This trip could have had two completely different outcomes, but we lucked out with choosing a week that was full of sunshine and minimal roadblocks due to the nice weather.
My husband, Hans, and I found an incredible flight deal with Alaska Airlines back in April that we could not walk away from. Our roundtrip, direct flights were a little over $65 per person and only ten thousand Alaska miles each. It was a steal as were the unbelievable deals we found with our chosen hotels.
We usually book our trips during low season which means rainy or cooler weather for most countries. It is definitely a gamble, but the reward is well worth the risk. You can score discounted flights, amazing hotel deals, and car rentals that cost about a third of what they normally would in high season. It also feels as though you have the entire place to yourself- no lines and no crowds- which is highly-coveted among travelers across the globe looking for ways to explore destinations without the hassle and frustration of navigating through a sea of tourists in their way.
Does it rain? It sure does, but we have lucked out so far with our trips. From what we have experienced with traveling in a country’s low season, it will rain for about an hour or so and then it is back to business as usual. I am not sure if it is luck or if that is how it normally is with the weather.
I had fun planning this road trip out! Here is how it looked on the map:
It was a little over 600 miles of driving which comprised mainly of some extremely rugged roads and the occasional one-lane bridge. The main highways were nicely paved, but the little guys… I’d worry about those little guys.
We thought we were going to get stuck multiple times but had already committed to the steep, one-way roads. Turning around was NOT an option we had in those situations. Water crossings meant that we had to make like Oregon Trail and forge the rivers. We made sure to check how deep the water was before crossing because we are well aware of what can happen to a car when just winging it- it is no bueno, and I am pretty sure it was not covered under our car insurance policy. There were also these massive things called mountains that we drove up and down on which I will touch on later.
We saw a few sedans on the road and we have absolutely no idea how they were able to drive at all in some areas without taking on significant damage to their vehicle.
Hope they purchased a good car insurance policy…
We flew into Liberia International Airport and took the shuttle to Hertz to get our car for the trip. We went with a Hyundai Tucson because it was a good price and it had four-wheel drive which is essential for what we were about to go through.
The single greatest item we received from Hertz was their hotspot which only cost us $11/day and worth every penny! We had the option of either the hotspot or a GPS unit for our car. It was more practical to have the hotspot and use the maps on our phones. It was my go-to wifi connection so I was able to use my phone the entire trip. There were only a handful of times the wifi went out because we were driving through sketchy terrain, but as long as the directions were already input we were able to still use the map without it.
By the time we hit the road, it was raining and nighttime was approaching. It grew dark as we were halfway up the mountain, but we were covering some serious ground all things considered. We had one minor delay for about twenty minutes because a truck slid off the road and had to be winched back up to safety.
We made it to our first hotel, Lomas del Volcán, around 8:30 pm that night.
We woke up the next morning to one of the most beautiful views of the trip. We had no idea that our villa was so close to Arenal Volcano! Views for days (in our case, two days). The clouds moved so fast that Arenal would be completely covered and then uncovered in a matter of ten minutes.
We are not really tour people, but we decided to go with Green Vacations to explore Arenal and La Fortuna with a local expert. I am so glad that we booked this particular tour and company because our guide, Joshua, was an expert on the history, terrain, and animals in the area.
After picking us up from our hotel, they took us to The Springs Resort & Spa at Arenal which runs around $400/night for their most basic rooms in low season and probably a billion dollars in high season, but… just look at this place…
We were able to roam the grounds and look through a telescope in the lobby at some toucans while we waited for the two other couples to meet up with us for the tour. When we were heading out, our guide made the driver pull over because he spotted the one animal I wanted to see most on this trip, a sloth!
I love sloths! My husband thought they were ugly before we went to Costa Rica, but he grew to like them (I’m always right). This is a three-fingered sloth. They stay up in the trees for days at a time and will come down to dig a hole, do their bathroom business in it and bury it up. This is how they hide their scent from predators instead of crapping down the tree. What a life…
The next stop was Arenal Volcano National Park. We explored the park for about three hours and it did not disappoint! We had zero problems walking on the hanging bridges, but there were a few people who were freaking out because the bridges sway when a lot of people walk on them at the same time. I do yoga (kind of) so I was able to keep my balance on them.
Our guide was able to find a lot of animals that I would have just walked by because they are hidden in the lushness of the rainforest. We saw birds, monkeys, bats, spiders, frogs, etc.
After we left the park, the two other couples were dropped off at their respective hotels. Hans and I continued on to the next location, La Fortuna Waterfall. I booked our tour with TripAdvisor and I think the other two couples booked somewhere else. Suckers.
I’m just kidding- they were nice, but they missed out big time!
The only way to see La Fortuna up close was approximately 500 steps to and from the waterfall. I have RA, so the going down the stairs was okay, but going back up them meant that my knee hated me for the rest of the day between the three-hour hike earlier and then those steps. It was worth it!
I bought rain boots for this trip and they were helpful with walking on the rocks near the waterfall. There was a woman who was struggling with her flip-flops and saw my boots and shouted over to me that I had the right idea. I found my boots at Target in the boy’s shoe section. It just so happens that I am a boy’s size 5 and kids shoes are much more affordable than the adult versions. Win!
After we left La Fortuna, we ate lunch at a local spot that had some decent casado. It was the first time I ever had guanabana. It tasted both sweet and citrusy- so good! Saying guanabana reminded me of the Muppets song “Mahna Mahna” and our guide surprisingly got the reference.
The tour ended with a quick stop to the lava fields that remained after the last major eruption from Arenal Volcano back in July of 1968 which devastated three villages and killed dozens of people. This was the closest we were to the volcano during our stay and it was a humbling experience. It was a good reminder that this is a massive volcano capable of powerful eruptions even if it has been officially considered inactive since 2010. There is always a chance it could come back to life at any time!
FYI- Hiking Arenal is prohibited so anything closer was out of the question.
Hans and I woke up around 5am to begin our drive from Arenal to Manuel Antonio. It was lightly raining for the first half hour, but the sun eventually broke out from the clouds. I was relieved because I came across a few articles that mentioned the roads can be closed for days at a time when it rains due to mudslides or from bad road conditions in general. If there were any road closures then we would not be able to make it to our next hotel which was non-refundable. Thank you for the nice weather, Mama Nature!
The drive was just shy of five hours, so we decided to make two stops along the way- the Tárcoles Bridge to see the crocodiles and then Jaco for lunch to break it up and see more of Costa Rica’s beach towns.
As we were approaching Tárcoles Bridge, we pulled into a parking lot right before it. People hop out of their cars and walk along the narrow shoulder of the bridge until about halfway across to see the crocodiles below.
I made Hans buy some fresh fruit smoothies from the shop that shared the lot where we parked. Get the watermelon smoothie if you visit- trust me!
When we arrived in Jaco, we had lunch at The Green Room which I recommend to anyone reading this post to check out- it is laid back, has good food, and they have outside seating available which provides the perfect setup for people-watching.
Food aside, Jaco felt very touristy IMO, and it gave me a college tourist kind of vibe which is not my scene at all. Regardless of the groups of drunk white girls who grossly mispronounced Spanish words around town, we still enjoyed our short time there. We also witnessed a group of hookers leaving a hotel/casino which was highly entertaining to watch!
We arrived at Hotel Costa Verde just in time for check-in. I saw the 727 Fuselage room online and had to book it for one night. It is crazy expensive in high season, but we were able to book it at a more affordable rate.
Little did we know what we were about to encounter later that night…
We headed down to the beach which felt a little seedy, but nothing too crazy. There were monkeys everywhere which was entertaining because they are basically little pirates!
El Avion was located close to our hotel, so we decided to stop in for a few drinks. From what I gathered after pina colada number four, the cargo plane in the front has an interesting backstory involving the CIA, Iranian arms deal, Contras rebels; there’s a movie loosely based on it starring Tom Cruise called American Made.
Hans and I took a seat at the bar in the back and watched the pirate monkeys sneak around to unsuspecting dinner guests and grab their food off the tables. We remained here until sunset which provided a gorgeous view out back.
As I said earlier, we took this trip during rainy season, and we sat outside of our room and watched a crazy thunderstorm roll through. It was powerful and a little scary, but awesome! We decided to call it a night when it was dying down.
Around midnight, Hans woke me up because he said he thought he swatted off something from his shoulder half asleep. We turned on the light to see that it was, in fact, a scorpion!
Fun fact 1: Scorpions in Costa Rica are not deadly but will light you up if they sting you!
Fun fact 2: Scorpions like to climb walls, then move onto the ceiling, and then drop onto beds.
Fun fact 3: Scorpions like to cling underneath furniture so you have to flip it over to find them.
They also glow under a black light, but we definitely did not have one on us so… yeah. Luckily, Hans was not stung in the face, but we had to turn over every single piece of furniture to find it. We were freaked out but did not want to kill it- we actually felt bad for the little thing, so we caught it and threw it back outside into the rainforest.
We did not sleep the rest of the night.
The following morning, we checked out of our hotel (never been happier to get out of a hotel before) and headed to Manual Antonio National Park.
Hans and I figured out very quickly that there are locals who are near several popular parks and attractions who will pretend to be official and have you park in a lot nearby. One guy had a whistle so he looked legit. If you drive a little further past them, you will be at the actual parking lot which is free.
We fell for it once and paid the guy $6.00, but he did watch over our car so that was okay. The only problem was that he said that was parking for the park, but it was over a mile away from the park entrance and there was a parking lot right outside of the park for FREE! We blew past everyone else who tried to do this to us the rest of the trip and it was true every single time- free parking was just a little further down the road. Respect the hustle though!
Manuel Antonio National Park