This is Part-2 of our hurried visit through Costa Rica. See Part 1: Waterfall Edition (Rincon and Tenorio) here.
Overall we had very mixed feelings about Costa Rica as a travel destination. We found there are undoubtedly some very beautiful worthwhile destinations to visit; yet other places seemed overly glorified and came with a hassle or annoyance-factor not found in other Central American countries. Of course, this is only what we encountered and is just our two-cents given our travel preferences, but perhaps our experience may help you on any potential plans to visit this country, known for its natural beauty.
Day 3: Monteverde and Santa Elena
The famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is somewhere at the top of any “Best Costa Rica Destinations” list, so we had to check it out. But we also heard some negative aspects about the park in that it is overly touristic. Some folks even say it can be a Disney-esque experience. Crowded situations such as those can often be a turnoff to us. So when we discovered that only a few miles away there was a sister park, Santa Elena, which limits the number of people; we knew this would be a better option for us. The Santa Elena Reserve receives only a tenth of the traffic Monteverde gets (20K visitors vs. 200K) per year yet is in the same area. We spoke to some travelers who had been to both Monteverde and Santa Elena and each of their opinions were that Santa Elena was not only the more enjoyable but also the more scenic of the two. So with limited time, we chose to just visit the Santa Elena Reserve and off we were to explore the often-hyped Costa Rican rainforest!
We spent nearly all morning taking in the massive and abundant trees and other flora. We hiked for hours through this rainforest, slowly and quietly in hopes of spotting wildlife. We walked through huge lush trees and other plant life and saw a few interesting bugs. Thankfully the crowds were absent but so was the fauna, as we didn’t see a single animal and very few birds during our five hours there. We hiked the 4.8 km Cano Negro trail, the 3.4 km Encantado trail, the 2.6 km Del Bajo trail, and all the other smaller trails in between. We had envisioned the rainforest to be teaming with wildlife. Lots of big trees, a few bugs; yet there were no sloths, monkeys, coatis, or even any reptiles.
Many birders were in the park with enormous telescopes in attempt to get a closer look at the birds. One group spotted the elusive quetzal about 150 feet way up in a tree with its back turned to us and a partially obstructed line of site. The birders kindly let me peak through their high-powered telescope but I didn’t share their excitement in barely being able to make out a few zoomed-in feathers obscured by leaves. I suppose we’d rather just enjoy the rainforest surrounding us.
We left the park rather underwhelmed. Tenorio has a cloud forest and an amazing blue river with a waterfall and even some geothermal features. Arenal has a grand volcano set amongst a rainforest environment. Manuel Antonio has a rainforest with wildlife and postcard-perfect beaches. Monteverde and Santa Elena seem to only have rainforest itself and more rainforest. We expected more from this often-recommended destination.
But we hadn’t given up. A number of people suggested that if we want to see wildlife, we would have better opportunity at night, as many of the animals are nocturnal. So we partook in a night walk to find out. Here, we some interesting creepy crawlies such as tarantulas and scorpions. We also came across sleeping birds, which was an interesting site we’d never seen before. But there were no mammals around. We searched for a sloth that tends to be in the same area each night, but he was apparently hiding from us this time. Finally towards the end of our walk, we spotted a fox in the distance.
We were still a bit let down about Monteverde and it left us wondering what the big draw is. We found some of the forests in Guatemala and Nicaragua to be equally as impressive, yet we saw much more wildlife. In Monteverde perhaps we needed to do one of the dozens of canopy tours which are advertised everywhere here, but that had already been checked off of our Central American bucket list while in Nicaragua.
On to Arenal.
Day 4: Lake Arenal and Volcan Arenal
The Volcano Arenal area is another one of those “Top Costa Rica” destinations, so after the Monteverde area let us down, we were slightly hesitant about continuing on here. But with our gripes behind us, our morning drive to the Arenal area was a very pleasant one. The road often hugs the lakefront, travelling over lush green mountains (even in the dry season) making for a very enjoyable drive. There are a number of nice places for tourists to stop such as cafes, restaurants, and hotels, which dot the hillsides along the way. We happened to see a sign for a craft brewery, so although it was 10:00 in the morning, we just had to pull in. Surprisingly, they were open and we very much enjoyed our brew with a view. It was difficult to not just stay there all day but we had a lot on our agenda to get to. (For more on Lake Arenal Brewing and other beer, see our Beer Guide to Costa Rice here!)
Continuing onward, we saw some coatis running around on the side of the road. We stopped to snap a few pictures, but next thing you know a coati had climbed into the car and was sniffing around for food. After lots of yelling and screaming, we finally convinced him to leave.
We reached the Arenal Observatory Lodge and enjoyed a great lunch with yet another spectacular view. When we arrived there was not a single cloud obscuring this photogenic volcano. We didn’t realize until after the fact, what an extremely rare occurrence that was, as it is almost always partially behind a cloud somewhere, which is how we saw it for the rest of the day.
We visited the small onsite museum and explored the hotel grounds a bit, which were quite impressive. But it was now time to work off that breakfast beer and go for a hike, so we ventured out on the well-maintained trails nearby. After taking in another waterfall and crossing over some more swing-bridges we decided to hike up Arenal’s sister cone, Cerro Chato.
Here, the rough steep trail soon became extremely technical, often requiring upper body strength to hoist and pull ourselves up using rocks, tree limbs, and ropes as grips. We also pulled ourselves up with hanging vines yet other times they were just used to pretend to be Tarzan in this awesome jungle. It was a tough and muddy climb that wore us down, but it was great. Perhaps this is what we’ve been searching for.
During the hike we saw more coatis and even a dangerous-looking red and black striped snake that we weren’t able to identify. The summit revealed views of the lake, which had formed in the bottom of the cinder cone. We climbed down the almost vertical trail to the cinder cone lake and got lost for a bit trying to find our way back to the top. It was very tough and challenging hike, which we really liked although it exhausted us.
For its charming lodge, challenging hike, symmetrical volcano, more evident wildlife, and scenic lake – this was more of the Costa Rica we were in search of.
Day 5: Driving from Arenal to Manuel Antonio
During this rather uneventful day we set out for the long drive from Arenal to Manuel Antonio. At one point we reached a bridge where cars seemed to be stopping for a look over the edge. We curiously did the same and found a number of huge crocodiles just hanging out in the river below.
We stopped in the beach town of Jaco for lunch and when we finally reached Manuel Antonio, we realized it was Saint Patrick’s Day. There were no Irish pubs here, but we managed to find a bar that a plane had crashed into, to enjoy a pint. That’ll do.
Day 6: Manuel Antonio
This was the fifth and final Costa Rican National Park we would visit and we had heard it was probably our best chance to see wildlife. We also heard there were rampant crowds here so got there just after the park opened to beat the crowds and the heat. A few minutes in and we finally saw a sloth. Hooray!
And once we made it to the beach, there were numerous monkeys and raccoons.
We swam for a while in the beautiful beaches before the crowds arrived. Even the small marine life in the tidal pools seemed to be more impressive here.
Overall we really had a pretty enjoyable experience in Manuel Antonio, but there was still something we can’t quite put our finger on that left us with somewhat negative feelings about this park. Maybe it was crowds. Maybe it was paying yet another hefty National Park entrance fee. Or maybe it was the parking attendant who shrewdly tried to rip us off and I had to involve a police officer. Or maybe it was the fact that there were only five trails in Costa Rica’s smallest National Park and three of those five trails were closed for maintenance. Perhaps we had been spoiled throughout the rest of Central America so far, as we never dealt with any of these issues or annoyances before; yet they seemed to run rampant here in Costa Rica, and particularly so at Manuel Antonio.
Despite these irritations, which left a sour taste in our mouths, it really was a beautiful and mostly-enjoyable national park. So before completely leaving the area, we stopped to relish in one last meal on this oh-so-scenic scenic stretch of Pacific coastline.
Day 7: The Way to San Jose
Our final days in Costa Rica would take us to its capital, San Jose. This was simply a place to drop off our rental car and as a pick-up point for a rafting trip down the Pacuare River. Some folks have mentioned San Jose as a lowlight of Costa Rica, so with low expectations, we were pleasantly surprised to find a relatively modern city with some great bars and restaurants. It was certainly worth a night or two stay and a great base for a day trip out to the Parcuare (next post).