Last month, after an incredible 2 weeks of learning to surf at School of the World, I spent 3 weeks backpacking around Costa Rica and Panama, and I absolutely loved it. I totally fell in love with both countries (I have a bit of a soft spot for Costa Rica though, probably because I spent more of my time there than in Panama, I think), and can’t wait to go back again soon I hope. It was an absolute whirlwind 3 weeks, but actually quite a good amount of time to see and do everything we wanted. So I thought I’d share with you my 3 week itinerary for Costa Rica & Panama – I’d love to hear if you’ve been to any of the same places!
Day 1. Jaco to Montezuma
How to get there: Take bus and boat to Montezuma ($35). This can be organised either through your hotel/hostel or there are plenty of tour operators along the main street in Jaco.
Where to stay: Hostel Pargo Feliz ($25-$30 for a private room)
What to do: Have lunch at one of the many beach side restaurants. Then walk out of town, along the beaches and through the jungle, exploring the natural paths and rivers. You can walk for miles along the different beaches, each with it’s own quirks and beauty (and different surf conditions). Go for a swim in the sea, jumping in the waves and watching the sun go down.
Day 2. Montezuma
What to do: Walk in the opposite direction to yesterday, along the dirt road leading out of town until you reach a car park on your right and the entrance to the famous Montezuma waterfalls. Hike through the water and the jungle – be prepared for a bit of climbing and slippery mud. Swim in the water at the first waterfall before continuing on up to the 2nd and 3rd falls. You have two options – the simple path of steps that leads upwards, or climb the almost vertical ‘path’ to the 2nd waterfall (it’s more like climbing up the side of a mountain, using tree roots a hand holds)… don’t look down! Finally reach the 30ft fall. Jump off it if you dare. Finally make your way back to town. Chill out in the hammocks at your hostel before a fun and sandy play in the sea. Get pizza slices from a little window in the wall.
Day 3. Montezuma to Santa Teresa
How to get there: Shuttle bus to Santa Teresa ($10)
Where to stay: Hostel 7 ($35 for a private room). To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend this place. It was noisy and dirty. Find anywhere else.
What to do: Have a wander through the town (which is basically just one long road). Take a shortcut through the trees to the beach. Walk a long the beach a little. Play in the sea and sunbathe. [Warning: don’t leave personal belongings on the beach unattended. There are thieves, apparently]. Walk along the beach and watch as the sun goes down. This beach goes on for miles and miles. Have cocktails at one of the beach resort bars and look up at the stars.
Day 4. Santa Teresa to Sámara
How to get there: Shuttle bus to Sámara ($50).
Where to stay: Hostel Matilori ($13 for a bed in a 4-bed dorm).
What to do: Head straight to the beach, sunbathe, play in the sea (watch out for free-roaming cows who might try to eat your sunglasses) and enjoy how chilled out you feel. Watch the sunset and surfers. This is a great place to learn to surf as the waves are super chill (you can rent a board for just $4 an hour)
Day 5. Sámara.
What to do: Rent a kayak and snorkel gear from the guys on the beach ($30 for 2 hours) and paddle 45 minutes out to Choro Island. Have the island to yourself. Play in the water, looking for fun coral and fish. Do lunch on the cheap by picking up some bread and avocados at the supermarket. Head out in the evening for some cocktails and snacks at a beach front bar.
Day 6. Sámara.
What to do: Sleep in. Go to the beach. Relax. Play in the sea. Watch your stuff doesn’t get taken by the incoming tide. Just hang out. Enjoy the sunshine.
Day 7. Sámara to Monteverde
How to get there: Shuttle bus to Monteverde ($50). Or local bus (3 changes but only costs about $8)
Where to stay: Cabinas Vista Al Golfo ($25 for a private room).
What to do: Enjoy the incredible journey through the mountains. Explore the town a bit. Go on an afternoon coffee tour at the Don Juan coffee farm ($30). See the whole process and try lots of delicious coffee and chocolate.
Day 8. Monteverde
What to do: Get the early local bus to the Monteverde Reserve (entrance is $20). Do the 2-3 hour hike around the reserve – look out for animals, waterfalls and incredible views! Chill out in the afternoon. Take a nap. Go on a fun night hike ($25) in the evening. See sloths and snakes in the dark.
Day 9. Monteverde to La Fortuna
How to get there: Shuttle/boat/car to la Fortuna ($25). Book this through your hostel.
Where to stay: Mayol Lodge ($18 for a private room). We actually booked a dorm for $9 each but ended up in our own room. Score!
What to do: Lay by the hostel pool (yes there’s a pool) before going on a little walk to a local swimming area – there are waterfalls and rocks and even a rope swing to play on. Ask the locals to show you the way. Wander through town in the evening before finding something to eat. There’s so many choices here.
Day 10. La Fortuna
What to do: Take a taxi to the La Fortuna Waterfall. Walk down the millions of steps to reach the falls. Splash about in the freezing cold water and take lots of fun photos. Go back and sit by the pool at the hostel before heading out on a free excursion to some natural hot springs (the hostel do awesome free things every day). Sit in the hot pools for hours, enjoying a beer or two in the middle of the jungle.
Day 11. La Fortuna to Puerto Viejo.
How to get there: Local bus to San Jose then local bus to Puerto Viejo (approx $10). Or shuttle bus direct to PV ($59)
Where to stay: Hostel Pagalú (private rooms from $28). They work on a first come first serve system. No pre-bookings.
What to do: Enjoy the cool, reggae vibes of PV. Wander through town and long the beaches, browsing the market stalls and wishing you could live here forever. Get lunch at Reggae Chill Bar and drink mojitos as you look out at the ocean.
Day 12. Puerto Viejo
What to do: Take a taxi to the Jaguar Rescue Center ($18 – all money goes to the running of the sanctuary). Get a guided tour around the center, learning about the amazing work they do rehabilitating injured animals back into the wild. See sloths, monkeys, owls, snakes and more. Walk back to town along the beach path. Get lunch at Sal + Sucre crepe restaurant. Go out for cocktails on the beach in the evening.
Day 13. Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro.
How to get there: Local bus to Sixaola. Cross the Costa Rica/Panama border. Local bus to Changuinola. Local bus to Almirante. Water taxi to Bocas Town on Isla Colón (total cost $12). You can also get a shuttle service ($25).
Where to stay: Hostel Heike ($11 for a bed in a 4-bed dorm. $22 for a private room). I didn’t love this place that much, and I’m pretty sure there were bed bugs. Much preferred the second place we stayed (see day 16).
What to do: Try not to get too confused by the border crossing. Just follow instructions and you’ll be fine. Be astounded by the cuteness and beauty of Bocas as you arrive on your little water taxi boat. Find your hostel. Take a walk through the town. Have drink and food at any of the awesome restaurants. Enjoy a fire dancing show at Bocas Bambu.
Day 14. Bocas Town
What to do: Take the bus north through Isla Colón to Bocas del Drago ($3) then walk to Starfish Beach. Play in the water and look at the hundreds of enormous starfish. Have a beer on the beach while you sunbathe. Enjoy some freshly caught lobster or crab. Take the bus back to Bocas Town in the afternoon. Chill out in the hostel or take a walk around town. Get some drinks by the water in the evening.
Day 15. Bocas Town to Isla Bastimentos
How to get there: Water taxi ($5)
Where to stay: Hostel Bastimentos ($15 for a private room). It’s basic but very pretty.
What to do: Bastimentos is very, very quiet, so it’s all about the slow life here. Wander along the one path that runs through town. Chill in the hammocks at the hostel. Find food at one of the teeny tiny restaurants on the water. If it’s not raining, walk the path that goes across the island to the beach (the path can get washed out and muddy if it’s been raining a lot).
Day 16. Isla Bastimentos to Bocas Town
How to get there: Water taxi ($5)
Where to stay: Hostel Hansi ($28 for a private room). This place is more like a hotel than a hostel. So lovely.
What to do: Have a pancake breakfast at a restaurant by the water. Choose from any of the boat tours offered at the millions of tour operators in town – we did one that went to Coral Cay, Dolphin Bay and Zapatilla Island ($25). Snorkel, see dolphins and sunbathe on the most beautiful beach you’ve ever seen. Get back to Bocas Town at about 4:30/5pm. Relax after a fun-filled day out on the water. Cook dinner at the hostel.
Day 17. Bocas Town
What to do: Take a water taxi to Red Frog Beach ($10). Make sure you arrange a time for them to pick you up again! Play in the sea and relax on the beach for the entire afternoon. Go for a wander along the beach and look out for those red frogs! head back to Bocas Town in the early evening. Make dinner and then head to La Buga bar for live music and delicious cocktails.
Day 18. Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo
How to get there: Water taxi to Almirante. Taxi to Sixaola. Cross the border. Local bus to Puerto Viejo (total cost $16). Or get a shuttle service ($25).
Where to stay: Hostel Pagalú (fr $28 for a private room)
What to do: Have a wander through town, revisiting places you liked from a few days ago. Do some souvenir shopping and present buying. Swim in the sea – this is your last day at the beach! Enjoy a delicious seafood dinner by the water.
Day 19. Puerto Viejo to San Jose
How to get there: Local bus ($10). Then get a taxi to your hostel. Don’t hang around at the bus station too long as it’s not particularly safe.
Where to stay: Hostel Nomadas Backpackers ($30 for a private room). This is more of a guesthouse than a hostel.
What to do: By the time you arrive in San Jose and then find your hostel, it’s pretty much the evening. Just chill out. get your bearings and plan for tomorrow.
Day 20. San Jose
What to do: Walk into the city center (about an hour’s walk), or take a bus. Take in the hustle and bustle of city life. Wander through Central Market – it’s a good place to pick up any last minute gifts. Visit the National Theatre and have a delicious hot chocolate in the cafe. Then visit the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum ($11) and go back in time as you learn all about the intricate gold carvings where made. Head back to your hostel, go through all your photos from your trip and start to pack for your journey home tomorrow.
Day 21. Depart San Jose. Fly home
It’s time to say goodbye to Central America. Head to the airport (easiest to just get a taxi), check in and try not to be too sad that the trip has come to an end.