Costa Rica has been on our list for several years mainly because every single friend that has visited RAVES about this quaint coastal getaway. After several trips to Europe recently, it was time to trade the mountains & glacial melt for sandy beaches and lush rainforests. Plus, sunshine is always a great contrast to brisk North American winters.
CHRISTMAS IN COSTA RICA
8 DAY ITINERARY THROUGH COSTA RICA
Nestled in a valley amongst mountains, this sprawling city is actually quite quaint. While we didn’t spend too much time exploring, we did get to drive through many districts - spotting some charming contemporary restaurants and bars. We even found a Taco Bell (with an absurdly long line). We decided to fly into San Jose primarily due to availability of flights and stayed at an amazing AirBnB in the hills. The views were stunning, the host so amenable and helpful, the breakfast was delicious and the home was beautiful. We definitely recommend this AirBnB we stayed at for anyone who is considering staying in San Jose (click here to check it out)!
The HUBS has been looking forward to visiting this region for years, so when we finally trekked out here we were so excited! I had never seen a caldera volcano before!! It was so spectacular and magnificent. My eyes were just drawn to it.
The surrounding town is pretty, full of lush forestation, markets, a cute town center, and an abundance of lodging. We originally planned on trying some of the hotels, but almost every one was booked when we started planning this trip so we opted for AirBnB’s the entire time. It couldn’t have worked out better. We traveled with some of our friends, so when the HUBS found these cute cabins we immediately booked them. Now, while I will be the first to say these were pretty bare, the property was so idyllic. The hammocks, $5 breakfast, intermittent WiFi that forces you to engage with those your with and nature - these cozy cabins were perfect for anyone looking to feel immersed in nature without having to sacrifice running (hot) water. They were also surprisingly spacious. To be honest, it was kind of romantic to fall asleep in polite rainstorms an wake up to birds chirping.
Some of the HITS from Arenal: ATV’ing at the base of the volcano, the Hanging Bridges, the Don Olivio Chocolate Farm, and Baldi Hot Springs. The only real SKIP was the Cane Negro boat tour. Keep reading to find out more about these experiences.
We were connected with PACR via our AirBnB host for the cabins which was actually really nice. We basically booked everything in advance so that during the trip all we worried about was enjoying our excursions. Jonathan was super nice, responsive and easy to work with. Plus since the weather can be unpredictable, it was great that he was able to flex our plans depending on weather. It was pouring the first 2 days we were in Arenal so he just moved everything around accordingly - great customer service!
ATV’ING: This was my first experience on quads. The company that PACR goes through owns land at the base of the volcano with lots of mud trails over hills, cows free grazing, and trees. Some of the hills can be a little intimidating for first-timers like myself but overall this was a great experience. A couple notes: the loop we did said the we would go to a “jacuzzi” which meant creek crossing at the end where people get in, the guides can sometimes herd you, some regulars might pass you which can be frustrating for newcomers. Overall I would rate this a 4/5. Good fun, great views.
DON OLIVO CHOCOLATE FARM: Another one of our faves, this tour came highly recommended to us by our AirBnB host so we had high expectations and it definitely delivered. Owned by a local Tican family, this farm grows over 100 different types of fruits and vegetables - everything from sugar cane, bananas, papaya, black peppercorn, tabasco peppers, coffee beans, coconut, cacao and the list goes on. During the first portion of the tour, we were able to walk around the property and see all the local produce, and even try some fresh harvest! Omg these were the best bananas, papayas and pineapples we had ever tasted. I mean who knew bananas could actually be really good?!
We continued to explore the property, learning about how to harvest sugar cane, drank fresh sugar cane juice and tried some homemade rum! The second portion of our tour was about harvest cacao and the process of making chocolate. We were all so impressed with this tour, the hospitality of the family and all of the tasty samples! TIP: don’t spoil your appetite before you go, there is so much to try you might just skip a meal!
From harvest to chocolate: 1) cacao is harvested 2) the seeds are extracted from the fruit 3) the seeds are fermented 4) the skins are removed and the seeds are dried in the sun 5) the seeds are roasted 6) the shells are removed 7) the pure seeds are very finely ground 8) pure sugar cane juice is added to sweeten the cacao 9) chocolate is made
THERMAL SPRINGS: Over the past few years, we have been scouring the globe for the best hot springs. We so enjoyed our experiences in Iceland and Banff that of course we had to try the thermal springs in Arenal. The two notables are Tabacon & Baldi. We ended up visiting both. Tabacon is free to enter (parking on the side of the street) with a pretty active night life scene. We went around 9:30ish and there were many young adults enjoying the springs. Supposedly the springs are beautiful, however we just saw them at night so we can’t really speak to their looks. We did really have fun meeting other tourists and enjoying the night in some thermal pools.
Baldi Hot Springs is a series of 20+ manicured pools that are powered by geothermal heat. The pools vary in temperatures and size, and can be visited for a small fee ($35/person) that includes a buffet meal at one of the resort’s restaurants and access to the locker rooms. There is an additional fee for lockers & towels. The resort is pretty well maintained and the pools are beautiful and relaxing. PROS: the abundance of pools, saunas, and scenery. CONS: can be busy, the locker rooms are ok, lots of kids (and adult only areas are not strictly enforced). Overall the experience was a 4/5.
HANGING BRIDGES (MISTICO): This was probably one of my personal favorites of the trip. The Mistico park features 9+ hanging suspension bridges overlooking rainforest, waterfalls, mountains and more for some seriously scenic views. The park is VERY well maintained and just simply gorgeous. TIP: go first thing in the morning (before 9AM) when its quiet and there very few visitors. You just may be greeted by little critters and really hear the rainforest breath. Its so serene. Overall I’d give this a 5/5.
CATARATAS DEL TORO & GEMINAL: Arguably the most beautiful part of our trip, we used PACR and Ecotours Toro Amarillo 360 to trek through some rainforest to find the best kept secret waterfalls. The boys rappelled down the waterfalls, did some natural water slides, climbed up trees and rappelled some more. That was a wee bit too adventurous for me, so we decided to just hike around until we all met at the same waterfalls - Cataratas del Geminal. I am pretty sure this is a little known waterfall since it doesn’t even exist on TripAdvisor. They were super serene with turquoise blue waters and oh so peaceful. No tourists, like we had the rainforest and waterfall to our selves. It was incredible - the type of place that makes the rest of the world dissolve into absolution. Overall would rate this a 5/5. Strongly recommend visiting these while exploring Costa Rica.
LLANO DE CORTEZ: this beautiful waterfall is about an hour west of Arenal (en route to Liberia) when the topography really starts to change. The land starts to resemble more arid climates, and the temperatures are much warmer. We just made a pit stop on our way to the pacific beach town of Potrero. Honestly we didn’t know what to expect and definitely did not expect to see tons of people cooling off at the base of this waterfall. While, I am not a fan of crowds, this was still an elegant waterfall. I wish we had prepared to get in, but I definitely loved photographing it. It seemed to be more of a local spot. There is an entrance fee of $7/person. There are decent bathrooms on site and a parking lot. Overall would give this a 4.5/5.
PLAYA POTRERO & AZUCAR
After 5 days of adventure, excursions and early wake up calls, it was time to relax! We headed out west towards the sandy beaches of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Since we were looking for something a little bit more quiet, we opted for a less touristy town called Potrero. Turns out many of the locals were actually ex-Pats that abandoned the bustling city life for sandals and sand. The beach itself was nice, good for a quick jog, nothing too remarkable but full of charming people and quaint eateries. We spent most of our days exploring neighboring beach coves, with notables being Playa Azucar (quiet, tan-ish sand), Angelina’s Italian restaurant, Surf Box (for breakfast), and The Shack (for brunch).
Pura Vida 🌿 friends!