So I finally made it through my thousands of photos from Costa Rica and am excited to share with you all the beautiful sights and delicious bites of our trip! This was the first international trip we took with Scott's family - his mom, two sisters and their boyfriends all came. It was also the first international trip for some of them, so it was exciting to see them catch the travel bug!
I know this is technically a food blog, but travel is my other great passion. I'm one that tends to chatter incessantly about my trips, so apologies in advance for the long post!
Day 1: San Jose --> Volcano Arenal
After arriving in San Jose, Scott, Daniel (one of the boyfriends) and I drove to Volcano Arenal to meet up with the rest of the group. The three-hour drive took us through the heart of the gorgeous green countryside, giving us glimpses of the beautiful country we would spend the next week in. Along the way, we grabbed a late lunch at a soda, Costa Rica's equivalent of a diner. Throughout the trip, we found these inexpensive, open-air restaurants serve the best, most authentic Costa Rican food. Our first meal was a great introduction. I enjoyed crispy chicharrones, or fried pork belly, fried yucca (similar to a potato but 1,000,000 times better) and a simple salad topped with pico de gallo, all washed down with local Imperial beer. Everything was so simple, with no more than 5 ingredients, but delicious!
Just as the sun began to set, we arrived at the Tree Houses Hotel. I highly recommend this as a place to stay. Our room was basically a big tree house with an outdoor shower and wrap around porch in the tree tops - perfect for birdwatching! We ate dinner at Lomas del Mapache, a restaurant just down the road, where I had a simple avocado salad. When we got back to the hotel, one of their employees, Ronaldo, took us on a private nighttime wildlife tour of the property. We saw frogs, a giant iguana sleeping in a tree, birds, and a sloth slowly moving from tree to tree. It looked like it was doing yoga! Too dark to get a picture of it, but it was such a cool sight!
Day 2: Volcano Arenal
After an early morning hike through the hotel grounds, we enjoyed one of the best meals of our trip at the hotel - perfectly ripe fresh fruit, creamy scrambled eggs, cheese and peppers in a freshly made tortilla, super crispy patacones (fried green plantains), pureed black beans and zucchini bread. With full bellies, we drove to see La Fortuna waterfall. With a crystal clear swimming pool and dense jungle greenery, it was exactly what you would imagine a rainforest waterfall to look like. We went for a quick swim, which was abruptly interrupted when we spotted a coral snake nearby. Props to my husband for catching the coral snake photobomb. I'm glad to know when his wife's life is at risk his reaction is to create a hilarious photo-op.
We all wanted to do different things, so Caroline and her boyfriend Neil went hiking around the volcano in the area destroyed by the 1960s eruption, Rebecca, Daniel and my mother-in-law went zip-lining, and Scott and I hiked to Cerro Chato. Cerro Chato is a dormant volcano right next to Volcano Arenal. The hike up is strenuous, although not as bad as some Trip Advisor reviews would have you believe, so don't be afraid if you're not a mountaineer! The first part takes you through the hotel property with gorgeous views of Volcano Arenal and the surrounding countryside. About halfway up, the trail enters the dense rainforest. Once you've made it to the top, it's not over! There's a nice view of Volcano Arenal, but the real treat is down a steep path - at one point there's a 10 foot drop with nothing but roots and a rope step strategically placed about 2 inches past where my leg can stretch! What you're rewarded with was one of the highlights of the trip - a emerald green swimming pool in the extinct volcanic crater. Unfortunately, my camera didn't capture the gorgeous color on the cloudy day, so you'll have to take my word on it! We played in the water with a few other 20 to 30-something American tourists, laughing about the tough hike and sharing wildlife stories (our coral snake photobomb won, of course).
We met up with the rest of the family at Baldi Hot Springs and Spa, where they have 25 different pools heated with volcanic mineral water to different temperatures. The hot water was exactly what we needed after the strenuous hike! We especially enjoyed the water slide, which I'm fairly sure wouldn't be legal here in the states! Pretty starving at this point, we stopped at Choza de Laurel, which was okay. Scott had a nice (and huge!) meal, while my fajitas and fried yucca was edible, but pretty dry.
Day 3: Arenal --> Monteverde
After a yummy breakfast of mango stuffed French toast, we hopped on a bus to Lake Arenal, then took a boat across the lake, giving us a fantastic view of the volcano and cutting off a few hours of the drive. On the other side, we got back on a bus which took us through some of the most gorgeous countryside of our trip! Thank goodness we were on a bus cause otherwise I would be stopping to take a picture every five minutes and we NEVER would have gotten there!
Once in Monteverde, we ate lunch at Restaurant Don Luis. I thought it would be really touristy and simply picked the restaurant for it's convenient location, but it was actually really good! Scott had a plate of local Monteverde cheese, as the town was founded by cheese-making Quakers from the United States, then a bowl of beef and plantain soup. I ordered a vegetarian casado, which is a typical Costa Rican meal that generally consists of beans, rice, plantains, salad and some type of meat. This one had black beans, rice, avocado salad, Monteverde cheese, a creamy sweet plantain, fresh tortilla and these delicious stir-fried vegetables.
The rest of the group went to visit the hanging bridges in Selvatura Park, while Scott and I went for a hike in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A cloud forest is a rare type of rain forest located in mountainous areas that allow for near constant cover by clouds. Unfortunately, climate change has put these ecosystems at risk, increasing the temperature and causing the clouds to dry up. I'm not sure if it was because of this, or just that it was a rare, clear and sunny day in the rainforest, but we didn't see any of the famous clouds. Still, we had a lovely time exploring the small reserve. We didn't hike through a large area, so it was amazing to see how drastically the forest changed in appearance with each turn in the trail. We were one of the lucky 4% who spot the rare resplendent quetzal, a gorgeous brightly colored bird. We also came upon a group of Geoffroy's spider monkeys, a type of endangered monkey. They were literally right above our heads, so it was pretty hard to get a good picture.
Day 4: Monteverde --> Dominical
After a fresh fruit smoothie breakfast, we piled into a car and drive down to Dominical, a beach town on the southwestern coast of Costa Rica. Along the way, we stopped at Guacimo soda for some of the best guacamole I've ever had and my favorite casado of the trip - this one with shrimp stir-fried in a delicious sauce, red beans, rice, a fried vegetable omelet, plantains and thick, corn tortillas made with local honey. As delicious as the food was, we drenched it in our newest discovery, Lizano-style hot sauce.
Right down the road from the restaurant we crossed a bridge over the Tarcoles river, where we stopped to watch the dozen or so crocodiles that live beneath it get fed a fish. However, we watched from the safety of the bridge, unlike these crazy fools.
We arrived at the The Lattice House, the beautiful house we rented for the rest of the week. It was incredible. Located on a private reserve and decorated in a modern Bali style, it was amazingly luxurious place to stay, and surprisingly reasonably priced. The back porch (and infinity pool!) overlook the whale's tail, a sandy stretch of land shaped like a whale's tail, where whale's actually like to hang out. You could even see all the way out to Osa peninsula, not another country as someone (we won't name who!) originally guessed! We spent the rest of the day enjoying the pool and getting settled after the long drive.
For dinner, we had cooks come to the house and prepare us a delicious Costa Rican meal. We started with another amazing guacamole (two guacs in one day = probably the best day of my life) and fresh salsa. For our main course we enjoyed chicken fajitas with black beans and rice, a salad with hearts of palm and avocado and my new favorite, picadillo. I can't seem to find the right recipe, but this seems fairly close, just without the beef.
Day 5: Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica's smallest park, but most visited. The main trail goes through the forest, home to dense concentrations of wildlife, and out to a rocky outcropping flanked by two expansive, sandy white beaches. As soon as we entered, we were treated to a show by about twenty white-faced monkeys. They were just feet from where we stood! The highlight was when one swooped down from a tree, grabbed a lizard and started eating it tail first while it was still alive! A guide later told us this was a pretty unique thing to see.
Then we spent awhile enjoying the beach, where iguana sightings quickly became old news. The beach was one of the most beautiful I've seen, bright blue water and an expansive, sandy beach lined by rocky outcroppings. The lush forest grew right up to the sand. Dead trees were whitewashed by years of salt, water and wind. On our way out, we spotted crab-eating racoons, a viper (the most poisonous snake in Costa Rica), a deer, more white-faced monkeys and tiny, adorable squirrel monkeys.
For dinner, we went to La Mancha, a soda just right down the road. Scott and I shared a plate of ceviche. Since we were right by the coast I couldn't pass it up. Then we shared a plate of whole fried red snapper, which was awesome. Lightly breaded and perfectly crispy skin with a moist interior, nothing like the heavily breaded stuff we get at home.
Day 6: Dominical
I was a little hesitant about spending the day on an ATV tour. Witnessing a horrific motorcycle accident and a few too many episodes of Rescue 911 as a child have left me horribly fearful of moving vehicles in which my body isn't protected by tons of steel and airbags. But this day actually turned out to be one of my favorite days of the trip! Our guide, Carl, an ex-pat from Tennessee, was fantastic.
We started off on an unpaved road that gave us incredible views of the mountains, valleys and the massive Diamante waterfall in the distance, 700-feet tall if I remember correctly. Our first stop was San Luis waterfall, a 250 foot series of falls you could climb to the base of. It was a really slippery climb up, so I pulled the nagging wife card and made hubs help me to the top. We were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside and a perfect moment of solitude.
Back on the ground, we enjoyed a snack of perfectly ripe fruit and hibiscus tea, then drove off to an organic coffee farm. Considering it's something I consume daily, I knew very little I knew about how it's farmed. Did you know they plant banana trees next to coffee to increase yield and combat the effects of climate change? Me neither! We stopped at a tiny store to pick up a few bags of organic coffee to take home.
We then drove the ATVs up a mountain and through an area that totally reminded me of Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, my husband didn't get it when I started quoting lines from the movie the entire way up. At the top, we waited a few minutes for the clouds to clear and reveal a gorgeous view of the coastline for a few minutes before getting covered back up with clouds.
We then drove on to Nauyaca Waterfalls, a 100-foot falls in a secluded canyon. The water was gushing like crazy from that mornings rain, but we were still able to go for a swim in the shallow end of the pool.
On the way back, we stopped for a late lunch at Restaurant Tres Amigos and plenty of fresh fruit juice and beer to cool us off! The perfect end to our day.
Day 7: Corcovado National Park
For me, this was the highlight of the trip. Considered to be the wildest, least accessible place in Costa Rica, Corcovado is often called Costa Rica before tourism. It's one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, home to 2%-3% of the worlds biodiversity. We took a boat to the park, much more convenient than the other option - a full days drive that involves fording rivers and ending in a 10 mile hike.
We hiked a trail that ran through the forest near the coastline, then walked back along the rocky beach. Within the first thirty minutes, we already saw all three types of monkey's present in that area - spider monkeys, white faced monkeys and howler monkeys - AND a crocodile! We also spotted rare tapir footprints, lizards, white-faced coatis, frogs, a common hawk, and macaws. One of the neatest things we saw was actually leaf-cutter ants. We had seen them every day on our trip, but never such a huge line of them. It was fascinating to learn all about their complex world from our guide!
The area itself was stunning and would have been worth a trip even without the wildlife. I could have spent hours on the rocky shoreline. After a delicious lunch of fresh fruit, arroz con pollo and delicious oregano herbed potatoes, we took the boat back to shore. Our wildlife spotting wasn't done - a couple dolphins put on a show for us on the ride back!
On the way back, we stopped at the beach for swimming and one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. The waves were crazy! Ten feet high and that's no exaggeration! We were having such a lovely time and if it wasn't for the swarm of mosquitoes that came out after dark, we could have spent the whole night there.
For dinner, we went to Jolly Roger, an American run wing & burger bar. Scott and I weren't too keen on it. Being in Costa Rica, we had no desire to eat American food. But Carl, our ATV tour guide recommended it and the rest of the group really wanted to go, so we begrudgingly joined. So glad that we did because they were absolutely the best wings I've had! I ordered the sriracha-lime wings while Scott had the honey-habanero, and we ended up swiping everyone elses leftovers!
Day 8: Dominical
A day of relaxation before heading back home. We started our day with an incredible breakfast at Cafe Ensuenos, a soda near the beach that caters to the many surfers of the area. It was there that I had The Best Smoothie Of All Time. Yes, it was that good. It was so thick it was overflowing the glass. I chose banana and coffee flavor while others had banana chocolate and strawberry banana. I also had gallo pinto, a traditional breakfast dish of black beans and rice, served with a seriously delicious sausage, despite it’s appearance.
We then went back to the house for poolside yoga. Jennifer, our amazing instructor also runs Community Carbon Trees, an organization that carefully plants indigenous trees in deforested areas. They do it in an incredibly smart and responsible way, planting trees in degraded farmlands where poorer people live and choosing many plants that also provide food.
After yoga, we went to Playa Ballena to surf and swim. Unfortunately, the skies opened up to the most torrential downpour I've ever seen just a couple hours in! It literally poured the next five hours, so we ended up stopping at a restaurant for really awesome braised beef nachos and chifrijo, a bowl of pinto beans and brown rice topped with chicharrones and pico de gallo. With the rain, we unfortunately couldn't explore the sea caves at playa ventanas, but I guess now we have a reason to go back!
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? What were your favorite places? Any delicious Costa Rican foods you enjoyed?