Day Trips From San Jose, Costa Rica- Poas Volcano, Waterfalls, Hot Springs, Manuel Antonio National Park, Sloths, and Monkeys!

As I mentioned in my previous post (Why You Should Spend Time in San Jose, Costa Rica), this wasn’t my first visit to Costa Rica. I didn’t say it before but I had previously been to the Guanacaste region in northern Costa Rica, many years ago, and I stayed at an all-inclusive resort and just took a day trip to go zip-lining and visit mud pools, plus take a cycling tour of the area for a couple of hours one afternoon. This time when I went back to Costa Rica, I wanted to do things differently and stay in the Central Valley region where the capital city of San Jose is and take some day tours from there.

We decided to take three days for all-day tours and spend the rest of the time in downtown San Jose. This gave us a nice mix of museums and shopping in the city along with outdoor pursuits. Plus, it limited our days in the car, since a “short” drive to an excursion was a little over an hour away, one way. First, I should give a shout-out to the tour company I chose, Sol Tropical Tours https://soltropical.com.The resort where I was staying has a close relationship with this tour company, although not exclusively so anyone can book tours with Sol Tropical.

It turned out that when I was in Costa Rica, my daughter and I were the only ones at our small resort (only 10 units) that chose to do the tours that week so we literally had our own private tours, for the price of group tours. Score! Our guide, Christian, was so friendly and knowledgable about Costa Rican history, culture, and animals and we gained so much information we never would have if we were on our own. By the second tour, it felt like we were old friends and he was showing us around his beautiful country. We would pull up to a restaurant after he had called in our orders in advance and since he knew everyone in the place, they all made us feel extremely welcome and like a part of the family. Normally I don’t take tours when I travel but this time I was a firm believer in the value of a good tour guide.

Day Trip Number One- Sloths and Hot Springs

Our first day trip was to the Arenal Region. Because it was the rainy season and there had been recent mudslides and bridges getting swept away, Christian had to take an alternate route to the region. This reinforced the fact that it was a wise decision for me not to rent a car and just go it on my own. We stopped in the town of Sarchi for some souvenir shopping and breakfast on our own. Then it was off to a quick view of Arenal Volcano, although because of the mudslides and other reasons, we couldn’t get very close.

A SLOTH!!! It was so cool seeing them moving around in the trees.

There was an optional Sloth Tour in La Fortuna, which I was like, of course we want to take the sloth tour! Who wouldn’t? Christian had an expert eye for spotting all of the sloths and thanks to his telescope we were able to see them clearly up in the trees. Sure, I had seen sloths before in zoos and the like but this was immensely better seeing them in nature. He also showed us many different birds, trees, and flowers along the way.

For the grand finale, as if seeing sloths and a volcano wasn’t good enough, we went to what are often called the best hot springs in Costa Rica but I would say the best hot springs I’ve ever been to anywhere, Baldi Hot Springs. This is a 5-star resort with over 20 natural hot spring pools, several swim-up bars, two restaurants, accommodations, and of course changing rooms, showers, and lockers. We were allowed to stay there for three hours before dinner, and they were the most relaxing three hours I spent in Costa Rica.

We had access to all of the hot springs, including the VIP ones at the very top near the hotel rooms, and we went to every one of them, some twice. Christian had left us to enjoy the hot springs on our own and told us where to go for dinner, also on our own (but everything was included in the tour price). Dinner was a buffet full of traditional Costa Rican dishes like rice and beans, plantains, and fish but so much more as well, a wide array of desserts, and even a chocolate fondue fountain with things like marshmallows, strawberries, and graham crackers to dip in it. With full bellies and soothed muscles, we met Christian by the towel return area for our drive back to the resort.

Baldi Hot Springs

Day Trip Number Two- Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfall Gardens

My daughter has an interest in volcanoes and even wants to be a volcanologist and work with volcanoes when she’s an adult (she’s 16 now). When I told her we could visit a volcano up-close, she was excited and of course she wanted to do that day trip. On this day, we went to Poas Volcano National Park, with the largest active volcano in Costa Rica and 8885 feet above sea level.

The crater of the volcano is over a mile across and 1050 ft.deep. Since the crater is in a continuous eruption with its sulfuric gases, visitors are only advised to stay 20 minutes at a time, to limit respiratory distress. We also were given hard hats to wear, in the event of flying rocks and debris from a sudden eruption. Christian pointed out indentations in the walkway up to the viewing spot where large rocks had landed in previous eruptions. He also showed us specific plants growing there and told us what animals live there (mostly birds, coyotes, rabbits, and marmots). There is a lake in the crater with a lovely light turquoise color, and with a pH of zero, it is one of the most acidic lakes in the world. Since it is at a high elevation, it’s much colder here than San Jose so it was nice to get a cup of hot cocoa at the cafe there to warm up afterwards.

It was a foggy, rainy morning at Poas Volcano so it was difficult to get a good photo of the lake. Like most places, photos don’t do it justice and it was much better in person!

Afterwards, we had a short drive to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This is an easy walking trail (but with many steps) in a tropical rain forest. Christian pointed out birds and took us to the individual sections. There was a butterfly observatory, more hummingbirds than I’ve seen in one small area in the Hummingbird Garden, an Aviary exhibit, Serpentarium, Jungle Cats, and the Frog Exhibit. We had a nice lunch and once again filled up on the buffet with everything from chicken, fish, pastas, pizza, beef, the usual rice and beans, vegetables and salad, a multitude of desserts, and hot coffee and tea.

After lunch, we took the 2 mile path with the waterfalls, all 5 of them. One waterfall was so high and the water was so powerful you could feel the spray from pretty far away. I later learned La Paz is the most visited privately-owned ecological attraction in Costa Rica with the most famous waterfalls in Costa Rica, and the largest animal sanctuary in Costa Rica with over 100 species of animals. You can even stay at the park. https://waterfallgardens.com/la_paz_waterfall_gardens/

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Day Trip Number Three- Manuel Antonio National Park

As we were approaching the town of Quepos, the scenery suddenly changed. This seemed like a town over-run with tourists and there was a restaurant and small hotels or rooms for rent everywhere I looked. Street vendors were selling everything you could think of and it seemed like way too many people piled into this small town. Men were aggressively trying to get us to park in their parking area and sell us day tours. Fortunately Christian, our guide, knew the best spot to park and not overpay. When I asked him how a tourist would know the difference between a legitimate parking lot and an overpriced one, he said simply, “They wouldn’t.” Hmmm. Another reason I was glad we had a reputable tour guide with us.

Christian had to buy our entrance tickets to the park in advance online, as is stated on the park website, https://www.sinac.go.cr/EN-US/ac/acopac/pnma/Pages/default.aspx. Entrance fees are $16 for foreigners. No food is allowed in the park but beverages are. The reason for that is the monkeys.

This little white-faced monkey was adorable

Let me just say a word about the monkeys. There are white-faced monkeys, titi monkeys, and howler monkeys in the park. The white-faced monkeys are aggressive (but not in a harmful or scary way) and used to people. When we were walking on the boardwalk to enter the park, a woman was blocking the path of a white-faced monkey and it very comically pushed her aside so it could get past her (she was fine and it didn’t bite her or hurt her in any way; we all laughed). I loved watching the monkeys, especially the white-faced ones since they were running around on the ground in addition to being in the trees so they were easier to see. We also spotted the other monkeys while we were there but they were in the trees and didn’t come down around people.

There are also two-and three-fingered sloths (both of which we saw, and one even was a mama with a baby!!!), coati, raccoons, birds, caymen, and iguanas in the park. There are three species of mangroves, the main beach (Manuel Antonio Beach), Gemelas Beach, Espedilla Sur Beach (with strong waves so be careful), and trails. Plus, there are changing rooms and showers (no soap or shampoo allowed) and drinking water.

We were content to stay at Manuel Antonio Beach the entire time we were at the park and my daughter and I happily jumped the waves (not too high, not too wimpy) for just about the entire time we were at the beach. Christian had gone off for a run to let us have free time on our own and not hover over us but I had his What’s App contact info just in case plus he checked in on us periodically. The day we were there the beach wasn’t overly crowded but was big enough to allow people to spread out and relax under the shade. Even though it was rainy season, the sun shone all day and it was a gorgeous day for the beach.

When we left the park, Christian took us to a small restaurant nearby where he once again knew the people working there and they all treated us like rock stars. We had a table waiting on us and as soon as we were seated, we were given tasty fruit drinks to help cool us off. I have to say a word about the fruit in Costa Rica. It’s some of the freshest I’ve had anywhere, including places like Hawaii. My daughter swears she can never eat pineapple anywhere else than Costa Rica now.

That’s it for our day trips! They were all unique and if I had to pick just one, it would be extremely difficult. The hot springs were amazing but so was Manuel Antonio National Park, as was Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfall Garden. Christian from Sol Tropical Tours was one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had and he helped us experience true Pura Vida of Costa Rica.

Have you been to Costa Rica? If so, where did you go and what did you do? Any advice about when I go back to the Guanacaste region (where I went many years ago)?

Happy travels!

Donna

Why You Should Spend Time in San Jose, Costa Rica

Many people fly into the capital city of Costa Rica, San Jose, only to quickly leave and go to another city or cities for their vacation, and they don’t bother checking out things to do in San Jose. I recently went to Costa Rica for the second time and I purposefully chose to stay in San Jose (technically it was a suburb only 5 minutes from downtown San Jose) so that I would be centrally located for day trips in the Central Valley region of Costa Rica. This decision turned out to be even better than I thought it would be.

Here’s a paragraph taken from the Frommer’s travel website that sums up San Jose well: “Although most tourists enter Costa Rica through the international airport just outside this city, few travelers take the time to soak in San José’s gritty charm. Costa Rica’s bustling capital and population center is not a bad place to hang out for a few days, or to get things done that can’t be done elsewhere, but it isn’t a major tourist destination. Still, that lack of tourism makes the city feel uniquely Tico. And because San José is the country’s biggest urban center, it has varied and active restaurant and nightlife scenes, museums and galleries worth visiting, and a steady stream of theater, concerts, and other cultural events that you won’t find elsewhere in the country.” I agree completely.

What’s there to do in San Jose?

Well, if you like museums, there are plenty of good ones including the Museo de Arte Costarricense (Museum of Costa Rican Art). The art museum is in La Sabana Park at San Jose’s first international airport facilities, and the building itself is a work of art. You can find contemporary and modern art in many different forms and as you would expect the museum houses the most complete collection of Costa Rican art in the world. Upstairs includes a room with bas-relief walls, visuals of the pre-Columbian natives and an impressive mural by French artist Louis Feron. Outside is a sculpture garden with art by Costa Rican sculptures. Very little information is in English but that wasn’t a problem for me, given the nature of the material.

Museum of Costa Rican Art

The Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum) is in the Plaza de la Democracia and includes a wide array of historical and archaeological samples with pre-Columbian art and artifacts, musical instruments, recreated tombs, pottery, and pieces in jade and gold. There are also dioramas with recreated interiors, furniture, and paintings. There is even a butterfly garden with over a dozen different species. Much of the information is in English. Check the website for prices and other info: https://www.museocostarica.go.cr

One of my favorite museums in San Jose is the Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum). I was told by a tour guide that this museum was one of his favorites in San Jose and after visiting I could see why. Not only are there 1600 gold pieces dating back to 500 B.C., there are many cultural displays about the indigenous people in Costa Rica, which I found interesting. There were also many ancient maps and information about Spanish and other conquerors over the years in Costa Rica and Central America. Much of the information is in Spanish and English so it’s easy to understand the displays. https://museosdelbancocentral.org/eng/exhibiciones/

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum

Another popular museum is the Museo de Jade Marco Fidel Tristán (Jade Museum). It may surprise you that during pre-Columbian times in Central America and Mexico jade was more valuable than gold. This museum is massive, with 5 floors and over 7,000 pieces so make sure you allow a couple of hours to fully explore everything. All of the text on the walls is also in English. http://Museo de Jade Marco Fidel Tristán (Jade Museum)

One museum that was one of my favorites but is often over-looked is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle (La Salle Science and Nature Museum). This museum is also in Parque La Sabana, so it’s easy to combine it with a visit to the Museo de Arte Costarricense. At first glance you might think it’s for children because there are dinosaur bones when you first walk in, but this museum is most definitely for adults as well. I was in awe at the huge number of items on display here. There are taxidermic animals and birds from Costa Rica and beyond, animal skeletons, sea shells, minerals, preserved specimens in jars (including a two-headed pig!) and an enormous collection of butterflies. According to the pamphlet I picked up at the entrance, “this is one of the most complete museums in Iberoamerica with more than 70,000 items on permanent exhibit.” There is an incredible amount of specimens on shelves plus dioramas full of taxidermic animals grouped together by category, like birds or mammals. It was utterly fascinating to me. Like the art museum, there is very little in English here but since it’s such a visual museum, it’s not necessary to be fluent in Spanish to understand what you’re looking at. https://www.museolasalle.ed.cr

I saved the best for last, in my opinion. Teatro Nacional (National Theater) is a must-see place in the Plaza de la Cultura. It took 7 years of construction but the theater opened in 1897 using taxes on coffee (their most popular export at the time). The theater still houses plays, concerts, dances, and operas. They offer a one-hour tour in English every hour (but that varied when I was there, so check in advance) and it is well worth it, even if you don’t normally take tours. The tours are led by artists who perform at the theater and include some areas normally off-limits like the Men’s and Women’s (separate) Smoking Rooms. Plus, you learn information about the theater you wouldn’t otherwise know. Finally, there is one of the most beautiful cafes in San Jose in the theater where you can enjoy a cup of their delicious Costa Rican coffee. http://www.teatronacional.go.cr

Teatro Nacional

Shopping

The Municipal Crafts Market is a fun place to stroll around for 30-60 minutes and browse the local goods. This is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir and you can find a wide array of hand-made goods, along with clothing and leather products (wallets, purses, etc.). The people selling their goods are more than willing to haggle, even if you don’t normally engage in this. I don’t haggle but when I went to purchase a Christmas ornament, the woman automatically lowered the price, without me even asking. https://mercadomunicipaldeartesanias.negocio.site/

In the same vein as the Municipal Crafts Market, there’s San Jose Central Market. This is more geared towards locals rather than tourists because it has more “everyday” products like herbs, meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, desserts, and also some crafts and souvenirs. There were also some small restaurants called “sodas,” which doesn’t refer to the drink but it means they have local food on the menu and mostly locals eat there. In other words, sodas in Costa Rica have delicious, authentic and inexpensive food.

Being a big city (with around 1.5 million people), San Jose has all of the shops you would expect but some were eye-openers to me. There were stores that I would call “Dollar Stores” back in the United States that were utterly fascinating to walk through. Things seemed to be randomly arranged on the shelves with umbrellas next to makeup next to small religious statues, then there was some candy, next to men’s socks. We made it a point to check them out after we experienced our first store and just see all of the crazy offerings and laugh at how they were grouped together.

I found prices to be all over the place at the clothing stores and other stores we went in. Some things would be much lower than here in the US, like the cute t-shirt my daughter found for $4, but other things like a name-brand shampoo I could get for $20 a bottle was $60 a bottle in San Jose. Groceries were mostly cheaper than in the US, with some exceptions, and restaurants were always cheaper unless they were obviously geared toward tourists, which is always the case no matter where you are in the world.

Such cool architecture! Even their post office is beautiful!

Driving in San Jose

I did not rent a car the entire time I was in Costa Rica and every single day I was glad I didn’t. The traffic in San Jose is busy, the drivers are aggressive, and drivers often don’t stop at stop signs. Parking didn’t seem easy to come by in San Jose, either. On the other hand, taxis and Ubers were plentiful. Uber is a funny thing in Costa Rica. Technically it’s illegal but you’ll have no problem finding half a dozen drivers to pick you up, at least in and around San Jose. If you have problems in other areas, it’s probably because you’re in a remote area and you can’t get a good signal for Uber.

The Uber app works exactly like it does in the US. Once you request a driver, you’ll be connected to one and given their car make and model and license plate. Since it’s illegal, it’s best if you don’t make it so obvious by sitting only in the back seat if you’re traveling with others but honestly, my daughter and I rode in at least three Ubers before a driver suggested I ride in the front (so it wasn’t so obvious he was breaking the law to take me back to my resort). Never once did I feel unsafe or that it was a potential problem. I only took one taxi (when I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal) because I was warned by a local they’re more expensive than Uber and the drivers sometimes “forget” to start the meter when you get in the car. The one time I took a taxi, he did start the meter but the price was definitely more than any of my other Uber rides for the same distance.

Have you been to San Jose or Costa Rica before? If not, are you surprised at all of the museums in San Jose? Do you like museums or not so much?

Happy travels!

Donna

%d bloggers like this: