Touring through Costa Rica’s Rainforest
Itinerary: San Jose > La Fortuna (Arenal) > Santa Elena (Monteverde)
Volcanoes, ziplines and waterfalls - oh my!
I was happy to start my trip in the very American-friendly country of Costa Rica, where most everyone speaks English, and they even take U.S. dollars. (Especially after my first few failed attempts at broken Spanish.) After a few overnight flights and a very chilly layover in Mexico City, I arrived at San Jose, relieved for some heat and sun.
Welcoming me to Costa Rica was a crowded corral of cab drivers, shouting ‘taxi’ and waving enthusiastically at what I imagine was my bleary-eyed confused face. One kind driver took pity on me, and pointed me in the direction of the bus stop, and within moments, I was on my way to the big city.
San Jose is busy with buses and taxis, but very walkable without luggage. I had a lovely lunch at the sunny Cafe Miel, and then walked the short distance to Parque Nacional, one of the many green spaces around the city.
The next morning I was very thankful for ‘Latino Standard Time’ as I was running late to make the 8:40 a.m. bus to La Fortuna, but was able to catch it just as it was pulling out. Midday, I arrived in La Fortuna, launchpad for the Arenal Volcano, and had a leisurely lunch at Cafetería MyCoffee, overlooking the town square. Connected with the tour desk at the hostel, and got booked on tours the following two days. (So convenient and knowledgable!)
On my first full day in La Fortuna, I quickly learned how everything stays so green and got acquainted with both the rain and the (muddy) forest. The Jungle Tours guides wisely persuaded everyone without rain gear to buy a poncho before we set off on the two volcano tour. Starting at the Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, we did a short hike (~1km) along a lagoon to the lava fields. Sadly our view of the volcano was obstructed by clouds, but our tour guide was a fantastic story teller, and was able to paint a great picture of the volcano’s history. A few of us did the Tarzan rope swing into the lagoon after the hike, before our lunch of - you guessed it - beans and rice (and a few other items).
Then back to the van to drive to Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa, where we did a walk around the lesser-known Cerro Chato volcano. The Chato Volcano has a stunning green lake in its crater, but the trail to the top has been closed down due to the environmental degradation of visitors. Our walk included a nice waterfall (swimming round 2!) and two hanging bridges. Once more, we loaded into the van to go to the free natural hot springs river, where our guide gave us mud masks! (A lot of the hot springs nearby cost $35 for access, but usually come with dinner.)
My second day in La Fortuna was blessed by the sun, and I was able to revel in the full glory of the Arenal Volcano. Spent the morning zip lining with Arenal Mundo Aventura, which was fantastic - awesome guides and a 1km-long zipline overlooking the La Fortuna waterfall! (Bring a go-pro or carry case for your phone - only small cameras allowed.) In the afternoon, I wandered down to the La Fortuna waterfall and swam in the river; Arena Mundo Aventura has their own access trail (with hanging bridge!) and viewpoint, separate from the public access.
The next morning, I took the ‘jeep-boat-jeep’ (or in reality van-boat-van) to Monteverde, known for the Cloud Forest Reserve (or in my case Santa Elena, where accommodation is cheaper). The sun and volcano disappeared behind clouds again, but Laguna de Arenal was still beautiful. That afternoon, lunched at the Orchid Cafe in Santa Elena (very yummy!), and then walked a short ways to the town’s infamous ficus tree, with a hollow trunk that you can climb through.
My first morning in Santa Elena, I caught the shuttle to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. (With only one day, I debated between the Santa Elena and Monteverde Reserves, and decided to go with the mainstream option, although a fellow traveler confirmed that Santa Elena cloud forest had amazing scenery - you can see the Arenal Volcano on a clear day!) One of my roommates from my hostel accompanied me on a walking tour of the park; after paying the entrance fee and receiving our highlighted map from the admission staff, we took off through the cloud forest on a day without a cloud in sight. The reserve is famous for spotting animals and birds, so if you’re really keen on that, hiring a guide who is quick to spot things is worth the cost. I definitely missed some things, but happy to spot plenty of coatis (cousin of the raccoon) and a few other critters.
Next Stop: Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast! Keep an eye out for updates on: Santa Teresa > Montezuma > Manuel Antonio National Park.
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
Lonely Planet’s Costa Rica guide seems to be the traveler’s bible, given how many copies I’ve seen throughout my hostel dorms. I’ve been very thankful for my Kindle, which fits more easily into my purse than the paperback guide. I’ve been taking advantage of my Prime membership, using the Central America on a shoestring guide, which is included in Prime reading.
*If you have an Amazon Prime membership, you can get certain books for free (and fortunately a lot of Lonely Planet guides are included). If you don’t have Prime, you can get Kindle Unlimited, which is a monthly membership that gives you access to even more material.
Cash, Buses, Bathrooms and Water
Luckily, pretty much everywhere takes U.S. dollars, and will most often give change in Colones, so it’s basically a free money exchange! Definitely be sure to have adequate Colones on hand when boarding any bus, shuttle or taxi. (Most drivers can provide appropriate change, but may or may not accept dollars.) Be prepared for a bumpy ride! The majority of roads outside city centers are dirt. Also a good idea to show up early to get a seat; otherwise you might be stuck standing for hours, swaying on the unpaved paths. Bathrooms at many bus/ferry stations require payment - take advantage of free bathrooms wherever you get the chance, especially since buses do not have facilities onboard and don’t stop for bio breaks. (Just remember to throw toilet paper in the bin! Don’t flush it.)
On a semi-related note, there aren’t many water fountains or places to refill water bottles. For a lot of folks, this means buying water bottles as you go, but I am loathe to create unnecessary plastic waste (or spend a lot of money on water). I’d recommend getting a water bottle with a built in filter, and then a secondary bottle as well. I fill both bottles at my accommodation and pour the secondary bottle into my filter bottle when it’s empty. It’s worked really well!
Airport to San Jose
You can coordinate a shuttle with your accommodation in advance for roughly $25, or grab a taxi for $35. I opted for the $1 bus + $5 taxi combo, thanks to some helpful guidance my hostel provided in advance. You’ll need to pay the bus driver in Colones, so be sure to exchange/withdraw some cash before leaving the airport. When you exit the terminal, walk past the taxi drivers and cross the street towards the parking garage. Take the sidewalk left to get to the main street; once there, turn right and walk about 20 meters to the bus stop - you’ll see several cued up! There are two buses that will take you to San Jose, which arrive every few minutes: Tuasa (big red bus) and Station Wagon Alajuela. When the bus stops, just ask the driver "San Jose?" and he/she will say yes or no. The ride costs 550 Colones (US$1) - the driver should be able to provide change. Take the bus to the final stop, the station in San Jose, and then grab a taxi to anywhere in the city (about $5).
San Jose to La Fortuna
Leaves San Jose at 5am, 8:40am and 11:50 am. Take an Uber or taxi to Terminal 7-10 (named for the street intersections). Make your way to the ticket office on the third floor to buy a ticket, and then back down out to the bus bays. This post is very detailed with pictures!
La Fortuna to Santa Elena
I did the recommended ‘jeep-boat-jeep’ option, where a van picks you up and takes you to Laguna de Arenal (~15 mins drive), where you’ll take a boat across the lake (~1 hour), to catch another van that’ll take you to your accommodation (~1 hour). The public transit option apparently takes several more hours on bumpy dirt roads; the lake is much more peaceful and scenic. Book with your accommodation in La Fortuna.
- San Jose: Costa Rica Backpackers — nice big locker to store bags, and dorm bunks have built in chargers, which is very helpful.
- La Fortuna (Arenal): Arenal Hostel Resort — really close to the bus station, and a fantastic tour desk for booking excursions; outlets are limited, and Wi-Fi doesn’t work in the bedrooms, but the patio area has tons of hammocks and dorms have ensuite bathrooms.
- Santa Elena (Monteverde): Casa Tranquilo — cool cabin-like feel a short walk from the town center; not many bathrooms, but tons of outlets!