The Ultimate Central Costa Rica Road Trip

The mountains in the clouds, the clouds in the mountains, you decide. But this little phrase became one we were constantly saying to ourselves throughout our time in Costa Rica. Over the last few years Costa Rica is becoming increasingly popular and I experienced first hand why this to be true. The country is lively, amazing, organic, genuine and heartwarming. Costa Rica has been on my bucket list and a place I was looking forward to navigating. The biodiversity is what kept me wanting to explore more and the culture made me want to stay longer. Did I forget the beaches? Yes, the beaches are fantastic too.

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The country didn’t disappoint in any way. The adventures didn’t disappoint, the culture didn’t disappoint and the food certainly didn’t disappoint. Just like most of my adventures, I had a good idea going in what I wanted to see, hear and do. Amanda helped me decide on what cities and towns we wanted to stop in and the best restaurants in the country. We planned the activities together. Something for me, something for her, something for the both of us. If you’re new to the blog, Amanda is my P.I.C., partner in crime! Kind of ironic if you know her personally, lol.

The trip started out just as planned, we hopped in our Uber to get to Chicago International Airport (ORD) to board our 5:36am American Airlines flight to Miami, Florida. We had a quick layover in Miami and were flying out to Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in no time. We chose to fly into SJO because it was centrally located and flights were generally $150-200 cheaper at the time. I’ll drop a map of our route down below so you can see a general overview of our road trip. But basically, we were going to hit the towns of La Fortuna, Monteverde and Jaco with quick stops in between.

Our plane landed right on time and we quickly got off to head through customs, grab our luggage and head to Adobe Rent-A-Car.

Pro Tip: If possibe, do not use the bathroom when you get out of the plane. Head straight to the customs line and use the bathroom afterwards. You will thank me later.

Customs in Costa Rica was surprisingly quick. I followed my own tip and we were waiting for our luggage within 20 minutes of touching down. Out of the airport doors we went and we were now on the hunt for the Adobe Rent-A-Car personal. We ended up seeing the Adobe shuttle service first and were able to flag them down to get a free ride to their office. The office was a short 10-15 minutes away from the airport, as most rental car agencies are. The airport is small and while its easy to get in and out, there is not a lot of real estate inside to have standalone agencies like you would see in major airports.

We quickly checked-in with Adobe, gave the car a once over and were pulling up the GPS in no-time to see where we were headed. Our heading was Northwest, up Highway 1 and over to Highway 722 to Los Chorros Park.

We traveled about 90 minutes and, albeit a few missed turns, arrived at our destination. The Los Chorros waterfalls. We were surprised that when we pulled up, it didn’t look like much of a park at all. The sign was merely faded to almost the point where you couldn’t read it anymore.

The “park” is really just a local family farm carved out in the hillside. The faded signs at the entrance were deceiving, this place was beautiful. We slowly drove up the rocky dirt road and were pleasantly greeted by a man who had to be 90 years old. The man motioned for us to keep coming and directed us past him. Hopefully this meant we were at the right place. Sure enough, we saw another man directing traffic and others parked on top of the hill. He didn’t speak any English and I must’ve done a decent job on my Spanish lessons before I left the US because I understood what he was saying enough to get us on our way. He directed us down a path and I think he said go left at the fork..

The jungle entrance to Los Chorros; Grecia's natural jets in Costa Rica
The jungle entrance to Los Chorros; Grecia’s natural jets. March 2019

Left at the fork in the path, just past the big tree, before the other big tree…wait, what?

Yup, we must’ve picked the correct route because eventually we saw a sign that says “catarata”, which is waterfall in Spanish. We made our way through the tall bamboo trees, watching for wildlife as we went. This was our first encounter with the real side of Costa Rica. And when I say real side, I mean the remote countryside where not many travelers travel and trekking into the jungle where anything can happen at any moment. The sights, the smells, the sound, it was all surreal. I’ve been hiking before, but not like this, all my senses were heightened with anticipation with what could be found around the next tree.

We didn’t see many people for quite some time, maybe about half a mile or so. I was surprised as it was a Saturday and I read this was a popular place for locals on weekends. Oh well, more for us to see and enjoy. Once we reached the river we finally ran into some other people, all locals. The river was flowing at a good pace and we couldn’t see the cataratas yet, but we could hear it. We knew we were getting closer.

A few more twists in the dirt path and a massive tree later, we arrived!

Hiker at Los Chorros Waterfall in Costa Rica. Natural jets
Los Chorros Waterfall Costa Rica. March 2019

The one mile walk down was not too strenuous and took around 25 minutes. However, the easy part of the path ended there. For the rest of our hike, we would be traveling up river to reach the second waterfall.

Laying our eyes on our first massive waterfall in our lives was unforgettable. Something so simple, such as water falling from higher elevation is a thing of beauty. I’d say its the small things in life, but the fall was huge! At over 130 feet high, you felt the mist from the falls a hundred feet away and you could hear it from much farther. We could do nothing more but stop and take a few selfies and take in the sights and sounds from one of two of Grecia’s beautiful waterfalls.

If you’ve made it this far, follow me on TripAdvisor and I’ll follow back!

As our bare feet struggled to find their way through the cold running water, we made our way down stream. Now, because we arrived mid-afternoon, we didn’t have a lot of time to stop enough as we would’ve like before the sun started to go down. The second waterfall of Los Chorros was not that far from the first. A 10 minute hike up the river and around a slight bend in the rock formation had us staring straight into the base. The fall sounded so powerful because of the rock formations surrounding it as it echoed off the rock-wall. You could feel the power!

The sun started going down quicker and we realized we should head back before we were hiking back in the dark. No bueno! A few pictures later and we were up and out of the water and back on the irt trail. But, not before a couple of toe cramps had us laughing at ourselves. Seriously, toe cramps, they are the worst. I guess we were dehydrated from our travels. Before we knew it we were covered in sweat. The walk back up the rolling hills was a good workout. It didn’t take us much time at all to get back and that’s when we paid the $5 entrance and parking fee to the park.

We left Los Chorros with a feeling of accomplishment since we had nothing planned our first day in case our flight was delayed. We left Los Chorrs and started to head northeast until we hit route 708. Not only did we successfully make it to Costa Rica but we got in our first adventure on Day 1. Our next planned adventure wouldn’t be until the next day but we still had to get there. As day turned into dusk and dusk turned into night, we were left driving through a thick fog on the curvy mountain roads. Did I mention is was raining most of the time too? Do not drive in the dark. I repeat, do not drive in the dark. It’s very dangerous and not safe if you are unfamiliar with the roads. The drop-offs are steep, the fog is dense and your headlights are pretty much useless. Trust us!

Pro Tip: Do not drive in the dark, there are no street lights and the weather combined with the curvy mountain roads makes it very dangerous.

When we hit route 708 we went southwest down to Catarata Del Toro.

Since September 2005, Catarata Del Toro in Costa Rica is a private owned reserve of 100 hectares. Located a little north of San José and the international airport Juan Santamaria. And located on the Caribbean side of the central mountain range. The reserve borders two national parks, Juan Castro Blanco, which is one of the two water parks in the world and Poás on both sides for 3 kilometers. So, all this creates a ‘lost in the jungle’ feeling of 20.000 hectares. The first neighbors in the south and north are 1 kilometer away and the east and west are neighbor free. The valley of Bajos Del Toro, where we are located, is unspoiled. You will find mountains, many more waterfalls, forest, national parks and a lot of wildlife. As a result, this creates a lot of opportunities for sustainable tourism and you are welcome to start your eco-business as well!

We were greeted in the late evening by a Dutch – Costa Rican couple. They couldn’t have been any nicer and welcoming. We arrived later than planned because of getting caught driving in the dark and they were more than accommodating. Just as we explained our days adventure, they told us there was an easier way to get to Catarata Del Toro but we just had to laugh it off after our exhausting day.

We dropped our stuff at our room, check out the room tour on my YouTube channel here, and then we were right back out the door again to find a place to eat. We went about 10 minutes down the road to find a small family owned soda called Kafecito. It was really good and our first meal in Costa Rica did not disappoint! We had our first Casado with beef, fried plantains, salad, rice and beans. We also got a fried burrito and french fries for a side. The was really our only meal of the day besides for some flapjacks at McDonalds at 5am earlier that day. So.Hungry!

Definition of “Soda” – a local place to have cheap eats that serve authentic Costa Rican dishes.

Bellies full and our mind on sleep and tomorrows adventure, we got back to Catarata Adventures and went straight to bed. The room was $65 for the night and it was a no thrills, no TV, nature-loving-jungle-bungalow. It was awesome and just what we envisioned!

Day 2 – Catarata Del Toro

The next day we woke up with sunshine shining through the airy open windows and the sound of birds chirping. It was so relaxing and it felt like waking up in the middle of the jungle. I started packing my camera bag and getting ready to head out for the day. But first, we were treated to a lovely handmade breakfast by the owners of Catarata Del Toro. I wont spoil what we were served in case you’re looking to stay at this fine establishment, but it was really good and the perfect meal to start our day.

Hummingbirds at Catarata Del Toro Adventures in Costa Rica.
Catarata Del Toro Adventures. Hummingbird Garden. March 2019

Did I mention the property grounds included a Hummingbird garden? Literally 10-15 hummingbirds could be spotted at any time just a feet away from the gathering area. We tried to get one to land on our finger but sadly it didn’t happen. The bird feeders attracted the birds and we were just amazed at the beauty and sounds that they made. I will be the first to say I am nowhere near a bird person, but I could appreciate the delicacy of the Hummingbird.

As we finished breakfast and headed down the hiking trail I got a sense that I was lost in the jungle, far away from everything else. The air was so fresh and smelled splendid. Amanda loved the bright colored flowers and was on the lookout for monkeys and sloths. I was enjoying the photographic moments and trying to take in everything all at once. We got out first glimpse of the thunderous catarata and couldn’t wait to get down to the bottom.

We hiked through the jungle for 8-10 minutes or so and came to an open gate and cement stairs. I didn’t count all the stairs but it’s said that there is around 400 or so. Photo after photo, video after video, I was clicking away at the scenery while trying to keep my balance. There are plenty of places to stop and rest on the stairs to the walking path if you need to, so don’t worry.

One of the really nice things we had the pleasure of experiencing at Catarata Adventures is that the park was actually closed to the public on Sundays. Today just happened to be a Sunday! Here is the catch, unless you stay overnight on Saturday, whcih we did, we lucked out and got the place seemingly to ourselves. There was one other couple there, but that was it! So the four of us thoroughly enjoyed the place, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Travelers at Catarata Del Toro in Costa Rica.
Catarata Del Toro. March 2019

Once we made it near the bottom of the fall, we found a nice bench to sit at to admire the best kept secret in Costa Rica. You cannot swim or jump in the water at the base, it is way too dangerous. There is a fence blocking you from jumping in and that’s probably for your benefit. I cannot imagine the force of that fall and the undercurrent it creates if you were to be in the base. At over 270ft tall, that is not a fight you’re going to win.

We spent some time admiring the beautiful surrounding and reflecting on how we made it this far in just 24 short hours. The presence of this place was special, almost magical. As we drank some water, caught our breathe and took a few last pictures, we started the decent up the path that we had come down. There is only one way in and one way out. My calves were really feeling it half way back up the cliff side. I thought I was in decent shape but boy was I was wrong. It was totally worth it though.

Back through the open gates and around the corner, we did have an option to get back to the estate if we wanted. However we wondered through the garden and did some birdwatching as we overlooked the nearby volcano Paos. Clouds covered the volcano peak and made it seem very eerie, but not in a scary way. In a very-cool, nature is amazing kind of way!

As our time at Catarata Del Toro came to an end, we said goodbye to our new Dutch-Costa Rican friends, closed the gate behind us, and headed north. We were off to the popular town of La Fortuna. La Fortuna is roughly an hour and a half from Catarata Del Toro. The drive was beautiful. Lots and lots of farmland, with the mountains and volcano peaking through in the background. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, high 70’s, a slight breeze and lots of sunshine. We stopped about half way in the providence of
Alajuela for a quick gelato break. Boy was it tasty!

We started to hit some traffic near La Fortuna but that didn’t faze us, we were enjoying the adventure and sunshine. We found a place to park near the city center and began walking around to do a little sightseeing and check out the town. The town had a great vibe to it with a good mix of tourists and locals alike. There was a weeks full of shops, restaurants and bars to go to. We ended up picking a place on the main street called “Lava Lounge”. I heard it was great for drinks and appetizers. I ordered a Maja Dera pale ale and Amanda ordered a pina colada, we split a nacho plate. The beer was good and the nachos were great, highly recommend stopping here for drinks and to people watch.

It was mid-afternoon now and we decided to hit the hot springs. There are a bunch in the La Fortuna area but we had a particular one in mind because of it’s price and atmosphere. It was called Termalitas Del Arenal and it only cost us 9 colones. We felt like we were robbing the place…Let’s start off from the minute you walk in. It’s not a super grand entrance like some of the other hot spring but your immediately drawn in by all the lush greenery, trees and hot spring fed pools around you. Families and park benches under tiki huts lined the paths to different temperature pools. There was a food stand and a bar as well available to patrons. The best part about this place was that you could bring in your own food and alcohol. Mind blow. That would never fly in America, lucky!

So, what was unique about this hot springs? The unique thing is that you could pick a hot spring (like really hot) or a cooler spring and everything in between. I thought this was really cool and I always like my options. Most people were hanging out at the biggest spring (more like pool) where the water-slides were. By far my highlight at this place was the unguarded slides. Literally anything goes and nobody is there to tell you otherwise. People were going down three at a time, standing up, backwards. It was pretty crazy and fun to watch! Amanda and I had a blast going two-up down the slide together. As the sun set in the background and day turned into night, the hot springs came alive with glowing lights of green, purple, red and blue.

Watch: Termalites Del Arsenal Hot Springs La Fortuna

We spent a couple hours at the hot springs and it was well worth the price of admission. But, it was time to check in to our hostel at Selina La Fortuna and get washed up for dinner. Selina was a block off main street in La Fortuna. This was my first time ever staying at a hostel so I was a bit skeptical at first and had my doubts. We weren’t up for staying in a shared dorm style room so we opted for something else.

Travelers Teepee tent at Selina La Fortuna in Costa Rica
Teepee tent at Selina La Fortuna. March 2019

Yes! A Teepee tent! So original and unique, not to mention this was the perfect way to “camp” in Costa Rica. I never knew something like this tepee tent was even a thing. When we saw this listing on AirBnB, it was a no brainer to book it! By the way, if you want to save $25 on your next hotel, use my referral link. The property was well taken care of and offered a very friendly and nomadic vibe. You can find beautiful artwork, plants, flowers and plenty of things to do right on site: swimming pool, foosball, life-size jenga and board games.

The tepee tent was quaint, clean and tidy. It offered a queen bed, mosquito net, fan/heater, power, nightstand and a luggage rack. Read my full review of Selina La Fortuna here! We walked not a block away to grab dinner at a seafood restaurant. Interesting choice, right? I wasn’t aware that Costa Rica had some really good seafood options. I picked out the Mahi Mahi with Shrimp sauce and it didn’t disappoint. Amanda had the Salmon with passion fruit sauce. Both entrees were tasty and while it took a little bit more expected to get our food, it was worth the wait. Pura Vida!

After Snapper House, we settled down for the night and had some much needed relaxation time before turning in for the night as the next day had a full schedule ahead for us. We ended up passing out in the tepee despite the loud party like atmosphere and the music heard from a bar down the street. I guess we were tired!

Day 3 – Arenal Volcano National Park

Despite sleeping outside in a tent, surprisingly, the bed was pretty comfy. But, we were still tired from traveling. We rubbed out our sleepy eyes and began to pack our backpacks for our adventure to The Arenal Volcano National Park. The national park was just 20 minutes outside of La Fortuna Costa Rica. We paid the $15 per person entry fee and ended up being the second car in the parking lot. Awesome! I love getting to places earlier to beat the crowds. The weather was a bit overcast and the sun wasn’t shining but we were glad we weren’t going to be sweating through our shirts. The hike began with a rather flat path surrounded by two story high grass, bamboo and brush. As the brush grew higher and higher and our surroundings become more and more dense, we were soon near the base of the Arenal Volcano.

Pro Tip: Bring proper hiking shoes or sturdy sneakers, a camera, binoculars and plenty of water. A light jacket like this one really helps when it starts to rain.

If you’re coming to Arenal Volcano National Park, don’t go off the path, just don’t. While it’ tempting to venture, you really dont know what kind of poisonous plants or venomous snakes you’ll run into. Like this guy!

Eyelash Pit Viper at The Arenal Volcano National Park
Eyelash Pit Viper at The Arenal Volcano National Park

No joke I tell you, our little yellow friend was only five feet from the walking path. Using my Panasonic G85 and my trusty 45-150mm zoom lens made this picture no problem. Moral of the story, a good reason to stay on the path, certainly. Keep your eyes out!

As rain showers came and went, we kept making our way up and down the volcano path while being on the lookout for plants, flowers and wildlife. I was really hoping to see some monkeys and sloths as I heard they are very popular throughout Costa Rica. There were so many different types of plants and flowers to see. While we didn’t hire a guide because of extra costs, there was still plenty to look at without one.

What is it like to walk through a jungle? I would say the smell of fresh rain really does it for me, it really transforms your feelings in a positive way. The sound of the air, no joke, living plants and the home to thousands of different types of species make it all an incredible experience. The bouts of rainfall were refreshing and didn’t cut down our experience at all. If it were rainy season my answer would be different. I would not want to be in the jungle when its pouring rain for hours on end. No thanks!

We made our way through the dense jungle to the famous lava rock formations. We heard there was a lookout point where we could see the volcano. And while it’s not active right now we were told we could see it. The only thing that was disappointing is that we couldn’t see the cone of the volcano. There was too much cloud cover and the fog was thick.

Arenal Volcano in COsta Rica on a cloudy and misty morning
Arenal Volcano, National Park Arenal, Costa Rica.

Back down the short hike to see the lava rock, we were back on the path where we spotted some Coatis. What are Coatis? Coatis are mammals that are apart of the raccoon family and are only found in Central and South America. I’ve seen them in Tulum Mexico and now here too!

The hike here is not strenuous and all the paths are very gradual. We wore running shoes, shorts and a light jacket to keep dry. We brought our backpacks to hold some snacks, water and camera gear. If I had to bet, I would say it would be OK to bring your kids or elders. Just take your time, watch where you’re walking and take it easy.

As the path twisted and turned, we came to our favorite part of the entire adventure,
El Ceibo. El Ceibo is a 400 year old Ceiba tree at the base of the Volcano Arenal National Park in Costa Rica. You will not believe your eyes if you ever see this tree in person, it is absolutely humongous. It’s so big that it looks fake. It’s roots are two stories high and it’s trunk is about as big as an oil tanker truck, maybe bigger!

Ceiba Tree, Arenal Volcano National Park. March 2019
Ceiba Tree, Arenal Volcano National Park. March 2019

After we finished admiring the Ceiba tree, we had ourselves a few energy bars and some refreshing H2o. The day was still young so we continued to the next trail head that took us back to the entrance. We hoped in the car and headed to the other area of the National Park, the peninsula portion. The fee that is charged at the entrance also granted us access to this area as well. It was a short 10 minute drive over a very bumpy and rocky road. I would not recommend the trip unless you have a 4×4 vehicle or plan on driving very, very, slow.

The peninsula sector had paved paths to walk on, unlike the volcano sector. This hike was not really a hike per say, but a good walk. There was still plenty to see and some of the lookout viewpoints were fantastic. However, I would prefer to be getting lost in the jungle instead. This area was a little too built up for my taste and I couldn’t appreciate the area as much as I would’ve liked to. We did get to see two beautiful Tuscan’s, they were stunning. We also found the lookout tower to be neat, getting great views of Arenal Lake (El Lago). Our time here was a quick 45min and really, that’s all you need. I could see spending about two hours here if you really stopped to take everything in slowly. But, we had somewhere to be!

Alberto’s Horses in La Fortuna! That’s right, we were going to be horseback riding along the jungle tree line, through small villages and across the farmland of central Costa Rica. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you may see that horseback riding has become a trend on our adventures. The last time we went horseback riding was on the beaches of Santorini Greece.

Read: Santorini & Mykonos – The Greek Islands

We arrived at Alberto’s Horses just in time for a quick lunch. First off, let me tell you, this is not your typical tourist attraction. This was an authentic, local and genuine experience. Starting off with a traditional Costa Rican lunch. Grilled BBQ chicken, rice, beans and fried plantations. Alberto’s wife cooked the entire meal herself, from scratch. Muy bein! Our stomachs full and our eyes set on the horizon, we rode through the back gate of Alberto’s farm and into the jungle.

Wild Horses, Costa Rica. March 2019
Wild Horses, Costa Rica. March 2019

I always seem to get the clumsy horse, lucky me I guess! My horse did not want to trot or canter. She also didn’t want to go down this muddy decline section off the trail that went into the river. She took some finesse from me to encourage her to go but finally she went and we were alright. I ended up being towards the back of the pack and Amanda more towards the front but oh well, that’s just how it goes.

As we we trotted through the water I could only think how amazing the scenery looked. But seriously, make sure to watch the video of the horseback riding adventure. You may just want to go for a ride yourself. I wont spoil all the details here but we covered a lot of ground. Our turn-around destination was the La Fortuna waterfall.

La Fortuna Waterfall. March 2019
The La Fortuna Waterfall Costa Rica. March 2019

The picture above was taken from the lookout point as you pass the entrance of the park. There is a $15 to get in and was included in the price of Alberto’s Horseback Riding. Well worth the entrance fee but get ready to feel the pain the next day. Approximately 500 stairs await you and your journey to the bottom. Going down was easier than going up but your legs and lungs really feel it on the way back up. Totally worth the workout when you get down to the bottom. The roar of the falls awaits and you can jump into the fresh water at the base of the waterfall. Careful though, the volcanic rocks are sharp and jetted, I’d highly recommend some water shoes. We took a brief moment to stop and take everything in; the waterfall, the towering trees, the people and the beautiful surrounding.

Traveler Tip: If you want to seemingly have the place to yourself, get there right when the park opens at 8am or right before it closes.

Just around the bend, the waterfall lead to the La Fortuna river filled with moss, flowers and the smells only a jungle could deliver. We stopped to take some photos but it proved to be difficult with so many people around. It’s just not the same with a family of 5 in the background of your photo.

Young woman on the rocks of La Fortuna Waterfall
La Fortuna Waterfall. March 2019

It was time to head back up the 400+ stairs and be on our way to get back to our horses. Our horses look well rested and had a chance to get a quick snack before our journey back. We happened to notice that our next hotel accommodation was on the road we were trekking down, Tifakara Lodge & Birding Oasis.

We ended up going back the same way we came, but just before we reached the farm there was an accident. The rider in front of me fell off her horse! No bueno! Luckily the horse and her were stopped but she landed hard on a few rocks just before entering the river. The sound of her body hitting the rock made me cringe. She was definitely in pain and I knew it right away. I yelled for help and Alberto and his son came rushing.

They were able to assist her to her feet and corral the horse too. She was pretty shaken up but it didn’t seem like she had any broken bones, which was good. I felt terrible for her but an adventure such as this one, you never know what could happen. I hope she had travel insurance, I highly recommend World Nomads! World Nomads is an industry leader in affordable travel insurance, whether its a weekend or a month long journey. They’ve got you covered, literally.

Read: Alberto’s Horse Riding in Costa Rica Review

Now that we knew exactly where we were going for our next night stay, we headed over there in the car to check-in and freshen up before dinner. The boutique hotel looked beautifully lit at night, we couldn’t wait for the next morning to check it out. For dinner, we went to Que Rico off the main road of La Fortuna. The bustling Italian dining area was open concept and the weather was perfect so all the windows and doors were open. Open air dining at its finest.

Amanda was looking muy bueno in her dress and I couldn’t be happier to enjoy a perfect date night with her. We enjoyed a couple of cocktails while waiting for our three course dinner. We highly recommend the Mariachi De Pollo pizza. It was so good! If you’ve got room for dessert, try the triple brownie with vanilla ice cream. Feeling the effects of our food comma, we headed back to Tifakara and spent the last hour or so relaxing while enjoying the sounds of nature.

Day 4 – Whitewater Rafting Balsa River

The next morning we woke up refreshed and relaxed from our slumber. Our bungalo was nestled at the heart of the Arenal Volcano. Our room had a floor to ceiling window which gave us great views of the garden. We started the day off with a made to order breakfast at the lobby of Tifakara. I had a hot cup of tea, fresh fruit and a ham and cheese omelet.

Read More: My full review of Tifakara Boutique Hotel

After breakfast we packed our day bags and headed out the door to be picked up at the hotel lobby by the Arenal Rafting company. Today’s adventure would be wet and wild as we were about to raft down the Balsa River. We got into the Uber and were taken to the Arenal Rafting headquarters where we waited a short time until other parties arrived. Once everybody was checked-in and accounted for, we all hopped on the shuttle buses and began our journey to the upper river. But, not before our first bus broke down. We didn’t let that ruin our spirits though as we got a chance to get off the bus, stretch our legs and take in the Costa Rican sun. It wasn’t long, maybe 20 minutes or so, before another bus was flagging us down and we were able to board.

We arrived about 30 minutes later at the river safe and sound. The staff there had our life jackets, helmets and paddles ready for us as we were assigned group numbers and rafts. I strapped on my GoPro to my helmet and I was ready! Our team was little, but mighty, as we only had four of us in the raft instead of the six that most other rafts had. As Amanda jumped into the raft for the first time I could see it in her eyes that she was slightly nervous but super excited to be trying out a new adventure. This was my second time white water rafting. I had previously done it in the Colorado river ten years ago. I gave her confidence and a couple of quick tips and that’s all she needed. Off we go!

Young women Whitewater Rafting the, Balsa River in Costa Rica
Whitewater Rafting, Balsa River, Costa Rica. March 2019

Before we knew it we were racing down the rapids and getting hit with waves and water left and right. “FORWARD. FORWARD!” as Alejandro our guide shouted from the back of the raft. “GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” he said as we were about to crash hard into the river bank. As we safely made it through the crash and looked back at others crashing, we could only laugh at them while enjoying the moment. The weather was absolute perfect, around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say we got a good farmers tan with our helmets and life jackets.

A little over fifty percent of the way through our adventure, we found a nice sandy spot to stop for some fresh fruit with a few other groups from our party. The fruit was deliciouso! Pineapple, watermelon, kiwi, and melon were on the menu. So good! After our quick stop we headed back in the river. We had one more quick rapid to go and then had a chance to jump off the raft and float down the river until the end. But not before Amanda got her change to “ride the bull”.

Young woman Whitewater Rafting a Class III rapid on the Balsa River in Costa Rica
Whitewater Rafting, Class III, Balsa River. Costa Rica. March 2019

I would highly recommend booking a tour through Arenal Rafting in Costa Rica. The adventure had everything you could want and the tour guides were amazing. When we arrived back at the Arenal Rafting headquarters, we were treated to a splendid lunch featuring the best casado I had on our trip.

Watch the Arenal Rafting Costa Rica GoPro Video Here!

After we arrived back at Tifakara, we washed up and headed right back out the door to the town of La Fortuna. We decided to do a little shopping and browse the local streets. After not finding much, we chose to find a good place to grab a couple of Pina Coloda’s at The Corner Restaurante. We topped off our visit with an order of California sushi rolls and headed back to the hotel for the night.

Day 5 – Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

I don’t think I could ever get sick of waking up to the sounds of birds chirping and the nearby jungle at the Tifakara Boutiqe Hotel. Being so close to the Arenal Volcano and National Park, you could really hear some unique sounds even inside the bungalow.

Tifakara Boutique Hotel pool in La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
Tifakara Boutique Hotel, La Fortuna, Costa Rica. March 2019

Day five of our trip had us in for our biggest adventures yet. Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park in La Fortuna de San Carlos was our first stop of the day.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the family decided to open this natural forest sanctuary to the public, and they hired a company in order to develop the Hanging Bridges of Arenal eco-tourism project, which would allow thousands of people to enjoy the forest’s beauty comfortably and safely in Costa Rica. 

Twelve years later, as per the initial agreement, the development company returned the project to its owners, and the family’s third generation currently manages the nature reserve.

– Mistico Arenal hanging Bridges Park

The trails at Mistico Park Costa Rica stretched for two miles and we noticed only slight elevation changes. While I would recommend going early in the morning to catch more wildlife, we still enjoyed the beautiful flowers and plant life around the park. All of the pathways are paved and have anti-slip concrete poured so its wheelchair accessible. We didn’t bother buying tickets in advanced so we purchased the self-guided tickets from the front office for $52US.

As we wondered down the different paths and throughout the park, the highlights were the six hanging bridges. The park is famous for these bridges and a few of them hung over treetop canopies. It was pleasantly beautiful as we walked across them. I thoroughly enjoyed taking my time walking across them and grabbing as many pictures as I could. Don’t look down though unless you dare. I wondered how safe I was a couple hundred feet above the ground. You could see for miles on this one bridge that overlooked Arenal Lake, it was incredible. Our goal today was to spot some monkeys or a sloth but I think the area was too popular for these mammals. Maybe next time!

Two travelers at the Mistico Arenal National Hanging Bridges Park.
Mistico Arenal National Hanging Bridges Park Costa Rica. March 2019

Overall the park was very quite for the most part which let us enjoy the natural sounds of the jungle.Off the main path and deep down into the jungle some 500 ft away, you could find the Blue Morpho waterfall. A beautiful spot for a nice picture or selfie! It was a great spot to stop and take a breather while taking in the sights and sounds of the waterfall. The waterfall here is small but pretty, almost dainty compared to most others we have seen!

You could find worker ants almost everywhere. One section of path that stretched a couple hundred feet long had thousands of worker ants, all going up the same tree. One by one they marched, usually with something on their back. Did you know ants can carry up to ten times their weight? Crazy! Other insects we spotted were spiders, grasshoppers, and beetles. But, the most dangerous thing we encountered was one of the most famous and venomous snake in all of the Western Hemisphere. The Fer De Lance pit viper snake.

Fer De Lance Pit Viper. Mistico Arenal National Park. Costa Rica.
Fer De Lance Pit Viper. Mistico Arenal National Park. Costa Rica.

Luckily for us the snake was on a branch about 10 feet below the path. I dont like snakes, ever since Indian Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I was happy it would not bother me. Amanda doesn’t like snakes either, but she really hates spiders…

Our journey ended shortly after our snake and spider encounter as we made our way across the last hanging bridge. We took some final pictures of the massive volcano, it had a great view from the visitor center. The clouds seemed to have separate just for us. Most of the morning was cloudy up until this part.

Mistico National Hanging Bridges Park
Mistico National Hanging Bridges Park

From Mistico Park we were to make the long journey around Lake Arenal, through the Costa Rica farmland and in and out of the huge rolling hills. We filled the gas tank and it was time to put the pedal to the metal. It was gorgeous out now, as it really has been the entire trip. I can’t stress how nice it is in the first week of March. The temps hovered around mid-70’s and we only hit spots of rain here and there. It’s said that it was a little more wet than usual in March 2019 but that was better than snow for us!

I will spare some of the details about the drive and just hit the highlights as I could write quite a few more paragraphs about it. Let me tell you, if you do not have four wheel drive, do not make this drive. It was dry season and some of the potholes and road conditions would be absolutely atrocious without 4×4. Luckily our Hyadau Tucson could handle everything we threw at it.

When Amanda and I noticed the road came to a sudden hault and a river ahead, we looked at each other and said “oh my god, no way!!” A local kayak-er noticed our touristy-panicked faces and came up to the window and said “Hola amigos, si, cross the river.”

He seemed a bit intoxicated while asking for our empty water ball for his moonshine to ride along with him in the kayak. I guess that’s one way to do it. As we sat in disbelief for a few moments, he started giving us tips on what to do. We didn’t know if we should believe this random person at the river bedside, but pura vida, right?

He seemed to know what he was talking about. Was this the only way to make it to Monteverede we asked ourselves? The river may look small in the photo but if you watch the video of this crossing, you can get a better idea of the waters current and how deep it was at certain parts. Knowing that it was now or never, we gathered up the strength and decided we needed to get to the other side. It wasn’t an option, we weren’t going back, it was game time.

Hyundai Tucson - Adobe Rent A Car
Hyundai Tucson – Adobe Rent A Car

Not only did we power through the river safely after getting over our nervousness, but we didn’t break anything on the car either! Or worse, we didn’t get stuck. The key with going through water is to always keep moving forward and using your momentum. Once you stop, you are dead in the water, literally.

On the way through the rough terrain we encountered wild horses, bulls, cows and plenty of birds. We went close to an hour and a half before seeing another car pass by. The the roads were so bad, many locals or tourists alike did not want to make the adventure and we don’t blame them. Time after time we kept questioning how people lived like this, so far from civilization. I can’t imagine the terrain in rainy season, which would make things much more difficult.

As we bounced from side to side, crossed a few more streams, made a wrong turn and arrived in the first sign of civilization, we thought it best to grab a snack and some fresh Gatorade to keep us going. The roadside market had a lunch menu and souvenirs inside of it. A cute little place. You wouldn’t have known from the outside but I’m glad we stopped. We picked up a few small souvenirs and hit the road for the last 45 minutes of our journey.

Road signs for the town of Monteverde were starting to pop up. Signage had been very little since we left La Fortuna, that’s probably why we made a wrong turn or two along the way. We decided that the first priority was getting to our next accommodation for the night, Chira Glamping. If you’re not familiar with the newer term “glamping”, please let me explain. Glamping is a way to connect with nature while still having the luxuries of a roof over your head such as a Yurt, Pod, Treehouse or whatever else the creative minds can think of these days. In this case, we would be staying in a yurt! A first for Amanda and I both so we were really excited!

It took some navigating and searching for a tiny sign that pointed up a long, rocky and dirt road heading uphill. The incline was very steep and my off-road experience really helped us along the way. We finally reached the top of the hill, took a slight right and made it to the gate of Chira Glamping. By far the most expensive night that we planned, but we knew it was going to be the perfect place to relax after a long drive.

And man oh man, it did not disappoint. It was an UNREAL experience! I had to pinch myself every half hour to realize where we were, how far we had come in only 5 short days and….what a view we had!

Chira Glamping. Monteverde Costa Rica. March 2019
Chira Glamping. Monteverde Costa Rica. March 2019

Did I mention we had a hot tub and a private deck all to ourselves? Notice the shower? Yes! That’s a shower, out in the open but private, overlooking the Monteverde mountains and valley below. I would explain the rest but its easier if you just take a look at the quick room tour video I made below.

Watch: Chira Glamping Room Tour

Day 6 – Monteverde Cloud Forest

The next day we woke up and made a typical Costa Rican breakfast with the food provided by Chira Glamping. We scrambled some eggs, cut up fresh fruit and enjoyed a serene morning out on the desk. After breakfast we started to pack up our things and leave Chira behind. Our time here was wonderful and I would definitely come here and stay again in the future.

Chira Glamping Sunset View Yurt. Monteverde Costa Rica. March 2019
Chira Glamping Sunset View Yurt. Monteverde Costa Rica. March 2019

We left Chira Glamping and headed to the Monteverde Cloud Forest just a short 15 minutes away. The main cloud forest parking lot is at the bottom of the mountain of Monteverede. You park in the parking lot there and take a quick 5 minute shuttle bus to the entrance. Upon checking out the information booth and paying the $22/each fee per person, we made it past the park ranger gate and starred at our map for a few moments to decide which route we wanted to take. If you are a student from another country, you can present your ID and get in for just $10.

The flora and fauna of the preserve is characterized by four life zones according to the life zone map of Costa Rica (Bolaños, Watson and Tosi 1999). 

The climate of the Monteverde Cloud Forest is what makes this place so unique. Not only are there multiple areas of biodiversity, but climates can change quickly. The cloud forest is strongly influenced by the moisture-saturated air currents that enter the country from the northeast (trade winds). As they ascend the Tilaran Mountain Range, rain forms as it cools to form the low clouds that you see in the forest. Therefore, it makes this area well known for its tropical climate and rain storms most of the year.

Monteverde Cloud Fores. March 2019
Monteverde Cloud Fores. March 2019

The Pacific side or the continental divide is less humid. The dry winds have a strong drying effect, especially in the places that are bereft of vegetative covering. Within the preserve and in the neighboring area to Monteverde and Santa Elena, relatively high precipitation and humidity still exists. In areas where the canopy is more protected from the winds, the forest is at its tallest.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, we are not avid hikers. Don’t get me wrong, we love to take long walks on the beach and see some wildlife, but we were not here to walk until our legs fell off. Joking aside though we chose a few paths that were advised by the park ranger. We planned to be in the cloud forest for 3 hours or so and stuck to our route accordingly. We thought this was an ample amount of time to hike, stop for some pictures and enjoy the day. Picture break!

Monteverde Cloud Forest. March 2019
Monteverde Cloud Forest. March 2019

Some of the highlights of our hike were the overall beauty of the forest and the peace and quiet it brought. We used our inside voices most of the time to not disturb anything around us and see if we could spot some wildlife. At this time of day, early afternoon, there was not much wildlife to be seen, if any. However, the picture-esq view of the continental divide and tree-top canopies were worth it.

Ficus Tree Monteverde Cloud Forest. March 2019
Ficus Tree Monteverde Cloud Forest. March 2019

We hopped on the shuttle to take us back to the parking lot and got in the car to head to our next destination…which was across the street. Selina hostel in Monteverde! We knew it was close to the cloud forest but we didn’t realize that it was right across the street. Can you say convenience?! We checked in with the front desk and were shown to our humble abode for the night.

Read: Monteverde Cloud Forest – Full Overview

If you’re keeping track, this is our second stop at a Selina hostel. I was very impressed with Selina La Fortuna and Selina Monteverede did not disappoint either. You can join in on the free-spirited-nature or nomadic lifestyle of those who choose to stay here or you can use it as a cheap alternative to have a nice roof over your head for the night. Selina La Fortuna and Selina Monteverede were only $65 for the teepee tent and the private room (respectively). Although, you could choose to stay in a dorm for much cheaper and as low as $9 per night.

After putting down our bags and surveying the room and property grounds, we quickly realized we were starving from our hike. We had a quick mini-photo shoot in front of Selina, with their amazing statue man, and headed back into town.

Selina Hostel Monteverde
Selina Hostel Monteverde

We did some googling to find a restaurant in the area for a late lunch and put the address in our GPS. After circling the block a few times looking for the restaurant, we realized we kept passing Sabor Tico up because it was on the second level, inside a strip mall. We parked the car where we could see it and found a lovely spot near the balcony where we could sit and enjoy the remaining hours of sunshine. We both decided to order a casado as we’ve had good luck with them and they were cheap! It was delicious!! We had so much food leftover that we had enough for a snack later that day. I think we spent about $25 for two large chocolate milkshakes and two casados and a little extra tip for the waiter.

Sabor Tico Monteverde. Casado
Sabor Tico Monteverde. Casado

After our meal we headed to this super tiny bakery across the street for some sweet morning treats. When I say super tiny, I mean the size of a American walk-in closet. Tiny! We knew we were not provided breakfast in the morning at Selina so we though we would grab something now.

The day was not over just yet as we had one more adventure planned for the evening. It was the Jungle N’ Coffee Night Tour! From reading a whole bunch of different blogs and reviews, we knew we had to do a night tour. I was skeptical and to be honest, a little on edge about it. Amanda was all for it and I’m glad she pushed me into doing it. I guess I was a little skeptical because you never know what could happen . Not only do you have to worry about the king of the jungle Jaguar, but the venomous snakes, frogs and spiders too. I hate snakes. I’ll say it again, I HATE SNAKES! There, I said it…

Located just outside of Monteverede in the Guanacaste Provinc, the Coffee’N Jungle Night Tour was a fantastic experience. In fact, it might’ve been one of the highlights of our entire trip. Junior was enthusiastic the entire tour and shared every bit of knowledge he had about coffee, chocolate and the surrounding landscape. I’ve never been a coffee drinker but I feel like I’m a coffee connoisseur now and Junior made it fun. The tour consisted of a few different parts. First you learned how coffee is grown, how it is processed and then how it’s made. Next was a quick lesson on how chocolate comes from coffee and you get to sample some pieces. The end of the tour concluded with the jungle night walk which was very entertaining to say the least. I’m not going to spoil all the details in the blog, so just watch the video below.

Day 7 – Monteverde Ficus Tree & Jaco Beach

The very next morning we packed our bags and ate our pastries on the run. We had one more famous spot to stop at in Monteverde, The Ficus Tree.

The Ficus Tree - Monteverde
The Ficus Tree – Monteverde

If you didn’t notice me half way up the tree, look again! This tree is massive and unlike any of the other beautiful tree’s we’ve seen on our trip. The tree basically stems from three tree’s and combines into a giant one. And, because of the way the tree grows you can actually climb inside of it. I went up as far as I was comfortable going and it was an experience like no other. Remember when you were a kid and got to climb through tree houses, boxforts or jungle gyms. This was it!! It was awesome and made me feel like a kid again. Amanda and I had fun taking photos and taking turns climbing the tree. I would plan to stay here around 45 minutes to one hour.

We hiked back up the short 5 minute trail back to the Tucson and entered Playa Jaco into our GPS. We would be leaving the mountains and lakes behind for the ocean. The journey would be another three hour road trip but we planned to make a couple stops along the way. The scenery was beautiful coming down from the mountains and switch-backing our way to a much lower elevation. After coming down from the mountain wenoticed paved roads, thank god! There was also more to look at; plenty of trees, vegetation and farmland to catch a glimpse of. The weather was perfect again, around 70F.

One of the stops along the way was Crocodile Bridge.

Crocodile Bridge Costa Rica. March 2019
Crocodile Bridge Costa Rica. March 2019

Most of these crocs were of good size and I couldn’t believe how many of them there were. If I had to guess, there were at least 20-25 you could see at any given time. The bridge was quite crowded with tourists taking pictures and videos. And while that wasn’t really an issue, I was surprised that this is where the crocs hung out. There were some roadside shops selling goods and pop up tents near the bridge. I wondered if somebody doesn’t feed the crocs so they stick around, aka tourist trap. Nonetheless it was an awesome sight to see and I’m glad we took the time to stop and admire them.

Amanda drove the rest of the way as I was getting pretty tired and needed a break. At this point we were only an hour away from Jaco Beach and I couldn’t wait to hit the ocean. It’s unusual for me that I hadn’t made it to the ocean yet. This was the second to last day of our trip and I was just now getting there. There is just something about the tropical atmosphere that calls to me, so a lot of my travels consist of being at the beach.

It was early afternoon now and a scorching 93 degrees out. We found our next hotel, Selina Jaco Beach. Yes, that’s right, another Selina hostel. This was the third one in a week! Selina Jaco Beach has great waves and even better vibes. But, while it was located right on the beach, the rooms and amenities were lacking.

We checked in and got a quick tour of the property grounds and were led to our room. The room was dark, musty and hot. We immediately turned on the air conditioner and changed into our bathing suits. We passed the bar and restaurant on the way to the oceanfront. I tip-toed across the hot sand as my feet felt like they were on fire. Only to drop my things on the beach as I started to run to the ocean. There was no looking back, as I was waiting for this moment all week. The first look and dip into the ocean. The beach was very wide, beautiful and tucked in Jaco’s cove.

Jaco Beach Costa Rica. March 2019
Jaco Beach Costa Rica. March 2019

Sitting on a beach towel, hardly anybody around, I felt relaxed and had no worries on where we needed to be later that day. This was it, beach bumming for the next 24 hours, pure bliss.

It was Friday and I was expecting it to be more crowded. Maybe it was too hot? I mean, it was very hot and if you weren’t wearing layers or sunscreen, you were burning in 15 minutes. Maybe the locals were smarter than us, that’s a possibility. We spent the afternoon tanning and frolicking in the ocean anyways and enjoyed the beach, seemingly, to ourselves.

The sun did start taking a toll on us after awhile. So, we decided it was best to grab some food and shade for a little bit. There was a perfect spot at the oudoor/indoor tiki bar where we had a couple of pina coladas. I would say this was the drink of the trip, as I’ve ordered them on a few occasions. We also ordered a snack to hold us over until dinner while we enjoyed the atmosphere and ambiance of Selina.

The beach started to get more crowded as the sun was close to setting. It was confirmed. Locals are smart, as they shaded themselves during the hottest part of the day and they came out for the fiestas and festivities when the sun started to set. Selina had a huge pool and a hot tub. So, we chilled there for a little bit before returning to the beach for sunset.

The sunset was absolutely gorgeous. The sun was brighter here than I’ve ever seen it. The colors in the sky were indescribable and pictures don’t do it justice, but I tried.

Jaco Beach Costa Rica Sunset & Surfers. 2019
Jaco Beach Costa Rica Sunset & Surfers. 2019

After sunset we headed out for a night on the town. We walked up and down the main street of Jaco. It’s a vibrant and lively atmosphere with an interesting crowd. The street was lined with restaurants and bars. Oh, and don’t forget your typical tourist souvenir shops. Our mission was to find some of the best local eats and enjoy some live music.

We found the perfect spot at Green Room Cafe Bar. The bar had really good drinks as we waited to be seated. The wait was long and surely that was a good sign for what was to come. We ended up getting a table shortly after finishing our drinks and ordered two plates of ribs. Usually I’m the first to take a picture of my food to remember what I ate. But this time, my taste buds did the remembering. The ribs were so tender and delicious, it was a perfect choice.

As we finished our meal, a local band was setting up in the corner. They played covers from Sublime, Green Day and Dave Mathews, along with other pop culture songs of the 90’s and early 2000’s. We walked off our plate of food admiring the bright neon signs along the strip and headed in for the night. It was getting pretty late. We knew we wanted to wake up at a decent time the next morning to walk along the beach one last time.

We arrived back at Selina Jaco to a freezing room so we had to crack a window. It was a good thing we were exhausted from the day because the bed was not comfortable at all. Overall, while the room accommodations were not anything special, it was the price to pay for being right on the beach. If I had to do it again, I would stay here but not any longer than one night.

Day 8 – Leaving Paradise

The next morning I popped out of bed to fly my drone. I got some great footage of Jaco Beach and the surrounding landscape, such a beautiful place. My favorite time to fly is in the early morning when nobody else is around and I get to just relax. Sometimes being a drone operator can be quite hectic when there are a lot of people around and those that are wondering what you are doing and asking questions. I’m always trying to stay under the radar when I’m flying so I have full concentration.

Jaco Beach Costa Rica.
Jaco Beach Costa Rica.

After my flight I headed back to the room to see if Amanda was up yet and she was up! We headed back to the beach for one last walk along the coast before we had to pack up and start heading towards the airport in San Jose. It was a beautiful sunrise, with birds chirping and a slight ocean breeze. Many people were not out yet and it was more enjoyable to get all the sights and sounds to ourselves. Sorry, not sorry!

Our bags were packed and we made our way with our luggage back to the main street where our Tucson was parked. I want to take a minute to say how surprised the smaller Hyundai 4×4 held up. It really handled everything we threw at it and then some. It had plenty of space, just enough tech, cloth seats, AC and enough power for the mountains and highways. If you’re traveling to Costa Rica soon, I highly recommend booking Adobe Rent-A-Car through my referral link. Here you will enjoy a 10% off discount!

As we made our way back to the airport, we enjoyed the hot Costa Rican sun with the windows down and music turned up. We couldn’t have imagined a more perfect time in Costa Rica. There were high hopes before we arrived and we are leaving with high hopes of coming back one day. We know there is a lot more of Costa Rica to see as we just scratched the surface. I would really like to hit the East coast on the Caribbean Sea. Until next time, over and out navigators!

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4 Responses to “The Ultimate Central Costa Rica Road Trip

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  • Navigator Nick :

    […] The country is lively, amazing, organic, genuine and heartwarming. Over the last few years Costa Rica is becoming increasingly popular and I want you to experience it first hand. I traveled to Costa Rica in March of 2019 and it was an adventure I will never forget. Read my day to day journey for trip ideas, places to stop and itinerary. […]

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