You know when you get back from the beach, even if just for one day, and sand falls out of your shoes, clothes, books, suncream bottle caps… everywhere? The optimist in me says hey, you’re carrying your own little piece of the beach with you!
All that seemed worlds away now that we’d arrived in Monteverde, nature and outdoors lovers’ dream, and home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity.
Surprised by the drop in temperature (don’t worry, it was still around 20C degrees), we found ourselves rifling through our luggage to switch out our shorts and tanks for pants and rain jackets. (That’s when the sand seemed to fall out of every possible pocket.)
Monteverde: Cloud Forest Reserve
First up had to be the Monteverde Cloud Forest Nature Reserve, Monteverde’s jewel, characterized by the permanent cloud that covers it and enables a diverse species of flora and fauna to thrive.
We decided we’d take a self-guided walk through the reserve, following the trails to La Ventana (the window), aptly named for where you stand on the continental divide between the Carribean and the Pacific.
Along the way we encountered plenty of ants, a plethora of birds (if you like birds, either go with a guide or get yourself some binoculars), some friendly Coatis, and a couple of monkeys who impressed us with their agility. So much strength in their tails!
Monteverde: Don Juan’s 3-in-1 Coffee, Cocoa, Sugar Cane Tour
With some delicious tacos in our bellies, we were set for the afternoon’s adventure: A 3-in-1 Coffee, Cocoa, and Sugar Cane Tour at Don Juan’s coffee plantation. I was a little worried that this might one of those “oh so touristy” tours, where your guide might as well be a robot reading from their notes, almost like the “It’s a Small World” ride in Disneyland. And I mean, to a certain extent, it was.
Tourist-style, we started off with a ride on a Costa Rican ox cart, Las Carretas, one of the country’s national symbols. And as we made our way through the plantation, we’d catch our guide getting into her script.
Fortunately, this was mixed in with plenty of unscripted moments, interesting tidbits, and lots of opportunities to get involved and taste. We learned about coffee growing, planted our own little future coffee plants, and gave coffee processing “the traditional way” a try.
At the end of the coffee portion of the tour, we smelled the different degrees of roasted beans, from unroasted (called “green coffee” which people drink in a way similar to green tea, as it’s cleansing), light, dark, all the way to the almost burnt beans that just smelled like charcoal.
Fun fact: The darker the roast, the more aroma the coffee has, but the lower the caffeine content. Also, an espresso has less caffeine than a can of Coke and get this, black tea. And here we were, thinking a shot of espresso was the best way to get a quick pick-me-up. And because info sources matter:
We continued on with the tour discovering the parallel process for cocoa and finally, a quick overview of sugar cane where we made our own sugar cane juice.
We were even treated to a tasting of the “Drinks of the Gods” in cereal-like form (sort of like a hot cocoa powder but crunchier) and in beverage form. Combine and stir freshly ground roasted cocoa beans, cane sugar (a LOT of it), vanilla essence, some cinnamon, and there you have it. The crunch of the cocoa was very welcome, maybe a little too sweet, but on the whole, I get it! You can’t go wrong with cocoa whether solid or liquid.
Was it touristy? Oh yes. Would I recommend it? Oh yes. After all, we were tourists and had never visited a coffee plantation before.
Monteverde: The Original Canopy Tour
After switching hotels to make room for a big group, we landed in The Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge, tucked far away right on the Cloud Forest Reserve itself. Disappointed we’d have to leave the charming hosts at the Monteverde Rustic Lodge, we booked this one a la Pura Vida and were delighted to learn that it housed its own trails and even the world’s first canopy tour, The Original Canopy Tour.
In a group of eight and two guides, we kicked things off with the Tarzan swing, followed by what seemed like an endless series of ziplines.
Word of the day: Wooooooooooooooooo!
We definitely had our dose of adrenaline for the day.
Top three moments:
- Climbing up the inside of a tree trunk (the Hollow Tree)
- Ziplining as the sun started to set over the mountainous landscape
- The sudden WHOOOOSH as we rappelled down to the forest floor, which felt more like the Big Drop in an amusement park than a leisurely rappel. Woooooooo!
Monteverde: Night Walk with the Creatures of Costa Rica
Once the sun had just about set on us, we met with our guide to commence our Night Walk. Starting before the sun had completely set meant that we could still see some of the animals up in the trees as they retired or came to life, like a group of Coatis climbing to their nest and bats waking up to begin their nightly hunt.
Our guide was impressive. I have never heard so many different animal sounds being produced by one human before. Out of nowhere, he would start howling like an owl, then a monkey call, and the next second, he’s pulling back a leaf and casually states, “This is a tarantula nest”, then pointing to a tree with some claw marks, “This is from the puma.” Two hours of spotting birds inconspicuously hiding under the bushes for the night, tiny frogs, spiders, baby orchids, and stick insects. The creatures of Costa Rica.
The Road to Arenal: 360 degrees of Arenal Lake
Driving toward the Arenal area, you go from rocky roads and fog, to – out of nowhere – hundreds of giant wind turbines as far as you can see. Another surprise and another reminder of the country’s eco-orientation.
Slowly, the Arenal lake came into view. And it would be our companion for the next hour or so, as we drove all the way around it and then over the bridge to La Fortuna. A majestic sight.
Arenal & La Fortuna: Treat Yo Self
To end our trip, we treated ourselves to a couple of nights at El Silencio del Campo in La Fortuna, overlooking the Arenal Volcano. The family-owned hotel is a charmer, with 25 bungalows, a farm, spa, and its very own hot springs!
The Arenal Volcano is possibly one of the most perfectly shaped volcanoes out there. I haven’t been to any others, but I read it, so it must be true. Just kidding. But really, it was impressive. In fact, I’ll give my next 1000 words to this picture:
There are a couple of trails that you can hike in the Arenal Volcano National Park, which takes you to a lookout spot which is actually made of molten lava, and a 500-year old Ceiba tree. It is HUGE. If its roots could only talk and tell their stories, I’d be first in line to listen. Again, we were fortunate enough to run into a couple more monkeys and birds that looked a lot like quail. Costa Rica, you’ve given us so much to wonder at.
Liberia: Last Hoorah Before Cold Reality
All good things come to an end and for us, that meant making our way back to Liberia for one last night close to the airport. We would not accept our fate quite so easily and squeezed in our last ‘real’ meal at The Greenhouse. We finally tried Patacones! Deep fried plantains with guacamole, salsa, and sour cream. While I wish we’d discovered it earlier, this one can definitely be replicated back home (and has been).
Before returning the car, we even managed a stroll around Liberia, the centerpiece being its church and accompanying square, where I fit in one last indulgence, Pippa Fria. A chilled coconut. Pura Vida!
P.S. I’ve been resisting the temptation to get into too much detail on food, and am putting them together all in one separate post. Also because well, food deserves a post of its own.
Two weeks in Costa Rica: Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in Liberia. Hotel Santa Ana about 5 mins’ drive from the airport. Hotel is simple and comfortable. This applies to every place that we stayed at: super friendly staff.
Day 2 – 4: Playa Negra, about 2 hours’ drive from Liberia. Airbnb about 500m from the center of Playa Negra village and 10 mins walk to the beach. If you’re staying at an Airbnb and plan to cook, buy your supplies in Liberia or Santa Cruz.
Day 4 – 7: Playa Santa Teresa, about 4.5 hours’ drive from Playa Negra. Be ready for some rough roads and depending on your GPS, possible river crossing. Airbnb in the quiet side of Santa Teresa, at least 20 mins’ walk from the center of Santa Teresa. You can buy supplies in Santa Teresa, there are also plenty of places to eat ranging from local food to sushi to burgers.
Day 6: Day trip to Montezuma Waterfalls, 1-hour drive away from Santa Teresa.
Day 7 – 10: Monteverde, around 4.5 hours’ drive from Santa Teresa. Be ready for more rough roads and beware/ask around about any temporary road closures in case of construction works. We added almost an hour to our driving time because the road was blocked. Monteverde Rustic Lodge and Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge – both fantastic. Rustic Lodge is cozier and has more personalized service, Cloud Forest is more luxurious and has great facilities (its own trails and a canopy tour right on the property).
Day 10 – 12: La Fortuna, 3.5 hours’ drive from Monteverde. As you approach Tilaran the roads are much better. Hotel El Silencio del Campo, best hotel of our trip. Also the most expensive, but has its own farm, excellent service, amazing huevos rancheros for breakfast, and the hot springs.
Day 13 – 14: Liberia, about 2.5 hours’ drive from La Fortuna. Hilton Garden Inn, your typical chain hotel, everything works and is comfortable with friendly service. Convenient if you have an early morning flight from Liberia. The hotel has coin-operated laundry machines in case you’re traveling onward on a longer trip.
Quick tip for trip planning: Looking back, I’d start with the cooler Monteverde, then either go to Arenal or to the beach in any order. Would definitely do Monteverde first though.