We chose the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica because we were looking for jungle, wildlife and beaches. After doing some research and comparing the Caribbean side with the Pacific side, I found South Puntarenas had all of that. I left San José for the last 1.5 days (2 nights) before our departure and I can tell you, we didn’t need more than that. I’ve gathered all my tips here for you, and you can also visit my IG stories highlight “Costa Rica” for the real-time deets!
Prepare for your trip:
- Rent a car, it’s the best way to explore Costa Rica (make SURE you get a 4×4): We had booked online through a 3rd party site, and specifically requested a 4×4. Why? Well, in Costa Rica ( at least in South Puntarenas where we were going), many lodges and tourist destinations are steep, muddy, rocky roads, so in many cases you can only access with a 4×4 vehicle. The roads towards the South Pacific were great, highways and smaller roads were in great condition ( we visited in Dec 2019). If you have a credit card that covers the basic car insurance, bring a copy of this so they won’t force you into buying it. They won’t let go unless you show them a printed letter stating your insurance.
- Getting around: Apple maps didn’t work for us, good thing I had saved all the places in Google Maps so we used that as our GPS, and it worked for all the places we went to. So make sure you save your hotels, landmarks, beaches, restaurants and everything you want to visit in Google Maps before your trip. That way you can also access them even in places where you don’t get data.
- Connectivity: We have T-Mobile international plan and had good data in San José and most towns. The exception is when we got deeper into the jungle, and some roads between towns. That’s why it’s important to have your places saved in Google Maps so you can still guide yourself.
- Currency: Bring some cash so you can change into Colones and have cash for small things, like tolls, which you’ll find many! You can also use your cc in most places. When we arrived at the airport it was late at night, so we had to change there, and of course, got a crappy exchange rate. My recommendation is to change a min so you can have something for tolls and small things and then you literally pay with $USD or exchange at your hotel or restaurant. Costa Rica is a very $USD friendly country so you can get along fine with that, but also get some Colones.
- Budget: Costa Rica isn’t cheap, and I’d say it’s because it’s very tourist-oriented. By cheap I mean compared to neighboring Nicaragua, or what you’d expect of Central America. It’s not New York prices, but just keep in mind it won’t be super cheap. Another thing to note, all food and beverage gets charged 23% more. This is 13% tax, and 10% service fee. You’d think the latter is tip, but it doesn’t actually go to the staff, so if you’d like, leave an extra 5-10%,.
Top recommendations based on our itinerary:
We drove from SJ to Uvita through the 27 highway and then the 34 which goes all the way to Panama. It’s a very picturesque drive, and you’ll have tons of little restaurants and vendors where you can stop. We stopped right at the beginning of road 34 to buy some fruits, there’s a bunch of fruit vendors with everything you can imagine and more. Try the fruit ceviche, it’s amazing! Water apple, Guanabana, Guava, and the sweetest coconut water. We skipped Jaco because it seemed to be more on the big, busy beach town with buildings and we were looking for the smaller town vibe.
Dominical: As you pass by this town, you will notice a few food trucks on the road, make sure to stop at one, they are ceviche trucks! We tried out Mi Viejo, it’s the blue truck.
Uvita: Our first stop was at the amazing Küra, a small luxury hotel in the high hills of Uvita. They have an amazing view of the coastline and the beautiful Marino Ballena National park. This 6-star ( I gave them 6) has a spa, restaurant, bar, infinity pool and they can also book tours for you. You can park your car at the bottom of the hill, and they will pick you up if you don’t want to drive up the steep road. If you’re looking for an intimate, white glove, honeymoon stay, look no further, our friends at Küra will treat you extremely well. If you stay in Uvita you can visit the Marino Ballena park, go to Bonita beach, visit the Nauyaca Falls, or go snorkeling at Caño Island.
Manuel Antonio Park: At Küra, we booked a guide to take us to Manuel Antonio. The recommendation is to go with a certified guide so they can find the wildlife and provide telescopes and binoculars to see them. Jovino, our guide, is a local, and he’s great! He’s kind, courteous and very knowledgeable. He’s lived in Uvita his whole life so can really tell you anything about the region. I have his phone number so if you want to book him, let me know!
We enjoyed the tour, and luckily got to see a few sloths! You can end the tour at the beach, right at the end of the park. On your way back to Uvita, make a stop at Langosta Feliz restaurant, and order the fried snapper, ceviche, and calamaris, so good!
La Florida: We continued further South, on our way to our treehouse at Finca Bellavista. This is the one where we ended up leaving after our first night. The reason? Well, even though it was beautiful and completely OFF THE GRID, it was just not comfortable for us. The treehouse we had (El Fenix) had almost all the amenities you need (hot water, electricity, kitchen with mini fridge) but just getting to the treehouse was a jungle excursion beyond our comfort zone. During the day it was ok, but when we had to go and come from the basecamp for dinner, or to use the WiFi, it was a 15 minute hike-walk through the wet, lush, very dark (pitch black) jungle. I could not see myself walking through that after drinks, no way! So, just be aware of what you’re getting into if you decide to go for this. There were other cabins, closer to the basecamp, that seemed less isolated. If you decide to stay here, keep in mind you will need a 4X4 to make it to the basecamp, they don’t offer transportation from the main road. We had to pay $20 (one way) to a local taxi to drive us.
Puerto Jiménez: After our failed treehouse experience, we followed the recommendation of one of the staff and drove to a small hotel by the coast of Puerto Jimenez. The road from La Florida to Puerto Jimenez is even more isolated and rural so you’ll notice how more lush the region is down here, just beautiful. The hotel Agua Dulce was in front of the beach, so that’s a plus, and it also has a pool and restaurant. It’s pretty isolated from the town so unless you’re ok with eating at the restaurant every day, buy some food in the town to bring with you.
Finca Kobo: We had a great time doing a cacao tour with Juan Luis at Finca Kobo (in Puerto Jimenez too). He showed us the farm and many of the crops they have besides cacao, like vanilla, guanabana, white pineapple, star fruit, guava, and more. The tour costs $USD 32 and lasted around 1 – 1.5 hr. We had a tasting of the cacao at the end and bought some star fruit jam to bring with us (delicious!). And we also got to see a lot of monkeys playing around in the trees.
Ojochal: On our last day (Christmas Eve) in the South Pacific, we stayed in this little town right before Uvita. Ojochal has a few cute spots at the entrance like a french bakery that also serves food and drinks, a deli with important products, and a mini shopping center with a coffee place and restaurant. We stayed at Alma de Ojochal, a cute, small, boutique hotel in the hills of Ojochal. We decided to stay in that night so bought some cheese, wine, and bread at the deli and waited for the sunset by the pool.
Heading back to San Jose: On our way back through the 34, we decided to try out the falafels at Playa Hermosa. This cute little restaurant is owned by an Israeli who went to Costa Rica on a surf trip and decided to stay there with his whole family. Great hummus, falafel, and the tamarind juice was bomb!
San Jose: As I mentioned in the beginning, I recommend a short stay in San Jose. The capital isn’t as charming as the rest of the country and there’s not a lot to see. We did 1.5 days and it was just enough to visit the Mercado Central and have a delicious local breakfast (tortilla seasoned with cheese) and black drip coffee. We visited Barrio Amon, where you can find many art galleries and from there walk to the National Theater in the central square. Definitely make a reservation at Azotea Calle 7, they have great gin and food is good. Also visit Barrio Escalante, which they call the gastronomic center of San Jose. You’ll find many restaurants, bars, and coffee places. I recommend Apotecario.
What you must try in Costa Rica:
- Ceviche – wow, we didn’t know they were big in ceviche and it’s just delicious. They have great fish so it’s really hard to not find a good ceviche in the South Pacific.
- Drip coffee – this is how the locals drink coffee, not espresso, it’s drip. We loved Costa Rican coffee.
- Rum – They have great rum here, and also from neighboring Nicaragua and Guatemala. Our favorite was Flor de Caña (Nicaraguan).
- All the fruits!