While there are many things we love about living in Seattle, 6 months of dreary, gray weather each year is NOT one of them. So we escaped to the secluded beaches of Costa Rica for a week, and caught up on half a year’s worth of Vitamin D.
– ACCOMMODATIONS –
There is plenty to see all over Costa Rica, but we chose the secluded town of Manzanillo as our home base. It’s a 4-5 hour drive from the airport in the capital of San Jose, and was exactly what we hoped for – gorgeous Caribbean water, sun-soaked beaches, and few tourists.
We booked a unique and beautiful AirBnB, built by the owner with reclaimed wood from fallen trees in the rainforest. It’s open-air and set back from the road near the forest, so we were exposed to the heat and the bugs – but it was well worth it. We constantly admired the innovative architecture, and loved waking up to the sound of howler monkeys every morning!
– WHAT TO DO –
A short walk from our AirBnB led us to a nice public beach, but we usually hopped in our rental car to explore off the beaten track. (Fair warning: we were shocked by the unexpected expense of special car insurance required in Costa Rica – it set us back about $300, and wasn’t covered by the travel credit cards that we normally rely on).
– Be a beach bum –
We spent long, lazy days on Punta Uva reading and playing in the surf. Lush forests meet the beach, offering plenty of shady spots to set up camp. We rarely saw another person. It often felt as though we had washed up on a deserted island and claimed this stretch of paradise just for ourselves.
– Ethical Dolphin Tour –
Each day, on the dirt road leading from our house to the beach, we passed Bad Bart’s Dive Shop, a quaint little business run by locals who were often hanging out on the front porch. On our AirBnB host’s recommendation, we booked their dolphin tour, which turned out to be AMAZING!
Rather than being trapped on a crowded booze cruise (my nightmare), this tour was just the two of us on a local fisherman’s boat. Knowing just what to look for, our guide led us to multiple pods of dolphins, turned off the motor, and let us drift among them.
The dolphins swam around us for over an hour, even leaping out of the water as though they were playing with us! It was infinitely better than an exploitative swim with captive dolphins, because these beautiful creatures were happy and free. (Check out a few of our other favorite ethical animal experiences here.)
– Jaguar Rescue Center –
Although you may have sensed our reticence toward organized tours, there’s an exception to every rule. We LOVED our private tour at the Jaguar Rescue Center. Despite its name, there were no jaguars in residence, but we were treated to close interactions with a wide variety of Costa Rica’s wildlife, from sloths and monkeys to frogs and toucans.
The center is a home for ill, injured and orphaned animals. They are given round-the clock veterinary care and re-introduced into the wild when and if they can be rehabilitated. On our 2-hour private tour, a staff member showed us around the center and introduced us to the menagerie of its residents. Many of the animals run free inside the center, including a sweet little deer who wandered up to meet me, and a grumpy pelican at the front office who I initially mistook for a statue.
The highlight of the tour was joining in to help feed some very friendly baby monkeys! The staff are clearly quite attached to all the creatures under their care. Our guide knew the names and back stories of every animal we met. Since we are committed to ethical travel, we were delighted to be able to support such a great cause while learning about and bonding with Costa Rica’s wildlife.
The Jaguar Rescue Center also offers accommodations and volunteering programs for visitors who want to get more involved!
– Nature Observatorio –
Our AirBnB host’s partner, Peter, has built an extraordinary treehouse observatory in the rainforest and runs guided tours there. Like most everything else we did in Manzanillo, we had an incredible experience – and the place to ourselves.
Peter led us on a hike through the rainforest, pointing out flora and fauna along the way. He has an excellent eye for spying fascinating tiny frogs and insects, which Aaron and I would otherwise have walked right past.
After a sweaty trek through the forest, we arrived at our reward: A luxurious treehouse 8 storeys high in the foliage. The impressive structure was carefully designed to do no damage to the tree and to allow it to continue to grow. It is suspended on nylon straps, and not a single nail or screw was used in its placement. It boasts a modern bathroom supplied by rainwater, and solar energy for electricity.
We chose to forgo the elevator and hoist ourselves up by a rope system (Aaron informs me this is called prusicking, though that sounds like a made up word to me)– which is not for the faint of heart! I fancy myself to be in pretty good shape, but I was winded and sweating by the time I reached the top. Fortunately the view was well worth the effort! We gazed all the way out to the Caribbean while enjoying a cool treetop breeze and watching wildlife activity we’d never have seen from the ground.
The treehouse is decked out with hammocks and bean bags chairs, and Peter even provided snacks and drinks! There is a smaller second floor with a bed, and visitors can stay overnight there – an experience that we will absolutely return for!
I can’t imagine anything more magical than falling asleep and waking up to these views and the wild sounds of the forest all around.
– WHERE TO EAT –
We saved money by shopping at the local grocery and cooking breakfast and lunch at home in Manzanillo, but for dinners we explored the larger nearby town of Puerto Viejo.
Our favorite meal by far was at Madre Tierra. The food was fresh, delicious and unique – we wanted to order everything on the menu!
Bonus points for seats on the second-floor balcony, where we watched the goings-on of the town below. We even saw the restaurant owner bring leftovers to some dogs across the street, securing a special spot in our pup-loving hearts for this place!
We also loved El Refugio, a little open-air restaurant set in the jungle near Punta Uva. The menu changes each night and we enjoyed our meal surrounded by the sounds of birds and monkeys.
Costa Rica was definitely one of our all-time favorites, and we only just scratched the surface. We can’t wait to come back and explore more of the country!
Best part: The solitude of untouched beaches all to ourselves
Worst part: Thanks to multiple accidents slowing traffic on the hair-raising two-lane road through the mountains, the drive back to the airport took significantly longer than expected. We just made our flight even though we thought we’d left ample time to arrive early.
What we learned: There are sloths on Costa Rica’s paper money!
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