I went to Costa Rica in 2017 with my dad (Yakpacker Sr.) and we had an incredible experience! We stayed in San Jose and did a series of various day trips from there, using Go! Tours Costa Rica, which very good.
San José is a pleasant and mostly walk-able capital city, and it makes a good base for further exploration. We stayed at the Park Inn (just west of the city center), a solid mid-range option. The Central Market is a hub of activity, offering all kinds of produce and artisan products. The Metropolitan Cathedral sits at the center of town and is surrounded by parks and plazas, forming a buzz of activity throughout the day. On the eastern end of town is the National Museum (full disclosure — I didn’t go here, but it looked noteworthy, so it will be on my list for next time). We ate at La Muny — a no-frills restaurant that had a biker-bar feel to it, and was quite popular throughout the day — and well into the night. The food was outstanding — especially the Chifrijo — a dish of carnitas pork, pico de gallo, rice, beans, avocado, and lime, with spicy red sauce on top. Everyone should try this while visiting Costa Rica!
Note: some areas of the city are known for crime, so take basic precautions after dark– and ask your hotel’s front desk to arrange a cab if you’re uncertain about going somewhere.
Britt Coffee Tour
As someone who is rarely seen without a coffee cup in hand, I signed us up for a tour of a coffee farm just north of San Jose. The Britt Coffee tour was geared to tourists, but it provided an informative and entertaining overview of how to grow, harvest, and cook coffee. They kept the tour active and funny– and I got to participate in a coffee-tasting class. (We tried nosing it first, but I couldn’t pick up any notes except for coffee : ) The gift shop had as much free coffee as you want to try, but be careful not to overdo it! After trying several taster cups of every delicious coffee variety they had — and some espresso– I went into caffeine overdose mode: my heart rate was surging and it felt like everything was moving in fast-forward. Yikes!
For another day trip, we took a tour of the Sloth Sanctuary near the city of Limon, on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast. Nobody else was on the tour that day, so we ended up having a private trip with our driver guide, who was friendly and offered first-class service. He maintained his winsome attitude even as we got stuck in traffic on the way back (and the day trip ended up being over 13 hours!) We drove through vibrant rainforests, winding our way through clouds, mist, and around cliff walls covered in lush vegetation. We also drove by seemingly endless fields of bananas and pineapples, until we came to the Atlantic coast, where cargo boxes marked “Dole” and “DelMonte” were loading them onto freighter ships. We stopped in a village to grab a bite to eat, and then drove through downtown Limon, a pleasant town on the coast. Having seen these companies’ stickers my whole life in the grocery stores, it was neat to see them being grown at their source.
We eventually reached the Sloth Sanctuary, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned sloths — both the two and three-toed varieties. In addition to touring around and seeing the sloths, they provided an educational overview of their lifestyle, why they move slowly (to conserve energy), their mating habits, and their strengths (they have a powerful grip and razor-sharp claws).
The sanctuary also owns a large section of rainforest and part of the tour involved a boat tour through a jungle river where was saw tropical birds, caiman, and mud crabs, as well as a few additional wild sloths and howler monkeys hanging in the trees overhead. One interesting thing we saw was the Achiote — a shrub that produces furry red pods containing several red seeds. When crushed, the seeds produce a thick red paint that is often used as a natural dye.
Cahuita National Park — and nearby beaches
After leaving the Sloth sanctuary, we headed to Cahuita Restaurant and Hotel on a beautiful white sand beach, where we ate lunch on the sand, under the shade of a large, exotic tree. We had fried plantains, chicken, and rice, covered in delicious hot sauce. (As a sauce fiend, I overdid it on the spice!) They also offered fresh-squeezed guava and mango juices. It was such a pleasant atmosphere I could’ve stayed there all day– but we eventually moved on and our guide took us for a hike in the nearby rainforest of the Cahuita National Park, where we saw some sloths and several beautiful birds. Before returning home, we stopped at a gorgeous black sand beach, which was another spot I could’ve stayed at all day long! Overall, this was my favorite day-trip in Costa Rica.
The next day, we intended to take a canopy tour in the rainforest but it was cancelled at the last minute (as the canopy carts were apparently broken). Instead, we opted for a zipline course through the rainforest (I believe it was in the Braulio Carrillo National Park, which offered great views– but at a much faster speed!) While hiking through the forest, we saw a scorpion and several huge bullet ants, which are known for their fierce sting.
When we were finished with our tour, we stopped at a restaurant to have coffee and suddenly, two huge tapers came out of the rainforest and started nosing around the kitchen. That was definitely a first for me!
Afterwards, we took another short hike in another section of rainforest, which was capped off by a relaxing boat ride down the river. We had freshly-picked pineapple, which — even for someone who doesn’t normally opt for pineapple — was warm, juicy and delicious!
Something for Next Time: I can’t wait to get back to Costa Rica and climb around the Arenal Volcano as well as the Hanging Bridges Park. I’ll also prioritize a trip to the Pacific Coast, especially the Corcovado National Park or the beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park. Maybe I’ll even get to that National History Museum in San Jose…