Our trip to Arenal- Any questions?

Old Apr 30th, 2010, 07:37 AM
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Our trip to Arenal- Any questions?

We just got back from a trip to CR and stayed at AOL for four nights. We rented a car through Budget, and we were so glad we did! We were told our trip to Arenal from SJO would be 2.5 hours, but as a newbie to the CR roads it took us 3.5 hours (actually 4 but we stopped to eat and stretch our legs). Roads are very winding and poorly marked. Locals drive fast, so it is always best to pull over when you get a chance and let them by. Then you will feel more comforable driving at your own pace without pressure of someone behind you. Our rental company, Budget, gave us a map and it worked just fine. We went to San Ramone then north through La Tigra to La Fortuna. (I don't have the map on me now so I might have slaughtered the town names with spelling, sorry) This road takes you past the road to the La Fortuna Waterfall right outside of town.

Some people complain about the roads around Arenal. I guess if you never drive anywhere but in cities, you would think these roads are bad. Personally, after driving all the way from SJO, I didn't think the road to AOL was that bad, just about the same as the road from San Ramone to La Fortuna. Before the AOL gate the road is gravel but mainly straight. This is the same road you have to travel if you plan to go to the park to see the 1992 lava flow or Arenal 1968 (Or Linda Vista or Sky Trek/Sky Tram) Past the gate to AOL it is paved in sections- full paving around corners and paving for the tires everwhere else.
Of course, we spent a day driving around the north side of the lake and THOSE roads are bad, which makes the road to AOL seem like a HWY. The road north to Venado was similar to a farmer's tractor trail to the back 40, or as my husband said, an ATV trail. My husband refused to drive it all the way, after a certain point he turned around and went back. We never made it to Venado. After reviewing the guide book, it looks like if you want to go to Venado Caverns, the way to go would be to go to La Fortuna then take the road to Upla (in the direction of Cano Negro) and turn off of that south to Venado. You have to have guts to take the road from the lake north to Venado. It's covered in grass and rocks the size of your fist making you think you might start rolling back down the hill at any point, and in some spots you're not even sure where the road is!
As for a volcano view, we did see rocks rolling down Arenal during the day, and you can hear it. Our first full day was so cloudy you couldn't even tell there was a volcano out there. The second day you could only see the base and in the middle of the night you could see some flow through the clouds, mostly red flecks now and then. If you are lucky, as we were on the last day, the clouds will completely clear and you can see the whole volcano, including the top, and then you will be able to see the flow at night. It is a gamble to choose a hotel based on a view you may not have. We wouldn't have seen much of anything for "red lava" if we hadn't stayed that fourth night.
Our room at AOL was smithsonian #28 (? I believe) . This was right behind the check in desk, down a short set of steps. #27 is down there too, and only those two rooms have access this way. There were more rooms above us, but I am not sure if they were smithsonian or suites. Our view was the same as what you get from the main deck. We were at ground level. The room was just big enough for the one king bed, and room to walk around it. The bathroom was old and out-dated, but I didn't mind. As for view from our room, walking around the grounds and seeing other spots, I would think our room view was the best. It does appear that the Smithsonian rooms in the separate building were more spacious and maybe even newer.
As for crossing the hanging bridge, we had to do that to get to the pool or "museum". You would also have to cross if you have a standard room above the check in desk and want to go to the pool. If your room is in the same building as the" Museum" you would have to cross the hanging bridge to reach your room after parking (or get to breakfast/lunch/dinner) but it is right next to the pool. It appeared that if you stay in the rooms that are in their own separate building (away from the pool) you can drive up to them and park behind, so that you don't have to cross the bridge to get to your room or pool. You would have to cross the bridge to get to breakfast/lunch/dinner.
We enjoyed AOL, but if you are fussy about what your room looks like, you may not want to say here. If you don't want to be out in the rain, you may be at the hotel alot so choose one you wouldn't mind being at. It rained every day we were there, sometimes hard, sometimes just a sprinkle. It would rain, stop, rain, stop, ect. so everything was wet all the time. Even our quick-dry Tevas stayed soaked the entire time.
We hiked to the 1992 lava flow from the park our first day, and it was an nice easy hike. We could not see the volcano at all though, due to the cloud cover this day.
We only did the hanging bridges tour (by Lost Iguana) and we enjoyed it quite a bit. This was our second day. Even my afraid-of-bridges husband thought it was worth it! We saw howler and spider monkeys, red poison dart frogs, an eyelash snake, leaf- cutter ants, and a lizard. Two parrots buzzed around the entrance area and landed on the ticket counter, signs, and railings. We went in the morning, 8am, and it was very busy. We did not have a guide, but a group was in front of us and another was behind, so we had a little of the benefit of a guide to see things without actually having one, and we were able to move at our own pace this way. You can see the Volcano from one bridge, but the clouds had rolled in and we couldn't see it during our tour.
We did some hiking around AOL. The "Old Lava" trail below the observatory deck was closed. I don't know if they will be opening it back up anytime soon. We hiked it anyway (I mean, no we didn't) and it was steep (it headed downward), muddy, and a little rough. Some steps, in the small area where there actually were steps, had washed out. The trail ended in a barbed wire "fence" across the trail, strung between trees four wire strands high. From the looks of all the footprints in the mud, and the amount of rain the day before, I believe they had just strung the "fence" earlier that day. The brush on either end of the fence was thick and there were thorns (yes, we're persistant). On the other side of the fence was a new sign that warned AOL was "private property" in spanish. The paper price tag sticker was still attached and dry, so the sign was freshly hung.
I wonder if they are just going to remove the trail sign and take it off their map? I never thought to ask at the desk what was up with this trail. Anyway, on the other side of the fence was a wide creek to cross (water not past your ankles). Here we saw two lizards with long blue tails and lots of tadpoles. After that the trail branched. We went to the right. This was also steep, but not as steep as it had been on the AOL side of the fence, and rough, heading uphill. We came across some other hikers who looked bewildered to see us but no one ever asked what we were doing there or where we came from. We stopped at a ridge overlooking Arenal Volcano, and it was beautiful and worth the hike (in my opinion). There were some rocks below that were very overgrown. This was the only "old lava" we saw on our hike. After this point we turned around and went back.
We also hiked to the waterfall on AOL property. They were working on this trail (though not actively at the time we hiked) laying concrete bricks for a path to walk on. It was very muddy. The hike down to the waterfall was treturous. They were in the process of making concrete steps, so this will be easier in the future. The waterfall was beautiful. My husband and I were the only ones down there at the time. It was cool to be able to explore without having others around, getting in your pictures or your view.
We enjoyed the Matador Steak house. We ate at Rancho Margot and the food was good. They served soup or salad and dessert with dinner. There was no menu, they asked if we wanted pizza, chicken, or beef. I have read alot of comments about "tough beef" in CR, but I didn't think it was too different than here.
We ate at a western looking place called something like "Surf and Turf" right outside of La Fortuna. The food was good, we shared a plate, and we ordered a dessert called something "Volcano." It was small, cake-like, with chocolate and strawberry sauces over the top and icecream inside. When it was served, the guy used two gravy-boat type things filled with rum (?) and lit them on fire, then poured it over the top. It looked really neat, and I think it cost about $8.
As mentioned before, there is a gate to get to AOL. The "guard" asks for your names and if you are guests he lets you through. I read in a post that someone said they charge you an enterance fee, even if you are guests, and we never had to pay anything like that ever. Each time we came back to AOL we just showed the guard the room key as we drove up and he always just opened the gate for us without even walking over to our car.
We grabbed an extra banana at breakfast and put it outside our patio while we stayed. We didn't see much of the Coati at AOL, except early in the morning (5:30, 6 am) and on the last morning one came right up to us, probably wondering where the day's food was. Otherwise they always took the fruit while we were gone. I think that if we had stayed in any other building, we might not have seen the Coati at all.
I might not be on Fodors every day, but if anyone has any questions, feel free to ask.
Thanks!
mrscalkins is offline  
Old Apr 30th, 2010, 09:25 AM
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It sounds like a wonderful adventure. I'm glad you guys enjoyed it. Thanks for all the great details.
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Old May 25th, 2010, 08:26 AM
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We are considering staying at AOL in Aug. with our 2 children, ages 7 and 9. We are all somewhat afraid of heights. Is the bridge to the pool high or scary? I think we would want to do the morning walk that is included in the stay. It says it starts by crossing a bridge. Is this the same bridge that goes to the pool? It seems that you ate in town. Did you eat at AOL for lunch or dinner? Can you give me any info about their menu? Our daughter is very picky and since we won't have a rental car we will be stuck there for lunch and dinner. Do you think the hike to the waterfall is something children will be able to do once the concrete steps are in or too steep? Did you do the horseback riding they have on property? Thanks for any help. Karen
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Old May 25th, 2010, 12:07 PM
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We will be staying at the Tabacon in June- Did you visit Tabacon? Thanks for the great advice.
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Old May 25th, 2010, 02:00 PM
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c, we visited Tabacon - it's very pretty.
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Old May 26th, 2010, 04:19 AM
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cnor - we stayed at Taboacon a few years ago - what type of information are you looking for? It was a nice hotel. It's great in that the admission to the hot springs are included in the room rate, so if you take advantage of going there you have a great deal. I thought their springs were beautiful and when we went, which was early May, they were not crowded at all. We went at night and then back in the morning to take pictures when you could really see what it looked like. I thought the only real negative about the hotel was that breakfast was not included in the room rate, which it seems to be at so many other properties. And their breakfast is pretty expensive, but it's very good.
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Old May 26th, 2010, 08:32 AM
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Thanks so much for the advice. I did hear that the breakfast is expensive(especially for a family of five with light eaters) and that it is better to go into town for breakfast. I may even pack protein meal bars- but I am a bit concerned it may attract bugs. Do you think it is safe for older teens to walk around Tabacon & Hot springs by themselves? We are also thinking of going to the waterfall, hanging bridges & white water rafting. Did you do any of these activities or have any activities ou would recommend? Did you go to the Spa at Tabacon?
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Old May 26th, 2010, 08:46 AM
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The waterfall, Hanging Bridges, and rafting are all good choices. Rios Tropicales is a good outfit for rafting. We also like the Cano Negro tour, a boat tour to spot wildlife. We use Sunset Tours for that.
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Old May 26th, 2010, 11:46 AM
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I would think if your older teens are responsible there would be no problems with them being at the hot springs by themselves. Same with the property at Tabacon. It all seemed to be very safe there.

In Arenal, we've done the Hanging Bridges - pay the extra for a guide - you'll learn a lot and they'll spot wildlife you probably wouldn't see on your own! The Cano Negro tour is nice, but it's a full day so that might depend on how much time you have in the area. Zip lining in Arenal is also pretty popular!

I didn't go to the Tabacon Spa, but I've heard great things about it!
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Old May 26th, 2010, 12:01 PM
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We stayed at Tabacon a few years ago and had a great experience. We are returning now with kids and were told there are no rooms there for a family of 5. We would need two rooms and didn't want to go that route.At the Tabacon Spa I had a mud mask put on my body. I was told to wipe it off when it dried. I could have done this myself and saved whatever that costed.

I was thinking about bring something like granola bars for my kids too, but I am concerned about the bugs. Any advice?
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Old May 26th, 2010, 01:05 PM
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We always bring granola bars/breakfast bars. I just keep them in the wrapper in a Ziploc bag and have never had any problems. Just keep it zipped up and always keep your luggage zipped up as well.

I think responsible kids would be fine at Tabacon. Would you trust them alone at a water park? That's a pretty good comparison of what it's like.
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Old May 26th, 2010, 01:42 PM
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Ok to bring treats, just keep them zipped up. Even double bagged.

Funny story, last year a Coati (we're pretty sure it was Jack) unzipped shillmac's hubby's backpack and got away with an entire bag of granola just bought at the outdoor market...AND Tum's. Also, he unscrewed the top off my Wasabi almonds and slobbered all over them. He also had a good time with the pineapple left on the kitchen counter. Ha!

This was in an open concept house though, so no doors or screens to keep them out. Pretty funny!
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Old May 26th, 2010, 01:48 PM
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tully is the one who taught me the Ziploc trick!
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Old May 31st, 2010, 03:04 PM
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mrscalkins, thx a mint for a great detailed TR!

Does anyone know if the Standard rooms have views of the volcano? From the description on the website, it seems like the difference btwn the Standard & Smithsonian rooms is you can see the volcano while lying in bed in the Smithsonian rooms. For the Standard rooms, you have to go out to the room's porch to see it.

DH & I have a Standard room booked for a couple of nites in December. I'm fine with that room as long as we can see the volcano from its porch.

Can anyone provide some more insight on the layout of where these Standard rooms are lcoated? mrscalkins, from your description it sounds like one has to walk outside to get to the breakfast area from the Standard rooms? How far is the walk...less than 5 minutes? Are there areas where the rooms would have a lot of noise (beside the restaurant, etc.)?

Everytime I've tried to see the Property Map on AOL's website, it will not load for me.

Great tips posters about bringing snacks - I was wondering about this too but felt it was too trivial to ask; now I know

Enjoy-la!
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Old Jun 1st, 2010, 10:41 AM
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Okay, I give. What does AOL stand for?
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Old Jun 1st, 2010, 11:00 AM
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sorry, Arenal Observatory Lodge.

Enjoy-la!
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