Costa Rica travel guide

A teeny frog sits in between two leaves

My mini-travel guide to Lisbon seemed to go down well, so I thought I’d put together another mini-travel guide – this time to Costa Rica. I recently spent a week travelling around the Central American country and this is my mini-guide to the friendly, wildlife haven that’s been voted the happiest place on earth (sorry Disneyland!).

In brief

Costa Rica is home to a number of very different landscapes and it’s worth travelling around the country to get a flavour of the contrasting environments. From volcanoes to rainforests, cloud forests and idyllic beaches, there are lots of diverse landscapes to explore. It also boasts an abundance of wildlife, with five per cent of the world’s species calling the country home. On top of that, there are activities galore (think zip lining, white water rafting, snorkelling, mountain biking, and so on), which means you’ll never be short of things to do.

Arenal

Arenal Volcano

Dominated by the magnificent Arenal Volcano (above), which slumbers peacefully in the background, the Arenal region is home to some great hiking trails. It was here I saw my first sloth (albeit so far up a tree I could barely make it out), venomous snakes and a turkey-like bird. I also heard howler monkeys and cicadas for the first time.

A small orange frog on a large green leaf at night

Do try some of the activities while you’re here – I visited a couple of hiking trails in the national park, and tried my hand at horse riding (loved it) and mountain biking (hated it).

The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is fantastic – there are so many species of birds, insects and flora to see, plus there are fantastic views from the bridges high above the ground.

Also do not leave without paying a visit to one of the hot springs around the town, they make blissfully relaxing use of the thermal waters. Sipping a pina colada in the bubbling hot waters was the perfect way to soothe my aching muscles after a day of hiking and horse riding.

And if you get a chance to go on an evening frog hunt, do – the many species of frog are super cute.

Monteverde

The lush, dense cloud forest at Monteverde

Cloud forest country high up in the mountains, Monteverde is an excellent place for hiking and I saw lots of wildlife here, including howler and capuchin monkeys, more snakes and frogs, and lots of unusual birds and insects.

Do take part in a night-time safari through the forest if you can – it’s fantastic. I saw toucans sleeping high in the trees, tarantulas and even an armadillo!

Mural of people picking coffee berries at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Monteverde is also coffee country and I joined a coffee tour at El Trapiche to: find out how they farm coffee, sugar cane and chocolate; have a go at making sweets; and try the best coffee I’ve ever tasted (and as someone who hates coffee that’s saying something).

Do have a go at zip lining in Monterverde, too – it was terrifying, but great fun once I got over the whole ‘Oh-dear-God-I’m-100ft-high-in-a-tree-with-nothing-but-a-rope-to-stop-me-plummeting-to-the-ground’ thing.

Manuel Antonio

One of the idyllic golden sandy beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

Situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Manuel Antonio is home to lots of picture-perfect beaches. It was also the most touristy place I visited. I toured the national park where I came face-to-face with more capuchin monkeys, raccoons, more sloths (including a mother and baby), lizards and crabs. I also took a boat trip out to the Pacific Ocean where I went snorkelling – and got stung by tons of miniature jelly fish.

Weather

A waterfall by the roadside in Costa Rica

There’s rain, there’s Welsh rain and then there’s Costa Rican rain. If you’re planning to go to Costa Rica and stay dry, think again – it’s nigh on impossible. I ended up skin-soakingly wet at least once a day during my week-long stay because when it rains, it really rains and it’s far too hot and humid for sweaty waterproofs. Umbrellas are no match against the fierce onslaught of rain either. There’s also no point trying to wait it out as the torrential downpours go on and on and on…

You’re far better embracing the rain and accepting you’re going to get wet, repeatedly, no matter what. The only problem is, it’s so humid it’s almost impossible to dry your clothes and after a few days, everyone’s damp clothes start to pong. Thankfully, the hotel laundry services are a lifesaver – unless you want a super stinky suitcase, make liberal use of their services.

Food

Ceviche with tortilla chips

There’s nothing hugely remarkable about Costa Rican food, but it is good and if like me you love fish and fruit, you’ll be very happy. I ate a ridiculous amount of ceviche (above)  – it’s on the menu at a lot of restaurants and that irresistible mix of raw fish, lime juice, chilli and coriander with a helping of tortilla chips on the side was a winner every time.

Casados is a Costa Rican staple, a mix of grilled meat or fish served with rice, refried beans, vegetables such as plantain, and salad. I often ate this for lunch and it was consistently good – but be warned it’s very filling, so definitely not a light lunch. Fruit is also abundant – ripe, juicy watermelon, pineapple and banana were all in season when I visited.

Cactus flower ice cream

Do try the local coffee, the local sugar cane spirit, and if you can find it, cactus flower ice cream (above) – it’s a vivid pink colour. Sounds weird but tastes delicious.

Be warned sometimes the food combinations are a little odd. In the first restaurant we visited I ordered tea with milk – which turned out to be a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it. Not quite what I was expecting. I also ordered some vegetable nachos at a restaurant in Arenal. I was expecting the usual combination of tortilla chips with tomatoes, guacamole, cheese and sour cream, and instead got nachos with boiled carrots, broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. It was edible, if bizarre.

What to pack

  • Loose cotton trousers – these were useful when I was hiking in the jungle and helped shield my skin from the pesky mosquitoes
  • Waterproof shoes – given the constant downpours, these came in super handy
  • Hiking shoes – there are lots of hiking trails through the jungles and good footwear is essential
  • Insect repellent – in all likelihood you’ll get bitten anyway, but it’s worth spraying yourself silly regardless
  • Hand sanitiser – the traveller’s best friend for those inevitable visits to soap-free bathrooms
  • A good camera – I was really glad I took my long-lens camera, it came in especially handy when trying to get photos of the wildlife (sloths, monkeys) high in the trees

Have your say

Have you been to Costa Rica? If so, and you have any comments or suggestions about what to see and do there, please leave them in the comments below.

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8 thoughts on “Costa Rica travel guide

  1. Costa Rica had never been on my radar, but it sounds like my sort of place – hiking trails and abundant wildlife! Not so sure about those jellyfish though… Cactus flower ice cream sounds curious, does it have a distinctive taste of its own or bear some resemblance to other, more common ice cream flavours?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was very different to anywhere else I’ve been (I’m a sucker for anywhere with a castle or old buildings). But I loved it, it was so much fun! The cactus flower ice cream was unusual but it didn’t have a particularly distinctive flavour. I’d describe it as pleasant and fruity, but I can’t say it reminded me of any other fruits.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Worth going out of your comfort zone for it, then! I’d love to see somewhere with diverse landscapes like that – jungles, volcanoes, beaches, the whole shebang. Interesting, I would never have expected a floral-flavoured ice cream to taste fruity!

        Liked by 1 person

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