Holy cow, how long as it been since I did a legit TRAVEL post?! Well, after moving back to the U.S., I (sadly) haven’t has as many opportunities to get out of the country (or even travel much WITHIN the country). But, since my company shuts down and “gives” us (unpaid *eyeroll*) leave for the last two weeks of December, I decided that I would take advantage of the time off by doing some TRAVELING again. Finally! I called two of my best friends and we decided to plan a trip together!
Knowing that we only had one week of travel, we wanted to stay somewhere similar to our time zone so we didn’t have to try to battle jet lag for such a short time. That ultimately led us to picking COSTA RICA that has the same time zone as Montana during Daylight Saving Time and is only an hour different outside of that. Plus, we wanted to check out somewhere beautiful, warm, and beach-y. We succeeded!
I knew that I had two weeks off but that one of those weeks was during the week of Christmas. My male friend, Chris, was wrapping up finals the week before I got off, and my female friend, Amanda, has unlimited PTO with her company (the dream!) so she was able to take time off whenever. Because of that, we decided on the week of December 16-22.
We began planning our vacation in September. It was difficult to decide when to buy plane tickets. I’ve read that when traveling internationally, the best time to buy tickets is around 3 months in advanced… but the thing about Costa Rica is that it definitely has peak travel seasons, starting right about the time we arrived. The dry season of Costa Rica lasts from mid-December to April-ish, and the wet season is typically May – mid-December with a couple of shoulder weeks in between. That means that plane tickets to Costa Rica are usually more expensive during the dry season so finding great deals isn’t usually an option. When we started looking, we were able to find some round trip tickets from Montana to Costa Rica in the high $700 range, but these trips were awful. They all included overnight airport layovers (ugh) and over 24 hours of plane travel! We kept watching and we finally pulled the trigger in September when we found flights that were directly there with around 12 hours of travel each way! Unfortunately, they ended up being $920 round trip… But worth it not to have to sleep in an airport terminal and miss out on a day of vacation, right?!
Some Costa Rica Airport Tips
Most people probably know that you can travel into San José, the capital city of Costa Rica. But did you know there are also other airports you can fly into?! I would recommend picking an area of Costa Rica you’re interested in staying at and finding the closest airport, as the roads in Costa Rica can be very (VERY VERY) bumpy and not well maintained.
The San José airport (Santamaría International Airport) is the main airport and you’ll often find the best deals here. But, because it’s the biggest and most common airport, they also have a lot more price jacking than the other airports. One of the most beautiful regions of Costa Rica is the northern Guanacaste area. Here, you’ll find another great option in Liberia to fly into! It’s the Daniel Oduber International Airport and a particularly great option if you’re planning on staying in Northern Costa Rica!
We decided that we were going to stay in the Coco Beach area which is located in the North Western part of the country in the Guanacaste province and happens to only be about a 20 minute drive from the Liberia airport, so we ended up flying in there. It’s a bit smaller than San José’s airport and also a little less crazy and quicker to get through. If you’re staying around this area, I’d recommend checking out the Liberia airport! Make sure to shop around and pay attention to where you want to explore in Costa Rica! Now! Onto my personal Costa Rican travel experience!
Pre-Costa Rica: December 16th, 2018
We flew United and left from Missoula early, at 6:30 in the morning, so we were at the airport by 5am, ready to go! It was early but we were excited to begin our travel adventures!
Our route there consisted of flying from Missoula to Denver to Houston to Liberia, Costa Rica! We were set to arrive around 9pm local time. As we made our way to Denver, we had some free time to browse the airport and walk around. Then we boarded our next flight to Houston where we had a longer layover. We began getting a bit nervous as they moved our gate pretty last minute and shuffled us around… Then they told us our plane was going to be a bit delayed, but eventually it arrived! They then let us begin boarding around 6:30pm even though our plane should have departed by then. I was in the group ahead of Amanda and Chris, so I boarded first, an hour later than we were scheduled, but oh well. As I was sitting on the plane, Amanda texted me that they stopped the boarding. I was stuck on the plane so there was nothing I could do but wait for updates. After about another half hour, they began boarding us again, so we calmed down. My friends joined me on the plane AND THEN the pilot announced that there were little “nicks” in the jet engine fan blades and that even though they were smaller than the size of a pencil eraser, the mechanical crew couldn’t clear us to fly. They were going to attempt to buff them out so we could be on our way. So we sat and waited in the cramped United economy seating, hoping for updates. After some time, the pilot came back on and complained that the mechanical crew does everything by paper and pencil and so it takes longer for them to go back and forth and try to get clearance. So we waited some more. At this point it was approaching 9pm, we’d been on the plane for HOURS, and they finally told us that the mechanical crew couldn’t buff out the nicks in the blades and that by the time they got us on another plane or fixed them, it would be “past curfew” in Costa Rica and the customs agents would be gone so we had no choice but to de-board and spend the night in a hotel in Houston.
It was a MESS. As we got off the plane, they told us they would NOT be retrieving our luggage (which had all of our clean clothes and traveling needs…) but they would hand out “travel packs” if you asked nicely (*eyeroll*). This was frustrating because the flight crew on board told us we COULD get our suitcases removed if we requested. So we requested as we got up to the customer service. They told us no. Glad you’re all on the same page with your policies, United! I asked if I could have a tee shirt or what I was supposed to do for pajamas and they told me to sleep in my birthday suit. Wow. Thanks. Super unprofessional. They herded us into line for our hotel vouchers where it took easily another hour to get them all printed.
They decided to print off vouchers by last name, so I got mine pretty early (yay for having a last name closer to the front of the alphabet). Unfortunately, Amanda and Chris have last names closer to the middle of the alphabet, so I waited with them as they randomly shouted out last names until they collected theirs. We were all at the same hotel, but nobody could tell us how to get there which was frustrating. Amanda called the hotel directly and they told us to go in front of gate C5 and they’d be there in 20 minutes so we ventured downstairs and waited some more. It was past 9:30pm by this point (and we should have been in Costa Rica by then!). So we waited for our 20 minutes and more of our other distressed passengers joined us. Nobody showed up. We waited 45 minutes. Nobody showed up. Amanda called again and apparently the shuttle driver was picking up OTHER passengers from A DIFFERENT gate. Awesome. So they told us to hang tight and it would be just about another 20 minutes. Finally they arrived and by this time, there were too many people for the shuttle. We managed to cram a ton (read: too many) people on the shuttle… people were standing, sitting on laps, crammed like sardines just trying to get to the hotel and get some rest. It was almost 11pm. When we finally got to the hotel around 11:15pm, there were so many people checking in and only two hotel attendants. So it took another 30-45 minutes to get us checked in. The hotel was fine, but NOBODY wanted to be there. Especially with our rescheduled flight at 8am the next morning. Everyone had to schedule a 6am shuttle. That meant we had enough time hand wash our smelly underwear to re-wear again the next day, and pass out for a few hours before having to get back up (no face wash in their little toiletry baggy), feeling really gross. As we checked into the security line, the guy even commented that I looked different from my picture on my passport lol. Yeah, that’s what happens when I have no makeup, greasy hair, and a grumpy face from lack of sleep and frustration with United. But THANKFULLY they got us a functioning plane that morning. Finally, we made it to our destination: Coco Beach in Costa Rica…
Day 1: December 17th, 2018
We arrived in Liberia around noon on the 17th. We had some activities planned so we decided to rent a car for the week that we were there. There was some chaos with the Car Rental… Chris booked it and was under the impression he had international insurance on his current insurance policy. They said we had to get it or put down a $5,000 deposit. It was an extra $20/day. They gave us a slightly better option for liability insurance and a $1,000 deposit, which we ended up having to do. It was a bit frustrating, but we got it figured out. My suggestion to you is to study up on what exactly you NEED before you go down and try and find a car rental company that doesn’t have all of those hidden fees.
We made our way to Coco Beach and our AirBnb! Luckily we had set aside the 17th to be our “settle in” day and didn’t have anything planned. We stayed at Cocomarindo, in an upstairs unit. We ended up PAYING for 5 nights (since we were supposed to arrive the 16th) and after all the taxes and fees, it came to exactly $500. Split three ways, that was only $166.67 per person for the whole trip. Not bad! And we were a five minute walk from the beach so it was perfect.
Something that’s important to note is that Coco Beach isn’t really known for being super “touristy”. The sand is fine, but it’s not super soft. There are lots of little shells and sea glass. The current is a little strong. People do swim in it, but there’s mostly a bunch of fishing boats there.
It was also convenient that just down the road from us, there was Supercomprendo, a little super market. We were trying to do Costa Rica on a budget, so we bought a lot of food and kept it in the kitchen at our AirBnb. It was perfect. We spent our first day in Costa Rica stocking up, checking out the beach, and enjoy the enormous pool at our AirBnb and relaxing. We were exhausted from the extra day of travel had an adventure planned for Tuesday so we went to bed early.
Day 2: December 18th, 2018
We had scheduled one of the most popular tourist activities in Costa Rica… Zip lining! We went with The Congo Trail because it was only about 20 minutes away from our AirBnb and it was very affordable! For the standard zip line consisting of 11 zip lines and 3 hanging bridges, it was $35. If you wanted to do the three SUPER zip lines, including a giant drop and massive tarzan swing (called the EXTREME zip line tour), it was also $35. If you wanted to do BOTH, you got one for half off. So we did that and paid $53 in total for zip lining from about 9am to 1pm. It was an absolute blast! We ended up starting on the extreme tour since there were two other girls who booked just the extreme tour going at that time. Kind of backwards to do the scary tour first, but I actually liked it that way!
The first three zip lines were just really long and we soared with our arms out like Superman! It was a little freaky being that high up. Of course, I kept having horrible visions of my cable snapping and falling hundreds of feet to the ground (spoiler alert: that didn’t happen). But it was really fun! After the regular zip lines, we wet to the more “extreme” part of the Extreme Tour…
We had to do these massive drops where you just free fall and it was terrifying. Guys, I’ve been skydiving, but I screamed way worse as I was just hanging there and suddenly plunged 50 feet!
The Tarzan swing was definitely the scariest! They crank you up suuuuper high and then just unclip you and let you swing down. I was so terrified that my breath caught and I couldn’t have screamed even if I had wanted to! It was super scary but it was really fun! After the extreme tour, the gals we were with left and it was just me, Amanda, Chris, and our tour guides left to do the regular zip line.
The standard zip line was much calmer and we sat up regularly as we cruised over the lush tree tops. It was a very beautiful day and we had a BLAST. One of the tour guides even asked for my number lol. So needless to say, everyone was having a good time on the tour. I would highly recommend that you go zip lining if you’re in Costa Rica. There are places all over that offer it, so even if The Congo Trail is a bit far from you, there’s sure to be one closer by. We paid an extra $15 for pictures and videos taken by a guy there on the Extreme Tour and then one of the tour guides took my phone and took a ton of pictures of us on the Regular Tour. It was definitely worth it.
Afterwards we checked out the little animal sanctuary they had. It was only $5 to go in and check out. They have a lot of rescued “pets” that people try to illegally keep and can’t manage to take proper care of. There were a bunch of monkeys, an alligator, turtles, chickens, birds, a donkey, goats… Tons of little animals that were fun to see.
After the animal sanctuary, we made our way back to our AirBnb and showered off and relaxed before heading down to Coco Beach again. We wanted to check out the sunset and then grab some food for our first night out.
We walked to Zi Lounge right on Coco Beach where they were playing Christmas music. It felt a bit out of place in the 80+ degree weather, but I suppose that is what they’re used to in Costa Rica (and the southern hemisphere).
We HAD to get some fancy drinks to celebrate our first full day in Costa Rica and it was amazing! So delicious.
The best part though, was definitely the meal. We all ordered Casado, which is considered a traditional Costa Rican dish consisting of rice, beans, a meat of your choosing, fried plantains, and usually some vegetables or a salad. I am not kidding when I say IT IS SO GOOD. Costa Rica isn’t super well known for having “traditional” dishes. They do a lot of rice and beans with various meats, but the way they cook the Casado is to perfection!! If you make it to Costa Rica, make sure to get Casado once or twice because it varies from restaurant to restaurant but in my experience, it was always very good.
During our meal, there were these kids who would run around and try selling you little designs they made out of corn husks… This is a trick for tourists. If they offer it to you, you’ll probably say, “No thank you.” And then they insist that it’s free and keep shoving it to you until you take it, at which point, many tourists feel guilty and end up giving the kids some money for the thing they didn’t want in the first place. It’s not required to give them money, but if you don’t, they hoover around you for an awkwardly long time. Eventually they’ll leave. But it’s something that might happen to you so it’s good to be aware of.
After dinner, we headed back to our AirBnb, which was only about a 10-15 min walk away from downtown. We decided to get in the pool since it was still pretty warm outside. We met a nice Canadian couple that was visiting as well and they told us all about their Catamaran adventures they found along Coco Beach and how much fun they had on it… We decided to check that out the next day!
Day 3: December 19th, 2018
After the Canadian couple told us about their catamaran adventures and how much fun they had snorkeling and sailing, we decided to see what they offered. So we went to the beach and signed up for a tour! Our catamaran was set to leave at 2pm and it would go until around 8pm. During the tour, we would get an open bar and dinner. They’d show us around the coast, and take us to a beach to go snorkeling. Then we’d come back and watch the sunset and head back to Coco Beach.
We boarded the catamaran and claimed some seats up top to get a little sunshine on our pale skin! We hung out and ordered little paper cups of daiquiri lol. It was good! More slushy than alcohol, but it was fine. We got to see some cool things on our tour.
We eventually made our way to our destination: Playa Huevos or “Egg Beach”. I’m not sure why it was called Egg Beach because it was all black and white sand… Zebra Beach would have been more appropriate! The sand was CRAZY soft, and it was here that we began our snorkeling adventures.
We also saw a lot of other things like eels, sea urchins, brightly colored fish, and more! It was very fun. After we snorkeled, we went back to the beach to hang out for a while. On the beach, there was a cave you could go in that was pretty cool. Then we hung out and played in the water. One of the guides was very friendly and practicing Spanish with me. It was pretty cool. Then we got back on the catamaran for dinner and the sunset portion of the cruise.
The dinner was honestly not very good lol. But since it was included I can’t complain. There was a kind of buffet that had some Casado elements to it, but the meat wasn’t cooked super well or seasoned nicely. The beans were a bit bland. But we didn’t go on the cruise looking for a five star meal. The overall experience was still great!
As the sun was setting and we continued getting some free unlimited beverages, we definitely enjoyed ourselves! We began dancing to some Spanish music and the guide who practiced Spanish with me insisted on dancing with me. He used simple Spanish to tell me how beautiful I am and compliment my pale skin. Apparently the darker men like pale women in Costa Rica. We danced and sang and kissed on the top of the catamaran in the post sunset cruise and it was all overwhelmingly fun… (*blush*blush*blush*).
As they dropped us off, the tour guide insisted we come out to Coco Beach for some drinks and fun later that night… I didn’t get his number so we eventually ventured out on our own to see if we ran into him… Sadly, we did not. But remember that tour guide that liked me from the zip line adventures? He met up with us down in Coco Beach! It was a little crazy and I felt quite popular in Costa Rica lol. We drank and sang karaoke together, but things got a little weird when he started insisting I was his girlfriend and he wanted to come back to the United States with me… lol. We didn’t stay too much longer after that. I promised I would see him again (I didn’t) and we discreetly made our way back to our AirBnb, sans any local boys… 🙂
Day 4: December 20th, 2018
After the adventures of the past couple of days, we decided a relaxing beach day was in order! We wanted to get some souvenirs and head south of Coco Beach to Flamingo Beach, a much more popular tourist destination. This is when we first truly experienced how awful the roads in Costa Rica can be! Luckily our rental car was four wheel drive, which I would say is necessary if you’re going to be doing any actual driving in Costa Rica! Flamingo beach was about an hour south of Coco Beach.
We played in the ocean for a long time. It was fun swimming around and riding the waves! We swam and got soaked. It was another hot day, so the cool ocean water was much needed. And the SAND here was just amazing. So incredibly soft and warm.
On the more touristy beaches, you’ll often find people pushing carts and selling things. One gal was selling fresh coconut for $1 so we had to try it! It was really good!
After we had our fill of the beach and sunshine, we walked around and bought some souvenirs. There were a lot more sturdy shops here and there were plenty of things to check out!
Eventually our hunger kicked in and we went to a restaurant on the beach. In the restaurant, I ordered more Casado (duh) and it was probably my favorite Casado of the whole trip!!
The rice and beans were good, but the meat and little potatoes were AMAZING. And the fried plantains were sweet but not too sweet and they were perfect. I just absolutely loved this meal! Seriously, you guys need to go to Costa Rica for this delicious dish!!
We drove around and kind of watched the sunset but ended up getting a bit tired and restless and wanted to get back to the AirBnb before too much longer. We took a slightly longer, but better paved, road back. We got back to Coco Beach in the dark and ended up passing out early.
As a future note, bring BUG SPRAY if you are prone to bug bites like I am. Amanda and Chris didn’t have hardly any issue with the bugs, but I got eaten alive by them. I’m always prone to mosquito bites though, so maybe you’ll fare better than I did… Still, doesn’t hurt to have it!
Day 5: December 21, 2018
For our final day, Chris had spoken with a coworker who told him about Blue River Resort in the Guanacaste region. She had told him that it was a must do if we were near there, so we said sure and booked a day there. It wasn’t crazy expensive, about $62 per person. Again, we had a rental car so we drove ourselves there and checked in at 10am. (More HORRIFIC roads towards the resort, just an FYI if you think about going there) We were welcomed with little mimosas once we got there. It took us a good couple of hours to drive there because we had to go so slowly on the bumpy, rock filled roads.
The resort was pretty cool though. The first thing we did was get a guided hike where we saw the blue river and ended up at a waterfall and little pool we were able to swim in!
The waterfall swimming might have been my favorite part of the trip! We were deep in the forests of Guanacaste and there was just this perfect little reservoir to jump into and enjoy. How beautiful was this place?
The tour guide said that it literally rains every single day up in the forests here. Rainy season, dry season, doesn’t matter. Eventually, it will rain up in Blue River at some point in the day!
After we had our fill of swimming, we hiked back to Blue River and lunch was included in our day passes. We got (you guessed it) more Casado!! Again, this Casado was extremely delicious as well. They even topped off lunch with dessert! Tres Leches cake! It’s super rich and super delicious. That was the first kind of dessert we’d gotten and it was good!
After we finished lunch, they kind of just let us run free in the resort to do what we wanted lol. There wasn’t a lot of guidance after that, so we took the rest of the afternoon to explore. We knew there were mud baths so we decided to head over and check those out.
The mud “baths” weren’t really baths… lol. What you did was head into a natural steam room and sit in the enclosure for 15 minutes to open your pores. Then you come out and smear the natural mud all over, wherever you want. The mud, however, is in a large vat the bubbles up from the ground. It didn’t smell the best but anything for beauty, right? So we smeared the stuff all over our bodies and waited for it to turn that lighter white color before washing it off.
After some time, we rinsed the mud off our bodies with the outdoor showers. It did leave our skin feeling softer, at least for a little while lol. It was fun to try, so why not…?
After we rinsed off, we wanted to check out the butterfly and hummingbird gardens so we walked around and dried off and checked them out.
Blue River Resort has beautiful nature paths to walk around too, so those are kind of nice to explore. We followed one to our last stop which was the natural mineral hot springs.
The hot springs were definitely HOT. It doesn’t help that you’re in a country that’s about 80 degrees out too! Amanda handles heat a lot better than I do, so she loved the hot waters! I was a bit warm, but it was still fun. The water definitely smelled like minerals, so it was an overall cool experience!
This was the last “adventure” we had planned since the next day we were leaving. We went back to Coco Beach after the hot springs and spent up the last of our Costa Rican money (Costa Rican Colóns). One thing that is good to note is that in ANY touristy place, prices will be quoted in American Dollars. So if you don’t manage to convert some cash, you’ll probably be fine in like 90% of the places you go! If you have a good travel credit card with no foreign transaction fees, you’ll be set for like 99% of the places you go. The only time you might have trouble is if you go to a tiny village and want to get something from a local shop.
We headed back to Coco Beach and bought some last minute stuff and went out to the restaurant across from our AirBnb. It was a little Italian restaurant and so we got some good food before heading back to pack up!
Day 6: December 22, 2018
We had to get up around 4:30am because we had to drive to the rental car place to return our car and get shuttled to the airport. At 5am, we dropped off our car and made our way with plenty of time to the Liberia airport for our 7:10am flight. Luckily, on the way BACK to Montana, we skipped Houston altogether, so we had a long flight from Liberia straight to Denver, a short layover, and then made it back to Montana at about 4:30pm. No hiccups on the way back home, which was a relief! Our plane from Denver to Missoula was amazingly tiny where our seats were both aisle and window seats!
The joys of traveling back to your small hometown! The plane ride from Denver to Missoula is only a couple of hours and it was crazy to have dinner home with your family after waking up in Costa Rica that morning! It was also crazy to go from 80+ degree weather to Montana’s 20 something degree temperatures… and that was a warm December for us back home!
All in all, it was a great trip with two of my best friends! We had a blast exploring Costa Rica, even though we really stayed in the Guanacaste region. Costa Rica isn’t a large country but there is definitely a lot to see!
Post Trip Thoughts
One thing I was bummed we didn’t get to do was go see Mount Arenal and Lake Arenal. I had wanted to see one of Central America’s largest active volcanos. I even found some kayaking and white water rafting we could have done on Lake Arenal in the base of the volcano which I think would have been really awesome.
Unfortunately, my travel companions didn’t want to go on that expedition. Sometimes when you travel with friends, you have to make compromises. I admit, I was a bit frustrated to not make it there, but we got to do and see a lot and I still had a great time.
Another thing that I briefly mentioned above is the Costa Rican Colónes, the currency in Costa Rica… I only exchanged $200 USA to Colónes, but it was too much! If you’re going to be spending time in more touristy/popular places, you definitely don’t need to bring a bunch of cash. More often than not, the prices were quoted in USD and it was typical to pay in American dollars. I was told beforehand that I would pay more if I paid in USD, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Almost every place we went accepted credit cards as well. If you have USD and good travel credit cards with no foreign transaction fees, you’ll be just fine without a bunch of colónes! Just my two cents on the money!
Another destination we wanted to check out was San José, the country’s capital city.
It seemed like there would be good night life and a lot to do and see there! But after mapping it out, it looked like it was going to take us roughly 4 hours each way, going only 150 miles. Usually I can make it 120 miles in 2 hours going 60mph on the highways here… so that tells you that again, the roads are not necessarily ideal for long distance travel in Costa Rica. We would probably average somewhere between 30-45mph on that trip which would have been slow and tedious.
It was also a bit of a rough time for San José because less than a month before we went there, an American tourist was killed vacationing in San José by the security guard at her AirBnb complex! The Costa Ricans were quick to point out that the man accused of murdering here was actually Nicaraguan, not a local Costa Rican. Still, the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica issued a statement saying that in higher populated areas of Costa Rica, violent crime is on the rise and that U.S. citizens are are “frequent victims”. It was a super tragic situation and dissuaded us further from wanting to venture into the capital city.
I do think it’s important to know that not every place is dangerous because a murder happened in one spot… As a female traveler, I always exercise caution when traveling and avoid putting myself into dangerous situations, but I do the same thing here in the U.S. as well. I wouldn’t walk along the streets of downtown Detroit after dark all alone either. People are frequently murdered there but we aren’t issuing warnings to travelers not to come to the U.S. because there was a murder in Detroit, right? My experience with Costa Rica was that it was safe and fun and the locals were extremely friendly.
I hope to one day make it back to Costa Rica and explore more of the country! It is so beautiful and it was so much fun to be there! My dad says he might retire there one day, so maybe I’ll have more future opportunities! Until then, as the locals say, “Pura Vida!” and adios for now 🙂