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  • Writer's pictureRichard Phillips

"Pura Vida" in Costa Rica.

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

Neon sign glowing on wall in bakery, Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, The Bakery
Enjoying the glow from "The Bakery" in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica.

I always try to arrange it so that my birthday falls during my travels. I treat my special day like a national holiday, so it makes it all the more special to be somewhere unique and exotic! In 2018 I was lucky enough to spend my 37th year on Earth listening to the rolling sounds of Santa Teresa Beach in gorgeous Costa Rica.

How I got there: You guessed it...another Groupon deal. This one got me 8 days in Costa Rica, including lodging, airfare and a rental car. We had 3 nights in La Fortuna, a city in the northwestern region of the country. Then we took off for another 3 nights in Santa Teresa on the western most coast. Our final night was spent in the capital city of San Jose slap-dab in the center of Costa Rica.

We were flown from Ft. Lauderdale directly to San Jose on Spirit airlines. It was about a 3 hour flight on the bare-bones airline, but it got us there safely and on time. We, of course, had to get ourselves to Ft. Lauderdale for our departing flight.

How much it cost: All-in-all we shelled out just under $700 each for this venture to Central America. Our lodging this round was typical of a Groupon 5-stars to brag about but certainly not bad. I was pleased to find our first hotel in La Fortuna to be "cabana-like" little cabins nestled on the outskirts of the rain forest. We even had the opportunity to watch some monkeys swing through the tree canopies overhead on occasion.

Our cabana in Santa Teresa was right over the water with lovely views of the sunset, and sunrise, if you're into that sort of thing (I am).

Is English widely spoken? Ehhhh. Not really. The native language is Spanish, which I am ashamed to say I know little of, and accordingly very few Costa Ricans outside of tourist attractions speak much English. That's ok, though! The Costa Rican people are very friendly and welcoming and you'll manage ok with a Spanish-to-English dictionary or app handy.


One of my faithful travel buddies, Michelle Little, and I packed and boarded a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. From there we flew into San Jose and arrived around 1:00 pm. One major plus of this location is that they are in the same time zone as we left from, so no time adjusting or nagging jet-lag. Like I said earlier, we went over my birthday which falls during February. Costa Rica is still in the Northern Hemisphere so it was technically winter there as well, but you can imagine that the temps were far higher than what we might experience during the same time of year in the US. Even in winter, shorts and t-shirts are the way to go!

Our flight on Spirit was uneventful. It's a "bargain" airline so you don't get any kind of inflight service. It's more like you are riding a flying bus to your destination. But, for a 3 hour flight, and for the price, I didn't expect much more. One thing to keep in mind about Spirit is that they nickel-and-dime you out the wazoo. You pay extra to check a bag; you pay extra for a carry-on bag; you pay extra to choose your seat; you pay extra for everything. I'm not knocking them, I promise. I'm just putting it out there in case you jump headfirst into a low cost ticket...give yourself a few extra bucks for incidentals.

When we arrived the airport experience was nothing to write home about. Honestly, even sitting here typing this I actually don't recall much about the airport. I can only assume that it was pretty average and there were no disasters. I surely hope my memory hasn't deteriorated that much! What I do remember, very vividly, is arriving at the rental car location. We were shuttled from the airport, about 20 minutes, to the Adobe Rental Car lot. It was a tiny little space that had somehow managed to cram what appeared to be 200 little white sedans under a covered pavilion. I kept thinking, "I don't see any SUVs." You know, we are about to be driving around a tropical country, sometimes through mountains and rain forests, so I had envisioned a nice mid-sized SUV...right? After we waited our turn and presented the appropriate documents, we were ushered to another waiting area where our vehicle would be brought. About 10 minutes passed, and up pulls this cute little, I reiterate LITTLE, sedan. I took a look over my shoulder expecting someone to walk up and say "That one's mine." It was just me and Michelle. Gulp. Turns out, that little princess on wheels was our ride for the week.

A few, really several, laughs later and we were behind the wheel headed to La Fortuna for our first night in Costa Rica. The drive was a good one. Their interstate system is similar to the State's and we even popped into a service station to grab some snacks. The currency in CR is Colon (no not the's pronounced more like the stuff men put on to smell nice). With an exchange rate of $0.17 to 1 Colon, you end up having a good bit of pocket change.

The drive to La Fortuna was about 3 hours, and with spotty cell service, we had to rely on the navigation system that came with the car to get around. As you have probably already thought, that can be disastrous. The first 2 hours and 45 minutes was smooth sailing. Once we arrive in the city of La Fortuna, we kept following the GPS to our hotel. After a few minutes, however, we realized that our hotel wasn't at the end of a street that dead-ended into a lake. Great! Now what do we do? By the grace of God Michelle managed to acquire one single bar on her cell phone and Google Maps took us home. Disaster averted, for now.

We unpacked in our rustic yet really cool cabana located in a small cluster with others. We had a gorgeous view of the Arenal Volcano that last erupted in 1968. It was a lovely sight seeing that towering mountain with the lush vegetation of the rain forest below.

Guanacaste and Tilarán mountain ranges in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

We returned to the small town about a mile away and had dinner with the locals. Costa Rican cuisine is similar to what we would call "Mexican food." Michelle and I both easily found dishes we liked and we enjoyed a quiet evening in downtown La Fortuna.

The next morning we woke early and sipped a nice dark cup of Costa Rican coffee. I am a huge coffee lover so I had been looking forward to a fresh cup. Costa Rica is well known for their coffee beans and I am happy to report I was not disappointed.

The top of our list for the day was to visit a local sloth sanctuary. Sloths are native to Costa Rica. Everyone knows these cute little guys as slow moving tree huggers, but did you know they are actually considered to be very dangerous because of their razor sharp toes? No need to be afraid, these guys hang out in the tree-tops and are often hard to spot because of their natural camouflage. Luckily we were able to spot a few making their way slowly from tree limb to tree limb. Outside the sanctuary we spotted a sloth close to you our hotel. After driving by several times over a three day period, we noticed he hadn't moved an inch...not one single inch in three days!

The next stop was something else Costa Rica is known for, and that is their warm volcanic pools. After some research we found that the best local spot was known as Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa. Formed by the eruptions of the Arenal volcano, these spas are located inside a beautiful 5-star resort. For the equivalent of $40, we got access to the pools and cocktails at the water bar. Tabacon is set on more than 900 acres of lush tropical reserve, home to Costa Rica’s largest network of naturally flowing hot springs. The springs are quite the experience. It's said they have healing qualities to them. Even if that is just legend, it certainly is a calming, natural space to spend the afternoon.

Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa volcanic warm spa pool
Splish, splash - Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa

The next day, our last day in La Fortuna, we visited the Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. The Park not only offers the hanging bridges experience, but also a wide variety of tours for visitors, where they can have direct contact with nature housing several native species in an ecosystem full of biodiversity. It's about an hour's walk through the park with some spectacular views. You really have to be patient to spot any wildlife. They do a good job hiding during the day, but you will most definitely catch a glimpse of some beautiful and unique vegetation.

Ending out the day, we visited the La Fortuna Waterfall, the most famous waterfall in CR. This 230 foot tall waterfall is at the base of a cliff where you have to climb over 530 steps, one way, to get to it. I'll save you the embarrassment of hearing my ill-fated tale of exhaustion and gasping for air on the walk back up and just say that the trek was worth it. It's a breath-taking natural wonder that I am glad we saw. Side note, make sure you do some leg work before you go down. The trip back up is a doozie.

La Fortuna Waterfall hike natural beauty Costa Rica
La Fortuna Waterfall

The 4th day in Costa Rica was the beginning of a new adventure. We were headed about 5 hours west to the coastal town of Santa Teresa. The name sounds a bit like a Spanish soap-opera, but the only thing dramatic about this town was the trip there. Lord. Have. Mercy.

Bless it - our pitiful little ride

What ended up being a 10 hour rollercoaster thrill ride on rocky backroads and narrow uphill dashes through the jungle makes for a heck of story. Since I am limited to your attention span, I'll save the specifics for another day. Let me just say that our little dune buggy...I mean car, left us in some precarious positions. It started with the GPS taking us off the nicely paved highway down an increasingly narrow dirt road and presenting us with two options: 1) keep going and pray that our car would not get stuck in the river we had to cross, or 2) turn around and go back. After some serious prayers, a very nice man who spoke no English, appeared out of nowhere and showed us via sign language where the safest place to cross the river was. Phew! Glad that's over. Smooth sailing from here, right? HA!

Fast forward another few hours and we arrive at major hurdle number dos. I am leaving out the traffic jams, road blockages due to construction every 3 or 4 miles, cows in the road, tires getting caught in graveled sand, backward sliding down sandy hillsides and the lady in the road who just simply wouldn't move. I'll get to the last leg. According to the GPS we were literally a few miles from our destination. The issue? Every road we took was either gated off, blocked or was a dead end. No matter how much we tried to work with the GPS we kept getting nowhere. Now imagine where we are. We are in RURAL Costa Rica. Eroded dirt roads with no street lights and really no sign of other people except for the occasional motorcycle or truck and it's nearing 7:00 pm. The sun is setting. We arrive at another gate blocking the road. I am on the verge of tears and Michelle, bless her heart, was nervously laughing while trying to keep me from snapping. Suddenly, a low hum began getting louder and louder, approaching from behind us. An older Asian lady riding a red 4-wheeler pulls up beside the dusty, dirty car. Keep in mind this is the first person we have seen in hours. She asks "Are you trying to go down this road?" English! She spoke English! "Yes!" I pretty much screamed at her. "We are trying to get to Santa Teresa." She grinned and said, "Follow me. This is my property and Santa Teresa is about a mile through." She hopped off, unlocked her gate, and led us to victory!

Once safely in Santa Teresa, we enjoyed two days of beautiful weather on the sandy beaches. The town has built up to be quite the off-the-beaten-path tourist spot and therefore had some trendy places to dine and shop. We snorkeled, we ate, we got our tan on. After a coconut cocktail or ten it was time to wrap things up and head home.

Our last day before departure was spent in San Jose. It's a cool, historic down with some fascinating stories and historical significance. Coffee shops, museums and opera houses litter the streets. I would have loved more time to really get to see it and explore.

Alas, the last thing to do was to return the rental car. After the immense amount of "off-roading" we did, and a busted taillight and missing hubcap, I was sure they weren't going to let us leave the country. Miracle number tres: we had no issues. They didn't say a single word about the banged up, dirt covered, scratched car we had returned. Maybe it's par for the course there...who knows. But I certainly felt like we had an extra guardian angel or two this trip. Despite our blunders and almost certain demise, this was one of the best trips I have taken. Costa Rica is beautiful, engaging and welcoming. Until next time CR....

Oh yeah, "Pura Vida" means "simple life"

Enjoy the journey folks, it's never over.

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