How to Cheat the System & Dip Into Costa Rica’s Hot Springs

Few things in this world feel better than soothing, perfect-temperature hot springs after a grueling bike trip in a ninety-degree tropical rain forest. When I visited the Arenal Volcano area in Costa Rica, I discovered one of those “few better things”: FREE hot springs.

When I was planning my Costa Rican adventure, I was bombarded with dozens of search results for hot spring resorts throughout the country. Hot springs have been popular since the 1800’s for their therapeutic and relaxation benefits. Many people claim that our minds and bodies react positively with the heat and minerals contained in natural hot springs. The mysterious waters’ sulfate, bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and lithium components supposedly heal everything from chronic pain to skin disease to depression.


Thanks to an abundance of volcanoes, Costa Rica’s landscape is riddled with underground hot springs that can be found in every size, shape, and temperature imaginable. Unfortunately, the tourism industry has commercialized the hell out of these rare and natural phenomenons. High-end resorts have channeled the warm, flowing waters onto their properties to offer luxurious packages with private nooks and martini bars. Kid-friendly water parks have installed enormous water slides to cater towards families looking to shut the kids up for awhile.

But those fruity martinis and quiet kids don’t come without a price. Many of Costa Rica’s hot springs resorts start with a sticker price of over $100 per person. Sure, La Fortuna’s Baldi Hot Springs Hotel and Spa boasts of twenty-five natural mineral water pools at twelve different temperatures under exuberant waterfalls. However, a day pass to simply take a dip drains $104 from your wallet. A day pass for the first commercial hot springs to be established in the Arenal Volcano area, Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, will set you back a whopping $126.

As a traveler on a writer’s budget, I began to think that hot springs were simply out of my reach. Then much to my delight, I received a tip from the owner of Hotel Villas Vista Arenal, where I had made reservations for a couple days. The tip was that if you walk across the road from the fancy Tabacón resort, you could walk down a hill and access the hot springs for free. After an uphill-both-ways style bike ride around the Arenal Volcano, we parked our bikes by a gate along the road and went to scope it out for ourselves.

As you walk along an unassuming path down a gentle hill, you begin to hear the rush of water and see the steam rising into the air. There were a few tourists and a couple locals hanging around nearby, but I can’t say that the area was crowded in the least. Since this was my very first hot springs experience, I was surprised to find that the temperature of the water was perfect. Cooler than the hot tub at the Xport Fitness, yet warmer than any outdoor body of water I’d ever encountered.

Another perk to these free “secret” hot springs is that it’s totally unregulated. Living in the U.S., I’m used to my every move being policed. But if you want to crack open a couple Imperials while taking a dip here, no problemo.

We full immersed ourselves in the water after discretely changing into bathing suits behind a bush. The current flowed at a moderate pace, but the waters felt nonthreatening and as sanitary as you could hope for in nature.

I’m sure the fancy resorts are nice and all, but I’d recommend these nameless, free public hot springs to anyone visiting the volcano area.  The best way to get to them is by finding Tabacón and walking across the street. If you’re reading my blog, then I automatically like you, you deserve to get this insider tip, and I hope you take advantage of it. Although I cannot confirm with any degree of certainty that Costa Rica’s hot springs stimulated my circulation, boosted my immune system, or detoxified my poor liver, it sure was relaxing and unforgettable.

Flying through the Jungle, with the Greatest of Ease

I love rock climbing, but I hate roller coasters.  I love canyoneering, but I have no desire to go skydiving. Outdoor adventures are my thing…daredevil thrills are not. With that being said, I wasn’t sure how much I would really enjoy zip lining. But I figured if I was ever going to try it, it was going to be in Costa Rica.

IMG_1626If you search for “zip lining in Costa Rica,” you’ll be inundated with dozens of sales pitches. Apparently, I’m not the first person who thought zip lining through the jungle would be a cool experience. Aside from biased recommendations from other vacationers, it’s impossible to know which zip line company to choose. After a bit of research, you realize that there are  tons of competitive adventure companies in Costa Rica and that they all charge about the same amount. My choice was based on location convenience and online reviews.

IMG_1632Since I didn’t book a rental car, I was at the mercy of the Costa Rican public bus system…which surprisingly exceed my expectations. Although the buses were clean, safe, and on time, it always took a long time to get from Point A to Point B. Arenal’s EcoGlide canopy tour set me back $55 USD, which was a reasonable rate for such a touristy town.

Just minutes after checking into our cabin in Arenal, Eco Glide’s van pulled up and shuffled me into the back. A retired Canadian couple rode along side me in the van. I mentally reassured myself that if they could zip line, then so could I.

IMG_1646Unlike some other adventure companies, the sole business of EcoGlide is zip lining. So it made sense that they had the equipment setup and training instruction down to a science. Unexpectedly,  there were about twelve zip lines and about twelve people in our group, mostly “middle-agers gone wild” escaped from Florida.

IMG_1700The “zip professionals” geared the group up with helmets, harnesses, a sliding glove, and common-sense advice. Most of the staff spoke broken English, but I was still glad I’d studied key Spanish phrases on an iPhone app the night before. EcoGlide’s canopy tour is divided into two sections. The first section had eight cables, with lengths between ten and 110 meters, and the second section had five cables, with lengths between 100 and 430 meters. Given my limited zip knowledge, I had never expected to be riding on cables for over two hours.

IMG_1712When I stepped to the edge of my first platform, I felt a huge pit in my stomach. Although I’m not afraid of heights, free fall drops have always made me squeamish. Much to my relief, there are no “drops” in zip lining! I never got stuck in the middle of a zip, I never got tangled up, and I kept my eyes open to take mental snapshots of the colorful landscape whizzing by. After a few zips, I was even trusted to wear a fancy camera around my neck and snap a few real photos.

The one part of the experience that I said “no, thank you” to was the Tarzan Swing. After watching a couple poor saps free fall into the abyss, I knew I’d have no regrets about safely hiking to the bottom to listen to their blood-curdling screams echo through the forest.

IMG_1709EcoGlide’s friendly, encouraging staff never made me feel like a scared little wimp, and they even handed out complimentary beer after the last zip. That was a well-deserved Imperial, thank you very much. I don’t see myself becoming a professional zip liner anytime soon, nor do I expect to pay good money to do it again unless the scenery offers something dramatically different. However, I’m glad I tried it, I’m glad I waited for Costa Rica to try it, and I’m glad I lived to tell the tale.

One Dark, Dry Night in San José

IMG_1502My boyfriend’s head didn’t explode and my Customs form wasn’t rejected. A wave of relief swept over me as I took the first steps out of the airport in San José, Costa Rica.

IMG_1504Sinus infections and flight chaos were the last things on my mind as I felt the 85-degree heat smack me in the face. I quickly thought and forgot about all those suckers back in negative 85-degree Chicago.

My boyfriend and I were determined to travel like locals and take city buses everywhere to save money and shame. Not unexpectedly, we were bombarded with cab offers the second we walked outside. I guess a white girl and an Indian guy with huge backpacks don’t exactly look like Costa Rican locals.

IMG_1520Utilizing broken Spanish language skills, we quickly found the correct bus stop and hopped on board. Apparently, buses are THE way to get around in San José. They felt clean and safe, and there was a ton of them going in all directions throughout the city. The best part was that a bus ride only cost about $1 USD!

I don’t think I’ll ever pack an oversize wheeled suitcase ever again. Making use of my previously under-used REI backpack was the best decision I could have made. The streets of San José were narrow and crowded. I bumped into enough locals as it was, so I can’t imaging navigating with a monstrosity on wheels.

We exchanged some dollars for colones and strolled the streets in search of cheap grub. There was lots of traffic (mostly scooters) and I nearly died on several occasions crossing the street without looking both ways.

Growing hungrier and crankier, we stopped at some nameless hole-in-the-wall for sandwiches. I nabbed a Costa Rican version of a ham & cheese sandwich and a beer. This was my first experience with Imperial. The light, standard-tasting beer is made in Costa Rica so while I’m a bit of a craft beer snob back home, I drink like the locals when I travel.

Two sandwiches and two beers, plus tip, cost us about 4500 colones….which comes out to about $9 USD. Not bad! The bad ’80’s pop ballad music blasting throughout the basement restaurant was a nice touch as well.

After lunch, we went on a hunt for a place to sleep. Advance research advised us that there were plenty of hostels in San José, so we weren’t overly concerned with booking one in advance during non-peak season.IMG_1569

We picked a hostel called Hotel Musoc and stayed in Room #34, which cost only 10,000 colones ($20 USD) for a private room with a double bed and bathroom. One additional bonus…a baby crib!

IMG_1535When we arrived at Hotel Musoc in the early afternoon, we were told that the electricity was out in the whole neighborhood. The hostel owner held a flashlight over his daughter’s head while she checked our passports and took our money.

The hostel may have been priced so cheaply because it was located directly over an incredibly busy bus terminal. Fortunately, the chaos died down about 9pm, just in time for slumber. That’s about the time that the electricity and running water started working again too.IMG_1541

From that one dark, dry night in San José, I clearly remember the hazy sky, looming clouds obscuring distant mountains, persistent honking of scooters, and constantly being approached by locals asking if we needed directions. With minimal advice, we survived the night and found our way to a 5am bus headed for the Arenal Volcano the next morning.

To be continued…

When Customs Forms Get Too Personal

If you’ve ever traveled out of the country, you’ve probably had to fill out a little piece of paper that looks like this:

Customs form

What’s your occupation?

Are you two family?

Where are you staying at your destination?

Are my responses truly essential in ensuring national security? Really, Border Protection….REALLY?!

A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend and I took a trip to Costa Rica. When we booked the trip around Thanksgiving, I had no idea what a milestone it would turn out to be.

After a 6+ year career in the legal field, I finally called it quits. My heart hadn’t been in it for a long time and the nagging feeling that I should be doing something else somewhere else had gotten too much to bear.

On Wednesday at 5:00pm, I bid my emotional goodbyes to the long-time co-workers I cared to say goodbye to. On Thursday at 2:30am, I was on my way to the airport to start the must-procrastinated next chapter of my life.

I didn’t allow myself any time to let my huge decision sink in. I didn’t want to lose momentum with my new-found motivation. I didn’t want to look back and have any regrets.

The plane landed in San Jose, Costa Rica just after noon on Thursday morning. I stared at the blank customs declaration form the flight attendant had given me.

photo (3)

What IS my occupation?

ARE we family?

And where ARE we staying, anyway?

I scribbled down “writer,” “no,” and “TBD San Jose.” For the past two weeks, I have been pursuing my new career as a full-time freelance writer and it’s going great. For years, I’d been describing myself as a “paralegal”. It was both strange and exhilarating to describe myself as a “writer”.

Although I consider my boyfriend to be family, we are technically not in the eyes of the border patrol. Another awkward and invasive question, in my opinion.

Throughout the trip, we pursued a “winging it” approach. Things had been too planned out lately and we craved spontaneity. We only booked one hostel for nights #2 and 3 in the Arena Volcano area and just figured the rest out along the way. After strolling the streets of San Jose for awhile, we stumbled upon a $10/person hostel above a bus station. More on this in upcoming posts.

While customs forms are simply a nuisance for most people, mine really made me think. A silly government form made me consider my new-found career, my awesome relationship, and the overall tone of the adventure we were just beginning. So thank you, Border Control…I’m finally getting my life figured out and I’m glad you noticed.

*Stay tuned for lots more Costa Rican adventure goodness!