A Quickie Trip Report: Pre-Xmas in Costa Rica

Old Jan 1st, 2015, 06:32 AM
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A Quickie Trip Report: Pre-Xmas in Costa Rica

We had a nice time in Costa Rica a few weeks ago, and I'm hoping that I can pass along a few names of places and activities of help to future trip planners.

Two-thirds of our trip was planned for us: we were taking a Backroads cycling tour (we've taken quite a few and this was quite fun), one that would cover the Arenal area and the eastern side of the Nicoya peninsula. Therefore, all I had to do was fill in the trip beginning and end. And with a shout-out to VolcanoGirl with her trip reports and advice, my job was darn easy.

--Marriott San Jose (although not on the Backroads trip, it was the pick-up destination)
--Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens, Arenel area (part of the Backroads trip)
--Hotel Tango Mar, Nicoya Peninsula (part of the Backroads trip)
--Hotel La Mariposa, Manual Antonio area (on our own)

--Taxied into San Jose for an afternoon to see the Gold Museum, which was excellent. Saw the National Theatre. The Jade Museum, unfortunately was closed.
--At Arenal, we were able experience the hot springs at Ecotermales (fun!), the hanging bridges, and zip lining. Our accommodations offered spa experiences, which we did not experience.
--Near our stay at Tango Mar, we visited the Curu National Wildlife Refuge.
--In Manual Antonio, we took a great private tour with Juan Brenes of Manual Antonio Expeditions http://manuelantonioexpeditions.blogspot.com

--We took a taxi from the airport to our first hotel, and we used a taxi to take us to and from San Jose to tour.
--Backroads shuttled us most of the time from place to place, but...
--We had two private air charters with Nature Air--one from the Arenal area over to Nicoya; the other from a small airstrip near our Tango Mar hotel to SJO.
--We also had a private boat shuttle from near our landing area on Nicoya down to Tango Mar.
--We rented a car at the end of the Backroads portion to drive to Quepos/Manual Antonio.

Things that were great:

All in all, we were not eating in the haute cuisine capital of the Western world, but our tummies were quite happy.
--We loved the rice and beans and all the fruit that accompany breakfast, lunch and dinner in CR.
--We loved trying everyone's ceviche, none of which were made the same.
--Good patacones were a revelation

Our two air shuttles were such a great way to see Costa Rica. If we went back, we'd make sure we'd fit one in!

Even in the rain, the Arenal volcano was framed in our window as we woke up every morning at Nayara.
Tango Mar just seemed like paradise.
Our view from La Mariposa was so stunning that we did everything we could to see sunrise and sunset.

Manual Antonio Private Tour
Our guide Juan Brenes for Manual Antonio was simply superb. He was the professional's professional. In fact, if we returned, we'd just call him up to have him arrange everything from our transportation to tours.

Our SIM cards
Our little cheapie quad-band Samba Jr phones worked like a charm. The line to get ICE SIM cards at the aiport was long, but the cards themselves were dirt cheap, the staff spoke great English, and they made sure to set up the phone so that we could use it well.

Things that were bad:

Our car rental
We would never rent a car again. The car rentals in CR do their very best to rip one off, and we saw accident after accident on the roads because Costa Ricans tend not to use turn signals for some reason. Four-lane highways often become two lanes in the blink of an eye. There are few berms (something that makes cycling a tad dangerous, but luckily, our guides mapped out only roads with berms). The "new" road to Manual Antonio makes the drive 2.5 hours, but a few fruit trucks can turn the drive into 3.5 hours. If we returned to Manual Antonio, we'd take a shuttle, a taxi or a plane.

The weather
It rained. And it rained. We landed at SJO in the rain, we toured San Jose in the rain, and we cycled the Arenal area in the rain. And this was the "dry" season. Most of the view from the hanging bridges was in fog. Staff at Nayara told us to come in April or May for dry weather. On the positive side, once we hit dry weather on the Nicoya Peninsula and in the Manual Antonio area, we were SO appreciative. And since we were cycling, we had more rain gear than most tourists would bring.


Driving Directions
If you are driving and don't have a navigation system (see car rental rip-off above), do make sure you have done enough research about directions. Even major highways have a marking system that is a little off-kilter, so do a good search for directions with visuals.

Departure Tax
Soon, the fee will be rolled into airport fees, but for now, it's still the $29 pain-in-the-neck. The line was long to pay the departure tax when we landed at the airport, so we thought we would pay on the way back. Then we had second thoughts. We should have just paid the tax at our first hotel, Marriott San Jose. Yeah, there's a mark-up of five bucks pp, but we would not have had to wait in a line. We managed to pay it at the Gaia hotel in Manual Antonio (thank you, guys, for taking us in, as a favor to our La Mariposa desk staff), and that made our check-in at SJO darn easy.

--The Scotiabank ATM at the airport is right by the ICE/Kolbi SIM line. While one of you waits for a SIM, one of you should hit the ATMr.
--If we went back, we would not worry about getting colones. What happened most times was that if we paid in dollars, we'd get colones back in cash anyway. So we were always flush with both currencies.
--YOU DO NEED COLONES FOR ROAD TOLLS!!!! So if you are driving, make sure you have some on hand.

Tour Guides/Private Tours
We ponied up for the $75 pp Manual Antonio tour with Juan of Manual Antonio Tours. It was the most sensible thing we did. In the crush of the park, Juan was able to set up the scope, have us see something, take a picture with my phone (Samsung Galaxy Note4) for me, and then move on. We figure we saw twice as much as those in the group tours in the same amount of time. As the day became hotter, we noticed the group people were becoming nastier and nastier in frustration.

Bringing Binoculars and a Bird Book
I used to birdwatch, and I should have brought my small binoculars because Costa Rica hosts over 800 species of birds. Even my husband kept saying, "What bird is that?" Plus, you could spend all day each day playing the CR version of "Where's Waldo?"--looking for sloths.
And if you don't bring binoculars, see if your hotel's front desk has a pair. My hotels gave me a the resident "nocs" each morning.
AlessandraZoe is offline  
Old Jan 1st, 2015, 06:51 PM
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Thanks for the report.
MichelleY is offline  
Old Jan 2nd, 2015, 04:35 AM
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Thanks for the report. Some good tips here. We are going next month.
sdtravels is offline  
Old Jan 4th, 2015, 06:49 PM
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thanks, we are just starting to think about a trip to C.R. and this gives me some great ideas
lauramsgarden is offline  
Old Jan 5th, 2015, 07:11 AM
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I am so very happy you guys have found this to be helpful. It makes taking the time to get these bits and pieces online.

Happy planning!
AlessandraZoe is offline  
Old Jan 5th, 2015, 11:48 AM
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Great job, AZ - I'm glad you had such a good time. Glad everything worked out with Juan too - he is truly fantastic. We tote our birding book along with us for every trip and try to record what we see where. It's become a pretty nice record of our trips.
volcanogirl is offline  
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