We spent a long weekend in Ljubljana and really enjoyed our time in this small European capital. We rented an Airbnb apartment near the city center which was quaint and well-equipped. At $72USD per night, the apartment was not as affordable as I would have liked but we enjoyed our time there nonetheless. Parking the rental car was a little confusing but we figured it out. There seem to be a few different parking zones. We were able to find parking near the river for Friday afternoon and then didn’t need to pay over the weekend as it is free.
We strolled though the car-free city center enjoying the architecture. Later, we took a free walking tour and learned a lot about the history of Ljubljana. We also took a relaxing boat ride on the river. We picked one at random and had a lovely time for €10 per person.
We ate some delicious food while in Ljubljana though most of it was enjoyed at two outdoor food festivals; the Beer & Burger fest and the Open Kitchen food festival which happens on most Fridays. However, when we dined out, we visited Gostilnica 5-6 kg and the food was excellent, though not budget friendly. For two drinks and two entrees our bill was €55.
We also found some great little bars. We stopped by the Sax Hostel & Sax pub twice for drinks. The bar’s vibe was very laid back, the prices were reasonable, and the service was friendly. Ljubljana has so many great bars, restaurants, and shops to return for; too many to fit into just a few days.
We found a few delicious places for biccari but found out the hard way that they tend to close around 9pm. Our favorites were Osteria Al Squero and Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi.
We also ate at Trattoria Bar Pontini for lunch one day. We arrived just in time to grab the last available table outside. The seafood dishes were delicious and fresh. Our total for two entrees and two glasses of wine came to about $46USD. Also, I was able to ask for (and receive) free tap water, acqua del rubinetto.
To get to and from the airport, we took the airport shuttle (€15 roundtrip) and then walked from the bus depot into the heart of Venice. Later in our trip, we returned to Venice with a rental car and stayed in the town of Mestre for the night at the Camping Village Jolly. While the accommodations were sparse and dated, the location and amenities (free parking, a pool, and a shuttle to Venice) were very well priced at $24USD a night. If you want to visit Venice of a tight budget, this is my recommendation instead of staying on the islands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.