My Big Fat Costa Rican Vacation

It’s been a bit of a year, what with one thing or another, and so we decided to give ourselves a real vacation for Christmas. And I insisted suggested that we go somewhere warm in the winter. You know, like people do! The husband found a great deal on a nonstop flight to San José, and that sealed the deal.

We debated beach versus rain forest, and finally settled on an adventure vacation, basing ourselves in a resort on the outskirts of La Fortuna. This town in the Costa Rican highlands that is sort of the Gatlinburg of Costa Rica. Everything is touristy–but of course that means there is lots of fun stuff to do!

We lived in Central America in the 90s: two years in Guatemala, and three in El Salvador. So, we had no problem renting a car at the airport and heading off to the mountains on our own. Winding through the foothills, with little towns and coffee plantations along the way and cumbia playing on the radio really took us back. It was about a three-hour drive from the airport to La Fortuna, but the roads are pretty good, and it went quickly.

While the scenery along the way was similar to Guatemala and El Salvador in many ways, Costa Rica is clearly a wealthier and vastly cleaner country. I loved El Salvador, but seriously, there was always trash dumped along the roads, everything from food wrappers to refrigerators. And the bathrooms there were well, something. By contrast, outside of San José, we saw almost no litter at all. And for the entire trip, there were only two dirty bathrooms: one at a gas station in the mountains–and another to welcome us at Dulles airport!

The resort (which I won’t name because there are several very like it in the area) was pricey, but amazing. We had a private casita, with a little deck and hot tub out back overlooking the Arenal volcano. Every day, we went out for a hike or a nature walk, then enjoyed a siesta, the pool, the spa, or the yoga space, and then the hot tub before dinner. It was soooo relaxing.

As for adventures, we had them! The first day, we did a nature hike with a guide right at the resort. This was a great introduction, both the kinds of critters we would see in the rain forest, and the various ways in which they could kill us. To be fair, this particular hike, perhaps because it is on private land and not that well-used, apparently went through some pretty snake-y territory. “Don’t step off the path, and don’t touch nothing!” the guide told us. We saw toucans, roadrunners, lots of tanagers and leaf-cutter ants, and monkeys. The only danger we encountered was having poop thrown at us by howler monkeys!

La Fortuna is to some degree oriented around package tours of various kinds. We just aren’t used to operating that way. It seemed like many of the tours started unnecessarily early as well. I mean, we’re morning people, but who wants to get on a bus at 7:45 a.m.? We had a huge hotel breakfast to dawdle over! So, we opted to freelance it, researching on Trip Advisor, deciding what to dp day by day, and just buying our own passes online if necessary. The only thing we missed out on by not reserving in advance was the Tabacon Hot Springs. There were a bunch of other springs we could have visited, but we left it to the last day, and then, since it was pouring rain, we decided to just hop back in our hot tub one more time instead. Leaves us something for next time.

The next day we visited the hanging bridges at Mistico Park. We opted not to employ a guide this time, which was fine because there were guides everywhere anyway, pointing out the various animals and birds. The park was beautiful, and the hanging bridges were very cool, very “swingy” and very high up. With see-through floors. I am not the most height-averse person, but holy cow, this was nerve-wracking. I couldn’t look down: I just looked straight ahead and counted to myself in Italian while walking across. But I made it just fine, and it was well worth it. (FWIW, the bridges seem very well-built and safe.)

We followed that nature walk up with a day hike at Arenal Observatory Lodge. We bought a $15 day pass at the gate which gave us access to the grounds. The trails there are very well-maintained, so it is like walking through a big park, with lots of animals and a couple of nice waterfalls. Part of the trail runs through a farm, for a change of scenery.

Afterwards we had a yummy lunch at the lodge restaurant overlooking the volcano, and then made a side trip on the way home to a Butterfly Conservatory. This was such a cool find, with more butterflies than I have ever seen in one place before. A guide/caretaker gave us all the background information on the butterflies while we were strolling around.

The most challenging hike we did was at Mirador El Silencio. I found this one on AllTrails. I think it must be one of the newer parks, because it is a little under the radar, and there weren’t many people there. But it was tranquil and beautiful. We walked about five miles up (very up!) and down at the base of Arenal, including a lava field from the 1968 eruption, which was interesting. Came home after logging about 16,000 steps and really enjoyed that hot tub!

On the last full day, we opted for an easy walk and guided wildlife tour at a sloth park. This is right on the edge of La Fortuna, but nevertheless it was packed with critters. Including sloths, which really do move kind of like Jello. We also saw coatimundis, capybaras, toucans, lots of different tanagers, lizards, and colorful-but-poisonous frogs and snakes. (Thankfully, nothing threw poop at us.)

In the afternoon, my husband finally gave up on trying to get me to zipline (after those hanging bridges there was No Way) and took off to dangle in midair like a crazy person on his own. I enjoyed having the resort’s yoga studio to myself and then waited out the first tropical downpour of our trip in a meditation pavilion. It was actually really peaceful and beautiful, and good introvert recharging time as well.

A few observations:

While I am comfortable speaking Spanish, you really don’t have to in order to visit La Fortuna. It seems like everyone speaks at least a bit of English, and tour guides etc. are quite fluent. Signs and menus are almost all bilingual. People generally asked us upfront “English or Spanish?” and then we just went from there, often switching back and forth without really thinking about it. I didn’t actually get as much Spanish practice as I was hoping to! This was interesting to me, because when we lived in Guatemala and El Salvador, speaking English just wasn’t an option most of the time.

Costa Rica ain’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. The hikes were not expensive: $15 or so for a day pass to the private reserves. Other attractions started at about $50 per person. I thought that was reasonable, however, for such well-maintained trails, knowledgeable guides, sturdy(!) bridges and did I mention clean bathrooms?

Restaurants were approaching US prices, but again, clean and good. We did decide that it’s best to stay in the lane when it comes to the food. Great meat and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, quesadillas, beans and rice, etc. Possibly the best hamburger I’ve ever had. Great pizza, too, and good local beer. Just stick with the basics and you will eat well.

The rental car was a rip-off, but we knew it would be. You do have to get to La Fortuna from the airport one way or another, however, and the shuttles are not cheap either. We could have saved a little money by using the shuttle and taxis to parks and attractions, but we really appreciated the flexibility and efficiency of having our own car. The traffic is honestly not that crazy–I’d compare it to Italy–and we only ran into one really rough road on the trip, on the way to the butterfly conservatory. That said, we have spent years driving around much less-developed countries and speak Spanish so we were probably a bit less intimidated than some people would be. If you don’t want to drive, you definitely don’t have to, there are other options.

We didn’t see many small children at all in La Fortuna, and not many older kids. This was probably partly due to school schedules, but in fact, I don’t think it would be a great place for little kids. Some of the nature trails would be too long or too steep for short legs (or anyone with mobility issues), and you need to be quiet around the animals. And then of course, there are poisonous critters lurking about. Hanging bridges and ziplines are also not that small kid-friendly. We mostly saw young couples and older “active adults” like us! Mostly Americans, with quite a few sunburned French Canadians escaping winter, and a sprinkling of adventurous Germans and Brits.

It was a perfect couples vacation as far as we were concerned. I was actually a bit teary when we left the resort, I had enjoyed the trip, being back in Central America, and being warm (!) so much. Honestly, the closer we get to retirement, the more I understand why people just nope winter for good when they have the chance. Life is short, why spend it in the cold and dark? YMMV!

Costa Rican beaches next winter? We’ll see!

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