Backpacking in Costa Rica: a Truly Pura Vida Experience
Nowadays travel possibilities and openness of borders between countries have made as easy, fast and cheap as never before, for people to visit and enjoy amazing places and dream destinations around the entire globe. However, with so many possibilities and world gems right at our fingertips, how can you possibly make a smart choice and be contented with your decision?
In my case, as a Spanish expat living in the Netherlands, I found almost inexcusable that I’d never visited the lands of my fellow Latin counterparts. More specifically, I’d many times heard about the natural wonders and charming people of Costa Rica. Craving for nature, new experiences and some highly needed vitamin D, a friend and I booked our 16-day backpacking trip to paradise: ¡pura vida!
Before going into detail about the specific route we followed, here’s some handy info about Costa Rica every visitor should know about:
Tico is the colloquial term to refer to the natives from Costa Rica. This term’s used by Costa Ricans and other natives from Spanish-speaking countries as a substitute of the most formal Spanish term costarricense.
Probably the most crucial sentence you could ever use when you’re in Costa Rica. Forget about any other Spanish vocabulary, do it like a local and shout out loud proudly: ¡pura vida!
Pura vida means pure life in Spanish, and ticos use this term to say hello, to say goodbye, and to make a statement about how great and wonderful life is. Think of pura vida as a synonym of hakuna matata. And more than solely a saying, it’s a way of life. It’s not surprising that Costa Rica is considered one of the happiest countries worldwide. Following a pura vida attitude in the way they live, behave and think, ticos have a very relaxed, simple and grateful way of looking at the world. They accept what they have as it is and are happy for that, without being negative or jealous of other people and lifestyles. This becomes such a refreshing and inspiring insight, especially when you compare this attitude to the one, most of us foreigners visiting Costa Rica, have. Once you’ve visited and experienced the land, its people and its culture, you’ll understand the true meaning of pura vida.
There’s no certainty of where this term comes from, but the most accepted version is that it originated from the movie Pura Vida, which came to Costa Rica from Mexico directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. In this movie, the term was meant to represent the optimistic attitude of the main character despite the many unfortunate occurrences he encounters. By 1970, the term pura vida was used nationwide and had become an inherent part of the culture of the country.
The official currency in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican Colon (CRC), although USA dollars (USD) are accepted mostly everywhere.
Depending on what your priorities and preferences for moving around are, you’ve several options:
- The bus is overly cheap and a quite reliable way to travel. While it also gives you the possibility to enjoy the beautiful landscape as you move, the biggest downside is that it’s the slowest mean of transport.
- You can also rent a car, which gives you the flexibility and freedom of travelling whenever and wherever you want. You can rent a car with your home country’s driving license up to 90 days; after that you’re required to drive under a Costa Rican license. The inconveniences are that it’s more expensive than the bus, and that you need to take care of all the practicalities and planning during the drive.
- Nature Air is the national airline that operates within the country, as well as to Nicaragua and Panama. It’s the best choice when you want to travel longer distances and when bus connections are not so great between both destinations (we travelled by plane when going from Arenal to Manuel Antonio). Although more expensive, it saves you quite some time and it lets you add another great experience to your Costa Rica’s memories with their charming light aircrafts.
- For relatively big distances within a city or between cities, you might also consider taking a taxi (they’re rather cheap compared to other countries). Avoid using unofficial taxis — ‘taxi piratas’. There has been some violent incidents involving tourists. Official taxis are red with a triangular sticker and plastic box on the roof with the name and number of the taxi company.
Although they’re able to speak basic English in most places and you’ll be able to understand each other, I’d still you advise to learn some basic Spanish words and useful sentences to move around better and more smoothly.
It’s quite likely that you won’t need a VISA for entering Costa Rica. However, make sure you corroborate this before travelling. It’s also important that you check whether you need a transit permit or not in the countries where you have a layover (in the case that your flight’s not direct). Many flights to Costa Rica stop in USA or Canada, and for those countries you need an approved travel authorization prior to your trip.
Health and vaccinations
A yellow fever certificate is not needed unless you’re travelling from South America or sub-Saharan Africa. Depending on the internet source you look for, you’ll find different vaccination recommendations. Hence, make sure you make a visit to an international vaccination center to revise which vaccinations you have and you should still get. In my case, I already had some recommended vaccinations: typhoid fever, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles mumps and rubeola (MMR), and diphtheria-tetanus-polio (DTP). When in Costa Rica, drink always bottled water if possible. We thought many times drank for the tap and nothing happened, but you know, better to be safe than sorry,
Mosquitoes in Costa Rica are a big issue, as they can carry multiple diseases. Those include dengue, chikungunya, zika and malaria. While malaria can be prevented by taking pills (not such an advised option due to heavy secondary effects), the rest of the illnesses don’t have a prevention method a priori. It’s important that you take several precautions for that, but from my own experience I can tell you that even though you take as much care as you can, you’ll still end up being bitten by quite a few mosquitoes.
Our 16-day itinerary
If you are like me, you probably do an in-depth research into possible places and activities to be done in your trip destination, to finally choose what suits you best. And I truly believe that’s the most authentic way to approach it. Everyone’s different, and you need to make sure you use your time as advantageously as possible and make it the trip of a lifetime!
In our case, although we didn’t go to the Caribbean area, we managed to have a handful set of varied and thrilling experiences by travelling around the center and west side of Costa Rica. I personally rather visit and enjoy fully few spots, than being in the bus moving around and spending too little time in many places. Quality over quantity, always.
Starting in Monteverde, wandering through the cloud forests and the eternal green of its landscapes, we moved to the Arenal volcano area with its breathtaking views. Having enjoyed these dynamic activities, we craved for some calm and enjoyed beautiful and peaceful beaches in Manuel Antonio and Uvita. In two weeks, we managed to trek and immerse ourselves into the nature, savor the innumerable and diverse landscapes, and enjoy fully the endless beach coasts surrounded by pure jungle, sunbathe, surf and snorkel under the Central America sun, cross our paths with fantastic fellow travelers, and in general, have the time of our lives.
Day 1: Arrival in San Jose
From everything I read about Costa Rica and my own experience, I can tell you it’s not worth spending time in San Jose; the city doesn’t have so much to offer when it comes to nature and things to do. I’d hence advise you to fly to Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in San Jose, sleep there (as it’s quite likely that you’ll arrive by night time) and move to your next destination early in the morning.
If that’s your plan in the end, book a hotel in the area of Alajuela. It’s not the most beautiful or safest place but it’s close to the airport and cheap for the purpose you have. Furthermore, it has good connections for buses that depart to other areas. In our case, we spent the night in the Hostel Trotamundos, the owners are helpful and friendly and the place does the job for one night. In order to get to the hostel from the airport, we directly took a taxi (remember to use the official red taxis).
Days 2 to 4: The cloud forests in Monteverde
With the early rise of the sun, we started our departure to the green wonderland that is the area of Monteverde. We took the first bus, which was leaving at around 6 am from the area of Alajuela. It takes from 3 to 4 hours and costs $5.00 per person only! Make sure you corroborate with the hostel staff or any local the specific spot and time the bus stops by.
The bus ride is an interesting and fun experience in itself. After cruising through innumerable bumpy roads, villages that felt like they’ve been brought back from old times, and countless natural scenery, we reached Monteverde, and its central city Santa Elena.
We stayed for 3 nights at the Sleepers Sleep Cheaper Hostel, which beyond its basic offerings and appearance it’s a fantastic deal between quality and price. The breakfast is simple, healthy and tasty. The owners are also really friendly and helped us with the booking and planning of all activities during our stay. In summary, a great spot for sleeping during your stay in Monteverde.
2–3 full days in Santa Elena is enough to witness and wander through the impressive cloud forests in the area and to enjoy a wide variety of activities: from wild nature spotting to more adventurous experiences such as zip lining through the forest. In our case, we arrived during the afternoon, which we used for getting used to the area, planning the upcoming days and, in general, getting some energy back and fighting the jetlag (we found ourselves in deep sleep by 6 pm). The activities we did during the successive two days, I personally consider them a must-do if you’re a nature lover and you want to get the most out of the unique green hidden gems Monteverde has to offer. Those were the following:
- Santa Elena and Monteverde Cloud Forest reserves: Welcome to green wonderland. Probably the reason you are on Monteverde on the first place. They’re ideal for hiking around and enjoying their picturesque rainy scenery. You can access the cloud forests on your own or with a guide: guides cost you money but they have the knowledge, skills and tools to spot more animals than you’ll probably do on your own. Regarding which cloud forest to visit, Monteverde is a bit bigger but Santa Elena is less touristic and it’s cheaper, while at the same time having the same wonderful scenery to offer (in our case we opted for visiting Santa Elena only).
- Sky Walk: In the same area of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest you can access the hanging bridges, where you can find yourself walking through the forest and enjoying breathtaking views from wooden bridges.
- Monteverde Extremo Canopy Tour: Imagine navigating through the cloud forest up in the air while observing the diverse flora and fauna. Now, multiply that for 14 cable systems, with the longest one being 1030 meters long and 200 meters high, and then you get this canopy tour. It was a great and fun experience, with the instructors being really fun and enthusiastic!
- Ecological Sanctuary night walk: Walk around the cloud forest at night. There are quite some animals going out and gaining more visibility when the sun goes down. In our case, we managed to see several sloths, toucans, red-eyed leaf tree frogs, to name a few!
Days 5 and 6: The outstanding hikes and volcanic landscapes in Arenal
Being our Monteverde adventure over, it was time to continue with our trip and go to our next destination: Arenal and its volcanic terrains. The fastest way to get there is by Jeep Boat Jeep, which navigates the waters of Laguna de Arenal. It will take you around 2.5 to 3 hours and will cost you $25.00 per person. The journey itself is really entertaining: not only by driving on bumpy roads and passing picturesque costa rican villages, but also by sailing through the waters of the Arenal lake, while the Arenal volcano grows bigger and bigger in the background as you approach it.
We stayed 2 nights at the Arenal Backpackers Resort. As the name says itself: it has the nature of a resort. The location’s great and the facilities are fantastic, being the pool and the bar WONDERFUL. The only downside is the lack of a kitchen (a bit annoying for backpackers), but the bar offers great food and drinks at quite good prices. The music from the bar was a bit loud but they’d always turn it down at around midnight. Totally recommendable for relaxing after a day of hiking!
After our arrival, we focused on enjoying the facilities and chilling at the pool, savouring the benefits of cocktails during happy hour! On the second day we did the Two Volcano Extreme Hike, in which for 10 hours you get in contact and enjoy Arenal’s nature to the fullest. During this tour, we hiked up Cerro Chato and once we reached its crater with its beautiful lagoon, we had lunch and a refreshing swim in those waters. Afterwards, we hiked to the Arenal Observatory, where we enjoyed breathtaking views of the Arenal Volcano as the sun was going down. To finish this adventure, we headed at night to a natural hot spring. There, we chilled for an hour in its waters while enjoying a fantastic natural mud mask and some homemade costa rican cocktails. No words to describe this one-day intense experience.
Days 7 to 9: The wildlife of Manuel Antonio
After the high doses of adventure and hiking from Monteverde and Arenal, it was time to move towards a more relaxing setup: nature, sun, and beautiful beaches. For this reason, we marched direction Manuel Antonio, where we were many times told about the fascinating flora it was composed by, and the great opportunity to see and interact with wildlife.
From Arenal the connection by bus takes quite some few hours, therefore we opted for a much faster transport. We took a plane from La Fortuna (Arenal) to Quepos (Manuel Antonio). It costs more than the bus (around $90.00 per person), but it saves you many hours, and well, for once… The experience itself was also quite amazing, finding yourself in a really small “airport” (it’s located off-roads and composed by a unique landing track and a bar) and later flying in a quite adorable and vintage light aircraft through the skies of Costa Rica.
During our stay we booked the hostel Wide Mouth Frog, with quite good reviews and just next to the bus station of Quepos, which would let us move around easily. After our stay, my review has been 1 out of 5 stars. Horrible. Common areas were good, specially for such a budget place. However. we booked a private room with two individual beds, and we were given the room on the top back, which basically had no proper way of getting fresh air in the room, and the sun was always hitting the back of the building directly warming up our room. It was literally a sauna in there and impossible to sleep. My friend and I slept for 3 nights on the open common area because there was no way to sleep in there, not even with the door open (directly to the common places of the hostel). Also, when complaining about it we were not only questioned about how it can be impossible to sleep there and not be taken seriously with our complaint, but also not been given another room (well, they were asking for more money for a proper room). At least they had the decency of letting us cancel the last two days of our stay, and we literally run away from there as soon as possible.
Good thing is the first day of our stay we met many nice fellow travellers at the hostel. Thanks to one of them we got to know the beautiful spot of Uvita, easily reachable by bus and perfect to get away and enjoy some quietness outside touristic crowds. Back then, we had our last days unplanned, so we immediately opted for this destination to conclude our trip.
During our stay in Quepos we had the chance to enjoy the beautiful beaches around the area, as well as closely see and interact with the many wildlife that can be found there. The first day we went by bus to the beach of Manuel Antonio (free of charge) and spent the day sunbathing and simply enjoying a relaxation day (very much needed!). The second day we marched to the Manuel Antonio Nature Reserve and Wildlife Refuge ($16.00 entrance fee per adult), which we have heard wonderful words about. And it didn’t disappoint. Apart from stunning beaches surrounded by pure jungle, you can find yourself wandering around the forest and spotting wild animals everywhere: sloths moving slowly through the trees (REALLY slow), monkeys of many species, iguanas chilling next to you at the beach, and so on. Beware of the monkeys though, they literally approach you without you suspecting any harm from their side, and in a quick glance all the food you have is stolen (they’ve even mastered the art of opening backpacks). Quite a fun scene to observe if you’re not the victim of their cute robbery, of course.
My advice: Don’t spend more than 2 days in Manuel Antonio. One day for the Manuel Antonio Nature Reserve, walking through its nature, spotting wild animals and sunbathing at its beautiful beaches. And pay only once for that experience. The rest of the time you can laze and see also some fauna in the free (but not less delightful) beaches around the area.
Days 10 to 14: The hidden and breathtaking beaches of Uvita
Last but not least: our final stop at the wonderful area of Uvita, which we got to know during our stay in Manuel Antonio. If I had to describe Uvita with one word that would definitely be mellow. If you are looking for putting some distance between you and touristic crowds, and enjoying unlimited kilometres of beach and sun without encountering a single soul on your way: this is your place. And during that time get the chance to also surf some waves!
You can easily reach Uvita by bus from Quepos, it’ll take you around 2 hours. A few minutes walking from the bus stop you can find the hostel where we stayed for the upcoming 5 nights: Flutterby House. This hostel was recommended to us together with Uvita as a great place to spend some of your vacation days. And it not only exceeded our expectations, but also made the entire stay a memorable experience. It’s probably the most enjoyable and amazing hostel I’ve ever been to. Not only the facilities are wonderful, but the entire vibes at the hostel are. Ah, and please stay at least one night at their treehouse, it was simply superb!
The hostel is located a few meters from the area of the Marino Ballena National Park. This national park composes a long and placid beach, with literally no one around. We spent the days surfing, sunbathing and enjoying mindful walks through the beach and the forest. We also got the chance to snorkel at Punta Uvita (a rocky area that resembles a whale’s tale, and it’s only visible and accessible when the tide is low) and to socialise with fellow travellers and staff at the hostel. In general, we enjoyed the peacefulness and mellowness of taking a moment and relishing life pass by.
A small warning though: the beach at Uvita has some stingrays located at the shore. You’ll be warned to shuffle when walking, and please do so. I was quite unlucky to step on a stingray myself and got stung by it, hence having to go to the hospital. Nothing serious, but they put venom in you when they sting you, and that discomfort can last for (in my case) 8 hours, with the only relief and tactic against it to put the feet in hot water. Another experience to add to the list though!
Days 15 and 16: Time to say ‘¡Hasta la vista Costa Rica!’
Finally the time had come to say bye to this truly beautiful hidden treasure. Our plane was leaving early in the morning of the 16th day from Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose, so we had to spend our last night in that area.
You have several buses to San Jose from Uvita running during the day. One of them goes directly to the city and takes less time while the route of the second one is longer; however, the direct bus doesn’t stop at the airport. We spent the night at the same hostel in Alajuela (Hostel Trotamundos) as our previous experience was good and it’s a convenient place nearby the airport.
And just like that, we thankfully said goodbye to Costa Rica, not only having witnessed innumerable natural gems, but also having collected enduring moments that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. From wandering through the forest and enjoying its extremely captivating nature, to moving around it flying through cables up in the sky. From hiking to the top of a crater and swimming in its naturally lagoon, to observing the sunset of the big brother volcano and enjoying the benefits of a restful moment in a natural hot spring. From having the most magnificent beaches, flora and fauna right at your fingertips, to relishing the most relaxing and mindful rests under the protection of stunning palm trees. From surfing in one of the most lonely and peaceful beaches I’ve ever encountered and snorkelling in the deep ocean, to enjoying the laughs and the discovery of new people and places and, in general, disconnecting from the busy and crazy world for a little bit. In conclusion, a truly pura vida experience.
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This post was originally published on my travel blog Wandering Serendipity.