One of the best things I learned from my parents growing up was how to travel. My family prioritized travel to all sorts of destinations because they thought it was an important part of our education to see the world, and I’ve carried that value with me into my adulthood. Last year, at a wedding shower, my best friend asked Dan to list what he’s learned from dating me so she could turn his responses into a shower game, and he answered “how to drink wine and take vacations.” And yes, that was an alternate tag line for this blog. As we covered yesterday, we bought a house six weeks ago (and also honeymooned in Thailand this summer) so we’re not planning any big trips in the next few months. But, I have such a great backlog of vacations that I want to share. So, this is the first of a series of throwback posts about vacations we’ve taken and loved in the past. First up: Costa Rica.
Dan and I went to Costa Rica in May of 2013, right after I graduated from law school and before I started studying for the bar exam. The law firm I was going to work for in the fall offered a salary advance (essentially an interest-free loan, borrowed against your salary for the upcoming year) that you could use to pay living expenses for the summer that you took the bar. We blew mine on vacations, which was the best choice.
Our trip to Costa Rica lasted nine days: we spent the first half in Monteverde (the “Cloud Forest” in the mountains, in the northwestern part of the country) and the second half in Manuel Antonio, a beach area on the Pacific side. The first awesome thing about Costa Rica is that you can combine two very different vacation experiences—in the rainforest you can hike, zipline, climb, and explore, and then you can head down to the beach and sip on frozen drinks or fresh coconut water with your toes in the sand. I usually feel like we need to choose between adventurous and relaxing vacations, but Costa Rica was definitely both. We loved doing the trip in this order, too (after being relaxed and pampered in Manuel Antonio I might have been less pumped about traipsing through the mud in the rainforest, and that would be a bummer because it’s really good mud). We flew in to San Jose but didn’t spend any time there—I can’t speak from experience, but I read that our time would be better spent heading out into the country, so that’s what we did. We rented a little SUV and the views were beautiful between our destinations (the drives between the spots we chose were only a few hours). Definitely, for sure, without a doubt rent a car with four wheel drive. The mountain roads can get dicey. I’d also recommend renting GPS if you don’t want to spend your vacation arguing over a roadmap, although those are some of my fondest memories from childhood road trips.
Three years later, I have two very clear memories of Santa Elena, the town we stayed in near Monteverde: hiking through the rainforest, and eating at Sabor Tico. Sabor Tico is a totally unassuming restaurant across the street from a soccer field, and it serves the best food I’ve ever eaten. We ate there every day that we stayed in Santa Elena, and if I could figure out a way to have their plantains sent across international borders I would pay almost any price to make that happen. If you eat there in the early afternoon you can also watch the thick fog that the Cloud Forest is famous for roll in across the soccer field, and that’s a bucket list experience.
The hikes through Monteverde are also truly worth the trip. The trees are huge and moss-covered, the forest is alive with animal calls and dense with beautiful plants, and the views will actually take your breath away (particularly if you are afraid of heights, like I am, but…worth it.)
We also went ziplining, which was amazing and terrifying. Not kidding about that fear of heights, still not really comfortable with this choice (even in retrospect, knowing that we survived). It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience (and I truly mean that because I loved it and I will also never do it again). One of the last runs that we did on the zipline went across this giant ravine that was SO high up—I can’t even guess how far down the forest was, but really, really far. My heart skipped a lot of beats, and I was so happy to put my feet on the ground on the other side. The smiles in these pictures are half exuberant joy and half soul-crushing fear.
There were lots of excursions and activities offered in Costa Rica—I’m not typically into those sorts of guided activities when I travel, but on this trip it really seemed like the thing to do (otherwise, you’ve sort of done your exploring and eaten all the food you can eat in one day, and all that’s left is drinking wine on your patio. And we’re into that, but we had lots of time on our hands.) The other activities we did in Monteverde were a night hike and a tour of a coffee plantation. The night hike was aimed at seeing nocturnal wildlife, ranging from a tarantula (no thank you no thank you no thank you) to sloths, to frogs, to a viper, to lots of birds that we could hear but not really see. Highly recommend, especially if you have a companion like Dan that will take a picture of the tarantula while you stand 100 yards away. The coffee plantation was great, too, especially if you’re a caffeine fiend like I am. Costa Rica has the best coffee of anywhere I’ve been, and seeing how they grow it and roast it was really interesting to me. That tour also involved busting open a pod of cocoa beans and grinding them into a chocolate-water drink with sugarcane, which I am all about. Coffee and chocolate, yes.
After Monteverde we drove down to Manuel Antonio. On the way, we saw a bunch of people jumping out of their cars and leaning over the side of a bridge (many of them with cameras out). If you ever see this on vacation, hop out of the car. In this case, there was a tangle of alligators (crocodiles? Alligators? Crocodiles?) swimmin' around below the bridge. We were not close to the water, but my best guess is these guys were at least 15 feet long. So, cool. Snap a pic, don’t go swimming. Next.
In Manuel Antonio, we took advantage of our hotel pool and its swim-up bar a lot (and the patio off our room where we could pour drinks and watch the sun set over the beach). We saw a bunch of iguanas, littler lizards, and tiny crabs everywhere. In Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio we saw tons of sloths, a group of monkeys, and a viper hanging out by the path. You can hire a guide to make sure you don’t miss any of this wildlife, but we just went in on our own and saw tons. We also saw sloths hanging from trees near local restaurants, so it didn’t seem like they were hard to find. One word to the wise if you haven’t spent a lot of time in the ocean—Dan learned the hard way that if you’re going to put something in the pocket of your swim trunks, you really need that pocket to have a zipper on it. He put a baggy with his ID, credit card, and some cash into a Velcro pocket and lost it almost immediately on the beach one day, when a big wave cleaned his clock (second word to the wise: you need to watch where the waves are breaking, and put yourself either before that point or after that point if a big wave is coming. I didn’t do a great job of passing on these tips when they would have actually been useful to Dan.) We were optimistic that the baggy might wash up on shore, but it did not. Ocean: 1 Dan and Hanna: 0.
We brought snorkeling gear with us but really didn’t use it—the water was great for swimming but cloudy and (as far as I could tell) fish-free, close to the shore. If you’re on the fence, I would leave the snorkeling stuff behind. But definitely bring comfortable walking shoes, and throw your sneakers in the bag even on beach days, because we had tons of fun climbing out onto the rocks that reach into the bays around Manuel Antonio (and I wouldn’t recommend trying that in sandals). We also didn’t have any problems with scorpions (didn’t even see one on our trip) but I’ve heard that others have had run-ins, so I brought Benadryl just in case one of us got stung. Take a look in your shoes before you put them on in the morning, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
Overall, the scenery was gorgeous, the people were friendly, and the food was amazing in Costa Rica. I would go back in a heartbeat.