Though humble in size, Costa Rica has distinct differences in its culture from one destination to the next. On the country’s east coast, for example, Afro-Caribbean traditions mix with Latin American heritage to create a unique island feel. The small beach town of Cahuita is the perfect place to experience this laid back vibe. With waves lapping the all-but-empty beaches, locals riding bicycles through town, and the aroma of jerk chicken wafting between the brightly painted buildings, visitors will shed the stress in no time. Add to that a national park that is full of wildlife and it is surprising that Cahuita has stayed so small. In this post, we’ll give you all the details you need to plan your visit, including some of our favorite activities, restaurants, and hotels.
Location and Orientation
Cahuita is located about 3-4 hours from the capital of San Jose on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. It is a 40 minute drive south of the port city of Limon and 20 minutes north of the popular beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Cahuita is best known for its national park and authentic cultural feel. The tiny grid-shaped downtown consists of only a few blocks but packs in a lot of local flair. Several good restaurants, a few bars, small shops, and neighborhood homes make it a fun place to explore. On the dusty dirt road going north of town, you’ll find secluded beaches and quaint lodging options tucked into the jungle setting.
Main street in Cahuita
When to Visit
The weather on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is best described as tropical. Sunny and hot mornings are perfect for activities but often bring afternoon thunderstorms or evening downpours. This helps keep the jungle lush and green. Though it is worth visiting any time of year, the driest months and calmest seas tend to be in September and October. These months are typically the rainiest in other parts of Costa Rica. For more about Costa Rica’s weather patterns, see our post Weather in Costa Rica.
Activities in Cahuita
Cahuita is appealing for those looking to see wildlife, enjoy beaches, and, most of all, explore the local culture. Below are some activities that will allow you to do just this.
Cahuita National Park
A trip to Cahuita wouldn’t be complete without a visit to this lush swath of protected rainforest. We have visited several times and have always seen sloths, monkeys, lizards, the occasional snake, and many kinds of birds. Run by a community organization, the park has two entrances. One is in town (this is the most commonly used) and the other is 5 km (3 miles) south off the highway.
From the entrance near town, a trail runs along the coast and then crosses a river. After the river, the trail continues to a point, turns, and eventually reaches the southern entrance (about 8.3 km/5.2 miles in total, each way). Entering from the southern entrance, a new raised walkway meanders through a forested wetland and then along the beach, around the point, passing the river, and eventually back to the town of Cahuita.
Stay tuned for an in-depth post about visiting Cahuita National Park, coming soon!
Thick vegetation on the trail in Cahuita National Park
Part of the protected area of Cahuita National Park extends into the ocean, protecting the local marine life as well. A large coral reef sits off the point and is a great place to explore with a snorkel and mask when conditions are right. 35 different coral species and over 120 different fish have been identified here. Snorkeling can be done only with a guide, and tours include a boat ride out to the reef, snack, and guided hike back through the reserve.
Tree of Life Wildlife Sanctuary
Tree of Life is an amazing rehabilitation center that cares for local wildlife that has been injured or illegally held as pets. They release the animals that are able to be rehabilitated and give the not-so-fortunate ones a good home in spacious enclosures. Some of the wildlife you might see includes monkeys, sloths, white-tailed deer, freshwater turtles, parrots, and coati (raccoon-like animals with long snouts). The guided tour takes you through scenic gardens and includes interesting facts about local spices, fruits, cacao, and other plants. Located on the dirt road going north of town near Playa Grande. Reservations required. Tours can be arranged by contacting Tree of Life through their website.
Two-toed sloth at Tree of Life Wildlife Center
Indigenous Culture Tour/Hike
Several indigenous groups still exist in Costa Rica. These cultures, which settled the land long before the Spanish, continue to hold many of their cultural beliefs and practices. Some even still speak their own language. A visit to a Bribri group near Cahuita will allow you to meet some families and learn about their way of life.
There are a couple of options for tours. One has easier access and focuses on chocolate making, medicinal plants, crafts, and visiting a waterfall. There is also an extended version where you get to meet the Shaman-type figure of the village and take part in a small ceremony. Another tour offers a challenging hike to a remote village where you will learn about medicinal plants, observe a variety of birds, visit a family to learn about their culture, and see a different waterfall.
Need help booking tours or transportation? We work with reputable tour operators in the Cahuita area and would be happy to help you with your reservations. Send us an email to bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com with info about your group and the tours you would like to do. Booking through us costs the same as if you went directly through the operator and helps support our website!
A laid-back beach town wouldn’t be complete without some shady palm trees and swishing waves. Cahuita has a few excellent beaches to explore. Playa Blanca near the national park entrance is a small cove with light tan sand that is probably the best for swimming or wading, though there are still waves and rip currents. Playa Negra, a dark gray sand beach, sits a little north of town and tends to have fewer people. Playa Grande, another gray sand beach, is farther north on the dirt road and is the most secluded. It is best for surfing or a long walk.
Playa Blanca, right outside the entrance to Cahuita National Park
Restaurants in Cahuita
Cahuita has a mix of cuisine. You will find many restaurants run by locals who serve up traditional Costa Rican food with Caribbean flair. Expats who now call Cahuita home also have brought international offerings. Italian is one of the most common.
Restaurante Palenque Luisa
Palenque Luisa is as traditional as it gets. This simple restaurant on the main drag specializes in Caribbean food. They have staples like rice and beans with coconut rice, but we loved the rondon (Caribbean-style stew) with chicken. Service can be slow but that is all part of the pura vida experience in Cahuita.
A traditional rondon with a spicy coconut-milk sauce
When you have had your fill of traditional food, there is Pizzeria Cahuita. This restaurant is run by Italians who know how to make a delicious pie. The thin-crust pizza is cooked in a wood-fired oven. The homemade pasta is great too. You can dine in their casual restaurant near the beach or take out is available.
For a nice dinner out, check out El Girasol. This intimate restaurant has simple, but delicious, Italian food made with quality ingredients. All of our pasta dishes were wonderful, and we loved the homemade complimentary bread. Having attentive service was also a plus.
Pasta in a light cream sauce with asparagus and prosciutto at El Girasol
Sobre Las Olas
Sobre Las Olas (On the Waves) is true to its name with a fantastic location on the water. They have a big menu with a lot of local fish and seafood. There is no lunch menu, it’s the same one all day long, so be sure to come with an appetite. Prices are on the high side for the area, but the view makes it worth it. Try to snag a table outside on the sand if you can.
If you’re looking for a place to just kick back, check out Reggae Bar. This super casual spot across from Playa Negra is a locals’ hangout that has been around for years. The view is great, the beers are cold, and the food isn’t bad either. Often has live music at night.
The view from Reggae Bar
Hotels in Cahuita
For such a small town, Cahuita has a sizeable selection of lodging. Although the options are diverse, all are small and locally owned. You won’t find any five-star resorts, but there are plenty of charming hotels with all the amenities.
A couple of tips: Much like the rest of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, lodging in Cahuita often does not have air conditioning. If you are sensitive to the heat, be sure that your room has good air flow and fans, or A/C. Although it does cool down at night considerably, days can be hot and humid.
Buena Suerte B&B
Buena Suerte B&B is an excellent option if you’re on a budget. This simple bed and breakfast offers a handful of private rooms, some with air conditioning and others without. Those traveling without a car will appreciate the location, which is just outside town near the national park. Rates include a delicious, hearty breakfast. $35-55. Check Rates and Availability Here.
If you’re looking for apartment-style lodging, check out Marfi Inn. This small inn is centrally located in downtown Cahuita, but tucked away on a quiet side street. In addition to being close to several restaurants, right on the property is El Girasol Restaurant, one of the most popular options in Cahuita. $60-80 (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel La Casa de las Flores
Next to Marfi Inn is Hotel La Casa de las Flores (the House of Flowers). We recently stayed in one of their brightly colored rooms and really enjoyed it. Rooms come standard with two queen beds and A/C and all face a quaint courtyard with flowering trees. The owners live on site and take pride in making sure that their guests have a pleasant experience. $90-110 (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
An excellent value for the area is Magellan Boutique Hotel. Although affordable, this small hotel has an upscale feel. The six contemporary rooms have been recently renovated and come with one king bed, A/C, and TV. Magellan is popular with couples. The hotel is located on a quiet side road about a 10 minute drive to town and short walk to the beach. Visitors love the pool area and lush landscaping, which attracts birds. $100-110 (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
For a little more comfort, there’s Kenaki Lodge. This beachfront bed and breakfast has a couple of options for accommodations. The wooden bungalows are open and airy, with high ceilings, big windows, and modern amenities. For a similar experience on a budget, opt for a regular room. All units have a nice outdoor space facing the gardens. Kenaki Lodge is located at the far end of town and best accessed with a rental car. $65-220. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Villas New Caribe Point
Villas New Caribe Point is our pick for families and groups. The cute two-bedroom villas are designed like a typical Costa Rican home and offer plenty of space to spread out. Each has a kitchen and separate living room, and bedrooms have A/C. Villas New Caribe Point is located on a side street near Playa Negra, about 5 minutes from town. $100-150. Check Rates and Availability Here.
For such a small town, Cahuita leaves an impression. When we first visited several years ago, we were lured in by the laid back pace and vibrant culture. The abundant wildlife that we saw in the national park and simple natural beauty everywhere around us made a lasting impact. Years later, Cahuita still feel like an exotic destination to us. Though the town is simple in what it offers, if you are looking for an authentic experience in Costa Rica, we highly recommend it.
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Another year update. It seems surreal. When we first moved to Costa Rica in 2013, we counted those first weeks, months, and even years with amazement. “Wow, I can’t believe that we live here,” we would say. Things like beautiful waterfalls and exotic fruits would linger in our minds for days. That honeymoon phase has worn off now as we pass the four-year mark. Life just feels more normal and routine. But we still have those special Costa Rica moments. Maybe we aren’t running for our camera every time we see a toucan or sloth anymore, but we still stop and take it all in with appreciation. And we do so often, especially with our son exploring at our heels. Here is our update on year four of living in Costa Rica.
A Busy Year
Much like year three, year four had a lot going on. Sam entered the toddler stage, which meant that he was suddenly much more mobile (read: running around like crazy). As we did more traveling around Costa Rica, he had some fun experiences with us. From pointing out the Arenal Volcano from different spots all around La Fortuna, to dipping his toes in the waters of the Caribbean Sea, or even just visiting a playground in Quepos, he is absorbing everything pura vida. With those trips, we also learned about some limitations that come with toddler travel. A few things broken at hotels and some tantrums at dinner after waiting too long for food teaches you quickly.
Seeing the Caribbean Sea for the first time
Back at home on the Pacific Coast, finding a work-life balance was one of the biggest struggles in year four. With our website still growing and demand for our travel-planning services also growing, we often found ourselves working seven days a week. This was mostly because we are both part-time while also taking care of Sam (a good thing, by the way, and something we are very happy to be able to do). But as we end year four and go onto year five, we have started to figure out that balance. We have enlisted the help of a Costa Rican woman who comes a couple of times a week to help with childcare. Sam loves it and is already picking up Spanish words. It is improving our Spanish too. We also hired our first employee at Two Weeks in Costa Rica! She works online for us and has helped take off some of the workload, which we really needed.
Much like having a baby here did in year three, our growing business allowed us to see a different side of Costa Rica in year four. Learning the intricacies of how business is done, dealing with dozens of new companies and numerous banks, and a little government red tape left us wanting to pull our hair out at times. But it also has been rewarding. We have built some strong business relationships, figured out a lot of things logistically, and continue to expand and offer new services to our clients. All of the struggles that have come with this process, though, make us sympathize with those (many) people who move here to start a business only to give up and move back a short time later. The frustrations really can get to you. But hopefully at the end of the day, the good outweighs the bad. A beautiful sunset here, some amazing wildlife there, and a dose of Costa Rican kindness from a local helps a lot.
Sunset in Cahuita, Costa Rica
One big reward for us literally just happened: our applications for permanent residency were finally approved! We submitted our applications on our own without a lawyer in May 2016 and they were approved in July 2017 (14 months later). There has been some additional paperwork that we needed to do in the month since (signing up for the health care/pension system), but we picked up our final papers and will have our ID cards (cedulas) soon!
So what does this mean for us? We aren’t required to leave the country every 90 days anymore (the length of a tourist visa and a requirement to keep your foreign driver’s license valid) and are now members of Costa Rica’s socialized medical system and pension/retirement system. That means that we pay into the system, and in return, can use the hospitals and clinics for care. It also means that banking is a little easier (we now have a DIMEX number, which allows transfers from bank to bank), we can get a cell phone plan, national park entrance fees are a fraction of the price, we don’t have to wait in the long line for foreigners at the international airport, and some other benefits like that.
Picking up our residency papers in downtown San Jose
Looking back at the residency process, we do have some advice. The process is long, not that inexpensive, and navigating all the paperwork and bureaucracy can be daunting. I think we have had to get our apostilled marriage certificate from the US about six times at this point (for various reasons). DHL loves us and our credit card. We have also had to make several trips to Migration in San Jose to check on our applications, which is a fun excuse to explore the city, but it really adds up.
Our advice for those moving here recently would be to wait until you are certain you want to stay long-term. It seems like a lot of newbies last about two years before deciding it was fun but not for them. Those who make it past the two-year mark usually stay for quite a bit longer or maybe forever. So do the tourist-visa route for a while, make your border runs to renew your visa, and then, when you are sure you want to stay, apply for residency.
For us, as we move past the four-year mark of living in Costa Rica, life is good. While we have had frustrations, we also have had a lot of good things happen. We still love it here and don’t regret breaking away from the rat race back in the States. Even though we are working hard, we are doing something that we enjoy and are working for ourselves. And most of all, we get to spend every day with our son, watching him grow up and learn. That has been amazingly rewarding and we wouldn’t exchange it for anything.
So that’s it for the year four wrap up. We hope that you long-time readers keep following along and we welcome all of the newcomers. Two Weeks in Costa Rica has turned into something much more than we expected and we are glad to have such a great audience. ¡Pura vida!
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La Fortuna is a destination for almost every type of traveler. It offers a huge selection of lodging that ranges from budget-friendly hostels to mid-range hotels with volcano views all the way up to the most luxurious resorts. In this guide, we’ll help you narrow down the list and give you our insider tips on where to stay in La Fortuna/Arenal. Our recommendations are listed from budget to high end, and we made sure to note their location.
Tips for Finding the Right Hotel in La Fortuna
One of the biggest factors in deciding on a hotel in La Fortuna is location. If you do not plan to have a rental car, you will need to rely on taxis or the bus to get around. And because things are more spread out in this area, many people find it easiest to stay in the downtown. This is where most restaurants, shops, and other amenities are located. Note that the downtown tends to be on the loud side so pick a place outside the center if this is important to you.
If you will have a car, you will have more flexibility. Many of the best choices for lodging are outside the main area of town on the road leading to Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal. This is where you will find lush rainforest and some fantastic volcano views. One thing to keep in mind when comparing the options is that some hotels are a 30 minute or more drive away from the downtown.
Budget Hotels in La FortunaArenal Hostel Resort
If you’re traveling on a budget, check out Arenal Hostel Resort. This hostel is located in the middle of downtown La Fortuna. It has its own restaurant, bar, and pools. The vibe is cool, and because of the variety of rooms offered (both dorms and private), it draws a diverse crowd. Shared dorms starting at $10 a bed; private rooms, $40-70, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Another good budget option is Hotel Bijagua. This small hotel is right outside town on the road going to the volcano. The private rooms are simple, but clean and comfortable. People love the beautifully landscaped grounds, but the friendly staff is what makes their stay. It’s a good option for those traveling with kids, with a nice pool and larger family rooms. $50-85, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Monte Real
Hotel Monte Real is another option in the downtown, but is far enough out so that it isn’t loud. We stayed here on one of our first visits to La Fortuna and really enjoyed it. It is only a short walk to the main area of town, restaurants, and shops. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, and offer amenities like A/C, TV, and hot water. The property has a nice pool. $70-100, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Selvita Lodge is on the other side of La Fortuna, on the road leading to La Fortuna Waterfall. This location is not within walking distance to the downtown, but is an inexpensive taxi ride away. Selvita offers a handful of rustic, but clean and spacious, cabins. It’s family run, and many guests say it feels like a homestay. Cabins have a private hot water bathroom, air conditioning, and cable TV. $70-110, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul
Our last recommendation for budget lodging is Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul. This small, five-cabin hotel is also located on the road to La Fortuna Waterfall, about 1.5 kilometers outside town. The cabins are made of beautiful local wood. Each has its own porch with a hammock where you can enjoy the gardens. The lodge is run by a welcoming local family. $80-130, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Mid-range Hotels in La FortunaArenal Observatory Lodge
One of our favorite properties in the Arenal area is the Observatory. This lodge is as close to the volcano as you can get so has incredible views. The property is located more remotely, next to the national park, so the grounds see a lot of wildlife. Staying here also means you can access the lodge’s many trails through the rainforest. If you want to stay here, it’s best to have a car, as the drive to La Fortuna is about 30 minutes. Rooms range from budget-friendly options in La Casona building to nicely appointed Smithsonian Rooms and Junior Suites. $90-200, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
View of Arenal Volcano from a Smithsonian room at the Observatory
Heliconias Nature Lodge
We loved our recent stay at Heliconias Nature Lodge. This is a small lodge run by a very friendly local family. They have bungalows set in the rainforest and a few treehouse rooms too. Rooms are nice and clean and have plenty of amenities (A/C, TV, mini-fridge, restaurant on-site). It is about 25 minutes outside La Fortuna so a good drive away, but its country location is part of what makes it special. For the best rainforest views, stay in a Deluxe Bungalow. We loved the Glass Bungalows too, which have cool floor-to-ceiling windows and overlook the vegetable/pineapple garden and small coffee field. $150-200. Check Rates and Availability Here.
For a little more comfort, but with more character than a resort, there’s Hotel El Silencio del Campo. They have individual bungalows and also their own thermal pools and spa on-site. The location is good; the hotel is on the road going to Arenal Volcano, only a short drive to town. This is one of the most popular hotels in the area so be sure to book in advance. $180-220, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Arenal Springs Resort & Spa
For a more affordable resort, check out Arenal Springs. It has spacious, clean rooms with good volcano views, but the main draw is the big, multi-layered pool. The property is spread out, with several nicely equipped bungalows with modern touches. Arenal Springs is located about 10 minutes from downtown La Fortuna. $150-240, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Arenal Manoa & Hot Springs
Arenal Manoa is another great choice for a small resort with hot springs. We stayed here recently and loved it. The hot springs were small, but nice, and the large cool water pool was good for the daytime when it was warmer. This is a very family-friendly resort, but it draws all types of travelers. Accommodations consist of bungalows (2-units per building). Each has a nice outdoor sitting area surrounded by gardens and overlooking Arenal Volcano. The restaurant on-site is excellent. Arenal Manoa is located about a 10 minute drive from the downtown. $120-250, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
High-end Hotels in La FortunaLost Iguana Resort & Spa
Lost Iguana is a more affordable high-end resort in the Arenal area. The resort is located outside town near Mistico Hanging Bridges and has nice views of the volcano. With romantic suites as well as rooms that can be connected, it is a good option for both couples and families. The property is built into the hillside and has two pools, one regular and one heated (not hot-spring fed). Because this option is well outside town, it is best with a rental car. $175-500, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa
Tabacon is one of the area’s most famous hotels. Its elaborate hot springs resort is a destination in itself for day visitors, but if you stay at the hotel, you can use the springs for free. Tabacon has a variety of rooms. All are well equipped and modern, with A/C, cable TV, and a mini bar. It is located outside town on the road going to Lake Arenal, about 15 minutes away. Because it is a resort, it has a few restaurants/bars to choose from. $300-450, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Another popular high-end resort is the Springs. With beautiful, well-maintained rooms, five restaurants on-site, 28 hot springs pools, and even its own adventure park, this place has just about everything you would need. Although the property is fairly large, it doesn’t have too many rooms so service is still personalized. The Springs isn’t far from town, but is in a secluded location on a bumpy dirt road. $350-700, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Nayara Hotel and Nayara Springs
The most sought-after resort in La Fortuna is probably the Nayara Hotel and its luxe sister property, Nayara Springs. These eco-friendly boutique hotels have beautiful grounds, excellent food and service, and nice volcano views. The Nayara Springs, where each villa has its own private plunge pool fed by hot springs, is the perfect getaway for couples. $300-1,000, double occupancy. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Those are our picks for hotels in the La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano area. As you can see, there is something for just about everyone, whether you prefer intimate, family-run lodges or big resorts with all the amenities.
Where is your favorite place to stay in La Fortuna? Leave us a comment below (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)
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If you’ve done some research on Costa Rica, then you have probably read about the country’s famous volcanoes and soothing hot springs. Flocks of visitors come to destinations like La Fortuna and Rincon de la Vieja to soak in naturally heated pools and gaze up at volcanic peaks. But not all of Costa Rica’s volcanoes hold the same acclaim. The Miravalles Volcano, for example, offers similar features, but has only a few small villages in its surrounds. Here, tourism is hardly noticeable and an authentic Costa Rica experience awaits. In this post, we’ll describe what makes the Miravalles area unique and help you plan a visit.
The Miravalles Volcano is located in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province. Though situated inland, it is only about 1.5-2.5 hours from popular beach towns like Playa Hermosa, Playa Conchal, and Playa Tamarindo. Two small towns, Guayabal and Fortuna, sit on the southwestern side of the volcano. These towns offer a glimpse of local culture, with mostly undeveloped land, rolling farm fields, small neighborhoods, and of course a soccer field or two.
The Miravalles Volcano itself has some interesting attributes. Towering at 6,654 feet (2,028 meters), it is the tallest volcano in the Guanacaste mountain range. Though now considered dormant, the volcano generates an abundance of thermal energy. In fact, the Costa Rican government’s electric institute (ICE) has several industrial plants here that turn the volcano’s underground heat into geothermal electricity. You will likely see some of the steaming tubes as you drive around town. There are also many wind turbines nearby, helping to add to the country’s sustainability goals.
Special Note: The Miravalles area is another part of the country that was hit hard by Costa Rica’s first hurricane in late 2016. Hurricane Otto dumped enormous amounts of rain on the steep hills of the volcano. This, in turn, caused devastating flash floods, resulting in property damage and the loss of several lives. The area has rebounded, and repairs are ongoing, but a visit here can go a long way in helping the local community.
Although the Miravalles Volcano area can be visited as a day trip from many of the beach towns in Guanacaste, there are enough sights to stay for a night or two.
Thermal Hot Springs
Probably the biggest draw of Miravalles are the thermal hot springs. There are several casual hot spring options as well as one upscale resort.
Yoko Termales has five simple hot spring pools that reach temperatures of 100˚F (38˚C). The property is more spread out, with some shaded sitting areas, picnic tables, and a wet bar and waterslide. Many of the pools are in direct sun so a lot of people prefer going at night when it is cooler. Yoko is especially popular with local Ticos. Admission is a bargain at ₡5000 ($10) for adults and ₡4000 ($8) for children under 10.
The pools at Yoko Termales
Colinas de Miravalles
Colinas de Miravalles doesn’t have as many pools, but we preferred the atmosphere. It has one giant pool with a manmade waterfall and two smaller, more intimate, ones. (See cover photo, above, which shows the larger pool.) The springs serve the guests of the hotel, but we saw a lot of locals coming for the day. The views of the volcano are outstanding and the landscaped property is very nice as well. You can make a day of it by grabbing lunch at their restaurant, or bring a cooler with food and drinks. Admission: $2,000 ($4).
If you have kids, you will want to check out Thermomania. This is a fun, over-the-top waterpark with cartoon-character-inspired thermal pools, waterslides, and play structures. There is a huge onsite restaurant and bar where the adults can grab a drink. The resort is very popular with local families. Admission: ₡5000 ($10).
One of the fun thermal pools at Thermomania
Las Hornillas is a private property that offers hot springs as well as a variety of other activities. See below for a full description.
You wouldn’t expect it from its remote location, but the Rio Perdido is a gleaming high end resort hidden deep in the tropical forest. At the end of a bumpy dirt road near Fortuna, you will come to this well-manicured resort. Although primarily a hotel (see below), the Rio Perdido is a destination for day trippers as well. It has eight registered hot springs, which you can enjoy in a natural riverbed setting with jungle surrounds, or at the two elegant pools adjacent to the spa.
A hot spring pool just steps from the Rio Perdido Spa
Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center
If you want to experience what it’s like to stand in an active volcanic crater, then head to Las Hornillas. Carved into the side of a hill, this is an area at the base of the volcano where the energy emerges from the ground. A short trail brings you past volcanic steam vents and bubbling mud pots. The smell of sulfur fills the air but is all part of the experience. Visitors can apply mineral-rich volcanic mud to their skin and then soak in the thermal pools afterwards.
The volcanic landscape at Las Hornillas
Las Hornillas also has some hiking trails, which lead to stunning waterfalls. The guided hike starts with a tractor ride and then crosses some rustic hanging bridges. From the bridges, you can see all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya (Pacific Ocean).
Stay tuned for a more in-depth article about Las Hornillas, coming soon.
Llanos de Cortez Waterfall
About 35 minutes from the Miravalles Volcano is one of Guanacaste’s most stunning waterfalls. Llanos de Cortez is located right off Highway 1 and is a popular stop for those making the trip between Miravalles and the Guanacaste coast. The beautiful waterfall, with it wide, wispy streams of water, flows year-round. Because it is only a short (but steep) walk down from the parking area, this waterfall is very popular. Read our post Llanos de Cortez Waterfall for more information.
Since the towns near the Miravalles Volcano are very small and rural, most of the lodging is quite simple. Below we give a couple of these options as well as the upscale Rio Perdido Resort for those looking for more amenities.
Colinas de Miravalles
Colinas de Miravalles is a small, locally run lodge with onsite hot spring pools and five spacious cabins. In addition to its volcano views, the property itself is scenic, with tropical landscaping that attracts birds. We stayed here recently and really enjoyed it. The cabins are large and spaced out enough to provide privacy. The onsite restaurant is also very good and uses a lot of local ingredients (farm-raised chicken, cheese, and homemade jams). Since there are few restaurants in town, we ate here quite a bit. Best of all, though, was the friendly family who runs it. $80-105/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Paraiso Camping Lodge consists of three cabins located in Guayabal at the base of the Miravalles Volcano. The small lodge is probably best known for its owner, who makes sure that each guest receives personalized attention. Meals are fresh and cooked to order. This is great choice for budget travelers and families trying to save some money. $40-$80/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Rio Perdido Resort
The Rio Perdido is a destination in and of itself. Located near the town of Fortuna in a remote and seemingly untouched area, this high-end resort has 20 modern bungalows set in the thick forest. Guests can enjoy the 26 km (16 miles) of hiking and mountain biking trails, as well as the zip line for some adventure. There is also ample opportunity to just relax with a soak in the natural hot springs, a rejuvenating yoga session, or some pampering at the spa. For those looking to disconnect from it all, the Rio Perdido is the perfect place to do so. $200-250/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Miravalles is a little-known destination in Costa Rica with a lot to offer. If you prefer off-the-beaten-path travel, but still want to experience volcanic hot springs, this area offers the perfect mixture of both.
Have a question about visiting the Miravalles region? Ask it below. (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)
Looking for more information to help plan the perfect Costa Rica vacation? Check out these articles:
Bijagua: A Gateway to the Rio Celeste– Less than 1.5 hours from Miravalles, this is another rural town that offers some stunning attractions and a bit of culture. The nearby Rio Celeste Waterfall is one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful.
Rental Car Discount– If you’re visiting Costa Rica’s lesser known towns, you will probably want a rental car. Use our discount to save 10% or more and get other perks.
Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste): Costa Rica’s Northern Beauty – Translating to Beautiful Beach, Playa Hermosa lives up to its name with a gorgeous cove. This is one of the closest beach towns to Liberia Airport, and its location allows for easy day trips to places like the Miravalles Volcano.
Nestled in a lush valley between two dormant volcanoes is the town of Bijagua. This rural village is probably best known as a stop-over destination for those visiting the nearby Rio Celeste Waterfall. And while the famously blue waterfall is quickly becoming a must-see attraction, the town itself remains peaceful and undeveloped. In this post, we’ll give you all the information you need to plan your visit to the charming country town of Bijagua.
Special Note: In November 2016, Bijagua was one of several towns in northern Costa Rica that was hit hard by the country’s first hurricane. While Hurricane Otto caused severe damage and even took several lives, the town is working diligently to rebuild and recover. We hope you’ll consider adding Bijagua to your travel plans, not only for all it offers, but also as a way to help the community.
Location and Climate
Bijagua is located in northern Costa Rica and sits at the border between the provinces of Guanacaste and Alajuela. Set inland, within the Guanacaste Mountain Range, this area stays lush and green year-round. The steep slopes of the Miravalles Volcano (6,654 feet) and Tenorio Volcano (6,286 feet) offer a beautiful backdrop for nature lovers. The closest international airport to Bijagua is Daniel Oduber International (LIR) in Liberia, about an hour away. Beach towns in Guanacaste like Playa Hermosa or Playa Tamarindo are about 1.5-2.5 hours away. The popular destination of La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano is a 2 hour drive.
Tip: Bijagua’s rainforests stay verdant year-round thanks to the nourishing rainfall it receives. Be sure to pack a raincoat and leave flexibility in your schedule for activities.
Just a few businesses along the main road in Bijagua
Bijagua is most famous for being the gateway to the Rio Celeste Waterfall. But there is enough to do here to fill at least a couple of nights. The region has areas of thick jungle and is home to an abundance of flora and fauna. Guided birding and wildlife tours are available to take advantage. You will also find mountain biking, horseback riding, and river tubing on the Rio Celeste. It is a great spot for those looking to connect with the local culture as well.
Farm Tour at Finca Verde
Finca Verde is a locally owned farm and reforestation project with a lovely restaurant and a few rooms. Though called a farm tour, this tour focuses more on exploring the gardens and forested areas of the property in search of monkeys, sloths, and birds. There are also stops at the small butterfly garden and snake/frog enclosure. Along the way, the hands-on guides will share their passion for some of Costa Rica’s most interesting plants, flowers, insects, and animals. You’ll catch a glimpse of how the family incorporates organic farming on their property as well. Night tours are also available.
A mother Three-toed Sloth and her baby hanging out on the property at Finca Verde
Rio Celeste Waterfall Hike
As we’ve said, the major attraction of Bijagua is the Rio Celeste Waterfall that flows within the nearby Tenorio Volcano National Park. (See cover photo, above.) The intense blue color of this waterfall and river looks like something out of a fairytale but is absolutely real. Note that the waterfall is best visited when it hasn’t rained lately, since the color can be altered by silt.
Outside town on the fringes of Tenorio Volcano National Park is Heliconias Lodge and Reserve. Heliconias offers hiking along one main trail through dense forest and across a few hanging bridges before looping back. The hanging bridges are rustic and one was not in service on our visit, so wouldn’t recommend going just for that. But this place is still a great option for exploring nature and beating the crowds. It’s a paradise for birders, with some unique species like the Tody Motmot, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo (a relative of the roadrunner). We weren’t so lucky with birds during our hike, but we did see a large troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys, along with butterflies, lizards, and less rare birds like Toucans and Crested Guans. Heliconias also has a hike (guided only) to a lagoon where visitors sometimes spot the rare Baird’s Tapir.
Hanging Bridge at Heliconias Lodge
Cataratas Bijagua (Bijagua Waterfalls)
At the foothills of the Miravalles Volcano, this trail at the Cataratas Bijagua Lodge leads through thick forest and along a rushing river to a refreshing waterfall. The moderately difficult hike takes about 3.5 hours. Unfortunately, the trail was closed at the time of our visit because of hurricane damage, but it should be open again soon.
You’ve likely seen Costa Rica’s colorful frogs on banner ads and book covers, but in Bijagua, you can meet them in person. There are two frog tours in the area. With a local guide by your side, you will walk around specially made trails and gardens that have been planted to attract and breed frogs. The kinds of frogs you might see include the red-eyed tree frog, blue jean poison dart frog, and a see-through variety known as the glass frog. Night tours generally see more frog species and are also the best time to see animals like snakes, lizards, birds, and even sloths. Reserve in advance through Bijagua Ranas or Frog’s Paradise. Tours are in Spanish unless otherwise arranged.
Glass Frog at Bijagua Ranas
Bijagua isn’t built up so the restaurant selection is small, but there are still some tasty finds. Here are a few places that we enjoyed.
Located at Finca Verde Hotel, the Hummingbird Café offers something different if you’ve had your fill of typical food. This was the first restaurant that we tried in town and it was hard to branch out after that (we returned several times). The small but diverse menu has appetizers like hummus and handmade tortilla chips. Entrees include chicken enchiladas, cordon blue, lasagna, pizza, and burgers. The setting is very laid back, with an outdoor patio surrounded by jungle.
Lasagna at Hummingbird Cafe
Pizzaria El Barrigon
We enjoyed our dinner at Pizzaria El Barrigon. Located on the main road in town, the pizza here is solid and they have some other typical food options as well. We tried the veggie pizza, but those who are feeling adventurous might like the house specialty, which is topped with gallo pinto (Costa Rica’s traditional rice and beans breakfast dish)
A great choice for a typical Costa Rican meal is Las Tinajitas. Also located on the main road in town, the kitchen here serves up classics like arroz con camarones (fried rice with shrimps), casados (plate of meat or fish, rice, beans, and side salads), and soups like olla de carne (Costa Rican-style beef stew). One of their fresh batidos (fruit smoothies) after a hike is also highly recommended.
Arroz con Camarones at Las Tinajitas
Although Bijagua may be a small town, it has a sizeable selection of hotels. Much of the lodging is quaint B&B-type places (think cabins). Travelers of every budget should be able to find something nice. Prices in this area are still fairly modest compared to other destinations in Costa Rica. Below are our top picks for where to stay in Bijagua. Don’t miss the special discount code to save 10% at Casitas Tenorio.
Note: Many accommodations in Bijagua do not have air conditioning. Because temperatures are a lot cooler at night, most visitors find a fan to be more than adequate.
Budget HotelsFinca Verde
Finca Verde is a laid back hotel that is immersed in nature. The two buildings that make up the small lodge have a couple of rooms each and are backed by lush tropical forest. When we stayed recently, we saw sloths and many birds and woke to the calls of howler monkeys each morning. The rooms are rustic and small, but clean and comfortable. One of the best things about staying at Finca Verde is that you have easy access to their delicious restaurant, the Hummingbird Café. $75/night, includes a good breakfast. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Sueno Celeste is a bed and breakfast located right off the main road coming into town. It has spacious, freestanding cabins so that you have plenty of privacy. Each cabin is tastefully decorated and has a porch where you can watch colorful birds come and go through the gardens. This is an excellent value at around $75-95/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Rio Celeste Backpackers
For those wanting to stretch their dollar even further, there is Rio Celeste Backpackers. This hostel has a shared dorm as well as a few private rooms. A welcoming local family runs it and does their best to make it feel like you’re a guest in their home. Shared dorm, $18 a bed. Private room $40. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Mid-Range HotelsCasitas Tenorio B&B and Farm
One of our favorite properties in this area is Casitas Tenorio. Run by a friendly Costa Rican-Australian couple, this bed and breakfast and working farm has a handful of beautifully crafted bungalows. We stayed in their newest casita, El Sol, earlier this year and loved it. The finishes were modern and sophisticated, but with plenty of Costa Rican flair. Hand-painted tropical scenes adorned the walls, brightly colored linens dressed the beds, and local wood was used throughout. Guests love the breakfast area, not only for the volcano view, but to watch the many birds that come to the feeders. $85-130/night (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here. Our readers get 10% off at Casitas Tenorio! Just enter the Promo Code TwoWeeks at checkout.
Casita El Sol at Casitas Tenorio
Another good option for very comfortable bungalows is Tenorio Lodge. This eco-lodge has 12 wooden bungalows set on a large 17 acre parcel of garden and forest. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, guests get to enjoy views of Tenorio Volcano from within their cabin. The lodge also has two huge Jacuzzi tubs for soaking. $120-140/night (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
High-End HotelsRio Celeste Hideaway Resort
Most of the lodging in this area is budget to mid-range, but there is one hotel for those looking for a little more luxury. The Rio Celeste Hideaway is a small resort with high-end bungalows. Their casitas are nestled in the peaceful forest and each has an awesome outdoor garden shower. Rooms have A/C. This hotel is right next to the national park entrance, but it is more remotely located so be prepared to drive to get to restaurants and amenities. $180-330 (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
Bijagua offers travelers an escape from some of the more touristy areas in Costa Rica and has enough activities and amenities to make it just as enjoyable. With lush rainforest, friendly locals, and beautiful sights like the Rio Celeste Waterfall, Bijagua is sure to grow. Get there now and experience this charming town for yourself.
Have a question about visiting Bijagua? Ask us below. (Email subscribers, click here to ask your question online.).
Check out the links below for more practical info for planning your trip to Costa Rica:
There are several reasons why you might be planning to cross the border between Costa Rica and Panama. Many people do this just to explore another part of Central America, while others need to leave the country they are living in (i.e., Costa Rica or Panama) to renew their tourist visa. In our three-and-a-half years in Costa Rica, we have crossed back and forth many times for both reasons, mostly at Paso Canoas. In this post, we will tell you what to expect and give you some details to help make the process as smooth as possible.
The Paso Canoas border is located in the southwestern-most part of Costa Rica at the end of Route 2 (the Inter-Americana Highway). The closest major town on the Costa Rica side is Ciudad Neily, a small city with some shops, banks, and restaurants. Also not far away are the towns of Golfito and Pavones, which draw some tourists. On the Panama side, the highway is named Route 1 (the Pan-Americana Highway), and the closest major city is David, about 45 minutes away. David is Panama’s third largest city and is known for good shopping and an active expat community.
The Paso Canoas border can be intimidating if you have never been. Chaos is one way you could describe it. Especially on the Costa Rica side, there are often tractor-trailer trucks lined up and lots of vehicles parked haphazardly everywhere. The area is usually extremely busy, with lots of people waiting around and others trying to sell you things. It is very noisy as well, with tractor-trailer brakes sounding, music blaring, and the occasional random firework, making you jump. Signage for government buildings is also poor, making it hard to know where to go. But once you get to know this border, it isn’t all that bad. And if you have some shopping to do, it is actually a great spot to find good deals.
The walk between the Costa Rica and Panama Migration offices
Overview of Shopping
Whenever we go, we do a lot of shopping in the duty free stores. Compared to Costa Rica’s normal retail prices, which are high for Central America, things like groceries, liquor and beer/wine, clothes, and even car parts and supplies are a lot less expensive. As an example, a nice bottle of wine that would cost $20 in Costa Rica is usually $10 or less at the border. A 5 liter bottle of Pennzoil motor oil that costs roughly $40 in Costa Rica can be found for $20.
We cover the shopping options in more detail at the end of this post.
As for getting around, here’s a map that we made to help you get your bearings. There are only three buildings that you will need to visit (marked in red).
The Border Process
Since we live in Costa Rica, these directions will be from that perspective. If you are from Panama, the reverse should be similar and most things will apply.
If you have driven yourself to the border and are staying only for the day, it is best to park the car in a secure lot and do the process on foot. As you arrive at the border from the Costa Rica side, look for a sign that says “Parqueo Canoas” set back between the restaurants on the right (roughly across the street from the Banco de Costa Rica). Sometimes the view is blocked by a row of tractor-trailer trucks so look carefully. We have safely parked here many times for about 700 colones per hour.
Parking lot just past Costa Rica’s Migration Office, on the right side as you’re driving in from Costa Rica
What You’ll Need
Note: The requirements sometimes change. We’ll try to update this post if they do, but as of December 2016, this is what is required.
Valid passport (that will not expire within 6 months)
Proof of onward travel (plane ticket). Occasionally, you also might be asked for a bus ticket from Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica (details below).
$500 cash or bank statements or a credit card to show proof of sufficient funds (3 months’ worth)
$8 to pay Costa Rica’s exit tax. Payable in Costa Rican colones as well.
$1 to pay for a paper stamp to enter Panama
Pen to fill out Costa Rica’s required form
Exiting Costa Rica and Entering Panama
The first thing you’ll need to do is get your exit stamp from Costa Rica. Here’s how to do that:
1. Pay departure tax
Costa Rica has a tax (impuesto) that must be paid before you can exit the country by land. Anyone crossing by foot, car, or bus has to pay it. While you can pay this at certain banks in Costa Rica ahead of time, the easiest way is right at the border. Formerly sold from a random van, there is now a storage-container office directly across the highway from the Costa Rica Migration office. The tax is $7 but you will be charged $8 because the company selling it gets a $1 commission. They will need your passport and will give you a receipt to present to Migration when you check out of Costa Rica.
Building for Costa Rica exit tax
2. Get stamped out of Costa Rica
Once you’ve paid the exit tax, head across the street to the Costa Rica Migration office. It’s one of the first buildings on the left as you come into the border area. It’s a blue and white concrete structure with an overhang for buses and a big open area for people to form a line. You will be looking for the salida (exit) window (see cover photo, above).
Outside of Costa Rica Migration Office
If there is a big line at the window (common), first you will have to cut to the front to get the required form to fill out. Try one of the closed windows or the entrada (entry) window first, if they are not busy. Don’t worry, everyone does this.
Tip: If you ask for two papers for each person in your group, you won’t have to do this again on the way back into Costa Rica.
Fill out one form for each person and get back in line. The form asks for basic information like your name, passport number, destination, etc. Once it is your turn at the window, give them the paper along with your passport and the tax receipt. Usually the agent doesn’t ask too many questions when you are leaving Costa Rica and just stamps your passport with the exit stamp.
3. Get stamped into Panama
Once you have your exit stamp, walk south along the road to the Panama Migration office. This building is a little hard to find because it is behind other offices in a big concrete building with the road on each side. Walk to the farthest set of windows/offices. Here, you will find an outdoor waiting area with a bunch of service windows (much like Costa Rica but more updated).
Panama Migration Office
Note: It is a bit of a walk between the Costa Rica and Panama offices (about 5-10 minutes) along uneven terrain so plan on wearing comfortable shoes. There aren’t any sidewalks and you have to cross traffic. If you have young kids, you will probably want to carry them.
Pay $1 to Get Stamp
Before getting in line, look for someone sitting in the corner (usually it is the same lady). She sells the required paper stamp to enter Panama, which is $1. It is best to use US dollars if you have them. She will put this in your passport for you.
Wait in Line to Speak to Migration Official
Next, wait in the entrada (entry) line for your turn. There isn’t a form to fill out for Panama, but the agent likely will ask where you’re traveling to and for how long. Sometimes they will ask for your occupation. All of this will be in Spanish, though some of them do speak some English. They will probably also require proof of $500 (usually can be satisfied by showing 3 months’ of bank statements or a valid credit card if you don’t want to carry cash). We have never been asked to show $500 cash, but others have.
The last requirement is to show proof of onward travel out of Panama within 180 days. This requirement has changed over the years and even differs by border. Bus tickets out of the country sometimes work, but lately Panama has been requiring a plane ticket back to your home country (country that issued your passport).
Since our plane tickets are usually departing from SJO Airport in Costa Rica, we also have been asked (sometimes, but not always) to show a bus ticket from Paso Canoas back to San Jose. Even when we told them we had a car, we were still required to show this. If you are asked, you will have to walk back to the Tracopa bus company’s ticket office near the Banco de Costa Rica on the Costa Rica side to purchase one (even if you don’t intend to use it). The cost is around $15 per ticket.
Have Photo and Fingerprints Taken and Get Entry Stamp
Once the agent is satisfied, they will then stamp your passport and take a picture of you with a small computer camera. As of our last visit in December 2016, Panama also now has an electronic fingerprint machine. The agent will direct you to place your thumbs and fingers on a digital pad to record your prints into their computer system.
Now you’re ready to travel into Panama. Standard visas are for 180 days. There are no border walls or other checkpoints in the immediate area so you are free to explore the entire border zone and its shops if you are planning to stay for only a few hours.
Important: Another trend lately is for the Panama Migration agent to tell you how many hours you must stay in Panama before exiting again. If they do this, they may write the time on your entry stamp. We have been told five hours twice and three hours on our most recent crossing in December 2016. Also keep in mind that Panama time is one hour ahead of Costa Rica.
Exiting Panama and Entering Costa Rica
If you’re returning to Costa Rica after your visit to Panama, you’ll go through the process in reverse.
1. Get stamped out of Panama
Go to the same Migration windows as before, but use the salida (exit) line. You do not need to pay or do anything other than present your passport. This is usually a very straightforward process, but they might check to see if you have stayed in the country for the required number of hours.
2. Get stamped into Costa Rica
Go back to the Costa Rica Migration office. They will have you fill out the same form you did before, so if you got extra ones on your way in, you won’t need to cut the line again to get one. You do not need to pay the tax this time. Costa Rica requires proof of onward travel out of the country through a plane ticket back to your home country within 90 days. We have almost always been asked for this ticket (same one we use for entering Panama). Standard visas are 90 days, but the exact amount is up to the discretion of the Migration official.
Shopping at Paso Canoas
Like we mentioned above, whenever we visit the Paso Canoas border, we do quite a bit of shopping. To give you an idea of where things are, here are some descriptions and directions. Directions are based on looking at the Panama Migration building from the big intersection on the Costa Rica side.
City Mall – Very large, modern two-story department store that has a big selection of groceries, beauty products, homewares, small appliances, clothing and footwear (name brands too), electronics, tools, toys, baby items, and even a large section of furniture. We like to shop City Mall the best because it is the most organized and has great air conditioning! From the big intersection, follow the road (on the Costa Rica side) to the left for about 0.75 km and look for the big red building on the right with McDonald’s, shortly after Dollar Mall.
Inside City Mall
Jerusalem Mall – This is a more scattered, less organized version of City Mall. It has one main, more modern building, with several other, somewhat ramshackle, sections adjoining. Has most of the same things as City Mall, but everything is divided among the different buildings. There are several entrances. Vendors are set up outside the front of the buildings, making it hard to find where to go in. But if you go past the vendors, there is an interior sidewalk that goes by all the storefronts. To get to one of the biggest entrances, take the road to the left (Costa Rica side), walk about 0.5 km, and look for the large glass building with a sign for Jerusalem Duty Free.
Liquor Stores – There are several duty free liquor stores to the right of the big intersection. Follow the road and they will be on your left about 0.5 km up the road.
Street view (right of big intersection)
Car Parts and Accessories – Similar location to the liquor stores, there are several car part suppliers to the right of the big intersection. They sell everything from brake pads to tires, roof racks to rims. Motor oil can be found at one of the malls if you don’t want to make a separate stop. Follow the road to the right (on the Costa Rica side) and they will be on your left about 0.5 km up the road.
Other Shops – On both sides of the intersection, there are a lot of smaller stores filling up every imaginable space. You can find sunglasses, cell phone accessories, clothes, kitchen stuff, and there is even a Crocs store tucked in.
Warning: If you have to cross the border around Black Friday or the weeks leading up to Christmas, build in some extra time. When we visited in early December, there were lines of traffic everywhere and all the hotels were completely sold out with holiday shoppers staying overnight.
Where to Stay and Eat
If you’re looking for a place to stay on the Costa Rica side of Paso Canoas, there are many choices, but they are all very simple budget options. We have stayed at Cabinas Romy, a small motel with about 20 clean rooms. It is very close to the big intersection but fairly quiet at night. Some of the rooms have A/C and cable TV and some do not. Private, secure parking. $30-$50.
Another hotel we have tried is Hotel Los Higuerones. This is a larger hotel set outside of the noisy border area (but still within a short walk). It has the feel of a ranch with nice landscaping and open lawns. The two-story hotel has 39 simple rooms (not much nicer than Cabinas Romy) with different bed setups. Private parking, A/C, hot water, and cable TV. $40-60.
As for where to eat, we have mostly explored options on the Costa Rica side as the restaurants are much more rustic on the Panama side. Of the many small sodas (locally run restaurants serving typical food), our favorite is Inter-Americano Bar and Restaurant. This is right near Cabinas Romy, a short walk from the big intersection on the Costa Rica side. They have consistently good casados (traditional plates with rice, beans, salads, and choice of meat/fish), and the service is always decent. If you’re looking to fulfill a fast-food craving, there is also a McDonald’s at the City Mall or Subway and Burger King near the Jerusalem Mall.
Our favorite restaurant at the border (it looks nicer once you get inside!)
The Paso Canoas border crossing can be quite intimidating if you have never been. Hopefully this post helps guide you through the process and makes it a little less overwhelming.
Have you crossed the border at Paso Canoas lately? Help others by sharing your experience below. (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)Looking for more information to help you plan a border crossing? Check out these posts.
If you’re visiting Manuel Antonio on your next trip to Costa Rica, you’re no doubt looking forward to spotting wildlife in the national park, doing adventure activities in the nearby mountains, and relaxing on the beach. But a trip to this area wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the magnificent Pacific coastline by boat. We recently went on a catamaran cruise from Manuel Antonio with some family and friends. In this post, will tell you about our experience and how you can enjoy it too.
What to ExpectSetting Off
We started our tour at the brand new Marina Pez Vela in Quepos. Although Quepos has more of a city feel and the downtown isn’t very scenic, the marina has amazing facilities. Some of the best restaurants in the area are located here, and the views of the bay, especially at sunset, are outstanding.
A look at the beautiful marina from the water
After waiting for everyone to arrive, it was time to board the boat. There are a few different options for cruises out of Manuel Antonio/Quepos. Since our son, Sam, was only one, we felt the most comfortable going out on the biggest boat, the Ocean King.
The Ocean King is a 100-foot catamaran with two decks (upper and lower), big open areas to relax, two Jacuzzis, a full bar, bathrooms, and waterslides off the back. After boarding, we were given a safety talk by the crew and were briefed about what our morning would entail. First, we would head south to the shores of Manuel Antonio National Park. On the way, we would be looking for whales (seasonal), dolphins, and seabirds. Next, we’d go to a secluded cove for some snorkeling, swimming, jumping, and water-sliding. And finally, we’d enjoy lunch (or dinner depending on your tour time) on the way back to the marina.
For information on booking this tour, see the end of this post.
The two large decks aboard the Ocean King
A Party on the Water
As the boat left the marina and headed into the ocean, the staff put on some upbeat music, set out fresh fruit and light snacks, and opened up the bar. Everyone was allowed four beers and four cocktails each, as well as unlimited juice and soda. Even though it was still mid-morning, the bar got busy with fruity cocktails being handed out with big smiles.
What You’ll See
The views of the hilly green coastline are amazing from out on the boat. While on land it seems like there is a lot of development, from the water you can really appreciate how much of Manuel Antonio and Quepos remains engulfed in thick jungle. Adding to the scenery, we passed small rocky islands and local fishing boats too.
A few of the small islands that we passed
Along the way, we saw some seabirds like the Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird. For those of you into birding, these species are considered pelagic. This means that they spend most of their time over the open ocean, with only short periods of rest on tiny islands or drifting wood. Some of them were showing off and got very close to the boat, which was cool for us birding geeks.
The captain and crew were keeping a lookout for dolphins and humpback whales too, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any on our trip. Dolphins, we were told, can be seen any time of year, but the whales have distinct migration seasons. (Check out our Whale Watching post for more info.) We were at the very start of the December to April migration, which typically has lower numbers of whales. Nonetheless, we had plenty to look at with the islands, birds, and stunning coastline.
It was also interesting to get to see Manuel Antonio National Park from a different angle. As we motored close to shore, one of the crew members told us a little about the park over the P.A. system. Things like how Manuel Antonio National Park is among the smallest parks in the country but also one of the most visited. He then explained about the diversity of wildlife that can be found inside, both on land and in the adjacent area of protected ocean.
Cathedral Point (right side) inside Manuel Antonio National Park
The snorkeling and swimming part of the trip was probably our favorite. We stopped in a tranquil cove of the secluded Biesanz Beach. Near the boat there was a rock protruding out of the water that attracted a lot of fish. Although Costa Rica isn’t known for having the clearest water for snorkeling, we were surprised that we could see a lot when we got close up.
Snorkeling from the Ocean King Catamaran in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica - YouTube
The swimming was nice since the water was warm. With the boat parked, the crew opened up the two waterslides off the back and a jumping-off point from the top deck. The slides were a hit with kids and adults alike and really shot you out into the water at the end. The jump from the deck was just scary enough to be fun too. It was about 15 feet high and some of the more adventurous people even dove head first!
Shooting off the waterslide
After we dried off from the swim and snorkel portion, lunch was already being served. It was buffet style and we were each given a delicious heaping plate with locally caught fish, rice, vegetables, and salad.
Soon it was time to head back to the marina. We took in the views again and got to talk to some of the other people to see where they were visiting from. The crowd was really mixed, with people of all ages from all over the world. We loved the morning tour, but are already looking forward to taking the afternoon one next time. The sunset views are supposed to be spectacular!
Matt and Sam taking in the view
Additional Info and Tips
Staff and Boat: The staff was very professional, but friendly and fun too. The boat itself was in excellent condition, clean and well maintained. We felt very safe on it.
Rainy Season: Tours are offered twice a day, but during certain times of year when rain is likely later in the day (May through November), they may only run the morning boat.
Music/Environment: The music on the boat makes for a fun, party-like atmosphere, but it is quite loud, so skip this tour if you’re looking for a quiet excursion.
Sun: The upper deck is nice and sunny if you want to work on your tan, but the lower deck is mostly covered if you prefer shade.
Snorkeling: If your main goal is snorkeling, you may be disappointed with this tour. The snorkeling component is only a small portion of the day, as conditions are usually not the best in Manuel Antonio. Caño Island is a wonderful spot for snorkeling, however, and isn’t too far from Manuel Antonio. Tours to Caño leave out of Drake Bay and Uvita (about 1 hr. south of Manuel Antonio). If you want help booking a tour to Caño, email us at bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com.
Kids: The crew took safety very seriously and had more than enough life jackets for everyone. They had some smaller ones for kids, but nothing small enough for a toddler or baby. If you’re traveling with a little one, we recommend bringing your own lifejacket like we did. We bought this one that goes up to 30 pounds for our one-year old. Also, if you have a toddler, there is a lot of room for them to run around in the middle of the lower deck. This area is surrounded by benches so it is fairly easy to keep track of them too!
What to Bring: The boat has cubbies that close for your valuables, but we recommend bringing only what you need, just to be safe. You’ll probably want your bathing suit, sun hat, sunglasses, towel, sunscreen, extra clothes, camera, and cash for tips or to buy photos.
Photographer: The boat has a professional photographer on board. CDs with your personal pictures and some stock ones are available at the end of the tour for $30 (cash only).
View of the main beach in Manuel Antonio, Playa Espadilla
Information on Booking a Catamaran Cruise on the Ocean King
If you would like to book this tour, send us an email at bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com with your preferred date, time, and number of people. We’ll make all the arrangements for you. Booking through us costs the same and helps support our website!
$85 Adults | $55 Children 6-10 | Children under 5 are free.
9:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. Depending on time of year and number of signups, only one tour time may be offered. Duration: Approximately 4 hrs.
Included in the Tour
Simple snacks and fresh fruit. Lunch (a.m. tour) or dinner (p.m. tour). 8 alcoholic drinks and unlimited non-alcoholic. Equipment for snorkeling. Round trip transportation for hotels in Manuel Antonio/Quepos.
Have you taken a catamaran cruise in Manuel Antonio? What did you think? (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)Looking for more info about Manuel Antonio? Check out these posts:
Manuel Antonio Trip Planning – If you’re still early in your vacation planning, use this post to get a feel for Manuel Antonio. Covers things to do and places to stay.
Not far from the bustling city of San Jose you will find the charming town of Atenas. This medium-sized town in the Central Valley offers a glimpse at local life. From a bench in the picturesque central park or over coffee at a local restaurant, you can see Costa Ricans in their daily life. While Atenas isn’t exactly on the tourist trail, it has drawn many expats over the years due to its favorable climate and offers visitors several interesting things to do. Below, we’ll share more about this local town and why you might want to add a stop on your next visit to Costa Rica.
Atenas is located about 45 minutes west of the city of San Jose and about a half-hour from the international airport in Alajuela. Although it is close to urban areas, Atenas itself couldn’t be more different. The town is surrounded by rolling green hills, speckled with rows of coffee plants and sugarcane. Just a short drive from these quiet barrios (neighborhoods) is the central area of town, which has a lot going on. Here, you will find many restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and other conveniences. The downtown is the hub of local life, with a scenic park and church as the focal point.
A couple of things that make Atenas noteworthy are its climate and coffee. The town is said to have one of the best climates in the world, with average temperatures in the mid-70s°F (21°C) year-round. The climate, combined with the area’s rich volcanic soil, also makes Atenas an excellent location for coffee production. Many of the producers you will find are small, family-run operations and there are even some that you can tour (more on this below). Interestingly, Atenas was located along the original oxcart trail. This route was used in the late 1800s to transport coffee beans from the Central Valley to ports on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts for export. Various references to the oxcart trail can be seen around town. One notable example is the monument of a boyero, an oxcart driver, about a kilometer east of downtown.
National Boyero Monument on Route 3
You can spend hours just soaking up the local culture in the downtown, but here are some other ideas for things to do.
El Toledo Coffee Tour
If you’re visiting Atenas, a coffee tour is a must. El Toledo is a small coffee farm owned by a Costa Rican family. They are one of the few growers in the country to go completely organic. On a tour of the family farm, you’ll learn from the passionate farmers themselves about the importance of biodiverse coffee production and, of course, see how it is made from plant to cup. The tour ends with a tasting of El Toledo’s three different roasts. We really enjoyed this coffee tour because it is so personalized and non-commercial. $20 per person.
The chorreador or “sock” method of brewing allows the delicious oils of the coffee to come through.
Many communities in Costa Rica have a farmers market and Atenas is no exception. Every Friday, both locals and expats gather to shop and chat about local happenings. Under the newly built, modern structure, you will find an assortment of produce as well as baked goods, artisanal products, coffee, souvenirs, and even flowers. A local bus runs to and from the center of town for free if you don’t have a car. Click for a map with the location.
Las Minas Waterfalls
Just 20 minutes outside Atenas is a set of secluded waterfalls. Las Minas Waterfalls (The Mines Waterfalls) is located in the village of Desmonte. This set of waterfalls and swimming holes is so named because of an old gold mine in an upper area of the river. Although this spot is located deep in the country, it is not hard to find with good directions.
Take Highway 3 west out of Atenas. At a flashing yellow light, take a right (look for the restaurant Chicarronera El Minero). Follow the windy road for about 1.5 miles (2.4 km), staying left at two forks. The road turns to dirt, then back to paved, but wasn’t in bad shape even in the rainy season. When you get to a large bridge, you have arrived at the parking area. Here’s a map with directions. Don’t leave anything valuable inside your car.
To get to the pools upriver, you will have to walk along the riverbed, up over large boulders and through water, depending on the season. Sturdy boots or sandals like Keens are best. This isn’t a recommended hike for everyone. Jenn had to stay behind with our one-year-old son because the rocks were too tricky.
The upper set of falls at Las Minas Waterfalls is harder to access but worth the effort.
Botanical Orchid Garden
If gazing at hundreds of beautiful orchids is more your speed, check out the Botanical Orchid Garden in nearby La Garita. This outdoor garden cultivates orchids in a lab setting and lets them propagate in the wild on their property. The different nurseries have orchids in all stages of growth, allowing visitors to learn about the complex life cycle of these interesting plants. The property also has paths through the forest that showcase local trees and host a variety of birds. To learn more about visiting the Botanical Orchid Garden, including the best times of year to go, read our separate post.
Train Museum (Museo Ferroviaro Rio Grande)
In nearby Rio Grande, you can visit a historic train museum. This isn’t a huge attraction, but if you have a free hour, it is interesting to learn about the old railroad that ran from San Jose to Puntarenas. The small museum at the train station houses photos and artifacts like generators, radios, railway parts, and devices used for Morse code. The attendant will also take you up inside the old engine car for some great photo ops. Those wanting to explore can walk the tracks over the Grande River. Open only on Sundays. Click for a map with the location.
Our little guy playing conductor at the train museum
If you have children, Zoo Ave is a wonderful stop. This wildlife center rescues and rehabilitates animals that have been injured, orphaned, or confiscated from the illegal pet trade. Some examples include Scarlet Macaw parrots, white-faced monkeys, and even a few species of jungle cats. If animals are unable to be released back into their natural environment after being treated, they live the rest of their lives on the property. One notable inhabitant is a toucan named Grecia that lost most of her beautiful beak in an abusive incident. Grecia now shows off a one-of-a-kind, high-tech prosthetic beak along the trail at Zoo Ave. $20 per person.
Atenas doesn’t have a big restaurant scene but there are some delicious options.
Pizzeria La Finca
Whenever we’re passing through Atenas, we always seem to end up at Pizzeria La Finca. The comfortable outdoor dining area and delicious wood-fired pizza, flatbreads, and bruschetta are obvious draws. They also have craft beer on tap. We recommend the locally brewed El Granero alongside the prosciutto, tomato, arugula, and fresh parmesan pizza.
The delicious wood-fired pizza at La Finca
Etnia is tucked away off the main road and offers contemporary food in a trendy environment. The menu changes regularly, but we loved our chorizo-beef burger with blue cheese and apple and hummus plate. This is the place to go if you’re looking for a little more ambiance in your dining. Etnia is open on weekends only (Friday to Sunday) and often has live music.
El Café de la Casa
For excellent typical Costa Rican food, head to El Café de la Casa. This tiny, charming restaurant occupies the porch area of a historic building in downtown. The menu is small, but you will find classic casados for lunch (plates of meat or fish with rice and beans and side salads) and a rotating daily special. The Olla de Carne on Wednesdays is delicious! Afterwards, be sure to stroll over to check out Jonathan’s handmade jewelry next door.
The quaint porch dining area at El Café de la Casa
El Balcon de Café
This German-owned café and bakery is one of the most popular restaurants in Atenas and for good reason. Breakfast and lunch items are fresh and made with quality ingredients that you won’t find everywhere in Costa Rica. At El Balcon de Café, they use their homemade bread throughout the menu. We recommend taking a loaf of the potato bread home. The house specialties like schnitzel and goulash are delicious too.
The German breakfast at El Balcon de Cafe
La Casita del Café
For one of the best views around, head to La Casita del Café. This simple Costa Rican restaurant at the top of the hill on Route 3 has fantastic valley and even ocean views when conditions are right. Go for breakfast and arrive before the clouds roll in. The food is good, nothing fancy, but the scenery more than makes up for it.
An early morning view at La Casita del Café. You can see the ocean in the distance off to the right.
Kay’s Gringo Postres
Kay’s Gringo Postres is a well-known expat hangout hidden outside downtown. If you’re interested in moving to Atenas, this is a good place to get the dish on what it’s like to live there. Delicious homemade desserts and cookies are available, plus a full breakfast and lunch menu. The breakfast buffet on Sundays is also popular.
La Trochadel Boyero
La Trocha del Boyero is a Tico-owned restaurant in a quiet neighborhood outside town. Surrounded by lush greenery, you can enjoy upscale typical Costa Rican food from their outdoor dining area. They have a variety of meat and seafood dishes, but their specialty is sea bass with sauce. The food here is solid, but what makes the experience is the friendly owners. Portions are big so come with an appetite.
The filet mignon at La Trocha
Located in an old colonial building in downtown, Antaño is another expat favorite. The menu features typical Costa Rican dishes served by friendly wait staff. The environment is very comfortable, making it a good choice for just about anyone.
Atenas has a small selection of cabinas and bed and breakfast-style lodging, as well as a number of vacation rentals. Here are our picks for places to stay. Don’t miss the promo code for Two Weeks in Costa Rica readers, below, to save on accommodations!
Casa Doughty is a gorgeous vacation rental just a short drive from town. With 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, it is a great option for a group or a couple of families traveling together. The house has a spacious, fully-equipped kitchen and comfortable living area. The outdoor space is well manicured with flowering plants and local fruits, and there is a comfortable pool area to relax. The property is set high on a hill so has a fantastic view of the mountains and Central Valley. At night you can see the lights of San Jose in the distance. We stayed here recently and loved having all the space. $120-175/night.
The owners of this rental also own a beautiful 4 bedroom house in the Pan de Azucar area of Atenas. To book either home, contact them through their website. Mention Two Weeks in Costa Rica to save 10% on your entire stay!
The beautiful finishes inside Casa Doughty
B&B Vista Atenas
This charming B&B is located only about 10 minutes from town, but in a quiet, peaceful location. As the name implies, B&B Vista Atenas also enjoys outstanding views of the Central Valley, especially from the pool. Rooms are bright, clean, and comfortable, and the staff here is friendly and welcoming. $50-70/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Apartamentos Atenas is a group of five cabins set around a small pool. The cabins are nicely spread out, allowing for plenty of privacy, and are surrounded by lush gardens. This hotel is a good pick if you’re looking for a scenic place to overnight around San Jose, but is also set up for longer stays. Each unit has a kitchenette with all the basics. The owner told us that she hosts a lot of people who are interested in moving to the area and many returning visitors as well. $50-70/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
If you’re looking to experience a bit of authentic Costa Rica, check out Atenas. This town not only offers a taste of local life, but also has a lot of interesting attractions. With coffee tours and waterfalls, Atenas is a nice break from the beach or a fun diversion on your way to or from San Jose.
Have you visited Atenas? What did you think? Leave us a comment below (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)
Looking for more information about Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
Costa Rica Rental Car Discount – Because Atenas is more spread out, it is best explored with a rental car. Check out our discount through one of the major companies in Costa Rica to save 10-25%.
Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds – If you’re continuing on to Monteverde after your time in Atenas, this guide will help you get the most out of your visit to the misty cloud forest.
Life in Costa Rica – If you’re considering a move to Atenas, you’ll want to read posts from our Life in Costa Rica section to know what to expect.
Monteverde has several reserves to take in the area’s abundant nature, but one of the most popular is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde). This reserve offers a variety of trails and has several characteristics that make it unique. Most notably, it is positioned at the location of the Continental Divide where the Atlantic and Pacific slopes collide. The Reserve is also known for its red hanging bridge, which you see in all of the pictures. In this post, we’ll tell you what you need to know to plan your hike to this famous reserve, including ways to avoid the crowds.
History of the Reserve
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was established in 1972 after a scientist named George Powell who was visiting the area became concerned about conserving Monteverde’s rich biodiversity. Settlers were moving into the forest, and widespread hunting was jeopardizing the rich flora and fauna. Determined to make a difference, Powell reached out to a local man named Wilford Guindon, one of the first Quakers to arrive in Monteverde. Together, the two promoted the establishment of a nature reserve, which came to fruition with the help of the Tropical Science Center.
The Reserve was started with a donation of 328 hectares (820 acres) of land. The Tropical Science Center quickly expanded that by soliciting donations from individuals and conservation organizations around the world. Included in the list of donors were some prominent names like the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, and International Council for Bird Preservation (BirdLife International). Over time, the Reserve was expanded with the help of Guindon and others to include adjoining areas that were being threatened by development. An interesting event happening in the background at this time was a 1977 BBC documentary. This film about Monteverde’s cloud forests dramatically increased interest in the region, and in particular, the preservation of tropical rainforests.
Today, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve encompasses an impressive 10,500 hectares (25,946 acres).
What You’ll See
Four different life zones exist on the massive property, each with a slightly different ecosystem. It is this diversity that draws so many different types of plants and wildlife. To get an idea, over 100 kinds of mammals, 500 birds, and 120 amphibians and reptiles can be found. In addition, the property hosts tens of thousands of insects and over 3,000 plants, including more than 500 species of orchid alone.
Some of the more common animals seen are white-faced and howler monkeys, paca and agouti (small rodent-like animals), and coati (similar to a raccoon). As we mentioned, bird species are numerous here as well. Hummingbirds are plentiful and you can also spot the Three-Wattled Bellbird. One of the biggest draws for birders, though, is the Resplendent Quetzal. This brightly colored bird with extraordinarily long tail feathers can be seen in only a few parts of Costa Rica. It spends much of the year in Monteverde but is easiest to spot in March and April during their breeding season.
Tip: To see the most, hire a guide. Although Monteverde is one of the most biodiverse areas of Costa Rica, wildlife is often hidden high in the canopy or in the shifting clouds. A good guide not only knows where to look, but also has a scope, allowing you to see things up in the trees.
This white-faced monkey was very hard to spot, camouflaged in the thick canopy
Even with a guide, there is still a possibility that wildlife will remain mostly hidden at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Luckily, though, walking along the trails is a unique experience in itself due to the climate and landscape. The Reserve is at a very high altitude and you will often pass through thick clouds shifting in the wind. The trees and plant life are also unlike anywhere in Costa Rica. Thick moss and lichens cover every inch of bark and rock, and broad-leaf plants, vines, and bromeliads practically grow on top of one another.
An orchid splashing color in Monteverde’s green forest
To protect the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve’s abundant flora and fauna, only a small portion (about 3%) of the property is open to the public. Still, the Reserve’s nine trails amount to 13 km (8 miles) of path to explore. Here is a link to the trail map.
There are several different options for hikes, but below we cover the two main loops.
This is a good choice for a hike if you have about a half day to spend. The loop goes around the perimeter, starting on Sendero Bosque Nuboso (Cloud Forest Trail). Sendero Bosque Nuboso leads through thick cloud forest and is supposed to be one of the best places to spot the elusive Resplendant Queztal bird.
The trail ascends, and in about an hour, you will reach a lookout called La Ventana (the Window). Here, you will find a beautiful view of the Continental Divide, the point where the Atlantic and Pacific slopes converge. Seeing the moisture-rich trade winds of the Atlantic slope collide with warm air of the Pacific slope was one of the most memorable parts of our visit to the Reserve. Although the clouds were racing by, we managed to catch quick glimpses of the beautiful valley below.
View of the Continental Divide through a haze of clouds
From the viewpoint, you continue on Sendero Pantanoso (Marshy Trail) to Sendero El Rio (River Trail). This was our favorite part of the hike because the trail ran along a steep ridge, putting us at canopy level with many of the treetops. From this vantage point, it was a lot easier to see wildlife. Though it was still sometimes difficult to see through the thick haze, we did manage to spot a white-faced capuchin monkey, a mother and baby white-nosed coati, a gigantic snail, a small land crab, and lots of interesting insects, as well as several types of birds, including wrens, warblers, and thrushes.
Mid-way through Sendero El Rio is a short path that leads to a waterfall. It is small but still very pretty.
Plan on spending about a half day for the longer loop so that you can go slowly and look for birds and wildlife. The trails are well maintained, but still rustic in places. Conditions were moderate in difficulty with some steeper spots and rocks and roots to navigate.
This is the most visited and busiest loop. Sendero Camino (Road Trail) is wide like a road and leads to the hanging bridge. After doing the long loop, we weren’t sure we wanted to do the main one, but were glad we did. The hanging bridge was really beautiful and worth the stop. From high atop the swaying bridge, we had an even better view of the overflowing canopy than we did on the River Trail.
Looking down at the treetops from the hanging bridge
From the hanging bridge, you can connect back to the ranger station by taking Sendero Wilford Guindon, named after the prominent conservationist who helped found the Reserve. This trail is narrower and more scenic. On our visit, we saw some birds and a coati, which was a nice surprise.
The main loop takes about 1.5 hours. Sendero Camino is one of the easier trails in the Reserve. Sendero Wilford Guindon is more difficult, with some steps, so take Sendero Camino both ways if you’re looking for something easier.
Planning Your VisitHours
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is open daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Foreigners – $20. Citizens and residents – $7. Half-price for children six to 12. Children under six free. Discounts provided for students with valid ID. See the Reserve’s website for more information.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve offers a variety of guided tours, including a birdwatching tour, natural history tour, and night walk. Visit their website to make a reservation or for more information.
Cafeteria and Gift Shop
If you need a hot drink or snack, the Reserve has a restaurant and cafeteria. There is also a gift shop, which has some interesting souvenirs and a good assortment of nature guides.
When to Visit
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the busiest areas of protected land in town. It often gets busy, with busloads of visitors looking to discover the cloud forest. Avoid peak travel times like Christmas and New Years to avoid the biggest crowds. The rainy season, May to November, sees the fewest visitors. The rainiest month in Monteverde is October.
What to Wear/Pack
The average temperature in Monteverde is 65.8°F (18.8°C), and it often feels cooler due to the moisture. We recommend layers and lightweight long pants. A poncho or raincoat is also a necessity as rain is frequent in the cloud forest. For footwear, hiking boots or sturdy sneakers with good grips are best. If you are planning a long hike, it is also wise to invest in an inexpensive backpack cover in case of a heavy downpour. Check out our post on packing your daypack for more tips on what to bring.
A section of trail within the Reserve
Out of all the nature reserves in Monteverde, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of our favorites. The trails are not only scenic and rugged, but also offer interesting viewpoints. We enjoyed seeing the canopy from the hanging bridge and especially loved the view of the Continental Divide.
Have you visited one of Monteverde’s nature reserves? Share your experience below (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)Want more info for your trip to Monteverde? Check out these posts:
Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds – Monteverde has a ton of options for hotels and activities. Our destination guide will help you figure out the best places to stay and things to do.
Costa Rica Rental Car Discount – The Monteverde-Santa Elena area is more spread out so it is nice to have a rental car to explore. Save on a sturdy 4×4 with our special discount.
Driving to Monteverde – Yes, you’ll need to take some dirt roads to get to Monteverde but most people find the drive to be manageable. Read our guide to learn the best routes and see videos of actual road conditions.
Costa Rica is said to hold as much as five percent of the world’s total biodiversity. For such a small country, that means that around every corner you can see dozens of unique plants and animals. Imagine now, a meticulously planted botanical garden with vegetation not only from Costa Rica, but around the world. The Wilson Botanical Garden near San Vito is just that. We recently made a visit to this internationally recognized garden, and in this post, give all the details to plan your own trip.
History of the Garden
The Wilson Botanical Garden was first established by Robert and Catherine Wilson in the early 1960s. The couple moved to southern Costa Rica in 1962 from Miami, Florida where they operated a tropical nursery. Upon their arrival, the property where the gardens are now, near San Vito, was nothing but abandoned coffee fields and cattle pasture. Along with their plans to cultivate tropical plants, the two originally had hopes to start a tea farm. The effort and cost to process the tea leaves, however, soon thwarted that idea. Instead, using their skills in horticulture and the design knowledge of a friend (famous Brazilian architect Roberto Burle Marx), an impressive tropical garden began to take shape.
In 1973, the Wilsons sold the property to the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and remained on as managers for a number of years. The OTS is a non-profit consortium of research institutions and universities. Its mission is to provide leadership in education, research, and the responsible use of natural resources in the tropics. In addition to the 25 acres (10 hectares) that make up the Wilson Botanical Garden, over the years OTS acquired more land that borders the property. They now own about 806 acres (326 hectares), which, including the Wilson Botanical Garden, make up Las Cruces Biological Station.
As the Wilsons aged, the OTS became more involved with the gardens but kept the Wilson name to honor of their efforts. The couple is buried on the property outside their former home. Today, the home is used to house research students who share the same enthusiasm for horticulture as the couple once did.
Beautiful orchids near the grave site of Robert and Catherine Wilson
What You’ll See
The main attractions for visitors to the Wilson Botanical Garden are the elaborate plant collections. Over 3,000 different species of exotic plants can be seen through a network of meandering garden paths and trails. Additional forested trails bring you through farther reaching sections of Las Cruces Biological Station. We’ll talk about both below.
The elaborate gardens are broken up into sections. Each features a different genus of plant with some crossover and additional species, like large trees, mixed in. Mostly, though, you will find areas of similar plants and see various plaques or tags identifying their scientific names. In the past, the gardens have been used mainly for scientific research so aesthetics wasn’t the priority. Recently, though, a new director has been initiating changes to make the gardens more appealing to everyday visitors. Flowering species are being added to areas that previously held only leafy vegetation, and a new hummingbird garden has been constructed. The hummingbird garden is built in a Japanese style, and while still in the early stages of growth, is quite beautiful already.
Those walking through the gardens will pass through the following sections. Click here to see a map.
Tree Ferns and Palms
The Wilson Botanical Garden has the second largest collection of palm trees in the world with 700 species.
Part of the palm tree collection
Common as houseplants (e.g., prayer plant), this genus is known for low-growing lush and colorful leaves.
Bananas aren’t always yellow. Some of the species in the gardens have beautiful reddish fruits or elaborate flowers.
Colorful banana flowers
Sometimes referred to as parrot flowers or lobster claws, these plants have interesting shaped flowers that allow only certain hummingbirds with curved beaks (like the green or brown hermit) to eat their nectar.
A common genus to Africa. Also a popular houseplant.
There is a massive section of bamboo with 63 different species. Fifteen of the species are indigenous.
One of the paths cutting through the bamboo grove
Many of the ginger species have beautiful flowers. Our favorite is the beehive ginger, which has a waxy looking sort of honeycomb flower that is yellow, red, or a mixture of both.
Occasionally referred to as philodendrons, these plants have interesting flower parts. Something called a spadix (picture a narrow corn cob) is usually centered on a spathe (leafy part of the flower).
Bulbs, Conifers, and Rhododendrons
This section of the garden, adjacent to the Wilson’s former home and grave site, has some mature conifer trees with nice beds of rhododendrons and bulbs beneath. There is also a picnic area and benches to take a rest.
Sometimes mistaken for palm or fern species, cycads are ancient, slow growing seed plants with woody trunks and evergreen leaves. Though not as common these days, during the Jurassic Period, these plants were some of the most prolific.
Bromeliad Hill, where the Wilsons are buried, is one of the more manicured areas of the property. A signature design method of Architect Roberto Burle Marx can also be found here. Look for the ruffled fan palm (Lacuala grandis) planted beside an imperial bromeliad (Vriesea imperialis).
In addition to the garden paths, Las Cruces Biological Station has seven trails that stretch over 12 km (7.5 miles). Trails range in difficulty from easy to hard and cover a range of distances from only 0.5 km (0.3 miles) to 3.1 km (2 miles). Be sure to ask for a map of the forest trails, which has a lot of detailed info about the specific conditions.
Close to 200 hectares (494 acres) of the property are classified as primary (virgin) forest so the landscape is quite different than that of the gardens. Here, you’ll find towering canopy trees and understory vegetation native to Costa Rica. There is also ample opportunity to view wildlife. Almost 300 species of birds and 3,000 species of butterflies and moths have been identified!
On our visit, we took the very short Rio Java Trail to the canopy tower to do some birdwatching. We then backtracked into the gardens and cut through the bamboo grove to connect with the Jungle Trail. The shorter section of the Jungle Trail returned us to the botanical gardens for a total hike of about 40 minutes (going slow). This hike was easy to moderate with some slippery areas to traverse. The Jungle Trail also loops around another way, which would make the hike about an hour longer.
The Canopy Tower was probably the highlight of our hike since from the top you have an outstanding view of the forest and mountains. This tower is 15 meters (49 feet) and has vegetation of various heights surrounding it, which is great for birdwatching. We spotted a Blue-Gray Tanager and some Green Honeycreepers during our brief visit.
View from the canopy tower
On the Jungle Trail, we also saw a group of Crested Guans posing on a branch. We didn’t see much for mammals on our short hike, but did see several agouti (small rodents about the size of a rabbit) along the garden paths.
Crested Guans along the forest trails
Planning Your VisitHours
The gardens are open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
$8.00 Foreigners, $1 Nationals or Residents
Guided tours include garden walks, hiking, birdwatching, night walks, and more customized tours. Individual or group rates are available. All are by reservation only. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (506) 2524-0629.
From the main intersection in San Vito, take Route 237 toward Ciudad Neily for 6 km (3.7 miles). The entrance will be on the right.
Las Cruces Biological Station has a total of 12 cabins. Rates start at around $95/per person and include meals and one tour (discount for children and additional people).
Another option nearby, which we really enjoyed, is Cascata del Bosco. This small hotel has four uniquely round cabins that are beautifully decorated and cozy. The cabins look out to the forest for some good birding opportunities, and you can also explore the private trails. The restaurant on-site has amazing wood-fired food.
If you are visiting southern Costa Rica and are a plant enthusiast, don’t miss an opportunity to visit the impressive collections at the Wilson Botanical Garden. In addition, the surrounding area is beautiful and the town of San Vito is very welcoming to tourists.
Have you visited the Wilson Botanical Garden and Las Cruces Biological Station? Leave us a comment below. (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)Looking for more information to plan your visit to Costa Rica’s Southern Zone? Check out these posts: