Born to Be Wild
I can’t say I knew what born to be wild really meant … until I visited Costa Rica 10 years ago. However, 2016 really changed the way I saw travel. That year I took a road trip from California to Costa Rica twice, camping along the way at some of the best surf breaks and waterfalls. I discovered what they call overlanding and from then on, it has been my favorite way to travel.
Overlanding is a fairly new concept that merges camping and off-roading into one off-grid adventure. I love being able to drive to a place and make whatever spot is most beautiful or solitary my home for the night … or a few nights. Those moments are what sparked my admiration for van life. It became an obsession. I dreamt about finding the perfect van and converting it. To be honest, it almost seemed slightly more exciting to convert the van than to dream about traveling with it.
Finally in December 2018, after searching all over the United States, Panama and Costa Rica, my husband and I found the perfect van thanks to a little help from our friends and family. We ended up with a 2014 Fiat Ducato cargo van, an empty shell to transform into our dream-mobile.
It took us 2.5 months to convert it, and we went with an all-wooden rustic, yet boho chic, interior. It’s actually what people complement most when stepping inside: the sweet smell of wood — I guess it gives people a homey vibe. This tiny home is two meters wide by three meters long, and honestly more than enough space to travel comfortably for weeks on end. We didn’t realize what a phenomenon van life is around the world, which is what persuaded us to rent the van out to like-minded travellers.
Hard to cover top 10
Since the conversion, we have travelled to northern Nicaragua for a week, explored places in Guanacaste we had never been before and spent a few nights in the cold tropical highlands of the Rivas/Chirripó area. We also explored Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, where we were able to enjoy sunny days and crystal clear waters during the Pacific coast’s rainy season.
It would be hard to fit highlights here of Costa Rica’s 10 best destinations because so many places are amazing and thriving with beauty. However, if I had to squeeze in my top picks, they would be as follows: Rincón de la Vieja and Arenal volcanoes; Playa Negra and the surrounding beaches for surfing in the north Pacific; San Juanillo and Playa Conchal — again in the north — for those who don’t surf; the Caribbean, of course; the Osa Peninsula and Pavones in the southern Pacific; and lastly, San Gerardo de Dota for a different kind of Costa Rican highland experience (especially for birders).
I will elaborate on what makes these places so special, for me at least.
Arenal Volcano is iconic for Costa Rica travel. It is on virtually everyone’s list to enjoy breathtaking views of the active andesitic stratovolcano from the volcanic hot springs surrounding the national park. Tourist attractions do not get much more convincing than that!
Volcanoes, sand and surf
However, Rincón de la Vieja is also an active andesitic complex volcano, even if the surrounding national park does not always make the cut on a first-time traveler’s wish list for Costa Rica. I’m not sure why that is, because we found it spectacular! The highlights of our Rincón trip were actually all the waterfalls — an entire eight of them in just two days. What we loved most about exploring these waterfalls (one is a hot spring) was that the hikes are super-close to your vehicle parking spots. The one exception was a very easy hike that took about 15 minutes. I’m all for a good hike, but sometimes as a photographer, it is nice not having to carry your heavy gear so far. Although we were not able to hike the Rincón volcano due to national park closures at that time of year, I have heard amazing things.
Another advantage to exploring the Rincón area is that Guanacaste’s coastal towns are not very far off the beaten path. We always love visiting Guanacaste, so once we are up north we try to find time to visit those beautiful white sand beaches.
For surfing, I love Playa Negra because it is a beautiful reef point break (for intermediate surfers). Usually it’s clear enough to see fish and the reef underneath, which is an unforgettable experience. The town is cute and quaint. There may not be much going on, but Corazon Surf Cafe has great coffee and food, and also serves as an ideal place to park the van.
Not too far to the north and the south of Playa Negra are some other beach breaks that are great for beginners. If you’re not into surfing, you can check out Playa Conchal, just north of Tamarindo, or the fishing village of San Juanillo, not far north of Nosara. Both beaches are stunning, although very different. Conchal is where blue waters meet an exotic beach composed of white sand and millions of tiny shells. San Juanillo is known for the stretch of land extending out to the sea that forms a cute little bay for villagers to keep their boats. The town also has some really delicious-looking restaurants. I have only had a chance to eat at one spot, with a healthy organic menu, and I loved it.
Oh, now we come to one of my all-time favorite destinations: Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. It’s so idyllic, boasting one of the world’s top 20 most beautiful beaches, Punta Uva. It almost feels like you’re in a totally different country. The locals speak Patwa and the streets smell of coconut, spices and marijuana. Just kidding about the last one, although the herb does seem to be decriminalized here and part of the Caribbean beach culture.
I love Puerto Viejo mostly for the variety of Carribean food. That includes rice and beans cooked in coconut milk, pati (spicy empanadas), and the weekend specialty of ron don — fish and lobster soup cooked in coconut milk. A huge perk on Costa Rica’s Carribean side is that its dry season is generally the reverse of what the opposite coast experiences. You can enjoy sunny days in the crystal-clear Caribbean waters, perfect for snorkeling, at the time of year when it’s raining hard and the Pacific Ocean gets gnarly.
Switching gears to the country’s southern region, my two favorite places are Pavones on the south side of the Golfo Dulce (aka Sweet Gulf) and anywhere in the Osa Peninsula. My go-to peninsula spot runs just north from Puerto Jiménez towards Playa Carate (like “karate”) at the entrance to Corcovado National Park.
Although both these southern locales are known for the amazing surf, they are much more than just a surfer’s paradise. Besides being surrounded by lush jungles, looming mountains and loud scarlet macaws, they offer some amazing river walks and waterfalls.
Pavones has more conveniences, including restaurants and grocery stores. In the Osa Peninsula, after the town of Puerto Jiménez, places to find food or drinks are few and far between. This also speaks to the Osa’s majesty. It’s solitary. You are literally in the middle of the jungle. Solar energy is what powers everyone’s homes or resorts. Houses are hidden from sight. Reputedly one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Osa is magical in these ways.
Lastly comes a place in Costa Rica I never knew existed during my first seven years here: San Gerardo De Dota. We found it refreshing to feel the cooler temperatures and the need for a light sweater at night. And who doesn’t love a jacuzzi when it’s chilly outside?
Detour to enchantment
Known primarily as a birder’s attraction, San Gerardo de Dota is less visited than many of Costa Rica’s other natural wonderlands. That may partly explain the sense of enchantment about the region, part of the Talamanca mountain range. It is known for one special bird in particular that garners international interest — the resplendent quetzal. Being such a big deal made this magnificent bird the namesake for Los Quetzales National Park, where sightings are practically guaranteed.
Another reason we found San Gerardo de Dota so captivating may be that it’s so different from anywhere else in Costa Rica. Other than the cooler climate, the area has its own ecosystem of pine trees and hills. In fact, we only discovered it by pure accident. On our way to surf the Caribbean two years ago, a severe rain storm had washed out the mountain passes and bridges we were supposed to cross. We literally explored all other routes and travel options, to no avail. That is what landed us in Cartago, where we checked a map and found Cerro de la Muerte and Los Quetzales National Park.
On a side note, this was the second-best detour we ever had together. The first occurred when some flight booking issues found us heading down to Greece from Switzerland by car. Our first night in Italy, we decided we would rather go through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania to get to northern Greece, rather than catching the ferry from Italy. That was another epic overland trip we can talk about another time.
All in all, you really cannot go wrong in the small, biodiverse, and beautiful country of Costa Rica. It really is a paradise, including for overlanding. Whether you are looking for adventure or relaxation, beaches or mountains, hot or cold, Pacific or Caribbean, Costa Rica has it all. And the best part of traveling in a tiny home on wheels is your freedom to experience endless destinations. Chase waves and sunsets along lush coastlines, without the hassle of check-ins and check-outs, packing and unpacking.
Roam to be Wild campervan trips let you explore all the natural wonders of Costa Rica. Epic adventures await.