When, Where and Why
Daniel and I went on the most amazing trip to Costa Rica over Christmas and New Year back in 2018/19. We took this 15 day holiday and still talk about how much fun we had to this day. We went for just over 2 weeks in late December through early January.
We wanted to escape the cold east coast winter and spend Christmas on the beach. After a lot of research, we decided on Santa Teresa Beach for its laid back, super chill atmosphere. Pura Vida is the way of life. We wanted to swim and surf and eat at good restaurants in a place that wasn’t focused on partying – and Santa Teresa was a dream come true. We wanted to visit La Fortuna for the famed volcano and to see sloths. Originally we wanted to spend time in San Jose to be closer to the airport for our departing flights, but we missed the sunny beach too much whilst in Fortuna so we changed our plans and went to more developed and touristy Jaco (about an hour from the airport) instead! It all worked out so well that I can’t recommend using our itinerary enough!
About the destinations
Costa Rica is a country located in Central America known for its gorgeous beaches, insane biodiversity, and famous volcanoes. It boasts coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The currency is the Costa Rican Colón, which is probably one of the prettiest billed currencies I’ve ever seen! 1 USD ≅ 597 CRC (at the time of our Dec 2018 travels), but the USD is widely accepted. We did take out CRC from local ATMS because we frequented local places and it’s always nicer to not make them incur any credit card charges. The official language in Costa Rica is Spanish. You’ll be fine if you don’t speak it though, as all the areas in this post are very used to English speakers visiting. I was able to use the most Spanish in Santa Teresa at traditional Costa Rican restaurants and in grocery stores, but it would have been fine to use English as well.
We traveled to Santa Teresa, Fortuna, and Jaco. For this blog post, I also included information about San Jose, which we ended up skipping only due to the fact that we wanted to stay at the beach rather than venture into the city. We are very much a beach loving couple and met some like minded travelers who recommended we stick with the beach. San Jose was in our original plan, but we replaced it with Jaco.
A few more notes for you: Most restaurants add 13% sales tax and 10% service charge to bills. Tip additional to round it out. Bring a lot of bug spray. Zika Virus and Malaria aren’t common, but Dengue Fever is. Interbus is a reliable, affordable shuttle company. They pick-up and drop-off at your exact location. Download these apps for transportation: Rome2Rio (my favorite and most reliable!) and Off the Grid Traveler.
Flights: We booked our flights very last minute. Daniel had a huge visit from corporate to accommodate so our travel dates were up in the air until early December. We booked flights just a couple weeks prior to departure and certainly paid the last minute price. We fought round trip tickets from Baltimore, MD, USA (BWI) to San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO) through Spirit Airlines. We paid one for checked bag. The total per ticket came to $1,156 per person.
Here is what we did:
Airport to Santa Teresa – taxi to main bus station in Alajuela, bus to Punta Arenas, Ferry to Montezuma, and taxi to our hostel.
Santa Teresa to La Fortuna – we hired a shuttle van in town to bring us from the hostel to La Fortuna. I recommend going around and bargaining for a good price! It wasn’t a private shuttle to keep the cost low. We could have taken a bus, but we didn’t want to waste the time since the shuttle was already a 5-5.5 hour drive. I think we paid $60 per person. The shuttle went from our hotel to the ferry and included our ferry ticket. Then another shuttle picked us up and brought us to our hotel in the rainforest.
La Fortuna to Jaco – again, we hired a shuttle van for another $50 per person. Make sure you find a shuttle that will stop in Tarcoles so you can see the crocodiles! It is so cool and you can grab milkshakes at Pop’s, which is an ice cream chain in Costa Rica that never fails to impress.
Jaco to Airport – we paid for an Uber because it was cheaper than hiring a shuttle! It also allowed an extra hour to enjoy Jaco before heading to the airport.
Santa Teresa: Hostel La Pasada. We booked a private room with an ensuite bathroom, delicious breakfast included, 2-minute walk to beach, next door to a huge supermarket, great AC in the bedroom, daily cleaning, pool on the property, and had an incredible location. We loved it! We spent 8 nights there for $976 total. We wanted to extend our stay, but they were fully booked, so we moved a few hotels down to another perfectly located spot. Hotel Rustico was run by the kindest family and we loved staying there for two extra nights! We booked this in person literally the morning of and we paid $60 per night. The hotel had a communal kitchen, fridge inside our room, clean facilities and was just a 3-minute walk from the beach. Either place is a great option! The hostel had a really chill vibe and honestly didn’t feel like a hostel since we had a private room/bathroom. The hotel was very, very quiet!
La Fortuna: Arenal Backpackers Hostel. We booked a private room with shared bathroom located just a few minutes walk from the town center. The hostel has a swimming pool with wet bar, garden and hammocks. The room was clean and had a powerful AC. The hostel is walking distance to La Fortuna Waterfall, Hot Springs Hummingbird Garden, Cerro Chato, and the famous rope swing. It is the most popular hostel in La Fortuna, but it was pretty quiet when we stayed! We booked 5 nights for $282.50 total.
San Jose: Hostel Casa del Parque. We booked a private room with ensuite but never went. Luckily, we canceled our reservation in time to get our money back. We had booked two nights for a total of $98.00. From my research, the hostel had great reviews, was well located, and looked nice. I can’t speak to personal experience though.
Jaco: Daniel found the most amazing little bungalow for us at the very last minute, as in, on the bus ride to Jaco from La Fortuna. Thank goodness for Booking.com! We stayed at Hostel Beach House Jaco and loved our room. We paid $108 for 2 nights. It was a 6-7 minute walk to the beach, located in a quiet neighborhood. We had a private room and bathroom. The property has a pool and bar!
Try This There
- Book surf lessons or go surfing! We rented a board for a few days it was great. The waves depend on the tide and there are waves for everyone! From beginner to experienced surfers, you’ll find something that suits you. It is a huge surfing town so you’ll find the tides and waves posted everywhere.
- Rent a 4-wheeler! We did this for a day and it was so much fun! We visited some of the beaches listed and Montezuma Waterfall. We loved this day!
- Playa Carmen – this was the beach across the street from our hostel and hotel where we spent most of our days and every single sunset! They had awesome fireworks all along the coast for NYE too.
- Playa Hermosa – we took some surf lessons here, the waves are smaller and more spaced out than at Carmen. There were a lot more families on this beach and some incredible homes!
- Playa Samara
- Playa Carrillo `
- Montezuma waterfall hike: 78 ft high cascade of water. Cool off in the large pool at the base of the falls, which is great for swimming, but too shallow for rock jumping. Scramble up the rough path on the left side of the falls to a deeper pool and a second waterfall, where you can jump safely. There was an entry fee equivalent to less than $5 collected by a local sitting on a folding chair in the middle of the trail. Shout out to Tom Brady for letting me know about this waterfall.
- Isla de Cabuya: dates back to pre-Columbian times, provides a serene and secluded atmosphere by the sea. Used as an Indian burial ground and still serves as a cemetery today. At the cemetery, find grave sites encircled by shells, family tombs, and a two-faced headstone. The spit of land, which is only accessible by foot during low tide, typically has many surrounding tidal pools where you can find hermit crabs and small fish. Bring snorkeling gear to explore the island’s surrounding reef and discover local marine life.
- Banana Beach Bar – They have events every night. Monday nights are when local surfers compete for prizes at sunset! Great bars along the beach too.
- Day trip: Tortuga Island – lots of companies do this trip in combination with snorkeling! We really enjoyed it. We saw wild pigs and peacocks! The island is super cute to wander around. Bring bug spray!!
- Day trip: Osa
- Day trip: Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve
- Day trip: Mal Pais neighborhood – we walked there from our hostel and it was a really fun (though long) walk through the beach and the little town. We stayed for sunset and then taxi’d home! Bring water and a picnic!
- FOOD: We loved the following restaurants: Soda Tiquicia for banana milkshakes and typical Costa Rican dishes, La Birreria (hotel restaurant) for cocktails and ocean views, Taco Corner (we ate lunch here at least 4 times), Amici (we had dinner here at 3 times, the pesto is to die for and the pizza is amazing too), The Bakery for any meal because their food is delicious, Las Piedras Parrilla, an Argentinian place where we ordered way too much and ate it all anyway, Pronto for more good Italian food.
- Bogarin Trail (La Fortuna Sloth Trail) – we saw a bunch of sloths, including a mother with a baby on her back! We went twice because the first night we went it was closing within 20 minutes, so the kind man at the front desk told us to just come back in the morning on our same tickets!
- Arenal Volcano (5,358 feet) & Arenal National Park ($15 entry fee, hiking)
- Arenal 1968 Trail hike ($12)
- Arenal lake (biggest lake in Costa Rica, rent jet ski or SUP)
- Arenal hot springs (visit the river across from the Tabacon Resort to soak for free, it’s under the bridge) or try Termales Los Laureles (view of volcano during the day $12) or Termalitas del Arenal (lit up at night $8).
- Arenal hanging bridges (Mistico Park – 3.1km trail over 16 hanging bridges, $26 entry)
- Canyoning (Waterfall rappelling)
- La Fortuna waterfall ($15 entry fee, 75 foot drop) Find the rope swing!
- Venado caves (It’s $25 per person for a tour of the caves which lasts about 1.5 hours, spelunking, bats, 45 minutes away from Arenal)
- Celeste River (Rio Celeste Hike through Tenorio Volcano National Park – do this as a day trip! 3.7 mile round trip, takes between 3 and 5 hours depending on mud levels, no guide needed)
- White water rafting (Rio Pacuare, class 3 and 4 rapids)
- Cerro Chato hike – Arenal Volcano viewpoint. Hike to the crater lake to swim too
- El Salto (Rope Swing) to go swimming
- We didn’t really eat worth mentioning here, so I suggest just exploring the restaurants!
San Jose – capital city of Costa Rica
- Walking tour of the city
- Mercado central
- Day trip to Cataratas Waterfalls
- Half Day Trip to Poas Volcano (90 minutes outside of San Jose, visit the cloud forest just below)
- Toucan Rescue Ranch 20 minutes outside of San Jose (Reservation required at $38 per person)
- Rent a surfboard for the day and chill on the beach
- Explore the shops and bars
- Book a rainforest waterfalls tour
- Hike up to Mount Miros
- Take an ATV tour
- FOOD: Pachi’s Pan Bakery has literally the best baked goods and sandwiches ever. We went daily, sometimes twice daily. Pop’s for ice cream and milkshakes. Amancio’s for Italian. TacoBar for tacos and margs – you can sit in their cute swing chairs.
I will say that we read about a $29 departure tax to leave Costa Rica to be paid at airport. Often it is built into airline ticket. We didn’t pay this, nor did we know if it was included in our ticket? We made sure to have cash on hand just incase though, so I would suggest doing the same.
I would highly recommend renting a car in La Fortuna. It will be a lot easier to get around and do things on your own, rather than hiring a car or paying for a tour.
For Future Trips:
Surf camp options that we had looked into –
Believe Surf Camp – Santa Teresa
Selina Surfing – Santa Teresa
LaPoint Camps – Santa Teresa
Hotel Nautilus Costa Rica – Santa Teresa
School of the World – Playa Jaco
An incredible home that was was out of our budget.
Let me know if you go in the comments below!!