A Travellerspoint blog

Costa Rica

Colourful Costa Rica

Driving from Liberia through Central Costa Rica down the Western Pacific Coast to Manuel Antonio

all seasons in one day

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Fly into Liberia
- Day 2: Liberia to Arenal/La Fortuna, stopping at Rincón de la Vieja for hiking en route
- Day 3: Explore Arenal/La Fortuna - I recommend checking out Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
- Day 4: Arenal/La Fortuna to Monteverde where you can stroll and eat well at El Trapiche tours
- Day 5: Monteverde (check out the Selvatura bridges before you leave) to Jacó
- Day 6: Jacó to Manuel Antonio - enjoy the local beach
- Day 7: Manuel Antonio - spend the day at the national park
- Day 8: Manuel Antonio to Cañas - appreciate the art, wildlife, and food
- Day 9: Cañas to Liberia, and fly away home

Where to Stay
- Hotel Javy in Liberia -- although I wouldn't necessarily recommend staying in Liberia overnight
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in Arenal/La Fortuna -- amazing accommodation and facilities, including games area, multiple pools and delicious breakfast buffets - just watch out for the ants!
- Belcruz B&B in Monteverde -- as long as you're ok with rustic lodgings
- Rancho Capulin -- near the Rio Tarcoles crocodiles, and fairly close to Jacó; make sure to request the Mirador if you want a stunning sunset from high above the trees
- Hotel Costa Verde near the Manuel Antonio National Park and close to Quepos -- Area D is isolated from the complex, but has beautiful views since you're surrounded by nature
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica near Cañas -- former presidential retreat that's still secluded, but in need of some repairs

Where to Eat
- Maria Juana Restaurant in Liberia -- cool outdoor setting and hearty pasta
- Casa de Calá in Liberia for drinks
- Casa la Fortuna Restaurant in La Fortuna -- not the best beef, but an adorable setting with cute hammocks and tasty smoothies
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in La Fortuna -- phenomenal breakfast buffet, and delicious dinner
- Sabor Tico in Santa Elena (near Monteverde) for a regional tortilla aliñada as a snack
- Soda Angel in Manuel Antonio -- cheapest and tastiest food you'll find
- Aguas Azules in Manuel Antonio -- nice, sit-down dinner place
- El Wagon and El Avion in Manuel Antonio -- affiliated with the Hotel Costa Verde, so you can request a shuttle
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica in Cañas for another great breakfast and dinner combo - it's also worth stopping in town for a leche dormida since that's the famous local drink

What to Bring
- Bug spray (I cannot emphasize this enough!), sunscreen, clothing for all weather (e.g. waterproof jacket, tank tops, swimsuit, etc.), hiking boots, assistive devices (and make sure to confirm accessibility of sites before you go), flip flops, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, pocket tissues, useful medicines (e.g. for bug reactions, etc.), an SUV (if you choose to drive), US and/or Costa Rican cash (this was very useful), a water bottle (most areas had potable water), and Spanish-English help through an app or pocket translator

My Travel Diary
When I first started planning our three months of travel in 2019, I knew that Costa Rica would likely be the pinnacle. I've always been curious to see the eco-tourism haven of Central America. As such, it was no surprise that when we arrived in Liberia we were met with a smaller city than anticipated and a tremendous amount of greenery. Due to its wild nature, there's a huge emphasis on conservation, and also environmental consciousness. This flies in the face of much of what is shared on social media, so it's no surprise that the airport has actual posters instructing tourists not to disturb wildlife for pictures - "sloths are not made for selfies". What if selfies were made for sloths though? Anyway, we had decided (as per usual) to rent a car, so once we had picked up our Mitsubishi Outlander from Sixt we began on the real adventure, i.e. where to park, and how not to disappear into potholes. Liberia has a unique parking system in that you need to go into an official vendor, like a pharmacy, to purchase time and a specific parking spot. There are no parking meters on the street, and not even some of the locals I spoke to could really identify how the system works. It was still cheaper than having our car stolen and replaced, so I happily paid the pharmacist. Liberia actually seemed very safe and liveable - I'm fluent in Spanish though, so I'm not sure how challenging it might be if you're not - but it's just not an ideal tourist destination either way. Apart from the downtown square and imposing white church, there wasn't much else to explore. We did enjoy watching the birds all line up on cables taking in the striking sunset - it felt like the rom-com version of Hitchcock's "The Birds".

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I very quickly learned that my favourite thing about Costa Rica was actually one specific bird: el gallo, a.k.a. the rooster. Although it wasn't the bird itself that I loved as much as their famous local breakfast dish: gallo pinto. I happily devoured the rice, beans, and special spices every morning (and even a few evenings, where I could find it). Our first morning in Liberia I ate a tremendous amount at the hotel, which prepared me well for our long hike ahead in Rincon de la Vieja. There were a number of accommodations near the volcano park, which were pricier than the hotel we stayed at in Liberia - but you're paying for the adventure retreat instead of the discounted city lodgings.

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Rincon de la Vieja is a fairly short drive from Liberia and well worth visiting. There are two main entrances and areas to explore: Sector Santa Maria, and Sector Pailas. We chose the road less traveled (and also less paved), by visiting Sector Santa Maria. The road was actually just a gathering of huge rocks assembled in a fairly straight line, basically a miniature Stone Henge. If we didn't have an SUV, there's zero chance that we would have attempted that drive. Once you actually reach the ranger's station though, you realize that it'll likely have been worth the ups and downs. The ranger was a kind older gentleman who told us we were lucky that it was a fairly dry day (just spitting rain), but didn't go into much detail beyond that. About 15 minutes into our hike, we questioned his judgement when we ran into a river. Yes, there was a literal river for us to cross at the beginning of our hike. My boyfriend and I chose to cross the river at different spots: with rocks submerged but closer together vs. rocks above the water but farther apart. Thankfully, we were calm as the current and managed to cross safely. Since we were basically river otters after that experience, the next two rivers didn't faze us - it also helped that there were cables strung across to assist with balance. With or without the cables, I felt like a brilliant explorer mapping out my rocky route across the rivers. My bravery came into question every time I heard a sound though: was that a puma? or a snake? or a scorpion? Usually it was just me scaring myself by stepping on a stick. For someone who is actually more terrified of bugs than animals, Costa Rica is a tough destination. I won't sugarcoat it: I had a very hard time managing my insect anxiety because they are everywhere - whether you're indoors or outdoors, they'll find you (dead or alive).

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The Santa Maria sector of the park is open daily at 8 am and you have to come prepared to pay a cash entrance fee of $15 USD per person. Although I've read reviews suggesting sandals I would argue that's totally misguided - if you're crossing rivers, you want tread, and I'd prefer to have waterproof boots on instead. Unless, of course, you plan to step in the rivers. My boyfriend, for example, decided to jump right into a river in order to reach some isolated hot springs. I was more hesitant. Once I finally caved and stepped in, I was eaten alive within seconds. I panicked and ran out of the river without ever making it to the hot springs, instead I had little bloody bug bites all over my legs and a weird red worm on my toe. I guess what they say is true: you can’t step in the same river twice. The river my boyfriend entered definitely treated him differently than me. For my boyfriend, the hot springs were the highlight of our trip, but my experience wasn’t so hot.

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The (live) volcano itself can't be seen from Sector Santa Maria; however, you do get to explore multiple waterfalls: bosque encantado, and the morpho waterfalls. In addition to the hot springs, there are also cold water pots and an old sugar cane processing plant. All in all, we spent about 3.5 hours hiking in the area, and ran into 4 people. If you're afraid of being alone in the woods, this is definitely the wrong part of the park for you.

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It took us about three and a half hours to drive to La Fortuna (the town beside the volcano, Arenal). Weather in Costa Rica is really unpredictable and, on our drive, it alternated between gorgeous skies and windy/rainy storms. There's a gorgeous lookout en route and we were mesmerized by the volcano itself. It's an active volcano, which last erupted in 2010. At 1633 metres high with a 140 metre diameter crater, it literally looks like a picture-perfect conic volcano. The prettiest conehead you'll ever see! From our hotel, we had a lovely view of it, made even better by the fact that we were spying on it from our thermal hot springs. In fact, our hotel had so many amenities that our first day there we spent most of the time hiding from the rain by playing pool, darts, Foosball and other games in the bar area. Finally, we decided to brave the rains and head off to the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. To be honest, we weren’t that brave – the whole park was paved, resulting in less mud and discomfort than even walking around our own hotel’s trails. It was also fairly empty, likely due to the rains and the late hour of our arrival. We got there at about 2:30pm and it closes at 3:50pm.

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The views were spectacular because it wasn’t just the forest – it was also the volcano. The sights became more interactive as we had to follow the path and explore the 22 bridges; the highest (#9 puente la catarata) was 148 feet tall. I’m good at dispute resolution, but I can’t imagine building bridges like that. I also can’t imagine crossing those bridges daily because even an hour of it made me nauseous from the swinging motion. This discomfort was amplified by an allergic reaction to a bug bite. I’m awfully afraid of bugs, which, unlike my Spanish fluency, was not an asset in the wilderness of Costa Rica. This trip actually helped me realize that I need help addressing some of my anxieties. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being afraid of bugs, but there is something wrong with negative thought patterns that spiral into obsessive behaviour. I had to separate fact from fiction when I saw bugs and remember that Aragog, the giant spider from Harry Potter, is not real and does not vacation in Costa Rica.

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Apart from the bugs, the weather was also a nuisance at times. I was really glad to have a raincoat with me for our time in Monteverde and La Fortuna. I was also happy that we rented an SUV for our drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde given the prevalence of potholes that sucked you in like the Bermuda Triangle. They were buffered on both sides by ditches as deep as black holes. To make the drives even more like a video game, my boyfriend (the driver) had to keep his eyes open for loose cattle, and overzealous dump trucks on these narrow, eroded roads. Another obstacle was the constant stream of cyclists that appeared around every corner. The cattle on roads was a constant theme on this trip. In fact, I’m surprised we never saw a cow-on-car collision – that would have been mooving, in all the wrong ways.

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In Monteverde, apart from the cloud forest, we really enjoyed visiting El Trapiche tours. We caught their last tour of the day at 3pm, which was fortunate because I definitely needed a mid-day snack. They supplied plentiful amounts of coffee, sugarcane and chocolate while also providing the added bonus of an informative tour of their stunning grounds. The wildest part was probably the moment when we watched a mother sloth feed her young in a tree, while we took an ox-ride down below. Our ox rode us down a path of enlightenment as we learned everything there is to know about coffee. My favourite fact was that in Costa Rica they only produce high-quality Arabica, since they actually made it illegal to grow poor quality coffee. I wish we could make it illegal to sell bad quality coffee in Canada, although that would likely undermine Tim Hortons’ entire business model. Anyway, it turns out all the volcanoes have made the soil rich in minerals, and led to an appropriate level of acidity. I’m glad the coffee isn’t as bitter as my views of politics, or we wouldn’t have enjoyed it much. We also got to see the trees that grow coffee berries/beans, and learn that the caffeine is more potent once they’re roasted. In fact, we learned all about coffee processing: peeling, sorting and roasting. In addition to coffee, we learned about cacoa, which grows in pods on trees. Once the pod is broken you see that it’s full of seeds. We got to try them raw, but also processed. My boyfriend even got to work off some of the calories by riding a bike that ground up cacao. I made him pay 35$ USD to ride a bike, but he loved it. Although he enjoyed the tour, we did not appreciate the fact that the bathroom door broke. Fortunately, neither of us was in the bathroom when the door jammed; unfortunately, we were both desperate to get in. As they say, travelling definitely brings couples closer together – especially when both people are locked out.

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Anyway, we survived a number of other disasters that day and still managed to enjoy our time at the Selvatura hanging bridges. The grounds were muddy, but they didn’t cloud our views of the lush green forests. We even spotted some wildlife from our bird’s eye view (including many types of birds). The most gorgeous views appeared seemingly out of nowhere on our drive southwest. We even stopped a few times to take photos and just stand hand-in-hand soaking up our moments together.

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Our romantic journey continued when we arrived at Rancho Capulin (bed and breakfast), our gorgeous jungle habitat for one night. The hosts are a lovely couple who moved there from France about a decade ago. They also happen to be the parents of one of my childhood friends, so our stay was not without nostalgia. It was heartwarming hearing about how their kids are doing, and also listening to their story of adapting to this new country and building both a home and business there. It’s inspiring when you see people pursuing their passions, and creating their communities. Life isn’t prescribed, no matter what social norms may exist.

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Rancho Capulin is right beside the Tarcoles River, so on our way to Manuel Antonio we managed to cross the famous Crocodile Bridge and peer down at a tremendous number of man-eaters. I like swimming, but you couldn’t pay me to plunge into those waters. We bypassed Jacó because we were more interested in arriving safely in sunlight at our Manuel Antonio hotel. Our hotel room was in an isolated part of the hotel complex, which meant additional privacy and also stunning views of the water, wildlife and jungle from our balcony. I basically felt like we became Tarzan and Jane, or Romeo and Juliet – but without the problematic underpinnings.

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Manuel Antonio has a fair number of restaurants, and also a few beaches to explore – in addition to the obvious draw, the national park. My main advice in that region is not to trust the many scammers that hang out in the parking lots, and near the park’s entrance. They will tell you they work for the government, that you need to pay them to enter the park, that there are limited spots available daily, and a number of other bold-faced lies. For better or worse, I’m a very blunt person. I was very clear with these men that their behaviour was manipulative, and that I wouldn’t give them a dime (or the Costa Rican equivalent). Needless to say, we were slightly concerned with parking our car around these men after my honest diatribe and so we mainly chose to walk – accepting instead the narrow, windy roads and lack of sidewalk. Espadilla (public) beach wasn’t far, so the walk didn’t inconvenience us.

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I also enjoyed looking down on the beach from our hotel’s helipad structure. The view from above allowed us to really soak up all the scenery, and also stay dry under the umbrellas. I couldn’t really complain about the constant drizzle though given that we made the decision to travel during the rainy season. I did try singing: “rain, rain, go away, come again another day”, but apparently my Canadian lullabies don’t translate into impacting Costa Rican weather conditions.

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The Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays, and open all other days from 7 am to 4 pm. Tickets are purchased near the entrance at the Coopealianza where it’s definitely preferable to pay the $16 USD entrance fee with cash, although they will accept credit card too for an additional fee. To save some money (and help the environment) take your water bottle with you - the park has potable water, like much of Costa Rica apparently. The park is quite large (1950 hectares), but the paths are manageable and you can see most of it within a few hours (depending on your pace, of course). Although we weren’t heading to Jurassic Park, it definitely felt wild. We saw so many animals and insects, even without having hired a guide. It wasn’t hard to spot most of the animals: from agouti to deer. The birds could be a bit trickier, but the tremendous number of guided groups made it easier because they would crowd near a spot in the forest and point their cameras in whatever direction we needed to follow. We walked all through the park, and my boyfriend even swam through parts of it. While he turned into a merman, I chose to binge on ice cream. My gluttony was punished very quickly, as I got pooed on by a monkey while walking back to the beach. Thankfully, the monkey didn’t aim at my ice cream, but it definitely splashed its lunch all over my bare shoulder. The monkey mafia targeted me again later because when we got back to the hotel, a monkey in a nearby tree ripped off some bark and whipped it at me. I’m not sure what I did to deserve that kind of violent crap, but they weren’t monkeying around with their attacks.

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It was hardest leaving our hotel room in Manuel Antonio because rain or shine, we couldn’t stop staring out into the beauty surrounding us. In fact, in a flash rainstorm, I stood on the balcony in solidarity with the toucans, monkeys, taipirs, and agoutis hiding in the jungle in front of me. I’m glad to have had the chance to see the world they still live in, and hope not to contribute to its demise. No matter how much I hate bugs, I recognize that they have as much of a right to exist as me. It’s a shared world, and without those bugs these animals couldn’t feed themselves. Life lesson from a trip to Costa Rica, or from the Lion King? Not sure, but it’s an important one either way.

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Our final stop on this Costa Rican journey was near Cañas, which is about an hour outside of Liberia. We decided last minute to stay at a hacienda there built in the 19th century by a former president of Costa Rica. It was definitely a rustic retreat: as we pulled up, we were greeted by deer. We also played hosts, as our room was visited by cockroaches and lizards. The nearby town of Cañas made for a nice visit because of its beautiful cathedral decorated with mosaic tiles. While there it’s worth trying a leche dormida, their local specialty drink. We couldn’t find an open restaurant so we spent the evening back at our hotel grounds, eating at the delicious on-site restaurant and strolling like president and first gentleman around the large grounds.

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The hotel’s neighbour is actually el centro de rescate las pumas – a conservation site for rescued animals. The entry was $12 USD and we appreciated that most of the money seemed to go toward saving and treating animals in need. Each animal had a troubled past, from the two jaguars who were rescued when their mother was poached to pumas who had been kept in chicken coops as pets. It was hard seeing the animals caged, but it seemed (and we really hope) that they're treated ethically. Most encouraging was seeing all of the children visiting and learning about the plentiful environment around them, and the importance of respecting and preserving it.

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Like those children, I think this trip was an opportunity for me to recognize the importance of my role in environmental protection too. I can choose whether to spend my money on visiting (and petting) animals in captivity for entertainment, or those that have been rescued and are being sheltered for their protection. Overall, travel creates a large carbon footprint, so it’s important to act on ways to offset that. Even at home, it’s also crucial to consider how best to reduce waste and improve recycling. I have a lot of room for growth, but I really am inspired by Costa Rica’s progress. That being said, I won’t miss its monkeys.

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Posted by madrugada 10:04 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged landscapes beaches animals chocolate rainforest rivers monteverde ocean wildlife costa_rica coffee crocodiles liberia roadtrip greenery environment central_america arenal jungles rincon_de_la_vieja la_fortuna manuel_antonio cloud_forests jaco sugarcane romantic_getaway bilingual_travel hanging_bridges _pura_vida tarcoles spanish_speaking_country cattle_traffic Comments (2)

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