Costa Rican Itinerary and Packing List

Costa Rica is an outdoor enthusiasts play ground with all the national parks, beaches, volcanoes and sanctuary’s. If you want to get a taste of everything this country has to offer, I would follow our itinerary:

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An at-a-glance of our Costa Rican itinerary: land in San Jose, travel to La Paz, Arenal, Monteverde, wrapping up in Quepos before returning to San Jose. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

As you can see, it’s essentially a small “loop” around the country. It’s also a lot of driving so pay attention to the stops we made along the way (i.e., the bird sanctuary, La Paz, etc.) to break up the monotony and ensure your holiday feels like a holiday. Adventure Smith Explorers took care of our transportation which also removed a layer of stress for us. You can have your own tour provider do the same or you can rent a car and travel on your own. Roads are pretty well-marked even if they are small compared to U.S. four-and five-lane highways.

I’m really passionate about this trip itinerary because of all the traveling I’ve done, Costa Rica is one place where I left feeling as though I got experience most of the country. I loved my trip to Egypt but have some tiny regrets about not getting to the Red Sea. In India, we barely scratched the surface of potential places to visit and things to see. But not in Costa Rica. Sure, there is more in this beautiful country but this itinerary covered a lot of ground at a reasonable pace (i.e., about two to three days in each location).

Packing for a visit here is a little different, especially if you are going to following our itinerary. There are so many climates that your clothing needs to be a blend of items that are “fashion forward” and more practical or athletic oriented gear. Here’s a short packing list to get you started:

  • Light weight shirts with wicking fabric
  • Long sleeve shirt for layering at night or in cloud forest area
  • Long pants for day wear (Costa Rica is casual so jeans are okay)
  • Hiking or Yoga pants for excursions
  • Medium weight rain jacket
  • Medium weight jacket or sweater (whichever is more “multi purpose”)
  • Swim wear and cover-up
  • One pair of closed toe shoes (for the rain forest, volcano)
  • One pair of open toe shoes (for the beach areas and/or going out)

For more packing insights, I thought this article from Travel Fashion Girl had great suggestions.The corresponding images are also helpful in terms of style. Remember, on the whole this is more a casual country. You don’t need to be dressed as if you are going to Fashion Week in Paris. Off the beach area, I would err on the side of conservative dressing. Ladies that means keeping your cleavage covered and Gents, that’s means keep your shirts on.

Whatever you pack, enjoy this magical country. It has so much to offer and remains a favorite stamps in my passport.

Saving The Best for Last: Quepos & Manuel Antonio National Park

My zip-line fiasco aside, the cloud forest was beautiful and not-to-be-missed fun. Our hotel was great and—thanks to being surrounded by coffee plantations—we had some of the freshest, most fantastic coffee I’ve enjoyed. As we left Monteverde, we wondered if maybe our trip had peaked. What, after all, could top this? Thankfully, our tour company Adventure Smith Explorers planned ahead, and indeed saved the best for last: the town of Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park. What though, could beat an active volcano, a bird/butterfly sanctuary, or cloud forest?

Quepos

Quepos, is a small town on the Pacific Coast of Coast Rica. It sits right outside Manuel Antonio National Park and is home to some of the world’s most beautiful, trash free, picturesque white-sand beaches. I do have one caveat. While we were visiting Costa Rica, Quepos was on the front end of a development boom (thanks to the country’s growing eco-tourism industry). As a result, some visitors now prefer to stay outside of Quepos.

That said, within the Quepos town limits I recommend staying at the La Mariposa Hotel. It’s a gorgeous hotel conveniently located in Quepos, but not smack in the middle of everything. It is an easy walk down to the beach, or to local restaurants. If you don’t want to walk, the hotel offers 5-10 minute drives to either Manuel Antonio park, or Quepo’s “down town” area where more restaurants and local shops can be found. When I was there, the streets outside of downtown were narrow. For that reason, I would not advise walking because there are no sidewalks to move away from oncoming traffic. Costa Rican drivers are not bad/crazy drivers, but hairpin turns are not uncommon, and we never saw locals walk the roads.

For those who don’t want to do anything but have cocktails, La Mariposa has a pool, wonderful restaurant bar and fantastic staff that will track down just about whatever your heart desires. Need more convincing? Take a look at these photos.

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Costa Rican sunset from La Mariposa Hotel. copyright: Stamps on my Passport

My only other tip is be aware of the monkey’s. Being surrounded by nature means exactly that. No matter where you stay in Quepos, these little guys are up running on rooftops, and up to general monkey shenanigans beginning around 5:00 am every day.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park is another much visited national park in Costa Rica. The landscape is significantly different from Arenal. Unlike the dry and rocky grassland that surrounded the volcano, this is a rainforest. As such, it’s much more humid, lush and is considered one of the most beautiful natural parks in the world.. It’s also home to several different species of monkey’s, including the capuchin, momma, howler and endangered titi. You may also see iguanas, two and three-toed sloth and vegetation from stunning flowers to bamboo.

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Seen in Manuel Antonio, this yellow crowned nigh heron stalking it’s lunch. Copyright: Stamps on my Passport

Check with your local hotel or guide for visiting hours. There is a half-mile trail (appropriate for all fitness levels) that offers a “taste” of the park. If you are interested in exploring further, there are five different trails that wrap through the park, some ending at the beach.

After spending time in Arenal and the Cloud Forest, some of the rain forest discussion was repetitive on our tour of Manuel Antonio. But in retrospect, I realize that we were not only enjoying nature, but retaining key facts and improving our overall knowledge of some of the amazing exotic sights and wildlife that filled our vacation.

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Also seen in Manuel Antonio: this two-toed sloth who refused to do anything but sleep. Copyright: Stamps on my Passport.

Exploring Arenal Volcano

When traveling around Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano is going to be on your itinerary. Not to visit would be like going to Orlando without touring Disney World…what’s the point? After three days of travel, with great highlights along the way, including the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and La Selva Bird Sanctuary, we arrived at Montana de  Fuego Resort and Spa, which is right across from the Volcano.

By “right across” I mean the dinning room of this resort featured eight-foot picture windows that faced Arenal giving you a gorgeous (and unobstructed) view. The volcano itself was about a football field away making it pretty close to us. At the time, Arenal was an active volcano, and at night visitors were treated to smaller beautiful eruptions of lava. During the day you would see billowing ash clouds slowly rising over the volcano.

By Costa Rican standards it was fairly cloudy during our stay. However, sunshine aside, Arenal did not disappoint. We were treated to a lava show—on New Year’s Eve no less—that reminded me of candy pop rocks bursting out of a mountain. Arenal’s website has some great photos of eruptions that you can view here.

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Arenal by Day. Notice the more brown grass with the dark (and active) volcano in the background. copyright: Stamps on my Passport

Alas (or luckily) in 2010 the volcano entered an indeterminate resting phase. Without botching a lesson in geology, it’s not “shooting” lava, ash or gas at this time. For the time being, it’s dormant, but that might mean you can get closer than we were able to go. Arenal will eventually become active again, but like many things in nature, we don’t know when. 

To see Arenal, you will need to go to the Arenal Volcano National Park. The volcano is located within a conservation area that totals more than 500,000 acres of land between the Tilarán and Guanacaste mountain ranges. Park Rangers will firmly request visitors leave the park as they found it (i.e., take all of your belongings and your trash back out with you).

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Got that? copyright: Stamps on My Passport

There are two interesting things about the park. The first is the striking difference in ecosystems. Up to this point, much of what we had seen in Costa Rica was lush, green vegetation with pops of vibrant color. Here, the landscape transformed into grasslands. We were surrounded by tall, brown grasses that slowly transitioned to volcanic rock and ash as one ascended the volcano. 

The other noticeable difference of Arenal was the climate. Because the volcano sits between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the temperature is different, and cooler than other parts of the country. A walk around the Park took is estimated to take three hours, but we did it in 90 minutes. Perhaps were just fast walkers that day. 

Although the volcano is dormant, you should not let that deter you from visiting this region of Costa Rica. In addition to Arenal, there are Hanging Bridges and Hot Springs. There are about 11 different hot springs in the Arenal area. We visited the Eco Tamales hot springs, which are the smallest in the area, allowing no more than 100 guests in the springs at a time. Hot springs are nature’s original spa and a spectacular way to relax and take the proverbial “time out.”  I did have visions of something more sauna like – hot and humid. Instead, the air was cool, but the natural pools ranged from “hot” to “wicked hot” as they’d say in New England.

The natural scenery was beautiful and it was easy to cool off moving from pool to pool. But be forewarned, we encountered a polite group of “polar bear” tourists (i.e., those who shun swimwear) here, making it difficult to take photos.

A complete listing of the area hot springs can be found here. Honestly, you can go wrong with any of them and this is a “not to be missed” portion of your volcano visit.

A Visitor

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A challenge with ecotourism, not just in Costa Rica, is finding the balance between observing wildlife and engaging with wildlife. You can tell this guy has been fed by visitors before (a big no-no) because he came right up to our car. We desperately wanted to feed him but  our guide, Maria, insisted we not. Her commitment to not interfering with animals and nature is another example of how protective Ricans are of their country.

(Very) Amateur Bird Watching

After surviving Sueño Azul, aka Attack of the Termites, or termite hell, we were off to La Selva Biology Station. The biology station sits on 3,900 acres of tropical rain forest in Costa Rica. Our guide, Maria, was excited about our visit to this Sanctuary, which she said is very prestigious in the biology community. According to Maria, scientists from all over the world receive grants to visit, conduct research and study the area’s bird populations.

La Selva’s website states the land was purchased in 1968 by the Organization for Tropical Studies, and declared a private biological reserve and station. It has evolved into one of the most important sites worldwide for research of tropical rain forests. More than 240 scientific papers are published annually from research conducted at the site.

Like much of Costa Rica, the infrastructure exists, but it may not be up to U.S. expectations. To be clear, roads are paved and bridges exist. The difference is, I think, we expect pavement and concrete where you are more likely to find a mix of pavement, loose gravel and dirt in Costa Rica.

To enter and exit the Sanctuary you have to cross a wooden suspension bridge supported by cables. The bridge, no surprise, swings above a small river beneath us. Looking down, it doesn’t appear to be too deep, maybe 5 feet, but after our last experience, my mind immediate started drifting …

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And suddenly, I felt like this… (image courtesy of MattFind.com and Paramount Pictures)

Isn’t the imagination a funny thing? All of that fuss over these wood planks (I’m way in the back).

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The official (not imagined) gateway to La Selva.

After regaining control of my imagination and returning to reality, we crossed into the bird sanctuary and I was struck by how thriving wildlife was, and the great respect with which Costa Rica treats the environment. About that time it occurred to me this was the second trip where my guides were enthralled with local bird populations.

The first was in South Africa. Both times it was difficult for me to match the song with the type of bird making it. When I was able to even spot one in the trees, the names all seemed to blend together. Instead, my senses were overtaken by the perfect blend of colorful birds bursting through the air, all singing different songs.

Even a permanently novice bird watcher like me was impressed stumbling on a real Toucan in the wild. I was so in awe, I put my camera down to marvel in the moment. The colors the bird were so rich and vibrant, to this day I have never experience anything quite like it. Toucan Sam does a poor job representing the species.

Maria pointed a family of spider monkeys out to us. They looked adorable, until they got scared, at which point they began peeing everywhere. After a bed filled with termites, and the probable targets of their distress, we didn’t stick around to find out about their accuracy.

The move turned out to benefit us anyway, as we were fortunate enough to stumble onto a Blue Macaw. The National Bird of Costa Rica is, thanks to the movie Rio, somewhat recognizable now but at the time not so much. The Macaw is as impressive as the Toucan. Although, ours just sat on a tree branch preventing us the opportunity to really see its wings spread out.

Bird watching will never be a hobby of mine. That said, I’m thrilled La Selva was on our itinerary and would visit again (if not for my “no repeat rule).

I unreservedly recommend stopping here if you are travel to/from the Arenal area of Costa Rica. I can’t offer guidance on the entrance costs as our arrangements were part of our Adventure Smith tour package. I recommend emailing Three Paths (the “parent” organization of La Selva) for assistance with tickets and directions. The email is: threepaths.reservaciones@ots.cr

Peace and Harmony at La Paz Waterfall

In my mind, the best way to start a holiday in Costa Rica is with a trip to La Paz Waterfall Garden. Approximately one hour to the north of San Jose by car, the “waterfall” is actually five different falls that range in height from 85-120 feet.

You can take in the waterfall’s grandeur on a large viewing platform. More adventurous travelers can walk down a series of steep, windy steps and actually stand under the waterfall. If you are fit and don’t have vertigo problems, I recommend both. It’s beautiful to see the falls at eye level. But looking out beneath them offers you a very different perspective of the sheer power and volume. Being surrounded by the sound of the water rushing past you is almost deafening.

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It may not look like much, but standing behind the waterfall at La Paz was exhilarating.

 

The best thing about La Paz Waterfall is that the visit also includes an animal sanctuary, restaurant and lodge. The animal sanctuary, while lovely, is not as exotic as it may sound. Visitors will see butterflies, frogs and other amphibians. If you’ve never seen butterflies in their natural habitat, be forewarned, they are beautiful but the fly everywhere and tickle your skin when they land on you. And even as lovely and harmless as butterflies are, as it turns out, a swarm can intimidate and be a bit disconcerting for some people.

How do I know this? Well, thank you for asking. Read on…

At this point, I had known my friend (nicknamed “Yooner”) for 12 years, and had no idea she harbored a deep-rooted fear of insects approaching her. I mean, how often do two career-focused women share irrational fear of the threatening and unpredictable flight patterns of papilionidae? Well in my case, the answer was not until she was shrieking and running in circles. If traveling with a friend, it may be worth posing this question at least once before hopping a plane for Central America.

Not even five feet into the butterfly sanctuary the serene afternoon was sliced open by shrill screams. It sounded like the sound one would make after breaking a bone (or perhaps, stepping in some exotic poo). By the time I realized what was going on, my face gave my thoughts away. Even as she glared back at my bewildered amusement, her arms were up, waving frantically around her head and face. In short breaths she could spare from all her upper-body aerobics she said “I. Don’t. Like. Bugs.” As if that statement wasn’t clear enough, realizing there was no place to really “run” she yanked the hood of her sweatshirt over her head, pulling the strings together so only a very small portion of her face was exposed. It remained that way for the remainder of the day.

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We managed to convince the Yooner to let a butterfly crawl on her finger. For someone who doesn’t like insects (or really animals) this was a big deal. And, talk about a great friend, this photo is shared with her permission.

 

If you visit La Paz, know that “gardens” on which the sanctuary is located are not traditional flower beds. Instead they are natural Costa Rican vegetation (moss, grass, trees, etc.) for animals and birds. In an effort to emphasize eco-tourism, Costa Rica is very big on not disturbing natural habitats, letting them exist “as they are.” It’s beautiful and a fascinating contrast to our country’s approach. It seems to work well, and we left with a harmonious feeling.