I was up as bright and early for a milk run as possible, and jumped in a taxi en route to LaGuardia at 4am to check in and sneak a bag onto the Spirit flight. For anyone who hasn't flown with Spirit before, it's like Ryanair in the early 2000s, but 3 times the price. So be prepared to play by the rules or pay the price. The flight itself was as smooth as a baby's arse, and after a quick stop off in Florida we landed in San Jose in no time. The view when landing is pretty impressive so try get a window seat if possible.
Passport control took a couple of minutes, which was surprise and once through I picked up a SIM card, as I'd be getting seriously lost on the road without GPS. The Costa Rican accent is essentially like what the Cork accent is to English, so I suggest you brush up before visiting. Spanish that is, not Cork talk. Well Baaaaiiiiyyy!
The rent-a-car pick up was a bit of shambles and we were shipped into a van and driven about 5km away to finally get a car. I made the mistake of choosing Enterprise via Priceline, which I wouldn't recommend as you end up paying through the nose for extras and they also don't accept any of the insurance you bought directly on the site. Avoid! After giving the fella a piece of my mind in Spanish, I was presented with the a horrific looking Fiat, but it drove nicely.
My first night was going to in La Fortuna, located just outside the Arenal Volcano, 150km north of San Jose. So I hit the road with the aim to be there before sunset. The initial part of the 2.5 hour drive was easy enough, apart from rolling down the window when trying to change gears. But once I ascended into the mountains things got a little dodgy as the fog set in. After a couple of iffy moments, I made it down, grabbed a snack and powered through to La Fortuna soaking in some gorgeous views en route accompanied with some Latin tunes.
I rocked into the Arenal Backpackers Resort, parked and settled into my tent bed. The complex itself is perfect for a short stay in the town, with a swimming pool, outdoor gym and restaurant. After a quick shower I headed out for a bite to eat and realised half way through that it must have been the local gay bar. Good tunes though! So I made my way back to the hostel for some reading and planning for the next day…absolutely wrecked!
I was up at 8am after a lovely sleep and straight out for a workout in the outdoor gym, after which I had some breakfast in the hostel. A quick change of clothes later I was in the Fiat and en route to the La Fortuna Waterfall. After 10 minutes driving or so I left the car, paid about $15 to enter and hiked for 20 minutes to get to the base of the waterfall. The weather was pretty rubbish so I was the only person there which made it kind of cool. The waterfall itself is pretty impressive and whats cool is that you're able to swim beside it too. So after tiptoeing in and risking my manhood, I was paddling around as happy as Larry. Once out I attempted to dry off which was pretty tough with no towel and the heavens open, so ran back in almost the nip passed some very well clothed and protected tourists.
I drove back soaked to the hostel for a quick shower and then a work phone call. Must say its the first conference call I've done in a rainforest, but there you go. Once finished, I was back in the Fiat Beast and arrived at Arenal Volcano about 8km away. What should have taken me 10 minutes to drive took about 30 minutes as the roads leading to the car park are some of the worst I've ever driven in my life, so had to zip zag my way for about 3km. Definitely invest in a 4x4!
Once parked, I paid $15 and started the 1.5 hour hike. After meandering through some beautiful wildlife and fauna, I made it to the look out point with dried lava flow from the volcano's last eruption in the 80s. Just then the sun came out, so it made for a nice break at the peak. I decided to hike a different route back, via a famous Tarzan-eque tree. I also made the schoolboy error of not wearing socks so spent the last 30 minutes cursing loudly while random animals ran all around. I'd like to think, if not in pain I would have appreciated it more. As my feet were like a young Padre Pio, I drove to the last lookout barefoot and then zig zagged my way back to the main road, where a vulture was tucking into some animal on the path. Delish!
Within the La Fortuna area there are many natural thermal spas which can be quite pricey. There is one free spa however, located where an old hotel shut down within the last 10 years. You can recognise it by the local lads helping you park for a tip. So I parked on the edge of a cliff and made my way down to the natural spa, trying my best to dance around the Chinese tourists ahead of me. The water is full of rocks so if for some reason you have Crocs, it is finally acceptable to wear them in public. After 30 minutes chilling, I hobbled out and back to the car, where I burned the hell out of the wheels and gear box to get off the cliff edge.
On a whim, I decided to drive 45km to New Arenal, another town, to see the sunset across Lake Arenal. The drive offers amazing views of the lake, but I'd recommend going half way, checking out the sunset and then heading back. The view for sunset is breath taking and well worth the drive out. Some of the radio stations in the Arenal area are absolutely awful. One in particular had a tarot card reader, tell his listeners to come visit his office which is located above a barbers and another bible basher telling everyone they will be grand if they just read a few chapters. I'd say the Catholic Church only wish they could get away with that back home now.
After getting back to the ranch, I showered, chilled for a bit and then headed out for dinner at the local pizzeria. Everyone and their mother from the local town was there! It took ages but was pretty delish in the end! It was a long day so after a beer in the local I decided to head back to the hostel to crash for a much needed rest.
I was up early again at 7.30 and had a super quick workout before hitting the road to Jaco, which is located about 3.5 hours away (200km) on the Pacific coast of the country. Without doubt this was one of the most amazing drives of my life. After initially starting on decent roads, Google Maps sent me to small towns on cliff edges with awful winding roads, but the scenery was out of this world. I managed to build in a number of pee and photo pit stops, along with a much needed food stop, after I lost concentration at one stage singing Fairytale of New York and almost careering off a cliff. Focus Iain.
I rocked into Jaco at about 1pm and checked in to the hotel on the main strip. I'd heard very mixed reviews about the town and quickly realised the main theme of those were true. It was a bloody hooker town with all old white men. There was a bar literally beside the hotel with white gringos, two of which were in zimmer frames, yes really, talking to young Costa Rican women.
So I decided to hightail it to Playa Hermosa, which is well known for its surfing. After a quick chill on the beach I stopped off in a Beach Bar which had good food and amazing views of the coast. I was back on the road after and en route to Playa Blanca, which is a secret beach about 10km outside of Jaco. Twenty minutes of zigzagging the awful roads later, I was on the beach. It was absolutely beautiful and secluded, that was until I realised on the way back and the attendant told me that I'd totally missed Playa Blanca and was in fact on its uglier sister Playa Manta. Oh well.
Afterwards I made my way back to the ranch to check out Jaco beach itself. The town has a really strange vibe and I wouldn't really recommend it to solo travellers, as its a seedy as it gets. There were lots of ladies of the night (day in this case) approaching me and even a few lads hitting on me in the street too. "Ah would ya ever feck off!"
So I retreated back to my hotel for some beers before finally working up the courage to go out on the street and managed to find a small plaza with modern restaurants and normal people. After eating a burger, the Venezuelan bar man, told me to head out with him and his crew so after a few beers we all went to Swell bar which is the nearest thing to a normal bar in the town. From there we went to Orange across the road which had some serious tunes raging until the early morning.
Given the late night before, I had a well deserved lie in and arose with a seriously heavy head. My original plans of going surfing were out the window, so I stopped by the beach for a quick dip to brush the cobwebs off, checked out and then was on the road to San Jose. After multiple wrong turns and paying a ridiculous amount of tolls, I made it back to Enterprise in San Jose and dropped the Fiat off before grabbing an Uber to the Radisson in downtown San Jose. One thing I found out later is that Uber is technically illegal in Costa Rica, so don't be alarmed if your driver asks you to sit in the front seat when you get in.
Once checked in by late afternoon, I decided to head down the pool for some hungover chill for a bit, before wandering down to San Jose old town. The city centre itself is pretty small and can be discovered in an hour or so. The most impressive building to see if the Teatro Nacional, and if you can catch a show is a must. I was a tad peckish so grabbed some gallo pinto for dinner and walk around the city some more to reach Barrio La California, to grab a couple of beers as the night got started. My batteries only lasted another hour or so before I had to retreat to the hotel for a much needed sleep. Drink is the devil.
One Irish person to do some research on when visiting San Jose is Susannah Beamish-Strachan, a Cork native who founded not only the first female only university in the city during the 1920s, but also a number of hospitals and libraries over the following years too. Ledge!
After a lovely rest I was up at 7am to get breakfast, hit the gym and then the steam room. Back to normal! Once showered I headed across town to meet up with a friend from travelling in the afternoon, for some lunch and a couple of scoops in Bario Escolante which is a nice neighbourhood with cool bars and a chill vibe. After a few too many Imperials, I decided I wanted to see a local football game, so jumped in an Uber and headed to the town or Heredia which is about 10km outside of San Jose. The match itself was the semi finals of the Costa Rican championship between two teams in the city, but the stadium reminded me of Dalymount Park in the early 90s. After haggling a ticket for $10 in the street I headed in, to be the only gringo and watch a pretty poor game of football. The atmosphere saved the event along with the greasy empanadas too.
With the home team losing 1-0, I decided to make a break for it and left to hail down a cab back to San Jose. I was back out in no time to meet friends in a bar not too far from the hotel. The bar was pretty wild and cheap as chips. After asking friends why it was so cheap, they told me it was Ladies Night, after which I noticed there were about 90% men in the bar. Hardly a success. After midnight I decided to call it a day and walked home via a few local barrios, probably not the best call but made home in one piece.
To try and feel as normal as possible on the flight back I was up at 9am for some brekkie and gym/steam room. The sun decided to pop out so just afterwards so I spent the remainder of the morning chilling by the pool. After a shower I met my friend for some afternoon tea and lunch before packing my bags and heading back to the airport, upon which there was a bizarre scene of an 80 year old rich man in an Adidas tracksuit confessing his love to a 20 something year old sugarbaby. Ah young love!
Costa Rica is an absolute gem in Central America with amazing landscapes and biodiversity in its rainforests. Although I only scratched the surface, I will definitely be back soon to see more, especially the beautiful Nicoya Peninsula and Atlantic Coast. I'd recommend at least 2 weeks if you want to fit the best bits in and spend as little as time as possible in San Juan. Pura vida baby!