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Going Coast to Coast in Costa Rica

A while back, I went coast to coast in Costa Rica on a fabulous vacation with my fantastic cousin. She visited me in Ecuador and in Honduras (3 times!), and she initiated the planning of this outstanding Costa Rica trip. I’ve also just coaxed her into a visit to Scotland! That’s what brought up all these fun memories of trips past.

*Note: All photos in the post are from my fabulous prima, because I took none at all. A good blogger I was not!*

Here she is in all her sassy fabulousness

So with my travel-loving cousin and our meager budgets, off we went to Costa Rica!

This diverse Central American nation offers extensive coastline to explore on both the Caribbean and the Pacific. A lush interior makes for fabulous traversing between coasts.

While not alone in boasting two coasts, Costa Rica does stand alone in its famously eco-friendly efforts.

Bonus: Costa Rica also abolished its standing army back in 1949! That makes it one of only 21 sovereign states in the entire world to have no active military. [source Yes, I’m referencing Wikipedia, much to the chagrin of every teacher in my life.]

A pacifist, eco-friendly nation boasting diverse natural beauty? Count me in.

Amanda Walkins on a beach in Costa Rica

Going Coast to Coast in Costa Rica

The trip we planned was very typical for overly ambitious Americans trying to maximize their too-few vacation days. Since moving out of the U.S. (and especially since moving to the UK), it has become ever clearer to me that American work practices are abysmal.

Alas, we planned a trip going coast to coast in Costa Rica because, well, of course we would!

While I can’t say this is a good itinerary for everyone, it certainly suited our youth, energy, and tiny budget. If you find yourself in that same early-20s boat (that is, you have no boat and certainly no budget for a boat), feel free to steal our plan.

golden sand beach on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Seeing both coasts in Costa Rica required an epic bus journey across the entire country. Having lived in Ecuador, where I hailed down buses from the side of the Pan-American Highway, I wasn’t too phased. And luckily for me, my cousin is just a badass.

Like most North Americans, we started our journey by flying into the main international airport in the capital city, San José. Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) is only about 10 miles outside of San José, which is fairly centrally located within the country.

So, given our tiny budgets and very limited timeframes, we surely chose to maximize that time and money and take the shortest trip to the coast, right?

Of course not!

golden sands and bright blue skies over a beach in Costa Rica

Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica

We started our trip on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, which is long and offers endless opportunities for beachfront vibes. And we opted for the farthest beach town that is actually right near the southern border with Panama.

Because, why not?

Map of Costa Rica showing the airport outside of San Jose and then a spot on each coast for a tourist destination (Puerto Viejo de Salamanca and Samara)

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a popular tourist destination, which is what flagged it in our early research days. Known for its surfing and attracting a budget-conscious crowd, it obviously appealed to us.

Note that it is known locally as just Puerto Viejo. If you go, be careful because there is a Puerto Viejo farther north, so don’t get on the wrong bus!

While there, we mastered the art of relaxing at our hostel across the street from the beach, complete with plenty of porch hammocks. Life is just better with hammocks and you’ll never convince me otherwise.

We also enjoyed a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center, where I cuddled baby monkeys and sloths (I’m not crying *you’re* crying!).

Amanda Walkins holding a baby monkey in a rescue center in Costa Rica
Amanda Walkins holding a baby sloth at a rescue center in Costa Rica
Cute baby sloth hanging onto a rescue center worker at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Costa Rica

I’ve learned so much over my years of traveling about animal welfare – especially in the tourism industry. What I appreciate about this particular spot is its efforts to rehabilitate and release animals, rather than keeping them for tourism dollars.

Please, always do your research before you interact with any animals as a tourist. If something seems off about a place or about the way the animals are acting, trust your instincts. You should never be taking selfies with predators like tigers or jaguars. If they’re docile, it’s because they’ve been drugged or beaten (often both).

The Jaguar Rescue Center in Costa Rica is indeed that: a rescue center. These are not circus animals there for entertainment, so feel free to visit. Your tourist dollars help fund their hard work and conservation efforts!

You should also check out this adorable video from the Jaguar Rescue Center helping a baby sloth find its mom.

Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

From the southeastern point of Costa Rica, it made perfect sense for us to bus across the entire country to reach our next destination: Sámara.

This was actually a recommendation from a college friend of mine. He lived in Costa Rica for a few years while in the Peace Corps.

Shout-out to my alma mater, the University of Mary Washington, which has been a leading producer of students volunteering for the Peace Corps for more than a decade!

Sámara is known as a popular vacation spot for Costa Ricans, which is right up my alley. I love to find spots that are known to locals but less popular with foreign tourists. Most of that is selfish. I like to be the only one there so I can chat with more locals who aren’t inundated with and exhausted by foreign tourists.

I’ve been part of those massive tour groups…it isn’t a fabulous look, trust me.

That’s how I started traveling though! So, if you’re nervous about getting out there and booking your own trips, start with a group. Do what it takes to feel comfortable and confident. Eventually, you’ll start talking to more locals, going to places where you can experience local life, and understanding “others” better.

After all, we have so much more in common than we do that is different.

Palm tree lined beach in Costa Rica

Along the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica

So, back to Sámara.

We took the bus across the entire country to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This area is actually a more popular destination for honeymooners and others looking for a beachfront resort vacation. Sámara is not in that group of resort locales, but it does boast some stunning beaches and fun activities.

I tried surfing for the first time! It included me falling repetitively but finally standing up for a few (tiny) waves to feel like I’d accomplished something monumental.

Amanda Walkins surfing a tiny little wave in Costa Rica

And on the day it poured buckets of rain, I got a massage. That indulgence felt like pure luxury; I was living in Washington, DC, at the time, where the cost of anything frivolous was, indeed, frivolous.

The rest of my time was spent reading books, relaxing, and having an utterly fabulous time with my cousin.

So, all things told, yeah…that 8-hour bus ride across the country was well worthwhile!

Samara beach in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Travel Tips

If you’re headed to Costa Rica any time soon, my first piece of advice is to check out local blogs. I realize I’m shooting myself in the foot here, but travel blogs do very little to help you plan a proper trip.

Find an expat blogger or a local blogger and you will learn so much more.

I visited Costa Rica for a grand total of 8 days. My trip also occurred in 2010…nearly a decade ago. Regardless of when it happened, let me reiterate that it was 8 days.

There is no way I could tell you that this is the “ultimate” Costa Rica itinerary. It’s also not the “must-do” or “top 10” or whatever other grandiose term earns clicks.

Travel blogs are great for getting ideas or for living vicariously through someone else.

But travel blogs don’t really offer you the “best” things to do or the “ultimate” guide to anything.

So, for trip planning purposes, read blogs written by current expats and by locals. These folks can offer current, helpful advice to ensure you plan the best trip for you!

Thinking about traveling to Costa Rica? Check out these bloggers for current, valid tips and advice:

Costa Rica Travel Blog

My Tan Feet

Costa Rica Guide

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A baby sloth hangs onto a guide at a Costa Rica sanctuary
Sandy beach with palm trees on a Costa Rica coast to coast trip by Amanda Walkins

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