A First-timer's Guide to Backpacking Costa Rica by Joe Kellam

A First-timer's Guide to Backpacking Costa Rica by Joe Kellam
By Joe Kellam
Photo credits to Lahryn Spencer

We were fortunate enough to go on a backpacking trip to Costa Rica. This should be on everyone's top ten list of must-see locations. The beauty, the wildlife, the food, and the people are some of the best I have ever experienced.

Your first task will be planning on where to go. There are really three main destinations for the backpacker: Arenal National Park, The Nicoya Peninsula, and the several national parks south of San Jose.

We chose to start with Arenal. After flying into the small airport in Liberia, we rented a car and drove through the night to La Fortuna (not recommended for the faint of heart or stomach). The views of Arenal from this quaint town are best observed in the morning before the clouds roll in. While it is illegal to traverse the trails to the top of Arenal, due to it still being an active volcano, there are no less than fifteen trails around the area of its base and the nearby Cerro Chato volcano. There are over 50 trails within 20 kilometers of Arenal. They range in length from 0.6 to over 9 miles. I used the Six Moons Designs Wy'east Daypack and the Pack Liner due to the expected wet conditions.

Joe Kellam - First-timer's Guide to Backpacking Costa Rica

We chose to hike the open portion of the Lake Cerro Chato Trail. The trailhead is located at the Green Lagoon Lodge and once a waiver and a $12 USD fee is paid (which covers parking and a shower) you are pointed towards the trail. The climb starts on a well maintained gravel path and continues up past open vistas and the occasional burma cattle herd. The pathway continues to wind its way up the mountain with amazing views of the surrounding countryside and the lush green vegetation. You will eventually reach a pavilion of sorts that gives you views of the nearby mountains and reminds you of how small you really are. The trail continues to narrow past the pavilion and you are reminded of the review you read of poisonous snakes and other creatures of the jungle (although we only saw one Coral Snake). The canopy of the jungle closes in around you and the sounds of hidden waterfalls and jungle life fills the air. The trail depends and the path narrows as you reach the sign for the closed portion of the trail. As you turn around you are greeted with amazing views of La Fortuna and the green valleys that are surrounded by the dark volcanic mountains. The return trip is full of  adventure and sneak peaks that you missed on the way up.

Our next couple of days were spent checking out a few of the country's abundant waterfalls. They were all accessible with Montezuma Falls being our favorite. This is located near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. The lower falls are a short hike and amazing to experience and swim in. There are two upper pools that require strenuous hiking but are totally worth it. If you are bold enough you can jump off the cliff face from pool to pool.

Joe Kellam Costa Rica Six Moon Designs

Our last adventure of the trip was the 7 mile out and back Swedish Trail located in the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve near Puntarenas. This trail is located entirely within the preserve and is accessed through their ranger station. 

The trail is marked as moderate and the rangers make sure you have water with you. The hike starts out relatively flat for the first half of a mile, then you are offered a return loop along a river bottom which completes the 1.5 mile Danish trail loop. We continued on along the Swedish trail and spent a large part of the time looking for the Howler monkeys that were said to be along the route. The trail became increasingly difficult and the heat index increased as well. It was wise of the rangers to require extra water. As we progressed along the trail there were signs recommending that we limit our talking and spend time listening to nature. There were several small bridges including some built entirely out of bamboo. The steepest parts of the trail were lined with oddly spaced concrete blocks that made looking up for wildlife a perilous undertaking. 

Our first animal sighting was that of Howler monkeys in the trees above us. We stopped along the trail and watched as they expertly and smoothly transitioned from one tree to the next. The old growth forest was surreal to see, it appeared as if time had stood still for eons and we were passing through centuries. We continued towards the sounds of crashing waves and were finally welcomed by the sight of water.

Joe Kellam Costa Rica Hikes with Six Moon Designs

As we cleared the forest there was the most amazing panoramic view of the ocean. A clean sandy beach stretched out to the left and right as volcanic cliffs rose out of the forest all around us. We saw only a couple other people as we picked a shady palm tree as a place to stretch out. We went for a quick dip in the ocean and it was very refreshing after a few hours of hiking in 90 degree weather with similar humidity. As we set about to make lunch we noticed the beach appeared to be moving. A closer inspection revealed thousands of hermit crabs as far as you could see. They were entertaining to watch and were soon our only company on the beach as the others left. We enjoyed a lazy lunch and even a quick nap as time seemed to stand still. 

Costa Rica Hikes with Six Moon Designs Brand Ambassador Joe Kellam

We packed up and started the hike back as the afternoon shadows grew long. The forest was noticeably more active. Our silent three miles back out turned into a nature watchers paradise. We first saw a Lowland Paca near the trail who did not seem to mind our presence. Not long after, a Whitetail deer silently slinked  away.  As we continued an elusive Tayra stayed in the shadows. As the sunlight started to lose it’s intensity the volume was turned up in the jungle. The sounds of countless insects and unknown animals were growing.  The trail seemed to flow as we floated along looking up and around us more and more. We could hear the Howler Monkeys letting us know that we were visitors in their world. A glimpse of black and white to the left of the trail had us stopped and waiting for the reveal. There in the forest was a Northern Tamandua (a relative of the anteater). It covered the forest floor silently and then effortlessly climbed a nearby tree and proceeded over us on a far reaching branch. As we were watching the Tamandua, a Howler Monkey came near to investigate the mammals in his territory.

As the sun set we finished up the trail and made our way out to the ranger station. It would have been important to note that the park closed at 4 pm and it was now almost 6. There was no one left in the park and as we approached the exit we noticed the gate was closed. Fortunately it was not locked and we were able to make it home to our cozy Cabina located a short drive away. 

Costa Rica Hiker Hostels

For backpackers looking to get away to a simple and relaxed setting I would recommend a trip to Costa Rica. There are several Hiker Hostels located in all the towns we visited. Most offer breakfast as part of the stay and rides to the nearby trails. Hikers should plan their night stays ahead as few locations allow overnight camps on the trails. The people were friendly and welcoming. The food was simple and amazing, I highly recommend the local favorite dinner of Casado, and the breakfast of Gallo Pinto. Both include rice with beans and are served with fried plantain. For the coffee lovers you must try the chorreador brewing method at one of the local coffee roasters, simply the best cup of coffee I have ever enjoyed.

Wy'east Daypack in Costa Rica

As I said above, my pack for this trip was the Six Moon Designs Wy'east Daypack. For the day hiking that we enjoyed, this ended up being the perfect pack. I used it as my carry on and the lid pocket served well to keep my travel documents close. The main compartment was roomy enough to carry my necessities but still small enough to be carried on. When switched to a daypack role, I found it perfect for carrying the day's necessities and comfortable for an all day adventure. The shoulder strap pockets were large enough for my phone and allowed quick access for the hundreds of pictures taken. This pack is very durable, as tested on the volcanic rock, yet it remains light and comfortable. It will accompany me on many future adventures.

About the Author

Joe Kellam - Six Moon Designs Brand Ambassador

Hello, my name is Joe Kellam and I am from the Great Lakes region of the United states. Growing up here was an outdoor adventure, I was always outside hiking, canoeing, camping and biking. Frequent trips to the north woods and trails as well as the national parks such as Isle Royale, and Pictured Rocks were my summer fun. I have been hiking and backpacking for as long as I can remember. 

My career path as a state conservation officer put me in touch with outdoor enthusiasts on a daily basis, and protecting the opportunities for future generations was a way of life. I was fortunate enough to become a wilderness survival instructor as well as a NASAR certified lead evaluator and instructor while leading the state's efforts for search and rescue. I have moved on to the college scene and now teach courses in backpacking, search and rescue, as well as wilderness survival. I find it very rewarding to help the next generation get started in outdoor pursuits.

On a personal level I spend most weekends and several weeks a year backpacking North America and now Central America. Last year I backpacked in 7 states in the US, many of the miles were on the Appalachian trail and my home trail, the North Country. Many solo trips, and many with friends. I volunteer my time helping to maintain the trails and get young kids outside. I have several US and international trips in the works and look forward to sharing those experiences while using quality gear.