Road trip in Costa Rica: casino in the capital, lava trekking, crocodile feeding and humpback whale watching
Costa Rica is called a “land of refuge”: 65% of the country is covered with tropical forests. That’s why people come here for the natural beauty: trekking in the national parks, climbing volcanoes, snorkeling and watching hummingbirds, monkeys and crocodiles.Costa Rica is a small Spanish-speaking country in Central America, discovered by Christopher Columbus. It is washed by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Costa Rica has 74 protected areas with a total of 500,000 species – about 4% of all insects, plants and animals on earth. Those who love nature in its original form will be thrilled. Besides, you don’t have to walk dozens of kilometers with a heavy backpack to get to the beautiful places – there are roads everywhere, although not always paved.
65% of Costa Rica is covered by tropical forests, which is why the country is often referred to as a “reserve” – there are 74 of them. Photo: Andrea Martínez / Unsplash.com
Costa Ricans have a national motto that reflects their culture and attitude towards life: “Pura Vida” (pure life) from Spanish. The essence of this expression is to enjoy life and not dwell on problems. The country has repeatedly topped the list of the happiest countries in the world, compiled by the British research center New Economic Foundation. And in the period before the pandemic, Costa Rica had the highest life expectancy (77.7 years) in Latin America. This is higher than the average life expectancy in the world, which is about 71 years (according to the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs).
In our travel guide we will tell you about it:
- The country’s national parks, which look straight from the movie “Jurassic Park”.
- Where you can find the crocodiles, dozens of hummingbirds, raccoons, sloths, turtles and monkeys.
- The best beaches for snorkeling and surfing.
- Ruins and other pre-Columbian cultural sites.
- The most spectacular waterfalls, volcanoes and wild jungle.
Before the Spanish colonization of Costa Rica in 1530, most of the country was inhabited by the Uetar and Bribri Indians. To date, only the Bribri (about 11 thousand people) have survived, living in the south of the country, closer to Nicaragua. A large part of the population of Costa Rica are descendants of the Spanish colonizers.
There are also quite a few Europeans living here, and most people speak excellent English. The main language of the country is Spanish. Costa Rica – a safe country, most crimes are fraud and pickpocketing. They can be easily avoided if basic safety rules are followed.
San Jose: traffic jams, colonial architecture and the country’s best museums
Population: 310,000San José is Costa Rica’s capital and largest city, nestled among the hills in the central part of the country. With a population of 340,000, San José feels like a full-blown metropolis in terms of rush hour traffic jams. This is likely due to the narrow streets and one-way traffic. Uber in San Jose is excellent, so you don’t have to worry about getting scammed by cab drivers.
The historic center is small and most of the buildings are low due to the seismic situation in the country. The most interesting buildings (especially museums) are located near the central Plaza de la Cultura. Therefore, one day is usually enough for a sightseeing stroll.
San José is located in the hills in the center of the country. Although only 340,000 people live in the capital, it feels like a full-fledged metropolis. Photo: Alexander Aguero / Unsplash.com
In La Sabana Park, residents of the capital hide from the heat and picnic on the lakeshore. Many of the trees are eaten by colorful caterpillars – pseudosphinxes. They are poisonous to birds, and it is recommended not to touch them without rubber gloves, as the caterpillars bite and the hairs leave irritation on the skin. At the entrance to the park there is the Museum of Costa Rican Art, part of which is housed outdoors.
The Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold is owned by the Central Bank of Costa Rica. Native Costa Rican art and ancient coins are displayed there. The National Museum of Costa Rica displays pre-Columbian and colonial artifacts. Other exhibits can also be seen in the building. The Pre-Columbian Jade Museum features exhibits of stone, pottery, bone and shells.
The National Theater offers guided tours. The historic interior has been preserved: marble floors, gilding, stucco, statues and painted ceilings. The Central Post Office is a building with elements of the Arabic style. The historic wooden mailboxes have been preserved inside.
The National Theater has preserved its historic interior: marble floors, gilding, stucco, statues and painted ceilings. Photo: Andrés Morúa / Unsplash.com
Casinos and sex tourism
Although the main attraction of the country is nature, visitors also come here to have fun in the casinos: San Jose has about 20 of them. For example, Taormina San Jose in the hotel of the same name or Casino Club Colonial.
People also come to Costa Rica for paid sex. Prostitution is legalized in the country, and all girls who work in this field receive documents. The law prohibits promoting of the prostitution of another person, which is why pimping and brothels are illegal in Costa Rica. Usually there are no intermediaries between the client and the sex workers. In San José, there are many bars, strip clubs and massage parlors that offer the services of sex workers. There is also a red light district known as “Gringo Canyon” where you can find illegal brothels (like the Hotel del Rey).
Bartenders and waitresses in provocative outfits at the bar are the most harmless things you can see at Hotel Del Rey: The hotel lobby is usually full of sex workers waiting for their customers.
Many sex workers also go out on the streets in the evening. But there are two nuances. Among them, there are quite a number of trans people. It is also believed that street sex workers are not allowed into venues because club owners might believe that they are HIV positive.
Despite the legalization of sex work, there are a few rules to protect yourself:
- Keep your valuables in the safe in your hotel room.
- Refrain from drinking alcohol so that you do not become careless.
- It is advisable to know in advance where you want to go. Because if you ask the first cab driver to take you to a place where sex workers gather, it will most likely not be the best place, but the one where the cab driver gets the comission, which will affect the price and quality.
- Always be respectful of sex workers.
La Fortuna: waterfalls, lava trekking and volcano viewpoints
Population: 15 000The drive from San José to La Fortuna takes about three hours. On the way you can see the Poás volcano (2708 meters). The road practically leads to a viewpoint from which you can see the crater of the volcano. On foot, it is about 300 meters. There are several factors to consider:
- The volcano is active, the last eruption was in 2011, so it can be closed to visitors at any time.
- On rainy days the crater is covered by clouds. Therefore, you should check the weather forecast before you leave.
- In order to form groups, tickets must be purchased in advance. Each group has 20 minutes on the observation deck.
Poás volcano is active and therefore can be closed to visitors at any time. Photo: Chalo Garcia / Unsplash.com
The next destination is the waterfalls of Catarata del Toro. You can spend a few hours hiking through the rainforest and have a snack in the café of the national park.
In 1968, the Arenal volcano erupted and killed 82 people. However, despite La Fortuna’s proximity to the volcano, the eruption did not reach the city. When nature recovered, the place became even more attractive for tourists. After the eruption of the volcano, several craters and waterfalls were formed, which are visited by tourists from all over the world.
The cone-shaped volcano is easily visible from La Fortuna. Colorful hummingbirds fly nearby, a troop of busy ants with bright green leaves on their backs crawl past a tree, and the sound of the animals echoes in your ears. You should spend a few nights here to get a feel for the tranquil atmosphere of the place and explore it at your leisure.
After the eruption of the volcano, several craters and waterfalls were formed, which are visited by tourists from all over the world. Photo: Naveen Naidu / Unsplash.com
Not far from La Fortuna is the spa town of Tabacon, located at the thermal springs. The program with lunch and dinner costs $110 per person. The spa complex is attached to the hotel, so you can stay there – from $330 for a double room.
The Free Springs (10.48838, -84.72324) are located next to the Tabacon Thermal Complex. The springs look like a river cascading down. There is no infrastructure nearby. Except for free parking, for which the locals may charge. On the way from the parking lot to the springs, you have to wade through the river. To get to the more secluded spot, you can walk a bit further through a tunnel. It’s a bit of a challenge, but the savings of a hundred dollars per person is worth it.
Another interesting place in the La Fortuna area is the Catarata Río Fortuna waterfall, 70 meters high. It is located in a humid rainforest and is part of the Arenal Volcano National Park. To reach the waterfall, you have to climb up and down about 530 steps. Along the way there are encouraging phrases written especially for travelers. Not far from the entrance, there is also a path to the Chato Volcano (1140 m). The ascent and descent takes about four hours.
Rio Fortuna waterfall is located in a humid rainforest and is part of the Arenal Volcano National Park. Its height is 70 meters. Photo: Etienne Delorieux / Unsplash.com
Arenal Volcano (1670 meters) is not always fully visible because of the low-hanging clouds. Therefore, the weather conditions must be taken into account during hikes and visits.
There are several ways to see Arenal Volcano:
- A walk through the 1968 lava flow, and there are two moderate routes to choose from.
- A hike through the rainforest that does not require much preparation. Along the way there is a section of frozen lava and a viewing platform.
- Mistico National Park. You can go here to observe the volcano and take great photos. Or go horseback riding, book a night jungle tour, a suspension bridge tour or bird watching – there are over 350 species here. Any tour is best booked in advance through the national park’s website.