Northern Costa Rica – Beaches, Thermal Spas and Ziplining across the Rainforest

There are two main ways to get to Costa Rica – via Liberia Airport in the north or San Jose further south. We only had five days to spend in Costa Rica so for this trip we decided to do the north and flew into Liberia. It was mid December when we flew into Liberia. The flight only took three short hours from Miami. The views coming in were magnificent with rolling lush green hills and the surrounding deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

After collecting our bags we hopped in our awaiting car rental’s shuttle bus. We only had to drive about 5 minutes before we arrived at the rental facility. Filling out the forms was easy enough but the guy at the counter tried to use various scare tactics, saying that we should get all these types of insurances in the event we hit someone, where we could be forced to pay mega bucks and be kept in the country for 22 days in the event of an accident. Nice try – but we opted out.

In the end we drove out in a little 4X4, which was essential for the trip we had planned. We also made sure to rent a road navigator, another definite must since the road signage we would later find out wasn’t the best in Costa Rica.

The hotel we booked was located not far away from the airport – in the Golfo De Papagayo, it only took us about 15 minutes to get there. The short drive there was really nice, we passed honey colored fields and wound through lush green hills until we hit a peak and got to see the Golfo De Papagayo in it’s glory. The sun was brilliant and reflected off the glass like waters of the gulf.

Our hotel The Casa Conde Del Mar was situated right along the beach. The people were warm and friendly and spoke excellent English so thankfully there were not any communication problems there. We loved the landscaping of the place and our cabana style room was great, nice and roomy and had all the essentials, number one being air conditioning! Did I mention how hot it was in Costa Rica?! Luckily the temperature cooled down in the evenings.

Since it was almost Christmas the hotel’s grounds were beautifully decorated with lights and we even had our own stocking on our door (nice touch, huh?). Since it was early in the day we put on our swimmers and grabbed a spot around our beautiful pool. We had a nice lunch and our first taste of Costa Rican food. Costa Rican food was pretty good but a little on the salty side (this we found out to be the norm).

The sunset on the gulf was incredible. Warm rich colors bathed the sky and its surroundings. The beach was massive and had nice soft black sand that looked amazing in contrast to the vibrant green forest and blue water.

Dinner was outdoors in a really nice relaxing atmosphere. The Chrissy lights we on by then and lit up winding paths throughout. We also got to see a few native animals wandering about like Iguanas and Raccoons (man, those guys are big!!). The birds were also pretty friendly and liked to steal your food if you weren’t looking.

The next day we began our road trip around the northern part of Costa Rica. Our first port of call was to La Fortuna located in the mountains. The traffic was super slow and in spots a lot of it. We drove to Canas and then onto La Fortuna. The pavement didn’t last and the dirt road we encountered was brutal (thank god for the 4X4!). Massive potholes and large rocks covered our path and then we had to pass big buses and rigs along the way.

The road was winding and slow going but also very beautiful especially the view of Embalse De Arenal (the lake). Massive windmill farms dotted the area taking advantage of the high winds. The hills were bright green and the rain forest becoming ever present and thick.

Along the way we passed some funny looking creatures called Coati. They are part of the raccoon family and have slender faces, short brown fur and long tails. They seemed pretty tame and when we slowed to take a pic one actually trotted towards our car – obviously tourist fed.

3 hours later we arrived at La Fortuna and our hotel the Volcano Lodge and Gardens. It was a nice hotel and if it weren’t for the clouds we would’ve had a great view of the Arenal Volcano. But that wasn’t its only perk it was also conveniently located near the main attraction the Tabacón Grand Spa (which was our reason for driving there). Tabacon isn’t the only thermal spa but it had to have been the best.

After checking in we quickly dropped off our stuff and then headed there. We had previously purchased passes for $90 each which included lunch, dinner and a full day pass to the thermal pools. Since this place is so popular we’d highly recommend to pre-book your tickets just to be sure. First we had a lovely lunch by the pool and then eagerly got on our bathers and went in for our first dip.

First of all the layout of the place is absolutely stunning. Stone pathways meandered throughout the lush rainforest leading to a number of different pools situated throughout. The landscaping was immaculate and showcased some beautiful tropical flowers. Each pool was unique and had temperatures ranging from 25-38OC. The appearance of the pools was all very natural and most had sandy rocky bottoms (except for the main pool). The atmosphere was incredibly relaxing and there were hardly any people there so we usually had a pool all to ourselves.

The water was deliciously hot and natural. There was one waterfall where you could lean back into, that was really fun. We wandered throughout the area like two kids in a candy store. There were just soo many wonderful little nooks and crannies to explore! We took a dip in every single one and then after a few hours we decided to take a break and head back to our hotel.

By sunset the clouds had started to dissipate and we got a great look of the Arenal Volcano. For dinner we headed back to the Spa and an evening swim. The atmosphere was completely different at night. Great wafts of steam rose from the pools and the paths were all delicately lit. It was a full moon that night so the sky looked amazing. We stayed for about 2 hours and then called it a night. What an amazing place and so worth the drive!!

The next morning bright and early we headed back out on the road. Our next destination was a little place called Monteverde located in a place high in the mountains adjacent to the Cloud Forest. Once again the road was really rough. At times we thought we might have taken the wrong road as it was that bad. But we took it easy and about 2 ½ hours later we reached our destination.

Although we had a rough drive it was really scenic and it was really cool to see that the higher we went the clouds became more ever-present and flew by at a dizzying pace.

Once in Monteverde we checked into our hotel the Monteverde Lodge and Gardens. It was an eco friendly hotel and really lovely. One thing for sure is the Costa Ricans certainly know how to accommodate. Like before, after checking in we headed straight to the main attraction – Selvatura Park to go on their famous Zipline Tour.

Luckily it was only about a 5-minute drive to get there. First we had lunch at their café and then suited up with 13 others for the tour. We had once again made sure to pre-purchase tickets to ensure our spots. Being not the greatest with heights this was going to be a challenge for me but one I wanted to overcome (and would obviously have to). The guides were excellent and I felt secure as we were always tethered and had someone with us.

My first line was freaky! To let go and fly like that at such a height and speed was an incredible feeling – what a rush!! We had some hard trekking at some points between zip lines but it was all worth it. After zip line 14 we came to a giant tower with a swing called Tarzan.

At first I was all guts but once I got to the top and looked down I quickly chickened out. But after watching everyone else (kids included) do it, I knew I had to give it a go. While teetering at the top having one of the guides tethering me up I really felt sick and thought of backing out. But everyone below started to cheer me on so with my eyes firmly shut I stepped off, my stomach dropped and I screamed bloody murder. That was soo scary!!! And swinging like a giant pendulum after that made me sick. But hey, I did it!

Then on shaky legs we headed to our last line. Wow. This one was massive, so big in fact that I quickly forgot about Tarzan and anything else on my mind right then and there. This line was about 1 km long and super high!! It was so long that Rob and I got to go together so we had the weight to take us across. I couldn’t have picked a better one to do with him because this baby was really fast and scary! It felt like we went on forever flying over the treetops and the expanse of space around us was absolutely breathtaking!

I’ve never done anything so exhilarating like that before and to finish it with my honey was THE BEST!! After the tour we went on a canopy walk through the rainforest. That took us about an hour and was spectacular, well worth it. We were so happy to find out they had a nice big hot pool back at the hotel after that big day!

In the morning after breakfast we drove not too far out to visit the Monteverde Reserve which was also in the Cloud Forest. After paying a fee we headed out on a 2-hour walk through the rainforest. It was a spectacular walk and really peaceful. It was also cool to stand on a peak watching the clouds whip by. We saw a few birds but were really hoping to see some monkeys but unfortunately we didn’t come across any (or any other animals for that matter).

On our way out we stopped at the Hummingbird Reserve. That was free and we got to sit and watch heaps of brightly colored little hummingbirds’ whiz around us eagerly trying to get a sip of the sugar water that was provided by the owners. The birds got pretty feisty with each other at times. When we were leaving we saw a possum shimmy along the line holding the sugar water canisters and he proceeded to carefully climb down to steal a drink. That was a funny scene and didn’t make the birds too happy.

After lunch we packed up our bags and headed back to our first hotel on the Golfo De Papagayo. The drive home was just as slow with the rocky, one lane road but luckily that didn’t last too long before we hit pavement. We thought it would have been smooth sailing from there but unfortunately we hit a major traffic jam which really held us up. The roads in northern Costa Rica are one lane each way so any disruption causes major delays.

When things finally cleared up we were happily back on our way. Not long after we got waved over at a police road block where the policeman proceeded to tell us that we had did something wrong (not true!!) and that we were going to have to pay a US$620 (yeah right) fine in 2 days at the local bank and that our passports would be confiscated. “What the??!” So luckily Rob kept a cool head and asked him if we could pay him US$40 now. Of course we could! That is why he pulled us over. We had read that this was a possibility but that it had been eradicated. Unfortunately we weren’t alone and many other people we spoke to had had the same experience during their travels through Costa Rica.

Back on the road we were on the home stretch as dusk was setting in. That 2-hour trip turned into a 4-hour trip. We were so happy when we finally arrived back at the hotel and made a point just to relax for our remaining two days.

We really enjoyed our adventures around northern Costa Rica. It is such a diverse and beautiful country. We would love to do a repeat of Tabacón, that place was magical and we absolutely loved the rush we got from the zip lining in the Cloud Forest. There are heaps of wonderful things to say about this place. We’ve heard great things about the other parts of Costa Rica as well. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to go back for some more exploring. We love Costa Rica!

Machalle Gower’s Northern Costa Rica Photo Gallery

This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!

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