From Stingrays to Tree Houses. Our Costa Rican Cheat Sheet.

by Rachel Gertz

You thought I let the rest of the infamous Costa Rica trip drop off the face of the earth, didn’t you. Well, I’m unpredictable like that. But you should know by now, I’m more anal than I am unpredictable, and more curious than I am interesting. So that means: watch the hell out. You’re gonna get an earful of adventure in this post. And I’m gonna roll up some loose ends into a tight little cigar. Sit on it or smoke it. 

Your choice.

This Whole Vacation Thing…

We’re not whining, but Trav and I haven’t actually had a ‘real’ vacation in almost three years. Sure we traveled the continent in a Winnebago for eight months, and zipped off to Costa Rica for two months of margaritas. But mark my words, we worked every damn day and scowled it out the whole time (lest you think we are trying to tug at your “must be nice” chord).  

To compensate for all this deleterious hard work, Trav and I gave ourselves nine days of no work allowed. He didn’t even bring his laptop, which is quite the anomaly if you know him. 

The Trip

Nine days. Four destinations. Three People. Lots of Booze. 

T and I headed out one sunny morning from Playa Potrero and navigated our way southeast to Manuel Antonio. There we met up with our buddy, Karissa, and spent nine boozy days exploring the likes of Manuel, Jaco, Santa Clara, and La Fortuna. All together we logged 1200 km. Not bad for a country the size of Florida’s last knuckle. 

Have to extend a congenial thank you to my friend and husband, Travis Gertz, for manning that fussy Yaris all the way up and down the coast (especially since he didn’t make a fuss over the stingray sting and ear infection). You’re a champ, my dear. 

Map of our descent
A little thing I like to call Google Maps shows off the route we explored for nine days.

On Cars

We rented a car. Never do this. It is so effing expensive, you’ll wish you hitchhiked! Our little blue Yaris cost us $500 for nine days; plus we couldn’t opt out of insurance. It’s like they know their roads are bad or something. So, unless there’s four people spotting you cash for that Toyota, just take the bus or hide in the back of a banana truck. 

Sidenote: We may or may not have backed into a low lying piece of concrete during the trip, but that detail is not important. What is important is that the vehicle was so scratched up to begin with, our deposit was returned without so much as a ‘hasta luego’. 

Our Little Yaris
Speak of the devil. A blue one that knew how to get us up the steepest cliffs imaginable.

On Getting Around

Bring a Map. Then spring for GPS. It’s worth it. There are signs that don’t point anywhere, the arrows having been ripped off and left to rust upside down. We didn’t spring for GPS, and we seldom had wifi for Google Maps on our phone. Monkey see, monkey is an idiot if he do.

Learn how to ask for directions in Spanish. You will be amazed how much further you can go when you know how to say, “¿Cuando kilometros norte de la playa Mierda?” 

Also, you’ll be tempted to murder your seat mate after approximately six hours of driving windy mountain ditches, and zero pee breaks within a 100 kilometre radius. Plan beer stops along your route to prevent your legs from cramping up and sporadically karate kicking your friend in the jaw. 

Steep Mountains of Costa Rican Wild
Thousands of metres up a dodgy road, we were greeted by the above view.

On Sleeping

If you’re cheap like us, and would rather splurge on the tequila that puts you to bed at night, budget for about $10 to $30 per person per night.  You can get by fantastically with a simple mattress, a few bugs (just a few) and intermittent air-conditioning. 

If you’re a fancy pants and gag at the thought of not having access to matching monogrammed towels, you’re probably best to stick with AirBnB or Hotels booking sites. Also, we can’t be friends. Just kidding. 

I totally would have asked for monogrammed towels. 

We found a fantastic little site called Hostel World, and booked our Manuel Antonio, Jaco, and La Fortuna stays through it. It’s a simple process and the site only takes a portion of your total stay online, which frees you up to do a little more searching before you commit. As my mom always said, “Play the field, Rach. Play the field.” I told her it was inappropriate since I had been married for three and a half years. 

Have to say, our favourite little hostel was the Arenal Luxury Backpackers Hostel. It was more like a hotel. We slept in army tents on an elevated deck, complete with queen sized mattress, swan shaped towel, and ear plugs. The La Fortuna/Arenal area is a overrun with diesel tourist buses, so the earplugs were a necessity. Our hostel boasted a neatly manicured pool, hot, I mean helpful service staff, and hot, I mean, steamy showers. Couldn’t really beat that for $30 a night (for Trav and I). Karissa had her own tent. I’m sure she was gleeful after sharing a gassy room with us for seven nights. 

I can’t forget to mention the Costa Rican Tree House Hotel. This place blew us away. Mark and Lucy booked all our tours for us and were sweet as Georgia peaches (I imagine Georgian peaches are the of the friendly fruit variety). I kept staring in awe at the Pepsi bottle Mark kept spitting into, wondering how someone undrinks Pepsi. Then I realized he was spewing chewing tobacco and tucking it discreetly away in his pocket. Threw me for a loop. But don’t let that sway you. These guys are phenomenal and the treehouses are breathtaking. Go to here, and try to book in advance. They fill up quick.* 

Costa Rican Treehouse Hotel
A shot of the treehouse on the way out. Twenty five feet in the air.
Birds Attacking at the Treehouse Hotel
Clay Robins, Costa Rica’s national bird, fight over plantain bits at the tree houses.

*Like an idiot, I hardly took any photos of the places we stayed at. I confess to being drunk throughout the week and mildly unaware of my surroundings. At any rate, there’s some on Hostel World if you’re really interested. 

On Grub

A couple rogue restaurants we can most definitely recommend if you’re in the area…

Manuel Antonio
Claro Que Si. Food was tasty and a live band serenaded us until we practically burst our seams. A bit on the pricy side, so watch that wallet.

El Avion. Food was meh, but it’s served in an airplane. I mean, seriously! I would eat dog shit on a plane. Well, I would probably end up pushing it around on my plate. But still worth it if you wanna do drinks or dessert.

Jaco
Claritas. Best chicken wings since The Bone in Calgary. Not kidding.  We ate four orders and licked our fingers clean.

TacoBar. Fresh made tacos and a buffet of fillings. To die for.

Santa Clara
Bella Verona. Best Costa Rican Italian you’ve ever had. The owner’s son even went out and bought cigarettes for someone in our party who shall remain nameless, but who wasn’t Trav or I.  

La Fortuna
Benedictu’s. Remember how I was saying Costa Rica didn’t do steak? Well, my opinion changed after eating here. The steaks were cut thick & juicy, and they arrived sizzling on a flat iron. We were so full, we had to muster extra stomach room to finish off the bananas flambe. And we finished that bitch like no tomorrow. Benedictu is a great host and so were all his comrades. I’d go back in heartbeat.

Pizza John’s. If you don’t mind arriving on an empty stomach, you’ll be fine. The reason? You’ll be driving about forty minutes on a road that looks like Haitian earthquake collateral (too soon?). You’ll need to avoid puking. Once you’ve reassembled yourself, you climb a spiral staircase to an almost whimsical patio. There’s Sharpie writing on all the walls, verifying the excellence of the establishment. The pizza is cheesy, full of fresh local ingredients, and Taco the attention-seeking dog is waiting for a stray hand to adopt —so you can pet him, you sicko.  

Lunch at Pizza John's (outside La Fortuna)
You caught us. Enjoying a beer on Pizza John’s patio, five minutes before a rainstorm ripped through it.
Taco Living Large
Taco, the little slut. He was a street dog who is now laying in the lap of luxury.

On Adventures!

Okay, now for the fun part. There are a million things to do in Costa Rica, as I’ve  said before. Suggest something ridiculous and it probably exists. There were a ton of things we meant to tackle, but we didn’t discount the driving and unwinding time it takes to make these things happen. We had to pick and choose our adventures due to a slippery combination of price, energy levels, and access points. 

Here’s how we adventured ourselves… 

Manuel Antonio
Wildlife Refuge. Take a guide; you won’t regret it. White faced Capuchins, iguanas, raccoons, and things that looked like large guinea pigs.

Travis & Karissa: Manuel Antonio Park
Travis and Karissa without the knowledge that they would soon have monkeys threatening to poop on their heads.
White Faced Capuchin
A White-Faced Capuchin. I’m pretty sure he pooped on a dude’s head after stealing his rolex.

La Playa Manuel Mantonio
Shit water and Cabana boys (could have been wearing less clothing to meet my approval), not to mention pipas frias or cold, young coconut water. Geez Louise I love me some slippery coconut water. Cures your hangover every time.  

Jaco
Stingray tattoo. This is not for the faint of heart. Ask Travis. He’ll tell ya. 

Travis Surfing Playa Hermosa
Travis returns exhausted after pummelling the waves of Playa Hermosa, next to Jaco.
Boy and Dog Chasing Coconut
Wild mutt & boy staring at coconut. That is all.

San Luis (near Santa Clara)
Canopy tour. The guides were terrific and for some reason even gave us an extra go on the Tarzan swing. They kept kissing Karissa’s hand. Creepy. Unrelated: for some reason, I kept getting mud sprayed down my face and chest, much to the amusement of both Travis, Karissa and the guides.

Us in our canopy flying gear
Karissa, Trav, and I grinning it up like champions during our canopy tour.

La Fortuna
White Water Rafting. Wave Expeditions, a fabulous company I highly recommend, drove us out into the middle of nowhere so we could hit class 3 & 4 rapids all the way to China Town (not literally). For those that don’t know, these are class 3/4s. Not for the beginner. Which is why we brought Karissa with us, who had never dipped foot in a white water rapid (unless you count the Red Deer River on a windy day). Karissa promptly fell out on the first rapid. Now why did you do that, Karissa? You could have saved yourself a swathe of bruises and a mild concussion. 

I must say, she was a trooper. She got right back in the boat and we rode that mother heifing boat till the cows came home. I’d do it again in a heart beat.

Karissa? 

Arenal
The Springs hot springs. Half the price of Tabacon and more refined, The Springs will give you a run for your money. We purchased a two day pass* for $55/psn —prices shown are different for some reason, and spent a total of six or seven glorious hours soaking in steaming pools heated by the nearby Arenal volcano. They literally blew us away, and aside from the copious amounts of vodka we sucked back, they were the only thing nursing our mangled, white-water-rafted limbs. Highly recommended.

The pass included a meal voucher at its world class restaurant. Even though we got a ‘discounted’ menu, it included delicacies like coconut crusted tilapia, fresh salad or soup, a drink, and dessert. 

*can be used anytime within a two week period

A Whole Shit Ton of Things We Didn’t Get To Do

There’s so many things that can get your rocks off in CR (so to speak), I’m almost wondering why I bother with a bulleted list. Bottom line, if you want to do it, it can be done. 

  • ATV tours
  • air boat trip into Limon
  • animal volunteering
  • bicycle tours
  • butterfly conservatory
  • cliff jumping
  • cave tours
  • crocodile farms
  • deep sea fishing
  • hiking in the rainforest
  • horse back riding
  • mud baths
  • rodeos
  • scuba diving
  • sea kayaking
  • snorkelling/sailing boats
  • sloth reserve
  • suspension  bridges
  • turtle egg counting
  • volcano observatory
  • volcano tours
  • waterfall repelling
  • whale watching 

More Info

Check out some of the links below. They’ll help you narrow down your choices and prevent you from dopily hanging out by the pool in your own cloud of urine the whole trip. 

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