The Ultimate Guide to Food, Tours & Places to Stay
We think five weeks was the perfect amount of time to explore Costa Rica. With help from our friend Matt, we covered a lot of the Pacific Coast, the mountainous, volcanic region stretching from North to South through the middle of the country, and even had time for a little of the Caribbean side. Whether you’re into surfing, zip lining, riverboat tours, hiking, white water rafting, rappelling down waterfalls, riding city bikes in vibrant Jamaican-style towns or witnessing giant sea turtle conservation efforts, Costa Rica’s tourist economy is fully equipped to deliver an incredible experience (albeit at a slightly higher price).
We recommend flying into Liberia if you start in the North but San Jose is definitely the largest in the country and likely offers the most competitive fares. With so much ground to cover and great driving conditions, we also recommend renting a car.
Starting in the Northern Pacific Peninsula you’ll find Playa Samara. We spent a full week here at Tico Adventure Lodge cooking fresh fish from the food carts on the street in Tico’s gorgeous outdoor, tree house-style kitchen. The husband and wife who own the lodge are from Colorado and they definitely made us feel at home.
For the best deal on surfing lessons we’ve seen in all of Central America, visit Pato’s Surf School. For $35 you get a 1-2 hour surf lesson that includes a FIVE-DAY board rental so you can practice. The waves are gentle and perfect for beginners.
There are a number of places to stay in Samara and it has grown to be a wonderfully quaint little town ready for tourism with an organic market, beautiful beaches and great places to eat right on the water and all over town.
Getting there: 2 hour drive from Liberia airport / 3 hour drive from Nicaraguan Border
The drive from Samara to La Fortuna is only about 4 hours but it's gorgeous, so save time for pictures. About 3 hours in, you’ll have the opportunity to visit Rio Celeste. We didn’t anticipate we’d have enough time to hike Rio Celeste AND make it to La Fortuna but we made it happen.
- 8am leave Samara (3 hour drive to Rio Celeste plus a VERY off-road, uphill climb to the entrance of Rio Celeste)
- 12-4pm arrive at the gates, pay the $12 entrance fee to the national park and hike to the Rio Celeste Waterfall and Lagoon (worth every penny).
- 4:30pm depart Rio Celeste, drive 1.5 hours to La Fortuna Province.
- 6pm check-in to hotel near the famous, active Arenal Volcano
La Fortuna & Arenal Volcano
We stayed at the Arenal Backpackers Resort for $12/night (dorms range from $10-15 depending on the season). They have air-conditioning in the evening, a small restaurant, good wifi, nice gated parking, landscaped grounds and a wonderful hammock area for relaxing under the palm trees. There were a lot of young backpackers, but it stayed pretty quiet, had private rooms located in a separated building and an area for “glamping” if the weather is nice!
For the best views of the volcano you’ll want to hike Cerro Chato. Not to mention, the very end of the hike leads you WAY DOWN to an incredible lagoon. While the Cerro Chato hike only takes about 2 hours, it’s definitely not for beginners. If you’re an avid hiker you may disagree with us, but we feel we weren’t adequately prepared for the steep, muddy climbs in and out. Nonetheless, it was probably the most fun hike we’ve ever been on due to a sudden torrential downpour that essentially turned the trail into a waterslide. Either way, we think it was worth the incredible views if you don’t mind a muddy workout.
There are a number of other trails and tours on Arenal itself. We also hear the La Fortuna waterfall is breathtaking and costs about $12 to see. We opted for a more local swimming hole with smaller falls, further downstream from La Fortuna. It's underneath a bridge where the locals have a rope swing tied to a tree high up on the rocks. Ask around in town… if you’re interested in the more local experience, your hostel/hotel can direct to the place :)
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
We almost skipped the Monteverde Cloud Forest thinking we wouldn't have enough time and that it might be over-rated, over-priced and a little “too touristy”. Thank goodness we decided to backtrack through the mountains for a visit.
The drive takes 3.5 hours back the way you came in, but its maybe the most stunning drive you’ll ever make. The views are out of this world.
We stayed in Santa Elena, which is actually a tiny town NEXT to the town of Monteverde. You can walk between the two and both have lovely little places to stay, whether you’re on a budget or a luxury vacation. We chose the Pensión Santa Elena and had a great experience. The staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating and because it was low season, we got a good deal on a private room. The hostel is cute and clean with a shared kitchen and free coffee all day.
There are so many great tour companies to choose from, but we feel we got the best deal with the Canopy Tour through Adventura. For $50 you get to zip line to multiple platforms, rappel down one, lie on your belly and 'superman' two of the longest cables in Latin America, walk across a few rope bridges and end with the Mega Tarzan Swing (a 3-second free fall & our favorite!!). Rain or shine, this company has been leading tours for a long time and you can tell! They have everything set up to run smoothly and seamlessly, and the views are amazing (even if you end up zip lining through fog, rain and clouds). We had the BEST time and wanted to jump back in line for Tarzan again and again.
Unless you ended up doing Monteverde FIRST and La Fortuna/Arenal SECOND, the drive to the Tortuguero Boat Port is a long 5-6 hours… and the last boats leave between 4-4:30pm so watch the time (IF you are driving from La Fortuna it should only take between 4 to 5 hours).
The last stretch of road is the worst we’d seen in Costa Rica so make sure your rental car has good tires or leave with enough time to drive slowly. The boat port is called La Pavona and it’s in the Limón Province. There is secure parking for $10 per day.
The coolest part about Paque Nacional Tortuguero is that it’s only accessible by boat, meaning you must take a 1-hour ride through the winding, Costa Rican rainforest. The cost is about $7 USD each direction.
Once in the tiny Tortuguero Village, someone from your hostel will meet you and walk you to your destination. The town is so small there is only one main road (and it looks like a concrete walking trail) with the rest of the town accessible only by sandy pathways.
The main strip hosts all of the tour offices and small restaurants. You’ll find fresh smoothies, meat skewers on charcoal grills, and the wonderful world of Pupusas (a Salvadoran dish we somehow first discovered here and then realized were everywhere!). It starts with a ball of corn flour (or Masa Harina) that is stuffed with cheese, refried beans and meat if you choose. It is then smashed into a flat pancake, cooked on a pan until golden brown, and topped with Cabbage Slaw (and in our case lots of hot sauce). This simple yet delicious snack or meal will set you back about $1.50-2 USD.
Most people visit for the Turtle Tours and with over 20 providers and guides in the area, all leading similar tours, you can’t go wrong. Lodging in the village is simple and affordable. Check out Tortuguero Village before planning your trip. Having the opportunity to witness sea turtles laying eggs or babies hatching (depending on the time of year you visit) is absolutely incredible. Wander the national park and you may even get the chance to protect some of the babies from predators as they make their way to the ocean!
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
We fell in love with Puerto Viejo. You can feel the vibrancy the moment you enter the small, colorful, bustling town. Surrounded by black sand beaches, bright green palm trees, colorful buildings and tons of bicycles, there’s a distinct Rastafarian vibe and a cool Afro-Caribbean cultural influence that’s obvious in the delicious food and lively music.
Being a developing tourist destination, the town offers plenty of lodging at all price points and a lot to do. You’ll find yoga classes, creative and organic restaurants, shopping and of course, the powerful Salsa Brava wave (for all you surf enthusiasts).
Additionally, there are a great variety of beaches in the area and it’s not uncommon to rent bikes and take the hour-long ride to the Punta Mona lookout at Playa Manzanillo, or the slightly longer ride to Cahuita National Park.
We stayed at the Pagalù Hostel and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t convinced it was the kind of place I’d be comfortable staying when we first pulled up. But I hadn’t even gotten past the gate! With an open-air kitchen, lost of foliage, an incredible staff, very clean privates and dorms, lots of space to lounge and good Wi-Fi, we ended up staying an extra 2 days! Keep in mind this is a budget hostel but they had a gated area to park the car and the location was perfect. There are ample options for more luxurious accommodation.
Now can we talk about the FOOD?!
Bread & Chocolate. Need I say more? Homemade chocolate means the best French press mocha you’ve ever tasted, banana coconut pancakes, savory omelets, and bagels with bacon-scallion, blackberry, hickory or sun dried tomato flavored cream cheese. Yep.
Guetto Girl One Love. Think typical Costa Rican Casado but with Coconut Rice and the best damn Caribbean-style fish filet you’ve ever tasted. There’s no menu but when you arrive, she’ll be sure to let you know which meats she has available (there’s a veggie option too) and which fruits are ready for fresh smoothies. I would eat here every day if I could.
Another great drive in, but be sure you leave early because the drive up, up, up into the mountains is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The roads are about as bad as the final stretch of Tortuguero, but this time it’s up a STEEP mountainside. The good news is, they’ve paved it most of the way up. Believe it or not, you WILL find a few parking spaces at the top, and it’s worth it to stay in a hostel that’s literally been built into the rocks. Not to mention the staff was amazing and the cool, thin air just makes you want to cuddle up by the fire and read a good book. Our hostel was called Casa Mariposa (and you may need to book in advance because it’s very popular and sits right at the mouth of the Cerro Chirrpó Hike).
We won't go into detail about the hike here, but check out this post if you’re serious about making the trek (seriously... read it before you go).
The town of San Isidro sits at the bottom and is a great place to find all of the things the past few small cities may have lacked. With large supermarkets and a plethora of auto repair shops, we were able to get a quote for our car and stock up on groceries and gas. If you forget anything in town or arrive late, Casa Mariposa sells enough to get you by.
We didn’t plan on staying in San José but because we broke our car window and needed to have it fixed, we made a pit stop. If you find yourself in the city, check out The Garden in San Pedro. It’s a really safe neighborhood with parking in a covered garage or on the tree-lined streets, the friendliest staff and cleanest budget lodging in San José.
We happened to be here during our 1-year wedding anniversary so The Garden staff recommended La Esquina de Buenos Aire and it was the perfect place for a romantic & upscale (but refreshingly casual) meal. We had wine, fish, steak and delicious salads. Another delicious dinner recommendation made by the staff and conveniently located near The Garden was Na Praia. AMAZING Seafood & Raw Bar :)
The perks of San José are the modern conveniences such as fitness classes, large supermarkets, malls, and in our case, a Toyota dealership (just keep in mind that vehicle parts are highly taxed so you’ll be paying double to have your car serviced here unless you ask the locals). We found a good window tint shop too.
If 4 weeks is enough time in Costa Rica for you, this would be the prefect place from which to fly home.
The drive from Cerro Chirripó to San José took about 3 hours. If you DON’T need to stop in San José, it would have been a quick 1-hour drive from Cerro Chirripó to Playa Dominical!!
We chose Dominical for it’s surfing, but by the time we arrived, the conditions were less than optimal. The riptide was strong on the one day we arrived. The waves were a good size, and then it stayed pretty flat for the remaining 5 days.
Luckily there is a LOT to do in this small town. If you drive inland about 10 minutes you’ll find the entrance to Cataratas Nauyacas, a gorgeous and powerful 45-meter waterfall. It’s a mild-moderate 2-hour hike where you can see two sets of falls and take a dip in the bottom. Be careful, it’s really rocky but absolutely stunning.
For a great group activity down some class II and III rapids, check out the white water rafting tours with Dominical Surf Adventures. Their team is organized, safe, knowledgeable and incredibly fun! You’ll have an awesome guide take you down the cool, rushing river after being transported by bus up and over the canyon. A full day tour includes lunch and access to all of your pictures via Facebook (where a guy in a kayak follows your boat with a camera, he’s incredible!).
If you’re even MORE daring, you have to visit Costa Canyoning for their Waterfall Rappelling adventure tour! They’re located just 15 minutes south in the cool, little town of Uvita (boasting a great beach worth checking out as well). On the tour, watch these guides fly down the waterfalls as they teach you how to scale them yourself. You’ll first learn on a 20 meter descent, and after 3 more waterfalls, you’ll end up rappelling down a daunting 45 meters! I’d be lying if I didn’t say we all slipped at one point, but the thrill was SO worth it and the guides will keep you safe. Enjoy chips, salsa and cerveza at the end of the tour along with a CD full of pictures!
We rented a house on the water and cooked quite a bit, but the little town of dominical has some great local food and $10-15 surfboard rentals. If you find yourself in the area, you have to check out Caballitos del Mar! We stayed in Villa number 3 which was beautifully constructed, had a fabulous pool with an outdoor shower and sat right on our own secluded stretch of beach! In fact, these properties seem to be the ONLY houses in Dominical with beach access, which allowed us to see some of the most incredible sunsets of the entire trip :)
If you still feel like you need a little more beach in your life but you’re not willing to trek to our final destination at the southern most tip of Pacific Costa Rica, then visit Playa Hermosa. Its just 1.5 hours north along the coastal road and will put you closer to San Jose, making for a convenient final stop and the perfect way to end your trip. For us, the last stop had to be Pavones.
Past Golfito, south of Zancudo, all the way down to the mouth of the Pavon Bay, you’ll find the tiny town of Pavones, which hosts the 2nd longest left-break in the world.
Pavones is difficult to get to if you’re taking public transportation but if you have the rental car, it’s actually just a short 3-hour drive from Dominical. The roads are still pretty rough for the last leg of the trip but its isolation makes it one of the only towns in Costa Rica still untouched by tourism and thus, the perfect place to really GET AWAY.
The problem with the wave is that it needs a BIG swell to produce these incredible lengths and once that happens it’s too big for a beginner and really packed with avid surfers. Another issue is that even the legendary Pavones is subject to calm waters… which is what happened for us. We were hoping for something in between (maybe not the longest break in the world but we also didn’t want it to be dead) and yet, there was NOTHING. Not even tiny little breaks, just soft rolling waves that didn’t cap until they were on shore.
So check your surf reports, and cross your fingers because it can change anytime!
For us, Pavones will be remembered for something completely unrelated to surfing (but in many ways JUST as fun and MAYBE more terrifying). Check out our tubing adventure down the Rio Claro to see our VIDEO and read the full story :)
Otherwise, enjoy the serenity of Pavones when the swell is lacking and no one is around. All of the business owners know one another and the food in town is delicious. There are two little grocery stores, a surf shop, a handful of restaurants and quite a few places to stay.
We ended up at the Riviera Villas and they were PERFECT. The owners offer Villas of different sizes so depending on the number of people you have and the size of the villa they can be really affordable. Our host was incredible helpful and accommodating, the villas are located right off the main road so it’s just a short walk to the beach and in the middle of town. We really loved our time in this quaint little town and highly recommend a visit.
For our trip, we tried to mix the better known places with a few off the beaten path. If you have more suggestions, leave them in the comments below! We’d love your recommendations for our next visit. Pura Vida!
See you down the road!
Meg (+ Tyler)