I assumed I'd be impressed by the multitude of opportunities for outdoor adventure in Costa Rica, and that I'd love the gorgeous, diverse landscape and ecology. Knowing "pura vida" (Spanish for "pure life", a saying used to express optimism) is basically the country's unofficial motto, I also figured the locals would be pretty easygoing.
What I hadn't realized was how authentically hospitable nearly everyone we (me and my travel buddy Tara) met would be, and what an impression they'd leave on us. Meeting the locals should be on your likely already long list of reasons to visit Costa Rica.
Our first stop was Jaco, a beach town on the Pacific coast. It actually reminded me of Banff—swap ski culture for surf culture—with its lively main street full of restaurants and shops catering to tourists. We stayed at Jaco Lodge, tucked away at the end of a residential road about a 20-minute walk or $4 (US) taxi ride from town centre.
The lodge's owner Leonardo lives on-site, and although he's noticeably busy, he's always happy to chat. He also looks out for his guests' interests. When we told him we wanted to visit Manuel Antonio National Park about an hour drive south, he suggested we take public transit instead of a guided tour to save money. Plus he's an animal lover like me and has adorable rescue cats.
Undoubtedly my favourite thing we did in Jaco was take a surf lesson. Our instructors Juan and Jean-Carlos were fantastic. Their professionalism and encouragement made for a successful two-hour lesson—I was amazed that I caught every wave but one, and learned how to catch waves on my own. Tara has also surfed in Hawaii and Australia but she liked surfing here best. I can't wait to try it again when I go home to Nova Scotia this summer.
One evening wandering around Jaco we walked into a coffee shop called the Sea House that had just opened that week and got chatting with the owner, Adrian, who recommended we hike the Donde Miro trail on the southern edge of town (stay tuned for a post on this). We hadn't heard of it, and we were grateful he recommended it because we agreed it was one of the most interesting hikes we'd ever done, not to mention beautiful—we were there to catch the sunset.
Next we visited La Fortuna, a four-hour drive north of Jaco on narrow winding roads, inland near Arenal Volcano National Park. La Fortuna is smaller and less touristy than Jaco (but still touristy), and caters to outdoor enthusiasts. The landscape is lush and the climate is wetter and cooler than Jaco's, which was a welcome reprieve after the beach town's 35°C weather.
We stayed just outside of town centre (but on the way to the national park) at Hotel Las Flores. If you're in La Fortuna I highly recommend you stay here. The owner Gorlina, who took over the hotel from her dad and runs it with her husband Javier, is the kind of person you want to be friends with.
One morning we headed out for a full day tour on what happened to be Tara's birthday, which I spilled the beans about. When we got back to our room there was a "cake" with real flowers on top waiting for us. Another night when a huge moth flew in through our wide-open window, Gorlina helped us chase it out with a broom and towel—we were in stitches by the end.
When we booked our full day tour of the Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal Volcano National Park and Baldi Hot Springs, we weren't expecting a private tour. Our guide Felix was so knowledgeable about the area's history and ecology, he made the tour excellent. He also had a good sense of humour—I got a kick out of how he described the bright coloured flowers in the rainforest as "marketing" to the rest of the ecosystem—and seemed to genuinely believe in the value of tourism to Costa Rica.
We spent our last night in Costa Rica in Santa Ana outside of San Jose, where we were catching our flight the next morning. If you're looking to recharge at the end of an active trip like we were, you should stay at Hotel Posada Canal Grande. We were only there for one night but we didn't leave the grounds. While not a luxury resort, it's a fairly upscale hotel and the most beautiful one I've ever stayed at with the most interesting decor.
The accommodation is far from the best part of visiting Costa Rica—that would definitely be the activities and the landscape, which I'll be writing about too—but it was an unexpected highlight that made the trip even better and more memorable.