Trip Report MA and Arenel

Old Sep 9th, 2005, 02:08 PM
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Trip Report MA and Arenel

Trip Report
I just returned from CR on Sunday. We went to Tabacon Resort and Si Como No in MA. My expectations of Costa Rica were so high after reading these posts it would have been almost impossible for a destination to meet them. I expected friendly talkative drivers, stopping for lunch a soda on our drive to MA for a great local meal and friendly engaging Costa Ricans. You probably will encounter at least one of the above during your trip, but it is also Costa Rica so… drivers are late, reservations can be incorrect and at least a few things to go wrong. Additionally, Costa Rica is much more Americanized than I had thought it would be. Most places play American music, pretty much everyone speaks English and most checks provide the conversion to US dollars. We never even changed our money, but keep in mind we were to the most two most visited areas. Although I was a little disappointed by this, it did make things easier. We also could have been more adventurous in our dinner and tour options, providing a more “Tico” experience.

The following is our trails and tribulations. You can clearly see where we made some mistakes; hopefully this post will help you avoid some and take advantage of some of our better experiences.

We arrived Friday night at SJ airport. We had booked through Ralph at Gialink Travel. We were told Ms. Leon would meet us with a driver. I was pleased with this as I had no idea what to expect exiting the airport in Costa Rica. When we exited the airport there was no one to meet us. This was a little nerve racking as Mrs. Leon was supposed to give us all our vouchers for our hotels and transportation. A friendly Costa Rican offered their service and used their cell phone to call the travel agency, but of course it was closed at 8pm at night. However, within 15 minutes though our driver did show up, although no Mrs Leon.

Once under way our driver was friendly but was unclear how to get to our hotel. We did manage to find it. We stayed at the Vista del Valle Plantation in Alajuela. Although we arrived at 9:30pm, everything was pretty shut down. A guard walked us to our hut, the Mona Lisa, while I walked with a flash light. There was no TV or radio, but there were 2 cold coronas in the mini bar. We walked in to find a mosquito net along with a few friendly spiders, moths and crickets in our room. I had visions of the Expedia commercial when we turned out the lights. However it was fine. We did keep our bags zipped up the whole time we were there though. In the morning the view from our room made any apprehensions worthwhile. We were over looking a valley of the rainforest and could hear the 300 foot waterfall from our room. It only got better from there. We started walking around the property to find small bridges over creeks and a beautiful pool with a waterfall, Jacuzzi and lovely patio for breakfast. Everyone was extremely friendly. Breakfast was excellent, local fare of eggs, rice and beans, tortilla and cheese. Fresh fruit and cereals available as well. After breakfast we relaxed by the pool for about an hour and then it was time to shower up and get ready for Arenel.

Our driver was to pick us up at 10, but showed up at 10:40am. We spent the time chatting with Brook at the reception area who gave us great tips on CR. The driver to Arenel took about 2 ˝ hours and we stopped in La Fortuna to pick up beer, bottled water and wine for our resort.

We stayed at Tabacon Hot Springs. Arriving on a Saturday is a pretty hectic scene. People and lines everywhere. We were given hot towels to wipe our hands and glasses of fruit punch, but the charm of that was a little lost due to the chaos of the lobby. It was about 1:30 by the time we checked in and we were told our room would not be ready for several hours. Fortunately we had worn our bathing suits under our clothes on the ride up, so we just went down to the Hot Springs. It truly is amazing. However, it is not completely natural. Tabacon has taken a natural river and added paths, landscaping and bridges. Hence some people call this a Disneyland experience. If you are looking for something completely nature this is not it. We found it beautiful. We caught happy hour at the upper bar and sat on the bench under the waterfall and listened to other people’s Costa Rican experiences. That is the one thing about Costa Rica I loved, people talk to you everywhere you go. Mostly Americans but if you are sitting in the pool, on a boat, in the hot springs next to them they generally start a conversation. It was very enjoyable.

We had great massages later in the day and checked into our room at 5pm. We probably could have gotten in earlier but were having too much fun at the springs. The rooms are standard hotel rooms. Nothing outstanding or lavish, but you are really there to experience the Hot Springs and volcano. We had a superior room and had an excellent view of the volcano.

The first night we could not see the volcano it was stuck in a cloud. That night we went to the buffet at the Hot Spring restaurant. The food was average, similar to a cruise line buffet. After dinner we went to the lobby bar that had a guitarist playing music and then off to bed.

Sunday morning we had breakfast at the hotel restaurant. The buffet was quite extensive including omelet station and smoothie bar. If you are a pastry fan beware, everywhere in Costa Rica the pastry and bread are covered with flies and ants on the buffets. The restaurant is next to the hotel main pool which is for hotel guests only. We discovered this pool has a much better view of the volcano then the Hot Springs.

Sunday we went back to the Hot Springs and got another massage. Around 4pm came back to the hotel and decided to go to the hotel pool to check out their swim up bar. Unfortunately the pool had been drained since breakfast, so no swim up bar. We decided to bring our own beers down, enjoy the volcano view and hope for an eruption. The pool being closed was actually a blessing as it was so peaceful and quiet there. Around 5:30 pm the volcano started to erupt and we had a clear view of it. However, from Tabacon you could only see lava occasionally running down the right side. Some people stopped by and told us from the Arenel Observatory you could see the whole lava flow and hear the rocks tumbling down the face of the volcano. Apparently that night it rivaled some of the best pictures we have seen on the internet. Of course we were just to content watching from our hotel and decided to just relax and stay at the hotel restaurant for dinner. The meal there at the A la carte Toucans was excellent. Prices ranged from $11-16 dollars an entrée. My husband had the steak, which was just incredible. I could not believe how good steak in Costa Rica was. After dinner we sat on our balcony and watched the volcano which continued to erupt until after midnight when we went to bed.

The next day we were up early for the 9 am transfer to Manuel Antonio that I had arranged with Ralph at Gialink. Unfortunately, the agency in CR set the transfer for 10:30 even though I had requested 9am. After we had checked out and were waiting in the lobby for about 40 minutes my husband asked me to call and check on the driver. It was then we noticed the voucher said 10:30am. So when you get your vouchers check to make sure you have all your vouchers and that times are what you arranged. The woman behind the desk at Tabacon was so sweet. She called the agency to find out what had happened and they said it would be 10:30 that was what they set up. I was clearly upset as we now had to sit in the lobby for another hour with a 5-6 hour trip after that. The girl behind the desk was telling me how bad she felt that we had to wait, but “that’s Costa Rica, things happen” Well I was sitting reading my book and she approached me again and gave me a glass of fruit punch which I found so thoughtful and considerate. Then she gave me the bad news, there was an accident and the driver would not be there at 10:30 more like 11:00. Then at 11:00 she called me over to the desk and asked for the number of the travel agency as she wanted to call again and find out where the driver was for us. She was extremely considerate. As we were doing so, the driver arrived and after our 2 hour lobby wait we were off to MA, thinking if that was the worst mishap on this trip we were in good shape. Our driver Raphael was not talkative at all, but he drove like a madman to try and make up some of the time we had lost. I was very touched by both of these individuals who really cared that we had to sit around and waste 2 hours of our vacation, which clearly isn’t the end of the world.

So Raphael drives us to MA, quick stop to see the Crocodiles and we were at Si Como No by 3:30pm, pretty impressive.

I was surprised to find that in Manuel Antonio the hill is covered with hotels and cafes. I had the impression that the hill between Quepos and MA had maybe 10 hotels spread across it. Not true, from Si Como No down to the beach there is pretty much a line of hotels. I was shocked to find there are buses and trucks chugging up the hill from MA all day long and this can be very loud as you are sitting at the pool or if you have a road side room.

We checked into Si Como No and I was somewhat disappointed. First we asked at the front desk what there was to do and were told by a sullen desk employee “There is nothing to do but the tours.” (Well welcome to Si Como No.) We were then taken all the way down the hill to building 13 that others on Fodors have complained about as it is so far into the forest. We should have asked if there was anything higher up but didn’t.

I would say there are a number of things the staff at Si Como No could have told us that would have made our trip easier and more enjoyable.
1. The local bus runs from Quepoes to MA every 15 mins and is 105 colons.
2. The cafes and bars at MA beach are much more affordable and more “happening” than those on the hill.
3. That the Wednesday we were there was National Park Day and not only was the park free but they had a band and other festivities. We found this out Wednesday night from other guests.
4. You can pretty much walk to most restaurants from the hotel and a list of those restaurants would have been helpful. I had read so much on this post but couldn’t remember a lot if it once I got to MA.

Anyway we still hadn’t had lunch so we decided to walk down the road in search of somewhere to go. I had read about “the airplane” El Avion so we went in search of that. We found it about a block towards MA from Si Como No. It was the perfect place for a late lunch. Although others have called it an eye sore, once inside it is absolutely lovely. It is two decks of wooden furniture with a gorgeous view of the pacific. We found we liked upstairs better. Unfortunately at 4pm it was pretty dead there, so we had a sandwich and beer and headed back to the hotel. The food and prices here were very reasonable.

Back to hotel and we unpacked and got organized. At 6pm the rain stared and it was of monsoon caliber. We decided to just stay in as it was pouring and we were tired. So
With no TV at 6:30pm we went to bed.

Up the next day to beautiful sunshine. Nice breakfast at the hotel overlooking the pacific, beautiful view. Took the 9:30am shuttle to the park. Decided to tour the park on our own and it was great. If you want to see all the different kinds of plants and bugs and know their names, get a guide. If you want to just see the park and monkeys you can do it on your own. We took the island hike which is a lot of steps and quite hot. By the time we were done our shirts were literally soaked. We then hung out on the beach for while and then returned to MA beach. There we decided to rent lounges, it was clear and sunny however I could hear thunder and mentioned that but we were assured it was in “Panama and wouldn’t rain in MA” Idiot Americans-- its rainy season! So 30 mins after we paid $8 for our lounges and $11 for 2 Coronas it starts pouring. Clearly these local guys spotted two suckers and we fell for it hook line and sinker. I am sure we could have negotiated a better deal for both and would have paid less in NJ for the same; however we were rookies there and just getting our bearings. It left us feeling that the Ticos were just out to rip off the stupid Americans and not the friendly people we had read about.

Anyway it’s now pouring so we head across the street to the Marlin for lunch. It was an outstanding lunch for a good price, but we had sandy water shoes on wet feet, shirts that were still wet from our hike and ready to go home. So we walked around in the rain for another 30 mins waiting for the hotel shuttle, (clearly not our best afternoon in MA) during this time we must have seen at least 5 local buses and we should have just jumped on one, but we weren’t that daring get.

We were starting to get the hang of it though. We realized we had to adjust to doing things in the rain, so back to the hotel and into the Jacuzzi while it rained. We took a nap and then we went to the bar at our hotel around 6pm. We met up with a couple from Philly who also were disappointed with the hotel. They were very surprised as friends had stayed there and raved about the place. We then went to Karlos for dinner. It is a small place with 10 plastic tables on a deck surrounded by white lights with a bar at the end. It looks like they have other smaller patios they can put tables on as well. They were playing 80’s music, the food was great and we really enjoyed it. When we were finished with dinner we moved to the bar and finished our bottle of wine. While there the bartender gave us complimentary shots of some fruity thing, we usually would not drink them, but thought what the heck. On the way home we decided to stop into Byblos which has a casino. We played Black Jack for about 10 mins, so you can decide which is more fun Blackjack or putting your money into an ashtray and watching it burn. No way to win there. We hadn’t lost much so we had a beer at the bar, which has pool tables and a large screen TV. They had a baseball game on the TV when we were there. Back to the hotel and called it an evening.

Wednesday we decided to relax and enjoy the adult pool in the morning. It was again a beautiful sunny day. We had now figured out it started to rain around 1:30-2pm in the afternoon and continues on and off until the next gorgeous sunny day. It was here we started to see what everyone likes so much about Si Como. It was so tranquil sitting there looking out at the water. We decided wait until the rain came then shower up and take the bus into Quepos to doing some shopping and lunch. Trekking around in the rain is so much better with dry shoes and an umbrella. We took the local bus down into town. We didn’t find anything in the stores that was great so we headed to El Grand Escape which I had read a lot about. I have to say it’s a tourist trap. We paid $40 for lunch and a couple of beers. The food was good, but within the hour I was running for the Imodium and a bathroom. We took the bus back up to the hotel. I would skip Quepos if I had to do it again. My husband decided to Jacuzzi while I took a quick nap.

We went back to the airplane, El Avion for dinner. It was good and cheap. They had a band playing which sounded a bit like howling dogs, but they were so bad it was funny. We called it an early night due to my condition (thanks to lunch). We did stop at the bar by the adult pool and watched soccer game on the TV with the bartender for about 45 minutes which was fun.

The next morning was beautiful and sunny again. I felt great thanks to the Imodium. We had breakfast and headed out to the cameraman tour. I wish we had done this on Tuesday as it was so much fun. It immediately put us in a great mood and if we had been questioning the merits of MA, we were definitely won over. Wille our first mate was lots of fun and made us drink many beers. We snorkeled and saw dolphins swimming in the water. Back to the hotel after the trip and went to the adult pool where we ran into people who had been on the boat with us. Everyone hung out at the swim up bar for a while and unbelievably it wasn’t raining.

We got ready for an early dinner as we wanted to go to Makanda for sunset. It’s a pretty far hike from the main road so we were glad it was light out as we walked. It was very pretty at Makanda nice view. I had considered staying here as well, but when I saw the location was glad we hadn’t as it would have been difficult to get to other restaurants at night. We had drinks by the pool and actually watched sunset over dinner. After the sun went down it poured rain. They waiter closed the curtains surrounding the restaurant and we enjoyed the tranquil music they were playing. We called a cab to get home as we didn’t want to make the very uneven walk down the road home. We were really starting to like this place.

Friday we decided to go back to the park. This time we saw monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. One came right up to me on the beach only a foot away. Another ran onto the beach and opened someone’s back pack with out a second hesitation—amazing. We hiked out to the third beach and saw more monkeys out that way. We saw an Anteater on the second beach as well. We decided to relax on the second beach for an hour or so and then headed back to MA for lunch. We went to Mar Y Sol on the beach and it was great. Lots of locals there. Catch the 2:40 shuttle back to the hotel as we had many things to do on our last day in MA. Once back at the hotel we had to try the slide into the pool as we had yet to do so. What fun, you wouldn’t think 2 middle 40’s would love a slide so much. Then we wanted to go to Costa Verde to see the monkey that are supposed to show up at 4pm everyday. Unfortunately we ran out of time.

At 5pm the rain finally came but we had been lucky it had held off that long. We took the 5:30 shuttle back to the beach. We went to the Marlin for 2/1 happy hour and had dinner their as well. Around 7 pm all of MA loss power and lights went off. I expected a mass exodus but they calmly turned on the emergency light and everything went on pretty much the same. About 30 minutes later that light gave out and they put out some candles. We left there around 8:30 on the local bus and were surprised to find entire hill from MA to Quepos totally blacked out. Then we saw Si Como No as we rounded the bend and blessed them for their generator. They were the only lights on the hill. We went up to the bar by the adult pool had a drink and then went back to our room. It was still raining. Fortunately we made it back to our room as at 10pm, we lost power as well.
So we went to bed.

Got up on Saturday had to pack up and head out to the airport by 11am. It was no problem to get a cab and when we got to the airport I had to take a picture of it. It was no more than a shack. We were there at 11:15 for a 12:10 flight and we could have probably been there at 11:50. Our luggage was weighted in and we made the 25 lb limit. They did not weight our carry ons.

We flew back to San Jose and returned to Vista del Valle Plantation. Saw Brook when we arrived at 2pm, she arranged for us to get massages at 3:30 and 4:30pm. An hour massage was only $35. After our relaxing massages we trekked down to the 300foot waterfall. I made it as far as the ladder and then my fear of heights stopped me. My husband went the whole way and said it was worth it, but that it wasn’t an easy hike.
We then had dinner at the hotel which was nice and relaxing. Wasn’t much to do after dinner. We had a glass of wine by the pool and went back to our hut. This time it just didn’t seem as buggy as the first, maybe I was getting used to it. I truly loved Vista.

We had to leave at 6am Sunday am for our 8:30 flight. We had purchased our departure tax on arrival so check in was fairly quick and before we knew it we were on our way home.

We never had a problem with the mosquitoes but we used Deet. We didn’t have any problem with the food other that at El Grand Escape. I would say Costa Rica is similar to the Caribbean but more beautiful and more exciting things to do. Although it was not as cheap as I thought it would be. If you go to the popular restaurants in the popular areas it is about the same as the states.
CDNJ is offline  
Old Sep 9th, 2005, 07:58 PM
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I enjoyed your report; you shared the bad along with the good! Sorry that some of your experience could certainly have been better! But isn't it just a beautiful place? And, just for the record, the breakfast pastries aren't covered with flies and ants EVERYWHERE!

When you travel into some of the less touristy areas, you'll find wonderful little towns where no one speaks English and Americans are few and far between. This is the best of Costa Rica! Someday perhaps you can return, rent a car so you can be on your own time schedule and just tool around for a few days. It is great fun!

Thanks for an informative trip report--and welcome back!
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Old Sep 9th, 2005, 07:59 PM
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Thanks so much for a great trip report. My husband and I will be going to CR in November and will also be staying at Vista del Valle and Si Como No. I am somewaht nervous as I have quite a spider phobia. Glad to hear that, in the end you really liked Si Como No. I also debated about staying at Makanda in MA but had heard about that dreaded hill you have to walk up and down to get there. Thanks again!
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Old Sep 10th, 2005, 09:30 AM
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Our experience at Si Como No was a very good one a couple of years ago. I wouldn't use it as a base for tours, though. You can book them yourself for less money. For example, we paid $39 per for a tour of the park. You can go to the park entrance and hire a guide yourself for $20--same guides.

Across the street, there is an interesting butterfuly garden as well. Si Como No is just a nice place to relax at the pool with a great view, and the restaurants are very good. We enjoyed our room which afforded us a magnificent view of the Pacific from the balcony--and had the added bonus of a sloth in a tree directly in front of the balcony!
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Old Oct 4th, 2005, 10:40 AM
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Shillmac
Agree with you and hope to be more adventourous next trip to CR. If we had a more accurate view of CR, I am sure we would have done so this time. Also agree with your evaluation of Si Como No. It is a great place to relax by the pool and enjoy the views. It almost seems a waste to stay there if you plan on going on tours everyday.

Lauralis: As for the spider phobia, there will be some in room at Vista del Valle. I think it is worth staying there, but I did have trouble sleeping the first night knowing all my little friends were in the room. I got used to it once I realized they could not get inside the bed netting. Also agree you will be happier location wise at Si Como No. If you don't like your room upon arriving just ask to be moved. I personally think the resort needs a little sprucing up, but also think it is the best overall option in MA.
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Old Oct 4th, 2005, 02:32 PM
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Loved your honest report!!! Some of it really made me laugh out loud (Expedia commericial). We are also using Ralph to hire drivers to MA and Arenal. Would you use him again? Any driver I should request?

We are staying at Villas El Parque up on the hill. Did you happen to notice it? It's right next to the Sea Glass Spa.
Thanks!!
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Old Oct 5th, 2005, 01:00 AM
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Nice trip report and sorry you had some disappointment. Maybe it will console you (and prepare other travellers) to know that in our experience, most of the hotels in Costa Rica that we stayed at were staffed by ticos who were trained to do their jobs, which does NOT include giving much info on tours and what there is to do! Seriously, this seems to be a big difference between the USA and Costa Rica.

I loved our hotels, but I was really glad I had already researched what there was to do, because most of the staff I met couldn't really advise on this! Si Como No was actually one of the better hotels as far as being able to give advice on what there was to do.

I think it is partly a problem of how fluent they are in English (I can't blame them as they spoke english better than I speak spanish), and also a difference in experience...they don't experience Costa Rica as a tourist...a lot of them haven't done some of the activities that us tourists do...
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Old Oct 5th, 2005, 01:06 AM
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I'd like to add one suggestion about asking hotel staff about activities. Maybe it's a cultural difference but in Costa Rica staff seems reluctant to answer questions which involve a judgement call, such as "Where can I go to see the most wildlife?" or "Which trail is the best?" The answer to questions like "which trail is the best" will most likely be a shrug. Mostly what they can do is sign you up for the activities you see in the brochures on their desk. That's pretty much it, and direct you to your room, the pool, etc.

For info on activities and tours you need to research ahead, and in Costa Rica you can ask more questions directly of the guides, or people working at the parks. They are trained to answer your questions about activities. Hotel staff are trained to run the hotel, make sure you have towels, etc. It's not like in the USA where front desk staff is often expected to handle everything.
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Old Oct 7th, 2005, 08:25 AM
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Did you really pay $11 for 2 beers???? I never payed more than 600 colones (about $1.25) for beers anywhere in Costa Rica
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Old Oct 13th, 2005, 08:15 AM
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MELISSA,
You make an excellent point regarding the staff, I think you are right on in your assessment. A lot of them give you the impression they speak much more English than they actually do. So they might understand a question about the hotel, but something more detailed they might not understand your English, but not want to let you know that. I did a lot of research prior to going and thought I had a good understanding of all options but I should printed more of these posts and taken them with me. When I got there I would remember reading something about a spot but not the specifics I needed.
Jayneann
I would definitely use Ralph for setting up the drivers, just double check your itinerary when they hand it to you at the airport and make sure the times are correct. The driver we had out of San Jose was very nice and informative. His name is Luis. I did not notice the Villas El Parque, but the Sea Glasss is very close to Si Como No at the top of the Hill, which is a great location, but not on the water side.
Sean,
Yes we did pay $11 for two beers. At the time we weren't yet converting Colons to UDS that quickly so the guy had brought them to us, by the time we figured it out. Then he added an extra dollar to the conversion, should have been $10. Of course 2 minutes later we were feeling like idiots, but decided to let it go. Imagine, it was our first beer too, can't even blame the confusion on alcohol!

All and all though we did enjoy Costa Rica. I would defintely reccomend going there. We just thought it would be a different experience than it was. If our expectations had been more in line with the reality of it, I believe we would have had a better time. For those who are still trying to decide think of a beautiful carribeean island with a lot of americanization rather than say Brazil where you also have a more diverse cultural experience. That be said I realize now if we had not selected the 2 top tourist destinations, we probably would have gotten that diversity.
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Old Oct 13th, 2005, 05:31 PM
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i do appreciate your candid report. we leave tuesday for a few nights at mango moon in MA. what cameraman tour did you use. that is one thing i want to do. any other last minute suggestions, i will take.
thanks for your time, molly
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Old Oct 17th, 2005, 12:37 PM
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Our hotel only offerred one cameraman trip, and Wille was the first mate on that boat. It seemed like that was the only Cat going out, there was also a sailboat trip and covered boat tour but it looked like they were all doing the exact same thing. We all anchored at the same place for snorkeling. Make your reservations when you as soon as you get there as the day we wanted to go was sold out. Note that lunch is seafood. I would also defintely go to the Marlin in MA at the beach for either lunch or dinner.
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Old Oct 19th, 2005, 12:56 AM
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Your report really gave me a greater understanding about what to expect. I will be in MA/Arenal in November. I will be staying at the beach, versus up on the hill. I was told this is easier to get around and be closer to things.
Do I need to pre-book any activities, or can I do it there?
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