Costa Rica trip report

Old Mar 22nd, 2013, 02:42 PM
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Costa Rica trip report

My husband and I, mid 50s, went to Costa Rica for the first time at the beginning of March. We had a great time, despite some pretty awful weather the last four days of the trip. We thought it was a beautiful country and the people are truly lovely.

We landed in San Jose about 3 pm after connecting from Chicago through Miami. We barely made our connection, it was only an hour, and I realized I should have allowed more time between flights. Weather was good in Chicago but there was a mechanical problem at the gate in Miami so we sat on plane for a long time before running through that gigantic Miami airport. Unfortunately our luggage didn't make the connection but it was delivered to our hotel in Alajuela about 11 pm that night.

We were picked up at the airport by our free shuttle arranged by Xandari Resort, where we spent our first two nights. We loved Xandari, it's really beautiful and peaceful, with a great staff and good restaurant. It is also convenient to the airport (about 20 minutes) but up in the hills with a great view of the city below, especially at night when the lights are twinkling.

Our first full day we picked up our rental car and then drove to La Paz Waterfall Gardens in time for lunch and walking the grounds. Very pretty, especially liked the butterfly house. We had wanted to see Poas Volcano also but by the time we got the car we felt it was too late to try to do both and it was drizzling and cloudy once we left Alajuela.

The next day we drove to Manuel Antonio and stayed at Buena Vista Luxury Villas. This was also a really nice property and there is a lot of wildlife on the grounds that you can view up close. While staying there we saw Capuchin Monkeys, Howler Monkeys, and Squirrel Monkeys, as well as Coati and iguanas. It was very hot (upper 90s) and sunny and they have a nice beach we could walk down to from our villa. You can also walk to several good restaurants from there so we didn't use our car much. (It is steep so I really earned my meals because my husband never wanted to use the free shuttle service offered). We got to MA on a Sunday and I was disappointed to learn the park is closed on Mondays. I planned this trip only a month before we left and wasn't thorough enough in my research. So we spent Monday relaxing and swimming and picked up some groceries in Quepos so we could eat breakfast and lunch at our villa.

On Tuesday, we went to the park at 7am with a guide we arranged through our hotel. Our guide was very nice and knowledgeable but I have to admit we felt it was a waste of money. Our group was too large--12 people-- and although he stopped frequently to point out the wildlife and tell us interesting facts, we saw more wildlife up close from our balcony at Buena Vista. The trail we walked on was quite crowded with other guides and tourists, and it was kind of comical to wait in line to view iguanas, monkeys, etc through the viewing scope when we could see them up close with the naked eye where we were staying. Maybe this isn't true of other resorts in the area and we were just lucky? When they dropped us off in front of our villa, the trees were rustling so I looked up and there must have been two dozen squirrel monkeys swinging through the trees right above us crossing from one side of the driveway to the other. Five of them were mothers with darling babies clinging to their backs. The howler monkeys also made quite a racket every day and we saw them up quite close too. I realize these guides provide a valuable service and have to make a living, but in this instance we regretted spending the time and money.

The next day we left for Arenal. We hit the road by about 10 am and drove almost straight through. We did stop for about 30 minutes to buy a Pipa Fria from a roadside stand and chat with the nice farmer and his daughter. Traffic and the road itself were good and the GPS worked great as it did the entire trip. However, after we passed the San Jose area and began to get into higher elevations, the sun disappeared and we entered thick fog. It was a terrifying experience for me although my husband, the driver, was ok (he is fearless). The road was smooth but with no striping and very curvy. There were steep drop offs on my side with no guard rails or arrows warning which way the road was curving. It was raining also. We've driven on some pretty difficult roads in St John, where you drive on the left, and this road was in much better condition but the lack of visibility with no stripes showing the curves in the road made for a very difficult drive. It took us 6 hours to get to La Fortuna including the stop for the coconut and one quick bathroom break. I was so glad to get there. We had a late lunch at La Choza de Laurel in town and then headed to the Lost Iguana.

We loved the Lost Iguana. The grounds are beautiful, right in the jungle. They have a good restaurant and our room was spacious with a nice deck that overlooked the volcano. At least we think it did, we stayed 3 nights and never saw the volcano because it was raining and cloudy every day. We were surprised at the amount of rain during the "dry season." We were told it had been continuosly raining for almost two weeks when we got there and I felt sorry for the people we met who were spending their whole vacation in Arenal. It was not just a drizzle or mist but a steady downpour that lasted all day and all night. My husband had been planning to zip line but didn't after talking to people who described what it was like with the rain lashing their faces and no visibility. We did have one morning where it eased up a bit and we headed over to the Hanging Bridges right by Lost Iguana. We enjoyed walking on the bridges and got a sense of what it's like viewing the jungle from the tree tops. We saw a few birds but no wildlife, and the people with guides didn't seem to be seeing much either. Funnily enough, when we got back to the parking lot we heard this interesting bird call and walked around until we found the bird--an Oropendula, which was quite interesting and amusing to watch. We joked about how all our best wildlife sitings seemed to be those that took the least effort! After that we headed back to the Lost Iguana for lunch at their open air pavilion and saw two beautiful Toucans at the bird feeder right by the restaurant. We also saw this pair sitting in the trees right by our balcony every morning.

Our last night we decided to head over to Tabacon since all our clothes were wet anyway and all the young waiters had told us night time was the best time to go to the hot springs. It turns out when you're 50 something maybe not Because it is a natural spring, there is no lighting in the water (duh) and it was very hard to get in and walk around some of the pools because you couldn't see the underwater boulders until you walked into them. Not all the stairs had handrails either (I joked that the insurance companies would never allow this in the US). The whole place was very dimly lit, even the signage, so we wandered around in circles shivering in the pouring rain with our wet towels trying to make sure we sampled each of the pools. The pools themselves were nice and I'm sure the landscaping is pretty during the day when you can see it. We lasted about two hours and then drove back to LI for a late dinner and packing.

We got an early start back to Xandari the next day because we had read the fog was usually less in the morning. It was definitely better than the previous drive, but still very thick and hard to navigate. I was a little less freaked out because now we were driving on the mountain side instead of along the cliffs. From the occasional glimpses of scenery through the mist, it looked like it would be a beautiful drive in better conditions.

We'd definitely go back but I think I would actually choose the rainy "green" season next time. The staff at the Lost Iguana told us the weather we experienced was very unusual this time of year and several speculated it was due to climate change. They said the weather we had was "September weather" and that in the summer they get some isolated afternoon rain but not all day like we had. It was a shame because it's a beautiful area and I do enjoy the cooler temperatures for hiking around (I found MA too hot to be active by midday).

On our flight home, the pilot announced that Poas Volcano was visible, which is a rare treat. So he circled around right above the steaming crater and lake-- our last view of Costa Rica!
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Old Mar 22nd, 2013, 04:08 PM
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Thank you for sharing your trip report!

We had a similar rainy experience at Arenal when we were there 8 years ago - never saw more than the bottom of the Volcano (and we too went during the "dry" season). Hoping to see Arenal in all her glory next time...

Saw you mentioned you ate at La Choza de Laurel - is that somewhere you would go back to? Am working on my restaurant list for our upcoming trip.

Thanks again.
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Old Mar 22nd, 2013, 04:41 PM
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Yes we had lunch there and enjoyed it. I guess that is the only place we ate in Arenal area other than the Lost Iguana where we stayed (good ceviche at LI)

In Manuel Antonio we ate at Kapi Kapi which was excellent and also Salsipuedes for tapas which we really enjoyed.
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Old Mar 23rd, 2013, 09:31 AM
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Thanks for sharing your trip report! We are headed there at the end of the month and plan to visit similar places - Volcano Arenal & MA. Hope the weather is better than what you've described!
We will be driving from the San Jose airport to Arenal in the afternoon. Wondering which route would be best to take - via San Ramon and Quesada (San Carlos) OR bypassing Quesada (up 126 to 140 to 751 to 4 as google maps suggests). Any pointers?
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Old Mar 23rd, 2013, 09:43 AM
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Thanks for the report. We had a similar experience with lots of rain and cold at Arenal. We were crazy enough to zip line thru the rain, but warmed up later at Ecotermales, which was nice. We left a day early because of the constant rain. Never got to see much wildlife either because of the rain. I guess we will have to go back!
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Old Mar 23rd, 2013, 05:13 PM
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Hi Steve. This is Buckminster's husband, the aforementioned "fearless" driver.

Because we approached Arenal from Manuel Antonio, we took the western route through San Ramon rather than the 126/140 route suggested by Google Maps. Our GPS sent us back the same way when we returned to San Jose so it believes that's the best way to fly. (And truth be told, I put my entire faith in the GPS. How anyone got around this country before GPS was invented, I can't imagine.) Going the way we did, you're pretty much guaranteed a bit of a white knuckle experience from San Ramon north until you're about 30 minutes from La Fortuna if the weather conditions create the conditions we experienced. You may want to ask others if the Google route was,well, less harrowing.

The scenery we did see was breathtaking ... but so was the driving. I'm a really calm driver and there was only one point -- where we had just crossed a single-lane, one-way bridge and the fog was so thick I had no idea if the road went straight, left or right -- that it got a bit scary for me. (By the way, the road turns left.) If you're a nervous driver, might want to consider a Turismo bus. I think those guys could drive these roads blindfolded, backwards, with one arm tied behind their backs.

And it bears noting that the rest of the driving was no issue. The only thing I recommend is not to look in your rear-view mirror. The citizens drive about 30 kph over the posted limits and we'd heard enough stories of local policia specifically targeting tourists for ticketing. And the tickets can be pricey, upwards of $300 USD. I considered it a major accomplishment to get through the 10 days without getting pulled over.

And, yes, coryandcarissa, La Choza should be on your restaurant list.

Enjoy, everybody. Wonderful country. Awesome, spectacularly friendly people.
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Old Mar 23rd, 2013, 06:12 PM
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Re: Manuel Antonio, I always recommend afternoon tours because there's guaranteed monkey sightings and because EVERYONE goes early in the morning. Early mornings are important for birds but not monkeys or sloths.
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Old Mar 23rd, 2013, 07:57 PM
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I loved reading your trip report. You stayed at a lot of our favorite places. Ironically we've been to La Fortuna in September and got barely a drop of rain. The weather was fantastic. When we went in December, it poured! We're eyeing Tulemar for a future trip, so it's fun to hear about all the wildlife there since they share a property with Buena Vista.
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Old Mar 24th, 2013, 02:55 AM
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Nice report, Buckminster. Got a kick out of your impression of the driving (I can't drive there either!) I remember reading somewhere that the volcano is less apt to be clouded in during the rainy season, which seems counterintuitive... Our first trip to Costa Rica, during the rainy season, this was the case. Stunning view as we drove toward the Arenal Observatory lodge, and for most of the following two days.
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Old Mar 24th, 2013, 01:41 PM
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RAC, interesting that you recommend afternoon for MA because you're right, everyone including the tour guide/hotel staff really push for morning. I felt like I was on a school field trip there were so many people. Although I've heard they limit the number of people allowed in the park so that could be a consideration. We got there around opening time and it was supposed to be just a couple hours but ended up going until about noon, which was way too long and way too hot by then.
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