A Nine Day Tour of the Top Tourist Sites in Costa Rica

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Costa Rica

Following a disappointing week at the beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, I hopped on a bus back to San Jose, where I met up with a group of people for a nine-day tour. As an independent traveler who wanders with no set schedule, I have never been on an organized tour, however this past December I won a tour of Costa Rica with gAdventures so I decided to try it out. The itinerary began and ended in the capital of San Jose, with enough free time see the city center and shop in the local markets, then continued on to La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde/Santa Elena, and Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park, returning to San Jose on the final day.

In La Fortuna, the town that squats at the foot of Arenal Volcano, I found little in the way of local culture. In part, this may be due to the 1968 eruption that completely wiped out the original town. Only a handful of locals were willing to stay following the devastation and those that did rebuilt with tourism in mind. Today the streets of La Fortuna are lined with tour operators who hawk river rafting, rappelling, canyoneering, mountain biking, stand-up paddling, wind surfing, zip lining, horseback riding and hanging bridge walks.

La Fortuna Waterfall, Costa Rica
La Fortuna Waterfall

Our bus rolled into town and stopped at gAdventure’s preferred operator, Desafío Adventure Company, even before we checked into the hotel. I scanned the menu of trips and found only two that might be considered cultural in nature, a visit to a sloth rescue center or a local organic farm. Unfortunately, the sloth center had closed and the organic farm tour was not available so I settled for a boat trip in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge the following day, which guaranteed sightings of wildlife. Then, uncomfortable with the prices for these add-on tours, I separated from the group and headed out on my own. Rather than pay $55 for a four-hour combination horseback ride and hike down to La Fortuna Waterfall, I grabbed a taxi for $6, paid the $10 entry fee at the park and hiked down by myself.

Kingfisher in Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica
Kingfisher in Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Two days later we motored across Lake Arenal and boarded a bus for a ride up into Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, where we stopped at El Trapiche coffee and sugar cane plantation. Following a scrumptious lunch prepared by the owners in their personal kitchen, we strolled through the coffee fields and production facilities, sampled brown sugar made from their sugar cane, and whipped up a batch of our own fudge with huge wooden paddles. Later that evening, I opted for a night nature walk at Finca Santamaria to see the nocturnal animals. Our guide pulled apart low-lying shrubbery branches, revealing a vivid lime green pit viper curled up within the bush and fascinated us with facts about thousands of leaf-cuttter ants trooping in and out of giant mounds, but the highlight of the evening came when he shone a high-powered flashlight high up into a tree, illuminating a slow-moving sloth. Fascinated by this second-laziest of all creatures, the next day I spent an hour watching another sloth hang on for dear life as strong winds buffeted the high branches of a tree behind our lodge.

Green Pit Viper on night nature walk in Monteverde Refuge, Costa Rica
Green Pit Viper on night nature walk in Monteverde Refuge

Perhaps because Monteverde has retained its cultural heritage despite being a prime tourist destination, this was my favorite part of the tour. Rather than book adventure activities, I wandered around the charming mountain village of Santa Elena, chatting with locals about the history of their village. The Monteverde area, which encompasses a series of small burgs including Santa Elena, was founded in the 1950’s by Quakers from the United States who chose Costa Rica because of its commitment to a non-militaristic economic path. Though they were farmers, the Quakers quickly recognized the need to preserve the rare cloud forest and today the surrounding mountains are a natural wonderland of butterflies, hiking trails, waterfalls and moss-draped trees that begin many days beneath dazzling rainbows generated by the pervasive mist in the air. In Santa Elena, traditional Quaker ice cream shops and a cheese factory mingle with coffee shops and Peruvian restaurants, and a Ranario displays some of the world’s tiniest – and most deadly – frogs. Capping off what was for me the best cultural experience in Costa Rica, dinner on our final evening in Monteverde was at Rancho Makena, a working ranch and dairy farm, where the family who owns the facility personally served us and performed traditional dances.

Can’t view the above slideshow about Costa Rica? Click here.

Too soon, we descended from the chilly mountaintop to the coastal plains, bound for the small town of Quepos, which is the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park. Though the hotel was advertised as being across the street from the beach, it was perched atop a hill, set substantially back from the road and a high cliff that made the ocean inaccessible. The rest of Costa Rica had seemed inordinately expensive to me, but Quepos prices shocked me. Taxi drivers demanded $10 for a five-minute ride into town and meals averaged $15-20. At one of the restaurants where we dined as a group, the cheapest entree on the menu was $35, not at all what I had expected in a Latin American country.

Mother sloth with baby hanging from her belly in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Mother sloth with baby hanging from her belly in Manuel Antonio National Park
White-headed Capuchin Monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
White-headed Capuchin Monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park

Even Manuel Antonio National Park was something of a disappointment. I had a close-up view of a mother and baby sloth and saw dozens of White-faced Capuchin monkeys scrambling through the trees with babies on their backs, but was appalled that park officials made no efforts to keep visitors from feeding the animals. Most disturbing was a new policy that does not allow visitors to return to the park on the same day without paying a new $10 entry fee. Since there are no commercial services inside the park it is virtually impossible to spend the entire day under a blistering sun at the gorgeous beaches without food or water. Not only was this another means to rip off unsuspecting tourists, it creates a downright dangerous situation.

Beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park are siad to be the prettiest in Costa Rica
Beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park are siad to be the prettiest in Costa Rica

At the end of the nine days, I’d had a whirlwind tour of the most popular tourist sites in Costa Rica but still felt relatively detached from the country and its residents. Having a true cultural experience requires a degree of immersion, and rushing from place to place just left me frustrated and wanting more. I can see the benefit of this type of tour for people who are timid travelers, or for those who have a short time to see a country and prefer to have all the arrangements made for them, but it’s definitely not a style of travel that suits me. Next time, I’ll travel independently (which is always my preference), and I’ll be referring to this wonderful Costa Rica Vacations Travel Guide that I discovered on the Universal Traveller blog.

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A Nine Day Tour of the Top Tourist Sites in Costa Rica

39 thoughts on “A Nine Day Tour of the Top Tourist Sites in Costa Rica”

  1. It’s so important that people choose to follow in your footsteps and take time to do more cultural activities while traveling through Costa Rica. I always suggest that people instead opt to take a language course while abroad (they’re always a good time!) – what better way to understand Costa Rican culture than by speaking the local language? Adios amigos!

  2. The post is actually the freshest on this laudable
    subject. I harmonize with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to
    see your approaching updates.

  3. Wow. The wildlife here looks stunning! I’m glad you helped to capture the tropical beauty of it. Hoping to go there next year!

  4. Never been to Costa Rica. After reading this article I inserted Costa Rica to my list. I am always fascinated by the tropics. I already been to Borneo, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia but I never been to Central and South America except Brazil.

  5. Fascinating session! You have shared all the splendor of Costa Rica with us. Magical scenery, endless beaches and warm people- what else you need for the perfect vacation.

  6. Pingback: A Nine Day Tour of the Top Tourist Sights in Costa Rica | Been Travelin
  7. often, I do not interpret posts on blogs, however this write-up very pressured me to try and do it! Writing manner surprised me. Great post.

  8. Wow, this area is so beautiful!  I haven’t given much thought to Costa Rica but I would love to visit now.  Love the animals and wildlife, La Fortuna waterfall, and the beach in the national park. 

    Sorry that the national park was a disappointment.  Was it more the style of travel that made this a disappointing experience or was Costa Rica not what you thought it would be?

    • Hi Jeremy: I’m pretty sure it was the style of travel in most cases. I tend to like to immerse a bit and get to know the locals, which was simply impossible on a tour like this one. However, La Fortuna is not a place I would ever return because it is extremely touristy and focused on adventure sports.

    • Hi Alex – Costa Rica is probably the safest Central American destination of all. Of course, San Jose is a big city, and there, as well as any place you travel, you should be aware of what’s going on around you at all times and practice safe travel behavior, like not wearing jewelry, carrying a copy of your passport with you and locking the actual passport in a safe or your room, never carrying large amounts of money or flashing a lot of cash, etc.

  9. Hi,Really this is very good space to enough and i will must to like join this tour with same friend;s but i have a problem with this tour so could you solf this problemsee

  10. Very nice place ,Costa Rica .i had heard about this but never been to it .Your description about the   places  motivating me to go for a tour  there .i will definately   plan to go  there in nearby future .Thanks for the post

  11. I started traveling to Costa Rica in the early 80’s and it has changed drastically.  I, like you, like independent travel, even though I use to be a guide.  I am off to Burma and looking forward
    to something different.

  12. Many of the places you’ve described look and sound wonderful – other than the high prices in some places although I expect that with a little research you could find cheaper places if you were on your own. However it’s clear that these kind of group trips which have a lot of benefits if you have a limited amount of time don’t suit your personal style of travel.

  13. I was in Costa Rica last May but went at my own pace. I enjoy that much more than organised tours. First of all, the prices for independent trips, if you ask around a bit, are much cheaper. We did the horse ride to La Fortuna waterfall for $35 and it was booked very easily the night before at our hostel.

    I agree with you about Manuel Antonio. Though beautiful and great for wildlife, it is really expensive. And the rule about food and water is very strange. I saw signs telling people not to feed the animals, but many of us didn’t have a choice in the matter. Since you can’t buy food within the park, you have to take it in. Unfortunately, the raccoons and monkeys just help themselves. My efforts to disguise the smell and sight of my lunch by wrapping it up in many bags inside my main one resulted in me chasing after a raccoon that had snatched all of my belongings, including my passport!
    If you’re into nature and a slower pace, I highly recommend the Osa Peninsula (Drake Bay especially) and Corcovado National Park. Much less touristy and a real adventure to get to 🙂

    • Hi Arianwen: Thanks for this input. I had heard that Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park were much more natural and unspoiled destinations, as is the Caribbean coast. If I make a return trip, these are definitely places that would be on my list. I’m afraid I’m a bit spoiled by the slow travel I usually pursue; three destinations in nine days just left me feeling rushed and disenchanted. I knew there were better prices available (which is why I broke away and did the waterfall on my own), but given the time constraints, in most cases it was impossible to make other arrangements. Glad you managed to get your passport back!


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