General Notes on Costa Rica

– In general pedestrians do not have the right of way unless you have an actual green walking man symbol.

– The bus system in Costa Rica runs less frequently and is less reliable that the bus systems in other Central American countries AND the cost is higher. One would hope that if you were going to pay more you would actually get more out of the situation. Sadly, this is not the case in Costa Rica. If you’re traveling with multiple people or plan to visit several locations during your trip, especially if remote, consider a rental car as a transportation alternative just know that you will end up paying more than the advertised price (see my other blog entry regarding this issue). For a week’s rental from Nu Rental Cars, we ended up paying $231USD but were told that it would cost less than $50USD for the rental.

– Know that any transportation that you undertake will take longer than you were expecting. Plan accordingly and add about 50% to your travel time.

– Uber does operate in San Jose but under the radar of the government. Sit up front with the driver to avoid issues with police. Use caution when using Uber though as we had a 50% rate of the drivers trying to take us the long way to charge us more. This is the same complaint I have read about regarding the taxis that do not have or use a meter.

– Bring your own alcohol as it can get expensive. You can legally bring in up to 5 liters of alcohol per person if you are over 18 years old.

– There were a lot of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options in the towns I visited. Enjoy the alternative-diet friendly atmosphere.

– Most hotels and hostels that I stayed at during this trip did not have A/C so it’s prudent to consider reserving rooms that have fans.

– I visited at the tail end of the dry season, which made most of the access to trails, rivers, etc. very accessible and in some cases, even just possible. Conditions are likely much different during the wet season and in some cases we were told that some trails (and even roads) become impassable.

– If you speak Spanish and are on a budget, I would recommend going to Nicaragua instead. You will save a lot of money and can see a lot of the same natural wonders. If you do not speak Spanish, do your research and try and save yourself some money in Costa Rica.

 

Advertisements
General Notes on Costa Rica

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

We said goodbye to El Castillo and headed north to Rio Celeste. The drive was smooth sailing which surprised us. The roads were in good condition and we didn’t encounter any traffic or other issues. We stopped off at a roadside soda and had some of the most delicious food including pan fried tilapia.

20180408_131746.jpg
If you see this sign, eat here. Do not pass up an opportunity to eat their dishes food.

We stayed two nights at Hotel Catarata Rio Celeste and visited the National Park Volcano Tenorio during the day. We booked two nights in anticipation of being muddy after the hike. With hindsight, we could have stayed only one night but it was good to have some down time after hiking.

IMG_20180408_141908
We definitely spent some time enjoying the hammocks at our hotel.

The following day, we drove up to the park entrance, paid about $1USD to park and $12USD per person. We arrived just after it opened to beat the crowds and to have the hiking trail to ourselves. We hiked in about 30 minutes and then took the stairs down to see the waterfall. It was very impressive and stunning. We were happy to have arrived early and have the place to ourselves for awhile.

We then ascended the staircase and continued the easy hike further into the park where two rivers meet and the water turns a celestial blue. While seeing this sight was interesting, it definitely was a let down compared to the waterfall. If you are not an avid hiker, I would recommend skipping the hike and just marvel at the waterfall.

IMG_20180409_094405
We crossed a few bridges on the way to where the two rivers meet.

Swimming in the park is not allowed but there are many points on the river outside the park that you can access. Just park on the side of the road and hop in the water. The water is cold but can be very refreshing after hiking.

IMG_20180409_115734

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

El Castillo, Costa Rica

We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.

IMG_1143
The view of Arenal from our hotel in El Castillo.

There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.

While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.

IMG_1158

We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.

IMG_1168
Here we are scrabbling down of the many hills on our way up Cerro Chato.

We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.

Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.

El Castillo, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

We arrived in Puerto Viejo during Santa Semana so the town was definitely busier than normal but was still a great place to visit. We stayed at Casitas La Playa next door to Rocking J’s hostel. We enjoyed being a bit further from town, about 20 minutes walk as the center could get pretty crowded. Rocking J’s plays music late into the night but it was nothing earplugs couldn’t fix. The staff at Casitas La Playa were friendly and helpful and we really felt at home there.

There are multiple small beaches up and down the coast to choose from (including one just a few minutes walk south that has more sand then rocks though it is very shallow). In general, it’s a very rocky coast but there are areas where the water is calmer but does not get deep unless you go out past the rocks.

IMG_20180331_082631

We found some delicious food while we were in town though the prices were higher then we were expecting. One of our favorites was Soda Shekina for tasty home cooking. The average plate with a drink cost about $5,000CRC.

We also really liked Monli’s (not to be mistaken for Monti’s next door). We had a few of the fish specials and drinks so the bill definitely added up quickly. But the food and the service were lovely. The mahi mahi special was around $10,000CRC.

For a change of pace, we checked out Soul Surfer for burgers one night. The change was a nice one and we were all happy with our options. They even had two different vegetarian options.

We were also able to eat at the Colombian empanada and arepas place that is right next to Soul Surfer. We came by a few times and they’re weren’t open but we finally connected and it was worth the wait. One arepa is definitely big enough for a light meal as we found out the hard way when we also ordered empanadas and two arepas. We had a heavy lunch but it was very delicious and cost about $9,000CRC for 2 people.

While on the Caribbean coast, we visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Cocles. For around $20USD per person, we were given a tour of the grounds and introduced to a wide array of animals. We really enjoyed our time there though had to walk there from Puerto Viejo due to the lack of buses and taxis.

IMG_20180330_123459
We got to meet this little guy. He was snuggled in a basket with his other sloth friends.

Once again, it’s the buses that really mess things up. This is the first time that I have been in a town in Central America that did not have frequent local bus service or use colectivos or combis to shuttle people from town to town or from one side of a bigger town to the other. The fact that the bus only ran every two hours was very frustrating. I’m not sure if this is a way to force tourists to rent bikes or pay for taxis (which were hard to find) but sadly that is what I would recommend. When the bus would come by, it was a great, cheap option (and the price is based on how far you travel on the bus) but it was so frustrating to try and time it right. Shockingly, the buses didn’t exactly run on time. There are buses that will take you south to Manzanillo and Punta Uva (as well as up north to Cahuita) but catching one was such a pain. So I would recommend renting bikes.  We rented bikes for $3,300CRC for the day.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica

We headed down to Costa Rica for our nephew’s Spring Break which also happened to be Holy Week. While we would not have chosen this time frame, it’s what we had to work with. Over the next few weeks, we bounced back to San Jose to say goodbye to family and say hello to a friend who was joining us for the second half of our trip. In total, we spent six nights in San Jose.

We spent our first two days wandering the city and getting a feel for the place. We ate in the central mercado which was pretty tasty. It’s not a huge market but was fun to wander through and find a crowded soda to eat in. We also wandered through the artists’ mercado a few blocks away which was worth a look.

We took the free walking tour that begins in front of the National Theater at 9am, rain or shine. It was not one of the best free walking tours we have been on, but we received some interesting history about Costa Rica and the capital.

For our first few nights in the city, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Aurola on reward points and while the hotel was incredibly nice and we really enjoyed our stay there, I cannot comment on its cost and value. Note to those who might stay at this Holiday Inn; there seem to be multiple hotels in San Jose called ‘Holiday Inn.’ When we typed the name into the Uber app, multiple locations popped up. I would recommend using the location of Park Morazan which is in front of Holiday Inn Aurola.

We we returned to the capital a week later and checked into a small hotel called Kekoldi Garden Hotel. It is located a few blocks north of the Holiday Inn. We had a lovely stay with a cost of $50USD for a double room. Our room was modest but comfortable. The real draw of the hotel is the enclosed garden which most of the rooms face.

IMG_20180403_152413
The garden is a small oasis in a bustling city.

I think the only draw back to staying in this area of the city is that most restaurants and shops closed around 8pm leaving very few options of things to do at night.

On our last visit to San Jose, we chose to stay in the upscale barrio of Escalante. While the bars and restaurants in the area are not budget friendly, it was a nice change to have somewhere to go in the evenings. We stayed at the Hotel Finca Escalante which is located just steps from some amazing bars and restaurants.

Of all of the options in the neighborhood, I definitely enjoyed Impar and Apotecario the most. While neither were what I would call cheap, they both had delicious options and were a nice change from standard Costa Rican food. At Apotecario, we had the chile con carne, a deliciously flavored soup, the Mediterranean plate, and a round of drinks for about $20,000CRC. We grabbed lunch at Impar and shared a few appetizers. And while the food totally hit the spot (octopus tostadas, mushroom lasagna, and meatballs with spinach), our meal cost about $17,000CRC.

We also decided to splurge a little more and check out some of the many beer bars around Escalante. I think our favorite was Casa Brew Garden as the setup was pretty interesting and the beer list was very extensive. We also visited Wilk Craft Beer and Lupulus Beer Shop. We stopped by the Costa Rica Beer Factory but left when we looked at the menu. The prices were just too astonishing for us to stay. We drew the line at an appetizer of bacon wrapped dates for $11USD.

We also checked out Mercado Escalante. It’s a collection of stalls serving different foods and drinks. I definitely recommend the pork sandwich stall in the back corner. Just pay attention and order under the Orden Aqui sign. There is another similar “mercado” down the street called El Jardin de Lolita. Both places are worth a visit.

While walking around during the day, we did notice that there were a lot of small restaurants with menu del dias on 9th Avenue right around a hospital. If I had more time, I would definitely check out some of these small coffee shops and restaurants as well.

Getting around San Jose is pretty easy on foot and Uber does operate in the capital. Now, if you want to leave San Jose, here’s where things get tricky. The bus system is incredibly decentralized. It seems like every bus line or destination has its own terminal which becomes very confusing. We took a bus out to the town of San Isidro and had a hard time finding the bus station because the bus that goes to San Isidro (in the province of Heredia) is not the same bus station for the buses that goes to Heredia.

map san isidro bus station

We wanted to visit the Toucan Rescue Ranch which is just outside of San Isidro. While the center itself was very interesting and the animals were well cared for, I’m not sure if the cost ($35USD per person) and the frustration of getting there were worth it. But I will pass on my knowledge so others can make their own choice.

Once we got off the bus in San Isidro, we grabbed a quick lunch at soda La Amistad. All the food was delicious but the server did not speak English. After lunch we asked a few people in town if there is a bus that goes down the main road, 112, so that we could take a bus closer to the rescue center as it is located about a 1.5 miles from town. Multiple people told us that no bus goes down the main road which seemed odd. We ended up taking a taxi which was about $2,000CRC. But of course once the tour was over and we started to leave, we realized that there are buses that go both ways down this major road. Here’s what I figured out: The route to and from San Jose to San Isidro is a loop. You enter town from one direction and the bus leaves going another direction. The buses that go toward the Toucan Rescue Center eventually make their way back to San Jose. So, when you take the bus to San Isidro, you can pay again and head down Route 112 in the direction of the rescue center and San Jose. If you are at the rescue center and want to head back to the city, just stand on the opposite side of the street and a bus will come get you.

bus stops
Note that the star in the top left corner is the actual location of the Toucan Rescue Ranch. The two stars on Route 112 are bus stops for the bus that will take you back to San Jose.

To get even more complicated, the bus terminal to get to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of the country is the North Atlantic terminal. This should not be confused with the bus station that is called Gran Caribe. Because it was Holy Week we bought bus tickets a day in advance. I am not sure if this was necessary but the schedule posted showed there was a bus every two hours but when we arrived at the bus station 20 minutes early, there was a bus leaving for our destination.

IMG_20180327_150656

If you’ve done any other research on Costa Rica then you have already read that every bus trip will take longer than expected. This is exactly what we experienced. Our 4.5 hour bus ride ended up taking 6.5 hours from San Jose to Puerto Viejo with only one bathroom stop. On the way back, the bus broke down for two hours with no information from our driver. I secretly think Pura Vida acutally means have patience.

 

San Jose, Costa Rica

Brasov, Romania

We booked an apartment on the edge of the city center via Booking.com. The price was right and the apartment was well furnished. Also, the location for parking was perfect. When we were looking to book a hotel, all of the hotels stated that parking was included but then when you would read reviews it was not explained very well that the parking available is actually public parking. When you’re in the very the middle of the city center, you must pay for parking. This is difficult because the parking meter machines only take coins which are very difficult to get your hands on. You can pay by SMS but only if you have a Romanian cell phone number. What we found was there if you park on the edge of the city center, parking is 100% free but finding a spot is difficult. If you are on a block with no parking signs or parking meters, then it is free.

We sent three nights in Brasov and while you could definitely see the highlights of the historic center in one day, it was nice to have the extra time to hike around the city walls and see all that the city has to offer.  Due to bad weather, we did not have an opportunity to hike up to the famous Brasov town sign but we did get some time walking around the trails in some of the parks on the edge of the city.

IMG_20170920_152944IMG_20170920_151218IMG_20170921_121020

 

The majority of our time in Brasov was spent wandering around the town and eating. While most of the restaurants we visited were in the center of town, they didn’t feel like tourist traps. Our favorites were Pilvax, La Ceaun, and Vino e Sapori. For drinks we frequented Cafe Central which had cheaper drinks than some of the bars closer to the center of town.

Brasov, Romania

Stonehaven, Scotland

Towards the end of the trip (after having to say goodbye to most of our travel buddies), my friend Jackie and I made our way out to Stonehaven for two nights. We stayed in an adorable Airbnb right in town. It was a great place for us to unwind after the roadtrip and handful of days in Edinburgh.
There are some tasty restaurants in town; we found two that really hit the spot for us. We popped into Graingers Delicatessen for a light lunch. The sandwiches were tasty and substantial. Priced at £3-4GBP each, it was an affordable option in town.
We also visited The Bay Fish & Chips takeaway shop. We went for dinner and while there was a line, we only waited about 15 minutes. There’s no indoor seating but we were lucky enough to snag one of the picnic tables out front. We split the extra large fish and chips which was more than enough food. We could have easily split the regular sized-option and still been stuffed. At £10GBP, it was a very cheap meal and some of the best fish and chips I had while on the trip.
IMG_20170801_194511
We devoured our meal so quickly that there was no time for photos.
I think my favorite part of Stonehaven was the coastal walk to Dunnottar Castle. There is a path from the south end of town that continues to the castle. It was one of the most breathtaking hikes we took on this trip. We didn’t go into the castle as it was closing soon after we arrived so we sat and enjoyed the view instead. We also walked along the beach in town and out on the harbor. Stonehaven was a lovely last stop in Scotland.

IMG_20170731_171452IMG_20170731_164755IMG_20170731_171249

Stonehaven, Scotland