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.
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.
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.
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/
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.
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)?