Quite some years ago, I went on one of my dream adventures. In 2007, after years of saving on a very tiny charity sector wage whilst living in a one room apartment with my now husband I got to go on the trip of a life time to Costa Rica. We lived directly next to the tube, meaning all day and long into the night we were disturbed by train noises. We had no real heating, our sofa was our bed, was our dining room table and yes our sleeping area was inches away from the toilet.
We made sacrifices, but boy was it worth it.
Costa Rica was the most incredible place I had ever travelled to, and one day I will get to go there again. Fingers crossed! See, 10 years ago I wasn’t as great a traveller as I am now and so I missed out on so much – but here are my highlights.
Where We Stayed
We flew in to Liberia, the main airport in the Guanacaste Region of Costa Rica – quite frankly it was possibly the smallest airport I had ever experienced, and the wing span of our plane was wider than the so called terminal building. It was just a short ride to the area we were basing ourselves in the Gulf of Papagayo, on the northwestern coast of Costa Rica – a beautiful stretch of coastline surrounded by tropical vegetation like I had never seen.
We stayed for two weeks at the Occidental Papagayo on an adults only, all inclusive basis. The hotel was fantastic, with a beautiful beach made of volcanic sand and provided us an excellent base for exploring. For us at the time, we were not the backpacking type so it afforded us a great opportunity to stay in more secure, comfortable surroundings whilst touring round the key things we wanted to see.
A the time, the area was just taking off from a tourism perspective, and the Gulf and its coastline are part of a major tourism project by Costa Rica’s government – there are a few fantastic hotels in the area including well known hotel brands such as the Four Seasons and Secrets.
What We Did
We contained most of our exploring to the northwestern region of Costa Rica, so didn’t manage to see the capital San Jose. Here are my four highlights of my two week trip in this exceptional Central American country.
Walking in the treetops of the Monteverde Cloud Forest
We knew right from the get go that experiencing one of the incredible cloud forests was the most important thing we’d do in Costa Rica. Accompanied by a guide, we drove around the winding and often terrifying roads to get to the area, high up above Costa Rica. Whilst the drive was a little terrifying it was worth it for the day of exploring we did in the clouds.
Cloud forests are unusual because of the incredible microclimate they afford the habitat below. Because the sun cannot penetrate the thick clouds that hover along the tree tops, the rainforest is moisture-rich which means there is a huge amount of biodiversity – in fact there are plants and species that you cannot find anywhere else on earth which is incredible exciting!
There are many trails within the Monteverde Cloud Reserve, but we went on a canopy walk inside the Selvatura Adventure Park.We crossed a series of 8 suspension bridges, connected by trails totalling 1.9 miles in length, set both within and above the forest canopy. We saw sloths, monkeys and many birds, and it was genuinely one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. You can also zipline your way through the forest, but we didn’t feel brave enough.
As part of our time here, we also had the chance to visit the Selvatura Hummingbird Garden, which is home to 14 different species of hummingbirds and natural waterfalls, and one of the largest butterfly gardens in the Americas.Costa Rica was the most magical travel experience of my life - here are the Costa Rica highlights!Click To Tweet
Watching the looming Arenal Volcano
It’s true, I’ve always had a fascination with volcanos, so visiting one should come as no surprise if you’ve read about my trip to Mount Vesuvius. But in 2007 Arenal was in fact the 10th most active volcano in the world, and so it felt like much more of an adventure!
Located more centrally within Costa Rica, we took a two night road trip there, both to see the volcano itself but also to trek round the surrounding rainforest on various different trails in the national park. There is never too much rainforest to trek around. Arenal rises up in the distance from the rainforest looming over the town of La Fortuna (see below), so you can get some incredible pictures before you go on your hike.
After a hard days trekking, it was time for something completely different – a trip to one of La Fortuna’s hot springs that lay at the base of Arenal itself. We visited Baldi Hot Springs for a few hours to relax after trekking all day and it was a completely lush experience! With water heated directly from the volcano, this was part spa part local pool, with lots of different places to bathe and steam, all at the foot of an imposing volcano.
On our tour, we had the opportunity to travel around the volcano to get different views of the summit, although never close enough to see the crater. However on one night drive we were lucky enough it get sight of some actual lava flows – such a special, fleeting moment.
Boating on the Tempisque River at Palo Verde National Park
We wanted to get up close and personal with even more animals, so decided to take a boat ride along the Tempisque River in the Palo Verde National Park. We spent two hours exploring the river, taking in the surrounding wetlands the mangroves and incredible bird habitats. The river was full of the rather terrifying American crocodile (but we were perfectly safe – it was just a bit nervy being so close to one) and we spotted and heard both capuchino and howler monkeys!
One of our most treasured trips whilst in Costa Rica was a day trip over the border to Nicaragua. A fascinating place in its own right, we were keen whilst we had the opportunity to experience somewhere completely different to Costa Rica. And Nicaragua was certainly that. We set off at 4am to cross the border and drive to Granada, one of the most photogenic towns in Nicaragua, due in part to its beautiful yellow cathedral.
We took a traditional horse and cart tour around the city, taking in the incredible colonial architecture at every turn and the pretty pastel hues that lined the streets. There are baroque and Moorish influences too, making it often feel more like Spain than Nicaragua, and the locals are extremely laid back.
It’s a city with a fantastic history – plundered by pirates, inhabited by explorers and overtaken by conquistadors with huge economic importance in the region dating back to the 16th Century. We made a visit to the Convento y Museo San Francisco to get a feel for the history of Granada before making our long journey home, fuelled by rum.
We even had time to look at Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua’s first and largest national park, where you can see the Bobadilla cross at the top of a cliff – the Spaniards considered this to be the gate to hell.
It’s fair to say that I’ve never had that much interest in visiting Asia, but Central and South America are at the very top of my list every time. One day I’ll get to travel the area properly – and I’ll be making a stop in Costa Rica again as the very first place I land in. After all, Costa Rica frequently tops the Happy Planet Index, so I couldn’t help but leave with a smile on my face.