I have always had a passion for traveling and have spent countless hours over the years dreamily perusing vacation destinations and packages online, in catalogs, reading about once in a lifetime trips in magazines, and imagining what it would be like to visit all of the places on my mile long bucket list. One of which had always been Costa Rica.
When I was 19 years old and going to college at Lake Michigan College, I was walking down the hall one day and noticed a flyer attached to a bulletin board advertising a trip to Italy that one of the professors would be leading. It was with a company called EF Tours. Since my graduation money from high school was burning a hole in my pocket, I thought, what better way to spend it than to use it for a trip overseas where I would not only sightsee, but also receive 3 college credits for going! My parents agreed that this was an amazing opportunity so I ended up going on the trip to Italy, but that is another story. When I got back, the travel bug had bitten and my eyes were opened to what a wonderful, beautiful world was out there and I was hooked for life! I instantly started planning my next vacation! Since I had such a great first experience with EF Tours, I went back on their website to see what other trips they offered. I saw that they had another site just for college aged adults called EFCollegeBreak.com. This site had trips all over the world set up for people ages 18-28. Being somewhat of an adrenaline junkie, I was immediately drawn to the Costa Rican Adventure tour that they offered. Whitewater rafting, jungles, volcanoes- it sounded right up my alley! At the time, they required a $150 deposit to book a space and then allowed people to make payments along the way. Without thinking, I paid the $150 deposit. A few weeks later, reality set in and I was reminded that I was a broke college student paying for 18 credit hours (full time) and working a part time job so there was no feasible way for me to come up with enough money in the amount of time that I needed to. I ended up cancelling the trip and forfeiting my deposit. Extremely disappointed, I vowed that one day, I would make that trip happen! Little did I know, that day wouldn’t happen for 9 years!
Fast-forward to 2013. I had been dating Dustin for just over 2 years at this point. We had been on a ton of adventures together by then, but nothing international yet at that point. I had reached my wits end with my job that I had at the time- I was a property manager/glorified babysitter for a couple of properties in my hometown and I was growing tired of daily complaints, stress from my boss to raise everyone’s rent but still make them want to stay at the property, having to evict people from their homes (this broke my heart) and I needed a break! Travel fever set in bad and I started looking online for somewhere to escape to! Groupon has always been one of my go-to sites for finding cheap travel options, as they have air inclusive trips for extremely reasonable prices. I scrolled through the trips that they had available and to my delight, saw one for Costa Rica that included airfare, hotels, and a rental car! Thinking he would probably shoot me down since neither of us had an extra $1000 laying around, I decided to email the link for the trip to Dustin to see if I could entice him to go with the gorgeous pictures of tropical sunsets overlooking the Pacific Ocean, volcanoes and lush rainforests, and monkeys! Because who doesn’t love monkeys?! I expected to get a logical “looks great but we don’t have the money” type response from him, but to my surprise, the photos worked and he was on board! I almost couldn’t believe that he said yes! I was completely giddy at the thought of finally being able to go on my Costa Rican Adventure, and it was worth waiting 9 years for since I would get to go with Dustin! We rearranged our budgets a little and purchased the Groupon trip for $999 each and then called the travel company who would arrange the trip for us, Travel By Jen. That was in April of 2013 and the trip would be in August 2013, so we only had to wait 4 months before we could go, but it felt like an eternity!
I had purchased some plane tickets that I was unable to use the year before and still had a credit on my account for them, so we used those to get from Michigan to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and then the airfare was included with our Groupon package from there to San Jose, Costa Rica.
A few days after my birthday in August, the day finally arrived for us to depart! Dustin was really excited, but I was ecstatic! A 9 year long dream was finally coming into fruition! We flew to Fort Lauderdale and spent the night and then caught an early flight to San Jose in the morning. We flew with Jet Blue and had a nice experience with them. The flight was just over 3 hours and it was gorgeous looking out the airplane window down at the crystal clear blue water as we flew over the Florida Keys. We even got to see Cuba! Since Americans are not allowed to visit Cuba, this was a special treat being able to at least see it!
Upon arrival at the airport in San Jose, we didn’t really know what to expect. We had read that certain areas of San Jose could be a little sketchy so we tried to remain aware of our surroundings. The travel company we had booked with, Travel By Jen, arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at the airport and take us to the car rental location. This was extremely helpful! The car rental process was very easy. We registered it under Dustin’s name since he would be driving. Most vehicles that are rented outside of the U.S. are manual shifting and I am not the greatest at driving these because I’ve always owned automatic cars, so I figured everyone would be safer with him driving! Costa Rican currency is called “colones”. Currently, $1.00 USD equals $550.94 Costa Rican colones to give you an idea how much math we had to do to convert! We purchased insurance for our rental car for the week and I think it was something like $65,000 colones! It was crazy to see an amount that high on the receipt for car insurance when it was actually only a little over $100 USD!
Our trip was set up in two parts. The first few days would be in the jungle and the last few days would be near the beach. Our first hotel was about 2 hours and 45 minutes away in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. After a twisty, curvy, mountainous drive, we finally spotted the Arenal Volcano, which is an active volcano that our hotel was at the foot of.
Our car rental came with a GPS, which was extremely helpful in navigating to our hotel, since we are not fluent Spanish speakers. We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Royal Corin, mid-day and were pleasantly surprised with where we would be staying! The hotel was quite decadent and was situated right at the base of the volcano and had a spectacular view of it towering over the property.
We were greeted with welcome drinks made of fresh tropical fruit and taken up to our room that overlooked the pool and lounge area.
After dropping off our luggage, we changed and headed down to the pool. There were 3 main pools and several hot springs.
Only one of the pools was a cool temperature and the rest were naturally heated from the volcano, and averaged 85-104 degrees depending on which pool you were in. The main pool had a swim up bar area where the stools were under water so you could sit and soak while enjoying a nice refreshing drink.
After spending a couple of hours in the pool, we headed back upstairs, got cleaned up and then went down to talk to the concierge about setting up some activities for us for the following day. This area was known for adventure and there were a ton of fun things to do! We decided to try out zip-lining first and signed up for an early morning excursion. After that, we headed over to the hotel restaurant for dinner.
August in Costa Rica is the rainy season and it rains almost every single day in the evenings. We sat out on the covered open-air terrace for dinner and enjoyed listening to the thunderstorm and watching the lightning as we dined.
Costa Rica has a lot of tilapia ponds so I decided to try the fresh tilapia and Dustin opted for a steak. Both meals were delicious!
During the rainy season in Costa Rica, it gets dark early, around 5pm, but the sun also comes up very early, around 5am, so we decided to get up early to make the most of the daylight hours. We went downstairs to find a lavish buffet style breakfast waiting for us in the hotel restaurant. There was every type of tropical fruit and fruit juice that you could imagine, potatoes, meat, cheeses, yogurt, pastries, eggs, etc. Every bit of it was absolutely delicious and they had a special sauce that is popular in Costa Rica called Lizano Salsa. It had a very unique flavor and I ended up putting it on everything while we were there and even bought some in the airport on the way back to take home because I liked it so much!
After breakfast, a shuttle from the tour company picked us up at the hotel and drove us about 15-20 minutes away to the zip-lining location. After a short safety briefing, we were given a harness and a helmet and taken up the mountain in a cable car.
The cable car took us to the highest point and then there were 7 different zip lines that gradually cascaded down the mountain, the highest being 700 feet in the air, the longest being almost a mile long, and the fastest taking us close to 75mph!
This was the first time trying zip-lining for both of us. I was really excited but Dustin was a little nervous! Ok, he was really nervous and trying not to show it but it was fun for me to see him that way because he’s normally so calm.
It concerned him that there wasn’t a safety cable, just one single cable with a pulley and our harness was strapped to that. And the harness didn’t go over our shoulders, just around our waists and between our legs. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the safest way to zip-line, but we lived and it was awesome and that’s all that matters! The first leg of the zip-lines was the tallest. It was 700 feet in the air and whizzed us through the air above a steep valley. It was such a rush being pushed off that first platform!
We were so high up! Several of the legs showcased beautiful views of Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano in the backdrop and it was a beautiful, incomparable way to see it all!
At the end of each zip line, they instructed us to stick our feet straight out in front of us so they would be out of the way and push back and forth on the pulley to help create some friction to slow us down.
They had a rope on their end that pulled in the opposite direction of the way we were gliding to sort of “catch” us and if all else failed, there was a rubber pad on the wall behind it to catch people as a final resort. On my first try, I thought I might just collapse that wall and keep going, but after a couple of tries, I finally started getting the hang of it. About halfway down the mountain, one of the stops had a little tiki hut where they served everyone fresh papaya juice and it was a very welcomed treat after hiking around to get to the different jump spots around the mountain.
On one of the longer stretches, we had the tour guide, Diego, take our camera and video record the trip down. In the video, you can hear the cable screeching loudly as it picked up speed and then he turned it to capture the stunning lake and volcano. At the end, Dustin was glad he did it but still amazed that we lived with the way they had it all rigged up!
After we got dropped back off to our hotel, we decided to get our own vehicle and go exploring a bit. We checked out the village of La Fortuna and went to find the La Fortuna Waterfall. There is an $8 entrance fee and then we parked at the trail head and hiked about 15 minutes down the rainforest enveloped trails until we saw the waterfall.
They have tours where you can horseback ride to the waterfall but it is a much longer tour so we just decided to hike it.
The waterfall empties into a beautiful blue pool of water below and there were a lot of people swimming in the cool, refreshing water. We didn’t know ahead of time that we could swim there so we didn’t have our suits on but it would’ve been heavenly, as it was extremely hot and humid out that day!
It was a very pretty waterfall and a pretty intense hike so we decided to go back and relax by the pool and in the hot springs for a bit before heading out on another excursion.
We ordered a pizza to share while we were at the pool and when we were eating, we spotted an iguana hanging out nearby. I am a huge animal lover so obviously I had to try and touch it! We were both able to pet it and it didn’t seem bothered by us in the slightest. He must have been used to all of the hotel guests doing the same thing as us!
That night, we had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at the hotel again and take us about 20 minutes away to go on a twilight safari river cruise on the Penas Blancas River. When we arrived at the launch point on the river, the guides put the river raft in the water while Dustin and I walked over to the restrooms. There I found the cutest little puppy all by herself. There were stray dogs everywhere in Costa Rica and as an animal lover, it broke my heart to see them and this little baby out in the middle of nowhere by herself. I begged Dustin to let me keep her but he said no and the guides wouldn’t let me bring her in the van. I loved her up for a few minutes and then sadly said goodbye.
The tour lasted about 2 hours and our guide did his best to point out wildlife to us along the way and gave us a little history of the area. We saw a lot of different birds but it started down pouring about 30 minutes into our tour so a lot of the wildlife that we had hoped to see was not visible.
However, once it got dark out, we were fortunate enough to come across a baby Caiman as well as Blue Jeans poisonous dart frog.
It was a really fun and thrilling experience quietly floating through the jungle in the dark knowing all that stood between us and crocodile infested waters was a yellow life raft, and the intense rain only added to the experience!
At the end of the river tour, we helped the guide haul out the life raft and then he escorted us to one of the locals’ homes to enjoy a traditional Costa Rican style dinner.
We were served yucca bread, fried plantains, goat cheese and fresh fruit juice. It was all very good and a really unique and memorable experience!
The next day was our last full day in La Fortuna so we decided to do another excursion from the hotel. This time, we would be going rappelling down waterfalls, or canyoning, as it is called there! When we were initially researching the area before we left on our trip, this was one thing that I found to do there that I really, really wanted to do! We again were picked up at the hotel by a shuttle from the tour company and they took us a short distance away to begin the tour. From the tour company, we took an open air buggy on a two track dirt road through the jungle. We got to see some very pretty, lush landscape along the way, including some banana trees!
The vehicle that took us off-roading through the jungle to get us to the tour starting point
We again received harnesses and helmets and then headed off on a short hike through the forest until we came upon the first waterfall.
The first rappel was 200 feet and very steep! I kind of assumed they would start with the smallest one and work up to the tallest, but nope! They smacked us with the tallest one first! I hate to admit it, but this one got my nerves a little! I had been rappelling in the past out in the Rockies in Colorado and I’m not afraid of heights so I don’t know why I was nervous, but peering over the edge and knowing that I was the only one in control of how fast I would descend on that slippery drop made me a little uneasy. I would’ve rather put my trust in a professional! Dustin was quite amused since he had been scared to go zip-lining and I wasn’t and now I was scared to go rappelling but he wasn’t! Guess it worked out that way so we could comfort each other? Once our harnesses were hooked up properly, the guide had us stand backwards on the platform with our heels hanging over the edge (remember, it was 200 feet down)!
The scariest part was leaning back and letting myself fall backwards and waiting the split second until the rope caught. Then it was up to me to belay down the side of the cliff next to the waterfall.
About 3/4 of the way down, the guide who was at the bottom grabbed the rope and pulled each person into the waterfall as they hung helpless in the air. It was actually really fun, but made it a lot more slippery on the rest of the way down!
Each waterfall had its own unique characteristics and different techniques had to be used to rappel down each of them. One of them had a hollow drop for several yards before there was anything to put your feet on and was a little more difficult because it created an opportunity to spin and dangle if we didn’t drop fast enough.
The entire experience was very invigorating and rewarding and we had a blast!
One thing we learned over the course of each tour that we took in this region was that the locals were very concerned and protective of their environment, which was neat to see. They were very conscious of the earth and wanted to take good care of it. They had a phrase that we often heard, “Pura Vida”, which translated literally means “pure life”. They appreciated keeping things pure and green and it was refreshing to see a nation so in tune with keeping nature beautiful.
At the end of the rappelling part of the tour, they drove us back to the point where we started, gave us time to change into dry clothes, and then served us a traditional Costa Rican lunch of baked chicken, rice, and vegetables, again with yummy Lizano Salsa!
After canyoning, we went downtown in La Fortuna to find some souvenirs for our families. I bought a chorreador coffee maker for my mom and dad. This was what a lot of the locals used to make coffee. They are made of wood and have cloth reusable filters where the beans are held and then hot water is poured over the beans and the brew drips into a cup or pot below. I like to buy gifts that are unique to the area that I am visiting and this one definitely fit the bill.
The next morning, with a wonderful new set of memories made, we said goodbye to La Fortuna and made our way to the Pacific coast to Manuel Antonio. Read more about our adventures in Manuel Antonio in the next post!