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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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El Castillo, Costa Rica

Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast

We really wanted to rent a car and drive to the coast, so after getting screwed by Europcar we went to Alamo. We had car rental insurance from our credit card company and had proof that they covered car rentals in Mexico. But this concept doesn’t seem to exist in Mexico. Multiple car rental companies wanted us to have a specific document that no one would give us. And when we asked where to obtain this document, no one could or would tell us. I would advice others not to believe the cheap rental car prices that are advertised for Oaxaca as the insurance is not included in the price advertised. A six day rental at Alamo was $200USD. We wanted to be on our own schedule and while the rental car was not cheap, the cost was offset, for us, by the five nights in Oaxaca City that were free on hotel points (thanks Holiday Inn).
We were nervous to take the bus after hearing so many horror stories of people getting sick and it being such a long drive up and down mountain sides (hence paying for the expensive rental car). But in hindsight, and after being on the twisty-turny mountain road all the way to the coast and back (and with all of the other experiences that I have had with twisty-turny mountain roads), I don’t think that we needed to have a rental car. The roads were not as treacherous as people had suggested. While it was a long drive, around 5.5 hours each way, the roads were in good condition and there was not a lot of traffic. If you do drive yourself, definitely beware of all of the topes (speed bumps) that are not always marked on the roads. Also, the buses that make the trip to and from the coast are the smaller colectivo-sized buses that only seat about 14 people not the massive tour buses that I would have expected.
The first stop on our roadtrip was Monte Alban which was lovely. It was also a lot larger than we expected so it was wonderful to be able to take our time and not feel rushed.
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We then drove to the ruins at Yagul. These were just as interesting and informative (both sites have informational plaques in Spanish, English, and a local language). Yagul was completely empty when we arrive and it was lovely to have the place to ourselves. At $65MXN per person, it wasn’t much cheaper than Monte Alban ($70MXN), but still a great stop to make.
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The ruins of Yagul.
We stayed the night in Mitla so that we could get to Hierve del Agua early the next morning. We found a few hotels in town including a brand new place called Hotel Carmelita. We had a double room with a private bath, hot water, tv, and wifi for $500MXN a night. The staff was very helpful and friendly. We asked for a dinner recommendation and were pointed towards a restaurant on the main square. We had a mole dish which was very tasty and the best chile rellano I’ve ever had. Our total bill for two entrees and one mezcal was $220MXN with tip.
The next morning we drove to Hierve del Agua. We paid the local entrance fee of $10MXN per person and then paid the federal entrance fee of $25MXN per person. Check out this blog for more information on driving there.
Once we parked, we hiked down for 20 minutes to the pools of sulfery water. We then hiked around to the top of the other petrified waterfall, the one in most of the photos. The path was mostly made of stone steps and was not difficult. It probably took us 25 minutes to get there and the views along the way were definitely worth it. There are free changing rooms as well as bathrooms ($3MXN) near the pools. If you can get there on your own, I would recommend getting there early. It opens at 9a.m. and from what we heard, the tour buses start arriving around 1p.m.
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A view of the pools.
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Hierve del Agua
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A view from below on one of the hiking trails.
We left Hierve del Agua and headed south. Because we were getting a late start, we decided to stop somewhere along the road for the night. With a little bit of research we found a place which was just perfect for us; La Puesta del Sol. They have a little collection of bungalows and rooms for rent just a one-minute drive outside the town San Juan del Pacifico. The room we stayed in was nice and cozy with satellite TV, hot water, breakfast, and a lovely view of the mountains. Wifi was extra and we opted to be off the grid for the night. At $400MXN for the night, we couldn’t have been happier.
Along the road to the coast, there were a lot of small hotels and posadas that are not listed on the internet. I felt confident that if we couldn’t get a room at La Puesta del Sol, we could have found a room somewhere else along the way.
For our first night on the coast, we stayed in Zipolite. When we arrived, we parked in town and walked up and down the beach price-checking a handful of different hotels. We found prices ranging from $200MXN to $1200MXN and finally settled on Hotel El Paraiso which was $500MXN per night which included a private bathroom, hot water, wifi, parking, and a balcony that overlooked the ocean. It was definitely the best option for us.
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The view from our balcony.
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The beach was clean and not overcrowded while we were there. But be warned, or informed, that Zipolite is a nude beach.
The next morning we drove down the coast to the town of Mazunte. We had booked a room at Posada Ziga Playa for two nights. It was definitely the nicest place we stayed on the trip ($1000MXN per night) and our room included a private terrace with a hammock. But in hindsight, I think I would have rather stayed somewhere that was not as upscale but had beach chairs and umbrellas down on the beach (as Posada Ziga Playa had neither of these). Also, the hotel is situated up on a small hill so you have to walk up and down stairs to get to the beach.
My advice while visiting this part of the Pacific Ocean in Mexico is to be careful when swimming in the water. When we first checked into our hotel in Zipolite, we were given a full briefing of the undercurrent and the water conditions that day. And I’m thankful that they took the time to warn us. After our first slightly treacherous day in the ocean, my husband walked up and down the beach to find a less rough spot to swim in. We lined ourselves up with a few large rocks about two hundred meters out into the water. These rocks were able to break up most of the waves coming in and therefore the current and waves were not as forceful.
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The view from a hiking trail starting on the western edge of Mazunte.
While in Mazunte, we went to the turtle sanctuary which was very interesting though there didn’t seem to be an option for a guided tour. And while we enjoyed looking at a lot of different turtles, we did not learn very much. But for $32MXN per person, it was a nice little outing. We also went out for dinner and drinks in town a few times including a great little Italian place called Alessandro’s where I was able to get a $9USD steak that was delicious. We also came across a handful of small bars and restaurants that had live music and offered two for one drink specials.
After a few lovely days at the beach, we made the long drive back to Oaxaca City starting out early in the morning. Traffic was light which was a blessing on the winding roads. I was concerned that we would have to pay a lot of tolls to and from the coast but we really only drove on one toll road near Mitla. My suggestion would be that if you are going to rent a car know that everything will take longer than you expect. Also, I would not recommend driving at night due to the twisting roads and all of the speed bumps. Finally, the gas stations we went to did not take credit card but there was always a gas station attendant to pump the gasoline for you.
Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast