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Trip Report Costa Rica SoloTrip Report around Tomas (November 2010)--LONG!

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Background.
From November 3 -23, I visited Costa Rica on a solo trip (my first to this country). I speak basic Spanish (rusty on the tenses but with a good accent), understand more, and read well. With limited time to plan, I had thought about trying out. I was surprised to learn that OAT does NOT cater to singles, but expects you to pair up, and has only a few spots open for singles even if you are willing to pay the supplement. (As fortune would have it, I crossed paths with the Oaties several times.) It also seems to be prime season for migrating birds and following twitchers. It was rather amusing to see the evening and morning briefings and checklist processing…and rather convinced me that I don’t want to go on a bird watching tour! So..no tour, not much time to plan, but I fell across some great low season discounts, which brings CR into the realm of not too crazily expensive for one person.

Arrival and First night, Alajuela, Pura Vida Hotel.
My flight was booked on TACA, the nonstop redeye from LAX. I had reserved a “Procrastinator’s Special” (kind of a proprietary Priceline deal at $90 all in) into the PuraVida Hotel in Tuetal, Alajuela (they reimburse the airport taxi). Excellent place, excellent dinner by Nhi, and Bernie is the master of irony. Recommended highly, especially for a first visit to CR. Be sure to reserve for dinner…best food in CR. Two large doggies will entertain but not bother you. No TV in my room (the Volcano) but there is a lobby TV. Hotel is deservedly recommended by most guidebooks and Tripadvisor. Bonus: Blue crowned motmot in the morning.

Tomas and the Deluge.
That night, in the early morning hours, torrential rainfall caused by a low pressure system combined with remains of tropical storm Tomas caused extensive flooding and landslides, loss of life and blocking roads around much of the country. Even growing up in hurricane country, I had never heard rain fall that hard for that long (like standing under a shower on full blast for hours). I had a feeling it wasn’t “normal” even for “green season”. I had known Tomas was out there in the eastern Caribbean, but wasn’t following it and was hoping it would turn north like it should have…not park itself over CR for 3 days!

Driving in Costa Rica.
What can I say? You need the inborn sense of direction of a homing pigeon, a 4WD, and to be confident, alert, aggressive and defensive all at the same time. The steep gutters and sharp edges to your right, the oncoming traffic dodging potholes toward you, the motorcycles overtaking out of nowhere, derrumbes and hundimientos in the via (not to mention disappearing sections of the via), the occasional pushcart on the freeway, oh! Let’s not forget the lack of street signs and addresses. Personally I don’t think a GPS helps. The one time I followed someone leaving Doka with a GPS we got lost in the coffee fields. I used good old paper maps, printed out directions from hotels, and as a last resort the “Estoy Perdido Donde Esta” method of navigation. I used Solid Rental which is …solid. They’re supposed to have all new cars in their fleet by December, so ask! I had a Jimmy which has enough clearance and gets you up the hills but sucks as far as comfort. Cost was $600 for 17 days including taxes, mandatory insurance but not CDW.

Detour at Cartago.
My rental car and I departed Alajuela the next morning, headed for El Toucanet Lodge in Copey. I made it (in 3 HOURS!) to Cartago, where the Interamerican Sur (Rt 2) was closed for removal of “derrumbes en la via”. Those stuck at the roadblock gathered in the local soda to watch TV coverage of the disaster (I think it was Soda de Carretera or some other word related to a roadway). Good food with homemade hot salsa. I got to practice my Spanish with a student at a bilingual Spanish/English school in Cartago (the schools were closed throughout the country). Eventually word passed around that the road might reopen at 3pm. I asked two uniformed truck drivers (who were trying to get to the coffee plant near Santa Maria de Dota) if I might borrow their cell phone…a trick learned from the Amazing Race! Amazingly, I was able to reach Gary, the owner of El Toucanet, who advised…No way, it would be “too much of an adventure to try to reach us,” it was starting to rain hard again, and he wasn’t sure if the road really would open. Later it turned out that Copey and the adjacent areas were isolated for days.
There was a well informed local who was tracking the road closures… the only place I might reach was Turrialba and the Caribbean coast. Not wanting to spend the night in my car…I stopped by Hotel El Guarco just slightly upstream toward Cartago, and booked one of their two remaining rooms. I headed out toward Turrailba, found that the roads to Orosi and Paraiso were also closed, and finally found Lankester Gardens . What a great place, even in the rain, which was still falling. I wore my plastic bag rain hat and was mocked as a little Dutch girl by some detoured “Oaties”…I learned to always bring the rain poncho…always. The collection of orchids and the heliconia gardens were my favorites. Back to my hotel (after a bit of circling round Cartago) and the soda for dinner.

Up Next: Quetzales!!!

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    Great start to an interesting and timely report, mlgb. (Enjoyed the reference to my favorite TV show, Amazing Race.) Sounds like you were flexible and had a great attitude toward all the obstacles you encountered. Looking forward to hearing more--our 15-day trip to CR starts Dec. 30.

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    Thanks aprillilacs. Hopefully your trip will be slightly less "interesting". I did miss the AR episode when Kevin and his dad were eliminated ;( but am catching up online now.

    Savegre Mountain Hotel, San Gerardo de Dota (two nights).
    After a good night's sleep and included breakfast at El Guarco, it was time to see if I could reach my next scheduled stop, Savegre Mountain Hotel, www.savegre.co.cr. (Note that there are a confusing assortment of similarly named places and websites). I asked the Guarco desk to call for me, and the receptionist said, yes the road is open NOW, but leave right away because there are no guarantees! I had prebooked two nights and one birdwatching tour, and asked the hotel to be sure I was booked in at the all inclusive package (figuring if I made it there, I might not make it out for a while). I packed up as quickly as I could and left. It took hours to reach the lodge in the rain (and unfortunately no views) and I arrived at lunchtime. The road from the highway to the lodge is steep and partly paved, but was in good condition, considering. My "good weather fairy" was working hard because this might have been the only place I could get to that day, and the road closed again that evening.

    I felt happy to be settled into my cabin with a wood-fueled fireplace, emergency candles and an abundant supply of food for tourists who would not be arriving as scheduled (and lots of trout ponds nearby just in case.) My low season rate was $115 full board (which is the rate for a standard room, but I think they upgraded me to a junior suite, just because I made it there!). The cabins are nice, no amenities other than fireplace and excellent hot water, which is needed to keep warm! The remainder of the day was spent eating, sleeping, checking the internet, sitting by the fire in the bar, and walking around the edge of the lodge bar/restaurant under the covered overhangs, looking for wet birds. Also playing Girl Scout with the fireplace...I did manage to get a meagre fire going (better luck the next night). The lodge serves buffet meals when there are more than 20 people, and they were pretty good. There was always a choice of trout, which was excellent. The lodge has a new spa, and listening to the rave reviews at dinner about the therapist, I think it may be worth checking out. I'm not a spa person but they were offering some excellent rates.

    The Quetzal Moment
    The next morning was my scheduled birdwatching tour. I had Marino Chacon!! We decided to each show up, see how the weather was and decide. Did I mention that I forgot to PACK MY BINOCULARS?! The hotel has a pair of Swarovski rental binoculars...superb, as sharp as a spotting scope. Even Marino said "Wow" when I suggested he have a look. Of course the first stop was the quetzal hunt. We went to a lady's house who charges $5 for entry. Marino prefers this location because you can climb just a small hill and get eye level with the bird which is usually in one of two wild avocado trees. There he was! preening and fluffing his feathers, ruffled by the breeze, glistening in...THE SUN! I still get a little misty-eyed thinking about that moment. That Bird was as happy as the rest of Costa Rica that the rain had stopped!

    Birdwatching Report (skip if you don't care!)
    After our special Quetzal Moment, we went to a plum orchard where Marino knew the chlorophonia would be, and they were. Also some other beatiful tanagers that I'd never seen, the spangle-cheeked, silver-throated, flame-colored and I won't bore you with the rest, but Marino was excited to see the first Townsend's warbler of the migration season. We also saw TAPIR tracks through the plum orchard (they've seen him on a night camera). Then off to another location to look for a flock of sulphur-winged parakeets. As far as hummingbirds he pointed out 5 species at the feeders near the restaurant. There was an especially bold green violet-ear that kept landing on a chair arm about 3 feet away. After the tour, we had lunch together and went over the checklist (40, for those who keep count). After lunch I went up on some of the other trails at the lodge, but they were pretty muddy and I mostly stuck to the gravel roads, until the rains started again.

    The next morning I had hoped to visit the new Los Quetzales National Park before leaving. I drove up (they are at the main highway near the truck stop). Unfortunately the rains had damaged their trails and they would be closed for at least a week. Marino had suggested a technique to drive a little bit, stop the car, and watch by the side of the road. Not far back toward Savegre from the park, I was taking a photo of some mossy trees, turned around and saw two male quetzals fighting over a prime tree! They were flying back and forth across the road, resting on the telephone wires. This went on for about 10 or 15 minutes. Quite exciting.

    On my way out of the valley, after checking out, I ran into Marino on the way back in, who had just seen a small cat (margay?) messing with a styrofoam cup by the roadside. I guess my car scared it back down the hill.

    The rest of the day was spent driving via Cerro de la Muerte to Dominical. There were lots of delays as the road crews worked to clear up derrumbes (landslides, my new Spanish word of the trip). Some of the road conditions were quite scary, undercut lanes that you could see on curves, sections that had dropped and cracked, etc. Eventually I made it over Death Mountain and in toward San Isidro de General. I had lunch at El Trapiche de Nayo (just okay), got gas and stopped at one of the roadside fruitstands. Suddenly I heard the lady shushing at something to go away, and I turned to see a Fiery- billed Aracari trying to eat her ripe bananas! After paying for my goodies and a half hour wait at a landslide just before the Baru bridge, I was on my way to the appropriately named "Shelter from the Storm".

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    Shelter from the Storm, Dominical area (3 nights).
    I arrived 2 hours later than predicted at "Shelter from the Storm", uphill and south of Dominical. SFTS is a collection of vacation rental villas, website photos don't do it justice: www.shelterfromthestormvillas.com. A 4wd is mandatory but the payoff is perhaps the best view in Costa Rica. The calico cat tried to greet me with a belly-up roll, but kept sliding down the steep driveway. I accepted a free upgrade to Villa La Cuesta, so I could use the larger kitchen (I would have been perfectly happy with the Las Rocas Abajo unit which has a superior view). I had a welcome drink and friendly "discussion" with Daryl near the pool (Donna had to come down to be sure we were okay) and retired to the balcony for the evening to sample the snacks in my welcome basket, listen to the geckos and peruse the villa copy of "Birds of Costa Rica". That evening was a beautiful sunset, said to be the first in weeks! (NB: no guest computer but they have wireless in the units).

    Hacienda Barú.
    The next two days I visited some of the beaches and also Hacienda Barú, an amazing private reserve just north of the Baru River ($6 entry fee) www.haciendabaru.com . You can self guide (including an observation tower), or use one of their excellent guides. I went on both morning birdwatching tours (rainforest and lowland). The reserve includes a beach as well as habitats from mangrove to primary forest. Over the three days I saw various sloths, frogs, turtles, green vine snake, porcupine, pizotes, racoons, monkeys, butterflies, and of course birds. More information on their website, bird list and guide biographies included. I recommend Pedro Porras if he isn't busy building the research center. They also have ziplining, which I didn't do (but I'll bet it's better than the one I did closer to MA). Rubber boots essential if it's still wet.

    Beaches. Most of the beaches in the area are best visited at low tide, which unfortunately coincided with morning bird watching tours. I spend some brief sunset hours at a few of the beaches, Playa Hermosa, Dominical, but the Whale Tale at Uvita is controlled by a guard and you can't go at high tide. I tried to find crocodiles under the Baru Bridge, but no luck..water too high perhaps?

    Food. My restaurant of choice was Soda La Macha, on the opposite side of the road from the La Parcela sign, south of Dominical. The casado fish plate was $6, the ceviche was also good. I bought some tuna for about $6/lb at the adjacent fish stand and took advantage of the villa kitchen. There is a mediocre fruit stand at the Baru bridge across from the police check point, if you haven't stocked up on the way from San Isidro. He did have some interesting fruits "mamón chino" (rambutan) and yellow "jocote" (hog plum). There are a dozen or more coati mundis that hang out at this fruit stand, in case you haven't seen one.

    Don Lulo's (Horseback Riding Tour).
    http://www.cataratasnauyaca.com/
    Oh my! Why did I get talked into doing this? Not for anyone nervous about horses, especially after it's been raining. This is a true mom and pop operation. Cost is $50 pp, they go rain or shine, whether the trail is muddy rocky and slippery or not! You get a ride to the falls, breakfast and lunch, a visit with some pet toucans and scarlet macaws. There were a few tiny strawberry poison dart frogs up by the waterfall. If the conditions are suitable (they weren't) swimming is theoretically possible around the falls. The home made Costa Rican food was very good, and I especially appreciated the salad. The horses were not all good..some wanted to be Secretariat, racing four abreast on the trail! Needless to say, these were the horses given to the less accomplished riders in the group. If I had to chose waterfalls, I'd pick La Fortuna over this one.

    Bird Report for Hacienda Baru. Good start with a Great Currasow scurrying away. At the mangrove area hide, cattle egrets breeding (ugly babies!), a few boat billed herons and white ibis. Also yellow crowned night heron and bare throated tiger heron. Up in the forest, a crested owl. Others not seen elsewhere, a zone tailed hawk hanging with the turkey vultures, mangrove black hawk, orange collared manakin, purple-crowned fairy, prothonotary warbler, grey-headed tanager, riverside wren. Black-hooded antshrike and chestnut backed antbird are abundant, as is Cherrie's tanager around the lodge. Rounding out the list are a few other colorful birds (bay headed tanager, scarlet thighed dacnis, lineated woodpecker) and a chestnut mandibled toucan that swooped right over my head.

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    Manuel Antonio/Arenas del Mar Resort.
    Near MA, I had stumbled across a discount offered by the Fodor's Choice ecolodge, Arenas del Mar. Your age is your discount! I wound up 5 nights there and 1 in Villa Nicolas when ADM was full. Arenas del Mar has direct access to Playitas Beach and to Playa Espadilla, a public beach that stretches all the way to the MA park. This was probably my favorite hotel in Costa Rica, mostly because of the incredible staff. The breakfast is good (and lunch is okay) but I had a mediocre experience at dinner. Hopefully they will improve this last piece of their operation.

    Tomas damaged many roads and trails in the area, and the park was closed at first. But the public beaches are fine for dips or swimming as long one is aware of conditions that might lead to undertows. The wildlife ignores the national park boundaries, so the resort had visits from monkeys, iguanas, and sloths. At ADM, the staff keeps track of "their sloth" and other wildlife for the guests. The sloth is often at the beach near breakfast. One of the beach guards knows the habits of the monkeys pretty well, and correctly predicted a 9am visit from the white faced guys. Unfortunately the squirrel monkeys are more erratic and I was never at the right place right time. Also on the grounds an agouti(guatuso/guatuzo) and a brown basilisk lizard hanging round the Playitas pool!. The hotel has their own enthusiastic and well-trained guide, young Ersel (we set a morning birdwatching record, 26 species including both the yellow-crowned and yellow-throated Euphonias). Never did find their motmot, though. I appreciated that he pointed out that the big island offshore is a brown booby colony. A few days later one of the youngsters was shivering on Playa Espadilla, I'm sure soon to be someone's dinner. Naturally that was the one time I didn't bring my camera with me to the beach.

    Manuel Antonio Park. My first full day, I walked Playa Espadilla to MA park (about 2k each way). Near the park, local touts were busy trying to sell "mangrove tours." As part of their pitch, they were telling tourists that the park wouldn't open for two weeks. A few of us went to the beach at MA and talked to the guard, who said "maybe tomorrow." And yes, the park opened for the first time the next day, from 7am to 1pm. (I think it's still on a reduced schedule and the only trails open are the main one from the entrance to the beach, and around Cathedral Point.) Tips for MA: hire one of the blue-shirted guides near where you buy your ticket. No tickets are sold at the beach entrance. I found it more convenient to take a taxi to the park entrance, rather than deal with the parking situation. I then walked back to my hotel along the beach. The park is a bit of a mob scene, but you will definitely see sloths, and the beach is a hangout for white-faced capuchins and raccoons (a mom and twins were very interested in my juice box). The main trail is flat and well graded and you can wear flipflops. The Punta Catedaral trail is steep, but mostly has those concrete grid pavers, so isn't too slippery but you'll want at least track shoes. At low tide, you can wade across the outlet to Playa Espadilla. The beaches inside the park are great for swimming, but watch out for monkeys and raccoons! There are bathrooms and drinking water near the beach.

    Other things around MA. Lots of offered tours, I took the Titi Canopy Zip Line, which I refuse to call a "tour". Not any "guiding" to speak of, mostly just hustling you from platform to platform, although we did see some black and green frogs. No Tarzan Swing, No photographer, No binoculars, No Guiding, No Rappel, and not really that close to MA. Unless you absolutely have to zipline and have no car, I would not recommend this particular choice.

    I went on the nightime guided Jungle tour (frog hunt) at Si Como No's reserve. The guide was excellent and we saw lots of frogs, but it's expensive for a 1.5 hour tour. However I'm pretty sure I'd have never found any of those frogs by myself (one of the other guests was really good at finding them).

    Shopping. The night I stayed at Villa Nicolas, I walked past Cafe Milagro toward the grocery and found a gift store with lots of Central American art and a 50% off change of ownership sale. It's on the ground floor of one of the two story offices on the same side as Cafe Milagro. Bought some molas, glass bead frog keychains, ocarinas. The frogs are a big hit.

    Next: On to Arenal Volcano.

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    mlgb, continuing to enjoy this interesting report. I think we're doing just about the reverse of your trip, hopefully in better weather! How did you like Villas Nicholas? We're staying there for 3 nights in January. Then we're driving from Quepos to Puerto Jimenez, where we'll base for 4 nights. From yourtravelmap.com it looks like that will take us about 5 hours. Wondering if Hacienda Baru is worth a stopover on the way, or perhaps even a daytrip from Quepos. What do you think?

    Thanks for including honest thoughts about your day trips--especially the zip line. Look forward to the rest of your report!

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    Hi aprillilacs. Mixed reactions to Villas Nicolas, but then I was spoiled by my first few days at Arenas del Mar. Loved the pool area and grounds. The person at the front desk was friendly. I had the TypeI unit (I think 2B) which had a nice view and was large,had a coffee maker and little kitchen area. Downside the furniture seemed a bit rundown and less pristinely clean than ADM. I peeked into the higher priced unit above mine (2A) and it seemed nicer. The parking isn't inside security so be sure to remove everything from your car. You'll need to bring breakfast with you or go across the street to Cafe Milagro.

    I think Hacienda Baru is worth a daytrip or stopover from Manuel Antonio if you can (the National Park is pretty small, especially if they don't open the rest of the trails). Drive time allow an hour if you need to make a tour, although it will probably take less. Although you see a lot if self guiding, their guides are really good so I'd recommend calling a few days ahead and aranging a tour or the zip/canopy combo (if birdwatching request Pedro if he's available).

    Look for Soda La Macha on your left hand side on the main road after passing Dominical.

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    Arenal Volcano (3 nights)
    Travel from MA to Arenal Observatory Lodge.
    Before setting out, it's a good idea to ask your onward hotel for local advice and to check http://www.transito.go.cr/estadorutas/index.html
    I left ADM at 11am, passing through Parrita, where there was a devastating flood the day of my arrival. There were delays, but I reached the Tarcoles Bridge at about 1 pm to check out the crocodiles. It was hot(!) and I happily paid the gringo price for a "pipa fría." Note: be sure to stop and try one, you'll see the signs along highways near the coast. My routing with a confusing detour via Orotina and then back along the Interamericana Norte (Rt 1) through Guanacaste province. Scenic but bumpy! At Cañas I turned inland to Tilaran and then along the west and north side of Lake Arenal. At roadside, there were a few "Costa Rican billboards", ie a cowboy practicing roping and another on a horse doing some fancy stepping. The first section of the road around Arenal requires extreme caution, do not do it at night! There were lots of damaged road sections, including one where a faint marking of "despacio" in chalk on the pavement gave me about two seconds to avoid a missing section of roadway. I reached the dam bridge at sunset, and then set off down the 9km bone shattering dirt road to the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

    Arenal Observatory Lodge.
    Ersel at Arenas del Mar recommended skipping Monteverde (since I had been to Savegre) and going straight to the Arenal Observatory Lodge. He mentioned that the bird species on that side of the volcano have influence from Monteverde as well as the Caribbean, and that the lodge grounds have lots of trails as well as a few hanging bridges of their own. Reservations were made by telephone a few days ahead, and I was offered the Toucan room in the White Hawk Villa. As accurately described on the website, the Villa has the "ultimate spectacular view of the volcano and lake" and is about 800 meters from the rest of the hotel. Luckily my good weather fairy was in overdrive and I had clear weather for nearly my entire stay! Unfortunately I don't have a volcano fairy and there was no activity to speak of. I even think that a rumble I heard was just thunder.
    http://www.arenalobservatorylodge.com/en/rooms/white-hawk-villa.php

    The rates include an excellent breakfast, and there was no way I was leaving for dinner elsewhere. I stuck with simple grilled chicken and it was well seasoned, with REAL VEGETABLES. The food was a pleasant surprise given some of the bad reviews on Tripadvisor. The lodge puts out fruit near the deck by the restaurant to attract birds, one morning there was a visit by a pair of Red-lored Parrots, as well as the more typical honeycreepers and Montezuma's Oropendula (these guys scare everyone else off until they're done). The free morning walk after breakfast is worthwhile, it's timed so you'll see the spider monkeys, as well as howlers, eyelash vipers, and some showy birds like Collared Aracari, Rufous Motmot, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, & Crested Guan). The lodge provides avbird list and tour descriptions on their website, the horseback riding seems a good value. In retrospect, I might have added a third night here and done one of the longer walks to the lava flows.

    After two nights at Arenal Observatory Lodge, I decided to relocate closer to the other side. I booked into Hotel La Pradera, a friendly mid-range choice($65 single including to-order breakfast). Volcano views on this side are much less dramatic. That afternoon I visited the La Fortuna waterfall (fantastic, tour unnecessary, water cold!).The path to the falls is steep but safe, almost entirely chained and paved with the concrete grid blocks. Then on to Baldi Hot Springs, which is a constructed series of pools with different temperatures that you'll need to walk between, and a waterslide. Fun, but skip the buffet dinner. I have no experience with the other hot springs options so can't tell you if this is the best or not. Tip: you can buy discounted tickets to Baldi at most operators in town, including at the La Fortuna Falls. Reservations are really not needed and there is no time limit on your ticket. The buffet dinner, although a small extra charge, is pretty bad! There is secure parking on the property.

    Birding Report. The lodge was able to rent me a pair of binoculars, so I decided to stay on property and added some good finds, in addition to those at breakfast and on the walk. Particularly "fruitful" was a fig tree near the observatory building. Highlights included a Grey-headed Chacalaca, Black Guan, Yellow-eared Toucanet, a closeup view of Orange-Chinned Parakeets too busy stuffing themselves with figs to be shy, Black-crested Coquette, Violet-headed hummingbird, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Ocellated Antbird (at an army ant swarm with three other antbird species) and a White-collared (?) Manakin.

    Next up: Return to San Jose.

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    Wonderful pictures--maybe I'll just use yours and forget the camera! (I need to add a portable tripod to my wishlist for Christmas so I can keep the camera steady on closeups.)

    I also enjoyed seeing your other trips. All those exotic places...and then there's Disneyland. Funny.

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    Enjoyed your report-sounds like you made the best of the weather and didn't miss a beat.You did very well on the birding. I think I would agree with you about the White collared Manakin picture, sure looks like it to me!You were certainly lucky to see(and photograph) the Oscellated ant bird- good job! Really enjoyed seeing the picture of Marino at Savegre-he is truly a wonderful guide, person, and ambassador for his country.Sorry you couldn't make it to El Toucanet, I think you would have enjoyed the very small town of Copey, and the hospitality of Gary and Edna.Thanks again for sharing!

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    Thanks artie, I think I used one of your reports for guidance. I think the photo of Marino might be the most elusive...I had to sneak up on him like he was a cholorphonia.
    April, I did not bring a tripod. We took some pictures thru the spotting scope. Others I just snuck up on the birds (easy when they're stuffing their faces) and used the zoom on my carmera, not a fancy one either. As Marino says, the best pictures are in your mind, anyways.

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    I'm really enjoying your trip report. What a wonderful variety of places and things you did! Thanks for pointing out some new stuff for me to add to my list too. :-) It's always enjoyable to read about people's experiences and compare...I really enjoyed my time at SFTS and the surrounds (and agree with the horseback ride, fun, but could be challenging for some). I think I will finally include Pura Vida hotel next year as well. I'm sold. ;-)

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    End of Trip, San Jose.
    I had prebooked one night at "age is your discount" rate, at Finca Rosa Blanca near the San Jose suburb of Santa Barbara. I had thought about dropping the car off and booking an excursion from San Jose. The lodge I called in Tortugero said they picked up from downtown San Jose, but not from FRB. They left too early in the morning for me to possibly get into downtown San Jose. I decided to extend my car rental and scratch Tortugero because of difficulties in getting there(later talked to some folks who chartered a return flight because the inbound transfer was a bit too adventurous.) I wound up with far too many nights in San Jose (2 at FRB and 2 back at Pura Vida Hotel).

    Finca Rosa Blanca. My stay at FRB had its ups and downs. While I enjoyed the views from my rooms (El Cafetal is fantastic) I didn't enjoy the vibe which was so much different from Arenas del Mar in the same hotel group. The receptionist on duty when I arrived gave me a lot of reasons why I couldn't book any of the tour options listed in their literature. I later found from other staff that he gave out a lot of misinformation. Perhaps I was just unlucky but talking to a few other guests they also had similar issues with noise, ants, leaking jacuzzis, and bad information from the front desk. Based on a rather mediocre breakfast experience including lackluster service, I skipped having any other meals at the hotel. Tip#1: read ALL of the hotel information online or you may miss out on the included afternoon coffee service. The reception staff did not mention it, nor did anyone else. Also be sure to ask for a map of the grounds, chances are there is NOT one in your room's information book (which I read cover to cover). Tip#2: on the way to or from FRB, do some discount gift shopping at the Britt outlet (located at the Cafe Britt Distribution Center, where you turn off to Finca Rosa Blanca) Map on the FRB website http://www.fincarosablanca.com/pdf/MAP_FROM_AIRPORT.pdf

    Poas Volcano:
    The morning I expressed interest in leaving early for Poas I was delayed for an hour to switch rooms and sent on a long hazardous route via Vara Blanca. I should have trusted my instincts to just go to Barva and either La Paz or the Doka Tour. I had breakfast at 6:30am and reached Poas at 10am, it was a drippy, foggy day, I could smell but not see even a hint of crater. If anyone is debating whether it is worthwhile to go in the fog...my advice is NO! I hiked the trails hoping it would lift, but no luck. For lunch I enjoyed a huge lomo and fresh strawberry drink at Jaulares Restaurant near Fraijanes, for $20.

    Pura Vida Hotel. I couldn't wait to get back to the Volcano Room at Pura Vida Hotel for my final two nights. One night I had another excellent dinner by Nhi, and the other night tried Princesa Marina, huge portions of seafood and a good salad.
    San Jose sights: Since Finca Rosa Blanca wasn't giving coffee tours on the weekend (so I was told), I went on the Doka Estate tour. It was interesting and enjoyable with a charming guide, they were nice enough to start another tour for the 5 of us who had missed the 11am tour. (Finding the estate requires a bit of circling around and asking, yes there are signs but do they help?) The lunch buffet is pretty good, and is optional. It turns out most of the Doka coffee goes to Starbucks! Getting out was even trickier, I followed a family on my tour who had GPS, but it sent them into the coffee plantations! I decide to use the "ask" method of navigation, and was sent toward the beneficio which had a locked gate fronting on the main highway. After long lecture in Spanish, the guard finally unlocked the gate and let me out.
    Another day I drove to the Ark Herb Farm, recommended. I didn't have a tour or reservation, but they let me wander around without a charge. The sun was out and there were more butterflies than I saw in any butterfly garden, and the plants are labeled. I even picked up a few birds I hadn't yet seen, including the Large-Footed Finch in a small clump of bamboo.
    The last day I booked a San Jose City Tour through Hotel Pura Vida ($70 for a vanful of people and a guide, which included a transfer to the airport afterwards). I enjoyed the Gold Museum, which is one of the best museums I've been to for taking photographs of the artifacts. The other highlight was the "Sorbetera" ice cream at Lola Mora in the Central Market, which my guide had recommended. I also visited the Jade Museum, which I would have skipped as it seemed redundant. We popped into the public areas of the National Theatre. In retrospect if I hadn't needed a transfer to the airport I probably would have enjoyed San Jose without being on a tour. My guide didn't add a whole lot of info although the Lola Mora visit was something I wouldn't have tried otherwise.

    My flight back was at 6:30 pm, I had a bit too much time at the airport but spent my last colones on some Britt chocolates and a bottle of Nicaraguan "Flor de Caña". The only bit of excitement was forgetting to put my pocket knife in my luggage! There isn't a staffed post office at the airport, but luckily I found two nice people willing to check it through in their luggage (the TACA staff was alerted that I was going to do this and was fine with it).

    Final set of photos (includes some orchids from Lankester Gardens)
    http://picasaweb.google.com/kiwifann/CoffeeDokaEstates#
    http://picasaweb.google.com/kiwifann/SanJoseLankesterGardens#

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