Trip Report: July 2010 OAT Tour

Old Feb 18th, 2011, 07:51 AM
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Trip Report: July 2010 OAT Tour

Every now and then someone asks a question on this forum about seeing Costa Rica by guided tour as opposed to planning and doing it all oneself. We always hear from a few people who basically wouldn’t be caught dead on a hosted tour. Others point out that having all the navigation and transportation done by someone else, and having all the arrangements, reservations, baggage handling, and information delivery tailored by an experienced travel firm is potentially an appealing way to travel. Here is a trip report of our tour. (I am sure there are lurking typos; sorry.)

This was our seventh trip to Costa Rica. We’ve experienced a fair amount of the country, most of it by planning by ourselves and sometimes hiring a driver. (Thanks, Tucan Limo). We are older (early 70s) and are less eager to be constantly busy and active than younger travelers. We continue to return to Costa Rica as a winter escape because it is dependably hot and sunny during our home winter, and we love the tropics and the very special flora and fauna. We also feel good about the quiet dignity of the Ticos who are not yet too bruised by the tourist industry. We chose this tour, Real Affordable Costa Rica, (despite its grammatical disaster of a name) offered by OAT, Overseas Adventure Travel, because it accomplished a number of goals. We wanted to see what CR is like in the rainy season; we wanted to see more of Guanacaste; see the sights in San Jose (that we usually avoid); visit some rainforests away from the Pacific lowlands; spend more time at Arenal; visit Caño Negro, and watch the green turtles lay eggs. Of course, we are perfectly capable of planning and executing a trip like this on our own, but we thought this would be fun and easy. It was both.

The small tours organized by OAT have 16 passengers in a typical Costa Rican “Turismo” mini bus designed to hold 20 passengers. The luggage travels on top, carefully wrapped in heavy plastic. The same guide/manager/director was with us for the entire 16 days, and we rarely had additional docents. Our guide was extremely well versed in every detail and could field every question quickly without equivocation. Her English was pretty rough, but manageable. We were encouraged to use Spanish, but most didn’t, wouldn’t, or couldn’t. There was a 13 day general tour plus a 3 day add-on to visit Tortuguero.

There are drawbacks to this kind of tour. If you are considering one, you might think how much negative impact the drawbacks will have. Single travelers may end up being more alone than they want, since there are usually no activities after dark, and darkness comes early. There is likely to be someone who annoys you for any number of reasons. Your lifestyle, especially your vacation style, may demand more varied and upscale food choices and restaurants than are available. If you view organization and management of your time as unwelcome regimentation, and can’t compromise on this point, then don’t expect much from a hosted tour.

We liked the tour and are glad we did it. Could we have planned it ourselves? The basics, yes. All the specific activities, no. We simply would not have known about many of these things, or would have missed them because we wouldn’t have known how to handle the logistics

The tour starts in San Jose, moves to the Sarapiquí area, then to Arenal,
Caño Negro, Guanacaste, the mid Pacific Coast, San Jose (overnight), Tortuguero,
San Jose. The second night in San Jose is to permit passengers who were not going on to Tortuguero to leave the tour for early flights. As we arrived at each hotel, the guide picked up a packet of keys and handed them out to tour members. Bags appear at the door soon after. Check out usually amounted to turning in the key at the desk and paying for any extras.

The hotel used in San Jose is Clarion Amon Plaza. This hotel was very pleasant and the staff was exemplary. The air-conditioning was not actually cooling us, but the windows worked and were narrow enough and high enough off the ground to prevent unwelcome visitors from entering. The noise simply doesn’t bother us, but others might be annoyed. There is a TV and room safe and extremely strong WiFi signals on all floors as well as the lobby. There is a casino attached and a nice little restaurant where we ate a pleasant meal. The hotel is about 8 blocks from the opera house. (There is a certain amount of groupthink on a tour such as this. Everyone noticed the widespread use of barbed wire and razor wire on the buildings in much of San Jose, and this observation colored their views of the entire city.) In good traffic, the hotel was 30 minutes or less from the airport. In bad traffic, it was very long. (When we went to Tortuguero, we were asked to take with us only our carry-ons and check our large bags at the hotel. When we returned, we were delighted to find our large bags in our assigned rooms, waiting for us.) On our first day, we "did" the museums and opera house.

Our next stop was at Sarapiquis Rainforest Lodge. This is near the town of La Virgen and is directly adjacent to the Tirimbini Biological Reserve. A short paved walk leads from the main rancho of the hotel to the main building of the Reserve. This hotel has unique architecture and design. The huge conical roofs are nicely thatched (or in the process of being re-thatched). No one noticed until I mentioned it, but the newer thatch is artificial. It is a very realistic-looking plastic substitute meant to outlast the real thing by many years. Possibly . The preferred natural material, the suiita palm, probably can’t meet the ever increasing needs for this exotic roofing material. I think that some of the rooms at this hotel are air-conditioned. Ours wasn’t. The room had an overhead fan but no real ventilation. These were to two most uncomfortable nights of the trip (possibly of our lives). The included food was ok but no better. The attraction here was the forest next door. But they did have WiFi here.

The first bird of the morning at our lodge along the Sarapiqui River was a male Montezuma’s Oropendola, (el Spike Jones bird) performing the most amazing, LONG sequences of pops, clicks, rattles, whistles, and meowing imaginable.. There was too much foliage to get a picture, but the sound itself was simply wonderful. I really want that for a ringtone. They are beautiful in flight also.

(In the library of the Tirimbini complex, during a lecture about bats, I just happened to notice a copy of a book I had written 26 years ago. I was really pleased until I realized that it was only there, like all the other books there, because the original owner didn’t want it anymore.)

Alongside a trail in the Tirimbini Reserve, our guide spotted a young Fer de Lance, coiled up taking a snooze. For an aggressive snake, it seemed rather blah. (Possibly a reptile dysfunction.). I was they eighth person to stand over it and take flash pictures, and it just lay there. We weren’t in any real danger I suppose, but it was the event of the day.

In the Arenal area, we stayed at the Casa Luna just outside of La Fortuna. We had one afternoon, a full day, and half another day with a full clear view of Volcan Arenal. Stunning. The (then) current volcanic activity was huge releases of hot gasses accompanied by a wonderful roar. This side of the volcano has one thing in common with the so-called lava flow side, and that is that lava doesn’t flow here either. Huge glowing boulders may bounce down the ashy slope of the lava side, leaving a trail of smoke, dust, and more red rocks, but flowing lava of the Hawaiian type isn’t typical. Arenal is an ash cone, not an accretion of molten lava. Lots of red hot boulders make for a good nighttime show, but I wouldn’t inconvenience myself trying to see real flowing molten rock. I love Arenal no matter what it does or doesn’t do. There was a tour included that covered the suspended bridges, dinner, and a thoroughly dishonest “lava viewing walk,” but we skipped it, having done the bridges before. The hotel pool is very nice, and the food is a notch above average. We had one meal on our own that was very pleasant. WiFi was good in the restaurant and in the lobby. No room safes, but there was TV and air conditioning. The rooms were very nice but lacked chairs and the beds had extensive mountain ranges of pillows with no place to put them at bedtime. The small patio was very nice for volcano viewing, and the plantings sheltered many birds. Second floor balconies had much better views.

For our visit to Caño Negro, we stayed at Caño Negro Natural Lodge near the small town of Los Chiles, and almost in the Caño Negro wetlands. The hotel is mostly duplex cabinas, each with two nice rooms. There was air conditioning and room safes. The food was ok, but all the meals we had were part of the tour, and these tend to be pretty plain. The nice pool had suffered a severe filter failure, and we were advised not to use it. (Two elderly looking ladies used it and showed no ill-effects, assuming, of course, that they also looked elderly before they swam.) The grounds are nice and include a turtle pond and a poolside bar where we got some cooking lessons. The dining area was incredibly hot and seemed to retain all the kitchen heat. Being very close to the wetlands meant we could devote more time to the water part of the tour, but we didn’t. We had WiFi everywhere except at Caño Negro.

I had been oversold on Caño Negro. This area deserves only seasonal praise. It is a stop for migrating waterfowl during the dry season. During the wet season, when we were there, it is interesting, but, to me, definitely not worth inconveniencing oneself to see when the migrating birds are not there.

The next stop was Buena Vista Lodge in or near Rincon de la Vieja National Park. The rooms were in duplex cabinas again. No air conditioning was needed at the altitude. No room safes or TV. They have an internet café and strong WiFi signals in many locations. The resort is quite large and can absorb bus loads from the cruise ships. They have a huge number of horses for riding (I was told over 100), a zipline of 11 platforms, a 400 meter waterslide, hot springs including a steam room and mudbath, waterfalls by horseback, 16 hanging bridges, a butterfly garden, and a serpentarium. The food offered was the best of the trip. Wow, some barbequed pork, chicken LEGS, excellent fish, and even incredible pot roast, and crisp, deep fried cassava (yuca). There are actually 5 different restaurants, though we only used 3 of them. Oh, yes, there was a nice view as the name of the place suggests. I can imagine a quick trip to CR, landing in Liberia, spending a few days here to experience a taste of everything except a beach.

After a long ride, we arrived on the Pacific coast where we stayed at Monterey del Mar, a very nice property next door to Xandari, on Playa Esterillos Este near Parrita. A very nice pool, in-room safes, air conditioning, satellite TV, lovely open air restaurant, typically beautiful but shallow beach--but there were problems. I chalk it up to it being sort of off season with a very small staff. The group occupied about 10 rooms and there was something different wrong with each one of them. One room lacked towels, one lacked toilet paper, one lacked soap, one lacked hot water, one lacked cold water, one TV wouldn’t work, and none of the in-room safes worked. Management decided that there could be no lights on over our tables at supper because it would draw bugs. There was a light on over the tables at the other end of the room and a light over the buffet area, but we were in the dark. Dark as in black, not just dim exaggerated, but pitch dark. I mounted a bright LED headlight on one of the lighting brackets and we had enough light to eat by. By this time we definitely wanted to see what we were being fed. All of this was accompanied by much laughter and sarcastic joking, thank heavens. This night had to be a fluke. No place could do this on a regular basis and stay in business.

Although under repair, the new toll highway was open in mid July and was a joy to travel on. The highway was designed some years ago (20 or so) and the vertical walls of the cuts into the mountainside are much too close to the highway and too steep. Landslides and falling rocks are a real hazard, and various means of containing the mountainside are being applied over much of the length of the highway. The problem was both predictable and avoidable.

We visited Manuel Antonio beach from here. I hate the entrance/exit to the park. It must contribute a lot to the impression that MA is the prisoner of tourism. The relatively new restroom and changing areas inside the park, near the beach, have made the park little more than a beach adventure for many people. Since we had toured the park more thoroughly years before, the quick trot down the gravel road was a big let down.

I enjoyed seeing a lady get bit by a monkey on the beach. I was standing about 20 feet in front of this little drama and saw it quickly reach the bloody stage. The lady sat eating some sort of fruit and was approached by two capuchins. She sort of absently broke off a piece of fruit and handed it to one of the monkeys. Then they wanted the whole thing and climbed on her to get at it. When she brushed them away, she got a nice bite on the arm. There was a ranger close by with a first aid kit who came to give first aid. She got no sympathy from the crowd. I regretted that I could not get my camera on in time.

After another overnight in San Jose, we left early for Tortuguero. This involves traveling on our regular bus to Caño Blanco, where we left the bus and took the long, but fascinating boat ride to our hotel, Turtle Beach Lodge. Caño Blanco is a transfer point including a restaurant and many, many restrooms, where various hotels meet their tourists with each hotel’s exclusive boat. The arrival at Turtle Beach Lodge is through a narrow private canal that ends in a large and very attractive boathouse, where you can embark and disembark protected from the rain, if any. The rooms are very basic. No room safe, no TV, no air conditioning, but ceiling fans, rockers on the porch, and lots of hot water. There are howlers close by, and a gaggle of spider monkeys works its way from one end of the property to the other (and back) each evening. This lodge is right on the Caribbean beach, which is too rough for swimming, but great for exploring. The food here was quite good. Always something interesting and tasty, in addition to the obligatory rice and beans.

At Tortuguero, reclining on a beach chair, looking at the waves, I discovered I had a WiFi signal and could send photos to everyone via Facebook. Otherwise, we seemed to be at the end of the earth.

The nighttime trip to the beach in Tortuguero required all sorts of rigid discipline on the part of the observers. Park rangers managed the groups of tourists and insisted that we be divided into groups of ten and follow instructions so that the turtles would not be inconvenienced in their hole-digging and egg-laying. At one point, the rangers recombined all the groups in the center of the beach and went off to chat among themselves. Suddenly we were aware that the turtle immediately behind us had finished her work and was heading toward the water through our tightly-packed crowd, and in the water, another turtle was leaving the water and heading toward us to start digging. Turtles to either side seemed to block us also. Somehow we allowed the turtle behind is to get though, and that seemed to discourage the one coming out of the water.

On returning from Tortuguero, our stop at the banana plantation was one of the most interesting stops of the whole trip. Running throughout the plantation is a metal bar, about 6 feet above ground, supported by metal pipes every so many feet. Blue-bagged banana bunches, freshly cut, are hung on the bar and connected with other bunches to form sort of a train. These “trains” are pulled along the bar to the packing area. When a train is moving, it is fascinating to see these blue-bagged bunches of bananas drifting through the plantation, crossing the roads on a device that lifts up the bar after the bananas pass so that the motor traffic can get through. This is definitely worth seeing.

In addition to the major activities described above, there were many other stops and moments of discovery. We visited a woodworking factory in Alajuela where jewelry and trinkets were made; the bus stopped in a small town and we were told we had to use our Spanish to find the toilets, (P.S. it’s always the grocery store, and the smiling store personnel saw us coming); we had a grocery stop to shop for food which we cooked later in the day; we watched a native potter, with the help of a team of oxen, we squeezed sugar cane and then drank the juice; we visited a local school; made our own empanadas in a Costa Rican home; visited a bakery; had a wonderful meal with a CR family; visited quite a few butterfly gardens; saw the sights in San Jose; went rafting on the Sarapiqui; had an excellent hands-on lecture on bats at the Tirimbini reserve; visited an Indian village where we had lunch; soaked in thermal pools; went horseback riding; went ziplining; took the Pacific Tram near Parrita; did the crocodile viewing boat ride on the Tarcoles; saw the pineapple farm; and visited the coffee plantation.

There was still enough time to enjoy the sunsets and just sit and look and listen.

We liked the tour very much and felt it was money well spent. If you are considering a hosted tour of this type and if you are willing to make a few compromises, you might find group travel worth while.
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Old Feb 18th, 2011, 08:34 AM
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And here are a few photographs.[email protected]/page2/
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Old Feb 18th, 2011, 09:36 AM
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Great report. And, at least you wrote a book someone wanted to buy at some point--much more than most of us can say!
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Old Feb 18th, 2011, 09:53 AM
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Thanks for posting, kink; you have a wry sense of humor!
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Old Feb 18th, 2011, 10:28 AM
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Great report!! Ha!! Reptile Disfunction!!
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Old Feb 18th, 2011, 11:36 AM
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Great report and insights on OAT tours. For a company that sells themselves on small groups I am a bit surprised that you had 16, not really what I consider small, especially when you get to stand in line to take flash photos of a malfunctioning fer-de-lance.

How long is the rainy season? I went in November which is also rainy but perhaps has more migrating birds, I wondered about Caño Negro but also gave it a miss.

"I enjoyed seeing a lady get bit by a monkey on the beach"--love it!!
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Old Feb 18th, 2011, 12:32 PM
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Fun report, and very nice pictures. Can't believe that blue jeans frog--great shot!
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Old Feb 19th, 2011, 07:53 PM
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Great report. Love the reference to groupthink. Can you tell me what animals you did see on the Cano Negro tour? We're going to be there in June and are considering it.
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Old Feb 20th, 2011, 03:33 AM
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B, we've done it in July and seen howler, capuchin, and spider monkeys, caimans, sloths, Jesus Christ lizards, and water birds like cormorants, egrets, and herons.
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Old Feb 20th, 2011, 06:11 AM
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mlgb: OAT tours are relatively small in most of their markets compared to the 40+ pax tours offered in most markets. So it's smaller than some but bigger than others. Grand Circle, OAT's sister company, offers larger tours I think. I really didn't have to stand in line to take the photos. We were already in line, wandering through the forest, and I was last in line so I could take foliage fotos without being hurried. But this IS group travel.

I should be more accurate about Cano Negro and birds. The area is on the flight path for migrating birds. When they are migrating, there will be hoards of birds, especially cormorants. This only sort of matches up with the wet and dry season of the north of CR. There is still stuff to see, but the wildlife is similar to Tortuguero. We saw plenty of monkey butts (high in the trees) and standard north CR birds, but not in great numbers nor fairly close.

BAJJ: Our list of wildlife sighted is the same as volcanogirl's list. We also saw the two kingfishers, iguanas high in trees, a tucanet, and water buffalo soaking among the lilly pads.

Again, my comment that I was oversold on Cano Negro has to do with extreme praise for the amount and variety of wildlife, which I didn't find all that unique--presumably because the clouds of cormorants weren't migrating.

aprillilacs: Thanks (to all) for the kind words about the photos. The blue jeans frog was actually in a butterfly display along the highway, where we stopped for breakfast. It is a very tiny frog. I was glad to get it in situ rather than between the fingers of a guide. I think that any decline in the frog population is partly due to too many "guides" handling them for tourist photographers!

The camera used was an small, underwater Cannon D10, which I took along during the "rainy season." There were serious rains for two hours on two afternoons, and not enough to threaten most cameras. The D10 (12 megapixels, 4x) is a good camera for those worried about moisture.
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