Who would pass up the opportunity to see a volcano rising out of lush rainforest? Certainly not me. After waking up on our first full day in Costa Rica only about an hour late and quickly having breakfast at the hotel, we began our three hour drive to Arenal Volcano National Park in northern Costa Rica.
Our friendly rental car partner had advised us the previous night to use Waze instead of Google Maps since that tends to be more accurate in Costa Rica and reminded us to enter the place name instead of the address, since most addresses you find will not direct you to the correct location. While I found the latter to be true, in my experience, I didn’t find much discernable difference between the locations of places in Google Maps when compared to Waze. Either way, make sure you’ve filled your gas tank and stopped off at the ATM to get some cash before you head off since the toll roads do not accept card or other payment methods.
Costa Rica readily accepts both local Costa Rican Colons and the United States Dollars for transactions in cash and card, but keep in mind, you’ll only get change for your US Dollar cash in Colons. In most places we visited, the exchange rate the location was using was clearly posted, and most provided an exchange rate comparable to that of the bank/debit card rate.
Since we left early in the morning on a Saturday, we didn’t hit much traffic. The first part of the drive was majestic with roads that curved around the mountains and over bridges that spanned rivers hundreds of feet below. You could tell how this place became the location of the fictional Jurassic Park (I know that the principle filming location for the movie was Hawaii). After about an hour of driving, we started to come across some eclectic, small towns along the way. Not too long after, we started back upwards into the clouds and the weather that is the namesake for the rainforest. At this point, we decided we just needed to make it to the park.
Coming down on the other side of the mountain, we exited the lush forest and after a few more small towns, entered an expansive valley with the silhouette of the volcano showing behind the clouds. After about thirty minutes of “we’re here” we finally made it to an unpaved road leading to the park entrance. Fifteen minutes later, we made it to the main gate. The ranger advised us that the foreigner rate was $15 per person, and we could pay in Dollars or Colons. I chose to pay in Colons, and when I received my statement, I noticed it was billed over as $30.04 despite being a no foreign transaction fee card, so it didn’t make much difference which currency I paid in.
You can drive to the end of the road and get a great shot of the volcano from a lookout point. If you want to hike (which I would recommend), you’ll have to go back to the parking lot and take the trail. On this trail, you’ll see and smell things that you wouldn’t in North America. The views are amazing and the hike is just what you need to experience the forest around the volcano.
After a quick hike, we decided to head next to explore the chocolate tour and coffee roasters. Our first stop was Estukuru Chocolateria. They offer a quick walking tour of a small garden area showing different cacao trees and a small greenhouse and factory behind their chocolate store and cafeteria. We moved on next to the North Fields Coffee Cafe. A full tour was $35 per person and a 3 hour experience. Since it was already past lunchtime and we had recently done a coffee plantation tour and roasting in Kona, and another coffee plantation tour in Bali, we decided to op for just a pot of fresh coffee and 250g bag of coffee beans at the company store. This came out to $7 and was the better option. Still hungry, we quickly looked for something nearby.
Just down the street from Estukuru is a little café called the Red Frog Coffee Roasters. With 4.8 stars and 107 reviews, we decided to give it a try – and boy, those reviews were not wrong. We got some arroz fritos con pollo and a burrito along with some fresh pineapple smoothie and an iced coffee. This was probably the best tasting meal we had on the trip to Costa Rica. With great food and atmosphere, we didn’t mind that it was pouring and we waited out the storm from the safety of the café.
The drive home was uneventful except for the slight slip up on the toll road. We didn’t have enough cash on hand so the employee advised us to park the car and walk about 200 meters to the gas station to get cash. The attendant at the gas station charged me 1000 Colons to get 4000 Colons (a 25% surcharge!), but it was our fault for not planning properly in advance and there was nothing else we could do. Again, make sure you have enough cash for all of your tolls on your trip! We got back to the hotel rather late and stopped by the grocery store around the corner to pick up some bread, cheese and cured meats to snack on before heading to bed for the night.