close

Costa Rica

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

Dani and Jess in Santiago

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. 

read more

Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel

Dani & Jess in Monterosso Cinque Terre

We spent a wonderful day in Madrid last Sunday, where we celebrated a major milestone – we’ve been on the road for 400 days now! Over tapas and beer in the Spanish capital, we reflected on the last 100 days, which we spent in Costa Rica, Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain and cruising the Mediterranean. As usual, there are always highs and lows throughout our travels. The past 100 days were filled with the highest of highs, and luckily no dramatic lows – read on for our Tops and Flops:

Top travel moments

House-sitting in a B&B in Tuscany

Before we ever set off as permanent travelers, we looked into house-sitting, thanks to this article in the Guardian newspaper. The journalist spent time house-sitting in an old Italian farmhouse B&B. From the moment we read this article, we had dreamt of doing exactly that, and although we have loved all of our other house-sits, we jumped at the chance to housesit in a Tuscan B&B, high up in the mountains between the medieval town of Barga and the buzzing city of Lucca. For ten days in April we explored northern Tuscany, sampled as much pizza as possible, and enjoyed our time in the cozy Italian farmhouse!

Borgo a mozzano Italy

Cruising the Mediterranean

We like to identify as long-term, budget travelers – the kind of travelers who stay for long periods of time in each location, learning and adapting to each new way of life. Spending a week on a cruise ship visiting a new port city each day certainly does not fall into this travel style, but when Jess’ parents invited us to join them on their Mediterranean cruise, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to test out such a different way of traveling.

Cruise ShipTo our surprise, it turns out that we really enjoyed it! After months of fairly hard-core travel through Central America and Mexico, and new hotel rooms every other day, we really appreciated a week of easy travel, comfortable beds, hot showers, the fitness center and spa, plus all the (really tasty) food were all included. The biggest disadvantage of a cruise (in addition to the extortionate wi-fi rates on board) is that you only get a teaser of each port of call, but since we had already visited nearly all the ports before, we just enjoyed the vacation and showing Jess’ parents some of our favorite places in Spain and Italy.

San Gimignano view

Seeing the Panama Canal

Dani has always been fascinated by ports and giant freight ships, so the Panama Canal was a definite highlight of the last 100 days. It was fascinating to witness these massive ships being lowered through the locks of the Panama Canal on their way around the globe, seeing first hand this element of international business and how we acquire the goods like cars, TVs, spices, fruits we have come to expect to be available to us every day.

Gatun locks Panama

The Top of Germany

During our time in Germany, we literally went all the way to the Top, so we just had to include this in our Tops section! We took a gondola up to the very top of the country’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, which is not only the highest mountain in Germany, but also forms part of the border between Germany and Austria. We spent some time watching snowboarders and skiers, eating a German dumpling meal and chugging down Bavarian Hefeweizen beer – which surprisingly tasted much better all the way up there!

Globetrottergirls on Top of Germany Zugspitze

Favorite places

Siena, Italy

This charming town in southern Tuscany combines postcard perfect medieval buildings and tradition with a modern urban feel thanks to the well-established university in town. This modest sized city has good shopping, great restaurants, cheap eats, and plenty of fun bars, but drive just five minutes outside of town, and you are back in the heart of the vineyards, cypresses and olive trees which make up the colorful Tuscan countryside.

Piazza di Campo Siena Italy

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Panama City can be easily divided into two very distinct areas to explore. The skyscrapers that make up the Panama City skyline rival almost any U.S. city, and the people who live in this area have adopted an identical lifestyle – pimped out SUV trucks, fast-food joints, wide multi-lane city streets and strip malls galore. Head on down to Casco Viejo, however, and the feeling couldn’t be more different. Fully-restored buildings and their still dilapidated neighbors line tiny winding cobble stone streets. The area can feel European, and at the same time, with the Latin rhythms, Panama Hats and laid-back vibe Casco Viejo feels like how you imagine Havana, Cuba might feel. This was easily one of the memorable places we experienced throughout our last 100 days.

Casco Viejo Panama

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

This Caribbean town in Costa Rica has something to match everyone’s tastes, and without even a sliver of stress. We rented bikes and explored the stretches of nearly empty beaches, had overpriced fruity cocktail drinks in a fancy beachside bar, ate street food, and danced to reggaton with blurry eyes until late… we couldn’t have had a better time here!

Music with that Jessie chick in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

San Gimignano, Italy

The medieval town of 13 towers is the quintessential Tuscan town. It is walkable in a few hours and loaded with restaurants and shops selling everything from cheesy tourist trinkets to gorgeous pottery. Make sure to climb to the top of the Torre Grossa, the tallest tower, for breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and keep your eyes peeled for one of the many free wine-tastings available in town!

Plaza in San Gimignano Italy

Bavaria, Germany

We are unable to pick out just one place in Bavaria as our favorite. We just had a storybook time during our house sit in Germany. Neither of us has ever done much exploring in Bavaria before, and we enjoyed taking the time to get to know this very traditional and very green area of southern Germany. We took several day trips to Munich, Neuschwanstein Castle, the picturesque town of Fuessen, visited Innsbruck in Austria and even just strolling through the village we lived in, climbing the snow-covered mountain behind our house and seeing the monastery of Ettal was all really fun.

Bavarian village, Germany

Most disappointing places

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro comprise several tiny islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, not far from the border to Costa Rica. We thought we would find gorgeous beaches and a purely Caribbean feel. In reality, the beaches are a bus trip or water taxi ride away, and some of those beaches charge to get in and are packed with people. The scenery was gorgeous, but having come from some amazing beaches in Costa Rica and Nicaragua’s Corn Islands, we were hoping for a bit more from all the praise Bocas had been getting from fellow travelers.

Bocas del toro street Panama

Florence, Italy

When it comes to Tuscany, Florence tends to be named as the city to visit, but we missed the ‘Wow’ factor we felt in other spots we visited in Tuscany. We found Florence to be overpriced, overcrowded with bus loads of tourists, and not as pretty as Siena, Lucca or San Gimignano. For art lovers, Florence can be the ultimate destination, as the city is home to the Uffizi gallery and the Academia, which both house incredible paintings and sculptures, as well as being home to an ornate Cathedral and the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Most people love it, but the famous city didn’t inspire us as much as we thought.

Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati, Florence, Italy

The Panama Canal train ride

Sure, train rides in Central America are rate, nearly non-existent, and one along the Panama Canal sounds fascinating. But we say don’t bother getting up at the crack of dawn for this disappointing train ride along the canal. We had read about this train ride months before we even got to Panama, and descriptions such as luxurious and unforgettable experience really drew us in for the ride from the Miraflores Lock 50km cross country to the Gatun lock. Tourists are herded into one very old car on the train which may have been luxurious 50 years ago, but today feels run down. Very little of the ride offers actual views of the canal, and despite the luscious jungle and blue lakes, the hour-long ride for $22 is a one-way trip which leaves you in the undesirable town of Colon forced to make your way to a bus station to hop on a bus back to where you started.

Panama Canal Train Waggon

Travel recommendations

House-sitting

We recommended house-sitting before, but having had two more great house-sits in the last 100 days, we can only recommend it again. We are signed up with two house-sitting websites which has brought us to two places we wouldn’t have visited otherwise: a tiny German village in the Alps near the Austrian border and a cute Italian mountain village north of Lucca, plus in the very near future, a housesit in Canada, which was not on our itinerary either. Not only did we get to know these regions, but we also took advantage of having a house again for a while: our own kitchen, showers and toilets and having a car – all things we didn’t have while traveling through Central America for the last seven months. We also appreciated the fact that showers were always hot, we did not have to share the bathroom and we didn’t pay a penny for accommodation during that time.

Our home for two weeks - an Italian farmhouse in Tuscany

Car shares in Germany

Car-sharing, or carpooling, in Germany is a well-developed market, and just as common as taking a bus or a taxi. There are several websites for car-sharing, which allow you to search for drivers headed in your direction and book a ride with them, for not more than your fair share of the gas. We moved throughout Germany entirely using car-sharing, and we even went to Italy and back using the same websites and paying only 35 Euros per person instead of 229 Euros which we each would have paid for the train around Easter. Speaking German is a plus not only for reading the site but also when spending time in the car speaking to the wide variety of drivers and other passengers. However, enough Germans speak English well-enough to get you from A to B and save you a ton of money while traveling around the country.

Stay at Belmonte Vacanze

Our time in Tuscany easily competes as the absolute top of our 400 days of travel. There is no question that our overwhelmingly positive experience is due, in large part, to our time at the family-run Belmonte Vacanze holiday apartments, set in the perfect location for the perfect Tuscany farm holiday. Although it feels like you are staying at a villa in the deepest Tuscan countryside, Belmonte Vacanze is actually just a 15-minute drive from San Gimignano, Volterra, ten minutes from our new favorite little town of Montaione, 30 minutes from Siena, and you can even make it to the Tuscan coast and Pisa in 1 hour, and Cinque Terre within 2 hours. There is an on-site horse-riding facility, a large swimming pool, and our one-bedroom apartment which came equipped with everything we needed, including sweeping views of the Tuscan countryside and the friendliest owners we’ve come across yet!

Belmonte Vacanze holiday apartments in TuscanyWorst travel moments

Bank card fraud in Panama City

When Jess tried to use her debit card in Panama City, the ATM spit out her card, but no cash came out. After this happened four times at two different ATMs, we returned cashless to our hostel and checked the online bank statement: several hundred dollars had been withdrawn from Colombia, and as we were in Panama, not Colombia, we saw quickly some major fraud was in action. The bank (HSBC) was quick and efficient in returning the charges, but we were stuck without the only debit card that still worked after a series of debit card issues throughout the year. Luckily this happened one day before we flew to Germany, where we had a fixed address for long enough to get new cards sent over. Cash advances on our credit card ended up being very expensive though.

Top travel mishaps

Opening a bank account with a sh** bank

When we arrived in Germany we finally received our new Nationwide Bank debit cards which had been forwarded to us, after 5 months without being able to use our joint account. After the debit card fraud on our other account, we were more than happy to hold our new cards – the smiles on our faces disappeared quickly though when we read the bold print in the accompanying letter: This card can not be used for cash withdrawals abroad. I’m sorry, can you repeat that?!

We had opened our account with Nationwide in England just before we left on our trip because they were offering free international withdrawals – and now they changed their policy so that the cards can not even be used abroad. If you are from England and about to set off on a RTW trip – do not sign up with Nationwide. Nationwide sucks.

Bad planning: Arriving in Panama just in time for Carnival

When we crossed over from Costa Rica into Panama, we had just found out that all of Panama was celebrating Carnival, which is one of the biggest parties in the world. With the entire country on holiday, we crossed the border into the country on a day when no local buses running and hostels were completely booked. We ended up overpaying for a taxi to the ferry to Bocas del Toro, where we ended up spending a night together in the bottom bunk in a grungy hostel right next to the three-story mega-speakers of the main carnival stage in Bocas. Oops!

Bocas del toro carnival devil PanamaTop food moments

Italian Pizza at Il Ciampo, Montaione in Italy

During our stay in Italy it took us a while to find decent pizza. In fact, we didn’t even like the first few pizzas we ordered. However, the longer we stayed, the better the pizza was that we found! The best pizza that will stay with us forever in our memories of Tuscany was a mascarpone & tomato pizza and a rucola & parmesan pizza at Pizzeria Il Ciampo in the small town of Montaione near San Gimignano.

Pizza at Il Ciampi in Montaione Italy

Pretzels in Bavaria, Germany

Jess loves German soft pretzels, called Brez’n in Bavaria. Pretzels are equal to bread and are used for making any kind of sandwich or come with cheese baked on top. Jess had at least one pretzel every day throughout the seven weeks we spent in Germany off and on in the last few months – she can’t get enough!

Pretzels in Bavaria

Tapas at Restaurante Carmela in Seville, Spain

We always seem to find a great restaurant in Seville, and Restaurante Carmela is no exception. We filled the entire table with vegetarian tapas and were thankful for the long walk back to our hotel to help digest it all.

Delicious Tapas at Carmela in Seville Spain

Gelato in Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre in Italy

We each had delicious gelato from a beach-side stand in Monterosso al Mare, but really, you can go to almost any gelateria in Italy and find delicious gelato – chocolate, strawberry, tutti-frutti and even some more exotic flavors such as zabaione and pistachio. Sure some places are better than others, but we did a lot of work as amateur gelato testers and have yet to find gelato that didn’t taste good!

Gelato in ItalyMore Tops & Flops:

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

read more

Getting steamy in Arenal, Costa Rica

volcano arenal costa rica

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 Rica escape.

lake arenal costa rica

What 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 Costa Rica 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 ArenalThere 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 Costa Rica 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 Rica

What you cannot 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 Rica

Tips for traveling to La Fortuna / Arenal Costa Rica

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

read more

Please don’t go to Samara Beach…

samara beach sunset1

Costa Rica may be a well established destination on the tourist trail, but the Nicoya Peninsula is still very much the country’s own Wild Wild West. Lucky for us, what started off as a transportation nightmare led us to discover our favorite beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast: Samara Beach.

Why Visit Samara Beach?

We had no plans to visit Samara Beach. Sure, it was suggested in the guidebooks like countless other Costa Rican beaches. However, despite naysayers’ warnings that efforts to traverse the entire peninsula by bus would prove futile, our plan was to get from Playa del Coco in the north down to the popular, once-isolated beach town of Montezuma on the very southern tip of the Nicoya. We pushed along all the way to the sleepy, scorchingly hot inland city of Nicoya, the peninsula’s namesake, before realizing, weary and dusty from an already long afternoon of bus travel, that there was indeed no way to get down to Montezuma without paying a private taxi $120 to make the remaining five-hour, tire-busting trip.samara beach surfer After chatting to several very helpful taxi drivers and a group of American language students on their way back to Samara Beach after a trekking adventure, we spontaneously decided to join our fellow ‘gringos’. The next bus to Samara Beach left just thirty minutes later and arrived within an hour.

As soon as we arrived, we were enchanted by the beauty of the beach from the start. We basked in the late afternoon sun, admiring the tropical palm trees which line the miles of wide, white sand beach. The town itself is really only a collection of hotels and restaurants along one road perpendicular to the coast and a smattering of hotels and beach lounges on the beach.

Despite the well-developed tourism here, this beautiful beach location is noticeably absent of all-inclusive resorts, and the tourists here are different than the older retirees of Playa del Coco or aging hippies at Montezuma, populated instead by younger couples and smart travelers looking to escape all of that.samara beach cloudy sunset
samara beach from water

The area is certainly almost exclusively populated by tourists, ex-pats and locals working in tourism, but Samara Beach does not feel contrived the way that many Costa Rican destinations have now begun to feel. There are no chain hotels, no fast food restaurants, and no multi-story buildings. When you look back at the land from the water, the buildings peek out from amongst lush jungle and striking cliffs. The best thing about Samara is that the endless amount of sandy beaches always feels  fairly empty, no matter how full the hotels actually are.

The ocean here is shallow, and the waves are present enough to learn to surf but unforgiving enough to enjoy a day splashing around in them, not the case in many locations up and down the Pacific coast from Mexico through Nicaragua (exception: San Juan del Sur). After a day in the waves, there are sunset beach lounges with mellow music, creative cocktails and international cuisine. The magical sunsets during our stay turned the sky various shades of purple and pink, causing a wall of bikini-clad amateur paparazzi to form, trying to capture the stunning scenery.Sunset at Samara BeachEven though there are quite a lot of international (mostly American) tourists, Samara Beach still manages to feel like an off-the-beaten-path location – which, of course, the town is not. Visitors here can surf, kayak, take a boat ride, book a sport-fishing trip, go diving, head inland to the jungle nearby for canopy tours, or rent a bicycle or hop on a horse and ride up and down the miles of deserted coastline. Samara Beach even advertises itself as a key spot for destination weddings.

The hotels remain reasonably priced, although budget accommodation in Samara Beach, as in Costa Rica in general, is harder to come by. We stayed at Casa Valeria, which Frommers called the best budget option on the beach back then. The hotel has 9 stand alone beach bungalows for $50 and a pair of cheaper rooms for $30. (Note: Casa Valaeria is still around, I found a standard room including breakfast for $38 on Booking.com in 2019, but I do think that there are now newer, better options in town.)

There is a new hostel in town, Hostel Matilori, which cost around $16 per person per night in a dorm or $40 in a private room – the advantage to the bungalows and other hotels is that the hostel has two shared kitchens. (Update 2019: The hostel is not so new anymore, but still has great reviews. You can book it here.)Casa Valeria Hammocks & bungalow Samara BeachSamara beach & ocean

Samara Beach is the Costa Rican vacation we really wanted, fulfilling perfectly the image still being sold in the travel brochures. The level of tourism here makes for the perfect peaceful escape – all of the organization you need and none of the banana-boat and disco clubs you don’t. The problem with Samara Beach is that it is at its tipping point, and while the balance is now is perfect, more tourists arriving each year might convert the place into another overly Americanized beach like Montezuma, Playa del Coco or Jaco Beach (lined with Quiznos and Pizza Huts).

This is why we beg you…please don’t go to Samara Beach. But if you do go, which you really should, please don’t tell anyone else about this perfect Costa Rican beach location.

Practical information for visiting Samara Beach

How to get to Samara Beach

The closest airport is Liberia (about 2 hours by car from Samara), but you can also fly into San Jose and get to Samara by car (4 hours) or bus (about 5 hours). A taxi from Liberia airport is between US$50 and US$60. Important: Negotiate the fare before you get in the cab!samara beach horseback riders

To Samara Beach by bus: You can take a bus from San Jose or Liberia to Nicoya, and then change onto a bus to Samara. The bus company that runs from Nicoya to Samara is called Empresa Rojas. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Nicoya to Samara.

Alfaro express buses go directly from San José daily at noon from Avenida 5 between calles 14 and 16. The trip takes 5 hours; check here for current timetables and fares (2017 fare: ₡4,395/ US$7.95). 2019 fare: ₡4.470 / US$7.97)

To Samara Beach by car: You can rent a car right at the airport in both San Jose and Liberia. The roads are simple country roads but okay to drive on. If you don’t want to drive all the way to Samara from San Jose but would like to have a car to explore more of the Nicoya Peninsula – you can also rent a car in Samara.

samara beach with palm trees
Where to stay in Samara

Budget:

  • Las Mariposas – hostel right on the beach, private single rooms from US$35, doubles from US$40, dorm bed US$15 – review score 8.5
  • Woodstock Hostel – close to the beach, but further away from the center. Double room US$31, dorm bed US$15. Review Score 8.9
  • Oasis – 2-bedroom house right on the beach from US$35. Review score 8.9
  • Hostel El Dorado – double room for US$40, review score 8.6

Value:

samara hotels

Splurge:

  • Samara Chillout Lodge – New adults-only boutique hotel in a quiet area away from the beach. Rooms from US$95. Review score 9.5
  • Las Perlitas – Beautifully decorated hotel with pool in the center of Samara, doubles from US$99 incl breakfast. Review score 9.5
  • Hotel Leyenda – Small hotel with beautiful swimming pools and gardens. Doubles from US$99 including breakfast. Review score 9.1
  • Hotel Samara Paraiso – small hotel with swimming pool near Izquierda Beach. Apartments and bungalows from around US$120. Review score 9.4
  • Colina Del Mar – Intimate hotel away from the beach on a hillside, stunning nature setting. Small swimming pool. Rooms from around US$149 including breakfast. Review score 9.3
  • Nammbu Beach Front Bungalows – Playa Carillo. My favorite beach just south of Samara – if you want complete serenity, this small boutique hotel is for you. Rooms from US$150
  • la isla que no hay – Two bedroom house in the center of Samara from US$199 per night (sleeps 4 people), swimming pool. Review score 8.9
  • The Hideaway Hotel – on the far southern end of the beach, between Samara and Playa Carillo. Swimming pool and on-site restaurant. Double rooms start at US$278 – review score 9.1

samara beach costa rica

Airbnb’s in Samara Beach

Check out Airbnb homes in Samara by clicking on the map below. There are also Experiences, i.e. tours run by locals, that you can book via Airbnb.

 

Where to eat in Samara Beach

There are several inexpensive sodas, local restaurants in Samara. These simple restaurants serve up Costa Rica’s main dish: casado. A casado usually includes your choice of beef, chicken, pork or fish, rice and beans, salad, a vegetable side dish, and fried plantains. Vegetarians can ask for fresh cheese or eggs instead of meat. A casado is between US$4 and US$6.samara beach casado
Other places worth checking out:

  • Samara Organics MercadoCafe (Natural Center, in front of Gusto Beach Restaurant, Sámara, 50205, Costa Rica)
  • Ahora Si! (Samara’s first vegetarian restaurant)
  • Bohemia Cafe (great breakfasts, smoothies and light fare in the center of town)
  • Lo Que Hay (Mexican restaurant right on the beach)
  • Luv Burgers (Vegetarian Burgers)
  • Restaurant Giada (Italian restaurant right in the center of town, look for Hotel Giada on Main Street)
  • Roots Bakery & Cafe (Fantastic bakery /coffee shop / breakfast place in town. Near Hotel Giada)
  • El Lagarto (Best place in Samara for steaks, barbecue and seafood)

samara beach lo que hay filled avocados

Afterword: I first visited Samara Beach in 2011, and I have gotten many emails from readers over the past few years asking me if Samara “was over”. i.e. if it had been discovered by mainstream tourism. After a short return in 2012, I finally returned to Samara this past winter and I am happy to report that I found the exact same tranquil beach paradise that I found when I first ended up in Samara nearly a decade ago.

read more

Is it safe to travel in Costa Rica?

costa rica pura vida

A few years ago I would have answered the question of safety in Costa Rica with a sound YES, but after my latest trip at the end of 2018, I feel a little bit more wary about wholeheartedly recommending Costa Rica as a travel destination – especially to a solo female traveler – than I would have when I visited Costa Rica for the first time, as part of a Central America backpacking trip in 2011, and then again for a two-month housesit in a seaside villa in 2012.

My experiences traveling Costa Rica

The first time I visited Costa Rica, I entered the country overland from Nicaragua, having just traveled through Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. I had sketchy moments in all of those countries, including gunshots outside the hotel I was locked up in in Honduras’ capital Tegucigalpa, an attempted bag slashing in Guatemala, and a being told to put my guidebook away in San Salvador, to not clearly out myself as a tourist.

Back then, arriving in Costa Rica after traveling through several poor and politically unstable countries felt like arriving in North America. Just a few miles south of the border we were able to drink the tap water again, there were hot showers, ATMs abound, and American hotel and restaurant chains including Hard Rock Café and Taco Bell. While I had always felt a little tense and ‘on guard’ while traveling through Costa Rica’s neighboring countries to the north, this tension immediately eased and I started to let my guard down. Costa Rica felt so much safer than the rest of Central America!

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

When I revisited the country a couple of months ago for a 3-week road trip, I didn’t feel as safe, however. I was already more vigilant and aware of my surroundings, and I had bought travel insurance before the trip. My pre-trip research had led me to several Tripadvisor forum threats and articles about tourists getting their rental cars broken in, armed robberies, tourists raped and two female tourists were raped and murdered just a few months before my visit. In January 2018, an entire tourist bus was robbed at gunpoint on the Caribbean Coast – something that you usually only hear happening in Guatemala or Nicaragua. There had been enough incidents in Costa Rica recently for the UK to publish a travel advisory.

And as my Costa Rica trip was coming to an end, news of a female tourist that had gone missing slowly broke. As I returned to the U.S., I watched the story of the missing girl unfold, which eventually turned into the horrible news of the third female tourist murdered in Costa Rica in 2018. It was her last night in the country, and she was supposed to fly back to Florida the next day, spending only one night by herself in an Airbnb after vacationing with her sister-in-law. She wasn’t even a solo traveler, just one night by herself after a girls trip that should’ve been her birthday trip, just as this was my birthday trip, too.

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica
is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

Is Costa Rica becoming too dangerous for female travelers? asked The Costa Rica Star a few days ago, stating that all of the female travelers who were killed while vacationing in Costa Rica “were seasoned, well-traveled females, who nonetheless wound up as victims of murderers and predators.”

I know that a lot of travelers, especially female travelers, will now rethink their travel plans to Costa Rica, which is why I wanted to talk about my own experiences traveling Costa Rica and how safe I felt there, and also share some safety travel tips for Costa Rica with you.

It is difficult for me to say ‘Go to Costa Rica anyway!’ or ‘Stay away from Costa Rica’. Because I myself have traveled to several countries or cities where other travelers had bad experiences, but I personally had a great time. In Ecuador, I went to a beach town where two female travelers from Argentina had been murdered the year before. I visited to Koh Tao, which had made news for several tourist murders. I traveled to Colombia on my own after reading a fellow female traveler’s horror story of getting robbed at gunpoint. And that trip turned out to be one of my best trips of all time.

While I feel that the murders in Costa Rica are still isolated cases (they were not connected to another), I don’t think they should be completely left out of the picture when planning a trip to Costa Rica – no matter if it’s solo, on a girls trip or with a boyfriend. I strongly recommend to take safety precautions if you are planning to travel by yourself, look through travel forums on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet to find the most recent safety information.

Before sharing some safety tips, I wanted to point out that you should take into consideration that crime is not the only safety issue in Costa Rica – there are a number of non-crime related safety issues in Costa Rica, that you should consider, too:

Natural hazards in Costa Rica

VOLCANO ERUPTION: Costa Rica is home to five active volcanoes and over 200 dormant volcanic structures, and volcanic eruptions are a common occurrence. It is rare that people die during an eruption, but it has happened, and an eruption can effect your trip and the places you’re able to visit.

EARTHQUAKES: Costa Rica is also sitting on the edge of the Pacific Rim’s Ring Of Fire which means earthquakes are common. I myself have experienced several earthquakes in Costa Rica, which is not a pleasant experience, and again, can affect your trip if roads and other infrastructure are damaged during an earthquake.

MONSOON RAIN: Monsoon rains are quite intense in Costa Rica, and in 2018 they led to several fatalities involving tourists. A newly-wed man who was on his honeymoon with his wife was swept away and died when the couple got caught in a flash flood, and four Americans, part of a 13-people bachelor weekend, drowned when they went rafting in a river that turned into a deadly torrent after heavy rains.

Monsoon rains can also affect your trip if they cause travel delays, landslides that cause road closures, and limited activities, so make sure to check the weather for the month you’re planning to visit. July – October are usually the rainiest months, but this year, it rained well into November, which made driving during our road trip dangerous at times.

Crocodiles

Believe it or not, but Costa Rica takes the #3 spot in the ranking of countries where tourists are likely to be attacked / bitten by a crocodile, according to a nature guide I took a tour with on this last trip. We encountered crocodiles in several locations, including a close encounter in the swamps of Cahuita National Park. There has been a growing number of crocodiles in recent year, so don’t underestimate their speed and how close you can get to them. Crocodile sightings on popular surf beaches have also increased.

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

Safety advice in Costa Rica

Looking at the bigger picture, I think that natural hazards are much more prevalent than crime, especially murder and rape, and tourist-targeted crimes in general, but be aware that petty theft and pickpocketing are not uncommon in Costa Rica.

Here are some safety tips for Costa Rica:

Avoid carrying lots of cash

Since pickpocketing can happen, especially when you take buses around the country or in San Jose, I’d advice you to not carry around too much cash, and while traveling in between cities, have it in a safe place on your body (I am using both a money belt and pickpocket-proof tanktops with hidden pockets). Have your cash in several places, not just one.

Debit / Credit Cards

Costa Rica has become much more receptive to card payments since my last visit – take advantage of that and don’t carry around hundreds of dollars in cash. If you lose your debit or credit card, you can cancel them quickly, but if you lose $500 in cash, you won’t get them back.

Valuables

This should go without saying, but don’t flash your valuables. An iPhone, a tablet or an expensive digital camera are very attractive to a lot of people, especially those living in small beach towns without access to the newest gadgets or the funds to buy them. Don’t leave your valuables out of sight when you’re at the beach, and have your backpack always on you when you travel on buses, don’t ever put them in the overhead compartment.

Thieves are very clever and if you are approached by someone and something feels off, it might be a spiel to distract you so that they can get to your valuables.

Taxis

There are plenty of unofficial taxis in Costa Rica – if you do take taxis, make sure that you take an official taxi (including the airport!). Taxi robberies have occurred in Costa Rica.

Rental Car Theft

Car break-ins are anything but uncommon in Costa Rica, so make sure to never leave any valuables in your car, even when you’re leaving the car only for a short while. If you are in transit and stop for a meal somewhere along the way, I recommend covering your suitcases or using a manned car park.

Travel Insurance

After having our beach bungalow broken into in Colombia a couple of years ago, I have become much more diligent about buying travel insurance. Better safe than sorry. Make sure to take down serial numbers of all the electronics you’re bringing to Costa Rica (tablet, camera, phone, etc) – most insurance companies require the serial numbers if you file a claim.

Adventure Travel Activities

Since Costa Rica is known as an adventure travel destination, make sure that the insurance package you purchase covers the activities you’re planning to do. After carefully reading the small print of the insurance company I usually use, WorldNomads, I noticed that ziplining, snorkeling, tubing and white water rafting were covered under their Standard package, but diving and abseiling were only covered in the more expensive Explorer package. Check beforehand if you need additional coverage for the activities you’re planning to do.

Safety tips for solo female travelers in Costa Rica

Trust your instincts

First and foremost, always follow your instincts. If something feels off, you are most likely right about it. The sad thing is that Stefanie, the girl that was murdered in Costa Rica last month, knew something wasn’t right and texted her friend that the place she was staying at felt sketchy – but it was too late. If you feel uncomfortable in a hostel or Airbnb, leave. That goes especially for remote bungalows and cabins.

Inform people of your whereabouts

I have to admit that I am particularly bad with this when I travel alone – I visited a remote village in the Amazon, a 2-hour boat ride away from the closest town, and without any internet or cell phone network, without telling anyone, and jumped on the back of a motorcycle with a stranger not once but twice in the Philippines – without telling anyone. I’ve gotten better with informing people where I am and what activities I’m doing, and I have also started using my cell phones location services – see below.

Use your smartphone’s location services

This is a great way for people to locate you should you go missing or get hurt during a hike, unable to move. Most people dislike these services and don’t want the  tech companies that use location services, but for safety reasons while traveling alone they can be useful, and my family is always relieved when they can spot me on the map somewhere. The New York Times published a useful article last year when and when not to use location services on your smartphone.

Use your phone for more than just taking selfies in the waves 😉

Know basic self defense moves

If you do travel alone, it doesn’t hurt knowing some basic self defense moves, and be it something basic like how to use your key as a weapon, in case of an attack. It is sad that we live in a world where we always have to be alert, and even though I find that most people are good, I can’t deny that there are bad people in the world and again – better safe than sorry. If you cannot afford a self-defense class, check out these videos on Youtube:  

Airbnb vs Hotel / Hostel

Considering that the last girl murdered in Costa Rica was staying in an Airbnb – and in a seemingly safe one, in a gated apartment complex with a security guard (who turned out to be a sexual predator / her killer), I’m a bit cautious about recommending Airbnb’s to solo travelers right now, even though I myself stayed in one (an easily accessible beach bungalow without security guard, cameras, etc) and had no problems whatsoever. If you do prefer vacation rentals over hotels, just make sure to read the description and reviews carefully and only book a place that you feel 100% comfortable with. And if you get there and things don’t look as expected or / and you’re feeling uneasy – don’t be afraid to leave early. Remember that hotels and hostels do have the advantage of having a receptionist / staff around, which might give you more piece of mind than the solitude that comes with an Airbnb.

Do your research

A quick Google search is the first thing I always do when I travel somewhere – and even just putting ‘Costa Rica’ into the search box and clicking on the ‘NEWS’ tab will show you recent events in Costa Rica. Many things like crocodile attacks or earthquakes don’t make international news, and even the most recent murder, which made news in the U.S. because the girl was a U.S. citizen, wasn’t reported in Europe. If you google the specific place you’re planning to visit, you’ll get more detailed news about that town, and I also recommend reading forums like Tripadvisor’s for the latest travel news. When I traveled around Colombia, where I felt a little uneasy in the beginning, I also always talked to other solo travelers, asking them about their experiences and how safe they felt on buses, etc.

Be cautious when venturing off the beaten path

If you are like me, you want to get off the beaten path, but if you are a solo traveler, keep in mind that safety is a bigger issue than it is for solo male travelers. If you are planning to visit lesser popular places such as Tortuguero (where one female tourist was murdered in 2018) or the Osa Peninsula, try to find another traveler to team up with. If you feel confident traveling alone, remember to inform someone of your plans.

Don’t visit the beach alone at night

…and also not with someone you just met. The female traveler who was killed in Santa Teresa, a popular surf spot on the Pacific coast, was walking the beach with another female traveler when the women were attacked by two men (the other girl was able to escape).

In Puerto Viejo, the main tourist hot spot on the Caribbean coast, we were offered drugs on a daily basis, and some of the guys who tried to sell us drugs seemed rather sketchy. In December 2018, a male photographer was murdered at night on the beach in Puerto Viejo when he got up early to photograph the sunrise.

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

Is it safe to travel in Costa Rica?

So, would I say it is safe to travel in Costa Rica? I still think that Costa Rica is still the safest country in Central America, and I don’t think you should be put off by the recent murders, which are, as I mentioned before, still isolated cases. It is important, however, to be aware of the fact that crime and yes, even murder, do exist in Costa Rica, and to always be on guard.

I personally was more afraid of the natural hazards that I listed, but because I was aware of the recent tourist murders, I was much more aware of my surroundings when I went for solo runs on the beach (the Spanish girl murdered in August 2018 in Tortuguero was killed while out on a run) or when I stayed in a beach bungalow without a proper gate.

That said: Did I have an amazing vacation? Absolutely. Would I go back to Costa Rica? In a heartbeat!

Remember that nearly 3 million people travel to Costa Rica every year, and the number of tourists affected by crime or accidents is diminutive, considering how many travelers the country welcomes every year.

Tourism is a huge part of Costa Rica’s economy, so the government does as much as possible to keep the country and especially foreign visitors safe. There’s an entire section of the police dedicated to tourists, and after the recent tourist murders, police presence was increased in popular tourist destinations. As I mentioned above – natural hazards or theft or an accident are probably more likely to happen on a trip to Costa Rica than assault or murder, so make sure to research the right travel insurance for you.

Is Costa Rica safe? Further reading:

Here are some great articles and websites I found while I was researching this article:

read more

Hotel Tip Of The Week: B&B Casa 69 in San Jose, Costa Rica

hotel tip of the week

A trip to Costa Rica is about spotting incredible wildlife, surfing perfect waves and soaking up the sun and the capital does not reflect the wonders that the rest of the country has to offer. San Jose lacks the colonial charm of other Central American cities and unfortunately fails to fill the space with a modern, chic vibe. The result is a practical city that most travelers use to transfer in and out of on their way to the beaches, volcanoes and the airport. But sitting up on the roof terrace at Casa 69, watching the lights twinkle out and up into the mountains beyond the city managed to make even San Jose feel pretty magical.costa rica casa 69 san jose terrace at nightDay and night, Casa 69 Bed and Breakfast feels like a refuge from the city and feels more like a home than a hotel.  Entering the yellow walled property through a blue metal door off a side alley puts guests straight on a walkway in what feels like a lush green jungle garden, and leads into a living room with a large L-shaped couch and arm chairs to sink into, a big TV and a computer and a printer as though in someone’s private home. Across the hall there is a dining room with a dark wood table and shelves with maps, pamphlets and guide books. The check-in is in here, at what is the kitchen counter. The breakfast nook is cosy, bright yellow room where from 7-10am, the breakfast of coffee, tea, bread, butter, jam and fruits is served each morning. Heartier breakfast meals are available for around $5 each.

costa rica casa 69 san jose restaurantOur room was all the way up at the top on the roof, and we had those great mountain views from our bed. The black and white comforter and sequin pillows felt a little flamboyant (I go for big fluffy pillows and gluttonous amounts of comfort) but the king-size bed felt amazing after a long travel day. While the room extends that feeling of staying at a ‘friends’ house, the en-suite bathroom brings value to the room, with its recently renovated feel, excellent shower, pedestal sink, great use of space and crisp, clean design. The hotel’s Wi-Fi wasn’t great though. It works best nearest the router, which means some rooms get a great signal, others get none. Ours was intermittent at best.

costa rica casa 69 san joseLooking out at the city beyond, watching the thick rain clouds pour over the mountains in the afternoon and clear up by night fall feels great, though at some point the intense coils of sharp metal wire and wrought iron bars bring back the reality of the city beyond the walls of the hotel. San Jose is not a particularly dangerous place, and we felt perfectly safe walking into central San Jose to the Paseo Colon pedestrian area, a 20 minute walk from the hotel passing  the national museum, a tourist market, churches and restaurants along the way. Casa 69 is just across from the Nicaraguan embassy, a minute from an Irish rock pub, and around the corner from a typical Costa Rican ‘soda’ serving up typical Tico food and a Pizza Hut for travelers in need of fast and easy comfort food.

costa rica casa 69 san jose We left at 5am the next morning and the night manager was up and happy to call us a cab, just as had been promised the night before. This was the first gay-owned B&B we had stayed at in Central America, and we were impressed with what a well-oiled machine it is, with friendly owners and staff all around, plus several cats and puppies to warm even the coldest of hearts.

Stand Out Feature: King Size Bed

This isn’t the most original, and honestly, the rooftop views are pretty stellar. But the large bed was unexpected and felt extravagant. It is also comforting to know about a dependable, comfortable place to stay in San Jose for all those times we transfer through this major travel hub.

costa rica casa 69 san jose pillows

Room for Improvement: Security and a suggestion

Our rooftop room had sliding glass doors, which were great for floor to ceiling views, and then a wrought iron gate which closed and locked in front of the doors. But the sliding glass door itself did not lock and could easily be opened. Granted, a thief would have be pretty wiry to get in under the last wrought iron bar and into the room, plus pretty sneaky to make it into the house, through the living room, kitchen, up three flights of stairs and to that door to begin with, but I want my door to lock no matter what.

A second suggestion is regarding the breakfast element of the Bed & Breakfast. The nature of travel to San Jose means that many guests are likely up and on their way to a bus or the airport before the 7am breakfast time. The owners knew we were leaving early and a couple had left the day before at 4:30am. Because breakfast is included in the room rate, I’d like to see Casa 69 (and all B&Bs for that matter) up their game a bit and offer a takeaway breakfast bag with a bit of bread and butter/jam and a coffee to go.

Overall: Casa 69 in San Jose

Casa 69 is a friendly, stable spot to stay in San Jose, perfect for arriving to or leaving from for long flights or bus rides and a stay of a week or so would allow guests a sense of home in the Costa Rican capital.

casa 69 in san jose costa rica
Location:
Casa 69,  69 calle 25 , Barrio California, San Jose (80 meters south of the Embassy of Nicaragua, yellow house, right hand, house # 69)
Price: Starting at $45.00; breakfast included
LGBT Friendly: Definitely (gay-owned)
Digital Nomad Friendly: Iffy – Wi-Fi connection better downstairs
Amenities: Free wi-fi, complimentary breakfast, rooftop terrace with sun chairs, patio and big lounge room on the ground floor
Website: 
www.casa69.com Casa 69 on Facebook

read more

Revisiting a Ghost…Ending my twelve-year love affair with Montezuma, Costa Rica

Montezuma beach in the morning

Montezuma is easily one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches, but our love affair effectively ended after spending three days there in February 2011. This can not be attributed to the ten-month build-up or overly-high expectations, and while I’d like to blame the rose-colored glasses of youth, it’s not that either. Montezuma has changed…and we don’t want the same things out of life anymore.Montezuma palm tree & beach

It all started in 1999, during my Junior year in college, when I studied abroad for a year in Heredia, an hour outside of San Jose, Costa Rica – a decision that would forever change the course of my life. During that inspirational year, a close-knit group of twenty or so friends traveled throughout the country together every weekend, and we particularly fell in love with Montezuma, near the tip of the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific coast.

Back then, two perpendicular streets and the corner they formed made up the sleepy beach town, which was lovingly nicknamed ‘Montefuma’ by the free-spirited Argentine hippies, Afro-Caribbeans selling jewelry and old drunken British/American tattooed sailor types who had all settled here. For a group made up of fairly privileged middle class American college kids, losing ourselves in conversations with people living such alternative lifestyles made us feel out of our element and very much alive.Montezuma beach & sculptures

A gem itself, the tiny town is really the entry way for a string of stunning, deserted beaches, each one completely different to the next: one might be a small cove filled with colorful pebbles and water crashing violently against giant black rocks, and around the next curve, a stretch of long, wide beach with shallow water and gentle waves provide perfect surfing.

Everyone who ended up here was instantly drawn in to the collective desire to say Damn the Man and live freely on this beach, laying out by day and drinking beer at Chicos, the only bar in town, by night. With the exception of eating at a few cheap sodas (small typical Costa Rican restaurants), we otherwise bought the essentials – bread, beans, bananas and beer – at the only corner store in town. We didn’t need anything else and kept on coming back for more.

Even two years later, when I was then living in Guatemala, a smaller, more international group of friends and I set off on the three-day Tica Bus pilgrimage from Antigua, Guatemala to Montezuma, Costa Rica and enjoyed the same carefree time as I always had before.

waves & rocks

Twelve years after my first visit, as Dani and I made our way down through Mexico and Central America, I had gone on and on about my favorite beach in Costa Rica. I felt nervous, almost protective, over my little town, hoping Dani would love it, that she would ‘get it’ the way that we had ‘gotten it’ back then.

However, after a long drive from Samara Beach, as we made the final turn into town, I didn’t even have to get out of the shuttle to know Montezuma had changed forever. The Damn the Man motto was gone – the Man has arrived here, and he is thriving.

Montezuma beach & jungle

Rental cars pack the once empty streets, competing for space with the humming 4wds, now the popular way to race up and down the long stretches of still relatively deserted beach. While the very central Hotel Montezuma and some of the smaller cheap hostels were still in tact, there is a whole slew of newer mid-range accommodation and overpriced restaurants charging $12-$15 per meal. The hippies have grown up, gotten jobs and had families. Montezuma, Costa Rica is now filled with organic food restaurants and luxury yoga resorts. The center of town is now filled by a sprawling, well-constructed playground for children.

Montezuma street1

Not only a family-friendly destination, Montezuma also now caters to higher-end visitors with packaged boat and jungle tours, plus expensive speed boats connect the town to Jaco and Manuel Antonio across the bay – otherwise only reachable by a long six-hour bus-ferry-bus slog  (for a total of $10).

The little corner shop still has cheap cans of Gallo beer and boxed wine, but the brand new supermarket up the road has German chocolate, French cheese, and nearly every American product someone could miss from home. Visitors to Montezuma now range from young European families to retirees from the Deep South and the Far East.

Montezuma packages the memory of itself as a free-spirited, relaxed beach town and sells it to those who fell in love with it  all those years ago.

With those stunning beaches and prime location, Montezuma was bound to become a star and claim its position slap bang on the main tourist path. As far as we could tell the development has done a world of good. There is strong economic and social infrastructure in place with no evidence of increased pollution or damage to the land: the town is kept clean. In fact, no one but us seemed disappointed about the change.

Dani Montezuma9

I say ‘us’ because Dani wanted no part of the tourist trinkets, overpriced dinners and pre-packaged tours, either. In spite of the all the beauty, that magical vibe has long since been lost. This is another reason why we beg you not to go to Samara Beach, for fear of the same thing happening to our little treasure on the Pacific Coast.

Have you ever returned somewhere you used to love, only to find it a completely different place? Feel free to commiserate with us over the loss of your favorite hidden spots. Plus, please let us know any places we definitely shouldn’t visit, that have completely sold out to tourism anywhere in the world!

read more

Costa Rica on a Shoestring

costa rica sunset

Costa Rica is the gem in Central America’s tourism crown: lush, green jungles, wild animals, breathtaking beaches and a well-developed infrastructure make a trip to Costa Rica as easy as it can be adventurous, suitable for many different types of visitors. The level of development, however, has also raised prices on goods and services, hotel rates and transportation to a level that most budget travelers (falsely) believe to be out of their range. It is certainly easy to plow through some serious cash here, but with a bit of planning ahead, you can visit Costa Rica on a shoestring – in fact: it can be nearly as inexpensive as its neighbors!Costa Rica on a shoestring
Many travelers we met along the way spoke with disdain about Costa Rica being over-priced and too expensive – those who were the most outspoken on the topic had opted to skip the country altogether. Since I had lived here for a year back in the day, there was no question that we would travel through. What we intended to be a two week trip was extended to three. In that time, our Costa Rica travel budget ended up to be less than both our Guatemala and Nicaragua budgets, coming in at just under $27 per person per day (based on two sharing accommodation). Read on for a few simple tips on how to travel through Costa Rica on a shoestring budget.

How to travel Costa Rica on a shoestring

Take the bus

Taking private shuttles or taxis to get around can easily eat through your budget, but this can be easily avoided by taking the bus. The bus system in Costa Rica is organized, and the buses are safe, comfortable and nearly at a North American standard. The chicken buses (old American school buses) seen throughout the rest of Central America are few and far between here. The buses run between all the major towns and on schedule, and while a private shuttle can easily cost from $40 to $75, a local bus charges less than $10 for the same route. MyTanFeet has an excellent guide that covers everything you need to know about taking public transportation in Costa Rica.

Eat at a Soda

Found everywhere throughout Costa Rica, a ‘soda’ is a typical Costa Rican restaurant which serves up ‘comida tipica’ or a menu of typical Costa Rican fare, mainly in various forms of casados: a huge plate of rice, beans, red and white cabbage salad, pasta and meat, or extra vegetables for vegetarians. While a restaurant in a tourist spot often charges between $10 and $15 per person per meal, the price of a ‘casado’ varies between $2 and $7, depending on the casado you choose and the place you are at – sodas in tourist destinations obviously charge much more than in cities like Heredia or Liberia.

Costa Rica on the cheap

Drink Tap water

Unlike the rest of Central America, drinking the tap water in Costa Rica is perfectly safe. If you have been traveling throughout the region, you might think only a crazy person would fill up bottles with tap water, but the water in nearly every Costa Rican town is drinkable (ask at your hotel/hostel if you’re unsure). With bottled water costing between $1 and $3 a bottle, refilling your own bottles will save you a hefty sum of pocket change.

Buy beer in the shop, not the bar

At $2.50 – $3.50 a bottle in most bars, beer in Costa Rica can quickly eat through your daily budget. Of course in a country with so many relaxing beaches, sometimes a beer is a must. Plan ahead and grab yourself a few cold cans at a local shop for half the price and enjoy your beers on the beach just a few meters past the beach bar itself.

Costa Rica on a shoestring

Book a trip for the off-season

Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination for North Americans and Europeans alike, and prices shoot up during Holidays, Christmas and between January and March. Planning a trip to Costa Rica during the low season, May to November, can save you as much as 50 per cent on hotels and flights. The low season is also partially the rainy season, but with the exception of a few rainy weeks, downpours usually only last a couple of hours in the morning and the sun shines for the rest of the day.

Opt for a hostel

If you want to visit Costa Rica on a shoestring budget, hostels are the way to go. The hostel scene has come a long way from the dingy twelve-bed dorm rooms, and not only are hostels cleaner, brighter and more affordable than ever, most also offer private double rooms for a fraction of what a hotel costs. We stayed in countless small hostels, run by people who care about their guests and take pride in offering a cozy, clean place to stay. Some hostels even offer a swimming pool, a bar, a lounge, books, board games, and free breakfast. You are also more likely to meet other travelers at the bar or in the common areas, whereas most hotels have a much more anonymous feeling to them. A private room in a hostel costs between $20 and $30 per couple, whereas a hotel room runs from $50 upwards.

Costa Rica on a shoestring

Budget Travel Tip: With such a well-developed tourism industry, National Park tours and adventure activities in Costa Rica are usually very much worth the money, so make sure to budget in $15 – $75 per tour during your time in the country. Putting these budget tips into practice should save you plenty of money to take at least a few top quality tours. In Manuel Antonio National Park for example you’ll be guaranteed wildlife sightings if you invest in a nature guide, and you’ll learn a lot about the local flora and fauna. Recruit a few fellow travelers so that you can split costs – the more people share a guide, the cheaper it gets (and again: hostels are a great place to connect with other travelers).

 


Have you visited Costa Rica on a shoestring? Feel free to add your money-saving tips for Costa Rica in the comments below!

read more

33 things we love about Costa Rica

costa rica sunset

These thirty three things are just a start –  things we loved about Costa Rica, along with some Costa Rica facts you may not know. There were so many positive aspects of our time in Costa Rica, we could easily list thirty three more! But we’re excited to hear your thoughts on this, too, so please feel free to add your favorite things about Costa Rica in the comments at the end!

1 Samara Beach
We won’t go on about this one, as we as you to please not go to Samara Beach, but the combination of jaw-dropping sunsets spotting, padding along the beautiful stretches of soft, clean sand and numerous places to enjoy champagne while looking out on to the water makes Samara Beach of the best beaches we visited in Central America.

Costa Rica samara beach Sunset
2 Comfortable public transportation

After spending a few months holding on for dear life on chicken buses throughout Central America, Costa Rica’s comfortable, clean and organized public transportation just felt good.

3 Sloths
They might look creepy, but these sleepy creatures sure are cute!
Costa Rica facts4 Gallo Pinto
This dish is not just rice and beans…the combination of black beans, rice, and magical spices make this Costa Rican (and Nicaraguan) easily our breakfast favorite.

5 Casados
Meaning ‘married’, a Casado is a marriage of rice, beans, veggies (and meat) on one plate. This typical, healthy and filling Costa Rican meal is an economical choice and sold at any ‘soda’ or local restaurant in the country. Casados make finding healthy veggie-friendly food a breeze.
casado vegetariano

6 A truly gay-friendly country
The theme throughout this post is the relaxed, accepting and peaceful nature of the country, and this also extends to the acceptance of the gay community…relative to the rest of Central America, of course. Although people not looking for it may never notice, Manuel Antonio is known as a kind of a mecca for gay travelers, with hotels and package deals targeted directly at the gay community, and there are plenty of gay bars (for boys and girls) in San Jose. This is one of the Costa Rica facts we’d heard rumors about, but didn’t believe it until we got there.

7 So many surfers
There’s nothing better than the relaxed vibe that the massive surfer population brings to the country, plus watching them sprint along the beach and ride the waves in some places is like a surfing championship every day of the week!
Costa Rica facts
8 The beaches of Manuel Antonio
Palm trees, coconuts, monkeys, and sparkling blue water…how can we not love Manuel Antonio. Just watch out for the mega-strong waves at high tide!

9 Licuados
With the variety of these refreshing, healthy fresh juice mixes in either water, milk or yogurt, we never had a sip of soda while in Costa Rica.

Licuados in Costa Rica
10 Pura Vida

Different to the international laid-back surfer vibe, Pura Vida is an entirely Tico feeling. This expression, which means ‘Pure Life’ is used as a greeting, a farewell, an excuse and a reason, and incorporates Costa Rica’s positive feelings about living life healthily, slowly, and peacefully (this country has no army and focuses on eco-friendly policies).

11 Guaro
Oh…how Guaro burns…this Costa Rican grain alcohol can’t possibly compare to Nicaragua’s award-winning Flor de Cana rum, but it’s available everywhere, it’s cheap, and after a couple of shots, who remembers anyway 🙂
Guaro shots & Imperial Beer

12 Cycling along the Caribbean coast
We absolutely loved this day out – we go on and on about it here.

13 The wildlife
From the Pacific to the Caribbean, no matter where you look you spot exotic wildlife in Costa Rica!
Costa Rica facts

14 Panaderias
The Ticos love their bread and after a lack of yummy baked goods in Honduras and Nicaragua, we were happy to see a panaderia or pasteleria (bakeries) on almost every corner in Costa Rica.

15 Punta Uva Beach
Okay, yes another beach – but Costa Rica has got the most gorgeous beaches! This beach just 4km from Puerto Viejo is simply breathtaking.
Punta Uva paradise
16 Both coasts are beautiful

No matter what side of the country you are on, you’re set for a quick trip to the beach. Nearly all Central American countries have access to both the Pacific and the Caribbean, but that’s not necessarily something to boast about. Nicaragua’s eastern coast is made up primarily of the infamous Mosquito Coast, while Guatemala’s Pacific beaches are not really even worth the trip. Costa Rica, on the other hand, is blessed with miles and miles of beautiful beaches, from the Northwestern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula down to the Puerto Viejo in the southeastern Caribbean region.

17 Drinking Tap water
Stick your glass under the faucet and let the water pour in! Drinking tap water here is as risk free as at home, and although it took us a few days to trust that drinking the water wouldn’t make us ill as in neighboring countries, it felt amazing to stop buying water everywhere we went. One of the Costa Rica facts we could not believe until we got there (from Nicaragua, where drinking water from a tab is a big NO!)

18 The cloud forest of Monteverde
Monteverde is one of the highest places in all of Costa Rica, nestled between green mountains and like the name indicates, often covered by clouds. The rains cause Monteverde to be one of the greenest places we’ve seen on our travels.
monteverde cloud forest costa rica
19 Sodas

Sitting somewhere between a food stand and a restaurant, sodas are like local Costa Rican diners. Located on every corner (next to the bakeries), they serve up typical dishes and a licuado for $3-$5, making it possible to travel Costa Rica on a shoestring.  Sodas are as great for your health as for your wallet, as the meal usually contains vegetables, rice, beans, meat (or extra veggies for us herbivores), plus the fruit in the licuado.

20 Flowers everywhere!
Costa Rica is certainly wild in terms of its population of various exotic animals, but the flowers in the country are equally as exotic and found everywhere. We don’t know the names of most the flowers we see, but they certainly put an extra bounce in our step.
Flowers in Cahuita Costa Rica
21 Butterflies

Costa Rica is home to 1,251 species, over 90% of all Central American butterflies. The Blue Morpho maybe the most remarkable one, but at times we were walking on paths being both followed and led by groups of fluttering butterflies.

22 The Caribbean village of Manzanillo
Manzanillo is a little village on the southern Caribbean coast and it still feels truly Caribbean and unspoilt by tourists.

Manzanillo caribbean house
23 People watching at Parque Central in Heredia

Heredia is a typical Costa Rican city, unspoilt by tourists, and even though only 11 kilometers from the capital, worlds apart from San Jose! Unlike the capital which has unfortunately begun to feel a bit shady in certain areas, Heredia is safe and relaxed, with a good variety of restaurants, excellent shopping, interesting architecture and a Central Park which is great for watching the Ticos in their day-to-day lives.

24 Hummingbirds
Costa Rica must have hundreds of thousands of hummingbirds – we saw these tiny little birds along both coasts, in the rain forest, the cloud forest and in the towns. We could watch them forever flying around with their record-breaking wing flapping!
Costa Rica facts
25 The fantastic Costa Rican coffee

The coffee here is known to be one of the best coffees in the world, and drinking it in Monteverde, surrounded by coffee plants, fresh from the farm, made it taste even better.

26 Stella’s Bakery in Monteverde
Far away from the most populated area of Santa Elena, Stella’s bakery & restaurant is set along the road to Monteverde and it is more than worth stopping by. Stella’s Dulce de leche strudel really is to die for, and there are so many other goodies (both savory and sweet) to choose from, you will probably end up taking something home for later or returning the next day.
stellas bakery Dulce de leche strudel
27 Waterfalls

Waterfalls here are practically a dime a dozen, except they are some of the most amazing we have seen.  You pass them just driving down the road or hiking along the beaches and it never gets old!

28 Cabinas el Pueblo Hostel in Monteverde
$10 per person for a clean room and breakfast included, plus a staff that provides priceless info about Monteverde, we can certainly recommend staying at the family-run, centrally-located Cabinas el Pueblo Hostel in Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Cabinas El Pueblo Monteverde Costa Rica
29 The cheeky monkey families in Cahuita

The little village of Cahuita has a National Park which can be visited free of charge. Much emptier than Costa Rica’s more famous Manuel Antonio National Park, you can sit down anywhere and watch the monkey families with the baby monkeys swinging through the tree tops.

30 Miles of deserted beach near Montezuma
We might have been disappointed by Montezuma’s development but we were happy as clams about the endless stretches of sandy beaches along the coast. You can walk for miles and miles without meeting another soul.
Montezuma beach in the morning
31 Taco Bell

Yes. We went to Taco Bell. Twice. And yes, the Americanization of the country is a shameless train wreck, but after months and months of rice & beans, we couldn’t pass up a cheesy Gordita crunch!

32 The bronze statues in San Jose
Costa Rica’s capital didn’t do much for us, but we found some fantastic bronze statues by several well known artists (such as Botero) throughout the downtown.

Costa Rica facts
33 The friendly Ticos

Costa Ricans are super friendly and welcoming. Proud of their beautiful country, they are always happy to chat with travelers or tell you which places you should check out during your visit. These great people are affectionately known as ticos, for their endearing and unique use of the Spanish diminutive – from momento, instead of adding ‘ito’ – momentito, Costa Ricans add ‘ico’ – momentico.

read more

When creepy is cute: Visiting a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica

Sloth in Monteverde

You may go about your day never once thinking about a three-toed sloth, or a two-toed sloth, for that matter. The minute you arrive in Monteverde, Costa Rica, however, talk of sloths is everywhere, and while it is possible to take tours which involve spotting these slow moving creatures, the truth is this is not necessary. Sloths are present here, so much so, in fact, that right in front of our hostel in Monteverde, which was next to the appropriately named ‘Sloth’ hotel, all us guests poured out onto the street to see a sloth doing a bit of a very slow tight rope act along the electricity wires leading across and along the street.

The next day, after deciding to walk back the seven kilometers from the Monteverde Cloud Forest to the village of Santa Elena, a brand-new building marked ‘Sloth Sanctuary’ caught our eye. After our first sloth encounter we were fascinated by these funny-looking creatures and decided to pop in for a visit.
sloth sanctuary Monteverde Costa RicaThe Monteverde Sloth Sanctuary is the actually the second sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica, the first having been founded in the Caribbean town of Cahuita by animal-lover and American Judy Aroyos, who, many years ago, adopted one baby sloth whose mother had been killed. Taking in more and more injured sloths, Aroyos and her husband founded Aviarios del Caribe, to cope with sloths who had been bit by cars, bit by dogs or hurt by climbing electric cables. The more the country’s infrastructure developed, the more the sloth’s natural environment has been endangered. Not surprisingingly, these animals have been slow to adapt to the change.
Three fingered sloth in Monteverde Costa Rica

Both Avarios del Caribe and the Monteverde Sloth Sanctuary are run by Aroyos, treat injured sloths and returning them back to the wild once they’ve recovered, although some have been raised here since birth and can never adapt to living in the jungle. While Avarios is home to more 100 sloths, we spent about an hour goggling over a dozen three and toe-fingered sloths (first learning that the correct term is three-fingered not three-toed sloth).
two fingered sloth in Monteverde Costa RicaThe creatures are unlike any other we’ve seen, and while they can actually appear quite human like at times, the sloth biologically resembles marsupials more than humans. While sloths seem to be quite large as these eternal loungers lie up in the limbs of trees, they are actually light as a feather relatively at only 12lbs or 6kg for a grown male.
sloth sanctuary Costa Rica

We fell in love with these little creatures and are certain that if everyone had the chance, they would, too! Both Costa Rican sloth sanctuaries are privately managed rescue and research centers and rely entirely on donations. Volunteers are always welcome as well, to take care of the baby sloths, feeding them, cleaning the cages, providing medical treatment and spreading the world about the importance of these creepy but cute Costa Rican creatures. Have a look for yourself by watching this clip on the as the owners of the sanctuary discuss the animals and the importance of helping to save the sloth population.
sloth sanctuary Costa Rica

Have you visited a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica? Share in the comments below.

 

read more
1 2 3 4
Page 1 of 4