We celebrated the inauguration of Costa Rica’s new president Carlos Alvarado (exiting times folks!) by taking advantage of the national holiday and heading to La Paz Waterfall Gardens for a day trip. It’s located near Poás volcano (currently closed due to recent emissions) which is about an hour north of San José’s airport. It’s a beautiful area with green rolling hills and lovely vistas as far as the eye can see. The gardens are part zoo, part rescue center along with typical Costa Rican culture exhibits and part of the exclusive Peace Lodge Hotel with prices starting at $300 per night. Fancy schmancy!
I admit I knew the place was a tourist destination and was skeptical of the $44 entrance fee per adult (non-residents) and $28 for kids (seriously!?!), but I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how well done it was focusing on sustainability and natural settings, and I loved how you could actually walk through the aviary with toucans flying overhead and butterfly garden and see the butterflies coming out of their cocoons, and enter the ranarium and look for colorful native frogs in their own natural space, rather than trying to find them in their tiny cage behind the glass.
The snakes and jaguars were thankfully behind glass. 🙂
There are also a number of beautiful waterfalls that you can visit via a couple of very easy trails, a little cafe and lovely gift shop at the end of the trail, and a shuttle bus that will take you back up to the entrance…where there is another beautiful gift shop. We skipped the souvenirs and instead enjoyed the free Britt coffee and chocolate samples. Ha!
Good thing we skipped the shopping at the gardens, because we had to stop at this amazing gift shop on the way home! What a riot.
Of course, Oscar wasn’t going to lose yet another opportunity of leaving a gift shop empty-handed. What can we say? Nothing says PURA VIDA more than a wooden machete with a painted hummingbird.
Now to check out that fancy Peace Lodge some day and visit the gardens when all the daytrippers are gone!
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We’ve been here for 3 months already (wow!), which means we needed to renew our 90 day visas and do a border run. Many longer-term expats in Costa Rica do a day trip to Nicaragua or Panama to take care of the visa, but we wanted make a weekend of it so we headed to the northwestern part of Costa Rica (Guanacaste), famous for its beautiful beaches, and visited Nicaragua at the border crossing of Peñas Blancas to get our visas renewed.
The 4 hour drive from Atenas to Playas del Coco was an adventure in and of itself with beautiful views, mostly two lane roads and a variety of different landscapes – mountains, tropical forests, the Pacific Coast and finally the dry, flat Guanacaste region known for its sabaneros (cowboys) and cattle.
We based ourselves at an AirBnB condo in Playas del Coco for 3 nights and enjoyed spending time at the beach, swimming in the pool of our little complex and exploring the area. Playas del Coco is a cute town once you get to know it with basically one dusty main street lined with restaurants, shops and a couple of grocery stores that ends at the beach. It seems that stand-alone houses are few and far between here. Rather, lots of condo complexes surround the town and there are many more tourists here than we typically see. The beach wasn’t our favorite in the area as the water was cloudy and the sand was rocky, but the sunsets were beautiful, the boardwalk was lively with food vendors, tourists and weekending Tico families, and we found some amazing sea urchins at low tide.
We also visited Playa Hermosa just north of Playas del Coco to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner at Aqua Sport, located in the sand right in front of the beach. The made-to-order ceviche and whole pargo rojo (red snapper) were amazing. The sand was much nicer here and there were lots of people enjoying the long wide beach.
Last but not least, we drove the 10 minutes to Playa Ocotal located just south of Playas del Coco and spent our last morning there. An almost deserted black sand beach, this was unexpectedly our favorite of the three! It was a smaller beach with calm clear blue water, amazing tide pools with tons of life and lots of beautiful seashells. Snorkeling off the beach is also popular here. You do need to be aware of riptides as the signs note as it gets deep quickly and currents can change, but we stayed in the shallows. Apparently, Father Rooster’s is the place to grab lunch as they are right on the beach and well-known for their fantastic pub fare, but we unfortunately had to hit the road.
Thankfully our border run to Nicaragua overall went very smoothly. We planned for spending the better part of the day to make the 1.5 hour drive to the border, do the crossing and then drive back to our AirBnB, and despite an extra half hour getting there due to construction and an extra hour on the way home due to an accident ahead of us, it all went according to plan. We had amazing views of three volcanoes (Miravalles, Rincón de la Vieja and Orosi) just east of the route which also made the trip pretty special.
The crossing at Peñas Blancas is a busy one so there was about a 4km line of trucks waiting to cross into Nicaragua. They have to go through a different process so we were able to pass them and parked right in front of the Costa Rican border crossing. There were a lot of people wanting to ‘help’ us for a tip but we said no thanks as it’s a pretty straight forward (thanks to My Tan Feet for that). After paying our $7 per person exit tax, we waited in the short line to have our passports stamped out of Costa Rica. Next step is to walk or hire a pedicab over to the Nicaraguan border in order to enter Nicaragua. Of course, we opted for the quick and fun pedicab ride.
The Nicaraguan border agent confirmed with us that we were just staying for the day, we paid the $12 per person entrance fee and he then stamped our passports. Then we were officially in Nicaragua which was a bit livelier than the Costa Rican side with a bunch of little stands and shops selling latest in wares as well as a number of small sodas (typical, family run restaurants) with meats grilling right out front. We chose one and enjoyed a delicious lunch (rice, beans, grilled chicken, cheese, tortilla and salad) complete with a Victoria, the national cerveza of Nicaragua, to celebrate our arrival.
After our celebratory lunch, we turned around and headed back out of Nicaragua paying our exit fees and then pedicabbed it back to the Costa Rican office where we waited in yet another line to get stamped back into the country. All in all, it was a long day with two little ones, but it was an adventure and we were happy it all went smoothly.
We’re now trying to decide where our next border run will be in early February – Nicaragua again but maybe at Los Chiles instead of Peñas Blancas, Panama, or we may take a flight to Guatemala (to visit Antigua) or Mexico City and make another weekend trip out of the event. Any suggestions?
Let’s do this! We visited our storage unit on Sunday for one last drop off of a few boxes, and then finished packing our bags and making the final decisions about what was or was not going to make the cut. At this point, anything that didn’t fit would be put on the curb. Amazingly, I feel we did a pretty good job of the final packing and we still cannot believe how smooth the travel day went despite having had to change our flights through Houston one day before we flew due to Hurricane Harvey. That just kept things exciting! 🙂
We flew American and used curbside check-in which was a dream with our friendly airline representative – we were totally ‘those’ people at the airport and you wonder where in the world are they going and for how long? We had 6 checked bags plus a pack n play, 2 car seats and 6 carry-on bags! Our flights were on time, got put to the front of the line at immigration (thanks to Alice and Oscar for that one) upon our arrival into San Jose and we grabbed a porter as soon as we got to the baggage area. Our bags were already waiting for us, and we quickly hooked up with our transfer driver to get us to our AirBnB about 30 minutes away. It was already dark, but we were greeted by our friendly host Forest and by 8:30pm, we were settling in our new home where we’ll be for the next month.
And this is what the next morning brought us…
Now to start exploring and let the adventure REALLY begin!