Costa Rica - Playas del Coco, Arenal, Sarapiqui

Trip Start Jan 03, 2013
Trip End Jul 21, 2013

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Guanacaste,
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

After two buses, and changing in Liberia, we arrived in Playas del Coco on the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. We had been warned about how Costa Rica had been gringofied, with a huge American influence, but we still had a shock when we arrived. It was hard not to notice the malls, american bars and restaurants, hotels, resorts, and golf courses - so different from where we had been the past 2 months.

The main reasons for visiting was to do some diving on the Pacific coast. We checked out the options with a dive shop and also asked about accommodation. They said the cheapest room we would find was $65 (bit of a shock when we had paid $12 for the previous nights accommodation). Thankfully, we managed to get a room in the centre for much less, but still more than we were used to paying.

We went for a walk along the coco-coloured beach and enjoyed some expensive sunset drinks at a beach bar. We picked up some groceries in a bid to try and save some money and were shocked at the price - there was going to be no saving money in Costa Rica! We ventured out for some food and it was not a healthy day as we had pizza and ice cream from a delicious ice cream parlour (there are some perks to being in a more touristy place!) but it was nice to have a change and indulge a bit.

The next morning we enjoyed our own breakfast and hired a couple of bikes to explore the local area. We made our way to Ocotal beach, a fairly easy 3km south of Playas del Coco. We passed some local shops and houses and saw a different side to the area. Ocotal beach was nice, we spotted a sea snake in the water with us (which we later found out was the MOST poisonous animal in Costa Rica) and then walked around the headland and the rocks and explored a bit further. We came to another beach which was deserted, enjoyed a swim and watched the pelicans diving for fish. By the time we had lunch and biked back it was mid afternoon so we dropped the bikes back and relaxed for a couple of hours at the hotel. We ate at a local cafe and had to have an ice cream after. It was becoming our regular treat!

We were up early the next day as we were diving. We dived on 2 local dive sites, both so different to the caribbean waters we had been diving in. The water was much colder and there was no colourful coral, but there was plenty of interesting sea life to see. During the 2 dives, we saw lots of southern stingrays, a white tipped reef shark, guitar shark, bat fish, a huge moray eel and lots of smaller snowflake morays. They were really great dives!

We needed to get some cash out to pay for the hostel so on the way back we walked to the bank. Alexa opened her wallet and realised that our only cash card wasn't there! We headed straight back, about to hunt for it when the receptionist said she had a message for us. Scrawled on a notepad was a note from a lady saying she had our bank card, diving card and drivers licence along with her phone number! We immediately rang her and she drove straight round to give it back to us. Alexa couldn't believe how lucky she had been! It turns out they had been found in the car park at ocotal beach the previous day by the security guard and he had asked the lady if she knew us. Obviously she didn't but took the cards and set about tracking Alexa down! The Padi diving licence led her to ask at one of the dive shops (by chance the one we dived with!) and they gave her our hotel and room number! We were so grateful to her and obviously very relieved, a potential disaster had been averted due to the kindness of this lady.

Later on, we spotted a nice cheap local restaurant that looked good for dinner. Unfortunately it closed at 5pm, so we decided to shower and go and get the food to take away. We enjoyed half the meal on the beach whilst watching the sunset then headed back and chilled in the hostel for the evening, catching up on a few emails and planning the next few days. We heated up the other half of our dinner before grabbing an ice cream again!

The bus back to Liberia picked us up the next morning. We changed buses to Canas and were on our way to Tileran, where we could pick up a bus to La Fortuna, our destination. We had to be in Tileran by 12:30 as we needed to get that bus to meet our shuttle to the hotel, so we both were hoping for no complications. Thankfully we made it in good time and got chatting to an older Yorkshire couple who were backpacking (with wheeley suitcases) through Central America.

We got on the bus and enjoyed a really scenic drive past beautiful Lake Arenal, rainforest and volcanoes. We arrived into La Fortuna an hour earlier than we expected, which was a little annoying as our shuttle wasn't due for another 2 hours. La Fortuna is a souless tourist town in which every other shop is a tour agency offering a selection of tours to the local sights and activities. They were all so expensive and none really appealed so we hoped the place we had booked to stay, that was 45 minute drive away, would have some more appealing options where to go. We stopped at a coffee shop for a hot drink as it was a bit dull and rainy, and Alexa was served a cup of tea with steamed foamy milk! Horrid! We are missing a good cup of tea! We had a wander round some of the tacky souvenir shops to pass the time. We went back to the bus station and waited for our shuttle, next to the local supermarket which had a DJ pumping crazy dance music outside. Luis and the shuttle arrived and we set off to El Castillo de Arenal. The majority of the drive was a dirt road so it was very slow but it seemed much more authentic and in a nicer area than la Fortuna so we had made a good choice. The shuttle took longer than we expected and climbed up a hill to arrive at our booked hotel, Essence Arenal. We had time to freshen up before joining the the other guests for dinner. At the hotel, all the guests participate in making one part of the meal, so we made falafels which we would eat as part of dinner. It was delicious. We ended up on an old peoples table but got chatting to a nice older American couple, Tony and Sandy, and Tony was a surfer so him and Sean had lots to chat about! We also enjoyed a few glasses of Chilean red wine which was really good. After dinner, we headed to our room to chill for a bit before bed. We were both tired after a day of travelling.

We woke to the sound of rain. It was almost the first bit of rain we had seen on our trip, but it was to be expected near the rainforest. We set off to the Arenal Observatory Lodge after breakfast and decided to do some rainforest treks for most of the day. We decided to do the Cerro Chato trail, the longest and hardest trail. We started off and walked to a nice waterfall, before making our way to the challenging climb up 2km to the top. It was a muddy trail and steep, but it was also a great experience walking in the rainforest as it was raining. Primary forest turned into cloud forest as we got higher, and it was surreal walking in the cloud. We reached the top after a couple of hours and decided to walk down to the lake which was in one of the Volcano's dormant crators. A tour guide with another couple told us to be careful as it was steep and wet. He wasn't wrong! It was very steep and it took a bit of effort to clamber down for 30 mins to the lake, using tree roots and rocks to support our descent. The lake was covered in cloud and we couldn't see much, but it made it quite interesting and eerie. We made our way back up to the summit, which was actually easier than coming down the hill. We then spent the next 2 hours hiking back down the trail and by the time we made it back to the lodge restaurant, we were very hungry so had some lunch. The restaurant had an awesome view overlooking a lush garden and Volcan Arenal covered in cloud. There were plenty of birds to be seen, in fact much more than we had seen on the morning hike. After lunch we enjoyed a short walk in the gardens and down to the river. We spotted Coatis on the way, and one particular bold one that allowed us to get very close. He was more interested in digging for food than he was in us!

Late afternoon we picked up the shuttle, that dropped us off at the natural hot springs en route to La Fortuna. Tourists spend lots of money visiting man made hot springs located in fancy resorts, but it seems odd when you can visit the river and enjoy the hot springs for free! It was weird swimming in a hot river but a really nice way to relax after a tough day hiking. We caught the shuttle back to the hostel, and after a quick shower, joined everyone for another tasty vegetarian dinner. We helped make savoury platano crisps this time, and enjoyed stuffed tomato with a nice glass of red. We had a good chat to Adam and Julie (an Irish/French couple) before heading to bed for a good sleep

The next day, we woke with aching legs after yesterday's exertions. After breakfast, we walked to the organic farm next to the hotel, and wandered round the different fruit and coffee plantations, medicinal herb garden and lake. There were lots of birds and we stopped at a good place overlooking the surrounding forest to spot some and take a few pictures. We were lucky enough to see 4 toucans in a nearby tree which was cool. We walked back to the hostel and then continued up the road to get an even better view of the lake, rainforest and volcano. It was still drizzly and cloudy but the view was stunning.

After a quick change of shoes, we headed down to el Castillo village and visited the local Eco-zoo. It was a centre for snakes and other amphibians, reptiles, insects and butterflies mainly from Costa Rica but from other parts of the world too. We had a guided tour by a young passionate guy called Jose who was knowledgable about all the animals. It was very interesting and we got to see the poisonous snakes in Costa Rica, as well as hold some other non-poisonous ones and lizards. Sean also was brave and held a tarantula! We also saw some other turtles, crocodile and frogs including the beautiful red eyed tree frog. They had an extensive collection brought together by a passionate Costa Rican herpetologist.

When we emerged, the sun had come out and we enjoyed our first view of arenal volcano. We had lunch at the soda in el Castillo then walked up the hill back to the hostel to have a chilled afternoon. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed a couple of hours in the sunshine reading and planning the next few days in the hammocks overlooking the volcano. We went in the jacuzzi later on which was lovely - the most scenic one we had both ever been in and enjoyed a beer in the warm water. We joined a French couple who were also on their honeymoon.

Dinner was the usual vegetarian dishes, today vegetable quiche and we helped by making a delicious caramel and puff pastry ravioli dessert. We chatted to Adam and Julie and the French couple and headed to pack as we were leaving in the morning.

We left El Castillo the next day and took the shuttle with Adam and Julie for La Fortuna where we caught the bus to San Carlos. We changed buses in San Carlos for the final leg to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. After 2 hours winding through the pretty Costa Rican countryside, we arrived in the smallish town of Puerto Viejo, once and an important banana and coffee trade town. It is now a little rough and apart from the odd attraction, such as kayaking, it is used as a stopover. We were hoping to be able to see the river but it started pouring with rain so we sheltered in a cafe and enjoyed some fruit smoothies. We had an early dinner and a couple of beers with Adam and Julie at a local cafe. Tomorrow we were headed for La Selva biological research station in the rainforest. It was recommended by a colleague of Alexa's at Manchester Museum, and we were both looking forward to it.
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