If you’re anything like me, you feel the best trips are the ones where you’re thrust into experiences you’d never be able to replicate at home. Costa Ricans have a saying: “Pura Vida,” which means pure life, and in Costa Rica it is not only a saying, but a way of life.
After my second trip guiding a group, I can confidently say Costa Rica is the best place to crush comfort zones, be immersed in some of this planet’s most incredible ecosystems, and experience the unique, local Pura Vida lifestyle.
Voted the World’s Happiest Country in 2017, Costa Ricans have many accomplishments to be proud of. In 2015, the country was able to produce 99% of its electricity using renewable resources, and they continue to make strides toward their goal of being carbon neutral by 2021. All of their efforts are directed toward saving their incredible ecosystems, which are home to over 500,000 species.
Costa Ricans are friendly and welcoming, and are happy to encourage visitors to experience everything their beautiful country has to offer:
NATURE: UP CLOSE & PERSONAL
It’s easy to appreciate the attention to preservation and protection around the country by how much nature you get to experience! From the beaches to the cloud forests, even when you sit down to open air dinners, wildlife is everywhere! There are many protected areas throughout the country that you can tour to get a more up close and personal look.
We had amazing experiences with wildlife in every location we visited. In total, our group estimated we saw over six dozen new, exotic creatures we had never seen in real life before! And the best part is, alongside the animals are beautiful views of lush, green landscapes that are totally postcard-worthy.
One place we loved for the spectacular views of a natural wonder was the Arenal Waterfall. It was 360 degrees of pure beauty. The 500 or so stairs to get down to the swimming hole were a bit of a challenge, but it was worth every step!
In Monteverde Cloud Forest, we first opted for a hanging bridges experience. In a cloud forest, each layer, from the ground to the tops of the trees, is home to different animals. The hanging bridges allow you to walk among the wildlife that spend time in the upper regions of the cloud forest, while also getting a glimpse at creatures on the floor on the hikes in between. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned so much about the species we were spotting.
RAINFOREST NIGHT TOUR
We also chose to take a night tour of the rainforest in Monteverde, because a whole different set of animals only appear at night. This tour with Don Juan Tours was combined with a coffee and chocolate education course (both grown locally in Costa Rica), which was a great way to start our evening. We learned the process to make our beloved java is way more complicated than we imagined! We were able to sample a number of coffees and chocolates to understand the differences in quality.
When we left the education center and got ready for our night hike, we ran into a scorpion mother on the overhang with dozens of her babies on her back! That surely got the adrenaline pumping for our hike out into the jungle darkness.
On our night hike, we followed our guide into a damp jungle to find porcupines eating fruits, toucans nestled in the greenery, and even were fortunate enough to have a bunch of leaf cutter ants try and make our sneakers their new home! No worries though, they don’t bite.
We visited two Costa Rican National Parks: Arenal Volcano National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park. Both parks offered easy to moderate hiking options and provided a number of opportunities to see animals. We were worried that hiking these parks without a guide may make it harder to spot the animals we were so anxious to see, but after spending time in Monteverde, our group was starting to know where to look. The highlights included spotting a bunch of capuchin monkey families, as well as a number of sloths! Pro-tip: Both of these parks are hot and humid, and it’s best to bring a lot of drinking water along for your hikes!
Manuel Antonio National Park is also home to gorgeous protected beaches and viewpoints. It is definitely worth spending a day there to enjoy all that it has to offer. Just be careful; the animals in this park are VERY outgoing and will do almost anything to get to your food! The park’s strict regulations for what can be brought in helps to cut down on animal intrusion, but take it from us, watching a raccoon forage through your backpack for a banana is mildly concerning.
ADVENTURE TOURISM: GOING EXTREME
The parts of the trip our group enjoyed most were the adventure activities. With different landscapes and terrain only a few hours in any direction, the country offers everything an adrenaline junky could ever hope for. From horseback riding to ATV adventures to bungee jumping to white water rafting, there’s not much more you could ask for.
Ziplining is definitely an activity that Costa Rica is famous for. I’ve been ziplining all over the world, and nothing compares to the thrill of ziplining in Monteverde Cloud Forest.
We chose the zipline experience with the most bang for the buck: 100% Aventura, who boasts the longest zipline in Latin America. Your tour also includes two Superman style lines (face down, being suspended from the harness on your back) that average over 250 feet off the ground, as well as a 13-story Tarzan Swing that has you free-falling for a heart-stopping three seconds. The views are spectacular, and I can confidently say it’s the closest you’ll ever get to flying!
WHITE WATER RAFTING
This was my first time trying white water rafting and I’ll be honest, I was concerned that it would not live up to my expectations. But the trip down the Sarapiqui River with Desafio Adventure Company near La Fortuna was insanely fun and challenging. It was the perfect mix of excitement and relaxation, with the cherry on top being the great guides and breathtaking views along the ride. We rafted for a full two hours and the complimentary lunch was out of this world delicious!
Now, the hot springs in La Fortuna/Arenal are not necessarily what I would consider extreme, but the experience is definitely challenging at times and one you cannot get anywhere else.
The Baldi Hot Springs are situated within their beautiful resort hotel and spa; a nice change from the rustic outdoor activities we had been doing most of the trip. As you explore, you can experience 25 thermal pools that increase in temperature as you get further into the resort. Ending with a steamy experience at the top, where a waterfall cascades with water temperatures reaching almost 120 degrees! There is something oddly fantastic about the heat, if you can bear it!
Along with these beautiful pools, Baldi has fantastic wet bars you can swim up to, beautiful water features including a “grotto” that has an awesome steamy cave, a kid’s area with slides and other water fun, as well as a great buffet to make sure the drinks don’t hit you too hard in the heated water.
One thing about Baldi that is definitely extreme are their water slides. And boy did we underestimate them! You will come flying out of these slides at high speeds, but they are a ton of fun.
In Manuel Antonio, our group decided to try their luck with surfing. Most had never done it before, and those who had, still considered themselves novice. The surf in Manuel Antonio was perfect for beginners. Our group rented boards from our hostel, and were given complimentary surf lessons! A few of our friends got up, albeit briefly, while the rest of us enjoyed a beautiful sunset on one of the most gorgeous beaches we’ve ever been to!
SNORKELING & DIVING
Manuel Antonio has a dozens of snorkeling and diving companies that will take you to great locations to catch a glimpse of underwater worlds. We had the unfortunate luck of scheduling a snorkeling/diving day on a very stormy afternoon. Although our hopes of seeing aquatic treasures were squandered, we took advantage of our booking with King Catamaran.
We enjoyed a beautiful boat ride with enough complimentary drinks that we quickly forgot about the rain, some fun water slides, and a delicious traditional Costa Rican meal. We also took it upon ourselves to start a conga line that eventually got everyone on the boat out of their seats, dancing, and having a great time. Just another example of how making the best out of a bad situation can create amazing memories!
In case you can’t guess, this is just a handful of what Costa Rica has to offer. We only visited three areas and were able to fit all of these activities into ten days! Be prepared, if you sign up for an adventure in Costa Rica, you may need to come home to get a vacation from your vacation! Pura Vida!
Contributor Steph Brochey Zarbo
A Buffalo, NY native, Steph and her husband Brandon co-founded We Must Dash, a group adventure travel company. They are focused on providing millennials easy and affordable travel options to exotic locations all over the world. Steph handles marketing, video/photo, creating itineraries, as well as being an on-the-road experience guide. During the summer months you can find her in her other gig as a wedding videographer, and traveling during the cold Buffalo winters. Steph loves the outdoors, her yellow lab Thai, and trying to recreate delicious dishes she’s enjoyed on the road! Instagram: @wemustdash