Costa Rica Trip Report - July 2007

Aug 28th, 2007, 02:18 PM
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Join Date: Jan 2007
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Costa Rica Trip Report - July 2007

Hello everyone – Our merry band of travelers (myself, dear wife, 7 year old daughter, 5 year old boy) spent about two weeks in July during our first visit to CR. We gained much from asking questions on this forum and cribbing off the posts of others. So, here’s a stab at a trip report FWIW, with an open invitation to ask for more detail with respect to any of the particulars.

It’s our first trip report, so may be too much or too little detail, and maybe we’ll use some headings so you can skip the stuff you are not interested in. We honestly don’t know that ours will add much to the sum total of great info already available here, but here it goes!

Overall Itineray:

– Travel Minneapolis to San Jose
- One night Hotel Villa Bonita
- Fly Nature Air from Pavas Airport to Palmar Sur (Osa)
- Meet driver and go from Palmar Sur to Sierpe; stay night in Sierpe
- Take boat trip down river and into Pacific to Proyecto Campanario; stay approximately one week at Campanario (varied activities).
– Leave Campanario via boat, meet driver from Sierpe to Palmar Sur; fly back to Pavas airport
- Meet CR driver for rest fo trip; drive to and stay one night Peace Lodge
- Peace Lodge activities next morning; drive to Arenal
- Stay at Hotel El Silencio a couple of nights; Hanging Bridges, Venado Caves, Rio Celeste, La Fortuna
- Stay at Arenal Observatory Lodge a couple nights; Lodge-based activities, mountain-biking; El Castillo
- Drive to Poas Volcano; visit volcano; drive on to Alajeula and stay last night at Villa Bonita
– Return home

Passports: We applied for passports over four months before we left and received them three days before departure. Whew. Enough has been written on “get your application in now even if you don’t plan on traveling for awhile,” and you can add us to the list.

Insurance and Shots: We bought trip-specific evacuation medical insurance through “Insure My Trip” website; I can post the provider and cost if any interest. We got the insurance mostly b/c we were going to be in pretty isolated spot in the Osa, and it had good peace of mind value at something under $200 total for the four of us. Shots included typhoid, making sure tetanus up-to-date, and Hep A&B; no malaria shots or pills.

What to Bring: We borrowed generously from the various “what to bring” threads that can be searched for on this forum. We brought WAY too much bug spray, which I suppose is better than the other way around. Keen sandals for the adults, and comfortable Keen equivalents for the kids, were great. We were in CR during rainy season and made good use of rain gear. A couple pair of zip off convertible pants/shorts were ideal. We did a good amount of hiking and mucking around, and rubber rain boots for the kids were really, really a good choice to bring along despite their somewhat bulky nature. Although many of the parks/places we hiked had boots available for adults, not a bad idea to bring some of your own for comfort if nothing else if you are going to hike and it’s likely to be wet. Also, socks that are comfortable dry and wet were great, and socks that can be pulled up to nearly knee high were helpful too to prevent the top of the rubber boots from chafing away at one’s shin (these may be wet season tips and not year round, and will depend on how much mucking around you do). Hiking boots/shoes are helpful, but in the wet/muddy conditions, rubber boots were a savior.

We packed light, which found us in some sketchy clothes in terms of cleanliness at the end, but what the heck, we were all family right?

We did bring a fair number of snacks for the kids (Clif bars, sunflower seeds, fruit leather, etc.). While things like fresh mango, pineapple, and Poas strawberries often did the trick, and grocery stores are always an option and generally carry lots of familiar US name-brand food (unfortunately?), having some familiar snack food was really a plus, especially down in the Osa.

Let us know if any specific Qs re: our opinions on what to bring. More coming....
mma513 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 02:18 PM
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Trip to Costa Rica: We left from Minneapolis, connected through Atlanta, and arrived in San Jose in the late evening. We used Northwest FF miles to book the trip, ending up on their code-sharing partner Delta. The FF miles were the financial make-or-break for us, as the cost of airfare for the four of us would have make the trip out of our budgetary comfort zone. We were surprised to learn that a ticket to CR (and other Central American countries) basically “costs” the same in miles as a domestic US ticket, which again is one of the reasons we were able to swing this trip. A couple weeks of trolling Northwest’s on-line awards travel ticketing system about one year in advance of our trip netted us the four tickets (we had good travel date flexibility in the summer). We “spent” 140,000 miles for the four tickets I believe.

No problems with luggage or going through passport control. It was late and airport was basically deserted. We had two drivers waiting for us, each holding signs with our names on it – one driver from a hotel we had inquired about but not booked, and another driver from the Hotel Villa Bonita, where we had actually reserved a room for the night. We were tired and obviously in a new environment, so we almost went with the guy from the “wrong” hotel. Probably not a typical experience, but note that in at least this instance exchanging emails about room availability was enough to trigger sending a driver with a sign with our name on it. At least the sign had the name of the “wrong” hotel on it as well, and we straightened things out and were on our way to Villa Bonita.

Hotel Villa Bonita: Villa Bonita was a pleasant place to stay. We stayed both our first night and last night there, and frankly didn’t get a real detailed sense of the place due to our travel schedule. On the front end we arrived between 10pm and midnight, and left by 6:00 am the next morning; on the back end we arrived late afternoon and left by 6am the next morning. Still, the place had a good vibe, was affordable (which was of import given we were just using it as a place to rest our heads for a couple nights), and very close to the San Jose airport (within 10 minutes, with driver arranged through hotel at $15 or so for each transport). On the back end, we walked from the hotel into Alajuela to explore a bit, and felt perfectly safe doing so. Although we’re jumping ahead a bit to the end of the trip, it was nice to walk the neighborhood, and interesting to note how “decentralized” the stores were compared to big box USA. While I’m sure CR has and will continue to evolve, passing small storefronts that for the most part sold a relatively specialized, narrow range of goods was a nice change.

Anyway, overall Villa Bonita was a solid place to stay: simple, clean, and affordable.
mma513 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 02:19 PM
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Trip to the Osa; Nature Air: We left early on our first full day for the Pavas airport, where Nature Air operates. Arranged for the same driver who picked us up upon arrival to take us to Pavas; maybe a 30-45 minute drive from Villa Bonita for around $20.

Pavas is a small airport, but clean and seemingly pretty efficient. One small curveball was although Nature Air said on its website (and may still say) you can leave items at the Pavas airport and pick them up again upon return, we were told upon check in that they no longer offered that service. So, the bad news was we’d be taking our kids’ car seats on the plane, which we had not planned on doing (we wanted them primarily for the second half of our trip). The good news was that the helpful gate agent saw to it that we didn’t get charged extra for bringing along the extra items. No big deal as it turned out, but you may not want to plan on leaving anything at the Pavas airport and/or have a contingency plan.

I was honestly a bit worried about the Nature Air part. I booked the tickets through their website in January or so, and hoped the printed out receipt would indeed mean we’d have seats as scheduled on our scheduled travel date in July. We did not have much wiggle room for problems, and I generally wasn’t sure what kind of operation Nature Air ran.

As it turned out, there was no reason for concern at least in our experience. On both ends of our travels with them, the plane arrived and left on time, and we had no problem with them finding us in their computer or getting us on our flights.

The plane was maybe 18-20 seats. The flight down from Pavas to Palmar Sur had six people on it including the four of us. My then 4, now 5 year old son wanted to sit in row 1 behind the pilots, which meant we were about three feet from the pilot and co-pilots’ elbows, with a birds’ eye view into the cockpit (no cockpit doors here) and with an equally good view right out the front windshield of the airplane. A bit of a “yikes” for me, as reconciling myself to flying on big planes took a few years, much less nearly sitting in the pilots’ laps on a relatively small plane. The one hour or so flight down was smooth and very enjoyable, with great views of the central valley and Pacific coast, and at the end very literally a pilot’s view of the small landing strip that passed for the Palmar Sur airport.

In sum, I know safety records and the like are occasionally discussed here, and we had our own concerns. While I can’t speak for maintenance records, etc., there was nothing about the trip itself that made us uncomfortable about flying Nature Air, and we’d do it again. Booking early and on-line seems wise; we flew round-trip from Pavas Airport to Palmar Sur for $400 total for the four of us. That price increased as July drew closer.

Palmar Sur and Sierpe: From the Palmar Sur airport, we were headed to Sierpe, where we would leave the following morning on a boat for Proyecto Campanario. We had a driver arranged to meet us through Campanario, and he drove us from the Palmar Sur “airport” (basically an open air patio covered by a corrugated steel roof) to Sierpe.

Sierpe is a small river town and base of operation for some of the tour operators in the area. We stayed at Pension Margarita as arranged for us by Campanario; very simple accommodations, but again clean and no problems. We spent the afternoon and evening in Sierpe, playing card games, walking about, drinking from chilled coconuts bought from a local boy on a bike, and eating lunch at a restaurant on the river. The tropical warmth was really nice, and the surroundings ibn Sierpe a nice way to get our feet on the ground in CR.

Late in the day we met most of those who would join us at Proyecto Campanario, and had a good traditional CR dinner together at a small local restaurant favored by Nancy, Campanario’s founder/coordinator. More on the Campanario group in the next section.
mma513 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 02:20 PM
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Sierpe to Proyecto Campanario: The next morning, the Proyecto Campanario group ate an early breakfast at the local soda we’d had dinner at the night before, and then met at the docks for the boat trip to Campanario. There were approximately 15 or so of us total, including some of the Campanario staff.

The boat ride to Campanario took 2-3 hours total, and was terrific. The first part is on the Sierpe River, which eventually opens into the Pacific Ocean. Campanario is tucked into a small inlet on the Pacific.

Among the group on the boat was a CR biologist/herpetologist named Daniella. Daniella, who was part of the Campanario staff for the week, was wonderfully knowledgeable and a wonderful person. During the boat trip down the Sierpe, aided by the eagle eyes of the boat’s captain, we stopped to see monkeys, birds, bats, a sloth, and a boa; have those animals as well as the flora and fauna of the river identified and discussed by Daniella; and stopped among the mangroves that line part of the river to climb in the root system and dig for the little clams that can be found among the roots (although not by us it turned out). The river in that area is a freshwater-saltwater tidal zone, and itself was lined right down to the banks with trees, making for a beautiful ride.

The transition into the Pacific had a little high seas adventure feel for us landlocked city dwellers, as the transition from the river to the sea gets a little rough at times. Nothing dangerous, just some good bottom-of-the-boat smacking fun. My son was absolutely loving it. I am a bit sea-sick prone, but took Bonine and had no problems.

The Pacific part was maybe 30 minutes, past some beautiful coast line (rain forest right down to the ocean) and rock outcroppings. No dolphins or whales on that leg, although did get the dolphins a few days later while en route to Cano Island.

The “landing” at Campanario was fun – boat backs in about 60-80 feet from shore, and you walk in with the surf up to the beach. Again, nothing too rough, and the kids handled it fine. Everyone pitched in to unload the backpacks and supplies, and headed to Campanario’s main building.

Well, that’s it for now I guess. More on the Campanario group in the next section, rather than this one. If too detailed or want more detail, let me know....

mma513 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 03:31 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 617
This is a wonderful and very helpful trip report. Please don't be concerned that it is too detailed. It is perfect.
marthag is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 06:11 PM
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Thanks for the report. I look forward to the rest of it!

Any photos online?

Keith is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 07:37 AM
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mma513 - thanks for sharing your trip with us. I am really enjoying reading it - and as marthag commented - I think it is perfect!

I'm looking forward to the next installment!
CathyF is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 01:41 PM
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THANKS to all for the comments above, and Keith, I’ll see about getting some pictures incorporated....

A bit more to add to the last installment:

Proyecto Campanario: Proyecto Campanario was an experience that we really enjoyed, and the camp has had very little written about it here or elsewhere. Before getting into what we did there, here is some information about the camp, its staff, our co-attendees, and the physical grounds. Campanario has a website that is informative as well at

Campanario was started by Nancy, an American who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica. Nancy made Costa Rica her home, teaching Spanish for some time and eventually starting Proyecto Campanario. Campanario is a place passionately dedicated to rain forest education and conservation.

Consistent with that mission, 90% or more of Campanario’s work consists of hosting groups from US, Canadian, and Costa Rican middle schools, high schools, and universities for periods of varying lengths. During those stays, the school groups become immersed in the rain forest environment, learning about the ecosystem and conducting research projects of their own.

In addition to the school group focus, Nancy conducts “Rainforest Conservation Camps,” and similarly-themed camps, for individuals/families. It was a week-long Rainforest Conservation Camp we participated in.

As I hope to relate in describing what we did at Campanario later, the educational mission underlies but does not dominate time spent at Campanario. One spends the day doing various activities and learning along the way, or taking time out from activities to read on the ocean-facing porch or swim in the Pacific; either way, it’s being immersed in the environment that drives the experience, not any sense that one is “back in school.”

The people at Campanario was expert and a load of fun. Nancy has a world of knowledge about the area, and her love of Costa Rica and the rainforest is palpable. She engaged everyone at the camp, gave people space but was always available to help when needed, and was terrific with our children. She has turned that corner of the world into a truly special place to spend time.

The camp’s coordinator/logistical guru is named Leslie, a Costa Rican who lives in Alajuela and visits Campanario as her schedule allows. We were lucky enough not only to have Leslie along on our trip, but also her two sons Alejandro and Eduardo (ages approx. 14 and 10). By the end of the week, although Leslie’s children spoke little English and ours even less Spanish, the kids were together for card games, flashlight tag, and soccer on the beach, with lots of big smiles to bridge the language gaps.

I already mentioned Daniella, a Costa Rican university (maybe graduate) student biologist with an emphasis on reptiles and amphibians. She was a constant source not only of information, but of enthusiasm. She not only informed us, but typically shared our wonder and excitement about what we were seeing. Upon finding a frog, for example, that was rare in the area, she not only was visibly thrilled, but later called a university professor for more info on it to share with the group. My young son developed what, even at the age of 4, could fairly be called a crush on her, and soon stopped eating meals with us in favor of siding up next to Daniella. The bond was strengthened for my son when he learned he shared the same birthday as Daniella. It was Daniella first trip to Campanario, and we hope she is hired back for other attendees to enjoy her company as much as we did.

Also present were Pablo, a Costa Rican whose specialty is belaying/rock-climbing (a skill he put to use in helping folks climb up into a tree stand as will be described later). Pablo and I scouted out some areas that may lend themselves to waterfall rappeling (on a relatively small scale) in the future. Also at the camp was Arnulfo, who lives in the area, and other staff members who maintained the physical environment around the camp, brought us the snakes they found to show us, and cooked the meals provided at the camp (all meals were provided).

The other attendees at the camp made for a great week. A retired couple from northern California, both former school teachers, came with their daughter, currently a school teacher. The daughter was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, and was and is active in starting and now maintaining a children’s library there. We were also joined by a friend of hers who also teaches; Nancy’s high school aged niece; and an English professor from UNLV. All wonderful folks who were a pleasure to get to know.

The physical layout of Campanario was comprised of a large main building that sat facing the Pacific from just behind the inlet’s beach, and several “tent camp” type structures up a pathway from the main building. The main building was two levels, with a large porch, restrooms/showers, and a common room and common areas on the first level, and four bedrooms on the second level with two bunkbeds in each room. Other than those structures, Campanario is surrounded by rain forest on three sides and the ocean on its doorstep.

Campanario’s location and ethos do provide some important limitations when considering whether it is what one wants in a trip to the Osa. Electricity is very limited, the water (including showers) is cold, the food is fresh and good but very basic, and the beds are dorm style. You can play in the ocean’s warm water and gentle surf, but not in a swimming pool.

Those limitations mean that Campanario will not be for everyone, and/or people who might normally like a setting like Campanario may decide that it is not what they are looking for in an international vacation. Lord knows as much as we liked Campanario, the warm baths at Peace Lodge the following week were a very welcome sight (and perhaps enjoyed even more than they otherwise would have been).

So, like with so many other things, there is absolutely no right or wrong as to whether Campanario is what one wants in a vacation. We can say that if the limitations don’t deter you and the raison d’etre of Campanario attracts you, we would be hopeful that you would enjoy your time there as much as we did.

To be continued another time, with description of what we did while at Campanario.

mma513 is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 02:04 PM
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We like detailed reports.

Campanario sounds fab! I checked it out more on the website too and it looks like they offer terrific packages.
hipvirgochick is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 07:01 PM
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This is a terrific report, mma! As Hip said, we like detailed reports! In some cases (mine...) writing them as well as reading them!

Thanks for sharing such useful information on Proyecto Campanario. It sounds fantastic! As you say, perhaps not for everyone, but what a cool concept!

Looking forward to hearing more...
cmerrell is offline  
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