Is there any better way to see Costa Rica than a 4×4 truck with a rooftop tent? We think not. Last February, we spent 3 weeks and drove almost 1,000 miles exploring this beautiful country and living la Pura Vida! When we were planning our trip, we originally planned to rent a car and stay in AirBnBs. We were disheartened to find that a lot of rental companies in Costa Rica are not up front about insurance fees etc. A rental car may seem super cheap when you book online but we heard horror stories of people having tons of fees tacked on after the fact. We stumbled upon Nomad America and were very impressed with the reviews people left. They are up front about their costs and these guys are about the coolest, most helpful bunch we have met. We were so excited about the possibilities that having a rooftop tent opened up. We weren’t confined to a timeline of needing to be anywhere, ever! From start to finish, Nomad America was so helpful with our trip planning. They walked us through everything about the rig, how to set up and put away the tent, and provided almost everything we needed to be comfortable. They even looked over our itinerary and made suggestions that led us to some of the most beautiful spots.
We ended up with a Toyota Hilux which proved to be a badass rig. The roads of Costa Rica can be rough and bumpy and there is always the chance of a river crossing. There wasn’t a road condition we encountered that was a match for this beast. In fact, we wenched some travellers out of the river on a river crossing that proved too treacherous for them! Thanks to this rig, we were able to explore more than we could have dreamed and go a little off the beaten path.
WHERE WE STAYED
In our 3 weeks in Costa Rica, we never paid for a campsite! We utilized iOverlander as well as suggestions from Nomad America to find our campsites. Check out our blog post on all the resources we utilize on our travels to find campsites. We spent 3 nights ground tent camping at Envision Festival. We rounded out the trip staying at Origenes Lodge for some R&R in a real bed with a roof over our heads.
WHAT WE ATE
We typically try to cook our meals when we are on the road travelling. We find we feel better and save money. We were provided a camp stove and cooler by Nomad America so we were able to grocery shop and prepare most of our meals ourselves. Groceries in Costa Rica proved to be quite expensive. We found out too late in our trip that eating at the local Sodas is the cheapest way to eat. It also proves to be the most authentic. We did enjoy a few meals eating out and the food was delicious!
WHERE WE WENT
We opted to skip many of the more popular sites in Costa Rica such as Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. We were able to see some gorgeous sites that are far less trafficked. We stuck to north central Costa Rica and the Pacific side. Let’s dive into some of the highlights.
This was our first taste of Costa Rica and we were absolutely blown away. There are several options for tours, we opted for the Blue Falls light tour which cost $15. We had a guide who took us through the Costa Rican countryside to two sets of blue waterfalls. The color is absolutely stunning and the water is super refreshing. We were able to explore and enjoy swimming for as long as we wanted. While Rio Celeste is arguably more beautiful and larger, you are not able to swim in it which makes Blue Falls superior in our opinion.
This is one of the most popular areas of Costa Rica with good reason. It is home to the gorgeous Arenal Volcano which we had the opportunity to see in blue skies. We found our favorite camp spot here on a private beach on Lake Arenal with a full view of the volcano. Five star views for free! La Fortuna is also a hub for natural hot springs. There are several hot spring resorts here. We opted to visit Termales Laureles which had a very laid back vibe. There are pools and slides for children as well as several hot pools for adults. We spent the morning soaking in the water and walking around the beautiful grounds.
Located in Tenorio National Park, this waterfall is the most brilliant blue waterfall we have ever seen. The hike is 3.7 miles and takes you through the rainforest. Swimming is not allowed within the national park but there are areas on your way into the park that are approved for swimming. If you want to extend your hike, you can hike to the sulfur vents that create the beautiful blue color of the water.
Rincon de la Vieja
This park boasts over 34,000 acres of land, it is divided into two sectors with Las Pailas being the most popular sector. Although the hike to the crater of the volcano is closed, there are still several other options for hikes. We did 2 hikes here. The first being the Oropendola Waterfall. This is a short and easily accessible hike. You are able to swim right up below the falls. The land is owned by the Hotel Guachipelin so it is a separate fee from the park, but it is well worth it, especially to be able to swim after a long day of hiking! Next we hiked to Catarata la Cangreja. This is a 5.9 mile out and back trail. The beginning of the hike takes you through a forest with tons of monkeys. There is a portion of the hike that is very exposed after this. Next there is a bit of a descent and you end up at the falls. The falls are in a National Park so swimming is unfortunately not allowed. There is a side trail to a second waterfall on the way back, however we highly recommend against this. The hike is straight up the mountain, exposed in the sun, and the waterfall is not nearly as impressive. We are trail monsters though, so we had to do every trail. If you are up for another hike, there is the Las Pailas Loop which will take you past active boiling mud pots. We opted out of this hike due to time and due to the fact that it is very dry and exposed.
This peninsula has some of the most beautiful beaches we have seen. Though there are some very popular areas like Tamarindo, Nosara, and Samara, we tried to stay off the beaten path. We stayed the first night at Playa Mina. This beach was recommended to us by Nomad America and it was absolutely gorgeous. It’s a good thing it was gorgeous because we broke down on the beach! As we were driving in, we turned our light bar on for the first time. Our best guess is that the alternator couldn’t keep up with the demand of the light bar and we drained our battery. Nomad America was fantastic, they provide you with a local cell phone which we were able to use to get in contact with them. They offered to send out help however it wasn’t even necessary. The local mechanic happened to be camping on the same beach and gave us a jump! Costa Ricans are truly some of the nicest and most helpful people we have met. The next beach we stayed at was Playa Coco. We ended up staying here 2 nights because it was so lovely. We had a campsite tucked between two palm trees and were within walking distance to a little beach bar. We had gorgeous sunsets and fascinating tide pools to explore.
This tour took the cake. The gulf of Nicoya is one of the few places in the world where you can see bioluminescence year round. We took a tour out of Curu Nature preserve. We spent the days wandering the trails which are full of native species of monkeys, birds, armadillo, and more. Just before sunset, we boarded a boat which took us to a private beach. There we enjoyed refreshments and fresh fruit as the sun set. Once it was dark, we boarded the boat again and were transported to the middle of the bay. We jumped into the water and saw the ocean begin to sparkle around us. It’s an impossible thing to describe, the magical feeling of seeing the water light up as you move. Bioluminescent creatures emit light when they are agitated so the more you paddle, the brighter they get. We were absolutely mesmerized. We spent about 30 minutes floating around in awe of what our eyes were seeing. After getting out of the water, we headed back to the preserve watching the wake of the boat glow.
This was one of the coolest, funkiest towns we encountered in Costa Rica. We had traveled down to the south of Costa Rica to attend the Envision Festival. Dominical was nearby and was a hub for travelers to the festival. If you make a trip down, make sure to check out Fuego Brewing for delicious craft beer and coffee. Also hit up Cafe Mono Congo for awesome coffee right on the river out to the ocean. Not too far from Dominical is Nauyaca Falls. You will have to stop in the office and either buy tickets for hiking or book a horseback tour. We opted to hike which cost us $8. You will drive to a trailhead and head off. It is 2.5 miles each way. There is a lower fall and upper fall area. You are free to swim and climb on the rocks by the waterfall. It is incredibly refreshing after a hot hike! Though it did not have the blue color of some of the other falls in Costa Rica, it is still up there as one of our favorites.
We drove to Uvita specifically to attend the Envision Festival. When we planned out our trip, we decided on a whim to see if there were any music festivals happening during our trip. In a serendipitous event, Envision was happening during our trip with one of our favorite artists, Tycho, performing. The festival had a focus on sustainability, art, yoga, and electronic music. We were provided with a ground tent by Nomad America so we were able to camp at the festival. We were set in the jungle just steps from the beach. We experienced some of the most beautiful sunsets hanging out with thousands of festival goers. We will forever have fond memories dancing into the night and having tears in our eyes as we watched Tycho’s sunrise set. Beyond the festival, we were able to explore a bit more of the town. Uvita is home to Playa Ballena or “whale tail beach.” From above, the sand is in a whale tail shape. This beach is a national park so there is an entrance fee associated. You are able to park in town and walk to the beach. If you are searching for the food, we recommend El Hornito for the best empanadas you will ever taste. We ate here 3 times in the 3 days we were in Uvita!
To round out our trip, we spent 2 nights at an AirBnB in Jaco. This was easily the most developed area we went to. After spending almost 3 weeks in a tent, having a bed and a shower felt glorious. The lodge we stayed in had a small pool and an area to do yoga in the morning. We were within driving distance to the beach where we enjoyed our last Costa Rica sunset.
Overlanding in Costa Rica proved to be an excellent means of exploration. We were able to cover tons of ground and see some truly beautiful sites. Though we were able to see a ton, we will definitely have to make a trip back someday. When we return, we plan to visit the Osa Peninsula, the Carribbean side, and maybe hit some of the more touristy areas like Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. We highly recommend Nomad America if you are planning a trip of your own!