- Published: Friday, 08 May 2015 09:00
- Written by Kara K. Murphy
Is Manuel Antonio worth visiting, or is it too touristy? Which beaches are the most beautiful? Should we go to the Osa or Nicoya Peninsula? Where should we go zip lining? Where can we see lots of wildlife? Those are just a few of the questions we had when planning our trip to Costa Rica. Just in time to save us from a few missteps, Rob Harper at Namu Travel Group helped us answer them all. With his expert, enthusiastic advice, we set off on a nine-day tour of Costa Rica to see what this pura vida thing is all about.
We’d originally planned to stay one night in San Jose after flying in, but we lost a day because of flight delays, so we didn’t waste any time heading to our next destination. Our driver was waiting for us when we landed, and one tasty lunch and three hours later, we’d reached Arenal. We stayed at a small local lodge in El Castillo, about 15 miles outside of La Fortuna, the main town in the area. At just $55 a night, it was super affordable, but there were power outage issues, and it was accessible only by one incredibly bumpy road (the kind of road locals call a “Costa Rican massage”) that’s poorly lit at night. Stay in La Fortuna—it’s worth the extra cash.
The best thing about staying in El Castillo, located at the foot of Volcano Arenal, was the view. We arrived in the black of night and woke up to a spectacular, close-up look at the volcano against a clear blue sky. We were lucky. We heard stories of visitors in the days before we arrived who could barely see the volcano because of cloud cover, but the vacation gods favored us, and it was visible the entire time we were there.
After our first Tico breakfast (a traditional plate of eggs, rice, black beans, plantains, corn tortillas, and turrialba cheese), we headed out for an activity-packed day organized by the Costa Rica Tourism Board. Be sure to check out their website when planning your trip—they’re a great resource, and their site is full of tips and advice.
A driver from Ecoglide Arenal Park picked us up for our first activity of the day: a canopy tour in the forest at the foot of the volcano. The tour consists of 13 zip line cables and a scary-amazing swing called the Tarzan Swing. A second safety cable puts first-timers like me at ease, and the views are absolutely stunning. The Tarzan Swing, situated after the eighth cable, is exactly what it sounds like: a long, thick rope that’s made for swinging. The arc of the swing is so high it feels like you could fly right out of the forest! It’s an incredible adrenaline rush. If this doesn’t sound like fun, you can opt out and meet the group at the bottom of the swing before moving on to the next cable.
After leaving Ecoglide, we stopped for a quick lunch of casados, a typical Costa Rican meal served with the same staples as breakfast: rice, black beans, plantains, and corn tortillas, plus a salad and your choice of protein (usually chicken, pork, beef, or fish). There’s also usually an all-veggie version. Full from lunch, we headed to the La Fortuna waterfall. It can get crowded during peak season, but we were lucky to be there on a day without much foot traffic. It’s a hike down lots of steps, so wear sturdy shoes and prepare yourself for a workout on the way back up. You’ll find your efforts worth it. The waterfall is beautiful and the water refreshingly cold.
Our last stop of the day was Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. Tabacón was the first hot springs resort to open to the public in the region, and it’s arguably the best. The hot springs at Tabacón are completely natural, created by rainwater heated by magma. The resort is built around the naturally flowing springs, with the addition of two cold springs and a pool with a swim-up bar. If you’re in the mood for a bit more pampering, there’s a tranquil spa with a full menu of services. You don’t have to stay at the resort to enjoy the springs (although admission is included with your stay, along with access to a private, hotel guests-only area). You can buy a day pass, which includes a meal—or two, depending on your pass—at Ave del Paraiso restaurant, a buffet with a different international theme each day. We had a blast at Tabacón—it was the perfect way to end our active day in Arenal.
The Osa Peninsula
When it was time to leave Arenal we took a short regional flight from the La Fortuna airport to Quepos airport, just outside of Manuel Antonio. There, a driver met us from Kurà Design Villas, an exclusive, eco-friendly boutique hotel that would be our magical home for the next few days. I say magical because Kurà is a place where fairies live. Friendly, knowledgeable fairies who invite you into their breathtaking home, take care of your every need before you even know you need it, feed you locally grown home-cooked meals, and give you the most amazing respite from everyday life. Another Costa Rican massage awaits you on your way to Kura, but all memory of that bumpy road fades away once you realize where you are—a special place bursting with beauty, adventure, and magic.
After a delicious welcome cocktail and an introduction to the grounds and area by a staff member, we were shown to our villa. Located in the Osa Peninsula near Uvita, Kura is an adults-only hotel with villas to accommodate just six couples at a time. Everything about Kura is stunning, from the infinity pool and open-air deck area to the lovely spa and the lush grounds that lead to each open-concept villa.
One wall of our villa was made entirely of glass, with sliding doors that opened up to a terrace, the perfect spot to take in spectacular views of the Whale’s Tail sandbar in Marino Ballena National Park and Cano Island, and the jungles of the Osa Peninsula. The palatial villa was truly luxurious, with a plush king-sized bed, bamboo ceilings, a glass-enclosed shower with double rainfall showerheads, beautiful ambient lighting, a walk-in closet and double stone sinks. There was even an espresso maker and an in-room wine refrigerator.
All of the meals at Kura are served poolside, and every bite was delicious. Breakfast is included, and any other meals you have are added to your bill for you to settle up at checkout. Everything is fresh and made with local ingredients, including micro-greens that are grown on site! I didn’t have a single meal I didn’t enjoy, and as a pescatarian, there were plenty of options for me. One of our meal highlights was a complimentary buffet prepared by a local chef, an event that is scheduled once per week, only when the hotel is at capacity. It was a fun-filled, festive evening, and the food was outstanding.
Like everywhere in Costa Rica, there is no end to the activities you can do at Kura. You can ride an ATV, hike in Corcovado National Park, snorkel, go zip lining and diving, whatever you desire. Beware: You may get to Kura and never want to leave, like we did. We spent a day at the hotel’s private beach (which is paradise!) and we ventured to Marino Ballena National Park to walk out on the Whale’s Tale, but otherwise all we wanted to do was enjoy the serenity of our beautiful villa, relax by the infinity pool, and drink delicious cocktails made with fresh fruits. We saved the strenuous activities for our next destination: Manuel Antonio.
Leaving Kura was like emerging from a dream, but we were well rested and ready for our next adventure. Our driver took us down the bumpy road and stopped at Artifice, a shop in Uvita that specializes in local, handcrafted items. Costa Rica is known for woodwork, and Artifice has masks, wood bowls, and spoons, along with paintings by local artists, jewelry, clothing, and more. We found prices here to be reasonable, and the shop owner was very knowledgeable about each item. It’s definitely a must-stop in Uvita.
After shopping, our driver headed north to Manuel Antonio. When we checked in at Mango Moon Hotel, a few miles past the heart of Manuel Antonio in Quepos, we grabbed lunch and drinks at the bar and chatted with friendly locals. “Mango Moon is the place to be on Friday nights,” said one. “It’s the living room of Manuel Antonio,” said another. They were right.
Later that night, after a magnificent sunset, the bar area turned into a party complete with live music. The crowd was mostly young locals, with some exceptions, including us tourists who were staying at the hotel. Though we were exhausted and scheduled to be up at 7 a.m. the following morning, we stuck around to have a drink and see a two-toed sloth climbing along an electrical wire! We hope he made it safely to a tree.
The next morning rolled around quickly, and after a quick breakfast (a traditional Tico breakfast here costs $5), we set off for Manuel Antonio National Park. The staff at Mango Moon booked us with HP Tours, and our guide was Henry, the owner. He’s fantastic and has eagle eyes worthy of a Marvel superhero. He could easily spot things such as stick bugs, lizards, and other creatures that camouflage themselves to blend in to their environments. It’s worth it to pay a guide to go through the park, otherwise you’ll miss a lot—and there’s a lot to see! Squirrel monkeys, white-faced capuchins, sloths, toucans, and more. It’s a great place to see a lot of wildlife in one place.
Manuel Antonio also boasts a beautiful beach, but it does get crowded on the weekends. If you want more space to yourself, it’s best to visit on a weekday.
After the park, we stopped in at Mango Moon for a quick snack before we were picked up for our ATV tour. Apparently, riding an ATV is similar to riding a motorcycle. We were given a short lesson about how to operate the vehicles, and we took a practice drive before setting off. We splashed through streams and drove through fields and farms until we parked for a short walk to a waterfall. There, we took a break and swam a bit in the freezing (yet rejuvenating) water. Next, we arrived at a patio in the trees where we had the most delicious lunch. The tree house setting was scenic and great fun, but the food! Compliments to the cook, who very well could have been a grandmother from a nearby village; it was one of my favorite meals on the trip. It was a traditional Costa Rican plate, with salad, rice (she made a chicken-free version for me), plantains, and beans. There must’ve been a lot of love in that food.
On our last morning at Mango Moon, a chestnut-mandibled toucan landed on a tree right outside the window of our room. It was only there for a few moments. If Donna, the owner of Mango Moon and a New Jersey expat, hadn’t told us to look, we would’ve missed it. (Thank you, Donna!)
Still excited about our toucan sighting, we headed to breakfast to find more visitors had come to see us off: a family of squirrel monkeys! It was a fun farewell to an unforgettable place.
We booked our fight home out of Liberia, which meant we had to make the five-hour drive from Manuel Antonio to Guanacaste. Since we weren’t doing the driving, we didn’t mind the trek. The road was paved, and it was a straight shot.
Shelley greeted us warmly and offered help with our bags and a refreshing cocktail at Villa Buena Onda, a luxury, adults-only hotel operated by Namu Travel Group. Our room was on the first floor, and it had a lovely garden with hanging canopy chairs (the rest of the rooms have ocean views, but no garden).
We got settled in and headed to lunch. Three meals are included with each night’s stay at Villa Buena Onda, and we really enjoyed this no-hassle set up. Plus, the food was great. Again, there were plenty of delicious options for me to eat. Cocktails were very generous, which allowed us to indulge during our last day in Costa Rica.
Later in the evening, we took the hotel’s complimentary shuttle service down to Playa del Coco (Coco Beach) to do a little last-minute souvenir shopping and to watch the sunset. Such a beautiful view!
We spent the next morning lounging by the pool. Our flight was delayed, but we didn’t mind at all. The best way to describe Villa Buena Onda is that it’s like staying at a friend’s luxurious home. There are plenty of communal areas for lounging, and there’s even an “honor bar” on the second floor where if you take something from the fridge you’re supposed to write it down in the log so they know to bill your room. During our last few hours in Costa Rica, we played Jenga by the pool and had a couple of drinks and enjoyed the sun and fresh air. How’s that for pura vida?