Thirty-somethings Costa Rican Adventure: Trip Report

Sep 13th, 2004, 09:37 PM
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Thirty-somethings Costa Rican Adventure: Trip Report

Thirty-Somethings Costa Rican Adventure:
9-4-04 through 9-12-04

Day 1, 2 Peace Lodge
Day 3, 4 Arenal Paraiso
Day 5-7 La Colina (MA)
Day 8 Vista Del Valle

Much thanks to the helpful advice given from travel amigos on this site. I hope my trip report will help those who go after us and entertain those who have gone before us.

My wife and I flew into San Jose from Atlanta on Delta with no problems and right on time. We had reserved a 4x4 through Payless and the 8 day rate was $237. However, I was not aware that full insurance coverage would run me an additional $35 a day. I dont know how this compares to other companies daily insurance rates (no deductible if anything went wrong) but based on the amount of miles we put on the auto and the sizeable potholes, free spirited drivers and my luck, I felt it was a necessary expense. The uncertainty and stress of trying to deal with credit card insurance coverage from a foreign country would have ruined the vacation if something would have happened and yet I turned the 4x4 in not that much worse for the wear. (OK, so a couple of huge potholes did sneak up on me!)

We drove about 1 hr north to PEACE LODGE with the sole intent of 2 days of De-stressing and pure relaxation. Peace Lodge had been recommended to me by an enthusiastic Fodor friend SCLUBB. If you are reading this, I want to personally thank you. This was the best experience I have ever had in all my years of travel. www.waterfallgardens.com Guys, we owe it to our wives to take them to this romantic, peaceful, perfect place sometime on the trip to CR. I know it earned me some romantic points back, from all the times I have fumbled the ball! A waterfall in the bathroom, 4 post canopy bed overlooking a rock fireplace, CDs with all the right music provided. A private Jacuzzi on the oversized balcony. 4 waterfalls rumbling in the distance. A hammock for two. A Waterfall shower. Hardwood teak floors with rock walls and on and on? It was truly a remarkable experience.

During the day we visited Poaz Volcano (20 minutes away) hiked the waterfall trails (beautiful, but the whole hike can be completed in about 50 minutes) visited the Butterfly garden and simply rested. Meals were very good ($20 ea) and the staff beyond terrific (A shout out to Giovanny in the restaurant, Alejandro at the front desk and two of the best Massage Therapists on the Planet: Arturo and Martha. Wow, what a great two days!

Phase two of the trip (The Adventure Phase) started with the departure from Peace Lodge and the 55 minute drive north to Hacienda Pozo Azul where we experienced our first Canopy Tour. The car ride alone was quite adventurous: I didn?t ever think driving at speeds of 20 mph could be so harrowing. But add to it a road the width of the typical Americans driveway, oversized semi trucks in front, behind and on the other side of you, cattle and random dogs crossing the road, hairpin turns, potholes the size of refrigerators and sheer cliffs on either side of the shoulder-less road, and yes, now that I look back, 20mph was way too fast!!

So perhaps that is why I have to be honest and say the Canopy Tour at HPA left us lacking. Not to say our guides were not fun or nice..they were great simply, we had expected something more thrilling and awe-inspiring. The runs were short, we didnt see any wildlife (that part we expected) and it was kind of lackluster after the 3rd run. And the $90 price tag for two didnt help matters. Was there a better zip line tour in Costa Rica I was already asking this on the 2nd line. (By the way, oh yes there is keep reading!) From here we got back in the 4x4 and the adrenalin increased again as we made the 3 hour trip to Arenal!

Arenal was clouded in as we entered Fortuna around 4pm. Then the skies opened up and a deluge from heaven (one that would even have made Noah nervous) fell on the area. We drove through Fortuna (unless you are on the extreme hostel budget, keep driving out of Fortuna) and about 15 minutes down the road we came to Arenal Paraiso. So what can I say about Arenal Paraiso the reviews are as varied as each of our individual tastes. Let me say this first. The point of staying at Arenal Paraiso was Arenal. The deluxe cabin had the most spectacular view of the Volcano. Both from the porch and from the bedroom. At 3am we lay in bed watching out the picture glass window at the red lava explosions making their way down the mountain. That alone made Arenal the right choice for us. Absolutely a phenomenal experience.

Now for the disclaimer. Arenal Paraiso is a tourist class hotel. If you understand this ahead of time you wont be disappointed by the basic accommodations (2 beds, a tv and a little table), the tour buses that drive up and drop off 78 touristy travelers and wait staff that isnt overly concerned with service..their tip is already included in the meal plans cost. The food is so-so. The best I could describe it would be the equivalent of how you feel after you leave Denny?s here in the states. Certainly not horrible (Dennys is all over the US) but not something you want to go back to for your very next meal. On a positive note, the cabinas are ultra clean and that is worth a lot in my book!

The next day we were in search of SKYTREK-ARENAL. This is what was recommended to us by the locals near Hacienda Pozo Azul and it was THE ZIP LINE we were looking for. Skytrek is most known for its Monteverde ride, but the Arenal ride is newer, higher and longer that the Monteverde sister attraction. Unlike the canopy tour which goes from Tree to Tree in the rainforest, Skytrek goes from MOUNTAIN to MOUNTAIN. Yes, this is what we were looking for! We asked the activities director at Arenal Paraiso for directions to Sky Trek Arenal and surprisingly she told us she had not heard of it and quickly recommended their canopy tour hmmm, kickbacks? Suffice it to say, we asked elsewhere, found the zip line to be literally 15 minutes down the road from AP and for $10 less than Hacienda Pozo Azuls price, had the absolute time of our life. If you want adrenalin, this is the one for you! Check out skytrek.com and click on Arenal. The long run almost 3/4 mile long was scheduled to be completed this past Saturday. I cant recommend this enough! (And tell Jimmy, Brandon says hello!)

Another day at AP with not much Volcano action and we pushed off for the next leg of our trip: The Pacific Coast and Manuel Antonio. I initially thought the ride from Arenal to MA might need to be broken up, but the 5 hour ride really wasnt bad at all. We arrived at La Colina (lacolina.com) around 5pm and made our way to our Oceanview Suite. Lorena was very helpful and had just returned from her own tour of the US from Texas to Maine. La Colina has been touted as the best hotel for the price and I will confirm that. Quaint, clean, great food, small enough to have character and personality, large enough to be known in the area for great live music and dinners at night. For $70/night, we strategically chose this over staying at Si Como No, Makanda and Mariposa. And yet for the difference in price(between La Colina and the others), we were able to visit these other wonderful hotels for lunch and dinners! Here is a "rainy season" secret Ill pass along. If you want to experience these hotels, that is: enjoy their lush surroundings, swim in their beautiful pools and watch the sunset at their swim up bars go ahead! Spend money at their restaurant and you can swim in their pool. I wasnt sure myself so Lorena made her point by calling ahead and getting the verbal green light for me! So which is my favorite: It depends..for classiest hotel, hands down it is Mariposa. For best view: hands down it is Mariposa. For over the top award goes to Si Como No. And yet they have a very nice intimate restaurant ?Si Claro Que? which we enjoyed very much. Makandas restaurant was closed so we didnt go there but saw it from a distance from Mariposa.Looks great. It is going to depend on your personality and preferences! Very Pricey here in MA...Capitalism at its best (worst?!)

Ok, enough about hotel reviews.

Manuel Antonio: Make sure you spend the $40 to hire a State licensed Naturalist(Dont worry, theyll spot you before you spot them just outside the park). It made ALL the difference in the world. I dismissed the idea initially and wound up walking around the park for an hour wondering where all the flora and fauna was I was expecting it to jump out and bite me. Didnt happen! We circled back, found our soon to be wonderful new friend Miguel and things turned around quickly. Within minutes Miguel spotted 2 toed and 3 toed Sloths, Jesus Christ Lizards (so called because they walk on water) rainbow grasshoppers, and on and on. After a two and a half hour hike/botany lesson, we had seen howler monkeys, all kinds of birds, plants, spiders, reptiles and all the insects you could imagine.

We enjoyed each others company so much, Miguel invited us to his parents farm about 40 minutes inland to see more birds! His family was wonderful and the hospitality was heartwarming. They taught us how to make corn tortillas the old fashioned way (grinding boiled corn kernels with a hand crank what they do everyday) and we talked on the porch until the sun went down. Politics, culture, religion, the perspective was so insightful. This was the Costa Rica I had longed to be a part of probably the most special part of the trip. Thank you Miguel.

More Si Como No, Mariposa pool visits (My personal favorite) Lunches, dinnersyes and a dinner at El Gran Escape in Quepos (enjoyable) and our time was drawing to a close. Time for the drive to Vista Del Valle as we prepared for our final chapter.

Originally we were to stay at Netas Place (Finca que Ama) but unfortunately the B and B was closed for a couple days for yearly upgrades. Neta in her own special way, helped make reservations for me at Vista Del Valle and I was so appreciative of her multiple emails and hand holding. Thanks Neta! Vista Del Valle did not disappoint as our Costa Rican adventure came to a close. We stayed in the Mona Lisa bungalow and our experience did not disappoint us! The rain drove the spiders inside the bungalow so the last nights sleep was perhaps a little less restful (did you feel something move?) than some of the others, but hey, it is the rainforest, right?! The staff was more than willing to move us to another cabin but with a few flashlights, on the spot terminations and determination to stand our ground, we stayed in the wonderful cabin. No bites to report! Beautiful grounds, intimate settings and breathtaking vistas combined with wonderful meals, swiming in the pool and Jacuzzi was the final exclamation point to a wonderful trip.

The 25 minute drive to the airport and rental return was a breeze. The departure tax ($26 pp )was mildy annoying(but not uncommon in many countries) especially when no one behind the counter could tell me where it goes (Yes, I felt much better after asking this question as I handed over the dollars . But all that was quickly forgotten as we spent almost half that much ten minutes later on last minute souvenirs (Café Britt coffee, macadamia nuts..(wish we could have bought the famous Costa Rican Rocking Chairs) and headed down the terminal to the Delta departure gate. SJO to ATL and on to the Midwest...

We travel regularly..almost 25 countries so far from Brazil to Egypt, Greece to Spain, Romania to Morocco and all points between. The trip to Costa Rica was certainly among the top 5. We'll be back!

I would be happy to answer any questions you have/or any feedback!

Best Regards

Brandon
brandonmichael is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 06:38 AM
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Great trip report Brandon! You have a way of writing that made me feel I was along for the ride! Glad you decided to use a guide for the park in Manuel Antonio. It?s UNBELIEVABLE the wildlife these guides are able to spot! At one point in our tour, we joked with our guide that he had taped pictures of all the animals at the end of his scope! We also used a naturalist guide when friends came to visit us last month. I was amazed at his range of knowledge. Did you also taste one of the medicinal leaves? Since you enjoyed your time with Miguel so much, next time you visit (and of course you will ... right?) there are some tico-style restaurants not far from Quepos/M.A Now that you?ve ?done? the resorts, you might enjoy some authentic Costa Rican food and family atmosphere. As you now know, these people LOVE to talk and socialize! FYI .. you can find your Costa Rican rockers thru a google search. There are a few sites that sell them and ship direct to you in the states. Imagine yourself sitting in your rocker, thinking back on your trip ... and if you only had a nice cold Imperial beer!

Lisa in M.A.
Latitude9Lisa is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 07:36 AM
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Brandon,
I really enjoyed your trip report. We went to CR in August and loved every minute of it. We also stayed at La Colina, which we really enjoyed and you certainly can't beat the price. I don't think it is necessary to spend a lot of money on hotels. We had an ocean view suite for 4 people for $90 per night. I thought the breakfast was delicious. It was a nice change from breakfast buffets. The owner and staff were all very friendly and helpful.
Kwoo is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 08:34 AM
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Great report, Brandon. Sounds like you guys had a wonderful time!
shillmac is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 08:59 AM
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Fabulous report. Thanks for sharing!
Ally is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 12:43 PM
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alg
 
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Brandon,

Do you have contact information for the Skytrek Arenal ride? I would be interested in learning more about this option (we currently have a reservation with HPA). Thanks.
alg is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 12:51 PM
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Dang, I read some of the reviews about Arenal Paraiso and wonder if there isn't an entirely different Arenal Paraiso than the one we stayed in!

We had great service, though the food was hit or miss. We had a couple of excellent meals and a couple of "eh" meals.

The hotel staff were friendly and helpful, and we thought the accomodations were very nice--though I will admit that to us accomodations are basically a place to sleep and store our clothes. We're not resort types.
RufusTFirefly is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 03:59 PM
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Fascinating report, Brandonmichael! Thanks for including so many details. They're a huge help to the rest of us making travel decisions.
Molly2 is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 04:41 PM
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kdh
 
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Brandon,
Thanks for the trip report, Very well written!!
now that you have been MA, is La Colina your favorite hotel? sounds like you checked out lots of others. I would be interested in knowing if the Como Si No has ocean views? It looks like just jungle views to me, maybe I am wrong?
Did you see the Costa Verde grounds or go to their bar/resturants?

thanks Karen

kdh is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 05:29 PM
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Great report. Felt I was back again after just returning last week. We liked the Arenal Paraiso especailly the cabins and being able to watch the volcano erupt most of the night. Especially liked having the golf cart to take luggage to the room after not getting this service at the Costa Verde.
The food there is expensive,but we found one waiter who was very friendly and helpful to us. There is a trail behind the Paraiso that is good for those able to hike it like my daughter was able to do. Too hard to go all the way for me as I have a knee I have to favor. You are able to view a Canopy tour zip across part way down the trail. I enjoyed the mineral waters there. I would say overall the Paraiso it is a good place to stay.
maryanne1 is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 05:30 PM
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kdh,
We stayed at Si Como No last July and thought it was very nice. We don't usually spend $140 per day on hotel (but DO splurge at least once per visit). My opinion is that SCN might be just a bit overpriced, but we enjoyed our stay there, and it was a pretty place. Yes, they have wonderful ocean views from the balconies of the rooms. I loved getting up at 5:30, sitting outside, and watching a couple of sloths in the trees within 20 feet of me! The rooms were not huge. Each room has a very well stocked mini bar (with just about everything you can think of--alcholic and otherwise--but with a hefty price tag! We DID use the bottled water and I had a candy bar . . . .My husband always buys cerveca at the mini-supers.

There are 2 pools, one with a natural type slide for families, another for adults with a swim up bar. Both pools as restaurants had nice views of the Pacific.

We didn't have a meal at the nicer of the two restaurants, Claro Que Si, because we were quite satisfied with the meals we had at the Rico Tico (I think that's the name) Bar. In fact, we returned there for lunch this July and had another very good meal. We never spend much on food in Costa Rica. $10 per person for us would be considered a splurge!

There was some very nice, if pricey, art and jewelry in the gift shop as well as more standard souvenir stuff. The internet is located there as well.

One word of caution that I have learned from others (Kwoo, perhaps) on this board. Don't book your Manuel Antonio guided tour through the hotel. Do it at the entrance of the park where guides are waiting to assist you if you want one. And don't pay $40 pp! That is what the hotel will charge for you to prebook the tour. You can go for about half that by just showing up at the entrance! Lesson learned. . .
shillmac is offline  
Sep 14th, 2004, 06:20 PM
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Thanks for all the feedback...I am glad the trip report was helpful.

Some individual responses:

Lisa in MA: Yes, when we come back to CR, we are going to make sure we eat at some Tico style restaurants and more than that somehow get involved with the locals. Your point is well taken. It was somewhat disappointing to see that resorts, activities (deep sea fishing, jet skiing), famous restaurants...they are all owned and run by Americans..not the Costa Ricans..so the bulk of the money never trickles down to the hard working Costa Ricans. My profession in in Lending and was day dreaming how there could be a way to lend start up money to Costa Ricans (for example)at very low rates to give them an opportunity to build businesses that could compete in the marketplace with their American counterparts. For example enough to purchase 2 jet ski's and charge $50/hr vs the going rate of $100 per hour. Hmmm.

ALG: On Arenal Skytrek, you can go to www.arenalreserve.com for phone numbers, info and pricing on the Arenal tour. At the site itself, Ronnie is the Manager and Jimmy is one of the guides..both should remember my name as we shared quite a bit of conversation even after the ride. The site says it cost $60pp, but make sure they only charge $40pp..that is what it was for us.

RufusT and Maryanne: I hear you and appreciate your perspective on AP...people's experience is quite varied there isnt it?! I wonder what the hotel "Montage del Fuego" would have been like to stay at..It appeared as if they were just putting the finishing touches on it..it seemed a couple notches above AP, about 1/2 mi down the road (so the same view as AP)and similar type of cabins. But again, with proper expectations on AP (food, amenities etc), I still think it is the #1 choice to stay for seeing the volcano.

Karen: Is LaColina my favorite in MA? Well for the price, it was clearly the best value and allowed us to splurge on activities and not worry about overspending. Everything was very nice there. If I were to upgrade, it would have been to Mariposa. For the money you would get the best view (in MA)classy accomodations, a great restaurant and swim up bar. Si Como No is also world class, but in my opinion the views (although still very good) were slightly behind Mariposa's (The hotel is situated lower on the mountain and there are many trees) Like Shillmac, I felt like for the money (highly priced), the "value factor" was somewhat lower. Whereas the "value factor" for La Colina was very very high. If that makes sense. If money/budget doesnt concern you, then this probably is a non-issue.

One last thought for now...we tried to invite several of our couple-friends on the trip but it seems that our passion (admittedly a little off the chart) for international travel and culture is not shared to the same degree with them..and unfortunately we couldn't get anyone to come along. It is fun to read the boards and see there are couples/travelers that share the same passion we have!

brandonmichael is offline  
Sep 15th, 2004, 06:20 AM
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What a wonderful Trip Report! I am going on my honeymoon in Costa rica on Oct 4th - only 3 weeks away! We fly from Atlanta to SJO, rent a car from AVIS and drive to Jaco and stay in Villas caletas for 5 days. I know i am little north of Manuel Antonio but hopefully i will get to see the sights in Manuel antonio - Did you ever feel stressed with that drive to Manuel antonio from Arenal? What sort of map did you use? After my 5 days i drive up to Arenal and Stay at Arenal Paraiso for 3 days - I want to do a zip line and i guess Skytrek is it! How do i get there from Paraiso? Are there directions? That brings up another question? How much spanish should i know before i go for direction help? Will i be able to get around easily with just a map or will there be alot of direction asking? Then i go to the Peace lodge for 2 days and then to San Jose for our flight out on the 14th. Anything else i need to be aware of? Anything specific i should pack? ziplock bags, bug spray etc, that you really used on your trip or wish you brought with you? Thanks for the help!
blakeas is offline  
Sep 15th, 2004, 07:46 AM
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blakeas,
We drove from MA to Arenal in August & we really enjoyed the drive. The scenery was beautiful!! We left MA about 9:30am and arrived in Arenal at 5:00pm. The drive normally takes 5 - 6 hours but it took us longer because we made several stops along the way, including lunch.
Kwoo is offline  
Sep 15th, 2004, 08:39 AM
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Which map did you use to drive from MA to arenal? Or is their one you suggest?
blakeas is offline  
Sep 15th, 2004, 01:39 PM
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Fun to read your report! And, as you said, the guide at MA makes so much difference. We also hired one after taking the public bus from our hotel (5min and under $1). And we, too, enjoyed that guide and used one from there for our Isle Damas boat tour. We saw the most monkeys on the boat, if anyone is really wanting to see them "up close and personaL"! Also agree about the food at Arenal Paraiso, but we went after reading mixed reviews, so had not expected "the best". We actually, then, had fun ordering dinner at the swim up bar in a torrential rain storm! Had a great view, but no lava...Joyce
trevorjoyce is offline  
Sep 15th, 2004, 01:45 PM
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Blakeas,
The best map you can get in the Berndston & Berndston laminated map (available at Barnes & Noble or online). It is more accurate than the ones you'll get from the rental agencies.

You do know that the Skytrek canopy experience is in Monteverde? That isn't a short trip from Arenal and doesn't seem do-able in a day. Someone correct me if I am wrong?

A little bit of Spanish knowledge is definitely going to help when you have to ask directions (and most likely you will). If you need help while out and about, most likely the ones you ask won't be English speaking folks--unless you get very lucky! But not to worry, you'll manage. It's half the fun. Wish I had a dollar for every time we've found it necessary to ask!
shillmac is offline  
Sep 15th, 2004, 05:09 PM
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thanks for great trip report
I was curious what your other top 4 destinations are, when you said CR made the top 5.
nichal is offline  
Sep 16th, 2004, 12:56 PM
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Hi Shillmac - If I understand your question about SkyTrek correctly, there are two locations.

The one in Monteverde is different in that it also offers SkyWalk suspension bridges, while the one above Lago Arenal offers SkyTrek and SkyTram.

This one we visited last week. They have one more zip line to complete soon and it will bring the enthusiast back to the base of the SkyTram w/o the downhill hike from the current final zip line.

That was my gooder english; how'd I do?
TripleSecDelay is offline  
Sep 16th, 2004, 02:24 PM
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Thanks TripleSec. . .your English gets a passing grade And I learned something new today. . .actually several things!

shillmac is offline  

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