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Gecko Aug 14th, 2004 12:32 AM

Another long Costa Rica trip report
Reading trip reports have been so helpful to me when planning a trip, so I hope to return the favor by posting my own. Went to Costa Rica June 25 to July 4, 2004. Stayed 1 night San Jose (Hotel Grano De Oro), 2 nights Tortuguero (Pachira Lodge), 2 nights Arenal (Hotel Arenal Paraiso), 2 nights Monteverde (Sapo Dorado), and 2 more nights in San Jose (Grano de Oro).

All of our hotel stays and transfers were booked through Airline tickets were bought online with Taca Airlines. All activities and day trips were booked independently at each location after we arrived. Initially, I had planned to book the hotels and transfers on my own. But I decided to email just to get a comparison of what a local travel agent would charge. Andrea of was so helpful and full of suggestions and so prompt and responsive with email that I decided to book our vacation through her. I'm glad I did. I was very impressed with the service we got with Andrea and highly recommend if you're looking for a customized vacation package (hotels and transfers booked but traveling independently without a group).

Initially, we were supposed to fly direct from LAX to San Jose. But we got bumped from that flight (due to overbooking) and put on another flight that arrived 4 hours later than originally planned. This is where impressed me. I had booked a hotel transfer to meet us at the airport for our 8:30 am arrival. But we were put on another flight, and I was unable to contact Andrea to let her know of our later arrival. Much to my surprise, our driver was waiting for us outside the airport doors to take us to our hotel! He had waited almost 4 hours at Andrea's request. Our driver, Juan Carlos, called her by cell phone after meeting us to let her know we arrived and were okay.

The Hotel Grano de Oro in San Jose is an excellent hotel. Staff was friendly and helpful. Their restaurant is excellent. Breakfast was included in our package, and I highly recommend the banana macadamia nut pancakes. The hotel provides a free 2 liter bottle of water in the room for each day, which I thought was a nice touch. There's a notebook computer in the lobby with fast Internet access for guests to use for free. They also have 24 hour if you rent a car, you can feel safe parking it outside on the street.

Gecko Aug 14th, 2004 12:42 AM

I really enjoyed visiting Tortuguero. Pachira Lodge is a nice place to stay. Accommodations are rustic but nice and clean. Staff is very friendly. All meals are provided; food was good and plentiful and served buffet style. Transportation included an enjoyable 2 hour boat ride up the river. Pachira Lodge provides a guide for all the guests arriving on the same day, and all the included tours are done in a group. Our guide, Ray Salazar Saenz, was awesome! He took us on a morning canal tour, an afternoon canal tour, a tour of the town of Tortuguero, and a hike up Tortuga Hill. This was all included in the package rate. Ray has a degree in Natural Science, so he has a wealth of knowledge on Costa Rica wildlife and biology. He also has an eye for spotting wildlife...2 toed sloths, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, iguanas, parrots, poison dart frogs, and much much more....which proved to be helpful as so many animals camouflage well in the jungle. If you go to Pachira Lodge, you will be in good hands if you get Ray as your guide. He also mentioned that he does private guided treks into the rain forest for as many days as you want. I don't know how much he charges or where he goes, but I got his business if you're interested in a guided trek and camping in Costa Rica, let me know and I can send you his email and phone number.

We flew Nature Air from Tortuguero to San Jose. Since they have a 25 pound bag limit, we arranged to have one of our suitcases stored with while in Tortuguero. A man named Julio met us promptly at the airport with our suitcase upon arrival in San Jose. As a side note, Nature Air never did weigh our bags.

Gecko Aug 14th, 2004 12:56 AM

In Arenal, we stayed at the Paraiso Hotel. Nice place with an excellent view of the volcano. On our second night, the skies cleared and we saw an awesome display of lava flowing down the volcano for several hours. Amazing! We got around Arenal easily by taxi. Every hotel and restaurant there was happy to call a taxi when we needed one. We got laundry done at the hotel, which charges about $0.90-$1.50 for pants/shirts/skirts and about $0.50 for socks and underwear. We did a River Float tour one day which we arranged with Sun Tours in the town of La Fortuna. If you're interested in seeing and photographing wildlife, the River Float tour is a great option. Saw a lot of howler monkeys, iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards, two toed sloths, and even a sleeping Great Potoo (for those interested in birds). We also enjoyed the Tabacon Hot Springs.

We took the jeep/boat/jeep option to Monteverde which saved us some time. Sapo Dorado is very nice with an excellent restaurant. They also have the best cup of coffee in all of Costa Rica! We did the ziplines and bridge walk with Sky Trek/Sky Walk which I highly recommend unless you are afraid of heights. But the best part of Monteverde was a guided hike with Sergio. We booked a private guided hike of Monteverde Reserve through our hotel. By luck, we got Sergio who happens to have a PhD in biology and has worked as a guide for the BBC and National Geographic. He loves guiding so much that he does it for fun in his spare time. If he happens to be in Monteverde when you are there, request him specifically; he is well known at the reserve and his picture is on the wall at the booth at the reserve entrance where you pay the fee. We wanted to see a quetzal, a toucan, and a tarantula...Sergio found those for us and so much more. He is a wealth of information and will spend lots of time with you to make sure you see everything that you want.

We spent our last two nights in San Jose at Grano De Oro. We rented a car one day and drove to Carara National Park in search of scarlet macaws. We were happily rewarded. If you hope to photograph scarlet macaws in the wild, get to Carara early. You will see lots of them. If you don't want to pay the park entrance fee, then drive to the town of Carara to the Carara Hotel and Restaurant which is right next to the beach. Lots of scarlet macaws feed on the almond trees there in the early morning. They are such beautiful birds!

Our first trip to Costa Rica was fantastic! I fell in love with the country and will definitely return.

shillmac Aug 14th, 2004 06:08 AM

Thanks for your most informative report! It sounds like your entire trip was a good experiences and went very smoothly. Best of Costa Rica sounds like an excellent company.

lvk Aug 14th, 2004 07:37 AM


Thanks for your trip report --lots of good tips! We're staying at the Arenal Paraiso and were wondering about laundry prices, and taxi services. The river float is also on our itinerary.

The Carara Hotel tip was the best. How early is early enough to get to the park to see the Scarlet Macaws?

We leave tomorrow and the only thing that I'm stressing about is that TACA flight from LAX-SJO. How long did you have to wait in line before they let you know you wouldn't get on that flight? How soon was your next flight and where did you connect? There are five of us flying, ages 9-70. I'm not excited at the prospect of adding another 4 hours to our travel plans, since I booked on TACA only to avoid having a connection. (How frustrating that no other airline flies non-stop from LAX-SJO!)

Thanks so much for your report. I'm glad I got to read it before I leave.

Gecko Aug 14th, 2004 09:22 AM


To see the scarlet macaws at the Carara Hotel (which I believe is actually in the town called Tarcoles), I would get there no later than 7:30-8:00 am. Carara National Park is about a 2 hour drive from San Jose. To get to the hotel...driving from San Jose to Jaco beach....cross the Tarcoles River (don't forget to stop, walk to the middle of the bridge, and see the crocodiles). The main entrance to Carara Park is about 3-4 kilometers from the bridge on the left. Pass the main entrance to the park and drive another 2-3 kilometers. You will see a sign for the Hotel Carara and Restaurant (look carefully because it was partially covered with leaves when I was there). Turn right onto the dirt road (it quickly becomes paved again) and drive a short distance to the T-intersection. Make a right and the hotel will be a couple of blocks on the left. There are several almond trees between the hotel and beach, and that is where you will see the scarlet macaws. I was told by a local resident there that the scarlet macaws arrive every morning....sometimes a lot but sometimes just a few...but they are there every morning feeding on the almonds. They usually fly more inland around 10:30 am towards Carara National Park.

As for your Taca flight, I would get to the airport at least 3 hours early. My flight left at 1:30 am on a Thursday night/Friday morning. We arrived a few minutes before midnight and the airport was packed with people. We didn't get to the ticket counter till around 1:15 am. We were able to get on the next flight out to Costa Rica with a connection in San Salvador. The flight was scheduled to leave at 2:00am but we didn't take off till almost 4:00 am. The San Salvador airport is small and I felt safe there while waiting for our connection.

lvk Aug 14th, 2004 05:19 PM

Thanks for the additional info, Gecko.

tully Aug 15th, 2004 06:33 AM

Gecko - which type of suite did you have at Sapo Dorado, and did you get a look at the other 2 types? Thanks for your report.

TAGriffin Aug 15th, 2004 01:12 PM

Gecko: Loved your trip report!! We also had Sergio Vega as our guide in Monteverde about 5 weeks ago. He was, by far, the most knowledgeable and personable guide I've had in my 3 trips to Costa Rica. Besides sharing his incredible wealth of knowledge, he spent over 6 hours with me and my family, took us to one of his favorite birding spots outside the park, gave us a great recommendation for lunch, and took me to the home of another wonderful guide who I'd met on my last trip (and who happened to be his neighbor and friend). He went way above and beyond what you'd normally expect from a guide.

Gecko Aug 15th, 2004 08:46 PM

tully - we had the Sunset Terrace Suite that had a nice partial view of the Gulf of Nicoya. Very nice! I didn't get a chance to look at the other two types of rooms, but I don't think you can go wrong with any of them. They all have a porch or balcony with chairs and a table...perfect for drinking a cup of coffee and writing post cards. I'd definitely stay at Sapo Dorado again if and when I go back to Costa Rica.

TAGriffin - Yes, Sergio is the best! We were so lucky to get him as a guide. And he stayed with us for 5 hours, right up untill we had to catch our shuttle back to San Jose.

Melissa5 Jan 5th, 2005 04:02 PM

GECKO: I really enjoyed your trip report and I hope you're still on-line!

SAN JOSE QUESTIONS: I'm glad you enjoyed the Hotel Grano de Oro. I'm trying to choose between the Hotel Grano de Oro and the Hotel Le Bergerac, in the Los Yoses neighborhood of San Jose. The Hotel Grano de Oro looks sooo nice, but for the 2 rooms that I want for 2 nights it's a total of $100 more than the Hotel Le Bergerac! Wonder if it's worth it? Plus our flight arrives at 8:30 pm so if the flight is delayed somewhere, and we don't arrive til the next morning, we lose the money for the first night at the hotel! Those macadamia nut pancakes sound so good...was the breakfast included or extra $? Do you remember if your room at the Hotel Grano do Oro was quiet at night for sleeping? Which type of room did you have?

ARENAL QUESTIONS: In Arenal I'm trying to decide between the Paraiso, Tabacon Resort, and the Lost Iguana. Paraiso has the best volcano view apparently. But if the volcano is clouded over, do you think we'd still enjoy the Arenal Paraiso? Do you recall if you saw any wildlife on the hotel grounds at the Paraiso?

MONTEVERDE QUESTIONS: El Sapo Dorado is my first choice...also the Fonda Vela and the Monteverde Lodge sound good too. Do you recall seeing wildlife on the hotel grounds?

GUIDED HIKE WITH SERGIO: Your guided hike at Monteverde with Sergio, the biologist with the Phd, sounds husband, who is a biologist, would enjoy that. Do you know how I can try to contact Sergio?

CARARA NATIONAL PARK: Thanks for posting instructions on finding scarlet macaws at Carrara...we plan on doing a day-trip to Carrara from Manuel Antonio to see the scarlet macaws! What a great trip report you shared.


TAGriffin Jan 5th, 2005 05:00 PM


This is the very same Sergio Vega and I do have his contact information! It is:
(506) 645-6054 (phone)
(506) 386-5903 (cell)
[email protected]

You can also view a brief bio of Sergio (and other Monteverde guides) at

I had actually requested Giovanni Bello, another wonderful Monteverde guide that I had met on a previous trip, but he was unavailable. The reserve arranged for Sergio to be our guide, and we were not disappointed! Please give him (and his bats) my best and be sure to ask him for the location of his favorite birding spot (which is actually outside of the reserve on the road between Monteverde and Santa Elena).


Melissa5 Jan 5th, 2005 10:08 PM

Terri, thanks for the contact info for Sergio! I will mention that you were kind enough to pass on his info.

I'll also make a note of Giovanni Bello.

I know we'll get more out of Monteverde with a great guide. My husband would also enjoy meeting Sergio...You know 2 biologists get together and do that mind-meld thing, and then you can't get them apart...We might actually see sparks.

Melissa5 Jan 6th, 2005 10:14 AM

Gecko, I am thinking about using the travel agent you mentioned, Andrea at I was going to book everything myself. I'm undecided about that. Did you buy insurance for your trip (to cover things like cancellation)?

The funny thing is I have narrowed down my favorite hotel choices already, and they are actually pretty much the ones on the web site! I wonder if I really need a travel agent. I guss I'm afraid if I book directly they might lose my reservation or I might not get what I want...Do you think a costa rican travel agent has more influence on these issues?

Thanks for a great trip report!

Gecko Jan 6th, 2005 12:40 PM

Melissa5 - I'm happy to answer your questions!

As for San Jose, I really enjoyed staying at the Hotel Grano de Oro. The staff and restaurant were both excellent. We stayed in the standard room (the least expensive), which was a little on the small side but beautifully decorated. I don't recall noise being a problem at night, although you can hear outside noise during the day. Breakfast was included in the package that we got. And their macadamia nut pancakes are so good! I really liked the 24 hour security outside, which gave me piece of mind parking our rental car overnight. It's a nice hotel and I recommend it. But if you plan to spend most of your time outside sightseeing and doing activities, then you might be better saving yourself $100 at the other hotel.

Arenal: We did get an excellent view of the volcano at night at Paraiso. They have a nice hiking trail in the back where they do the zipline tours. I saw several howler monkeys and a few cappuchin monkeys. For me, I enjoyed Arenal so much because of the volcano. We got lucky and saw the lava flow down on a clear night.

Monteverde: I don't recall seeing any wildlife on the grounds of El Sapo Dorado. But I really liked that hotel and would stay there again if/when I go back. It was so peaceful sitting on the balcony drinking coffee and just looking at the view. And their restaurant had the best coffee that I've tasted in Costa Rica. On the downside, it's a little far to walk to other places (downtown or restaurants), so you will have to take a taxi. If you do stay there, they can put you in touch with Sergio. They know him and have his number. He lives just down the hill within walking distance to the hotel.

Sergio: Do try to get him as your guide. He is worth it and charges the same as all the other guides in Monteverde. Let him know the other destinations that you plan on going to in Costa Rica. He will give you recommendations on where to see the best wildlife. That's how we got the tip for seeing scarlet macaws in Carrara!

If you do plan on using a travel agent, then I highly recommend Andrea at BestOfCostaRica. Once we arrived in Costa Rica, the entire trip went smoothly. We had no problems at all with reservations or meeting our transfers. I did not get any travel insurance. Many people do book their trip independently without any problems though. If was my first time to Costa Rica and the trip planning was a little overwhelming for me at first, so I liked the convenience of a travel agent. Andrea worked with me so that I got everything I wanted. I'm a sucker for a beautiful view, so I had her upgrade the rooms at Arenal Paraiso and El Sapo Dorado. My husband is a hobbyist photographer, so I asked for private transfers (as opposed to a public bus or group transfer) to Arenal and Monteverde to allow for several stops for taking photographs along the way. Andrea was so accomodating and quick to respond to all my questions. However, now that I know my way around a little, I might try booking independently next time around. But then again, I'll probably only stay at 1 or 2 places (instead of 4) which will make it a lot easier.

I hope I answered your questions! Costa Rica will be one of those places you will want to visit again and again :).

Melissa5 Jan 6th, 2005 04:14 PM

Gecko, thanks for answering my questions. It's reassuring to know there's a good travel agent on-line (Andrea at case I need her...

On the other hand, I know you can book the trip yourself next time if you really want to! Fodors is a great reference tool. Lots of helpful people on-line who are positive about you! The main thing about booking trips yourself is you have to love little details to make the trip really work well.

Since your husband is a hobbyist photographer do you have any photos of Costa Rica I can see on the web?

Interesting to know that Sergio lives within walking distance of El Sapo Dorado, which sounds like a great hotel too.

Do you recall whether Arenal Paraiso has 2 double beds or 2 queen beds in their cabins? (the web sites can be costa Rica hotel web-site seemed to use the terms "double" and "queen" interchangeably! Do you happen to know if I can have a single bed added to one of the rooms at Arenal Paraiso? I may have to end up calling them to find out for sure.


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