Central America

Three Mayan sites you can’t miss in Central America

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Every traveler has different reasons to visit Central America – for some, it’s the outstanding wildlife in places like Guatemala and Costa Rica, for others it’s the stunning beaches, and some simply enjoy to soak up small town life in the many Spanish-colonial towns throughout Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama. One reason I was drawn to the region was the rich Mayan history and culture. As a history buff, I was always fascinated by the Mayan calendar, their hieroglyphs, and their pyramid-temples. Visiting some of their biggest cities in Mesoamerica was and still is a highlight of all of my travels.Ruins jungleIf you, like me, are fascinated by the Mayan culture, here are three Mayan sites that you can’t miss on a trip to Central America:

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal with its spectacular jungle setting and its palaces, ceremonial platforms, ball courts, temples and vast plazas is easily the most striking Mayan site. The two highest steep-sided temples, each rising over 144 feet (44 meters) into the sky – higher than the surrounding jungle trees! – are a sight that you won’t forget anytime soon.
Ruin in the jungleThe ruin site comprises of 400 hectares, making it one of the largest Mayan sites in Mesoamerica, and many of its monuments have well preserved decorated surfaces, such as stone carvings, hieroglyphic inscriptions and mural paintings. These paintings depict the dynastic history of Tikal but also its relationships with other Mayan cities, such as Copan in Honduras or Calakmul in Mexico.
Tikal ruins

Chichen Itza, Mexico

It is hard to pick a single Mayan site in Mexico – the Mayan Riviera is called that for a reason, and there are plenty of Mayan ruins to visit: Coba, Tulum, or Chichen Itza are just a few examples of the well-preserved Mayan empire in Mexico, but Chichen Itza is the one that held the most magnificence for the Mayans.El Castillo 3The city holds history of nearly 1,000 years, and has some of the most significant structures in Mayan history. The Warriors’ Temple, the circular observatory known as El Caracol, the step pyramid El Castillo which forms the centerpiece of the Mayan site. The columned arcades of Chichen Itza, the pyramids and temples, the ball court (which is the largest one known in Mesoamerica) all make the sacred city a Seventh Wonder Of The World, but it is also the fact that the 365-day calendar is prevalent here in the stone steps of El Castillo, and how twice a year, on the spring and the fall equinoxes, a shadow in the shape of a serpent falls on the pyramid, making this an astonishing spectacle to see this ‘snake’ descend the steps as the sun sets.Jaguars on temple

Copan, Honduras

Copan used to be the political, civil and religious center of the Copan Valley, and the population here dates back to 1500 BC. The complex consists of the Acropolis and several plazas, like the Ceremonial Plaza with its remarkable stadium, the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza with more than 1,800 hieroglyphs (which is considered one of the most outstanding structures in the Mayan culture, and the longest Mayan inscription), ball courts and temples.
IguanaThe city was reigned by a dynasty of 16 rulers who made Copan one of the most important Mayan cities during the Classic Maya Period. Despite being such an important Mayan site, it sees much less visitors than the Mayan ruins in Mexico, which makes it even more special – in some parts you’ll have the site entirely to yourself!
west Plaza

How to visit Central America’s Mayan sites

Since Central America is pretty compact, it is easy to visit the sites independently, and use public transportation to get from one country to the next.

If you are planning your trip from the UK, check out Thomson’s Central American cruises, which do not only offer great value for money, but also a few days to take in Central America’s gorgeous beaches and getting from place to place in the most comfortable way. Thomson even has a cruise dedicated to Mayan sites, the Mayan Treasures cruise.Carved head west plazaIf you’re traveling independently, you’ll need to plan in some more time to see the Mayan sites, but with some clever planning, you can fit in Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba (Mexico), Caracol (Belize), Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan (Honduras) into a 2-week trip.Stepped pyramid

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Five thrill-seeking adventures in Costa Rica you shouldn’t miss

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Costa Rica is the one country in Central America that simply has it all: tropical beaches, extraordinary wildlife, a diversity of landscapes ranging from rain forests and cloud forests to active volcanoes and rolling hills, and more adventure activities than any other country in the region.

I often get the question which places people shouldn’t skip on a visit to Costa Rica, but recently I was asked what my top choices for thrill-seeking activities were and I noticed that I’ve never shared my picks for the best adventures in Costa Rica – so without further ado, here are the five adventures you shouldn’t miss in Costa Rica:beach guanacaste dani

White-water rafting on the Pacuare and Reventazon Rivers

Most people don’t know this, but Costa Rica is a fantastic place for white water rafting, with class III and IV rapids, causing Frommer’s to name Costa Rica one of the ‘Top Ten Whitewater River Destinations in the world’. The World Rafting Championship even took place here! The Pacuare, Sarapiqui and Reventazon River are the biggest white water rafting destination, but with countless other rivers in the country, there are many possibilities for rafting in places like Arenal, Jaco and San Jose. And not only the rapids are spectacular, but also the beautiful tropical scenery you pass on the river: Depending on which river you’re rafting on, you’ll see mountains, wildlife, rainforests, pineapple and yucca fields – and no matter where you’ll raft, it will be an unforgettable experience with splashing waves, wild rapids and a great thrill. A trip on the longest river in the country, the Pacuare, can take up to two days, but shorter 10 mile trips are also possible, for example on the Sarapiqui River near Arenal.

Rafting in Costa Rica by Tshantz on

Hiking an active volcano

Costa Rica is known for its large number of volcanoes: the tiny country is home to 61 dormant and extinct volcanoes and six active ones. The most active one over the past fifty years was Arenal, but it has been resting since 2010. Most of Costa Rica’s volcanoes are caldera volcanoes, which means the craters are filled with bright green or turquoise waters rising steam, which makes for a breathtaking sight and makes volcano climbing so popular here. The best ones to climb are:

  • Irazú with its majestic 11,000 feet (3,800 meter) summit, from where you can see both the Pacific and the Caribbean on clear days, and its emerald-green crater lake. The lake can transform color, and sometimes it appears crimson-red!
Cráter del volcán Poás, en Costa Rica
Poás crater by Carlos Reusser Monsalvez on
  • Poás, which has been pretty active in recent years, even causing the national park in the Central Highlands to close temporarily, and which has a fantastic lookout point above the crater with its bubbling sulfuric pool, which is 1 miles wide and 1,000 feet (300 meters) deep, making it one of the largest volcano craters in the world. At 8,885 feet (2,708 meters), Poás is one of the country’s largest volcanoes.

Ziplining in Monteverde’s cloud forest

You can zipline in several places around the country, but my personal favorite ziplining spot is Monteverde with its lush green cloud forests. Nestled high in the mountains, Monteverde’s climate is a bit cooler than the rest of the country, but also causes a much more diverse flora and fauna and animal life, especially bird life. There are several ziplining companies here, but the Selvatura Adventure Park offers the most comprehensive canopy tour, including tree-top walkways, hanging bridges, a breathtaking one-kilometer long zipline and a heart-stopping Tarzan Swing. The park’s walkways and platforms are built right into the cloud forest, and you can zip through the cloud forest on 15 cables, enjoying the nature around you from a variety of different angles and vantage points.

Monteverde 15 - Zipline canopy tour
Monteverde Zipline Tour by Ben Belske on

Surfing in Nosara

The tiny surf town of Nosara on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast is, despite its small size, one of the most popular surf spots in the entire world. The surf break here are outstanding, and Playa Guiones, the town’s main surf beach with its 4 miles stretch of sand, is filled with surfers year-round. The long breaks here make it a great spot for both experienced surfers and beginners. The more daring surfers enjoy the more remote Playa Nosara, a black sand beach just north of town, with giant barrels created by shallow reef breaks. For newbie surfers, there are a number of surf schools in town, and the small number of tourists here create a much bigger relaxed community feel than some of the bigger surf towns in the country. The beaches are beautiful, and it’s one of the places in Costa Rica where the beach meets the jungle, meaning that you’ll see monkeys jumping through the trees on a regular basis but might also see sloths and other mammals.nosara wave

An ATV tour in Guanacaste

ATVing is highly popular in Costa Rica, with many locals cruising around on these little four-wheelers, and they are simply the best way to explore beaches, mountains, rain forests and other off-road terrain. The best place to experience Costa Rica’s tropical landscapes on an ATV is Guanacaste, where you find several ATV tours, for example in Jaco. They usually include ocean view points over the Pacific, colorful little villages, rain forests with a myriad of wildlife, waterfalls and watermelon plantations, all while whizzing around on the ATV, combining the thrill of the off-roading with a scenic tour of the country.

Costa Rica
ATVing in Costa Rica by Nori on

Have you been to Costa Rica? What’s your favorite thrill-seeking experience?

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Explore Costa Rica’s Natural Wonders

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Internationally renowned for its commitment to eco-tourism, Costa Rica is a true Central American paradise and one of our favorite travel destinations. With the exception of hardcore urbanites, Costa Rica has something to satisfy just about every kind of traveler. Over the years we have covered several such Tico hotspots, but as we get asked so often about this, we thought this destination guide of some top adventure picks could help focus outdoor and adventure tourists on the right Costa Rican vacation.

Arenal Volcano

It’s not difficult to see why this volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most-visited attractions. Towering above the lush forests near the little town La Fortuna, Arenal is a perfect example of nature at its most majestic. When the volcano does erupt, the bright orange rivers of lava spurting out the top and streaking down all sides is an unparalleled experience. There is plenty of hiking and trekking to be done in the area, plus waterfalls and incredibly relaxing hot springs to visit. After some long hikes, we soaked our tight muscles for a day at the best in town, the Tabacon Hot Springs resort, and left entirely relaxed.

volcano arenal from mountain paradise hotelCartago

This town just outside of the capital, San Jose, is nestled near the base of the sky-high Irazu Volcano, Visitors can marvel at the teal blue water in the crater, but also from the top you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans on a clear day. Cartago itself is most famous for its stunning Basilica de Nuestra Semora de Los Angeles, a massive, ornate church which thousands of pilgrims flock to each year. The church is home to ‘La Negrita’, a black Madonna steeped in folklore and legend.

Tortuga Island

Looking for a something a touch more relaxed? Kick back in the tropical paradise of Tortuga Island. Perched in the Gulf of Nicoya, this archipelago boasts powdery beaches and glittering azure waters. Tortuga Island is also an ideal spot for snorkeling and kayaking. You can easily combine a trip out to Tortuga Island with a Nicoya vacation with stops in Montezuma, Santa Teresa and up to our personal favorite beach, Samara Beach.
Montezuma bay & beach

Manuel Antonio National Park

Combining beach and forest into one breathtaking destination, Manuel Antonio National Park is among Costa Rica’s most beautiful natural wonders. Although this is easily one of the most heavily touristed of Costa Rica’s destinations, there is just something about Manuel Antonio that makes us truly love it here. You can hike through the park’s trails and get up close and personal with monkeys, sloths and iguanas (and some very grabby raccoons!), or simply unwind near the coral-fringed bay, which, despite reminding us of a busy beach on Spain’s Costa del Sol, was still one of the most relaxing spots to hang out for the day.
Monkey friends in Manuel Antonio

Tortuguero National Park

If you prefer jungle to beach, head out to the exotic wonderland of Tortuguero National Park in the Limon province. The biological diversity here is, even by Costa Rican standards, incredible. There are eleven different habitats – beaches, swamps, lagoons, mangroves, etc, with specific wildlife living in each one. Bring a rain jacket (and galoshes, and lots of dry socks). This region gets hit with over 250 inch (640cm) of rain each year! The lush forests, winding rivers, spectacular waterfalls make it so worth it, and you might even see a few green sea turtles wandering the black-sand shores.
Turtle in Costa Rica

Sarapiqui Canopy

An easy day trip from San Jose, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui’s tropical rainforest is loaded with ways for a quick wildlife and adventure fix. You can explore the area on a two-hour riverboat trip and watch toucans, monkeys and crocodiles in their natural habitats, and/or catch a few thrills with a specially designed treetop-jumping experience.

Costa Rica is an easy, safe destination to travel through, whether you prefer independent buses or arranging local flights and car hires through companies like American Express Travel. While we always prefer to hit the road and take our chances, American Express travelers are privy to many members-only rewards and perks that make it even easier, and possibly cheaper to explore Costa Rica.

Sunset costa Rica

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Tops and Flops of 1000 Days of Travel: Days 901-1000

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We reflected on 1000 days of travel yesterday, and today we’re looking back at the best and the worst moments of the last 100 days in Costa Rica, Argentina and Chile (including food!) and we give travel recommendations for Buenos Aires and Santiago for your next visit to these South American capitals.

Top travel moments

Spending our 1,000th day at a rooftop pool party in Santiago

We had plenty of moments in the last 100 days we could add, but there was something so perfect about watching the sunset on the top of GEN hotel, where everyone from the Dakar rally are now staying. We met locals and fellow foreigners, drank champagne and had an exquisite evening.

Santiago sunset rooftop

Assimilating to life in Buenos Aires

It was hard to choose just one moment, but as you can see from our post 33 Things We Love about Buenos Aires we jumped right into life in the city. We made a lot of friends, toured the sights, explored neighborhoods, ate at loads of different restaurants and soaked up as much of the unique culture as possible.

Favorite places

Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s been a long time since we felt so strongly about a place, so it should come as no surprise that, even if we visited 20 cities in the last 100 days, Buenos Aires would still sit comfortably right on top.

buenos aires argentinaArenal, Costa Rica

In between our housesit in Costa Rica and our flight to Buenos Aires, we fit in a nice holiday in the La Fortuna area of Costa Rica, also known as Arenal after the looming volcano seen from just about everywhere in town. With the exception of an extended stay on the Osa Peninsula, we thought we knew Costa Rica backwards and forwards, but it turns out we absolutely loved the entire area here, with its massive waterfalls, great hiking in the national park, laid-back mountain vibe, and of course, our splurge at the Tabacon hot springs.

Most disappointing place(s)

Nosara, Costa Rica

Ah, well, you can’t love everywhere, and Nosara Beach just doesn’t quite do it for us. This is a surfer’s paradise, with consistent left-breaking waves, but for relaxation the beaches here leave much to be desired. It was also low season while we were here, so many of the restaurants were closed, but this is also one of those spots where the presence of gringo expats (we lived in what is honestly called the ‘American Sector’) has driven up prices so that value for money is hard to come by here. That said, we still had an amazing time here, enjoyed some of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen, long walks on the beach with our dog, and last but not least our own infinity pool.

nosara costa rica

Worst travel moments

The Toxic Cloud

That’s right. Completely unbeknownst to us, a fire in the port of Buenos Aires released toxic pesticides into the air for over two hours one morning and because we did not watch the news, I sat with the window open, working away in the living room, curious about the putrid smell but focused on editing the final draft of Break Free. The result – some pretty hefty skin irritation that looked and itched like chicken pox and lasted for three weeks.

Top travel mishaps

No travel mishaps in the last 100 days! Let’s see if we can make it through another 100 days without any mishaps.

Top food moments

Pizza in Buenos Aires

The pizzas in Buenos Aires are not only our top food moment of the last 100 days, but one of the last 1000 days!

pizzas in buenos aires

Travel recommendations

Take a free walking tour

If you are subscribed to our newsletter, you already know that we have become big fans of free walking tours recently. Although the tours are free, the guides work for tips, which makes them eager to impress you with expansive knowledge and enthusiastic conversation. We usually avoid big tour groups, but in Buenos Aires we decided to explore our neighborhood with BA Free Tours, and even though we had seen many of the places already, it was well worth it to learn such in-depth details of Argentinian culture and the story behind places in the ‘hood. We even went on a second tour of the main sights through BA Free Tours as well.

Here in Santiago, we opted for a tour of two neighborhoods that are further away from the tourist trail, Barrio Yungay and Barrio Brazil, and we got to know places we would have never found on our own, including the incredible Peluqueria Francesa, an old-fashioned barber shop with a French restaurant next door.

Peluqeria Francesa SantiagoWe were excited to discover that there are great free tours now worldwide: For Europe and beyond, check out Sandeman’s in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Prague, Paris, Madrid, Jerusalem, Copenhagen and soon Brussels and Tel Aviv. Free Tours by Foot offers free walking tours in New York, Boston, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but there are other independent companies in most cities. 

If you enjoyed this, check out our previous Tops and Flops:

Our Tops and Flops of 900 days of travel: Mexico and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 800 days of travel: Cambodia, Singapore, India, USA and Mexico
Our Tops and Flops of 700 days of travel: Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia
Our Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel: United States, Thailand, Laos
Our Tops and Flops of 500 days of travel: Portugal, Canada, USA
Our Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel: Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain
Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

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Our Top 5 Favorite Beaches of 2012

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This year will go down in history as the year of the beach for the two of us!

All those days in the office before we started traveling long-term, our thoughts would drift to what it would be like to live on the beach and wake up to the crashing of waves on the shore, the sound of seagulls and being barefoot through the sand. Well in 2012 we certainly got our wish in a year that saw us living over five months on the beach. We spend longer stints in Mexico and Costa Rica, and took trips to the sandy shores of Singapore, Malaysia, India and our number one spot that often gets overlooked by its famous neighbor Thailand.

Read on for our five favorite beach experiences of 2012:

5. Varkala, India

While we didn’t see what all the hype was about on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, we did fall for the cliffs of Varkala, about an hour north of Trivandrum in the far south of India. What the laid-back village lacks in culture is easily made up for by walking the paths along the gorgeous cliffs, looking out over the wide beaches below. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants for every traveler’s budget, and the sunsets here were breathtaking.

Varkala Beach India4. Samara, Costa Rica

Long-time readers will know that Samara has been a favorite beach of ours since we first ended up there on whim back in 2011. This October we were lucky enough to return for a few days and were excited to find that this Costa Rican beach hasn’t lost any of its charm. Although the waves of  Samara are perfect for newbie surfers, the long stretch of sandy beach feels empty even in the high season, with restaurants and hotels well hidden behind the palm trees that line the shore. In a country so popular with international tourists, Samara is one of the few secret spots that combines a great selection of accommodation and relatively few tourists.

Samara Beach Costa Rica3. Langkawi, Malaysia

We had never even heard of Langkawi, an island off the Malaysian coast in the Andaman Sea, but somehow we found ourselves promising a Canadian expat we would go there when she so passionately insisted we visit the favorite part of her adopted country. We ended up spending a week there, and Cenang Beach was by far our favorite beach on the island. Powdery, soft white sand, clear and shallow water, palm trees and incredible sunsets. This is really the perfect vacation island for travelers from near and far.

Langkawi Malaysia2. Mahahual, Mexico

Odds are, you have never heard of Mahahual, unless maybe you have taken a short Caribbean cruise. A popular cruise port once or twice a week in high season, Mahahual is otherwise a small, relaxed fishing town on the Yucatan peninsula with incredibly warm, turquoise water. This was the closest place from the remote beach house we housesat this past summer, and we found every excuse to make the trip. Making sure not to be there on ‘cruise ship day’ we would lay in the rows of empty sun chairs lined up along the beach, working on our tans and sipping cool Mexican beer. Heaven on Earth!

Mahahual Mexico1. Otres Beach and Koh Rong, Cambodia

Cambodia takes the crown for our favorite beach in 2012! There are actually TWO beaches here that tie for first: Otres Beach, on the mainland, and Long Beach on the little known island of Koh Rong. Just a quick tuk-tuk ride from the popular beach town of Sihanoukville, a trip to Otres Beach means avoiding the touts selling tourist trinkets, and focusing on what is important: relaxing in your sun chair with a cool coconut, staring out at sea. The few restaurants and bars here are of better quality than in town and somehow it feels like the sunsets are, too!

Otres Beach Sihanoukville CambodiaFor those of you who are serious about your deserted beaches, Koh Rong’s Long Beach was an amazing experience. The small island two hours off the coast of Sihanoukville only has a handful of guest houses and not much to offer in the way of diversion, but with the seven mile stretch of crystal clear water on the other side of the island, we could have cared less. We were particularly unimpressed with the side of the island where the port is and even considered leaving a day early, until we were told about a path that leads over to the other side of the island. It is an hour-long hike across an entirely untamed islands, which included much tripping, a bit of falling, profuse sweating, more swearing and a 75m descent straight down by clinging to a rope that mysteriously appears the minute you need it to finish the way down. Walking out into the clearest water we have ever seen, however, made the hike entirely worth it. Of course, we found out later you can rent a boat, round-trip, for $25 to take you and ten of your closest friends from the port on a 15-minute ride around to the otherwise deserted Long Beach. But we preferred working hard to reach our absolute favorite beach of 2012!

Koh Rong CambodiaNow we want to know from you – what is the best beach you visited in 2012? Better yet where is your favorite beach in the world?

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Mountain Paradise Hotel | La Fortuna, Costa Rica

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Through the security gate and up the winding driveway, past prehistoric looking flowers and exotic grasses, we knew we were too early. 11am is not exactly a polite time to check in to a hotel – just after breakfast, guests checking out, rooms being cleaned. Before we were dazzled by the gorgeous gardens, we only wanted to drop off our bags and head back down to hike the base of the volcano in the Arenal National Park. Entering the lobby, we were dazzled immediately by the staff as well.

Mountain Paradise Hotel Arenal Costa RicaGreeted with refreshing cold towels to freshen up before filling out the check-in forms, a waiter then appeared with a small blended fruit drink for both of us. After waiting ten minutes sunk into one of several comfortable couches in the lobby, our bags were loaded onto a golf cart, and we were whisked away across the spacious property, following narrow little paths winding around lush, tropical plants and colorful cottages.

Mountain Paradise Hotel in Arenal Costa RicaMountain Paradise Lodge is exactly as the name suggests. Thirty or so cottages are spread out throughout this Costa Rican Eden, and our massive  room makes up half of one such cottage set fairly far back on the property. Our back patio has a Jacuzzi and two rocking chairs to watch nature pass by. Just on the fringe of the national park, the hotel property is alive with songs and sights of hundreds of incredible birds – from the flittering hummingbirds chasing each other around the bushes to giant turkey-like black birds with bright yellow beaks that casually crossed over our back yard. Called Great Currassows, these birds brought guests out of several nearby cottages, as none of us even knew creatures like this existed until that moment.

Mountain Paradise Hotel in Arenal Costa Rica with hummingbirdsBack inside the room, we were almost tempted to stay in and blow off our hike…we could have made ourselves coffee in the little machine on the table, sprawl out on either the king or the queen beds in the room and watch a little something on the flat screen TV above the patio door…or we could have just hung out under the waterfall in the bathroom.

Mountain Paradise Hotel Arenal Costa Rica roomYes, our giant bathroom, really more of a wet room, has a waterfall shower, complete with rocks and flowers around the sides. Next to it is also a stand-up Jacuzzi shower with several jets and nozzles to massage the entire body as you shower. There is a small toilet room, a sink, white fuzzy towels and all different levels of lighting to choose from in the bathroom, which is larger than several hotel rooms we have stayed in on our travels.

Mountain Paradise Hotel in Arenal Costa Rica bathroomAs luxurious as our room feels, however, we are also tempted to spend the day down in the pool area. Mountain Paradise Lodge has a large, heated pool with a swim-up bar where guests of all ages mingle day and night. There is also a small whirlpool set behind a waterfall for guests looking for a bit more privacy in the pool, plus either sun chairs or hammocks to relax in a covered area behind the pool.

Mountain Paradise Hotel in Arenal Costa Rica swimming poolWe actually made it past the pool and back into the car for a long hike at the volcano and a trip to the giant La Fortuna waterfall that day, and came home that first night so tired we could only sleep like babies in that comfortable king bed.

Both mornings we ate at the generous breakfast buffet, which is included in the room rate. There is an omelet station for made-to-order eggs, classic Costa Rica dishes like Gallo Pinto, plus fresh tropical fruits, yogurts, cold cuts and cheese for sandwiches, toast and jam, plus small brownies and cupcakes, fresh juices and bottomless coffee. The large restaurant, just off the pool area and across from the lobby building, is also open for lunch and dinner, but we found it a little overpriced, even considering the perfect vistas of Volcano Arenal from almost any table.

Mountain Paradise Hotel Arenal Costa Rica Breakfast BuffetEvery member of staff we met was friendly and helpful and the waiters were always up for a chat with the guests over breakfast.

Stand-out feature: The beautiful grounds

Mountain Paradise Hotel is truly appropriately named. Sure, we loved having our own private waterfall, and our own Jacuzzi, and the heated swimming pool area…but just walking down to breakfast along the paths past exotic plants spotting blue morpho butterflies bigger than the hundreds of hummingbirds in the trees is better than most jungle hikes we’ve been on – in Costa Rica or otherwise.

Mountain Paradise Hotel Arenal Costa Rica FlowersRoom for improvement: The Wi-Fi

It is easy to assume that almost all guests are here on vacation, so the fact that the wi-fi in the cottages is patchy is not a major issue. Not everyone is a digital nomad like we are. However, in the mornings and evenings  as we sat working on a couch in the sitting area in the back of the restaurant, there were several guests also seated near the Wi-Fi router, checking emails on their smart phones and a few on their laptops, too.  A full strong signal in each of the rooms is the only detail missing in this mountain paradise.


On our last day in the area, we took a little drive to find the best view of the volcano to take some photos. When we returned, we realized that the greatest views of Arenal were right there at the hotel.

There are a number of hotels along the road between the volcano and La Fortuna, and some appear very grand while others seem comfortable, cute and quaint. They are probably all great places to stay, but from the minute we checked in to our hotel, we could have cared less about the others.

We honestly feel like Mountain Paradise is the perfect hotel in the La Fortuna/Arenal area. We appreciate the amount of luxury included in the affordable room rate, which makes this paradise more accessible than other more ’exclusive’ resorts nearby.

Mountain Paradise Hotel in Arenal Costa Rica flowersLocation: Del centro de la Fortuna, 7KM camino al volcan Arenal, Fortuna, Alajuela Costa Rica
Price: Starting at $150 for a double room including breakfast in high season / $110 in low season
LGBT Friendly: Yes
Digital Nomad Friendly:  Passable wi-fi in reception, patchy in the rooms.
Amenities: Heated swimming pool with swim-up bar, complimentary breakfast buffet, restaurant, Jacuzzi or private pool in the room, waterfall shower, free wi-fi, free shuttle service to La Fortuna, tour and transportation booking service, free parking

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Getting steamy in Arenal, Costa Rica

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During our visit in 2011, we focused on Costa Rica’s beaches, visiting Montezuma, Playa del Coco, Samara, Santa Teresa, Manuel Antonio, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo. Our trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest was our one trip into the mountains, and yet, not 100kms from Monteverde was La Fortuna and its famous Arenal Volcano. Luckily this time Dani pushed for us to visit the area. What we discovered is that Arenal is a perfect Costa Rican escape.

lake arenal costa ricaWhat you can’t miss: Arenal volcano

Arriving under the cover of night, we had no idea of the massive volcano looming over the town. While sussing out tour options at a local travel agency, a dreaded, bearded Argentine flirting with the tour guide told us that it would be impossible for us to miss Arenal in the morning, and he was not just boasting in front of his girl. He was right. The volcano is the focal point of the area, from the town of La Fortuna across to the national park, and it is the inspiration for the name of nearly every hotel and restaurant in the area.

Costa Rica Volcano Arenal La FortunaThere are complaints that the town of La Fortuna is ‘too touristy’ but it almost has to be. In 1968, after lying dormant for hundreds of years, Arenal unexpectedly exploded and decimated the small town of Tabacón. For years after that first eruption there were several explosions – some major, some minor – that left the volcano glowing red with lava. Although recent years have seen no activity or signs of it, the warning signs around town about the possibility of life-threatening volcanic activity should be taken fairly seriously.

When the girl in the tour agency heard we had a car, she encouraged us to visit the sights in town independently instead of signing up for a tour. Thankful for her tip, we combined a morning hike in the national park at the base of the volcano 15kms outside of town with an afternoon trip to the incredible La Fortuna waterfall. Colorful toucans and other wild birds soared overhead as we descended over 400 steps into a ravine to the base of the massive waterfall. The pounding water was intense, but the resulting river was lazy, cool and perfect for swimming on a hot day. As we were there later in the day it was too chilly, though by the time we clambered back up those 400 steps we would have appreciated a quick swim. The imposing, mystical volcano, the powerful, pounding waterfall and hundreds of shades of green trees flooded us with an overwhelming sense of the natural splendor Costa Rica has to offer more than anywhere we had visited in the country before.

La Fortuna Waterfall in Costa RicaWhat you must not miss: Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort

After a day of hiking and climbing we couldn’t wait to spend the next day relaxing submerged in the steaming hot pools. Because of the geothermal activity of this volcanic region, La Fortuna is rife with options for hot springs, but the absolute best place to experience this is the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. Also a five star hotel, Tabacón is consistently listed as one of the best spa properties in the world, and often listed as one of the top ten hot springs in the world. Readers of Travel + Leisure voted is the #4 Hotel Spa in Latin America 2011.

Tabacon Hot Springs Costa RicaThere is no question as to why this is. Tapping into streaming water from the Tabacón river, there are five natural mineral pools ranging from 25-38 degrees Celcius (71-100 F), with a river rushing through the center of the property. Each of the pools and their steamy offshoots along winding pathways are set in lush gardens so that many areas feel semi-private, others downright hidden. The Shangri-La adults only area is incredibly relaxing, with chairs and plush beds spread throughout and meditational music playing just loud enough to hear over the rapids. We dipped in pool after pool and then massaged our shoulders under gorgeous waterfalls looking out at the Costa Rican rainforest, with Blue Morpho butterflies and what look like dinosaurs but are most likely only lizards sunbathe nearby.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa Costa RicaIn addition to the restaurant, pool area and three bars (one of which is a swim-up bar) is the Grand Spa, the true showcase piece of the Tabacón resort. Clients here have an even higher level of seclusion and connection to nature with open-air treatment rooms set among gardens. Treatments include volcanic mud wraps, coconut skin exfoliation, meditation trails, even a traditional temezcal area where guests can experience an ancient Indian steam treatment process.

No matter how you spend your Spa day, when you get here you will want to stay for a long, long time, so make sure to go ahead and pay the full $95 per person, which gets you unlimited time in the hot springs plus a set lunch and buffet dinner (its $85 for lunch or dinner only, or $65 just for the Hot Springs). Guests of the hotel receive one complimentary Spa treatment, otherwise all Grand Spa activities are charged separately.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa in Costa RicaTips for traveling to the La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano area

Rent a car

We rented a car and drove over from Samara Beach, meaning we spent the afternoon meandering the road around Lake Arenal, a magical sight that reminded us of the lochs of Scotland more than the primary rainforest that lay just ahead of us.

Once in the La Fortuna area, the town is fairly compact, but sites, restaurants and hotels are spread out along the road, which couldn’t be easier to navigate. Renting the car made the trip to Arenal as easy, comfortable and relaxing as possible. Luckily, we were able to drop off the car near the airport without any additional drop-off fees as well.

Create exactly the trip that you want

Because tourism in this region is well established, visitors here can choose from a full five-star holiday to bare bones basic backpacker hostels and everything in between. For us this meant we were able to travel exactly the way we prefer – choosing to visit sites independently and eating in the many local ‘sodas’, or Costa Rican restaurants, while staying in the excellent four-star Mountain Paradise Lodge and splurging on the spa day at Tabacón. For those looking for a full tour package or budget travelers looking for hostels and other budget travel ideas, this part of Costa Rica offers options for every budget.

Arenal La Fortuna Costa Rica

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Polaroid of the week: Hummingbird in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

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polaroid of the week costa rica 2012 hummingbird

After eight weeks, it was finally time to say goodbye to Costa Rica yesterday. We spent our last few days in La Fortuna, one of the very few places in Costa Rica that both of us had not been to yet. We could not have chosen a better location to spend our last days in Central America – La Fortuna exceeded every expectation. We hiked to one of the country’s most famous waterfalls, also named La Fortuna, spent a day at the 5* Tabacon Hot Springs whose thermal pools are heated by the nearby volcano Arenal and took a road trip along the stunning Lake Arenal.

We hiked in the Volcano Arenal National Park, saw animals we couldn’t name and were amazed by the diversity of flowers in this region of Costa Rica. And we were not the only ones who were attracted by the flowers. Hundreds of hummingbirds buzzed everywhere around us, even right outside our cottage at the gorgeous Mountain Paradise Hotel. This hotel blew us away (stay tuned for a Hotel Tip about our time there). We had clear views of the volcano from everywhere on the property, and it turned out that our very own front porch was the perfect place to watch the hummingbirds and tons of other wildlife. There could not have been a better ending to our time in Costa Rica!

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Globetrottergirls quick guide to Sámara Beach, Costa Rica

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When we came to Sámara the first time in February 2011, we had accidentally stumbled upon the little beach town on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and had decided that we did not want to share it with anyone, begging you not to go to Sámara Beach. We had feared that too many visitors would turn Sámara into a second Tamarindo or Coco, where huge apartment complexes and hotels appeared faster than the little beaches could take. After returning to Sámara now though we were assured that there are strict building restrictions in place and the gorgeous long stretch of beach would not be littered with massive all-inclusive resorts any time soon.

samara beach with palm treesWith many of the major North American airlines now flying straight into Liberia, just two hours north of Sámara, you can even skip San Jose altogether. Check out the cheap flights on flights24 or other sites to find out just how quick and easy it is to get to Sámara for a quick beach getaway. Since we love really handy travel guides to get your oriented in new places, here are our picks for things to do, places to eat at and where to stay in Playa Sámara:


Sámara is located in a wide, picturesque bay. A coral reef protects it from the strong waves that you have in nearby Santa Teresa or Nosara, making Sámara a perfect place to enjoy the ocean, but still attract surfers, especially beginners. Even though there are quite a few hotels and guesthouses along the beach, they are well hidden by the coconut palm trees  so that it retains the feel of a long stretch of undiscovered beach.

samara beach costa ricaThere is a range of restaurants and bars, and activities range from snorkeling and fishing tours to horseback riding along the beach and ATV tours. The town itself is tiny with only 400 residents, and is only three blocks wide and two blocks deep, and you can walk from one end of the beach to the other in an hour. Most hotels are only a short walk from the little town center with some shops, supermarkets, banks, galleries and restaurants.

Rainy season usually lasts from July to November, which makes December to June the perfect time to visit. It doesn’t always rain in the ‘green season’, either. During this time, mornings are nice with some showers in the afternoons.

samara beach sunsetWe have compiled a list of places to stay at in Sámara, where to eat and drink, and what to do in Sámara, but please note that these are only a few of many and that there are lots more for you to explore!

What to do in Sámara

Relax on the beach

The gorgeous stretch of fine sand beach is the perfect place to kick back for a few days and do nothing. Swing in a hammock or lie out and just work on your tan with occasional dips in the ocean. In Sámara you will not feel guilty if you don’t do anything but relax for a while.

Snorkel and kayak trip

You can book a kayak trip to Isla Chora, a deserted island on the south end of the bay, where you can snorkel on a pristine beach with crystal clear water. The tour takes around three hours and is $40 per person.

Learn to surf, stand up paddle or scuba dive

There are a couple of surf schools in Sámara that offer hourly, daily and weekly surf courses. Try Choco’s Surf School or C&C, where you have the board for 7 days for free if you book surf lessons.

The shallow water is also perfect for stand up paddling and there are some great spots for scuba diving along the reef.

samara beach surferVisit Carrillo Beach

Carrillo Beach is a picture-perfect beach 6km south of Sámara. If you are looking for solitude and a paradise-like setting, you will love Carrillo Beach. There are only a couple of hotels and the beach is nearly deserted at all times.

Learn Spanish

The Intercultura Sámara Language School offers Spanish lessons in their class rooms overlooking the ocean. Could there be a better setting to learn Spanish in?! Spanish is taught in small, interactive groups and students can also take part in cultural activities such as Latin dance or tours around the area, and the school provides (optional) family home stays.

So much more to do…

There are plenty of other activities in Sámara – you can take a day trip to Ostional to see a turtle arribada, go on a fishing trip, take an ATV tour, go ziplining, take yoga classes, see the coast from above in a gyrocopter or go on a whitewater rafting trip.

samara beach kayaksWhere to eat in Sámara

Ahora Si

Ahora Si is a vegetarian restaurant run by an Italian expat, Sabina, who cooks up a mix of Italian vegetarian fare and Asian rice dishes, soy burgers and fresh fruit shakes. Ahora Si takes pride in serving organic dishes with locally grown fruits and veggies.

Lo que hay

Lo que hay is located right on the beach, a small taqueria and bar with a popular Taco Tuesday (two tacos and a beer for $3). They have a variety of tacos and bar food such as filled avocados with home-made tortilla chips, and also serve pizza. There are several drink specials and a wide range of cocktails available.

samara beach lo que hay filled avocadosKaibella

Kaibella offers Thai Caribbean fusion and is run by Canadian expat Belle, who opened the restaurant on Sámara’s main street in 2010. The Thai dishes all have Belle’s personal touch combining traditional recipes with Costa Rican fruits and vegetables. You can get vegetarian dishes with tofu, or chicken, beef and seafood dishes.

Casa Esmeralda

Casa Esmeralda serves Tico cuisine, comparable to an upscale Soda where you can get Costa Rican casados and other meals, with excellent steaks, chicken, seafood and rice. If you are looking to try some good Costa Rican food, this is the place to go.


Gusto has creative Italian cuisine with a focus on seafood and especially famous for its excellent pasta dishes. There are two Gusto restaurants in Samara – one right on the beach and one in town; apparently the one in town is better than the one on the beach.

Where to drink in Sámara

There are several bars lined up along the beach and the main road, where the surfer crowd likes to gather at after the sun sets. Among the popular bars are Lo Que Hay (see Where to eat), Bar Arriba, Bar Olas and Bar Tabanuco.

samara beach lo que hay beach barWhere to stay in Sámara

The Treehouse Hotel

The Treehouse Hotel is located right on the beach in the center of Sámara, and consists of six luxury tree house style apartments. The wooden houses are all built on stilts and are set in a tropical garden with a little pool.

Price: $135 per night in high season / $120 per night in low season / $165 per night in peak season

Hotel Fenix

Hotel Fenix has six apartment-style rooms set around a little pool and is also located right on the beach. Each apartment comes with a fully equipped kitchen and the landscaped gardens have hammocks and sun chairs right on the beach.

Price: $110 per night in high season / $85 in low season / deluxe room $135 in high season / deluxe room $110 in low season / weekly and monthly rentals possible

Laz Divaz

Laz Divaz is a small, lesbian-owned B&B right on the beach. With only three little cabins, ‘Marlene Dietrich’, ‘Farinelli’ and, rising on her fabulous stilts, ‘Tina Turner’, it is an intimate place to stay. The ‘Tina Turner’ cabin comes with a fully equipped kitchen, the other two cabins include breakfast cooked to order.

samara beach laz divaz b&bPrice: $110 per night in high season / $100 in low season / $120 at Christmas and Easter

Casa Valeria

Casa Valeria offers several bungalows right on the beach, set around a tropical garden with hammocks and sun chairs. There is a communal kitchen that can be used by guests and there is free coffee in the morning. The bungalows are great value for money.

Price: US$50 for a bungalow in high season / $35 for a smaller room (not a bungalow)

Hostel Las Mariposas

Las Mariposas is a hostel located in the town center, just a short walk from the beach. There are shared dorms as well as private rooms and a communal kitchen can be used. Free coffee in the mornings is included and guests can choose between three different kind of breakfasts, all for only US$4.00.

Price: US$15 dorm bed / US$35 double room (shared bathroom) / US$38 double room with private bathroom

How to get to Sámara

There is a daily direct bus to Sámara from San Jose takes about 4.5 hours and is 4000 Colones (US$8.00). Interbus runs shuttles (minivans) from San Jose to Sámara for US$45.00.

The easiest way to get to Sámara from North America, however, is by flying into Liberia, only about two hours north of Sámara and then either renting a car or driving from there. Taxis run US$70 from Liberia, while cars can be booked for  o $25 – $50 per day.

The flight schedule is more restricted into Liberia than San Jose, but Costa Rica’s own TACA Airlines offers cheap flights to Costa Rica from most U.S. and some Canadian airports, and you can find flights with TACA Airlines on

samara beach horseback riders

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Fenix Hotel | Playa Samara, Costa Rica

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The tiles are cold under my feet as I stand making green tea on this chilly morning. The kettle begins to whistle, then louder, drowning out the sound of the pounding waves I have been staring at out the window. Dani and I are sat at the kitchen table, just 100 feet from the ocean, at Hotel Fenix on Playa Samara, Costa Rica, taking advantage of the rainy weather to get some work done.

Hotel Fenix Samara Costa RicaWe love our room even on a rainy day, but on a sunny day, Playa Samara is paradise, and Hotel Fenix a perfect spot from which to enjoy it. The hotel is made for relaxation. All six rooms open onto a small pool, just beyond which are plenty of hammocks and sun chairs lining the top of the beach. Horses occasionally gallop by, as do a handful of tourists, but unlike other beaches in Costa Rica, Samara always feels relatively empty, even during our visit in high season last year (when we asked you, politely, NOT to come here at all).

Hotel Fenix Samara Beach Costa Rica with flowersOur hotel is definitely one of the closest to the water, but all houses and hotels on Playa Samara are set back in the trees so that when you stroll along the 4.5 miles of coastline around the bay, you see only a dense line of palm trees, sand and easy waves perfect for newbies to learn to surf.

Hotel Fenix Samara Beach Costa RicaFor now, though, we have taken solace in our room, which luckily feels a lot like having our own beach-front condo. The property was originally built as six condos years ago, the American owner, Bill, tells us. The project lasted only one year, however, and when it went up for sale, Bill and his wife Phyllis bought the Fenix and have been living here and running the hotel for over ten years, along with their children, his mother, a dog, some cats and a poor little partly-paralyzed squirrel.

The room has a full separate bedroom, which has a comfortable queen bed with colorful crisp bedding. Just outside the bedroom are the toilet and shower rooms. The kitchen is fully equipped with an oven, fridge, dishes, plates, silverware, a blender, plus dish soap, enough towels and a chorreador, a traditional Costa Rican coffee-making device. We are able to prepare almost all our meals in the kitchen – not because the restaurants are far, but because after so long on the road cooking holds more appeal than ordering off a menu. The town center is an easy 15-minute walk up the beach or a five-minute cab ride and there is no shortage of food options. There is one deluxe room, which makes a strong leap into a truly luxurious option. The bed and bedroom are larger, there is a couch in the room and extra futon in the kitchen (making it perfect for groups or families), as well as a full fridge, flat screen TV and air-conditioning.

Hotel Fenix Samara Beach RoomWhile this feels like ‘home’, the room is cleaned spotlessly every day like a top hotel. The friendly cleaning woman comes in, makes our bed, sweeps out all the sand, mops the floors, dries any recently washed dishes and puts them all back away, so that every time we come back from an afternoon out, it feels like we have just arrived for the first time.

The room is very open, with only screens covering many of the windows. While this does mean plenty of breeze and waking to the sound of the waves and birds every morning, it also means no sound-proofing and overhearing conversations of other guests. This wasn’t a huge problem as ultimately everyone is there to relax and enjoy life.

Hotel Fenix Samara Beach Costa RicaStand Out Feature: The Bodega

When you get to Samara and stay here at the Fenix Hotel, you might think it strange of us to highlight what is essentially a fairly dark, narrow room where the cleaning lady keeps her mops and towels. But the bodega (meaning ‘storage room’, in Spanish) represents the ethos of the hotel, which is meant to be a home away from home. First, there is a microwave for all guests to use and fridges with beer and other cold drinks for sale on the honor system. The prices match those at local shops rather than overpriced mini-bar prices, which indicates to us that they offer this as a convenience to you, not strictly as a profit for them. There is a small lending library for light beach reading, card and board games, and dozens of boogie boards for guests to use free of charge, an information board with all local tours available and a page for guests to fill in restaurants they ate at in town and can recommend for future guests.

Hotel Fenix Samara Costa Rica bodegaRoom for improvement: A facelift

As we have learned after living in two beach houses this year, between the jungle, the sea breeze, the sand, and torrential rain, any structure on the beach needs constant updates and improvements. The Fenix Hotel could just use a bit of a facelift. Window screens are a bit dated and the kitchen utensils (silverware, Tupperware, cutting boards, etc) could stand to be replaced.


A stay at the Fenix Hotel is like having a beach-front apartment, with all the perks of  a well-run hotel. A stay here ensures the beach experience people go to Costa Rica in search of. We found it to be entirely relaxing and also the perfect place to watch Samara’s incredible sunsets.

Hotel Fenix Samara Beach SunsetLocation: Samara Beach, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Price: Starting at $85.00 for a double room in low season / $110 in high season
LGBT Friendly: Yes
Digital Nomad Friendly: Excellent wi-fi reception in all rooms and even by the pool; monthly rates available.
Amenities: Free wi-fi, swimming pool, fully-equipped kitchen in every apartment, laundry service, tour and transportation booking service

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