Buckle up… this is perhaps one of the longest travel posts that I have ever done. It has taken me far longer to get this out than I would like to admit, but I was committed, and the commitment paid off! Please enjoy the fruits of my labor (and joy) in today’s Costa Rica Travel Guide.
Why Visit Costa Rica?
As one of the most ecologically diverse areas and one of the topmost sustainable countries in the world Costa Rica packs the natural-wonders punch. With lush landscapes and beyond-beautiful scenery, Costa Rica deserves a spot on everyone’s bucket list.
The Things I Loved Most
First, let’s talk food…
I didn’t have one bad meal during my stay in Costa Rica, and you probably won’t either. So, what makes the food so delicious? Well, first of all, from jungle-to-table everything grows. This means variety and fresh produce on the daily. My favorites:
Gallo Pinto – the country’s traditional combo of rice and beans infused with bell peppers, cilantro, and onions. Gallo pinto is served with breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The combo pairs perfectly with scrambled eggs; so much so, it has become a staple in my weekly meals. The breakfast combo always leaves me feeling comfortably full (not exhaustingly stuffed) and the savory, starchy-sweet flavor is everything.
Rondón – a seafood coconut stew combined with fresh herbs and veggies, I wanted to dive into my bowl and swim in its deliciousness. Our retreat, Vida Asana, offered both a traditional and vegetarian option. More on this later, including pics.
And the plantains! The plantains are heavenly – from plátanos maduros fritos (fried plantains) to patacones (aka mashed plantain tostadas) I could not get enough. Have a plantain for every meal, you’ll thank me later.
There is so much to enjoy. I’ve barely covered it here. If you want to know more about cuisine in Costa Rica check out Eaters Guide to the World
If I haven’t sold you on food alone, let’s highlight the next (but equally best) thing – ecology.
Costa Rica is an environmentally diverse destination that provides the best of both worlds: exploration and relaxation.
Standing at the forefront of ecotourism Costa Rica is considered one of the topmost eco-friendly travel destinations in the world. According to Mistico Park, Costa Rica is divided into 8 biological reserves, 20 natural parks, and multiple “other” protected parks. This means, with the country’s biodiverse reserves keeping ecosystems protected, we have far more natural wonders to observe and enjoy.
“Pura Vida” is the saying of Costa Rica, and has been for over 50-years. The English translation of “Pure Vida” is “Pure Life”, but similar to Aloha in Hawaiian, Pure Vida is far more than just a saying – it’s considered a way of life.
Pure Vida can be witnessed in everyday life, and it’s part of what makes Costa Rica so special. You’ll see what I mean during your stay.
Now that I’ve given you the longest introduction, explaining all the reasons I feel Costa Rica is a must-visit country, let’s dive into the details for planning your own trip.
Wildlife | Up Close & Personal
While visiting Costa Rica I found many parallels to Hawai’i. Specifically in terms of climate and agriculture, however, one of the things that set Costa Rica apart from the island home I’m used to is the wildlife. When I first began this post my parents were packing for their own trip to Costa Rica and when they asked for my advice, my what-to-do list while visiting, my answer always came down to one thing – experience wildlife.
And as Costa Rica is home to 500,000 different species of plants and animals your options for “experiencing wildlife” are just about endless.
Taking advantage of your time in Costa Rica means taking advantage of your opportunity to see sloths or el perezoso (which also translates as lazy) in their natural habitat.
So naturally, seeing a sloth was my top priority. I’ve been mildly obsessed with sloths for a while, and it is undeniable that Kristen Bell’s famous reaction to her surprise sloth visit kinda sparked this obsession (for most). Basically how she reacts is how I react to seeing just about any animal. If you haven’t seen that yet, you must! Here. I have to tell you, watching them in the tree canopies is far more exciting than you’d think, given their slow-moving reputation, and yes, they do move quite slow. We had the pleasure of watching this precious guy (pictured below) climb to the top of a tree and munch down on some leaves. One of the highlights of my trip.
Prime Locations for Wildlife Peepin’
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Growing up in a tourist hotspot like Hawai’i has left a strange sour taste in my mouth when it comes to “tours” or “tour guides” – I can’t really give you a reason why (every experience I’ve had “touring” has been wonderful). Perhaps it’s because I’ve witnessed the less glamorous side, where tourism can disrupt cultural and ecological vitality; although I truly believe this can be avoided when you “tour” responsibly. It sounds like a bunch of hippy-dippy blah, blah… but I do think it’s important to spend your time and money with locations that make a positive impact on both the place you’re visiting and your own experience – you should walk away feeling acquainted with the location.
This leads me to my top recommendation Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. The park is a popular tourist destination and a protected wildlife area with sustainability certifications.
Manuel Antonio National Park is located on the Central Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. It is easy to spend an entire day in the park, and I do recommend you set aside plenty of time here.
Exotic creatures are really good at staying safe, which also means they are really great at hiding from untrained eyes. I encourage you to hire a tour guide when visiting the park. If it wasn’t for our amazing tour guide we wouldn’t have seen half (if not all) of the animals we did, including bats, birds, sloths, monkeys, frogs, and numerous insects.
Just Go Chasing Waterfalls
Rainmaker Conservation Park
One of the items on your Costa Rica bucket list has to be a waterfall hike, and while you have a plethora of options you need to make time for Rainmaker Conservation Park.
The story of how Rainmaker Conservation Park came to be is both saddening and inspiring. The property was originally owned by a local rice farmer, who after experiencing economic difficulty, came to realize ne would have to sell the land. Rather than sell to one of the many logging groups who were fighting to get their hands on the place, he began a deal with another local man and friend Mauricio Gutierrez.
Unfortunately, before a decision could be made Gutierrez drowned while saving a child from one of the waterfalls in the heart of the mountain. Gutierrez’s wife and children, having understood the importance of Gutierrez’s mission, came together and purchased the land themselves – fulfilling Gutierrez’s dream to make the property a protected space, preserving its history and natural integrity.
Now, Rainmaker thrives through eco-tourism – allowing small groups, such as ours, a chance to witness and learn from the land how breathtaking the natural wonders of Costa Rica truly are.
Plan your trip to Rainmaker Conservation Park | HERE
Attend a Retreat
This is perhaps one of the most specific pieces of bucket list advice I could give you – attend a retreat.
Okay, this may seem a bit tangent-y but stay with me, I promise there’s a point. I’m currently reading The Power of Fun by Catherine Price, in the book she talks about fun (obviously), but deeper than that she constructs this idea of “true fun” – what it looks like, and how it makes us feel. As Price puts it,
“True fun is restorative. It increases resilience and empathy. It creates community. It reduces resentment. True Fun does wonders for our emotional well-being by empowering us to connect with other people, escape from self-judgment, and be fully present.” – Catherine Price
This quote, this explanation of true fun, is the best way to describe my experience in Costa Rica. It was pure true fun, and I attribute this pure true fun experience to two groups of people who made it possible.
The Blend, run by Shelly Mamo and Lesley Leake (Instagram handles below), put together a reconnect retreat which I enjoyed so much. Shelly and Lesley have a yin and yang balance of positive energy. Together they create zesty but zen experiences. During the retreat, we did yoga, fun fitness classes, meditation, and wellness education workshops. It was the best.
If you are interested in future events held by Shelly and Lesley find them on IG: Shelly @smelly_lamo and Lesley @lesleywleake
Vida Asana School of Yoga
I can not recommend Vida Asana enough. They hosted our group’s retreat, and since I left I’ve been counting down the days until I can return. You can visit their website (linked below) to find any upcoming retreats, plus accommodation reservations.
From accommodations to staff and everything in-between Vida Asana is top tier reconnect and restore retreat energy.
I could do an entire post on all the things I love about Vida Asana, but instead, I will share an insane amount of photos for you to see how breathtaking it is – and encourage you to book a retreat to experience it yourself.
And the food… the food is everything and more. As I discussed in-depth in the introduction to this post, we had the pleasure of enjoying some of the best food I’ve had in my life, and this is all thanks to the wonderful chefs at Vida Asana. They kept things traditional and fresh and I reminisce on the weekly about their meals.
On their website, you will find a variety of retreat packages.
Find your Vida Asana escape | HERE
For the Adventurous | Zipline Through the Trees
Ziplining is one of the most popular activities in Costa Rica.
Full disclosure, I did not go zip lining because I have a pretty substantial fear of heights, but most of the members of my travel group did go and they had a phenomenal experience.
Bucket List Item: The beaches of Costa Rica are the nesting hot spots for 4 different species of turtles: Hawksbill, Leatherback, Green, and Olive Ridley. A lot of work goes into making these beaches a safe haven for expectant turtles. There are multiple volunteer opportunities to ensure these turtle babies make it safely to the ocean. I didn’t get the chance to participate in any turtle conservation this trip, but it’s on my list for the next trip experience.
Coffee Shop Stop | Bohío Café
At its roots, Costa Rica is an agricultural country. One of its most notable agricultural supplies is coffee, but not just any coffee, some of the best coffee around. Although the coffee plant is not native to Costa Rica, having been imported from Cuba in the 1700s, a combination of factors including high altitudes, abundant soil from residual volcanic matter, and a beautiful tropical climate (consistent rain and humidity) make the production of coffee in the region thrive.
Costa Rican coffee makes up only 1% of the world’s coffee supply, however, coffee is one of the country’s primary exports, along with banana and pineapple. While in its early years of production the primary focus for coffee growers was quantity over quality, in recent decades perspectives have shifted, and with it, generations of newly established coffee roasters and cafes have popped up in coastal beach towns – including Bohío Café.
Bohío Café is just a bike ride from Vida Asana, and is a must-stop shop whether you’re staying in Jaco or not.
We were amazingly lucky and spoiled with our meals being provided by Vida Asana (and by meals I mean, delicious nutritious traditional cuisine). However, one day after our group had our Manuel Antonio excursion we grabbed lunch at El Avión.
El Avión made my Costa Rica travel guide/bucket list because it’s one of the coolest restaurants I’ve seen, and I mean… look at those views! The restaurant provides 180° views of lush landscapes and peeking through the canopy of trees you can see the ocean.
The surrounding jaw-dropping jungle views are (of course) filled with exotic creatures. During our trip, we spotted a sloth just hanging out (pun intended) doing its slothey things. It was incredible.
El Avión also has some really interesting history tied with its architecture/design. We dined in an airplane-turned-restaurant with a riveting past. The airplane, a C-123, was central to the Iran-Contra Affair, a historic U.S. government scandal and CIA front to both support South American rebels while supplying weapons to Iran, paid for by the smuggling of weapons and drugs.
Take a Hike
El Miro Mountain
Miro Mountain is a 1.7mile out-and-back hike, where art and nature meet and thrive in the coolest combo. The hike is relatively easy with paved walkways and only slight inclines at times.
This hike is a great spot for photos with its abandoned ruin-like feel. We didn’t see monkeys during our hike, but I have read a lot of people typically do.
More about the hike on All Trails.
Museo Del Jade | Jade Museum
If you spend any time in San Jose the museums are worth a visit.
The Jade Museum is more than its name might imply. Separated into 5-floors, with each level bringing to life a new piece of Costa Rican history, the Jade Museum was (simply put) awesome.
National Museum of San Jose
La Rosa de América
Prior to settling in at Vida Asana some of the members of our group (me included) stayed at La Rosa de América, and they come highly recommended by me.
Described as a “garden oasis” on Trip Advisor, I’m here to second that regard, the Hotel La Rosa de América is a tranquil-nights rest and tropical-luxury getaway in its own regard.
The staff was so friendly and accommodating, they went out of their way to ensure we had a warm meal when we arrived (past their normal restaurant hours), and breakfast was fantastic, with fresh-squeezed juice and deliciously cooked plantains I wanted to hoard in my pockets for road snacks later.
Book your stay at La Rosa de América | Here
It’s always in the details, and this hotel has the details all worked out. From its chic-industrial interior to the roof-top botanical oasis restaurant, Hotel Presidente is the hotel of choice when staying in the heart of downtown San Jose.
This hotel is truly an upscale experience, with a reasonable price tag.
Book your stay at Hotel Presidente | Here