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Trip Report Costa Rica the Second Time Around

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We had a fabulous first trip to Costa Rica at Christmas 2012, visiting Arenal (Lost Iguana Lodge & Villa Decary), Tortuguero (Manatus Lodge), Osa Peninsula (Drake’s Bay Aguila de Osa and south of Puerto Jimenez Bosque de Cabo).

This trip we planned to travel with dear friends. We hoped to experience different areas and needed to be mindful of their budget. Unfortunately they had to cancel several months out but I was very busy with other things at that time and just let the trip stand as planned.

Saturday January 11th was a long travel day; up at 5 am, flight to Houston from LAX at 9:30, layover of 3 hours, then flight to northwest CR. We paid $30 extra for EconomyPlus on the Houston leg of the United flight, I figured DH would be fatigued and enjoy the extra space. I swear there was no more than 2 extra inches. We arrived to our hotel by 10 at night. The handsome owner greeted us. Clearly we had dragged him away from his Saturday evening partying.

Sunday We’d planned to start with a mellow beach stay. Last trip locals had recommended Playa Hermosa. We wanted to stay away from big hotel and condo complexes. Clearly I did not do my homework properly. DH and I were bored after two days. It's a very sweet, low key beach scene but I was hoping for a prettier beach and an ocean better for swimming (the undertow is very strong here). Critter sightings were minimal.

Our room at Villa Belmar/Seville Resort (nee? aka? alias?) is plain but serviceable, adequate bedroom and the living room/kitchen/dining room has a sea view. For $110 a night, it is clean and well maintained.
We walked the beach before breakfast then ate a decent hotel breakfast. A lawn runs from the end of the hotel pool to the sand and here we located our chaises and read. A few doors along the beach is Roberto’s, where the food is fresh and the waiters are friendly. In the afternoon we read, then walked, then read, then napped, then walked two blocks to “town”, such as it is, to dinner. It's a very sweet, low key beach scene but I was hoping for a prettier beach and an ocean better for swimming (the undertow is very strong here). Also some bird and animal life.

Monday we did spot an iguana around the property, two bird species and a howler monkey in the tree. I was hoping for more critter life. Well, this spot, without great natural beauty or really appealing accommodations was just too laid back for me. With the agreement of DH, the I did some phoning and arranged to leave Sevilla Resort tomorrow, a day early, getting our Budget car delivered here a day early and driving to La Fortuna near Arenal Volcano. I booked us in to Silencio delCampo for 2 nights and will adjust lodging as necessary.

Tuesday Budget Rent a Car promised us a car at 9: 30 am. That was not to be. I waited. I read, I meditated, I had a long beach walk, DH and I had yet another lunch at Roberto's (fortunately they have excellent ceviche), called Budget for the 4th time (car still not available). I fumed, I chilled, I had a glass of wine, I swam in the Pacific, less undertow. I read some more.  Finally at 4:30 Budget showed up and we began
what they said was a two hour drive up to Arenal area.

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    Four hours later we arrived, I was exhausted, hypoglycemic and therefore homicidal.  The roads were terrible, no lights, potholes. During miles and miles of road construction the “highway engineers” place orange cones in a weaving manner so that my “lane” was more like a giant slalom course. No continuous lighting but continuous bicyclists entering the unlit road. Occasionally, the “engineers” aimed an intense beam of light onto a piece of carved up road; this illumination was affixed to a high wire repair aparatus. Then mid-drive came the wind and the rain. Having narrowly escaped running us off the so called road twice, we somehow arrived at our lodging. We immediately headed for the dining room only to be served the driest pork and toughest chicken imaginable.

    Four hours later we arrived, I was exhausted, hypoglycemic and therefore homicidal.  The roads were terrible, no lights, potholes. During miles and miles of road construction the “highway engineers” place orange cones in a weaving manner so that my “lane” was more like a giant slalom course. No continuous lighting but continuous bicyclists entering the unlit road. Occasionally, the “engineers” aimed an intense beam of light onto a piece of carved up road; this illumination was affixed to a high wire repair aparatus. Then mid-drive came the wind and the rain. Having narrowly escaped running us off the so called road twice, we somehow arrived at our lodging. We immediately headed for the dining room only to be served the driest pork and toughest chicken imaginable.

    Wednesday was much better. Warm, sunny. The Arenal volcano was facing our cabin, a wondrous sight. We could sit and admire it from our two patio chairs. We took a two hour hike in the nearby national park but we were too late in the morning to see birds. Driving back from the park, I spotted the turnoff for Nayara, a very upscale resort I’ve known about and wanted to see. I made a sharp left turn onto a narrow road. After the rubber chicken and dry pork, we needed a good lunch. The forecast did not inspire confidence but luckily dining is an activity that can be enjoyed in any weather. I had a delicious and reasonably priced salad.

    After lunch, DH stayed at the table having another wine and I took a tour of the property. Actually, there are now two properties, the original Arenal Nayara, which is highly acclaimed and the brand new adults-only Nayara Springs. This ultra exclusive boutique property has only sixteen villas surrounded by lush vegetation. It has its own pool, with dining terrace overlooking the pool, a swank dinner venue, spa, yoga studio and more. I took a quick took at a sample villa, each one boasts 1500 square feet; they were offering a promo package that was hard to turn down so we didn’t ($200 off regular rate plus dinner for 2). We went back to Silencio for our last night and hung out. The vegetarian dinner options were much better, fresh and flavorful. Early to bed so we could get up for early birding.

    Thursday It was raining in the morning. Not just raining, really pouring. We set out anyway. Finally it cleared for twenty to thirty minutes and we had some fun sightings. Best bird watching was along the shores of Lake Arenal where Toad Hall is. This was the same area that yielded our best bird watching last trip. The owner of a coffee shop motioned for us to come into his shop. We did and he took us to the back. It opened on to a huge valley and in one tree were perched a flock of birds. I could not identify them with my CR bird book but he was friendly and so generous to invite us in.

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    Interesting about Nayara's new addition. I hadn't heard about that. We found their food to be really good too. We had a guide take us out hiking at Lake Arenal, and we saw howlers, toucans, an anteater, and even a peccary - really surprised us since that area isn't known for easy wildlife sightings.

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    You sure got lucky with your Arenal sightings.

    On with our tale. After birding we returned to Silencio del C for breakfast. Just outside the restaurant of Silencio del Campo there were some spectacular birds in the bushes opposite our table. Following breakfast we checked out and moved about two miles up the road in distance and a million miles up the scale in ambience and luxury.

    It was sprinkling when we checked into Nayara Springs. We were shown to our palatial gigs and enjoyed a dip in our private spring fed pool outside our villa before the real rain descended. After our swim amid the lush foliage, we repaired to our suite where we endured the downpour in utter luxury. We sipped the better than average champagne and munched the snacks provided and took advantage of the free international phone calling.

    Now is the time to come clean, I am a woman of discerning taste, well, a snob. I like sybaritic resorts, I relish great food and wine and I greatly appreciate surroundings with outstanding art and architecture. So when my eyes feasted on our lavish villa, all my senses came alive. The interior designers seamlessly blended surfaces (hardwood from Brazil with local materials) and fabrics from Morocco, India, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, Japan with furniture from several British periods. The results were elegant and soothing. The indoor and outdoor sitting areas and outdoor shower added to one’s “comfort” . Coupled with the great personal service and exquisite interior design, the suite compares favorably with some of my favorite lodgings from five to ten year back (permit me to add to your list): Mom’s Tri Villa Royale (Hong See Suite) on Phuket, Thailand The Legian or Kayumanis suites in Bali, Maroma (upstairs one bedroom oceanfront suite) in Mexico, Udaivilas suites in Udaipur, India, Tongabezi (Doghouse) in Zambia, Mombo Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

    I had a decent massage but I miscommunicated and the masseuse had to be imported from the “lower Nayara hotel”. When I booked, they asked what room I was in and I said 12. I failed to specify Villa 12 so the masseuse was waiting for me down in the Nayara Spa not up at the Nayara Springs Spa! Downton Abbey has arrived in Costa Rica.

    Dinner was in a cozy, dark Moroccan inspired dining room for villa guests only, no riff raft from the main hotel allowed. My steak was delicious and DH enjoyed his fish as well. Even the wines were good. We like wine and learned from seasoned CR hands to bring our own wines from California. This has worked well; we arrive at dinner with a glass of our red in a red wine glass and no one raises an eyebrow. The cheap Chilean wines offered in most CR restaurants and resorts are pretty awful and I’d rather skip wine than drink bad wine. But here it would be bad form.

    At breakfast we watched the rain sprinkle the beautiful pool just below our covered dining terrace. I would have loved to bask in the sun in this intimate pool setting.No sun was expected for days. We said adios to the friendly staff and Carlota the stunning macaw from Osa and headed southwest.

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    When I initially booked Sueno Celeste B&B for four nights the plan was to visit Cano Negro, Palo Verde National Park and Tenorio National Park among other things. Now we had just two days, even less with arrival our in mid afternoon. We drove through beautiful country side to get to our next destination. It was lightly sprinkling when we arrived.

    The B and B was very sweet, the Belgian owners very helpful with maps and suggestions. Per their recommendation we drove on a very rough dirt track to Hummingbird Cafe where Jesus gave us a tour. This gentleman knows every species of orchid in his nursery and each plant on his property. This gentle man is stricken with Parkinson’s Disease. He uses his hands a lot and I found I got dizzy and nauseous to my great surprise. So I had to look away from him in order to maintain my equilibrium. Some of his frogs in his enclosures were fun to watch, the constrictor hissing at us, much less so. Since it was pouring, we ate an early dinner at their Cafe to get out of the continual rain. Food was poor. We later learned from others at Sueno Celeste, that their pizza was very good, guess we made bad choices. Wind and rain made for interrupted sleep. Hungry insects made for nasty bites and welts. The damp conditions made for laundry that did not dry.

    Seeing birds come to feed while having breakfast was a thrill. As at most lodges, the owners put out fresh fruit on a bird feeding stand in front of a picture window so guests can watch birds come to feed .The owner says there are over 500 resident species here.

    Despite the overcast weather, this was our only chance to hike in Tenorio National Park. We drove 9 km of really, really bad track; it took us about 40 minutes. The beginning of trail was in good shape, soon the trail became more rugged along with weather. By km 3 the heavy the rain began, well maybe it would let up. In another kilometer we were wading through puddles, seeking tree roots, sliding through mud. By the time we got to the lookout point we passed right by, all was mist, nothing to see. We met a couple who was also having a tough go of it. Now even the young and hardy were struggling. Everyone was slipping in the mud. I was soaked to the bone and I needed a private tree to relieve myself, this was not fun. I was soaked to the bone and could not have removed my pants if I’d tried.

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    I was determined to get to this incredible blue water, the fortuitous result of sulphur mixing with calcium carbonate. When we finally arrived, I took a quick photo under someone’s umbrella; I imagine the exquisite shade of blue would look much more so reflected by sunlight rather than pelting rain. We headed back sliding through mud, tripping through hidden roots and watching others having an equally terrible time. At several points along trail we met up with a Canadian couple, younger and fitter but still having a tough go of it. At the end of day they invited us to book dinner at their lodge, Tenorio Lodge, which was right next door to ours.

    By the time we got back to town, we were exhausted beyond belief, to say nothing of soaked and hungry. We stopped at our go to chicken place at about 3:30. While waiting for our snack I saw that next door was a store selling “Ropa Americana”. So I hobbled next door in my soaked boots and asked for rope abajo (guessing that my underwear “drying” the hotel would not be dry and I had nothing dry to put on). I waded through a large box (like a box that 60 rolls of paper towels come in) of women's underwear sized for water buffalo. I found two pair suitable for women wearing size 10 and grabbed them.

    Back at the B & B the owners, apologized for the bad weather. In the meantime, I’d learned that bad weather is not unusual in this area since it is located between two volcanos, where things are usually meteorologically unstable.

    Per invitation we stopped in to have wine with C and J at their cabin at Tenorio Lodge before dinner. The dinner at their lodge was excellent and the company enjoyable. The scampi entree was $ 10. Anyone can dine at Tenorio Lodge by booking a table and choosing your entree by 5 pm.

    Next morning I bird watched at breakfast, said goodbye to our lovely hosts at Sueno Celeste and headed south for a four night beach stay at Montezuma beach. The owners of Sueno Celeste used to live in Montezuma and gave us excellent advice on which roads to take. With a stop for lunch, it took about five hours, some on very bumpy track. As soon as we left the volcano zone the skies cleared and the sun appeared.

    Alas, I am on my terrace, steps from the Pacific, at the lovely, laid back Ylang Ylang Resort. We stayed in one of the four beach front bungalows, compact dome roofed rooms with terraces facing the Pacific and private steps leading on to the sand. Each is private and secluded.

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    The staff was friendly and helpful, although not polished.
    Breakfasts provided a good selection. The dining spaces overlooks a lawn that leads down to the Pacific; either open air terrace with umbrellas or under a thatched roof.
    The public areas never felt crowded, nothing ever felt rushed.
    The pool was surrounded by lush jungle plants, trees, and a waterfall, giving the area a soothing and natural feel.

    At lunch we ate on a grassy area closer to the surf. The food was very tasty, the fish always fresh. Breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate, lunch is on your own.

    Although I had wanted to see wildlife, I did not like the close encounter I had along the path coming from breakfast. A swarm of bullet ants bit my ankle. Both DH and I were covered by a swarm of these long black ants whose sting was very painful. I had a severe allergic reaction to their bites and my left foot was very swollen for three days with intense itching and pain. My travel doctor at home had no great ideas. Antihistamines, aspirin, cortisone and the like didn't do didly. So I hung around the pool and our terrace trying to distract myself from the intense itching. The resort had a local remedy in their medical kit (Balsam Tranquilo) which relieved the itching for a few hours at a time. It was really hard to sleep at night.

    The couple we had dinner with up north came to stay at this resort on our second day there. The woman of the couple has a great need to be noticed and kept drawing attention to her long blond hair. Daily they saved seats for us at breakfast and dinner. At each meal she noted that it took her an hour to comb out her long hair. I kept thinking to myself, why don’t you cut it? Within a day I learned way too much about her life and never once did she ask a question about me. Every time DH and I wanted to do something on our own, guess who would show up?

    We did escape on our own for a day. We took a drive to Santa Teresa, about 20 km from Ylang Ylang. The dirt track was awful, the dust a sore point with the Sta. Teresa locals, and the beach sublime. It was one of the prettiest stretches of beach
    I've seen in a long, long time. Known as a great place to learn to surf, I found out it was also a great place to body surf.
    I took a long, long walk on the beach and then laid out on my blanket and read. DH read, snoozed, watched the young girls learning to surf and wished he were forty years younger.
    For lunch, we took the recommendation from a New York Times travel piece and went to Alma. Wow. The quality of the food and the presentation was worth the drive. DH and I shared the tuna and the pad thai. One of our best meals of the trip
    For lunch, we took the recommendation from a New York Times travel piece and went to Alma. Wow. The quality of the food and the presentation was worth the drive. DH and I shared the tuna and the pad thai. One of our best meals of the trip.

    Next dayI had wanted to drive to Cabo Blanco Reserve and hike the beach route but with a compromised foot and ankle reason overwhelmed desire and I stayed put. We lounged by the pool and enjoyed our own happy hour on our terrace in front of the waves.

    After saying a very fond farewell to this attention demanding woman and her pleasant husband, we drove north to Tambor.
    We turned in the car at Budget and took a short flight to San Jose. We found a cab who would take us to Xandari for $20 (seemed good from what I had read) and fell in love with Xandari. We were in a prima plus unit (#16) with fabulous terrace and a sunset view over the Alejuela valley.

    The modernistic architectrue. art, sculptures and cut glass mosaics are stunning and blend into the lush landscaped paths. Everywhere you turn there is something visually exciting, a living art gallery. Our dinner on the terrace overlooking the valley was very good. We went back to our place to enjoy all its visual delights.

    My 6:30 am bird walk with Jose was a satisfying outing for a beginning birder. We walked through areas I never would have seen on my own and of course saw birds I could never have spotted. Besides the usual flyers, I enjoyed seeing a Summer Tanager, Blue Crowned Motmot, a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker and a Hoffman’s Woodpecker. The Xandari trails through the forest are especially magical in the morning light.

    At breakfast DH and I again stationed ourselves at the table closest to the fruit station for the birds. The “tower of health” breakfast combo of strawberry yoghurt, granola and fruit was really delicious; I delude myself it was healthy. I retired to the pool very close to our casa. Again, I had the entire pool, with peek a views of the forest and valley below, to myself.
    Alas, it was time to get ready to leave. Check out was pleasant and easy. The cabbie who drove us here also picked us up. It was a busy travel day. It took over 40 minutes to get through security at San Jose International.

    All in all it was a fine vacation. It just didn't have the wow of our first trip to Costa Rica. Was that because we didn't stay at wow places like Aguila de Osa and Bosque del Campo where the wildlife sightings were so abundant? Do the upscale places tend to be located in more strategic locations? Or maybe it's always hit or miss? We also missed interacting with other interesting travelers like the folks we met at Aguila. Most of the guests where we stayed were at least twenty five to thirty five years younger than we were.We were glad to chat with them but they were involved with their family. We did meet some companionable folks at Xandari.

    But I'm not deterred. I’m already thinking about a return trip, maybe some intimate place in Manuel Antonio (Buena Vista in a Bungalow or Villa), something down the coast in Uvita ( unless that’s a repeat of Manuel Antonio? ) and more of OSA. Other ideas?

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    Thanks for posting. I've always been curious about Ylang Ylang. What did you think of the rooms there? I haven't seen very many interior pics, but the ones I have seen looked a little cramped. We're big fans of Xandari.

    I think you would love Tulemar Bungalows in Manuel Antonio. It's one of the best places we've stayed, and having the beach there is so nice. They assign you a concierge, so it makes everything really easy. Tons of restaurants in walking distance too. It's a beautiful area.

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    Ylang Ylang does not have a spacious interior. The room could not be more than 180 sf. It is adequate for living on the terrace and by the pool. I would not consider it a high end property but it would be a splurge for those wanting to figure out the best way to get a beach front stay for $250 a night half board. Glad to hear your endorsement of Tulemar. Where have you stayed on Osa?

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    I enjoyed your trip report and the sense of humor you infuse it with. We stayed at Tulemar in Manuel Antonio and loved it. We were in Casa Panorama Upper and it had the most stunning views of ocean, birds soaring by, monkeys clambering in the trees and running across our deck, monkeys hanging out by the pool, etc. and I agree, it is great having the concierge and the restaurants nearby. I felt like we saw more wildlife just around the property than in the Park itself there!

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