If you haven’t heard of Bocas del Toro yet, consider changing your source for travel information. What Travel and Leisure “discovered” last year, backpackers have known about for decades. Bocas del Toro is a province on the Northwest corner of Panama, bordering Costa Rica. Best known to backpackers for the Archipelago of the same name, it has become one of the top destinations in Central America for young budget travelers looking for a mix of paradise and fun.
Bocas del Toro in a larger map
Going to Bocas without stopping at Mondo Taitu is grounds for permanent exile. This is bar is cozy and has an interior bar and then a small outside patio where the young travelers of Bocas convene for happy hour and early drinks before hitting up the dance club. Happy hour is 7-8 with 50 cent beers and all drink specials are $1 off from 8-9. Dress is casual. Try the Naturalito, Mondo’s version of the mojito but with a lemon grass twist. Great place to meet people from all over the world and have a great evening. The three guys that are the proprietors also own Hostel Heike down the road, and Luna’s Castle in Panama City, which is easily the best hostel in the city.
A visit to Bocas isn’t complete without a couple of day trips away from town. Zapatillas Cays are two beautiful islands on a coral platform that are surrounded by reefs. Zapatillas Keys are located inside the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park. The two islands are 34 and 14 hectares respectively. They offer beautiful beaches, clear waters, coral reefs and small, shady forests. The western island, Zapatillas Minor, is sometimes the base for scientists researching the marine turtle. The leatherback and the hawksbill turtles come to lay their eggs, in season, on these beaches. Typically, you can catch a boat to Zapatilla for the day for $12-$15 per person. BYOB.
Another great spot is Boca del Drago and Star Beach, on the opposite side of Isla Colon from the town of Bocas del Toro. The truly hardcore will bike it all the way over to the other side along the only road that crosses the island. Otherwise, a taxi will run you a couple of bucks, or you can take the bus that runs every hour. Once there you’ll find tiny slices of beach pressed between the crystal clear waters and the mangroves and forest that cover the area. Sloths hang out in the trees, and the water is littered with starfish of all varieties.
From San Jose in Costa Rica you can take a bus to Sixaola on the border 4 times a day from Terminal Caribe. From here you just walk across the rickety bridge to Panama. This border can process your paperwork (check that your country does not need a visa).
From the Panamanian side, you can get a taxi direct to the boat landing or take a collectivo to Changuinola (cheaper) and from there a taxi to the boat landing at Finca 60 or a minibus to Almirante (it’ll drop you off near the landing). Then it’s just a boat ride to Isla Colon and the main town of Bocas del Toro. If you want to go to Bastimentos, take a water taxi.
The water taxi ride from Changuinola to Bocas del Toro costs $6 and takes 45 minutes. It is very scenic, passing farms and and wood houses on stilts on a narrow canal for much of the ride, and is a highly recommended way to either arrive or depart. The ride from Almirante is shorter and cheaper, but getting to Almirante takes long. So it’s a wash. However, more boats leave Almirante more frequently, and almost never fill up, so we prefer this option.
At first blush, San José seems little more than a chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings, and people. The central downtown section of San José exists in a near-constant state of gridlock. Antiquated buses spewing diesel fumes and a lack of emission controls have created a brown cloud over the city’s sky. Sidewalks are poorly maintained and claustrophobic, and street crime is a serious problem. Most visitors quickly seek the sanctuary of their hotel room and the first chance to escape the city. This is why we never recommend people actually staying downtown. Just off the green and onto the fringe is where you’ll find the good stuff.
San José is the most cosmopolitan city in Central America behind Panama City. Costa Rica’s stable government and the Central Valley’s climate have, over the years, attracted people from all over the world. There’s a large diplomatic and international business presence here. As a result, there has been a proliferation of small, elegant hotels in renovated historic buildings, as well as innovative new restaurants serving a wide range of international cuisines.
San José is the capital of Costa Rica, and has been since 1823. It’s one of the oldest capitals in Central America. The metropolitan area has about 1.7 million inhabitants, while the actual proper city of San José only has about 350,000. Being the largest city in the country, by far, San Jose is still the top entry point to Costa Rica by air. It is also the main transportation hub for the entire country. If you are planning on visiting Costa Rica, a flight into San Jose is the best option if you are planning on visiting parts of Costa Rica other than the northwest province of Guanacaste.
If there is one thing that is dead certain in San José, is that the residents know how to have a good time. there seems to be an endless amount of nightly entertainment, and each night of the week definitely has a few hot spots. The upside for backpackers, is that the local hot spots are void of the Four Seasons/all inclusive types. San Pedro and Los Yoses easily lay claim to the highest concentration of bars and restaurants, due in large part to being home to Costa Rica’s largest university, the Universidad de Costa Rica. If you’re looking for some high end fancy shmancy, Escazu, a well to do area west of San Jose, resembles Scottsdale or South Beach more than Costa Rica. The establishments are certainly upscale, and expect to pay for it.
An easy and relatively inexpensive way to get around in San Jose is by taxi. A couple of things to remember though; Always make sure that the driver uses the meter, which we call the maria. If he refuses, tell him to shove it and catch another cab. Unless there’s a national soccer match, taxis are as common as mosquitos. When you go to pay, be aware that on most older meters, there is an extra zero. So when the ride starts or at the “flag drop” as they call it, the meter reads C.4750, that’s really C. 475. This comes from days past when there was actually a half Colone coin. A lot of cabbies still have it, and if you give them 4750, they’re not going to stop you. Another neat “trick” they use is doing you a big favor and calling the hostel where you have a reservation for you. they’ll pretend to call, tell you that the hostel has given away your reservation or burned down, or anything, and then take you to another place where they’ll get a commission for bringing you. Reputable hostels in San Jose do not pay taxi drivers to bring them clients, the good hostels don’t have too. The bottom line, if you think a cab driver is trying to take advantage of you, don’t be afraid to pay him what you tihnk is fair, or he can call the police. 99 times out of 100 you’ll be right and he’ll back down. The instances that have been shown here are not common practice, but do happen.
There has also been a huge crackdown on drunk driving in Costa Rica, so taxis are even more plentiful in the evenings nowadays. If you are driving, don’t drink, as you are risking an 8 year prison sentance for DUI.
Monteverde was founded in the 1950′s by a group of Quakers from the U.S., and has gained international renown as one of the most outstanding wildlife sanctuaries in the tropics. The reserve spreads out over 10,500 hectares of land that hold six different life zones. The climate and terrain of the preserve produce an incredible bio-diversity. There are at least 400 bird species in this high elevation rain forest, including the Resplendent Quetzal, ancient holy bird of the Mayans, over 100 species of mammals, 120 species of amphibians and reptiles and an estimated 2,500 species of plants making Monteverde a true “nature lover’s paradise”.
Monteverde, however, is the name of the actual reserve, and more or less the generic name for the entire area. The actual town which people commonly refer to as Monteverde is in fact called Santa Elena. Sharing its name with the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve that is found nearby (around 5 km), the town of Santa Elena has a tiny downtown area. Here one can find plenty of luxury and budget hotels, lodges and accommodations, as well as a bus stop, bank, health clinic, general store, souvenir store and tour offices of various travel agencies. Quite often full of backpackers, this town also has a post office, police station, supermarket, bar and a number of inexpensive restaurants. Four natural museums capitalize on the area’s glorious wildlife: the Butterfly Garden, the Orchid Garden, the Serpentarium, and the Frog Pond. The Serpentarium showcases some of Costa Rica’s nastiest snakes, including the deadly fer-de-lance. The best part of the Frog Pond is when the guides turn off the lights—and you’re surrounded by tiny red eyes and a cacophony of croaking. Each museum costs about $7 USD for admission.
Monteverde is more famous among Costa Rican’s for it’s locally produced cheese, than it’s stunning biology. The nearby Monteverde Cheese Factory (La Lecheria) supplies cheese to much of Costa Rica. Varieties range from the celebrated monte rico, to the more familiar mozzarella and cheddar.
Budget accommodations in Santa Elena are plentiful, but we recommend staying at Pension Santa Elena. Ran & Shannon are committed to offering budget travelers top-notch, five stars service. They operate a tour desk and will take time to sit down with you and explain all the options Skytrek, sky walk, horseriding, jungle night tour and more.
Budget travelers mainly journey from San Jose by bus, either public or minibus. In the dry season, make sure to book your ticket several days ahead of time. Those with a little more expendable income prefer to rent cars and make the trek on their own. The roads aren’t the best, but the scenery is breathtaking. Travel time from the capital is about four hours.
An abundance of stylish smaller hotels and very dependable surf have made Tamarindo one of the most popular beaches on the Guanacaste coast. Fishing boats bob at their moorings at the south end of the beach, and brown pelicans fish just outside the breakers. A sandy islet offshore makes a great destination if you’re a strong swimmer; if you’re not, it makes a great foreground for sunsets. Tamarindo is popular with surfers, who play the break right here or use the town as a jumping-off place for other breaks near by. Tamarindo is a long beach, with excellent waves near the mouth of the estuary. Currents can be pretty strong, especially on a falling tide. Tamarindo has two main breaks for advanced surfers; Pico Pequeño a rocky point in front of the Hotel Tamarindo Diriá and the excellent river mouth break called El Estero. The rest of the beach breaks are perfect for learning. The biggest waves you’ll ride can get up to 12 feet, although only during November and December.
Only adding to the surf traffic in Tamarindo is the opening of the Liberia International Airport to direct international flights from the United States and Canada. With the Tamarindo only about an hour drive from Liberia, the long drive from San Jose has become a thing of the past, and surfers can land and be in the water on the same day. Most surfers that arrive from San Jose arrive via rental car, giving them added flexability to make it to other breaks in the area like Avellanas, and Langosta. If you don’t have a car, you can hitch a ride by car and boat to Playa Grande for some good waves as well as some of Costa Rica’s largest leatherback turtles.
The nightlife in Tamarindo can be wild as well. The most happening bars in town are Babylon and La Barra. Other popular spots that go on throughout the week include the Monkey Bar at the Best Western Tamarindo Vista Villas, which still brags that they were featured on Wild On E! like ten years ago, and the bar at the Hotel Pasatiempo.If you’re looking to lose some money, head to the casino at the Barcelo Langosta, just to the south of Tamarindo.
If you’re looking for quality food, Tamarindo has too many options to even list; from amazing sushi, to small medeterrenian bistros, your palette can be satisfied pretty much no matter what it desires.
Getting to Tamarindo from San Jose: take a direct bus from Pulmitan de Liberia or change buses in Liberia. Nature Air and Sansa both offer several flights daily from both San Jose and Tamarindo. If you are driving to Tamarindo from San Jose or Liberia, you’d have to be a complete idiot to get lost. Safe Travels!
Tamarindo Costa Rica in a larger map
Gazing down on the blue Pacific from high on the hillsides of Manuel Antonio, it’s almost impossible to hold back a gasp of delight. Offshore, rocky islands dot the vast expanse of blue, and in the foreground, the rich, deep green of the rain forest sweeps down to the water. Located on the Central Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio has been a long time destination for travelers to Costa Rica. Its relative proximity to San Jose by road, its stunning beauty and certainly because of the country’s most visited national park, have made Manuel Antonio an amazing destination for travelers from rag tag backpackers to uber-high end socialites.
The Manuel Antonio area more or less includes anything between Quepos and the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, located at the very end of the coastal road. The park was established in 1972, resulting in the entire area being called Manuel Antonio. Inside the actual national park, travelers can find four beaches: Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, Escondido, and Playita. The beaches are amazing and are home to famously brave monkeys that have a habit of stealing items left alone on the beach.
Winding along te road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio, travelers will see small hotels and restaurants dotting the way. There is even a restaurant at the Costa Verde hotel called El Avion, and is home to an old C-123 cargo plane that had been abandoned in San Jose by the CIA after the Nicaraguan civil war in the 80′s. Coffee conosuiers can visit Cafe Milagro for a hot cup of jo and some great food. If you want to catch a movie, head to the Si Como No hotel, and you’ll get free admission with dinner. There are also plenty of bars, and even a couple of small casinos to try your luck, all dotted along the lush green road that winds along the coast.
For the longest time, there were really only two hostels in the area: Wide Mouth Frog in Quepos, and Vista Serena in Manuel Antonio. Recently however, there has been an addition to the backpacking scene, and not a bad one. Backpackers Manuel Antonio opened a pretty cool hostel right in the middle of Manuel Antonio, almost dead center between Quepos and the National Park. Backpackers Manuel Antonio boasts the same low rates as the other hostels in the area, as well as a new swimming pool with an ocean view.
To get to Quepos and Manuel Antonio from San Jose, you can catch a direct bus from the Coca Cola Terminal downtown (3 1/2 hrs+), there are several a day. Sansa and Nature Air also offer several flights a day (25 minutes), and sometimes Nature Air has some amazing deals. From Quepos, it’s not hard to head south to Dominical, or north to Puntarenas to catch the ferry to the Nicoy Peninsula.
Manuel Antonio Costa Rica in a larger map
The Nosara area is located in the province of Guanacaste, on the Nicoya peninsula, just a skip north of Samara. The area consists of Playa Guinoes, Playa Pelada, and the small community of Garza to the south. The area is a landscape of lush rain forest even during the dry season, and wildlife abounds. The area is also known for it’s consistent surf, and easy acccess to heavier breaks like Marbella to the north. However, even if you’re not into surf, Nosara still has plenty to offer.
The best beach of the three in the area is Playa Guiones, a vast crescent shaped beach with great sand and few rocks. Almost nothing is built close to the beach, as there is a protected band of land between the beach and the rain forest that serves as a picturesque backdrop. On the hilliside above Guiones, amazing homes dot the area. If you are looking for entertainment head to Kaya Sol, pretty much the closest bar to the beach in Guiones. You’ll find a well balanced menu and plenty of cold beer. For a little more lively atmosphere, walk a couple of meters to the Guilded Iguana. During the day time this pool bar is a favorite meeting spot of local ex-pats. Nosara even has it’s own English pub, The Black Sheep. the authenticity of this bar is so amazing that if you woke up inside, you could think that you were actually in a roadside pub in the English countryside. The owner doesn’t even stock local beers, and has his favorites specially imported. Find a local to get directions, and you’ll definitely need a ride.
Nosara in a larger map
Nosara is also considered the yoga capital of Costa Rica, with yogis from all over coming to practice and teach. The Nosara Yoga Institute offers a variety of courses, and has daily classes to balance out the alcohol and drug intake. There are a few areas that are worth a good hike, horseback riding on the beach and sea kayaking, can all take up some of your leisure time.
For a true beach hostel experience, you’ll have to stay at Solo Bueno. Located just a short walk from Playa Guiones, Mateo and Kimberly run a lively hostel with a super laid back atmosphere. Beds are cheap, and there are private rooms out back in the rancho. It’s also the central meeting spot more or less for the areas surfers. Be wary of staying in the area for too long if you aspire to accomplish anything in your life, Nosara has a way of sucking people in and keeping them. You can find former executives waiting tables or bartending, and they’re not stuck in a rut, they’re stuck in their paradise.
Nature Air and Sansa offer daily flights to Nosara from San Jose. Nature Air even has some flights from Tamarindo. To get to Nosara by bus, you need to catch the 5:00 AM bus from Tracopa in San Jose (direct) or you can take any direct bus to Nicoya and catch the collectivo or a taxi to Nosara from there.
This wonderful beach town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica holds many surprises. With its laid back attitude and Caribbean life style, you can be assured of a relaxing Costa Rican holiday. Naturally, for those of us who like a more active holiday, Puerto Viejo has it all. Long walks on pristine beaches, experiencing exotic flora and fauna in a wildlife refuge, snorkeling or diving among the many reefs in our crystal clear waters, world-class surfing, mountain biking, kayaking and cultural visits to indigenous peoples.
Located about an hour and a half east of Limon, the largest city on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, Puerto Viejo has long been an afterthought in the realm of Costa Rican tourism. Up until a few years ago, just getting to Puerto Viejo and the Talamanca region was a pain. The highway leading from San Jose to Limon is one of the country’s most treacherous, and road conditions after Limon were fair at best, even during the dry season. The impressive airport in Limon is still rarely used for anything other than aid mission support. But gradually things have improved; Electricity brought lights and refrigeration to Puerto Viejo in 1986 and to Manzanillo in 1988. Private phones were installed in 1996 and broadband internet became available in 2006. Eventually tourism, albeit still on a small scale compared to the rest of Costa Rica, started to trickle into the area.
Today Puerto Viejo still doesn’t have a large hotel, and most of the travelers bouncing through are backpacker types looking for a rasta experience or just a slower pace of life. The best known hostel in Puerto Viejo is called Rockin J’s, and is actually located just outside of town. J’s offers hammocks, tents, shared cabinas, private cabinas as well as a tree house. This hostel definitely is the heart of the party as far as outsiders go. In town, there is a new and very impressive hostel, Pagalu. Although it’s a little bit sparing in the character department, Pagalu is a clean and comfortable hostel, thoughtfully put together, and a nice change of pace from the seemingly non-stop party atmosphere of Rockin J’s.
Something that the Caribbean has that no other part of Costa Rica can compete with is the food. Puerto Viejo pumps out, at a very slow pace, interesting cuisine using local, fresh ingredients. Spicy jerk chicken, fish are favorites along with patacones (plaintain banana french fried style), and coconut rice and beans. Spicy patti (meat pie) are commonly offered on the street. The cuisine, which you can find in specialty restaurants in San Jose, has been an important Afro-Caribbean contribution to Costa Rican culture.
To see some of the Country’s most beautiful beaches, just head east from Puerto Viejo towards Panama. Somewhere in between you’ll find magestic places like Manzanillo and Punta Uva. ride a bike to the west and you’ll find the small town of Cahuita, which even has it’s own rum distillery, making a delicious coconut flavored rum that makes Malibu taste like bleach. From Puerto Viejo, it’s just a short day trip to Bocas Del Toro on the Caribbean side, which is booming from what was a kind of backpackers secret spot, to a newly found luxury destination and spring break spot.
To get to Puerto Viejo, take a direct bus from Terminal Caribe in San Jose. there are 4 buses daily, and the ride is about 4 1/2 hours. Generally, while it’s pouring rain in the rest of Costa rica from September tohrough November, the Caribbean side is beautiful.
Puerto Viejo in a larger map
The Arenal Volcano, in Spanish Volcán Arenal, is an active andesitic stratovolcano in north-western Costa Rica (10.5N, 84.7W), around 90 km north-west of San José, in the province of Alajuela. Recognised as a volcano since the 19th century, it was known by foreign investigators as “Volcan Costa Rica, Rio Frio”, “Canastos” Volcano and “Cerro de los Guatusos”. Arenal is the youngest and most active of all the mountains in Costa Rica. Scientists have been able to date it back to more than 4000 years ago. The area remained largely unexplored until 1937, when a documented expedition took place to reach the summit.
Once locally known as Cerro Arenal (i.e. Mount Arenal) it was presumed extinct until July 29, 1968 when an earthquake caused it to erupt, after approximately 400 years of dormancy. The eruption wiped out the town of Arenal and killed 87 people . It lasted for several days, and during that time destroyed crops, property, livestock, and forests. 15 square kilometers were buried and the explosion affected over 232 square kilometers. The eruption caused three new and active craters to form. Before the eruption, there was a wide variety of plant and wildlife on the mountain. It has been active since the explosion and can be reported to have minor eruptions every 5-10 minutes.
To get to Arenal from the hostel in San Jose, the most economic option is to take the public bus. The direct public bus leaves San Jose, from Terminal San Carlos, 3 times a day. The ride takes about 4 hours. You can also fly to Arenal from San Jose with Nature Air. They use a smaller municipal style airport, which is only about 12 minutes from the hostel in a taxi. Sometimes you can find great deals on Nature Air to tons of destinations in Costa Rica.