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Trip Report Costa Rica - Family of 5 - Trip Report: Arenal/Monte Verde/Manual Antonio

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Our family of five (husband/wife; children ages 13, 8 and 6) went to Costa Rica last week (10 night/11 day trip). Fodor readers helped tremendously in my research and I put this trip report out there to help anybody else who may be planning their trip. The one thing we did (readers opinion came out 50-50 on this) is hire a car to take us from Point A to Point B instead of renting a car ourselves. At times we regretted that decision since having a car would have given us more mobility - but at times we were totally fine with it. I think if we were to go back to Costa Rica, we would rent a car.

During our trip, we met some wonderful people - both local and tourists.

Friday April 1
Day starts off at 4a.m. as we get ready for our pick up. Flight is on time in Newark despite the snow... yeah! Land in San Jose and are met by Carlos of Odyssey Tours. Had lunch on the way at roadside restaurant - our introduction to Costa Rican cuisine - rice/beans/salad. After a long ride and at times bumpy ride, got to our hotel - the Arenal Observatory Lodge by late afternoon. The hotel has amazing grounds - totally worth the last 20 minutes of bumpy roads. Our room in the Smithsonian wing has amazing volcano views. Kids loved the pool. Had dinner at the Lodge. They had a checkers, chess board and other low key activities that the kids loved.

Saturday, April 2
Started morning early with sounds of birds outside our room. Went early for breakfast where we saw a coati feeding and hummingbirds. The Lodge had set up feeding stations just underneath the dining room (tree branches with watermelon slices on it for the birds and hummingbirds) and fruit on lower areas for the coatis. Went to Arenal Hanging Bridges with Eric Guzman, guide, who came with his big binoculars (got his info from travelers in Trip Advisor). Saw three vipers (green,orange and brown), hummingbird nests including baby hummingbirds, and a sloth with its baby. Walked over 14 bridges, 7 of them suspension. Would recommend Eric - he was informative and friendly with the kids. Also, when you are in a larger group (we were a family of five), it pays to have your own guide who charges you a flat rate, as opposed to getting a guide from the place since they charge you per person.

Sunday April 3
AOL has a free morning hike on their extensive grounds, where we saw many different varieties of hummingbirds, wild turkey, toucan, eyelash viper snake (yellow). Walked down to the catarata (waterfall) and the suspension bridge. They then had a tractor ride back to the main lodge. Checked out of AOL, took taxi down to Arenal Nayara, which is still a cab ride from town (La Fortuna, which can run approx $10). Our suite is amazing with a balcony that has a hammock, two leather recliners and a jacuzzi. We opted to go with a smaller, family owned hot springs - Eco Thermales. Thermales had five hot pools of varying temperatures and a cold pool. We were very happy there - they only allow a certain number of people at a time, which gave it a non crowded feel. Earlier, we had passed the Tabacon and saw buses parked outside. We opted against Tabacon since we had heard it can get crowded, and also it was quite expensive. We loved the Eco Thermales. We did not have dinner there (they did not have dinner reservations available). Even though they allow you a four hour slot (we were there from 6 to 10; we were done in in 1-1/2 hours... there is just so much of hot water you can take!!).

Monday, April 4
Went canyoning with Pure Trek Canyoning. It was AMAZING, but nerve wracking for me. Meanwhile, my six year old has no fear and jumps off the cliff backwards without a thought! The activity was expensive, totally worth it. It was a well run operation, they provided lunch before we started off. We had a long and bumpy ride on a truck to the site. The guides then gave us a brief tutorial on what we needed to know and do. We were a “small” group of 25 (apparently they have groups up to 45 people). The guides were excellent. We rapeled down and through 5 waterfalls, one alongside waterfall, and one dry drop. It was an exhilarating experience. Definitely worth the money. (Note to other travelers: our guide, Erick, was able to get us a better price with Pure Trek than had we made reservations directly or through the hotel). That is one thing that frustrated me at times (my husband told me to give it up after a while), that depending on how or through whom you made your reservations, you would get different rates. There would not be a tremendous difference - $5 to $10 a person... but when you have a larger family, that adds up.
We had dinner at Don Rufino, where we found the food to be okay.

Tuesday, April 5
We were planning to do ziplining in MonteVerde where our 6 year old could also zipline. However, we heard/read that Sky Trek is amazing for speed. Since we could not do the Trek, we decided to do the Sky Tram since it was supposed to have amazing views of the lake, etc. We booked the Sky Tram excursion through the Nayara. We went on the Sky Tram (gondola up the forest), which while pretty, was an activity that we could have done without spending money on. I think it would be fine for people who do not want the speed associated with the ziplining. On our way back, we got dropped off at the Arenal National Park and hiked to the old lava flow - which was AMAZING. We clambered on the rocky old lava and experienced the views and serenity there. We took the sendero (trail) through the forest back and saw a 100 year old fig tree, which was neat. Our children by this time (towards the end) were pretty tired. We walked from the park entrance, although people with cars and tour buses could drive in further.

Wednesday, April 6
Checked out of the Nayara for our next destination: Monte Verde. Odyssey had arranged for a van-boat-van to take us. It was a 20 minute ride to the boat (near the Lost Iguana Hotel). The company that took us did not help us with our luggage down the ramp to the boat. So we lugged our four suitcases down (thankfully we had good wheels on them) and my husband helped some older passengers with their luggage while the company people looked on. The boat ride was very scenic (and the first time I got cell service!! :-)... we got off on the other side and took off for an essentially 2 hour ride along bumpy windy, yet scenic roads to Monte Verde. Our hotel was the Fonda Vela, which is out of town a bit, closer to the Cloud Forest. However, when you try to cab it to the Cloud Forest, you pay the charge as if you were coming from town (St Elena) since the cabs have to travel from the town to come to you.

Checked in to Fonda Vela - nice big room, pretty grounds, but not as nice as AOL. In the afternoon we did ziplining with Original Canopy Tours at 2:30. They picked us up at the hotel. They were WONDERFUL. Our guides Wendy, Adolfo and Greivin were helpful and funny and great with the kids. We had a small group of people, which was ideal. We hiked into the forest; started off with the Tarzan swing, then went along several platforms of ziplines and climbed up a fig tree after rapeling down the tree. Saw family of howler monkeys as we were on the wooden platform. They were cavorting around swinging from branch to branch - very cool. We had dinner at Morpho’s in town- it was great food and kids had their milkshakes - their first dessert since they came to Costa Rica and they were thrilled!

Thursday, April 7
Got up early in the morning and did 7:30 a.m. Cloud Forest walk with guide Melvin, who was nice but not very effective. We had not done the research regarding a private guide in the Cloud Forest and as a result paid the high rates of guide per person at the Monte Verde Cloud Forest. We saw the quetzal (male and female, although male had only one long feather) - did not see any other wildlife. Went horseback riding from the Cloud Forest, upon the request of my 8 year old daughter who loves horses. Of course, she was the one who ended up with the lazy horse. We saw morphos (blue butterflies) and a hedgehog in tree. After that, we got dropped off at the frog farm and butterfly farm. Saw the poison dart frogs and glass bellied frogs and the famous CR green frog with bulging eyes, although he was asleep and we did not see his eyes open. Came back to the Fonda Vela by taxi and had a few minutes before the night hike, but the kids were exhausted and wanted no more to do with anything remotely resembling a hike. So, that is one thing we did not do - a night hike. Our friends did it and said that it was pretty cool - they saw tarantulas the size of their hand. During the day, we had seen their homes (big holes in the forest wall) but no activity there.

Friday, April 8
Left early to go to Manual Antonio. Carlos from Odyssey Tours came to get us, on time. We stopped and got breakfast from Stella’s Bakery. Stopped in at C.A.S.E.M (nothing there). Stopped took pictures at Frog Garden (since we did not have our camera when we went there yesterday). We went back down the bumpy road. On the way we went over the Rio Tarcoles bridge where we saw crocodiles sunning themselves on the river banks. Also saw a family of red macaws in trees a ways away from the Rio Tarcoles. Had lunch at Jaco, which was very touristy. Checked in at La Posada Jungle, which was steps away from the park entrance at Manual Antonio but which was a tiny room, the tiniest one in our whole trip. The place had character though - and the owner Mike, and his crew Sebastian and Jonathan - very friendly. Did not realize that Manual Antonio had such a huge surfer draw and presence. Went to Angel’s for lunch where the fresh watermelon juice was amazing (that is a much repeated word here).

Saturday, April 9
Another busy yet relaxing day where we went to the Manual Antonio park in the morning -- bought tickets at 7:30, then had breakfast and went over. Saw sloth on the way in. Played at beach, then saw white faced capuchin monkeys, one pulled Aleezah’s hair. One of the women that we met said that she had been there last year and had one banana with her and had given it to the monkeys - she said it was pretty scary since they all swarmed around her and she only had the one banana and they were not too pleased, started hissing, etc. My husband reminded me (since I was trying to get a perfect photo op there) that they are wild animals and we should not be feeding them. So we walked away from them after seeing them cavort around - later as we were leaving, the monkeys came to the main beach area where a crowd of people were and one monkey even snatched a pack of cookies from a backpack hanging on the tree.
We saw a bunch of hermit crabs on the beach.
Went back to the hotel - had lunch and then did a Catamaran ride through Planet Dolphin. While we did not see any dolphins, it was a nice ride out on the boat and the family snorkelled. The boat also had a slide, which my boys went down - splashing into the ocean! Our friends were staying at the Si Como No... which had beautiful grounds and the kids played in the pool before we cabbed it back to La Posada and our more modest pool :-).

Sunday, April 10
Our last full day in Costa Rica and we were determined to make it a memorable one. My older son wanted to do an ATV (ever since he had read about it in the Fodors guide) and we did it with FourTrax in the morning. Our friends joined us and we ended up being the only people in the group - we had four double ATV’s and one single. We went through farmlands, some forests and through rivers that were not swollen. We hiked to a waterfall where we were able to cool down and also climb up the rocks within the waterfall. We then had a great, fresh fruit and chicken lunch at the owner’s home on top of the hill, which was very nice.

Before we checked out of the Posada, Mike showed me his larger rooms that would fit families - and those rooms were great!! We would definitely stay at the Posada in those larger rooms, more suitable for families. The location is great and management is friendly with a home-like atmosphere.

We had torrential rains back. Carlos drove us to SJO, long car ride with traffic around SJO - later find out that Shakira was giving a concert in SJO. Stayed overnight at Adventure Inn. Spacious room and nice hotel.

Monday, April 11
Breakfast at the Adventure Inn was plentiful (breakfast was included). We then took a cab (part of Adventure Inn) to airport. The area that the hotel was in was a residential one, and this was the first time in our trip that we saw big, upscale homes. The homes in Arenal and Monte Verde were more modest and rustic.

We loved our trip... it turned out to be a fairly expensive trip since we were averaging at least one activity a day - but we had a great time together as a family, experienced some neat things and met some truly nice people -both tourists and locals. We would definitely visit Costa Rica again!

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