It’s the most unlikely setting to experience one of the highlights of our three week adventure in Costa Rica.
We’re sitting on the balcony of our hotel room, planning out the day ahead. It’s early morning so we’re still feeling slightly sleepy.
The area is lush and green. Large trees and colourful, tropical gardens camouflage our view of the beach.
All we can hear is the traffic noise below. Tourist buses making their way to Manuel Antonio National Park, the most popular tourist attraction in Costa Rica, renowned for its beautiful beaches and wildlife.
Two stunning toucans fly by and land on the tree outside our room. They’re so close we feel as though we could reach out and touch them. We’re suddenly wide awake, startled into action.
The birds are so exquisite looking with their brilliant colours and enormous curved beaks. Lucky for us they sit long enough so we can grab a phone and snap a few pics.
JJ and I have just spent five days mountain biking across Costa Rica, well off the beaten track, from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and we’re lucky enough to see these beautiful birds in one of the busiest tourist areas in the country.
What a welcome! It certainly feels like a reward for all the hard work of our cross-country cycling adventure.
Highlights of Costa Rica: our 3-week itinerary
We had three weeks exploring Costa Rica, a mix of mountain biking, hiking, surfing and sightseeing.
We went from one side of the country to the other, starting in the capital San José before heading to the Caribbean coast. This is the route we travelled:
San José > Cahuita (bike) > Siquirres (bike) > Turrialba (bike) > Orosi (bike) > Santa Maria de Dota (bike)> Quepos > Manuel Antonio > La Fortuna > Tamarindo > San José.
So what were the highlights of Costa Rica and what would we recommend?
Wildlife in Costa Rica: in search of the elusive sloth
Costa Rica’s wildlife is one of the main highlights of a visit to this tiny Central American country. From toucans, turtles, sloths, monkeys, and macaws, to agouti, frogs, crocodiles and racoons, the country is famous for its fauna.
The animal I wanted to see the most was the sloth. And of course, it proved to be the most elusive. Not only are sloths so well camouflaged with their dirt-coloured fur, they loll about high up in fruit trees and barely move a muscle all day long.
On our cycling adventure our guides were constantly on sloth alert for us, eyes peeled on the thick rainforest and fertile countryside. So, how many sloth sightings do you think we experienced riding across the country? A bit fat zero.
Our first sighting happened on the last day of our bike ride after we reached our destination. We were hot, tired, and covered in sweat and grime as we checked into our beachside hotel at Manuel Antonio, near Quepos. All we wanted to do was have a refreshing ocean swim and flop down on the beach.
Suddenly our driver, Darwin, yelled ‘sloth!’ and we jumped to attention. There, high up in the tree, was a light brown coloured blob. Hard to believe, but there in front of us, was a real-life sloth, living it up at one of the most popular resorts in Costa Rica.
High fives all round.
I got a sore neck searching for sloths
Nobody tells you that searching for sloths can be hazardous to your health.
I walked around with my head in the air, neck stretched backwards, desperate to spot a sloth. My neck ached, my eyes hurt, and I felt nauseous from the effort.
I regretted not visiting the Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita, our first stop in Costa Rica on the Caribbean side of the country. It would have saved us a lot of sloth searching.
Half way through our 3-week adventure, exasperated, we finally gave in and headed to the Sloth Watching Trail in La Fortuna. For a whopping $USD35 per person you can take a guided tour of the sanctuary with guaranteed multiple sloth sightings.
Still clueless that spotting a sloth was not for mere amateurs, we took the cheap, self-guided option at $USD15. Don’t do this: take the hip pocket pain, pay the full, exorbitant tour fee and make your life easy.
We ambled along the thick rainforest trails for ages, enjoying the birdsong that pierced the forest hush and feeling pretty stupid that we’d left our binoculars at the hotel.
After several hours of searching we finally struck gold. I spied a sloth high up in the tree and one that actually moved! I got a few blurry, distant pics, mentally went ‘tick’ and was relieved to move on.
The whole, exhausting experience made me wonder: is seeing a sloth in the wild like trying to spot a koala in its natural habitat? I’ve lived in Australia for decades and can count on a few fingers the number of times I’ve seen a koala outside of a zoo or wildlife sanctuary.
Biodiversity and being green: Cahuita National Park on the Caribbean coast
Much is made of Costa Rica’s biodiversity, the variety of its plant and animal life, and its environmental credentials. The country is famous for relying almost exclusively on renewable energy as a power source and it promotes heavily its diverse terrain, from cloud forest and tropical rainforest to its Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, national parks and wetlands.
The first stop on our three week itinerary in Costa Rica was Cahuita, a sleepy town on the Caribbean coast, about a five-hour bus ride from the capital San José.
The Caribbean coast is very different from the Pacific coast, much less built up and much more laid back. The beaches are a bit ratty, not pristine white sand and clean surf like on the Pacific coast, but it’s peaceful and relaxing with deliciously warm water.
The main attraction of Cahuita – apart from chilling out, hanging at the beach, and enjoying an ice-cream or a Caribbean cocktail – is the national park. It’s a haven for local fauna.
We walked the 14 kilometre coastal trail through the park (7km one way) and saw lots of active monkeys, our first agouti, a tropical rat that looks a bit like a guinea pig (at first I thought it looked like a very skinny wombat from the rear), squirrels, raccoons, lizards, and some very busy crabs.
The walking trail runs through lush tropical rainforest, hugging the coastline, weaving in and out between the track and the sand, the beaches littered with fallen trees, broken branches and leaf debris, the typical wash-up from strong winds and stormy weather. It’s a lovely flat, easy walk.
There’s no entry fee to the park, though a donation is encouraged, and you must register when you enter. You’ll need to take food, water, sunscreen and swimmers as there’s no kiosk or water en route and it’s hot and humid.
Manuel Antonio National Park: a zoo of a different kind
On the opposite side of the country is the hugely popular Manuel Antonio National Park, the number one tourist attraction in Costa Rica, famed for its beaches and its wildlife.
The contrast with Cahuita couldn’t be starker.
The park entrance is swarming with touts, tourist operators, souvenir stores and guides offering their services, and there’s a massive queue to get in. Numbers are strictly controlled in an effort to preserve the environment, bags are searched and there are signs everywhere discouraging people from feeding the animals.
There’s nothing organic about this park. There are built-up trails, boardwalks and fences, and as you wander the tracks you realise a lot of the effort to preserve the park still falls on deaf ears; there are plastic bottles dumped in the rainforest and mangroves, and the wildlife that hasn’t yet fled has been seriously adversely impacted by the swarms of visitors.
I expected pristine, peaceful beaches, not crowds of people and families camped at the beach for a party or big day out, their picnic food a constant temptation for the local fauna. The monkeys and racoons especially are not afraid of humans; in fact they’ll walk right up and ransack your bag when you’re not looking.
While parts of Manuel Antonio National Park are very picturesque, it really is tourist central. Sadly, I felt like I was at a theme park, not the country’s most treasured national park.
Manuel Antonio, a little slice of Pacific paradise
While I was underwhelmed with the experience inside the national park, I loved the beauty and the easygoing vibe of Espadilla Beach where our hotel was located. It was the perfect place to flop, rest our weary mountain biking muscles and recuperate from our early morning starts and long, humid days of cycling.
We’d spent the last five days exploring the mountainous inland areas of Costa Rica – the working heart of the pineapple, sugar, banana and coffee plantations and the locals who farm the fertile countryside – and it was a relief to see the familiar azure blue of the ocean.
Manuel Antonio is reached along a steep, winding road from the town of Quepos. Hotels and restaurants line the road, tucked in among the thick tropical bushland. It’s a busy tourist area yet our hotel felt protected from the busy-ness and oddly enough, had a lot of the wildlife found in the national parks: monkeys, agoutis, toucans and sloth.
Like any popular tourist destination, there are tonnes of day tours and activities to choose from, and Manuel Antonio is a popular place to learn to surf. The water is warm, the waves are gentle and forgiving, and it feels a lot less frantic than Tamarindo, further up the north Pacific coast where we did our surfing trip.
Within a few hours of arriving I wished we had booked a few more days here, it was so relaxing and therapeutic. Breakfast by the beach to kickstart the day; watching the sun go down with a happy hour pina colada at day’s end. My idea of heaven for at least a few days of the year.
Making your way around Costa Rica, patience is a virtue
Costa Rica is hilly. Even by the ocean, certainly at Manuel Antonio, there’s not a lot of flat. The country straddles the Continental Divide, the rugged mountains that vertically divide it, like a spine. At its narrowest point Costa Rica is only 120 kilometres wide. So you’d think getting around would be easy, and fast.
The mountainous terrain makes it very slow and challenging: the roads are narrow, steep, and windy. Many aren’t in great condition and it’s quite shocking how long it takes to get from A to B. Before our trip I read many stories of travellers who’d hired a car, followed Google Maps for the shortest route, and ended up on dangerous roads suitable only for serious four-wheel-driving.
We used the Interbus service for all our transfers, a semi private shared transport shuttle bus that takes travellers door to door from hotel to hotel. The mini vans seat about 10 people and while some of the trips can be a bit punishing because of the time it takes, it’s an efficient and cost-effective way to get around the country.
As an example, the drive to La Fortuna and Volcano Arenal from Manuel Antonio takes five and a half hours yet it’s less than 250km away.
The mixed fortunes of La Fortuna and Volcano Arenal
When we arrived in grey, cloudy La Fortuna in the country’s north west, another of Costa Rica’s most popular attractions, we couldn’t see the now dormant Volcano Arenal for cloud; the promise of ‘great views of Arenal’ from our hotel mocked me from the brochure. We subsequently discovered you could visit Arenal a dozen times and still not see the peak of the conically-shaped volcano!
The best part of our three day stay here was renting a motor scooter to zip around. The weather was generally not kind to us in La Fortuna, and we spent too much time motor biking in a mix of gentle drizzle and full-on horizontal torrential downpours. The wet weather combined with steep, slippery roads and muddy, gravel trails curtailed our adventures somewhat, but boy did we have fun.
We felt free and alive, with the wind and rain smashing our faces as we ignored all the standard organised tours, freewheeling through the countryside. We did a few hikes through the rainforest, scrambled over the frozen lava flows at the base of Arenal which last erupted in 2010, dropped in for lunch at little local cafes (sodas), always on the lookout for toucans and sloths.
The other volcano we enjoyed was Turrialba on the second day of our mountain biking journey. Our hotel, high on a hill overlooking the town and Volcano Turrialba, was possibly the most picturesque of our trip. At the end of the day, a cool Costa Rican beer with a stunning volcano view capped off a tough but rewarding day’s ride.
What about the Monteverde Cloud Forest?
A visit to Volcano Arenal tends to go hand-in-hand with a visit to another highlight of Costa Rica, the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We didn’t have time to fit this into our itinerary but walking through the clouds amid the rainforest canopy is one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica.
Given we had so much rain and cloud in Arenal, we didn’t feel like we missed anything by not visiting Monteverde. One traveller we met who did go to there shared his experience: ‘very wet, very muddy and very steep.’
If you can fit Monteverde into your schedule, great, but there are plenty of travellers who visit only one of these attractions because of time restrictions and how long it takes to travel between places.
Surfing in Tamarindo, the final destination on our 3-week adventure
The toughest overland trip was our last from La Fortuna to Tamarindo, our final destination in Costa Rica. It was very scenic as we snaked around the edge of picturesque Lake Arenal and it was remarkable to witness the changing countryside as we headed from the lush, green tropical interior, to the dry, barren and rocky landscape closer to the coast.
But roadworks, indirect routes and passenger drop-offs added up to a long, slow and painful journey. When we reached our accommodation in Tamarindo, situated on a dusty, dirt road, I was completely over it.
Thankfully our host was fabulous, and our week of surfing the Pacific was a perfect wind down to our Costa Rican discovery tour. While it may not have lived up to my (unrealistic) expectations of perfectly formed waves on uncrowded beaches where I rediscovered by inner Gidget, it was the realisation of a long-held dream to surf in Costa Rica. Read all about our surfing adventure.
Tamarindo is a very touristy town, full of North Americans escaping the big winter freeze (from Canada and the USA), and a melting pot of young travellers on working holidays. Western cafes and restaurants abound, loud bars and beachside drinking holes stay open late into the night, and everyone embraces the chilled vibe.
It’s like a small-scale mix of Bali and Honolulu, though to be on trend in Tamarindo you need a man bun, plenty of tattoos (especially on the women) and bare butt cheeks (only on the women). Less is definitely way too much sometimes.
Our days in Tamarindo followed the same pattern: wander down to the uber cool dudes at the Iguana surf school, head out to a different beach each day for a two-hour surf, pig out at breakfast, then collapse in air-conditioned comfort for a long, afternoon recovery nap.
The heat was strong, and the surfing draining, so that’s about as ambitious as it got. We managed a few strolls around the back streets of the neighbourhood, ambled down to happy hour on the beach to watch the sun go down, found some dinner and sampled some South American wine.
My idea of holiday bliss. I can see how spending a few weeks or months hanging out here would be an excellent winter escape.
What about the capital San José?
Good question. The first thing we stumbled upon in the capital San José was a police drug bust in a park near our hotel. Hmmm.
San José is a gritty-looking city with a few beautiful old buildings, streets gridlocked with traffic and lots of smog. I’m sure if you stayed and explored a few days you’d find the charming, perhaps gentrified side of the city but there’s much more beauty to be discovered elsewhere in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t spend much time in San José.
The verdict on Costa Rica
It’s a long way to get to Costa Rica from Australia. And there were times on our cycling trip where I didn’t think the scenery justified the incredible effort of our mountain biking, it just wasn’t spectacular enough.
Of course we didn’t go there just for the scenery, we always strive to experience the essence of a place. And we certainly did that on our three week journey.
Where to stay and eat
- Cahuita hotel: La Casa de Las Flores, basic but comfortable, close to restaurants, supermarket and National Park entrance.
- Cahuita restaurant: Barraka Bistro, really charming hosts, lovely French and Italian wines.
- Manuel Antonio hotel, Karahe Beach Hotel, large rooms, ours was a standard on the main road, not in the beachfront section but we were happy there, we had a balcony with an outlook.
- Manuel Antonio restaurants: Emilio’s café – busy, with big servings and awesome cake selection; Raphael’s Terrazas – lovely relaxed dinner, live music in one corner, with a resident friendly labrador who comes in search of leftovers.
- La Fortuna hotel: Arenal Country Inn, basic bungalow in pretty garden setting less than a 1km walk into town, which isn’t far but at night, the lighting is extremely poor and it felt a little unsafe walking on the roadside.
- Tamarindo accommodation: Iguana Surf Condos, large, self-catering condo with modern appliances and bathroom, swimming pool and BBQ. Highly recommended.
- Tamarindo restaurants: Antichi Sapori Sicilian Cuisine – a wonderful, small Italian restaurant with a brilliant, friendly, charming host; Green Papaya Taco Bar: fabulous fish tacos; Noguis – two-for-one drinks during sunset happy hour; and the Tamarindo Night Markets – unbelievable food stalls, great local gifts and souvenirs. Every Thursday 6-9pm.