Your 18-Day Costa Rica Adventure Road Trip Itinerary of Dreams
If jungle hikes, swimming under waterfalls, river rafting, wildlife-spotting, and zip-lining are on your bucket list, then this is the perfect 18-day Costa Rican road trip itinerary for you! And better yet, most of it ventures off the beaten path, where the real adventure awaits!
When you mention Costa Rica to most people, lush jungles, zip-lining, and pura vida are usually the first things that come to mind. We found plenty of that, but after spending three weeks in the country's north as well as on the west coast of the country, our adventures led us to even more hidden treasures, the opportunity to meet incredible people, and more alternative ways of living and travelling than we could’ve ever expected. Come along with us, as we give you an honest look at this emerald gem of Central America.
San Jose - La Fortuna - Tenorio Volcano National Park + Rio Celeste - Monteverde
WEEK TWO + WEEK TWO-AND-A-HALF
San Mateo - Uvita - Osa Peninsula - Manuel Antonio - San Jose
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DAY 1: SAN JOSÉ
Kicking off the trip, we landed in Costa Rica's colourful capital city of San José. Depending on where you are in the world, travelling to Costa Rica from the United States or elsewhere in Central/South America is likely one of the best options, with the most direct and frequent flights. Unfortunately, it's not yet possible to arrive in Costa Rica other than by plane, car, or coach, but to view the best options for travelling by plane from wherever you are in the world, you can compare prices, times, and flight deals on Skyscanner.
Conscious Reminder: Most travel today inherently has a negative physical impact on the planet, despite potentially offering endless personal and collective benefits for both the traveller and his or her community that is returned to. One way you can minimise travel's impact on the planet is by investing in sustainable infrastructure projects and tree-planting with Ecologi! From supporting solar power projects in Morocco to capturing methane from landfills across Brazil, Ecologi is actively supporting communities whose people and land are being disproportionately impacted by climate change. Click here to plant 30 trees for free when you sign up, and to help us plant more trees around the world. To learn more about Going Green's individual impact click here.
The dense humidity and a line of endless taxi drivers greeted us the second we stepped outside the San Jose Airport. For this kind of three-week adventure, the best way to get around the country and venture off the beaten path is by renting a car. We were met at the airport with our 4x4 vehicle, courtesy of GoRemote Costa Rica, and immediately set off on our first adventure!
GOOD TO KNOW: Firstly, a 4x4 vehicle in Costa Rica is essential !! With steep, cliff-side roads (often unpaved and gravelly), and winding mountain lanes, having the support and control that a 4x4 offers is something you simply cannot skimp on! Secondly, many car rental companies in Costa Rica lure tourists by promising exceptionally low prices for rental vehicles including 4x4's, but remember: if it seems too good to be true, it likely is!
If you're in Costa Rica for an extended period of time, GoRemote Costa Rica's goal is to give digital nomads the ability to obtain more accessible and affordable vehicles and accommodation for periods of one month or longer. For shorter trips (under one month), YouTube is a great resource for researching up-to-date reviews and perspectives on how to avoid scams and who some of the most reputable car rental agencies are.
TOUCAN RESCUE RANCH
About 40 minutes away from the airport, situated in the Heredia Province lies Toucan Rescue Ranch, an incredible organisation helping to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured or abandoned wildlife back into their natural habitats, if their condition permits.
Founded in 2004, Toucan Rescue Ranch’s mission is to give Costa Rican wildlife a fighting chance, as well as provide sanctuary to those who cannot survive in the wild on their own. This ensures a brighter future for native species, while also creating a space for education and activism for locals and visitors alike to get involved.
Alongside offering public tours, Toucan Rescue Ranch’s animals are looked after by a dedicated team of veterinarians, volunteers, interns, and full-time animal protectors, like our Tour Operator, Andrea, who told us each permanent resident’s story, and gave us some insight into how the animals who find their forever homes at Toucan Rescue Ranch are given all the love and care they need. Many of these animals arrive at Toucan Rescue Ranch as a result of being rescued from the exotic pet trade or after losing their habitats due to deforestation or construction.
Conscious Reminder: One key part of what Andrea told us, is that in Costa Rica it is illegal to take a selfie with wild animals. Taking selfies with animals often promotes the illegal exotic animal trade and mistreatment of animals for the benefit of tourism and profit. So one big thing to look out for when researching sanctuaries to visit, is if this practice of holding and taking selfies with wild animals is encouraged.
The work that Toucan Rescue Ranch is doing is critical for protecting the native wildlife in Costa Rica, and we are incredibly grateful to the team for taking the time to show us around and for giving us insight into what they do every day.
NIGHT DRIVING TO LA FORTUNA
From Toucan Rescue Ranch, we headed north toward what is known as the adventure capital of Costa Rica—La Fortuna. What we wished we had known about before we set off, however, was the treacherous journey that lay ahead of us. The quickest route suggested by our map was a four-hour journey along a single lane, steep mountain road. With our lack of experience of driving in Costa Rica we put full faith in the route the app suggested and set off!
We chose to travel to Costa Rica during the rainy season, which has the benefit of fewer tourists and more greenery; however, it can also mean that landslides are more common. Encountering a landslide on a single lane road in the middle of the jungle along with 100 other cars and trucks was not how we planned to spend the first night of our trip, but after five hours of unforgiving driving, we finally arrived at our hotel in La Fortuna.
One of many draws of La Fortuna is the natural hot springs scattered throughout the area. Hotels have mostly laid claim to them to draw in visitors, so if they're on your list, we highly recommend booking a hotel that has some on-site to avoid expensive admission fees that other hot-spring-holding hotels charge for non-guests. We stayed at Los Lagos Hotel, Spa, and Resort, which had access to several different hot spring pools across the property, a private Arenal Volcano viewing deck, and much more.
DAY 2: LA FORTUNA
Awaking the next morning to the sounds of tropical birds, we peered out our window to reveal one of the most spectacular views we had ever experienced, and one that had been shielded by night when we arrived the evening before---the Arenal Volcano. Growing up in Florida and the UK respectively, neither myself nor Ben had ever seen a volcano before, so witnessing the sheer size and potential power of one up close and personal was truly breathtaking!
Hungry and ready to start our day, we headed down the road to Organico Fortuna, a vegan-friendly breakfast spot in the heart of La Fortuna…and it did not disappoint! Their juices, smoothie bowls and chocolate pancakes were so worth it, and gave us the fuel we needed to head to the next natural marvel on our bucket lists--the La Fortuna Waterfall!
LA FORTUNA WATERFALL
Only a ten-minute drive from the main town, La Fortuna Waterfall is well worth a visit! The admission fee of $18 USD per adult is quite high compared to the cost of living in Costa Rica, but the admission fee goes toward maintaining the area and paying staff, so it was a price we were happy to pay.
During the rainy season, the waterfall is extremely powerful due to the vast amount of rainfall, making it an impressive sight even from a distance! From where you enter the park to the base of the waterfall there are over 500 steps, so you'll be thrilled to know that La Fortuna Waterfall is one of the few protected waterfalls in Costa Rica that allow you swim in its basin and the stream that flows away from it.
The stream flows around a bend away from the waterfall, and is full of large rocks that visitors are allowed to sunbathe on, swim around, and soak in that pura vida feeling from.
PRIVATE VIEWS OF THE ARENAL VOLCANO
After a refreshing swim under the waterfall, we returned to our hotel, where we learned of the Arenal Volcano Viewing Deck situated at the top of the property. Driving up the steep, gravelly mountain road toward the top of the hotel's grounds, we weren't sure if we were headed even in the right direction...until, we saw it!
DAY 3: RIO CELESTE
Heading northwest about two hours from La Fortuna, we next arrived at our home base for the next 24 hours and what can only be described as heaven. Located also in the Alajuela Province, the Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel is a stunning oasis situated on the edge of the Tenorio Volcano National Park, offering 16 luxury eco villas fully immersed in the rainforest and has its own private access to part of the River (Rio) Celeste.
The hotel is also only a five minute drive away from the entrance to the Tenorio Volcano National Park, home to the famous, aqua blue Rio Celeste waterfall. A 25 minute hike from the entrance to the waterfall is required, and with the park closing at 2pm each day, we made the quick decision to leave exploring the hotel until later in the day, and swiftly headed to the waterfall…..and it was SO worth it!
Although no one is allowed to swim in the pool at the base of the waterfall, just viewing the mesmerising blues of Catarata Rio Celeste will be a highlight of any trip. The nearby hiking paths also allow you to explore the sulphuric springs that feed into the waterfall, and you can typically always spot some wildlife going about their business up in the trees.
A MUST: After exiting the park, be sure to purchase fresh coconut water from the vendor who sells it (still in the coconut) right next to the parking lot across the street from Tenorio Volcano National Park's entrance gate. It is life-changing!
RIO CELESTE HIDEAWAY HOTEL
Sweaty and ready to rest, we made it back to our villa at the Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel, and could finally enjoy all that it has to offer! Our room had a balcony that overlooked an untouched section of the rainforest, and reminded us just how vital every bug, leaf, and twig is to the booming ecosystem of the jungle.
Alongside being beautiful, the hotel’s care and conscientiousness for the environment and local community only increases its appeal. 90% of the hotel’s property is a protected nature reserve for guests to explore, its gardens are pesticide-free, and its greenhouses grow some of the food used in the kitchens. Greywater from showers, sinks, and toilets are treated in a bio-digester so the water doesn’t go to waste, and the hotel has even adopted a local school to educate the next generation on why caring for the planet is so important.
The hotel also has a raised deck that offers classes like yoga and meditation, and a private section of the nearby aqua blue Rio Celeste, offering guests the perfect place to feel at one with the surrounding nature. The pool and jacuzzi area of the hotel was just as relaxing, and to top it all off, we then enjoyed the hotel’s signature chocolate facials, before our specially prepared vegan dinner! After a delicious candle-lit vegan dinner in the intimate restaurant, we ended our evening with some fun in the games room, where I proceeded to whoop Ben’s butt at darts. Thank you to the Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel team for having us, and to learn more about Rio Celeste, and to see why we approve it as a Going Green Recommended stay, check out our eco-stays page.
DAY 4: TUBING RIO CELESTE + MONTEVERDE
The next day, we enjoyed a delicious Tico breakfast--veganised for us, and made up of rice, beans, plantains, fresh tortillas, and roasted vegetables--before checking out of Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel to go tubing along the beautiful river with Rio Celeste Aventuras!
ADVENTURE ON THE RIO CELESTE
Located twenty minutes from the hotel along a dirt road, Rio Celeste Aventuras is run by locals who know this relatively tame section of the river like the back of their hand. After a good safety briefing with the key message being ‘keep your bum in the air or you may land on a rock’, we got into the river with our two guides and started to head downstream.
NOTE: Water shoes are a must, and we suggest leaving any valuables stowed away in the car (which is looked after at their HQ!) because you get entirely soaked on this excursion! If you really want to keep your phone or keys with you, a waterproof bum bag is a good investment too. Rio Celeste Aventuras provide the inner tubes, helmets, and life vests.
What started as a lazy river, soon became fast rapids; and that’s when we knew we were in for an action-packed experience. As the tube winds and weaves across shallow pools, the current pushes you down the river quickly and often into other big rocks on the side. Another of the key safety aspects the team at Rio Celeste Aventuras heavily emphasised was keeping your limbs (all arms, legs, feet, and toes) inside the tube. If it looks like you're heading straight for a big rock, don't worry! The tubes are heavy-duty and will bounce right off. Don't get your hand stuck or sprained by trying to fight the strength of the river.
Within minutes of us heading down the river, however, Ben was flipped completely upside down by both the strong current and him leaning too far back, but he was fortunately away from any big rocks and of course was wearing a helmet. At this point we both better understood that this was not for the faint of heart. The two guides that were with us made us feel incredibly safe though, with one at the front guiding the way, and one at the back rescuing anyone getting caught on rocks, which somehow always ended up being Ciara.
If you’re looking for an exhilarating experience whilst in Costa Rica, tubing with an accredited company is a must. It was sooo much fun, but keeping your butt in the air like the guides instruct is key. Your tailbone will thank you later.
THE ROAD TO MONTEVERDE
After a wonderful 36 hours in one of Costa Rica’s most remote parts of the country, we got back in the car and started to make our way to the bustling mountain-top town of Monteverde, known for its hanging bridges, zip-lines and wildlife tours all situated within what’s known as the Cloud Forest!
The drive from Rio Celeste to Monteverde was an intense, 4-hour journey along winding roads over the mountains, hills, and valleys of the Alajuela, Puntarenas, and Guanacaste Provinces of Costa Rica. We passed through endless villages, prayed all the way up some steep, gravelled inclines which mercilessly featured blind corners, and at the same time took in some incredible views that could only be found off the beaten path.
Fortunately though, we arrived before nightfall at Hotel Senda Monteverde, our home for the next four days, and a hub of mindfulness in a busy tourist town.
DAY 5: ADVENTURES IN MONTEVERDE
Waking up in our room/jungle cabin at Senda Monteverde, we could not wait to get outside and explore, but first we wanted to check out the expansive grounds. The hotel's proximity to attractions including the famous Cloud Forest and Hanging Bridges was certainly a draw for us, but it was Senda’s responsible business practices and true care for the environment that sealed the deal.
The hotel is free of single-use plastics, has individual solar panels on each guest cabin to power lights and heat water, and all employees are native Costa Ricans. The hotel is also right next door to the Aguti Wildlife Reserve, and has special access directly next to where the cabins are. We had notified the team at Senda ahead of time that we are vegan, and each day they cooked us a lovely veganised Tico breakfast, as well as diverse vegan dishes for dinner.
To learn more about Senda Monteverde's sustainability credentials, and to see why we approve it as a Going Green Recommended stay, check out our eco-stays page. Thank you also to the Senda Monteverde team for having us, and we can't wait to visit again one day!
HANGING BRIDGES + THE CLOUD FOREST
During the rainy season, mornings are the best time to get your adventure in, as the storm clouds and following deluge typically arrive in the early afternoon. Knowing this, we grabbed the rain jackets we had brought with us, and headed out for a tour of the nearby Selvatura Park, home to eight of the area’s Hanging Bridges that allow you to walk along the tree tops, as well as a plethora of other activities that allow you to soak up the natural beauty of the area.
Driving only ten minutes to the nearby Selvatura Park, we arrived and purchased tickets for the next guided tour, but as soon as we had paid, the rainstorms began and did not stop! We thought maybe they'd delay the tour until later in the afternoon, but our guide, wearing a poncho and wellies was (understandably) determined to earn his pay that day, and led us on the hour and a half walking tour that I'm sure on a sunny day is absolutely beautiful! He did a great job of explaining the importance and significance of the area; but after about five minutes, we were soaked to the bone and dreaming of a hot shower.
We regardless loved seeing the tree canopy from such an incredible vantage point, and highly recommend taking the tour. On our walk, since it was very quiet with few tour groups willing to face the elements, we even spotted two rare quetzal birds that are native to the area, and that our guide informed us visiting birdwatchers travel to Costa Rica solely to see.
DAY 6: ZIPLINING THROUGH THE CLOUD FOREST
The next morning, having slept well, clear skies were forecasted until the late afternoon, so we decided to embark on our most adrenaline-packed day yet. Only 15-minutes away from our hotel, we arrived at 100% Aventura Adventure Park, home to eleven ziplines, including the longest zipline in Latin America at nearly a mile long, and a Tarzan swing!
Having never ziplined before, getting this birds-eye-view of the Cloud Forest was unlike anything either of us had ever seen, and we loved how the course began with a thorough safety briefing, followed by the ziplines slowly getting longer and longer. This definitely helped build up our confidence, and the team at 100% Aventura always made you feel safe. We loved the whole experience so much that we even did the last two, long zip-lines flat on our stomachs like Superman.
Little did we know that the most daunting part of our day had yet to be faced. We thought the Tarzan Swing would be a gentle swing over the rainforest--we never imagined it would entail jumping off a platform and waiting for the rope to catch you like a bungee! We only recommend it if you REALLY want a thrill (but we definitely would do it again)!
DAY 7: ALEGRÍA VILLAGE
Thankful and full of adrenaline from our few days exploring the Cloud Forest of Monteverde, we checked out of Senda early and waved goodbye to Monteverde as we wove our way back down the mountains toward the town of San Mateo. Located near the coast about an hour from San Jose, San Mateo is a tiny town with two nearby communities practicing an alternative way of living, re-defining self-sufficiency and what it means to be a community--Alegría Village and La Ecovilla.
ALEGRÍA VILLAGE + LA ECOVILLA
Nestled in the hills, Alegría Village is exploring what a community-driven regenerative future looks like, and we were fortunate enough to get to know the people who are making it happen.
Alegría Village is a haven for those seeking to live a self-sufficient, mindful, and regenerative life, while also ensuring that their impact is as minimal, yet as beneficial to the surrounding environment, as possible. Founded in 2019, Alegría Village was created by founder Stephen Brookes as a sister site to his other two eco-villages in Costa Rica: Punta Mona on the Caribbean coast (also featured in Netflix's Down to Earth with Zac Efron), and La EcoVilla, next door to Alegría. We had the chance to meet Stephen, and learn how his efforts, coupled with the coming together of a diverse community have allowed Punta Mona, La Ecovilla, and now Alegría Village thrive.
Inspired by the horrific childhood memory of witnessing indigenous children being sprayed with pesticides at a Costa Rican banana plantation, Stephen wanted to create places to live where all people have a greater say in how the earth and its people are treated so that both may thrive and live abundantly.
After success with his first community, Punta Mona, Stephen went on to develop La Ecovilla and now Alegría Village, transforming once degraded land into lush paradises full of life. What enables this is the communities’ capacities for regenerative living in their food system, community values, and building practices. This means that in adapting their practices to ensure the health of nature, they are also ensuring the health of the overall community.
In Alegría’s food forest, everything from bananas to pineapples, papayas, mangos, goa beans, and so much more is grown. Our favourite plant though, was the shampoo ginger plant, used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years to clean both hair and body! Ciara got to try it out herself and loved the smell of it!
Alegría, Punta Mona, and La Ecovilla are all made possible through shared values and ideals that prioritise people and planet. The residents of Alegría Village come from over 32 countries, and include native Costa Ricans too! This creates not only an extremely diverse community mindset, but also allows for a space for people from all backgrounds and walks of life to come together and be actively involved within the community.
Even the common buildings like The Hive, the Yoga Shala, and homes on the property are required to balance creative freedom and conscious construction, ensuring respect for both the environment and greater community. Builders, owners, and architects alike have a responsibility to ensure that their plans and practices abide by the community’s guidelines and incentives.
Whether you’re looking to move to an entirely new place or want to simply make where you currently live more sustainable and beneficial for both the people who live there and the planet, a lot can be learned about values, community, and regenerative living from Alegría Village. To learn more, read our deep-dive blog post on Alegría here.
ADDING A TEAM MEMBER + COSTA RICA'S UGLY TRUTH
Immersing ourselves in the Village life was unreal, but another exciting part of the day was still yet to come. Waving goodbye to the beautiful green hills of San Mateo, we headed for a quick detour to San Jose airport to pick up Ciara's brother, Quinn, who was arriving to spend the rest of the trip with us!
An extra passenger now onboard, we headed southwest toward Uvita, to see some of the most beautiful and untouched parts of the country. While on our way though, we couldn’t help but be horrified and saddened by the miles and miles of palm forests along the sides of the main roads. Palm forests produce palm oil, a cash crop of recent years found in everything; from pantry goods to frozen foods, cosmetics to household products and more, with Costa Rica in 2020 being named Latin America’s number one palm oil exporter.
Palm oil (or CPO as it's known in the industry) is inexpensive to produce, and is extremely profitable due to global demand; however, unsustainable palm oil production is also extremely bad for the environment. Not only is essential rainforest cleared for palm trees to be planted, causing immense habitat loss for both animal and plant life, but it also creates a monoculture, or a practice that only produces one crop. This monoculture can rapidly deplete the soil of various essential nutrients, and can lead to soil exhaustion over time. This leaves the land unable to grow anything after only a few years.
We also learned a few days later from a local that to try and keep up with the demand for palm oil, when the palm (oil) trees stop producing, farmers cut the trees open and inject poison into them so that they die quickly. From there, farmers can plant a new tree, and the cycle can begin again. If by chance wildlife had returned and made a home in the trees of a palm oil plantation, this consistent killing and replanting of trees just causes them to lose their homes again and again. Why would anyone want to support that?!
With Costa Rica being such an environmentally progressive place in regards to relying on 99% renewable energy, and conserving biodiversity through endless national parks and wildlife refuges, we hope that the country eliminates this detrimental practice soon, and provides its people with more sustainable and regenerative work opportunities. Costa Rica is great in so many ways, and we hope future generations of natives, expats, and tourists alike have the chance to witness it in all its true glory.
DAYS 8 + 9: UVITA
After three hours of driving, we arrived in Uvita along the country's southwest coast, and the sense of Costa Rican paradise returned. Uvita is one of the many expat hubs of Costa Rica, with probably one of the most relaxed, surf town vibes we’ve yet experienced. About an hour south of touristy Quepos, Uvita is home to laid-back cafés with vegan options galore, small B'n'Bs within walking distance of the beach, and the Marino Ballena National Park, also known as the whale’s tail beach.
We’re visiting Ciara’s family friend, Robert, at Synergy, his retreat and event space in the heart of Uvita. Synergy is probably what you’d imagine staying in Costa Rica to look like: open air buildings offering space to practice yoga and meditation, an aqua blue pool, lush fruit trees housing wildlife like macaws and monkeys, and space to feel connected with the world around you. It’s available for hosting multi-day retreats and seminars, fundraisers, and even has a few live-in furry friends to keep you company.
Robert has lived in Costa Rica for the last six years, so we were keen to see what this part of the country has to offer from a local’s perspective. First up--and only a 5 minute walk away, was the spot for a swim--Uvita waterfall. Often missed by tourists staying by the beach, Catarata Uvita is a beloved spot by locals to take a quick dip in or jump from the waterfall itself. For an admission fee of just 2,000 Colones per person (about $3.70), you can spend as much time as you want there, and your admission fee allows the family that manages the property to keep the trails and platforms safe and sturdy, the neighbouring butterfly garden maintained, and the streams clean.
After two hours at the Uvita Waterfall, we were ready for dinner. Luckily, right next door to Synergy is Indómitos, a fully plant-based restaurant where you genuinely will want to order one of everything on the menu…..and we kind of did!
Over the next three days, we ate at Indómitos four more times, switching it up between brunch, lunch, and dinner; sometimes having it twice in one day. With brunch options like smoothie bowls, delicious tofu scrambles, pancakes, and "La Tica" breakfasts, we definitely still dream about all of their dishes. For dinner, they have everything from burgers to tacos and veggie croquettas. All of it tastes fresh, creative, and delicious! We highly recommend getting the Cacao + Nuts smoothie---it will change your life!
Often in Costa Rica, it’s cheaper to eat out at restaurants than to buy groceries and cook, so despite cooking one night in Synergy's beautiful kitchen, we took full advantage of Indómitos being right next door.
DAY 10: NAUYACA WATERFALL + DOMINICAL
Today, we’re headed to another, much bigger waterfall about 30 minutes into the mountains called Nauyaca (pronounced na-HAKA). This is one of Costa Rica’s most picturesque “double waterfalls” that you have to see to believe.
After collecting our entry passes at the top of the mountain, we drove down steep inclines to get to the parking lot at the start of the trail. Although we always hike when we travel to mountainous places, the steepness and muddiness of these trails, in addition to the thick heat and humidity, left us dreaming of a swim in the river.
Finally reaching the top with the beautiful cascading falls in sight, we were blown away by the falls' beauty, but another thing we didn’t know before starting was that there are two companies that own the trails leading to the waterfall on opposite sides of the river. One has a hiking trail with easy river access at the end where you can swim, the other is more of just a viewpoint for the falls. We unknowingly chose the one with just the viewing platform; however, the mist you get sprayed with when viewing the falls feels like a cool shower, so this reward was good enough for us for the day.
For $5 each, we were able to hop on the back of one of the buggies that took us back to the parking lot, where we banged the mud off our shoes and dried off before hopping back in the car to go find some lunch. We had heard that the nearby town of Dominical was a must-see and gave off a similar surfer vibe to Uvita. Right as we pulled into Dominical, what do the three sweaty, hungry vegans find? None other than the 'Mecca of health food shops' in southwestern Costa Rica: Mama Toucan’s.
Mama Toucan’s carries high-quality, fresh products for all diets and preferences including vegan, gluten-free, paleo, and more, and earned the top spot in Ben's heart when he spotted their take on his one true love: carrot cake. After loading up on snacks for the week and fresh fruit for breakfast the next morning, we popped across the street for something savoury at Phat Noodle. We were able to veganise their pad thai and teriyaki stir-fry dishes, which were delicious.
MARINO BALLENA NATIONAL PARK
After returning to Synergy for a shower and a nap, we next set out to see one of the main places that Uvita is famous for: Marino Ballena National Park!
This national park is one of the smaller ones in Costa Rica, but protects key species of both plant and animal life. The nearby Rio Uvita and Quebrada Grande feed directly into the ocean here, and a winding beach leads you to a natural landmass that looks, from above, like a whale’s tail. The tail is only visible and accessible at low tide, so checking the tide schedule is key before venturing to the park.
Fortunately in Uvita, there is also a huge emphasis on protecting the oceans, especially with biological reserves and other biodiversity hotspots like the Osa Peninsula nearby. Tonight we're getting some rest before tomorrow, when we’ll finally be able to get involved with some of Costa Rica’s marine conservation efforts.
DAY 11: INNOCEANA
This morning, we woke up extra early and drove about 20 minutes south of Uvita to meet with marine biologist Laura, Yulian, and their incredible team at Innoceana, a non-profit organisation working in Costa Rica, California, Thailand, and Spain to protect and re-wild the world’s oceans through innovation and education.
We began our day at Innoceana's Marine Conservation and Education Centre in Ojochal, learning more from Innoceana’s dedicated team of engineers, biologists, and divemasters from around the world about their groundbreaking research projects, internship programs, and public expeditions.
Costa Rica’s marine wildlife is among some of the most awe-inspiring and biodiverse in the world, and Innoceana’s work ranges from monitoring water quality, to researching invertebrates, protecting coral reefs, and keeping tabs on animals including whales, dolphins, sharks, fish, and turtles. Today, we’re getting in the water with them, too, to experience their work first-hand in a very special place.
Forty minutes south in the town of Sierpe, Innoceana’s boat awaits, ready to take us and the team through the freshwaters of the Rio Sierpe and out into the Pacific Ocean toward Caño Island.
Caño Island is a protected biological reserve with abundant reefs, dense populations of terrestrial and marine wildlife, and strict regulations all visitors must adhere to. With various species of sharks, dolphins, turtles, and more frequenting its waters, visiting Caño Island without a certified guide is forbidden, and visitors are rarely permitted to step onto the island. The only infrastructure on the island is the ranger station, which has 24/7 staff that ensure these rules are followed and the island's natural beauty is protected.
After an hour and a half boat journey, we pulled up along one of Caño's coral reefs, where we suited up, and got in the water to snorkel above the sea life below. Spotting a sea turtle, dolphin, puffer fish, and plenty of incredible coral varieties, our hours spent on the water coincided with observing another devastating effect of modern life: plastic.
Conscious Reminder: Although extremely remote, Caño Island is not exempt from plastic pollution, with currents and tides carrying trash from hundreds of miles away to collect in these natural areas. So in case you need another reminder: stop buying single-use plastic wherever you can, use what you already have, and always dispose of your trash as best as possible.
At the end of our day, we got together with the research team to check out their findings in water quality monitoring and populations of local wildlife. Innoceana’s work is vital to not only the aquatic habitats of Costa Rica, but also throughout the world. Through globally interconnected marine conservation efforts, the organisation’s impact is growing, and they are always open to help from people like YOU to make change happen. To learn more about Innoceana and how you can get involved with their conservation efforts, check out their website here.
DAYS 12-14: OSA PENINSULA
After days of fun and relaxation in Uvita, we said goodbye to Robert, and set off even farther south to one of the most biodiverse places on Earth: the Osa Peninsula.
The peninsula’s 700 square miles may seem small, but it is estimated to hold 2.5% of the entire world’s biodiversity! It’s said to have been one of the only places to have not frozen over during the last Ice Age, so thousands of species of animals flocked to its dense rainforest to thrive. Thanks to extensive conservation efforts on both land and at sea, thrive it has! The majority of the peninsula is protected within Corcovado National Park, where you must hire a licensed guide to gain entry, and cannot bring in any plastics whatsoever.
To be fully immersed in this natural wonder, we ventured down to Kunken Lodge, an eco-luxury hotel that sits at the top of the Osa Peninsula on the Gulfo Dulce, and has unmatched views of it all.
Offering six private, multi-room cabins with panoramic views of the gulf, Kunken Lodge directly supports conservation efforts through its on-site produce garden, frog sanctuary, and butterfly garden. Delicious plant-based dining options are available to enjoy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the incredibly accommodating staff are always ready to help you with anything you need.
The villas themselves combine luxury with connectedness with nature. With no glass windows, and using only locally sourced building materials, the cabins’ screens prevent wildlife from entering the cabins, but still allow a fresh Gulf breeze to flow throughout.
On our first night, we had a cute, hoppy visitor who somehow found his way into our cabin. With some late-night shepherding and lots of hopping, we managed to get Francis the Frog, as we named him, safely back outside where he could be free.
The property itself also offers an expansive swimming pool, several hiking trails leading to breathtaking viewing platforms, and kayaks and jet-skis that are available for guests use at any time. The concierge will also happily set up a tour for guests to visit Corcovado National Park or the nearby Drake Bay if desired.
We used our few days at Kunken Lodge to truly exhale. Being so immersed in nature at all times of the day allowed us to create space in our minds again to be present. Whether we were kayaking, swimming, reading on the deck, watching the Gulf from a lounge bed, or exploring the property, Kunken Lodge offered us a sense of peace seemingly impossible to find in the busyness of life. Slow living and getting back to our roots revitalised us, and helped the three of us to create memories we will never forget. Like spotting a feeding pod of wild dolphins on our last night as the sun went down.
DAY 15: REFUGIO TINTI + QUEPOS
Feeling restored and ready for our last few days in Costa Rica, we headed north to leave the Osa Peninsula to visit a project we had personally been really looking forward to that is redefining the way we look at protecting and restoring nature.
Located in the village of La Gamba, next to Piedras Blancas National Park and only 40km from the Panamanian border, Refugio Tinti is the epitome of a biodiverse haven, restored by humans from a once-toxic and desolate area.
Founded in 2016 by Alexander Tinti, Refugio sits on over 60 acres of land that is now abundant with vital native plants, animals, and microorganisms. It is an excellent example of permaculture, a practice that reconciles human societies with the natural environment. Its core pillars are self-sufficiency, sustainable architecture, habitat regeneration, and self-regeneration.
The land that Refugio Tinti sits on was once primary rainforest, then became a site where toxic waste was dumped, and was then later taken over by cattle farming. This left the land barren, and the soil completely compacted and depleted. Alexander saw this as an experiment and opportunity to see if what once was, could one day be again.
After years of patience, practice, and letting nature take back its land, Refugio Tinti now thrives, with multiple abundant food forests and a greenhouse, wet and dry composts, a self-sufficient water filtration system, housing for guests and volunteers alike, a solar-powered food dehydrator, and grounds for some local wildlife to stop by. Alexander is also working with local communities to create school programs to educate children on the power and impact they can have in their own homes and on their surrounding environment. Taking all we had learned and experienced over the last few days, we got back in the car to head off on the final adventure of our trip
Refugio Tinti also offers public tours for YOU to learn what changes you can make where you live to allow the world around you to thrive. To learn more, please visit their website here.
QUEPOS + MANUEL ANTONIO
Driving back north along the Pan-American Highway, we’re heading next to tourist hotspots Quepos and Manuel Antonio to see what draws millions of tourists every year, and what part the area plays in supporting the country’s sustainability goals.
For the next two days, we stayed in Hotel Plaza Yara due to its proximity to Manuel Antonio National Park, and we were impressed by the stay's simplicity, beauty, and vegan breakfast options. The hotel also had an art gallery in the reception area, showcasing paintings and sculptures by local artists. It acted as a great home base for the next few days' activities, and was down the road from Love Indian Cuisine, where we enjoyed delicious Indian food for dinner for the next two nights.
DAY 16: MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
The hills of the Quepos and Manuel Antonio areas overlook the bright blue waters of the Pacific Ocean below, and offer endless opportunities for adventure. From guided zipline tours, to treetop hotels visited frequently by wildlife, to Manuel Antonio National Park itself, there’s plenty to do and see in this area, with the national park typically gaining the most attention.
Conscious Reminder: Manuel Antonio is a notoriously touristy area, so one thing to beware of is the parking traps set along the road in the mile leading up to the park. As you drive along the single-lane road through Manuel Antonio in the direction of the park, people dressed like traffic police or other officials will often stand in the road and direct you into unmarked lots. From what we've heard from others who have unfortunately fallen for this, is that the outfits worn by the "traffic police" were bought online, and the lots cars are put in are typically just owned by a local. They then overcharge you for parking there, are not as diligent about watching your car, and leave you to walk the long, uphill mile to the park's entrance.
We recommend avoiding these people, even if it's a bit uncomfortable as they can be quite aggressive in their tactics. If they stand in front of your car to try and get you in their lot, drive around them, and keep pushing until you see the entrance gate to Manuel Antonio National Park, with the official lot (which has a big sign!) to the right of it. We paid about $5 for parking (for unlimited time), felt secure leaving our car there, and were right next to the entrance gate. Around here is its location.
Covering over three square miles, Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica's smallest national park, but is also home to abundant wildlife---from lizards and iguanas to monkeys, anteaters, two-toes sloths, and plenty of birds. The park offers guided tours and expansive trail networks that allow visitors to roam free, showcasing diverse habitats, and offering the opportunity to spot wildlife in its natural habitat.
Unfortunately, this openness and allowing of visitors unchecked to roam free comes at a cost. Within the park, drinks in plastic bottles are sold, and there isn't much supervision as to where people roam, leaving only a few bad eggs to spoil things.
In the few hours we were there, we spotted people trying to grab monkeys to take pictures with them, and even worse along the beaches, monkeys stealing the plastic drink bottles of visitors to drink for themselves. When we witnessed a little capuchin monkey uncap a Gatorade bottle and start drinking it (pictured), the park completely lost its appeal to us, and further cemented our belief that humans still have a long way to go when it comes to learning to understand and respect nature, and not simply treat these beautiful, natural places like theme parks.
DAY 17: HEADING BACK TO SAN JOSE
To remedy our disappointment in the park and the way its visitors were treating those who lived there, we set off for a project playing a key part in raising the public’s level of knowledge and respect for natural habitats, and the importance of responsible land management practices.
About 20 minutes inland from Manuel Antonio, in the town of Naranjito, lies Villa Vanilla, a spice farm situated on over 100 acres of lush rainforest, growing some of the most expensive and sought-after spices in the world in a regenerative way.
Villa Vanilla was founded in 1987 by Henry Karczynski, who took over this formerly desolate cow pasture and revitalised the land to become an abundant food forest! We met up with Henry’s son & daughter, Kristopher and Jennifer, who now run Villa Vanilla, and who are showing us exactly what makes this place so special!
Kristopher and Jennifer offer tours of the Villa Vanilla property so that you can see these spice-producing plants first hand, and on ours, we spotted giant cacao pods, inhaled the scent of the fragrant bark of the cinnamon tree, tasted spicy pods of black peppercorns, and learned about the precise artistry that goes into ensuring pollination, harvesting, and drying of the spices that Villa Vanilla produces.
After spending the morning learning about the range of spices they grow, we finally got to taste a few specialities while overlooking the rainforest. Starting with flavour-packed chai latte, we then tried their signature turmeric latte–also known as “Golden Mylk”--and Cacao, a drink prepared ceremonially by indigenous communities for thousands of years. It was rich, dark, a little spicy (with added cayenne pepper), and ultimately delicious.
After the tour, in Villa Vanilla’s gift shop, we purchased some of their products, and I can tell you with certainty that I’ll never buy fake vanilla again! Whether you’re heading to the Manuel Antonio area for only a short time or for several days, Villa Vanilla and its Rainforest Spices are a MUST visit! Thank you to Jennifer, Kristopher, and the whole team for having us!
As we started making our way north along the backroads leading to San Jose, the final project we knew we needed to check out is situated high in the mountains, and acts as a sustainability education centre, working permaculture farm, ecolodge, and community.
Rancho Mastatal, located in a village of the same name, was founded in 2001 with the goal of educating others about how to live more responsibly and intentionally, while also creating an exemplary, self-sustaining community.
We met with founder Tim O’Hara, who showed us around part of his sprawling 300 acre home, used to feed, educate, and regenerate visitors, and the local community. Much like Refugio Tinti, Rancho Mastatal’s mission from the start has been to restore the land back to its former glory, while also providing opportunities for learning and growth.
Through hosting workshops, internships, and apprenticeships of varying lengths and on diverse topics like permaculture design, alternative building practices, and wilderness medicine, Rancho Mastatal is equipping people of all ages with the skills and knowledge they need to help restore their corners of the earth. Learn how you can get involved or visit here.
BACK IN SAN JOSE
Before our flight out of San Jose, we spent one final night at a stay organised for us by our friends at GoRemote Costa Rica. As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, GoRemote Costa Rica's mission is to connect long-term travellers and digital nomads with accommodation, vehicles, and experiences that can enrich their time in Costa Rica. Part of the San Jose's Hotel Bougainvillaea’s sprawling property, the apartment we stayed in enabled us to take in views of the mountains north of San Jose, and gave us access to the hotel’s stunning garden and grounds.
Alongside being a place to rest our heads for the night, this apartment was a place we could all reflect on the last three weeks of crazy, beautiful, adventure-packed Costa Rica, all the incredible people and furry friends we met along the way, and all the ways our tourism impacts the land around us.
DAY 18: TAKEOFF
REFLECTIONS ON THIS CRAZY, COSTA RICA ADVENTURE ROAD TRIP
As we made our way to the airport where the GoRemote Costa Rica team was waiting for us and to take our wonderful car back, we could not help but feel overwhelming gratitude for everything we were so privileged to experience on this trip. The last three weeks on this Costa Rica adventure road trip have shown us what venturing into the unknown really feels like, how small changes can really have a big impact, and how far we as humans have left to go.
If there’s one thing we can all learn from being in places like Costa Rica, it’s that taking care of nature can come in many different shapes and sizes--and although we may encounter challenges or roadblocks, each of us has to start somewhere; not only for the sake of our planet, but also for the sake of all of us.