We started our day around 8 am, met the Avis rep and returned the car. Then we enjoyed breakfast and the view at La Cascada Bar & Restaurant.
Knowing we had a long day of travel ahead of us, we went for a morning swim and enjoyed the warm weather, wanting to make it last. Time was not on our side though, so we got ready and checked out of the hotel saying bye to the last two days of comforts.
We walked down to the town center were we looked for a ride into Rivas. After asking unreasonable taxi drivers, we opted to take the local bus which happened to be excruciatingly slow, stopping anywhere to pick up a fare. From the Rivas bus station we took another bus to the border town, which was marginally faster.
Border Crossing at Peñas Blanchas
On the Nicaraguan side, the bus dropped us off right outside of the border area. We lined up, filled out a simple form and after paying the federal exit fee (US$2.00) and municipal exit fee (US$1.00), we walked straight through to the Costa Rican checkpoint.
The Costa Rican side took a lot longer. We arrived at the end of one of those wrap-around lines from the inside to outside of the building. It was as if we were waiting for a popular amusement park ride in the middle of summer vacation. They had a strange system where they wouldn’t let anyone into the immigration room until the previous group had completely finished and exited. This was awfully inefficient leaving many empty counters as one or two stragglers were finishing up their paperwork. We eventually made it to the immigration window after about an hour wait. Fortunately we had our flight itinerary printed out showing that we were leaving from Panama otherwise we would have had to purchase bus tickets exiting Costa Rica like other foreigners begrudgingly did.
Tip: Make sure you have proof of onwards travel as they seem to be enforcing this rule, contrary to the latest Lonely Planet.
With a bold green entry stamp in hand, country 48 was official. Costa Rica we have arrived!
We jumped on a bus (~US$3.00 pp) to the next nearest transport hub at Liberia.
Then from Liberia bus station, Bill and I walked towards downtown and found a random hotel. At the Hotel Guanacaste bar we sipped on a Costa Rican beer, Imperial, while using their wifi to book a car at Budget. Then we asked the front desk to help call and ask Budget to come pick us up. With a nod from the owner, the call was placed. The shuttle arrived in less than 10 minutes, before we even finished our beers!
Tip: Rental companies often have shuttles available for pick up even if you are not the airport. Call and check once you have made a reservation.
We rented a compact which turned out to be a BYD F0. Though having lived in China, I’ve never been in a BYD (a Chinese brand) and I never thought the first time driving one would be in Costa Rica!
Shifting the little car into gear, we started towards Arenal Observatory Lodge. Little did we know, we had a LONG drive ahead of us and it was just getting dark.
We drove mostly in the right direction and went from highway to a smaller two-lane mountain road. We were crossing a bridge when all of a sudden a creature crawled out in front of the car!
My headlights were on so we had a clear view of the animal. It was a two-toed sloth! We immediately jumped out of the car with our cameras and started snapping away. It didn’t even try to run away, it just stood there posing for our photo-ops.
Soon a couple of locals on a walk came up and others on motorbikes slowing down to see what was going on. We met a guy from Oregon who just moved to the area with his whole family. He’s never seen a sloth before. Within 15 minutes, we had quite a large gathering.
Eventually some guys broke a branch and guided the sloth off of the bridge. The little fella just climbed up the bridge railing and hung there for awhile. We wanted to put him in the trunk of the car, dress him up as a little boy and have him join in on our adventure as the goofy comic-relief character, but we didn’t.
Following some verbal directions, we found our way to the park and eventually the hotel, which was down a long stretch of rocky dirt road. We understood now why we were told “we should be able to make it with our car”.
We checked in at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and found that we got there just on time! Reception closes at 10 p.m. and it was already 9:30 p.m. As we were pretty far from the nearest town, we wanted to have dinner there, but the restaurant was closed. The bar was open until 10 p.m. Liquid dinner it is!
Jonathan, a young barman from a nearby town, served us some milkshakes (the highest calorie count on the drink menu) and after some chitchat brought us some warm rolls. Our drink at the bar turned into a feast as we filled our empty stomachs. What excellent service!
Back in our room we noticed the two beds facing the massive floor-to-ceiling windows. We didn’t know what view was in store for us, but we figured we may be able to see the volcano. We had a lot planned for the next day, so we turned off the lights to sleep… that’s when we saw the silhouette of the magnanimous Arenal Volcano towering out of view in the distance. We walked out onto our terrace to see the clear shape of the volcano and an amazing starlit night view.
Exciting day ahead!