It was time for us to cross the border into Costa Rica having spent three and a half weeks in Nicaragua. Many people traveling the Pan American Highway travel much slower in order to thoroughly visit each country but we become restless sitting for too long as we did in Nicaragua. That said, we were excited for a new country even though we knew it would be a quick visit as our shipping date was rapidly approaching.
Each time we cross a border, the landscape seems to change noticeably. We aren’t quite sure if it is just in our heads or if the border was initially established based on true geographical differences. As we pushed into Costa Rica, the landscape became increasingly mountainous and it seemed slightly more green with more vegetation than Nicaragua. One thing that remained constant was the heat holding still in the mid nineties.
Our plan for visiting Costa Rica had three distinct regions for our visit. First, we would visit some beaches on the Pacific side in the north. Second, we would explore the mountains of central Costa Rica. Finally, we would make our way to the Caribbean coast while continuing south to where we would cross the border into Panama.
The first beach we visited was Playa Panama situated by the Bay of Culebra. Our parking spot for the night was a free spot situated between two VERY nice hotels. We arrived shortly before the sunset so we set up the camper, grabbed a beer and walked to the beach to watch the sunset. As the sun just began to touch the horizon, a sailboat crossed in front of it making us ask if it was staged by the tourism department of Costa Rica! It was too perfect.
That evening we sat out with our friends Mattie and Ingrid from New York and Peru. They live for finding perfect surf spots and indicated that they have been traveling in their van in Mexico and Central America for two years. Eventually they want to complete the Pan American Highway but don’t wish to change their pace. As mentioned earlier, everybody has their own pace. Mattie and Ingrid’s pace is among the slowest we have heard of.
From Playa Panama, we continued south following the coast. We passed through surf town after surf town many of which were built up with high rise resorts that we hadn’t seen since the Yucatan in Mexico. With crystal clear water, plenty of surf, diving and fishing around every bend, it was easy to understand why Costa Rica is so popular. We stayed at a restaurant and bar on the beach called Las Brisas one night and on a cliff further south near Playa Junquillal to complete our Pacific coast visit, cooling off in the ocean and reading our books to keep us occupied.
Backtracking a bit, we circled back to Playa del Coco to pick up a metal guide for our camper we dropped off two days earlier for some metal work. The guide has not been working since we left Wyoming which holds the top and bottom halves of our camper together near the front and has allowed countless mosquitos inside during those months. Also, we spotted a modern hardware store in Liberia so we grabbed a few more supplies to fix our stairs and new screen for our windows. We try our best to be easy on our truck and camper, but things do fall apart with continuous daily use. As a side note, the last time we stayed in a hotel was in Mexico City about 100 days ago, so we certainly use the camper a lot!
Driving to Playa del Coco…
…and singing “1,000 Miles” by Vanessa Carlton…
Near the town of Bagaces, we located a waterfall where we could swim and walk behind the waterfall. We were a little annoyed as we paid a “voluntary donation” at the entrance and when we got to the parking area, we were asked for another “voluntary donation” which they claimed was different. Having spent five months in Mexico and Central America, we figured we had experienced nearly every way people find their way into your wallet extracting nickels and dimes, but we continue to be surprised! After crawling into the water, we soon focused on the beauty of the falls and enjoyed watching the people who continuously showed up. At one point, a girl dressed as a creepy clown showed up and watched everybody swim from the shore. It was a little strange.
Once we began heading east from Canas, we finally arrived at the beginning of the mountainous region of Central Costa Rica. The lush, green rolling hills climbed higher and higher as we approached Lake Arenal. We parked the truck in a grassy field for the night and raised the top as fast as we could as the rain began to pour from the sky. The rainy season for much of Central America begins in May and we were right on the cusp of it. Cooler temperatures made for great sleeping through the night and we awoke to a beautifully sunny morning and incredible views of the lake in front of us.
Leaving our camp spot on Lake Arenal, we stopped into a German bakery for some coffee and strudel before driving towards Arenal Volcano. As we approached the volcano, dozens of signs advertising for “hot springs resorts” began appearing on both sides of the road. We used a tip from iOverlander and found our way to a free soaking area just below a five star resort. It was strange as the water didn’t have a mineral smell and it was actually the entire river that was hot. We felt like hippies soaking next to the highway, but by saving $50/person, we quickly got over it! After drying off, we drove a few miles further to camp with an incredible view of Arenal Volcano.
The next day, we got a late start as our only plan was to visit a waterfall an hour away. We set out driving only to find ourselves stuck in traffic, moving only a quarter mile in a half hour of waiting. Frustrated, we turned around to take another route. The other route eventually turned into a dirt road with a maximum speed of 10mph. It was slow going, but we enjoyed looking at the pineapple fields surrounding us on both sides. Finally, we turned off the main highway, climbed the steep hills towards the waterfall and arrived only to find out the cost to see the waterfall was $25/person. Yikes! There was good taste of the incredibly high prices of Costa Rica. Laughlin sarcastically asked if there were many other people there to which the lady answered no. We declined the visit and made our way down the mountain and found a place to free camp for the night.
That night we did see the biggest beetle of the whole trip on our tire…
River rafting was our one major activity we scheduled during our Costa Rican visit. We set out for Turrialba in south central Costa Rica, just east of San Jose. Roberto with Tico’s River Rafting has been taking rafting trips down the Pacaure River for over 30 years. After picking up six other people for rafting, we drove 45 minutes and began the trip. Not more than two minutes after being on the river, we were all completely soaked and remained that way through lunch. The Pacaure has class 1-4 rapids year round and did not disappoint us despite taking the trip during the dry season. As we meandered through the canyon, we were surrounded by dense rain forest. Waterfalls rushed into the Pacaure around every bend in the river. In many sections, cables cars were set up to help indigenous people cross the river. During lunch, Laughlin was able to see a Toucan flying along the river before landing in a tree. After four hours of floating time, we pulled the rafts out of the river fully satisfied by the rapids and scenery and thoroughly exhausted as well.
(Thanks to Dave and Katherine for sharing photos with us!)
Our epic camp spot at “The Observatory” before rafting:
And another photo from our camp spot following rafting. You know it’s time to move one when…
One final destination remained following our rafting adventure in Turrialba and before crossing the border to Panama. Puerto Viejo is a small surf/hippie/reggae hangout on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica close to the Panamanian border. We pulled in mid afternoon to find the rural roads humming with tourists riding bikes to bounce between villages. Following a quick beer from the bar, we set up the camper right on the beach and went swimming on one of the finest beaches since Mexico. The waves were tame, the water was warm and there was plenty of room to spread out on the beach. Rain fell throughout the night lulling us to sleep in our cozy camper. We agreed that it would have been easy to spend a week right there. If we visit Costa Rica again, we may just end up back at this same spot.
Having seen the Pacific and Caribbean beaches, traversed the mountains, conquered the Pacauare, our visit to Costa Rica was complete with our wallets mostly intact and it was time to move on. Panama is our next country and the last of our overland trip of Central America.