Costa Rica highlights – Pura Vida or Cara Vida?

If there would be one country that knows how to brand and market itself, that is Costa Rica! Everyone we know has heard of Costa Rica, of its unbelievable nature and green everywhere, the idyllic spots and the ecological everything. So some of the highlights of our 7-day Costa Rica itinerary coming right your way!

Costa Rica is a synonym of time well spent. We were looking forward to exploring the region and meet unique flora and fauna for the first time. We longed for amazing experiences in close connection with nature and the environment.

Blue butterfly landed on Bistra's shoulder in Monteverde National Park Costa Rica

As you probably know, sometimes you have to pay for good experiences. And I mean pay well. This is exactly the case with Costa Rica. You will enjoy your time there to the fullest, but you will have to pay.

Pura Vida (means pure life) is a slogan that turned into a regular greeting between both Ticos (Costa Ricans) and visitors. While we completely agree that one may witness the purest forms of life in the country, we also created another slogan, just for fun. Cara Vida. Expensive life.

Monkey brothers are eating the stolen cookie near the beach in the Manuel Antonio national park, Costa Rica

Region and weather

Costa Rica is kissed by both the Pacific ocean and the Caribbean sea, so you may imagine it has both the dramatic Pacific views and the chill Caribbean vibes. Cloud forests merge with rain forests, mountains with lowlands.

We visited the country at the end of the rainy season. The mountains of Monteverde turned out to be super cool – like eternal spring without the rain. We had to wear jackets because of the wind but we didn’t freeze. The perfect combination.

Following the Pacific coastline, we finally sensed the humidity and the heat, and some breath-taking sunsets. But having the option to take a dip in the ocean always makes things better. The huge trees of Manuel Antonio national park, providing shade, too.

Approaching the Corcovado peninsula and the heart of the rainforest justified the rain season. One day it literally poured tons of water so there wasn’t a single person or animal that was not soaking wet for the next couple of days. But rainforest, yeah.

A leafcutter ant in Monteverde national park, Costa Rica

Our itinerary in Costa Rica

Coming from Nicaragua and its ridiculously long border procedures, Costa Rica was already a relief. As soon as we entered our first food stop – it was near a relatively big town. And the whole food corner consisted of American “fast food” chains. We hoped that we’ll find a local eatery (“soda”) to try the local food. We’ve put together a comprehensive (and kind of super long) article with the best places to stay in Costa Rica.

Flag Costa Rica Pura Vida

Monteverde cloud forest

Monteverde and the region was a nice relief from all the heat and humidity we have collected on the journey so far. Cloud forests, nice wind, hilly landscape – no wonder why so many people visit this ecotourism destination – Monteverde has so many things to do.

We visited the Butterfly Garden and we were mesmerized not only by the butterflies but from the other insects and arachnids residing there too. We learned so many interesting facts and stories about the above, that we even started liking some of them.

Our encounter with the butterflies could last for ages. The first space was for blue butterflies, who was super big and while flying they created a fairy-tale blue dance. We observed having a bite, we stared at them and followed them for a while. Eventually, we became friends with them and they landed on our shoulders.

The other butterflies were small but many different types. It was hard to spot two butterflies with the same pattern or color – they were just so many and so playful. And the last space was for the transparent butterflies, which were hard to find (for obvious reasons) but very interesting in being so stealth. The kingdom of butterflies! 

Kinkajou night walk

We opted to have a night walk in Kinkajou park. We were looking forward to seeing the kinkajou mammal, which gave the name for the park, as well as many more nocturnal animals.

Our guide was so enthusiastic that he was like high when we stumbled a bird that was not supposed to be there and new to him. We continued walking and looking in the dark trees and we saw many birds, nocturnal sloth, red-eyed stream frog, a green viper snake and many more fascinating animals.

A small cute red eyed stream from in the Monteverde national park, Costa Rica

Of course, we didn’t see the kinkajou, but the forest revealed new wildlife in their nightlife at any corner. We didn’t disturb them, for example, we didn’t put the light on the sloth because it will fall asleep if it thinks it’s already daytime.

It was a thrilling walk and we were so happy to become part of the nocturnal nature. And unlike most of the cloud forest nights, that night the sky was clear and we enjoy so many stars.

Monteverde town

I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a formal town, but there is a spot with plenty of hotels, hostels, houses that are a fine distance from most of the nearby parks, reserves, gardens. Monteverde was the first crash between us and the prices in Costa Rica.

After paying about 50 USD for two salads, two beers (craft and nice, but still) and a dessert in an average cafe, we decided we’ll cook ourselves. Supermarkets were expensive but eating out was much more. And the currency of Costa Rica – the colón, was barely used. Most of the places spoke USD and actually gave us horrible rates for colons.

Bistra is reading and the Monteverde national park scenery smiles next to her, Costa Rica

Anyway, the town was nice, our hotel had amazing views of green hills. The hotel had super many (and some weird) rules that were all over any wall, room or space. Can you imagine what kind of guests they receive? We still managed to chill in the hammock and taste the pura vida.

The hotel staff was super friendly and they offered all the tours for a good price. Maybe they did, but they also did take our money for what was supposed to be a 4-hour transfer. It turned out to be the same time as public transport, and 10 times more expensive. And not because of traffic or something, but because they “optimized” the route to carry more passengers. Cara vida.

Manuel Antonio National Park

As soon as we arrived at the hostel and saw THE VIEW we forgot all the trouble. It was like having the first and only row to the majestic Pacific and the sun setting right before your eyes. And all of that comes to you while you’re hanging on the hammock. We spent a lot of time on that terrace.

Beautiful and colorful sunset over the ocean. Photo take from the terrace of our hostel in Manuel Antonio national park, Costa Rica

Again we cooked and drank wine (8 times more expensive than in the other countries in Central America). At least the local bus taking you to the national park was a decent price so we’ve found one thing that doesn’t cost a fortune in Costa Rica – the public transportation.

The Manuel Antonio national park is said to be more polished and touristy. We went there without a tour or a guide but still managed to spot some wildlife. And this combined with handing on the nice beaches inside the park – may worth the entrance fee and the idiotic entrance procedures.

Sloths were a hype here too but unfortunately, the two we encountered were so high in the tree that we needed a lot of staring and stiff necks to watch them. And they don’t do much stuff, sloths are sloths after all. The role model for laziness.

The lazy sloth is high in the tree in Manuel Antonio national park, Costa Rica

The real action was happening on the beach. Cormorants were hunting for fish fiercely targeting the water with their beaks. Raccoons were stealing snacks from those who neglected the rule not to bring in any food. The trails were not only walked by human visitors, but also by resident iguanas and coatis. Monkeys were engaged in showing off with their daily activities.

Drake Bay

Having found out that public transportation is the (only) cheap thing in Costa Rica, we figured how to get to the Corcovado peninsula without expensive transfers. Our destination was Drake Bay – a good base for exploring the reserve and the vibes of the region. We only had to take a taxi + bus + another bus + another taxi + a boat.

Nace is getting the backpacks from the boat in Drake Bay, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

The boat was the highlight of all the legs of this trip. We started navigating through mangrove sleeves of the Sierpe river. And then we entered the ocean and navigated through the waves to reach a huge beach in Drake Bay. It was time to get wet – no piers are built there.

Our accommodation in Drake Bay was just in the middle of the rainforest, in a nice hut without walls. We woke up to the sound of the whole forest and even wondered how our friendly neighbors – the cappuccino monkeys – didn’t come to check out what’s going on. It must have been the lack of any food in our “room”.

The view from our room in Drake Bay, Corcovada National Park, Costa Rica

A night walk just behind our house revealed many other species to us. It was the frog day – we encountered so many red tree frogs, rain frogs, glass frogs, etc. It was like a frog party, and according to our guide, it was quite strange to see so many of them even though some of them might have been mating. We even saw something very cute – something between a rodent and a mouse.

Our free time in Drake Bay was split between cooking and eating whatever we found in the two local stores, and hanging out watching monkeys or reading a book. We almost got used to being wet or damp all the time. Life in the tropical rainforest. Experiential stay it was – living in the rainforest.

A rain frog during our night walk in Drake Bay, COrcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Corcovado National Park

Getting to Corcovado national park was one hell of an experience. It was a rainy and grey day and riding the speedboat for an hour and a half was like “Survival” – rain slapping your face, you’re soaking wet and the wind comes to finish the whole picture. Seriously, I believe the Navy SEALs are trained like that!

We are wet and with happy smiles on our faces at the entrance of the Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica

We got to the shore and decided to stay with our already wet sandals instead of making the walking sneakers wet too. Some people made fun of us, that our socks will get wet and muddy. In less than an hour, we were so wet than it didn’t even matter. Actually, the only dry thing was our sneakers, carefully protected by a plastic bag.

While we could still bear the rain, we walked in the Corcovado park to meet tens of birds, three types of monkeys, woodpeckers, etc. The park was indeed super wild and it felt like the obligatory guide was a nice measure. We wanted to see tapirs, one of the symbols of Corcovado.

It is rainy in the Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica

When we reached the Serene station for lunch, the big rain turned into huge rain. It was raining cats, dogs, and a whole zoo. We had to wait for it to decrease so we could walk to the shore where the boat awaited us. Needless to say, all the wildlife went into hiding. At least we danced in the rain and then walked knee-deep in the rivers of rain and mud.

Some complained about the bad weather. We believe it was a great experience and not only we tested our stamina, but also we managed to explore one of the most biologically intense places on Earth! And if rain bothers you, don’t go to the rainforest, please!

The pouring rain at the Serene Station in the Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Caño island

Another nature wonder just 45 minutes away by speedboat awaited us. The Caño island. The island is now a protected national park and scientists research its marine life and wildlife.

The empty beach! Caño Island, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We were happy for a few hours without rain so we can do our snorkeling trip to the island. While visibility was not good due to so much rain and underwater currents, we managed to spot the biodiversity underwater – tons of fish, eels, turtles and reef sharks.

Nace crashed a fresh coconut with bare hands and teased the monkeys at Jorjecito beach after the visit of Caño Island, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

The mainland and the Jorjecito beach awaited us with a tasty picnic lunch. We couldn’t just sit and eat because we were surrounded by such intense wildlife, we had to go and observe them. The dessert-coconut we had to share with some playful/hostile monkeys. But no victims after all.

It wasn’t a short or uncomplicated journey leaving Corcovado and getting to Panama. And the distance looks so small on the map…But this is how it works when you want to experience Mother Nature and its finest creations up close and personal.

Pura Vida vs Cara Vida

It’s still so hard to say what part of Costa Rica overwhelmed us the most. Pura vida we encountered everywhere. You don’t have to enter a reserve or park. Spotting wildlife in Costa Rica often requires going out of the house, on the terrace, or taking a short stroll to the supermarket.

If the country was gifted with mesmerizing nature, we definitely experience a lack of something else. We didn’t feel any specific local culture or soul. Locals were friendly but we couldn’t say if we were in Costa Rica or in the US.

Most of the travel businesses were run by Europeans, the country has its huge expat communities, where do locals go? On vacation in nearby countries, because their own is super expensive.

An old lady with sincere smile greeted us when leaving the Butterfly park in Monteverde National Park Costa Rica

Maybe we got used to more indigenous people and cultures like in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador. Or we were looking for some specific vibes. Maybe we didn’t want to spend a fortune for 7-8 days in Costa Rica. We would still recommend the country for all adventure and nature lovers, but we don’t approve the pricing. Does “pura vida” have to be also “cara vida”?

In a few words

  • If you’re looking for local people, Central American vibes or some typical culture – you might not be satisfied in Costa Rica. Or maybe you need to look very hard and very long.
  • Prepare your wallet for visiting the country – Costa Rica will take care of all the money you put.
  • Nature is simply magnificent so be sure to visit and go adventurous before it becomes unbearably pricey.
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5 Responses

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