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Trip Report Adventures and Near-Misadventures in Costa Rica - what I learned

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Since you all were the ones that helped us plan our trip, I want to start loading up what I learned. Here is the first installment.

Costa Rica – April 17 – April 25, 2010

SUMMARY:

PLANNING: This was our first trip to Costa Rica or to Central America for that matter. Most of our planning was done by reading and asking questions on the forums at fodors.com. People there suggested the best places to go for a short trip, critiqued possible itineraries, and gave advice on everything from the airline to hotels to activities. I have them to thank for our astounding trip.

ITINERARY: Our trip lasted a week. We arrived at 9:30 AM on a Sunday and left the following Sunday at 5:30 PM. We spent two nights in Arenal, two in Manuel Antonio, two north of Jaco for a wedding, and one in San Jose. I would have liked another night in Arenal.

TOUR BOOKS: I checked many tour guides out from the library and finally settled on two to buy. I bought The New Key to Costa Rica and Costa Rica for Dummies ($13.57 and $14.95 respectively from Amazon). I was pleased with both books. Before leaving home, I took the books apart and created a booklet for each area that we would visit using a comb-binder that I bought at Office Max. However, they can also do this for you or you could attach the pages together in another way. Taking only the pages that we needed saved on weight. Combining more than one tour book in a booklet for each destination makes the information much handier.

MAP: I also bought a water-proof map of Costa Rica. It was $11.95. When we arrived, the rental car agent gave us a free map. However, I still think the waterproof map was worth the money. It had a lot of detail. As nice as the map was, see my note later about using a GPS.

AIRLINE: Our trip was in April and we bought our tickets in February. I checked fare choices on cfares.com and purchased using Orbitz. We flew out of Chicago O’Hare on Taca Airlines. The price of $265.42 each was good and I preferred to arrive in the morning rather than late at night. I had never heard of the airline, so asked about it on Fodor’s. It is a Central American airline and I would use it again. The planes and staff were fine. We were able to each check two suitcases (up to 50 pounds) at no charge. They also did not charge for headphones and served food that was quite tasty. Information was given both in Spanish and in English.

When I checked in online before going to the airport, I was given the chance to change seats. Each time, we were able to choose better seats. It pays to check.

HOTELS: Again, I used Fodorites to decide where to stay. We were pleased with each of our choices.

CHICAGO: We used the Super 8 in Elk Grove Village for their park and fly package. It was $91 after tax. I found it on the parksleepfly.com website (thanks to abram).

ARENAL: We stayed at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The road to the lodge was dirt and rough. However, there are no longer any potholes and it was worth the drive. If you want to stay in air conditioning and watch Amazing Race on TV, don’t stay here, as they had neither. However, if you want instead to be in the midst of nature and have a chance to see the volcano streams at night, stay here. The desk clerks were very helpful. There was a morning nature hike (free) and a very good breakfast buffet (also free). I had read that they only offered lunch and dinner buffets for over $20 and that the food wasn’t good. This is no longer true. We ate there both evenings and ordered from a menu. . Entrée prices started at under $10 for pasta or veggie options and went up. We were satisfied with the standard room. The rate was $117 per night, but I asked for a discount and paid $94.

MANUEL ANTONIO: We stayed at a spot that we found on VRBO as suggested by another Fodorite. It was awesome. For $94 per night, we had a kitchen, living area, bedroom with king bed and bathroom. Our balcony faced a rain forest. Our small complex also had a beautiful pool. We were the only people staying there, so it turned out to be a private pool. Its infinity edge faced the rainforest.

JACO: The reason for our trip was a wedding north of Jaco at Villa Calletas. It is a beautiful boutique hotel. Conde Nast 2009 Reader’s Choice Awards listed it as one of the top three hotels in Central America. It was $190 per night. It hangs on cliffs overlooking the ocean and featured free classes in yoga and palm-frond weaving.

SAN JOSE: We spent our last night in San Jose, so to have no troubles with getting to the airport. Mid-trip, I changed the reservation to the Holiday Inn Express near the airport. We had originally booked the Clarion, but after driving the first day, decided to simplify life and stay near the airport and rental car return rather than in the midst of the city. As it turned out, we were told that the Clarion was actually shut down the day of our stay for not paying its taxes. What a fortuitous switch in plans. The Holiday Inn Express was perfect. The rooms were nice, there was a tour desk, and it offered a free shuttle to the airport. There was a Denny’s, a Hampton, and a casino in the same complex. There were also two rental car agencies in the complex. Two more were within walking distance. This hotel featured free international calls which I have never before seen. It also had a luggage scale in the lobby which seems like a feature that should be added to other airport hotels. A free breakfast was included. The rate was about $130. ($110 plus $10 for the 2nd person, plus tax)

SPANISH: Unfortunately, neither my husband nor I speak Spanish. I thought about trying to learn before we went and made a list of all the words that I did know. It was not a very long list. My college age son pointed out that I should have learned Spanish instead of watching TV. Instead, I spent my time reading notes on Fodor’s. We found that the people that work with tourists such as the airline personnel, car rental agent, desk clerks and private guides speak very good English. However, the majority of the people do not. Communicating without a common language added to the adventure. However, I wish I’d learned more before we left.

RENTAL CAR: We booked from Budget. At the airport, Budget was the only rental dealer with a line. I would guess this was because the basic price was the cheapest when comparing rates on the Internet. However, this rate was insignificant compared to the true final price. We booked through Orbitz after booking the airfare. The basic rate was $84, but I added $76 for insurance through them. Everything that I read about driving in Costa Rica said to pay for insurance. Besides this insurance, I also printed and brought information about what was available by paying with Discover and brought our home car policy. I overheard the agent explaining to the person in front of us about the costs for insurance. Liability (required by Costa Rica) was about $14/day, damage with a $1000 deductible was about $21/day, and coverage to pay the deductible was another $14/day or so. So it would be easy to pay another $40 per day for coverage. I showed the agent the policy that I’d bought through Orbitz and we decided that I didn’t need the damage coverage. I paid for the liability coverage to be safe, but think my own policy at home would have covered it. In any case, think ahead what you want to do and don’t rely on what I did because it might not have been the best decision.

RENTAL PART 2: GPS – The rental agent also offered the rental of a GPS. We had debated about that since I had a good map and thought I’d read somewhere that the GPS didn’t include all the roads for Costa Rica. The people in front of us got it for peace of mind and my husband decided to do the same thing. We were very very very (it’s worth three very’s) thankful that we got it. Saying that the roads in Costa Rica are poorly marked is an understatement. Most of the time, they aren’t marked at all. I have no idea how we would have known where to turn without the GPS. On the way to Arenal, we missed a right turn and the GPS recalculated and led us through a town to where we needed to go. We never did signs to show us where to turn. Much later, my husband commented that we’d driven miles on that highway and never did see a sign telling us what highway we were on. The GPS was about $11 per day and it was worth every penny. Before we left, I checked to see if we could add the maps to our own GPS. We could have, but it was expensive. I’d have to check to see if it would have been cheaper than renting one, but I think not. I also wondered if it might have been possible to buy one in Costa Rica with the maps loaded onto it. However, I never saw anywhere where I thought they’d sell them. Renting it was simple and I think the best choice.

MONEY: Before we left, I decided I should check the exchange rate so that I’d have an idea of what things cost. On that day, 100 colones were equivalent to 18 cents, so 1000 colones would be $1.80. On the other side of the coin, $1.00 was 555.6 colones, so $100 was 55,560 colones. (Note - rates are constantly changing.)

After standing in a grocery store, going 100 colones is 18 cents, so 200 colones is 36 cents, and on and on, I realized there had to be an easier way to estimate quickly what something cost. I rounded the rate to 100 colones per 20 cents. I then realized that if something was in colones, you could take off the last three zero’s and double it and get a rough estimate of what it would be in dollars. For example, if something costs 15,000 colones, take off the last three zeros and get 15 and double it for $30.

You can check current exchange rates by doing a google search – but this will give you a quick and easy estimate.

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    thanks for all the great info. I'm planning our first trip to Costa Rica and appreciate all the good info. How long is the drive from Arenal to Manuel Antonio? Are there any great stops/sights/activities you'd recommend along the way?

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    traveler2005 - When I read your post on my Iphone last night and replied I was in no way implying your post was not useful or full of great information. I was on the forums when you were planning your trip and I was honestly just trying to ask if you had a wonderful time since most of your post was informational and not the feely good stuff. Reading back maybe it didn't some across that way...sorry...I think I was just exhausted.

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    Actually, I was considering posting up my whole trip journal. That's why I said this was the first installment. I wanted to start off with the basics.

    The trip journal might be too long though.

    To answer questions:

    In Manuel Antonio, we stayed here: http://www.vrbo.com/164069 Looking back at the listing, it has information for more than one of the units, I think. We had a king bed with a single also in the room. No washer/dryer (although there was a note that you could get laundry done for a reasonable price). The pool was lovely. There was wireless internet.

    The drive from Arenal to Manuel Antonio was about 6 hours. Three different people suggested three different routes. We took the one around the lake. We didn't stop much on the way because we needed to be at MA before the office closed at 5. We did stop at the "Crocodile Bridge." More about that when I put in daily information.

    Favorite activities - lots - I'll share them in pieces.

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    Saturday - April 17, 2010 – home to Chicago

    No matter how far in advance I start planning, the days before a trip are always a flurry of activity and stress. This trip was no different. It was slightly complicated in that my husband had an employee recognition dinner on Friday and we had an event to attend for our son at college on Saturday. So, essentially, I needed to be ready to leave on Thursday. This isn’t all bad though as people tend to prepare in order to meet a deadline – not too far in advance of a deadline. At least being (almost) ready by Thursday was a help.

    On Saturday morning, I took time to check us in online before driving to our son's school. When given the option to change seats, I decided to look at our options. I was surprised to see seats available in the front, so we moved to row 4 on both flight legs. This was the row behind first class. (Tip: check your seat assignment in case other options have opened up.)

    We then drove to Chicago. Our plan was to stay at a hotel and rest until it was time to go to the airport. (the flight was at 3 AM) Then we could take the airport shuttle and leave our car there.

    The hotel was on Touhy in Elk Grove Village. We arrived at about 4. After checking in and verifying a shuttle to the airport at midnight, we took a walk. (I walk every day.) I started trying to sleep about 5:15. I wasn’t too successful, but contented myself with the fact that I was resting. I counted breathes backwards from 100 and forward from 1. After almost two hours of that, I got up and took a couple of Excedrin PM. I’m not sure what time I finally got to sleep, but I did sleep well eventually. We’d set our alarms to wake up at 11:15, but I woke up before it went off. We went downstairs at 11:45 and checked out. The woman that checked us in was getting ready to leave. The shuttle came on time. I commented to my husband on how nice everyone we’ve talked to has been – the gas station man who gave us directions to the hotel, the hotel desk clerk, and the shuttle driver.

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    Sunday - April 18, 2010 – Chicago to San Jose to Arenal

    The shuttle dropped us off at the international area. Check-in was fine as was security. There weren’t many people in the airport at midnight. After we settled in at our gate, I walked for about 15 minutes and then dozed on one of the benches. Before boarding, I tried to log onto the Internet, but found out that the Wi-Fi evidently wasn’t free.

    Our seats were in the first row after first class and I was concerned that the baggage rack would be filled with bags of people sitting in the back. However, no problem – there was plenty of room. A woman had taken the seat next to us. She is from Chicago now, but was originally from Ecuador. She was going to GC to visit her husband’s family. I didn’t even try to read or listen to my iPod. Instead, I just tried to sleep. I was comfortable and did sleep some. We received a hot breakfast of an omelet or French toast with a roll and a fruit cup. Since we hadn’t eaten since lunch yesterday, it was good to have some food.

    morning – Guatemala City, Guatemala

    We arrived safely at GC at 6:15. A staff member met us at the gate and told us which way to go for our connecting flight. Our layover was an hour and a half, so we had some free time. After settling in at gate 7, I took a couple of photos. The city is within sight of the gate. It doesn’t look very inviting – there are a few high-rises and it looks mostly like concrete. I looked at the airport shop and tried to figure out the conversion factor for money. I finally asked someone and they said things were marked in dollars. The crafts were colorful and seemed well priced. There were many woven items.

    Some items only show the dollar price – others have both it and the price in local currency, it seems. It’s rather confusing. A McDonald’s breakfast meal was listed at $25.00, which is hopefully in their currency.

    When we got on our next flight, we were again in row 4, but on the other side. A man was sitting on the aisle. He moved out of our way and then left for the back of the plane. I guess it wasn’t his seat after all. A young man sat next to me. He listened to the sound system and sometimes sang along. I again rested until it was time for a bit to eat. This flight was shorter and served a small scone with a drink. The flight attendant asked if I’d like the rest of my drink and I said sure. I was quite surprised as it was a 16-ounce bottle.

    Arrival – San Jose

    In Costa Rica, we first went through customs and then picked up our luggage. We had to send the luggage through another metal detector on our way out.

    Our rental car was from Budget. It was the only company with a line and it took a very long time. We chatted with the couple in front of us. They were from Boston. However, the woman grew up in Hyde Park and they met at Wash U in St. Louis. They have three daughters with them and they are hoping the oldest will be able to help with Spanish.

    I overheard the rated quoted for insurance. There were several parts to it and in order to get one, you had to also buy all the ones below it. I was hearing numbers like 13.95 and 20.95 and something else. Heaven knows what they paid. I was unsure what to do and asked the agent about the insurance that we bought through Orbitz. He said it covered all but the liability section. Our home insurance might cover that, but to be safe, we got it anyway. We also sprung for a GPS. I wasn’t sure if it would help or not. As it turns out, I don’t know how we could have found the roads without it since most were not marked.
    The agent taught us how to say Jaco (one of our destinations). It has an “h” sound and rhymes with taco – accent on the second syllable.

    Adjacent to the rental car spot was a place to change money. I told Charlie that the airport was not the best place to change money. In retrospect, we could have saved time by doing it while we were waiting for the car.

    We asked the agent about an ATM and he said the shuttle driver could show us where one was. It was a stairway up from where the rental shuttle was. I’d read a tip to only use ATM’s next to an open bank and since there wasn’t one, we were nervous about using it. We inserted the card and got a list of instructions in Spanish – none of which made any sense to us. The screen then turned red and it said “RED.” Yikes. Fortunately, we were able to get our card back up and cut our losses by giving up.

    The car that we got was a little Toyota Yarus. It had no hubcaps and was covered with scratches, dents, and even a hole in the bumper. I hope that we got them all marked down. Worrying about rental car damage is one of the most stressful parts of travel for me. The trunk was small and only one of our suitcases would fit in it. One of us could have fit our things in a smaller suitcase and I really wish we had.

    Leaving, Charlie was nervous about driving. It was a bit wild, the signs were in Spanish, and nothing was well marked. It even took us a while to learn to use the GPS. I was nervous too since I hadn’t told him everything that I’d read. I skipped the story of the tire-slashing scam and downplayed that many more people hire drivers or take shuttles than I’ve heard about anywhere else. I did tell him that someone had compared some of the roads to the Going to the Sun road in Glacier. He’s driven it, so did have some idea about the roads.

    The GPS didn’t take us the way that we expected and we ended up in a town, but weren’t sure what it was. I saw a sign for a grocery and decided we should stop. Charlie stayed with the car (we’d read that you shouldn’t leave anything unattended in the car) and I went in. As it turns out, the building was an indoor mall. I found the grocery, but had some trouble figuring out what to buy that we could eat without a refrigerator or microwave. I ended up buying some drinks and snack foods. I then went back out and told Charlie that there was a bank. He again waited in the car. Unfortunately, the bank was ridiculously slow. I didn’t want to leave and lose my place in line, but was worried about Charlie worrying – rightly so. We had decided that I’d get 150,000 colones – about $300. However, I wasn’t positive sure that is how they write the amount. I asked the woman next to me if she spoke English. Nope. However, a man behind me did and said that it did make sense. Unfortunately, he was done and gone before my turn. When I finally made my transaction, I worried that it was processed as a cash advance rather than am ATM withdrawal (that’s what the receipt said). The teller didn’t speak English. I asked if anyone did. He was able to find someone that did – but in a limited way. I hope that it will turn out OK.

    Back at the car, I thought I’d use the phrases on the back of the waterproof map to ask a local where we were. “Can you show me where we are on the map?” He looked at me blankly, so I pointed to the phrase. He pointed to San Ramon. While traveling, I’ve learned that having a list of a few key phrases that I can point to is invaluable.

    After a couple of wrong turns, we were back on the road. We drove through several picturesque towns and saw a beautiful hill covered with contrasting colors of vegetation.

    The road was one switchback after another punctuated by hills and one lane bridges. It took us several days to figure out that DESPACHIO meant slow and CEDE meant yield. Charlie was at wit’s end, but we soldiered on. The Yarus had a stick shift and not a lot of power. At times, Charlie wasn’t sure we’d make it – but we always did. The unpaved road to Arenal Observatory Lodge was rough, but fortunately, it was not full of potholes. While researching, I’d read that the road was full of bad potholes. I read another post that it had been improved. I’ll vouch that it had no potholes, but that it was rough.

    We parked not far from the reception desk and I checked us in. We could have started a hike in 5 minutes, but I figured that we needed a break. (In retrospect, we probably should have taken the hike. It was $40 for two people and I think we would have been the only people on it.)

    We carried up our luggage and then looked around. We read many reviews suggesting that we should take the Smithsonian rooms. However, the standard rooms were cheaper and we booked one of them. We thought the room was nice and was glad that we were there. We are extremely fortunate, as the volcano is clearly visible. I’ve read that it is entirely possible to be there when it is cloudy and never see the volcano. The grounds are pretty. We took photos and walked around.

    We sat on the balcony as day turned to dusk. There’s lava coming from the volcano and you can see the lit trails falling down the side.

    We decided to change and eat dinner in the hotel dining room. It was candlelit and quite pretty. Charlie had spaghetti with vegetables. I had rice with vegetables. There was a large serving of rice w/vegetables surrounded by a large assortment of other vegetables. Charlie got a coke. When the bill came, we decided to pay with our cash rather than charging it to the room. The menu was in dollars, but the bill was in colones. We did some calculations and think that the charge in colones was less than it would have been in dollars.

    Last night, our sleep was in pieces – a few hours at the hotel before midnight, a bit at the airport, some on the overnight flights. We felt fine all day, but at 8:15, the tiredness has hit and we’ve decided to go to sleep. Sunlight hours are approximately 5:30 AM to 5:30 PM, so early to bed and early to rise might work out well.

    Tomorrow morning, we plan to do the 8:30 hike after breakfast. We haven’t decided about the zipline.

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    TRAVEL TIMES AND ROUTES - While cleaning out files this morning, I came across this site. http://www.yourtravelmap.com/costarica/travelmap/index.php?&width=1680 It gives detailed information on routes and times. I'm not sure that we could have followed it or how accurate the times are, but it does give very detailed information.

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    Monday – April 19 – Arenal - morning

    We did get to sleep around 8:30. However, around 12:30, I woke up and went out to look at the volcano. Wow, I could see the lava coming from the top and lava trails spilling down the side. I woke up Charlie and we both watched. It was something like watching a meteor shower. Each bit was neat, but you kept waiting for a more spectacular trail. Sometimes there were a number of trails going at the same time. It had cooled off and I went in to get my long-sleeved shirt to wear as a wrap. Eventually, we went back to bed, but I got up again two or three more times during the night. I am so glad that we stayed here and were able to see the volcano at night.

    We got up at 7 and had breakfast in the lodge. There was a nice spread of fresh fruit, pancakes, and other items.

    We joined a group for the 8:30 hike. The hike was interesting and we enjoyed talking with others. I jotted down notes. Although the guide took a spotting telescope, we didn’t use it. The group was rather large and we didn’t see a lot of wildlife. But we did see plants, learn a lot of history, and visit a beautiful waterfall. There was a steep hill down to it and we all took the option of going down. Charlie helped some. One group of seven from Iowa had a personal guide that was spending 8 days with them. (Alex A) I didn’t ask the cost, but for a group that might be a good option. He drove and knew the roads and good places to see and stop. He would stay at each hotel that they were at. The hike ended with a wagon ride back to the lodge. We chatted with some of the other families about airfares.

    (I took notes on the hike, but won't share them here.)

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    Monday – April 19 – Arenal - afternoon - to zipline or not to zipline

    We continued to debate whether to zipline or not. Ziplining was something that I really wanted to do in Costa Rica. That is until I figured out that the reality was way more than what I’d envisioned. There are zip lines in many locations, but someone had posted a link to SkyTrek’s safety page. It sold me on them and I decided that if we were going to do it, we needed to do it here today. They have thicker cables and bigger platforms. I’d also read several reports about how good, safety-conscious, and encouraging their guides were.

    http://www.skyadventures.travel/index/index.html

    We discussed it with a desk clerk who called and found that there were only 2 openings left today. I asked him if he’d gone. He had, but was non-committal on any encouragement for me.

    We debated more. In the end, I realized that there were two baby practice lines there and I’d be satisfied if I just did them. We went down to make the reservation. The other agent said he’d just made a reservation for two. If there were no openings, our decision was made. However, we were in luck (or not) and there were still 2 openings for 2 PM.

    We looked at the volcano for a while and then ate some things in the room for lunch. I was overtaken with tiny bugs, so threw everything away and started over. In the end, I ate one cheese cracker before the bugs and one Cadbury bar.

    Our zipline tour started at 2, so we left at 1. Actually, that was a little early. Charlie later said that he’d meant to leave a half hour in advance. I figured he’d added a half hour to that to make sure we really got there. The drive was easy and we got there with plenty of time to spare. We looked around the gift shop and waited. We met a family from Phoenix that had been on our tour this morning – Steve, his wife, and their 8 year old daughter, Taylor. I told myself that I shouldn’t show fear since I didn’t want to frighten Taylor. It helped some.

    If you sign up for the zip lines, you take a tram up the mountain and then do the lines. They have another option, the SkyTram, where you take the tram both up and back and just walk around at the top. I hadn’t committed to myself whether I’d do just the SkyTram, the Sky Tram and the two practice lines or the whole shebang.

    We got our gear on and took the Sky Tram up. The tram ride wasn’t as scary to me as they usually are. I credit that to the fact that there were trees under us, so our height was disguised. The guide told us that it was OK to stand and that we could even fold up our seats to give us more room in the car. No thank you.

    After we got off the tram, the guides gave us instructions and a safety talk. I tried to listen well and asked questions to verify that I remembered what I should do. I had visualized us ziplining in a vertical position with our legs below us. Instead, we would almost lay on our backs. Our zip gear attached around each leg and our waist. We each carried a metal piece that would go over the zip line and our sling-like gear would be double connected to it. We would lower our weight onto the sling. We’d then lean back and hold onto pegs on the metal piece with each hand. This was to help us go straight and not twist around. Once we got situated, we were to cross our ankles and raise them up. When ready, the guide would release us and we’d be off – one at a time.

    A guide would go ahead of the first person. When one of us would get close to the end, he would shake the line so that we’d know that we were close. Then we were to open our legs to help slow us down. The guide would brake us. (Some other zip line companies have you brake yourself by holding onto the line with your gloved hands.)

    The two practice lines were short and not too scary. However, there was a quantum leap to the third line. Someone suggested that it was the difference between Dumbo and Tower of Terror. I’d say that was an understatement.

    I barely allowed myself to look at the line. I was not sure whether I would continue and do the line course or would take the dubbed “chicken trail” back to the Sky Tram for the ride down. I did a lot of debating, because once you go on the third line, you could not go back – you had to finish the eight lines.

    I’m not sure how I got the nerve to take the third line, but I did. I leaned back, closed my eyes and started. It moved quickly and I opened my eyes. When I saw the amazingly long line stretching over a huge chasm, I quickly closed my eyes. It was very scary. On the route, I kept chanting to myself, “I did it, I did it, I did it.” It helped keep my mind off my fears.

    One of my claims to fame was that I didn’t make it all the way to the next platform. I slowed to a stop dangling mid-air. We’d been told that if that happened, we needed to turn around and then use our hands to grab the line and, hand over hand move ourself until we got to the next platform. It was probably a good thing that I had my eyes shut. I couldn’t see how far out I was nor how high up it was. The guide’s voice didn’t sound too far away as he reminded me what to do. I had no choice but to do what I had to do. When I got close, he told me to grab the rope and he pulled me the rest of the way.

    On the fourth line, I kept my eyes tightly shut. Jane, a woman who was in a travel agent group, didn’t make it to that platform. I hadn’t seen it happen, but she’d had a similar problem on the previous line. This time, she kept calling, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. She tried and when she couldn’t do it, the guide zipped to her and pulled her in hand over hand. She was very scared and shaky. Her friends and the rest of us kept encouraging us. One friend and I gave her a hand massage when she said her hands couldn’t function any longer. On the next line, the guide went with her. I had wondered if I’d need to ask someone to tandem with me. However, the guides had to tandem with the children because they were so light that they wouldn’t have made it all the way across without the extra weight.

    On line number five, I opened my eyes and looked at the sky. On line number 6, I looked around me. I tried to savor line number 7 as it was the last long line. It was a beautiful ride. The lake and the tops of the trees were visible at the beginning. Then we zipped through a tunnel of treetops. It was amazing. At the end, we had to walk 60 steps down a tower to the last platform. It was a very short line. However, it was what I would have expected my ziplining experience to be before I did it.

    At least two different people today commented that I could now cross ziplining off my bucket list. I’m thankful that I was able to do it. I’m also thankful that I didn’t just do a small zipline, but something so astounding as the one that we did. The first big line was over 600 feet high and a half mile long. I have trouble believing that something like it exists, that there are people that do it, and, maybe most of all, that Charlie and I were two of those people.

    If you are interested in seeing videos, there are some on youtube.

    After the zipline, we came back to the room to relax. I think we are going to have dinner again in the lodge and perhaps go swimming later.

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    Wow, congratulations! Skytrek Arenal was also my first zipline and it was one of the most amazing things I've ever done. I'm so glad you went through with it and ultimately loved the experience. I always worry about the anxious people because they are most likely to brake too early and end up hanging in the middle -- which I would find terrifying. I've ziplined, bungee jumped, and i dive to 100 feet -- but stopping in the middle would make me feel pretty panicked.

    Congratulations!

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    I commend you for ziplining! I was extremely excited to zipline, but when I got my first look at that third line at SkyTrek, I immediately started getting butterflies in my stomach, so I can't imagine what you must have been feeling like! It's a very exciting/scary experience.

    I'm enjoying your report.

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    The good news is that I was fairly close to the end when I stopped. Part of it was a weight thing (shouldn't have lost that 10 pounds before going - lol), but they gave me two tips. One was to keep my arms straight. The other was to make sure I kept my ankles up.

    When I was trying to talk myself into going, I told myself that the only thing that made it hard was my own fear.

    Thanks for the comments. I wasn't sure if my journal might be too long to post.

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    Monday – April 19 – Arenal - evening

    8 PM: We had dinner in the lodge. Before we came, I’d read that they only offered a buffet at lunch and dinner. It was reportedly in the $20 range and wasn’t that good. That was not true. We ordered off a menu and there wasn’t a buffet. We bought lower priced entrees which were under $10 each and I thought the food was good. Tonight, Charlie had the primavera again and I had spaghetti with butter. It wasn’t on the dinner menu, but I’d seen it on the lunch menu. I asked if I could have it and I could. We had the same waiter tonight. There was a table of about 20 near us. They seemed to be a tour group. The restaurant had a very good feel with candlelit tables and separated from nature only by screens. Very pleasant with a romantic feel.

    After dinner, we decided to go to the museum and try out the swimming pool. The walk there was dimly lit at times and I came close to slipping. The museum mainly consisted of framed articles and some samples of lava. I read a display about the chances of fatalities due to tourism in the area and a travel article written in the early 80’s. There was no one in the pool. The pool was cold and the hot tub was hot, so we decided just to sit for a moment and enjoy the ambiance. As we were leaving, another couple arrived.

    Tomorrow we plan to get up early for the drive to Manuel Antonio. If I had this trip to plan over, I’d spend another night here. I’d also spend a third night – perhaps – at Jaco and do a day trip to Manuel Antonio. If we get Internet access tomorrow, I might check out the foders information about a private guide for Wednesday.

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    Tuesday – April 20 – Arenal to Manuel Antonio - the drive

    Last night, I again got up in the night a few times to see the volcano. The clouds cleared and there was a wonderful view.

    We were so fortunate to have this weather. I woke up about 5:30 to the sound of the birds. I got up at 6 and went on a final walk. I went to the waterfall, but not down the hill. There was a cacophony of sounds – birds, howler monkeys, the waterfall, and the rumbles of the volcano. I wished that I’d brought the camera that does video/sound. I took more photos. This morning, the volcano was mostly visible, but slightly cloud-covered at the top

    I got back about 7:15 and we went to breakfast. The bill seemed about $20 more than I was expecting. When I get home, I’m going to translate the bill and see why. (Tip - don't have meals added to your room bill in order to make it easier to understand.)

    Yesterday, we asked directions and were told that the quickest and best way was to go back the way we’d come. Today, Alex, the Indian party’s guide asked us where we were going next and suggested another way. Then our desk agent suggested a third way. He suggested since we’d come through the mountains, we go around the lake in order to see more of the countryside. We ended up taking his suggestion.

    The first leg of the journey was a better road than on Sunday, but was just as curvy. After a long stretch of driving, we saw something about a canopy tour and I wondered if it was one that I’d considered driving back and forth to from our hotel. If so, it would have been a LONG way to drive back and forth. At one point, we saw a cowboy shooing cows across a fence.

    It was wearing for me just to ride in the car, so it must have been even more tiring for Charlie. We were down about a half tank and bought gas at the first town we came to with a gas station. It was a station with old-fashioned pumps and they pumped for you. It felt like Mayberry with a couple of men and a boy sitting on a bench outside. The restroom was very clean. This town was larger than many we’ve driven through. It had some shops and stores, but we didn’t tarry. Fortunately, we had the GPS because we would never have made it out the right way without it. Why there are no highway markings is beyond me. Perhaps the locals know their way around, but it seems Costa Rica now has quite a tourist trade. Markers at intersections and a few under the yield signs at the many dangerous bridges would be helpful.

    The trip seemed like it would last forever. Our progress was very slow because of the serpentine roads. We ate a bag of munchies in the car to save driving time. The office at tonight’s lodging closes at 5. If we are going to get there later, we can call, but that might be easier said than done.

    In 2005, we rented an audio tour of the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. I thought then that they should combine a tour with a GPS. Well, guess what, our GPS had information about some of the towns that we went through. One of those nuggets explained that the ICE that we saw on fenceposts was the name of the power company.
    Eventually we got to Highway 1. Amazingly enough, it was marked and straight. If someone had only driven on that road, he would not have had the full experience of driving in Costa Rica.

    The oncologist had told us about a bridge with crocodiles. Before we left, Alex told us where to find it. We stopped and took turns going out to see the crocodiles. I also browsed the shops that lined both sides of the road, but didn’t buy anything. I considered the flags/towels which were 5,000 ($10) without cut-outs or 9,000 ($18) with.
    Using the GPS was tricky at times. I didn’t have an address for where we were going today (as the agent said, we measure in distance from a tree – no addresses), so tried to just put in the city. Fortunately, before we missed a turn, I realized that I’d input the bus station to Quepos in San Jose rather than Quepos itself!! (one of our near-misadventures)

    One large strip of the road was lined on both sides by palm trees. When we first saw them, I thought they were a sign of being in the tropics. However, they extended for kilometer after kilometer. The GPS guide said that they are a crop and are used for palm oil.

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    Tuesday – April 20 – arriving in Manuel Antonio -

    When we arrived in Quepos and then Manuel Antonio, I tried to figure out where we were on the map. Our laminated map had an inset for this area with restaurants and hotels marked. However, not all were marked and it took me a while to actually find one. Now that I’m an adult, I can normally read in the car without getting sick, but the miles of curvy roads put me on the edge. Eventually though, I did find one and started following along. Our lodging was on the road to the Hotel Parador after the Hotel Mariposa. The road was unpaved, very rough, and steep. We pulled into a carport at our lodging at 3 PM. The woman was in the office along with a darling little girl – maybe 4 years old.

    They took us up to our VRBO apartment. Wowie. The room consists of a kitchen, living area, bathroom, and bedroom. On the back is a balcony which is adjacent to the rain forest. There is also a sitting area outside our front door. But most impressive is that we are the only ones staying in the complex and we have a beautiful pool to ourselves. I am well satisfied.

    I got the Internet going. The Frommer’s book left in the room suggested a favorite restaurant that is quite close to here. After, Charlie got up; we decided to walk to it and to the grocery. It was a long uphill climb back to the main road. We saw a bus go by and I was reminded that we could take the bus for 30 cents. When we finally got to the main road and the café, we decided we should go to the grocery first. It was a ways and en route, I asked a passerby if we were going the right direction (method – point to it on the map). When we finally got there, it was a small grocery.

    5:30 Tuesday – We’re back from a walk to the grocery. We bought bread, cheese, water, chips, tortilla chips, salsa, and microwave popcorn. We were shocked that it was $30.

    After a rest, we went out and took advantage of the pool. The temperature was perfect and the pool is lovely. One side was an infinity side with a view to the rainforest.

    I thought to myself that this would be a perfect place to visit with friends if only it weren’t so far away.

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    Wednesday – April 21 – Manuel Antonio

    It was another early wake-up day. Going to bed early isn’t all bad. I was up before 7 and Charlie got up not much later. We had some food, such as it was, from our refrigerator and then prepared to go to Manuel Antonio National Park. I’d read that people try to convince you to park before you get there. I suppose in that respect, it’s not much different from going to the State Fair or an athletic event. I asked Charlie if he thought we should try taking the bus, a taxi, or drive. He opted for driving.

    Indeed as we neared the park, official looking young men motioned us to the side. I opened my window to ask one and he said to park there and then we’d walk to the park. Since I’d heard about this ruse on a trip report, we kept going. Eventually, we got to the end of the road. Again, there were people to park us and at this point we took them up on it. The cost was 2,000 colones or $4. This seemed reasonable for parking plus they would watch our car. They also had guides available. We wanted a guide and hadn’t gotten one in advance, so took them up on that offer too. Whether the price was good and whether someone else might have been better was unknown. However, in the end, we were satisfied with both the price and the tour.

    Luis directed us to the entrance. It was behind a yellow building and I’m not sure how we would even have found that without him. As you look at the end of the street, it was on the left.

    Luis carried a Swarovski spotting telescope. I figured that looking through my telephoto lens would bring me just as close. I was wrong. When he found an animal and I first looked through his lens, I was astounded - it was as if the animal was right in front of me. Something else cool is that we could take a photo through his telescope. I think they should turn out really well. We could tell where some things were since other people were looking. He knew whether other animals often hung out and so watched for them. The trip to the national park would not have been the same without him. Maybe we’d have seen something – but not much – and certainly not up close.

    After about 20 minutes, it started raining. I got out the 2 gallon zip lock and put the good camera in it. Charlie and I both put on jackets that made us really hot and sweaty – but maybe not as wet – that is debatable. Once the rain started, we only used the smaller camera. Fortunately, the rain didn’t last the entire hike and we were able to take off the coats and use both cameras again.

    As we saw the animals, I wrote them down in my notebook and tried to mark them on my spotting guide. I know that I’d never remember exactly what we saw otherwise. We saw many birds and animals – but no toucans.

    At the end of the hike, we had to cross water to exit the park. I’d read that you had to go through water to get into the park. Luis told us that they’d changed the entrance to the exit. There was a guy with a boat and he took us across for a tip.

    We could have gone back into the park with our admission tickets, but we were satisfied with what we saw.

    On the way out of the park, a man sold coconut milk out of a coconut. It looked cool and I decided that if it was less than $5, I’d get one. I was in luck - it was $1 for a small size or $2 for a large size. The small size was fine for me. He cut off the top of the coconut and inserted a straw. It wasn’t very cold, but tasted coconuty and was pretty good. Nearby a man sold decorative wooden pieces. I checked prices and then checked again with a woman. They both wanted $10. I offered $5, but no dice. As we were leaving, I asked Charlie if we could see what the yellow building was. As we were returning from there, the woman came up again and offered the piece to me for $8. I decided it was worth that to me and bought it. It is a wooden candleholder with holes in it – i.e. you put a votive candle inside it.

    Charlie decided that it would be fun to drive around town. We debated about eating at the Cafe Marmosa that was near our lodging and mentioned in the Frommer’s book in the room. However, we decided we should look around first. We parked and walked around. We saw the bus station and a bunch of restaurants and shops. It seemed like an area where locals would shop. There were tourist items, but not solely tourist items. Going back to the car, we saw another branch of the Café and decided to eat there. I got a veggie wrap and Charlie got a hamburger. Both were good and about $10. I decided to buy a couple of bags of coffee as Christmas gifts.

    Back at the apartment, we changed into our suits and went out to the pool. It is as pretty as I can imagine a pool being. The tile is a brilliant blue, there are layers of seats around half of it, and an infinity edge leads to the jungle. We swam, I floated on my back, and we relaxed. After we heard thunder, we got out and I read. As we relaxed, Charlie saw some white-faced monkeys in the trees. A minute later, we had visitors. The monkeys came down to the pool. One browsed the edge and then they both played on the fence. I went back up into the room and got the cameras.

    Later, we may go on down the road towards the beach and the hotel Parador. Cars pass about every 30 seconds and we are curious what’s down there. I joked to Charlie that maybe there’s a Super Wal-mart.

    We did go down to the Parador. The only really notable thing was the awful road. I’m glad that we don’t have to drive it multiple times.

    In the evening, I checked email and we watched the movie Spanglish. It was in English with Spanish subtitles and I tried to pick up some vocabulary by watching.

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    Nice report, very detailed. Good description on the zip line, you captured my feelings entirely (especially the closed eye part). When we went back two years later and my DH asked if I wanted to do it again, my response was "been there, done that" :)

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    The report is finally winding down. Thank goodness, you are probably saying. The next two days included a lot of wedding activities. I'll omit most of that.

    Thursday - April 22 – MANUEL ANTONIO TO VILLA CALETAS – REHEARSAL DINNER

    I got up at about 6:30, sat on the balcony, and read travel information. We had some free time and I wanted to check out options for the morning in Manuel Antonio and before the wedding tomorrow in Jaco. For Manuel Antonio, I came up with a gift shop and butterfly preserve. For the Jaco area, I decided on another national park and a hotel complex that has a gift shop that is built like a Costa Rican town.

    Since we’ve been told that we shouldn’t leave the car with any luggage inside, sightseeing is inconvenient. For that reason, we decided to go to the butterfly farm and gift shop before checking out.

    Driving, we missed the butterfly park and neared the national park. One of my questions had been what the charge for parking along the street would have been. So when we were again motioned to the side to park, I asked for directions to the butterfly preserve and for the price of parking. The butterfly park was behind us – the parking was supposedly free.

    Since we were so close to the entrance to the national park, we looked for the Buena Note gift shop. We didn’t see it and when we got to the turn-around at the end, I got out of the car and asked Luis, our guide from yesterday. He said that it isn’t there any longer, but is now a disco. The owner still lives there though. On our way back, we saw the disco. There were many shopping stalls extended back from the street there, but we decided not to stop.

    This time through, we didn’t have any trouble finding the butterfly farm. We parked and found the reception area. The young woman inside took our money and asked if we’d like a guided tour (no extra cost). That certainly sounded like the way to go. She directed us to the butterfly area and said she’d meet us there in 15 minutes. While we waited, we tried to take photos. There were many blue butterflies, but they moved so quickly that it was hard to take a photo. When their wings were folded, there was no color. I later noticed that the blue color was only slightly visible on the open butterflies near the roof.. The guide later told us that when light shines through the wings, the blue does not show.

    The young woman gave us many interesting facts about butterflies and then took us into the lab area. The staff gathers eggs from the atrium and moves them to the lab. This is because there are many within a small area and the pupas require much food. In the lab, the staff brings in food for them.

    She showed us both eggs and pupa. The pupa of the blue butterfly looked like a fruit, but when she touched it, it moved! This is a safety mechanism to repel predators. The pupa is also brightly colored. Since brightly colored fruit is often dangerous to their predators, they don’t eat it.

    She explained that butterflies fly in the day and moths at night. She showed us various examples and pointed out that color is not a clear predictor of which is which. There were also insect specimens for us to see.

    After she left, we were free to spend more time in the garden.

    We went back to the room, packed up our things and were off to Jaco. We left at about 11:15 and arrived at about 1. The drive was quick and simple.

    The road up to the hotel was lovely but extremely steep. We found a small parking area and I left to find the reception. Two parties were already checking in and I waited on a nearby couch. A staff member appeared and took care of me there until a desk opened up. She brought me a wet towel and a glass of peach tea. She said that a bellboy would show us the room. We walked back up to the car and he handled the luggage. The room was very close to where we were parked. Charlie asked if he should move the car to another area, but was told that it was fine. He did later back it into a space. Unfortunately, he hit a pole and chipped the paint. It is nothing compared to all the dents, scratches and a hole already on the car, but I worry about it.

    The room is nice. The furniture is dark and much is rattan. There’s a bench, several tables, a desk with hutch and a chifforobe. We have a balcony with a beautiful view of a somewhat distant ocean.

    We went for a walk to the Zephyr Palace where the wedding will take place. It isn’t far, but the road is steep. We then checked out the computers with Internet access for guest use, and the infinity pool.

    We watched the sunset from the amphitheater, a popular option that was even mentioned in guidebooks.

    The rehearsal dinner was at El Galeón an, open-air restaurant at another resort.

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    owlwoman - I'm not sure if I would do it again or not. It would nice to be able to open my eyes and see what I did. On the other hand, I never really got over being scared. It felt like I was trusting my life to a harness and a piece of metal - I guess because I was.

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    Friday – April 23 – VILLA CALETAS – Carara National Park - Jaco

    I went to the 7 AM yoga class at the resort. It was held on a shaded terrace on the back of the building with a view of the ocean. There was one couple and the teacher. The movements were way too hard for me. I tried and then finally modified everything A LOT.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3y8ORb1Yuo

    After breakfast, we drove to nearby Carara National Park. We paid $10 each to enter and the staff member told us that we could have a private guide for $20 each. My tour book suggested that a guide should cost about $15 each, so I asked if he would take less since there were four of us. He said that $15 would be OK and said that we should enter through the next entrance. We could drive there and he would drive his own car. It was down the road a bit. Charlie noticed that a water jug hanging from a tree marked the entrance. I’m not sure why that trail was better than this one. Well, come to think of it, I think that actually I think I do know. The answer lies in the next paragraph.

    The next parking area featured a sign that said Carlos would watch our car for $7. The sign also said that if we did not pay the fee, we might come back to find our window smashed or the car broken into. Carlos was not there, but there was a woman who took the money. Later, I asked the guide his name. He was Antonio and he said that Carlos was his brother. He said that the woman was his wife.

    He asked what we wanted to see and we said wildlife and perhaps toucans. He said that toucans would be hard to find, but he’d see what he could do.

    He also carried a spotting telescope and pointed out many birds. I made a list as we walked and marked them on my spotting guide. One of the highlights of the walk was seeing two scarlet macaws. The guide said that if we came back early in the morning, we might see hundreds of them. Coming at 10:30 AM was not an ideal time – early morning or late afternoon would be better.

    After the hike, we decided to go to the nearby hotel that featured a replica of a Costa Rican village. We found the hotel, but when we drove back looking for the village, we ran into a dead end. We went back towards the hotel and I went into the laundry area and asked a man. He said that we could park where we were and he would show us where to go. We crossed behind the open-air restaurant and he motioned to a bridge. We crossed it, walking by a huge lizard who was not interested in moving. A woman was coming the other way.

    The village area had a couple of buildings on both sides and a church at the far side. The first building was a shop that sold clothing, but it was locked. On the other side, there was another gift shop. We could see a mortar and pestle and wooden vases marked $4 through the window. That building was also locked. As we left, however, the woman came back carrying her lunch and unlocked for us. I bought a couple of key chains and some pencils.

    Her lunch looked good and we debated whether to eat at this restaurant or go in to Jaco. We decided that it would be more interesting to explore another new place and set out for Jaco.

    The main street of the town was a couple of blocks off the highway. It looked more touristy than the other towns that we’ve been in with restaurants and shops, some of which, unlike the other places we’ve been, seemed like they catered more to tourists than to locals. I’d heard that the city should be avoided since it consisted of prostitutes and drug dealers. However, it didn’t give off an uncomfortable feel to me.

    As we drove through, we tried to decide where to stop to eat. I suggested that we could drive all the way through and at least see the town. Meanwhile, I looked at my tour information to see what restaurants they suggested. I came up with two that were listed as budget gems. We didn’t see either one and I told Charlie that I’d be happy to get out and ask. He pulled over and I got out. My glasses immediately steamed up so badly that I couldn’t see anything. I asked a man, “Donde es?” and pointed to the name Rioasis in my guide. He thought for a minute and then pointed directly across the street. I thanked him and we pulled around to the other side to park. A rough looking man carrying what looked to be a lead pipe offered to watch our car. He gave the sign that I’d seen mentioned in the books – pointing to his eyes. I’d told Charlie that the books suggested taking people up on their offers, so he gave him some coins and we went into the restaurant.

    We looked at the menu and decided on a vegetarian pizza to share with cokes all around. They came in glass bottles (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that) with glasses of ice. We skipped the ice. The pizza was really good. At one point, I saw something large running across the netting that covered the ceiling and realized that it was a cat. Not long after that, the waiter used a large broom to poke at it and try to scare it away.

    When we left, the pipe man was still there and he stopped traffic to let us pull out. Charlie told me that he’d given him 40 cents. It was the best 40 cents we’d ever spent and we would have gladly given him more. He certainly earned it more than Antonio’s wife who charged $7.

    We went back to the resort. Wedding festivities took up the evening. It was very hot, but a beautiful place for a wedding.

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    Just felt I should comment again. Not only is your report informational but I can see you did a lot of pre-trip reading & planning. I am very interested in reading your posts. Thank you.

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    Thx a mint for the detailed trip report! I know it takes a lot of time to include this level of detail and wanted you to know it's much appreciated. This December, I'm going to Costa Rica for the first time and this is great reading/info! Looking fwd to your next installments.

    Enjoy-la!

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    I am loving your reports! With all your details, I feel like I am there with you! You are getting me so amped up about my trip in 3 weeks. Thanks for taking the time to share your adventures with us.

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    Thank you for the replies. I was afraid that I was posting into a vacuum - that my journal was too long for anyone to want to read. I am getting close to the end!

    By the way, my husband only gave the pipe man 40 cents because all he had was the equivalent of a $20 bill or coins. He gave him all the coins that he had. The man seemed fine with it. We are unsure whether the pipe was to protect our car or to make you think that he'd hit the car with it if we didn't pay him. Or maybe he just likes carrying around a lead pipe - one of the mysteries of travel.

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    Saturday – April 24 – VILLA CALETAS to SAN JOSE

    I woke up early again. My back hurt, so I took some ibuprofen. I’m not sure whether it was from the yoga or the bed. In any case, I tried to go back to sleep without much luck. I asked Charlie if he wanted to try to go to Carara to see the early morning birds. He was OK with it, so we did.

    I dug the park receipts out of the backpack. Charlie thinks they are good for a week. I wasn’t sure, but it could be.

    We drove directly to the second entrance. Neither Carlos nor Antonio’s wife was there to take money, so we saved some money there. I saw a camera bag on the ground, so hung it on the gate to make it easier for someone to find. Inside the park, we ran into two couples with guides. They were looking at a group of a dozen or so scarlet macaws. We walked on as far as the area where we saw the macaws yesterday. There weren’t any there. We were pleased enough to see the bigger group near the beginning and headed back. On the way, one of the guides asked to see our tickets and we discovered that I’d brought the ones from Manuel Antonio. I explained that we had been there yesterday and I’d just dug out the wrong tickets. When I told him Antonio’s name plus noted that Carlos was his brother and his wife was the one watching the cars, he believed me. However, he said we were supposed to pay every day. We told him that we were leaving. He pretended that he was going to call the authorities. However, he smiled and was evidently joking.

    Back at the hotel, we happened upon the palm weaving class. I’d planned to go and had forgotten all about it. We were just on time and Suzi and I were the only ones interested. This was another example of happening into the right place at the right time. We made a hummingbird with plant and a lamp. Melkin also gave us each a woven heart. After the class, it was time for us to head out. The ones that were staying were going to the zip line. I rather wished we had time to go along, but we weren’t sure how long it would take to get to San Jose and we needed to make sure we got there before dark.

    As it turns out, the new road to San Jose was great and it was only an hour and a half. We found the Holiday Inn Express without too much trouble. It is great. They even feature free international calls. Another neat feature is a luggage scale in the lobby.

    We talked to the Grey Line agent about options to go into San Jose. There’s a Grey Line tour on Sunday, but it lasts too late for us. There is also a free shuttle to a shop. After going to it, they can bring you back to the hotel or drop you off somewhere else and you can take a cab back.

    We mentioned the Clarion to the agent and he said that the government had shut it down THAT DAY for not paying its taxes. All the guests had to leave. I have no idea what we would have done if we’d gotten there and found a closed hotel. (This was another of the almost misadventures.)

    After checking in, we decided to go next door to the Denny’s for dinner. While there, we discussed what we could do. We decided that we’d drive into San Jose that night for “date night.”

    Back in the hotel, whom should we run into but Steve and his daughter Taylor? They’d been on the hike at AOL with us and then we got to know them when they were at the same zip line tour as us. Steve said that his GPS had led him through downtown San Jose on the way to the Holiday Inn Express. He was stuck there for two hours and it was white knuckle driving. This is the same guy who took the zip line one handed so that he could video with the other. We decided that we should rethink our plan about driving into town.

    We decided to make a reservation for the free shuttle at 9 AM on Sunday. We also decided to take the option of paying the airport departure tax in advance. (It cost an extra $3 – but would save us a line at the airport.)

    It was now raining.

    Since we wouldn’t need the car on Sunday, we went on and returned it. We were scared that there’d be a problem with the chipped paint, but fortunately there wasn’t. There were so many dings on it that another wouldn't matter. We also saved some money by returning it early. The agent here was the one from the airport who taught us how to say Jaco. He said that he usually works at this location, but they needed him at the airport that day. They gave us a ride back to the hotel.

    Back in the room, I worked on my trip notes and remembered that we’d left the palm frond projects on the back shelf of the car. We walked back to the rental agency and found them. The buildings that bordered the short walk were all bordered by fences topped with barbed wire or razor wire. I didn't feel uncomfortable, but I did wonder how much trouble they must have with robbery to need it.

    When we checked in, we were given some coupons for the casino next door, so went over there. The cashier indicated that we needed to go to the club area. It took a while for someone to come help us. Eventually, she came and we gave her the $5 of free play coupons. She motioned that we needed to each pick a machine and she’d put credits on it for us. Not long after playing I won 125 coins. Charlie found that he had to play out his money on the same machine. However, I saw that I could cash out my winnings and went to another machine. When I later came back, Charlie was watching my machine. As it turns out, I’d cashed out my winnings, but my original credits were still on the machine. It seems like I started with 600 credits. I played what I thought was a nickel at a time and won a bunch of free spins and small and large amounts. I played for a long time and had a lot of fun with it. In the end, I thought I’d won about $50. However when I took all my coupons to the cashier to cash in, it was only about $10. I guess the machine printed the coupons in American money when it was really Costa Rican colones. Oh well, it was fun anyway.

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    Almost done!

    Sunday - April 25 – SAN JOSE

    I woke up and had trouble getting back to sleep again. I guess it’s better than being so tired that I can’t wake up. We got up at 7, did a little packing and went down to breakfast. They had a nice assortment. I had a bagel and cream cheese and juice, but there were also a variety of hot items. We then finished packing and went downstairs. I noticed when we came in that the hotel had a scale to weigh your luggage. What a great idea. Our suitcases were only a couple of pounds under the 50-pound limit when we started and we bought souvenirs, so we are checking through a third bag. The good news is that we can each check two for free.

    We checked out and left our luggage with the hotel so that we could go sightseeing.

    The woman who was running the shuttle to the shop called my name and we were off about 10 minutes in advance of the 9 AM time. She drove a car. Her English was not fluent, but it was certainly decent and she was able to point out a few things as we drove. She pulled into a neighborhood of homes topped by coils of barbed wire. We hoped that our hotel would not set us up to go somewhere to be robbed and murdered, but that thought did cross our minds. We entered the building and found two rooms full of jewelry. Another woman explained a bit about the history of Costa Rican gold pieces and then showed us a video. It was in Spanish with subtitles. Afterwards, she showed us around her shop. The items were beautiful, but nothing was marked. I eventually told her that the things were beautiful, but that we’d like something inexpensive. She showed me some earrings for $10. I figured that we should buy something and temporarily settled on the earrings.

    However, a necklace had caught my eye and I asked her how much it was - $190. That was more than I wanted to pay, but I was drawn to it. She offered it for $160 if we would pay cash. I was tempted, but I wasn’t sure we had that much extra cash. I asked her if she’d take $140 hoping that we could meet at $150. I also started digging to see how much cash I had. I found $60 in American money and only $2 in Costa Rican money. Charlie didn’t have enough, so I checked my money belt again. I found some traveler’s checks and asked if they’d take them. In the end, I had my necklace for $140.

    The driver asked if we wanted to go back to the hotel or somewhere else. We asked if she’d take us downtown. As it turned out, it wasn’t that far away and she pointed a few more things out as we drove. I considered accepting that as our trip to San Jose and asking her to drive us back to the hotel. However, we continued with our plan.

    We got out of the car and dug through our bag to try to find the tour book info on the city. Fortunately, it was in the back pocket of the backpack. We started to walk and came upon a plaza where we saw a young man with a sign advertising a city walking tour. We found out that it started in only a few minutes and was just $15 each. It seemed a no-brainer to take it and we were glad that we did. Irenetta was an excellent guide. During the week, she does tours for cruise boats and she does city tours on the weekend. Charlie and I were the only ones on the tour. She pointed out many interesting buildings and shared much of their history and the history of Costa Rica. We learned so much on the tour and got a real bargain. Our tour ended at the national museum. We could have left her there and visited it, but instead we asked her about the Artisan’s Market that I’d heard of. It was nearby and she took us there. She also explained to us that we should only take a red cab with a yellow triangle on the side. That, too, was valuable information.

    The market was a series of stalls much like the market in Nassau or Budapest. Irenetta had told us that the items were all made in Costa Rica, that the prices were good and that we could bargain. We worked our way through it to see what our options were and I found many things that I liked. I ended up buying 3 beaded keychains, 4 wooden bracelets and 6 wooden coasters. I was able to bargain the key chains to 3 for 5,000 colones ($10), the bracelets from $3 each to 4 for $10 and the coasters from $3 each to 6 for $10 (that was the toughest sell).

    We were hungry and decided to look for somewhere to eat. We would have been happy with a McDonald’s, but saw a local fast food restaurant. Inside, we found that it was much like a KFC. All the main items were chicken, but I saw some side dishes that I’d eat. I thought that I saw rice with vegetables, but wasn’t sure about the word under the photo. A family that was already eating saw our difficulty and asked if we spoke Spanish. We said that we didn’t and they asked their daughter to help us. I think they were proud that she could do that and thought it would be a good experience for her. We saw very few Americans in San Jose, so they might not often get the chance. In any case, she said it was potatoes. After I ordered, I realized that the rice had another word next to it and the word that I ordered was next to the French fries. I tried to change to the rice, but they were out of it. The workers did not speak any English at all and we enjoyed the chance to try to get along without a shared language. We asked if they took dollars since we only had enough colones left for the taxi. They did, but only with a $10 minimum. (They wrote $10 on a piece of paper.) However, they did take a charge card, so we were in business. Travel is so easy now compared to what it would have been before the days of charge cards and ATM’s.

    Charlie got a chicken sandwich that was really good. My French fries were also hot and yummy. I asked the young girl how old she was – 13. We chatted a bit. I think it would be ideal to learn a language by trading words back and forth with a child or young person.

    Out of the restaurant, we saw a number of cabs across the street. However, as we started across, I noticed a cab turning onto our side and hovering to see if we needed him. We walked up and I was ready to show him the paper on which I’d written Holiday Inn Express and point to “how much does it cost?” that I’d found and marked in our Spanish guide. Unfortunately, Charlie pulled out the paper and we lost the place. No matter though, we were able to communicate that much even though he didn’t know much English and we know less Spanish.

    The ride back to the hotel was fairly long and since there seemed to be so many empty taxis, I thought that the driver was probably glad to have a substantial fare on a slow-sh Sunday.

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    Thanks, Cattail. Yes, when Steve was shaken, we decided that it was better to avoid driving downtown. My husband grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so had experience with big city driving. On the other hand, Steve was from Phoenix so knows a little about it too. Steve said he'd pull over to make room for another car pulling out and then the spot that he needed to pull back into would be filled by someone else. Hard to explain - but we certainly got the idea from talking to him that we didn't want to try it. He and his family decided to stay at the hotel that last night and order in for pizza. When we went in on Sunday with the driver, it didn't seem that bad, but Sundays are probably the days with the least traffic.

    I had to marvel at the chances of running into Steve that evening.

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    This is finally the last installment.

    Sunday - April 25 – SAN JOSE TO HOME

    Back at the hotel, we relaxed in the lobby and watched people come and go. Eventually we got our luggage and moved some things from the backpack into the pieces that would be checked. The desk clerk told us to let him know when we needed the shuttle. We left about 2:15 or so. The van was huge and it was a quick drive.

    I wrote the following when Holiday Inn emailed me for comments:

    The Holiday Inn Express in San Jose did everything right.

    Booking over the Internet was easy.
    Check-in was quick as was checkout.
    The rooms were great.
    Breakfast was yummy.
    The man at the tour desk was helpful.
    I appreciated being able to use the printer in the office to print off my boarding pass.

    I also appreciated being able to leave our bags on our last day so that we could explore San Jose after our check-out, but before our evening flight.

    Although, we didn't utilize it, being able to make free international calls was an awesome perk.

    Being near the rental car return was convenient. Because you offered a free airport shuttle, we were able to return our car a day early and save money.

    I also was very impressed at the luggage scale in the lobby. What a terrific idea!! We did take advantage of it.

    I would highly recommend your hotel.


    Yesterday, we paid our departure tax, so we were able to skip that line. The man at the hotel said that it could be a long line. I wasn’t, but you never know.

    On the way through the airport, we stopped at a shop and bought t-shirts for Charlie, Scott and I. Back at our gate, we saw the people who had rented the car in front of us. Charlie and I each chatted with them separately when we walked by them. After a while, I went to shop some more. I bought a keychain for a Christmas ornament, a set of Costa Rican wood, and a couple of necklaces. The necklaces were supposed to be on special with a third one for a reduced price. However, the cash register couldn’t handle the third one. Oh well. Back at our seats, crowds had formed. I overheard another person marvel over the great airfare.

    I’d moved our seats up to row 4 and left an empty one in the middle. Someone sat in it, but we traded and he sat by the window. I was surprised to have food service on the short one hour flight. We had a drink plus a hot filled scone. I was even more surprised when I saw the attendant serving mixed drinks and not charging for them.

    Our flight got in on time and we hurried over to the new gate. The El Salvador airport had a number of nice stores. I stopped into one while Charlie went to the bathroom. I almost bought a Hello Kitty key cover for Laura, but we didn’t have time. I jested that I enjoyed our stay in the country. Our second flight was only a half hour. This time, we had the row to ourselves. Even though the flight was so short, the attendants went from guest to guest offering mints.

    Next stop was Guatemala City. Even though our next flight was on the same plane, we had to disembark the plane so that we could go through security again. Our hand luggage was searched and we each had a pat down. At this stop, a young man with a Michigan t-shirt asked if we’d heard the row numbers for boarding. It was nice to talk to someone with a Midwestern accent. We chatted for a bit. He’d done the Skytrek at Monteverde.

    When we boarded, the plane smelled like hot chocolate chip cookies. We’d hoped to have a row to ourselves to make it easier to sleep, but no luck. I had the window seat and Charlie traded with the other person in order to sit in the middle next to me. I dozed until it was time for dinner. The choices were chow mein or spaghetti. The spaghetti was meatless, so I picked that. It had mushrooms and broccoli and was quite good. The dinner also included carrots, a dinner roll, and a cookie. After dinner, I went back to sleep. I was fortunate to be able to sleep.

    We had another “on time flight with Taca” and arrived at O’Hare at 1:30 AM. We were able to get off quickly since we were in row 6. We were asked if we had any food with us. We did, but since it was not a fruit or vegetable, there was no problem. Next step immigration. We entered a room that looked like the interior of the ET ride at Universal- a serpentine maze to accommodate a huge number of people. We, fortunately, walked to the front - waiting only for the couple of people that were in front of us on the plane. We commented to the agent that we were lucky to be there in the middle of the night. He said that 8,000 to 10,000 people go through that area per day – most between noon and 8 PM. He said that sometimes not only is the room full, but they keep people on the plane because there is no room for them.

    After immigration, we went to the baggage carousel. We took turns going to put on long pants. After we got the bags, we headed to the next area to call for the hotel shuttle. We found the hotel call center where we could pick the appropriate hotel and call them using a touch screen. The shuttle driver was the same man who took us to the airport a week earlier. From the phone call to the hotel took about 40 minutes. The car was fine and we were soon on our way. I was well satisfied with the cost and convenience of the hotel. It was a wise choice. We stopped at a 711 for a Coke and bag of popcorn and then continued on our way. It was a great time to drive since there was no traffic. We took turns driving and got home at 5:40 AM.

    Both of us were glad that we were able to go to the wedding and extend our stay to a vacation in Costa Rica. The trip was full of adventures – a new-to-us airline, challenging driving, a scary zipline, and a car watcher with a lead pipe. There could have been misadventures –an ATM that turned RED when we tried to use it, terrible roads, a hotel that was closed the day we were to check in, a private driver taking us to a home topped with barbed wire, and an expedition to downtown San Jose. In every case, everything turned out fine and gave us stories to cherish.

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    No the basic rate was $84 for the WEEK. However, that didn't include the insurance, GPS etc. The total that we paid Budget when we returned the car was just under $300. We picked up the car on a Sunday and returned it on a Saturday. We also paid $76 to Orbitz for a separate insurance policy.

    Anyone who reads to the end gets extra credit points (G).

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    I came across the business card of the guide that the family we met at Arenal used. He was their driver and guide all rolled into one. The woman that told me about him really spoke highly of him. They had used him on a previous trip and this one too. She said that he knew good places to stop and would stay at each place that they stayed. He was Alexis Alvarado. His website is transmacawcostarica.com.

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    Hi traveler2005 - I am enjoying your trip report. We are also looking for a VRBO place to stay. I have called on one in particular that is right next to Hotel Mariposa. I was wondering if you could share which one you stayed in?

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