Low-end alternatives are often referred to as cabinas whether they offer concrete-block motels or freestanding cottages. Most have private rooms, cold-water concrete showers, fans instead of air-conditioning, and limited—if any—secure parking or storage, and may share bathrooms. Owners tend to be Costa Rican. Often without websites, email, or links to major agencies, these hotels tend to follow a first-come, first-served booking policy. They may have room during peak seasons when mid- or upper-end options are booked solid.
Midrange options include boutique hotels, tasteful bungalows, bed-and-breakfasts, and downtown casino hotels. Those in the hotter beach areas may not have hot-water showers. Many have pools, Internet access, and meal options. They tend to be foreign-owned and, with the exception of the casinos, have personalized service. Because they're generally small, you may have to book one or two months ahead, and up to six months in the high season. Booking through an association or agency can significantly reduce the time you spend scanning the Internet, but you can often get a better deal and negotiate longer-stay or low-season discounts. The Costa Rican Hotel Association has online search and booking capabilities. ICT provides hotel lists searchable by star category.
High-end accommodations can be found almost everywhere. They range from luxury tents to exquisite hotels and villa rentals, and are often more secluded. You'll find all the amenities you expect at such areas, with one notable exception: the roads and routes to even five-star villas can be atrocious. This category is sometimes booked up to a year in advance for Christmas, and during this season you may be able to book only through agents or central reservations offices. Resorts are generally one of two kinds: luxurious privileged gateways to the best of the country (such as Punta Islita) or generic budget all-inclusives (such as the Barceló) that probably run counter to what you're coming to Costa Rica for. Several chain hotels have franchises in Costa Rica, leaning toward the generic and all-inclusive. The upside is that they are rarely booked solid, so you can always fall back on one in a worst-case scenario, and they often have member discounts.
Nature lodges and hotels in the South Pacific (where restaurants aren't an option) may be less expensive than they initially appear, as the price of a room usually includes three hearty meals a day, and sometimes guided hikes. These, and other remote accommodations, may not have daily Internet access even though they have a website: be patient if you're attempting to book directly. (Email still does not have the urgency in Costa Rica that it does in the United States.) Many of the hotels are remote and have an eco-friendly approach (even to luxury), so air-conditioning, in-room telephones, and TVs are exceptions to the rule. Consider how isolated you want to be; some rural and eco-lodges are miles from neighbors and other services and have few rainy-day diversions.
The ICT's voluntary "green leaf" rating system evaluates establishments in terms of sustainable-tourism criteria; a detailed description of the program and a search function to find lodging by sustainability level can be found at www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr.
The lodgings we list are Costa Rica's cream of the crop in each price category. We always list the facilities that are available, but we don't specify whether they cost extra; when pricing accommodations, always ask what's included and what costs extra. Properties are assigned price categories based on the range from the least-expensive standard double room at high season (excluding holidays) to the most expensive. Keep in mind that hotel prices we list exclude 16.4% service and tax.
For Costa Rica's popular beach and mountain resorts, be sure to reserve well in advance for the dry season (mid-December to April everywhere except the Caribbean coast, which has a short September to October "dry" season). During the rainy season (May to mid-November except on the Caribbean coast, where it's almost always rainy) most hotels drop their rates considerably, which sometimes sends them into a lower price category than the one we indicate.
If you're having trouble finding a hotel that isn't completely booked, consider contacting a tour operator who can arrange your entire trip. Because they reserve blocks of rooms far in advance, you might have better luck.
Most hotels and other lodgings require you to give your credit-card details before they will confirm your reservation. If you don't feel comfortable emailing this information, ask if you can fax it (some places even prefer faxes). However you book, get confirmation in writing and have a copy of it handy when you check in.
Be sure you understand the hotel's cancellation policy. Some places allow you to cancel without any kind of penalty—even if you prepaid to secure a discounted rate—if you cancel at least 24 hours in advance. Others require you to cancel a week in advance or penalize you the cost of one night. Small inns and bed-and-breakfasts are most likely to require you to cancel far in advance. Most hotels allow children under a certain age to stay in their parents' room at no extra charge, but others charge for them as extra adults; find out the cutoff age for discounts.
Costa Rican Hotel Association (2220–0575. www.costaricanhotels.com.)
Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (866/267-8274 in North America; 2299-5800 in Costa Rica. www.visitcostarica.com.)
Apartment and House Rentals
Rental houses are now common all over Costa Rica, and are particularly popular in the Pacific coast destinations of Manuel Antonio, Tamarindo, Ocotal, and Jacó. Furnished rentals accommodate a crowd or a family, often for less and at a higher comfort level. Generally, properties are owned by individual owners or consortiums, most of them based in the United States, with property managers in Costa Rica. Resort communities with villa-style lodgings are also growing. Nosara Beach Rentals lists apartments and villas on the Nicoya Peninsula; Villas International has an extensive list of properties in Quepos and Tamarindo. For the southern Nicoya Peninsula, check Costa Rica Beach Rentals. The Marina Trading Post, a Century 21 affiliate, arranges houses and condos in the Flamingo and Potrero areas.
Costa Rica Beach Rentals (8340-3842. www.costarica-beachrentals.com.)
Nosara Beach Rentals (2682-0153. www.nosarabeachrentals.com.)
Villas & Apartments Abroad (183 Madison Ave., Suite 1111, New York, NY, 10016. 212/213-6435 in North America. www.vaanyc.com.)
Villas Caribe (800/645-7498. www.villascaribe.com.)
Villas International (17 Fox Lane, San Anselmo, CA, 94960. 415/499-9490 in North America; 800/221-2260. www.villasintl.com.)
Escape Villas Costa Rica (2203-2158; 888/771-2976 in North America. www.villascostarica.com.)
A number of quintessential bed-and-breakfasts—small and homey—are clustered in the Central Valley, generally offering hearty breakfasts and friendly inside information for $50 to $75 per night. You'll also find them scattered through the rest of the country, mixed in with other self-titled bed-and-breakfasts that range from small cabins in the mountains to luxurious boutique hotel–style digs in the North Pacific region.
Bed and Breakfast.com. Bed and Breakfast.com also sends out an online newsletter. 512/322-2710 or 800/462-2632. www.bedandbreakfast.com.
With a direct home exchange you stay in someone else's home while they stay in yours. Some outfits also deal with vacation homes, so you're not actually staying in someone's full-time residence, just their vacant weekend place.
A handful of home exchanges are available; this involves an initial small registration fee, and you'll have to plan ahead. It's an excellent way to immerse yourself in the true Costa Rica, particularly if you've been here before and aren't relying so heavily on the tourism support that hotels can offer. Drawbacks include restricted options and dates. Many companies list home exchanges, but we've found HomeLink International, which lists a handful of jazzy houses in Costa Rica, and Intervac to be the most reliable.
Home Exchange. $119 for a one-year online listing. 800/877-8723. www.homeexchange.com.
Hostels offer bare-bones lodging at low, low prices—often in shared dorm rooms with shared baths—to people of all ages, though the primary market is young travelers, especially students. Most hostels serve breakfast; dinner and/or shared cooking facilities may also be available. In some hostels you aren't allowed to be in your room during the day, and there may be a curfew at night. Nevertheless, hostels provide a sense of community, with public rooms where travelers often gather to share stories. Many hostels are affiliated with Hostelling International (HI), an umbrella group of hostel associations with some 4,500 member properties in more than 70 countries. Other hostels are completely independent and may be nothing more than a really cheap hotel. Costa Rica has a sprinkling of youth hostels and hotels affiliated with Hostelling International; most are tantamount to inexpensive hotels, appropriate for families.
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