Pura Vida – the magical word combination that we all are searching in this life. Simply translated Pura Vida means “pure life” or “simple life”. This is the moto of the people in Costa Rica. Not just a moto but actually a way of living. And shouldn’t it be the the same for all of us? So I decided to fly to Costa Rica and travel around the country by car to try and find this magical Pura Vida for myself as well.
Costa Rica has it all – the rainforests, the volcano, powerful waterfalls, the tropical jungles and beautiful Caribbean beaches (both white sand and black sand). There really is everything in this small country. So let’s start to explore!
NB! A good suggestion would be to get yourself a four wheel drive car as some of the roads can get bumpy. And some places might not have roads at all. Find a suitable car for your trip at Rentalmoose: LINK HERE
The total length of your journey is less than 23 hours, you’ll be driving about 1225km / 761mi. It’s recommended to take at least a week for this trip but perfect duration would be 2 weeks so you could fully enjoy each corner of the country!
1. San José
My flight took me to the capital of Costa Rica – San José – the biggest city in the country. I decided to stay here for a few nights to discover the city as well. But my suggestion would be to stay just for a day or spend 1 night as Costa Rica country side has so much more to offer than this big city. Anyway it’s good to know that San José is the less violent city in the Latin America region! Some people even say that Costa Rica is the Switzerland of the America.
The architecture in San José is mostly not very beautiful with some exceptions. The pretty buildings can be found around the Paseo Colon. For example Teatro Nacional, which is a stunning Neoclassical building that is home to Costa Rica’s national opera and ballet companies. So if you have decided to spend a night in the city then go see a show – this is the best way to see the beautiful architecture of this building and of course to enjoy the lovely show. It’s also possible to just buy a tour in the building if you have no time for the show.
NB! There are often art exhibitions or different performances on the square in front of the Theatre! These are free for the public, so keep your eyes open!
If you are interested on the history of the country then there is a Natural Museum of Costa Rica in San José. It’ll keep you occupied for a while.
Another lovely building close-by is San José’s Metropolitan Cathedral. It’s famous for its stained glass windows but there’s a lot to see on the inside as well – like delicate tile work and sculptures.
There are also some hotels with lovely Colonial style architecture – for example Hotel Grano de Oro (which was chosen as a top hotel in Central America and Caribbean region by Condé Nast in 2018!) which has beautiful wooden decor in its rooms. Hotel also have a fabulous gourmet restaurant with the same name, which is one of the top restaurants in San José! Grano de Oro’s famous restaurant serves a fusion of Costa Rican and European cuisine and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
NB! When booking a hotel or a restaurant in San Jose, then be careful – there is a city with the exact same name in US as well! Make sure you will make the reservations to the right city! Learn from other peoples mistakes (read – mine haha!).
2. Arenal Volcano
After wining and dining is San José it’s time to start the engine and take a direction to the Costa Rican volcano – Arenal. Arenal is one of seven historically active Costa Rican volcanoes along with Poás, Irazú, Miravalles, Orosí, Rincón de la Vieja complex, and Turrialba. There are 3 roads that take to Arenal area but we chose the longer one because there is a beautiful waterfall on the way and well – who doesn’t love chasing waterfalls? So my chosen road goes through Alajuela and I made a stop at the La Paz waterfall. It’s in the middle of the tropical forest – such a lovely small walk in refreshing air! By the way it’s a popular wedding ceremony destination so you might get to witness one as well! Very close to La Paz waterfall is another volcano, called Poas volcano. It’s an active 2,708-metre stratovolcano. A stratovolcano is a conical volcano built up by many layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and ash. There is an open viewing point from where you can actually see inside the crater of the volcano! A very cool experience indeed! After experiencing the La Paz and Poas, it’s time to continue the drive to your final destination of the day which is Arenal Volcano National Park. The perfectly symmetrical Arenal was Costa Ricas most active volcano until 2010. And it’s in the top 10 of world’s most active volcanoes. Thanks to the volcanoes the area has another thing it’s famous for – it’s hot springs. So the whole area and its hotels are basically a big spa! Perfect if you have travelled long way. These hot springs originate from a geothermally heated underground river. Local hotels tap into this source and bring the water to the surface, creating mineral-rich hot springs for their guests to enjoy. Need any more reasons to stay? Didn’t think so! There are several hotels to choose from, my recommendations would be Tabacon Thermal Resort, The Springs Resort or The Royal Corin Resort. Now it’s time to relax and enjoy your stay.
NB! I know that its tempting to spend your time at the hot springs but do take some time to hike around the volcano as well. For example have a walk in the tropical forests at the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. You might see some animals there as well!
3. Papagayo Peninsula
Now you are probably totally soaked and relaxed and it’s time to live the wellness area behind because another well being is waiting for you – welcome to Papagayo Peninsula. The place with pretty beaches and tropical forests. The peninsula has been formed this way by the volcanic activity and weather. There are 31 separate beaches on the 15mi / 24km of the peninsula. Not too many private wild beaches left in the world but this is your chance to find one! You now have two options – wether you prefer to stay in the peninsula to discover more of it or go hunt another beaches on the coast. If you like to stay here for longer and indulge yourself in the tropic but at the same time in luxury then Four Seasons hotel is a place for you. A luxury in the jungle! Andaz Costa Rica Resort is also just as good option for treating yourself. Find your inner explorer as the places has many experiences to offer, choose from hiking, surfing, paddle boarding, animal spotting, snorkelling, diving and many more outdoor activities.
If you don’t plan to stay in the peninsula then hit the road again and start driving to the South. There will be many beautiful beaches along your way – Playa Flamingo, Playa Grande and Tamarindo for example. If you have plenty of time to discover Costa Rica – go and see all these different beaches and villages next to those. If you are on a time limit, then choose one of them:
Playa Flamingo is one of the Costa Ricas most popular beach because it has the finest white sand, clear blue water and lagoons. The prettiest and probably most crowded due to that.
Playa Grande is, as its name suggests, a long beach. It is an important part of a national park because it’s a nesting place of leatherback turtles. It is still open to the public but it’s very protected. So take only pictures and leave only footprints!
Tamarindo is a surfers paradise, you can really feel the hippie lifestyle vibes here. There are plenty of restaurants, shops and nightlife in addition to the beach life here.
For the area I would suggest to book a small and intimate boutique hotel, I think it goes better with the vibes. Although there are big hotels with famous names as well, if you feel more satisfied in these (maybe better for travellers with kids).
For a nice boutique hotel experience check out these hotels: Jardin del Eden, Cala Luna or Ocho Artisan Bungalows. For the big ones check Westin Playa Conchal (also has a golf!) hotel or JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort.
NB! When you want to discover even more of the peninsula then you can also visit these beaches: Santa Teresa, Montezuma, Samara (this one is quiet with nice sand and trendy cafes), Ostional (home of turtles!) and Nosara beach.
This will also be an optional visit on the route as Jaco is a town – but a beautiful and energetic beach town. I put this in my itinerary because it’s the surfing and partying capital of Costa Rica. So if you would like to do some dancing during your trip then this is the place for that!
If you love surfing then head to the Hermosa beach to catch the big waves. By the way, the International Quicksilver Championship is held at this beach. If you happen to travel during the same time, you can enjoy the show while comfortably sunbathing on the beach. There also smaller surfing competitions going on every Saturday!
Hermosa is also a great place for beginners so why not surprise yourself and take some surfing lessons or even participate in a surf camp? 2 hour surf lessons cost about 50.- dollars per person and there are many cool surfing schools, like School of the World, Tortuga and Jaco Surf School.
Playa Jaco is very nice and clean beach and popular with tourists but be aware that there are very strong tides here, so if travelling with kids, keep an eye on them at all times! Jaco is ok to travel with kids as there is not party all over the place at all times, there are plenty of other things to do and see here as well – like horseback riding, deep-sea fishing, ATV tours, kayaking, boat rides, rafting, canopy zip line, waterfall tour, a catamaran tour along the coast or a walking tour on the hanging bridges at the Rainmaker Park. I mean there is a lot to do for adventure seekers!
NB! Good idea would also be a day trip to Tortuga island. This will get you a real Caribbean feeling with its white sand and clear blue waters!
The best beach option with kids would probably be Herradura beach – a more tranquil beach, which is also perfect if you need a break from the pulsing energy of more heavily-populated areas.
And now back to the party talk! After surfing this is the next reason people come to Jaco. There are many beer bars where the surfers go but also some fancier options to choose from. Popular clubs for dancing are Le Loft, ManCave and Orange Pub. There are also two good beach clubs to check out – Black Marlin and Jaco Blu.
After surfing and partying like there is no tomorrow, it’s time to escape from Jaco and head to a more tranquil place.
5. Manuel Antonio National Park
You have arrived to your next destination – Manuel Antonio National Park – the jewel of Costa Rica. This is the most popular national park in all of Costa Rica. It’s not the biggest but it is so beautiful and has a diversity of wildlife. The national park has several beautiful beaches, specially if you’re into snorkelling! You’ll instantly fall in love with the place! If you love white sand beaches then Playa Manuel Antonio is a place to be for you! By the way – it was voted as number 1 beach in the world by travellers in Tripadvisor’s “Traveller’s Choice Award 2019”.
Or maybe you’ll prefer a little hidden beach? Head 20 mi / 32 km south from the Manuel Antonio National Park and you’ll get to the Playa Linda. This will be a complete escape from the highly visited typical tourist attractions. Next to Playa Linda there is another hidden gem Playa Matapalo. Another great experience in the area is a local farmers market called Quepos Feria. Local feria in Quepos starts late afternoon on Friday and until 12pm on Saturday. You can find everything you need for your perfect vacation from the Feria – local seasonal fruits and vegetables, artisanal fresh cheeses, fresh fish/chicken/meats, homemade desserts, jams, herbs and spices, flowers, fresh pipa water right out of the shell (coconut water) and even locally made jewelry and clothing. After the exciting time at the feria with the locals, go to Nahomi Park to enjoy an end of the day with a tranquil sunset views. Either you are travelling with a family, couple or friends, eco-tourists, seeking for exciting adventures, or just to relax, you came to the right place.
6. The Pacuare Lodge
Now it’s time to discover a real natural rain forest! Unfortunately Costa Rica doesn’t shine with its roads so you have to take the same road back which you used to come to Manuel Antonio. Drive through Jaco and head towards San Jose. After passing the capital city and Irazu volcano you are about to arrive to the destination but not exactly…
The thing is… The Pacuare Lodge is a hotel that lies in the midst of rainforest. It’s not possible to reach it by car, you have to leave your car at some parking place and the hotel transfer minivan will come to pick you up from there. Take only a small bag with you because the journey to the hotel is something you have probably never experienced before – your bag will be put into a bigger waterproof bag and you will have to go rafting to the hotel through a Pacuare river!
NB! Keep in mind that the river can be fast and the “road” to the hotel can be jumpy so it’s maybe not the best idea when travelling with very small kids.
Once you arrive to the hotel you’ll be soaking wet, so keep that in mind when choosing the clothes for your rafting trip. The hotel and it’s area is absolutely amazing. You are lucky if the weather is sunny but otherwise remember that you are in the rainforest so it can rain. A lot. Like 48 hours straight. Or more. But the rain won’t stop this place to be nothing but amazing. Your room is like a little wooden house – it doesn’t have windows or doors, just the insect net – which comes in handy as you can imagine what kind of life goes on in the rain forest! You will have an outdoor shower as well. Instead of slippers you will have complimentary rain boots and umbrellas in your room.
Hotel provides many guided excursions in the forest which are good to participate. The restaurant is amazing – great cuisine and excellent wine list! For a more romantic dining they have a table built high up on the tree! That is be something very different, so I do recommend to give it a try!
I think 2-4 days at the rainforest will be enough. After that the journey back will be (yeah you guessed it) through the river rafting again!
The Pacuare Lodge is one of the Unique Lodges of the World by National Geographic. I am giving 100 points to this place and emotions it gave me. It truly is something you can’t find elsewhere in the World. If you have time and money for that experience then definitely give it a go! It was the highlight of my Costa Rican trip!
After getting constantly wet on the rainforest there is no better plan than to go to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, to warm yourself up at the beach! So the journey heads to Limon. Limon is the second largest city in Costa Rica with population of about 55 000 people. Arriving here can make you feel a bit confused – I sure felt like I had arrived to Jamaica instead. Limon is the home of the Afro Costa-Rican community. Part of the community traces its roots to Italian, Jamaican and Chinese laborers who worked on a late nineteenth-century railroad project that connected San José to Puerto Limón. Puerto Limon is not very touristic place, although big cruise ships port here, most of the tourists still head to the West coast of the country. The port mostly is for exporting fruits. So it can be a good thing to see a side of Costa Rica that is partially untouched from the Western world. Limon is a big port city, so its good to visit it just for a day and head to a more calmer place to spend the night. Unless you happen to visit it during mid-October when the 12-days annual Carnival takes place. Treat yourself to a true Caribbean style meal in either of these restaurants: Soda El Patty, Mirador Da Domenico Red Snapper or Caribbean Kalisi Coffee Shop.
After fulfilling lunch head back to your car and continue driving.
7. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
After a day well spent in the Puerto Limon its time to head more South – almost to the border of Panama – Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. It’s a more quieter seaside resort – a good place to have your final rest before heading back to the airport.
Although it’s on the Caribbean side and you’d probably expect some white sand beaches then this place is actually known for its black sand beach – Playa Negra. For a white sand beach experience try one of these – Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, Playa Blanca.
Puerto Viejo is already known for the surfers, it is actually becoming a hot spot for them. They come here to ride the famous Salsa Brava waves, which have made the place one of the top rated surfing paradise in the world. But be warned of the waters here that have a strong rip current. So, swimming is not advisable. This beach is for surfing experts only. But don’t worry as there are many other tropical beaches just in walking distance where it is safe to relax and swim. If you are not the one who has patience to just chill on the beach then the place has many activities as well – horseback tours of the area, snorkelling, diving, mountain biking, kayaking or boogie boarding. Or take a coffee and chocolate tour. Yes – chocolate is an important crop in this area of Costa Rica and you can take a tour to learn how they grow cacao trees, process the cocoa bean and make chocolate. Find more information of the tour HERE.
Puerto Viejo also has a lively nightlife – many bars, clubs and restaurants in the area. It’s also great to know that the prices are not too high in here (probably another reason after surfing why the place is popular amongst the hip youngsters).
I must add that the roads here are in a very poor condition. Except the main highway, all the other roads are dirt paved. But it’s actualy kind of cool to have a rustic place that hasn’t been changed by human hand so much. Again – just make sure your car is 4 x 4 when coming here. 🙂
As I have already mentioned that Costa Rica doesn’t shine with the amount of highways then you have to take the same road back to San Jose to reach the airport and drop off your rental car. If you have an early morning flight then its smarter to stay your last night at San Jose rather than start the long journey in the morning.
This road trip pretty much gives you all that Costa Rica has to offer: from volcanos to tropical beaches to rainforests. The flora and fauna in this country is amazing and even if you are not a travelling for the wonders of nature – you’ll still be part of it in Costa Rica!
Costa Rica is not about the glamour. It’s about letting yourself be part of the nature. Forget your daily worries that don’t have any meaning in the long terms of life. Be part of the Mother Earth, appreciate it and all the living creatures in our planet. Take care of it. Enjoy what it has to offer and try not to change it. This is the meaning of living Pura Vida.