Leaving behind the epic landscapes, volcanoes, lagoons, and mountains of Nicaragua was bittersweet. Endearing Leon, spicy gallo pinto, savory nacatamales, refreshing waters in Lagoon Apoyo, weathered cowboy hats, pony carts clip-clopping down cobblestone streets, and the enduring allure of Nicaragua’s old-city architecture; I certainly had an arcade of rich, colorful memories to supplement my traveling tapestry.
Costa Rica was definitely going to be a change of pace as I ventured into Central America’s most abundant tourist mecca. The Penas Blancas border crossing was relatively pain free, though I did have to show proof of onward travel before my passport was stamped. Luckily, I had my San Jose plane ticket with me. My friend, on the other hand, had to buy a $25 bus ticket from Costa Rica into Panama before allowed entrance. Keep this in mind fellow travelers, and be sure to carry all travel documents with you!
Tourism in Costa Rica certainly takes full advantage of its diverse ecosystems. Everything from white-water rafting in mountain rivers and zip-lining through jungles to trekking in rainforests and kayaking near pristine beaches is on offer. Though I love all of these activities, trying to tackle each of them would wreck my budget. Therefore, I decided to thread my way through the best national parks in Costa Rica where I could hike, stalk and photograph animals, and drool over the country’s lavish flora. Here is a quick outline of the ones that I enjoyed the most.
Parque Nacional Ricon de la Vieja: My first stop was Liberia, a burgeoning city on the border of the Parque Nacional Ricon de la Vieja. This “live” park features one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes. The last eruption was in 1991, and though I had good intentions of climbing to the crater, the summit path was closed due to dangerous sulfuric fumes. Summit aside, there were still many trails to explore.
There were no direct buses to the park so I shelled out $18 (yikes!) for a taxi and was off at 7:30 a.m. the following morning. The early bird gets the worm, and, in this case, I was the second person to sign into the park’s registry. (This means that the trails were absolutely empty and serene!) My first hike steered me on a four hour circuit to the Cataratas Escondidas (a.k.a waterfalls) – which were stunning because I was the ONLY person there, and I could have very well gone skinny dipping had the water not been freeeeeezing. (Because how often does a person get the opportunity to skinny dip in a private waterfall?)
As I hiked back to check in at the ranger’s station, I noticed that my tranquil atmosphere was now congested with groups of hikers and families with one or two toddlers in tow. Gone was my idyllic respite, and bird songs were replaced by exasperating chatterboxes. Yes, I’ll admit that I am selfish, and I like having the trails to myself.
The east side of the park is volcanically active with rivers of bubbling lava streaming under the topography. Boiling mud pools, steam vents, hot waterfalls, and simmering lagoons lined the hiking path, and I briefly wondered whether I could bottle some therapeutic volcano mud for a facial later in the day. (I vaguely recalled that I actually have some “volcanic mud mask” somewhere under my sink at home…and I paid a pretty penny for it.)
Ensembles of blue, pink, and yellow buds, gurgling brooks, and undergrowth perspiring with condensation twisted through tropical forests, dry savanna, and patches of volcanic-tinged lava rock. Sulfurous lakes flaunting rusts and golds- and the assaulting odor of rotting eggs- rounded out the sensual experience.
Entry Fee: $15 + cost of transportation $18
La Fortuna and Arenal National Park: La Fortuna is a friendly town with a clean central square and a view of Arenal volcano looming behind the cathedral. Gringo Pete’s was one of my favorite hostels in Costa Rica with $5 dorm beds, a sweet puppy, free coffee, and amicable caretakers. Here, I met a trio of sweet Canadian sisters who joined me on a few hikes through Arenal National Park. The 1968 trail is ironically named after the 1968 lava flow and follows a path through new foliage, lava-hardened steppes, and thriving jungle growth. It was a sweaty climb to the mirador where we had awesome views of Lake Arenal.
Entry Fee: $15 (gulp!)
The following day I woke early to hike the Cerro Chato Volcano, a smaller volcano that clings to the outskirts of Volcano Arenal. The hike begins about nine kilometers outside of La Fortuna, but I managed to walk/hitchhike to the park entrance with three different rides. Since I began at the crack of dawn, I only encountered two other hikers during my two hour climb to the summit; one of whom was already on his way back down. Did I mention that I LOVE hiking when I have the glorious Mother Earth all to myself? Hiking alone puts me in a similar mindset to a yoga session or long run in the country; like sending a bolt of sunshine to my chaotic chakras.
At the summit of the 1,700 meter climb sits a vibrant green lagoon nestled deep in the volcano’s crater. To reach the lagoon, it is a slippery 30 minute drop down a jumble of tree roots and mud. I managed most of the vertical descent on my hands and knees and only tumbled once or twice to thoroughly coat myself in slime and dirt. Now, it would have been romantic to swim in this unspoiled lagoon at the top of a mist-shrouded volcano with howler monkeys rounding out the ambiance. BUT, I had images of a scaly lagoon monster wrapping its tentacles around my legs and pulling me under the water. Soo….I just waded in a bit, splashed some tepid water around, and called it an accomplishment.
From the bottom of the lagoon, I had to pull myself back up the perilous route to the summit where I rewarded my athleticism with a Snickers bar and snapped a few photos. Clouds shrouded the blue sky and any view of Arenal volcano in the distance, so the panorama at the summit was a bit uninspiring. To you, it may look like just another lake, instead of a cool, hidden lagoon located 1700 meters on top of an active volcano in the middle of Central America.
Entry Fee: $10 (and be prepared to get very dirty)
Santa Elena and Monteverde Reserve: On the jeep-boat-jeep trip across Lake Arenal to Santa Elena, I met two Australian girls who shared my love for chocolate and hiking. Together, we found a cheap, cute hostel and explored the outskirts of Santa Elena. The first afternoon, we scampered between rain drops to Stella’s Bakery and the Cabure Chocolate shop. It became a super indulgent afternoon when we also found Monteverde’s Cheese Factory and a bread stand featuring real wheat bread and homemade hummus. Thank goodness I am walking 8 – 10 miles per day!
The following morning, we headed to the popular Santa Elena Reserve to revel in the rich biodiversity of the cloud forest. Though I didn’t see any animals (booooooo), I enjoyed walking through the dense, low-lit, damp and dripping cloud forest. I’m told that 2500 plant species, 100 mammal species, 400 butterfly species, and 400 bird species live in this environment. I also learned that I should never believe the “approximate hiking times” noted on trail maps in Costa Rica. I tackled a supposed three-hour trail in just under one hour. And I was walking slooooowly while hunting Steve Irwin style for these 900 animals I was suppose to be seeing. I think I heard a bird at one point. That was the extent of my animal viewing for the day.
My favorite trails in the Santa Elena Reserve were the Sendero Cano Negro and the Sendero Escantado. They were less populated and not built on platforms or walkways like other paths. Cooler temperatures in the area – plus unforgiving wind and rain – encouraged me to drag out a long-sleeved shirt for the first time in three months. This type of weather called for a few cups of tea and an afternoon nap when I returned to my hostel (after cleaning my muddy shoes).
Entry Fee: $15 + cost of transportation $5
Manuel Antonio National Park – From centrally located Santa Elena, I hopped on a bus toward the Pacific coast to Quepos, a modest town seven kilometers outside of the Manuel Antonio National Park. The Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s most popular national park and is known for its beach coves, jungle hikes, and plethora of wildlife.
A $1 bus ride from Quepos drops visitors off near the park’s entrance, or there are plenty of accommodation options in the village of Manuel Antonio itself. The park’s entry fee recently rose to $16, and it will rise to $25 in January (yikes!). Guides are available for hire and cost approximately $70 – $90 for a half day tour. This fee can obviously be split between group members or families. I did not hire a guide, but I was lucky to find many animals during my morning in the park. And many of the guides were kind enough to answer my questions or let me “linger” behind their groups while pointing out animals.
I arrived at 7 a.m. when the park opened. Though this is the suggested “best” time for seeing wildlife, I actually saw the most animals later in the day. My animal photos could have been much better had I used a telephoto lens, but I’m proud of my little Canon point-and-shoot for what it was able to capture. Sloths don’t usually make an appearance late in the day, and this little guy was still awake at noon. He was happy to perform for us for about forty minutes before settling back in for an afternoon nap.
There were also plenty of howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins, iguanas, racoons, and birds to enjoy. The monkey’s were especially fun to watch as they played on the jungle floor or jumped between branches high in the canopy.
Entry Fee: $16 (soon to be $21 in January 2015)
Puerto Viejo and the Parque Nacional Cahuita – From the Pacific coast, I ventured clear across country to the Caribbean coast and the town of Puerto Viejo. Ideally, this long journey would cut down on my time traveling to Bocas del Toro, Panama, but it was one uncomfortable bus ride. As luck would have it, one of my friends I had met in El Salvador just happened to board the bus behind me, and we spent eight plus hours catching up on our travel highlights.
Though I didn’t particularly love Puerto Viejo, I may be in the minority as most travelers adore this place. The village was FULL of vegan cafes, yoga centers, coffee shops, and what-not, tchotchke stores, but there was also a big drug scene and lots of crime. I didn’t particularly feel safe walking around, and my hostel was just plain gross which didn’t add to the village’s charm.
On the other hand, the nearby Parque Nacional Cahuita was delightful. The entry free was donation based, and hiking paths curved from beach shores into semi-mangroves. Monkeys, sloths, and gaggles of birds basked on sun-dappled branches and didn’t seem to mind the visitors. Definitely spend a day at the park. Then, I suggest hightailing it across the border to Panama.
Entry Fee: Donation based entry (I suggest $5 – $10)
Uvita and the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena – After spending a few weeks in Panama (a story to be told later), I traveled back in to Costa Rica along the Pacific coast. I had a week before heading home to freezing, mid-winter Chicago, and I wanted to spend a few nights in one of the Eco-lodges near Uvita.
The main draw to Uvita (besides being a mecca for retiring American expats) is the stunning marine park of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. The park’s white beach is shaped like a whale’s tail, and the park protects the area’s marine life including dolphins, turtles, and whales. If visitors are keen to see these animals, there are plenty of water taxi tours as well as guided snorkeling or diving opportunities. However, one can also just pay the park’s entry fee ($12) and walk along the beach collecting sea shells or trying to catch whales spouting offshore. Be sure to take a hat and wear plenty of sun block as there is little shade along the shores.
Entry Fee: $12
In summary – So, after spending nearly three weeks in Costa Rica and hiking for 80+ kilometers, which National Park was my favorite? Well, it’s difficult to pick just one since the national parks were so diverse. From beach landscapes and jungle vistas to savannahs and cloud forests, I explored a medley of vegetation and terrains. Glimpsing some of Costa Rica’s animals was wonderful, of course, and I especially loved finding secret waterfalls or reaching a summit after several hours of muddy switchbacks. Therefore, I think that the jury is still out on my top national park. (Plus, there are a handful that I didn’t even get to explore on this trip…maybe a few more weeks are needed in Costa Rica after all).