Trip Report -- MA/ Arenal/ Selva Verde

Old May 9th, 2008, 06:08 PM
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Trip Report -- MA/ Arenal/ Selva Verde

We just returned from a fantastic 8-day, 9-night trip to Costa Rica in late April. I can't recommend it enough. We thought it was a perfect blend of beach, (mild) adventure and wildlife viewing, with a bit more luxury than we can usually afford. The parts of the country we visited were fairly touristy and not exactly off the beaten track, but still maintained a low-key atmosphere.
We traveled with our two children, a teenage girl and a 6-year old girl. We also were accompanied by some friends (a couple with another 6-year-old) for much of the trip.
We arrived late at night at SJO, and took the transfer to Hotel Orquideas, which was advertised as 10 minutes away, but was more like 20. I wouldn't want to try to find it at night on my own. We stayed in a garden room, which was OK but a bit snug. The newer rooms up on the hill looked nicer -- try to request those. I imagine the roadside rooms would be noisy. Very nice property, and a great breakfast buffet the next morning. We didn't have time to enjoy the pool and hot tub, sadly.
Next morning we went to pick up our rental car from Hertz. They didn't have the car and seemed disorganized -- don't rent from them. They sent us to the nearby Economy rental car, where we got a similar car but had to argue for some time to get a price similar to what Hertz quoted.
More coming.
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Old May 9th, 2008, 06:21 PM
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Continuing the trip report. The drive to MA was pretty, about 3 hours. We stayed three nights at Si Como No, which we really liked. Very pretty property, spilling down a hill, with spectacular views from the room. Most of the staff were very friendly and helpful. Our deluxe suite was a bit too close to the road (ask for one lower down), but had amazing views and was quite comfortable. Kids loved the family pool with the slide and waterfalls, and made good use of the swim-up bar for $2 smoothies.
We ate dinner at the hotel one night -- food was pretty good but expensive. Nearby restaurants we tried weren't too great, either. Mar Luna was disappointing.
Next morning we took a great tour of the National Park -- which we had pre-arranged -- with Juan Luis Brenes. He's a terrific and very enthusiastic guide, knowledgeable and friendly. Very, very nice to our little girl. He charged $25 apiece for the two of us and our teenager. Much better deal than through the hotel. He can be reached at [email protected] or cell +506-8892-1132.
Juan had a big scope to show us the wildlife close up -- we saw lots of white-faced monkeys, bats, some really freaky lizards and iguanas, sloths, etc. Be sure to bring your swim things and go back to the beach inside the park -- beautiful.
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Old May 9th, 2008, 06:30 PM
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Post #3. One MA restaurant I can recommend is Ronnie's Place, on a dirt road West of the main road. Great food and relaxed atmosphere. We went for lunch and were the only ones there, but I'm sure it can get crowded for dinner and around sunset for the amazing views. Also went to a nearly deserted beach near Hotel Parador -- not quite as nice as national park, but that was closed on a Monday.
From MA, we drove 5+ hours to Arenal. Quite a grueling drive. Roads weren't as bad as I feared, but were narrow and passing was sometimes tricky/ harrowing. We had heard the horror stories about car break-ins and didn't leave the car, except for a bite to eat in San Ramon where we parked directly in front of the cafe and sat near the window.
In Arenal, we stayed at Hotel Silencio del Campo, recommended by many on this board and TripAdvisor. We really liked it. Cabins were spacious and clean, staff was very friendly if a bit inefficient, and we LOVED the hot springs/ spa at the rear of the property. A great place to relax after a day's adventures. We were going to go to a local hot springs, but decided this was fine for us and much less expensive. They have a bar by the spa, but it was only open two of the three evenings we were there.
The hideous, multi-story hotel next door was really bothersome, but it wasn't open and construction noise was minimal in April. It's sad such places are allowed to be built. Very out of place.
One word of warning -- we didn't lock up a couple of electronics items in our safe, and they were stolen from the room. The owner was very nice about it, but be sure to lock up all items of value. I gather this kind of theft was rare, but better to be safe than sorry. We were stupid.
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Old May 9th, 2008, 06:38 PM
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Post #4. In Arenal, we loved Hanging Bridges, which is very cool. Saw some good wildlife there. Also Sky Trek was an awesome zipline experience. It's expensive but worth it. Seemed very safe and well-run. I'll never forget zipping along at 45 miles an hour, with a 600-foot drop below me, looking at a smoking volcano, with a crystal-clear blue sky. (I'm not too keen on heights and was terrified the first long zip, but by the end loved it and was ready for more. It was a huge highlight of the trip for our teenage daughter, too.) Be sure to have your hotel reserve the zipline in advance! We didn't do that, but fortunately that forced us to make a side trip to the nearby snake zoo in El Castillo, about 7 minutes away over the bumpy road. It was a great little zoo -- cool snakes and frogs, a wonderful bilingual guide, butterfly garden, etc.
Stopped by the Arenal Observatory Lodge and wished we had stayed there instead. Views of the volcano and the lake were spectacular, and the grounds were very spacious and attractive. It's definitely more remote than Silencio, and I got the feeling the staff was less friendly. Eating out options are limited because the road is so bad to travel anywhere. But for sheer scenery, it can't be beat.
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Old May 9th, 2008, 06:45 PM
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Post #5. I feel like I'm too long-winded, but so much to say.
We also had a great lunch at Toad Hall, about 20 minutes drive from the dam on the East side of Arenal lake. A very tiny, cute place serving California-style food, run by a guy who moved there from Colorado. Great lake views, too. Road there was just paved -- beautiful scenery on the way.
Also enjoyed dinner at El Novillo, the meat place about 10 minutes from La Fortuna. The Patron was a hoot --very friendly. Food was great and fairly cheap. The town of La Fortuna seemed a bit raffish and not too interesting -- touristy but certainly not upscale. We did a service laundry at a place called Alice's or something, where they did a nice job but lost (stole?) a few of our clothes...oh well.

From Arenal, headed two hours to Selva Verde, which is a very nice ecolodge on the Rio Sarapiqui in the lowland rain forest. It felt a bit like a summer camp, with a main dining room where somewhat institutional meals were served. But most of us loved the rooms, built up on stilts in the forest, with hammocksand comfy chairs outside each one. The overhead fans and screens kept us cool, and I found it very relaxing just to be there. Awakened the next morning by howler monkeys before 5 am. I decided to get up and join the 6 am free birdwatching tour. I expected to be virtually alone but there were about 10-12 people. The guide spotted lots of birds on a walk mostly around the grounds, including some beautiful Chestnut Mandible Toucans we had also spotted by the pool the prior afternoon.
I forgot we took the two hour river boat tour, which left from the town about 10 minutes drive from the lodge. It was relaxing and saw a lot of wildlife, but not very exciting. The kids got a bit bored. Saw plenty of howler monkeys, a huge iguana, a kingfisher, some turtles, a sloth, and other animals.
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Old May 9th, 2008, 06:57 PM
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#6 (and last).
Our last day, we headed to Peace Lodge over a very windy road, about one hour. Perched on the side of a hill, it's a luxurious place, heavy on the amenities. I couldn't decide if it was tasteful or over the top -- maybe a bit of the latter. The standard room was huge, with a 4-poster king bed, a private hot tub on the balcony, and the most elaborate bathroom i'd ever seen. One wall was an artificial-rock-faced waterfall, controlled by push button. The kids loved it, particularly the teen. The grounds were attractive, done in a kind of zoo-like setting. We found the wildlife exhibits tame after seeing the real thing in the wild. But guests get a private, guided tour of the big cat part of the zoo, which was cool. It rained as we walked down to the waterfalls, spoiling that a bit. Also, it was a Saturday and there were scores of day trippers in the park, mostly Ticos from San Jose. Made it a bit crowded, but not unpleasant. It did have a slight theme-park air, complete with lavish gift shop at the end of the waterfall walk.
We enjoyed a good but not great (and pricey) dinner at the hotel, then headed for the airport before dawn. It's a one-hour drive, by the way.
All in all, a great trip!
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Old May 10th, 2008, 06:53 AM
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THanks for the report, it was great!
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Old May 10th, 2008, 09:13 AM
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Thanks for posting the great trip report. It's nice to find out about some recommended (and not so good) places to eat. We're trying to decide between Silencio and Arenal Observatory Lodge for our stay next year. Seems like Silencio is much more convenient, but AOL has the views. Like the hot springs & swim up bar at the pool at Silencio too. We'll have two teens with us, so the hesitation with AOL is lack of things to do compared with Silencio...
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Old May 10th, 2008, 04:15 PM
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Silencio is definitely more convenient to town, other restaurants, and virtually anything else. It's a very nice place to stay, and I'm sure the staff is more pleasant than at AOL. The hot springs at the back is definitely better than the pool at AOL, which we saw (also pleasant, I might add.)

On the other hand, we were lucky to be in Arenal when the volcano was mostly visible three days in a row. When we went to the observatory deck at AOL, I was a bit jealous. The deck had an incredible view of the volcano, where huge boulders were tumbling down, and the sunset view over the lake was unbeatable. We didn't stay for it to get totally dark, but if it's clear the lava show must be amazing from there. The grounds were extensive and quite pleasant to walk around -- while at Silencio the grounds are pleasant but quite small and close to the road, not to mention the UGLY monstrosity next door looming over the property.

The downside -- once you're at AOL, it's a long, bumpy ride back to the other side of the volcano and the main road. I suspect you'd end up eating dinner at AOL most nights, although I believe there are a couple of other lodges on the West side of the lake, near the town of El Castillo. AOL also is close to Sky Trek, where we did the zipline.

Not sure you can go wrong either place. At one point we tried to get a junior suite at AOL, which seemed to afford more privacy, but they were fully booked. So we chose Silencio, and were very happy.
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Old May 10th, 2008, 04:45 PM
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Just checked with my wife, who thinks AOL would be better with two teens. She thinks Silencio is tight quarters, with nothing for them to do aside from the small pool and the hot springs. At AOL, they would have places to hang out or explore by themselves. The grounds are quite extensive.
Again, the restaurant options are more limited, so you have to decide your priorities.
Have fun!
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Old May 10th, 2008, 05:38 PM
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Thanks for the additional details on each of these hotels. I am sure either of them would be a fine choice, for different reasons. I think we will probably go with AOL, as the volcano is one of the main reasons we are staying in the area. I'd hate to miss out on a chance to see lava because I chose alternate lodging that is more convenient to town. I am going to check out the jr suite right now - thanks again!
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Old May 10th, 2008, 08:43 PM
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Enjoyed your trip report - detailed descriptions and honesty.

I'm sure your children will always remember the wonderful trip!

Thanks for all the info.
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Old May 12th, 2008, 11:43 AM
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Thanks for sharing your experiences, Marco. Sounds like everyone had a great time. I visited Arenal, MA and Peace Lodge on my first trip to CR as well, and loved each location!
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Old May 12th, 2008, 07:35 PM
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Great report--hard NOT to be long winded, huh? Thanks for sharing so many interesting details. I'll bet your kids had a ball!
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Old May 13th, 2008, 06:57 AM
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Thanks for the note(s). Our kids had a great time despite their wide range in ages (6 and 15) -- I thought the trip offered something for both. The little one loved seeing all the animals, loved Hanging Bridges, and of course enjoyed the beach and the various pools. The teenager had fun with the same things, plus LOVED the zipline and practicing her Spanish.
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Old May 13th, 2008, 11:30 AM
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Enjoyed your trip report. Was good to read your comments about AOL. We are going to stay there next March, and glad to hear the grounds and view are beautiful - regardless of lava flow.
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Old May 14th, 2008, 06:38 AM
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Will be wonderful, I'm sure.
I shot an absolutely unforgettable sunset photo from the AOL deck, looking over the lake. The sun was setting over the mountains in the background, and the orange was reflected in the near shoreline of the lake.
I hope you get some good weather there.
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Old May 14th, 2008, 08:11 AM
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Marco13,
I did not think you were long winded at all. I appreciate all of the details, particularly about restaurants and activities. We will be in MA, Arenal, Peace Lodge and also staying at Orquedias in July, and the detailed information you provided is very helpful.

Are the newer rooms you mention that are up on the hill at Orquedias standard rooms? What do we request if we want those rooms?

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Old May 14th, 2008, 08:23 AM
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I think those are deluxe rooms, Dana. We stayed in one last December. If I recall correctly, we couldn't take a standard room because we needed triple occupancy.

The room we stayed in was decent sized with 2 double beds, a decent sized bathroom and closet area. It had a sliding glass door that opened on to a little patio area overlooking Poas off in the distance. We had a nice stay at Orquideas! Would certainly stay there again!
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Old May 14th, 2008, 09:18 AM
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I found the folks at Orquideas quite helpful via email. They can tell you which rooms are which. The building up the hill appeared to be newer, and the rooms had two double/queen sized beds and sliders with a view to the volcano.
Our garden room was older but OK -- it had a double bed and two singles, which was fine for us because we had two children there.

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