The post-vacation blues always get me, but they really get me when I come back to 20-degree weather and 400 e-mails. Our backpacking trip to Costa Rica and Panama was a last-minute scramble that turned out to be not only one of our most planned trips, but successful trips. I define success as: no tears, no fights, no boredom. I think we did well.
If you’re looking at exploring la Pura Vida or its neighboring country (or if you’re not interested at all but just want to see how my trip went), read on to see what to do, where to stay, and most importantly, where to eat! Vamos!
Our Itinerary: Overview
Day 1 – Fly into San Jose
Day 2 – Monteverde/Santa Elena
Day 3 – Monteverde/Santa Elena
Day 4 – Manuel Antonio
Day 5 – Manuel Antonio
Day 6 – Manuel Antonio –> San Jose
Day 7 – San Jose –> Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Day 8 – Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Day 9 – Bocas Del Toro, Panama –> San Jose
Day 10 – Fly home
Note: This is not necessarily the itinerary I recommend, simply what we did. We loved all the stops we had, but would recommend more time in Panama.
Admittedly, we didn’t spend much time in San Jose. We had read there wasn’t much to stay in town for, and our limited hours seemed to confirm that. However, this is likely where you’ll be flying into/passing through, so we did end up staying a few nights there, accommodation below. If you end up having a couple hours to spare, I recommend browsing the San Jose Mercado Central and getting your souvenirs for the trip.
– Capital Hostel de Ciudad – Pictured above! Very cute hostel a little out of the way of town, but offered gated parking, a good breakfast, and a super friendly staff.
– Stray Cat Hostel – Stray Cat was very hospitable, and we enjoyed our stay here, though we didn’t LOVE the area.
Because of our limited time, we had to decide between exploring Monteverde, a smaller rainforest-centered tourist town, and La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano, the other big tourist spot in Costa Rica based around the active volcano. Ultimately, Monteverde won (mostly because of bungee jumping).
We drove from San Jose to Monteverde along the coast in our little rental car, cringing the entirety of our drive on unpaved roads, but loving every view. I’ll give tips below, but do be warned – we don’t recommend getting a sedan. Play it safe and get something with 4-wheel drive so you can cringe a little less.
The town of Monteverde is charming, entirely walkable, and totally geared toward tourists. There’s activities for everyone– suspension bridges through the rainforest, zip-lining, whitewater rafting, hiking, hot springs, ATV excursions, and of course, bungee jumping.
Our first day in Monteverde, we visited the Selvatura Park, and spent about an hour and a half walking through the trails in Monteverde’s famous cloud forests. The eight bridges, plants, and wildlife kept us entertained and every spot was a good photo op. At $30-$35 a ticket, prices were a little steep, but we’re glad we saw the town’s claim to fame.
Our second day in Monteverde was the day we were most excited and most anxious about– bungee jumping. As terrifying as it sounded, this was absolutely a bucket-list thing for me and the girls. Monteverde eXtremo Park holds the title of Central America’s highest bungee jumping spot, so we didn’t have to do much thinking. We reserved our spot for $75 and made our way up the hills to eventually jump off a cable car suspended over 600 feet in the air.
Now, I can probably talk about this experience for hours. I won’t, because I know you probably don’t care how it felt, but I do recommend doing it. It is horrifying and life-changing and by far the coolest and scariest thing I’ve ever done, and everyone deserves that bragging right.
After jumping and trying to rid ourselves of the shakes we had for about an hour afterward, we drank a beer and watched others make the leap. Highly highly recommend.
Surprisingly, this trip is the first time I had ever used TripAdvisor to extensively search out restaurants. I came prepared, and boy was it worth it. Here’s where to eat in Monteverde:
– Taco Taco – Easily one our of our favorite meals. Grab a local (or craft) beer and get some chips, salsa, and tacos. The fish tacos come highly recommended!
– El Restaurante Sabor Tico – For those wanting to try out the local dishes, like casados (a Costa Rican dish typically comprised of rice, beans, protein, veggies, and a fried plantain), we loved Sabor Tico. For such a simple plate, the food was outstanding.
– The Open Kitchen – We stopped here for lunch and got some pretty decent Mediterranean food.
– Tree House Restaurante and Cafe – The food was okay (I’m sure it’d be better if we had a higher budget lol), but the atmosphere is definitely what makes the restaurant. Built around a giant tree, filled with lights and live music, we would still recommend.
Camino Verde Hostel and B&B – One of our favorite hostels of the trip, Camino Verde had the friendliest staff, a delicious breakfast, and a super clean space. A travel tip in general is to look for places that have B&Bs/cabins/regular rooms on the side. Usually, the place is just a bit nicer than a dorm-only hostel.
Cabinas Vista Al Golfo – These people helped us book all of our excursions, and our room was fine. Would recommend either, and they’re right next to each other in Santa Elena.
We spent approximately 47 minutes in Jaco on our way from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio. I’m only adding this in here because our burritos at Taco Joint were life-changing, and if you’re relatively close to the area, you must go. That is all.
Manuel Antonio was our next stop on the trip, and we were excited to get out of windy and misty Monteverde and into some sun. While we did get some downpours in Manuel Antonio, it wasn’t until after we got fried at some of the town’s beaches.
Playa Espadilla was a quick drive through town from our hostel, and it was one of the town’s larger beaches. This beach has restaurants and shops nearby, as well as a gorgeous jungle-lined coast and rocks jutting out of the ocean.
Playa Biesanz was another quick drive, but this time a 10-minute hike away from the main street, so bring appropriate shoes. The beach itself is a small cove, and it’s perfect if you’re looking for something quieter. We spent $15 on a few lawn chairs (worth it when you don’t have towels lol) and laid out and relaxed until the weather turned.
The main attraction, Manuel Antonio National Park, had to be saved for the last day in town as it’s closed on Mondays (take note, people). We got there early, as in opening time/7am early, and spent around $16 for entry. Visitors have the option of booking a guide to show you around the park, and plenty of people will ask you if you want one when you arrive to the area. We opted to go without a guide, and we were perfectly fine wandering and straining our eyes for sloth sightings by ourselves 🙂 The park itself has a lot of wildlife and plants to observe, but we really focused our energy on the beach.
And rightfully so. The beach had the perfect amount of waves, soft sand, and animals darting around at all times. This was great when it was monkeys that minded their own business, but not great when you wake up to a raccoon rustling through your backpack. TIP: eat before you go to the park and don’t bring in any food… learn from us!
– Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar – My favorite spot in Manuel Antonio was the cheapest and quickest one – falafel! The ingredients were super fresh and you won’t leave hungry.
– Emilio’s Cafe – Come here for breakfast or lunch to enjoy Manuel Antonio’s gorgeous views, along with some great food.
– El Patio de Cafe Milagro – We came here for craft beers and good food, and that’s what we got. We weren’t able to, but everyone recommended sitting out on the patio for the best experience.
– El Avion – A standout restaurant in Manuel Antonio thats known for the giant plane inside the restaurant, El Avion was a good place for us to grab appetizers and drinks.
– Hostel Plinio – We stayed here to have a quieter hostel experience and really enjoyed it. A quick note, however, there is no A/C and the place, being in the tropical location that it is, is constantly… damp. Our clothes never quite smelled right/fully dried, but sometimes that’s just the beauty of the tropics : )
– Selina Hostel – If you’re looking for a place that’s got a little more going on, we’ve heard good things about Selina (a hostel chain in Latin America) and this particular hostel was in a fun area.
BOCAS DEL TORO
We always try to see more than one country in an international trip, even if it’s a little out of the way. For us, Bocas Del Toro was a way to not only add Panama to our list, but to see the Caribbean side of Central America, as our last beach town was on the Pacific side. While we’re glad we squeezed in Bocas Del Toro, I recommend dedicating more than 2 days– first because it was somewhat of a nightmare to get there (more on this process later), and second because we really, really enjoyed it and wish we had more time.
Our Panama plans were simple– beach, lounge, relax, eat, etc. That’s really all we did. Because of this, I don’t have excursion or food recommendations. I do, however, have accommodation recommendations:
Stay at Palmar Beach Lodge. Ha! That’s it. My only recommendation. On our tenth hour of travel from San Jose, second water taxi, and third mode of transportation, we set our expectations high on this place (aka this hostel better be worth the hell it was to get here).
It was worth it. This eco-lodge was a one-stop shop– there was a full-service restaurant with amazing food, happy hours, morning yoga, group activities, beach volleyball, and the list goes on. Guests don’t have to wear shoes (and because every path was made of sand, we didn’t), purchases go on a room tab, and everything was just simple.
The eco-friendly side of me loved the informational signs on how solar panels work, and while the showers could be quite nippy, it was RAINWATER and that’s the coolest thing ever.
The property has many “levels” of accommodation– we did a hostel, which was a cabin-style dorms, but they also offer glamping tents (wow!) and some more luxury-style cabins. Again, I can’t stress enough trying to find a place that offers levels of accommodation. And, did I mention a sloth crawled over us during our Thanksgiving dinner? I shall say no more.
Notes: The Palmar Beach Lodge is located outside of Bocas Del Toro’s main island (Isla Colon), on Isla Basimento. Try and catch one of Palmar’s free taxi times, but otherwise, any of the water taxis in town will take you to the Red Frog Beach dock for $8.
Overall, the trip surpassed expectations and the post-vacation blues are still at an all-time high. Have you visited Costa Rica or Panama? Have I convinced you that it’s worth your time and hard-earned dollars? Let me know in the comments below, and if you have any questions on our trip I’d be happy to answer them!
Thanks for reading this long one, if you made it this far!