Costa Rica - or ‘Costly Tour Rica’ as it should be called would be our gamble over the Amazon to do some wildlife spotting. We planned just over 2 weeks to travel around the country before flying back out of San Jose to Miami. Sloths and Scarlet Macaws were highest on the wish lists.
We arrived into the capital, San Jose without much of an itinerary or to be honest much of an idea of where was best to visit. The country has many popular attractions on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. After a bit of outside help from people we had met in South America we decided that beaches weren’t top of our agenda as we wanted to get as much wildlife in as possible so decided to do a loop from San Jose that incorporated the National Parks on the Pacific coastline.
We had been warned that Costa Rica was pretty expensive but hadn’t really taken much notice as anything more than a fiver is expensive to most backpackers. However we were fairly shocked when we started to look into transport options, with $54 each quoted to get from San Jose to our first stop in La Fortuna - only a couple of hours away!
We decided to try the local bus up to La Fortuna and headed to the 7-10 terminal in the city to catch the bus from there. As with most bus stations, the 7-10 terminal is in a slightly sketchy area so we took an uber from our hostel for just a few dollars. The gamble paid off, although the local bus took about 5 hours (it was painful stopping every few yards to collect/drop people) it was about $5 each opposed to £54 for the private shuttle. A no brainer for any budget conscious backpacker.
La Fortuna is a small town famed for being on the foothills of the huge Arenal Volcano (dormant since 2006) which can be seen from most places in the town - although rarely the very top as its always cloudy. We chose to do a volcano hike through a tour operator rather than go it alone as we couldn’t seem to get a clear answer on how to do it ourselves. We stumped up the $55 each and set off the following day.
The tour started with a couple of hours hike up and through some primary rainforest at the base of Arenal before ending up at the Arenal Observatory. On the way we were lucky enough to see our second toucan, a Chestnut billed and also an anteater sleeping in a tree. Unfortunately the afternoon rainy season downpour put an end to any chance of a sunset view of the volcano and we headed off to the natural hot springs.
Now, I’m no fan of spas and thermal baths and all that stuff so I wasn’t particularly excited about the ‘free’ hot springs that would make the last stop on the days tour. I was even less excited turning up already soaked to the bone and having to walk from the van barefooted over the road and down a track to the springs in the pitch black (we are in the jungle after all). On arrival at the ‘springs’ I couldn’t help but laugh at the site - picture a concrete culvert covered in graffiti coming from under a road bridge with a small drop off into a ‘pool’ and thats what we had! Sure, the water was warm enough, but there were far too many people in the river/sewer and the current constantly had the gravel going into your shorts with the occasional leaf/branch that could easily have been a snake (or a turd) in the darkness. Half of me was expecting Master Splinter and Michelangelo to come waltzing out with a pizza for us all it was that ghetto.
Its safe to say I’m still not convinced on the whole ‘relaxation’ side to life.
One thing that appealed to us both in La Fortuna was to do a night tour to spot some wildlife, namely the many species of frogs that Costa Rica is home to. With the nightly frog tours coming in around the $50 mark we discovered that a local hotel offered half price night tours if you stayed in one of their lodges. After realising that the lodge/half price tour combo was the same cost as the full price tour/hostel combo we decided to go for a night of luxury at the ‘Arenal Oasis Lodge’. The lodge itself was really nice and made a great change to our 6 bed dorm, even if there was a bloody great big hairy spider on the back of the door!
The night tour lasted around 2 hours and we spotted 16 species of frog, including the famous red footed tree frog and the ‘blue jean’ poison dart frog. We also saw many lizards, a huge gecko and a couple of snakes. The only bad thing about the tour was that it was mainly around our cabin so it was a little hard to sleep after knowing what was all around us…
To get to our next stop, the cloud forest region of Monteverde, we chose to take the expensive transfer option which was made up of a bus-boat-bus that crossed the Arenal lake ($25 each). The spectacular views of the volcano not viewable from the road being the main reason to shell out the extra cash. We stayed at the hostel/b&b vista al golfo ($29/night) just on the outskirts of town which wasn’t too bad, but not particularly good either!
One of the things the hostel wasn’t so good at was providing correct information on how to get to the nearby Monteverde cloud forest reserve. The ‘info’ flyer given to us at check-in provided local bus times to the reserve, something we were keen to hop on for around $1 each way. We decided the 9am bus was our best bet. Just as we were heading out I thought I’d double check where the bus stop was only to be told that the 9am bus doesn’t run in low season, the next bus would be 1:30pm! Annoyed at the wrong info provided we asked about a taxi, to be told a taxi would be in the region of $6. Nevertheless we headed into town and enquired at the taxi rank (one man and a red pick up) only then to be told $12!! Some big windows in Costa Rica thats for sure! As there was no way we were going to be ripped off like that we decided to walk the 6km to the reserve instead, mostly uphill in near 30 degree heat and jungle humidity! Great decision!
On arrival to the cloud forest we paid our entry fees (£15 each) and set off on a long loop of the parks many trails that the helpful man at the visitor centre said should take around 3-4 hours.
The visitor trails only take up something like 4% of the reserve so we weren’t holding our breaths on spotting much wildlife in the thick primary forest. We were right. Over the next few hours we wandered up and down the windy trails spotting only a handful of birds and small lizards.
You can’t really be disappointed though as the protected cloud forest offered enough dramatic scenery to keep us occupied for the entire hike. As people say, it’s not a zoo so you can’t blame the animals for staying clear of the hundreds of dslr pointing tourists walking around their home.
We were spared the 6km walk back to town by catching the return local bus, choosing to get off just outside of town where the friendly visitor centre man had tipped us off about a corner where ‘many’ sloths hang out. After half an hour or so of stretching our necks looking up into the trees we gave up on ‘sloth corner’ and headed home.
One place where we had been told we would definitely see Costa Rica’s best animals was Manual Antonio National park about half way down the Pacific coast. To reach the small town of Quepos from where you access the park we avoided the $55 shuttle (must be a set price for wherever you want to go) and caught the 5:30am bus from Monteverde first to Punta Arenas (3 hours - £2) then another bus from there to Quepos (3 hours - £3.30). To make the last leg we shared a taxi from Quepos town centre to the ‘Selina Hostel’ with a couple who were also on the bus for 3000 pesos - just under £4 between us - whole trip coming in at under £4 each, against a £43 shuttle!
The Selina hostel, a chain operating throughout central America looked pretty swish in the photos and didn’t disappoint in the flesh. The place was huge, seemingly made up of lots of former two story villas converted into dorms/private rooms - we went for the budget friendly 10 person dorm for around $17 each per night. The hostel also boasted 3 swimming pools as well as a pool table for me to thrash George on.
The park was roughly 3km away and being in the walking mood we set off before 7am the next day to give ourselves the best chance of spotting some animals (if we didn’t see a sloth we could be out of options!) The park entrance was another £11 (8250 pesos) and again was made up of numerous trails, however this park was a lot smaller and also had a couple of long sandy beaches to cool off on.
Shortly into the walk I managed to spot a sloth snoozing high in a tree, however we both weren’t satisfied with a sub standard sighting and soldiered on. Our first proper wildlife sighting was a group of white faced Capauchin monkeys up in the trees right about us, probably around 10-15 in total - it took a while to persuade George that we had to move on.
After maybe another hour or so taking in a couple of different trails with only a few crabs and scary looking vultures we were heading up some steps to a lookout point when I heard an excited whisper of ‘geeeek’! Sure enough I turned around see George almost in tears behind me pointing up around 15 feet into the trees at a three toed sloth hanging upside down eating his dinner. The sight of ‘Stevie Sloth’ was a welcomed one and the only negative I can think of is I didn’t spot him first for the bragging rights! We spent a good while watching Stevie before heading off to the look out knowing we would be coming back the same way for another look later on - it was unlikely he would get far if he did choose to move!
Sure enough Stevie was still there chomping away on our return and from then on the ‘Sloth gates’ had opened and we spotted another 7 or so the rest of the day, including the smaller two toed sloth as well.
As nice as the two beaches in the park were, nobody could truly relax on them due to the loitering of packs of monkeys and racoons up and down the beach ready to go into your backpacks the minute they were left unattended. A result no doubt of people feeding them which is a shame.
After our successful day, and desperate for punishment we again walked the 3km back to the hostel, forgetting how much of it would be uphill! After losing about half our bodies water we arrived back a sweaty mess, but a whole 40p better off for not taking the bus! Idiots!
We had a few other plans for the next couple of days but instead chose to simply sit by the pool and enjoy the weather instead, giving us time to do some much needed planning for the upcoming trip to the USA.
Corcovado National Park & Drake Bay
Our last stop in Costa Rica would be down to the lesser travelled area of Drake Bay, to visit Corcovado National Park.
Getting down there is not straightforward, with a number of buses required and finally a boat to reach the bay itself. We had been tipped to stay at ‘Finca Maresia’ by our Dutch friends in Iguassu, and after a few emails had arranged with Juan the host that we would be on the 11am boat from Sierpe to Drake bay. With this in mind we went for the convenient
A vdand fast option of a shuttle service from Quepos to Sierpe for the costly sum of $45 each.
The boat out to Drake, another $15 each ($20 if you take the afternoon one) was one of the scariest boat rides of our lives…..surpassed only by the next one. The first 20 minutes or so was spent powering along a huge wide calm river which was quite nice to be fair. The trouble started when the mouth of the river met the open sea, with the waves breaking higher than the height of the boat. I shit myself, it was horrible. Even after we had got out into the open sea the swell was massive and travelling parallel to the waves was not an experience either of us enjoyed! Thankfully we made it to shore in one piece to be greeted by Juan and his battered old people carrier. We just pulled into the lodge as the heavens opened, an absolute monsoon that lasted until the next morning cutting short any activities we had planned on our first day.
The lodge itself was amazing. Our rooms we spotlessly clean, the huge balcony on the main lodge building over looking the gardens was an unexpected treat to sit and watch the wildlife fly past, including my one big aim of Scarlet Macaws which were conveniently nesting in the huge tree at the back of the property. We stayed 3 nights there in total, 2 nights in the cheapest $45 a night room and 1 night in a nicer $60 a night room, complete with a private terrace and hammocks. The lodge also offered a 3 course dinner with the other guests each night for $18 each, something we only did once for budget reasons.
Our first non rainy day in Drake we had wanted to travel out to a far beach via a quad taxi and then walk back however the previous days rain had apparently washed away the road so instead we set off from the lodge to the nearby beaches reached by hiking along a jungle/coastal path. After a couple of hours at the beach we set off back and decided to stop for a packed lunch on a beach we passed along the way and were rewarded by a pair of Scarlet Macaws feeding in the trees not 20 feet away from us, a fantastic sight.
Our love of all things wild quickly turned though as walking back along the trail we encountered a pack of teeth baring White faced monkeys far too close for comfort. George panicked and ran back to the beach, with the biggest monkey chasing after her. I quickly followed to try and stop any attack (wearing only swimming trunks and flip flops) and after passing the culprit monkey he then decided to try and intimidate me as well. After checking George was ok, I quickly donned the hiking boots and rain coat for better protection (aka to kick the little bastards if they tried again) and we waited a few minutes for them to lose interest before we set off again. The whole incident sounds a little comical but it actually was quite scary.
The following day was our big splurge. We had decided long ago that we wanted to visit the Corcovado National Park while we were here as its remote location means its one of the best locations in Costa Rica for spotting wildlife. To reach the park however you need to take a 1 hour 15 minute boat from hell along the coast, made worse by heavy rain along the way. On arrival at the remote beach all we could think about was the journey back it was that terrifying. To put it into context, there was a huge rainbow AND a pod of spotted dolphins swimming next to the boat and Georgina couldn't bring herself to look at either!
As we headed off into the wilderness for our day hike our journey was quickly put behind us with the sight of a spider monkey in the trees above us. One of many we would see throughout the day. I can’t really explain how remote the place felt, George likened the scenery on the way in to something out of Jurassic Park and I agreed, any second I expected a curious Diplodocus to pop his head out from the trees….instead only seeing the tall German sat in front of me.
Over the course of the day we saw more animals than we can remember, including all four monkey species native to Costa Rica (howler, squirrel, white face and spider), Macaws, crocodiles, ant eaters, tapirs, all sorts of insects and bugs, the list goes on. Sadly no Jaguars though, even our guide Javier admitting that he had never even seen one.
The return boat was not half as bad so we managed to enjoy it a little more and reflect on a great day. The tour was $90 each which although expensive on our budgets isn’t really a lot to pay to visit one of the worlds most remote rainforests.
Sadly we couldn’t stay at Juans forever and had to take the boat back the next day to Sierpe, spotting another croc in the river along the way. Spent out from our day tour we caught the local bus back to San Jose for around £7 each to spend one last night before flying out the following day.
We flew from San Jose with budget airline ‘Spirit’ who conveniently don’t add the export tax into their flight price meaning we had to pay another $28 each before they would even let us in the queue for check in. Its fair to say i was not a happy bunny getting on that flight!
Despite the sky high tour and travel costs we both massively enjoyed our time in Costa Rica and were quite proud that we managed to keep the costs down as best we could where possible. The country is a weird one, and I bet if we were to back in 10 years it would be unrecognisable, probably for the worse! Go now before its too late!