city’s nightlife, we checked out a popular salsa nightclub. The music was great and, with many talented patrons on the dance floor, we decided to stay on the sidelines and simply enjoy the atmosphere, partly because watching the dancers was riveting, but mainly because we didn’t trust our own dancing abilities with such competition. After a couple of drinks, we moved on to another local joint, a modern club that hosted live entertainment and played popular international music, a complete contrast from our previous haunt.
Day 2: San Jose
The next day we explored San Jose, a city with various museums, great restaurants and bars, pretty parks and plazas, and a beautiful historic centre. We visited the Museo de Arte Costarricense, a museum dedicated to art by Costa Rican artists, housed in the handsome terminal building of the city’s former airport. While the art collection is striking, the highlight of the museum is the aptly named ‘Golden Room’, a former VIP waiting area that has a 3D mural across all four walls, painted in hues of gold and copper. Afterwards, we walked down Avenida Central, the mostly pedestrian main street that cuts right across the city, lined on both sides with shops, cafés, restaurants and bars. We walked around the historic centre’s squares, visited a couple of churches, and went to the central market to enjoy a tasty meal and a milkshake at one of the sodas, local eateries reminiscent of old American diners, which are popular throughout the city. At night, we visited San Jose’s trendy Paseo Gastronomico La Luz district on 33rd Street, boasting fashionable restaurants and its very own craft beer bar.
Day 3-4: Manuel Antonio
We left San Jose early and headed southwest on a four-hour bus ride towards Manuel Antonio, a beachside town built into the lush hills of the Costa Rican rainforest. Our hilly accommodation overlooked the jungle as it stretched out in every direction, seemingly endless but for a view of the ocean in the distance. Over the next couple of days we would meet our neighbours: a family of bats that made their permanent home in the outdoor hallway, and some mischievous monkeys always on the lookout for anything to steal.
The rainy season meant huge downpours every night, which luckily always happened while we were safely tucked away eating dinner. We found a little restaurant with great food nearby, which we would revisit every night we spent in Manuel Antonio. There, we dug into a delicious huge portion of ceviche served with petacones (deep-fried plantain patties), all washed down with pints of local beer. After the nightly storms, the jungle came alive with the sounds of nature like I’ve never heard before; the frogs in particular sang a sleepy lullaby, just in time for a peaceful walk home and bedtime.
Every day, in the early morning, the eerie screeching of a howler monkey woke us up. Although it was a chilling sound at first, we soon learnt to appreciate the noises of the rainforest – we were truly one with nature here! Eamonn and I spent one whole day frolicking in the beautiful shores of Manuel Antonio, walking the entire stretch of an almost-empty beach, with the sea on one side and rugged rocks and the jungle on the other. We soaked up the sun, caught up on reading, and had a dip or two in the ocean to cool down from the intense heat – pura vida, the Costa Rican expression for the daily enjoyment of life, never rang so true. In the evening, we watched the sun set into the sea from high up in the hills, before grabbing another serving of ceviche for a storm-time dinner and more amphibian lullabies.
Day 5: Manuel Antonio National Park
The crown jewel of this beautiful seaside destination is the Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica’s smallest national park in size, but one of the best in the country in terms of wildlife-watching opportunities and biodiversity. This natural realm has a bit of everything: hiking trails, jungle paths, beaches, and a varied fauna. We spent an afternoon exploring the park, hiked up a steep trail to a viewpoint, lazed in one of the beaches, and walked through various paths searching for wildlife. In one afternoon we were able to spot various animals, including a big family of white-headed capuchin monkeys, a couple of howler and squirrel monkeys, crab-eating raccoons, agouties, tropical birds clad in bright colours, iguanas, and even one of Costa Rica’s icons: a three-toed sloth!
Day 6: Monteverde
Another long day on the road was in order, until we reached the town of Monteverde up north. We welcomed the cooler climate and enjoyed the fresh mountain air, a nice change from the hot and sticky coastal weather of the last few days. Monteverde is quaint, spanning only a few blocks but full of nice cafés serving locally grown coffee. We enjoyed a café con leche and a casado for dinner before calling it a night; we wanted to make sure we would be fresh for an early start for discovering the cloud forest the next day.
Day 7: Santa Elena Cloud Forest
Costa Rica is regarded as the greenest country in the world in terms of environmental sustainability, and Monteverde is a great example of why the country has achieved this title. In the past two decades, the cloud forest in the area has grown in size five-fold, as farmers have recognised the financial potential of tourism and planted trees to turn their former grasslands into thriving forests. Today, Monteverde sees an influx of visitors seeking to explore the cloud forests and participate in canopy tours and zip-lining activities.
We spent most of the day in Santa Elena, the smaller of the two cloud forest reserves (the other bearing the same name as the town, Monteverde). We walked through the fairytale forest, admiring the gigantic moss-covered trees towering up and disappearing into the low-lying mist which gives cloud forests their name. Our guide identified various colourful birds up in the canopy, showed us how to lure tarantulas out of their burrows to admire them, and pointed out dozens of colourful insects and beetles that seamlessly blended into the lush forest. We weren’t lucky enough to see any big fauna (thankfully we had gotten our fix in Manuel Antonio!), but the experience was nothing less than spectacular; the cloud forest itself, splattered in every shade of green and always covered with the cool mist of the clouds, was simply magical.
After Monteverde we headed north towards Nicaragua, watching the jungle pass us by from aboard a bus, as we left behind a place we had fallen in love with. Costa Rica was only a small part of a bigger trip, but it had a huge impact on both of us, and we look forward to our next visit.