Trip Report, Costa Rica, Aug. '02, PART I

Old Dec 16th, 2002, 10:37 AM
  #1  
Jay Weinstein
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Trip Report, Costa Rica, Aug. '02, PART I

Message: TRIP REPORT -- COSTA RICA

I just returned from a nine-day trip to Costa Rica with my mother and two sisters. It was fantastic. In searching for a vacation destination my younger sister and I were originally looking for a great place to go scuba diving. But then my older sister and mother, two non-divers, decided to join us. We chose Costa Rica because it has it all: great land-based adventures and great scuba diving.

After extensive research, we decided upon Marbella Tours, as our travel agent. Marbella is a Costa Rican travel agency. They were the cheapest and the best. Oldemar Madrigal was our travel agent. I highly recommend him. Not only is he extremely knowledgeable about Costa Rica, but he has limitless patience (and believe me he needed all the patience he could muster with me), his English is excellent, he is very accommodating, and very dedicated. Marbella can be reached at 011 (506) 219-3637, [email protected].

I’d like to deal with a few issues of particular concern to us in planning our trip to Costa Rica. The bugs. We stayed in Costa Rica for 9 days. We went on two horseback riding trips, white water rafting, canopy touring, scuba diving, and generally spent most of our time outdoors. We were advised to buy bug repellant with as much “deet” as we could find. And we did. I wore Deep Woods Off for Sportsmen, which was 95% deet and I had no problems. On the other hand my crunchy older sister did not wear any bug spray most of the time and she was fine too. In other words, the bug problem, in our experience, was really no problem at all.

The second issue of great concern to us was whether to rent a car, truck, whatever, and drive ourselves around Costa Rica, or arrange to be driven from destination to destination. We were ridiculed on this site for choosing to be driven around Costa Rica by drivers. I can say without a doubt that that was the best choice that we made. We planned out every detail of this vacation and we were going every minute of every day. Had we been foolish enough to try to negotiate the Costa Rican roads on our own we would have been lost and miserable and missed out on some of the wonderful adventures we had planned. For some, this may be part of the adventure. But there are so many wonderful things to do in Costa Rica I wouldn’t want to miss out on any of them because of our lack of familiarity with the Costa Rican terrain. That choice was an absolute no-brainer for us.

The third issue of concern was whether we needed to take any precautionary medication in preparation for the trip. On the advice of her doctor my mother had tetanus and hepatitis shots but the rest of did not take any shots or pills at all and were fine. Although the best advice is to ask your doctor which may refer you to a government agency for its recommendation depending on the conditions in Costa Rica at the time of your trip. It’s really a personal choice. However, my mother did take along a thermometer, band-aids, Neosporin, Ibuprofin (sp?), and we used them all.

(CONT'D)
 
Old Dec 16th, 2002, 10:39 AM
  #2  
Jay Weinstein
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Message: TRIP REPORT -- COSTA RICA, PART II (cont'd)

Clothing. I took along two pairs of long sleeved shirts for my two horseback riding trips, which was perfect. The rest of my shirts were t-shirts and one collared shirt which was also good. Costa Rica is very casual. I brought two pairs of slacks, one to wear in the evenings to go out, and the second, a pair of cargo pants, which was perfect for hiking and horseback riding. Two pairs of shorts and a bathing suit would have been sufficient although I brought extra pairs. Bring extra underwear, socks, and t-shirts because you will be working up quick a sweat at the numerous outdoor events and you may need to change more than once a day. I brought a pair of cheap Timberland knockoffs (for horseback riding and rainforest hiking), a pair of all-terrain hiking sneakers for dry land hiking, and a pair of tevas for beach and boat wear, and that was the perfect combination.

Tipping. Tipping is very big in Costa Rica. It is hard to know how much to tip. We really struggled with it. Remember to bring lots (and lots) of American singles. The currency in Costa Rica is colognes. The exchange rate changes daily; during our trip it was about 360 colognes for 1 dollar. Just remember 3 dollars for approximately 1000 colognes. We probably wound up over-tipping so I really can’t be of any assistance on this issue. If you choose to go with Marbella just ask Oldemar.

The food. The Costa Rican diet is fairly simple. It is based mostly on rice and beans. Of course there are plaintains, guacamole, and various chicken, beef, and pork dishes. The fruit there is wonderful. We were advised to stay away from fruit and vegetables that you couldn’t peel but we disregarded that advice and were fine. I suggest you stick with only bottled water. Also, stick with the chicken and forget about the beef and pork dishes. Corvina is the fish dish of choice in Costa Rica and it is terrific. My mother and older sister are both vegetarians and they were very satisfied with the Costa Rican diet. Also, if you do some research you can find numerous vegetarian restaurants all over Costa Rica. Make sure, however, that the chef does not include any beef fat in the rice and bean dishes.

The temperature. August is part of the wet season in Costa Rica. However, we were told on more than one occasion that the period that we were there was a short respite from the rainy season. And right they were because it only rained three times while we were there for less than ten minutes each time. The temperature in San Jose and Arenal was in the mid to high 70’s. maybe low 80’s, but very mild. In Guanacaste it was a little hotter and more humid but still comfortable. It was also the low season as far as tourism is concerned so we benefited doubly as a result of the time of year we traveled.


(CONT'D)
 
Old Dec 16th, 2002, 10:41 AM
  #3  
Jay Weinstein
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Message: TRIP REPORT -- COSTA RICA, PART III (cont'd)

Day 1

We arrived in the morning in San Jose, Costa Rica, the capital, just a short 5 hour plane ride from NYC and 6 hours from LA. We stayed two nights in San Jose. I spent the first day searching for artwork at the numerous art galleries around town. I took taxis, which are very cheap there, all around town. I found a couple great paintings that bargained for. I definitely overpaid for them but I didn’t care; they’re really beautiful.

That evening Oldemar Madrigal, our travel agent, joined us for dinner, having selected the perfect restaurant for us.

Day 2

The next morning, we were driven to the Pacuare River (Class III and IV rapids) for an all-day white water rafting tour. Costa Rica has world class white water rafting and the Pacuare River is really the best location for that activity. We started with a short instructional session on how to paddle, follow instructions from the guide that served as the raft’s sternsman (and steerer of the vessel), and some safety tips. Each of us wore a helmet and lifepreserver.

The Pacuare is really beautiful. There were sloping hills on each side covered with lush greenery and frequent waterfalls. It was jungle-like and when it rained it felt like we in a Viet-nam war movie set in Southeast Asia.

We should say that white water rafting is not for the faint of heart. Early on in our trip our raft capsized, my 62 year old mother smashed her face on the rocks bloodying her lip, my older sister and I were caught under the raft, my younger sister was dragged under water by strong current. But we all survived and the young staff managed to rescue each of us and we continued with the trip. I was placed in the bow and an Israeli that served in the Israeli army intelligence paddled along side me. I pushed myself extra hard to keep up with him.

There was a guide in a kayak following our three raft group around for safety reasons and another kayaker stayed ahead of us taking pictures. The pictures were great but quite costly; however we were able to negotiate a more favorable price.

(CONT'D)


 
Old Dec 16th, 2002, 10:43 AM
  #4  
Jay Weinstein
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Message: TRIP REPORT -- COSTA RICA, PART IV (cont'd)
Day 3

The few mistakes we made were mostly in Day 3. We started out early from San Jose to the town of Sarche which is known for its artwork. We wound up not giving ourselves enough time to shop and spent the precious few minutes we had in a tourist trap. But that shop also had some good merchandise. Look out for really beautiful and substantial wood work for fairly reasonable prices. In fact, many shoppers buy even very large wood items and have them shipped to the U.S. The woodwork is that nice.

We left Sarche and went South (one of our mistakes) for the town of San Mateo, where we went on a canopy tour in the rain forest. The reason it was a mistake is that we went South when our ultimate destination, the Arenal Volcano, is North, and we had spa appointments in the Tabacon resort there. The canopy tour is where we were transported from tree top to tree top via cables stretching from tree to tree. We were about fifty feet in the air and it was great fun. Disappointingly we didn’t see any monkeys there, although I saw a few salamanders and a tarantula.

From San Mateo we were driven to the Arenal Volcano which consists of two volcanoes side by side, one inactive covered in lush greenery and the other active and barren (because of the lava flow). The Arenal volcano area reminds me of the Island that King Kong was found on. We stayed at the well-known Tabacon resort which has hot springs running through its grounds, heated and nutrient rich by lava flow from the volcano. There is a spa on premises and my sisters and mother had all sorts or spa treatments; I stuck with the basic Swedish massages, which were very nice.

Day 4

We were picked up from the Tabacon resort for a short ride to La Fortuna, where we went horseback riding to the La Fortuna Falls. We had a wonderful tour guide named Donald. The horses were young and extremely responsive. We were given free reign to run the horses at will and either push forward or walk the trail to the falls. We tethered our horses and hiked down the side of a large hill to the beautiful falls. We swam in the pond fed by the falls. Little did we know that the is a large serpent that lives there (or so we were told.) It was extremely refreshing to swim after the ride.

Day 5

Day 5 was essentially a travel day from Arenal to Guanacaste, a province in the West of Costa Rica. We spent the evening of Day 5 to the morning of Day 9 in Guanacaste. We stayed at the Allegro Papagayo resort. The Allegro is located on the Gulf of Papagayo and has its own beach; it is located on the side of a large hill. The resort is fairly new. We chose that resort for the sake of the two non-divers because the resort has a “fun club” which organizes events like volleyball and water polo games, teaches dances, leads nearby hikes, etc. It really added a lot to our trip. The Allegro does not have its own scuba dive operator on premises, but Bill Beard’s Diving Safaris, which is located on the Sol Playa Hermosa resort (one of two), is also the in-house dive operator for the Allegro and picks up divers from the Allegro beach. We were lucky because we had rooms further down the hill near the pool, bar, and restaurants. However, if your rooms are located further up the hill it could be a real pain to go from pool to room and back again. There are shuttles, however, that regularly move about the resort going from rooms at different levels on the hill to pool to the reception area at the top of the hill where all the tour operators pick up from. The large buffet eating area is in the open air so if the temperature is uncomfortable so will you be. For dinner you can reserve a table at an enclosed air-conditioned restaurant, which is very good.

(CONT'D)


 
Old Dec 16th, 2002, 10:46 AM
  #5  
Jay Weinstein
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Message: TRIP REPORT -- COSTA RICA, PART V (cont'd)

Day 6

My younger sister and I are beginner divers. We had just obtained our certification one and two weeks before our trip. We took three dive trips while we were there. We dove in the Gulf of Papagayo off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The dive operator we used is called Bill Beard’s Diving Safaris. We had an awesome time.

In searching for a dive-trip destination we were advised that Costa Rica was not a good site for beginning divers because of the swell and current there and the presence of large pelagic fish. I did not find that to be true (although we did see numerous pelagic fish). Before my certification and my four required open water dives, I had only dived twice in Jamaica following a short resort course. My sister had only her four open water dives under her belt. Nevertheless, the current at all of the dive sites I dove in was minimal and the swell at the dive site at the Catalina Islands was no big deal. I should add that both my sister and I are experienced swimmers having both been life guards and water safety instructors, although neither of us were in particularly good shape at the time of our dives.

We went diving on August 13, 14, and 15. On August 13, we were picked up from the beach at 8:00 a.m. A small motor boat took us to a 45 foot dive boat. Bobby Jo, one of the owners of Bill Beard’s was aboard and she went on the dive with us. Her two daughters aged 13 and 11, as well as one of her daughter’s friends, joined us on the boat and her 13-year-old daughter joined us on the dive. Bobby Jo’s brother Jason, divemaster Jaieo (sp?), and divemaster in training Miranda Ross (visiting from England), who was my dive buddy, also went on the dive. The water temperature was in the low 80’s that day. The visibility was about 40-50 feet. The first dive was about 30 minutes away from the beach. The dive spot was called “Virador.” I spoke with Bobby Jo on the way to the dive. She and her husband Earl took over Bill Beard’s Diving Safaris five years ago. I told her that I heard that Bill Beard’s caters to beginners and she was quick to say that while there have been a swell of beginning divers recently Bill Beard’s caters to divers of all levels.

In preparation for my dive trip I had purchased a Canon A40 with a Canon underwater housing. I never used it before my first dive in Costa Rica. In fact, being the procrastinator that I am I waited until the night before my first to learn how to use the camera. My inexperience with the camera proved to be a drawback because I had set the image capturing device to ten seconds which prevents the use of the flash for repetitive pictures. As a result I missed out on several photo opportunities. My dive at Virador was also my first following my certification. Also, I did not have a strobe which proved to be a major handicap, although I was able to get numerous well lit shots without one.

Virador was teeming with life. We saw schools of fish of numerous varieties. I was able to photograph a few schools. We saw spotted and freckled porcupinefish, barberfish, Moorish idol, cortez and king angelfish, bicolor parrotfish, panamic frillfin, spotted scorpionfish, giant damselfish, leather bass, blunthead triggerfish, pacific dog snapper, crocodile needlefish, numerous varieties of jacks, panamic green morays, fine spotted morays, jewel morays, zebra morays, tiger snake eels, round stingrays, panamic sergeant major, giant damselfish, and others. We dove at a maximum depth of 60 feet for 32 minutes.

(CONT'D)
 
Old Dec 16th, 2002, 10:47 AM
  #6  
Jay Weinstein
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Message: TRIP REPORT -- COSTA RICA, PART VI (cont'd)

During our surface interval Bill Beard’s staff provided us with slices of fresh pineapple and cookies. The staff was very friendly and accommodating. I was the cause of concern for my dive buddy Miranda because I busied myself during the dive trying to get pictures of all of the fish and I lost the group on several occasions.

The second dive location was called Meros. We saw more of the same there. We dove 49 minutes at a maximum depth of 32 feet. The visibility there was 40 to 50 feet.



Day 7

We were picked up early to go on a horseback ride to Los Inocentes where we saw howler and black face monkeys and a baby sloth that had fallen from a tree. It was wonderful seeing the monkeys. The alpha male makes a loud guttural almost bark-like sound, trying to ward us off. They considered us to be intruders. We simply barked back at them. Sometimes the monkeys pee on the intruders but thankfully we averted that.

That night we went on a night scuba dive. It was my first. We embarked on our dive at about 6:00 p.m., with enough light to see fairly well. I especially liked seeing the surprised look on the faces of the fish when we shown our lights on them. I saw numerous octopi, although none of my pictures of them turned out. I also saw eels swimming freely, unhidden by the rocks where they inhabited during the day.

(CONT'D)
 
Old Dec 16th, 2002, 10:49 AM
  #7  
Jay Weinstein
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Message: TRIP REPORT -- COSTA RICA, PART VII (cont'd)

Day 8

On August 15, we took a trip to the Catalina Islands, which took between one and a half to two hours to reach by boat from the beach at the Allegro. The trip to the Catalinas was the highlight of my entire vacation. On the way, we saw a school of dolphins swimming off the portside of the boat. I also saw a giant turtle negotiating the waves off the same side. There were six of us taking the trip in addition to two dive masters, Lencho and Mauriccio (sp?). Lencho dived with my sister and me and Mauriccio dived with the other four divers that were more experienced than us. Two of the other divers were from Brazil and two from Denmark. The couple from Denmark took the year off to dive all over the world. The fellow from Denmark said that he’s been on over 400 dives. He said that his certification course took six months, three days a week, to complete. He said that it was common in Denmark to do decompression dives to depths in excess of 100 feet wearing 3 or 4 tanks at a time. He said that his favorite dive location in all the world is Sharm El Sheikh, which in Egypt on the Eastern coast of the Sinai peninsula, in the Red Sea. Hopefully, that will be my next dive location.

The first dive location in the Catalina Islands was called The Wall. I told Lencho that I wanted to see sharks. Sure enough, right at the beginning of the dive Lencho took us 21 meters down to a spot on the ocean floor about 25 feet by 25 feet that was surrounded by rock formations. There were three white tipped reef sharks about 8 to 10 feet long there. I was able to get several good photos of them up close. Not long after seeing the sharks than Lencho pointed up and I could see an enormous school of spotted eagle rays passing by. I swam close up to get some good photos but only one photo turned out because I had to wait so long for the flash. I kid you not when I say that there were between 50 to 100 of them. It was an incredible experience. I was foolish enough to have cornered a reef shark hidden under the rocks, trying to get a good photo of him. I didn’t get a good photo, but I did manage to anger him to the point where he came at me from under the rocks. I backed away and left him alone. The maximum depth of that dive was 21 meters, and my dive time was 40 minutes. The visibility was 40 to 50 feet.

The second dive was nearby the first at a location called The Point. We saw more reef sharks there but not the rays.

The staff of Bill Beard’s was really great. They were friendly and accommodating and skilled. The equipment was good. My only criticism was that we did not have a sufficient surface interval between the first and second dives in the Catalinas according to my NAUI dive charts. I went on the second dive anyway, probably foolishly, relying on Lencho’s computer.

I’ll try to post some of my photos of the trip when I learn how to transfer the photos from my camera to the computer.

Day 9

We started off early on our trip to San Jose and back home.

I should say that we traveled a great deal in Costa Rica but the tour operators were all very knowledgeable and the countryside is breathtaking. It played a very big and enjoyable role in our Costa Rican experience.
 
Old Dec 17th, 2002, 10:16 AM
  #8  
Tess
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Excellent trip report, Jay. Appreciate your taking the time to return to the forum and share your experience in CR. I've never gone scuba diving; your detailed description has "wetted" my appetite.
 
Old Dec 17th, 2002, 10:43 AM
  #9  
Jay Weinstein
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Thanks, Tess. The scuba diving was great in Costa Rica. Scuba diving is a wonderful experience. It's like walking on the moon (I imagine) but with so many colors and different varieties of life.
 
Old Dec 17th, 2002, 01:16 PM
  #10  
slothful
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I hope you were able to save the baby sloth! Thank you for the trip report.
 
Old Dec 17th, 2002, 11:15 PM
  #11  
maureen
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Many thanks for the detailed report. My husband and I and our 12 and 14 yr old leave tomorrow night for out first trip to CR. We will visit some of the same places you mention in your notes. I will attempt to post a detailed report to help other planning their trip. I pulled this trip off on my own from reading post/bulletin boards and checking tourbooks. We rent a car and drive to Sarchi, Arenal, Monteverde and Quepos in our 8 day trip.
I was confused, however, by the date of your trip. Looking at the date of your posting, I thought you had taken your trip Dec 2002 but I realized that you traveled in August 2002.
 
Old Dec 17th, 2002, 11:17 PM
  #12  
maureen
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Sorry, I just notice that you mention aug '02 in the title of the post. oh well
 
Old Dec 18th, 2002, 07:51 AM
  #13  
Jay Weinstein
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Slothful,
One of our guides used a branch and lured the baby sloth to cling to it and placed him on a low brach of a tree. Our guide, who is a biologist, said that the sloth had a better chance to survive but unfortunately didn't hold out much hope for him.
 
Old Dec 28th, 2002, 09:05 AM
  #14  
Sandy
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Hi Jay:

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this wonderful and adventurous itinerary. We are two couples in mid to late fifties and we will be going to CR late January to mid February for three glorious weeks. After reading your experiences, I am overcome with excitement. You covered, clothing, your preferred way of travel, places to visit, food, art, etc.. in the most detailed,wonderful and exciting way. We will definitely contact Oldemar. If there are any places that we should/must visit, please let us know.

Thanks again,
Sandy
 
Old Dec 28th, 2002, 05:39 PM
  #15  
Jay Weinstein
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Sandy,
I'm glad you liked my trip report. I received a great deal of sound advice from this message board in preparing for my trip. Someone advised me once that when traveling to a foreign country you should experience the best that that country has to offer. You can do and see a great deal in three weeks. Costa Rica has world class white water rafting. I highly recommend white water rafting down the Pacuare river. You may want to explore the wildlife at Manuel Antonio National Park. Although I did not experience it myself, I would look into turtle walks at Tortuguero National Park (although you are not traveling during the most opportune time for that.) Costa Rica also has world class fishing and bird-watching. You have enough time to go to the Osa Peninsula and hike through the Corcovado National Park, which has incredible wildlife. I really enjoyed horseback riding in Costa Rica. It's a great way to see the rain forest. Good luck planning your trip. Let me know if I can be of any further assistance.
Jay
 
Old Jan 4th, 2003, 09:31 AM
  #16  
Sandy
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Greetings and a Very Happy and Healthy New Year from Ontario, Canada!

Thanks again for all the info. I was wondering if it would be inappropriate to ask for approximate costs for your driver and tours? Please do not answer if it is uncomfortable. I also wanted to ask if you had any customs trouble returning to the US with pieces of art work from CR. A couple of days ago we heard on the news that there will be stiffer restrictions for Canadians/everyone travelling through the US. Since we will be leaving from Toronto, Ontario, connecting in New Jersey to San Jose and returning the same route,I am getting a bit worried.

Thanks again,
Sandy

 
Old Jan 4th, 2003, 02:15 PM
  #17  
Sue
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I read your concerns with much interest. I am one of the few people on this board I guess that prefers to let the driving be done by someone else. We drove ourselves for many trips and find having a driver much more relaxing. What are vacations for anyway.
Regarding bug spray. I do not use it unless absolutely necessary. Most of the time I never to need it but there have been times I was caught without it and ended up with a mess of bites. You just never know. Better to have it with you to use if there is a problem.
 
Old Jan 4th, 2003, 04:50 PM
  #18  
Jay Weinstein
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Sandy,
I won't reveal publicly the prices I paid for my trip because that sort of information is discouraged on this site (it attracts and encourages participation on the site by those who may have something to gain financially.) I will, however, send you a personal email on the overall cost of my trip (after I locate that information.) I will say that I did shop around among numerous travel agents, and I even compared the quotes I received from my travel agent with the prices I could have obtained on my own. In my experience, interestingly, the prices from the travel agent were actually lower. Although I did receive lower quotes on airfare from other sources, and arranged for airfare on my own.

I had no trouble at all traveling with my artwork, and getting through customs was a breeze. Of course, you should have a valid passport.

Sue,
I'm with you. I prefer to be driven around, at least I did on my short ten-day vacation to Costa Rica that was packed so full of activities.

With respect to the bug issue, I also agree with you. Better to be prepared. I came prepared with bug spray with a very large percentage of "deet" and that did the trick.
Jay
 
Old Jan 6th, 2003, 09:04 AM
  #19  
Traveler
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Jay,
Great trip report. My hubby and my 13 year old are planning to go in June. We're not divers, but can you tell me how the snorkeling is? Is there snorkeling right off the shore on some beaches, or do you have to book a boat tour? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

 
Old Jan 6th, 2003, 09:52 AM
  #20  
Jay Weinstein
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Traveler,
I have not done any snorkeling in Costa Rica. But I will say that the diving in Costa Rica (off of the west Pacific coast and off of Osa) is not the same as the diving in the Carribean. The visibility in Costa Rica is not nearly as good. However, the Costa Rica shores are teeming with large schools of fish and pelagic life so I enjoyed scuba diving there immensely. However, I am not sure that you would find the same kind of great experience snorkeling because of the reduced visibility. Just my guess.
Jay
 

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