We took a two week vacation to Costa Rica. It turned out to be an ideal vacation. Beautiful weather.
Excellent adventures, amazing animals and some terrific scenery. The hotels were great. The food was great. Everyone we met was friendly.
It was just a terrific time.
Before we left, Melanie put together an aggressive itinerary of all the places and things we would like to
see and do. Because the weather was so nice (February is the dry season in Costa Rica), we were able to everything on the list.
I read in that Costa Rica is only about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, which sounds quite small, yet Costa Rica
seems like a much larger country because of the diversity of places to visit. Despite the fact that we spent two weeks in the
country, we saw less than half of it. Of course that means we will have to return some day!
Here is our itinerary, with a few links.
Here is rough map of the route we followed, and how many nights we spent at each stop.
We found the following map and guide books invaluable. We also used the Frommers Guide to Costa Rica in
our initial planning.
I admit that when we first thought about traveling in Latin America, I had some trepidation about whether two people could get
around the country without a guide. I don't speak Spanish, the drivers in Costa Rica were reputed to be maniacs, the roads were
impassable, and tropical diseases and mosquitos were rampant, the hotels were depressing and full of bugs.
I contacted a Costa Rica guide group, and ask them to design a two week itinerary for two budget-minded persons. The
cost came back above $5000, not including car rental or airfare or all the admissions. I noticed that the hotels that they would book
us into were listed as higher-end resorts in the guide books. So I decided we would do the entire trip on our own.
It turned out all the fears were unfounded. Costa Rica is a great place to visit and can easily be toured by two
people on their own. The map we used got us around. We drank the water everywhere and never felt ill. Mosquitos were only
a minor nuisance - only a few days did I even put on the bug spray. The food was pretty good. Despite staying in the cheaper
accommodations, I liked every place that we stayed, I think I have provided links above to all of our lodging stops. My goal was
to spend our money on attractions like ziplines or nature guides or sea kayaking adventures rather than on luxury lodging, because I think those are the most memorable
parts of a vacation. I know we will always remember the crazy water slides at Baldi Hot Springs or spotting the scarlet macaws in
Carara national park, but I doubt I'll remember a hotel room, no matter how nice it is.
If you are going to go to Costa Rica, you can definitely do it yourself. Here are some things we found out:
Stay out of San Jose. The city is grimy, crowded and impossible to get around. There are NO street signs any where
in San Jose, both times we drove through it, we got lost. Traffic in San Jose is awful. There is no place to park. There isn't much
to see in the capital city any way. I suggest flying in and out of Liberia airport, which is easy to access and will give you a much
nicer first impression of Costa Rica.
The roads are actually nicely paved, potholes are no worse than what you find stateside. We drove on some dirt roads -
such as going to La Fortuna waterfall or Arenal National Park, but those roads are easily navigable by a standard car. However - there are
a couple of exceptions. The road up to Monteverde DEFINITELY requires a four wheel drive vehicle with high ground clearance. Also
the roads up to Poas Volcano National Park were damaged by earthquake in 2009 and still have not been repaired, and so they are deeply
rutted and muddy.
There speed traps all over the country, especially along the Pan Am highway north of San Jose. The speed limit is only
80 kmph, so you are tempted to pass, but don't! Remember you are on vacation and drive slowly. If an oncoming car flashes his headlights
at you, then there is a police speed trap just ahead. Other than the Pan Am highway, the speed limit is only 60 kmph (about 35 mph) in most places
so it takes forever to get any around. The roads have no shoulders, few passing lanes, and often are quite twisty and winding. We often
found ourselves stuck behind a slow moving truck that we could not pass.
The speed limits are painted on the street, often there is no sign. Two way streets can become one way streets with
no warning signs except for arrows painted on the pavement - I once drove into a street which suddenly become one way in the other direction,
and had everyone honking and shouting at the foolish gringo.
I suggest avoiding driving at night. Street lights are few, and street signs are rare.
If you drive on the Pan-Am highway south of San Jose, expect to go slow - it is a steep, twisting road, and once you get
stuck behind a truck your speed drops dramatically. Fortunately, it was a Sunday when we were on this route, so the number of trucks was a
Gas stations are all full serve. Avoid the Total Gas Station in Liberia.
We carried a good amount of US cash with us, and it was accepted every where. They always tried to give us change in colones, so
we carried a lot of small bills and always tried to pay the exact amount. Many places were willing to accept credit cards. Other than the
Total Gas station, we didn't experience any problems with using our card. The Capitol One card does not add a transaction fee on international
purchases, so that is a worthwhile card to own.
All the guide books repeatedly warn not to leave valuables in your car, so we always stopped at our hotel at dropped off our
luggage before parking at a site. Even if it was too early to check in, the hotel was always willing to keep the bags at the front desk. The
only place we left bags in the vehicle was our last day at Tenorio National Park.
I kept a detailed record of where we spent our money on this trip. It turned out to be less expensive than I expected.
We spent a lot on activities, but ate quite cheaply.