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Trip Report 10 Days to Arenal/Manuel Antonio from May 26 to June 3--Trip Report

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Before I get into the details of our (my wife and I) trip, I have some general observations. First, we booked all of our shuttle transfers through anywherecostarica.com (specifically, through Yuliana). The anywherecostarica.com website is easy to navigate and even has a “chat” feature at the bottom of the page. I was a little leery about this service because I did not find much about it online, but it worked really well. We paid ahead for our transfers and even our visit to Eco Termales and everything went off without a hitch. Our interbus drivers showed up on time (early in most cases) and all of our reservations were taken care of. If you want to plan some of your trip ahead of time, pay in one place, and have a single itinerary/confirmation to print, anywherecostarica.com comes highly recommended.

Second, we traveled to Arenal and Manuel Antonio from May 26 to June 4, the beginning of the rainy season. Although I have not been to Costa Rica during other seasons, things were a lot less crowded that I hear they are during the high season. And, in Arenal it predictably rained beginning at about 5 o’clock and would sometimes let up during the evening, with clear skies during the morning and afternoon. Make no mistake about it, it is extremely hot and humid between about 1 and 4 in the afternoon. So, doing your activities in the early morning hours makes the most sense. This schedule works well because the sun rises at about 5:30 a.m. and sets at about 5:45 p.m.

Third, we heard from some sites that using dollars instead of colones was the best option. I think that was bad advice. Until you get the feel for calculating the exchange rate in your head, it is much easier to just get colones at an ATM (there is one at the Supermarket in Arenal and at the Banco America on the main road to the beach in Manuel Antonio). If you use dollars, be prepared to get all change in colones and to get—at best—a 490 to 1 exchange rate from vendors.

Fourth, bring an alarm clock (or use the alarm on a cell phone/watch). Only one of the three hotels we stayed at had one.

O.k….now on to the details!

Day 1: We flew into SJO at about 8:00 p.,m. (CR is on the equivalent of American Mountain Time) and had to fill out some paperwork for CR customs on the plane. Since it was rainy season, the customs line was a breeze. At the airport, we took Pat Hewitt’s advice and bought a cell phone for $20 at the Kolbi station (their symbol is a green tree frog). We got 300 minutes and a cell phone for this price. It was a great back up plan and worked well for us to call taxis or hotels while we were out and about. For our first night, we stayed at Hotel Robledal. This is a 15-room family run hotel about 3 miles from the airport. They offer a free shuttle service to/from the airport and breakfast in the morning. Our driver, Emmanuel, was really enthusiastic and pleasant. We arrived at our room, which was the most plain of the rooms we would stay at in CR, and fell asleep shortly thereafter. Hotel Robledal is not a place for those who want all the bells and whistles. But, if you want a place with a great location run by a great family and that serves great food, Hotel Robledal is a good option and is very reasonable.

Day 2: We had to catch the interbus shuttle at 8:45 a.m. at the Holiday Inn Express. Before we left, Hotel Robledal cooked us pancakes, eggs, and also had fruit, coffee, and a really good blackberry juice available (all included in the one-night stay). Emmanuel, again for free, took us to the Holiday Inn so we could catch the interbus. The interbus schedule said our trip to Arenal would take It was a great free breakfast! The interbus shuttle does not pick up at Hotel Robledal, but Emmanuel graciously took us to the Holiday Inn to catch our shuttle. Although the schedule said we would arrive around noon, we actually pulled into our hotel at about 11:15 a.m. Along the way, we stopped at a place with bathrooms, snacks, and good views available (all the interbuses make the same stops going to and from Arenal…they obviously have some sort of deal with the shop owners). It is one bumpy and curvy ride, so I recommend Dramamine for those with motion sickness issues. We pulled into our hotel, Hotel Mountain Paradise, and were greeted with a moist towel and a cold fruit drink. Although we were initially informed that our room was not ready (again, we had arrived early), a change was made and we were soon on our way to our room. At this hotel, the rooms can be a distance from the reservation desk/restaurant on paved paths, so a hotel employee loaded up our luggage on a gator and drove us to our room. The room was nice—good sized with a king and another bed and two showers. There was the water fall shower you hear about, but we didn’t really use it (it looks neat though). There was a jacuzzi tub on our porch and two rocking chairs with a great view of the volcano. But, the water in the Jacuzzi didn’t get hot enough to have a real hot tub experience, so we only did that once. From our hotel, we went into town and ate at Just Good Food. It is now owned by an American, but has good tipical meals for decent prices. Beware the price of bottled water at restaurants, however ($2 per bottle). We found that it was best to just bring our own water bottles to avoid this fee. The nice thing about Hotel Mountain Paradise was its free shuttle, but that shuttle stops service at 5:30. So, we got back on the shuttle and headed back to our hotel just as it started to rain…really hard. That first night it was a downpour and, while my wife was in the shower, she was visited by 3 frogs that came into the ceiling. There were also some other bugs in our room (a roach or two). While some will toss this off and say “this is the nature of the rainforest,” we didn’t have any critters in our room at the Falls Resort in Manuel Antonio, which is also in the rainforest (if not more so). But, by morning, the frogs had found their way home and we didn’t have this issue again during our stay. Overall, the rooms at Mountain Paradise were nice, well equipped, and the AC was powerful.

Day 3: We ate the first of several free breakfasts at the Hotel Mountain Paradise restaurant. You could have an omlet made for you, gallo pinto, potatos, sausage, fresh fruit, juice, coffee, etc. etc. It was an impressive spread each morning. We arranged the hanging bridges tour through our hotel for the morning. One of the hotel employees, Johann, took us in the hotel shuttle. He was a great guide, and we saw toucans and monkeys. But, the best finds of all were the blue jeans poison dart frog (all red with blue legs) and an eyelash pit viper. Johann actually caught the frog and put it on a leaf so we could get a better look. The tour took about 2 hours and required some uphill hiking, but it was not too bad. After that, we took the shuttle into town and ate lunch at La Parada. We had some great tacos for a great price. This was a really popular spot for tourists, and I can see why—great food, good portions, and great price. That night, we went to Eco Termales (arranged through anywherecostarica.com). While some people rave about hot springs, my wife and I just thought they were o.k. This is not anything against Eco Termales, I just don’t think hot springs are “our thing.” The hot springs consisted of 4 pools of hot water ranging from 90 degrees to 108 degrees and there was a cool pool on the side for regulating your body temperature. It was a nice night, and we could have stayed for 4 hours, but after 2 hours, we were good. My wife had a great mango daiquri there and I had a good margarita. From what I heard from other travelers, Baldi was a bit more of a party scene and loud, and Tabacon was really nice. I thought Eco Termales was nice, private, and quite…we just weren’t as “in” to the hot springs thing as others.

Day 4: Our main activity today was ziplining. I arranged skytrek/skytram ziplines directly through the company and on our hotel’s computer. They picked us up at our hotel for an extra fee and we were off. The trip to the zipline is off a paved road and pretty bumpy. As we were getting ready to take the sky tram, our “host” told us bringing cameras was not allowed. So, I put my video camera in the locker. But, my wife didn’t hear the host and took our digital camera. And, it was a good thing she did because cameras absolutely were allowed on the zip line. I think the host had an “in” with the video people for the zip line who sold you a video helmet for $40. Needless to say, I wish I would have brought my video camera up on the zip line with us. On the way up to the first zip line, we road gondolas and our guides stopped so we could watch some monkeys. We got to the top of the lift and had a fruit drink and there were bathrooms up there as well. They allowed us to practice on a few short zip lines and offered a “taxi” service for those who were a little nervous (the guide would zip line with you). My wife took advantage of the taxi service on the first try, but after that she did it by herself. This was a great experience—one of the highlights of our trip. You are seriously a half a mile up in the air on the highest zip line, going 55 mph. While that may seem frightening to some, everyone of all ages our tour had a great time and was smiling from ear to ear as we went from zip line to zip line. Renaldo and Andres were our guides and did an excellent job. We had the skytram/skytrek shuttle drop us off in town and ate at Soda Hormiga. This was a very local place where almost all locals ate. We felt a little out of place, but the typical food was good, reasonably priced, and there were great portions. I had the beef casados and my wife had the chicken. From there, we took a taxi out to the water fall. This cost about $8 for the taxi and $10 per person for the entrance fee. We walked down to the water fall (a long downhill hike) and did not bring our swimsuits. We didn’t feel like getting wet/hot and then trekking back up the hill. We took some pictures and headed back up. It started to rain and was really hot/humid that day. We called a taxi and he took us back into town. The problem, however, was that I had only 10,000 colones ($20,000) and the taxi bill was 4,000 colones ($8), and the taxi driver said he couldn’t make change. So, my wife and I quickly got out of the taxi (with the driver’s permission), and bought some ice cream to make change. In my haste I ended up giving the driver far more than the bill was worth¸ this was a little frustrating. I don’t know if taxis just generally don’t make change or if they say they don’t so they get more $$. Either way, that was a little bit of an adventure. We then took the hotel shuttle back to the hotel and ate at the hotel’s typical restaurant—Arenal Koita (outside the hotel’s grounds). They had great casados and the meal came with chips and salsa. The waiter poured us bottled water, which we thought was included in the price until we got our bill (again about $2 extra per person). Overall the meal was very good and the hotel picked us up on a gator and took us to our room.
Day 5: We arranged the Cano Negro riverboat tour through our hotel, which subcontracted with Canoa Adventuras. Our guide was Pablo and he did a great job. He was enthusiastic and we stopped at Los Iguanas along the way to look at tons of iguanas. On the boat tour, we saw lots of caimans, herons, Jesus Christ lizards, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and turtles. At the end of the tour we had a meal at the Caiman restaurant (included)—it was a good meal and came with rice pudding desert. We really had a good time on this tour and recommend it to anyone interested in wildlife. That night, we ate at Soda Viquez in La Fortuna for supper. It was really really good food for a great price. The service was really good and I had excellent casado while my wife had a really good and unique chicken soup. I highly recommend Soda Viquez to everyone.

Day 6: We took our interbus shuttle to Manuel Antonio (about a 5 hour drive with stops) to the Falls Resort. Immediately as we were checking in, we saw white faced monkeys jumping off the roof into the trees. It was a really cool thing to see right off the bat. Throughout our stay, we saw monkeys and tons of lizards (Jesus Christ lizards) on the hotel grounds—really cool. We checked into our room, which was not as big as Mountain Paradise, but was really well done. I thought the bed was probably the most comfortable we had and the room was updated and very clean. You could flush your toilet paper too, which was a nice change. We ate at the Falls Garden Café for lunch, and I had a quesadilla—maybe the best beef quesadilla I’ve ever had! That day, we walked down to the beach to get the lay of the land. On our walk down to the beach (only a mile downhill walk), we saw white-faced monkeys eating mangos and were yelled at by a huge troupe of howler monkeys. We saw TONS of wildlife just on our trip down to the beach. We then took the bus from the beach to Quepos (about a 10 minute ride, and the bus is only 255 colones per person--$0.50). We stopped at the Maxi Pali grocery store near the Catholic Church and stocked up on some drinks , snacks, and water. Although the bus from Manuel Antonio drops off at the Maxi Pali, IT DOES NOT PICK UP THERE. We almost got on a bus that would have taken us clear out into a village but the bus driver knew we didn’t belong and told us to stay. Then, a kind English-speaking local informed us that we needed to go back near the church buy a blue hair salon (near the Chicken brothers) and the bus to MA would pick us up there. This stop was not marked, but it worked and we were dropped off back at our hotel. The Falls resort is a perfect location because it is about a half a block from El Avion and Gato Negro, which have bus stops going both ways from MA to Quepos just outside. My wife and I had the hamburger and fries at El Avion that night, for about $10 per person. The burgers were huge and good, and their lemonade frappe (same price as water) was excellent.

Day 7: We had our free breakfast at the Falls Resort, which consisted of a fruit/cereal bar and your choice of 3 of pancakes, French toast, gallo pinto, and eggs. Good options and good food! We arranged a tour of the national park through our hotel, which booked Mario and Costa Rica Jade Tours ($40 per person). Mario picked us up and we were off. Just outside the hotel entrance, we saw a boa constrictor and a yellowish tree frog. And, just inside the entrance, we saw a teal colored stink bug and the mimosa plant, which wilts immediately when touched. Mario really stopped for all the details while other tour guides and groups walked quickly past. He used his telescope to show us the details and even took pictures through the scope for us. We saw tadpoles in a water droplet, zebra grasshoppers, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, white faced monkeys, and all sorts of lizards. While we were looking at the tadpoles by a stream, we heard a lot of rustling in the foliage across the stream and a little rodent ultimately came out running for its life. Mario said we had probably just heard a jaguarondi attacking the rodent. It was pretty amazing! We also saw a baby deer in the jungle during our hike. At the conclusion of our tour, we had to pay a $1 fee to take some boats across crocodile-infested waters to shore (this is a service run by locals and seems to be the only way to get out of the park without hiking all the way back to the entrance). Mario took us to a place where we got a great typical meal and coke for $5 because he has a deal with the owners. I highly recommend Mario and Costa Rica Jade Tours (this is Mario’s business, which he started recently. He is super enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and he was a joy to be around). That night (Friday), we went to Quepos by the ocean to the farmer’s market. It was neat to see all the local fruits, vegetables, and spices. We ate supper at Billfish near our hotel—we had Hawaiian Pizza for a total of about $11. It was a good, cheap meal.

Day 8: We arranged the rainforest spice tour through the hotel for $50 per person. We were driven out to an organic farm about 10 miles from Quepos. There our guide, Roy, explained the process of making vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, allspice, etc. and the benefits of each spice. Roy was only 16 but he was very knowledgeable and did an EXCELLENT job! We then toured the plantation and had several treats and an observation point—real vanilla bean ice cream, cocoa nib cookies, cold cinnamon tea, and vanilla cheesecake. We then went to the spice shoppe where we got some real cinnamon and cocoa for friends at home. This was a great and unique tour. If you like to cook or just like food and want a change of pace from the wildlife tours, this is an excellent option. For supper, we ate at El Avion again at around 5:00 p.m. This is an excellent time to go because you get ocean front views to watch the sunset. I had the chicken fajitas and my wife had spaghetti, and we both had the lemonade frappe again. Again, it was a great meal that comparably priced to eating out at a chain restaurant in the U.S.

Day 9: We ate at the Falls Garden Café for lunch—again, a good meal that was reasonably priced for lunch—and we took the interbus to Alejuela at 1:10 p.m. We arrived again at Hotel Robledal and stayed in a different room. This room was a bit more updated and comfortable than our previous stay and the staff was enthusiastic and helpful as usual. Emmanuel picked us up at the Holiday Inn Express right on time and that night we both had a steak dinner at the hotel. We are Nebraskans and are not easily impressed by beef outside of our state (beef snobs :)), but this steak dinner was excellent! It came with thin cuts of steak, vegetables, and a fresh salad. My wife had a ginger ale and I had an imperial, and we shared a tres leches dessert (also really really good). Our total bill was around $35, which isn’t bad for a steak dinner, two drinks, and dessert.

Day 10: Emmanuel took us to the airport and we bid our farewell to Costa Rica. You have to pay the $28 per person departure tax before checking your luggage—ask someone at the information booth if you don’t see the booths for paying the tax. Everything went smoothly, we got home safely, and we had all our bags. A perfect ending to a great trip!

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