When we first moved to Costa Rica four months ago, we spent weeks living out of our suitcases while waiting for a shipment of our personal things to arrive. We didn’t have our hiking shoes, backpack, or even our peace of mind because we couldn’t feel settled until our house felt like a home. That meant a lot of time lying around the house on air mattresses and making trips to a Walmart 20 minutes away just to find the right cat food. Seriously, that’s all I remember from those weeks; everything else is a blur. Oh yeah, and it was hot. Like, use your ice pack as a blanket, hot (we actually did that). Did I mention that our house doesn’t have AC? And we decided to move here during the hottest part of the year? Good times. Anyway, our things finally made it and we were ready to get out of the house to experience our first taste of what Costa Rica has to offer! We wanted to go on a hike through the jungle, obviously. Our first choice was Carara National Park. Living in Atenas, it was less than an hour drive, which didn’t sound as daunting as some of the other popular parks that are closer to three hours away. Plus, I was told we would probably see some monkeys. Say no more, let’s go!
We got a super early start so that we could get there close to opening time (7am) before the heat and the crowds showed up, but not before making a stop at the famous Rio Tarcoles bridge. We parked outside of a restaurant/souvenir shop right before the bridge, which is worth stopping at and taking a look around if you find yourself there. The restaurant has a lot of vegan options if you’re looking for a snack: plantain chips, gallo pinto, fries, fruit juices, smoothies, and fresh, ice cold coconut water that you can drink straight from the coconut (bring your own reusable straws, please!). The souvenir shop has an amazing selection of colorful tapestries, jewelry, clothing, and wooden sculptures that Costa Rica is known for. When you’re ready, you can walk just a few feet over to the bridge to get a view of what’s down below – some giant ass crocodiles. All they really do is lie around, but it’s cool to see them in their natural habitat just chillin’. Plus, you get a beautiful view of the river. Then, like we did, you can make your way on to Carara National Park, which is just a few minutes down the road!
Carara National Park has two trails. One is a 4km trail that takes you parallel to the river and past a lagoon. The other is made up of three loops, each between 1 and 1.5km long, and goes through the forest and crosses over a creek. We decided to do the three-loop trail this time around. To have free reign of the place, it’s $10 per person. They also have guides stationed at the ticket office who are equipped with spotting scopes and will give you a guided tour of the trail at an additional cost. We didn’t hire a guide – I just thought, “oh god, a person who is a stranger who I have to make small-talk with and walk next to and ahhhhhh no we can go by ourselves.” So we did. I might think about hiring one next time, though. Apparently, they point out wildlife that you may not see on your own or know anything about, so that’s cool! It may be worth the social awkwardness.
We started on our trail, the first loop being a super easy, cement paved path. This is actually where we saw our first monkeys! They’re so damn cute, aren’t they? I could watch them forever. One of them was eating some sort of fruit, carefully savoring each bite. You could just see the look on his face of pure concentration and dedication to that piece of fruit. We couldn’t look away, it was too cute. The little guy then proceeded to throw down his leftovers with no regard as to who was below him, us barely escaping unscathed. I was like wow rude, but I let it slide because, well, he’s a monkey. Also, thinking about it now, it could have been some sort of welcome offering, like, “Hey, you guys can hang out in my forest, have some of my food.” I mean, who knows? I’m not on Eliza Thornberry’s level, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he was saying now that I think about it. We then got to the second loop, which turns into a dirt path and continues like that for the rest of the trail. It’s still relatively easy, but there are a few steps that can be slippery, so it takes a bit more care getting through. One unique thing about Carara is that it encompasses an area where two ecosystems meet: the wet Pacific Rainforest and the dry tropical rainforest. At one point along the trail it told us that we were heading into the dry rainforest and I thought, “this still feels humid as hell, but whatever you sayyyy…” Just so you know – prepare to perspire quite efficiently.
We then came to the metal bridge that crosses the Quebrada Bonita Creek. You can pretty much always see basilisks (otherwise known as Jesus Lizards) running across the water here and sometimes birds who are bathing. Otherwise, it’s just a beautiful view of the creek! Not to mention, being a break in the dense forest, it’s much cooler, so you may want to spend a good few minutes there. Once you cross the bridge, just to the left, there’s a little break in the foliage where you can make your way down to the water’s edge. Get up close and personal, you know? Maybe wash the sweat off? Yeah. After the bridge, you eventually come to the last loop where a bridge is supposed to be, but it was broken during our visit. Luckily the creek that goes under that bridge was more like a pile of dead leaves so we were able to cross anyway! This loop took us past a little house that is a part of headquarters and that’s when we knew we were making our way around the rest of the loop to head back to the entrance.
On our hike, we saw so many different kinds of beautiful mushrooms, interesting plants, and wildlife that we didn’t even know the names of. I guess that guide would have come in handy, huh? We spotted some Macaws, massive and majestic, but they were so high up that we couldn’t get a good picture. I couldn’t help but notice all of the little super highways of leaf-cutter ants that you are also sure to encounter throughout your hike. You’ll want to watch your step and take a few moments to watch them as they are super impressive in how they work together and how long their routes can be. Another thing worth mentioning, just because I’ve never seen anything like it before, were the little black caterpillars that we kept seeing everywhere. When I say everywhere, I mean right in front of your face and you could run smack dab into one if you weren’t careful. They were repelling on strings of silk off of branches and plants all over the place like little tomb raiders – it was a sight to see. We’ve been back to Carara a couple of times since and we’ve seen something different on each visit. It’s a really fun and easy hike that took us about three hours to complete, which includes stopping to take photos and watching the animals do their thing. I can’t wait for our next visit when we try out the other trail! Stay tuned :)
- Make sure you dress appropriately. A light weight shirt, long pants, and hiking boots are highly recommended.
- Don’t leave any valuables in your car. They do have rangers at the front entrance, but watching your car is not necessarily their responsibility. We haven’t had any issues with theft, but it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Hiking Bag Essentials:
- Mosquito repellent! The first two times we went to Carara, we didn’t sense any mosquitos and didn’t even use repellent. The third time, it was like we were being punished. There were CLOUDS of mosquitos surrounding us like we’ve never seen. Luckily, one of the employees had some repellent and let us use it. You may or may not experience mosquitos on your hike, but be prepared!
- Water! And plenty of it. You may also want a snack for after your hike.
- Binoculars. You’ll come across animals high up in the tree canopy that you’ll want to get a closer look at!
- A small towel. You’re going to get sweaty and the moisture in the air doesn’t help.
Are you planning a trip to Carara National Park? Have you already been? Let us know in the comments :)