Costa Rica always felt like a destination that was so far out of reach for me. I’m not sure why considering that geographically speaking, it’s closer than most of the countries I’ve visited outside of the states. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always perceived it as being some remote paradise that I could never afford but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Costa Rica was one of the best “bang for your buck” vacations I’ve ever taken. We paid $750 (American dollars) each for our flight and hotel, which is cheaper than most international trips I’ve been on. While our meals were extremely affordable, we did spend a few hundred dollars on excursions throughout the week so you’ll want to factor this into your budget if you plan to get out and do stuff.
I was little stressed in the planning phases because most of the blog posts I read said that I needed a full 2 weeks to see the whole country. We only had 5 days. I would have loved to stay longer but my boyfriend and I both work full time jobs and have other responsibilities to attend to so a short week is all we had to give. We had a list of things we absolutely had check off and a few other activities that would come secondary but we tried to squeeze in at least one “big” activity each day to get through them all.
We flew in on Sunday and flew out on Friday and since the airport is a 3-hour drive away from the beach, you lose a half day on both ends. Technically speaking, we only had 4 full days in Manuel Antonio. Below you’ll find our busy itinerary with detail on where we stayed, where we dined and what we loved about this country!
We caught an extremely early flight from Chicago to San Jose with a layover in Ft. Lauderdale. Once we landed and cleared customs we opted to take a cab to Manuel Antonio. The drive is almost 3 hours and the taxi cost us $160 each direction after tip. Your other options include renting a car (which we knew we wouldn’t need it once we got into town) or taking the bus (definitely the more budget friendly option but this adds another hour and half to the drive with all of the stops.) While we do like to watch our spending, having the privacy and space of a taxi for just the two of us was definitely worth the money.
Once we got into the town of Manuel Antonio, which is a small area of the larger city of Quepos, we didn’t need a car to get around. Majority of the bars/restaurants, the beach and the national park itself are all walking distance – no more than 20 minutes. If walking isn’t your thing you can take a bus up and down the main strip for less than a dollar a ride.
Where we stayed:
We stayed at a hostel in Manuel Antonio, which was actually a first for both my boyfriend and myself. I’m not sure why but the idea of a hostel has always been an intriguing one. I’m definitely a low maintenance person but admittedly I have heard weird stories and I have trust issues with leaving my belongings around so I never went out of my way to stay in one. We did pay extra for a private bedroom and bathroom but hey, baby steps, right?
The hostel also offered private rooms with shared bathrooms or a completely shared living room and bathroom space. What I loved most about staying here was being able to interact with other like-minded people. There were full-time travelers, part-time travelers, digital nomads, backpackers, you name it! The hotel even had a quiet workroom where people could camp out and work during the day.
The hotel property was absolutely beautiful. A cozy but sprawling space nestled directly between the ocean and the jungle. Equipped with 3 outdoor pools, a yoga den, several lookout/lounge areas and a bar/breakfast area. This place had almost everything you could need for the week without having to leave but we were excited to get out early the next morning and start adventuring.
What we did:
With 4 full days ahead of us, we started to plan out our week with the hotel concierge. The items on our to-do list included a waterfall tour, zip-lining, surfing, going to Manuel Antonio National Park and checking out a famous volcano. Unfortunately the last item on our list was a 4-hour drive from the coast and we weren’t sure if we could squeeze it into our agenda. We tried to save it for our last “half-day” on our way back to the airport but that was also feeling like too much of a feat to get past. Luckily we were able to get all of the other activities in and still had plenty of time in between for exploring the town, relaxing at the beach and catching sunset regularly.
We booked our waterfall tour through Tico Loco adventures. I highly recommend booking through them if you’re looking at this excursion (this is NOT a sponsored post in any way, we just loved these guys!) The excursion cost $70 each and was a 5-hour day where the owner himself picked us up from our hotel, took us to 3 waterfalls, 1 beach, out to dinner (cost of meal included) and then dropped us off. He even took hundreds of photos of us throughout the day on his professional camera and offered them to us for free in exchange for a Yelp review. This was a no-brainer for us because not only did we have a great time and had no problem leaving a positive review but we also didn’t bring our own camera out this day in fear that we would break it so the photos were a huge plus!
Obviously Costa Rica is famous for their amazing zip-lining courses. There were advertisements all over the place for various companies who offered “the worlds best zip-lining” so we were a little overwhelmed trying to choose the right one. Again, we booked through our concierge with Santuario Tours and we were not disappointed with our choice. This activity was a bit more expensive at $150 each but we weren’t going to come all the way to Costa Rica and not go zip-lining – especially on one that had 10 different lines! The day also included transportation to and from the course and a meal at the end of the activity but it did not include any professional photos so plan to bring cash/card if you want to purchase them from the staff that took them on site.
On our last full day we did something that had been on my bucket list for a long time – we took surf lessons! My boyfriend and I have both been snowboarding for years and had always wanted to see if surfing would be something we could enjoy just as much. We took lessons from a local who we became friendly with over the week who taught for a company down on the beach. It’s not hard to find instructors down on the main strip of the beach. There are many companies who post up under easy-up tents and try and get you to stop by to learn more. We paid $60 total for each of us to have a 30-minute private lesson. While each of us went out in the water, the other person stayed back on the shore to watch our belongings and take pictures. You can also pay for a full hour or longer if you’d like. To our surprise, we both stood up on the board on our first wave! I guess a lot of the same techniques from snowboarding can be applied when on the water. I will definitely never turn down the opportunity to go surfing again some day in the future!
As mentioned earlier in this blog post, our hotel had a huge millennial presence. They do such an amazing job at having activities to meet and socialize with other young travelers. There were daily yoga sessions in the morning and nighttime activities like a wine & painting night, a Latin dance performance and turning the bar area into a club one night complete with a DJ and all. There was no shortage of fun right on site but if none of that sounds like your cup of tea you can always venture off of the hotel property for drinks at the local bars.
Manuel Antonio National Park:
I felt like the park was such a highlight of our trip that it needed it’s own section. Although it’s not the largest park in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is most famous for its wildlife. Inside you’ll spot sloths, monkeys, raccoons and a variety of birds and reptiles. The park costs $16 to access and walk around yourself but if you’d rather have a professional tour guide you can find them right outside the gate for around $50 a person (don’t let them overcharge you, negotiate that price down if they are!) The perks of having a tour guide is that you get to skip the line and they obviously are pros at spotting those hidden animals! They also carry around a telescope to make it easy to see sloths that are perched up high at the tops of all the trees.
The park opens at 7am and you should plan to get there as soon as the gates open (if you don’t pay for the tour guide to skip the line.) They only let in 50-ish people every 30 minutes to help control the crowd inside. We hit the snooze button too many times and didn’t get in line until shortly after 8am. Because we showed up an hour after it opened, we wound up standing in line for an hour and a half. There are shops that line the street you’re waiting on so my boyfriend and I took turns holding down our spot while the other person did some shopping. The locals also sell cold, fresh coconut juice that helped us stay cool in the sun.
Seeing the wildlife inside is absolutely incredible. The animals are not afraid to get close to you so the biggest thing I can stress is DO NOT feed them or show them that you have food in your hand. We heard funny stories about how the raccoons and the monkeys work together to distract humans by one of them “putting on a show” to make you laugh while the other goes into your open purse or backpack and steals your food! LOL! There was a guy in the park who (very foolishly) held an apple out to a group of monkeys and the next thing you know he had 3 monkeys clinging onto his t-shirt between his front, back and his arms. He stayed extremely calm which is the exact opposite of what I would have done but a near by park ranger yelled at him repeatedly to not feed the animals. So please, don’t be that person!
Aside from looking at the wildlife inside, there are two shores of beaches on opposite sides of the park. If you Google “Manuel Antonio National Park” you’ll see a whole slew of beautiful photos at a bird-eye view from the park showing off these shores. Perfect drone photo-op!
Where and what we ate:
If you follow my adventures regularly, you know that I am a HUGE foodie. It’s safe to say my daily routine revolves around my meals – no shame here! I love immersing myself into the local culture by way of food. The famous dish of Costa Rica that we ate several times through the week was a plate full of chicken or pork, rice, beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions and a fried plantain. In normal Costa Rican fashion, we also doused our plate with plenty of hot sauce on top. All of our other meals were things you could find at any other restaurant back in the states. A lot of fried fish and chicken, wood-fired pizza, burgers and of course tacos and nachos. We usually eat guilt-free on vacation but this was especially guilt free because of all of the calories we were burning during the day on our excursions.
There were 10-15 restaurants in either direction from our hotel to choose from. Just about all of them were surrounded by lush, green jungle and some even had a front row view to the ocean which was great for catching sunset each night. Our favorite restaurant was El Avion, directly across the street from our hostel. This spot has a famous airplane-turned-bar in the entrance of the restaurant that we read a lot about online during our planning. The seating area offers a wonderful view of the ocean where we caught sunset on night one and we even had some furry, long-tailed visitors walk directly up to our table when we were eating.
A few of our other favorites were El Wagon for their wood fired pizza, Agua Azul for their beautiful ocean views and Café Milagro for their breakfast.
Health and Safety:
We scoured the Internet for days leading up to our trip trying to learn as much as we could about the mosquitos and other bugs that could put your health at risk. I’m from Michigan originally and am used to getting eaten alive in the summer but my boyfriend was a little more paranoid. We were lucky to only come home with a few bites around our ankles but the best advice I can give is to have protection ready and to avoid at-risk areas. We always carried bug spray with extra strength deet, covered our legs late at night when we were out to eat and avoided dark/damp areas on the beach during the day. We didn’t sleep with mosquito nets but felt our room did a good job keeping the bugs out.
The town of Manuel Antonio felt extremely safe. As mentioned before, most restaurants and convenience stores are just a quick up and down the strip. I traveled with my boyfriend at all times especially at night just to be safe but there are security guards employed at almost every restaurant and hotel along the strip who help keep an eye on activity on the street.
Going into the trip we were also a little concerned about the tap water directly from the faucet. We were just in Mexico last March and even though our group was extremely cautious about contact with/use of ice, a person in our group got Montezuma’s revenge. We didn’t need any repeats here. Luckily the water is safe to drink in Costa Rica and I drank tap water at every meal with no issues.
I look forward to the day that I can get back to Costa Rica. Next time I would love to squeeze in a Volcano tour and spend a few more days just relaxing on the beach without an agenda. Costa Rica has definitely left its mark on me. It’s no wonder they so often use the phrase Pura Vida so much! Until next time Costa Rica!