costa rica part iii: santa teresa, tinamaste, uvita, drake bay, manuel antonio

The drive from San Juanillo to Santa Teresa seemed fairly straight-forward on a map. Just a drive down the coast for 4 hours, no problemo, right? Google Maps didn’t mention that almost the entire drive would be on shitty gravel roads with about 6 or 7 stream crossings, where I averaged about 30 km/hr. But hey, I wanted to get off the beaten track here in Costa Rica and this was literally it.

There were times on the drive where I didn’t see a single car for an hour and I seemed to be going through random dirt side roads that hadn’t been driven in weeks. Every stream I went through, I hoped that it wasn’t deep enough to flood the engine - if that happened, the car would be immediately toast and I’d be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no cell service and no food. Thankfully, every stream was just shallow enough for me to scoot through it with the Rav4 un-flooded.

The sun started getting lower in the sky and Google Maps said I was only 20 minutes away - so close! And then… the road is closed due to construction. I try to ask how to get to Santa Teresa an alternate way, but the construction guy doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak much Spanish, so I pull a u turn and drive back a little, pull over, and frantically scan the maps for another way in. Without knowing the condition of the roads or if they’re also closed for construction, I set out on a new route there. After 40 minutes of somewhat nervous driving, I make it into the little trendy hippy town of Santa Teresa. I immediately dumped my bags at my beach front surf hostel and walked the entire length of the beach as the sun went down.

After that, I scoped out the cheapest little soda (café) and had my usual dinner of a casado and a mango smoothie, both super cheap. Santa Teresa has a ton of sweet little cafes and restaurants that looked amazing, but with my budget, the cheapest place was the only option and I was totally okay with that.

The next morning, I woke up at 8am and immediately went out for a surf for a few hours before it got too hot. Part of the fun of surfing (for me, at least) is watching the pros carve up the waves and make it look effortless. What’s not as much fun is realizing how bad you are at surfing, especially in comparison to said pros.

After surfing, I tried to clear out my sinuses of all the salt water and had a little chill-out sesh on the beach. Once it got too hot, I went into the beautifully air conditioned hostel and planned out my next few days. A bit more of beach, a little bit of jungle, and a heck of a lot more driving.

The evening was spent just like the previous one - walking the beach, watching the sunset, and a cheap but filling dinner at the little soda.

The next morning was going to be the longest drive of the trip - 6 hours - so I was on the road at 5am. I was planning to catch a ferry from Playa Naranjo to Punta Arenas that ran every 4 hours, so I made sure to give myself extra time to get there. And man, oh man, am I glad I did that. I was stopped by construction 4 times and was also stuck behind a big dump truck on narrow winding dirt roads for an hour. My 45 minute buffer turned into 30, then 20, then 10, then 2 minutes. I’m freaking out at this point, worried that I’ll miss the ferry, have to wait 4 extra hours, turn my 6 hour journey into 10 hours, and get in to Tinamaste after dark.

With literally one minute to spare, I got on the ferry. I was the very last car to get on but gosh darn, I made it.

The roads were beautifully paved for the rest of the drive and I made better time than expected. It was a nice change after a few days of slow gravel roads in the middle of nowhere. I drove in to the tiny little mountain town of Tinamaste and actually drove out of it without realizing - it was that small. A quick u-turn and I found myself at a little soda with a view like over the incredibly lush hills and mountains with toucans in the trees right underneath the balcony. After a quick lunch, I grabbed some mangoes and a pineapple from the fruit stand and headed to my Airbnb.

When I was planning my trip, I planned most of it around the activities I wanted to do. But coming to Tinamaste was solely for this cabin on Airbnb that I found. It looked like a little gem in the mountains and I decided to spend a little more than my usual budget just to stay in a place as unique as this. And it did not disappoint. I spent the evening watching the incredible sunset from the porch, eating the most delicious mangoes of my life.

The next morning was another early wakeup, this time to catch a ride in the back of a pickup to Nauyaca waterfalls. There was the option to hike it, but a 1.5 hour hike one way on a dirt road didn’t seem super attractive to me, especially when the truck ride was pretty cheap.

I’ll always choose to go to these types of attractions early in the morning for a few reasons - less people and usually better light. This was no exception! It was just myself and one family. I almost ran down the trail to the lower falls in order to get some photos before they made it down there. The sun was peeking through the trees just above the falls and for a few minutes, there was no one else around but me. It felt pretty darn special.

Since it was still fairly early by the time I got back to my car, I decided to hit another waterfall - although this time the drive was all on me. A good hour and a half on gravel roads, something I was used to by this point, and a few rusty suspension bridges that barely seemed to hold up under the weight of the Rav4 and I had made it to the dirt parking lot of Eco Chontales. It seemed like a little family run business - I paid my ticket to a man sitting on his patio and I think I parked in his backyard. Despite this, there was a clear and maintained trail down to the falls, as well as some railings in some of the steeper parts.

This waterfall seemed much more geared towards locals. Almost everyone there seemed like they were having a family picnic on their day off, swimming in the pools, and just having a relaxing day off. I took their cue and spend the afternoon napping in the shade of the giant trees hanging over the rocks and the pools.

For dinner, I had spotted a little roadside soda in town and decided to try that out. A little dirt patch, a wooden roof, and a handful of tables - and run by one old dude that spoke no English, so exactly my kind of spot. I had some of the best food of my trip at this little place. I watched the locals walk by as I ate some unreal guac and homemade chips and thought about how lucky I was to have found this little town, all because I saw a cool place to stay on the internet months ago. This felt like the real deal - no touristy souvenir shops or big hotels. I don’t even think there was a small hotel. But that’s exactly what I wanted in a trip - a taste of what every day life was like for people who actual live in Costa Rica, not what they think tourists want to see or do or buy. And this was it.

Sunset from the porch of my cabin was once again spectacular. The only thing missing was some amazing mangoes for dessert.

I woke up early to drive to Los Quetzales park, which I had heard was a gorgeous high altitude jungle. The winding drive up and through the mountains, high above the clouds, was an experience in itself. I wish I had started even earlier so I could’ve seen the sunrise from some of the lookouts.

I was the only car to park in the lot and I was pretty stoked on it, I thought I was just early and had avoided the crowds. When I walked in to the ranger station, I found out why I was the only one there. Only one trail was open, out of eight trails in the park. Since I had driven all the way there, I sure as hell was going to hike that trail, despite the rangers telling me it was a bit boring.

Well, they were pretty darn correct. A wide dirt path with low trees and no views or really anything of note. Pretty disappointing since I had heard such great things about the park and the area in general. But that’s how it goes sometimes, you can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

I went back to my cabin, packed up, and headed down to Uvita, which was just a 45 minute drive away. It’s crazy to think that I went from these insanely high mountains, down to beautiful beaches in just 45 minutes.

I booked a hostel a few days prior and was a little hesitant when I saw it online. The reviews were all spectacular and many people commented on how it was nicer in person, so I decided to give it a shot. When I arrived at Cascada Verde, I was so pleasantly surprised. This was by far the nicest hostel of the trip. Nestled in the jungle with a living space open to the lush forest around, plus a giant balcony on the second floor with hammocks.

My plans for that evening? Surprise, surprise, I walked the beach at sunset and took photos.

The next morning, I enjoyed a perfectly made latte on the verdana of the hostel and watched the birds jump from branch to branch in the treetops in front of me. I chatted with the lovely German owner of the hostel and she had a wealth of information about everything to do in the area. There was a waterfall just a two minute walk away, so of course I had to check that out.

It literally was a two minute walk away, no exaggeration, and it was a great little waterfall, complete with a somewhat sketchy “slide” in the rocks that looked a little rough on the butt.

After three weeks of eating rice and beans for every single meal, I had a super strong craving for pizza. I tried to ignore it but hey, sometimes you just gotta give in and get yourself a greasy, cheesy, low-quality pizza, even if you’re in a foreign country. So that was my evening.

The morning, I was off on the road again, this time to a little remote town in the very south-western tip of Costa Rica called Drake Bay. I wanted to go scuba diving and Drake Bay was the hub for diving on the west coast. As much as I wanted to get go on a liveaboard dive boat to Cocos Island, “the most beautiful island in the world”, according to Jacques Cousteau. However, I certainly did not have thousands of dollars to spend on that excursion, so a day trip to Caño Island was the second best option.

After a long drive through- you guessed it- dirt roads and streams, I arrived at my hostel. where I was greeted with an absolute wealth of knowledge about everything to do in Drake Bay. I was able to book and pay for my dive trip through them right then and there, plus found out the best places for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was also the option of going into Corcovado Park, something that I very much wanted to do, but sadly due to the costs associated with getting a guide, boat transfers, and staying at the Ranger Stations, I wasn’t able to afford it.

Once I had dumped my bag on my bunk, I headed down to the beach and watched the local fishermen casting their lines from shore and an old pup picking up bait fish that spilled out of their buckets.

When I got back to the hostel, I chatted with a Swiss guy who had just arrived and we ended up grabbing some food together and talking about each others lives. He had lived in Costa Rica for a year on an exchange program, became fluent in Spanish, and was now traveling back to visit his host family. I’m always so intrigued by people’s stories and how they came to be in that place at that exact time. I find that traveling alone makes it easier to meet people and forces me to be more outgoing than I usually would be. If I was traveling with a friend or significant other, I probably wouldn’t have spent the time getting to know other travellers.

The next morning was an early wakeup for the dive trip. A few of the other people on the dive boat were young solo travellers, so I was stoked to chat with them and hear their stories as we made our way to Isla de Caño. Our dive master chatted about the biological reserve of the island and how the only permanent resident of the island was a park ranger.

I was a little nervous about diving since it has been almost 4 years since my last dive and I wasn’t sure if I was going to remember everything and manage to keep my breathing calm and steady. Thankfully, it all came back like second nature and I felt right at peace in the water as soon as I was in it. Being underwater, quietly observing all the life around me, puts me into a trance almost. I can watch the same tiny spot for 5 minutes at a time, just seeing the fish come and go, interact with each other, and the minuscule details of the reef that you otherwise wouldn’t notice if you swim right by. Although, as much as I love the tiny creatures and details of the reef, I was also thrilled to see white-tip reef sharks, hawksbill turtles, southern stingrays, and my personal favourite - a large scalloped hammerhead shark. I had never seen that many large marine creatures in one place at one time. The second dive was just as great, with many more white-tips and hawksbill turtles cruising the waters.

We headed back to the mainland, everyone with a smile on their face, and had a fantastic lunch in town while we talked about the critters we saw and where everyone was in their scuba diving journey - from just-certified to 20 years of diving. It was such fun to hang out with a group of divers for the first time in several years.

As if I hadn’t gotten my fill of the water yet that day, I spent the afternoon swimming at the beach with my Swiss friend, eating watermelon that two girls shared with us and watching the flocks of scarlet macaws in the trees above us. The water was warm, the watermelon was sweet, the sun was setting, and it felt like one of the most perfect days that could have ever existed. This is what travelling is all about.

The next morning, I noticed a couple at the hotel with a DSLR camera and a laptop with Lightroom open, so of course I used that to start up a conversation. I found out they were photographers from Quebec, in my home country of Canada, and they had been traveling up Central America, documenting it on their instagram. We hit it off right away and I found out they were going to catch a boat to Uvita - the exact way I was planning on driving. I was happy to have company for the 3 hour drive, especially a super rad couple of people like Nat and Sam! I dropped them off at their hostel in Uvita and continued up to Manuel Antonio for the last two nights of my trip.

I knew Manuel Antonio would be touristy - hence why I only allocated one full day here - but man, oh man, it was way more touristy than I could have imagined, especially since I was coming from weeks of small towns and villages. Souvenir stalls, hawkers lining the streets, knick knacks, t-shirts, and useless junk being sold at every street corner. I still managed to find a cheap place for lunch and decided to check out the “beautiful long beach” of Manuel Antonio. The beach itself was great, yeah, but when you add hundreds of people, lounge chairs, umbrellas, jetskis, boats, and trash to the beach, it becomes a little less nice. I longed for the quiet peacefulness of the near deserted beach of Drake Bay.

I had planned to explore the park that Manuel Antonio was named after, since it seemed to be one of the things most recommended to do in Costa Rica. I knew I had to get to the gates early to buy a ticket, so I made sure I left my hostel, which was barely a block away from the gates, at 6:30am. To my utter surprise, the line was already hundreds of people long. I couldn’t believe it. I bought a ticket and waited in line until the gates opened at 7am and struck up a conversation with a girl behind me. We ended up exploring the park together for 2 hours. The park itself was beautiful, but once again seemed to be marred by the sheer crowds of people.

Capuchin monkeys were everywhere throughout the park and were quite bold. Despite the many, many signs telling people not to feed the wildlife, I saw a man hand-feeding a capuchin, which I called him out on. It was probably because of behaviour like this that the capuchins seemed to actively seek out people, follow them, and get far too close to them.

One of the few highlights of the park was seeing a mother and baby sloth on a relatively quiet trail. And by “relatively quiet”, I mean there was only about a dozen people crowding around the sloths high up in the tree.

The rest of the afternoon was spent packing my bags, double checking my flights, and cleaning the Rav4 after 3.5 weeks of dust, dirt, and river crossings. The next morning, I was up at 5am for the 3 hour drive back to the airport to drop off the car and check-in for the first of my three flights home.

As I waited in the airport, I reflected on all that I had seen and done in a such a short, yet also seemingly long, trip in Costa Rica. I had driven over 2,000 kilometers throughout that time and seen a huge portion of the west coast, plus a few inland spots as well.

I experienced dense jungles and dry beaches and even a combination of lush jungle right on the beach. I jumped in rivers, swam in the ocean, hiked in the mountains, got a flat tire, surfed until I had jell-o arms, saw fireflies, made friends, saw the most incredible waterfalls, experienced small town life, watched so many sunsets, ate more rice and beans than I ever have (and hopefully ever will), and did whatever I felt like doing, whenever I felt like doing it. Every day was up to me and whatever I decided to do.

That’s what I love about travelling solo - the freedom of it. I had made the most out of my time and experienced more than I thought I could on my first trip to Central America. There were times that I felt lonely or scared, but the times that I felt so incredibly alive and excited far outweighed any bad times.

As with almost any trip when it ends, it felt bittersweet. I was proud of myself for doing what I had done, but I was sad that it was now at an end. I was excited to go back to my own bed and to not have to figure out where I was going to sleep the next day. But I was going to miss the excitement and potential that every day had, waking up in a few place with a whole world of new things to do, to see, and to experience.

To anyone contemplating visiting Costa Rica, I say go for it. If you want to get off the beaten path and experience something new and different, you absolutely can. Avoid those, “Top 10 things to do in Costa Rica”, avoid the touristy places, avoid the crowds. Search out the tiny towns where your guide doesn’t speak any English and then jump in a river with him. Hike to a research base in the middle of a jungle and watch the fireflies from the balcony overlooking a volcano and a lake. Wake up at sunrise and see one of the highest waterfalls in the country with no one else around. Eat cheap local food in a chair on a dirt floor cooked by an old Costa Rican man. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Megan Voigt