Warning: this trip is not for the timid! Waterfall canyoning, jungle canopy zip lining, private mountain hiking, wild river rafting and an active volcano — all in one thrill-packed week. Fortunately it also happens to be a beautiful and welcoming place to rest up between adventures. Yes, it’s possible to experience a fine resort in other parts of Costa Rica, but come to Uvita for an authentic active experience, off the beaten track in one of the world’s greenest countries.
On the road from San Jose to Uvita, you’ll notice a lot of people pulling over to walk across a bridge. Yup, crocodiles. Lots of them.
Don’t even think about renting a vehicle without 4-wheel drive. Once you get off the few modern main highways, you’ll be on rocky dirt roads with steep grades and hairpin turns. Try NOT to arrive after dark. We picked up and returned our ride, reserved in advance, at a mini-mall of car rental places near the San Jose airport (SJO). We freaked out the first time we had to drive up a mountain in search of our vacation rental home. After a day or two, we were pros.
On our first full day in Uvita, my husband booked this adventure for our fit family of three: two adults 50+ and a 20-something son. Leave everything behind including wallets, glasses, hats and your camera. The trip begins with a bone-rattling truck ride to the river, where you get a quick safety briefing and then try your luck on a small waterfall before moving on. It is very counter-intuitive to lean back and straighten your knees so that you are parallel to the ground and perpendicular to the waterfall, but it works. Carlos took pictures of our efforts as we attempted larger waterfalls and we came away in one piece with only a few minor cuts on our hands. You’ll be ready for lunch! Personally, I doubt I will do this again but I’m glad I experienced it. The included DVD of your photos is priceless. Book here.
Santa Lucia Falls
Only a few short years ago Santa Lucia Falls didn’t have a fancy website or even a Facebook page or electricity! Uvita is a small town where everyone knows Enrique, who gives private hiking tours of the property where he grew up and that he now manages for an American owner. He and his brother hacked out the hiking trails by hand with machetes and shovels. He speaks great English and has lots of stories to tell.
You’ll pass families of howler monkeys along the way and we were lucky to see a sloth. His sister in law served coffee and home-made doughnuts before the hike and an organic lunch of chicken, beans, rice, yucca and salad afterwards. As you scramble up and down the hills to each waterfall, Enrique will say, “The best is still ahead!” The 3 to 4 hour hike ends with a swim in a natural rock pool under a cascading waterfall. I was the first person to review the hike on Trip Advisor! So I’ll take just a tiny bit of credit for putting this “agro-eco-tourismic” project on the map. But the prices have gone up a bit since 2014: check here. You absolutely need 4-wheel drive to get to the starting point of the hike.
Fortunately, we had plenty of downtime at the delightful Casa Namaste. The owner only rents it out when she’s not using it, so if it’s already booked, you can find similar properties in the area by searching Trip Advisor. Although there’s a TV and wifi, you’ll be more entertained by the view and the sounds of nature. (Good time to catch up on your reading so don’t forget your Kindle.)
What you don’t see in the video is the charming stream that winds through the nearby forest, where you can explore while taking dips in the rocky pools. My husband enjoyed the casa’s outdoor shower so much that he installed one in our California backyard! Kids should be able to swim, as the pool is not fenced. We stocked up on groceries in town and then climbed the rocky road back up to the well-equipped kitchen to cook and enjoy happy hour before dinner. But if you don’t mind the hair-raising drive up and down the hill, there are some good options for dining out.
Pizzeria La Fogata The wood-fired oven here is used for roasting chickens and the pizza is cooked in a standard pizza oven, but the combination of fresh local ingredients and creamy queso made this a good stop. Chicken pesto pizza with crushed macadamia nuts? Yes, please! They speak English here but you’ll get a bigger smile from the waitress when you speak Spanish.
PorQueNo? A short distance along the coast in Dominical, this pretty beachfront restaurant is a part of a small hotel: outstanding views, good food, reasonable prices and friendly service. We found it on our last day in Uvita and enjoyed the breakfast, wishing we had also discovered it for dinner.
Marino Ballena A good stop next to the grocery store for an authentic “local” breakfast or an American-style cheese omelet. Only problem is that it’s right on the highway in Uvita, but it’s a convenient local eatery if you’ve driven down into town to do shopping or go to the beach.
Osa Canopy Tour
Ready for more adventure? The toughest part of the Osa Canopy tour is getting to the top of the mountain. It’s a normal road by Costa Rican standards, but we wished we had taken their truck rather than trying to drive it ourselves. The 9 zip lines take you across some spectacular jungle scenery but I didn’t really see any of it because I was too busy adjusting my body position and speed. The guides are great and speak good English, but they didn’t realize our son, who is fluent in Spanish, understood everything they were saying about us. They seem to enjoy funning around with the visitors who can physically handle it by rattling the suspension bridge, etc. The Tarzan rope that sends you flying out over a panoramic coastal view was my highlight of the day. Yummy fresh fruit is served before you have to get back down the hill.
Rafiki Safari Lodge for River Rafting
This rafting tour on the Savegre River was my favorite Costa Rica activity because we also experienced the warm hospitality of Rafiki Safari Lodge. The owners “get it” that the road is an adventure by itself. Along the way there are signs like “You are not lost” and “almost there.” Plan on spending an hour each way in a four-wheel drive. Totally worth it.
We were greeted with a local breakfast (pancakes are an option) on the lodge’s splendid, relaxing deck. Then we rode to the launching point in the river for a quick safety briefing. Our two guides, Randall and Kenneth, are guys from the local town who worked their way up at the Lodge. I can’t say enough about how knowledgable and kind they were, and hilariously funny at times. The highlight was a swimming stop at a gorgeous waterfall. Give them your waterproof camera and you’ll take home some amazing shots of your rafting adventure. Back at the lodge, a tasty lunch of local ingredients and, if you want, swimming in their pool with a slide. A peaceful and authentic experience with people who know and love this place. Highly recommended.
Local Beach and Waterfall
On a trip of so many high moments, I do need to point out a few of the lows. We visited the waterfall in Uvita, a local swimming hole that didn’t really compare to what we experienced on our earlier hike in the hills. And Uvita’s beach park, known as the whale’s tail, is better appreciated from the view above, rather than a walk on the sand below. There’s an admission fee that comes with a warning about banditos who are lurking to pounce on the valuables of unsuspecting tourists. Also, riptides can make it dangerous for swimming. If you go, don’t take any valuables and time your visit for a brisk walk onto the whale’s tail at low tide. No one bothered us, and we shared some fresh coconut juice with friendly locals.
Divers please note that scuba diving here is seasonal and the best sites are very far away. But there is so much else to do here that we didn’t miss diving. We were ready to head inland for a few hours drive to reach:
Poas Volcano National Park
This active volcano could be either zero or five stars, depending on the weather at the time of your visit. Twice we drove to the gate of the park and turned around without buying tickets because it was too cloudy, but the next day we woke up to sunny skies and went for it. Good thing we did, because the panorama of the steaming crater is spectacular. The path through the cloud forest led us to Botos Lake, which was obscured by clouds when we first arrived. Then, like a special effect in a movie, the cloud curtain lifted on another beautiful view. Ten minutes later the clouds returned. The show was over. The path was an easy walk, but you might find yourself out of breath because of the altitude. We loved the advice on the signs to “keep calm” if the volcano erupts during your visit.
Sleeping in a Cloud Forest
We stayed for two nights in the cottage suite at the Altura Hotel. We loved the indoor/outdoor feeling but the glass walls made for a very chilly night. The whimsical heaters were not up to the task of warming the place, so the extra blankets came in handy. Be prepared with warm jammies and jackets, because it’s a huge change in climate, especially if you’ve come from the steamy jungle or a sunny beach.
I’d recommend this room as a romantic getaway for two people but we were a party of three, so it only gets four stars instead of five because the foldout couch in the sitting area is not a very comfortable bed. Young kids should love being on a working farm. Where else have you seen stalls for donkeys and calves adjacent to the reception area? The wifi worked great. Breakfast is served promptly at 7:30 if you want to try your luck at seeing the nearby Poas volcano crater when it is not covered by clouds. Or you can sleep in and eat later. We give the ranch-hand breakfast and the helpful staff five stars!
For dinner, the hotel recommended the El Churrasco Hotel Restaurant in the nearby town of Poasito.The big cow statue in front of the place indicates they are serious about meat! The carnivores in our group enjoyed the fajitas and the steak sandwich, and grilled tilapia was a good alternative choice. We also liked the melted cheese appetizer washed down with some cold Imperial beers. Friendly service and home-cooked fare. We liked it so much we came back the next night.
Terry’s Travel Tips
You will probably need to do at least one overnight in San Juan at the beginning or end of your trip, because of when the flights arrive and leave. We took an extra day to check out Costa Rica’s capital city. I recommend the Hampton Inn near the San Jose Airport for a convenient overnight stop at the beginning or end of your adventure to connect with your flight, or any of the major rental car companies across the parking lot.
We visited in late August/early September when weather can be a factor. We didn’t mind the mostly late afternoon showers, but the rain made the dirt roads even more treacherous.
You’ll need local currency for local restaurants and the Costa Rica exit tax, but hotels and most of the major attractions take credit cards in US dollars.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Refuge
On the road to the Volcano is a wildlife refuge that claims to be Costa Rica’s #1 privately owned eco-park. The attached resort/hotel provides local jobs. While I’m not big on zoos, the animals here seemed well cared for and the website explains where they came from. For example, the big cats were said to have been rescued from a sanctuary that closed, with some of the animals being too old or too used to humans to return to the wild. Efforts are being made to return their offspring to wildlife habitats elsewhere in the country. What this means for you is a chance to learn about the eco system while getting some amazing photos. Here’s a gallery.