Ben and I spent the second and third week of February in Costa Rica. It was a wonderful time to go there - the weather was nearly perfect the whole time. To me, it felt like summer. We only got a couple of rainforest showers, one of them while sitting in the natural hot springs of La Fortuna.
Last year when we went to Italy, we traveled somewhere new every two or three days. It was amazing but somewhat exhausting. When we were planning our trip to Costa Rica, Ben and I agreed that we’d move around significantly less. We landed in San José, spent a night there, drove to Playa Conchal for a night’s stay, then spent ten days in La Fortuna. In hindsight, I think the best way to travel is to go somewhere new every four or five nights (if you’re taking a two week trip). Staying most of the time in one place ended up being basically the flip side of the same coin to traveling too much. We just got antsy and ended up taking several day trips to fill the time. It wasn’t bad, just something we’d probably do differently next time.
We went to several beautiful places in Costa Rica, but my favorites were Playa Conchal and Río Celeste. Playa Conchal is a beach made up of millions of little shells. It was absolutely stunning, and it’s definitely an interesting feeling to walk on so many shells. I’ve always wanted to be a mermaid, and Playa Conchal made me feel like one!
Río Celeste is an incredible river and waterfall that’s true to its name. It has a crayola-blue hue that puts a crayon box to shame. The color of the water is caused by a chemical reaction between sulfur and carbonate. Mythology says that it’s so blue because it’s where God rinsed his brush when he was done painting the world. I absolutely fell in love with this place. The best moment was when I was looking out at the bluest water I’d ever seen, when the national butterfly, a Blue Morpho, flew over the river. There was so much blue there, it looked like a painting in real life.
Our little adventure in the woods
Our biggest (and scariest and weirdest) adventure happened at Rincón de la Vieja. We drove to the national park from La Fortuna and it took about three hours. Since Ben and I aren’t exactly early risers, we got there around 1PM. The park closed at 4PM, so we were only allowed to hike one of the several trails. The one we hiked was paved and very desert-y. There were huge agave plants everywhere and places where you could see mud boiling from volcanic activity. There were several places where you could walk a little ways off the trail to a viewpoint, so when we saw a sign pointing to something called Santa Maria, we walked through a little gate and headed down the trail. Ben told me much later that the sign had said that Santa Maria was 6 kilometers away - about 4 miles - which I had overlooked. But even had I saw the sign, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. Sometimes when you’re reading something in a language or metric you don’t use (even if you can understand it) it’s easier to ignore.
We walked and we walked and we walked. The atmosphere was drastically different from the paved trail. This trail wasn’t paved, not even close, and our surroundings were no longer desert. We were deep into the forest. Trees were being mangled and strangled by other trees, and we had to climb over bulging tree roots, fallen trees, and undulating terrain. It was much darker and cooler in the forest from all the tree covering. At one point, Ben sneezed loudly. A howler monkey that was apparently occupying a tree limb directly above him, howled so loudly in response that it was like hearing the voice of God (even to non-religious folk like us).
Along the way, I took pictures, of course. Ben walked so slowly that I had to stop and wait for him to catch up every 30 seconds or so. Later he told me why he was walking so slowly: he had felt bad for one of the trees that was being mangled by a strangler tree. He looked at the tree and just said hello, energetically. He said that after he did that, a bunch of forceful energy came back at him from the direction of the strangler tree. If you think that’s weirdsville, all I can say is that you weren’t the one in the forest.
So we walked. And we kept walking. And at one point Ben got out his phone and told me it was 4PM. We had just passed a fallen trail sign that said that Santa Maria was only 2 more kilometers away. That seemed doable since we had walked so damn far already. It was getting darker, like a little too dark for comfort, being it 4PM, but we kept walking. The trail turned even more wild than it had already been. Now it was like walking in a forest without a path. Up and down and though and up.
I started to get a little nervous. We had to have walked 2 kilometers, I thought, but there was still no Santa Maria. So we walked. And I felt like maybe we should just turn back. But then I felt silly. Santa Maria was going to be just around the next corner. I could hear water. I had the vague idea that Santa Maria was a waterfall. But I didn’t know.
We walked around the next bend and Santa Maria wasn’t there. And it continued not to be there. Over and over. Then we saw another sign. Three, actually. One was pointing back toward where we came, saying that the main trail was 6 kilometers away. Another pointed to the right. AGUAS TERMALES, 1KM. The third sign pointed to the left. SANTA MARIA, 2KM, it said. “Two kilometers?!” Ben and I exclaimed together. “It said it was two kilometers away two kilometers ago!”
It was nearing 5PM by then, so we opted to go to the hot springs to the right. At least it was one kilometer away instead of two, and we wanted to see something after we’d walked literally miles. So we turned to the right and continued down a path that was much different from the path we’d come. It was a beautiful, meadowy path. We were walking down the yellow brick road. The sun was setting toward us. We were quite literally walking into the sunset.
The path became tree covered, and at last, there were the hot springs. Trees surrounded the water. They were lovely, but in an almost lonely, creepy sort of way. It was like all of the trees were dead, though they were nevertheless alluring still. The water was cold, not hot. It was a similar celeste hue to Río Celeste. The magic of these waters were much lonelier, though. The smell of sulfur was so strong that my head started pounding. We weren’t going to get in the water; that became clear. I took some pictures. We stared at a cliff on the other side of the river, thinking about the long walk we had just taken and wishing there were a shorter way back. If it’d been earlier, we would’ve tried to find one. But the sun was about to set completely, and we were now more than 7 kilometers away from the paved trail on which we started our journey. From there we had another 3-4 kilometers back to the car. That meant we had another seven or so miles to walk. And not easy miles over even ground.
So I turned to Ben. I was nervous again. We were going to have to walk fast because we needed to beat the sunset. I walked past Ben, as fast as I could. Up over the yellow brick road. The walk back to the three signs felt twice as long as it had the first time. So long that I wondered if I had somehow turned off the correct trail, which was impossible, given that there was only one. I was starting to think irrationally.
We walked past the sign that told us that the paved trail was 6 kilometers away. I sped up with such ferocity that there were moments when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to take another step, I was so tired. In those moments, I would stop for a second and stare at the ground. I wondered how bad it would be if I just curled up on the forest floor. I wanted to fall fast asleep. It was almost as if the forest was pulling me down. The weight of it, the darkness. I began to have auras. My vision became wobbly. I had the same feeling that I wasn’t walking back toward the way I’d come. It felt like I was continuously walking through a wonderland. I was Alice. These were my thoughts. Ben was behind me somewhere.
The sun was down now. The setting of it made the forest floor red. I could see the last bit of the sun glimmering through the trees. I could hear slithering and little footsteps running across the forest floor. We walked further into the dark grey of a theater blackout, the type where you can barely see your hands if you were to shake them in front of your face. We were basically running, tripping over the stair steps of tree roots and twisting our ankles again and again. We finally came to the place where the trail split, which meant we were near the little gate we’d originally come. I turned one way and hoped it was right, and it was. We got through the gate. At last. There was only the faintest bit of yellow and orange in the sky. I turned my flashlight on and we walked the few kilometers back over the paved trail, past the agave plants, over a bridge, to the building where we paid our ticket. We had to climb through a fence to get to our car. The building was closed and locked. I was so afraid that the car was going to be towed, but it wasn’t. We were the last ones there, though, apart from a worker vehicle. I had never been happier to get in the car.
I had worn a necklace in Costa Rica. The necklace has a pendant like a little bottle, and inside the bottle is a little piece of paper that says, “FOLLOW YOUR GUT.” The day we tried to find Santa Maria was the one day I didn’t wear that necklace, which I had been wearing to comfort myself while traveling because traveling isn’t always the most comfortable. Maybe the necklace didn’t mean anything, but the coincidence was still peculiar. When you don’t follow your gut, your head takes you to weird places.
The day after getting lost in the forest was Valentine’s Day. We took it easy because we were still a little stressed from the day before. We had a good day walking around La Fortuna, shopping, and eating. We were happy to be together, and excited for Ben’s birthday the following day. But that’s the day we got bed bugs.
The morning of Ben’s birthday, we went to Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. We bought our tickets and ignored the signs instructing us to only wear closed toed shoes. We didn’t think anything of it. Besides, we had just driven 30 minutes to get to the park and we didn’t want to go back for our tennis shoes. But when we got on the trail, Ben felt a sharp pain between two of his toes. When he looked down, he found a bug leeching onto him. We both thought it was a tick. And since ticks are known to carry many harmful diseases, we immediately turned back. We thought we’d go back to our hostel, get Ben’s foot cleaned up, put on our closed toed shoes, and come back to the park. That’s what we started to do. But right before we were set to leave our hostel to come back, I thought to myself, well maybe I should just get undressed real quick to check myself for bugs. So that’s what I did. And I found bugs. Several of them.
Since I still thought they were ticks, I began flinging the bugs off of myself as if I were the heroine of a horror flick. Ben and I sobbed simultaneously, which is funny now. Then it felt like a kind of weird slapstick-y nightmare. We took a long shower and when we got out, we requested that our clothes and sheets be washed. The hostel owner was not phased by what was happening, but we were stressed. The hostel was already hot and there wasn’t much privacy. That paired with the bug situation made us want to leave. So that’s what we did. We booked a night at another hotel and explained our situation to the hotel’s manager when we arrived. Since I was still finding bugs on me, I wanted her to know what she was getting into by letting us stay the night. After pulling up some Google images and explaining to her what the bugs looked like, she said, “Those aren’t ticks. Those are bed bugs.” She looked a little terrified. She told me how hard bed bugs were to get rid of, and how we likely picked them up from the hostel we’d been staying at. She said that her hotel had gotten bed bugs once, losing them thousands of dollars from the time it took to remove the bugs and replace the mattresses. Bed bugs can lay eggs the size of a speck of dust. The eggs can take more than a month to hatch, meaning that you can think you’ve gotten rid of the bugs, just to have them come back in full force. And so commenced three solid days of cleaning everything. Washing and drying our clothes. Rubbing our other belongings with alcohol. Throwing a bunch of stuff away. Scrubbing our bodies with hot water and soap. We’re rid of them now (at least I think we are…) but getting rid of them was quite the ordeal. And I’ve never read so much about bugs in my life. Of any sort.
So now we’re back home. I told you about the most dramatic parts of the trip, but really, we had so much fun too. Below I give some suggestions of where to go in or near the places we stayed. If you go to Costa Rica, have fun, know where you’re going (at least a little), and oh, don’t let the bed bugs bite... Also, if you rent a car, keep in mind that it’s going to cost as much or more than your flight. Having a car gives you a lot of freedom, but you can also get around Costa Rica without a car. It’ll just take a little longer.
Driving here is hella stressful. Case in point: Ben and I almost crashed the rental when turning out of the rental lot. So be careful, haha. Also, try to be patient if you take the wrong turn. We took at least one wrong turn every time we were in the city of San José. Most of where I suggest to go is in Alajuela, which is close to San José, but a little outside of the zany driving zone.
Palo Santo Grill and Restaurant: This place definitely caters to people from the US, but I still recommend it because the view is glorious. Plus, maybe you’re just craving a burger.
Tipico Malibu: This is the first place we ate after we finally got to our hotel at 11PM and I LOVED it! It literally had the best beans and rice that I had in Costa Rica, not to mention the most amazing flan I’ve ever tasted in mah lyfe. It was one of the only restaurants that was open at 11PM. SO. DAMN. GOOD.
Places to go
Cathedral of Alajuela: We came here at night, but I’d recommend going during the day. There is a pretty church that you can walk around and an adjacent plaza. There are a couple of other plazas/parks nearby, as well.
La Paz Waterfall: It’s a bit of a drive to get there, but worth it if you have a car. You can go on a tour or park on the side of the road and walk under it to take photos and hangout.
Places to stay
Dos Palmas Country Inn: This quaint little place is quiet and owned by a very friendly Dutch man named Peter. They have a continental breakfast and a pool, plus plenty of space to hangout and relax. Peter and his family were very welcoming and always gave us advice or suggestions when we asked.
I wish we would have stayed at the beach longer! Costa Rica has a lot of amazing coast to offer, so you should explore it.
Papaya Restaurant: This is the restaurant attached to Hotel Conchal, and the food is SO GOOD. It’s eat-until-you’re-past-stuffed-good. That’s all. Go there.
Places to go
Playa Conchal: A beach filled with small shells that will make you feel like the mermaid you’ve always wanted to be. Get a hotel here for a couple of days if you can. The one thing I regretted was not spending more time at the beach.
Rincón de la Vieja: We drove to Rincón de la Vieja from La Fortuna, but the drive is an hour shorter from Playa Conchal. Though we had a stressful experience here (read the story above if you haven’t already), there are a ton of things to see at this national park. Hot springs (that are actually hot), waterfalls, and tons of color. Go there. Just don’t go on the trail to Santa Maria.
Places to stay
Hotel Conchal: Ok, so this place. I would have stayed here the whole time, happily. It’s the place where I felt most like I was on vacation. The hotels are so colorful, there’s a pool, and we were greeted with a blended mojito that changed my life. I’m not a drinker, okay? But that mojito was about to make me one. Also their daiquiris. Also their piña coladas. Their continental breakfast was incredible. We got served. Breads. Fruits. Cereals. Pancakes. Omelets. Rice and Beans. Coffee. Tea. Fruit Juice. Honestly, that doesn’t even begin to explain how much yum. So just go.
Ok, so a lot of people get all whiney that La Fortuna is touristy. And it is. But get over yourselves. You’re in paradise. There are plenty of things to do and you can take day trips. I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a few days here, though it’s worth coming. We spent ten days here, and that was maybe a little too much. That’s okay, though. We still had a fabulous time, despite the bugs. For even more suggestions than the ones below, click here (lots of great info about La Fortuna).
Soda Viquez: Cheap, especially for how much food you get. Also, get their coconut smoothie with cinnamon on top. It’ll melt your mouth.
La Ventanita: The owner of this cute place is really friendly and will tell you about all the local spots. There’s a spot next to the restaurant to go hangout by the river. And you should definitely do it. Bring a book or a towel to lay on. I could have hung out there for a couple hours.
Vaca Púrpura: This little hole-in-the-wall coffee place is right next to the main plaza. Get a bombón. Delish.
Chocolate Fusión: Buy all the chocolate because chocolate is yummy.
La Feria: The local farmers market is only open on Fridays, but if you can get there, it’s worth checking out. You’ll be able to get fresh fruits and veggies (which aren’t hard to come by otherwise), but you’ll also be able to buy chocolate, olive oil, hot sauce, and souvenirs. Try to get there early before most of the vendors go home. For directions and more info, click here.
Super Cristian: There’s a ton of Super Cristians in town, which I find amusing. Anyway, Super Cristians are small grocery stores where you’ll be able to buy everything you need to make a good meal and a delish smoothie. There are also a few larger supermarkets in town. For more info, click here.
Places to go
Butterfly Conservatory: If you’re a nerd like Ben and I, go to the butterfly conservatory. It’s a short tour where you’ll get to see and learn about Costa Rica’s native butterflies, as well as other critters that live there. Afterward, you can walk up a short trail to one of my favorite viewpoints of the Arenal Volcano (the lead image of this blog is the view from there). Bring a book and sit under the gazebo for an hour or two.
Arenal National Park: We only did the hike up to the volcano, but there is another part of the park that’s supposedly pretty nice that we didn’t make it to. It wasn’t the most memorable thing we did, but there were a lot of interesting plants on the trail, and we saw a few monkeys and a super giant tree.
Lake Arenal: Lake Arenal is absolutely gorgeous and it’s super large. I’d recommend going to the boat launch across from Soda Cafe Lago in El Castillo. From there you can just hangout or you can walk part of the way around the lake - but not all the way, because that would take days. Bring some closed toed shoes if you want to walk around the lake (for real - don’t pull a Ben and Sofia at Mistico) because it can get a little muddy.
Mirador El Silencio: At Mirador El Silencio, there are seven different hikes to choose from, some forest-y, some along quaint trails past grazing cows. There are several picturesque views of the volcano on the trails, and the entry fee is one of the cheapest around La Fortuna.
La Fortuna Waterfall: This waterfall actually reminded me a lot of the Columbia River Gorge. It’s pretty crowded, but well worth going, especially if you want to swim. Getting into that water near the falls is a powerful feeling. And if you’re cold at first, you’ll warm up from swimming against the pressure of the waterfall. The 500 steps down to the falls are pretty fun, too!
Free Natural Hot Springs River: This is right next to Tabacon, a popular hot springs resort in La Fortuna. You’ll see a ton of parked cars. Just park on the side of the highway (but not near the yellow line because the police will take your license plate if you do that). You’ll find a trail down to the hot springs and a bunch of people hanging out. It’s not for everyone (after all, it’s natural and rocky - read: pokey at times), but we loved it. It’s lovely and the temperature is warm but not hot. You can easily spend hours sitting in here. That’s what we did. I suggest walking down the trail a little bit to find a spot that’s not so crowded.
Baldi Hot Springs: If you want to feel indulgent, come here. There are enough different pools here to keep you occupied for a day or two. And you can order drinks in many of the pools (don’t get too drunk, though :-o). The pools are all of varying heat, from super hot, like almost scalding, to cold tubs. There are fancy lights and structures, and several waterslides. And the waterslides are for real. They’re no joke. The one I went on apparently got up to 27mph and was complete blackness the whole way. I was definitely scared. Plug your nose. Ben said I made a 20 foot wave when I came out of the slide, but whatever, that’s ridiculous.
El Salto (Rope Swing): We had such a great time here jumping off the short waterfalls into the pool of water below. You can also hop on a rope swing and jump into the water that way. Ben tried it, and it looked pretty fun, but I wasn’t feeling up to it that day. I would absolutely spend a few hours here, though, whether you want to give the rope a try or not!
Río Celeste: This is the most magical place I’ve ever been to. You’ve gotta go! It’s a bit of a drive from La Fortuna, but the best thing we did while in Costa Rica.
Places to stay
Regina Hotel: This hotel saved us from bed bugs, and the manager was the best! She was so kind. The rooms are nice and have AC, which is even nicer. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but who cares? It’s right in the heart of La Fortuna - convenient if you’re getting around on foot.
Airbnb: We got a house close to La Fortuna’s center, owned by a guy named David. It was nice to have a full kitchen and house to ourselves, plus a charming outdoor area.
Wood and Art Gallery: There are a ton of wooden souvenirs around Costa Rica, but this place had some of the best. It’s also near a little outdoor shop where you can buy necklaces made of volcanic rock and get a woman to break open a fresh coconut for you to drink from. Yum!
Galería Onírica: If you have some money to spend, this is a good place to get local art. La Fortuna is saturated by souvenir shops, and this art gallery diversifies that a bit. There are some interesting and beautiful pieces in there. If you’re on a budget, you can buy a small, unframed watercolor for $20.
Cianikal Galería: The woman who owns this makes wraps, mostly, and some of them are really cool! There were a few brightly colored earrings I was lusting after that I didn’t buy, only because I waited and the end of our trip was a bit hectic. But everything in there was super affordable!
Have you been to Costa Rica? If so, what was your favorite experience? Where in the country would you most like to revisit? If you’re there now, what do you think?
Loved the photos in this blog? You can buy prints of any of the photos you’ve seen here by clicking here. Let them inspire you for your next vacation or staycation. XOXO