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Trip Report 9 nights- Arenal/Monteverde/Manuel Antonia - March 2013

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A little background. Our 22 year old daughter is working in El Salvador and had an opportunity to meet us in Costa Rica the week before Easter which unfortunately is a very busy time there. I worked in the travel business for 20 years and we have traveled a lot, but I quickly realized I needed help booking this trip. Based on excellent recommendations posted on Trip Advisor, I contacted Catalina at CR Referrals (www.crreferrals.com) So glad I did! She was fabulous to work with prior to the trip and everything went perfectly during our trip. We were looking for nice but not extravagant hotels and a bit of adventure. I know Catalina had a challenge finding availability since our dates were locked in by the Easter break and also we needed a room to accommodate 3 persons. We were very happy with the hotels, activities and transfers Catalina booked and there were absolutely no problems. We did have a problem with our TACA flight on the outbound resulting in a 6 hour delay into San Jose. We called Catalina on her cell and she immediately called our driver and hotel to let them know. With Catalina, we truly felt like we had a friend in CR if there was anything we needed. THANK YOU CATALINA!!!!

We can't wait to return to Costa Rica and will definitely book with Catalina again!

Our itinerary in a nutshell:

Day 1 - Arrival San Jose airport
• Private transfer to Arenal hotel - Pablo Gonzalez, Arenal Star
• Check In Kokoro, Arenal – Standard Room

Day 2 – Arenal
• Kayaking in Lake Arenal with Desafio Adventures
• La Fortuna Waterfall on our own

Day 3 – Arenal
• Volunteering tour/ Proyecto Asis ( www.proyectoasis.com )

Day 4 – Arenal - Monteverde
• Boat transfer with Desafio Adventure
• Check in Monteverde Villa Lodge - standard room

Day 5 – Monteverde
• Tour package #4- Selvatura Park (zip lining, hanging bridges, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, lunch)
* Tour: Santa Maria Night Walk (http://www.nightwalksantamarias.com/) - booked on our own

Day 6 – Monteverde - Manuel Antonio
• Private transfer with Arnold, Transport Costa Rica
• Check in The Falls Resort - deluxe room

Day 7 – Manuel Antonio
• Mangrove boat tour - Pablo/Paul, Manuel Antonio Expeditions

Day 8 – Manuel Antonio
• Manuel Antonio Park Hike - Pablo/Paul, Manuel Antonio Expeditions

Day 9 – Manuel Antonio
• Amigos del Rio - 3/4 day Savegre River rafting - booked on own

Day 10 – Manuel Antonio - San Jose airport
• Private transfer with David, Iguana Tours


More detailed itinerary:

DAY ONE: Saturday, March 23, 2013

Transfer San Jose airport to Arenal: Pablo Gonzalez with Arenal Star
Pablo waited 6 hours for us to arrive! We got out of the airport about 10:30pm and arrived Arenal hotel about 1am. Husband talked (in Spanish) to Pablo the whole way there. He was a great guy. And thank god we had not rented a car. Making that 3 hour drive at night after flying all day would have been very very dangerous.

ARENAL HOTEL for 3 nights: KOKORO, room #3, aptly named "Pura Vida"
We were very happy with the Kokoro. It is definitely not the most luxurious hotel in the Arenal area but we loved the casual, low key, comfortable, welcoming feeling. When we arrived at the hotel at 1am, we were surprised to find both Felico and Fernando waiting for us with smiling faces and warm welcomes! Ahh, now the wonderful vacation could begin! They showed us to room #3, aptly named "Pura Vida." Our room had a view of the volcano, was immaculate, and very spacious with two double beds and a twin bed. The bathroom was large, well lit and had a huge shower. The whole property is beautifully landscaped. We found all of the staff to be very friendly, especially Felico the owners' son. We enjoyed sitting by the pool with the beautiful view of the volcano. Breakfast was a small buffet offering eggs, pinto gallo, fruit, plantains. Wi-fi did not work in our room but worked fine in the lobby and we liked hanging out there anyway. It's true, they don't have a bar but will serve you a beer in the lobby/lounge.
We did spend a lot of money on taxis. It might be worth looking into renting a car while in La Fortuna.

DAY TWO: Sunday March 24 / Arenal

Tour: Kayaking in Lake Arenal with Desafio Adventures (http://www.desafiocostarica.com)
We were picked up from the hotel at 8:20am and the tour lasted about 4 hours. We were with a high school senior group who did the stand up paddling while the 3 of us kayaked. We thought we would see wildlife on this tour but it really is just paddling on the lake. Be very careful
and wear good sunscreen. Our daughter got very sunburned on her legs.

Lunch: Soda de la Hormiga
We had our taxi driver drop us at his favorite Soda. Off the main street in La Fortuna, there were only locals there. Lunch for the 3 of us just $12.

La Fortuna Waterfall
Taxi from town to waterfall was $8. Don't try to walk from town to waterfall. It is a long way! Entrance fee $USD10.00 per person cash. It took us about 15 minutes to go down the steep steps and actually made it back up in about the same time (we are pretty fit). We took a taxi from the waterfall back to the Kokoro hotel and asked the driver to stop at a grocery store so we could pick up a few things. He charged us $USD24.00 which Felico at the hotel thought was way too high.

Dinner: Soda La Parada
Very good fajitas with leftovers that we ate for lunch the next day (our room had a frig). About $USD34 for 3 of us.

DAY THREE: Monday March 25 / Arenal

Tour: Proyecto Asis Volunteering Tour (www.proyectoasis.com)
We were booked on the afternoon volunteering tour with transfer from the Kokoro hotel (which took over 30 minutes). Yes, it is expensive but they are doing great work at this rescue. If we have one disappointment about the CR trip as a whole, it is that we did not see as many animals and birds as we had imagined we would. Thank goodness we went to the Proyecto because that is the only place we saw toucans, parrots and macaws. We thought they had a baby sloth but it had been released (their goal) and that's okay because we got our "sloth fix" later on in the trip.
Our guide Adriana was wonderful. A highlight was holding the adorable baby white faced monkeys and it was fun to experience Perla the white lipped peccary with the rancid scent gland on her back! Adriana even had my husband eat a termite! We got to prepare the food for the afternoon feeding and especially enjoyed feeding the toucans.This is a great family experience.

Dinner: Altamira, Nayara Resort, Arenal
We were stumped as to what to do for our 2nd (and last) dinner in Arenal. We decided to ask the very helpful Felico at our hotel and he suggested we go to the nearby Nayara Resort. I was game to check out this resort that is rated #1 on Trip Advisor. The Nayara shuttle picked us up - they are located very close to the Kokoro. When we arrived at the hotel we walked around a bit and discovered their pool lit with candles and a swim up bar. So romantic! Then we decided to inquire at the front desk about the dinner options. There we met the very friendly Jonathan who talked to us for a very long time and took good care of us for dinner in the open air Altamira Restaurant. A classical guitarist was playing, the service was excellent and the dinner delicious. Cost for 3 with a couple of beers and one dessert, not too bad at $79 with tip. It was a fun experience.

DAY FOUR: Tuesday March 26 / Arenal to Monteverde

Boat transfer with Desafio. 15 minute van ride to Lake Arenal. Be prepared to walk down rather steep dirt path with your luggage to the boat. 35 minutes across the lake. 1-1/2 hour bumpy van ride to Santa Elena, Monteverde.

MONTEVERDE ACCOMMODATION for 2 nights: MONTEVERDE VILLA LODGE, Room #7
The Villa Lodge is not a full service hotel. It is a family run, small bed and breakfast. Since we were busy all day seeing the sights in the area and not "hanging out" at the hotel, the property worked fine for us. We were in room #7.It was very clean and spacious with 2 double beds and kitchen area. Wi-fi worked well in the room. Owner and host Heiner was wonderful. His whole family is involved in the operation and their caring is apparent. The breakfast served in the dining room was very good: lovely plentiful fruit platter including bananas, watermelon, pineapple and then a choice of a typical CR breakfast or eggs with toast or pancakes. It is an easy 10 minute walk into the town. It was extremely windy during our entire stay and we are not sure if the Villa Lodge is in some sort of wind tunnel because we did not find the wind as bad in other areas of town.

Lunch: Cafe Cabure
Located outside of Santa Elena, it took us maybe 45 minutes to walk there. It is In the same building with the Bat Jungle. Food was good and we enjoyed a great view of the cloud forest from the balcony and loved the "Death by brownie" dessert!

Dinner: Tree House Restaurant
Cool looking place but our waiter was so busy he barely said a couple words to us. The place was not full and we are not sure why the waiters were running around so much. The food was okay and a bit pricey.

DAY FIVE: Wednesday March 27 / Monteverde

Tour: Selvatura package #4 (www.selvatura.com) $110 pp: Zip line, Hanging bridges, Butterfly and Hummingbird gardens and lunch
We were picked up at 10:30am. After checking in we were directed to the zip line equipment area and off we went on a very fun zip lining adventure. Daughter had zip lined before but this was a first for husband and me. It was a blast and the wonderful guides added a lot to the fun. We did the optional Tarzan swing too! Finished zip lining just before 1:15pm when the Butterfly garden tour was scheduled to begin. Our guide was Hector and he is fantastic. It was amazing to see the different varieties of butterflies and the cocoons. And the plants were beautiful as well. Hector told us about the night tours he leads and we liked him so much we booked the night tour for that same evening. After the Butterfly garden we had lunch and then visited the Hummingbird garden and walked the Tree Top Walkways consisting of a 1.9 mile trail with eight different bridges. We were able to catch the 4pm bus back to the hotel which gave us a few moments to regroup before the night tour.
This ended up being one of our favorite days of the trip. Husband had been concerned it would be really touristy and despite it being the busy week before Easter they handled the crowds really well. Highly recommend this for family fun and adventure!

Tour: Santa Maria Night Walk (http://www.nightwalksantamarias.com/)
We did not have any pre-arranged plans for a night walk and it was during our tour of the Selvatura Butterfly garden with guide Hector that he mentioned he also led night tours. We liked him so much that we decided to book for that same night and Hector made the call to arrange it. We are not sure he was even scheduled to work that night but since we wanted him to be our guide he agreed! We were picked up at our hotel at 5:30p.The Finca was only about 10 minutes away. Cost was $22 cash per person. It was dusk when we started out and everyone was given flashlights.Daughter and I had not seen a sloth yet and told Hector that was pretty much our only wish for the trip. We were barely out of the parking lot and our first animal spotting was a sloth! The Finca is not very large and there were several other groups on night tours. The guides had walkie talkies so that if something interesting was spotted the other groups could see it . But they were good about not running into each other too much.We loved Hector and his great enthusiasm. He did keep us moving at a good clip in his excitement to find and see things - it was like a treasure hunt. We found 3 sloths, coati, viper snakes, fireflies, tarantula, raccoon, golden beetle and some birds. We were out there racing around for 2-1/2 hours! The time flew by- it was great fun. If you book this, just be sure you try to get Hector. We had them drop us back in town for a late dinner.
For night hike: jeans, sweatshirt, tall socks

Dinner: Morphos

DAY SIX: Thursday March 28 / Monteverde to Manuel Antonio

Transfer 9am by Arnold with Transport Costa Rica - it took about 4 hours because there was lots of beach traffic due to Semana Santa especially going through Jaco. There was an option to stop and see the crocodiles at Tarcoles but we skipped that because we were anxious to get to Manuel Antonio.

MANUEL ANTONIO HOTEL for 4 nights : THE FALLS RESORT, room #18
We loved the Falls Resort! It only has 25 rooms so it is not huge. It is not a super luxurious resort but casual and comfortable with beautiful lush landscaping. The infinity pool is not huge but kept very clean and sparkling and great for a dip. We enjoyed sitting in the shady patio area and wi-fi was accessible from there (not available in our room). All of the staff was very friendly and helpful. Our room #18 was close to the restaurant on the first floor and had a porch with chairs in front. The room was very comfortable and spotless. Huge comfortable king bed and pull out sofa bed for our daughter. There was a walk-in closet with lots of shelves which worked out great for keeping all of our stuff out of the actual living space. The bathroom was spacious with good shelving around the sink. There was an overhead fan, and air conditioning worked well. The included breakfast was great. Buffet with breads, cereal, fruit, juices and then a waiter serves you a choice of 3 items including eggs, potatoes, french toast, pancakes.
We liked the location of the hotel very much. Lots of restaurants nearby and we were able to walk back to the hotel after our hike in Manuel Antonio National Park. The public bus stop is close by as well.

Lunch: El Wagon
For lunch the very first day in MA we walked down the road from our hotel and decided to eat at El Wagon. We liked the looks of their open air patio. Husband had a wrap and daughter and I shared nachos which were quite good. About half way through lunch we noticed people at the table next to us pointing at a tree. And there, quite close, was a mom and baby sloth and they were very active (for sloths). It was our best sloth sighting of our whole trip which in turn gives El Wagon a special place in our hearts!

Dinner: at our hotel, the Falls Cafe. Had mahi mahi, seafood pasta, and amazing dessert of warm coconut chocolate cookie with ice-cream.

DAY SEVEN: Friday March 29 / Manuel Antonio

Free morning, so we went for a walk. Turned right out of the hotel, walked one block, turned left, and walked all the way down to the beach. It was gorgeous! The walk back up the hill in the heat was a little challenging.

Lunch: Cafe MIlagro
Coming back up the hill from the beach we were very hot, sweaty, thirsty, hungry and miraculously discovered Cafe Milagro at the intersection and knew we had to stop for lunch. They graciously brought us a carafe of cold water right away and then we enjoyed delicious wraps and beer on their shaded patio in the front.

Tour: 2pm Mangrove Boat tour, Manuel Antonio Expeditions with guide Paul Gonsalves
At Damas Island, tour time is dependent on the tides. We didn't know what to expect on the Mangrove Boat tour and ended up enjoying it so much. It was fascinating to see and learn about the 4 types of mangroves that provide natural protection during hurricanes. Floating up the shaded estuary felt like the Jungle ride at Disneyland but this is the real thing! Saw lots of white faced monkeys, bats, crabs, birds. And a very unexpected highlight - after the boat trip we all went to dinner at Paul's home! His wife Wendy cooked delicious Mahi Mahi. Excellent!

DAY EIGHT: Saturday March 30 / Manuel Antonio

Tour: Manuel Antonio National Park Tour, Manuel Antonio Expeditions with guide Paul Gonsalves
Paul picked us up at 8:10am and drove us to the entrance of the park. We had a nice number of 9 in our group with Paul and enjoyed seeing sloths, bats, iguanas, monkeys, birds in the forest. When we reached the spectacular beach we were given time to take a dip in the ocean. We were finished by noon and had a choice of taking the transport back to our hotel or staying on own. We stayed and enjoyed lunch at the Marlin restaurant across from the beach. We were able to walk back to The Falls Resort - took about half hour. There is also a public bus that runs frequently.

Lunch: Marlin Restaurant at Manuel Antonio

Sunset cocktails: El Avion (across street from The Falls Resort)

Dinner: Raphael's Terrazas - mahi mahi, pork chops, fun and good, $45

DAY NINE: Easter Sunday March 31 / Manuel Antonio

Tour: Amigos del Rio (www.amigosdelrio.net)
Our final day in MA happened to be Easter Sunday and we had not planned anything in advance for that day. Jorge at our hotel reception desk suggested Amigos del Rio rafting so we booked the 3/4 day Savegre River trip. We were picked up at our hotel at 7:40am and returned back by 3pm. We were super fortunate to have a wonderful family from Venezuela in our group for a total of 7 people. We were told that earlier in the busy "Easter week" their groups had as many as 35! It was about an hour drive in a school bus mostly on a bumpy road to the river. Anthony, our main guide, and William the photographer, were both great about stopping for leaves and flowers for us to smell and William made cute grasshoppers out of palm fronds for the kids. This was end of March so the river was very low and we got stuck on a few rocks but it was still very fun. A highlight was hiking into a waterfall and jumping off into it. We were the only ones there which was fabulous. Evidently just a few days earlier there had been 100 people at this waterfall trying to jump off. Can't even imagine! Continued on down the river and stopped along the side for a typical lunch of casado and vegetables. Right before we got off the river the guides found squirrel monkeys in a tree which were the first we had seen in CR. William, the photographer took hundreds of great photos and we gladly bought the CD of pix for $40. He left it at our hotel that night. The guides were fantastic and fun and it truly was a day we will always remember.

Easter dinner: La Luna at The Gaia Hotel
During our trip planning I asked Catalina for a recommendation for Easter dinner and she made reservations for us at La Luna.
It was very easy to take the public bus from the Falls to Gaia Hotel, 280 colones (about $.55cents) per person. When we reached the hotel we opted to walk up the hill and not take the offered golf cart. The hotel is perched on a hill and does have a spectacular view of the surrounding area. We got there early to be sure to see the sunset. We were a bit surprised that they did not have a larger bar area. It is a small area connected to the restaurant but they were having a 2-for-1 drink special so all was good! Our dinner was very delicious and the service was amazing!
After dinner we started to walk back down the hill but one of the staff members caught us and suggested the golf cart, warning there could be snakes. We are so glad we visited this restaurant on our last night in CR. It was a memorable and special experience.

DAY TEN: Monday April 1/ Manuel Antonio to San Jose Airport

Private transfer: David with Iguana Tours
Picked up at 7am. David gave us an option of paying $5 in tolls saying we would get there faster. Found this a little strange. Why didn't they just figure this into the cost of the transfer. Traveling all day to get home to the west coast we don't want to take a slower route to the airport. Arrived at airport at 9:20am.
Pay the exit fee ($29pp) first thing when you get to airport. I gave them all the colones I had left plus USD dollars and paid balance on my credit card.

A few random notes:

- Ticos are very friendly and welcoming!

- Cost of food about comparable to states by the time they add the 13% sales tax, and 10% service.

- USD dollars readily accepted. Bring LOTS of cash, small denominations

- No problem drinking the water, we stayed well

- Dry season - not a single drop of rain our entire 10 days (March 23- April 1)

- Take jeans and sweatshirt for coolness of Monteverde

- Since husband speaks fluent Spanish he really enjoyed talking with all of the taxi drivers and prearranged transfer drivers. They were all very friendly and added to the enjoyment of the trip.

- During our 4 nights in Manuel Antonio we never went into Quepos - did drive through several times on our tours.

- Banana Boat Sport Performance 50 - great sunscreen

- Someone told us tea bags are good for relieving sunburn pain

- Off Deep Woods bug spray leaked all over my suitcase - only used once and left there - I did take B complex too - maybe because it was dry season the bugs were not as bad as we feared they would be.

- Glad I took light weight long sleeve t-shirt for kayaking and river rafting

- Ladies - a sports bra is great!

- If you need a hairdryer take your own - not all hotels provide them

-Tipping - before we left, I asked Catalina about tipping our drivers and tour guides and this was her response:
Tipping in general is left to you. If you particularly liked a guide or
driver you can tip them $10. Nobody will have their hands out. In
restaurants there is a 10% tax added in every bill in addition to the 13%
sales tax. This 10% goes to the waiter. If you enjoyed the meal you can
tip a few dollars. U.S. Dollars are fine to use here. It is better to
bring small denominations of $20 or less or you may have a hard time
getting shops or restaurants to break it. You can exchange Dollars for
Colones in banks for the best exchange rate or take either out of ATM's
here.

We had at least two tour guides tell us how important the tips were from the Americans.
I have no idea if we tipped enough but we did spend all of the cash we brought on tips!

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