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Costa Rica: Volcano, Cloud Forest, & Beach

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One Week Itinerary for a Taste of Costa Rica

There are few things I like more than a warm escape from the NYC winter.   The usual fix is a weekend in Miami, but this past December, a few of us traveled down to Costa Rica for a real getaway from Christmas to New Year’s.

Not only was it one of the easiest places to travel that I’ve been, but the range and diversity of places to go and things to do — even in such a small country — meant that we were never bored!

We planned our trip with an adventurous start – beginning at the Arenal Volcano and then off to the Monteverde Cloud forest – and a relaxing finish – ending at a surf camp in Tamarindo for a few days at the beach.

Here are my recommendations

Arenal/La Fortuna

We flew into the Liberia airport — and boy are we glad that we hired private transport for the 2.5-3 hour drive to La Fortuna, the town outside the Arenal Volcano.  The roads were horrendous and poorly marked.  Thank you, blogs and friends, for that good advice. We spent 2.5 days in Arenal, which was great – there certainly was more to do – particularly with outdoor activities, but we felt like we got a great overview.

 
Top photo: In front of the volcano…before we began the hike…
  • Hike the Arenal Volcano National Park and go to the Arenal Observatory.  Arenal is one of the ten most active volcanos in the world.  Note to the non-athletic (like me): the Cerro Chato hike is the devil.  Awesome, but the devil.  Caveat hiker.  You only have to pay an entrance fee to the park, there are free tours at 8:30am.
  • Go to the Tabacon Resort geothermal springs – total luxury.  Spend the whole day and get lunch.  If you want to book a massage, do it ahead of time.  Also, get on line EARLY – check-in is very slow.
  • Other things we didn’t do but heard were awesome: La Fortuna waterfall hike, ATVing, hiking around the lake, bungee jumping, horseback riding, and more hiking (sensing a theme here).

Where to eat in Arenal

  • Mediteranneo had very good Italian food (I know!) in La Fortuna, though terribly slow service
  • “Sodas” are small, family run restaurants that are a great place to eat local cuisine and offer amazing value – pricing is usually half of that at other destinations.  Meals ran at $2-5  each!
  • Local food: Casados: you pick a protein (or vegetarian) and get a plate with rice, beans, salads, and plantains.

Where to Stay in Arenal

  • Luxe: We wanted to stay at Tabacon, but alas, we booked too late during peak season
  • Budget: We stayed at Selvita Lodge, a Costa Rican B&B run by an adorable family. Located in La Fortuna

Monteverde

From Arenal, we took a van to the MonteVerde Cloud Forest (we used Anywhere Costa Rica for transportation – far and away the safest drivers we found and nicest vans).  Note: bring layers for Monteverde, it was much cooler (much!) and windier than anywhere else we were in Costa Rica

Cloud Forest Monteverde Costa Rica

What to do (everything in Monteverde centers around nature) – our top highlights:

  • Incredible guided tour of the cloud forest.  Well worth it to have a knowledgeable guide who can point out the different animals hiding and the flora, as well as explain what, exactly, a cloud forest is (I still don’t know).  There’s also an adorable humming bird sanctuary on the premises and a great coffee shop.
  • Ziplining.  Errrrmagad.  The scariest thing I’ve ever done (and I’ve zip lined elsewhere).  We used Sky Trek for walks along the hanging bridges (can skip, particularly if you do the cloud forest walk).  And then we went zip lining.  High Winds. Insane Heights. Not for the faint of heart. Only in Costa Rica.

Tamarindo

Tamarindo was quite the experience. Because we traveled to Costa Rica during Christmas week (and booked last-minute), all of the “normal” hotels were booked.   So we ended up “Glamping” at the Dreamsea Surf Camp, which was a hilarious (and awesome) adventure.  While next time I’ll plan to stay at a hotel on the beach, we definitely had the best food of our trip at the Surf Camp (the chef there is amazing) and had built in surf lessons every day (well, some of us) – and even some yoga.  Pack DEET.

The Tamarindo beaches get very crowded – and it’s a young crowd.  It’s a bit of a party town with a strong bohemian, surf vibe.  If that’s not your thing, check out some of the other beaches in Costa Rica. During the day, the one street that runs along the beach is wall-to-wall with cars.  Despite all this, we were able to post up for free on beach chairs outside La Palapa restaurant every day.

What to do

  • Take a surf lesson – it’s probably why you came to Costa Rica!
  • Those sunsets though

Where to eat

  • Tamarindo Diria for dinner. Al fresco on water with hanging lamps under tree. Great fish dishes.
  • Noguis for pie.  All of the pies.  Seriously though.  Fish tacos are also great.
  • Mandarina for make-your-own smoothies
  • La bodega for fresh, healthy lunches and breakfasts

For other itineraries in Central America, check out my post on Guatemala

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August 19, 2015 · 11:46 pm

Balkans Road Trip Part 1: Belgrade, Serbia

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Why Belgrade?

It’s not a city known for it’s beauty.  In fact, it is often referred to as one of “Europe’s ugliest capitals.”  But what Belgrade, Serbia lacks in aesthetic, it makes up for in personality.  A city whose most recent history includes its dark role as the capital of former Yugoslavia, Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest, and most conquered, cities. (Having been settled by Celts and conquered 38 times – by the Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, Ottomans for 500 years, and Hapsburgs.) It was the perfect start to our Balkans Road Trip.

With a handful of delightful pedestrian boulevards (Knez Mihajlova  and the Bohemian Skadarlija in particular) scattered amongst the city’s crumbling Soviet-era cement blocks, Belgrade’s true charm lies in its under-developed tourism (and prices!) and perfectly developed, thriving nightlife.

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With Ari’s Serbian friend Tamara in front of St. Sava church, which has been under construction for 80 years
Remnants from the 1999 NATO Bombing
The iconic Hotel Moskva
The main pedestrian area Knelz Mihailova
Sunset from the public park at the Fortress looking over the Sava and Danube rivers
The famous Victor monument
Knelz Milhailova at night
me & the bro walking around the bohemian Skadarlija street

We arrived for both the largest football match in the city (with riot police lining every street) and the Belgrade marathon (which was drastically different from my favorite day in New York).

What to do in Belgrade:

  • “Walking tour”  There are free walking tours that run daily, or you can do what we did and create your own (click for our map), check out the itinerary below – you can see almost everything in <2 hours.  Best of all, nearly all of Belgrade’s attractions are free (and are local, not tourist, spots)
  • Belgrade Underground – our one paid tourist activity, and glad we did it.  A great (and passive) way to discover the hidden underground places from Belgrade’s 38 times being conquered, including Yugoslavian bunkers, ancient Roman ruins, and Ottoman buried wells. 12 Euro.
  • Serbian Nightlife!  See below – don’t miss it!
Walking through the underground bunkers
Entrance to the Yugoslavian secret bunkers
Looking out from the fortress onto the Danube
Ari in front of the ancient Roman ruins…in what once operated as a club
Military remnants & the military museum
Gov’t buildings at night

Eating, Drinking, and Nightlife in Belgrade:

  • A mix of Eastern European with some Turkish influence, Serbian food is not particularly inspiring.  The highlight was the cheese-filled phyllo dough burek pastries, which we lived on the entire weekend.  Note: Almost all bakeries (pekaras) are closed on Sunday, which we learned the hard way.
  • Nightlife starts late in Belgrade.  Begin with dinner/snacks at 10pm at a kafana traditional tavern.  The best kafanas have live bohemians bands playing Serbian traditional music; increasingly-rowdy tables of guests “order” their favorite sing-alongs.  Make sure to order some rakija, the traditional Serbian brandy shots made from various fruit.  We had apple, pear, plum, and peach, each less palatable than the one before, but all part of the experience.  Reservations for kafanas are required, even if they look empty.
  • Conclude the night with one (or many) of Belgrade’s clubs.  We went to Plastic, which is the most well known in Serbian nightlife.  People don’t start arriving until about midnight; the official party closes at 4 and moves next door to Mint, the after-party club with the same owners.  As the weather warms, people walk from one to the next of the floating clubs along the river, which boast international DJs and impressive parties.  There are no cover fees to enter the clubs, but reservations are required.  Drinks are extremely inexpensive – with Rakija/whiskey costing $2-$4 per drink.  No wonder the nightlife is so impressive!
  • Lastly, I have to mention the homemade wine.  It’s terribly sour…but apparently it’s Serbian custom to mix it with Coca Cola, which forms a saccharine drink they call “bamboo.”  Don’t ask.
The band serenading patrons in the smoke filled kafana
#untzuntz at Plastic
#letustakeaselfie at the club
Sour homemade wine + Coca Cola = bamboo?

Where to stay

  • Luxe: Located in the heart of the old town, Belgrade’s beautifully designed Square Nine Hotel is an award-winning boutique hotel. Price tag ~ $230/night.
  • Budget: At $54/night, our AirBNB rental a few minutes walk from the city center cannot be beat for budget travelers.

Our (approximate) walking tour


1. Tasmajdan park and Church St Marko
2. National Parlament 
3. Terazije Street (with the iconic Hotel Moskva)
4. Trg Republike
5. Skadarlija  – great Kafanas!
7. Studenski Trg 
8. Knez Mihajlova – the main pedestrian thoroughfare 
9. KALEMEGDAN FORTESS – go for sunset, you’ll be glad you did! 
10. Belgrade Port 

For More Balkans Road Trip Inspo:

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