Around Costa Rica

This guide covers the Arenal Volcano area, the Manuel Antonio area, and the capital city of San Jose.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Arenal (La Fortuna)

The area of Arenal Volcano National Park is one of the main unskippable destinations on any Costa Rican itinerary (especially, for a first-timer around-the-country package trip). With hot springs and a large concentration of nature-centric attractions, it is certainly a great place to spend several days.

The principal town, La Fortuna, is centered on a lovely square which gets pretty lively in the evening. Restaurants and souvenir shops predominate on and around the main thoroughfare, but every second door in the center is also a tourist information point, where you can arrange for a wide variety of tours and experiences; you will also see a butcher, a couple of hotels, one or two galleries, a gym, a dance club, so it’s a fairly thriving city if not necessarily a sightseeing destination on its own. There is a newish-looking church on one side of the square that is open only for services.

To the south of the city center is Rio Fortuna Waterfall ♥♥. Not exactly inexpensive at ₡11,000/$18pp to enter. There are 514 steps to reach the bottom (and most annoyingly, the same number to climb back to the top). In front of the waterfall, a hard-to-navigate rocky landing is a prime selfie spot, but to the side, you will find a more peaceful little beach, easy to wade in for a swim. Very cold water, of course – and utterly brilliant. At the top, you can find a couple of educational trails and a reasonable full-service restaurant.

Many of the hotels offer their own on-premises hot springs (such as our accommodations – see below), and there are tons of places where you can come in for a day or for a few hours. Among the most famous ones are the Tabacon Hot Springs. The resort of the same name has a relatively exalted status, but there are also free springs nearby, which are alternatively called “Tabacon Free Hot Springs” or El Choyin. These are the only truly natural – as in, “not managed by some establishment” – accessible hot springs. Being unattended, they are labeled less “safe” than paid resort ones by many tour advisories. You can only really visit them with your own transportation, so we ended up not going.

Heading to Mistico Hanging Bridges ♥ is another unmissable component of the Arenal stay. It is technically a fairly long walk around the jungle with six hanging-bridge crossings. Some fauna will inevitably be spotted, but keep your expectations in check. You can walk on your own, but with a guide carrying a telescope, you will both get a lot of interesting commentary and a much better chance of seeing some animals among the trees. It frequently rains in the afternoon in the forest, although we were lucky.

There are several ziplining options in the area. Our package included Arenal Canopy Adventurer ♥ operated by Jacamar. I personally expected a longer experience than just about an hour of actual movement on the lines. Some companies advertise up to 16 segments; in our case, it was eight lines plus a Tarzan swing. A fun experience, although your mileage may vary.

Other possible excursions in the area include going up the volcano, visiting a chocolate factory, white-water rafting, and more.


Uber and taxi services are reasonably easy to obtain around La Fortuna, but you may have challenges away from the town center. With Uber, the fares are often attractive, but it may take a long time to confirm a willing driver. WiFi is frequently patchy when exists and the cell signal is not always reliable, which could make the problem worse. You may have to ask the hosting business to call you a taxi, which may be more expensive: it is usually $12 for trips between central La Fortuna and most hotels and goes up to $20 for longer trips. Uber usually quotes $5-8 for the same distance (it does go up in the evenings).

There is reputedly a regular “hop-on/hop-off” service that connects all of the main points of interest in the area. I have not personally glimpsed a sight of it, nor am I sure whether it runs with any frequency to be useful.

You will certainly need cash for tips. Taxis expect cash as well, so in general, for a 10-day stay in Costa Rica, I estimate a supply of at least $400 is necessary to have on hand. Dollars are accepted everywhere at ₡600 for $1, and you can use your credit cards in all other situations. Taking the local money out of ATMs is obviously an option, but you may end up with a surplus in the end; ATMs repeatedly teased me with an offer to dispense dollars and then refused to do that.


As in any popular tourist destination, the dining options are in abundance, and most will result in a positive experience. Worthy of specific dining recommendation: Jalapas, which reportedly has breathtaking views of the volcano, but in the dark of the night it appears to be in the middle of nowhere; it is some distance away from the center of La Fortuna, and the road getting to it is terrible (taxi will certainly ask for a higher fare); totally worth it.


Volcano Lodge and Spa is located on the main road a few kilometers northwest of La Fortuna’s center. The fairly large territory – our cottage was at the opposite end from the reception no less than a 5-minute walk away – includes two areas with pools, a restaurant, a couple of hot spring clusters, and recreational areas including walking trails. Hot springs differed in temperature and amenities: a super hot one, a mildly warmer level, and a “jacuzzied” cluster augmented by a wet bar. Plus a sauna, and a pool-type jacuzzi as well. Various diversions, such as ping-pong, billiards, and board games are available on demand, and there is a quiet hammock area. Nice, spacious room, with a back porch looking out on the jungle.

The on-premises restaurant offers a very good menu for both lunch and dinner (if obviously slightly overcharging for the convenience of not having to travel anywhere). Buffet breakfast is reasonably broad-ranging in offerings. If you want to stay at the resort at all times, you have everything you need; if you plan to go out and are not driving, then the location may be a bit of a downside in regard to transportation (see above).

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio

Visiting the Manuel Antonio area is also a regular staple of itineraries around Costa Rica. The national park itself, the beaches, and the reasonable infrastructure is well-aimed at immersing visitors into the concept of pura vida.

The town of Quepos largely encompasses the area. It has three clusters of activity, none unmissable in terms of sightseeing, but worth visiting if you get restless at your resort of choice. The northernmost downtown and marina get fairly lively in the evenings. The southernmost beach-adjacent area is especially busy during the prime national park entry hours. And then, there is the geographically central cluster of restaurants and businesses along the main thoroughfare.

The Manuel Antonio National Park tour ♥ is fairly underwhelming. The main part of the visit takes place along the single wide path shared by hundreds of visitors. With a guide, you get about an hour and a half for spotting animals, not overly successfully; without the guide and his telescope, you may be not limited by time, but you will certainly see practically nothing. Our guide tried his best to offer interesting information and to show us the variety of animals, but he could only do so much. We did see a few interesting insects (butterflies, a grasshopper), lizards, iguanas, crabs, bats, a couple of sloths at a distance, a couple of white-faced monkeys (and howler monkeys too far away to clearly see), an agouti (a rat-like rodent). There are several side paths that provide a bit of tranquility, but unlikely to feature too much when you are led by a guide. At the end of the walk, there was about half an hour for the gorgeous beach (which can only be entered with a ticket to the park).

We also went for an ATV tour ♥♥♥ operated by Fourtrax. The ride itself was for about 8km each way along mostly rugged roads in the palm groves, but also through a village and some farm fields. At the other end was Rainmaker Park, where we walked a trail for 10 minutes and then had about 15 minutes to swim in a natural pool in a waterfall cascade. The rain, unfortunately, started as soon as we entered the park and got us soaking wet in addition to the swim but did not diminish the fun. We then rode back to the base, where a light traditional lunch was served. Together with transportation, this took more than half a day but was very much worth it.

There are plenty of other activities in the area, including surfing lessons (our child happily partook in one), ziplines, hanging bridges, canyoning, etc.

There is basically one main road connecting Manuel Antonio with points to the north and west. The bridge over river Tarcoles is known as the Crocodile Bridge ♥♥ – more than a dozen crocs lounge in the sun on the river banks and can be safely observed from the bridge. The location is a good hour-plus away from Manuel Antonio, so you would not come here unless driving through, but you certainly should stop for the free diversion. And possibly for a reasonable buffet-style lunch in the commercial strip on the north bank.


In addition to the aforementioned beach in the Manuel Antonio NP (it is technically known as Espadilla South), we have been to a couple of other beaches in the area. Playa Biesanz ♥♥ can only be accessed on foot via a rocky trail that takes about 5-7 minutes to descend/ascend. The entrance to the path is a couple of hundred meters from the resort we stayed in (see below); a lot of people come to the beach purposefully, given its relative seclusion and romantic feel (the traffic and parking situation on the narrow road must take away some of that romanticism for those arriving at peak times). The beach is not too big and sandy, and the small bay is fairly tranquil with warm water. There are paid services – refreshments, lounge chairs, and water sports.

The main beach of Quepos, Espadilla North ♥ is a much wider strip of white sand, with larger waves and a quicker-sloping ocean floor. Surfing lessons and a lot of water-related activities take place at the northernmost edge, which is consequently not too crowded. You can pay for an umbrella and two recliners – the cost of $20 is a bit steep if you do not stay the whole day. A few hundred meters southward, the waves get smaller and the beach gets busier – this is where the aforementioned commercial activity cluster is.


Uber is non-existent in Quepos. Taxis are fairly efficient and advertise a standard $10 price for all trips, which is good from a predictability perspective, but somewhat impractical if you need to ride for just a couple of kilometers.

You will certainly need cash for tips. Taxis expect cash as well, so in general, for a 10-day stay in Costa Rica, I estimate a supply of at least $400 is necessary to have on hand. Dollars are accepted everywhere at ₡600 for $1, and you can use your credit cards in all other situations. Taking the local money out of ATMs is obviously an option, but you may end up with a surplus in the end; ATMs repeatedly teased me with an offer to dispense dollars and then refused to do that.

Beach sellers of refreshments and other stuff, if you decide to buy something, will also most likely want cash (and they can be bargained with); we’ve seen some accept Venmo from those who can easier communicate with them.


As in any popular tourist destination, the dining options are in abundance, and most will result in a positive experience. Worthy of specific recommendations are: El Lagarto (at the northern end of the “central” commercial cluster), with a very fun ambiance and an open-fire grill; and Barba Roja (near the main intersection of the same “central” cluster), a more rustic and seemingly historic establishment offering an undeniable pura vida atmosphere.


Parador Resort & Spa may be the most upscale resort in Quepos. The large impeccably maintained territory includes beautiful Italianate gardens, the main restaurant-and-shops complex with views over the Pacific bordering the pool area that consists of three separate pools, a couple of additional restaurants and bars, a couple of additional pools and jacuzzis including an “adults only” area, a nature trail, a mini-golf course, and other diversions. Ours was a really big well-appointed room with all amenities. Pre-booked excursions aside, there is really very little reason to ever step outside of the resort grounds; and Playa Biesanz is not far away anyway. Conversely, for those who want to explore beyond the resort on their own, the location may be a bit of a downside – it is at the end of a winding uneven narrow road about 2 kilometers from the intersection with the commercial “center” of town; walking is mostly impractical while taking a taxi is only uneconomical if your destination is further away. The hotel offers a free shuttle to Espadilla Beach but that runs only half a dozen times a day and requires reservations.

In the morning, monkeys can be seen all around the territory, in a surrogate national-park-visit way. Furthermore, the Monkey Trail, which is part of the hotel property, is an excellent onsite opportunity to immerse in the tropical jungle and catch sight of various species of animals. There is a garden component to the trail and a couple of viewpoints over the coast, but mostly it is exactly what you would expect from a tropical forest walk. In the evening, there are hundreds if not thousands of small lizards running the exterior walls and ceilings.

The main restaurant, La Galleria, offers a very good menu (different for lunch and dinner) and very nice food if a bit overpriced fittingly for an upscale resort. The service can be unhurried, but in this instance, it is hardly a problem. Live music in the evenings. Bar La Fragatta is only open during the “lunch” period (11 am-6 pm), has exactly the same lunch menu as La Galleria, and sits at a higher elevation with better views.

As we stayed through New Year’s Eve, we paid for and participated in an elaborate celebration, with an open bar, extensive buffet, musical and dancing performances, discotheque, and brilliant fireworks. We heard from people at other resorts that nothing of the kind took place anywhere else. Whether it was worth the significant mandatory extra cost is debatable, but a different experience nonetheless.

San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose

Few people make time to explore San Jose. That is hardly surprising – Costa Rica is known for its climate and biodiversity, not for its urban highlights.

Incidentally, skipping San Jose is mostly justified by the simple reason that it does not feel awfully pleasing. It is very hectic in the central area, loud, teeming with people, with a low density of visual delights. There are a few good-looking Colonial-style churches (especially, the Metropolitan Cathedral ♥ and La Merced ♥) and occasional historic buildings. The National Theatre ♥ with a not-too-huge but comparatively impressive marble foyer is the undeniable highlight, as is the main post office. Murals and modern sculptures enliven the scene here or there. Covered markets, such as Mercado Central, offer a reasonable diversion. Most of the city center, though, is low-rise not overly well-maintained buildings, where practically every door is a commercial establishment.

Barrio Escalante, which is a few blocks to the east of downtown, is mentioned in many guides as the most atmospheric neighborhood that could potentially enhance the impression of the city overall.

San Jose is nonetheless home to a few great museums. The Museum of Jade ♥♥♥, which is really a museum of indigenous cultures, is among the best of its kind anywhere, offering four floors of exhibits related to all aspects of pre-Columbian societies, including some interactive games for the kids, a lot of information, and jade and ceramics artifacts aplenty.

Other museums that may be worth exploring are the National Museum of Costa Rica, the Museum of pre-Columbian Gold, the Museum of Costa Rican Art, and the Children’s Museum. Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, Galleria Namu, or the Municipal Crafts Market could be additional points of interest to visit.

A guided tour of downtown was full of information in digestible quantities and took us to a couple of hidden gems (one of which was Edificio Steinworth ♥). Ironically, we already covered about 80% of the route the previous evening on our own.

You can also take a walking-with-sloths tour around the grounds of the University of San Jose, which is some way from downtown. The university campuses are located in nature preserves, which allow glimpses of various species, primarily birds and insects; we eventually located one single sloth after a long search. Builder ants may have been among the most impressive fauna representatives that we were able to observe. The telescope that the guide was carrying along was useful, and the guide did a good job describing the range of fauna in Costa Rica as well as the role of the university in studying and preserving it, but the tour did not exactly live up to its sloth-watching billing.



Deserving a special mention, Gran Hotel Costa Rica is a modern hotel in a historically-listed building on the central Plaza de la Cultura. The location is hard to beat. Large-size room with all amenities and an interesting design decision of the toilet and the shower separated from each other by the sink/vanity area with almost non-existent privacy. The size of the beds in a “standard” room – two full-size beds – was a big minus for a party of more than two people. The most wide-ranging excellent breakfast that we’ve seen anywhere in Costa Rica partially compensated for the room deficiencies. The hotel enjoys a “hospitality legend” reputation according to several websites – service was certainly excellent.


As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in San Jose. Don’t be afraid to step into one of the smaller eateries – urban versions of Costa Rican soda.

Worthy of specific recommendation is Restaurant Tenedor Argentino which faces the National Theatre.

Also, Café La Mancha, at Edificio Steinworth, is considered one of the best coffee shops in town; the food is middling but the coffee is exceptional. In the same space, there is a crêperie, and you can combine orders from both establishments at the same table.