thanks to Pat Hewitt and members of this board for helping us have a really great vacation in Costa Rica.
We drove late in the day from San Jose to Arenal along the more scenic (read: more curvey) route. My husband grew up in Tokyo so this was not a problem for him but this is not a drive I would be comfortable with--narrow roads, people walking on the roads, sharp curves. The car rental agency discouraged us from this route but we discovered if you look for signs for the NEXT small town (and not the next BIG town) you won't get lost. The ride really was beautiful and we arrived at The Mountain Paradise hotel just at nightfall.
The grounds at the hotel are really beautiful and the rooms nice: Each with a porch and a private outdoor jacuzzi. The volcano is imposing from wherever you are. Even though it is now sleeping, it has that iconic volcanic shape with puffs of smoke chugging out. Our problem with the hotel was simply it was not the right fit for us. But it is the right fit for many who were vacationing. We just didn't care to be waited on and would have preferred a cold beer (without room service) on our own porch! I don't want to discourage anyone from this choice, but if you are more casual like we are, this is more of a resort atmosphere. And a very beautiful one!
The next day we went to Arenal National Park and while we at first had the trail to ourselves, we were soon inundated by busloads of other hikers--most using their cell phone voice whispers to point out trees, tight spandex, uncomfortable flip flops, hunger pains etc. We hiked up the lava flow and took the required vista photo of the lava flow and Arenal. Very beautiful. But the next day we decided to check out the Arenal 1968 park right before the national Park. We arrived before the park opened but the maintenance guys let us in (helps to have a spanish phrase book and be willing to stumble along in bad spanish). We were alone! The trail follows cow pastures (excellent bird watching), into the forest, along a small lake created by the last major eruption, and then UP the lava flow. Here we saw a lot of both water birds and forest birds as well as a large family of Howler monkeys. I did my HOOT HOOT HOOT howler imitation and a mother and her baby swung through the trees to the tree right above us to check me out. Soon they realized we were just another bunch of American tourists and went back to doing monkey things (picking lice and sucking toes).
After our hike we decided to check out this John's pizza we read about in El Castillo. On the way we passed a river so we pulled off and took a little hike. This is the great thing about having a car.....you can be spontaneous and just discover places where the tours don't go. Again, this river had amazing amounts of birds and butterflies. John's pizza was great and nothing beats a cold beer on a hot day on a balcony in Central America. John is very friendly and has lots of stories to tell about how he ended up from LA to the bustling metropolis of 40 in El Castillo. Definitely a fun adventure side trip (and he makes delicious home made ice cream and has monkeys right off his deck).
In the afternoon we had lunch at Soda Viquez which was pretty packed and then went to the Mountain Springs Spa where we had a two day pass to use the hot springs and grounds. Let's just say my kids died and went to heaven. While this is not my scene exactly.....it is hard to complain about soaking in hot water in the jungle! There is every size and shape and temperature of mineral soaking pool including a huge slide for the kids. I did keep thinking of Pompeii as I rolled out of the hot pool and splashed into the frigiderium while the Volcano loomed and puffed. I would recommend Mountain Springs over Tabacon which was INSANELY packed with busload after busload of people.
Next morning we took in the Arenal hanging bridges. While this was a beautiful hike we were crammed between a large tour of Texans who seemed not to have ever learned a "quiet voice" from Kindergarten and a family with kids fighting over their DSIs. So while the scenery is great. Birds? No. Animals? No. Loud Americans? Plenty! We did see some howler monkeys on the side of the road though so all was not lost on this trek.
We had a scenic rough ride from Arenal to Monteverde and decided to do as the Ticos do and just pull over and have a picnic by the side of the road. Being a holiday week, the locals had grabbed all the good spots (and all the not so good spots too!). We ended up eating in a burned field and realized we could easily have stopped at a Soda and had lunch and have been able to watch our luggage! We did grab some pastries from the German Bakery for the next days breakfast. Remember to get gas before arriving at Monteverde, there really is no gas station there! Before Santa Elena the bridge was out and we were instructed to just drive down into the river and through it. This was not a problem since it was the 4th month of the dry season but we were glad we had four wheel drive.
Here we stayed at Los Pinos Cabins in Monte Verde. Great option for those who want a kitchen, peace and quiet. There was a small playground my kids used but we also saw a lot of birds right on the property including a Mot Mot as well as agouti. Because it was Easter week, we could not buy beer....but for some reason we could buy wine? This we enjoyed on our porch. We also picked from their generous garden and made a fresh tomato and basil pasta sauce in the kitchen. We really enjoyed dinner at Morpho as well as the pizza at Tramonti.
Since I was sick of people our first hike was Santurario Ecologica. We saw a lot there and we were the only visitors all day. We saw monkeys, coatimundi, toucans, an armadillo, lots of agouti and lots of birds. Really nice. That evening we did hire a guide (need a reservation) and do the night hike at Monteverde and we loved that! Right away we saw a tarantula and a kinkajou! My kids were thrilled to be poking in the forest at night with flashlights. I kept hearing an odd shrieking sound in the distance and secretly hoped it was a puma.....but as it got closer, I realized it was a screaming baby who was part of the other tour group. Two hours of non stop shrieking! Phew....not in our group.
The next day we took a short hike at the Children's Eternal forest because one of my kids was feeling pretty sick with traveller's diarrhea. Saw a lot of agouti, coatimundi, toucan, birds but no monkeys. It was a nice walk. At 3:00 we went to Selvatura (ka-ching!). Besides the screaming zip liners overhead, we were alone in the forest on the trail with some hard core birders (who generously pointed out some amazing birds). It was a beautiful walk.
Finally last day we took a guided tour in Monteverde in the morning. We had a great guide but one of the people in our group was just really really really interested in leaves and the shapes of leaves and fig leaves and fig trees and the differences in leaves etc.......so we didn't get very far the first hour when suddenly my poor sick son had to use the bathroom. So we left while my husband and other son continued and looked at A LOT more leaves before seeing four quetzels. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the parking lot. The hummingbird garden right outside the reserve has an amazing amount of hummingbirds (and bats at night) and is totally worth the stop.
Then we left for San Jose since we had an early afternoon flight out the next day. We had a pizza at Tramontis, grabbed an ice cream and hit the road. The road out was VERY bumpy and we felt like the family of bobble heads. Our last night we stayed in Alajuela at the Las Orquideas Inn. We were SO happy not to be dropped off with the other families at the Holiday Inn. Las Orquideas had a nice restaurant outside, a beautiful pool and really pretty grounds. the staff was really nice.
My recommendations? First of all, a car is great if you want to explore and not be dependent on tour buses or taxis. But if you are a nervous driver, maybe take a bus to Monteverde or Arenal and try to rent a car up in that area if that is possible? Secondly, learn a little Spanish. I speak no Spanish but my kids and I spent a few hours doing some lessons on You tube and I think being polite and saying Buenas Dias and not assuming everyone in Costa Ricas speaks Spanish or is there to serve you will go A LONG way. By the end of the week, we were able to order in Spanish and having been a waitress in college, treating people respectfully goes a long way (I am only stating this obvious fact because I was appalled by some of the behavior of my fellow Americans which is another reason I will stay away from resorts in the future!). Finally, if you want to see animals (as many people were complaining that they had not seen any), you need to get up early before the buses arrive or go out late in the day and consider trying some of the lesser known parks where the foliage is not as dense. We saw a lot.
Thanks everyone! And Pat Hewitt really knows Costa Rica and can help you plan all or part of your trip. We had no travel hitches (showing up and finding the reservation lost kind of hitch).
Trip report Arenal and Monteverde
thanks to Pat Hewitt and members of this board for helping us have a really great vacation in Costa Rica.
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