Updated on October 30th, 2023
If you are interested to see the best that Costa Rica has to offer then look no further. Here I share my expereinces on a 9 day tour of the highlights of Costa Rica. It includes La Fortuna, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio, canyoning, white water rafting, horse riding, ziplining, hanging bridges, sloths, monkeys & lots more besides!”
Costa Rica stopping in La Fortuna, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio
As part of my 6-month odyssey around the Caribbean, I decided to visit Costa Rica for a month. Looking at everywhere I wanted to go, everything I wanted to see & the fact that I felt like a bit of company after 6 weeks on my own, I opted for the Costa Rica Quest tour with G Adventures. The dates fit, allowing me to still spend a week on each coast & it looked like the perfect way to do all I wanted in the rest of the time available. It turned out to be a fantastic decision & as I booked quite late I also got a discount!
What do you need to know?
I chose the 9-day Costa Rica Quest tour with G Adventures, starting & finishing in San Jose. What is included is quite basic – limited food (1 lunch) & tours (Coffee plantation, Hot springs in La Fortuna, Night Walk in Monteverde) but this also offers a huge amount of flexibility to eat wherever you like (although we did most things as a group) & add on as many or as few excursions as you wish. For that I would highly recommend the tour, I maxed out the excursions & made the most of everything, but others chose to relax. Each place apart from San Jose we stayed for 2 nights & travel between locations was included with a mix of private shuttle & public buses/boats etc.
As with all these tours, Day 1 is arrival with a meeting in the evening & dinner together (if you choose), Day 9 is travelling home. This means that I will deal with the tour as 7 days.
Day 1 – San Jose to La Fortuna
In San Jose, we stayed at Hotel El Sesteo. After a night out in the city & meeting my group (12 in total, 2 from Austria, 6 Canadians, 1 American & 3 of us from the UK) we set off to La Fortuna. Our guide was Jorge from Costa Rica who was fantastic throughout, getting involved in day & night time activities & font of all knowledge & enthusiasm when it came to his home nation.
Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall where we had lots of photo opportunities, followed by a tour of the Mi Cafecito coffee plantation. The business is supported by G Adventures who always include a visit of this kind on their tours (in my experience). Throughout the morning we got to sample coffee, coffee liqueur, moonshine & sugar cane juice along the way.
We then headed to La Fortuna where we chose our activities for the next action-packed day & finished off at the local hot springs sampling the water slides, cold & hot pools and a few Pina Coladas!
Day 2 – La Fortuna
I had opted for the Mambo Combo tour with Desafio along with 3 of my fellow travellers & a couple from another hotel. This meant an early pick up for a morning of canyoning.
I didn’t really know what canyoning was if I’m honest, but I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it!”
After a safety briefing & small abseil to get used to the technique & equipment, we were off. The morning consisted of various repels of ever-increasing length (culminating in 220ft!), the longer ones with zip lines attached, as we followed a creek down a gorge. It was great fun. It also involved getting wet with a jump into what looked like a puddle & ended up being a very deep water-filled hole, & what they called the “Tsunami” where they blocked the water to release it over our heads as we sat & gripped on tightly to the rocks underneath.
I felt completely safe at all times, got soaking wet & loved every minute of it!
The morning was rounded off with an amazing sighting of sloths as we saw 2 fighting high in the tree above us. Apparently, this is an incredibly rare sight & we had our hearts in our mouths as we heard the plaintive cries of one & were terrified that he would fall. Thankfully, eventually, they both started moving (very slowly) in different directions & the drama was over.”
We had a delicious breakfast & then got in the truck for the hour-long journey to our next destination…..
White Water Rafting
The rapids on the Balsa River are Grade II/III. There was the option to take the tougher route (Sarapiqui, Class III/IV) but this was a full day & not included in the combination tour. I was very happy with my choice as the first part of the session started & we were straight into the rapids with Gustavo as our expert guide.
Again, I couldn’t stop giggling or wipe the smile off my face as we were pummelled from all angles by the water on our journey down the river. The most concerning part was when we got stuck between 2 rocks & Gustavo had to get out and physically pull the boat backwards & forwards until we were released. I gave a huge sigh of relief when he was finally back in the raft!
After the excitement of the rapids, the water started to calm down & enter a different section, where we were spotting sloths, iguanas, & birdlife in the trees around us as we floated down the river. We were then given a few options – do we want to Surf? Tip the boat? Go for a swim? Ride the rodeo? As enthusiastic participants who still couldn’t stop smiling, we said yes to everything! Next thing we knew we were stuck in an area of fast-moving water as we surfed the rapids. Then we took it in turns to hold on & ride at the front of the boat which was great fun.
Tipping the boat sounded like a good idea at the time until I got stuck underneath. I held my breath as I tried to move & find my way out, feeling above me with my hands. When I couldn’t I tried not to panic & headed in a different direction. Thankfully, here I found the surface & took a deep breath. It felt like 5 minutes I was trapped but in reality, was probably closer to 3 seconds. As a result, my friend Amanda & I had been separated from the group.
The rest of the team climbed back on board while we happily started drifting along the other bank. When the support boat began to call urgently for us to get on board we tried our best. The more they urged, the more we started to get worried & once onboard we realised that we were about to go over another rapid. Phew!”
After a short stop for a fruit break (the watermelon & pineapple had been launched at us from the riverbank earlier!), we reached our final stop, got out, showered & changed & were fed a delicious lunch. An amazing & unforgettable day!
Day 3 – La Fortuna to Monteverde
The next day we were on the move again, across Lake Arenal by boat & onto the rough roads towards the cloud forest of Monteverde (they call the roads a “Costa Rican Massage”).
We arrived for the afternoon & were able to visit the Hanging Bridges. I was really looking forward to this having seen photos & felt that for wildlife it was really important to have a guide with us for the trip. A few of us paid an extra US$14 for a guide (US$50 vs $36) but I have to say I think this was my one disappointment in the whole of Costa Rica. The bridges were great but unfortunately, our guide didn’t deliver much in terms of wildlife, information or an experience.
He was clearly desperate to show us the Quetzal bird, rare & native to Costa Rica. He made the mistake of saying he had seen 4 in the morning, unfortunately, that turned out to be the kiss of death! He was also keen to unhelpfully point out towards the end “I saw this bird (pointing at a picture in a book)…but you wouldn’t have seen it”. Anyway, the highlight of the afternoon was the hummingbird garden where you could watch these fascinating creatures hover, fly & feed while sitting on your finger. Everything else was insignificant after that!
Our final outing of the day was a Night Walk with Kinkajou & our guide Andreas was the perfect antidote to our afternoon experience. He had a wicked sense of humour & even before we saw our first baby sloth it was better than the 2 hours we’d spent on the bridges. The sloth was swiftly followed by a tree frog, toucan, possum, snake & tarantula.
The highlight was to actually see an adult sloth come down for a poo. This is the only time the sloths come to the ground & it only happens once a week. This marked our second lucky sloth sighting in 2 days & the poor sloth had a huge audience to do its business!”
Day 4 – Monteverde
This was the day we did ziplining, the longest in Latin America with 100% Aventura, a not-to-be-missed experience. We had harnesses fitted & a full safety briefing again before we headed off into the canopy of Monteverde. The runs started off quite short & swift (after the practice one where I was told off for not braking!), with a very precarious rope bridge crossing (just enough slats missing for me to be grateful of my safety ropes).
The runs got progressively longer, followed by repelling (straight down) & a bit of a wait before we went on a beautiful 600m flight over the top of the trees. At the end we had our equipment changed as we were destined for the ultimate “Superman”. This is effectively where you fly, horizontally over the canopy, not just once but twice (Superman pose is optional!).
Initially it’s a weird feeling, allowing yourself to give up control & just hang without holding on to anything. Once you get going though it’s an amazing experience of freedom as you get a birds eye view over the top of the forest.”
The final challenge was the optional “Tarzan Swing”. As per usual, I hadn’t read enough & had no expectations, so I blindly said ‘Yes’ & the next thing I knew I was walking along a suspended bridge which ended in a bungee cord. As I was attached I tried to distract myself by filming, the gate was opened & I was told to step out into thin air. To say I screamed is a bit of an understatement! It was terrifying & exhilarating all rolled into one.
After surviving an adrenaline-packed morning, I returned triumphant to my friends, got distracted & produced a finale – tripping on a step & going hurtling towards them while the men who were responsible for my safety for the whole morning took a sharp intake of breath & managed to grab me before I landed head first on the ground. My work here was done!
My final activity in Monteverde was a horseback ride on private land through the forest to see the sunset. The beautiful Freckles was my guide, a very placid horse who was obedient at following the group. It was a calm & serene experience after the adrenaline rush from earlier until it was decided that we should have a go at galloping.
I’ve never properly ridden a horse beyond the pony trekking & docile tourist rides so when it was mentioned I was a little nervous. Freckles & I did a half-hearted attempt at moving a bit faster but clearly, this wasn’t good enough as I was given a small twig & told to hit him a bit to get him moving.
I’m never one to shy away from a challenge so I gave Freckles a gentle, barely perceptible tap & we were off. As I clung on & tried to keep my balance while I was tossed into the air at speed, our guide shouted at me “Don’t Bounce!” How? Not helpful!”
Thankfully my gallop was accepted as complete & we calmly walked the rest of the way, taking in the beautiful sunset as it fell beneath the trees. A gorgeous experience!
In Monteverde, I stayed at Hotel La Cipreses.
Day 6 – Monteverde to Manuel Antonio
A quiet day of travel with a strict schedule so we could be ready when the road that was being repaired opened at 10.30am. Apparently, it is only passable for 2, 30-minute slots a day so we caught the early one. More “Costa Rican Massage” on the gravel track before we stopped at a big bridge to view some huge American Crocodiles which gather underneath & helpfully pose for tourist photos.
When we arrived in Manuel Antonio we got the bus straight down to the beach & spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing & watching the sunset.
Day 7 – Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio National Park
A few of us opted to have a guided walk around Manuel Antonio which was superb. Our guide was Sosua who came highly recommended by Jorge as one of the best there is.
The advantage of the guide (apart from the fact that he could spot a microscopic animal from 100m) was that he carried a telescope which enabled us to see so much more, & then use our phones to photograph through the lens. This was a huge bonus!”
Within minutes I realised that my trusty camera was not going to pick up the wildlife nearly so well (even when I was looking at the animals, I often still failed to see them through my lens due to their incredible camouflage).
Throughout the morning we saw 3 sloths (including one who was giving us the obligatory smiley face & one with a baby), hawks, tree frogs, capuchin monkeys, a crab, dragonfly, spiders, iguanas & a boa constrictor. All came along with full commentary & fascinating facts.
Sosua left us when we got to the beach which was being patrolled by the monkeys & we spent the rest of the morning relaxing there, apart from one point where an iguana almost fell out of a tree on top of us!
In the afternoon a number of the group went for a surfing lesson while I opted for a beer & role as paparazzi to their efforts.
In Manuel Antonio, I stayed in Hotel Mimos.
If you are interested to read about other amazing animal interactions, then look no further than my Top 11 Wildlife Experiences in the World.
Day 8 – Quepos to San Jose
As a final activity, I chose the Ocean King Catamaran Cruise along with a number of my new friends.
We were drinking cocktails at 9am (8 included), saw manta rays jumping, dolphins enjoying our wake, dipped in pools on the boat, went snorkelling, got stuck on water slides (although I think that was just me!) & generally relaxed & enjoyed each other’s company. It was the perfect end to an excellent week!”
Our final journey together was on a public bus back to the city for a meal out to reflect on our time together. For me, this had been the perfect trip, at the perfect time. I met some amazing people who I hope will be friends for a very long time. It was great to have company for this part of my Costa Rican discovery & I couldn’t have asked for a more fun group to spend my time with. To organise everything myself would have been much more challenging, taken a lot more time & not been nearly as much fun.
For the remainder of my month in Costa Rica, I spent time on both the Pacific & Caribbean Coasts. You can read all about my adventures HERE.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to my fellow travellers (Penny, Amanda, Alex, Andy, Brittany, Dipti, Jim, James, Taunya, Tanja & Tina) for also lending their photos for me to use on these pages.
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